Two Eli productions stand out at New York’s Fringe

For most aspiring thespians, performers and artists, it takes a long career and a wealth of real-world credentials to wind up at the New York International Fringe Festival, North America’s largest multi-arts fest. Every August, the highly selective gathering showcases some of the world’s best performing arts troupes. The Fringe spans 16 days, 20 venues and includes more than 200 companies — many of which are flush with graying producers, a glamour-shot cast of thirtysomethings and bios that wear their Cirque du Soleil and David Letterman credits with pride.

“We were all sort of flabbergasted that they would let us little kids be a part of it,” Olivia Milch ’11 said.

Milch was one of the producers for “@lice in www.onderland,” one of two homegrown Yale productions that had impressive showings at this year’s Fringe. Advertised as a “multimedia dance adaptation” of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, the show debuted at the Yale Off-Broadway Theater this past April, where Alice found herself IMing the Cheshire Cat, fielding tea party E-vites and moving Tetris blocks of information. Although the show is unscripted, its creators, Maggie Burrows ’10, Allegra Long ’08 and Celeste Ballard ’08, submitted a “map” of their vision to the Fringe in February. It wasn’t until the beginning of May — nearly a month after the show had closed at the OBT — that they found out “@lice” had been accepted.

The production moved to New York and retained a cast and crew of Yalies, with the addition of co-producer Sam Grey, a junior at Brown University, and a professional dancer who auditioned in New York. Per Fringe regulations they had to redesign and conventionalize the act (goodbye, massive Tetris monolith).

“Some things we changed because the moments didn’t read as well as we wanted in our first run,” Burrows recalled. “Allegra, Celeste and I worked very hard to keep our vision even with the new limitations.”

Apparently Backstage East — a New York newspaper devoted to theater in the city — thought it worked, hailing the “physical grace and visual imagination” of the performance as a “nonstop pleasure to behold.”

Similarly, a play by Molly Fox ’08 and Sarah Hirsch ’09, ”Usher,” a new musical based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” was birthed on the stage of Yale’s Off-Broadway this past February. In the spring of 2007, Fox and Hirsch met by way of a collaborative project between professor Tina Landau’s libretto writing class and professor Joseph Thalken’s composing class.

“We ended up writing a beautiful 10-minute piece about Raoul Wallenberg and discovered that we had similar aesthetics,” Fox said.

Under professor Landau’s mentorship, Fox developed the treatment for “Usher” and contacted Hirsch to do the music. By the end of the summer, the two had a first draft and held auditions during shopping period. Around the time of the musical’s debut in February, they submitted “Usher” to several festivals and were accepted by both Fringe and the Midtown International Theatre Festival.

“For various reasons, doing the Fringe Festival seemed to make the most sense,” Hirsch said.

The original leads — Casey Breves ’09, Ben Wexler ’11 and Claudia Rosenthal ’08 — remained in the cast, while a fresh production team was drawn from the Yale School of Drama.

The dynamic seemed to work, as the performance soon attracted rave reviews: Trav S.D. at the Village Voice said it was “far and away the best show I have seen in the festival,” and the New York Press awarded it similar accolades.

“We are in discussions with a few regional theaters in Boston, Chicago and D.C., and soon you will hear of ‘Usher’ going up in one of those cities,” said Fox, who was recently awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship to earn her doctorate at Cambridge University. “Perhaps I’ll submit ‘Usher’ to some theaters in England while I’m there.”

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