During next week's Charm City Fringe Fest, audiences will be able to ponder a nuclear holocaust drama starring Charlie Chaplin, meet a young German girl who used to mistake the Nazi salute for a friendly greeting, and throw tomatoes at actors performing Shakespeare's "The Tempest."
If those experiences aren't about as fringe as they get ... well, trust us. They are.
"It can really be anything," festival co-founder Michael Brush says of the five days of theater and performances geared to introduce audiences to experiences perhaps outside their comfort zone. The idea, Brush says, is to provide a low-cost way for artists to present their works and audiences to try them out. With tickets selling for $10 a performance, organizers hope audiences will sample not only the fare they've become used to, but also be a little adventurous.
"Sometimes, you'll have a situation where Artist A attracts a certain type of audience and Artist B attracts a certain type of audience," says Brush. "Under the umbrella of the fringe festival, those audiences can see that Artist A exists, as well as Artist B. It gives them a chance to experiment."
Adds his partner in founding the festival, Zachary Michel, "People might know one or two companies, they might have been to a bunch of shows by those companies, but they don't yet realize that Hampden or Station North or downtown have other theater companies, ones they haven't been to."
And oh, the chances for adventure that Charm City Fringe Fest will offer. Some of the performing troupes will be familiar to local theatergoers. The Baltimore Improv Group will perform its specialty, an evening of spur-of-the-moment comedy based on audience suggestions. Glass Mind Theatre will offer excerpts from its season premiere, "Fallbeil," a historical fantasy connecting a Nazi resister with the sister of a recent war vet. And the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory will put on "The Tempest," but in a way that harks back to the way Shakespeare was performed in the Bard's day.
"Part of our core mission is to de-mystify or un-intimidate the idea of Shakespeare," says Kelly Dowling, the troupe's managing director. "We want to be able to say, 'Hey, Shakespeare can still be edgy and funny and entertaining.'"
In order to mix things up a bit, "The Tempest" will be performed in the way it might have been 400 years ago, when traveling bands of performers would often have to perform on just a few days' notice, putting on plays that had just been written, Dowling said. The actors will have only a few days to rehearse, they have to make their own costumes and props, and there will be no director.
"It's so counter to the process we follow now," Dowling says. And that includes the idea of projectile (fake) vegetables, to be hurled at actors audience members don't particularly like — or who forget their lines.
Other performers are not so familiar, in plays that sound deliciously out-of-the-ordinary.
"The Tramp's New World" watches as author and critic James Agee pens a screenplay for Charlie Chaplin in which the actor's Little Tramp character is the only survivor of a nuclear apocalypse. (Such a lost screenplay really did turn up a few years back.) "T-Minus Five," another doomsday scenario, puts you on the last rocket ship leaving Earth on the eve of destruction and forces you to help choose who will occupy the last five seats. "Please Don't Beat Me" offers comedian Adam Ruben telling tales of a childhood that included its fair share of such pleas.
Lucie Pohl will be coming down from New York to perform her one-woman show, "Hi, Hitler," the story of a German girl (who used to mistake "Heil, Hitler," for the far-less-intimidating greeting that gives the play its name) who moves to New York, then back to Germany, then tries returning to the U.S., only to discover the only way she can is by applying for a visa that labels her an "alien of extraordinary abilities." Once an alien, always an alien, Pohl says of her autobiographical story about "fitting in and kind of accepting yourself the way you are." After premiering the play in New York last month, she says, she's eager to see what folks in Baltimore think.
"I wanted to take it to a place where there is a lot of new and innovative stuff happening in the theater scene," Pohl says. "I thought it would be really interesting to bring it somewhere where there is less, in terms of the number of theaters, but not less in terms of the quality of the shows being performed.
"The cool thing about fringe festivals," Pohl notes with enthusiasm, "is that you see things you would not normally be able to see in your town. You really get a glimpse of oftentimes brand new, oftentimes exciting and oftentimes really rewarding work."
Fringe Festivals are nothing new; they go back as far as the 1940s, Brush says. Washington has had its Capital Fringe since 2005. But in Baltimore, where operating outside the mainstream is often taken as a point of civic pride (say hello, John Waters and Dan Deacon)? No fringe — until these guys came along.
Brush and Michel, who organized a brief two-day event in 2012 that served as a dry run for this year's festival, are confident Baltimore is ready.
"When we were putting this together, we talked with boatloads of people in the theater community around here," Brush says. "Half of them would say, 'Oh yeah, a fringe festival is really a wonderful idea, because so much of the art that is already happening in Baltimore is fringe.' The other half of the people would say, 'Why do we need a fringe festival? All of the art is already fringe.
"To us," Brush says simply, "it made too much sense not to do it."
If you go
Charm City Fringe Fest runs Wednesday through Nov. 10 at Single Carrot Theatre (1727 N. Charles St.), Baltimore Theatre Project (45 W. Preston St.) and the Great Hall Theatre at St. Mary's (3900 Roland Ave.). Tickets are $10 per performance; you also need a $3 festival pass to buy tickets. Several free pre-festival events, including a cocktail hour and live comedy and music, are set for Sunday and Monday at venues in Station North. Information, including a full schedule: charmcityfringe.com