Making a Meal of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival

Last Friday night, a group of about a dozen of us walked into a woman’s vagina. It was red, French-accented and soft. This was near the climax of “The Path of Pins or the Path of Needles,” a cynosure of this year’s FringeArts Festival in Philadelphia, which began on Sept. 8 and runs until Oct. 2.

Philadelphia’s Fringe began in 1997, the same year that the New York International Fringe Festival got started, both of them modeled, loosely, after Edinburgh’s Fringe. (The New York festival hasn’t been presented since 2019.) Most years, the Philadelphia Fringe has included several big names on the performance circuit — big enough to attract out-of-town ticket buyers — while also demonstrating a strong commitment to local artists like Pig Iron Theater Company, Lightning Rod Special, Thaddeus Phillips and others.

Since the pandemic, the presence of artists from beyond Philadelphia appears to have diminished, but the festival still includes more than 180 theater, performance art, dance, circus and comedy shows. Last weekend I could have seen a musical about sleep apnea or an improvised Dungeons & Dragons adventure — aren’t all D&D adventures essentially improvised? — or, if I were less uptight, “Bath House,” which was advertised as “a deeply sensory immersive theatrical experience dripping with erotic energy.”

Instead, I went with “The Path of Pins or the Path of Needles,” a collaboration between Pig Iron and the filmmaker Josephine Decker, and “Food,” a solo show from the Pig Iron member Geoff Sobelle (who also makes work with the theatrical group rainpan 43). And as a kind of palate cleanser in between, “Yes, We’re Ready, We’ll Split an Order of Fries for the Table — Does That Work for You? — Sure, One Check Is Fine,” an elegy for the American diner. At a late-night cabaret, I also caught a drag peep show with a butcher shop theme. Nothing I saw felt finished (in fact, I received a post-show email from “Path” clarifying it as a work in progress), but all seemed to take on questions of nourishment and nurturing. How we feed. How we are fed.

Diners sharing French fries in “Yes, We’re Ready,” a tribute to the diner. Credit…Mike Durkin

“Path,” a site-responsive piece staged in a shabby mansion to the north of the city, imagines its audience members as people in the late, sway-bellied stage of pregnancy. The cast, mostly women garbed in flamboyant thrift-store finery, is spread out across the lawn — jumbled with beds, lamps and clotheslines — and the first floor of the house. It is nearly sunset when the show begins and just after dark when it ends. This golden-hour gloaming lends the show a dreamy, fairy-tale quality. If some of its subject matter inclines toward the grisly, that’s true of fairy tales, too.

As a filmmaker, Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline,” “Shirley”) favors intense psychology and surrealistic flights. For “Madeline’s Madeline,” a movie set in and around the world of experimental theater, she studied with Pig Iron. This new collaboration marries that company’s physical and metaphysical theatrics with Decker’s feminine, fevered aesthetic. There’s a sense of play here. And also a sense of danger.

Some scenes are quiet and abstract, as when a pile of clothes is flung into the air, then carefully folded. Others are noisy and more pointed, as when audience members are given scraps of paper, each of which details a mother’s failures, and asked to recite them, loudly. Much of the show suggests an ambivalence — angry, funny, raucous, witchy — toward pregnancy and motherhood and the lived reality of the female body. A pumping bra is used to droll effect (though, honestly, I had hoped to never see a pumping bra again), and many of the lines have a comic anguish.

“I used to be a woman who washed my hair!” one performer wails.

It wasn’t always clear if we spectators had the freedom to explore the various locations or if we were constrained to follow where led. (The freedom that a pregnant body does or doesn’t have is a resonant theme, especially now, but this tension felt accidental rather than intended.) I’m relatively obedient, so I went where I was bid and read from Daphne Spain’s “Gendered Spaces” when asked. But late in the play, when a performer asked, “Does anyone feel like decomposing?” I veered elsewhere. Because feeding a baby is one thing. Being food for worms? That’s another.

Geoff Sobelle in “Food,” a meditation on what and how and why we eat.Credit…Maria Baranova

The next day I found myself seated at a long table at one end of the Broad Street Diner, sharing a bowl of crispy, salty, twice-fried French fries. This was a highlight of “Yes, We’re Ready,” Mike Durkin and Nick Schwasman’s daylight tribute to the diner. Gentle if haphazard, this show celebrates the phenomenon of the all-night eatery with jokes, stories, snacks and friendly audience participation. Its relationship to theater feels remote and its structure limp in the way of an abandoned onion ring, but it is unfailingly cheerful and kind. And maybe theater would be a happier place if more shows allowed ticket holders, like the ones seated near me, to happily demolish shared plates of chicken fingers and Belgian waffles while the action unrolls.

This was an appropriate appetizer for Sobelle’s “Food.” As he proved in “The Object Lesson” and his work with rainpan 43 (“all wear bowlers,” “Elephant Room”), Sobelle is both a philosopher and a clown, and “Food” is his meditation on what and how and why we eat. It begins with the first multicelled creature to evolve a mouth and ends with the promise and devastation of the global food system, with a multicourse dinner served in between. Not served to you, of course. Though if you are seated at the table at which the action takes place (I was shunted to a balcony), Sobelle may pour you a glass of wine.

For much of the show, Sobelle plays a harried waiter — attentive, dandified, arrogant. Using prompts and magic tricks and graceful physical comedy, he makes an enormous amount of food appear and then disappear, seemingly down his own gullet, as in the Monty Python skit. A point of concern: Should one man really drink that much ranch dressing? Each course has been prepared with care, though how those courses interrelate and whether they constitute a full meal is less certain. The show seemed to end about five different times before actually concluding, which suggests a disjointedness, a difficulty in translating so many ideas — good ideas! — into theater.

And yet, I would watch Sobelle do just about anything — like, say eat half a dozen apples in just a minute, even from far away. (And for those at the table, there are opportunities to do more than merely watch and listen.) The ending, when it does come, doles out one final conundrum. Do you applaud? Or tip your waiter?

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