The Chicago Fringe Festival is about as “off Loop” as theater gets around these parts. Fringe’s anti-establishment streak goes even deeper than its DIY spaces. It goes straight down into the politics of selecting performers. Half of the groups are based here in the city and the other half come from as far as London and as close as DeKalb. Three-quarters of the groups are selected using a lottery system, with special consideration given to “geographical and diversity concerns.” In short, unlike Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates, all of which were guaranteed to be cocoa-based sweets of one kind or another, you really don’t know what you’re gonna get at Fringe.
Furthermore, Fringe is a far cry from the big theatrical events going on in the rest of the city during September. The grey-haired crowd, the stuffy insiders and even the critics all seem to keep their distance. Filling the seats are friends of the performers, fellow artists and those for whom Fringe’s low admission price represents a financially accessible and regularly entertaining way of spending an afternoon or evening. The Jefferson Park-based festival works in collaboration with the neighborhood, giving Fringe the feel of a block party or street festival rather than the space-appropriating bacchanalia of Pitchfork or Riot Fest, where many residents witness the event from behind fences and barriers, hocking water and Gatorade to stoned white kids from the suburbs. This is a community-centric event, one where everyone is invited but only the truly adventurous choose to come.
Suffice it to say, I hope my relationship with Fringe will be long-lasting. One of the very first things I did after moving to Chicago a year ago was volunteering at Fringe. More than signing the lease on an apartment or getting a job or eating my first hotdog, Fringe feels like my Chicago anniversary. Last year I worked the box office at the Gift Theatre and got to hear, through the space’s thin walls, a handful of shows, but never got to actually see any. I decided that this year I would leverage the good faith of this fine publication and make up for lost time simultaneously by covering as many shows as I possibly could. This four-part series will explore what it means to be on the fringe of the art world and who calls this undefined landscape their home.
Full Disclosure: The writer is public relations manager for one of the groups at Chicago Fringe Festival. To avoid a conflict of interest, their performances will not be included in this coverage.
Chicago Fringe Festival: Part 1
A 3pm matinee downtown is one thing but a 1pm one-man show in the basement of a church in Jefferson Park is something else entirely. Especially when it takes the lynching of a circus elephant as its focus. But that’s just the kind of thing you get from the Chicago Fringe Festival, which is currently staking out Jefferson Park for its sixth year. Offering forty-seven shows on five stages across ten days, this year’s Fringe Festival takes its motto of “unjuried, uncensored, unusual” to heart, for better or for worse.
And so my inaugural experience this year was indeed about the lynching of the aforementioned elephant. Though it is too early to say, I suspect that “Man’s Dominion” may be the most professional piece of theater at Fringe this year. Its writer, director and performer have clocked roughly seventy-five cumulative years of industry experience in Hollywood and elsewhere. And it showed. Playwright David Castro’s experience writing for television guides this fractured, crosscutting narrative, which tells the tale of a killer elephant and her subsequent execution from ten different perspectives, including her own. As an actor, Tim Powell excels at dialects and mannerisms while naturally capturing Castro’s lovely prose. Castro’s work is elegant though slightly unbalanced by his tendency to moralize, a theme that would recur throughout my first day of Fringe.
Across town, “CODA (Children of Deaf Adults)” was an intimate, youthful tale that has not completely come of age and had difficulty separating its subject matter from its narrator. Another one-man show, this time out of Brooklyn, Mark Murray’s autobiographical story of growing up with two deaf parents overemphasizes the standoffishness of his youth while leaving meaningful moments (the death of his sister, his own departure from the family) largely unexplored. While Murray is a charismatic and physically ambitious performer, this material still seems too sensitive for him to interact with in a way that fully engages his audience. His exploration of what it means to be “normal,” while fitting for the festival, was stubbornly inflexible and often personal to a fault.
I concluded my half-day with “Bully” from Viable Theater Company. While I probably should have been hoping for a fresh perspective on a sensitive and complex issue, I was initially just grateful to see multiple actors on stage. That feeling slipped quickly away as things became increasingly uncomfortable. The play concerns a down-on-his-luck electrician in a loveless marriage. When we meet him he’s stumbling down memory lane while cleaning out his garage in order to bring in some extra cash by renting it.
The performance suffered from oppositional dynamics: either the actors were so quiet that they could hardly be heard or they were screaming at the top of their lungs. All of this would have been easier to bear if the playwright made clear what everyone was so angry about. The aforementioned electrician meets with a prospective renter who turns out to have been victimized by him in high school. He blames him for all of his failures in life since then and demands an apology. Thus begins a kind of everyman philosophical debate on responsibility culminating in a literal revenge of the nerds torture fantasy. It is difficult to tell which side the playwright is on and whether or not s/he really believes that this is legitimate dialogue on the effects of bullying, especially given that there is little information available on the web about the play and even less about the theater company producing it.
This is one of the more frustrating elements of Fringe: in an attempt to include as many people as possible, details can get overlooked. Looked at in another way, this lack of consistency is kind of refreshing. The festival draws attention to the polish of the mainstream theater world and in doing so offers an alternative way of thinking about how we define “fringe” work. Instead of considering this collection of performances separate from the realm of conventional theater, perhaps we can imagine the festival as a place where art exists in all its many stages.
There’s pragmatism to this philosophy: the kind of funding it would take to make Fringe look like Sundance, for instance, is simply not in the cards. But it also allows artists to present as much or as little as they care to without the interference of a third party trying to make these performances marketable to anyone not initiated to Fringe’s rough charm. This approach makes the real miracle of Fringe invisible. Yet, the hustle and shuffle it takes to create a space where artists are allowed to work without restriction is the very thing that makes Fringe the strange and beautiful place it is. To be continued… (Kevin Greene)
Chicago Fringe Festival runs through September 13. For tickets and more information visit chicagofringe.org.