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Seth's favorite season begins: preview picks for Fringe Fest 2012

I was driving up I-4 the otherday when a bold billboard caught my eye. On a black background, the letters “WTF” blazed in white LEDs; shining subtly beside them, the words “What's the Fringe?” This striking sight was only the opening salvo in a Clear Channel-sponsored outdoor advertising campaign heralding the return of one of Orlando's cultural calendar cornerstones.

The 21st annual Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival doesn't officially kick off until May 16, but the April 16 preview performance at Orlando Shakes served as a starting gun for my favorite season.Despite the fact that opening night is weeks away, I'm willing to declare the first hit of the Fest: the Fringe preview itself.

The preview, at which local performers each get a few minutes to showcase their wares, gives essential insight into what shows will and won't be worth seeing next month. But in the past, the presentation has been a bit painful, a parade of too-long acts with R-rated material bumping uncomfortably up against kid-oriented offerings.

This year, the Fringe's new executive team of producer Mike Marinaccio and general manager George Wallace shook things up. For starters, they split the evening into two separately ticketed acts. The first hour and a half was devoted to family-friendly shows, with adult-only entertainment after intermission. There were even separate MCs, with the squeaky-clean half hosted by Eric Pinder (in an eye-popping patterned blazer), and Satan and Joan Crawford (aka Jeff Jones and Doug Ba'aser) tag-teaming the sold-out late show.

Separating the lineups allowed each audience to feel more comfortable, though many people bought both tickets: a savvy double-dip on the Fringe's part. It also helped show off the fest's diversity. In fact, without the pressure of comparison to their cussin' cousins, the clean shows actually fared betterthan the foul-mouthed fare. By my count, the general audience acts had a higher hit-to-miss ratio than the mature shows that many people associate with Fringe.

Best of all, Fringe finally enforced a sensible two-and-a-half-minute time limit on the presenters, with PB&J Theatre Factory's Brandon Roberts, sporting a ref's stopwatch, tossing overtime penalty flags on the stage. As a result, the first act was fantastically tight. And while the second ran slightly over (thanks largely to Michael Wanzie's supersized Celebrity Squares), it was still the first Fringe preview I can recall that didn't fill me with the urge to gnaw my own arm off.

On that positive note, I present my top picks of the shows I'm most looking forward to, based on what I've seen so far. Don't take this list as comprehensive, since there's still an international and national performer preview on opening night. And with 80 entries, it's inevitable there are still excellent Fringe shows flying below my radar. But that's what the buzz at the beer tent is for.

Sport: 3rd Strike (PB&J Theatre Factory)

This year PB&J returns to the sports satire that got them started. I've seen almost every iteration of this troupe's silent-film slapstick, and I haven't been disappointed yet.

Dance for Grandma (Pet Projects)

Scott Whittemore performed at a recent Fringe happy hour, and I was instantly hooked. This one-man ukulele rock opera promises to be eccentric and intimate.

Jitters (Bernie O'Brien)

Never mind how this off-color comic rant against the Vagina Monologues made it into the G-rated preview. I'm astounded how O'B's stage presence has grown over the years; this show looks like his sharpest yet.

Theme Park Diva: The Musical (D Squared Productions)

Since I always enjoy composer John deHaas' musical stylings, I'm anticipating seeing if the musical mockery of our major local employers lives up to its positive reviews from 15 years ago.

Happy Zombie Girl (Shot in the Dark)

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for anything zombie, so Sarah Hanchar already has a (rotting) leg up. There's something sunny about her accordion-accompanied cannibalistic cabaret that just makes me smile.

Cannibal! The Musical (Logan Donahoo Presents)

After the success of Stone & Parker's Book of Mormon, it's about time someone resurrected their cult curiosity. Donahoo's Trash Cinema 101 proved he gets the tone needed to make this work.

Worst Show in the Fringe (Will Hagaman & Clockwork Hobo)

Ryan Gillotti directs favorites Eric Pinder and Meghan Moroney (but not Philip Nolen) in a backstage comedy that's apparently angling to be the Fringe's most shamelessly self-aware show.

Gay Bar Star: Return From the Big House (John Ryan and His Divas)

Fringe Poetry Smackdown (The Fringe [not quite dead] Poets Society)

Dog Powered Robot and the Subsequent Adventure (Miga Me)

Singer Janine Klein, poet Tod Caviness and Dog Powered Robot. What more do I need to say?

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