Since most of us cherish the romantic idea that true artists exist outside the mainstream, we're intrigued by projects like the Boulder Fringe Festival, a no-vetting proposition with performances selected on a first-come, first-served basis or by lottery. I was so intrigued that at first I contemplated devoting a couple of weeks to the festival, wandering around town from venue to venue, all eighteen of them. But then I perused the list of offerings, the thicket of words about "the alluring dance of human relationships" and exploring the "in between," and wondered if I really wanted to sit through hours of willful obscurity or adolescent searching in the hope of stumbling onto a gem.
I've found some gems at past Fringe festivals. One happy summer, A.G. Gertsacov arrived with his Victorian-style flea circus. Flea circuses have been the cause of much derision in my house ever since I innocently told my husband and daughter that I'd seen flea circuses when I was growing up in England and that I once watched a man in Brighton stage a circus with mosquitoes. (He said they were easier to work with than fleas.) Bill and Anna managed a polite silence until I got to the part about the mosquito that traversed a high-wire in a tiny tutu, and then they fell about laughing. Gertsacov at least partially restored my credibility.
But this weekend, I saw no flea circuses. Instead, I took myself to three shows, which — together — turned out to perfectly exemplify the Fringe ethos. There was The Goddess Here, a professional-quality one-woman piece; Richard Wakes Up, an ambitious, if muddled, attempt at...well, surrealism, experimentalism and playing around with words, all having to do with being young, feeling menaced, and trying to figure out who you are; and Misfit, the Musical, a creation of the folks at Bovine Metropolis, which had some promise as a skit, but at ninety minutes didn't deliver.
Goddess consists of seven monologues written by David Rush for Tammy Meneghini, who changes character by donning a different pair of shoes for each one: plain flats for Mary, a Southern widow whose veteran husband killed himself; dance slippers for the child Bess. She also starts every piece wearing a mask, and takes it off as she gets deeper into character. Doris, the aging musical-comedy star who drops the name of just about every famous composer of her era, from Richard Rodgers to Jerry Herman, is a bit of a stock character, though Meneghini evokes her with humor. Barbara is drowning — literally — and you have to admire Meneghini's ability to keep her balance and keep talking while rocking on the ingeniously designed wooden object that serves as a prop throughout this bit, but there's way too much yelling and arm-flailing. On the other hand, I'm going to remember soldier Michelle, the story of her rape and Meneghini's chillingly focused rage for a long time. Also Kathryn, the dying woman who closes the show and is depicted with an almost eerie gentleness. These monologues are sharp and original, and they're performed with maturity and grace.
In Richard Wakes Up, a young man endures a Kafkaesque world of incomprehensible menace. He flees, encounters more threats, befriends a strange young woman. The piece also involves a screenplay in which a dog turns into a small, fur-wearing North Korean man; a friend's audition that includes a rape by Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts; Semtex; and a balloon dog. The tech is funky and the acting uneven, but there's a germ of something worth exploring here.
Misfit is a sendup of the high-school-musical genre, of which Glee is the latest and highest-glitz example. You know the plot: A geeky computer nerd somehow snatches the lead from the Mean Girl. I kept waiting for the show to change this familiar theme in some way, or at least to display some sense of plotting, character and momentum. But the funniness is supposed to come almost entirely from the characters' tics: Roland's high-pitched gayness, the affectedness of drama teacher Ms. Montgomery, Mean Girl Stacey's one-note bitchiness, Agnes's jerky movements and dopey expressions. They were all mildly amusing, but only for a while.
Bring on the fleas!