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Fringe Festival’s early returns: Politics in the lead


Promotional image for “HOWL: In the Time of Trump.” (Michiel Hendryckx)

The Capital Fringe Festival is the city’s great open forum, a Rorschach blot of uncurated acts from around the city and the world. The ink stain so far looks like an elephant and a donkey waltzing in Shakespeare’s beard — or is that supposed to be the president’s hair?

Politics. Classics. Plays, ­dances, comics, experiments — the festival’s ad­ven­tures are uncurated, so happy hunting and buyer beware. You check into the headquarters, the Logan Fringe Arts Space on Florida Avenue NE, an amiable hive of music with bars and food inside and on the patio. Or you swing to one of the festival’s many venues around the city (though most stages are smartly clustered around Fringe HQ and its nearby partners, the Atlas Performing Arts Center and Gallaudet University). With roughly 100 events this month, the approaches are vast, but a political pattern appears to emerge.

This, according to Post writers interpreting the variety of the opening weekend, is the shape of things so far:

‘HOWL: In the Time of Trump’

In October 1977, the New York Times asked Allen Ginsberg a simple question: What do you like best about your own poetry? His answer: “Cranky music,” the “vowelic melodiousness, adjusted toward speech syncopation. Assonance, long mellow mouthings of assonance.”

That’s a good description, too, of “HOWL: In the Time of Trump,” a one-man show featuring Robert Michael Oliver. Over an hour, Oliver performs Ginsberg’s iconic poem like a Southern street preacher, running his voice up and down the luscious lines.

Though Trump is in the title, Oliver lets the poem do the talking and allows his audience to draw their own conclusions. I’m still not sure why I was given a hand puppet halfway through, or a glass of water; and I could have done without the devilish-looking mask that appears at one point, with a familiar-looking pompadour. But the show is a fitting tribute to “Howl,” which began its life out loud, as a reading at a San Francisco gallery.

It’s a fitting protest, too, against America’s crueler, colder impulses. That’s as relevant today as it was in 1955 when “Howl” was first presented.

July 21, 22 and 23 at Shopkeepers, 1231 Florida Ave. NE.

‘Nevertheless, She Persisted: Stories of Connection in a Disconnected Society’

Playwright Lauren Hanna didn’t so much write as “curate,” with permission, reactions to the 2016 presidential election from the outpouring of posts in assorted spontaneous online “safe spaces” that emerged in November’s aftermath.

Organized chronologically, the often-personal passages begin with hopeful, even assured feelings during early campaigning, turning to worries and election-night shock. Fear, horror and numbness make way for sharp questioning, defiance and even a glimmer of hope. Though it borrows its title from Senate leaders’ attempt to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), “Nevertheless, She Persisted” never actually refers to it.

The chosen prose, though often heartfelt, is not the stuff of readings. But that’s just how this is presented: Four women on chairs rise to read from a bulging script. And that’s it for stagecraft. There weren’t even any programs or handbills crediting those who helped create it. Crowdsourcing, it turns out, is not the best on detail.

July 15, 19 and 22 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE.

‘MacBheatha’

In Shakespeare’s tragedy, the murder-bound Macbeth does not ask himself, “Is this an aerial silk which I see before me/The dangle toward my hand?” But you might almost think his question ran along those lines when you watch “MacBheatha,” an overly ambitious muddle of a production featuring acrobatics with rippling textiles.

This Cirque du Soleil touch arguably helps evoke the magic depicted in “Macbeth,” the conceptual springboard for this show. But “MacBheatha” also deconstructs the Bard’s text with reference to so many notions, and with so little clarity or refinement, that the overall effect is one of clutter and murk.

One does have to admire the sheer audacity of director/producer Alana Wiljanen and her collaborators. They have concocted an hour-long aerial-silk-entrammeled production, which alludes to the real 11th-century Scottish king who was the model for Shakespeare’s Macbeth; to King James and other real 17th-century figures who were caught up in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (an event that has been seen as an influence on “Macbeth”); and to Plato’s theory of the soul.

The acting is shaky. The acrobatics are basic (Jenell Biggs, Lauren Olinger and Zoe Walpole, who channel witches, chiefly do the honors — I think). On a lone positive note, the white aerial silks nicely evoke, at various points, flames, instruments of torture and the boundary between the real and supernatural realms.

July 15 and 22 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE.

‘Thomas Jefferson Hoochie-Coochie Man’

Call it the “Hamilton” effect. Take a Founding Father, add a dose of irreverence, and you’ve got a hit, right?

That seems to have been the idea behind Clyde Ensslin’s Capital Fringe debut, “Thomas Jefferson Hoochie-Coochie Man.” The one-man show imagines Jefferson as the womanizer of Willie Dixon’s blues standard. Ensslin, as “Professor Clinton,” tells the story of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a slave with whom Jefferson fathered several children. Like Jefferson, Professor Clinton tells us, he’s a former president, a Southerner and has been “in the hound house” himself.

It’s a dubious comparison: There are significant differences, ethical and historical, between Clinton’s tryst with a White House intern and the horrific system of chattel slavery. Ensslin’s commentary consists mostly of chronicling previous, more interesting attempts to tell the story of Jefferson, Hemings and their children. You’re better off reading Annette Gordon-Reed’s excellent book “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.” No Bill impersonation, but a better history and a better story, too.

July 13, 15, 18 and 22 at The Pursuit Wine Bar, 1421 H St. NE.


“Abortion Road Trip.” (Yannick Godts)

‘Abortion Road Trip’

“Abortion Road Trip” is a rare thing: It’s a zippy, feel-good comedy that has managed to attract protesters before every performance.

Rachel Lynett’s play, presented by the emerging D.C. troupe Theatre Prometheus, follows Lexa (the charismatic Lauren Patton) and her sister Minnie (a caustic, charming Dominique Brown) on their taxi ride from Texas to New Mexico. The 25-year-old Lexa is unhappily pregnant, so she has paid Driver (a warm, winning Renae Erichsen-Teal) $1,200 to take her over the border to terminate.

The trio banters, bickers and “gets heavy” (Lexa’s term for talking about anything real). And though most of the show takes place in the car, a series of flashbacks reveals a more complicated story, one that includes sexual assault, substance abuse, betrayal and, yes, love.

That description makes the show sound like an after-school special where very important lessons are learned. But “Abortion Road Trip” is a blast. It’s serious but also very funny, with relatable characters and (mostly) believable complications. And while the show is unashamedly in favor of abortion rights (Quinn, the show’s sole antiabortion character, is definitely the villain), it doesn’t shy away from abortion’s nuances and messy complications.

That’s thanks in large part to the show’s cast, who infuse their characters with warmth and empathy.

As the antiabortion activists yelling “You suck,” and “You’re amoral” into a megaphone remind us, those qualities are often in short supply when it comes to this issue.

July 15, 18, 20 and 23 at the Logan Fringe Arts Space, 1358 Florida Ave. NE. The 2017 Capital Fringe Festival, through July 30. Fringe tickets $17, plus one-time purchase of a $7 Fringe button. Available online at www.capitalfringe.org, 866-811-4111 and at Fringe venues.


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