All the men and women merely players

Wading cautiously into Seattle's fringe-theater crapshoot.

WHEN SOMEONE DRESSED like a kitty cat heads into the light booth to cue up the show, it doesn't exactly raise your hopes for a tightly run, carefully executed week of theater.

2001: A Fringe Oddity Seattle Fringe Festival

Capitol Hill, various locations ends March 18

I accept that I should have a better attitude concerning Seattle's 11th annual fringe festival: I realize how shamefully easy it is to slag off anything that features low budgets, interpretive dance, and indulgent naked people. And, God knows, we could all use another evening listening to someone's incest experiences.

It's true that 2001: A Fringe Oddity, with 10 venues for its week-and-a-half arts marathon on Capitol Hill, is a fine opportunity for unseen original work to receive some attention. Every now and then, a real find comes along—David Schmader's Letter to Axl made a fan of me back in 1994—and the fresh opportunity for a discovery each year can be an engaging hunt if you're willing to muck through some pretty thick theatrical marshes.

Last Saturday, unwisely forgetting the codeine I'd acquired from a recent surgical procedure, I attended the festival's free preview that followed the colorful Fringe Parade (thus the aforementioned feline technician). Seattle's fringe fest, by the way, is one of only four such U.S. festivals to feature an earnestly "nonjuried" roster of productions. None of these shows has been judged as part of the application process, you see—none of them. After sitting through two hours or so of short scenes from selected participating companies, I would just like to make one emphatic suggestion for the festival's big 12th birthday: Use a jury. The Inquisition, might I add, is too kind a process for some of these shows. A democratic theater is great, as long as it means you don't have to watch someone's aunt try her hand at comedy.

The following are some rancorously unfair acknowledgements—culled from the preview, past experience, and the festival guide—that may be of absolutely no use as you head into this week's fringe jungle.

Most Promising Use of Irony: Another Jackass Tries a One-Man Show. If solo performer Mark Boeker can make good on the knowing humor his show's title suggests, he just may beat the entertainment odds against knowingly humorous solo performers. Runner Up: Maria Glanz's See Me Naked. Glanz, who was an Artistic Pick winner in the 1999 festival for her solo Pu'uhonua, has buzz and brains.

Potentially Bearable Performance Art: Cords. Burnt Studio Ensemble had a Fringe sellout run last year with its ISO . . . (in search of), and its teaser at Saturday's preview was a crisply choreographed, cleanly delivered bit of light and music.

Potentially Bearable Silliness for the Whole Family: Is This Your Duck? Good title, juvenile magic, dumb jokes, and two amiably goofy performers (Ian Fraser and Christopher Bange) who seem possessed of vaudevillian patter and free of both guile and pretensions.

Potentially Bearable Sketch Comedy: Kazoo! 6. This Seattle troupe is a Fringe favorite and gets big points for its peerless breakup confessional song "I Only Really Wanted You for Sex." Runner Up: Up in Your Grill. Member Mike Daisey's current show about his battle scars (21 Dog Years) is well-observed and well worth a laugh—here's hoping his group can say the same.

Best Reason Given for Gratuitous Nudity: The Fallen Women Follies, a group of sex workers who must bare all in order to perform "erotic gymnastics."

Most Intriguingly Wanky Concept: 52 Pick Up. In a production directed by the reliably imaginative K. Brian Neel, theater simple presents 52 brief memories of a relationship, titled on a deck of playing cards and performed in the order in which they are selected.

Winners of the "Huh?" Honors for Baffling Publicity Blurb: The producers of Christmas Brotherhood, who use as a selling point the past reviews of two actors who are not in Christmas Brotherhood.

Show I Am Most Willing to Cruelly Dismiss Out of Hand Based on the Preview and Deal With the Flack as Long as It Means I Don't Have to See It: Tower Room Players' Run Between the Raindrops, a deeply felt drama about a battered woman whose apparent split personalities include a hearty sea captain conversing with his parrot. Ahoy, mateys: There's no shame in keeping these things between you and your therapist. Runner Up: Catholic School Girls. Ninety minutes of teenage performers from Shoreline cracking each other up. All the world is not a stage.

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