The 2016 Capital Fringe Festival is known for its envelope-pushing, kooky, even crazy experimental performances — artful and artless, G-rated and R-rated, comic and tragic. This year, its 11th, features hundreds of performances between July 7 and 31 at 20 venues throughout the District. There’s enough of almost every genre, style and craziness to satisfy nearly any theater goer with even a touch of adventure.
Among the works with specifically Jewish themes, two stand out for their diametrically opposite dealings with what one can term crazy.
Mental health advocate Leah Harris’s “Aliens, Nazis and Angels” delves into her childhood memories of hunting imaginary Nazis with her mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her father was bipolar and Harris, who was born in Milwaukee, was raised in Pennsylvania, Florida and California, mostly by her mother’s parents, with stints in foster care and in mental institutions herself. These days Harris calls herself a survivor of trauma, writing, “I have survived multiple adverse childhood experiences, suicide attempts, psychiatric disability, addiction, profound losses.”
She has faced down the shame of mental illness, becoming an outspoken advocate who publically tells her story to educate others about the trauma and stigma of mental illness. “Aliens, Nazis and Angels,” which makes its world premiere at the festival under the direction of Regie Cabico, has allowed Harris to theatricalize her story and wrestle down some of her childhood and adolescent demons.
It’s no surprise that her family history of mental illness was kept hidden when she was growing up. “I actually have a scene in the show where I lie about my mother and my family because I was raised with the idea that you simply don’t talk about [mental illness]. I was never supposed to tell the truth.”
She acknowledged that in the Jewish community, with its drive for success in all realms of life, mental illness carries a particularly strong stigma. “My mother was pressured to have an abortion, very intensively,” said Harris, an Arlington resident.“I was very afraid to have children … I was afraid that I would never be healed enough from all that dysfunction not to pass it on to my child.”
So sharing her story was difficult. “But I really believed that sharing my story helped shatter misconceptions of mental health, trauma and mental illness. That was more important than keeping silent. I just felt a calling for me to speak out about these issues. When you have two parents with serious mental health issues, it’s your legacy in a way.”
While “Aliens, Nazis and Angels” can be a harrowing journey, it’s told with both humor and love.
Ron Litman takes an entirely different approach to crazy in his musical musings on what he calls the insanity of the modern world and current politics.
“Crazy in America: A Jewish Man of a Certain Age” began when Litman, a lifelong actor who grew up above his parents’ deli in Northwest Washington, got tired of saying, “Are you crazy? What’s going on?” in response to the many senseless acts – political and personal – occurring in the world today.
“The world started to make less and less sense to me,” he said. “I watched the world going crazy and especially this country and I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m just as crazy as anyone else.’ That got me into this search: How did I become crazy? How can I not be crazy anymore? Can I change my insanity? Can I be normal? Do I not have to get worked up on issues? Do I not have to suffer the small things?”
Out of this quest for sanity and calm, “Crazy In America” came to life, featuring original songs co-written with composer Tom Pile, and confronting the big and little annoyances and craziness of life. “I’m 66,” Litman said last week. “I’ve changed as much about me as I possibly can at this point. I’m just crazy and I have to be who I am and I’m going to say what I feel and I’m going to get angry where it’s not appropriate to be angry and loud and flamboyant. That’s just who I am. I’m crazy in America.”
“Crazy In America” is his fourth self-created Fringe show following previous hits “DC Trash,” about his work with a trash hauling company; “Fish Out of Water,” based on his six years as an urban Jew living in a small Midwestern town; and “Waiting for Armageddon,” which needs no explanation.
Litman insists his work is more than a cranky old Jewish guy yelling, “Get off my lawn.” “I really feel connected to the vanguard of many political movements because the Jews were in the vanguard. They put themselves on the line, whether it was Freedom Riders in the South [during the Civil Rights era], or the union movement … I feel proud and want to be a part of that Jewish history and as an artist I keep waiting for the new political artists out there,” he said.
Litman added, “I still want to be the Jewish radical with the long hair shouting, ‘Let’s man the barricades, folks. Let’s go!’
Among the other Fringe Festival works with Jewish themes, the one-man show “Underneath the Lintel,” featuring Patrick O’Brien in Glen Berger’s play, takes viewers on a journey deep into the bowels of history to uncover long-simmering embers of anti-Semitism, all while looking for a long-overdue library book. “The Good Death,” a work infused with the flavor of a traditional Jewish family, is written and performed by Scott Mandel and Nicole Cardon. It explores two siblings, Mary and Chuck, and how they squabble as they deal with selling their childhood home and what should be kept and what should be tossed.
2016 Capital Fringe Festival, July 7- 31 at various venues. For information, go to capitalfringe.org.