To know the New York International Fringe Festival is to hate it. And now it’s back again, promising a bewildering array of uneven offerings in scattered and often-claustrophobic venues. We’ve now had fifteen years of “the largest multi-arts festival in North America” (still the NYIFF’s grand-yet-vague tagline), and, with a few brilliant exceptions, we’ve never stopped feeling let down by its overreliance on indulgent solo shows and irony-dependent, reference-driven hack musicals (prepare ye for Jersey Shoresical: A Frickin’ Rock Opera). This, perhaps, is simply the definition of an institution: something everybody loathes but no one can find a way to replace. Ever since 1999’s Urinetown, still its only Broadway transfer, the fest has been burdened with being not purely a democratic convocation of the weird, edgy, and undercooked, but also a black-box Sundance, ripe for raiding by producers. (Lately, the New York Musical Theatre Festival has siphoned off a lot of that action.) Besides, with Off Broadway and Off–Off Broadway more or less stagnated, it’s hard to see a post-Fringe future for even the most deserving shows. Consider Silence! the Musical, which took five years and several false starts to make the leap to even a smallish Off Broadway house. And what the hell ever happened to last season’s elliptically excellent The Twentieth-Century Way?
Maybe Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann can turn things around. The Urinetown co-creators will return to the Fringe this year with a show called Yeast Nation (the triumph of life), a musical of palace intrigue and Ibsen-ish advocacy set in a primordial Earth populated by single-celled organisms. Their U’town collaborator, director-choreographer John Carrafa, is at the helm of a rock opera called Winner Take All. I’ve heard promising rumbles about Infectious Opportunity, a satire revolving around a man who fakes AIDS for fame and fortune, as well as Theater for the Arcade: Five Classic Video Games Adapted for the Stage, and Vanessa Shealy’s One, Two, Whatever You Do... (which the playwright has described, tantalizingly, as what would happen “if Christopher Guest did a remake of Alice in Wonderland”). Also, there appears to be a show called Flaccid Penis Seeks Vaginal Dryness. Hope springs eternal.