Tips for this year’s fest (it’s a big one)

Philly Fringe 2023: the BSR editor’s picks

6 minute read
Parke in character, mouth open and tongue sticking out with a pill hanging at the tip, a blue curtain as a backdrop
‘Birth, Sparkle, Death’ is a mash-up of standup comedy, cabaret, and video installation coming to the Cannonball Festival. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Parke.)

I have to admit, it’s just not possible to attack the Fringe like I did when I first started covering it about 15 years ago. It’s not like I’m ready for the grave or anything, but I’m 40—I have a bedtime. Waiting for the El at midnight because of a 10pm weeknight curtain in Kensington is a young journalist’s game. Fortunately, there are hundreds of shows to choose from in this year’s Fringe Festival. I’m sharing some of my picks below.

Soapbox creator Megan Mazarick is upfront in the show description: this is an “unfinished work,” and the artist welcomes feedback about the piece as she develops it further. I find this very much in the spirit of the Fringe. This emerging theater/comedy/dance/storytelling piece is “inspired (in part) by working within academia and the performative nature of teaching,” and it asks “what it means to be the orator on any given subject.” A highly relevant question for writers, pundits, and politicians as well.

Soapbox; Cannonball Festival: September 3 at the Icebox Project Space.

I’m always on the lookout for shows that speak to experiences with illness and/or disability, and I appreciate when artists take advantage of the Fringe to tell these stories. I hope this begins to break more into standard season programming. Creator Hannah Parke’s Birth, Sparkle, Death sounds like a good example: “a standup/cabaret/video installation mash-up driving down the kaleidoscopic, surrealist rabbit hole of the stages of grief that come with [a] life-altering diagnosis.” Parke lives with epilepsy, and the cabaret veteran’s latest show “shines a light on disability, rare brain conditions, and what it means for a young artist to go from Broadway auditions to bed-bound hospitalization.”

Birth, Sparkle, Death; Cannonball Festival: September 2-18 at the Fidget Space.

In case you haven’t heard, Covid-19 is still out there, and you can partake of the Fringe remotely if you need to. One benefit of streaming shows is that you can experience artists from other parts of the world as part of the Philly Fest. I’m interested in The Forever Wave from Nicole Gluckstern’s Estrella Suerte Productions in the Bay Area. It’s an audio play (inspired by Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood) set in San Francisco circa 2070, which is so waterlogged that its hills have become individual islands populated by climate-change survivors. The show was produced entirely remotely due to Covid, starring a diverse cast of 12 in a “comprehensive exploration of a what-if future that seems ever more likely every year we fail to address the impacts of climate change and economic inequality,” as well as “a study in resilience, resourcefulness, and community-building.”

The Forever Wave; The Digital Fringe: September 4-24 online on-demand

The world-premiere Rhythm Bath is another disability-centered show on my radar. Choreographer Susan Marshall and set designer Mimi Lien team up with the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University to create this “immersive and inclusive dance installation.” It doesn’t sound like a traditional dance performance: come and go as you like for an hour, and the dancers move around you, engaging a variety of your senses. The show was developed “in conversation and collaboration with neurodiverse individuals and communities” and offers ASL interpretation, audio description, and Aira visual interpretation technology, plus a quiet lounge. (Best for ages 13 and up.)

Rhythm Bath; Curated Fringe Festival: September 17-24 at Christ Church Neighborhood House

Two dancers in loose clothing in mid-movement, their arms and hands connected, in a brightly lit rehearsal space
Darrin Michael Wright and Rohan Bhargava star in 'Rhythm Bath' from choereographer Susan Marshall. (Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.)

Did you catch Fringe maven Sarah Knittel’s story explaining the changes at the Philly Fringe from her perspective as an artist? I reviewed her Nightmare Fuel when it got its Philly premiere in 2018, and enjoyed her Ben Franklin Sex Party the following year. Jill Ivey reviewed Knittel’s 2020 streaming show (with Betty Smithsonian), Shitty Jews. What’s next? Sarah Knittel/Marina Abramović, “a sloppy, sexy autopsy about the agony of starting over,” an “ooey gooey clown show that is part therapy session, part standup, and part ARTSY FARTSY PERFORMANCE ART WET DREAM.” Knittel is an artist to keep your eye on.

Sarah Knittel/Marina Abramović; Philly Fringe and the Free Fringe: September 8-18 at the Deep End Studios.

I’m also planning to see the latest from Gunnar Montana, after last year’s BATH HOUSE. BLACK WOOD is touted as a departure from Montana’s recent glittery and bold queer-themed performances: he’s returning to his darker side to “immerse the audience into a world of witches, scorned lovers, cannibalism, and creatures of the night.” I can never get enough of spooky theater. Bonus: it runs beyond the close of the fest.

BLACK WOOD; The Philly Fringe: September 7-October 31 at the Latvian Society.

The Fringe is also a great time to see artists responding to critical happenings in the larger world, which is why I’m checking out Paper Doll Ensemble’s The Pecking Order, “a live performance event born out of grief and disbelief after the 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.” It’s a “tragicomedy” exploring the absurdity of the loss of our rights, inspired by the wife and daughters of the Supreme Court judge who authored the 1973 decision.

The Pecking Order; Philly Fringe: September 21-30 at the Skinner Studio at Plays & Players.

And I hate to let a Fringe go by without experiencing an interactive show, and Wig Wag fits the bill. Another world premiere, this “hybrid music-theater piece” by Emily Bate brings the audience into collaboration with an ensemble of four. Through communal singing, the show explores our connected nature, blending “deeply accessible, participatory music with stunning vocal acrobatics performed by the cast,” inviting singers and can’t-singers alike. Who are we, without our network of relationships? (This show runs in repertory with Rose: You Are Who You Eat.)

Wig Wag; Curated Fringe: September 13-24 at FringeArts.

Look out for our reviews!

I’m looking forward to coverage of so much more from our excellent team of writers: Philly artist Justin Jain’s The Dangers of Tobacco, "a wild Filipino American adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s solo play;" a Macbeth roundup; Ock the Wizard’s Midnight Dreamin, “an immersive art installation telling a story of Yoruba spirits, guidance, and mental illness;” and a new Yellow Wallpaper from Jessica Noel and Natalie Fletcher, just to name a few.

So stay tuned as you plan your own Fringe schedule: starting next week, our critics will be weighing in on more than two dozen shows. And in the meantime, you can search the whole lineup and get your tix at Follow along with us on Instagram at @broadstreview and tell us what you find at the festival this year, especially if you can stay out later than I can.

And if you’ve gotten out of the habit of wearing a mask, it’d be a good call to put it back on for your Fringe outings—Covid cases are ongoing and are projected to rise as we head into the fall. Masking at the Fringe protects you, your fellow audience members, and the artists and staff who have invested so much in producing the festival for us, and need to stay healthy for the run.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation