Performance

Self service: SF Fringe Festival tells it like it is

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Note: this is an extended version of an article that appears in this week's print version.

Sitting in the Exit Café with a can of Guinness and the San Francisco Fringe Festival program is one of life's modest but absorbing pleasures. For those without much inside knowledge on the lineup (currently encompassing 36 companies and 158 performances), it's a little like taking a vacation by pitching darts at a wall map. There were several immediate sub-themes to choose from for 2013. I could have picked shows with bananas in the title, for instance. But for whatever reason, I dived into the service and servitude sector.

Of course, the Fringe, now in its 22nd year, is a lottery-based operation, so it is fate's fingers that pluck these patterns from the cultural whirl. At the same time, you don't need the I Ching to know that serving the rich is about all that's left of the economy for most of us, making it hardly surprising to find so many stories of bartenders, wait staff, sex workers, and mermaids-who-are-also-sex-workers floating in the pool.

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The Performant: Mean Streets and Matchsticks at the Vancouver Fringe

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Here in Vancouver, the Fringe Festival has been in full swing since Sept. 5, and its early bustle has come as something of a welcome surprise. Shows have been selling out right and left, including those by the five-woman sketch comedy team Strapless, and the manic SNAFU Dance Theatre's survivalist romp Kitt & Jane. The buzz hangs as heavy in the air as the morning humidity. It’s interesting to compare the rowdy carnival atmosphere of the Edmonton Fringe, complete with sideshow attractions, tireless street performers, and mountains of cheap fried food and the people who eat it, with Vancouver’s more refined approach and oddience. The Vancouver Fringe is the biggest theater festival in town, I’m told, and therefore attracts a fairly large percentage of mainstream theater-goers.

But despite the fact that each show begins with an overly complicated spiel about sponsorship opportunities, the shows themselves have run the usual fringe-y gamut of content from heartfelt to hilarious, edgy to educational. Here are some of the standouts I’ve seen so far.

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The Performant: Fringe Dwellers

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It’s hard to believe, but the 32nd annual Edmonton Fringe is already over and touring companies like Naked Empire Bouffon are packing their bags to move on to the next festival, while artists who have finished their runs head for home — whether that’s Australia, the UK, or just North of the High Level Bridge. As at every Fringe, my goal has been to see just as many shows as I can, and in between stage-managing Naked Empire’s run and feverishly making deadlines, I saw 35, which ranged in content and execution from the merely mundane to the inarguably sublime. Here’s a roundup of my personal favorites and companies I recommend watching out for should they make over to San Francisco.

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The Performant: Surrender to Dorothy

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San Francisco’s invasion of Canada has begun

On my first day in Alberta, Canada I am greeted by gracious Edmontonians bearing platters of smoked meats, a local tradition perhaps, and upon joining my reconnaissance troop, the small but mighty Naked Empire Bouffon Company, who I’m stage-managing for their one-month Fringe Festival tour, we head down to the 32nd Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival headquarters to discover what we can about the territory. The Edmonton Fringe is the second largest in the world after Edinburgh (the original), attracting over a half-million people to the festival site, and hosting over 200 performing companies over the course of 11 days. Mixed in with the vast throng of performers from around the world, a small regiment of infiltrators from the Bay Area have scattered themselves throughout the festival grounds and venues, a quiet invasion of quirky monologists and seasoned storytellers.

And Naked Empire of course, whose confrontational buffooning offers an entirely different definition of Fringe theatre. Read more »

The Performant: The Stiltwalkers Union

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In an iconic sequence from Winsor McCay’s eccentrically beautiful Little Nemo in Slumberland, Nemo’s bed sprouts elongated legs and strolls through the city as Nemo and his cantankerous friend Flip cling to the bedsheets and try not to fall out. Whenever I see performers on stilts, the exaggerated limbs of that unexpectedly animated furniture are one of the first things that spring to my mind, their death-defying acrobatics furthering the resemblance to an unnerving dream sequence.

Tapping into both the whimsical and the deeply unsettling nature of stiltwalking as art form, San Francisco’s Carpetbag Brigade and Nemcatacoa Teatro from Colombia performed their unique brand of physical theater in tandem over the weekend, along with Tucson, AZ’s VerboBala and Hojarasca Andina from Colombia, as part of their transcontinental “Bi-Cultural Road Show."

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Baring all: Red Hots Burlesque presents “Burlesque and WHY”

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Red Hots Burlesque — the longest running queer burlesque show in the country, according to founder and producer Dottie Lux — moves out of the bars and into the theater with Burlesque and WHY (The Naked Truth), a show-and-tell built around the biographies and personalities of its performers, an eclectic group of burlesque artists comprised of Dottie Lux, the Lady Ms. Vagina Jenkins, Magnoliah Black, Lay-Si Luna, Alexa Von Kickinface, and Burlesque Hall of Famer Ellion Ness. It runs through Sun/4 at StageWerx.

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The Performant: Parts is Parts

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FoolsFURY’s Factory Parts Builds a Future for Ensemble Works

Ever ambitious, the process-oriented foolsFURY theater ensemble has added yet another performance series to its production calendar: "Factory Parts," focusing on works-in-development from fellow ensemble companies from both coasts.

Structured like a lower-key version of its biennial festival of ensemble theater, "The FURY Factory," "Factory Parts" brings together ten companies to present segments of unfinished works before an audience (and each other) to gain perspective on how to shape them for the future. Broken up into three separate programs each showing three times over the course of ten days, Factory Parts offers artists and audiences alike to get in on the ground floor of a production’s existence and offer insight and feedback to the companies involved, turning what would normally be behind-the-scenes workshopping into a form of participatory theatergoing.

I caught up with foolsFURY’s associate artistic director Debórah Eliezer to get the inside scoop on the series, which opens tonight.

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Independence/Movement: extended interview with Oakland's SALTA dance collective

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Note: this is an extended version of an article in this week's Guardian.

The crowd outside the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library in Oakland was hopping. Fidgeting, really. Almost imperceptibly at first, while above it a bulging moon hung in the temperate June sky, just itching to go super as it would the following night. But soon enough bodies were bouncing and flailing, until finally the scrum of dancers packed shoulder-to-front-to-back on the sidewalk morphed their collective way through the front door.

We followed the dancers (choreographed by Abby Crain) inside, swept along by their momentum, and were deposited around the perimeter of the main reading room like dust mice by a strong breeze. On that same floor, a few hours later, choreographer Ronja Ver would be sending her supine audience into dreamland with a couple of Finnish lullabies. Before that, a bowl of liquid nitrogen would send a delicate fog creeping over its wooden surface as the spectators (temporarily wrapped in reflective emergency blankets) braced themselves for a performance by Daniel Stadulis that was part science experiment, part detailed meditation on the fragility of the body.

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The Performant: People are Strange

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Ape faces and hocus-pocuses

She was a medical marvel in an age where such marvels were not entirely uncommon. Forced into sideshows or the superficially more genteel lecture circuit, these Victorian-era human wonders were often exploited by their handlers and employers, but in an age where there were already limited possibilities for earning one’s keep, the ability to transform a physical disability into a money-making attribute was at least a more attractive proposition than starving.

For Julia Pastrana, the so-called “Nondescript,” her unusual condition — a form of hypertrichosis which covered her body in thick black hair and deformed her face — touring the world was better than staying in her home state of Sinaloa, Mexico, where she was a marginalized house servant. By all accounts, many of which are recited verbatim onstage in May van Oskan’s The Ape Woman, which played at the EXIT Theatre last weekend, she was an intellectually curious woman who spoke three languages, had a beautiful singing voice and a gracious manner, and even believed in romantic love, even though to outsiders her own marriage had the appearance of an exploitative measure on the part of her husband, Theodore Lent, who also happened to be her “manager”.

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