Among the Intellectualoids

The Lunatic Fringe

Scenes from an alternative festival for plays that would not -- and perhaps should not -- otherwise be performed.

By 7.22.08

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A bottle of champagne is broken to shards and bits against an iron fence on a sidewalk along Washington's New York Avenue. Told to wait outside in the blinding sun for this, the press stands awkwardly to watch as Fort Fringe is "christened." This shack, where converses and black-tees are the order of the day, is the new home of the Capital Fringe Festival, a summertime theatre festival.

"Accept the spiritual revelation you will inevitably experience during Fringe," Angie Fox, the Festival's chairman, says.

With over 120 plays and performances, D.C.'s 18-day Fringe Festival kicked off its celebration of "unjuried, risk-taking" theatre on July 10. The first Fringe Festival began in Edinburgh in 1947, and has since then spread to cities like New York, Asheville, Cincinnati, and Washington D.C., which is now in the midst of its third Fringe Festival. Fringe Festivals give reactionary, edgy, and alternative performers spaces for plays that would otherwise never be performed.

And there is typically a very good reason why these small, radical productions could not make it on their own. Here are just a few: poorly written scripts, poorly trained actors, poorly directed plays, or, the ignominious trifecta of all three. (In one, a pimp-son who has just beaten his wailing mother, straddles her on the floor and howls into her face, "Pay me, you slut.")

It's no surprise then that Ms. Fox described Fringe as a "dark, scary alley." A reference, in a play called "The Nature and Purpose of the Universe," to nasal sex comes to mind.

EQUALLY DARK AND SCARY is Mike Daisey's one-man-show, "If You See Something, Say Something." The monologue weaved Daisey's experience touring Los Alamos with his brief and sketchy history of the Department of Homeland Security.

Daisey, who has been called a "master storyteller" by the New York Times, has written and performed many monologues, including "The Ugly American," and "I Miss the Cold War." As is revealed in his monologues, he has had a childhood obsession with the Cold War and, specifically, with what went down at Los Alamos.

This came through in his performance, which premiered at the Woolly Mammoth theatre in downtown D.C. two weekends ago.

Daisey sat behind a wooden desk and held court for two hours. As he wiped the film of sweat from his round face, Daisey rattled on about the evils of government, the horrors of standing armies, the imbecility of army officers, and his vivid recollections, as a 30-some year old, of the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The moral of his threadbare story is that our government, encouraging the terrorists it has employed at Los Alamos and elsewhere to torture, kill, and destroy, needs to experience its own comeuppance. Daisey, who got his hands on an employee orientation film from Los Alamos, quotes the orientation leader: "we like to think we're the good guys... No one can even conceive of penetrating us because if they do we'll erase them completely."

But it doesn't end there. For the fame-craving pessimist, there is always insult to add to injury. In this case, it was the obligatory Guantanamo/Abu Ghraib reference. Speaking of the government, Daisey spits unto the stage (this was of some importance to me as I was in the front row), "We torture the s--t out of people and we like it." Curiously, at the time it seemed that this was an apt description of Daisey's own behavior towards his audience that Sunday afternoon.

IT IS FOR THESE little bits of comic genius that Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth's artistic director, described Daisey as "provocative" and "a real intellect." That, and no doubt the fact that in his monologue he had the "courage" and "intellect" to liken our Founding Fathers to the terrorist murderers who attacked our country on 9/11. Daisey, who overestimates his capacity for genius, insults his audience by explaining that both groups were enemy combatants, and both are terrorists doing what they have to do -- what they must do.

Contrary to what Shalwitz may think, it takes perhaps less intellect than chutzpah to do what Daisey did to his audience and his country on the stage this past weekend. Perhaps Daisey fancies himself as some sort of intellectual terrorists or cultural guerrilla. Thankfully, given his propensity to anger, Daisey is merely a self-absorbed blowhard, and not a pilot or weapons expert.

Predictable in his fury, Daisey may be inspired to produce yet another monologue next year, this one perhaps about FISA, predatory lending, or John McCain. And if he does, you can rest assured that the folks organizing next summer's Capital Fringe Festival will be quick to call on Daisey to enliven their "dark, scary" shtick.

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About the Author

Emily Esfahani Smith, an editor at the new conservative blog Ricochet.com, is also managing editor of the Hoover Institution journal Defining Ideas.