Confession: I'm biased. I love Fringe — or, anyway, the idea of it. I love the festival's motley collision of invention and audacity. Now I just have to learn to love its scale.
This thing just gets bigger. In its eighth season, that means a program of 80-plus local, regional and national theater, dance, art, music, film, magic, stand-up, performance-art and burlesque acts. Choosing a manageable itinerary from that something-for-everyone slate, with venues scattered around midtown and downtown, is almost cruelly vexing. There's no way to see everything, and coordinating my initial picks with the schedule (in its final form at kcfringe.org) is its own challenge.
That's not a complaint, and this year all it took for my bias to kick in again were the first words spoken by the host of the opening-night preview (held for the first time at Kansas City Rep's Spencer Theatre, on the UMKC campus). "It's the most awesome thing that happens in Kansas City all year," Lucky DeLuxe said. Hyperbole? Sure. True? Maybe!
That party (the evening of July 19) was billed as a chance to see snippets of the various offerings, but the festive audience that filled the Spencer would have been ready to fringe even without a peek. Part of the excitement, after all, comes from not knowing what to expect. Some Fringe pieces are still getting worked out, and others — not always for the better — have been well-tested. Some are performed by their creators, and some have been cast.
With a limited number of performances over 10 days and the competition of so many choices, performers and creators have little opportunity to build an audience. Every site displays promotional cards for other Fringe shows, and volunteers (or the artists themselves) pass out more in the hopes of encouraging attendance. If you take that bait, you won't keep to your list — and you probably shouldn't anyway. Something always ends up sounding more interesting.
When Fringe officially began last Friday, July 20, I'd already pondered and second-guessed myself before settling on two shows: Tack Driver at Crown Center's Off Center Theatre (2450 Grand) and Lies, Phalluses and Fairytales at the Unicorn (3828 Main).
That doesn't sound like a long night, but consider the geographic challenges. Crown Center has a lot going on: LegoLand, the aquarium, the Screenland movie theater and, on Friday nights, a free 9 p.m. film at Crown Center Square. So: parking. I needed a space close to the exit for a quick departure so I could be in midtown for the next play. (All shows start on time, and sellouts aren't uncommon, especially when the venue is small or curiosity is high.)
Tack Driver drew a good crowd for its first performance, perhaps owing to the names involved. For one, KC Rep producing director Jerry Genochio was making his debut as a playwright. I'd seen a few minutes of Tack Driver at the preview — after which, he announced on Friday, he had added 40 new pages. He told the Friday audience that this was the form his play would take for the rest of the festival. Kyle Hatley, associate artistic director at the Rep, and Matthew Rapport had rehearsed the revised script for the first time just a few hours before this night's debut, he said, and would have pages in hand for part of the show.
Very discreetly, they did — and they still gave deft, sensitive performances. (They played brothers meeting up at a remote farmhouse to take care of some, shall we say, family business.) Is Genochio's a perfect script? Well, how could it be? But I found it absorbing, and if Genochio keeps tinkering, I'll gladly see it again.
Lies, Phalluses and Fairytales, performed just three times over the 10 days, played its first night to a small but vocally supportive crowd at the Unicorn's Main Stage. (I somehow got from Crown Center to 39th and Main with several minutes to spare before the 9:30 start.) A creation of the talented artists' collective Red Theater Omaha, it isn't a traditional theater piece but rather a mix of 25 very short "scenes" — averaging a couple of minutes apiece — performed in quick succession, some incorporating movement, song, dance or poetry. Many are funny, some are serious, a few don't work quite as well. (No performance is the same, according to Colin Ferguson, artistic director and one of the writers and performers.) One, written that day and titled "Perspective," takes on the Aurora, Colorado, movie shootings. It was an effective (and, I thought, affecting) expression of Fringe's fluidity and immediacy, and it didn't overpower a fast-moving, participatory and energetic hour.
I got an earlier start Saturday, beginning with a 6 p.m. show at the Fishtank (1715 Wyandotte). The theater filled to capacity for The Greatest Speech of All Time, edited and performed by Timothy Mooney, who brought historical figures — Socrates, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. — to life, and relevance, through their own words. It was a powerful performance, and it proved impossible to top as the high point of my evening.
After a quick stop at the nearby Pieroguys, I headed straight down Main Street to the Unicorn. A show had just let out, and a crowd, including many involved in local theater, had already gathered in the lobby for the next event. (Each performance doesn't set up until the show before it has been dismantled.)
We were waiting for Ice Cream Social ... Issues, a one-act written by local actress and playwright Natalie Liccardello with her sister, Talia Liccardello. The play got off to a slow start before developing into a comic mélange of family conflict. The witty dialogue quickened, and the seven-person cast played off one another with timing sharp enough to disguise areas of the script that could use some fine-tuning.
Next up: Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, close by on Main, for four short one-acts by the Kansas City Playwright League, based at MET. Some of the Unicorn audience showed up as well. As a night progresses, and over the course of the festival, faces become familiar — in the crowd and onstage. One of the actresses in Ice Cream Social (Meredith Wolfe) walked into the MET lobby for a role in the first of the four vignettes.
Homegrown one-acts often aren't made for keeping, and the four 15-minute plays in 4Play add up to a mixed bag. Local actors — including Philip "Blue Owl" Hooser and Alan Tilson — performed well to Saturday's full house, and there was room for the farcical, the crude and the simply entertaining. Ultimately, though, the quartet came up a little short and more than a little silly. One, involving a math-oriented sexual kink, was memorably hilarious. (Not as memorable: 4Play kept bringing up mayonnaise.)
But even disappointing work can be forgiven easily when it's local and it's Fringe. At show's end, at 10:30, I was ready to call it a night — and happy to map out the next day.
Two shows on my list overlapped, forcing another tough decision. Though Dead Wrong hadn't impressed me at its Thursday-night preview (admittedly a narrow context), an acquaintance I ran into at 4Play recommended it. I was in: 3:30 p.m., the Red Room at Nica's 320.
It was a good choice. Out-of-towner Katherine Glover's one-woman play ended my weekend on a profound note. In Dead Wrong, her fictional protagonist is dead-sure about the identity of the man who raped her. A writer, storyteller and journalist, Glover has based her monologue on actual people and events. She shows, in a very real way, what happens to those involved, particularly the victim of the crime, when innocent persons are tried and convicted for crimes they didn't commit. Nica's 320 isn't the best venue for this type of work — sound was spotty, a person was eating — but Glover's work radiates emotion. This is Fringe at its most moving.
I'd skipped Dandelion Chains on Sunday in part because it wasn't on my original list. While in line for The Greatest Speech of All Time, though, I'd met Shanna Shrum in the Fishtank's lobby, where she was promoting her show. The Chicago artist portrays six characters, men and women with distinct personalities and inner struggles, among them a gay couple battling, in 1988, to keep their adopted daughter. It is yet another absorbing, well-acted original work that demonstrates what can happen when all the elements come together to make good theater — elements that combine in Fringe's serendipitous festival meetup of artist and audience.
And there's almost a week left.
Through July 29. See kcfringe.org for details.