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Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Orlando Fringe Festival 2021 reviews: ‘Seen,’ ‘Arden,’ ‘Tired Old Whore,’ ‘My First Miracle,’ ‘Dangerous When Wet,’ ‘Designated Debaters,’ ‘Dogtanic’ and ‘The Frogpig and Friends Variety Hour’

Posted By on Tue, May 25, 2021 at 1:26 PM

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Seen
Terapia Di Danza, Orlando, FL
Yellow Venue, $12

Belly dancer Serafina Schiavo uses her art to take audiences on an esoteric exploration of self-empowerment in Seen, an intriguing but inconsistent experiment in movement and mysticism. Schiavo is the Moonchild, who communes via pre-recorded voiceover with an unseen omniscient force. Between philosophical debates with her frustrating phantom, whose portentous pretentiousness she undercuts with her own quirky charisma, Schiavo employs live choreography and projected videos — each inspired by a card in the Tarot major arcana and set to aggressive hip-hop — that demonstrate her powerful core and impressive isolations. Seen’s show-opening apology for being “not neurotypical” is utterly unnecessary, and although its potential impact is blunted by numerous technical and pacing issues, with some careful cutting and diligent polishing, this show could become a sparkling navel-set jewel.




Tired Old Whore
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Ba’aser Presents, Orlando, FL
Pink Venue, $12

Don’t call Taffy Pinkerbox a prostitute; she prefers being called a whore, just like Mary Magdalene. After giving parking lot quickies to ill-fated celebrities for nearly 50 years, Taffy has had more famous fingers inside her than Grauman’s sidewalk, but now she’s telling her story to Fringe audiences for the first time (again) before turning her final trick.

Writer-performer Doug Ba’aser (who created the show with writers Michael Wanzie, John Ryan, Jeff Jones and David Lee, and director Kenny Howard) is back performing as his signature red-headed slattern. Taffy first showed off her wares at the 2014 Fringe, and seven years later this scandalously side-splitting comedy is still not safe for the politically correct. If you’re looking for sob stories about abuse and neglect, you’ve come to the wrong Fringe show, because Taffy’s proud of her half-century as a happy hooker. And brace your eardrums; Taffy sloppily warbles her way through her eponymous theme song and Epcot earworms whether you like it or not.

Aside from a brief detour into Trump territory, Taffy’s topical references — which include cameos from O.J. Simpson, Bob Barker and Elvis — haven’t been updated much since her original appearance, and the postage-stamp video projections could use an upgrade. Of course, the show is already sold out for the entire run, so it doesn’t really matter what I have to say; but I for one am not ready for Taffy to retire her leopard-print spandex quite yet.

Arden
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In the Wings, Orlando, FL
Silver Venue, $12

RuPaul’s Drag Race star Ginger Minj leads a ginormous glitter-drenched cast through the enchanted forest of Arden as the fairy queen Titania in this gender-fluid reimagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, with a touch of Twelfth Night and As You Like It tossed in for good measure.

Cesar De La Rosa is excellent as a graffiti punk Puck, who narrates the play in contemporary prose, while the rest of the cast — featuring Nardgelen J. Francois and Samantha Grace Sostack as the star-crossed lovers — delivers dialogue direct from Shakespeare’s text when they aren’t harmonizing on high-energy arrangements of "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," "Come Sail Away," "Strange Magic" and other classic pop tunes.

With a sparking set, colorful costumes and kinetic choreography, Arden fills the stage with frothy fun, and Minj tears the Orlando Rep’s roof right off from her first entrance to Elton John’s "The Bitch Is Back." She doesn't have much chemistry with Adam McCabe’s King Oberon, who growls and stomps his way through "Superstitious," and this featherweight frolic's impact dissipates by dawn, but it's solid Fringey fun while it lasts. It may give your AP English teacher a heart attack to hear it, but I enjoyed this Moulin Rouge-esque musical Midsummer mashup better than Orlando Shakes’ recent outdoor production of the original at Lake Eola, and the Silver Venue’s seats are much more comfortable to boot.


Dangerous When Wet: Booze, Sex, and My Mother
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redBrick agency, New York City, NY
Green Venue, $12

In the 1980s, Jamie Brickhouse had it all: a Manhattan brownstone with his beautiful boyfriend, a successful career in book publishing and an endless parade of boozy parties. But when the all the Beefeater martinis and big-dick midgets finally caught up with him in a hospital emergency room, it’s the sex-shaming Texas mother that he moved east to escape who ultimately proved to be his unlikely salvation. Between stories of boning in bookstores and drunk-dialing a legendary diva, Brickhouse puts the “fun” in functioning alcoholic, until his Dorian Gray-like self image finally shatters.

There are a thousand self-help stories like Brickhouse's, but only one artist in a thousand can share such a personal tale with such polish and practiced precision. Witty quips, vintage home videos and hard-won wisdom combine in Dangerous When Wet into a cocktail worth tossing back, with or without the accompanying cigarette.


Designated Debaters
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Kyle’s Company, Orlando, FL
Pink Venue, $12

Creamy peanut butter or crunchy? Ginger or Mary-Ann? Josstice League or the Snyder Cut? Robert’s Rules of Order fly right out the window faster than a speeding bullet when Batman (Eric Novella) and Superman (Samuel Hammersley) debate such crucial topics in this intoxicatingly idiotic improv comedy. Show up early so you can give Wonder Woman (Jessica Gasparolo) suggestions for issues that the iconic superheroes can debate while downing bottles of beer, which obviously only sharpens their rhetorical powers as the contest progresses.

The Dark Knight grimaces aggressive as he growls about his hatred for pineapple on pizza, while the sunny Man of Steel is eternally optimistic, but tends to punch below the belt with “your parents died in an alley” jabs when losing a point. The trio’s Party City costumes wouldn’t pass muster at MegaCon, but that just adds to the absurdity as the increasingly sloshed speakers struggle to assemble preschool puzzles and rap-battle. Some Fringe shows want to change the world; these Super Friends just want to give you a good buzz, and do so with flying colors.


Dogtanic
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BC Theatricals, Orlando, FL
Gold Venue, $12

The Titanic sank way back in 1912, but it has provided surprisingly fertile material for not one but two artists at the 2021 Orlando Fringe. While Miss Bliss’ Titanic Adventure focuses on the human side of the tragedy, Dogtanic is certain to devastate dog people like creator-performer Bruce Ryan Costella, toxoplasmosis-ridden feline lovers like myself, and pretty much anyone who likes animals better than people.

Costella, whose prior historical canine play Mutnik earned a Critic’s Choice award, was inspired to create his latest show by a 2019 visit to Branson’s Titanic museum. In this one-man show directed by Melissa Cooper, Costella isn’t playing a character but sharing well-researched stories in a loose standup tragicomedy style that makes room for bashing Marley & Me and advertising DoesTheDogDie.com alongside a textual analysis of Old Yeller and a tribute to Rin Tin Tin. This wide-ranging monologue incorporates hilarious meme-like multimedia mocking the screaming sound effects in James Cameron’s epic film, but also interrogates how humans pick and choose which forms of life we empathize with.

Between this show, Mutnik and his recent Bob Ross-inspired thriller, Costella is building a knack for turning heartwarming stories into tales of terror and heartbreak. He could use a tighter grip on his fact-filled script, and some of his digressions could stand some snipping, but I’m here for Costella’s deep dive into the hairy heart of the ocean — he just better not come for my cats next year.


The Frogpig and Friends Variety Hour
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Joel Swanson Productions, Orlando, FL
Silver Venue, $12

Exhausted by endlessly touring tiny clubs in an attempt to attract his birth parents’ attention, a half-breed puppet imagines himself as the star of an acid-soaked 1970s variety show in this supersized sequel to writer-performer Joel Swanson’s hit 2019 comedy. While the original Frogpig was a small-scale solo cabaret, this time Swanson and his felt friends are joined by sparkling backup dancers (choreographed by Adonus Mabry), an Elton John-aping pianist (Charles Stevens) and a gaggle of legendary guest stars.

For this popper-propelled production from director Rob Ward, Frogpig refuses to sing "The Rainbow Connection" for the ten-thousandth time, but he does prance through a Wizard of Oz medley alongside Liza Minnelli (Kari Ringer), just after Bette Midler (Jennica McCleary) performs an amphibian strip-tease to George Michael’s "Father Figure." Swanson delivers another dynamic, fourth-wall breaking performance, and I got out of breath just watching him hopping around the stage.

However, Frogpig is nearly upstaged by his co-stars, who energize the audience despite battling face masks and crackling microphones. I personally preferred the intimacy and innocence of Frogpig’s initial outing, which had less gratuitous salaciousness and more heart. But there’s no doubt this broad burlesque offers more than your money’s worth in whacked-out WTF moments.

Fair warning: A family with a half-dozen small children wandered into the show I attended, and promptly exited after hearing three F-bombs in the first 30 seconds. Don’t waste your non-refundable tickets like they did; leave the little ones at home watching Muppet Show reruns on Disney+ instead.


My First Miracle
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Bennet Caffee, San Francisco, CA
Blue Venue, $10

In this Fringe’s crowded field of solo shows about mental illness, My First Miracle stands out for combining Ben Caffee’s personal journey through bipolar disorder with an exotic Southeast Asian travelogue, which saw his exotic Bangkok vacation end up inside a medieval Thai psychiatric asylum.

The titular messianic miracles that Caffee attempted during his manic phases only get a passing mention in his wide-ranging monologue, but we do learn about his meet-cute with an attractive Indian American woman who wound up getting him institutionalized. I really had to lean in in order to connect with Caffee’s ultra-low-key speaking style, but behind his world-weary eyes and flattened affect is a story of perseverance worth paying attention to.




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