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fringe festival
Photograph: Maria Baranova

13 shows you need to see at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival

Find out everything you need to know for the upcoming Philadelphia Fringe Festival, including these must-see performances

By Josh Middleton and David Fox

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival is back for 2017, with more than 100 shows taking place in neighborhoods across Philadelphia. Here, we narrow down some of the best and most-buzzed-about shows at this year’s festival, but first a few facts:

What is the Philadelphia Fringe Festival?

Produced by FringeArts, the 21st annual theater, dance and arts festival is a showcase of both cutting-edge national theatrical productions and local theater troupes with new and exciting works to share. FringeArts curates a handful of presentations on their own, and then there are the independently produced, Philly-based works that could be anything from a puppet show in a South Philly basement to a fully staged production at a major Philadelphia attraction. There’s even a Digital Fringe, which features shows playing out online. Crazy, right? In a nutshell, there’s a TON going on, which is why we’re giving you this quick and snappy guide to some of the shows we think are unmissable.

When is the Philadelphia Fringe Festival?

The Fringe Festival takes place over the course of an 18-day span—from September 7 to 24.

How do I get tickets to the Fringe Festival?

FringeArts maintains an easy-to-navigate website with information about every single show and ticket links so you can make your purchases in advance—which is recommended if you want to see some of the larger productions. You can find that site here.

Anything else I should know about the Fringe Festival?

Yes. Check out the Festival Bar located at La Peg and the Haas Biergarten at the FringeArts building. There you’ll find eight free, late-night performances—from live music to burlesque and cabaret—throughout the run of the festival and a healthy selection of beer, wine and cocktails. 

If you’re looking to make a night out of your Fringe experience, book a table at one of the best restaurants in Philadelphia or sidle up to a bar before the show for happy hour. Philadelphia certainly has no short of pre- and post-show entertainment. 

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Philadelphia

Philadelphia Fringe Festival shows to see

gunnar montana
Photograph: Avi Wolfe

1. Kink Haüs

Dance Contemporary and experimental

In his latest, choreographer Gunnar Montana takes us into the belly of an underground nightclub in Berlin where “no fucks are given and fierceness is always welcome.” He says the work—characterized by dramatic, gender-bending dance performances, outlandish costumes and maybe a well-toned butt cheek or two—is autobiographical, as it explores his recent commitment to sobriety and tackles what it means to be young and gay today.

brian sanders junk
Photograph: Courtesy Brian Sanders JUNK

2. ...strand...

Dance Contemporary and experimental

Brian Sanders JUNK takes its 2017 Fringe Festival offering to Grays Ferry Crescent Trail Park, a serene, disconnected portion of the Schuylkill Trail with entrances in three spots around Forgotten Bottom. The show, like all of artistic director Brian Sanders’s work, is bizarre, complex and immersive. It’s actually four shows in one. Audiences choose from four experiences they want to take—from a bare-bones walking excursion and one that’s apocalyptic-themed to a fancier, more expensive version that includes a picnic dinner. At the end of each performance, the audience converges in an open field in the center of the park at sunset for a dazzling grand finale that incorporates JUNK’s signature acrobatic moves, song and a lot of rolling around gracefully in the grass.

cookie diorio
Photograph: Brenda Tea Tate

3. Art of the Heel

Music Cabaret and standards

Drag songstress Cookie Diorio returns to the Fringe Festival with a trio of cabaret performances benefiting local LGBTQ-serving nonprofits such as Women in Transition and Valley Youth House. Art of the Heel finds the powerhouse vocalist slipping into a pair of six-and-half-inch sequined platforms for an evening of songs that run the gamut from gospel and opera to pop and protest music. She is joined by a different musical guest at each performance, including blues band Stevie and the Bluescasters and operatic baritone Garrett Obrycki.

iron age theatre
Photograph: Courtesy Iron Age Theatre/Josiah Blizzard

4. To My Unborn Child: A Love Letter from Fred Hampton

Theater Drama

Iron Age Theatre Company’s latest—a world premiere by Rich Bradford—centers around Fred Hampton, a Black Panther and founder of the Rainbow Coalition who was murdered by Chicago police at age 21. A one-man show, the work examines Hampton’s compassionate approach to revolution and how he hoped to tackle issues like racist brutality, childhood hunger and poverty in the African-American community.

fringe festival
Photograph: Maria Baranova


Theater Experimental

The real star of this show—the latest by Philadelphia experimental theater artist Geoff Sobelle—is a house that’s constructed onstage every night. It’s inhabited by a cast of characters representing the folks who live there over time; they move in, get into fights, have babies and even die and haunt the place, putting you in a fly-on-the-wall position as you watch the journey of one house transforming into a home.

fringe festival billion nights on earth
Photograph: Courtesy Steven Dufala

6. A Billion Nights on Earth

Theater Experimental

The latest by director Thaddeus Phillips and visual artist Steven Dufala promises to be a “journey into an alternative universe for audiences ages 3 to 99.” The fantastical tale follows a father and son who jump into a portal to another dimension to retrieve a beloved stuffed whale. A dreamy soundtrack by Colombian composer Juan Gabriel Turbay accompanies.

fringe festival
Photograph: Courtesy FringeArts

7. Get Pegged


Bearded Ladies Cabaret Artistic Director John Jarboe—whom you may also know as Edith Piaf at Eastern State Penitentiary’s annual Bastille Day celebration—debuts the fall 2017 version of his monthly, late-night cabaret series during the Fringe Festival. His special guest for the kickoff is the legendary German cabaret singer Dieter Rita Scholl. The gender-bending diva specializes in classic French cabaret songs, with a particular focus on lady singers. We’ll wait with bated breath for a Piaf duet between him and Jarboe.

fringe festival
Photograph: David DiRentis

8. We Shall Not Be Moved


This world premiere staged by the extraordinary Bill T. Jones seems absolutely current while at the same time tackling a brutal chapter of Philadelphia history: the 1985 MOVE bombing. Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and librettist Marc Bathumi Joseph’s genre-defying piece features opera singers alongside spoken-word artists, hip-hop performers and R&B and jazz musicians.

fringe festival
Photograph: Courtesy Juniper Productions

9. #CocktailPlays

Theater Drama

New Philadelphia theater company Juniper Productions—which aims to produce theatrical works in non-traditional venues around Philadelphia—debuts its inaugural presentation at Philadelphia Distilling. The performance, part of the Fringe Festival and aptly named #CocktailPlays, features four new short works created by Philadelphia playwrights—and they’re each complemented with a signature cocktail whipped up by Philadelphia Distilling mixologists. Drinks are served an hour before showtime during a mix-and-mingle session with other attendees, so be sure to show up early. When it’s showtime, three local actors (pictured) take on roles in each play, which veer toward the suspenseful and darkly humorous.

Martha Graham Cracker
Photograph: Kevin Monko

10. Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret


Cabaret diva Martha Graham Cracker and her band take the stage at FringeArts for this wildly popular concert that’s now a staple of the annual Fringe Festival. You never know what kind of theatrics she’ll pull out of that tightly curled wig as the hairy-chested chanteuse belts out pop favorites and maybe grinds on an audience member or three.

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