Marfa, Texas — It’s only fair that an inaugural fringe festival would prompt some basic questions. At least a handful of times over the weekend of Jan. 10-11, the question “What exactly is fringe theater?” came up. Another question that popped up repeatedly: “What is the purpose of fringe?”
In my responses, I described fringe as existing — and excelling — on the outer edges of mainstream theater. For example, don’t expect to sit in an auditorium watching a performance onstage unfold in a linear fashion. Sometimes, that does happen at fringe. But more often than not, the audience is immersed in a randomized, non-narrative performance in an alternative space.
As for its purpose, fringe exists to give creators a space in which to experiment and develop, much like a laboratory to a scientist. In both regards, then, Fringe Marfa made good on its name.
Hope Lafferty, who refers to herself as Fringe Marfa’s birth mother, painstakingly curated the city’s first fringe festival with people she met while performing on the fringe circuit across the United States. (Check out TheaterJones’ interview with Lafferty.) Friday evening featured solo acts, while Saturday highlighted ensemble work.
One of the weekend’s finest performances, however, was 9 in the Morning, an ongoing, perpetual, immersive experience that ran for three hours on Friday and for six hours on Saturday before the evening shows. Each individual performance lasted a mere 10 minutes and was limited to four audience members at a time. It was performed in a room at the Hotel Paisano, where stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Dennis Hopper stayed while filming Giant. (Two other films shot there were Oscar winners No Country for Old Menand There Will Be Blood.)
Each audience member wears bonephones, headphones that use bone conduction to produce sound, allowing the wearer to hear the actor’s “thoughts” while also not preventing them from hearing the actor’s spoken words. Bonephones work by vibrating the patch of skin and underlying bones in front of the ears, so there is a physical sensation that accompanies the use of this technology. Written by Jacob Henry and produced by Lubbock’s Renegade Productions, its sole actor was Alex Webster, who expertly manifested her character’s confusion and disorientation.
The room appears in a state of aftermath. After what, exactly, you never find out. Was she roofied? Was she involved in a car wreck? Or is she just recovering from a particularly vivid nightmare? This show merges technology with acting that provokes an emotional and physical response in the audience, leaving them unnerved and anxious, even after attending multiple shows.
9 in the Morning was performed during daylight hours. In the evening, though, Fringe Marfa took over the city’s Visitor Center, housed in the original USO Hall back when the city had a military base. An extravagant chandelier hangs overhead. Photographs of soldiers and exhibits of military memorabilia line the perimeter of the building.
First taking the stage was North Carolina-based solo performer Ryan Fay, who performed an original physical theater and multi-character clown show called Scouting. It was a 15-minute mash-up of mime, clowning, and stand-up comedy. Despite a few prop glitches, like losing his red clown nose during the middle of his bit, Fay pulled through with his improvising skills while pulling several laughs from the audience.
Next was Albuquerque-based dancer and choreographer Lorien House in A Short History of Unfortunate Animals (a dark romp with teeth). She performs dance theater under the name ANIMAL/LIMINAL. Lafferty describes House as “if Laurie Anderson danced,” and that is an apt description.
The show began with a Bob Fosse-inspired dance amid the whistle and whoosh of a windstorm. One of House’s characters, the Guide, acknowledges that a strong wind affects the nervous system, as if referencing the fierce windstorm that blew through Marfa earlier that day. Combining storytelling, spoken word, and poetry recitation with bold choreography and strenuous dance moves, it was difficult to take my eyes off of her during the 45-minute performance.
Throughout the work, a narrative develops about various animals (extinct, endangered, feral, domestic, and the most vexing of all: the human animal) that’s punctuated by accomplished dance pieces that borrow from the likes of Martha Graham, Lar Lubovitch, Debbie Allen, and Merce Cunningham. But these gestural quotations are expertly mixed in the cauldron of House’s artistry to evoke memory, loss, and the sometimes-failed attempt at survival, on both a personal and global scale.
The final solo show was Crapshoot! Or Why Al Voted for Trump: A Love Story, written and performed by San Diego-based Todd Blakesley. It was directed by Rhianna Basore.
Blakesley’s witty script explores the aftermath of the 2016 election when politically naive Al votes for the first time after being convinced by his liberal coworkers that his vote counts. Little do they know that he wanted “to shake things up.” The story evolves more and more into farce, with Al himself becoming President.
Friday culminated with an after party featuring the deep lounge electro-acoustic sounds of Marfa’s accomplished one-man band Sotol on guitarrón, slide guitar, and dance loops.
Day Two of the festival opened with a full day of panels that covered topics such as Juggling for Wellness, clowning, playwriting, and producing fringe festivals. The performance schedule kicked off Saturday evening with the hilarious myHEB, written by Austin’s Raúl Garza and directed by Patti Neff-Tiven. It starred Garza, Neff-Tiven, and Giselle Marie Muñoz as three people whose lives intersect at the grocery store. The play tackles such weighty topics as consumer culture, racism, and nostalgia while still managing to elicit laughter.
It was followed by Icarus Was a Rookie, an original work by El Paso’s multitalented The Border Theatre made up of 20 scenes that are performed in an order randomly determined by the audience. Because of a typo in the program (intentional?), though, they ended up performing 21 scenes, which consisted of everything from a heartfelt singer-songwriter to the Challenger explosion, from a vigorous hula hoop dance to a NASA employee confessing that the Earth is indeed flat. As to be expected in a variety show, some of the scenes were terrific, a few were duds, but most were entertainingly in-between. Fun concept.
Concluding the festival was Arkansas-based playwright Casey Wimpee’s hallucinogenic fever dream Butcher Holler Here We Come about a 1973 West Virginia coal mine collapse in which five miners were trapped. It was directed by Leah Bonvissuto and performed by the impressive Ad Hoc Economy, which has members (Colt W. Keeney, Judd Faris, Michael Mason, Cole Wimpee, Isaac James Bryne) based in New York City and Los Angeles.
The play is performed in complete or near darkness. The unraveling of stories, whether myths from a local Native American tribe, bedtime stories from when the men were children, or the official police report of a car crash that sent one man to prison and another to the morgue, mirrors the unraveling of the psyches slowly being starved of oxygen. The lighting disorients the audience and plays tricks on their perception of time. Throughout most of the performance, only a portion of the actors’ faces are visible from the headlamps they wear, giving their shadowed faces a nightmarish quality. (This show appeared at Dallas’ own now-defunct Out of the Loop Fringe Festival back in 2014.)
The closing night party featured a band made up of members from The Border Theatre, known as The Hot Bachs, who also performed some of their songs during Icarus Was a Rookie.
Fringe Marfa provided an excellent mix of comedy and drama over its two days. It also showcased a selection of scripted and improvised pieces as well as programmed both traditional work with the experimental. Kudos to Lafferty for her skill in programming a captivating two-day festival.
As was mentioned during the panels, fringe is not only about alternative performance but also about what makes any kind of performance possible. Regional theaters no longer serve as the incubators they once were, so fringe has co-opted this function, thereby making the performing arts possible, viable, and vibrant.
During Friday’s performances there were 30 people in the audience. That number doubled Saturday. For perspective, Saturday’s audience was about 4 percent of the total population of Marfa. A Dallas show would need to have an audience of almost 54,000 people to beat that. Considering that the closest performers (from El Paso) had to drive almost three hours to attend, this is an amazing feat for a first-year festival in a city that’s well-known for visual art but doesn’t already have much of a performing arts or theater infrastructure. For these reasons, and coupled with the vast West Texas hospitality, Fringe Marfa was an unmitigated success.
Here’s hoping there will be a Fringe Marfa 2021, and every year thereafter.