Wrap party 

The Orlando International Fringe Festival is a lot like Christmas. It comes once a year, it's eagerly anticipated, and it seems to go by in a flash. And when it's over, you're left with abject guilt that you didn't make the most of it.

After a week in which my own festival attendance had been sporadic at best, I set aside last Saturday evening to squeeze some belated enjoyment out of the fast-disappearing theatrical holiday. Better to snap up the last few candy canes than to cry in one's egg nog that all the good presents have already been opened and played with.

Sleighed by the sun

I had trouble, however, keeping the Yuletide analogy in the forefront of my mind as the late-afternoon temperatures rocketed into the stratosphere. Those of us who had been eager (or foolish) enough to venture onto Church Street before sundown were rendered nearly motionless by an energy-sapping heat. It was the perfect weather for theater -- but only if you were doing Tennessee Williams.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was not being presented at the Orange Venue, but neither was "Hostile Holiday," whose scheduled 6:50 p.m. performance had been canceled and replaced with a truncated version of Lovelace & Morrow's "Pig Tails and Profanity in Plaid." Most of us bought tickets anyway. At that point, we would have done anything to get indoors.

"Pig Tails" had been snipped in half to fit into "Holiday's" running time, meaning that the Orlando Black Theatre Ensemble's show-opening "The Commute" would not be seen. Left in place was "Jane Does Dick," which was actually pretty respectable for an 11th-hour choice. Its small cast of University of Central Florida students compensated for the show's weak script by keeping their line-readings up and their energy level on overflow. The concept was hardly novel: Primer icons Dick and Jane gee-whiz their way through didactic lessons in modern living, applying their familiar, fresh-faced enthusiasm to the afterschool pursuits of sex, drugs and rock & roll. That one-joke premise would only be perceived as daring by an audience that had never read a Robert Crumb comic, but Kimber Taylor put so much spunk into her portrayal of the terminally cheerful Jane that belly-laughs erupted whenever she opened her All-American mouth to extol the virtues of "fist-fucking" and "crack." Ladies and gentlemen, the original Dirty Barbie.

The line was around the block for the 7:45 p.m. "Florida Follies," which had drawn strong early notices for its skewering of life in America's theme-park capital. So strong, in fact, that the show was sold out before I came within fainting distance of the Yellow Venue's ticket stand. Standing behind me, a Universal Studios employee of my acquaintance offered his sympathy as I reviewed my few remaining options to catch a fill-in play. He, of course, had purchased his ticket well in advance and was minutes away from finding out what the "Follies" creators had to say about his own line of work while I desperately rifled through the paper like a personal-ad addict on New Year's Eve. I bet he does his taxes in March, too.

Hike and seek

Thinking a change of scenery was what I needed, I ambled over to the Green Venue to catch the Winter Park-based Poster Child troupe's "Love: A Grave Mental Disease." My own mental faculties must not have been operating on full either, as I didn't stop to consider that the trek to Amelia Street would be a Bataan death-march on such an oppressively hot day. When I finally arrived, and a festival staffer offered to bring soft drinks to everyone on line, I had to hold myself back from hugging him and not letting go.

As is its wont, "Love" was worth the money, if not the suffering. Its interconnected, comedic sketches about the many faces of amour were straight out of "Saturday Night Live": They all went on too long , and none came to a satisfying conclusion. But there was considerable talent in the cast, especially in the person of Trey Stafford, a Jay Mohr look-alike with a fearsome ability to summon up eye-popping fury at a moment's notice. Stafford had the most enviable job, being allowed to cool off by stripping naked on stage as the rest of us endured the venue's sporadically functioning air conditioning. Another performer lived up to the show's "adult" designation by offering to give us all lap dances in our seats.

"What did she say?" an older woman next to me inquired aloud.

"She's going to do a tap dance," her husband recapped.

Night had fallen back on Church Street, but the mercury hadn't followed suit. As I passed the Purple Venue, I spotted FunnyEola impresario Vicki Roussman looking as close to unconsciousness as everyone else around her as she filed out onto the sidewalk.

"What did you just see, Vicki?" I questioned.

"This thing in here," she dazedly replied, lazily waving her arm in the direction of the Purple.

"Oh, right. That's -- what -- the Puce Venue?" I yawned, mimicking her fatigue.

"No, the Ecru," she chuckled. It's always fun to have someone you can be punchy with.

Hot dog heaven

The mood of lethargy suddenly vanished when "Electra at the Wiener Stand" took over the stage of the Blue Venue just after 11 p.m. Building on the reputation he had earned with last year's "Suckers: Your Guide to Fitting in with Non-Conformists," playwright Tod Kimbro turned in a simply shattering portrait of a sexual-abuse victim who in turn ruins the lives of everyone who dares to love her. Despite Kimbro's widely respected prowess, I hadn't foreseen that a tale so dependent on seemingly played-out '90s archetypes -- the battle-scarred incest survivor, the white homeboy wannabe, the feminazi -- could be rendered with such power and authority. The frequent injections of humor leavened the gravity of the narrative without ever coming across as cheap, and the cast of five (including Kimbro himself) displayed a uniform understanding of the script's flawless rhythm. There was swooning going on in the audience, all right, but it wasn't from the heat.

Soon after they had dropped the event's Big One on Church Street, the young members of Kimbro's Zombie Productions gathered at the festival's beer tent to unwind and purge themselves of the turbulent emotions called up by their demanding roles. There were some conflicting opinions as to the success of the evening's performance: Actor John Muscarnero termed it "kind of an off night," but fellow thespian Michael Marinaccio assessed it as "solid." That was as far as it went on the controversy front, with the troupe displaying a back-slapping camaraderie that was all the more sweetly childlike for having been birthed in a piece of unrelenting tragedy.

As kids will do, they burbled excitedly about day jobs just landed (tour guide at Islands of Adventure) and jokingly bitched about ones that had long since outstayed their welcome (waiter at Chili's). A couple of them had stars in their eyes as they told of their plans to kiss Orlando goodbye and say hello to New York, where they hoped to land lucrative roles in daytime dramas. Kimbro had his sights set slightly higher, having just submitted his work to Juilliard.

Outwardly, I wished them well. But inside, I secretly hoped that none of those things would come true, and that they would stay right here where they're so sorely needed. It's Christmas, I fooled myself as the beads of sweat ran down my face. And I can ask for what I want.


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