A Preview of the Baltimore Fringe Fest by Andrew Sargus Klein

After back to back preview nights for the Charm City Fringe Festival, I found myself wishing for more such performances (in general, not just for the Fringe Festival).

There’s a certain looseness and camaraderie that comes when a half-dozen casts are crammed into one ill-fitting venue and asked to perform a small slice of a larger work. Lines are bobbled, sets are broken, and audience participation is pretty much always on the table. It’s a low stakes accessibility, and it works. The price of good, informal cheer was a lack of nuance and subtlety.

Since the productions picked their most crowd-friendly scenes to present at Joe Squared and Mercury Theatre, it’s difficult to plot the emotional spectrum of this year’s lineup. As such, it’s also difficult to pinpoint which productions are can’t-misses and which ones are a hard pass.

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It was clear enough that humor and accessibility are two of the more dominant themes at this year’s Fringe. I didn’t mind that I saw Alonso Lamont Jr. perform the same piece of his one-man show on both preview nights; B-Side Man, which centers on Lamont’s “journeys, transformations, segues, stories, love, loss, [and] dark days,” was a hit with both crowds.

Lamont described life as an African-American man in 1970s Iowa City—specifically, dancing to Aerosmith wearing nothing but a red thong and cowboy boots. There’s an immediacy to his storytelling and a genuine warmth of character that comes with it.

Another one-man show, The Eulogy, similarly was an audience favorite. Written, directed, and performed by Michael Burgos, the excerpt consisted entirely of Burgos silently reacting to a recorded voice scolding his childhood self for eating a chocolate cake without permission. Without any context, it was weird—but a polished, self-assured weirdness that promises a cohesive performance from beginning to end.

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The weird factor was upped by two shows that I scarcely have words to describe. Piper Bidet: Bathroom Detective appears to be a story about… wait for it… a bathroom detective. A scientist eats a radioactive burrito and heads to the toilet; when he leaves, an enormous pink thing (a toilet? a poop monster? it’s utterly unclear) emerges. And then we get someone with a big ol’ magnifying glass, on the hunt for clues. Oh, and there’s no dialogue, just music ripped straight from the Stranger Things aesthetic. This show looks fun—it has to be, right? And then there’s the terribly named Yo, You Be Trippin? (seriously) which featured a Dr. Seuss-styled narrator of sorts and a trio of women describing the possible effects of LSD in a wonderfully over-the- top manner.

You can rest easy that you already missed the two-night run of More Sex, More Drugs, & Much More Audience Participation, unless you would have enjoyed lewd men acting like lewd men in stilted, clichéd ways—really, the entirety of the show appeared to be two schlubby guys talking about sex. And I didn’t know what to think of Deus et Machina: God & the Machine, a self-described “madcap comedy of Biblical proportions.” There was a snooty French waiter, some sort of scheme involving someone pretending to the be the devil, and some terribly unoriginal gender-based humor.

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I was surprised to find myself singing along with Magnificent Machines & Astonishing Tales, a steampunkish rock opera from Night Watch Paradox set in Baltimore and featuring sea chanty folk tunes on a privateer time machine. Their costumes are almost perfectly on point (I know guitars aren’t all that cheap, but they really clashed with the wacky Victorian garb) and of course included goggles (as all good steampunk must). Their selection was wholly enjoyable and this is almost certainly a solid way to spend your evening.

Sharing a Dance With You, one of two dance performances in the Fringe lineup, promises to be one of the more exploratory and surprising selections this year. Touching on themes of trauma, healing, and food, the work is an immersive experience for the audience, who will help in the preparation of a meal throughout the performance. The Great Invention, a duet consisting of two commedia dell’arte-trained clowns, looked to have the same level of professionalism, though with a wholly different conclusion: a made up language with physical humor and a surrealist bent to storytelling.

Not all of this year’s Fringe selections were represented at either preview, so you have some homework to do. But the options are deep, if strange and unoriginal at times, and this year, its fifth, promises to continue its string of success. Check out the full program over at charmcityfringe.com.

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*****

Author Andrew Sargus Klein is a Baltimore poet and performer. He kinda-sorta tweets at ASargusKlein

Full Disclosure: Lynne Price, the creator of Sharing a Dance With You, is his spouse.

Photos: Courtesy of the Fringe Festival

The 2016 Fringe Festival goes from Thursday, November 3 – Monday, November 14