Best of the Fest: Three of our favorite Fringe shows so far 

click to enlarge Moonlight After Midnight

Moonlight After Midnight

Every year we review as many shows at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre festival (whew) as we possibly can, and halfway through the two-week festival, we let you know which are our favorites. This year, however, thanks to a quirk of publishing deadlines, we had to make our print picks way too early – this issue went to press Friday, May 15. So what you see listed here are my favorite three shows from, well, the first three days of the festival. Keep an eye on all of our reviews in the Arts section at orlandoweekly.com, where we'll also give you an updated Best of the Fest Wednesday, May 20.

Moonlight After Midnight
60 minutes | Green venue, Orlando Repertory Theatre, 1001 E. Princeton St. | $11 

A man (Martin Dockery) sits alone in a darkened hotel room. A woman (Vanessa Quesnelle) enters uninvited, singing a Patsy Cline classic. She initially appears surprised to see him, then insists that she is the call girl he phoned for. Despite his denials, they begin a strange circular dance of role-play, alternately pretending to be strangers meeting cute while comet-watching, a newly married couple on their wedding night, and a pair of old lovers reuniting after a decade apart. 

To say much more about the plot of Moonlight After Midnight would spoil the delicate surprises awaiting inside this complex, confounding and ultimately compassionate romantic mystery. Written by Dockery with dramaturgy by Quesnelle, the script works on multiple levels: It's a fast-talking sex comedy with passionate chemistry between the likable leads; a domestic drama that's fairly realistic despite the strangeness of the scenario; a philosophical debate about our human need for fantasy to facilitate communication; and a meta-commentary on theater that gently skewers both actors and directors.

Fringe vet Dockery is dynamic as always, his signature floppy hair and undulating fingers painting the portrait of a man for whom following the direction to "go with the flow" is harder than it sounds. But by the time we reach the Twilight Zone-ish twist, it's clear that this is really Quesnelle's showcase. She displays huge emotional range in her characterizations, from hard-bitten hooker to heartbroken honeymooner, along with a fine singing voice. While Moonlight After Midnight may seem at first to be simply an exercise in circular screwball silliness, there's something touching and tragic awaiting inside for those patient enough to unpack this puzzle box's pleasures.

Nick Paul: Impossible Feats of Fake Magic
50 minutes | Bronze venue, Orlando Museum of Art, 2416 N. Mills Ave. | $10 

Nick Paul calls his show "Impossible Feats of Fake Magic," but there's nothing artificial about this illusionist's impressive abilities. Paul is a veteran of Walt Disney World and Off-Broadway, and his experience is evident in this polished, professional presentation. He avoids the patter problem, the downfall of many magicians, by eschewing speech and substituting physical schtick worthy of a silent film comedian, relying on expressive body language and some snarky cue cards to communicate. 

Paul's tricks are all based on classic effects – pick a card, materialize a coin, restore a torn newspaper, vanish an iPhone – but they're pulled off with amusingly offhand ease and deceptively self-deprecating flair. He has great rapport with his audience volunteers, especially kids (as in an extended balloon animal sequence), and his tricks rely on dexterity and misdirection instead of elaborate mechanical effects. 

The show's finale is a hysterical sendup of pretentious prestidigitators that may have Criss Angel suing for copyright infringement. Paul says that he's "not a wizard, just a guy with a lot of free time," but I'm not sure I believe him. A word of advice: The seats in OMA's new Bronze venue are all flat on the floor, so arrive early to sit up front for the best view of Paul's nimble fingers.

Just This Once
50 minutes | Gold venue, Orlando Museum of Art, 2416 N. Mills Ave. | $11 

The Orlando Museum of Art has finally fully embraced the Fringe this year, opening their SunTrust Auditorium up as the festival's Gold venue. Between the newly installed LED lights and comfy padded seats with excellent sightlines, this could become one of the best performance spaces at the Fringe, provided they can work out some sound-system snafus. 

So it's appropriate that the first Fringe show to preview in this gem of a venue is John B. DeHaas' delicately crafted song cycle Just This Once. DeHaas has been one of Orlando's most in-demand pianists and prolific composers for nearly two decades, but this piece dates to his days as a Williamsburg, Virginia, theme park employee. 

The work was originally written for his 30th birthday, but DeHaas has revived it for his 50th, and most of it still feels surprisingly relevant (if endearingly naive) 20 years later. Unlike some of his other creations, this song cycle is not a fully formed musical, but a plotless series of loosely related numbers, with little movement and zero dialogue to connect them. Characters go unnamed, existing only for the length of a song, but a common theme of longing for love links the vignettes together. DeHaas' Broadway pastiche melodies seem oddly familiar, as if you've always known the tune, and if the lyrics aren't as trickily witty as some of his later work, they a bear straightforward simplicity befitting the show's tone of insecure optimism.

The cast of Just This Once is directed by local favorite Andrea Canny, and includes some of the area's most talented singers inside (or outside) a theme park: Kevin Kelly, Kelley McGillicuddy, Paul Padilla, Shawn Walsh, Stephanie Warner and Susan Williams. Each gets a solo or two in which to shine, though my favorites were the comic combos – a barbershop ode to washboard abs, Padilla and Walsh whining about the worst dates they ever had, or Williams and Warner despairing at the deficit of suitable straight men. A few bits, like a twee lullaby with a trio of mothers-to-be, come across as overly precious, but the bulk are quite charming. The cycle's best moments come during the full-cast opener and finale; when this entire ensemble joins their beautiful voices, the blend is something you'll want to hear more than just once.

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