Gambling on Live Arts/Fringe Picks

By Wendy Rosenfield

I don't really go to Atlantic City much, and haven't yet visited any of the Philadelphia area's casinos. But I can say this: whatever I've learned about the pleasures and pitfalls of taking a gamble, I learned at the Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival. 

Last night I saw the last of my Critic's Picks (minus one--missed Some Other Mettle due to a scheduling snafu), those as yet unseen works we were asked to recommend to the public right before the start of the fest. As in any gambling endeavor, it's best to assess the odds. You read the press release, peep the Kickstarter campaign, listen to the buzz, go with what you know about the company's history and performers, or their subject matter. 

Overall, I came out ahead. There were two misses, or near-misses (depends who you ask). Some Other Mettle received a blistering review from Howard Shapiro, and didn't fare much better with a few other people whose opinions I respect. Jeff Coon and Ben Dibble Must Die, reviewed by Jim Rutter, contained some fun original music, but after a while its cuteness wore out its welcome, with in-jokes (Alex Bechtel is some kind of crazy guru! Michael Doherty and Greg Nix love to wrestle one another!) that ultimately proved grating for a general adult audience, or at the very least, to this adult audience member.

The rest, I believe, were hits. 27 (reviewed by Howard Shapiro) brought New Paradise Laboratories back onto solid ground after a few years' foray into the cluttered internet ether, where their works lived half-online and half-onstage. It was good to have them back. Bang, which I've blogged about here, was my favorite of the picks. And Iminami, while not perfect, delivered exactly what I predicted in print: an insane science fiction melodrama with puppets, acrobats and a live band. 

But a successful Fringe isn't about getting what you expect. It's about getting the unexpected. Suffering through the horror stories is as much a part of the experience as uncovering a hidden gem or seeing a transcendent piece from one of your favorites. For me, the latter arrived in the form of Red Eye to Havre de Grace (reviewed by Howard Shapiro) which reached the highest levels of stagecraft, all while still maintaining its "Fringiness."

It's obvious why some of the more established Philly companies place the first show of their regular season in the Fringe. But while some of those shows are strong--PAC's The Creditors (reviewed by Toby Zinman) and Theatre Exile's The Edge of Our Bodies (reviewed by me) are two solid works I've seen--they're absent the experimentation that makes the Fringe worth the gamble. A sure thing's great, but there's a reason legends are born when a longshot wins the race.

Heading into week two, I've subbed in a few extras, bringing my grand Live Arts/Fringe show total to 14, not including the cabarets I'll catch/have already caught at the Festival Bar. Hopefully, there'll be a few more winners in the bunch.

Feel free to share horror stories and happy surprises here. And allow me to start you off: my personal Fringe nadir, 2008's The Lost Book of Miriam. Review here.