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Fringe Binge

September 14, 2008

Caught a trio of shows at the San Francisco Fringe Festival the other night. All of them very different, all of them with their hearts in the right place, and all of them, despite being only an hour or less in length, leaving me feeling like they could have been 15 minutes shorter.

The first was a moving and often compelling musical by Carrie Baum entitled Exit Sign: A Rock Opera. The production deals with Baum's relationship with her father and how she copes with his untimely death. From a musicianship perspective, Exit Sign is wonderful: Great, punchy rock numbers played by a tight four-piece band led by Baum on lead guitar who all seem very much engaged with the action on stage without being gratuitously involved; soulful singing from the two main cast members -- Jamie Ben-Azay as the Baum character and Steffanos X as her father; and simple yet eloquent philosophical messages about the confusing nature of life, love and death. Despite Baum's interesting mix of fast-paced punk songs and lyrical ballads, the pacing of the production feels a little monotonous and ponderous owing to the slow delivery of lines and general elegiac atmosphere of the work. Also, Baum fails to fully integrate the queer undercurrent into the main story line. Plus, the overall conceit about a father and daughter being prompted by a voice from the television set during a re-run of the movie It's A Wonderful Life to go on journey together to find the meaning of life seems a bit daft and inconsequential. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed myself throughout most of the show.

Next up was iScan, a play by local dramatist Peggy Powell and directed by Dan Wilson. Wilson's musical Sweetie Tanya really impressed me when I saw it at San Francisco's Dark Room theatre earlier this year. iScan is a very different kind of project. The play looks at what the world would be like if we could all predict our futures. When an impressionable graduating high school student, Edward, has his blood "scanned" by a sinister "gene analysis" company called iScan, he finds out more about his future than he'd like. Anger and fear about his parents' alcoholism and violence lead Edward down a regrettable path as a result of iScan's diagnosis. The play poses some fascinating, Minority Report-like questions and a couple of the performances (from Brianne Kostielney as Sarah, a young iScan employee who falls for Edward, and Christine Rodgers' as Edward's soused mother) are well-balanced. But the writing isn't incredibly sophisticated and some of the acting is a little heavy-handed. Wilson's direction could use more rhythmic variety and flow too.

The final show of the evening, On Second Thought, was a solo show by a Canadian performer by the name of Paul Hutcheson (pictured left -- he's much more handsome than this in real life.) Hutcheson is a lovely performer with an expressive face and lithe physicality. He's a terrific storyteller too. But the David Sedarisesque vignettes about dealing with his brother and teaching school kids seem a bit stale, like the performer's been doing them for too long (he's performed this show to acclaim at a bunch of different fringe festivals from Orlando to Winnipeg) and the gay themes star to feel repetitive after a while too (especially if, like me, you're subjected to dozens of solo shows about gayness every year.)

All in all, though, it wasn't a bad night at the fringe. I really enjoyed the conversations and snacks I had in the Exit Theatre Cafe in between the shows too. Lots of people, delicious cheese, fruit and wine. I wish more theatres had cafes as good as the Exit's.

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