Passion Plays

This year’s FringeNYC is as feisty, and unfettered, as ever

If the “Guinness World Records” book had a category for the most avant-garde plays watched in a decade, surely Elena K. Holy would win the title. As the spunky, indefatigable co-founder and producing artistic director of the New York Fringe Festival, now in its ninth year, Holy has seen thousands of shows—or fragments of them, anyway.

“We got over 800 applications and accepted about 200 to be in this year’s festival,” said Holy with a sigh. “Every year the work gets stronger and the adjudication process gets more excruciating.”

Applications take many forms, from a rough outline scribbled by a student to a full-length DVD—complete with lush musical score—produced by an upstart theater company.

But how do they choose? Merit and talent are a given, as well as adding to the festival’s trademark mix of diversity. But there’s another, more elusive component.

“When we have three worthy applications on the floor of my office and can only choose one, it often comes down to passion,” explained Holy. “We favor artists who show a strong desire to do this work, to do it now, to be part of FringeNYC. It’s like the application is glowing.“

That scrappy exuberance is palpable not only to the participating Fringe artists and volunteers, but also, ultimately, to the audience.

And a fancy presentation doesn’t seem to matter, either.

“We’ve had applications that are just a storyboarded idea, and if it’s promising, we accept it,” said Holy.

In some cases, an unpolished submission may actually work in the applicant’s favor, since FringeNYC is all about making something out of nothing.

“Have you ever seen, in a little corner of your fire escape, a teaspoon of dirt and a little tiny flower thriving?” Holy said. “That’s what our logo is this year—it’s a great analogy for these artists. We make it happen, and I love being part of it.”

According to Holy, there’s even a panelist whose sole job is to uphold their twin core values of heart and spirit.

“FringeNYC is about giving that kid from Kansas who’s writing his first play a chance,” enthused Holy. “Because frankly, if not here, then where?”

When asked if the festival—with its state-of the art venues, corporate sponsors and big names—is losing its fringe, Holy acknowledged the concern, yet firmly disagreed.

“To be honest, keepin’ it real and remembering while we’re all here is our biggest challenge,” she said. “There are lots of talents who have done film, television and Broadway who want to be part of the festival because it’s so fun. But too much star power can spoil it. And if it’s not fun, I’m not going to do it anymore.”

While Holy welcomes alliance with seasoned professionals, she strives to strike a happy balance.

“Nobody wants to volunteer and be snapped at by a diva,” she said. “Our mantra has always been: They are not changing us, we are changing them.”

FringeNYC prides itself for fostering an attitude-free, almost summer camp-like environment.

“There’s such a warm, cooperative spirit among the artists, and that generates some wonderful work,” Holy said. “We attract the best of the best. People I’d want to have dinner with, regardless of the festival.”

After a measured pause, Holy added, “Thankfully, jerks are just not attracted to a lot of work for no money.”

Last year, more than 60,000 people saw a Fringe show and for many, it was their first theatrical experience. Accessibility is key, and miraculously, tickets are still just $15—about the same as the surcharge those ticket agencies tack on to already-steep Broadway prices.

As always, the slate of Fringe shows is mind-boggling, and identifying new trends can be tricky.

“It’s the year of the gay marriage play…unofficially, of course,” quipped Ron Lasko, the promotions impresario for FringeNYC since day one. “I can’t think of when we had so many plays about any one topic.”

Lasko pointed out that there are at least six shows, varying in style and format, which tackle the tinderbox issue that dominated headlines a year ago.

Holy agreed, but was quick to point out that those productions, and most of the 30-plus shows with queer content, also probe more universal themes.

“I feel like we’re past the gay theater period of our history,” said Holy. “We have many shows about a loving relationship, or about a relationship falling apart. It just happens that it’s a gay relationship.”

Here’s just a sampling of the plays with gay leanings you’ll find at FringeNYC. And be sure to check out fringenyc.com for a complete listing of shows and to purchase tickets. FringeNYC runs from August 12 to 28 at multiple venues in Lower Manhattan.

THE DAY THE WORLD WENT QUEER

This zany satire, lampooning the same-sex marriage debate, is a kind of 1950s “Reefer Madness” cautionary tale that manages to skewer and glorify gay rights at the same time. Packed with toe-tapping, sidesplitting tunes—including my personal favorite, “Nobody Wants a Daddy Who’s a Bottom.” The show is courtesy of Moral Decay Inc., hailing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

SILENCE! THE MUSICAL

If a musical about urination can be a hit, why not one about a cannibal? A twisted parody of “Silence of the Lambs,” with some established names behind it. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli (“Altar Boyz,” “Bat Boy: The Musical”), and featuring Paul Kandel (“Shockheaded Peter”) as Hannibal Lecter, Jenn Harris (“Modern Orthodox”) as Clarice, and Lisa Howard (“25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) as the victim. Did I mention a Greek chorus of singing lambs narrates the action?

SEDUCTION…

A raunchy queer take on “La Ronde,” which explores the daisy chain of love linking a hustler, sailor, handyman, student, teacher and so on. A smash-hit at the London Fringe, the show transferred to larger venues. Described by QX Magazine “as full-blooded as a randy bull on Viagra!” Look out for male nudity of the full-frontal kind. Presented by Britain’s Shamelessboyz Theatre Company.

MARLOWE

From the acclaimed Bailiwick Theatre in Chicago comes a “what-if” bio-drama about the legendary Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe. Notorious for his counter-culture ideology and being a spy for the Queen, his life was tragically snuffed at age 29 under nefarious circumstances. Directed by David Zak, the show is peppered with snippets of Marlowe’s magnificent poetry and plays.

A CERTAIN LEVEL OF COMMITMENT

Brandon Wolcott’s one-man show, which offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of an actor preparing for what may well be the performance of his life, walks the fine line between tragic and comic, theatre and reality. Touted as “The Thom Pain” of this year’s Fringe Festival. See for yourself.

DYKAPALOOZA

A one-and-a-half woman show from Jeanie Antolini that begs to ask, if not answer, such burning questions such as “At the moment of conception, did we have a choice?” If the show lives up to its clever title—and flashy Web site—it may be one of the fest’s gems.

GO-GO KITTY, GO!

A nail-biter mystery of comic proportions, this feline farce is billed as a cross between “All the President’s Men” and “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” The story investigates the aftermath of a murdered transvestite in a fictitious town called Washingtonville. Created by the talents behind the successful Off-Broadway hit, “Duet!”

FLEET WEEK: THE MUSICAL

In this “gay salute to the patriotic musicals of yesteryear,” crooning, clueless coast guard sailors are set loose in New York City, end up in a bathhouse and foil a terrorist plot to destroy the Statue of Liberty. Features Micah Busey, voted Outstanding Performer at last year’s FringeNYC. What we knew “On the Town” should have been all along.

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