New York's annual Fringe Festival Turns the Spotlight on Independent Theater

Off-Off Broadway is the perpetual underdog of New York's arts scene, but to a non-theater aficionado, exploring the wide-spanning thespian scene beyond Broadway can easily feel intimidating—like sitting away from the hipster kids' table. Indie theater projects are seemingly everywhere, from obscure black box theaters to restaurant back rooms and neighborhood parks, but how should an unfamiliar audience member distinguish between a low-budget gem and a failed vanity project?

Each August, however, the New York International Fringe Festival brings a fresh touch of accessibility into the city's low-budget theater scene. Some 200 plays are featured at 20-something venues during a two-and a half-week span, so the festival 's presence is difficult to avoid. Although the featured musicals, traditional plays, experimental works and one-man shows naturally include some hits and misses, each has gone through an initial quality check: the lineup is selected from roughly 1,000 applications each year.

The festival's web site, www.fringenyc.org, includes descriptions and show times of each production in an alphabetical list, but if scrolling through the roster feels too daunting, various local media outlets have published abridged lists of their favorites. It should be noted, however, that whether a show gets reviewed or not is often a matter of clever PR skills (works with attention-grabbing titles like Becoming Britney and Perez Hilton Saves the Universe (or at least the greater Los Angeles area) have gotten a fair bit of coverage this year).

Below is an abridged roundup of shows recommended by critics this year:

  • The Umbrella Plays, written by Stephanie Janssen and directed by the multitalented Daniel Talbott, whose Rising Phoenix Repertory group won several Innovative Theatre Awards last year (read Theatermania's review here). Rising Phoenix's own Fringe production, an adaptation of Antigone entitled Too Much Memory, has received a stamp of approval from The New York Times.
  • Big Thick Rod, an absurdist comedy written by Stanton Wood and directed by Edward Elefterion. Theatermania's review can be found here.
  • The Complete Performer, Ted Greenberg's comedy routine. Read The New York Times review here.
  • Krapp, 39, written by Michael Laurence and directed by George Demas, incorporates theater and multimedia in a meditation on aging. Starring Michael Laurence, the show received a glowing review from The Times.
  • The Alice Complex, a dark hostage story written by Peter Barr Nickowitz and directed by Bill Oliver. The play stars Xanthe Elbrick, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her work in Coram Boy. A Village Voice review is available here.
  • I would also recommend The Disappearance of Jonah, a crisp, affecting play written by Darragh Martin and performed with a real sense of commitment by a group of young actors.
Starting August 27th, three days after The Fringe Festival wraps, The Fringe Encore Series gives an extended run to some of the festival's most successful shows. The lineup will be announced on August 25th and will be available at www.FringeNYC-EncoreSeries.com .

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