The San Diego International Fringe Festival keeps making its mark, expanding, and offering an ever-widening array of acts: musical, comical, dramatic, dancerly and uncharacterizable.

In this 4th Fringe year, there are more than 500 performances, with participants from 10 states and 9 countries (Australia to Ireland, Italy to Japan), over the course of 11 days (or, 11 “eyeball-busting days,” as the yellow-shirted ‘Fringeneers’ put it). Tickets remain affordable (0-$10 per show, less if you buy a Festival Pass). Fringe offerings include Buskers and Street Theatre (at Seaport Village), an Emerging Fringe regional scholarship competition for those in grades 7-12, a free Family Fringe, a Visual Fringe (arts & crafts), a Club Fringe (drinks, bites and entertainment from the Festival), and reportedly, the “world’s first bi-national Fringe Festival,” with performances in Tijuana’s Zona Central.

No show lasts more than an hour; you can see several – or many – in a day. There’s undoubtedly something for everybody, but it’s not all of a similar level of professionalism. That’s one of the tenets of the Fringe – it’s open to anyone and everyone. The presentations are “uncensored and unjuried,” promotional materials boast… but that also means there’s no quality control, and that can become teeth-gnashing at times, even if you watched the Preview (as I did), and saw 2-minute snippets of some 35 presentations.

Another frustration is transportation. With more venues than ever (12!), it’s harder than ever to get around. So even with careful planning, you might have to do a ton of walking, or a boatload of parking and re-parking. The Fringe organization, a non-profit called Contact Arts, affiliated with the San Diego Performing Arts League, still needs to figure out a way to provide shuttle service to the various venues (some out-of-the-downtown-mainstream locales may get left in the dust – and they shouldn’t).

All that said, The Fringe is still a fun, engaging, sometimes thrilling experience, and a chance to see many arts-lovers trolling the streets, happy to chat and/or recommend wonderful shows they’ve seen – or hand you a postcard-size promotion of their show.

I tried to be highly selective, but still, I found a number of the presentations … um, enigmatic. I couldn’t quite figure out the need for full (abridged) productions of Shakespeare plays, both featuring puppets (“Hateful Hands” AKA “Macbeth”, a creative endeavor by graduating Canyon Crest Academy student Jacob Surofsky;  and “Hamlet Comedy Hour,” which added little comedy to the tragedy, but featured a marvelous Claudius, played by the long-missed, skillful actor Robert Larson); and a dance “Eurydice” (by San Diego-based IsadoraNOW) that lost track of the story – or lost me, anyway.

The worst program description was perhaps the best presentation: the magnificent “1918,” performed by nine New Zealanders, half of whom were Maori and half Samoan, chronicling the Samoan suppression by the British and the island’s death toll from the Spanish Influenza epidemic of the titular year. The energetic songs and meagre narration are in Samoan; no matter. You get a strong sense of the travails and joys of everyday life, the devastation of the illness, and the hope that somehow, followed. It’s a stunning, riveting performance. Stay around and talk to the performers; they’re delightful, and more than willing to share their history, experiences, and discuss some of the beautiful, sharp and stylized moves they create in perfect synchrony.

Also in the ‘serious vein,’ don’t miss “Disappearing Act,” which was presented last year by InnerMission Productions and is back by popular demand. A gut-wrenching story of post-war PTSD, it’s wonderfully acted by the original cast. Here’s a link to my review of the 2015 production: https://patlauner.com/review/disappearing-act/  It’s sure to convince you to check out this show in Diversionary’s Black Box theatre, where it was originally staged.

Also at Diversionary Theatre (on the mainstage) is the delightful “Bedrooms and Boyfriends,” a series of three funny/touching one-acts, created by San Diego performers well known for their other (prodigious) skills: choreographer Michael Mizerany (“Peter and Bart”), actor Samantha Ginn, who also directs (“Giovanni & Charlie”) and actor/writer Jonathan Hammond (“Jonah and Joel”). As the titles suggest, each is about a couple – all sadly mismatched – and all are set on a center-stage bed. The performances are superb (Joey Landwehr and Scott Nickley; Katherine Haroff and Patrick Mayuyu; Joshua Jones and J.D. Burke) and the humor is sharp. These playlets should have a long life together – longer than any of these duos will last! (Note: NC-17 rating for nudity; it’s pretty sexy, too).

One more recommendation: “Belief No Repeat,” written by Courtnee Lynn Stagner, well directed by James P. Darvas, and well performed by three talented actors: Ray-Anna Young, Natalia Maggio and Aaron Lugo. This new drama (an idea hatched by Darvas) speculates on the aftermath of the 2015 mass terrorist shooting (14 died, 22 were seriously wounded) at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. The perpetrators or location are never mentioned in the play, but the references make it unmistakable. A young couple left their 5 month-old daughter with a relative and went off to commit an unspeakable act. This is the story of that young girl, 20 years in the future. It’s played out in parallel universes, but as the story initially unfolds, that idea is rather opaque. Two potential outcomes are posited: she becomes a devout Muslim who turns her back on her family history, or a  confrontational performer who capitalizes on it. A terrific, chilling piece of work that needs some tweaking to clarify the conceit, but it’s a provocative play already.

The San Diego Fringe is nothing if not impressive. Not only because it’s an ever-growing, non-profit, all-volunteer effort. Not only because 100% of ticket sales go to the artists. But also because it offers artists a change to stretch and grow and interact with their audiences and with each other. And you get in on the act. Catch it while it’s still here!


The 4th San Diego International Fringe Festival continues through July 3, in various locales around San Diego. See the offerings and schedule at sdfringe.org

© 2016 Pat Launer, San Diego Theater Reviews