Imagine San Diego as a mecca for the performing arts and you’ve imagined the Fringe Festival. Fringe Festivals have been established throughout the world to give artists the opportunity to showcase their works and performances without being “screened” by those who deign to know what the public wants. It’s democracy in the arts and it visits San Diego for two weeks each year. The 2016 version of San Diego’s Fringe Festival is one of the larger ones in the world; more than a 100 registered artists performing over 11 days and even across the international border — making it the first binational Fringe Festival in the world. This year also brings artists from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Ireland, Wales, England, Italy and Japan, as well as from around the United States. Most importantly, it is extremely low cost; from $10 to free. It’s a can’t- miss opportunity for anyone who enjoys the performing arts and its going on from June 23rd to July 3rd in San Diego. We’ve attended many of the plays (and scooped up the word of mouth from other attendees) so that you can catch the great “gotta see” pieces and some of the also-rans.
Josephine – The word on the street is that this is a power-packed one-woman show about the fabulous Josephine Baker. Aside from having a great voice and fleet feet, Baker shattered stereotypes of race, gender roles and sexuality. She is a iconic 20th-Century superstar about which many people are clueless. Tymisha Harris knocks it out of the park in this intimate, charming and haunting cabaret with a twist. Expect full-houses for this show.
Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany – Another powerful one-woman play about a decidedly un-iconic, unknown woman who, when she was nine, moved from the U.S. to Germany….just days before the outbreak of World War II. Eleanor’s story is a real one, portrayed by her granddaughter Ingrid Garner who wrote and performs this adaptation of her grandmother’s award-winning autobiography. This isn’t another Holocaust play, but is an insightful, beautifully acted piece that will move you and enlighten you. Theater rarely gets this good.
Strangers, Lovers, Family, Friends – This show hasn’t attracted the crowds of the other shows, but it should. The writing is crisp and original. The actors are quite good, despite their youth. This collection of four one-act plays is exactly what Fringegoers deserve — clever, engaging comedy. We highly recommend this one.
Mysterium – Like a good magic show from time to time? For $10, you get to see a very good one. Winner of the 2015 SD Fringe Festival “Audience Favorite” award. SD Reader “best of fringe” pick, Mysterium resurrects the spirit of magic and leaves all traces of the familiar behind. The two magicians (especially Erica) are enchanting and capable. We’ve seen most of the great magicians and this duo pulled off some illusions that we’d never seen before.
A Regular Little Houdini – An engrossing 55-minute drama that has won numerous play and acting awards since he premiered it at his Flying Bridge Theatre in Newport, Wales, in 2013. The Union-Tribune calls it “spellbinding and his acting is extraordinary.” It’s dramatic but with a sprinkling of Irish wit and Houdini’s “amazements.” We call it wonderful theater and Daniel Llewelyn-Williams proves to be a master storyteller.
1918 – If the Fringe Festival were a baseball game, then this piece is a big-league home run. The word-of-mouth is huge and reviews have been huger (yes, we know that’s not a word). The topic is a tough one: an outbreak of Spanish Flu in Samoa, 1918 which wiped out almost a third of the entire Samoan population. But this is a dance-theater piece that displays the power of dance, compared to the power of words. It’s one of the reasons why the Fringe Festival exists, so try to catch it. Hint: get there early, as lines are long.
Mythos: Opening Pandora’s Box – is produced by the Astraeus Aerial Dance Troupe that took their last Fringe piece to New York City. This incarnation is an aerial dance “adventure” that weaves together an eclectic blend of mythological tales. The drama plays out against a backdrop of Chaos unchained, leading them to embrace Hope and Transcendence to overcome the evils of humanity.
The Phantom of the Empire – combine Phantom of the Opera with Star Wars and what do you get? Apparently this. Billed as an “epic mash-up”, word of mouth is quite good and some reviews are quite favorable. We found it to be campy, vampy, a bit snappy and overall bordering on slap-happy. You’ve got to be in the mood for this broad parody of two loved theatrical franchises…….or extremely high.
I Got Guns – Sometimes it takes comedy to best address seriously dramatic questions. This piece focuses its sights on gun control – a political issue that has gained greater importance since the Orlando massacre but has been tormenting the country with its daily drumbeat of domestic shootings. The troupe combines physical comedy and improv to make the points that need to be embraced by the voting public. Go to this show and then remember to vote in November!
Disappearing Act – Tense, tough and terse: three desirable qualities to any drama. And this one has it in spades. This is a tale of a emotionally-scarred war veteran in which Loss pervades the story: loss of life, relationships, and — ultimately — the innocence that keeps us sane. If this topic resonates with you, you shouldn’t miss this performance. If you are looking for laughs, look elsewhere.
Bella Culpa – a slapstick comedy following two servants in an Edwardian manor. An acrobatic, off-beat comedy like Downton Abbey meets The Three Stooges. Back again after an award-winning 2014 visit to San Diego are clowns/actors/acrobats Amica Hunter and David Cantor, a duo from Portland who perform as A Little Bit Off.
Circumstantial Evidence: The Crimson Canary – It’s not uncommon to see acrobats use music. It is uncommon, though, to see acrobats who can act (some better than others), sing, evoke laughs and dance, all the while, doing their acrobatic things. San Diego’s Circus Collective manages to bring all of these elements together in a vampy, campy mystery that won’t challenge your detective skills as much as tickle your funny bones. It’s fun and keeps you thoroughly entertained for the hour.
The Heart of a Goof – Is a goof of a play about golf….and turn-of-the-century British manners. Based upon Wodehouse’s story, the actors work hard to make this erudite comedy come alive. Alas, it is uneven and a bit dated. A nice effort, but the comedy didn’t land too many punches, resulting more in smiles than guffaws.
Backstage Drama – Local playwright Michael Mussman has created a clever conceit: backstage at an improv theater troupe. Sort of like a Noises Off meets Second City. The script has some clever situations and the cast is game. We saw the first performance and it was clear the actors were still getting their hands around the dialogue. But this piece has promise.
Eurydice – If you like modern dance and greek myths, this show may be for you. The dancers are quite good. If you don’t fancy modern dance, you may find this show very difficult to understand.
I Can’t Tell You – Caitlin and Vince are two very talented clowns from North of the Border. They’ve come down to San Diego from Canada to give us their comic take on partying. It’s clever and very high energy, but the skits are uneven and, ultimately, you are left with an experience that feels more sit-comish than theatrical. But you’ve got to appreciate their effort and comic skills.
Hamlet Comedy Hour – We’ve not seen this piece and it is unlikely that we will. The word-of-mouth has been discouraging and the word-of-print (namely, a San Diego Reader review) has been downright devastating. If you want to read a no-hostages-taken vilifying review, check out Jon Reimer’s opinion. His conclusion: “If you have the choice of seeing this show for $10 or doing anything else with that money, do anything else.” It doesn’t help that this show is directed by the same hapless writer of The Scam (see below). We recommend that you do anything else.
The Scam – Occasionally, the Fringe is visited by a vanity piece that makes it to the stage because some poor schlub has ambition, money but, alas, no talent. Unknown playwright “Christopher R” has good reason to stay unknown; this piece is a mess. It you paid $10, you got scammed. If you got in for free, you still got scammed an hour of your valuable time. We’d love to tell you what this play is about but we can’t be sure and we don’t want to know. Just know that you were warned. Hey, Jon Reimer! You probably want to pass on this piece.