…and as the curtain speech concludes, the lights dim, and I hear a voice to my right mumble “That’s new.”
I glance over. I’m surprised, I didn’t even hear the pop of the wormhole opening, but there he is, that version of me from ten years ago. He’s leaning forward, perched on the edge of his seat, wringing his hands, eyes shining in anticipation. He continues, “Usually the house manager gives the speech.”
I grunt. “Replaced them with recorded speeches years ago.”
I look him over. It’s me, all right – thinner, clean-shaven. I’m a little bitter. We both eat whatever we want, but he has a twenty-something’s metabolism. Ah, well. At least I can grow a beard like a goddamn man. Or, at least I can grow a beard.
The opening scene is unfolding in front of us. I watch closely – the costuming choices, the posture of the actors, the dialogue. My heart sinks. Not even two minutes in, and I know what I’m in for.
Younger Me notices me sag, I think, and says encouragingly, “Sure, this one is bad. But it’s bad in an interesting way.”
I shrug. I’ve done, what, something like 30 Fringe Festivals now? And I see about 45 shows on average at each? I know this show. I’ve seen something like it at least a dozen times before. I lean over, and whisper, “Here. Even this joke. I’m pretty sure I know the punchline…” and I manage to deliver it at the same time as the comic onstage.
Younger Me shrugs in turn. “Sure. I’ve heard that one too. It’s a street joke. But it’s not the novelty of it, it’s the way the script appropriates it!”
I lean back into my seat. “The novelty of cultural appropriation,” I mutter between swigs from my hip flask, “Has worn off for me.”
He looks at me sideways. “Man, what happened to you?”
I peered at the ant-like Uber cars crawling across the screen of my smartphone. I was weighing whether to call one or to wait out the next half-hour for the bus to arrive. Normally I’d just do the public transit thing —but as one of my colleagues observed, the heat down here in Missouri can suck my dick. From the parking lot behind me, I heard the short, urgent whomp of a car horn. I spun around, and at the sight of the vanity plate I managed to breathe both a sigh of relief and a groan of dismay. It was another touring Fringe artist, generously offering me a ride home—the second one he’d given me that week.
I crawled in the car, and he cracked a joke. I offered a sickly grin back. I felt like a traitor. I’d seen his show a few days ago but hadn’t gotten around to submitting a review to my editor yet. And while this artist is a talented man, this particular project of his hadn’t worked for me. I felt a wild impulse to tell him but wasn’t sure how to broach the subject—after 10 years of Fringe criticism, I still wasn’t sure how to bring it up. In the meantime, he smiled and made jokes and offered me rides. I hated myself for my own inner voice, wished I could just find a way to indiscriminately love all things Fringe. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just admire the work, be grateful for it? Why do I have to keep picking it apart, trying to figure out how it works? Why can’t I just accept it for what it is?
Being both an artist and a critic has always felt like uneasily sleeping with the enemy. I’ve had the full range of responses to negative reviews I’ve written (I will not do those artists the condescending insult of calling them constructive)—from hate-mail to playful shrugs to colleagues who refused to talk to me for weeks. I wasn’t too worried about any of that with him—I knew he was a real professional.
But I still felt like a traitor.
We step outside, and I see that it wasn’t just a single wormhole—the various timelines of the multiverse are crashing together. Younger Me and I walk into what seems to be an amalgam of the past ten years of Fringe. The streets are riddled with artists both old and young, some who moved away a long time ago.
Nearly everyone’s faces light up when they see him. Fringe loves novelty, after all, and Younger Me is practically shrink-wrapped. He thrusts himself into conversation, babbling cheerfully about everything he’s seen, good, bad, and ugly.
Me, I hang back. I’ve spent enough time spouting impolitic things from the stage that I can no longer assume strangers’ goodwill. Instead, I watch him. His enthusiasm is infectious. And why not? He’s devoted to Lady Fringe, and everybody’s charmed by a young man in love.
And now (since a disgracefully large proportion of my time at Fringe involves others hauling my drunk ass around), an ex-girlfriend is taking me out to lunch—one of the few exes with whom I’ve managed to maintain a positive relationship. We met through Fringe, dated through Fringe. It was one of the primary points of reference we had in common, which is why I was talking up a military drama I’d just seen. She looks out the window. “I don’t know that I’ll make it out to Fringe again this weekend,” she says. “The weekends are crazy, with the kids…” We drive on for a while longer. Then she turns to me. “I think that’s why I still love Fringe so much. It’s the last time I was really single, reckless, out there…you know?”
I do know.
…and the lights have gone down and Younger Me is leaning forward in anticipation. I do my best to suppress an eye-roll and slouch back in my seat. It’s a first-time producer; I have no idea what to expect.
The actors assume the stage. Huh, I think, that’s a bizarre costume choice—really striking. And they begin to speak—quite eloquently, actually – and move through the space. The Broca’s area of my brain starts to map out the various directions the script could go, shutting down possibilities as the narrative excludes them, and then…
…and then something unexpected happens.
I blink. I lean forward, just slightly, cautiously, in my chair. I don’t want to get my hopes up. That still happens—I get too excited, the script left-turns back into stupid, and I’m more jaded than I was when I started.
But I’m perched, now, at the edge of my seat. Waiting.
And suddenly, a few minutes in—I don’t know how many, because I’ve stopped glancing at my phone—I realize that I can relax. I can enjoy myself. I’ve never heard of this group before. I’m not in the hands of someone who knows exactly what they’re doing. But I’m in the hands of someone who has by God a fucking idea, and they’re accelerating with it so far that their goddamn balls are slamming right into the goddamn wall.
And I know that, if that wormhole were to pop open again and a version of me from ten years in the future were to stumble out and look at us, we would be twins—me and Younger Me, leaning forward, eyes shining in anticipation.
Lady Fringe and I have known each other for a long time now. The honeymoon period is definitely over. I’m no longer a novelty, and while I used to marvel at her every word and gesture, she just doesn’t dazzle me the way she once did. Instead, we snipe at each other. Many of her habits which I once found charming just irritate the shit out of me now. We have the bickering that only comes with intimacy. It’s not as pretty to look at as our early days together, I’m sure. To an outside observer, it must seem like we hate each other.
But what Lady Fringe and I have now, I hope, is something deeper. We’ve been through some shit. We both know that the other isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. We’re in this for the long haul. So we’ll scream and fight and nitpick and make ourselves sick and nauseous with loathing and self-loathing. And every now and then, once in a while, we’ll surprise each other. And start falling in love all over again.
Related performance information:
You can catch phillip andrew bennett low at the Fringe Festival this year on stage at the Ritz Theater Studio performing his new work, The Secret Book of Jesus, on Friday, July 31; Saturday, August 1; Wednesday, August 5; Saturday, August 7; and Sunday, August 8.
phillip andrew bennett low is a Chinese-American playwright and poet, storyteller and mime, theatre critic and libertarian activist. His performances have won acclaim from Minneapolis to Chicago, DC to LA — even as far as Melbourne, Australia. He is the co-founder of the Rockstar Storytellers and was founder and producer of the touring theatre troupe Maximum Verbosity. He has published a book of political humor, Indecision Now! A Libertarian Rage.