Bewildering.” “Embarrassingly inept.” “Self-indulgent.” “Loathsome.” These are just a few of the barbs cranky New Yorkers like to throw at the New York International Fringe Festival come August every year. Perhaps they are onto something. Or maybe it’s just the summer heat.
Granted, the majority of offerings served up by “the largest multi-arts festival in North America” are unpolished and some crash and burn, yet an argument can be made that the plucky, let’s-put-on-a-show grittiness is part of the appeal. And don’t forget that quite a few shows have gone on to lead impressive lives beyond the Fringe, like “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche” from last year, “Silence!: The Musical,” “Dog Sees God,” “Matt and Ben,” and the legendary Broadway hit “Urinetown.”
“After seeing a show, often people say it was either fabulous or forgettable,” observed Ron Lasko, who has been with FringeNYC from the start. “There’s no middle ground of indifference. That’s the bold spirit of the Fringe.”
Lasko believes the intrepid fest offers something you can’t always get from traditional theater — witnessing the process of emerging artists taking chances, moving out of their comfort zone, and finding their own voice. “It’s important to have a place for people to fail,” said Lasko. “You can’t grow as an artist unless you make mistakes.”
According to Lasko, most theatergoers are oblivious to the painstaking process of mounting a show on or off Broadway, what with the countless readings, workshops, and rewrites.
And occasionally, what you see when a show opens on Broadway bears little resemblance to the first preview. “Audiences paid more than $100 to see early previews of ‘Spiderman,’ which looks nothing like what’s onstage now,” Lasko said. “We’re only charging $15.”
Run almost entirely by volunteers, FringeNYC has managed to keep costs low for artists by raising 90 percent of its operating costs from ticket sales. This is in sharp contrast to other theater fests, which crush participants with hefty fees. Still, over nearly two decades, FringeNYC has been able to keep ticket prices at $15 ($18 at the door). Talk about your cheap thrills.
You may be surprised by the myriad hurdles each troupe must face. Limited to only five or six performances on an erratic schedule, they have precious little time in their designated theater, which is shared with other shows. They have just 20 minutes prep time before curtain, and another 20 minutes to strike the set to make room for the next show. Sound and lighting systems tend to get tampered with between performances.
The 17th incarnation of FringeNYC is bursting with 185 offerings from artists hailing from more than a dozen countries. And contrary to what you might have heard, the festival does have tough standards, adjudicating over 1,000 entries.
As always, you’ll find a mindboggling array of subject and tastes, including a healthy chunk of LGBT-themed offerings. This year you’ll find meddlesome strippers, feuding BFFs, a bully basher, jockstrap-clad bedbugs, wisecracking earthquake survivors, an opera inspired by Gertrude Stein, and a Tennessee Williams impersonator. Plus more nudity than ever.
Produced by the Present Company, FringeNYC runs August 9 through 25.
Truth be told, there’s an inherent thrill of trying to choose the winners among the multitude of offerings. Check out our picks of the 10 most promising gay-interest shows at FringeNYC:
GERTRUDE STEIN SAINTS!
A talented ensemble from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has adapted the unconventional “Saints” librettos by Gertrude Stein, written in the 1920s, into a celebration of American music and dance that explores gender and identity. In this experimental opera, the jubilant performers present a mélange of rap, rock n' roll, gospel, New Orleans parades, sermons, bluegrass, folk, Shaker, and jazz, working toward an ecstatic climax. Under the direction of Michelle Sutherland, there’s no plot, characters, conflict, or dramatic arc. Still, the work promises to deliver a mind-blowing experience.
The Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, 66-68 E. Fourth St. btwn. Bowery & Second Ave.; Aug. 9 at 10:15 p.m.; Aug. 10 at 4:45 p.m.; Aug. 12 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 13 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 14 at 4:45 p.m.
In the sixth grade, when Lee J. Kaplan was relentlessly bullied, his only true friend was his diary, where he tearfully recorded the daily horrors of taunts, pummelings, and death threats. Now, the defiant — and amazingly ripped — Kaplan has created a sweaty, intensely physical solo show based on those journal entries, where he takes on his former tormentors in a boxing ring. It’s astonishing how even decades later, the damage done by bullies is palpable. Directed by Padraic Lillis, the powerfully cathartic, multi-character piece has been hailed as “required viewing for all school kids,” although I suspect it will resonate with anyone who has ever felt shunned for not fitting in.
The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre, 115 MacDougal St. at Minetta Ln.; Aug. 10 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 11 at 6 p.m.; Aug. 14 at 6 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 2:30 p.m.; Aug. 18 at 1:45 p.m.; Aug. 21 at 9:15 p.m.
Billed as “a sexy gay exploration of the politics of modern connections,” this frisky comedy centers on Thomas (Colin William Key), who’s having a pre-midlife crisis at age 40. On a trip to Montreal with his longtime boyfriend (Sean Hankinson, from “Days of Our Lives” and the Emmy-nominated web series “Prom Queen”), he’s smitten by Luke, a hot young stripper who threatens to destroy the couple’s relationship. An object lesson about the dangers of taking things for granted, the play also features Adam Budron (“Gossip Girl”). Presented by the award-winning No Hope Productions, the piece is written and directed by Tim Aumiller.
Teatro Circulo, 64 E. Fourth St. btwn. Bowery & Second Ave.; Aug. 9 at 5 p.m.; Aug. 10 at 9:15 p.m.; Aug. 13 at 2:45 p.m.; Aug. 14 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 17 at 1:45 p.m.
Okay, this play — about a desperate, aging comedy writer who gets trapped with a network exec under a pile of debris following an LA earthquake — may not have overt gay content. But what it does have is openly gay Emmy-winner Bruce Vilanch leading a crackerjack cast including Broadway and TV veteran Jerry Adler of “The Sopranos” fame and Jason Jacoby of “Avenue Q” Off-Broadway, a razor-sharp script by Mike Reiss, writer of “The Simpsons” for 23 years, and some of the best buzz out of FringeNYC this year.
The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal St. at Minetta Ln.; Aug. 10 at 2:15 p.m.; Aug. 14 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 22 at 9:15 p.m.; Aug. 24 at 10:15 p.m.; Aug. 25 at 2:30 p.m.
ADAM & STEVE
AND THE EMPTY SEA
Fresh from a sold-out run in Salt Lake City, Plan-B Theatre presents a richly sophisticated coming-out drama with some serious issues on its mind. Written by Matthew Greene, it’s a two-hander about best buds who grow apart and desperately try to find common ground. Adam is openly Mormon and troubled. The athletic Steve is openly gay and self-assured. Set against the politically charged backdrop of the passage of Prop 8, these childhood friends wrestle with religion, sexuality, and politics that threaten to ruin their bond forever.
CSV Kabayitos Theatre, 107 Suffolk St. btwn. Rivington & Delancey Sts.; Aug. 9 at 5 p.m.; Aug. 10 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 11 at noon; Aug. 13 at 7:45 p.m.; Aug. 14 at 4:45 p.m.; Aug. 15 at 9:15 p.m.
TALK TO ME ABOUT SHAME
Solo performance artist Julian Goldhagen conceived this piece after the well-publicized string of LGBTQ teen suicides several years back. Realizing the destructive power that suppressed shame can have on the human psyche, he felt compelled to share his insights with others. In this transformative multimedia work, directed by Kevin Hourigan, Goldhagen deconstructs the experience of shame through movement, storytelling, and — watch out! — audience participation techniques. The result? Isolation is replaced by empowerment, community building, and healing. Oh yeah, and he performs buck naked.
CSV Kabayitos Theatre, 107 Suffolk St. btwn. Rivington & Delancey Sts.; Aug. 10 at 5:15 p.m.; Aug. 11 at 4:30 p.m.; Aug. 14 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 17 at noon; Aug. 18 at 7 p.m.
EN AVANT! AN EVENING
WITH TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
To say that William Shuman is enamored with Tennessee Williams would be an understatement. Obsessed with all things Williams, he has created “En Avant!” (French for “move forward”), an illuminating solo show where he embodies the lonely, supremely poetic playwright in all his glory. Between copious sips of gin, you'll hear about his loves, his demons, and the peculiar family dynamic that helped shape his work. Plus, you’ll learn about how he swiped the title “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.” Directed by Ruis Woertendyke.
CSV Kabayitos Theatre, 107 Suffolk St. btwn. Rivington & Delancey Sts.; Aug. 9 at 9:30 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 3 p.m.; Aug. 17 at 9:45 p.m.; Aug. 20 at 4:45 p.m.; Aug. 23 at 7:15 p.m.; Aug. 24 at 2 p.m.
SAVE THE DATE:
A WEDDING ROAD TRIP MUSICAL
Commitment-challenged Emily and her gay BFF Alex were inseparable back in school. But now that they’re in their late 20s and all their friends are getting hitched, they’re forced to re-examine their lonely, lackluster existence. During a madcap, musical journey to the wedding of Emily’s ex, their friendship is put to the test. Gregory Jacobs-Roseman wrote the book, music, and lyrics. Directed by Nikki Rothenberg.
Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Pl. btwn. First and Second Aves.; Aug. 15 at 10:15 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 9:45 p.m.; Aug. 20 at 2 p.m.; Aug. 22 at 5:30 p.m.; Aug. 24 at 7 p.m.
In Kristian O'Hare’s woozy comic drama, an anxiety-ridden young man named Stagger (Robert Crozier), in a drug-induced haze, is lured by Walt Whitman into an sketchy sexual underworld where he meets a jockstrap-clad bug and other disturbing characters in what turns out to be an effort to come to terms with his sexuality. Portraying Whitman is Pat Dwyer, creator of the recent breakout gay documentary “Married and Counting.”
The Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, 66-68 E. Fourth St. btwn. Bowery & Second Ave.; Aug. 10 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 11 at 1:30 p.m.; Aug. 12 at 4:45 p.m.; Aug. 13 at 4:45 p.m.; Aug. 14 at 7 p.m.
Nathan Wright’s suspenseful drama centers on Tiago (Josué Gutierrez Guerra), who has fled from the poverty-stricken favelas of Rio de Janeiro to a seemingly placid summer town in Northern Michigan’s wine country. But are his new surroundings any less sinister? Directed by Nadia Foskolou, the piece promises heavy doses of poetry, athleticism, and sensuality. Also features Marc Sinoway, best known for “Hunting Season” on Logo.
Robert Moss Theater at 440 Studios, 440 Lafayette St. btwn. Astor Pl. & E. Fourth St., third fl; Aug. 14 at 4:15 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 8:45 p.m.; Aug. 17 at 5:15 p.m.; Aug. 19 at 9 p.m.; Aug. 22 at 2:30 p.m.
FRINGENYC | Various downtown venues | Aug. 9-25 | Schedule and tickets at fringeny.org or FringeCentral, 27 Second Ave., btwn. First & Second Sts., or 866-468-7619 | $15 to $18