This past weekend, Grand Avenue’s PHiX Gallery had a samurai, a down-on-her-luck standup comedienne, a disembodied head and a sexual extremist all within its walls. Across the street at Soul Invictus, a man was struggling to come to grips with a life sans genitals. Over on Roosevelt, the music of Chubby Checkers, Ray Charles, James Brown and Sam Cooke got a crowd on its feet, shakin’ moneymakers all around. And just steps south of there, a one-person a capella opera depicted 24 personalities exploring sexuality and gender issues. Crazy? Yep, that’s the Phoenix Fringe Festival.

Spread over two weekends, PHX:Fringe was a whirlwind of 30 artists presenting over 130 performances in seven downtown-area arts spaces. PHX:Fringe is a non-profit organization started last year to increase awareness of live performing arts in the Valley. In just one year, founders Patrick Demers and Jonathan Beller have ballooned the success of the original PHX:Fringe (which was only a few performances at Space 55) into a full-blown success.

DPJ set out to explore the second weekend of PHX:Fringe, taking in as many performances as possible back to back. We went in a bit confused, excited and unaware of what to expect. We left feeling mostly the same. Some of the highlights follow.

Washington, DC’s David Gaines brought the cult-classic samurai film 7 Samurai to life in his one-man breakneck-speed adaptation, “7(x1) Samurai.” Classically trained as a mime and a theatrical performer, it’s easy to see why Gaines won Best Solo Performance at the 2008 Capital Fringe Festival. His spastic movement, hilarious Japanese impressions and body language and masterful storytelling are top-notch, and he doesn’t hesitate to throw his body to and fro in search of a good laugh. A packed house at the PHiX gave a well-deserved standing ovation.

Across the street at Soul Invictus, a couple of Dallas boys put together “The Last Castrato,” a dark comedy about a boy born sans penis and a girl born with inside-out skin. It was every bit as disturbing (and hilarious) as it sounds, and crowds gave their approval. “Castrato” was shown as the encore show on the Grand side both Friday and Saturday night, and everyone was still talking about it Sunday afternoon before its final two performances.

Back at the PHiX, longtime standup Alicia Dattner, a half-Jewish, half-atheist hailing from San Francisco, presented “The Punchline,” her one-woman show chronicling her adulthood struggle with her passion for comedy and her family’s disapproval — with hilarious results. She sang, she danced and she did a mean Jewish grandmother impersonation. The wacky character acting was sidesplitting hilariousness at its best, and her animated approach had the crowd laughing at… yep… every punchline.

Going from Dattner’s lightheartedness to the sickly comedic “Head! A Symphony of Horror,” PHiX didn’t skip a beat. Conceptualized by Phoenix’s own Kevin Frei (who also was responsible for “Dial S for Stripper!” at Soul Invictus), this rock musical took a punch at old school B horror films, and showcased some seriously infectious tunes in the process. With some very visual characters and a dismembered head, what else could you ask for?

The Roosevelt side of the PHX:Fringe didn’t disappoint, either. At Space 55, Albuquerque’s Kristen Loree seamlessly morphed from one persona to another in “VIXIN,” an a capella opera with 24 different characters. Think it’s hard to follow one woman doing 24 characters? Think again. Loree captivated the crowd in the most compelling and deeply artistic performance DPJ witnessed in this dark look at basic human sexuality and love. And did we mention it’s based on a true story? Sheesh.

Also at Space 55, New Yorker Robert Moulthrop, actor, author, playwright and genuinely interesting guy, brought the house down with “17:5 – Blood, Death, Drag and Mom.” Indescribable as can be, “17:5” combines 17 of Moulthrop’s stories into five separate performances with strange laser beam accompaniment. Stranger still, it worked. Moulthrop brings his characters to life, and if the real-life counterparts are half as interesting as they are in skit, we’ll join his poker games anytime.

Modified Arts played host to Movin’ Melvin Brown, a 60-something travelling showman with a comedic look at the history of black music in “A Man, A Magic, A Music.” Brown sang, tap danced, did the moonwalk and even strip teased his way through five-plus decades of music and U.S. history, all the while describing a tough upbringing in Cincinnati and a lifetime of globetrotting in the name of song, dance and comedy. All that dancing must work, because Brown doesn’t look a day over 35 and can still show up anyone on the dance floor. His entertaining look at racism, family values, love and loss meshed well with tunes that changed his life, and by the end of the night, he had a packed house out of their seats, rocking and rolling.

Of course, this was only a taste of what PHX:Fringe had to offer. DJP is looking forward to the 2010 Fringe so we can catch even more wacky, ambitious and thought-provoking performance art, and we’re excited to see the fest expand even further.