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Dispatch from the Front Lines of Theater: The New York International Fringe Festival
By Les Gutman

Why we Fringe.
We Fringe because that's where the action is, and to be honest -- we're bored! We want better. We want groovier. We want the new stuff! Not the old stuff. We've had the old stuff.
            --statement of the organizers in the Festival Guide

I can't quibble, really, with the organizers motivations. As I tried to get a handle on the second Fringe Festival -- twelve days of performing arts frolic on the Lower East Side (broadly defined), encompassing a couple dozen venues and well over 100 different shows -- I searched for some broad theme that would explain what was going on. There is plenty of exciting "new stuff," to be sure, but what surprised me was how much old stuff I found hanging around and how much of the new stuff paid explicit homage to the old. I realized that what Fringe really permitted was a variety of conversations between plays, including those between the old and the new.

By old, I don't even mean the ten Brecht plays included in the festival in honor of his Centennial, the dueling versions of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (one performed for 24 hours non-stop), the sendup of Chekov with clever title, 3 Sisters in Search of a Cherry Orchard, the version of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge performed in Bengali or The Importance of Being Earnest set in Chelsea and the Hamptons.

I mean really old. As I opted to pass on Make Me Hotta, Lysistrata! and take a look instead at one of the festival's interpretation of Sophocles's Antigone. The idea of adapting the message of Antigone (441 B.C.) to alternate settings and cultures is not a new one. The Second World War prompted, among others, Anouilh's with its focus on collaboration in wartime France and Brecht's which is set in Germany. A dozen or so years ago, La Mama also presented a version (called Yup'ik Antigone) set in an Alaskan fishing village and performed in the Yup'ik language.

For Fringe '98 we have a version which parallels the Sophoclean original but with the tragic story centering on the women who dared to resist Greek fascists after WWII (Antigone Through Time, at the Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street, through 8/29), and another that updates the Brecht update within the context of Tiananmen Square in 1989 (Antigone, at the Studio at the Educational Alliance, 197 East Broadway, through 8/29).

I was able to see only Antigone Through Time. A cast of 17 uses uses poetry, journal entries, song, dance and the words of Sophocles to tell the story (!!). Original ethnic music by Nana Simopoulos (performed live on traditional instruments) and excellent (if uncredited) lighting and costumes effectively fill in the otherwise barren stage The cast flows seamlessly between the two stories, donning masks as they become the ancient characters. The masks are excellent, the creations of Michael Fawcett who also plays the roles of the Greek bishop, the fascist Christo and his alter-ego Creon. Overall, what we get is some very good acting, poignant poetry and song and exceptional visual images. Antigone Through Time is precisely the type of show which validates Fringe. It is an important and not very well-known story, but it is not likely to be produced in a high-risk environment (commercial or non-profit). It takes a well-known classic tale, and uses its lessons to interpret more contemporary events. Hurrah.

The clear winner in the Fringe homage sweepstakes is, not surprisingly, Shakespeare. I probably missed a few but here is at least of sampling of the Shakespearean-stepchildren included in the festival:
  • Clowning the Bard, Ringling Clown College alumni apply their craft to a presentation of all of the Bard's plays in an hour and a quarter. At the Recital Hall at the Henry Street Settlement, 466 Grand Street, through 8/30.
  • Hamletmachine, Heiner Müller's play with a rock score. At the Experimental Theater at the Henry Street Settlement, through 8/29.
  • Lear's Daughters, in which the most famous sisters in Shakespeare are said to be shown on the journey to their showdown with Daddy. At the Recital Hall, through 8/29.
  • Lizzie Borden's Tempest, which I report on below. At the Connelly Theater, through 8/29.
Most of us know the details of the story of Lizzie Borden primarily from the dark nursery rhyme about it. This play brings the details of her family life and circumstances into a sharper focus than most people, I suspect, are inclined to desire. The premise of the Shakespearean connection is a Playbill from Fall River, Massachusetts that lists a "Miss Borden" in the role of Miranda. Based on the time, it is plausible that it is Miss Lizzie Borden.

Unlike Antigone Through Time, the connection between this play and its antecedent is tenuous at best, and there is really no effort to sew a sensible piece of cloth out of the threads. The catchy title is about the most interesting thing this production has to offer. We are never given a reason to want to know anything about the Borden family, or to care about any of its members. Aside from some terrible line readings of Shakespeare's The Tempest (including a particularly uninspiring if inexplicable recitation of the closing soliloquy by Lizzie (Kristin Barnett)), an even more obscure Ariel (Aidan Connolly) spouting nonsense, some lightning and thunder and a series of lazy and not-very tempestuous narration by the characters, it's not clear what the playwright, Brendan Byrnes, who is his own director here, was trying to accomplish. Ho-hum.

This slice of the festival pie is not to suggest that Fringe lacks any ultra-contemporary offerings, as the organizers suggest. They are legion -- enough to create sensory overload.

Fringe Central, 145 Ridge Street (E. Houston/Stanton) Telephone 1-888-FRINGENYC
All tickets are $11, $7 Seniors and Kids (for Fringe Jr.)
©Copyright August 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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