Five times this year’s Fringe Festival made me uncomfortable

Fringe 2015: One woman’s wrap-up

6 minute read
Sheppard and Kidwell in “Underground Railroad Game,” which the author considers the best show in this year’s Fringe Festival. (Photo by Tamara Rodriguez Reichberg)
Sheppard and Kidwell in “Underground Railroad Game,” which the author considers the best show in this year’s Fringe Festival. (Photo by Tamara Rodriguez Reichberg)

There were several shows this year that, for one reason or another, made me pretty uncomfortable. This is not to say I necessarily regret going. At the Fest, with all kinds of discomfort, from physical challenges to crashing boredom to painful bursts of self-reflection, you never know what you’re getting into.

I’m going to rate five of the shows I saw on a scale of one to ten, with one being supremely comfortable and ten being nigh-on unbearable; expound a little on the reason for the rating; and pronounce ultimate judgment on whether the performance was worth attending.

Careful Injuries

Discomfort rating: 5

Careful Injuries, a collection of nine dance pieces from “bodies” Jessieh Ruth Averitt, Maggie Donoghue, and Samantha Jolene Orr, gets a middling discomfort rating right off the bat because the audience wasn’t ushered into the space until 25 minutes after the advertised showtime, and we had to find our own way up an old staircase, around a corner, down a hallway, and through an unmarked black door, where a “pre-show” dance piece was already under way, making us feel as if we’d stumbled in late. At the pre-show’s conclusion, a woman in high heels stalked all the way from the front row to the back of the house to switch off the lights, and then back again, her shoes booming in the space.

The dance pieces themselves, with sound design from Maev Lowe, explored new realms of discomfort, as I expected they would: The artists declared it “an examination of physical states and expression of comfort, fear and exhaustion. . .[and how] the psychological boundaries of our capacity for great tenderness and care often meet the experience of terrifying or desperate circumstances.”

The dancers embodied visceral gasps and flailing that evoked panic attacks or seizures, and moments of oddly contentious yet sensual symbiosis. One piece, “THIS GUN CANNOT HURT YOU,” featured a single panting, blindfolded performer stepping helplessly on the gunshot cracks of bubble wrap with a pistol in her hand. Is she suicidal? Is she trying desperately to protect herself from something she can’t see? It was at once wholly strange and familiar and I couldn’t look away.

Worth attending: If you have the patience for nontraditional physical concoctions.


Discomfort rating: 3

Poet/playwright Holly Bittner combined projected text, sound, and performance to explore her own journey with endometriosis, a debilitating condition affecting one in 10 women and girls in the United States. As the performance demonstrates, many patients meet years of frustration and dismissal from judgmental doctors who assume their patients have an STI before diagnosing this incurable idiopathic illness.

“Back in the stirrups again, still saddled by stigma,” Bittner says, as the doctor in her performance tells her the problem is the size of her partner’s penis or whispers she’s “another slut hogging a hospital bed.”

As someone who’s also faced doctors who insisted on unnecessary STI tests for her own incurable and little-known pelvic syndrome, that stuff bites pretty deep — even without plumbing the truth that people diagnosed with STIs should not feel shame about seeking treatment.

There was also the part where Bittner exorcised her complicated relationship with her mother by dressing up like a bat in a horrifically creepy baby doll mask, but I prefer not to dwell on this.

Worth attending: If you can roll with the weirdness and don’t mind condom handouts.

Born Fat

Discomfort rating: 8

One thing I can say is that I’ve never been to a Fringe show apparently dedicated to hawking someone’s commercial venture. In the solo show Born Fat, playwright Jacques Lamarre writes the story of real-life weight-loss guru Elizabeth Petruccione, who is portrayed by April Woodall.

Petruccione marks a lifelong litany of tragedies by what she ate and how much weight she gained or lost — even her own son’s coma is marked by the number of pounds she took off while he was hospitalized — before shedding the pounds for good (apparently) and writing a few books about battling her “fat demons.” (On sale for $15 at the show.)

Maybe I should let the lines speak for themselves.

“I hid food like it was Anne Frank’s family.” No. Never mind. Let’s stop.

Worth attending: You were lucky to be anywhere else.

They Only Come Out at Night

Discomfort rating: 4

I will be honest: Someone who did not have hip surgery four months ago may have enjoyed hiking up into Philly’s historic Laurel Hill Cemetery and staking out seats among the obelisks more than I did. The grass is dewy, the bugs are out, the sound system is understandably spotty, the people directly to your right can unpack and chew a very garlicky dinner and there’s nothing you can do about it, and the show is lit mostly by single bulbs the singers themselves are holding. They’re hard to see anyway, though, if you don’t get a prime spot front and center.

But the flagrantly sexy and morbid cabaret They Only Come Out at Night boasted performers with solid pipes and plenty of charisma in Denise Shubin, Rudy Caporaso, and Felicia Kalani Anderton. The show’s mix of songs and bawdy limericks drew obvious appreciation from the crowd.

Worth attending: If you can be honest with yourself about the fact that resting your wineglass on a gravestone after dark makes you feel like you’re having more fun than you might actually be having. (It sounds like you can get your own look next year, because the show is promising to continue its popular Fringe run.)

Underground Railroad Game

Discomfort rating: 7

Underground Railroad Game was undoubtedly the best show I saw in the Festival. Devisor/performers Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard leapt with earnest, fearful clarity into America’s contemporary and historical racial divides in the guise of a middle-school history class with a cringeworthy Civil War curriculum inspired by Sheppard’s own schooling. (Check out our WNWN interview here.)

At the very end of this gripping, multilayered, crystalline performance, the actors get the audience enthusiastically bellowing “the Battle Hymn of the Republic” while Sheppard, a white man, and Kidwell, a black woman, march in place side by side. But as the song swells around them, Kidwell falters and stops in a sort of deadpan bewilderment while Sheppard marches confidently, unwittingly on.

In one moment, the artists not only embodied America’s modern injustices: They effortlessly implicated the audience itself in the narrative. I can’t get it out of my head.

Worth attending: I am really sorry if you did not get a ticket to this one.

What, When, Where

Careful Injuries. Other Case Notes Ensemble. September 11-12 at Mascher Space Cooperative, 155 Cecil B. Moore Avenue, Philadelphia.

Endome, written by Holly Bittner; Catherine Pappas directed. September 11-13 at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia.

Born Fat, written by Jacques Lamarre based on the story of real-life weight-loss guru Elizabeth Petruccione. Gina Giusto directed; performed by April Woodall. September 11-13 at Biello Martin Studio, 148 North Third Street, Philadelphia.

They Only Come Out at Night. REV Theatre Company. Conceived, created, choreographed, and costumed by Rudy Caporaso; Rosey Hay directed. September 11, 12, 18, 19 at Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia.

Underground Railroad Game, Lightning Rod Special. Devised and performed by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard. September 2-6 and 9-12 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street, Philadelphia.

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