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San Diego International Fringe Festival Turns Five

San Diego International Fringe Festival Turns Five

By Rebecca Romani

For five years old, the San Diego International Fringe Festival (SD Fringe) is looking pretty fabulous. And from what we have seen, the SD Fringe is ready for the grown-ups’ table.

Back in 2013, when it was a little bitty, slightly scruffy show riding the wake of its parent show, the Edinburgh Fringe, the SD Fringe barely had 52 acts and things could get a little wild and wooly. Fast forward four years and the SD Fringe has picked up more than 80 acts and doubled its attendance to over 60,000 people

The SD Fringe has also expanded venues as well. This year, Fringe shows are popping up from the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park to Seaport Village to the art spaces in and around Horton Plaza.

In addition, the SD Fringe has the unusual distinction of being the only Fringe Festival out of over 200 worldwide with an international component, the Bi-national Fringe. This capitalizes on the fact that the San Diego-Tijuana region is intimately connected by culture, geography, and tourism.  This year, the venues were the CECUT or the Tijuana Cultural Center, and the rising cultural hub, the Pasaje Rodriguez on Avenida de la Revolucion, now home to performance venues, art studios, craft beer, and cutting edge artists.

This year’s SD Fringe features a surprisingly engaging mix of entertainment and socially conscious work.  The breadth of the work is impressive as well, running from aerial acts to moving one-person shows to challenging ensemble work.

This year, some of the best aerial work comes from three local groups with very strong stage presence. Astreus Aerial Dance Theatre performs “Echoes of Gallows Hill,” the story of six women accused of witchcraft in Salem to explore women’s power or lack of it in society. All six dancers were elegant in their movements both on stage and on the beautifully laid out long cords and heavy ribbons suspended from the top of the stage. At first, the choreography was a bit staid, lots of posing and ballet-like arm sweeps, but as the allegory became meatier- women accused of witchcraft and removed one by one, the work on the suspension lines became denser, more complicated, and eerily beautiful.

Lighthouse Circus Theatre has come a long way from their 2016 performance which won an award last year, but which is paler in comparison to this year’s strong showing. Dedicated to issues of mental illness, the urban style choreography and work on various forms such as a metal cube was intense, boldly executed, and beyond the usual seen in San Diego.

By far one of the most interesting circus groups in this year’s Fringe is Circus Collective and their Specific Gravity show. Past shows have been nice, if not terribly groundbreaking. This year, however, Circus Collective has brought their A game and then some. The Collective looks to the world for its inspiration and finds intense meaning in the issue of displaced persons, making the connection that San Diego hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Using dance, well-chosen imagery, aerials, spoken word, and poetry, Specific Gravity presents a dynamic look at displacement using personal stories (spoken word about Venezuela), statistics, and allegorical segments that brought some of the audience to tears.

One a lighter note, two circus based acts have become audience favorites and could be something you could bring children to.

The ever clever A Little Bit Off duo from Portland has thrilled SD Fringe for three years and this year’s offering does not disappoint. “Beau and Aero: Crash Landing” brings back their charming physical comedy. Part Charlie Chaplin, part madcap acrobatics, this year’s story follows two not so airborne aviators who crash land and use whatever they can, balloons, slapstick, you name it, to try to get aloft.

Again, following an aviator theme,  “Flight,” coming in from Long Beach, is a great show for adults and kids alike. Curbside reimagines part of “The Little Prince” as a little princess who encounters a stranded aviator in the desert and asks for stories and tells them in return, starring a clever assortment of talking cacti, waves, and magical islands.  Most magical is how the three performers move effortlessly between the narrator and other characters, like an enchanting children’s book.

If you’re looking for fabulous singing voices, the SD Fringe has you well covered this year. Yvonne Gentile has an amazing, versatile voice that she puts to good use in her concept album inspired spoken word and song show, “Searchin’ for the Write.”  The show is still a bit raw- there were issues with the backup band’s equipment and you could barely hear the second singer- with a good voice in her own right.  However, Gentile’s spoken word and voice were compelling, making this a not to miss.

Love Sondheim, dream of zombies? Apparently, you’re not alone. The clever mash-up crew, Turning Tydes is back, this time with “Into The Walker Woods,” a mash- up of “The Walking Dead” and “Into The Woods.” Again, stunning voices- although sometimes overwhelmed by the accompanist. It’s a fun piece, especially if you are into “The Walking Dead.” An audience favorite, you’ll hear things better if you sit in the middle section.  However, if you’re not so into TWD, wait for their “The Phantom of the Empire” at the Geoffrey during Comicon this year. You’ll never think of Luke and Leia the same way again.

What would SD Fringe be without theatrical performances? This year has its share of the amazing and the good.  “Eleanor’s Story” about American Eleanor Ramrath Garner’s youth trapped in WWII Berlin is back in a new and compelling form. Her granddaughter, Ingrid Garner is in turns charming, in despair, and mesmerizing as Eleanor and the various members of her family as she tells the tale of an initially pleasant life that descends into the chaos of Nazi rule and the horrors of Russian liberation to rise triumphant survivor.

Life is never quite what it should be, no matter how hard you try to control it. “Please Take A Seat,” explores the pleasures and perils of living life in all its glorious messiness as played out in a waiting room.  The cast is uniformly excellent, keeping the audience on their toes as characters’ stories unexpectedly intersect.

Mental Health takes center stage with the brilliant and moving “Untold.” Great for audiences 13 and up, the show is based on interviews with therapists, PTSD sufferers, addicts, and others. Simply staged, the show is a powerful, brilliant, and ultimately affirming frank look at mental health issues.

Another stunning ensemble piece is “Lunch,” from South Africa. Unbelievably energetic, it’s a look at the working class in South Africa that few ever see, lost in the belief that everything improved immensely after Nelson Mandela was freed and Apartheid ended. Samkelo Nkabi and Sizwe Mcaka play two municipal workers and other characters who discuss lives encumbered by poverty and lack of social advancement. Not always easy to follow; nevertheless, “Lunch” is a thrilling piece of activist theatre, made all the more interesting by its window into social reality in a country few of us will ever see.

“Will” is one of the local high school productions, straight out of Canyon Crest Academy. It’s an ambitious, slightly uneven script well-memorized and signifying something about the life of William Shakespeare. Unfortunately, it is also hampered by poor sightlines, uneven enunciation and costuming that doesn’t even come close to the proper century. If you have time to go to the Centro in Balboa Park, do drop by because it’s obvious they worked very hard on this.

Next door to the Centro is “Swipe,” on stage at the Worldbeat Center. Funny, irreverent, a little risqué, it’s about that brave new world out there of on-line dating. Will they or won’t they find their match? “Swipe” to find out!

One person shows are a staple of Fringe fare and several stand out.  Homelessness takes center stage in Renée Westbrook’s “Shelter,” which follows an educated middle-aged woman as she travels Los Angeles’ Pico Boulevard looking for a place to stay. Westbrook seamlessly transitions through a number of characters, laying bare what being Black, Lesbian, and Homeless can look like.

Pursuing the personal narrative that has anchored much of his body of work. Emil Guillermo’s show, “Amok Monologues: A History of an American Filipino” had audiences enthralled as he told the story of his transition from the son of a Filipino-American immigrant in San Francisco to a distinct voice on NPR to report and blogger. Guillermo was sharp, focused, and bitingly funny even as he laid bare some of the issues that come with being Filipino (“the invisible people”) in the US.

The SD Fringe is far from done. There are three days more of crazy, amazing, thrilling, exciting, and wonderful work coming your way. 

The SD Fringe continues until Sunday, July 2. See http://sdfringe.org for times and details. Tickets are $10, with a one-time purchase of a Fringe tag. All tickets sales go to the artists.

Vanguard Culture

Vanguard Culture is an online media entity designed for culturally savvy, socially conscious individuals. We provide original interviews and reviews of the people, places, and events that make up San Diego’s thriving arts and culture community, as well as curated snapshots of the week’s best, most inspiring and unique cultural and culinary events. We believe in making a difference in the world, supporting San Diego’s vibrant visual and performing arts community and bringing awareness to important social and community causes.