Review: The 2016 Pittsburgh Fringe | Blogh

Review: The 2016 Pittsburgh Fringe

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One show was canceled, and the central ticketing venue had to be relocated at the last minute. But overall, Pittsburgh’s first-ever fringe festival made some gains in its third year.

Michael Burgos in "The Eulogy"
  • Michael Burgos in "The Eulogy"
Pittsburgh Fringe executive director Xela Batchelder – who took over this year from fest founder Dan Stiker – says the three-day showcase drew about 720 people for 50 performances of 20 individual productions by cutting-edge performance-art acts from around the nation.

For the second year running, Fringe shows were staged in makeshift venues in the North Side’s Deutschtown neighborhood, including James Street Gastropub, Max's Allegheny Tavern and two private clubs (St. Mary’s Lyceum and the Young Men’s Republican Club).

Batchelder tells CP  that her attendance goal for this year was 800, and in fact total attendance was down from the 2015 festival (when 796 folks bought tickets). But because this year there were fewer shows, per-show attendance rose to about 14 per show (compared to 10 in each of the first two years). 

So even though the festival was unable to secure any outside funding, as it had in years past, “I think we’re going to get close to break-even,” says Batchelder.

Some of the increase in per-show attendance was probably due to moving the festival off of the Mother’s Day weekend slot it occupied its first two years; while she hadn’t broken out the numbers yet, Batchelder said that Sunday attendance seemed stronger than in the past.

Based on the three shows I saw this year, all on Saturday, the Fringe deserved much bigger crowds.

Like most fringe fests, Pittsburgh’s is uncurated; performers and troupes are selected at random from the pool of applicants. While the shows I saw in 2014 and 2015 were hit-or-miss, this year all three were excellent.

Pittsburgh’s own Brawling Bard Theater, for instance, offered a fun production called A Dream of Midsummer, writer Alan Irvine’s take on what would happen if a ragtag group of thesps who’d prepared to stage a different Shakespeare play suddenly had to work up an hour-long version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from memory and with the wrong props. The game cast “improvs” its way through the classic comedy — it's a show-within-a-show, and at one point, a show-within-a-show-within-a-show — somehow both spoofing it and illuminating its highly theatrical charms.

The most incisive show I saw was Confessions of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, by Tulsa, Okla.-based Anna Bennett. It’s a one-woman satiric tour de force, with Bennett switching between four different personas, each a young woman who’s ended up in a support group for exemplars of that newish-but-retrograde pop-culture trope. One of them has jet-black hair, wears a beret and combat boots, and sings “geek-culture versions of popular songs on the ukulele.” Another, a dancer, doesn’t speak at all. A third says, “I always had a sneaking suspicion I just might be fictional.” With video interludes (which could have used cleaner sound), some pre-recorded audio, a dance sequence, and the embittered, uke-driven anthem “Twee As Fuck,” Bennett smartly deconstructs the phenomenon created to assuage the egos of insecure dudes.

Meanwhile, the festival’s most heralded show was Michael Burgos’ The Eulogy, a one-man parody of a funeral gone wrong. The protean Virginia-based performer plays multiple characters (or are they really just manifestations of one manic speaker?) delivering a eulogy at the funeral of a guy who, by all accounts, seems to have been a querulous glutton. Burgos, who's toured this show to critical acclaim in Australia and around the U.S., has an Andy Kaufmanesque slyness and a facility for audience interaction, and the near-full house at St. Mary’s Lyceum went home happy.

Batchelder chairs the Fine Arts Department at Waynesburg University and has worked at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the forebear of the fringe fests that now exist in major cites around the world. She promises that the fest will be back in 2016, possibly with more live previews of performances to help festival-goers decide what’s their best bet.

And perhaps too with weather more amenable to festival attendance. This year, it was warm and sunny both full days – better than the previous weekend’s snow showers or last year’s 90-degree heat, for sure, but a bit off of what Batchelder says is ideal fringe weather: “a bit gloomy.” At Edinburgh, she says, “Your numbers just pop when it starts raining.”


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