2005_08_arts_fringelogo Somehow the Fringe Festival is over, though we’re not quite sure how so many shows could have flown by so quickly. Gothamist isn’t quite done with it yet, though – we still have a couple of reviews from the final weekend, plus some musings on the festival as a whole and how it’s looking at the advanced age of nine (keep reading after the jump). And before we launch into that, let’s give a hearty yowp of congratulations to the winners of the 14 industry-judged awards (the whole list is here; we still haven’t heard about the results of the audience ballot). Gothamist was pleased to see that Movie Geek got the “outstanding multimedia” prize and that God’s Waiting Room was one of three winners in the play category, along with The Lightning Field and Go-Go Kitty, Go!, which we didn’t think quite so worthy. We also rolled our eyes at the inclusion of Fluffy Bunnies in the outstanding ensemble award group, but felt justified in our praise of Jesus in Montana and The Miss Education of Jenna Bush, for which Barry Smith and Melissa Rauch respectively took honors (with two other shows) in the outstanding solo category. Finally (well, there are more awards, but go to the list already if you’re interested) after their loads of hype, Silence! and Fleet Week predictably got the musical honors. Gothamist isn’t in the know enough to have heard about extensions that might be forthcoming, but it’s pretty safe to say that if you didn’t make it to one of these top shows during the festival, you’ll be able to at some point in the near future, or at least some variation on them.

2005_08_arts_manatee.jpg There were a couple of shows that didn’t win any awards but that we were glad we caught on the last weekend, namely Manatee and Ratface. Though these probably won’t be extending, Gothamist thought there was definitely a lot of talent, both in the acting and writing, and we hope to see the people involved turn up in other productions soon. About the shows: first, in Alex Moggridge’s Manatee, two guys explore the limits of sanity and snacks in an interesting, often jolting fashion. The play apparently took its inspiration from Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel Hunger, though the mass-produced goodness of Ho-Hos and Ding Dongs also must have played a part in the development. The first few scenes are brief and striking views of the actors (Tate Ellington as Ray and Karl Herlinger as Terrence) killing time in a sparely furnished space; then they begin asking each other the questions the audience wants to know, such as who are they, where are they, and what is going on? Neither gives an answer, although Terrence is generally the knowing leader to Ray’s blissed-out innocent. What linear plot there is begins with and revolves around a bag of snack cakes that appears out of nowhere, and the consequences of the quick depletion of its contents. The play might have made more sense if Gothamist had actually read Hunger, but nonetheless we could enjoy the spirited acting and the stark existentialism that unfailingly grabbed us throughout, even when things were getting a tad goofy and overdone.

Speaking of goofy and overdone, John Snodgrass’s short play Ratface is both of those at many points, but it’s also very fun and engaging. Charlie (Bill Fischer) is a loser senior in high school who can’t even get killing himself right – the play opens as he awakes from a coma induced by aspirin overdose and is visited by a trio who wish he would have another go at the job. His friend Jesse (played improbably, impressively well by Cass Buggé) is embarrassed to be associated with him and wants his girlfriend; his mom (Emily Schweitz), has the voice of Glinda the Good Witch but an ice cube for a heart when it comes to her son; and the evil Doctor (Foss Curtis) is conducting “very delicate surgery,” which turns out to be shorthand for his project of building himself a Franken-wife, who will be complete once he can get his hands on a pair of lungs (that is, Charlie’s). In the face of all this pressure to off himself, Charlie (dubbed Ratface by the doctor in a fit of pique) decides he actually wants to live. It’s not the most gripping plot, but there are lots of smart lines and laugh-out-loud moments. Also important was its brevity – too many playwrights don’t acknowledge when their idea has run its course, but Snodgrass lets the joke here go on only as far as it can on its own steam, and the result is an audience that leaves happy, conscious of having been well entertained. (Mallory Jensen)

Finally, on to the musings about the Fringe’s overall success this year. Gothamist must admit: we're pretty happy with our experience at this one. Out of all the shows we saw, we can honestly say that only two absolutely sucked, while we would be very happy to see several others continue their lives in other runs elsewhere. Plus, we missed several shows we heard were great but just couldn't get to. So from a programming perspective, the Fringe looks like it's making progress. Most of the venues are better (with at least some form of air conditioning) as well, although our experience at Ace of Clubs was particularly horrendous. Still, we were a bit surprised at what still seem to be lacking in a nine-year-old festival. Granted, the vast majority of the Fringe staff works on a volunteer basis, and for a bunch of people who do this for no reason other than the love of theatre, they do a great job. But why is so much of the audience's theatergoing experience at Fringe shows so damn sloppy?

For instance, at nearly every venue, picking-up will call tickets often proved to be an adventure; you couldn't get them until 15 minutes before, you had to go find somebody walking the line handing them out. What's wrong with a window or a table? It wasn't even a consistent occurrence. The big Lucille Lortel and the small Collective: Unconscious both managed to handle Will Call relatively well with a makeshift box office location. So did The Mazer Theater. But at others (most notably The Players Theatre and SoHo Playhouse), it was a confusing and mildly annoying experience. We're also not sure why the Fringe can't handle Will Call issues like other festivals do: namely you pick-up all your tickets at your first performance. Then you don't have to get them before each individual show. Or at least you pick-up all the tickets made from any one purchase at the first show of that group. It's just something that would save time for both the organizers and the attendees.

Gothamist was also quite surprised at the constant plea for volunteers before each and every show we saw leading up to the final weekend. Why does a festival of this age with this level of attendance need to be recruiting volunteers throughout? The deal they offer is a good one -- you work a show, you see a show for free. Is there not enough advance planning or promotion going on? Do they not get repeat volunteers from year-to-year, and if so, why not? Are volunteers not having a good experience?

The Audience Award balloting baffled us a bit as well. At every show, inside the program, is a slip of paper giving you the chance to vote for this show to win the Audience Award. But how is that fair? A show in a 60 seat house that sells out 5 performances and has everyone vote for it still wouldn't beat a show in a 300 seat house with 5 shows and only 1/3 of its audience voting. Besides, most people don't see everything and can't compare. Most festivals have audiences rank what they saw on a scale of 1-5 (or similar), and then based on the size of audience and number of voters, a weighted average is tallied. But the Fringe doesn't provide its audience with a way to rate the shows: simply to vote for one or not.

The easiest excuse to give the Fringe is that this is a festival celebrating low-budget to no-budget downtown Off-Off Broadway (maybe one could even add a third "off" if there was such a thing) theatre, and therefore things are going to be a little messy. To a degree, especially in regards to the sophistication of the productions, that's a valid point. But for a festival which has been running this long, it makes no sense that organizationally things can't run a little smoother. There could be better simple signage at the venues. There could be easier ways to identify who was actually working at a theatre (since usually only one person seemed to be wearing a badge even as several were erforming tasks). Every venue had its own share of issues -- The Players Theatre shares an already-crowded sidewalk with at least two comedy clubs, making lines difficult -- but some overcame them quite well. What’s most upsetting, perhaps, is that none of the Fringe's problems are particularly new.

All in all, Gothamist would have to give the Fringe a solid B- this year. It's good that the festival continues to grow and improve; here's just hoping that it manages to find its way off the short bus. With just a little tutoring, who knows, by the time of its Bar Mitzvah, if not sooner, maybe it can make the jump from the special to the gifted class. (Aaron Dobbs)