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Eight years into the Capital Fringe Festival’s DIY incursion into D.C. theater, we’ve more or less got a handle on what “Fringe” means. (Not “featuring nudity,” although that notion is oddly persistent.) The word signals to theatergoers that more will be required of them than in a year-round, professional playhouse—not just a greater tolerance for heat, hard chairs, lousy acoustics, and long bathroom lines, though these remain signifiers of the commitment of the audience that the festival has cultivated, and steadily grown, since 2006.

But a more relaxed set of aesthetic standards? Not so much these days. The 126 productions on offer this year—well, the 19 I saw—seemed to possess an even greater breadth of imagination and higher level of professionalism in presentation than the slate at past Capital Fringes.

But at Fringe, those two attributes—inspiration and craft—seem to coexist in a state of perpetual tension. Genius and polish are often mutually exclusive. This year, a rising tide of both seemed to lift all, but inspiration had the advantage. It was heartening to witness, and it left me feeling sunny about the health of the performing community in D.C. and beyond.

The shows I responded to most this year were the ones that seemed to me to reach highest, and occasionally beyond their grasp. But so what? Biting off only what you can chew is for, well, professionals.

Once again, the lineup seemed somewhat resistant to categorization beyond the official festival guide’s basic demarcators: Comedy! Dance! Drama! Like animals boarding an ark, the shows came in pairs: two monologues by veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, two solo shows about performers’ troubled sexual histories, two funny compilations of scenes of violence and death from various Shakespeare plays. (And that’s in addition to two discrete productions of Romeo and Juliet.)

Those two meta-Shakespeares might offer the best case study of Fringe’s tradeoffs between ambition and execution. D.C.’s two big Shakespeare houses are endlessly on the lookout for ways to acknowledge the elements of these 400-year-old plays that feel a little, you know, dated; their attempts to modernize them often grate. A visit to Fort Fringe this year might’ve shown them how it can be done.

43 ½: The Greatest Deaths of Shakespeare’s Tragedies, from Fringe perennial Nu Sass Productions, was the more fleet-footed and polished of the pair, offering a (more or less) backward-chronolgical tour of the Bard’s most visceral eviscerations, from the venom-tipped finale of Hamlet to the cannibalistic climax of Titus Andronicus. (Patrons in the front rows of the Redrum venue were given plastic sheeting to defend against the splatter.) The show was cleverly framed as yet another C.S.I. spinoff. As directed by Fringe veteran Sun King Davis, the show’s charismatic cast never looked like it was working too hard, even when it was sweating buckets, and the 80 minutes flew by.

But is “better” always better? 43 1/2’s unintentional counterpart, Off the Quill’s Violent Delights: A Shakespearean Brawl-Esque Sideshow, wasn’t as slick, nor the performances as assured. But it was arguably even nerdier and more ambitious in the way it revised the Bard’s more troubled schematic decisions, like the what’s-a-little-attempted-rape-between-friends finale of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It also required its large company of actors to dance and fight in half a dozen different styles, all delineated in the program. The cast members varied in their proficiency, but in the punk-rock environment of Fringe, just the attempt counts for a lot.

Meanwhile, Alexandra Petri’s hit comedy Tragedy Averted rewarded a basic familiarity with Shakespeare with even greater comic riches. It had the kind of pitch you could walk into a movie studio and sell: The doomed leading ladies of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet are all packed off to summer camp together, where a plot synopsis of The Taming of the Shrew becomes a spooky story told around a campfire, and the haunted lady in charge is obsessed with sanitizing her hands for some reason. Audiences love plays that let them feel smart. Petri’s play did, and was. But it didn’t wander into any corners it couldn’t find its way back out of.

Usually, that’s a good thing. But during Fringe we’re supposed to say: What’s that over there in the corner?

For every show that took an easily understood premise and executed it with unsurprising finesse—Ann and Shawn Fraistat’s likeable, hardboiled-gumshoe parody Detective Pimbley and the Case of the Rich, Dead Lady comes to mind—there was another that attempted something bolder and got there, or nearly did.

iLust for G-Love: An Auto-Ethnography, written by Kristine Quinio, Emily Crockett, and others, investigated through (predominantly) comic vignettes how the ubiquity of smartphones and social media is altering our methods of searching for, or expressing, love and sex. Not every sketch worked, and the critical integration of the live performance onstage and the projections of text messages, Facebook screenshots, and so on weren’t as seamless as they would’ve become with a bigger budget or more rehearsal time. But it was evident the piece had more on its mind than just making us laugh—though it did that, too.

Then there were the shows that looked like straightforward parodies of familiar genre fare but gave you something more, long after you assumed you’d seen all their cards. I flipped for The Continuing Adventures of John Blade, Super Spy, a James Bond sendup from Live Action Theatre, a company founded by theatermakers with specific expertise in stage combat. Based on its provenance, I expected the play to be a fistful of fisticuffs, and so it was. But thanks to a whip-smart script from Kyle Encinas, it overshot its obvious target and became a confident, hilarious riff on the very pillars of Western adventure stories, faithfully laying out the steps of the “Hero’s Journey” as prescribed by Joseph Campbell as surely as Star Wars did.

David Miton’s Fireball XL, from Lumina Theatre Company, was an all-female (or so we thought) riff on Star Trek, more so than the puppet-powered ’60s sci-fi TV show from which it takes its name. In a spacefaring future when men have gone extinct due to “loss of focus” (one of the piece’s better recurring jokes), the crew of the Fireball is dispatched to a remote planet in search of the fabled Lost Boys. But when the cause of the galactic manstinction is revealed, it turns out to be no mere MacGuffin, but something utterly contemporary and resonant. Which made Fireball XL both more surprising and, weirdly, truer to the preachy spirit of Star Trek. It gave you more.

As always, there were shows that didn’t try to coat their expressive payload in layers of crowd-pleasing fun. One of the festival’s most challenging and divisive was The Clocks. Honored with the Director’s Award (along with Disco Jesus and the Apostles of Funk, one of several well-received musicals in this year’s festival), which factors in the artist’s adventurousness as perceived by Executive Director Julianne Brienza, this impressionistic memory play from spouses Jason Patrick Wells (the playwright) and Jacy Barber (the director) recounted the events of a frightening day some 20 years in Wells’ past. The show contained no dialogue; its audio was a sonic collage of recorded voices, snippets of early-’90s pop music and the ticking of dozens of timepieces. Its sole character was a puppet manipulated by Barber—unless you count Barber and Wells themselves, who triggered all the light and sound cues from a laptop, projector, and boomboxes on stage, making no attempt to conceal themselves.

The Clocks was only 45 minutes long and its venue for all but one performance was the Studio Theatre’s Stage 4, one of the festival’s most comfortable. But 10 people still walked out before the end on the evening I saw it. This show, more than most, required the audience to meet the artists halfway, and perhaps a little more than that.

I respected it. I didn’t love it, but I talked to people who did. And it was evident that its opacity stemmed from the fact it was personal, not pretentious. “When people generalize about Fringe shows, The Clocks is what I imagine they mean,” I tweeted immediately afterward.

It aimed high. Really high, turning a few pieces of cardboard, a puppet, and some recordings played off a laptop into an investigation of the unreliability of memory itself.
It was outre. It was uncompromised in its execution (even when part of its cardboard set went missing, less than two hours before showtime). It was, you know, Fringe.

Graphic by Carey Jordan