Purge_Credit_Aaron Reeves 4

A photograph of Brian Lobel’s performance, entitled “Purge” (courtesy the artist)

The Abrons Arts Center hosted the Forest Fringe Microfestival over the weekend of October 3. Forest Fringe originated at the Edinburgh Festival, a fringe within the Edinburgh Fringe, and has become internationally mobile as an independent entity. Though the festival promotes itself as experimental and radical, the events did not prove quite so mind-expanding.

The theater company describes itself as “not a theater” and “not a company.” Call it what you will, it was founded by three artists whose works were presented along with some installation and on-site ongoing performances over the course of the weekend.

Forest Fringe co-founders Andy Field and Ira Brand’s put your sweet hand in mine lives up to its title, though it follows a circuitous route to a tender finale. Two rows of chairs, facing each other and about three feet apart, await the audience. The performance space is dimly lit by a row of incandescent bulbs hanging overhead. In the darkness, an actor planted in the audience begins a recitation, alluding to the discomfort of our sitting together this way, the forced intimacy. Then another actor planted further down on the other side picks up the talking. You are asked to imagine that you are sitting on a train and have a sudden romantic connection to the person sitting opposite you. The narrative speculates on your future life together, as romance turns into a daily grind.

Later, the actors perform a striptease and a song, followed by an apology. Then they tell the spectators to hold hands with the person opposite. A sexual charge hovers over the moment, thanks to the preceding romantic narration, yet it also calls to mind group prayer. The handholding goes on long enough to become an unexpectedly intimate and revealing experience. In New York, decorum requires that we sit in close proximity on the subway and in theaters and stand shoulder to shoulder in elevators, but we do not touch. Violating the rule will provoke alarm, quite understandably. Here we were encouraged to do the forbidden. I became aware of the shape and feel of my partner’s hands and, through the way they were proffered and held, something of the character and sensibility of the person attached to them.

A promotional image for Deborah Pearson’s performance, “The Future Show” (courtesy the artist)

Deborah Pearson, also one of the co-directors, performs her process-based work, titled The Future Show. The conceit, as described in the show’s blurb, is that she writes a fresh script for each performance, though at Abrons she said that she reused parts of old scripts as well. The set-up is simplicity itself. Lit by a handful of standard white theater lights and a reading lamp, Pearson sits at a desk, her hands palm down in front of her, reading from a binder. She rarely moves, except to turn the pages, though she makes eye contact with the audience and speaks to them directly. In an opening speech, she cleverly anticipates the audience’s dutiful applause when she ends the show by taking her bow and gesturing toward the tech booth to acknowledge her offstage assistance.

While her first-person narration is in the future tense, it often sounds like the events have already occurred. She talks about her obsessive-compulsive disorder; she relates an incident that happened when she was seven years old; she frets about writing the script and performing; she talks about things in the neighborhood of the theater, such as a bar on the Lower East Side, and where she’s staying in Brooklyn; she charts the unspectacular events of her daily life to demonstrate that she wrote a new script for this particular show. And she anticipates her review in the newspaper, reviewing herself in effect before the show is over, and ruminates on her old age (“I will not always be young.”)

Some of the narrative becomes overly cute as she quits and rejoins Facebook. She disrupts her future-oriented thrust by bringing up the past: à propos of almost nothing, she throws in that her parents emigrated from Hungary to the United Kingdom sixty years ago. Her process is intriguing: having to write in a hurry could have led her to some startling discovery or caused her to relate some fresh, accidental experience. At least in this rendition, however, she did not meet the challenge of creating a script worth our time.

Made in China performing “The Gym Show” (courtesy the artist)

Forest Fringe co-founder Ira Brand performed with a group named Made In China, which created Gym Party, a piece that plays off the game-show format. Wearing white gym outfits and pink wigs, three actors compete in unusual contests to win the audience’s approval. The audience is polled about which cast member was raised in the most prosperous family, and which one they would most want to kiss. The actors shamelessly debase themselves, competing to stuff the most marshmallows in their mouths among other stunts. They repeat several times that they are performing for the benefit of the audience and show appreciation for their co-stars when they win the individual rounds of the competition. But there is punishment for losing, usually verbal humiliation.

The show is determinedly pop-culture-oriented and deliberately shallow. It strives to be twisted but remains rather tame and blandly familiar. The kind of forced, clichéd audience participation upon which the show rests isn’t experimental or radical, nor does it lead to any new ideas or perspectives. In the context of a larger fringe festival, say, if you’ve been trapped in a windy piece of bad theater, Gym Party might be a good tonic, but as an isolated vehicle it did not have a lot to offer. The Forest Fringe is right to think about the space and function of the audience, but it needs to be more daring, sensitive, and truly experimental when exploring this delicate terrain.

The Forest Fringe Microfestival took place at the Abrons Art Center (466 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) between October 3 to October 5, 2014.

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Paul David Young

Paul David Young is a Contributing Editor for PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (MIT Press). His book newARTtheatre: Evolutions of the Performance Aesthetic, about visual artists appropriating...