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Crosstown crisis management plan

West Village move helps Fringe Fest weather blackout

NEW YORK — As New York’s seventh annual Fringe Festival went west this year, spreading from the East to the West Village, record audiences followed, weathering sweltering theaters and even a blackout in search of the next Big Thing.

Even with a day and a half lost due to the blackout, the fest sold 50,000 tickets to 200 shows, outselling last year’s record by 2,000.

The move west was a result of the increasing gentrification of the East Village and the Lower East Side, where the fest has been concentrated in years past. When the Present Co. Theater, which runs the two-week event, found many of their East Village performance spaces no longer available, they capitalized on offers from established West Village theaters.

The migration increased subway accessibility and offered more well-equipped facilities — features that proved beneficial during the Aug. 14th blackout as coordinators tried to rearrange the 131 shows affected (98 were successfully rescheduled).

“In another year, I don’t know that anyone would have noticed that the Fringe was dark for a couple days,” says artistic director Elena Holy, who attributes the quick recovery to the increased number of staff and the fest’s larger visibility.

On the morning of the blackout, Holy checked messages at a pay phone on 36th Street and retrieved calls from both the New York Times and NY1 asking when the fest would be up and running again. “It was a lot easier for us to recover because of media outlets getting the word out,” she says. “The mechanics of the festival that we had been working to improve really came through for us.”

Part of these improvements included a revamped Web site, which sold twice as many tix as the year before.

Though in previous years, the fest had served as a vehicle for casting directors, this year saw an influx of literary agents, film and television people looking for upcoming directors and writers. “We were firmly planted in the minds of producers as a breeding ground for what’s new and next,” Holy says. ” ‘Urinetown’ confirmed what we had always been saying (about it), and sealed the deal for a lot of people,” she adds, referring to the Fringe hit now playing Broadway.

Of course, the vast majority of Fringe shows are neither ready for the Great White Way nor looking to go there.

But already some of the shows that garnered the most notice are planning afterlives. The most poignant example is the musical “Lost,” which became a minor cause celebre following a Times profile of the show’s composer Jessica Grace Wing, who died of colon cancer just two weeks before it was scheduled to open. The publicity — and good notices — spurred an extension of the show. It will play at Off Broadway’s Connelly Theater Sept. 4-14.

In this case, tragedy drew eyes to something already worthy of attention. Modeled on the Hansel and Gretel story, the musical tells of two abandoned siblings trapped at a woodside compound ruled by a sorceress who mines children for their body parts. The eerie musical inhabits the territory where fairytale straddles nightmare. While Kirk Wood Bromley’s lyrics often possess a playful and edgy humor, the show’s dark undertone suggests life is full of suffering and relief is fleeting. The intricate score (delivered by a talented ensemble of four) coils its way through the action with a yearning quality met by the cast’s strong voices.

Also finding life after the Fringe is “How to Act Around Cops,” which got strong reviews and will play Sept. 5-19 at the Kraine. From the company that produced last year’s winner for best overall production, this drama grabs attention with its sardonic mood and suspenseful plot. But overall, the main characters are one-dimensional, the action unrealistic and the dialogue forced. The complexity of the plot, along with the forcibly injected humor, overshadowed any humanity.

Some other notable shows:

  • “Ponies”: Mike Batistick’s tightly constructed black comedy follows three immigrants who are regulars at a lower Manhattan betting parlor. Helmed by Brian Roff, the assistant director to Phillip Seymour Hoffman on “Our Lady of 121st Street,” “Ponies” echoes that play in its portraits of gritty characters living on the fringes of society. The casting (with the exception of the cashier, who was too polished) is ideal, and the three main actors powerfully portray the struggle of being men in a society that deems them immaterial.

  • “Tuesdays and Sundays”: This two-hander explores young love between two teenagers in 1857. In poetic dialogue, Mary and William (Medina Hahn and Daniel Arnold — also the play’s scribes) recount the story of their ultimately doomed love. The actors have a strong rapport, and the writing subtly contrasts the individual experience of love versus the shared one. Catherine Mudryk’s simple set design of 12 hanging lanterns enhances the dreamy, 19th-century mood.

  • “Cats Talk Back”: Written and directed by Bess Wohl at the Yale School of Drama, this comedy arrived in Gotham after a workshop at the Williamstown Theater Festival. The spoof featured five actors posing as former cast members of Broadway’s “Cats,” with New York Times arts reporter Jesse McKinley playing the moderator. Often amusing — as when the kids griped about “Lion King” envy — show’s main drawback was an uneven cast.

  • “Pinafore!”: This consistently witty and inventive show brought a queer eye to one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s beloved operettas. Mark Savage, the show’s ingenious director and adapter, coined smart and silly new lyrics to suit this tale of romantic shenanigans aboard a ship in the gay navy, and the cast was bright and polished. At press time, “Pinafore!” was exploring options to continue on the Gotham boards.