Now in its sixteenth year, the New York International Fringe Festival offers avid theatergoers a chance to see some of the world’s best emerging theater troupes and dance companies perform their pieces in venues throughout lower Manhattan. This year’s festival will offer nearly 1,000 performances from 187 troupes and companies, starting on August 10 and ending on August 26. But the festival unofficially began on August 7, with a special press preview featuring live performances of short excerpts from some of its upcoming shows. I had the chance to attend the preview, and enjoyed each and every piece. But a few of them proved particularly promising.
One of those pieces is The Hills Are Alive (photo top), a new musical presented by Melodion Theatre. Directed and written by Frankie Johnson, with music by Eric Thomas Johnson, this dark comedy tries to answer a key question that The Sound of Music leaves unanswered: whatever happened to the Von Trapp family after they escaped the Nazis? Sojourning through the Alps on foot, with seven children and no supplies, is a daunting prospect, to say the least. The Von Trapps are exhausted, and some of them are thinking that they might want to head back to Germany. As one family member observes, “Nazi food is still food.” That exchange occurs between two Von Trapp sisters, in a duet that is as charming as it is provocative. One of those two sisters is a brunet, the other a blonde. The latter points out that she will have a much easier time moving back to Germany because of her Aryan appeal, while her brown-haired sister might face greater difficulty, in light of her “ethnic” look. The charm of this duet has as much to do with its energy and wit as it does with its sharp bite.
Independents was also a great pleasure to watch, and its backstory is no less compelling than the musical’s actual plotline. It was written by 22-year-old Marina Keegan, who was killed in a car accident, at the end of May, less than a week after graduating from Yale. Since her untimely death, Keegan’s formidable body of work has risen to the fore and gained recognition, leaving many to marvel at how much she accomplished during her 22 years, and what else she could have accomplished had she been spared just a few more. Directed by Charlie Polinger, with music by Stephen Feigenbaum and lyrics by Mark Sonnenblick, Independents is about burnout crewmembers of an antique tall ship who decide to become Revolutionary War simulators.
Another impressive piece in the festival is a one-woman play called Linda Means to Wait. Presented by Next Stage Studio, directed by Geoffrey Owens, and starring Linda Kuriloff, this play seems to take after Sarah Jones’s Tony-winning hit, Bridge and Tunnel. Born in South Africa and raised in Chicago, Kuriloff (who also wrote the play) impersonates 20 eclectic characters and in doing so, offers keen and amusing insights into family and relationships. In the August 7 preview, Kuriloff impersonated two figures: a young woman interested in pursuing a modeling career and her disapproving mother. Even in the midst of their heated debate, each character shows a light of touch of humor, making Kuriloff’s two impersonations all the more accessible, engaging, and sensitive.
Finally, there was I Heart Revolution, a new piece from writers Alexandra Panzer, Tara Schuster, and Alice Winslow (all starring in the play), a topical satire that addresses the discontents of today’s youth. From Democrats to Republicans, from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, this play leaves no pertinent issue untouched. And it also gets a boost from one of its co-stars, Chris Lowell (The Help, Private Practice, Veronica Mars).
Most pieces in the Fringe Festival will feature aspiring young actors and playwrights, but theatergoers will also have the chance to see a few veterans of the stage, including the always formidable Lee Meriwether. Starring in a one-woman piece that she co-wrote with Jim Hesselman, Meriwether gives a tour-de-force performance in The Women of Spoon River: Their Voices from the Hill, based on Edgar Lee Masters’s iconic collection of free-form poems (Spoon River Anthology), first published in 1915. Masters’s poems document the lives of men and women living in a small, fictional Illinois town, and the trials and tribulations that they all endure, both collectively and individually. In her own rendition of Masters’s work, Meriwether focuses solely on the women of Spoon River, giving each of her 26 characters a persona that is both endearing and witty. The amount of young talent in the Fringe Festival will certainly impress any theatergoer, but there’s nothing like watching a pro.
For more information on these and other Fringe Festival plays, please go to the website.