Now in its fourth year, the Chicago Fringe Festival moves from Pilsen to Jefferson Park, offering 50 shows at five venues through Sept. 8, along with ancillary shenanigans (lady arm wrestlers and an "air sex competition") at Fringe Central, aka Fischman Liquors and Tavern.
The grass-roots nature means some venues are on the makeshift side. And because all the shows are chosen by lottery, quality control isn't top of the list. Still, Fringe Fest offers an eclectic mix of established companies and newbies, with works ranging from solo pieces to ensemble-created experiments.
"Hard Travelin' With Woody" (2.5 stars)
If "Beatlemania" aimed to re-create the Fab Four in concert, writer-performer Randy Noojin does something similar (and, to my mind, far more meaningful) with Woody Guthrie, the folk singer and patron saint of the working man who brought his restless, down-home brand of knowing humor and morale-boosting to union halls across the country. Noojin re-creates one such performance, and the nonspectacle of this stripped-down one-man show has an unexpected power that matches the simple potency of Guthrie's most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land." The year is 1940, and Noojin takes the stage wearing dirty jeans and a work shirt, a limp fedora on his head and a guitar slung on his back. His voice has more rasp than Guthrie's, but the storytelling and sardonic comedy feel right: "I bought a drink to drown my sorrows," he says at one point. "Turns out my sorrows float."
Guthrie was as earnest as they come and no doubt had an ego. He had a way, though, of undercutting his self-righteousness with a sly, self-deprecating wit, and Noojin's show serves as a reminder that Guthrie, unlike so many who reach his level of celebrity, was after something bigger than image or financial remuneration. Through Sept. 8 at the Picnic Stage, 5342 W. Lawrence Ave.
"Your Move" (3 stars)
Chicago-based ensemble Abraham Werewolf offers a cunning twist on board games, especially "Risk" and "Life," in Alberto Mendoza's new play. Though Dylan Parkes' production is billed as a workshop, both the premise and the performances are mostly in place for a mordantly funny snapshot of people trying to make sense out of senselessness by appealing to prefab structures and strictures.
"What do the rules say about death?" one player ask, only to hear, "Someone has died. The game goes on. Deal with it." The movement interludes feel a tad forced, but the company should definitely make the next move in developing this piece for a full run. Through Saturday at Hold the Pickles Stage, 5320 W. Giddings St.
— Kerry Reid
"Generation Sex: Get Connected" (3 stars)
Teatro Luna also offers a workshop of a company-devised piece, directed and developed by Alyssa Vera Ramos and focused, as the title suggests, on sex in the age of sexting. A musical spoof about online dating set to "Matchmaker" from "Fiddler on the Roof" and a nature-show take on exploring the vagina bring the late-night raunch, but vulnerability carries the day. Who knew that a piece about the dangers of hugging could feel so piercing? The young performers are still raw, but that somehow suits the honesty of the stories. Through Sunday at Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
"The Miscreants Run Out of Ideas" (2.5 stars)
The framing device for this cabaret-style revue centers on a show that we, the audience, will never see, called, appropriately enough, "The Roast of Alfred MacGuffin." Instead, everything takes place backstage as one hung-over performer after another sings a Broadway classic rewritten to suit their degenerated state of mind. "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" is replaced with "Obviously the problem is tequila." "Old Man River" becomes "Oh My Liver." As nonprofessional singers and actors, the Miscreants are as shambolic as they come, and their voices range from spectacular to not so spectacular (pianist Amy Pickering knocks it out with a parody of "Send in the Clowns" aimed at the knuckleheads she's been accompanying all night: "I Hate These Clowns").
It's as though you're watching a group of hard-partying friends stumble through a talent show, but their good-natured silliness is wholly appealing. Through Sept. 8 at Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
"The Neverland Players"(2 stars)
Fans of Barrel of Monkeys' long-running "That's Weird, Grandma" will recognize the premise: short plays by schoolchildren performed by adults, all recent graduates of Grinnell College in Iowa. The show does a decent job of incorporating callbacks to earlier stories and scenarios, but despite the palpable good cheer and enthusiasm of the six-member cast, the energy opening night felt uncertain, as if they didn't quite trust that the kids' words would translate in a fringe setting. Still, it's not always easy to find family-friendly fare at fringe festivals, and with more seasoning, Neverland Players may find a stronger footing. Through Sunday at Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
The Chicago Fringe Festival runs through Sunday; various venues. Tickets include the one-time purchase of a $5 festival button (which supports the event) plus $10 per show. Multishow packages available; chicagofringe.org or 773-428-9977.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun