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The word, ladies and gentlemen, is "crapshoot." Fringe festivals around the globe are sites of experiment and that means every ticket you purchase is, in fact, a kind of lottery ticket. There are gems and there are cringe-inducing turkeys on display. The 23rd annual Vancouver Fringe Festival crams 550 performances by 80 groups into 11 days - you'll need a strategy to catch the work you care about. To that end, we'd like to propose a series of mini-fringes:

Mosaic Fringe: Assaulted Fish, Vancouver's premier Asian comedy troupe, returns with Assaulted Fish For You 2. They're a smart, sexy and brave team of sketch artists that consistently skewers the foibles of Asian-Canadian life. Deep Fried Curried Perogies, meanwhile, mashes a Jamaican Filipino and a Ukrainian Brit into a typically CBC-friendly identity-politics-driven comedy. For a more sombre take on culture-jam issues, though, you'll want to check out Bye Bye Bombay, a multimedia exploration of India through the eyes of a young woman.

Funny Fringe: The pyrotechnic poetry in Jem Rolls Up will be eagerly devoured by those who recall last year's display of Jem's penchant for spoonerisms. Then there's Jihad Me at Hello, which wins the prize for best name, in which the Obscene But Not Heard company takes on Hitler, al-Qaeda and Leonard Cohen, in a sketch-comedy spree where nothing is sacred. If straight-on improv is more to your taste (sans terrorism references), take in a showing of Scratch, by Edmonton's lauded improv team Rapid Fire Theatre.

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Gay Fringe: The Fringe Fest always has a healthy dose of puppet theatre, but gay puppet theatre is even better: Get Off the Cross, Mary involves a once-famous gay puppet who plans to make his comeback by staging a queer disco revision of The Passion. Yikes. Then there's I Thee Wed, which traces the story of two brides in love (with each other) in three time periods. And The Timekeepers is the acclaimed Holocaust drama that places a flamboyant gay man and an elderly, conservative Jew in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Prejudice gives way to friendship under the pressure of mutual hardship and a touch of humour.

Kinky Fringe: It wouldn't be a Fringe festival if someone wasn't taking their clothes off. While we can't guarantee that you'll see any birthday suits in Hot Pink Bits, the 60-minute burlesque romp does tackle something called "pizza sex," so it's worth a gander just to see what they use for toppings. Things get markedly more serious in Bondage, which is an S&M exploration of racial identity written by the brilliant David Henry Hwang, of M. Butterfly fame. Finally, Fluffy 10th Street (from the creators of last year's gorgeous puppet show Down the Drain) is the confession of a naughty, stripping, down-and-out puppet named Fluffy.

Tried & True Fringe: One-man Star Wars Trilogy is the little Fringe show that could. Canadian actor Charles Ross has performed his manic recitation of the Star Wars saga in London, New York and Edinburgh to rave reviews. If sci-fi geeks don't turn your crank, but you still want a surefire hit, Monster Theatre (best known for Jesus Christ: The Lost Years) is back with Napoleon's Secret Diary - an exercise in exposing empire builders as bumbling fools.

For the BlackBerry set with no time for experimentation at all, there's the Pick of the Fringe. The festival's hottest shows, as selected by a committee drawn from the theatre community, are announced online Sept. 13 and run Sept. 20 to 23 at the Waterfront Theatre. New this year, the Pick plays will run a last-chance tour to Burnaby's Shadbolt Centre (Sept. 26-29) and the Jericho Arts Centre (Oct. 6-9).

The Vancouver Fringe Festival happens on Granville Island and various other venues tomorrow night through Sept. 16. Tickets cost $10-$12, plus a one-off $5 Fringe membership. 604-981-3764 or http://www.vancouverfringe.com.

OPENING

LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN

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The United Players open their season with Oscar Wilde's sharp-toothed comedy about infidelity and marital reparations. Directed by Stephen Drover.

Opens Friday and runs till Sept. 30. $12 to $16. Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery St., 604-224-8007 ext. 2.

Vanlistings@globeandmail.com

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