The festival launch is gradual this month as the three-week event settles into the Southwest neighborhood around Arena. But it pointedly began this past weekend with four selections from its Fringe Curated Series — shows developed and/or presented by Fringe and performed in Arena’s 218-seat Kogod Cradle. You couldn’t miss the aggressive avant-garde declaration of the first piece, the experimental and near-inscrutable “O Monsters” from Philadelphia’s New Paradise Laboratories, an impressively disciplined adventure that’s radically abstract by D.C. theater standards. It is very likely to stand with Matthew Capodicasa’s superb, haunting “The City of …” as the festival’s chief talking points.
“The City of …” brilliantly isolates our current anxiety about fact and fiction by distilling its hour-long story down to a city where people are mysteriously losing their memories. The script is told by married couple Irene (Yesenia Iglesias) and Arthur (Nicklas Aliff). They can see the plague of forgetfulness descending, and they struggle to remember when they fell in love, when they got married — both election years, as it happens.
Patrick Pearson directs without a set — all but “O Monsters” are visually lean — and he follows Capodicasa’s lead by moving the actors with the same rapid-fire cadence of their speech as the couple ventures out of the house and into the city’s increasingly confused streets. In classic sci-fi style they meet a mystery man named Z (played with calm lucidity by Scott Sedar), whose memory is pristine. Z tries to help them journey home, but where they wind up speaks volumes about what’s at risk if we keep blurring the lines that define what’s true.
“The City of …” is the easy standout among the three new myth-driven scripts Fringe commissioned for this series. Farah Lawal Harris’s ungainly three-character “America’s Wives” is an overdrawn anti-U. S. harangue that’s simply not ready for the stage, with an eagle narrating a fable about the predictable tension between the established white wife and the new Nigerian wife of a domineering offstage character named — wait for it — America. Stephen Spotswood’s “Andromeda Breaks” is better, with Billie Krishawn as the grown daughter of a criminal mom-and-pop operation that peddles drugs and runs guns. Jeremy Keith Hunter ably plays the local cop on the case, but the interrogation room setting is stifling, and the arguments over complicity stop well short of getting real.
For sheer spectacle, “O Monsters” will be hard to top during this festival, even if it leaves audiences asking each other “What just happened?” It’s sort of about three children and their mother; most of the show is nonverbal, but the movement and a few sentences gives you that much grounding. Props dropped like bombs from the ceiling onto a square table include high-bouncing rubber balls that have a vague protoplasmic effect, plus tiles with words, and even a large kitchen knife.
Be prepared to interpret like mad: A lot happens and little is said. The movement is precise though rarely as rhythmic as dance, and the sound for the first 15 minutes or so is a nerve-shredding jangle of high-volume electronica. If you see pregnancy, you will also see something that looks like birth in reverse. It’s cosmic but human, or maybe just biological. Definitely biological, given the flesh-eating at a pivotal point.
There is a line in the program, and one in the show, explaining the story as being about a spectral father, but I wouldn’t have gotten that from what I saw. The ensemble’s technique is engrossing, though, as New Paradise Laboratories artistic director Whit MacLaughlin directs his quartet of actors and explores a theatrics beyond plot and words. That’s a healthy stretch for D.C. audiences, and the performance quality of “O Monsters” and “The City of …” sets a new standard for Fringe.
The fifth Fringe Curated show is “Barococo” from D.C.’s genial movement company Happenstance Theatre. It opens Tuesday as the festival begins to serve up the full smorgasbord.
Capital Fringe Festival, at multiple venues through July 29. Tickets $17, plus one-time purchase of $7 Fringe Festival button. 866-811-4111 or capital fringe.org.