Philadelphia Fringe Festival (The Theatre Times)

October 1, 2017

By Jessica Rizzo

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival, now in its twenty-first year, has been gentrified. What began in 1997 as a loose network of scrappy local arts groups presenting sixty-odd pieces in Philadelphia’s Old City district over five days has grown into a seventeen-day affair that imports international avant-garde superstars like Romeo Castellucci and Ivo van Hove to present curated productions in state-of-the-art, higher-capacity venues, while over a thousand uncurated performances now take place in basements and bars from Fishtown to Manayunk to Queen Village. As always, gentrification comes with certain tradeoffs. The roving Fringe Bar, which once consisted of dirty floors and well whiskey served in plastic cups has become La Peg, a multi-level restaurant that serves oysters, duck prosciutto, and “country-fried quail” year-round, while performance work in various stages of development is presented in the adjacent theater space several times per month. Production budgets have gone up, attracting more “world class” talent, whatever that means. Ticket prices have gone up accordingly, thus presenting obstacles for those artists and audience members from less privileged classes. The most visible aspects of the festival are more grown-up, more refined, more financially stable, and safer in the sense that the headlining acts often have multiple decades of experience producing award-winning work under their belts.

But artistic safety should not necessarily be the overriding consideration of a festival that prides itself on celebrating the unconventional, the innovative, and (as the appellation “fringe” suggests) the simply marginal. It is, therefore, my pleasure to report that much of the most invigorating work at the 2017 Fringe Festival was still both trenchantly experimental and homegrown. With the threat of nuclear war with North Korea dominating the headlines and one disastrous September hurricane after another, heightening anxieties about the coming climate change apocalypse, however, it seemed appropriate that themes reflecting a certain ambivalence towards the physical safety of future generations and the future itself would dominate this year’s festival offerings.

Pig Iron Theatre Company, responsible for many deliciously delirious highlights of Fringe Festivals past, presented A Period of Animate Existence, a conceptually ambitious work of “symphonic theater” about life in the age of the Anthropocene, the proposed term for the present geological epoch, marked by significant (and deleterious) human impact on the earth’s ecosystems. Directed by Dan Rothenberg with a powerful, eclectic score by Troy Herion, A Period of Animate Existence attempts to wrestle the overwhelming facts of humankind’s implication in the planet’s annihilation down to a human scale. It does so in five stylistically distinct “movements,” each conjuring different possible emotional valences and attitudes toward our present situation. One, starring an apparently sentient halal cart, fantasizes with a certain cold, technophilic optimism about the possibilities of a future free of flesh and blood. “Humans,” the halal cart tells us, “are the reproductive organs of machines.” The longest movement features a chorus of children and a chorus of elders joining forces to put on a charmingly rough-hewn “pageant” about the dying earth that employs a series of sets on wagons, borrowing aesthetically from both the religious pageants of medieval drama and the sorts of pageants contemporary elementary school students put on for indulgent relatives. This might be the most conventionally poignant section, concluding with the death of the “last grandmother” and a dozen children shouting directly at the audience, beseeching us to remember them. “Save our home,” they demand, “don’t destroy our future.” Another section consists of a strangely soothing song about the ultimate insignificance of the human species in the great flux of time: “Something always was / Something always will be / Let that set you free.” Other sections are less effective, and the piece does not handle the potentially interesting dissonance between the five movements in a productive way. A Period of Animate Existence wants to be Einstein on the Beach. It isn’t. But it asks questions as vast and unanswerable, and like Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s masterpiece, it succeeds in charting authentically new emotional territory.