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Jeff Spevak's look at this year's Fringe Fest

Jul 10, 2018

The full line-up of the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival was announced on Tuesday.

WXXI's arts & cultural contributor Jeff Spevak has a look at what to expect:

Massaoke
Credit rochesterfringe.com

Wedding vows, drunken Shakespeare, the dirt on Little House on the Prairie and two nights of Massaoke – mass karaoke involving a live band and thousands of singers, more or more-often less, on key. Tuesday’s Big Reveal for this year’s KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival is a cabinet of curiosities.

With a lineup built mostly through on-line applications, the fall event appears to once again offer the Fringe tradition of mixing polished work and works in progress. It’s two-way street, said Rochester Fringe Board Chairman Justin Vigdor. “A platform for artists to show their talents.” And, “to give the public an opportunity to see the artists’ talent in action.”

So that means a head-on collision when the London-based Massaoke, takes the stage on the first weekend of the Rochester Fringe. The fest’s signature event, the big free outdoor spectacle is one of about 500 performances from Sept. 12 through Sept. 22 at more than 30 venues throughout downtown Rochester.

Last year’s big outdoor event was Plasticienes Volants, the French company of fantasy inflatables that filled Parcel 5, the gravel lot off of East Main Street, with 10,000 people on each of its two nights. Producer Erica Fee led a Rochester Fringe Fest entourage last year to Edinburgh, the home of the original Festival Fringe, to see Massaoke. The Rochester contingent was so entranced, some of them went back for a second night of singing songs by Queen and The Beatles; if you’ve forgotten the words to “Hey Jude,” they’ll appear on a screen behind the band.

Now in its 7th year, the Rochester Fringe has shown startling growth. Last year an estimated 78,000 people turned out for its 10-day run. This year’s fest has added an 11th day. Those figures, as well as the number of performers, makes the Rochester Fringe one of the top two or three events of its kind in the country. And, added Rochester Chamber of Commerce CEO Bob Duffy at Tuesday morning’s press conference announcing the lineup, it’s also the largest multi-arts festival in New York state.

A handful of local acts were represented at Tuesday’s reveal, performers who “make this place rock,” Duffy said. That once again includes PUSH Physical Theatre, collaborating with the strings of The Ying Quartet on a show that… well, PUSH’s Darren Stevenson’s not exactly sure, and won’t know until it unfolds onstage. But it will be a departure from the company’s traditional structure, with students offering a concept and the company building its movements from there, rather than the other way around. An interesting challenge for The Ying Quartet, which comes from the structured classical world. “They wanted to break the mold of four musicians sitting on a stage, so we’re going to screw with that,” Stevenson said.    

Also on hand for the announcement were two members of the female comedy group EstroFest, celebrating its 20th year. And “We All Write: Birth Write” and its spoken-word performance of pride and race; Four women ranging from “café au latte to darkest midnight” who stand at “the intersection of pleasure and pain.” Mary Monroe and Tommy Gravino were there for their “World Music and Yoga Ballet,” featuring dance by Heather Roffe, Monroe playing harp and music composed by Gravino, who describes the sound as “bi-aural beats.” Music of two different frequencies, one for each ear.

And Penny Sterling, a star of the last two fests. A trans woman, Sterling has a new show, “Parents & Children, Husbands & Wives: It’s All Relatives,” in which she teams up with the married musicians Mike and Mel Muscarella of the local rock band Violet Mary, to spill family secrets.

Cirque du Fringe
Credit Erich Camping

The big comedy headliner at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, British comic Eddie Izzard, was announced last month. Tuesday’s Big Reveal at the Eastman School of Music’s Hatch Recital Hall confirmed that the parking lot at Gibbs and East Main Streets will once again be the hub of activity, anchored by the glittering hall of beveled glass, the Cristal Palace Spiegeltent. For the fourth straight year, its main tenant will be the vaudeville troupe Cirque du Fringe, presenting two new shows: “Cirque du Fringe Side Show,” a fusion of live music, physical feats and slapstick, and the Shakespeare drinking-game version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “Shotspeare.”

Also in the Spiegeltent: “Silent Disco,” in which dancers are moving to music only they can hear through their headphones, and Unleashed! Improv’s “Other People’s Shows,” in which the Rochester comedy troupe interprets other fest shows based on the descriptions in the official Fringe guide.

The accompanying Spiegelgarden will see the return of “Dashboard Dramas,” which is generally two people sitting in the back seat of a car for an intimate performance by two actors in the front seats, and the headphones-assisted films of “Pedestrian Drive-In.” In “Bushwhacked Backyard,” featuring the comedy duo of Abby DeVuyst and Kerry Young, five interactive shows are built around a bonfire, a barbecue, a hot tub, a burial and real, live weddings, assuming any couples sign on for it; DeVuyst is a paper-holding minister, so couples will be stuck with the consequences of this performance.

Also returning is the dance competition “Fringe Street Beat,” with a $1,500 prize for the winner and “Gospel Sunday” hosted by Rev. Rickey Harvey of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. Garth Fagan Dance offers its informal and personal sessions. “The 24-Hour Plays,” in which teams create and perform a play in 24 hours, returns to Writers & Books. And hot off of last year, Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Olsen on Little House on the Prairie, reprises her popular spoken-word show, “Confessions of a Prairie B!*@h.”

New to Rochester Fringe is “ArtAwake,” the annual University of Rochester free-range student art show, this year at the former Changing Scene, once the revolving restaurant atop the First Federal Plaza. Music will go from noon to midnight each day, with admission free. An intriguing new venue is The Avyarium in Village Gate, whose shows include the Tom Petty tribute band Howard and the Strangers and two Shakespeare tributes. The Little Café replies with “15 Minute Hamlet,” two performances of the notoriously long drama distilled to 15 minutes. You can’t do a Fringe fest without rummaging through the pockets of The Bard, with plenty of it over the 11 nights.

There is no Fringe without drag queens, with Big Wigs’ diva interpretations returning to Blackfriars Theatre and “Truly Divine,” the story of the infamous film star at School of the Arts. For more gender-driven theater, try the sex-change disaster of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at Lyric Theatre.

Jeff Spevak
Credit WXXI News

Mining their own minds at the Multi-use Community Culture Center is “The Pillow Book of John W. Borek” and “Dream Lab: Fascinating Transition,” in which Jan Feldman reads from the dreams she has chronicled since 1999. Roots-music offerings include “Echoes of Africa” dance at Central Library and “Holding on Through Song: A Celebration of the Africa-American Spiritual” at Lyric Theatre. The University of Rochester’s Institute For Popular Music and students, faculty and alumni from the Eastman School of Music presenting two classic rock albums on Sept. 14 in Kilbourn Hall, Yes’ The Yes Album and Led Zeppelin’s IV.       

A complete schedule and tickets for individual events are available now at rochesterfringe.com. Some events, such as “Dashboard Dramas,” sell out very quickly. Couples interested in getting married at “Backyard Betrothal,” and teams looking to sign up for “Street Beat,” can sign up at the web site.     

Jeff Spevak is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.

Check out more info about the Fringe Fest reveal here