Fringe follies

Sizing up SF's eclectic theater festival
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a&eletters@sfbg.com

The San Francisco Fringe Festival is, like, 18 or something this year. That used to mean you were middle-aged in, like, the Middle Ages. But this is 2000-and-something. The multi-venue Exit Theatre–centered Fringe, lottery-based democratic mayhem at its most unsound and intriguing, appears as youthful as ever. Witness the healthy emphasis on clowns, derelicts, and deviants, the longstanding stalwarts of its revolving stage.

One of the kickoff shows Wednesday eve was LandEscape, Rowena Richie's decidedly quirky but adept, factually hefty, and not unamusing theater-dance piece based on the work of real-food advocate Michael Pollan. It's about the disastrous perversity of industrial farming and the hope in old-fashioned alternatives. But top of the 2009 crop (or at least what was glimpsed from among roughly 40 scheduled shows in the two days before print deadline) is The Godling, which marks the creepy-sexy and dependably weird return of New York's Endtimes Productions, purveyors of last year's homerun, Knuckleball. This time it's a whole new cast and crew, with writing credit for this nicely rendered — and that's a nice word for it — dark carnival descent going to Mark Borkowski, with a firm hand on the helm from artistic director Russell Dobular.

A sideshow sandwich-board advert for "The Godling" and small, scattered piles of clutter litter the stage at the outset of this horror-charmer, where soon a memorable set of disreputables take shape in the dim light. At the demented head of things is a randy carny showman and seething psychopath (a volcanic Leal Vona) sporting an altered hockey mask and straight razor. Nearby stands, sometimes on hands, his shapely assistant (Leah Dashe). On a chain is their little incubator: a thin naked waif (Candace Janee) hunched over and cupping her protruding stomach, her mess of long hair obscuring angelic features. The couple discusses the keeping of time, nervously, while taking time to mock their prize — the girl with the growing freak in her belly — and awaiting the arrival of a certain "him" who, when he does appear, turns out to be a dapper, gentlemanly torturer.

As Fringe shows go this is a veritable bear on a trike. Nicely acted too. But there's a line running from The Godling to the other playlets I happened to catch immediately prior, including Cockroach and Hell, the Musical. SF's Dark Porch Theatre offers a little fevered dream of its own, centered on the eternal return of one wandering brutalized madman-cum–shopping cart (played to a kind of operatic perfection by the ever able Nathan Tucker). Tucker, eyes wild and as prominent as two eight-balls, stirs the stage like a demon chef, as his tormentor (Alison Sacha Ross) rasps accusations and slights his way, all pointing back to a psychosexually fraught night 10 years earlier and its lingering scars mental and otherwise. Director Margery Fairchild also choreographs a trio of Cockroach dancers, three men in beige unitards moving frenetically and continually reconfiguring like blobs of mercury in solution. The nature of the incident is weird enough, and Tucker's a treat, though not always served by playwright Martin Schwartz' elevated language and furtive storyline, and a dramatic arc that doesn't quite come off despite some strong moments amid the faltering momentum.

Darkness descends again in a philosophical and even more comical key with 2006 Best of Fringe winner K.S. Haddock's Hell, the Musical, which astutely realizes that while Jean Paul Sartre cooked up the perfect image of hell in other people, he completely left out the power chords. The charismatic cast of this revamped No Exit can sing and act, and the live musical accompaniment by the Crooked Family provides the Pat Benatar-esque punch you'd expect to be leveled by and against the damned.

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