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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: June 14, 2016

Biggest PortFringe yet hosts 120 edgy performances over eight days, starting Saturday

Written by: Bob Keyes
PortFringe celebrates 5 years Photo by Audra Hatch

PortFringe celebrates 5 years
Photo by Audra Hatch

With 120 performances of experimental theater spread over eight days and five Portland stages, the fifth annual PortFringe festival is the biggest yet.

Many of the acts are local, but increasingly performers are coming to Portland because of the reputation of PortFringe as a fun, artist-friendly festival in a hip, happening city during what is often a perfect week for weather.

“Our reputation is growing,” said organizing committee member Deirdre Fulton. “As PortFringe has become more established, the acts that travel the fringe circuits have heard about Portland, and heard really good things.”

PortFringe is a member of the U.S. and Canadian associations of fringe festivals, which means it benefits from word-of-mouth recommendations among performers. This year, acts are traveling from California, Georgia, Pennsylvania and New York to participate in this anything-goes festival. The lineup includes plays, experimental works, multimedia performances, dance, comedy and musical theater. Each performance is an hour or less, and most are performed multiple times throughout the festival.

Portland Stage is fringe central, serving as the festival’s social and performance hub. Other stages are at Geno’s Rock Club and the Empire.

Christmas in Bakersfield Photo courtesy of PortFringe

Christmas in Bakersfield Photo courtesy of PortFringe

Les Kurkendaal is traveling from California with his piece “Christmas in Bakersfield,” which he wrote based on an experience he had with his boyfriend. Here’s the show’s description: “This is the story of Les and Mike. When Mike brings Les home to meet his right-wing, Republican, caucasian family, he realizes that he forgot to give them a very important detail — Les is black.”

Kurkendaal, who is black and gay, works as a stand-up comedian. He wrote the show in 2008, bringing it together from comedy bits he had written about the experience.

Fringe is a perfect place for this show — or anything like it, Kurkendaal said.

“With fringe, it doesn’t matter what color you are or your sexual preference,” he said. “Everything is accepted and everything is a go. A lot of audiences who normally wouldn’t go and see things go and see things at fringe, because it’s easier to take chances.”

Fringe performances, he said, are unfiltered and not judged. Performers are encouraged to try new ideas and to work outside of their specialties. That often results in new work and collaborations that bring unexpected results, Kurkendaal said.

A good example is Kari Wagner-Peck, a Portland woman who writes a blog about raising a son with Down syndrome, A Typical Son ( Her play — her first — is a work-in-progress one-woman show about her experiences. She calls her show “Not Always Happy,” because that’s the message she wants to convey: People with Down syndrome are not always happy, even though that’s what much of the world thinks.

“The No. 1 perception is that they are always happy, which completely diminishes them of a full personality. No one is always happy. And because we are so crappy to them, we tell ourselves they are always happy so we can do whatever we want to them,” Wagner-Peck said. “It lets us all off the hook, with our diminished ideas.”

This is the first play Wagner has written. She’s performed it a few times as a staged reading. The fringe performances mark her formal debut as a performer.

Fringe felt like a safe and appropriate landing spot, she said. “Fringe is really edgy and subversive, and it isn’t typical theater – and I am not denigrating typical theater. But it is supposed to be about taking risks and talking about things that we don’t always talk about.”

Like Down syndrome.

She writes her blog from a parent-advocate perspective, sharing information and resources but mostly calling out people and society for marginalizing her son, Thorin. “Not Always Happy” is funny and irreverent, and Wagner-Peck performs with anger and passion. She calls it social justice storytelling, because she is standing up for her son to ensure he receives the same rights and opportunities as others in society. Performing at PortFringe is a way of reaching people who would never think about Down syndrome in any way, she said.

Harlan Baker, a local playwright, loves fringe because of the exhilaration of the week. It’s the highlight of the theater season for him and his peers, he said, because it offers the opportunity “to see something you wouldn’t normally see. It’s different spaces, different actors, different directors. It’s just a wild, wild week.”

Gran Via and Road to Castellon: Two short plays by Baker Harlan Photo courtesy of PortFringe

Gran Via and Road to Castellon: Two short plays by Baker Harlan Photo courtesy of PortFringe

Baker has two plays in this year’s fringe, both involving the Spanish Civil War. “Gran Via” and “Road to Castellon” are part of a trilogy of plays that Baker recently took to Spain, where they were translated into Spanish and performed as staged readings. His son lives in Madrid. “I felt that if I’m going to write about something out my bailiwick, I wanted to see how it would be received in Spain,” he said.

Now he’ll see two of them performed in Portland in English. “Road to Castellon” evolved from a 24-hour play festival in Portland a few years ago. Baker was given a prop, one word of dialog and a location, and had 24 hours to produce a play that incorporated those three elements. His prop was a doll, the word was “abracadabra” and the location was a beach. He wrote a play about two people with an urgent message to deliver, and the challenges they encounter during their mission. The other play imagines the American screen idol Errol Flynn in Spain.

Fringe allows these indulgences, Baker said. “Fringe encourages you to try things you might not otherwise try,” he said. “It encourages you to push the boundaries — to the fringe.”


WHEN: Saturday through June 26
WHERE: Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., is Fringe Central with three stages: Storefront, Studio, and Mainstage, as well as the box office and a place for general info. Bands will play daily at Portland Stage from 5 to 5:45. Other stages are at Geno’s Rock Club, 625 Congress St., and Empire, 575 Congress St.
HOW MUCH: Tickets to individual shows cost $10; a three-show pass is $28; a nine-show pass is $75; and a VIP super pass is $125. There are no reserved seats, but a Triple By-Pass” for $35 allows a pass holder to guarantee a seat to three specific shows.

Fringe Picks: Shows we think we’re going to like:

“Nixon Sings!,” Mark Magee
10:45 p.m. June 21; 7:15 p.m. June 25; 3:45 p.m. June 26
Fueled by scotch and regret, Dick Nixon spends his final night in office belting out show tunes.

“Kindness, I Suppose,” Noah Bragg
5:45 p.m. Saturday; 11 p.m. June 22; 10:45 p.m. June 26, Geno’s
Inspired by a Townes Van Zandt song, this is a play about whiskey, friendship and sacrifice.

“Beached, an Island Tragedy,” Maineland Productions
6 p.m. June 23; 7:45 p.m. June 24; 7:45 p.m. June 25, Mainstage at Portland Stage
Adapted from King Lear and set on an island in Maine, this is a story about interplay among generations and the fear of growing old.

“Whales,” Hit the Lights! Theatre Company
6:15 p.m. June 22; 9:35 p.m. June 23, Geno’s
A play about a whales and the men who hunt them — inspired by Moby Dick, punk rock and game shows — by a New York theater-and-music creative.

“Strong Female Character,” Marianne Pillsbury
9:15 p.m. Saturday; 9:15 p.m. June 22; 12:30 p.m. June 26, Studio Theatre at Portland Stage
Pillsbury, a Maine native, imagines famous screen characters at different moments in their lives than when we know them.

“Garbage,” Megan Bandelt
9 p.m. Saturday; 10:45 p.m. June 22; 5:30 p.m. June 24, Storefront at Portland Stage
A story about emotional trauma, blonde hair and perfectly stacking pill bottles.

“I Thought I Had This Figured Out,” Reckless Carnage
9 p.m. June 21; 9 p.m. June 25, Storefront at Portland Stage
Steph Ross directs this collection of monologues about private dreams and the day-to-day pursuit of dignity.

“Mamalogs,” Debbie From
7:15 p.m. June 21; 10:45 p.m. June 25; 5:30 p.m. June 26
From combines her joy of motherhood with her love of storytelling with adult-themed monologues about mamas.

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