Margo Stutts Toombs offered us free bourbon balls and a ride home to get us to stay until the 1 a.m. end of the Saturday portion of Freneticore's Houston Fringe Festival, held Thursday through Sunday at Frenetic Theater, but we didn't need convincing. After the evening's first performance, Out on a Limb Dance Company's The Character: Drive, we knew we were in for a treat -- and there to stay.
(Other Houston Fringe Festival performances were being held at Bohemeo's and Super Happy Fun Land, too but at the advice of Toombs and cofounders Rebecca French and Robert Thoth, we chose to remain at the main spot. Luckily, the festival lasts two more weekends.)
Freneticore is a nonprofit dance company based in Houston's East End. According to the company's website, they've been offering the best in avant-garde performance art -- theater, dance, film and music, namely -- since 2003. In 2006, they bought, renovated and named Frenetic Theater, a 100-seat space for artists at all stages in their careers to perform. Partnering with the Fringe Festival's original coordinator, Gerald Labita, in 2008, Freneticore created a yearly showcase of Houston's best "cutting-edge" performance art and artists.
"This is community outreach," said Thoth, technical director of Frenetic Theater.
Before the start of the first performance, guests bought snacks and drinks (sold by Toombs, who will be performing next weekend) and perused the 2012 Houston Fringe Visual Art Exhibition, a mighty small but mighty impactful display of art by artists in Houston and beyond. Philadelphia's own Hannah Claire Somerville's nine-count set of horses on textile, titled "back to basics (or the first rule of horsemanship)," was a quirky little distraction, as was Vanessa Hartsfield's "Inoculate," a crash test dummy, recycling symbol and green graph all in one.
Out on a Limb's The Character: Drive started a night of conceptually challenging performance pieces (except one: the point of the literally cheeky burlesque shows put on by Houston Burlesque Review and Dem Damn Dames was not "hard" to understand) that forced the mind to think; granted, this is what we would grow to love as the event progressed. The Character: Drive was broken into mini dance segments: Narcissus Pomegranate, I Be:fore You, Broke No. I-II and dirt, light, me. Megan Yankee's seismic solo movements in Narcissus Pomegranate were hard to understand -- you had to read the program to learn the theme -- but meaningful nonetheless. I Be:fore You was less challenging, but still complicated in displaying two hearts torn apart through two dancers entwining, intertwining and finally, breaking apart. Broke No. I-II paired L. Brooke Schlecte and Sarah Newton in an androgynous dance battle for supremacy and in dirt, light, me, Newton fell into and was reborn from the dirt in an explanation of being happy with the simple things in life.
Liberators, presented by Morningstar Theatrical Productions, LLC., came next, telling a past-to-present-to-past story of the Holocaust through the eyes of an aspiring filmmaker's Alzheimer-striken grandfather. The moving stage reading-slash-musical was led by the rich tenor of University of Houston senior student Peter Tran, who played the lead role of George Tanaka, the grandfather.
The late night brought free libations, and libations made for a lusty full house to see Under the Flannel Sheets by the Houston Burlesque Revue and Class & Cocktails by Dem Damn Dames. Dem Damn Dames was the better of the two, oozing raw sexuality (and pasties!) onto a barely lit theater floor.
Jhon R. Stronks's Slangin' and Sangin' in this House of Black Gods and Purple Jesus was unforgettable. The semi-autobiographical performance of spoken word, song, dance, film was hard to understand, but his near-perfect rendition of Whitney Houston's 1991 "The Star-Spangled Banner" brought tears to eyes (including ours) in Frenetic.
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It was a perfect night.
Until last year, Houston Fringe Festival was a heavy two-hour sit-session. In celebration of its fifth birthday, Freneticore has evolved into a three-weekend affair: two weekends chock full of a variety of performance art, followed by, "Anything Goes," two rigorous nights of back-to-back 15-minute performances by Houston's best onstage artists.
"We love being able to host all the local and out-of-town talent, to highlight experimental work and cutting-edge work," said French, Houston Fringe Festival's managing director.
"I want them to see something new and exciting that they've never seen before." Houston Fringe Festival continues next weekend, Sept. 6-9 (Make sure you see Toombs's one-woman onstage memoir, "0-60 and Insensitive," either Friday or Saturday!), with the "Anything Goes" conclusion Sept. 14-15. Visit houstonfringefestival.org.