Out of the Fringe and Into the Spotlight

American political theater has met a slow demise since its glory days in the first half of the 20th century. People with an extra dollar to spend would rather be entertained, the mindless varieties of recreation being preferable to those that provoke thought or arouse discomfort.

But efforts such as the Fringe Festival, a nation-wide trend that caught on in the 1980’s, have assisted in a substantial, though still somewhat marginal comeback. Now an international phenomenon, the festival started in Edinburgh in the 1940s, Theatrical troupes excluded from the celebrated Edinburgh International Theatre Festival set up shop in ad-hoc venues -- literally on the fringes of the festival. Over the years, the excluded troupes and their audience ultimately formed a separate affair, which spread across the Atlantic and throughout North America. Today, dozens of cities in the United States and Canada host similar events, in which hundreds of independent artists who otherwise want for time in the limelight are invited to perform for audiences harnessed by the mobilizing powers of an organization dedicated to enabling independent theater.

Washington recently hosted its own second annual Capital Fringe Festival, which ran from July 19 to 29. Andrew Zox’s My Way Little Girl, which premiered last Wednesday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage, appeared to succeed in taking full advantage of the opportunities of the Fringe format.

Many of the more than 150 audience members who gathered to see Zox's production looked like they were there to see the classical brass ensemble scheduled for the following evening. Instead, they were presented with 30 minutes of performance art starring, most notably, five young women in bedraggled undergarments who posed, gyrated, and looked down at their crotches with confused expressions.

“When you put an overtly sexual piece on stage, there’s a lot of controversy,” Zox says. “But violence -- no one blinks an eye. I think that says a lot about the taboo of sexuality.”

The sexuality in Zox’s piece may be overt, but it is not by any means straightforward. With bales of hay in stacks on the stage, and a score provided by a gray-coiffed, wholesome-looking, banjo-playing fellow perched on a barrel off in one corner, My Way is a sort of ballet, loosely-termed. The Fosse-like grotesqueness of the five women, mysteriously entitled “bearers,” tempers their capabilities as seductresses, but the minimalism of their outfits curtails any glimmer of innocence as they succumb to a photo shoot where they pose, pout, and jut their various body parts before an audience that has been conspicuously thrust into the position of voyeur.

The bearers watch motionlessly while another youngster, fortuitously called “An Impressionable Little Girl”, is provided with a lesson in sex education that quickly turns into a tutorial in the arts of seduction and feminine mystique. The scene jumps to what is, presumably, a medical facility. Here the girls are subjected to examination by an institutional type in a sterile white coat, whose feeling and groping invokes alarmingly sexual overtones. The girls pantomime giving birth, seated center stage in a checkerboard pattern, their legs spread apart wide before the audience, with a spasm of movements more readily suggestive of the act that would have brought these births about. The spectator is placed in the uncomfortable position of perpetrator in the hyper-sexualization of a domain alleged to be deliberately de-sexualized.

At times, Zox’s amorphous innuendos serve him well, eliciting precisely the sort of confusion he seems intent upon illuminating in the young female’s experience of the clash of social messages. At others, his coded symbolism is clumsy and elusive. Two men with large black gloves on pedestals at the back of the stage, who periodically raise their hands and point, give the impression of some sort of overarching power, though their exact implication, or why the plaid get-up, is a conclusion left to be drawn from insufficient means.

But the paradox of American social conventions that Zox brings to the surface is a pointed one, made all the more impressive by the fact that he’s a man -- and his focus is women. “The images I personally see out in the world are of women in sexy lingerie... we’re a female-focused society,” says Zox. From one side of the tracks, Zox sees advertising campaigns and media images of what, according to corporate America, makes a woman attractive and sexy. And from the other side comes an equally negative force: programs, such as those funded by the federal government teaching abstinence-only sex education in public schools, that offer a wholly different doctrine toward youth sexuality, particularly for young women.

Indeed, the inherent sexuality infused into every aspect of Zox’s production, even, or perhaps especially, in places like the classroom or the hospital, where sexuality is institutionally prohibited. These settings harbor an odd coexistence of the omnipresence and suppression of sexuality. “We’re a society that’s both hyper-sexed and hyper-afraid of sex”, banjoist Dan Mazer put it succinctly.

Zox himself is quite young and doe-eyed, befitting his claim that, as a director, he intends merely “to pull popular images out of context and let you feel what you want,” without a specific agenda on the flipside. Quoting Thomas Jefferson, an odd but not absurd choice for wisdom in the field of women’s advocacy, he notes that it is the responsibility of government to change and meet progress, something he doesn’t believe ours is doing currently, particularly, he says, in the domain of reproductive rights.

Of course, neither the debate about sex education nor the one about media portrayals of the female body is anything new, though Zox’s montage of these two forces at odds with each other comes across as fresh. Perhaps this is because the sight of scantily-clad girls jumping about the stage hits home harder than printed words. Or perhaps it's because, in light of Congress’ increase in funding for abstinence-only education just a few weeks ago (despite studies proving the inefficacy of the policy), a desire for government programs that match the state of social progress is indeed being catapulted out of the fringe and into the mainstream. Most families with daughters have to deal with the contradictory forces of over-sexed media and stunting institutional taboos that leave little space in the way of the development of healthy female sexuality.

Clearly, Zox’s production, which likely doesn’t have the money or the support to garner mainstage attention for these sexual politics, may be able to get the word out by sneaking in the back door and striking a nerve with the Fringe Festival audiences.

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For more information see www.capfringe.org. Or check out a Fringe Festival in your city.