The Top 10 of the Boston Fringe Theatre

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday January 11, 2014

The fringe theatre scene in Boston is vibrant, alive, and it's only getting better. The Top 10 of the Boston Fringe Theatre not only celebrates the remarkable achievements of the past year, but also informs us of the talented artists that are going to be making waves in the future. If you support Broadway and the big theaters in this city you'll be keeping alive an art that people have been calling "dead" for nearly a century. But if you support the fringe you will be on the forefront of what this living art will become and how Boston is shaping that horizon.

"She Kills Monsters"

Though Company One champions the independent spirit in theatre, it is quickly moving to the fringe of being fringe. Still, the fringe owes a lot to this company, in part because of the audiences it cultivates. When I interviewed the attendees at "She Kills Monsters," they didn't know what the hell Company One was. They had just heard about this "awesome thing that had to see."

That it was.

The script seemed like a gamers high-fructose corn syrup induced dream after falling asleep reading "Crafting the Perfect Hollywood Screenplay in 28 Days." Add to that innovative staging, a sexy, energetic cast and amazing fight sequences (that happened so close to you they practically took the skin off the tip of your nose), and you have remarkable production.

Let's face it: Most of the people in the audience at fringe productions are part of the community, know the director or are friends with a member of the cast. If new audiences are cultivated in the zero-budget theatre community, it will be Company One that reeled them in.

"Windowmen"

This show brought it all together. Kate Snodgrass and the Boston Playwrights Theatre cultivated a funny and complex autobiographical script by Steven Barkhimer. Then Brett Marks of Argos Productions got his hands on it, and really brought it to life with some of the most vibrant and compelling actors in the city.

Each of these elements synchronized with the others, and none of them would have been as strong on their own. Together, these collaborators proved just how good new play production in this city can be.

(This show featured one of Daniel Berger-Jones phenomenal performances this year. From his convincing portrayal of a woman in "Stones in His Pocket" to his comic command of the stage in "From Denmark with Love," Berger-Jones is a force to be reckoned with.)

Fresh Ink

None of Fresh Ink’s shows were perfect. You won’t get a perfectly crafted script when you go to a Fresh Ink production. It’ll be an interesting script, but it will be a pretty early draft. This is a company that will suddenly decide a week before opening to do a proscenium show in the round, forcing the actors, scenic, and lighting designers to rethink everything in the last few days before they open.

What you find at Fresh Ink are actors who have worked directly with the writer, and they will have reworked a moment in the script over and over again in countless different ways, a luxury that bigger companies just don’t have the time and the budget for.

Fresh Ink bridges the gap between educational and community theatre, bringing together a group of artists that always has the luxury to experiment and potentially fail. Memorable highlights in Fresh Ink’s season include Marc T. Ewart’s scenic design in "Girls’ Sports," Gillian Mackay-Smith layered performance as Mama Mystery in "The Outlaw Jean," and the outstanding and economical lighting design of Chris Bocchiaro in "Fire on Earth."

"From Denmark with Love"

Filthy, funny and fast paced, "From Denmark with Love" carries on in the basement vaudeville tradition of the infamous Boston auteur Ryan Landry. This sex-parody crossed James Bond with Hamlet to take fringe audiences on a lusty theatrical ride.

Playwright John J King, director Barlow Thomas and the members of Vaquero Playground just set out to have fun, never taking themselves too seriously. Scenery was cheap and dirty, yet remarkably clever utilizing projection, backlighting and a sort of puppetry.

Bob Mussett played King Hamlet and Horatio in this production. Mussett’s name shows up a lot in the best of the fringe. If the fringe theatre ever gets its own tabloid magazine, audiences will consult the pages to see who this guy is sleeping with. (I listen what people say during intermission.)

"The Seabirds"

In the tradition of using the small and domestic to illustrate the vast, Argos Productions "The Seabirds" condensed the bloody and devastating Civil War into a few weeks shared by two men in a lighthouse.

It’s almost incomprehensible that in this war men of social standing and wealth traded victories for the lives of the working class. William Orem’s play scales the breadth of our nation’s most overwhelming divide into an experience that’s shockingly intimate. It’s a parable for a nation that seems to be eternally bipartisan.

Under the direction of Jeremy Johnson, and through the performances of Brendan Mulhern and David Lutheran, "The Seabirds" captured abstract ideologies without sacrificing its humanity.

"Hairy Tales"

Matthew Woods and Imaginary Beasts use original source material merely as a suggestion to create kinetic pictures, crafted with light and sound. In each of this company’s shows, the ensemble works as a unit to express the fantastic, luxurious visual images.

The erotic fables told in "Hairy Tales" combined Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s costuming, Sam Beebe’s music and sound design and Chris Bocchiaro’s lighting to create a feast for the eyes.

"The First Annual Sex Fest"

Joey Pelletier has become one of the biggest names in the Boston fringe theatre, moving seamlessly (and rapidly) from the Happy Medium’s cross-gender parody "Psycho Beach Party" to Imaginary Beast’s stylistic fantasia "Hairy Tales," to the realism of Zeitgeist’s "The Normal Heart."

With his annual exploration of new works and new voices among New England based playwrights, Pelletier focuses on the theme of desire. Sure, this is the subject of over 80% of world literature, but rather than couching the subject in lofty words like "love," Pelletier focuses on the erotic. The exciting thing about this endeavor (beyond the obvious) is that it has the potential to be an outlet for local play development on par with Boston Playwright’s "New Play Marathon," if only this fringe celebrity and his company, Heart and Dagger have the stamina to keep it up.

"Streetcar Named Desire"

Vicki Schairer used her experiences creating immersive theatre as a Project: Project artistic director to surround audiences in sultry New Orleans. The script has some poetic tangents and broad theatrical moments, but Schairer used the remarkable intimacy of the Factory Theatre to transform the surroundings.

Much of the success of this production was due to a cast that never tried to overdo it. Jacqui Dupré’s Stella and Jesse Wood’s Stanley quietly lured us into the complexity of a fierce, tortured relationship. They whispered their lines and we as an audience leaned in to implicate ourselves in their behavior. We could feel the sweat on their skin, and the hoppy, malted alcohol on ours as Stanley opened a bottle of beer that sprayed it all over us.

Produced by Wax Wings, this was hot theatre, as thrilling and vital as when it was first produced in 1947, not the kind of thing where you sit in a box seat and show off your expensive clothes.

"The Valentine Trilogy"

The script may be self-indulgent and flawed, but the Circuit Theatre deserves praise for this epic three-play ensemble creation. Skylar Fox and the vibrant, energetic company took full advantage of this cross-genre, literary pastiche to experiment with thrillingly diverse theatrical forms. With remarkably few resources, this company created an amazingly picturesque environment of light, sound, puppetry and performance that attempted to communicate a love story in a trilogy that superseded the linearity of time, dimensionality of space, and even the perception of individual identity. This company changes the way we conceive urban summer stock theatre.

"The Eight: Reindeer Monologues"

In legend, the sardon plant has chemical properties that make the person who consumes it laugh hysterically... until they die. This is the etymology of the word "sardonic," and this play epitomized that word, making us laugh even as we were sickened by what we were laughing at. Audiences were outraged (which is always a good sign). "This is not the way we like to look at Christmas!"

Terrence Patrick Haddad set a precedent when he walked on stage at the top of the show, but every other actor was able to layer onto his performance without faltering.

As we witnessed in Happy Medium’s award winning production of "Dog Sees God," director Lizette M. Morris can paint mood solely by shaping her actors performances, with nearly no assistance from theatrical spectacle.

With the help of her collaborator, Mikey DiLoreto, Morris brought us a play that had little more than a chair, a spotlight and eight amazingly talented actors with their noses painted black. With nothing but simple, sincere and intimate performances, this show caused us to reevaluate the idealistic way we look at the authority and institutions we hold dearest to our hearts.