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.
Things began on a high note with Jill Vice's witty and deft solo, The Tipped & the Tipsy , which brings the querulous regulars of a skid-row bar to life vividly and with real (quasi-Depression era) charm. Without set or costume changes, Vice (who developed the piece with Dave Dennison and David Ford) proves a protean physical performer, seamlessly inhabiting the oddball outcasts lined up before bartender Candy every day at Happy's — names as loaded as the clientele.
After some hilarious expert summarizing of the dos and don’ts of bar culture, a story unfolds around a battered former boxer and his avuncular relationship with Candy, who tries to cut off his bar service in fear of his deteriorating health, much to the consternation and even greater fear of his barfly associates and the self-aggrandizing sleazeball owner, Rocco. With a love of the underdog and strong writing and acting at its core, Tipsy breezes by, leaving a superlative buzz.
This was largely squandered a half hour later in Sandra Brunell Neace’s Parly Girl , an uneven and unpersuasive testimonial by a New York City waitress with a bad attitude and a traumatic back story. Neace, whose incidental characters are weakly written and delivered, is best in fleeting moments of genuine reflection. But these are few, and the piece flags early on, only to be at best partially redeemed in a hasty turnaround of a conclusion.
Service work gives way to involuntary servitude, and the horrifying reality of child sex trafficking, in writer-performer and activist Regina Y. Evans’ 52 Letters  (co-directed with Louel Senores). More than a global scourge, this is a local story, and Evans delivers it with burning compassion in a poetical voice ringing with the resiliency and freighted history of the African American spiritual. The emotional register varies little, which can weaken somewhat the force it justly means to convey. Nevertheless, Evans and her urgent message as a modern-day abolitionist leave one impressed and unsettled.
O Best Beloved  isn't about service work, but the theme still crops up in the opening story — "How the Camel Got Her Hump" — an unburdened beast (played by Sam Jackson) whose relaxed work ethic draws negative attention. It's one of three scheduled children's tales by Rudyard Kipling (adapted by actor Joan Howard and director Rebecca Longworth), delivered by a rowdy six-person cast of storytellers. This playful piece is somewhat hectic and a bit garbled (in speech that can get lost in the reverberations of the Exit's main stage). But it's colorfully worked up (in costuming and properties as well as performances) and no doubt ideal for families or those happy to revel in light insouciance and unyielding silliness.
Sean Andries and Siouxsie Q's Fish-Girl , meanwhile, has limited charm as a carny fable of doomed love between a nerdy young man (Andries, who also directed) and the freak-show beauty (Q, in sequined tail and half-shell bra) he's hooked on. Co-creator Siouxsie Q hosts "The Whorecast" podcast showcasing the voices of American sex workers, and the mermaid's plight takes on literal and metaphoric overtones of sex work. But the bland love story at the center keeps things bathtub shallow, albeit buoyed by a few decent songs belted out by poised songwriter Siouxsie Q to her own accompaniment on the ukulele — that spinet of the well-bred mermaid.
Hard on Fish-Girl's floppy heel came The Women of Tu-Na House , completing the evening's sub-sub-theme of the aquatic erotic. (For cross-referencing purposes, another bartender's tale, with fish tails too, stood out in the program but was not seen in time for review: Alexa Fitzpatrick's sushi-restaurant confessional, Serving Bait to Rich People .) Nancy Eng's solo is a smart, sassy, and blushingly frank account of the workers at an Asian massage parlor. Although Eng's characters are not always readily distinct, she marshals an unexpected angle and winning élan in bringing this worthwhile story to life.
Not every show in the Fringe need conform to a surface or sub theme. Dark Porch Theatre's StormStressLenz  brings its own thematic taxonomy with it, in director Martin Schwartz's uneven but intriguing, vivacious remixing of the work of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751–1792), the Baltic German author of the proto-Romantic, anti-rational Sturm und Drang school of literature.
Schwartz's Lenz remix comes across as an alternately cool and hyperactive investigation of the essence of melodrama, employing a fast-changing four-person ensemble (Nathan Tucker, Margery Fairchild, Ryan Hayes, Meg Hurtado) in a series of scenes shorn of their immediate context and aggregated under various section headings ("Love," "Tricks," "Sorrow," etc.) The subheads are called out by Schwartz, seated at a table to the left of the stage calmly scrutinizing the action, asking the lighting booth for the odd musical interlude (MC5 one minute, Brahms the next), and bouncing his palm lightly on a desk bell to trigger the beginning and the end of each scene. These range widely and wildly, making for a raucous but tonally patchy hour. The broadest and subtlest range of characters comes from Tucker and Fairchild, who between them suggest some of the darker elements otherwise left out of a largely comic romp. But if the show leaves one wanting more complexity and shading, its eccentric enterprise is still worth a stab, as they say.
Finally, San Francisco dancer and performance maker Cara Rose DeFabio's admirable solo strikes its own idiosyncratic tone, or rather many of them, in another intriguing investigation, this time of the online afterlife to which we are all increasingly subject — whether willingly or not. After the Tone  is a smart and provoking exploration of the intersections of grief, technology, memory, ideology, and individuality that uses DeFabio's sly narrative persona, movement, video, and audio pastiche, and interactive audience participation (via those celebrated and hated cellphones) to productively turn over a subject too close to most of us to be clearly grasped otherwise.
SAN FRANCISCO FRINGE FESTIVAL
Through Sept. 21, $12.99 or less
156 Eddy, SF