News Column

Fringe Fest review: '52 Letters,' 'Fish Girl' excel

September 10, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 10--San Francisco Fringe Festival: More than 150 performances of 37 shows at five venues. Through Sept. 21. Most shows run 60 minutes or less. No late seating. First shows begin 7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. $5-$10, five shows for $40, 10 shows for $75. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., S.F. (415) 673-3847. www. sffringe.org.

The raw passion in Regina Y. Evans' voice grabs hold and never lets go. The force of her presence and heartrending clarity of her message makes "52 Letters" one of the must-see shows of the San Francisco Fringe Festival, even if the topic is one we want to shun -- which is precisely her point.

Evans, who opens her solo on a slave auction block -- large male handprints all over her arms -- calls herself an Abolitionist. The slavery she's combatting with impressive performance skills, concentrated poetry and moral fervor is the invidious plague of child rape and prostitution, here and elsewhere. A mesmerizing blend of scathing personal stories, incantatory phrases, artful oratory and movement, as staged by Evans and Louel Senores for Oakland's E.J. Pearl Productions, this is theater as essential wake-up call.

"Letters" was the most unforgettable of the six pieces I caught in my Fringe visit Saturday, but far from the only one worth recommending. By odd luck-of-the-draw coincidence, it was also just one of five to deal with some form of sex-as-commerce -- only the buoyantly G-rated "O Best Beloved" did not. But where "Letters" deals with rape for money, the others are more concerned with consenting adults.

That came as a surprise in the first two, disappointing shows. Concupiscence Productions' "Luna Noctiluca," created by Brooke Silva with co-director Scott Dare, injects contemporary pro and con material about sex work into Oscar Wilde's "Salome."

It's a fairly ambitious but thin attempt at a Charles Mee-like mashup of a classic, flatly staged and performed -- except for Caitlin Lushington's poise and provocative dance as Salome and Lindsey Martin's sly commentary. Sandra Brunell Neace's "Parly Girl," loosely directed by La Ronda Etheridge, is a similarly flat attempt at drawing bitter humor from stale gripes about waitressing in New York, with a sex-for-hire twist.

"O Best Beloved" is a welcome palate cleanser, if only due to the everlasting charm of Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories" on which it's based. The cloying cuteness of the adaptations is more than offset by the skill and high energy of the actors and director Rebecca Longworth's inventive special effects.

Nancy Eng's "The Women of Tu-Na House" from New York (Mad Cat Productions and Leviathan Lab), a hit of the Hollywood Fringe, is a clever cross section of the proudly matter-of-fact sex workers at a tui na massage parlor. Eng's characters are crisply and affectionately drawn, though the format becomes repetitive under Ernest Abuba's direction. Her house madame is a particular gem, piously praying to Catholic saints and ancient Chinese gods alike, and asking Buddha to bless Jesus' heavenly father.

"Fish Girl" is the other hot ticket from my Fringe sample. Created and engagingly performed by versatile actor Sean Andries and sex worker-performer Siouxsie Q -- produced by Bathtub Theatre and Q's popular "The WhoreCast" -- it's the tale of an Iowa innocent (Andries) who falls in love with a San Francisco freak-show mermaid and singer (Q, who wrote the siren songs). The love story is charmingly difficult, growing more beguiling as myths and realities shift.

With hindsight, I could've made some better choices. That's the Fringe experience. But I wouldn't want to miss "Letters" or "Fish."

Robert Hurwitt is The San Francisco Chronicle's theater critic. E-mail: rhurwitt@sfchronicle.com

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