Of all the 2016 Orlando Fringe shows we reviewed, these four are our favorites 

Best of the fest

click to enlarge Martin Dockery and Jon Paterson in "Inescapable"

Photo by khphotographics

Martin Dockery and Jon Paterson in "Inescapable"

The 2016 edition of the Orlando Fringe has just five days left of its two-week run. We hope the dozens of reviews posted here have been helpful in choosing which shows to spend your Fringe dollar on, but if you've procrastinated until the final weekend, here's a guide to the best we've seen. It's your last chance to catch these probable Fringe 2016 award-winners, so act now.

Edgar Allan

6 p.m. Wednesday, May 25; 9:30 p.m. Friday, May 27; 11:59 p.m. Saturday, May 28; 3:15 p.m. Sunday, May 29 | Green venue | 50 minutes | $11

Before Poe was the gloomy poet beloved by goths everywhere, he was lonely little 11-year-old Edgar Allan. As played by Katie Hartman, whose raven hair and avian features prefigure the author's most famous work, tween Edgar is far more energetic than the sad-eyed alcoholic he was to become (though the signs are there in his ever-present flask). Rather, he savagely strums his ukulele, sputtering snatches of gloomy verse while strutting about the stage like a force of nature. The only thing that gives Edgar Allan pause is Edgar Allan (Nick Ryan), a rival classmate with the same name and intellectual aptitude, but opposite temperament.

Our Edgar is obsessed with his inscrutably monastic classmate, who lives in a hidden room and never speaks above a whisper, just as the narrator of Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" was vexed by his neighbor's eagle eye. The plot is adapted from "William Wilson" and other Poe short stories, and anyone familiar with his "Cask of Amontillado" will shiver with anticipation at the ending.  

With Edgar Allan, Brooklyn troupe the Coldharts (Hartman and Ryan in collaboration with Mark Benzel) hit a similar chord with me as the award-winning Wonderheads (who aren't at the Fringe this year), only with a darker edge. Hartman's powerfully piercing voice is haunting, and with their convoluted physicality, the duo looks like Edward Gorey illustrations brought to life. Don't miss this creepy, quirky charmer about friendship and murder among tweens, because "everything fun is a little bit dangerous."

In Close Quarters: A Story of Love and War

9:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 25; 4 p.m. Friday, May 27; 9:15 p.m. Saturday, May 28; 1:15 p.m. Sunday, May 29 | Silver venue | 90 minutes |$11

If the only thing you know of longtime Fringe Festival favorite Michael Wanzie is his campy comedies and outrageous parody musicals, brace yourself for a shock – his In Close Quarters is one of the most serious, searing dramas I've ever seen on the Silver venue stage.

Originally staged more than 20 years ago at Wanzie's very first Fringe, this two-hander tells the story of two Vietnam-era GIs – and lovers – trapped together for weeks in an underground bunker. As sensitive Matthew (Zachary Lane) plays Florence Nightingale to macho James' (Harrison Flanders) wounds, the pair bond over marijuana and foot massages, which eventually morph into therapeutic handjobs while the enemy hovers overhead.

Both of Wanzie's characters possess multiple layers that transcend any dated "queers in the military" clichés, and under director Chris Yakubchik the shifts from tenderness to violence are devastatingly effective. The two young stars pour themselves into their physically and psychologically punishing roles, investing the sometimes overwrought dialogue with emotional resonance, and making the comrades' conflict compelling despite some enunciation issues when things get heated. An extended wordless opening sequence (underscored by Rich Charron's ambient instrumentals) makes the 90-minute running time feel at least five minutes too long, and it's easy to see the climactic twist coming from the very first scene. But whether you are gay, straight or simply human, the final Pietà pose will have you wiping away tears.

Inescapable

10 p.m. Saturday, May 28; 12:30 p.m. Sunday, May 29 | Red venue | 55 minutes | $11

Have you ever gotten stuck in one of those circular arguments where the conversation spirals around and around until your déjà vu has déjà vu? Playwright-performer Martin Dockery's Inescapable takes that familiar feeling and spins it into a tense, brain-twisting two-man drama.

Dockery's unnamed character is already feeling depressed and suspicious over his wife's waning affections when his best friend (played by Jon Paterson) discovers a mysterious box in his closet during a joyless holiday party. The ominous object, which may be a harmless toy or something more sinister, sends the pair down a rabbit hole of recriminations and repetitive questions that had me riveted in my seat until the final blackout.

Inescapable reminded me of a less-perplexing version of the indie sci-fi film Primer, or a lost Twilight Zone episode written by Quentin Tarantino. It lacks the romantic magic-realism glow of Dockery's previous plays performed with Vanessa Quesnelle (who directed this production's rapid-fire delivery with well-balanced finesse), replacing it with testosterone-fueled propulsiveness. Thanks to its tantalizingly enigmatic script and compulsively engaging performances, Inescapable will have you crying, "What's in the box?" like Brad Pitt in Seven long after the curtain falls.

Thomas Jefferson: My Master, My Slave, My Friend

1 p.m. Saturday, May 28; 3 p.m. Sunday, May 29 | Yellow venue | 60 minutes | $11

Alexander Hamilton might have all the Broadway buzz today, but as a fellow alumni of the College of William and Mary I've always found Thomas Jefferson to be the more fascinating founding father. Actor-playwright J.D. Sutton (who has been portraying the third President for more than two decades) brings the author of the Declaration of Independence to life at Fringe with all his foibles and failings, as he addresses an abolitionist society accompanied by his manservant Jupiter, movingly portrayed by Jim Braswell. 

Under Laurel Clark's sensitive direction, Sutton's deeply researched script lays bare the irony of Jefferson's inspiring intellectual arguments for universal emancipation, juxtaposed against his willful blindness toward the abuses suffered by his purportedly privileged slaves. Braswell's Jupiter, a deep-thinking soul forced to sublimate his inner life in a white-dominated society, anticipates what is today called code-switching as he covertly expresses incredulity at Jefferson's hypocrisy through subtle sidelong glances and slumping shoulders. 

The questions this play raises – what is the meaning of "all men are created equal"? And can different races really live in harmony? – continue to resonate today, and these fine performances make the philosophizing deeply personal. My Master, My Slave, My Friend is a strong contender for the best drama of Fringe 2016.

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