I've always been a little bit frightened by the Fringe Festival, in kind of the same way that I'm frightened by pudgy cheerleaders and comic book conventions. The odd, color-coded itinerary reads, to me, like a pricing guide for terror warnings (orange theater? orange theater!), a litany of threats assigned times and ticket values for a Sentinel-reading public that deserves to be had. It's not that I have anything against the fabulous world of theater – although, in general, I do – but more a fear of being swallowed whole by the amplified glee of so many aspiring chorus-liners crammed into one area for so long a period of time. Life may be fun sometimes, but a cabaret it is not.

And so it's with no small amount of trepidation that I approach the Shakespeare Festival building for this year's Fringe opener – cigarette in mouth, friend Tony in tow, and cynicism shoved so far up my ass that I can taste yesterday's bile in the back of my throat. Unfortunately, there's a midway of hippie/carnival vendors lining the entry peddling food to kill your stomach and jewelry to kill your image, and the wafting stench, mixed with the antibiotics fighting This Week's Sinus Infection, are making me want to die for an audience. I run my fingers through the bleach erosion on top of my head, stamp out my cigarette and say something like, "Let's make this quick."

"Whatever you say, Master Manes," Tony slaps back, clearly buying my cagey performance. Because I'm that good.

In fairness, I'm not actually here for a "performance," per se, but a cocktail party. It's the VIP Invitation Gala, no less, and I put the "la" in "gala," so I'll fit right in. I was invited by Fringemistress Beth Marshall about a month ago, when I was still a political contender, so I'm not really sure if the invitation still stands now that I'm a nobody. There was talk of a ribbon-cutting, some fanfare and slurred circumstance, but in these post-glory days I'm afraid I'm only suited for a glass of wine and a quick pat on the ass.

"I envision you 72, toothless and sitting at the end of a dive bar," says Tony, who sees way too clearly. "You'll be playing computer solitaire and whenever anybody walks in, you'll be like, 'I'm the mayor!' And then the bartender will point, smirk and say, 'He's the mayor.' Everybody will laugh!"

Everybody except me, although you probably won't be able to tell if I'm laughing or screaming, given my dental situation. It doesn't help that this weekend also happens to be my record-breaking 33rd birthday. So it's like this: Star Wars opening, Fringe Festival and me. Oh, the walls of irony, how they close in. I'm going back to chorus camp, and I mean it this time!

Inside the VIP area – the giant dome-base of the Patrons' Room – I'm instantly struck with vertigo and choose just the right histrionics to match. Swooning and swirling, I start to envision the giant concrete dome above me as some sort of menacing drain into which I'm being sucked. I access my inner JoBeth Williams and grip the walls like maybe a poltergeist is slurping me into the closet (not there!) and trying to kill my baby. Which is funny, because just as I'm smearing jelly all over my body and running for the next shot in the bathtub, Michael Wanzie approaches carrying what appears to be a dead baby. There are no coincidences at the Fringe Festival.

"Mr. Manes, as I live and breathe," he carries a dead baby.

And then I die.

Well, not really. Tony and I take to talking to an old acquaintance of mine, Jeremy, who now happens to be Beth Marhall's Fringe assistant. "There should really be some dead people hanging on the walls," he surveys the roof.

In a sense there are. It's still a little early for a party, and all along the circumference of the room are small gatherings of people, most just hanging there like the art that's supposed to be. Tony and I glaze over, staring at both the art and the people, and wonder aloud why nothing ever changes – it's still the blurred photo of the seductively lipsticked girl with the fruit in her mouth and the hamfist of somebody hanging on a cross Ã? and that's just the people. Still, it's a nice enough affair, though reminiscent of a wedding reception enacted underneath a cement coffee cup.

Miss Sammy's here, although as a partial Mr. (fringed flapper dress, Converse sneakers and no wig Ã? very Lauper), and he crops himself into my picture long enough for a bit of separated at birth.

"Are you guys twins?" squints a woman five feet away.

"Oh, believe it or not, I've got a good 15 pounds on Billy Manes," Sammy flaps.

"Believe it or not, I've got a good 15 pounds on me, too!" I search for a snare drum.

Blah. Outside for a smoke, Tony and I get into a depressing-but-deep conversation about conviction and stupidity as it pertains to theater people. In a sense, it's our way of setting ourselves above the whole situation, but the attempt is poor. Really, we're just lazy still lifes in search of ornate frames, and by the liquor on our breath, we're not about to do anything about it. These people, however ridiculous, are actually doing something. And we are only watching.

Back inside, Patty Sheehan arrives, inexplicably, with a police escort. Word is that she and Wanzie have had words, so perhaps it's a protective measure against his skilled theatrics. Still, it's a cop. And that's always uncomfortable.

"You missed the cop leaning on the art!" reports Jeremy about a poor uncovered painting subject to the long arm of the law. "I went up to him and said, 'Um, could you stop leaning on the art?'"

"Boo-hoo, he was, like, symbolically leaning on the arts!" I reach too far.

"And by leaning on, you mean fucking!" retorts Jeremy.

"The cops, ya see, are fucking the arts!" I masturbate.

OK, life is a cabaret.

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