By Amy Rosenberg
With all the genre/venue/mood choices on offer during the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe's 16 days - 199 programs of all sorts and sizes - a little decision-related anxiety is understandable.
"It's a glut of ideas, installations, theater, dance pieces," says Aaron Cromie, a theater artist involved in several Fringe projects that speak to the festival's grab-bag nature.
One is A Paper Garden, a play focused on the history of French natural sciences in the era of Empress Josephine and performed in the American Philosophical Society's garden in a futuristic, digitally generated greenhouse (got that?); another is the epically intricate Cromie Brothers Benjamin Franklin Parkway treasure hunt Afoot!, on Sept. 10 between 1 and 3 p.m. (a new show every 10 minutes).
"People will complain there are too many things," Cromie says. "That's a great complaint to have."
So what's a cutting-edge Philly arts-seeker to do? Here are some strategies:
1. Stick with the tried and true Fringesters of past years. This would lead you to, perhaps, Applied Mechanics, which staged Portmanteau last year and is returning with Overseers, a "dangerous new tale of power, persuasion, and perpendicularity." Or to Dancing Dead, a macabre comedy (macabredy?) from festival wower Brian Sanders' Junk dance theater company, to be performed in the subbasement at 444 Lofts.
The Bright Light Theatre Company, another veteran, returns with All Places From Here at the Loading Dock on Frankford Avenue, a mashup of music, dance, and projections of Moroccan kids. Ranging even farther afield is perennial fave Thaddeus Phillips, whose Whale Optics washes up in Antarctica.
2. Consult the experts, who point to the world premiere of choreographer John Jasperse's Canyon at the Wilma as a can't-miss, for example. Or limit yourself to the small, professionally curated Live Arts portion of Live Arts/Fringe, with sought-after international artists like Traces' Montreal-based acrobats, and such highly touted local performers as Headlong's dancers, on Mars in Red Rover, or Pig Iron's actors, grooving to Gypsy rock in Twelfth Night.
For that matter, you could use the latter as a jumping-off point for a Shakespeare bender - Underground Shakespeare Company's Wars & Whores: The Henry IV Musical, Swim Pony's Lady M, a dark, all-female riff on Macbeth, and 11th Hour's Bomb-itty of Errors, a revisit of the company's 2007 comic rap (rap-edy?) version of A Comedy of Errors.
Or you might take in seven operas in a week (if it's Tuesday, this must be Menotti): Poor Richard's Opera presents "An Opera a Day" Sunday through Sept. 10 at Trinity Memorial Church. Or learn How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found from Luna Theater Company. Or go for Dark Comedy (improv in pitch blackness) by Philly Improv Theater.
Speaking of dark, Live Arts offers The Devil and Mister Punch from London's Improbable Theatre, a retelling of the puppet classic so dark that no one under 16 is invited. Also on the international/mature front in Fringe are Tel Aviv performers Shufra, who describe their Smiley as "a series of sexually charged monologues in a New Age empowerment workshop."
Live Arts' unifying theme is "At Home, Elsewhere," which festival artistic director Nick Stuccio says was inspired by "the Barack Obama phenomenon" of representing multiple cultures in one identity. Example: Two superb dancer/choreographers - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a Belgian, and Shantala Shivalingappa, trained in classical Indian forms - joust with their varied techniques in a duet called Play.
Stuccio also likes More Mouvements für Lachenmann, in which the Austrian ensemble Klangforum Wien will both play the music of Helmut Lachenmann and dance the choreography of Xavier Le Roy, as well as New Paradise Laboratory's Extremely Public Displays of Privacy, whose (online-only) Act 1 is part of Live Arts, after which Fringe takes over Act 2, a free walking tour, and Act 3, sited at a secret location you can discover during Act 2.
3. Go with your gut. Of course, you risk utter dismay at some of the inevitable duds from the big, messy, totally uncurated Fringe (pay the fee, your show is in), but you also may stumble on, or sniff out, unheralded gems. Cromie endorses this adventurous approach.
"When I'm making choices, I'll just think, that sounds like a cool idea, or what a cute picture on the postcard," he says. "It might be great and it might be terrible. Or it might have one element that's a saving grace. But I'll make a choice and take a chance - the idea is to get an opportunity to take a chance on something you don't know. Sometimes it's fun to see something that's a little wackadoo. There's a rawness to it that makes it worth seeing."
This might lead you to dip into, say, PuppeTyranny's Water Bears in Space, which Cromie is signing up for. "It's about a microscopic strange little creature," he says. "There's no way to know."
My vote for best zeitgeist title: Wawapalooza 5, presented by IdRatherBeHere and described as an "annual deconstructive comedy" whose tickets come with one free drink.
4. Punt. Go to the nightly after-party, this year at the RUBA Club at 414 Green St. in Northern Liberties. The official Festival Bar + Social Club will feature cabaret and variety shows hosted by Brat Productions. You can eavesdrop on people talking about what they just saw, and start making plans.
Live Arts Festival / Philly Fringe
The 15th annual festival showcases 16 days of nonstop groundbreaking performances of dance, theater, music, and interdisciplinary works by artists from the local, U.S., and international contemporary arts scenes. Locations throughout Philadelphia. Tickets: $10-$55, and some events are free. Information: 215-413-1318, www.livearts-fringe.org.