Highlights from the New York International Fringe Festival

Brazilian theater collective Yllana at play
Spanish theater collective Yllana at play

The 13th Annual New York International Fringe Festival ended yesterday, but as the theatrical dust settles, more than a few productions remain vivid in our memory. At the top of the list is Mac Rogers’ Viral, a challenging black comedy that tackles the issue of assisted suicide in the age of the internet with wit, humanity, and an understated elegance and economy of writing that is often lacking in “issue” plays. Director Jordana Williams creates a perfect rhythm for Roger’s words to unfold and the cast is excellent, particularly Amy Lynn Stewart as Meredith, who communicates many layers of her despair with a single glance. Viral just received a much-deserved extension through Fringe Encores, so snatch up tickets before they’re gone. This is one of the best plays we’ve seen in New York in a very long time, and we see a lot of plays.

We were moved in a very different way by Porn Rock, a musical by Pink Snow about her ambitions to fuse the two genres together and create an orgiastic experience. The show’s simple charms of half-naked girls and ’80s power rock brought a smile to our face, but like our favorite skin flicks, was bogged down by stale dialogue. However, if there was a Fringe award for Most Enjoyable Audience participation, Porn Rock would win hands down for mini-lap dances that connected us with the characters.

Chicago improv troupe Baby Wants Candy create their characters on the spot and then make them sing. This truly impressive group of actors and musicians whip up a new musical for each performance based on the first title an audience member shouts out. The performance we saw was plagued by a particularly bad one, “Boston College Goes to New York” — a stale title poisoned by our distaste for the Red Sox. However, to their credit, the young company was able to create an inventive and occasionally very funny story about true love thwarted by chess addicts and wild pumas. Thomas Middleditch was a particular stand out among the cast, providing some of the funniest lines as the leading man who abandons his love (the girl he just met on a double-decker bus) for the dark world of chess.

Our favorite show about the dark side, though, had no lines at all. Spanish theater collective Yllana’s 666 is an hour-long Charlie Chaplinesque exploration of the death penalty through the lives of four death row inmates. The talented cast introduces us to their characters by illustrating the crimes they committed, and we follow them through their daily routine — which includes a side-splitting urination scene. The show climaxes with a larger than life devil climbing over rows of seats at the Minetta Lane Theater, perfectly embodying the boundary-breaking adventurous spirit, that makes 666 so satisfying to watch. Unfortunately, it was not picked up by Fringe Encores, but hopefully an enterprising producer will give this show a stay of execution.

We couldn’t see nearly all the shows we wanted (as is always the case at the Fringe), and are happy to see a number of them extended as part of the Fringe Encores series including His Greatness, a new play by Daniel MacIvor (Never Swim Alone) that imagines the last days of Tennessee Williams; Mike Schlitt’s one-man show, Jesus Ride, analyzing the famed savior from the perspective of a secular, Jewish humanist; Zipperface, a musical murder mystery parody; Complete, a new linguistic comedy about the power of cults; and Notes on the Land of Earthquake and Fire, the Entourage-esque depiction of Hollywood by the writer of the 1999 film, Trick.