Monday, July 26, 2010

On The Fringe

The 5th Annual DC Fringe Festival concluded yesterday. God bless 'em for soldiering on during this heatwave. I only saw one entry this year, and as there were 132 total productions, I am in absolutely no position to think my opinions have any merit. But since when has that ever stopped me?

First, the show I actually saw:

Super Claudio Bros., The All New Video Game Musical

Ducking copyright issues, the authors of this piece had no trouble equating their Claudio Brothers with their inspiration, the Super Mario Brothers. I am not, and never have been, a video game player (give me Family Feud any day), so there were moments in this new musical which went over my head. But most of the show was a hoot and a half, and this may have been the most polished, professional cast of any production of the Fringe (and I can say that, having seen 1/132s of the shows presented).

The cast included Signature Theatre favorites (so you know they sounded swell) Stephen Gregory Smith, Sam Ludwig, Harry Winter, and Chris Sizemore, and Lauren Williams and Matt Anderson made particularly good impressions. (Special shout-out to my buddy Gillian Shelly, whose work in the ensemble was comically and vocally stellar, and why wouldn't it be? She's my friend.) The surface plot, wrapped around the object of the video game, was merely the springboard for a neat study of sibling rivalry, with Ludwig's Luis, the stereotypical Second Son, struggling to achieve his own identity. The authors neatly mirrored that conflict with the two princesses involved.
Really, this show was delightful from start to finish, and will probably have a further life; in fact, I would have to say the star of this show was the producing team, which, in addition to hiring some of the best musical performers in town, provided a costume and prop budget which probably exceeded most other Fringe offerings.

I bet the authors learned a lot from this first full production of their baby. I hope one of their next steps is to better integrate the comedic moments which specifically allude to the original video game with the other moments which spring organically from the work they themselves created. As I said, I never played Super Mario Bros., but there were many folks sitting in my row at Studio Theatre who howled with recognition at points where I was frankly clueless. I think the authors should keep those moments, make no mistake, as they clearly gave the gamers in the audience great entertainment. But I hope there is a way to make those moments more accessible to audience members who never played the game.

As for the DC Fringe Festival itself, well, they should be applauded for their growth in the past five years, but with that growth comes bigger headaches. One of the pesky problems they have faced in the past was the fact that many of their performance venues had no, or very inadequate, air conditioning. The festival is held every year in July, one of the miserable months in DC, and that probably cannot be changed, as it's a moment in the city's theatrical calendar when many theaters are dark (and there's a reason for that: it's friggin' hot.) So the Fringe has access to a lot of performance spaces which are dormant during July, and in the past, some of those venues were unbearably hot for an audience.

In their publicity, the Fringers proudly trumpeted that this year, all their venues were air conditioned. That must have been a relative term, as I heard from many audience members that their enjoyment of performances in certain venues was marred by the stifling heat. Granted, we are in the midst of a particularly nasty summer, weather-wise, but this is an ongoing problem not unique to this year's hot spell. This may seem like a petty problem for a festival which expects its audiences to be ready for raw performances, but that should not include forcing viewers to sit in puddles of their own sweat.

The Fringe ended yesterday, and last night, Audience Awards were presented for various categories, a concept called the Pick of the Fringe. I don't have any problem with awards for actors or productions, in fact, I love them, but these awards are a bit peculiar. Over the past weekend, as the Fringe was winding down, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media buzzed with requests from Fringe participants to vote their show an award. Again, nothing really wrong with that, except for the fact that at no time did anyone ask that the voter actually see a show. These awards were compiled and calculated by an online site called TheaterMania, which merely required that each voter open a free account on their website in order to vote. Does this ring wrong to anybody else but me? All anyone needs to win one of these audience awards is a large number of friends and family who are willing to register with the website, and then vote. It does not seem to matter to the Fringe folks whether these voters ever saw even one show.

This may seem like a little thing, but my friend Rick Hammerly might disagree. Last year, his production won one of these awards, and that win helped solidify his decision to form a permanent theatre company. These awards, then, are gaining in importance, and should be treated with a bit more respect by their founders at the Fringe.

I have a suggestion to solve this problem, or at least alleviate it. Every audience member of every Fringe production is required to purchase a button (the reason for this is murky to me, but never mind) in addition to admission to the show. Why not have these buttons include some sort of code which could act as a password to the voting website, thus insuring that people who vote these awards have seen at least one of the productions in question?

Over at DC Theatre Scene, the region's premier online source for theatrical criticism and news, they hold their own Best of Fringe awards. They are calculated in exactly the same way, with no verification that the voter has seen anything at Fringe. When productions win these awards, what kind of artistic satisfaction can that bring?

Well, I am the only one who seems to have noticed this anomaly, so maybe the Fringe doesn't care about the integrity of their awards. Maybe DC Theatre Scene doesn't, either, but I bet they do. DCTS should be commended, as they are the only media outlet which reviewed all 132 productions presented at this year's Fringe. That is a phenomenal achievement, one which was apparently overlooked by the Fringe folks during their awards presentations last night. Shame on the Fringers for ignoring their biggest cheerleaders.