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On the Edge

Kansas City joins the friends of Fringe.

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For some folks, visiting the Crossroads District galleries for First Friday feels like a daring adventure. There are unfamiliar downtown blocks to explore and provocative art to peruse. But for all that intellectual stimulation, we don't often see work that we think might truly disturb people.

Kansas City's first Fringe Festival, on the other hand, takes sightseers to uncharted -- and potentially offensive -- artistic territory. The three-day schedule includes saucy burlesque and cabaret shows, frank dramas about sexual interactions, the self-explanatory Full Frontal Comedy troupe, and a satirical tragedy about a man's ill-fated carnal relations with his pig (see Performance, page 26).

Fringe festivals originated in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1947, when groups that weren't invited to participate in the city's annual Festival of the Arts organized their own showcase. The unofficial event soon outshined its predecessor, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival still thrives as a popular creative orgy. The concept migrated to Canada in the 1980s and arrived on U.S. soil within the past decade. The Midwest has embraced the fringe with enthusiasm that perhaps compensates for its tardiness. (Chicago broke ground three years ago, St. Louis followed its lead the next year and Indianapolis, Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio, are coming onboard this year.)

"I'm proud of Kansas City for finally getting it together," says Mark Manning, who co-stars in an original production called Children of Karen Carpenter. "Fringe Festival brings a different type of energy that's very needed in this town."

Over the years, Manning has done his part to establish a mini-fringe with the Big Bang Buffet, a multi-artist affair that dates back to 1990. But the veteran performance artist lacked the resources to coordinate simultaneous concerts, plays and exhibitions at assorted venues -- this Fringe arranges as many as 13 entertainment options within hourlong time slots, also allowing for encore presentations. For example, people who want to see Manning's musical at 6 p.m. Friday but don't want to miss the farmer in Futz getting all Gene Wilder-and-Dolly with his porcine sweetheart can catch a second showing at 10:30 p.m.

Children of Karen Carpenter exemplifies how Fringe pieces combine shocking premises with social commentary. Manning says the show, set in an alternate universe in which the fatally anorexic Karen blissfully packs on the pounds and her brother, Richard, is "a flaming queen," exposes the concept of family values as an illusion.

"We contrast how people present themselves with what's really going on behind closed doors," he explains. The Carpenters might have put out happy music but, as Manning says, "You pull back the covers and look underneath, and there's grief, horror, disease and drug addiction."

Manning and co-star Sandra K. Davies add alien abduction to that list of tribulations with their literal interpretation of the Carpenters' "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft." The duo plays it safe with "Close to You" but flies off the chain with a rap remix of "We've Only Just Begun" wherein Manning dons bling-bling apparel; later, he models a wedding dress.

There's no nudity, but in a play on the group's easy-listening genre, Manning warns that Karen Carpenter contains "adult contemporary themes." Even in jest, it's a welcome idea -- that contemporary adults can make their own decisions about art's appropriateness.

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