We zigzagged through the thick program list for the San Diego International Fringe Festival 2014, until our eyes glazed over. The festival has grown from three days to 11 in a year. There are more than 80 shows unfolding at more than a dozen venues all over downtown and beyond. Our plan was to view three of 21 shows on opening night (July 3), and we did, with a few zigzags.
We were hell-bent on seeing Dr. Frankenstein’s Traveling Freak Show from the British-based Tin Shed Theatre Company. We circled the calendar entry with a thick black Sharpie, not unlike the troupe’s monstrous eye makeup. The friendly freaks stepped in as MC’s of the press night teasers earlier this week and hooked everyone with keen improvisation and goulishness. We were determined to witness Bearded Lady, Half Lobster Half Man, Monster, and Doctor F in a complete tour-de-force show at the Spreckels Theatre.
So we drove like the devil to make the 3:30 show, but were surrounded by zombie-eyed commuters and holiday tourists. Freaking bad luck – Freak Show was not in the cards. No worries.
This year’s Fringe Festival is big and offers a ton of offbeat options. Tickets cost $10 or less, with bigger savings for multi-show passes, and some free programs.
Our plan b sent us to the Lyceum for a smart production of The Seven Deadly Sins, performed by the Bodhi Tree Concerts. The satirical ballet chanté – a sung ballet – music by Kurt Weill and text by Bertolt Brecht, is considered a masterpiece of music and drama. It was their last collaboration before escaping the Nazis in 1933. Dance legends such as George Balanchine and Pina Bausch have been inspired by the cautionary tale (Mr. B. had a dancer toss a bikini in 1958). The drama is meant as an indictment of capitalist society that exploits the individual.
Laura Bueno plays Anna I, the pragmatist who sings, and Kylie Young is Anna II, the innocent idealist who dances as best she can. They are sisters and two parts of the same personality. They must make money to build a home for their family in Louisiana, and other parts of Brecht’s mythical America. Anna I convinces Anna II to sell her body for money.
Slides of Hollywood and San Francisco and other locales flash on a screen, as do the sins: sloth, pride, anger, gluttony, lust, greed, and envy. Director/choreographer Shirley Johnston keeps things spare and darkly humorous.
Most impressive are the four men who portray the dysfunctional family. Walter Dumelle, Phillip Dannels, Craig Johnson and Sean McCormac appear in ragged plaid bathrobes, with one Scottie dog print for the mom-man. They complain about Anna II being lazy and eating too much; they hang around and sing in barber shop style as she suffers and pukes in a bucket. Their vocals soar and sink, but mostly soar like a Greek chorus. Mark Danisovsky on piano is the heart of this wonderfully strange and worthwhile premiere that repeats July 5, 9, 10, and 13 at the Lyceum.
Also at the Lyceum is Long Way to Midnight, a G-rated musical about divorce and finding love the second time around. If you like soap operas and the Lifetime channel, you’ll enjoy the screwed-up Bassett family. Dad wants to be a rock star. Mom’s a pill popper. Daughter is the sharpest actress of the bunch and can sing. Grandma is a well-meaning meddler who back-stabs and jokes around in Yiddish. The saccharine is poured on extra thick toward the end when an old flame appears. The production suffers from uneven vocals, cliches, and a recorded soundtrack – live would have been better. Clunky CD cues should be worked out as the show continues July 4 and 5.
Steamy choreography and physicality in Perception & Perseverance make it a Fringe must see dance performance. If that weren’t enough, you get a rare view of the exquisite Spreckels Theatre. Choreographers Zaquia Mahler Salinas and Blythe Barton share the program with one dance each, and they share the stage with the audience. Risers built upon the stage especially for the Fringe Festival place you inches away from the dancers.
Salinas’ “Hirudinea and Her Host” is an exploration of give and take, and giving to the point of emptiness. On opening night, I sensed danger, the kind that makes your spine twinge. Dancers Desiree Cuizon, Angelica Lee Bell, Sarah Navarrete and Salinas slink around in sheer blue nighties like Sirens of a swamp. Lovely poses and elegant bodies become convulsive and combative.
In shadows instead of mud, gorgeous sweaty women wrestle and pin each other down with great force. Their dresses (designed by Elva Salinas) are sheer but tough enough for NASA. The women forgive and release, but attack again. Brief loving moments are a trick. Surrounded by the dark wings of the stage, viewers feel exposed. You expect ghosts and bats to fly out from the shadows. There’s an unforgettable moment when Navarette looks like she’s going to snap the neck of her captive partner, Ms. Bell. That duet is not to be missed.
Barton’s dance, “The Only Real World I know is Mine” is more upbeat but no less provocative. The dance interprets and responds to interviews from StoryCorps on NPR. Dancers Brittany Taylor and Nicholas Strasburg portray a couple deciding to stay together after one chooses to switch genders. Complex changes in direction and removing layers of clothing represent the process. Dancers struggle to lift heavy legs in another sequence about a disabled woman and her daughter. Ms. Barton, Stephanie Harvey, and Cecily Holcombe, round out the very strong cast. One is left feeling hopeful about humanity. Eye contact is a key element in the dance. You may feel compelled to make eye-contact with strangers.
Barton and Salinas are no longer considered emerging San Diego dance artists. They have arrived with distinct movement styles and sensitive sound scores. Production values abound in this program that runs July 6 (twice), 10, and 13 at the Spreckels Theatre.
And Dr. Frankenstein’s Traveling Freak Show continues July 4, 7, and 9. We’re getting there early.