REVIEW I don't know if it helps to have a strategy at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. The nature of this annual animal the 17th installment opened Sept. 3 resists forethought. You study the program, listen to the buzz while getting yours on in the Exit Theatre Café, read the audience reviews online, but in the end you never know what you'll get. This year I led with my gut and it being that kind of year decided to go for all the dark stuff: the ugly, the brutal, the profane. So I started with clowns.
In truth, the choice to see physical comedy troupe Pi's After-Party on opening night had less to do with anything inherently transgressive about clowns than with the juggling, which I'd glimpsed at the Fest's Sneak Peak show last month, and which was great enough to merit a second viewing. I could watch those jugglers for hours: the courage, the concentration, the ingenuity, the balls. Also the bowling pins and knives. A glow-in-the-dark routine was nearly balletic; a bloody mishap with the blades, almost operatic if in a jocular, low-key sort of way.
As it turned out, the rest of the troupe's routines, while uneven a few bits felt either too familiar or underdeveloped offered fresh and fine moments, with antics delivered expertly by a youthful, progressively endearing ensemble. Themes touching my heart included varied use of a casket and several walk-on appearances by the Grim Reaper. The grand finale an all-out bone-crushing melee done in slow-mo could have gone all night judging by audience guffaws and my own joyful tears. These are serious clowns, and their work is extremely silly.
The evening only got better and darker as I headed into Knuckleball, a drama whose sophisticated, thematic blend of love and baseball begins, naturally enough, with a star-spangled blowjob. This excellent two-hander, produced by New York's EndTimes in association with Mortals Theater, is the best dramatic work I've seen at any Fringe. It's one uninterrupted, dynamic, wildly unpredictable conversation between Ross (Shawn Parsons) a Midwestern welder whose former glory days of high school baseball are overshadowed by the loss of his teammate and best friend and his high-class girlfriend Trish (Judy Merrick) whose polyglot, jet-set life masks a sordid past Ross must unexpectedly confront. Sounding distant echoes of Tennessee Williams and maybe Richard Greenberg, William Whitehurst's hard, unsparing, humorous, and humane play, sharply directed by Jeremy Pape, is lit up by two fine, gutsy, focused performances that grip from the first and don't let go.
Next came My Friend Hitler, rounding out the evening with swastikas and a wicked little footnote to the history of the Third Reich. Yes, with friends like these, Ernst Röhm the head of the Nazi Party's paramilitary brownshirts, executed by Hitler's minions in 1934 in the "Night of the Long Knives" purge needed no enemies. But are we meant to feel sorry for Röhm? Hardly. Are we meant to sympathize with longtime friend Adolph's tough choices? Nah. In this solo performance, inspired by Yukio Mishima's play and delivered by Washington, DC performer Zehra Fazal in Hitler drag, there's not much to latch onto beyond the (unconvincingly personalized) political machinations of a waxing tyrant. Larger themes remain indistinct in this set of one-sided conversations, which Fazal delivers with animated but histrionic conviction. Hard to believe Nazis could be so dull, but maybe there's a political lesson in that somewhere.
The following night's fare included two back-to-back solo shows by women travelers. With the sparest of stage properties and a cheery but overly static stage presence, Katherine Glover details adventures in Central America, Europe, and Africa in No Stranger Than Home.