“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved
But here goes…
“An area of activity that is related to but not part of whatever is central or most widely accepted." That’s Fringe, or at least what Merriam Webster calls it. The outskirts, outcast, “out there.”
A tradition going back almost 70 years, to Edinburrough, Scotland, Fringe Theatre has long been, or meant to be, a risky, raw, even unkempt endeavor, all in the service of probing and experimentation. We watch Fringe to watch a process, not The Producers. We cram into little dark boxes, to sit in spitting distance of artists who stretch themselves to their breaking point, who give of themselves to the point of oblivion, who impart and connect, and do the things we fear doing. And we, as the imperfect audience, who cough too loud, forget to silence our phones and squirm awkwardly when things get too real, we get to act, too. We get to play our own role, that of the Witness.
In this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, I was in that role twice in one play. And I’ll be reprising it this week. On the opening night of William Mastrosimone’s Sunshine I witnessed three very different actors in an exercise not just risky, but utterly defenseless. I felt I could do with it what I would, do my worst with Sunshine, that imperfect and wide open girl, at once adoptable and abusable.
Now, Sunshine would have you believe she’s a girl, a loose one at that. She contorts her limbs, offers her groin too readily, gets loud and soft in one breath. She is counterfeit. Still, in not too long a time we see she is willing to disentangle, and show her fragile bones and steely eyes all at once. If you’re nice she will uncover the extra years she keeps beneath her thin voice.
And Nelson is nice, if crusty. And the crust, with cherry pie filling, is the best part of the chemistry between these two actors, Mary Kelsey and Don Smith. Where Sunshine is too much tuna, Nelson is a can of sardines and it just works. We add to the mix Adam Garst, in a swell turn as the wincing, burning Robby, who might as well come straight out of Caltech, and who bookends the play with honesty. Honesty here is meant as high praise, btw.
My debut performance in Sunshine, as Witness, second row, was on opening night, in which the play unfurled at breakneck speed. I wanted to shout “slow down, I didn’t catch that”, but I’m an obedient actor. I had no lines. Still, conscious as I was of my part as corroborator, I took in the terror of “first night” as a gift. Where Smith seemed relatively in control, Kelsey didn’t know the meaning of the word. And what more could I want from Fringe?
Let me shift tenses. In the second performance, a Father’s Day matinee, I play Witness, first row, a headier part to be sure, but a keener perspective. I feel in the zone. This time the pace lets up a little, letting me breathe between each unrest, letting me listen. I find Kelsey’s migration through the story more fluid, reaching firmer ground as Sunshine loses hers. But she is not done. Neither one. In a strange parallel, Kelsey’s Sunshine pinballs amid the sturdy styles of her partners. She lurches and wanes so often that by the time the final scene comes I’m stunned that any strength is left in this actress. And when that frail-looking mind and body, taken to its own breaking point, reveals a missile-like strength, pulverizing poor Robby with surgical rage, I go from stunned to astonished. She Will Fuck You. Believe it.