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Washington Blade 2008

On the Fringe

Smattering of gay material augments festival’s strong lineup


Friday, July 11, 2008 

Washington Blade

Bill Toscano and Kevin Smith used to be boyfriends. They first got together about 20 years ago. After 18 months they broke up, but managed to maintain a close friendship and over the years have collaborated on various projects. The most recent fruit of their long relationship is “Bear Beach,” a musical that celebrates the little bit of bear in everyone.

With rock/pop music and lyrics by Smith and a busy book by Toscano, their ode to hairy harmony is the pair’s first entry in the Capital Fringe Festival. Now in its third year, the festival, running through July 27, presents the unjuried work of known and unknown actors, singers, dancers and performance artists at low prices in 14 venues around town. Typically the work strives to be edgy, is sometimes bad, but often quite wonderful. Mixed in with all the madness are works of gay interest, including “Bear Beach.”

The show’s story is set in Rehoboth, specifically on the laid back stretch of beach called North Shores where you’re likely to find some fuzzy, sometimes round-ish, ostensibly butch gays otherwise known as bears (as opposed to that other strip of white sand, Poodle Beach, with its tauter, plucked regulars at the southern end of the once-quaint resort town). The offbeat show focuses on a group of friends rehearsing a rock opera on the beach. Playing characters eerily similar to themselves, Smith and Toscano are part of a diverse 10-person cast.  
Smith, a former Baltimore-area resident who now along with his partner divides his time between San Francisco and Rehoboth (Toscano, a professional actor, lives between New York and the D.C. area), has identified as a bear for some time.

There is a musical moment in the show when Smith’s character, Kyler, embraces his ursine-ness. The song is titled “Am I Who I Am: Be a Bear.” The epiphany is drawn from the composer’s real life.

“I was cast in Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s production of ‘Evita,’ and I decided to grow a beard for the role,” he recalls. “It grew in white and bushy like Santa: I remember looking in the mirror and asking ‘Who the hell is that?’ It was then that I first considered myself a bear and I’ve never looked back.”

IN OTHER GAY Fringe news, two local gay artistic directors — Daniel Phoenix Singh of Dakshina/ Daniel Phoenix Singh & Company and Mark Chalfant of Washington Improv Theater (WIT) — are joining forces to create an interdisciplinary Fringe event for one night only at the 9:30 club.

The joint project is comprised of three segments. The first is a modern dance cabaret piece titled ‘Songs of My Life.” It’s partly inspired by Singh’s experience as a tourist in Cuba where he witnessed intergenerational crowds dancing the night away in small Havana nightclubs.

This is something we don’t have,” he says. “I’m trying to bring more dance into lives here in the U.S.”
Singh also incorporates his passion for dancing in our local nightclubs.

“Before they closed I danced a lot at clubs like Chaos and Nation,” he remembers. “Whenever I went, I particularly enjoyed the dancers who would be encircled by onlookers. I’ve always been curious about this kind of performance that takes place in non-traditional performance spaces — like a dance floor in a club.

The second segment involves a dozen of Singh’s dancers and four WIT actors improvising movement and text, respectively, from words and phrases elicited from the audience. Those familiar with Singh’s company — best known for modern dance and traditional Indian dance — might be surprised that they’re tackling improvisation, but actually, Singh explains, when he is choreographing pieces, he calls upon his dancers to improvise; and also in Indian dance, the most skilled dancers are known for their ability to improvise to the percussionist’s rhythms.
The final segment is a dance party in which volunteers from the audience will be invited to perform their best moves onstage. Come prepared — this may be that long-awaited opportunity to shine.

Cory Ryan Frank is set to make his directorial debut at Fringe with “Lebenstraum,” a “what if” play (What if a contemporary German chancellor were to, as an act of redemption, invite six million Jews to Germany?) by Israel Horovitz. Frank’s production will run will for six performances at Studio Theatre’s Stage Four.

Frank, who received an MFA in theater design from the University of Maryland in May, is helming a three-person cast (playing 40 parts) and design team of other University of Maryland students and recent graduates. Their company — especially minted for Fringe — is called Open Drawer Theatre.

“This is an amazing opportunity for a new artist,” says Frank. “And Lebestraum is a politically relevant play. Written in the late 1990s, it’s all about how when a small group of people gain political control and are able to control the destiny of others and destroy many lives. Yeah, it’s a really timely work.”