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Theater Al Fresco: 4th Annual San Francisco Theater Festival

July 23, 2007

It's been a couple of years since I attended the San Francisco Theater Festival (I was away last Summer when it happened) and it's changed significantly in my absence.

Two summers ago, a theater critic friend and I decided to go check out the offerings in Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown San Francisco, where the day-long festival is held. We stayed for about 20 minutes to watch some bad clowning and stroll past some apologetic-looking volunteers handing out flyers for various shows. There were probably no more than 100 people about. Then we hightailed it for the nearest bar, ordered a pitcher of Margaritas, and never went back.

This time around, I stayed for a couple of hours. Seeing the Gardens so packed with people -- there must have been several thousand present -- made me really happy. The festival appeared to attract a genuine mixture of spectators -- tourists and locals, people of all ages and races. The performance spaces (of which there were 10, spread across the Yerba Buena complex, Zeum, and the Metreon) were really busy. Some performances, such as the musical offerings by Lyric Theatre of San Jose, were even completely full.

The performances were very eclectic, ranging from imrov comedy, through one-act plays, through Shakespeare, to an orchestra composed of musical instruments made from trash. Most of the fare was on the makeshift, underground side (it was no surprise to see The Exit Theatre previewing highlights of the upcoming Fringe Festival there.) Some of it was good and some of it was bad. But the prevailing spirit was one of fun and adventure. The best things about the festival are that it's free and that you never know what you're going to get.

I spent my time there just wandering about with a festival handout, checking out bits of shows. I caught snippets of comedian Mark Romyn and magician Christian Cagigal's shtick for the Fringe Festival. I could barely hear Romyn above the din coming from a nearby stage, but Cagigal's magic tricks -- which tend to be quite visual -- seemed to go over well. The Santa Cruz Trash Orchestra was a lot of fun. The concept isn't particularly original -- It's an off-shoot of the street musician tradition and the musical Stomp. But a group of people banging on trashcan lids and old plastic containers is much better suited to an outdoor, carnival-style setting than a solo actor trying to perform a monologue. Three Wise Monkeys' short play centering on a homemade pie, Sweet Jesus, seemed a little under-baked. I felt like I was watching a high school drama class exercise. SF Buffoons began their show by announcing that the material would not be suitable for children. Most parents swiftly picked up their offspring and headed out. Frankly, the material wasn't really suitable for adults either. Not because it was offensive or taboo, but just because it was amateurish. The show basically consisted of a bunch of performers dressed in rags and smudged makeup shouting slogans about war. It wasn't a day for watching mutants flail around in a circle. I wanted to be outside. So I quickly left.

One of the most intriguing shows that I caught at the festival was scenes from the musical Insignificant Others. The musical's premise is a bit hackneyed - it's about a bunch of young people who move to San Francisco from the Midwest and their (mis)adventures in love. The songs are solidly written, textbook musical numbers. Their melodies and harmonies could be interchangeable with many other musicals written in the last 30 years. The lyrics are funny, though not all that original either -- a line in one song which asks whether a character is "gay or just European?" is almost exactly the same as a line from Legally Blonde The Musical. But what I really enjoyed was the spirit of the thing. The performers were lively and milked the cheesy lines for all they were worth. They went all out and their enthusiasm was infectious. Insignificant Others doesn't look it'll make any significant statements about life and the world we live in, but I think it could be entertaining. I'll be reviewing a full performance of this musical in a few weeks' time for SF Weekly's Stage section.

For an isolated few seconds during the time I was at the festival, I even felt a tiny bit like I was walking the streets of Edinburgh at festival time. Obviously, this free, one-day event featuring 70 shows is microscopic in scope compared to the juggernaut that is the Edinburgh Fringe. But it's got its own unique character and charm. I'm looking forward to next year's.


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