The New York International Fringe Festival ,FringeNYC, bills itself as the largest theater festival in North America, with more than 200 companies performing for 16 days in more than 20 venues. How to choose what to see?

fringenyc-2009-posterI have attended the fringe festival from the very first one 12 years ago – a highlight: a play in a car parked on a Lower East Side curb, with an audience of two-at-a-time – and have had something to say about the festival almost every year since – I reviewed in the New York Times three different plays (!) about women serial killers; I interviewed for Time Out New York Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, the authors and stars of “Matt & Ben,” the hilarious sci-fi explanation of how Matt Damon and Ben Afleck came to write “Good Will Hunting”; I saw “Confessions of a Mormon Boy” and was as shocked as the rest of the crowd when Steven Fales – gay ex-Mormon ex-hustler — took off his toupee. And I saw “Urinetown, the musical”, about a repressive regime whose citizens have to pay to pee, but only when it moved to Broadway; it is the biggest hit to come out of the New York Fringe Festival (though what they don’t tell you is that much of the cast was replaced for the Tony-winning Broadway production). Other hit shows that started at the Fringe: “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead,” “Debbie Does Dallas”, (a spoof of an actual porno movie), “21 Dog Years: Doing Time @” by Mike Daisey who has since become a celebrity on the storyteller circuit.

So now, having established my credentials or at least impressively name-dropped, I can say that, before each Fringe festival, I have idea what will be good.

Here are the awards given on the last day of the 13th Annual New York International Fringe Festival:

Outstanding Play:
Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party
Devil Boys From Beyond

Outstanding Musical:
Mom – A Rock Concert Musical
Citizen Ruth

Outstanding Solo Show:
Art’s Heart
The Event
The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer
Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through MIT’s Male Math Maze
Jesus Ride
The Songs of Robert

Outstanding Unique Theatrical Event:
Baby Wants Candy

Outstanding Playwrighting:
Jason Schafer – Notes on the Land of Earthquake & Fire
Laura Schellhardt – The K of D
Mary Adkins – The 49 Project

Outstanding Direction:
Ben West – How Now, Dow Jones
Patrick McNulty- Harold Pinter Pair
Jeremy Dobrish – Dancing with Abandon
Bill Oliver – A History of Cobbling

Outstanding Costume Design:
Lisa Zinni – A Contemporary American’s Guide to a Successful Marriage
Luke Brown – The Doctor and the Devils

Outstanding Actor:
Alyson Weaver – La Ronde
Autumn Hurlbert – A Contemporary American’s Guide to a Successful Marriage
Ethan Downing – Confirmation
Colin DePaula – Mutti’s After Supper Stories
Ken Barnett – La Ronde

Outstanding Ensemble:
Two on the Aisle, Three in the Van
Ether Steeds
Bargains and Blood (How To Succeed in Home Shopping!)

Outstanding Set Design:
Szu-Feng Chen – The Alchemist of Light

Outstanding Choreography:
Jody Oberfelder – 38 Witnessed Her Death, I Witnessed Her Love: The Lonely Secret of Mary Ann Zielonko (Kitty Genovese Story)
Patricia Norwol – Circuits

fringepiefacetheadventuresofanitabryantiMuch of what attending FringeNYC means, though, is finding the shows that you’ll enjoy, or at least consider watchable, on your own. There are many ways to do this. One way is to look at the Culture Mob listings. Generally speaking, producers who care enough and are savvy enough to promote their work have work worth promoting. You might notice from previous hits that the savviest fringers tend to come up with the catchiest titles. So check out the list for example for Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant or Bargains & Blood (How to Succeed in Home Shopping), which is described as “a trailer park tragi-comedy”. fringebargainsandbloodiWarning: These do not get the Jonathan Mandell Seal of Approval and I will NOT be returning your $15 if they are duds. However, the author of “Bargains & Blood”, Blair Fell, is a recognizable name who wrote the stage serial “Burning Habits” and an award-winning episode of “Queer As Folk”.

fringeharoldpinterpairiThis is another way to select a show, if you’ve seen something else by the same author or company. There’s this guy named, um, Harold Pinter who is having two of his plays produced at the fringe festival (something of a departure for the fringe to show the works of an established playwright). Patrick McNulty is directing two Pinter one-acts, “The Lover” and “Ashes To Ashes,” in an evening entitled “Harold Pinter Pair”

The fringe festival itself has a good guide, and on their Web site, what they call their Slice-O-Matic, the fringe search engine in which you can find a show by writer, genre, time, venue, title, etc. Type in “William Shakespeare” and get two links — one to “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” from the BAMA theater company from Alabama, with this description: “Not the fluffy fairytale you thought- 8 actors magically morphing from a caustic duke to a mischievous sprite, all out of 1 suitcase.”; the other to “M: An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for three actors.”

A test that a show is at least watchable is if it has been performed previously (but this is not fool-proof).

fringejenangieiShows that seem to be extracting some elements from past hit fringe shows — most obviously this year “Jen & Angie” in which Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston are stuck on a desert island — do not guarantee the show will be bad, nor that it will be good. In this case, “Jen & Angie” is presented by the Upright Citizens Brigade, a comedy troupe with a track record.

Shows that promise nudity tend to get sold out soonest, but the most shocking thing to come out of the New York Fringe Festival may be the realization of how boring nudity can be (and just because a show features naked people in its promotional poster or postcard does not mean there will be any on the stage. Take, for example, this promo for Dirty Stuff.
“Dirty Stuff” is Jonny McGovern‘s one-man show. So only one of these six people depicted will actually be on stage. Guess which one.)

But the best way to find a worthwhile fringe show is to ask other festival-goers standing on any fringe line.

FringeNYC shows run 4pm – midnight weekdays and noon – midnight on weekends. Tickets are $15 each at, 212-279-4488 (inside NYC) or 1-888.FRINGENYC (outside NYC)or in-person at FringeCentral, the primary ticketing and information hub for the festival (54 Crosby Street between Spring and Broome; open noon – 8pm daily). Discount passes for multiple shows ($70 for a Fiver Pass, $120 for a Flex Pass good for 10 shows, and $500 for an all-you-can-see Lunatic Pass) are also available. For more information visit

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