Life on the Fringe 

This year's Fringe Fest features serial killer coming-of-age stories, dead letter offices, and other miscellany.

Having an open-door policy is a hallmark of the SF Fringe Festival — and of any fringe festival, for that matter. There's an artistic director (Christina Augello) but no curator, and the performers are all chosen by lottery. It's perhaps the most populist form of theater that exists. All proceeds go directly to the performers, and ticket prices stay budget-friendly (in this case, within the $7-$10 range), with the intent that audience members attend more than one show. Not to mention that participating theaters only sell 50 percent of the house up front, reserving the other seats for walk-ups. The range of options is pretty all-encompassing, owing to a complete lack of filters: comedy, drama, drag, solo performance, musicals, storytelling, devised work, nonlinear scripts, and even some sincere reproductions of classic material. If you see three gems and one dud, consider it a worthwhile theater-going experience.

But there aren't a lot of duds at this year's SF Fringe, which runs for 12 days in 9 venues, and includes 43 plays. Among the highlights are Poste Restante, a fifty-minute play inspired by the "dead letter office" — formerly the place where letters go when they can't be mailed. (It now has a much less romantic name: the mail recovery center.) Actors Bonnie Duncan and Tim Gallagher — who comprise the Boston theater company They Gotta Be Secret Agents — incorporate acrobatics, dance, shadow puppetry, and stop-motion animation into a storyline that's as much about miscommunication as it is about the mail. It's apropos of their creative process, said Duncan, since she lives in Boston and Gallagher resides in Philadelphia. They swap ideas via e-mail, but often prefer old-fashioned forms of information exchange.

Another promising work is The Texas Chainsaw Musical!, a two-hour romp that documents a serial killer's coming-of-age. The script makes good on its title, even though it has nothing to do with the film series. A "pantywaist runt" — a social reject who dreams of being a superhero — falls for a woman who leaves him and winds up in the hands of the serial killer. Pantywaist goes after her, and wreaks havoc on the serial killer's operation. Co-writers Chris Minori and Cory Bytof intended to give it a down-and-dirty black-box treatment but wound up with choreographed gore scenes and splattered blood.

If that's not enough to pique your interest, consider these other entries: The Frank Diary of Anne, which serves as a dramatized blog about love, childhood, and YouTube; the German play Suicide Me!, about a puppet-girl's quest to snuff herself; I Prefer Fur, a one-woman monologue with accordion backup; and Show No Show, an absurdist, hour-long sketch from Cirque du Soleil performer John Gilkey. Produced by Exit Theatre, the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival runs Sept. 9-20. SFFringe.org or 415-673-3847

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