Gotham fest offers the best of the rest

NEW YORK –This was a Fringe without superstars.

Recent incarnations of the New York Intl. Fringe Festival have produced one or two buzz titles — think last year’s musical adaptation of “Silence of the Lambs” or “Matt and Ben” in 2002 — but this year’s fest was particularly democratic. A generous handful of shows made the must-see list; none of them had people predicting the next legit sensation.

Which is exactly the way it should be. The Fringe has been living under the shadow of “Urinetown,” whose 1998 fest appearance led to Rialto gold, and it’s almost become expected that each season will offer another smash.

“Urinetown,” however, was an anomaly, not a new rule. A season without a heavyweight champ helps sustain a spirit of experimentation, especially when the biggest hits are so different from one another.

And this year’s class was certainly diverse.

Among the favorites were “Don’t Ask,” a dark drama about gay soldiers in Iraq; “Open House,” a satire of middle-American politics; and “Flying on the Wing,” a solo performance piece whose ads promised “a vertically challenged, arthritic, hearing-impaired homosexual.”

Showcasing why the Fringe attracts so many off-kilter artists, plenty of productions were embraced without being anywhere close to professional quality.

“Walmartopia,” for instance, was a musical that thrived on spunk. The plot — in which a disgruntled Wal-Mart employee gets sucked into a future in which the company rules the world — was predictable. The acting and singing were sub-par New York audition standards, and most of the songs were forgettable.

Still, there was plenty to enjoy in the show.

For one thing, few of the Madison, Wis., cast members had Gotham credits, and their obvious joy at being here was inspiring. Writers Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn also have crafted a winning heroine in Vicki (Anna Jayne Marquardt), whose desire for a better life and a better job gets expressed through several eloquent speeches.

“Walmartopia” also succeeds as a wake-up call about America’s corporate climate. For all its zany jokes — several involving the reanimated head of Sam Walton — the tuner has something intelligent to say.

Ditto for “Rainy Days and Mondays,” a drama from emerging scribe Andrew Barrett. With graphic detail, the play confronts unpleasant truths about the drug-addled world of gay circuit parties.

Barrett shows his inexperience by letting characters explain themselves too much, but he also displays a knack for symbolism. In one scene, two men recover from a night of partying by covering their faces in mud masks. As they casually primp, a jock (Benjamin Gabriel) explains why he has sex without a condom: “I can’t get HIV twice,” he says. In an instant, the mud masks change from a joke about vanity to a sign of how these men hide the truth from themselves.

Moments like that prepare us for an elegant conclusion in which even the characters who are addicted to the circuit are given some degree of redemption. It may not be a masterpiece, but “Rainy Days and Mondays” promises excellent things from Barrett.

Laura McGhee has a future, too, judging by her savage comedy “Reservoir Bitches.” An all-female revision of Quentin Tarantino’s heist film “Reservoir Dogs,” the play spices up its pop-culture parody by mocking lazy feminism. When a cop (Virginia Roncetti) gets her ear cut off by a psychotic criminal, for instance, she still aims for a sisterly bond. Looking kindly at her torturer, she asks, “Are you pre-menopausal?”

“Bitches” may have been low-fi — there appeared to be almost no budget — but it crackled with wit all the same. “The Fartiste” was a direct contrast. Scuttlebutts praised the flatulence tuner for its sleekness, but production values didn’t provide a soul.

Recounting the true story of Joseph Pujol, a 19th-century Frenchman who found fame with his musical rear, the show consisted of two elements: fart jokes and aimless songs about European culture.

Flashy costumes and a full band couldn’t hide “The Fartiste’s” insincerity. The smug comparisons of high and low art suggested authors Charles Schulman and Michael Roberts cared less about their characters than about mocking pretensions of taste.

That kind of cynicism was out of a place in a year buoyed by sheer artistic enthusiasm and auds eager to celebrate shows with rough edges.

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