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Reality Theater: The crazy-quilt that is FringeNYC is darker and bolder than ever before

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Eons before Bianca Del Rio or even RuPaul, there was one drag persona who paved the way fir all the others, and her name was Divine (alter ego of Glenn Milstead). | GARRETT MATTHEW
Eons before Bianca Del Rio or even RuPaul, there was one drag persona who paved the way fir all the others, and her name was Divine (alter ego of Glenn Milstead). | GARRETT MATTHEW

BY DAVID KENNERLEY | At 19, the New York International Fringe Festival has come of age. The sprawling fest, known for zany, frivolous shows like “Silence! The Musical,” “Dixie’s Tupperware Party,” and “5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche” is serving up a piquant dose of realness this year with an assortment of serious-minded queer fare.

“There is such a wide variety of shows, and we have more diversity in themes and participants than ever before,” said Ron Lasko who, along with Producing Artistic Director Elena K. Holy and others, has nurtured the festival for nearly two decades.

This year, FringeNYC boasts some 200 shows from across the U.S. and beyond presented in funky downtown venues. A sizeable portion features LGBT themes.

“FringeNYC has always had its fair share of campy drag comedy, boys in their underpants shows, revivals of Oscar Wilde, and gay takes on Shakespeare,” Lasko said. “We still have those crowd pleasers, but this year there is so much more than that. We have an array of shows that cover a broad spectrum of LGBT issues facing young and old — plus they are ethnically and geographically diverse. Where else are you going to see a show about a young, gay black male proclaiming his love of ‘Star Trek?’”

The queer-centric listings reveal some heavy topics like climate change, racism, abortion, murder, genocide, and suicide. Lasko observed that during the last couple of years, gay culture has been looking back at its recent history, and FringeNYC reflects this introspective trend.

“We have a bio-drama about drag star Divine, a solo comedy about recently deceased gay icon Elaine Stritch, a love story set during the Cuban revolution of the 1960s, and even a drama inspired by the true story of a Vietnam vet who robbed a bank in Brooklyn in 1972 to pay for his lover’s sex change operation,” Lasko said.

The most conspicuous new trend this year is the focus on transgender issues, which is timely given current media obsession with Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Candis Cayne to name just a few. Right now there’s even a transgender contestant on the hugely popular “Big Brother” reality TV show.

“There is absolutely a new fascination with transgender people,” Lasko said. “The general public is realizing that there are a lot more transgender people out there than they had ever realized. And more are feeling comfortable coming out. Art always reflects life, so we are now seeing more transgender characters in plays and more transgender people wanting to share their stories.”

This year, you’ll find a profusion of shows tackling women's issues and fewer featuring nubile gay guys in various states of undress contemplating love, sex, and fitting in. Are those works becoming a thing of the past?

“We still have plays that deal with coming out and being young and gay — ‘Straight Faced Lies’ comes to mind,” Lasko said. “They are just more nuanced and realistic.”

The 19th Annual New York International Fringe Festival, a production of The Present Company, runs August 14 to 30. Here’s a baker’s dozen of promising shows with a gay bent.

LGBT-themed Best Bets at FringeNYC 2015

America’s Next Top: One Top’s Hysterical Take on Life, Love, Tools and Boxes

A smash hit in Provincetown, Julie Novak’s bold, riotous solo show is now poised to take Fringe-NYC by storm. She relates pointed, often heart-wrenching anecdotes about her coming out, facing homophobia, and growing up “gender variant” caught somewhere in the murky abyss between male and female in a world that demands choosing one or the other. Novak co-wrote the show along with Eva Tenuto, who also directs. Sat. 22 @ 5:15; Mon. 24 @ 8:45; Thu. 27 @ 3; Fri. 28 @ 5:15; Sat. 29 @ 7:15. Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1st Avenue and Avenue A). 55m.

Baba

“Baba” is Arabic for father. In this case, it’s the father that playwright­/performer Alex Mahgoub barely knew, because he was murdered when Mahgoub was 10 years old. This “captivating” and “deeply emotional” solo show traces Mahgoub’s unlikely rise from overweight Jersey boy geek to slick New York realtor. "My father's death forever changed the trajectory of my life,” Mahgoub said. “I found my own path to manhood, failing miserably along the way. This story expresses the desire to fit in, shows resiliency, and restores faith in others." Directed by Armando Merlo, the show had a boffo run at Capital Fringe in Washington, DC earlier this summer. Sat. 15 @ 5:15; Mon. 17 @ 7:30; Sun. 23 @ 2:30; Thu. 27 @ 3:45; Sat. 29 @ 7. Spectrum (121 Ludlow St. between Delancey and Rivington). 1h.

The "captivating" and "deeply emotional" solo show traces Alex Maghoub's unlikely rise from overweight Jersey boy to slick New York realtor. | CORYNN EGRCZKY
The "captivating" and "deeply emotional" solo show traces Alex Maghoub's unlikely rise from overweight Jersey boy to slick New York realtor. | CORYNN EGRECZKY

Coping

Suicide is rarely the stuff of summer theater fests like FringeNYC, but that didn’t stop playwright Jacob Marx Rice. He uses the occasion of 24-year old Connor’s suicide to explore themes of love, guilt, blame, family, and the absurdity of death. Can Connor’s friends, reeling from the loss, find a way to come together and accept the unthinkable, or destroy the memory of the boy they all loved? This pitch-black comedy, directed by Anna Strasser, is from the creators of the sold-out hit “Chemistry,” winner of the 2014 FringeNYC Excellence in Playwriting Award. Sun. 16 @ 5:45; Wed. 19 @ 7; Sat. 22 @ 9:45; Wed. 26 @ 4:45; Fri. 28 @ 7. Teatro SEA at the Clemente (107 Suffolk St. between Rivington and Delancey). 1h 20m.

Divine/Intervention

Eons before Bianca Del Rio or even RuPaul, there was one drag persona that paved the way for all the others, and her name was Divine (alter ego of Glenn Milstead). Made famous in John Waters’ demented cult films, the plus-size, mascara-laden diva is finally getting the stage tribute she deserves. Hatched from the fertile mind of director Braden Chapman (known to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” fans as Mimi Imfurst) and written by E. Dale Smith, the play spotlights the performer alone in a hotel room, on the night of his untimely death, struggling with his inner demons and his irrepressible creation, Divine. Sun. 16 @ 7:45; Thu. 20 @ MID; Mon. 24 @ 7:30; Fri. 28 @ 4:45; Sat. 29 @ 3. Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project (45 Bleecker St. at Lafayette Street). 1h 30m.

Hick: A Love Story, The Romance of Lorena Hickok & Eleanor Roosevelt

Ever since Eleanor became First Lady in 1933, wags have been whispering about her curious bond with devoted travel companion, AP journalist Lorena Hickok. Now that over 2,000 eye-opening letters from Eleanor to Hick are available to the public, this solo bio-drama exposes this intimate bond for what it was: a fraught lesbian love affair. Courtesy of the Lilith Theater in San Francisco, the show is created and performed by pioneering lesbian playwright Terry Baum, based on a script by Pat Bond. Come see for yourself why Baum believes that the tenacious, cigar-smoking “First Friend” was “a bull dyke with a heart of gold.” Fri. 14 @ 5:15; Tue. 18 @ 8:45; Fri. 21 @ 7; Tue. 25 @ 9:30; Fri. 28 @ 2:30. Drom (85 Avenue A between 5th and 6th Streets). 1h 30m.

Joker

Direct from Hawaii comes a fraught drama about secrets and the power of promises, set against the backdrop of marriage equality. Helmed by Dan Dinero, the play centers on Joe, a Filipino immigrant who manages a small Chinese restaurant in Honolulu, and his wife Lin, whose lives are upended by an unwelcome ghost from Joe’s past. Written by Yilong Liu, who hails from Chongqing, China, with an assist from Matthew Kelty, artistic director of the Quarter Acre Theatre Collective, the politically relevant drama promises an authentic representation of gay Asian experience that is all too rare on the American stage. Sat. 15 @ 4:30; Tue. 18 @ 8; Sat. 22 @ 2:15; Mon. 24 @ 4:30; Fri. 28 @ 7. The Kraine Theater (85 E. 4th St. between 2nd Avenue and Bowery). 1h 45m.

Popesical

The Tony Award winning producers of FringeNYC faves “Silence! The Musical” and “5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche” are back with another spoofy tuner. The musical comedy, written and composed by Adam Overett, takes aim at the Catholic Church by ripping away the velvet curtain to reveal what happens in a papal conclave in the Sistine Chapel as cardinals furtively compete to be the new pope. Features a supremely gifted cast of Broadway stars including Stephen Christopher Anthony (“The Book of Mormon”), Becca Ayers (“The Addams Family”), and Alexa Green (“Wicked”). Directed by Drew Geraci of “Forever Plaid” fame. Expect plenty of backbiting, blasphemy, and boogieing. You may even find out what really causes that billowing white smoke! Thu. 20 @ 7; Sat. 22 @ 7; Thu. 27 @ 2; Fri. 28 @ 3; Sat. 29 @ 9:45. Theatre 80 (80 St. Marks Place between 1st and 2nd Avenues.). 2h.

She-Rantulas from Outer Space — in 3D!

It’s 1957, and something frightfully wrong is happening in Tarrytown, U.S.A. Young Suzie has acquired a taste for brains, picture-perfect housewife Betty is having nightmares about spiders from outer space, and the town’s male denizens are going missing. Directed and written by Ruff Yeager (Phil Johnson co-wrote), this gender-bending mashup of 1950s B horror flicks (think “The Bad Seed” via Charles Busch) may turn out to be the creepiest, campiest spoof at the Fringe this year. Expect carnage, destruction, and, of course, men donning women’s frocks. Fri. 14 @ 7; Sun. 16 @ 5:15; Wed. 19 @ 4:15; Fri. 21 @ 11:30; Sun. 23 @ 7:45. Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project (45 Bleecker St. at Lafayette Street). 1h 40m.

It's 1957, and something frightfully wrong is happening in Tarrytown, USA. | DAREN SCOTT
It's 1957, and something frightfully wrong is happening in Tarrytown, USA. | DAREN SCOTT

Small Membership

Okay, this play may not have a gay character, but it’s about penises, so it deserves to be on our list. It focuses on Matt’s big problem: a small package. Of course, this self-deprecating comedy is about more than puny appendages. It’s about those universal insecurities — whether about physical or emotional attributes — that can threaten to cripple us all. Laugh along with Matt (portrayed by Mark Della Ventura, who conceived and wrote the piece) as he ruminates on puberty, sexual orientation, anxiety, love, heartbreak, and celibacy. Directed by David Sirois and Gabe Hammad. Sat. 15 @ 8:45; Wed. 19 @ 2:45; Sat. 22 @ 2:45; Mon. 24 @ 5; Fri. 28 @ 7. The White Box at 440 Studios (440 Lafayette St. between Astor Place & East 4th Street). 1h 15m.

Laugh along with Matt (portrayed by Mark Della Ventura, who conceived and wrote the piece) as he ruminates on puberty, sexual orientation, anxiety, love, heartbreak, and celibacy. | MICHELLE WEBSTER
Laugh along with Matt (portrayed by Mark Della Ventura, who conceived and wrote the piece) as he ruminates on puberty, sexual orientation, anxiety, love, heartbreak, and celibacy. | MICHELLE WEBSTER

Stockholm Savings

Courtesy of the Polemic Theatre Co. in Brooklyn comes a gritty reboot of “Dog Day Afternoon.” This immersive, prescient drama follows a man who robs a bank in Muncie, Indiana to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. When the scheme gets botched, a media circus ensues, revealing America’s ever-growing obsession with spectacle. Ripped-from-the-headlines themes about police brutality, LGBT rights, and racism are explored. Written by Michael DeMeo (based on Frank Pierson’s screenplay) and directed by Richard Mover, the drama features an impressive ensemble led by Broadway actor Dale Hensley (“La Cage aux Folles,” “The Drowsy Chaperone”). Thu. 20 @ 9:15; Sun. 23 @ 2; Tue. 25 @ 7; Fri. 28 @ 5; Sun. 30 @ Noon. Flamboyan Theater at the Clemente (107 Suffolk St. between Rivington & Delancey). 1h 15m.

Verano Place

The 1970s are rough for Emily. Since moving to California, her self-indulgent parents have embraced an open marriage, her only friend is hooked on drugs and sex, and her potential boyfriend seems old enough to be her father. Written by Katie Atcheson and directed by Drama Desk Award winner Josh Hecht (“Christine Jorgensen Reveals”), the dark comedy is full of outrageous eccentrics and offers an unflinching look at finding love and getting lost in the Me Decade. Can you dig it?Sun. 16 @ 8:15; Tue. 18 @ 2; Fri. 21 @ 7; Sun. 23 @ Noon; Tue. 25 @ 5:15. The Kraine Theater (85 E. 4th St. between 2nd Avenue and Bowery). 1h 50m.

The Universe of Matt Jennings

You don’t have to be a Trekkie to love this solo show, but it surely helps. Writer/performer Matt Jennings has crafted a deeply personal coming out story, inspired by the classic “Star Trek” TV series. Directed by Levi Austin Morris, the play follows Matt’s grueling explorations of being black with "white" tendencies, a right-brain artist in a left-brain family, and a Christian with sinful same-sex leanings. Farewell blowjobs and downloading gay porn are just some of the recollections Matt brings to life with charm and finesse. Plus, he looks pretty darn comfy in Captain Kirk’s command chair. Sat. 15 @ 2:45; Mon. 17 @ 2; Wed. 19 @ 7:15; Sat. 22 @ 8:45; Wed. 26 @ 5:30. Spectrum (121 Ludlow St. between Delancey and Rivington). 1h.

Writer/performer Matt Jennings has crafted a deeply personal coming out story, inspired by the classic "Star Trek" TV series. | DAVID LEWIS
Writer/performer Matt Jennings has crafted a deeply personal coming out story, inspired by the classic "Star Trek" TV series. | DAVID LEWIS

Wilde Tales

Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales have long been dismissed as lesser works, yet they possess a magical power that cannot be denied. Here’s a collection of three of his best (“The Happy Prince,” “The Nightingale and the Rose,” and “The Fisherman and His Soul”) told with puppets, masks, music and, of course, the author’s infamous caustic wit. These beautifully charming, evocative stories remind us of the enduring power of imagination and love. Adapted by Kevin P. Joyce, who also directs. Sat. 15 @ 7; Wed. 19 @ 2; Sat. 22 @ Noon; Tue. 25 @ 9:30; Wed. 26 @ 6:15. Robert Moss Theater at 440 Studios (440 Lafayette St. between Astor Place & East 4th Street). 1h 5m.

Updated 8:15 pm, August 29, 2018
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Reader feedback

Lanny Walter says:
I saw Divine Intervention in Philadelphia. It is a powerful confrontation between what a person wants to become and has chosen to become on the way to his way to complete fulfillment. Anyone trying to realize his/her true self will relate to the tension wonderfully portrayed by the mirror image of Divine before, after and during. If you knew Glenn/Divi personally, you will be amazed by these portrayals, as if s/he/has paid us a visit to share the inner struggles endured by this ground breaking performer..
Aug. 6, 2015, 3:02 pm
Tom says:
Looks like a great year!
Aug. 12, 2015, 11:10 am
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