Fringe 2010: Darfur The Greatest Show on Earth!

Photo courtesy of

courtesy of ‘erin m’

I’m reviewing eight plays over eight days for the 2010 Capital Fringe Festival, in collaboration with DC Theatre Scene. Get your button and join me!

One of the challenges of reviewing Fringe theater is determining how much weight to give earnest performance over clumsy material. But with so many productions to choose from, with your time and money on the line, I’d rather be blunt than kind.

Darfur: The Greatest Show on Earth! thinks itself mighty clever, contrasting genocides in Nazi Germany and the Sudan under the guise of a big-top circus subverting the cliches of musicals. But it’s merely a muddle of ethical issues, preferring to preach at the audience rather than to be truly brave. When Theater J’s stunning In Darfur simply broke a refugee’s legs on stage, that was theatrical power at its most subversive. But being screeched at to get out of my chair and take political action, as in this performance? Just not effective.

The faults of Darfur: The Greatest Show on Earth! are really the faults of the writer, Jonathan Fitts. The naive plot lines – in the past a Nazi Guard grapples with his bigotry in the face of an innocent child, while in the present a Janjaweed soldier fights his love for a refugee – make for an awkward, clumsy musical that would need a very strong directorial hand to make it as gutwrenching as it seems to think it is. I’m not trying to be cruel – but these are young performers from the College of Southern Maryland theater program, and it tore me up to see them perform so eagerly in a piece so histrionic. Young thesps need direction and mentorship, and while there’s a lot of raw talent here, it isn’t being honed. Several actors couldn’t find the lung power to fill the small Mead Theater. And there’s an uncomfortable culpability in the playwright having them harangue the audience for political inaction on Darfur while providing divine forgiveness for a Nazi Guard.

Maybe I’m just too jaded to be moved by youth imploring me to care. You may feel otherwise. There are certainly spots of promising talent here, most notably Kenny Waters showing real charisma in the Master of Ceremonies role and an ode to capitalism wittily sung by Billy Thiedeman as a guns-for-sale middleman. But with all the myriad options on view on Fringe, this one has too many cringe moments for me to recommend it highly.

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Writing for We Love DC restored her happiness after a life-threatening illness, and she’s grateful to you, dear readers. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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13 thoughts on “Fringe 2010: Darfur The Greatest Show on Earth!

  1. Disagee. The point of the play seemed to be for the audience to get out of our seats to do something and the young talented cast did just that. The contrast of the two stories was beautiful and made the messgae even stronger. GO see it asap and help these kids get there message out there.

  2. I completely disagree with what is stated above. The play was great and the cast did a wonderful job conveying the importance of standing up against genocide. I would recommend people go see this show.

  3. We do disagree, and that’s fine with me, but I would argue that you are being positive because of a desire to be generous to the cast’s youth and because of the importance of highlighting genocide, not because of the merits of the play itself.

    Certainly, if I had seen this production at the college itself I might have been more lenient, though I still would find the play itself not to my personal liking. But to put this up at Fringe against other professionals, to my mind it simply doesn’t work.

  4. I think to even suggest age has any significance in the production is very bias. Sure the cast are all mostly young collge students but do this mean they are not qualified to deliever such a strong message about the terrible acts that are happening in Darfur and to show the similarities of Nazi Germany. If they are not qualified then who is? After seeing the play this show did open my eyes. You mention being jaded in your review as a reason why you may not have felt soemthing more from the show so should we blame your own personal battles for a reason not to see the show. Sure it is your review and if everyone who see the play could write a published review they would all the be very different. This show was brillant and heart breaking. I beloieve the fringe festival is a perfect slot for tis show because it is un liek anything that has been down before. It is eye opening and original. I beg people to please be the judge for themselves as did I and mayeb you will leave feeling a sense of responsibilty to gain awarness for the horror in Darfur. After all it is the youth who must take the forefront in the issue.

  5. I’ve seen a lot of mixed reviews for this show and it seems to have created a lot of buzz—which makes me believe the production has done its job. Regardless of the age of the cast members, I feel like this show epitomizes the spirit of the Fringe festival. Whether you love it or hate it, the show has captured your attention, and , I think that is ultimatley the goal of this production—to make you stop and think.

  6. I always respect when people disagree with my reviews and am happy to engage in dialogue.

    Erin, your comment has really made me think, and I thank you for that.

    However, I have to point out that “Tammy Harding” and “Bethany Thomas” have the exact same email address. So, I can’t respect those two comments.

    “funkid2008″ – I have no idea if you are a cast member or otherwise involved/related to the play, but because you decided to comment twice under two separate names, I can’t take either of your comments at face value.

  7. This thread is so interesting and it’s interesting to see the adult/youth dynamics playing out.

    Regardless of whether “Tammy Harding” or “Bethany Thomas” are two people or one person posting numerous times is irrelevant in regard to the opinions they put forth and respect deserved of his/her/their opinion. If they are one person posting as two or more or whatever (and we don’t know that…many homes/roommates share computers and the original email address automatically pops up on this forum) it doesn’t matter. If they are doing this, I chalk that up to youth who are trying to get their opinion out there and are concerned they won’t be heard unless they assume a differing persona.

    Each comment is, in its own right, an opinion and multiple opinions from one person are still opinion(s) which deserves the respect of a thoughtful response, not the assumption that they are stupid for not checking an email address and are ultimately not worthy of respect or response. And lets be real… what young and passionate cast member wouldn’t post in some anonymous way after a review-beating by an adult? I would have posted a hundred opinions under a zillion personas when I was younger and had been in the cast (but back then, the internet wasn’t even around…haha) Once again, the reviewer seems to be missing the mark and is adopting a parental/adult/jaded attitude toward the responses…”I’m smarter than you, ’cause I checked and you didn’t change your emails so I will now ignore you.” Interesting dynamics.

  8. Erin~I agree with your opinion. But I also feel that the age of the cast members DOES need to be taken into consideration when you have a review that that borders on cruel, slams the vocal ability of the youth, dilutes their passion in following apparent directorship (e.g.-get up and do something about this problem) and compares it to professional plays/actors. Also, when you have a reviewer who notes that they are possibly too jaded to “care” (e.g. listen to youth-who are ultimately performing the play-) then there can be an ultimate problem with the foundation of the review :)

  9. Not sure why I am having a problem posting my original feedback, but I will try again…maybe as two posts.

    I never take the time to write reviews, but I feel that I have to on this one. As Ms. Larsen states she wants to be “blunt,” I feel that I must as well due to the artistic harm that Ms. Larsen could be creating due to her inexperience at the Fringe and her lack of understanding about what the Fringe is trying to promote.

    To quote from
    “DC is full of committees, institutions, special event art promoters and politically-appointed individuals who curate and filter the performing arts.” “They determine ‘artistic value’ for audiences, and often communicate to many artists that their story/work does not have a place.”
    “We are leaving these decisions up to the people. We believe in you the Audience and in you the Artist. We believe in the power of artistic natural selection and we invite you to create, explore, attempt, fall short, and succeed with us.”

    This play was powerful in its own right (and more on my review in another post) and is entirely in the spirit of the Fringe. The fact that it is up against professionals says something about the play, as well as the fact that the Fringe saw something valuable about it to even have it put in the festival. Remember that every show produced at the Fringe is chosen over thousands of entries. (to be continued).

  10. Rhonda, I disagree, I think it is very relevant.

    I write under my own name. I welcome dialogue with commenters. Commenters can choose to hide their true identity if they wish, and most of the time that doesn’t impact our discussions. But sometime it has happened that people do comment on reviews hiding their identity because they are related to the production. Because this has happened in the past, if I see a suspicious comment, I’m going to note it. People are free to then reveal that I’m wrong if so.

    It’s fine if people disagree with me – and you can read my past reviews and get a sense of whether you would value my opinion as a critic or not, your choice. But remember I am out here with my real name and identity, to be judged for it, whereas others can hide. That’s the nature of the anonymous comment.

    I was a young performer as well, and here we disagree again – I would never have posted “under a zillion personas” in response to a negative review. Never. My mentors in drama taught me that sometimes critics don’t like your work. Learning how to deal with that is part of being in the theater.

    Finally, if you read the review again, I am taking issue with the production and the play. I didn’t write a scathing review battering young actors to bits. I said they were talented and needed better material and better direction. That’s my honest opinion.

    We certainly agree on one thing, though, interesting discussion and dynamics here! I hope nothing I’ve said comes across as condescending, cruel or close-minded, it’s not my intention at all.

  11. Rhonda, you are having trouble posting comments because some of them are being caught in our spam filter due to their extravagant length, vitriolic language, and frequency.

    Since the substance of your comments, both public and spam-filtered, seems to be centered on attacking Jenn personally, I advise you to take our spam filter’s hint or I will have no choice but to start moderating your comments by hand for violations of our comment policy.

    Jenn is a founding member of WeLoveDC, and has been reviewing theater productions for us for the entire duration of our existence. By all means, continue to disagree with her assessment and debate it, but continued personal attacks and text-floods will be treated as the disruption they are.

  12. Thank you Tiffany for the heads up. I will attempt to ensure my posts only contain academic discourse. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t trying to text-flood. I’m an old-fart who kept copying and pasting my post and wondering, “Why the heck isn’t this posting?” :0

    So, let’s try this again. Ultimately, I feel that shows in the Fringe…whether rated high or low…can be risky and “out there.” When we face a review which is, ultimately, a personal opinion we face a formidable challenge in the arts…not necessarily with the reviewer, but with the review process to ensure that the reviews embody the spirit of the venue. As any of us know who appreciate the arts, it is difficult to separate art from the person, since a review of the arts brings with it personal experience. No attack was meant…merely another professional opinion from another writer.

  13. I think the fact that the cast is so young makes the message of this show even stronger, and I believe that everyone in this cast did this show because they wanted to make a change. I don’t think that they spent however many months out of their life rehearsing for this show just to perform it and then forget about it, knowing that they could have done something else with their free time.And for you to say that is like you automatically saying you don’t like this show because the cast members were so young. And for you to say that some of the cast members “couldn’t find the lung power to fill the small Mead Theater” is very rude. Just because they don’t sing loudly doesn’t mean that they can’t sing, some people don’t have the “lung power” it takes to fill up a theater. And if you think that it is so easy I would love for you to try it and see how hard it actually is.