Thursday, September 13, 2007

"Best of the Fringe: Part II," published in the NEWS of Delaware County, Sept. 12, 2007

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival continued through its first full week, with productions that ranged from the lackluster to the spectacular. Since the bad ones aren’t worth writing about, here’s some of the best I’ve seen:

Drexel Hill’s Music and Motions dance group’s performance of Red exploded in a series of color and movement, displaying a vibrant versatility of styles that incorporated and fused ballet, jazz, hip-hop, and gymnastics. Here, Stephen Weisz’s choreography showed a creative mastery of these genres, both in elegant and moving duets and dazzlingly complex group numbers. Why he’s not earning more money directing music videos is both a mystery (his hip-hop pieces were energetic and alive in ways you won’t find on MTV) and a testament to his artistic devotion to the future of his craft.

The Fringe is often a place for works too controversial and challenging to find theatres willing to take a risk on these productions during their regular season, and this year’s festival is no exception. New York’s Stone Soup Theatre Arts troupe led the more challenging of these works with their production of Edward Bond’s Stone. Bond’s play draws the audience on an allegorical journey that fuses vaudeville song and mythic writing (not to mention a striptease), in an existential look at the apparent futility of life. A fascinating production, with Chris Wild giving the best acting performance I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.

Diving deeper into the controversial, New Jersey’s The Riot Group presented the world premiere of Adriano Shaplin’s Hearts of Man. This compelling new work takes a stance on which few theatres would risk offending their mostly moderate audiences: the notion that Megan’s Law and cyber task-force stings—the kind featured in the “To Catch a Predator” series—often ensnare lesser types than the hard-core pedophiles, and in those cases do more harm than good. Shaplin’s play sparkles with lines of true poetry (he was the first playwright-in-residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company), and Riot Group’s Stephanie Viola and Kristen Sieh give powerful and heart-rending performances as the legal team trying to defend the worst cast-offs of society.

I’m split on my best pick of the week, neither of which posed a controversy, and both of which fall into the category of musicals. Philadelphia’s BCKSEET Productions played their rock and roll Hung on a Blonde Ponytail, about the tragic (and I don’t use that word lightly) breakup of a rock duo on the eve of their greatest success. Brilliantly structured as a mystery, the exhilarating performance of Greg DeCandia (singing his own lyrics), features original compositions by Joe Horak in an evening that explores the often devastating history that lies in the life behind an album. With better quality singing and songs than you’ll find in any current top 20 lineup, I can’t recommend this performance enough.

But Brooklyn punk legends World/Inferno Friendship Society gave by far the hippest show I’ve seen at this year’s fringe in Addicted to Bad Ideas, their punk rock operetta about the life of troubled actor Peter Lorre. Their ninety-minute set took the audience on an odyssey through not only his life, but also the styles of music—ranging from swing, jazz, blues, and rock, and from big band to punk—of the entire 20th Century. Jack Terricloth’s charismatic singing fused the silky voice of Brian Setzer with the mesmerizing fury of the Sex Pistols, backed up by an overpowering nine-piece band of horns, percussion, and electric guitar. Though their run already ended, catch them on their return tour through Philadelphia on Friday, Sept. 21 at the First Unitarian Church, for what will probably be the most invigorating and wildest show of the season.

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