One dollar and thirty-two cents. 

It may be hard in some ways to calculate the value of a fringe festival like the one that the Women’s Theatre Festival inaugurated during its fourth annual stand last weekend. But on one level the number is crystal clear: $1.32, the ticket price smart shoppers paid per show when they bought a $25 pass for the 2019 WTF Fringe. 

That was all it took to experience nineteen productions from talented locals and visiting artists from far away, over three days and nights, on one professional and one makeshift stage that bisected downtown Raleigh. In retrospect, even the $5 single-show Fringe tickets were a rock-bottom bargain, unmatched in regional theater—and one we’d be lucky to see again.

By any measure, the Triangle is a latecomer to the fringe movement, that audacious genre of edgy, saturation-based arts programming that began in the 1940s in Edinburgh, Scotland. In North Carolina, Charlotte toyed with the format in a 2013 one-off, but Asheville and Greensboro’s fringes have continued respectively since 2002 and 2003.

No matter. If the WTF Fringe is tardy to the party, it had the goods when it arrived, surpassing most expectations long associated with the form. Veterans of the genre know that, with its emphasis on new, risk-taking artists and not always ready-for-prime-time works, the signal-to-noise ratio is always a gamble at a fringe. 

But with an eighteen-to-one payoff—eighteen successes and only one clear fail across this year’s cohort—the festival’s bets were unusually well-covered and underwritten, for the most, by the WTF’s careful curation. And since logistics are always a potential disaster in the making when so many shows are staged in such short order, indispensable production managers Katy Koop and Sarah Koop kept the inevitable chaos well behind the scenes. 

As a result, artists from seven states, and a brace of strong local creatives took us on a weekend-long odyssey through a remarkably diverse series of worlds, lives, and issues. 

In Cry It Out, California playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s 2017 drama, three women from different social strata on Long Island confronted the profound isolation and alienation—from spouses, from work, from the world—that often follows childbirth. Under Vivienne Benesch’s direction, Rachel Spencer Hewitt took matters to the breaking point when her character hissed, “I don’t have postpartum depression. What I have is rage.”

Up until now, Rebecca Ashley Jones has defined herself as a young regional actor, but her adaptation and co-direction with newcomer Genise Thorsen of Much Ado About Nothing elevate both considerably on the critical watch list. New York playwright Chris Cragin-Day’s brainy, soulful drama, A Woman, meanwhile, places her well within the realm of Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn, as two old friends who attended seminary together—Pastor Cliff (Steve Roten) and Kim (Tamara Farias)—wrangle with centuries-old sexism in the Presbyterian Church in America. Covering years of church history could have easily made A Woman dry, but its warm and lively wit and real emotional stakes prevent that. Actor Jennifer Suchanec’s addition to this seldom-seen onstage trio further grounds the work under visitor Kel Haney’s direction.

A Southern drama by a New York playwright doesn’t always take us into promising territory. But Lori Fischer’s drama, Petie, ushers us into a Christ-haunted landscape familiar to small-town natives. The playwright, convincing here in the poignant lead role of the hardscrabble Bonnie, struggles with broken faith and a broken home in flashbacks with a charismatic—and dangerously schizophrenic—husband (an authoritative Nathan Rouse).

These, plus other fringe highlights including Adrienne Earle Pender’s The Strawberry Girl, a remarkable revival of the 1916 psychological drama Overtones, a promising student playwright’s take on sex ed in Oh Righteous God and Sinful Me, and Nancy Rich’s droll work-in-progress, The Introvert’s Club, were worth far more than the price of admission. 

Is it too soon to make a firm down-payment for next year’s edition?

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