Mark Cofta’s Philly Fringe picks: Earning their stripes at the Fest

'Fishtown' is a "hipster noir' premiering at this year's Fringe. (Photo courtesy of Tribe of Fools.)

In the Philadelphia Fringe Festival’s 21 years, an inviting, user-friendly application process for independent producers has launched many theater companies. They don’t all grow into stable professional companies, but new groups try every year, hoping to follow the success of other companies nurtured by the Fringe that go on to local and national acclaim.

The veterans

Five impressive companies return to their Fringe roots nearly every September. The record for Fringe productions probably belongs to New Paradise Laboratories.  Hello Blackout! is Whit MacLaughlin’s movement-based ensemble of theatrical devisers’ 13th Fringe production. The first was Gold Russian Finger Love, in 1998. NPL shows have traveled through college residencies around the country as well as the Ontological Theatre and PS 122 in New York City (picking up an Obie Award), Minneapolis's Walker Art Center and Children’s Theatre Company, and Louisville, KY's Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Tribe of Fools, devisors of wickedly funny, wildly theatrical plays, performed their second creation, Echo, in the 2004 Fringe and have performed many since, including Heavy Metal Dance Fag (Fringe 2011), Antihero (Fringe 2013 and 2016), and Zombies . . . With Guns (Fringe 2015). Their latest is a “hipster noir” about technology’s effect on the modern world, called Fishtown.

Actor-director Tina Brock’s Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium started with three absurdist one-acts in Fringe 2006 and haven’t missed one yet. This year, they stage Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, a classic by the author of Exit the King (Fringe 2015) and The Chairs (Fringe 2006 and, in a new production, Fringe 2016).

Found Theater Company premiered in the 2009 Fringe with Something with Wings, and the seven-member ensemble has produced for nearly every Fringe since, including their nautical adventure Deep Blue Sleep (Fringe 2014) and 2015's noir nightmare City of Woes. Their latest collaboration, Game Show Show, explores life, death, dreams, and reality through a TV quiz show.

Frequent Fringe contributors Brian Sanders’ JUNK premiere . . .strand . . . this year. The innovative, site-specific dance theater troupe’s latest concoction requires headsets as we follow the show outside to Forgotten Bottom’s DuPont Crescent Trail on a self-guided adventure through urban wilds.

The up-and-comers

Both the Beserker Residents and the Philadelphia Artists' Collective have achieved great success both in and outside the Fringe the past few years. 

These Terrible Things is the fifth Fringe show from The Berserker Residents, and their first in collaboration with the University of the Arts. Manic funny (and smart) guys Justin Jain, David Johnson, and Bradley K. Wrenn spawned their alternative comedy company with The Jersey Devil in Fringe 2007.

The Philadelphia Artists’ Collective first hit the Fringe with 2011's The Oresteia Project. Several site-specific, rarely seen classics followed, including The Captive (Fringe 2014), performed in the historic Physick House, and this year’s Iphigenia at Aulis, performed on the historic battleship USS Olympia.

The next must-sees?

Will these companies become Fringe favorites too? Based on what I've seen, they have every chance. They're all led by dynamic, creative women and produce impressive new work.

Sam Tower + Ensemble's 901 Nowhere Street, a powerful all-woman show set in the traditionally male film-noir genre, was a 2015 Fringe hit scripted by Jeremy Gable. Director Tower and Gable return to the Fringe — and the eerie Power Plant Productions Basement — with Strange Tenants, a "dance theater psycho thriller."

The Greenfield Collective, led by playwright-actor Hannah Van Sciver, has produced edgy, intimate new plays in and out of the Fringe. Marbles (Fringe 2014) and Fifty Days of Iliam (Fringe 2015) sold out their runs, and Tilda Swinton Adopt Me Please, a theater-dance piece about celebrity obsession, might prove just as popular.

Family theater is big in the Fringe. (Here’s BSR editor Wendy Rosenfield’s look at shows for the youngsters.) Dragon's Eye Theatre, led by Suzana Berger, specializes in interactive adventures for kids ages 5 to 10 and their adults. They launched with Seek & Hide, (Fringe 2012), followed by A Mystery? (2013 Fringe), and return with Follow Me Through the Gates, written by Stephanie Walters, at the Independence Library. 

At right: The cast of Strange Tenants look for a way out. (Photo by Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography.)

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