On Saturday I dipped my little toe into the roiling, brackish waters of the Fringe festival and took in a couple of shows at 45 Bleecker. First, though, a disclaimer. After the first three years of the Fringe, during which I created and edited the festival's ridiculously ambitious daily newspaper, FringeNYC Propaganda (now defunct, I believe), I have grown distant from the August orgy of small, cheap theater below 14th Street. I must confess, after years of watching and reviewing a wide variety of professional theater, from Broadway spectacles to workmanlike Off-Broadway plays and brilliant avant-garde stuff from abroad, I've grown exceedingly wary of the Fringe. Don't get me wrong. I love theater. I love artists. But I don't love scores of mediocre, barely trained amateurs who put together a showcase so that producers will come and give them paying jobs on TV. Sometimes that's how the Fringe feels: A debased flea market in which the city's best companies wouldn't be caught dead. Of course, I know that isn't true. Radiohole did Bender in the 1998 Fringe. Hell, I directed a show the same year. And the wickedly funny Urinetown came of the 1999 Fringe. Nevertheless, Alexis Soloski's excellent piece in the Voice basically summarizes my doubts and frustration: I wish the Fringe would just drop the pretense of being curated (if it actually were, there would be maybe 60 shows) and open it up to hundreds of shows in all five boroughs. Make it more like Edinburgh. Otherwise, I'm sorry, but the Fringe just feels like the worst possible advertisement for Off-Off Broadway. Which we all know it isn't.
That having been said, One of the shows I saw Saturday was quite fun and I recommend it: Hail Satan, by blogger, playwright and actor Mac Rogers. In a little under two hours, Rogers lashes together several genres: workplace satire, religious meditation, critique of capitalism and family drama. The basic premise is unbeatable: Shy newbie discovers that his chipper, firmly bonded office buddies worship the Prince of Darkness. The cast is fairly solid and director Jordana Williams maintains a snappy pace. Still I could see the rough edges and abrupt tonal shifts in Rogers' script (which at times makes the play seem like a Frankenstein's monster of high-concept sketch ideas) smoothed out by a superior production, so that we can really whip from low-key laughs to horror and suspense. There is some effectively droll, quirky material there, but also morally murky rationalizations designed to seduce us. As anyone who has read his blog knows, Rogers can write persuasive speeches and as a dramatist, he's willing to suspend action for the sake of working through a difficult thought. That's a good thing. It wouldn't surprise me if Rogers is a fan of Wallace Shawn. Like Shawn, he seems drawn to shame, humiliation, ethical ambiguity. Hail Satan is a refreshing reminder that the Fringe isn't just about naked clowns or solo pieces: now and then a real play surfaces. Will any commercial producer or nonprofit institution take the initiative and develop (yes, develop) it?