National Women’s Theatre Fringe Festival Spotlights Experimental New Work

What’s especially exciting about the 2023 National Women’s Theatre Festival Fringe is that the productions range from new musicals, solo performances, devised theatre, commedia, clowning, storytelling, sketch comedy, bilingual performances, to workshop productions of fresh new shows. To even take in a few (in my case half of the 21 offerings) is to experience some truly interesting and creative innovation that expands the realm of what is presented on a stage.

Two solo performance pieces that opened the Festival earlier this month relied heavily on the concept of tragic optimism: reflecting upon adversities to find meaning and purpose in life. Valerie David’s autobiographical play, The Pink Hulk: One Woman’s Journey to Find the Superhero Within, relayed a great deal of humor within the horrors of David’s own cancer treatment and recovery. Portraying over 20 different characters that have been a part of her world of personal growth and determined resiliency, David’s personality bubbles forth like a fountain, washing over the less glamorous aspects of cancer treatment and its aftermath. No tears, just cheers for this heroine.

Amy Englehardt took a different path to finding meaning and purpose in the face of an immense tragedy. In Impact, she recounted how the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland haunted her for almost thirty years until a series of what she labels “follow-signs,” (“there are no coincidences, only connections”) convinces her to journey to the site. Confessional in nature, but also sounding more like a Ted talk than play, Englehardt accentuated her monologue with photos and original songs she has composed. Part travelog, part documentary, her story also covered the processing of grief and the kindness of humanity, offering an intimate portrait of a few of the ordinary, generous individuals who honored the victims in meaningful ways. For this artist, an adjacent tragedy becomes a powerful influence on her life and music. Impact earned a Jury Award for Excellence in Music and Sound.

Alexis Rhone also pulled from historical events in her resonant production, Dignity. The superb storytelling began with a piece about colonialism in Uganda, delivered with captivating detail by Lebone Moses. Then, Moses was joined by Barbette Hunter as they clashed over their responses to the early years of the Depression. The final act paired them as mother (Hunter) and daughter (Moses) navigating their relationship as well as coping with the daughter’s failed marriage. Rhone focused on how the dignity of Black women in the midst of these situations, heavily influenced by Baptist church teachings, sways their responses. Concise and nuanced, this piece was quite impressive and deservingly earned the Audience Choice Storytelling Award.

Several productions were developed through the WTFringe Lab, a cohort of 26 people who spent several months remotely learning about directing and producing before traveling to Raleigh. Probably the most outstanding of this group was Adults, written by Maizy Broderick Scarpa. Two sisters, confronted by the sudden death of their mother, attempt to process their grief and reconnect in this bilingual show. Angela Kabasan-Gonzalez as Maggie and Natalie Payan as Jo, established their sibling chemistry early on, with flashbacks to their early years. It was a rich portrayal of language learning as the girls spoke totally in Spanish when young, switching between languages growing up, and then using mostly English as adults. Adults earned an Audience Choice award, as well as a Jury Award for Best Performance for Payan.

Reverie, written by Ashley Cooper, including book, music and lyrics, also took on the topic of grief and coupled it with the adulting of young black girls. Seven year old Genevieve desperately tries to reconnect with her father who has recently died by staring at pictures of him and wishing herself back into these memories. Some lovely vocal numbers punctuate the drama although lengthy and frequent scene changes broke up the momentum. Reverie earned an Audience Choice Award for Music and Sound.

Dinosaur on the Moon and Maiden Mother Crone Coven were collaborative pieces that incorporated a wide range of stage and visual storytelling. Both were interrogating the intersection of time and identity with multimedia, outside-the-box presentations. These ensembles attempted to craft fresh perspectives on their subjects, particularly in society’s treatment of “otherness.” Dinosaur on the Moon earned the Jury’s top award for Overall Outstanding Production.

On the other hand, We Can Do It, written by Kenady Sean, felt more like a rehashing of the topic of women forced to choose between motherhood and career – or trying like hell to do both. This short musical, with live music, a virtual choir, and recorded video dance numbers, revisited the year 1941 when women entered factories as men went to war. The multimedia presentation was exceptional, a tribute to the women who “ran the world” for a short time, but the message seemed a bit cliched: you can do it all if you have the guts. This show earned high marks from the Jury for Excellence in Video, Technology, Virtual Design, and/or Virtual Theatre Technique.

The Grandmothers Grimm by Emily Ingram and Moon Glo by Patsy Clark were more conventional dramas but sought to highlight some uncomfortable truths. Ingram’s piece casts doubt as to whether the brothers Grimm are really authors or merely opportunistic writers who “borrowed” the handed-down tales of women. The men wrestle with how to present the stories, what “morals” to be handed out, while completely ignoring the agency of women. Some fresh comedy in the re-telling of familiar tales and some fine acting in this production. 

Standout performances buoyed the performance of Clark’s script-in-development about a group of 90-something women reminiscing about their lives in an assisted living facility. Each woman is brought to life by some of the area’s familiar talent: Mary Rowland, Julie Oliver, Olivia Ashley, Nicola Lefler, Becky Johnson and Rod Rich. Nancy Rich directs the piece, and it is a moving reflection on navigating reality as one ages.

Experiencing the eclectic mix of traditional and hybrid productions at WTFringe 2023 opens one not only to the power of storytelling, but also a celebration of infinite creative possibilities. 

For more information on the National Women’s Theatre Festival visit

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