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Fringe Festival: Day One - Jeff Spevak has a preview

Sep 12, 2018

Fringe Festival: Day One

An acrobat dangles from a hammock suspended from the ceiling of the Spiegeltent at last year's KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival.
Credit Erich Camping

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the grammatically casual philosophy as the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival opens Wednesday.

All of the familiar yet wonky pieces will be in place, starting with the glittering Spiegeltent and surrounding Spiegelgarden at the intersection of Gibbs and E. Main streets. There, you’ll see the row of parked cars serving as mini theaters for Dashboard Dramas V. The eerie blue glow of the Immersive Igloo. The Pedestrian Drive-In with Wednesday’s free showing of the blockbuster film Black Panther.

From there, and over the next 11 days, Rochester Fringe will spill down Gibbs Street, following the siren smell of food trucks, spreading throughout downtown Rochester. To Parcel 5, the empty lot on E. Main Street where thousands of people are expected for the weekend’s Massaoke, a mass karaoke accompanied by a live band. To Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, for the gender-bending sartorials and satire of British comedian Eddie Izzard.

And on to the rest of the venues, 23 in all, large and small. They’ll present the nationally recognized Rochester ensembles of Garth Fagan Dance as well as PUSH Physical Theater collaborating with the strings of The Ying Quartet, weekend music on the closed-off Gibbs Street, musicals ranging from Josephine Baker to the unfortunate sex-change of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, drag queens, a former college president singing folk songs, the behind-the-scenes confessions of Little House on the Prairie star Alison Arngrum, widespread Shakespeare blasphemies and comedy. Comedy, comedy, comedy. Including the 20th anniversary of Rochester’s all-women ensemble, EstroFest.         

Everything’s in place, says festival producer Erica Fee, although she hesitates a bit to make that statement with a certainty that might – as she quotes Bridget Jones – doom the event to “fall spectacularly apart.”

“Our ticket sales are up over last year, over all of the years, really,” Fee says. “There’s a pre-fest excitement that’s translating into high sales at the venues.”

Now in its 7th year, the Rochester Fringe has shown startling growth. Last year an estimated 78,000 people turned out for its 10-day run. With the addition of an 11th day those figures, as well as the number of performers, makes the Rochester Fringe one of the top two or three events of its kind in the country.

Wednesday’s opening night sees globetrotting vaudevillians Matt Morgan and Heidi Brucker Morgan return at 7:30 p.m. to the Spiegeltent for the fourth straight year; This time it’s “Cirque du Fringe Sideshow,” yet another chapter in the couple’s exploration of human feats of strength, juggling of unwieldly objects, live music and general clowning around in a cabaret atmosphere. This year’s show features a hair-hang aerialist and music created from found objects. The Spiegeltent plays host to “Cirque du Fringe Sideshow” every night of the 11-day festival – plus family-acceptable matinees on Sept. 15 and Sept. 22 – with each of the ensemble’s Spiegeltent performances in past years generally a sell-out.

Abby DeVuyst (L), and Kerry Young
Credit Madi Murphy

Lurking in the Spiegelgarden is the Bushwhacked duo of Abby DeVuyst and Kerry Young, who have been your Rochester Fringe leaders in interactive comedy for five years. “Abby and I, we work really well together,” Young said on Monday, as she was working on props and costumes for Wednesday’s opening. “Our brains are similar enough, but still different enough, that we can bounce ideas around and come up with something.”

The concept of the backyard came to Bushwhacked, Young says, after a visit to the mother of all fringe festivals, Edinburgh Fringe, and an evening when they saw people sitting in front of campfires: How about a theme of things you can do in your backyard?

So Wednesday night, we’ll witness the debut of two of the five Bushwhacked Backyard shows DeVust and Young have created for festival. All are very intimate, with the two opening-night shows sold out for the entire Rochester Fringe run: “Backyard Bonfire,” with stories and s’mores, followed by “Backyard Bathtub,” where DeVuyst and Young will entertain four guests in a hot tub.

Before the festival is over, Bushwhacked will present “Backyard BBQ,” “Backyard Betrothal” and “Backyard Burial.” And yes, there is humor to be found in a funeral, Young says. “For Abby and I, it’s not all that difficult, we do tend to have a dark sense of humor,” she says, characterizing “Backyard Burial” as an Irish wake, “as far as two non-Irish people can muster.” They’ll be joined by an audience offering tributes to a fictional guest of honor, although, “It might be mine, by the end of the festival,” Fee says.

“We’re not looking to make fun of, or humiliate people, or disparage,” Young says, “unless they’re worthy of disparagement.”

With “Backyard Betrothel,” DeVuyst and Young were hoping to land couples willing to be married by DeVuyst; she is an officiant, and has married one couple in the past. But no marriage-minded couples emerged, so DeVuyst and Young have settled for three couples renewing their vows.

Also Wednesday in the Spiegelgarden, Dashboard Dramas V, with an audience of two sitting in the back seat of a parked car as two actors show going on in the front seats, is already sold out for its entire Rochester Fringe run. At 9 p.m., the Immersive Igloo, a 40-foot wide dome, presents its soul-cleansing, 360-degree experience of soundscapes and light, created by former Rochesterian Tom Montagliano, now living in Brooklyn.   

Deeper into the 11-day schedule, the Spiegeltent will once again play host to the popular Silent Disco, with headphone-wearing dancers moving to beats only they can hear. Unleashed! Improv – DeVuys and Young are a part of that crew as well – brings on “Other People’s Shows,” in which the improvisational troupe interprets other fest shows based on the descriptions in the official Rochester Fringe guide. And the Morgans offer a second show, a drinking game based on Shakespeare, “Shotspeare.”

Silent Disco
Credit John Schlia

Shakespeare is omnipresent at Fringe festivals, although the contemporary updates do not always line up with the Bard’s original vision. In “Bardbending: A Same-Sex Shakespeare Sampler,” Rochester’s WallByrd Theatre Company Co. injects familiar Shakespeare comedies and tragedies with pop culture and revelatory gender swapping. That’s at The Avyarium, Suite 242 in The Village Gate, 274 N. Goodman St.

And at the MuCCC, the Multi-use Community Cultural Center at 142 Atlantic Ave., The Shakespeare Company of Greater Rochester presents “The Phil Shakespeare Show.” Phil, William Shakespeare’s cousin, will be presenting an introduction to Elizabethan theater with the help of puppets, songs and games, heavy on the audience participation. Yes, you have correctly surmised that, if Phil Shakespeare is indeed William Shakespeare’s cousin, he would be about 400 years old. Suspension of disbelief, or poor math skills, are key to any fringe festival.

New to Rochester Fringe is “ArtAwake,” the annual University of Rochester free-range student art show, this year at the former Changing Scene, once the revolving restaurant atop the First Federal Plaza. Music will go from noon to midnight each day, with admission free. The Avyarium in Village Gate is an intriguing new venue whose shows include the Tom Petty tribute band Howard and the Strangers and two Shakespeare tributes. The Little Café replies with “15 Minute Hamlet,” two performances of the notoriously long drama distilled to 15 minutes.

Tickets for Rochester Fringe events are available at rochesterfringe.com, (585) 957-9837, at the box office at the corner of East Main and Gibbs Streets, and at all venues where the event has not already sold out. Tickets to Izzard’s show are also available at (585) 274-3000. For a complete schedule, check rochesterfringe.com.

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI and Rochester-based writer, will be reporting on the Fringe Festival daily at wxxinews.org. His web site is jeffspevak.com.