Something for Everyone, Even Cannibals, at the Philadelphia Fringe

There is a strange kind of hunger that can overtake you at a fringe festival: so much to devour and so little time to devour it. New York has been starved of a fringe since 2019, a loss even though the fringe that we had struggled to define itself. But an hour and a half away, the Philadelphia Fringe has endured. Originally a showier event, with a goal of attracting established, out-of-town stars, it has since refocused on local artists.

During a recent weekend at the festival, which runs through Sunday, I swallowed an entirely reasonable number of shows, each of which felt appropriately fringe-y, flowing comfortably beyond the mainstream. Built for small, temporary stages, these shows validate fringe festivals as places of experiment, milieus to test and explore. Of the four that I saw, three were about appetite and the mess that appetite can make. And the last was less about hunger than it was about feeding its spectators, creating a nurturing, restful space for all.

“Citrus Andronicus” is classic fringe — a cute idea, overstretched. A collision of toy theater, object theater and Elizabethan drama, it restages “Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare’s bloodiest play (which is saying something), using much of the produce section. In a space bedecked in a worrying amount of plastic sheeting, a college professor (Madeleine Claire Garcia) attempts to give a lecture entitled “Blistering Viscera: Revenge, Violent Tribalism, and the Subjugation of the Feminine in ‘Titus Andronicus’.” But she is repeatedly interrupted by two porters (Eli Lynn and Peter Smith), who are delivering boxes of fruit for the conference’s banquet. The professor can’t shush them, so she recruits them, replacing her lecture with a high-potassium plot summary. Many bananas are sacrificed.

I’m enough of a weirdo that I might have preferred the original lecture. While the clowning, under the direction of Charlotte Northeast, is nimble, there are ultimately only so many things a person can legally do with a tangerine. Eventually, the professor also becomes infected by the pulpy, pithy madness, emphasizing how the desire for revenge, for violence, can poison us all. A few further ideas are introduced (the lights blink whenever the name of Aaron, one of Shakespeare’s rare Black characters, is spoken), but ultimately unexplored.

Courtney Henry in “Rhythm Bath,” a performance installation designed for both neurotypical and neurodiverse audiences.Credit…Wide Eyed Studios

“Citrus Andronicus” is presented by the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, which has a mandate to make classical work more accessible. But bold, bloody “Titus” isn’t especially difficult and the goofy idea, however playfully executed, can’t sustain a full-length show. But what riches for the compost bin!

Riches also animate “Make Bank,” a site-specific performance at Manufacturers’ National Bank. Audience members use an item plucked from a junk drawer to gain entry to the space, and that item can then be bartered for shells, corn husks, trinkets and yard sale detritus. A Mesopotamian spice bazaar is set up in one corner, a Dutch tulip market in another; a disembodied teller appears in a dark room; and a Meso-American deity resides next to the vault. Divided into groups, attendees assemble the items they have collected — by barter, gift or theft — into totemic sculptures while burlesque performers populate the space. One is (under)dressed as a Dutch maiden with windmill pasties, the other as a cow, presumably a cash cow. There is also a singalong to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”

If “Citrus Andronicus” suffers from too few ideas, “Make Bank,” directed by Terry Guerin, produced by Meg Saligman and devised by Dylan Smythe and Lillian Mae Ransijn, has perhaps too many, though these also entail themes of greed and waste. The atmosphere, however unfocused, is one of excess. Expect to be showered in paper money. The money is fake. The sense of abundance is real.

So ostensibly are the facts of the effusive, floral “Rose: You Are Who You Eat.” John Jarboe, who uses she/her pronouns, begins this autobiographical solo show by gnawing fried chicken from a bucket. Then she confesses to a murder. Apparently, she absorbed a twin in utero, a phenomenon known as vanishing twin syndrome. But that twin, who would have been named Rose had she lived, didn’t really vanish. This piece, which Jarboe describes as a “support group for gender cannibals,” is a reckoning with identity and queerness.

Jarboe has long believed that she ate Rose, but as she sings toward the end of the show, it “Turns out Rose ate me.”

Produced by the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, with Emily Schreiner, as part of a rolling world premiere, and directed by MK Tuomanen, “Rose” is still in bud. A show about gender cannibals, adorned by tender, frisky music composed and performed by Emily Bate, Daniel de Jesús, Pax Ressler, Be Steadwell and Jarboe seems original enough. And Jarboe is an appealing performer. But as she acknowledges, the coming-out story is already a cliché. While certain moments are wholly unique, like Jarboe’s repurposing of a hockey jersey as a ball gown, others borrow overtly from artists like John Cameron Mitchell and Taylor Mac. The show seems to end twice before it actually concludes with a call-and-response section, which is then followed by a medley of covers: “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Kiss From a Rose.” Some love, some pruning, and “Rose” should bloom.

After so much fruit, money and flowers, so much wanting, so much appetite, it was restful to retreat into “Rhythm Bath.” A performance installation created by the choreographer Susan Marshall and the set designer Mimi Lien in conjunction with Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities, the dance piece is staged on an upper floor of Christ Church Neighborhood House. The ceiling is covered in white parachute fabric, which breathes in and out. Through holes in the fabric, glimpses of feathery, cobweb-like material can be seen, some of it lit with fiber optic filaments.

The afternoon show I attended was a relaxed performance, as are all of their performances, designed for both neurotypical and neurodiverse audiences. The seating was flexible, the lighting (Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew) subdued and the sound (Dan Trueman and Jason Treuting, who also composed the music) kept to a reasonable volume. Spectators who found it too much could retreat to a darker room with a giant bean bag. That afternoon, as 10 dancers performed elegant versions of pedestrian movement — walking, standing, leaning — I saw two young women in the audience stand up and join in. Another spectator faced the wall. A fourth watched while wearing headphones and dark glasses. All seemed to be enjoying themselves.

In contrast with the excesses of the other shows, this performance was simple, even restrained. The mood was meditative. It was, in its quiet way, the most nourishing thing I saw.

Philadelphia Fringe

Through Sept. 24 at sites around the city;

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