BY DAVID KENNERLEY | Have you ever walked out of a Broadway show scratching your head and muttering, “I paid over a hundred bucks for this?” Sure, plenty are sensational, but others are so polished, pandering, or just plain ill-conceived they seem more about recouping mega investments than actually communicating inspired ideas in fresh ways.
And audiences are getting wise. Of the 40-plus new shows of the 2013-2014 season, only a handful are still standing (the hotly anticipated “Rocky” and “Bullets Over Broadway” being the latest misfires to bite the dust). Even not-for-profit Off Broadway companies are feeling pressure to stage hits, often tempering artistic risks.
The antidote? Head on downtown to the 18th Annual New York International Fringe Festival, produced by the Present Company, where the troupes are committed and hungry and have something urgent to say. Mostly volunteering their time, they work within miniscule budgets and punishing conditions (for instance, they have precious few minutes to set up and then strike the set to make way for the next group).
With more than 200 shows in 18 venues taking place August 8 to 24, there’s something for everyone. And it only costs $18.
Granted, a fair number of shows miss the mark, but for sheer exuberance and ingenuity, FringeNYC can’t be beat.
Take “The Hurricane,” for example. It’s a riff on “The Tempest,” but this one is set on present-day Fire Island — and it’s a full-on musical.
“I like that FringeNYC takes risks and there are definitely things about this show that are risky,” said the show’s creator, Bjorn Berkhout. “Fringe’s diverse audience is looking for something new, which is easier to do in a smaller production.” He noted that the modest Fringe venues allow more intimacy between actors and audiences.
Not that adapting the Shakespeare staple was easy. He pared down the story to just eight characters, reimagining Prospero as a mysterious transgender madam. Their entire set budget was eaten up buying a few chairs.
Berkhout could have produced a clever spoof and stopped there, but he wanted to bring out substance as well. “I also wanted a show where the gay and transgender characters drive the action rather than respond to situations beyond their control,” he explained. “I wanted them to be spirited and powerful.
Why see his show? “This is a daring new musical with a rich and tuneful score that explores the gay side of Shakespeare’s characters,” Berkhout enthused. “The story is both humorous and touching. The cast is fantastic.”
One of the edgier gay-interest shows this year is “Coming: A Rock Musical of Biblical Proportions,” a demented mash-up of “Rocky Horror,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It’s a glitzy comedy featuring a gender-bending, coke-snorting, pop-star Antichrist with a drag queen’s predilection for one-liners.
“Fringe flies high without a safety net,” Erik Ransom, the show’s creator, said, pointing out that many productions have lofty ambitions and unique morals to their story. “You’ll find riskier work in the Fringe because we’re a bunch of scrappy companies making art without having to answer to investors or producers who may be averse to putting their names and money behind something controversial.”
The plucky playwright admits that under the glitter and sequins, the show beats with an iconoclastic heart. “We dress up, we rock out, we crack dirty jokes, and we blaspheme,” he said. “But I’d like to think this show [offers] more than just a campy night out. We touch on some really serious issues pertaining to bigotry and hate crimes, the equal rights of LGBTQ individuals and our place in society, and much more. Come for the glitz and stay for the wits!”
Another provocative offering is Joe Norton’s “The Truing,” which follows a group of intrepid AIDS riders on a trip fraught with all manner of problems.
“One of the first things I did to make sense of my own HIV diagnosis was to go work for the AIDS Rides, which were new at the time [in1994],” the playwright said. “That experience and those people changed my life, and made me realize that I could be a part of the fight, that I could contribute to the solution, and that I belonged to a community.”
Norton explained the play is a fictional story based on events that actually happened on the rides, and the characters are composites of people he knew.
“I’m positive 22 years now,” he said. “I’m happy the rides are still happening. This is a story I’ve been wanting to tell for a long time, but of course, it’s changed so much as the face of the epidemic, and the fight against it, and even the rides themselves have changed. But the people haven’t — they are still as compassionate and resilient as in the beginning. This play is a tribute, in a way, to anyone living with or helping those with HIV/AIDS through the years.”
Of course, this being the Fringe, the show manages to find humor in dicey situations. “We’ve got a magical bicycle and a drag queen chicken,” Norton said. “And a port-o-potty — but nobody in the audience can use it. Only us.”
Here’s our annual Ten Best Bets list of promising FringeNYC shows with a gay twist:
Joel Creasey: Rock God
If you’re wondering who the heck Joel Creasey is, consider this: The comedic mastermind actually is a kind of entertainment God in his native Australia, where he’s played to sold-out 1000-seat houses. Oozing with charm and wit, the cute comic has been called “utterly brilliant” and “lots of fun.” This cheeky, savvy skewering of celebrities, mentors, and idols promises to make him a household name in New York as well — at the ripe old age of 23.
The Players Theatre (115 MacDougal St. at Minetta Lane), Aug. 9, 4:30 p.m.; Aug. 10, 7 p.m.; Aug. 12, 3 p.m.; Aug. 13, 5 p.m.; Aug. 14, 7 p.m.; Aug. 15, 3 p.m.
In pop culture, the line between gay and straight is becoming blurred like never before. Leave it to Brandon Baruch to embrace this trend, writing a tale about best buds Luke and Ash, inseparable for many years. Are they secretly a couple? They swear they’re not gay, and there’s only one way to prove it — and alcohol is definitely required. Directed by Jessica Hanna, the sold-out play — lauded as “an incredible ensemble effort” and “clever and snappy” — won multiple awards at the Hollywood Fringe earlier this summer (the troupe is based in LA).
The Players Theatre (115 MacDougal St. at Minetta Lane), Aug. 9, 12:30 p.m.; Aug. 12, 7 p.m.; Aug. 14, 4:30 p.m.; Aug. 16, 9 p.m.; Aug. 17, 3:45 p.m.
Coming: A Rock Musical of Biblical Proportions
This raucous tuner finds Jesus coming back to earth as Josh, a sweet, unwitting teen from Pennsylvania who spreads his gospel of love on the singing competition show “American Icon.” Meanwhile Damian, a gender-bending pop star with an Antichrist streak, is hurt by Christian extremists and is hell-bent on seeking revenge. With book, music, and lyrics by Erik Ransom (billed as “one of the hottest artists in alternative theater”) and directed by Rachel Klein, this darkly comic “glamtastic spectacular” was a runaway hit in Philly a couple of years back. Can humankind survive where fame, spirituality, and sexuality collide? Theatre 80 (80 St. Marks Pl. near First Ave.), Aug. 8, 5 p.m.; Aug. 10, 4 p.m.; Aug. 15, 8:45 p.m.; Aug. 20, 8:45 p.m.; Aug. 22, 2 p.m.
Moses, The Author
What if Moses was one of us? That’s the question that Andrew R. Heinze considers in this witty, poignant tale about the dude who led the Jews to the Promised Land. Faced with writer’s block while working on the Bible, the tormented Moses sorts out conflicts with his wife, gay son, and God. “Sadly, the Bible has often been used as a weapon,” said Heinze. “My play disarms it and allows everyone to enjoy a story about its origins. I think Moses would appreciate that.” This existential love story is directed by renowned stage and film actress Amy Wright (“Noises Off,” “Fifth of July”).
The Players Theatre (115 MacDougal St. at Minetta Lane), Aug. 10, 2:15 p.m.; Aug. 13, 9:45 p.m.; Aug. 20, 2 p.m.; Aug. 21, 9 p.m.; Aug. 23, 9:15 p.m.
Imagine Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” set in gay Fire Island in steamy July, toss in a few rousing musical numbers, and you get an idea of what this daring show is all about. Created by triple-threat Bjorn Berkhout (composer, lyricist, book writer), the show mixes issues of betrayal, revenge, and sexual politics. The role of Prospero has morphed into Madam Sparrow (Mykel Vaughn), a mysterious innkeeper who commands a magical monkey paw to conjure a storm and exact revenge on four unsuspecting men from her past. Directed by Taryn Turney (“The Wedding Singer,” “Urinetown”).
Theatre 80 (80 St. Marks Pl. near First Ave.), Aug. 9,1 p.m.; Aug. 10, 9:45 p.m.; Aug. 16, 3:45 p.m.; Aug. 21, 4:45 p.m.; Aug. 23, 7 p.m.
The Mormon Bird Play
This fascinating mix of drama, fantasy, and allegory (with a dash of male burlesque) is based on an absurdist play from Poland. It’s about a mute 10-year-old girl who finds a bird near an LDS temple and is ostracized by the Mormon locals. But are they criticizing the sins of the girl or recognizing their own flaws? This dark and twisted “Mormon fantasia” is written and directed by Roger Benington. Expect to see little girls (played by men) transform into birds, Mormon temple workers, and pioneers.
Robert Moss Theater at 440 Studios (440 Lafayette St., btwn. E. Fourth St. & Astor Pl., third fl.), Aug. 8, 5 p.m.; Aug. 10, 7 p.m.; Aug. 17, noon; Aug. 19, 8:30 p.m.; Aug. 21, 4 p.m.
The Teddy Teddy Show Live in NYC
Remember how fabulous the club scene was in New York in the ‘90s? Well, if the details are a bit fuzzy, let legendary club kid Teddy Teddy (alter ego of Pete Zias) help fill in the blanks, with excursions to queer clubs like the Roxy and Twilo. Not only does the cable access show host recall those heady nights of drugs and debauchery, he serves up a humorous take on the current club scene. Bring your glow sticks!
The Kraine Theater (85 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave.), Aug. 9, 8:45 p.m.; Aug. 11, 5:15 p.m.; Aug. 14, 9:15 p.m.; Aug. 16, 4:15 p.m.; Aug. 17, 2:15 p.m.
Joe Norton spent three years working on life-changing AIDS bike rides and witnessed so much drama, along with the commitment and camaraderie, he just had to write play about it. The story follows a group of plucky AIDS riders trying to navigate a terrain fraught with wrong turns, hangovers, disabled bikes, dying cell phones, and heavy conversations about HIV status. Directed Douglas Hall and starring Billy Hipkins.
Flamboyán Theatre at the Clemente (107 Suffolk St., btwn. Rivington & Delancey Sts.), Aug. 10, 7 p.m.; Aug. 11, 5:30 p.m.; Aug. 14, 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 21, 9:15 p.m.; Aug. 23, 5 p.m.
This extraordinary road trip comedy with a twist finds Ashley shunned by her adoptive family after declaring she likes girls. But when she sets out to find a new place to call home, her quirky fantasies collide with reality in astonishing ways. Written and directed by Kim Ehly of the Kutumba Theatre Project, the play, based on real events, received glowing notices when it premiered in Florida, with the Miami Herald crowing, “Baby GirL is a joyous celebration of one woman’s journey toward happiness… [it] is sweet, funny, touching, unsettling, tender.”
The Kraine Theater (85 E. Fourth St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave.), Aug. 8, 5 p.m.; Aug. 10, 9 p.m.; Aug. 14, 4:15 p.m.; Aug. 18, 9:15 p.m.; Aug. 24, noon.
Murder, Margaret and Me
Everyone knows Miss Marple is a whiz at solving murder mysteries. But you might not realize there are a few prickly mysteries surrounding Margaret Rutherford, who portrayed the “Queen of Crime” in the iconic series. This solo show, starring veteran stage and screen actress Janet Prince, finds Christie playing detective and unearthing Rutherford’s nasty secrets. Written by acclaimed British playwright Philip Meeks, who believes Rutherford is a gay icon, the show was a huge hit in London. Directed by acclaimed writer and performer Stella Duffy.
Abrazo Interno at the Clemente (107 Suffolk St., btwn. Rivington & Delancey Sts.), Aug. 9, 1:30 p.m.; Aug. 10, 4:30 p.m.; Aug. 15, 8:15 p.m.; Mon 18 @ 5:30 p.m.; Aug. 21, 4 p.m.; Aug. 22, 7 p.m.
FRINGENYC: 18th Annual New York International Fringe Festival | The Present Company | Various downtown venues | Aug. 8-24 | $18 at fringenyc.org