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KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival: a Jeff Spevak preview

Pearl - Plasticiens Volats
Plasticiens Volats
Pearl - Plasticiens Volats

It is immigration of the most-fearful order. A caravan arriving at East Main and Chestnut streets, proceeding to Parcel 5, the gravel lot off East Main Street, with loud sounds and bright lights alerting Rochester citizens – women, men, children and dogs – to turn their faces to the sky and witness weird creatures, their facial features bulging, bulky bodies darting this way and that in a threatening manner on the whim of the breeze, herded by men and women speaking a foreign language…

French. The ground-bound handlers tethered to these fantasy undersea visions, filled with helium and floating overhead, are from France. This is the work of Plasticiens Volats, a company that for four decades has paraded outdoor menageries of inflatables and booming music through the streets of Europe. This spectacle is called “Pearl: Secrets of the Sea,” and highlights the first weekend of the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival.

And for the second weekend of Fringe, again at Parcel 5? Two massive karaoke parties, and the Rochester Fringe audience’s opportunity to howl into the night to the live music of London’s Massaoke. First up, on Sept. 20, Massaoke plays hit songs drawn from the last four decades; better polish up on your “Bohemian Rhapsody” falsettos. Then on Sept. 21, the final day of Fringe, Massaoke presents… showtunes!

Opening Tuesday, September 10, Rochester Fringe will consume 31 venues over its 12 days and nights. Now in its 8th ever-expanding year after drawing 78,000 people in 2018, the festival is built on a solid foundation of college students, local musicians, comedians, actors, dancers and drag queens. And even as the Trump Administration works to close United States borders to immigrants, and last week scrambled for funds to build its wall, Rochester Fringe shall welcome foreign nationals.

Massaoke - Fringe-2018
Credit David Schiffhauer
Massaoke - Fringe-2018

The world’s contributions go far beyond Plasticiens Volats and Massaoke. The glittering Spiegeltent – architecture that comes to us from Belgium – sees the return of Matt Morgan and Heidi Bucker Morgan and their newest show, “Cirque du Fringe: D’Illusion,” a parody of magicians and Harry Potter obsessions. The Morgans live in Las Vegas, but their troupe includes TanBA, a Japanese magician whose act – we certainly hope it’s an act – features him swallowing razor blades. Other juggling, comedic acrobats with “D’Illusion” are from Ethiopia, Germany and Mexico. As the Morgans might say, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and a master of the bullwhip, and we’ll put on a show.”

That is, if the authorities allow it.

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The Fringe ambitions of Rochester’s PUSH Physical Theatre have been blunted by the United States Embassy in London, which has denied a visa for one of the troupe’s performers, Ashley Jones, an English citizen. Jones applied for a visa designated for “aliens of extraordinary ability,” says PUSH co-founder and artistic director, Darren Stevenson. Extraordinary ability in the arts apparently fits the standards defined as threatening to the United States. “They turned it down for no reason,” Stevenson says. “It just sits in a black hole.”

Stevenson, also a native of England, is now a U.S. citizen. He says Jones, as a member of PUSH’s company, can help fill a vacuum that Stevenson has observed in his two decades of living here. “When something gets cut, it’s always arts programs,” he says. “We’ve been nominally teaching art in schools. How to draw, how to dance. But not art as a way of thinking. Now we have a generation of people who don’t think that way, and we’re not doing what other nations are doing. So we’ve been trying to strengthen the company, import that talent and training from other places. So that these people fill that deficit.”

Jones’ next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18. If his visa is approved, he’ll be in the United States in time to leap into that deficit with PUSH for upcoming performances of “Dracula” in October, work on collaborations with The Ying Quartet, and to participate in a series of workshops exploring loneliness with high school students in Virginia. “There have studies showing people are missing the skills to make friends,” Stevenson says. “Instead, they get absorbed into a digital device.”

Performing as a trio, PUSH will again be a major presence at this year’s Fringe with a selection of pieces about what Stevenson calls “intimate situations,” but not necessarily sexual in nature. “What happens if you hold secrets from loved ones,” he says. And exploring masculinity, “this idea of men’s capacity for violence, and what testosterone does to your brain. A person’s war against your darker self.”

Most of the Fringe shows are curated by the venues themselves, sprawling in and around the East End District. The venues range across the downtown geography, from two on Joseph Avenue to the new UUU Art Collective on State Street, The Lyric Theatre, The Village Gate, MuCCC, Blackfriars Theatre, School of the Arts, Geva Theatre Center, the George Eastman Museum and the High Falls, where “The Memory Palace,” a podcast by Mike DiMello, presents local history through music and images; DiMello offers a longer version of this and other highlights of “The Memory Palace” on Sept. 19 and 21 at Kilbourn Hall.

Mike Birbiglia’s show on Sept. 20 continues the now-expected Fringe booking of a major comedian at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.

The Spiegelgarden, the brightly-lit nucleus of the Fringe through all 12 nights at the intersection of Gibbs and East Main streets, sees the return of favorites from past years such as Silent Disco and Dashboard Dramas, in which an audience of two sits in the back seat of a car while a tiny play unfolds in the front seat. And Abby DeVuyst and Kerry Young, the Bushwhacked duo, are back with a set of shows that includes takeoffs on the popular television reality show “British Bake Off.”

Credit Shotspeare

One foreigner always prominent on the Fringe schedule is Shakespeare. Besides their main event, Matt Morgan and Heidi Brucker Morgan also bring to the Spiegeltent a new version of “Shotspeare,” their alcohol-drenched tribute to Shakespeare; this time it’s “MacBeth” that gets toasted. Before it’s done, the Fringe will see “The Phil Shakespeare Show,” allegedly William’s cousin, with puppets. And “BardBending: Fight Club Edition,” a true greatest hits collection.

The theme of this year’s Fringe is “Leap a Little,” a challenge to the audience to push its comfort zone. Immigration’s next-door neighbor, inclusiveness, plays a big role in Fringe, offering inclusiveness in different genres of art: The Gospel Sunday at Kilbourn Hall, belly dancing, Garth Fagan Dance, Bhangra Indian dance, pumpkin painting, a showcase of deaf performers, Sinatra at the Sands, the acoustic folk of Hey Mavis, Complementary Heckling, Thomas Warfield’s “Shoe Stories: My Life With 400 Pairs of Shoes,” the Street Beat dance off, and a favorite from last year, the biography of Josephine Baker, “Josephine, a Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play.” And there is inclusiveness, as in the gender-flexing shows: “50 Shades of Gay Takes on the ’80s,” a showing of the film “My Big Gay Italian Wedding,” “God is a Scottish Drag Queen,” “Stand-Up For Drag,” and the Drag Brunch at the Spiegeltent.

“Art exists to ask questions, and not give answers,” Stevenson says. Dance, like other art forms such as music, “does not present the same danger of polarizing people the way words do. As performers we’re not trying to be propogandists. We’re not telling people what to change into, but to simply think about change.”

For a complete list of the 575 performances at Rochester Fringe, check The festival has no all-inclusive pass; tickets are available at the ticket booth in the Spiegelgarden, on line at and at each venue’s door.

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.