This is a new period in the history of the San Diego International Fringe Festival. Following a few years of primarily being held in downtown San Diego, the event has mostly moved to Balboa Park (with a few shows in venues around the county) in this, its seventh, year.
2019 includes quite a few solos shows, and the uniqueness of some of these are impressive. Three worth recommending all feature true stories, are tonally distinct, and showcase the artists’ skills as writers and performers.
The first is The Chameleon, at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater. Fully enjoying the twists and turns of the play requires not knowing too much about the real-life French imposter Frederic Bouridn or the star of the piece Zugzwanging (whose real name is Geoffrey Ulysses Geissinger). However, if one does, it’s still riveting and thoroughly enjoyable to see the true story unfold. The plot is full of surprises, and some of the biggest are the manner in which people get deceived by the unbelievable lies that that fuel the story
In the 90’s, Bourdin moved to the United States and pretended to be Nichoas Barclay, a missing teenage American boy from San Antonio, Texas. Despite the fact that Bourdin was older than Barclay, the missing teenager’s family believed his big lie and accepted him as part of the family.
Speaking with a heavy French accent and wearing a hat that intentionally makes it hard to see his eyes, Geissingler shows Barclay’s disturbing mental state in shifting from a gifted con artist to a man trying to protect his position. His anger, a mask for Bourdin’s growing fear of exposure, is intense, occasionally desperate and provides a dramatic undercurrent to the narrative.
Geissingler’s writing sometimes overexplains the success (and immorality) of Bourdin’s deception and his determination to not be caught, but he also intelligently succeeds in depicting the Frenchman as a human being. In the process, he has created a haunting study of the skills, stress and consequences of being an impersonator.
Two one-woman shows, staged at Worldbeat Cultural Center, are also based on true stories, and are presented with a great deal of optimism. The comedy-drama Your Best American Girl from MaArte Theatre Collective, a company focused on Filipino-American theatre, is written by, and stars, local performer, Co-Artistic Director of MaArte, Ciarlene Coleman. The play is directed by Yari Cervas, and, through her staging, she provides a taste of Coleman’s talents. Coleman’s life story includes her mixed-race background, her love of musical theatre, her relationships with her family and, in less than an hour, she shows her skills as a performer, storyteller, singer, lip-singer, dancer and musician. Equally important, Coleman and Cervas work beautifully together to find a natural flow in every scene, so that the audience can connect with the narrative.
Coleman discusses some heavy, but expected, issues in this narrative. These include racism and shallow behavior on the part of others, and personal struggles that occasionally turn the tale into a very dramatic one. However, through her charming self-deprecating sense of humor and optimistic attitude, the play ultimately celebrates embracing one’s identity and situation in life.
Equally moving is Shelter, written by Rennee Westbrook. Loosely inspired by her experiences in being homeless in Santa Monica, the play stars Westbrook as a version of herself.
Forced into homelessness following a disastrous breakup with her boyfriend, she is terrified that she’ll have to live in a shelter in Skid Row, Los Angeles. During the course of an evening, she has conversations with several people, including a bipolar Hispanic man, a bullied boy who is learning karate and a “Fairy Godmother” version of Whoopi Goldberg.
What makes the plot of Shelter so engaging is that Westbrook doesn’t come across as a stereotypical homeless person. She’s an intelligent individual who is an educated writer with experience in journalism. From the beginning, it’s clear that Westbrook would never be the kind of woman one would expect to be living on the streets. Westbrook plays each of the people in the script with a humaneness that’s moving to experience. Her depictions of herself and the people she encounters are all written with a good amount of insight and depth.
On the night I saw the play, Westbrook followed up the excellent show by sharing how her real life has changed since leaving Santa Monica. I hope she continues to make this an integral part of the play and share this information after each performance, because learning about how she was able to overcome her situation is easily one of the most impactful and inspirational moments of the entire 2019 Fringe Festival.