A mysterious Fringe show starring a gorilla raised serious questions about Orlando’s cultural character

Young Man Dressed as a gorilla
Young Man Dressed as a gorilla Photo by Seth Kubersky

The 27th annual Orlando Fringe Festival came to a close on Memorial Day, with 2018 going down as one of the wettest fests in recent memory. Tropical rains didn't seem to dampen audience enthusiasm or demand for Loch Haven Park parking spots. I set a new personal record by reviewing nearly 35 shows, and Orlando Weekly published a total of 50 Fringe reviews; visit our blog for a rundown of the Critics' Choice awards bestowed by the Orlando Sentinel's Matt Palm and me during last Monday's closing ceremonies. Over 14 days, cheese curds were consumed, beer pitchers were emptied, and impromptu art – like Ben Singer's late-night live ukulele scoring of a Fatty Arbuckle silent film – popped up across the Festival lawn, again proving how lucky Orlando is to be the home of the longest-running Fringe in the United States.

But I don't want to talk about any of that. I want to talk about the gorilla.

The most amazing, confounding, frustrating and important show at the 2018 Fringe that you probably didn't see wasn't in the program, and you couldn't find it listed online. But it left an impression that's lingering even longer than its title: Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits in a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes and Then Leaves.

The one-night-only production, which deserves a "truth in advertising" award, is produced by Australian Jon Bennett, the hyperkinetic hobbit who brought his acclaimed one-man show Fire in the Meth Lab back to Orlando this year. Originally presented at Edinburgh in 2005 by an unknown creator, Bennett has been "facilitating" this show – which is exactly what it claims, yet so much more – at festivals around the world since 2013, and its Orlando debut held an eye-opening mirror up to our artistic community.

Though nominally a secret, word of the event spread swiftly through social media, so the Black Venue saw a standing-room-only crowd for the Tuesday-into-Wednesday midnight show, made up mostly of local and visiting Fringe performers and a smattering of die-hard patrons. After a few initial monkeyshines involving decoy ape suits, the titular star arrived to take his seat onstage, rocking rhythmically – and doing absolutely nothing else – for almost an entire hour before silently exiting as advertised.

Objectively speaking, it is the most uninteresting performance imaginable, aside from speculating about the identity of the anonymous actor under the expressionless mask. But the true secret is that the spectators themselves are the real show. I've heard stories of past audiences adoring and supporting the gorilla, paying respectful tribute and even forming impromptu societies around him. By contrast, the Orlando audience's reaction was more raucous than reverential, to say the least.

From the opening moments, the theater turned into a free-for-all, with the gorilla treated at best as an accessory, and at worst as an objectified joke. Audience members mobbed the stage, burying the actor in umbrellas and advertisements while gyrating wildly around him. The rest of the crowd was equally restless, shifting from rhythmic clapping and rounds of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to violent shushing and back again.

As the hour wore on, it became obvious that the audience (which had been taking full advantage of the cash bar) had no intention of being quiet for even 60 seconds. I stood in the back near Bennett, who seemed to be visibly upset – perhaps genuine, perhaps an act? – by the crowd's chaotic response, repeatedly shouting for people to get off the stage. Festival producer Mike Marinaccio had to personally escort out one patron who was particularly disruptive, even as the sound booth seemed to be egging on the activity, taunting the revelers with '80s tunes at ear-splitting volume.

Like a performance art answer to the Milgram Experiment, the show developed a serious Lord of the Flies vibe, and I half-jokingly predicted the production would conclude with someone either stabbing the gorilla or giving it a blow job. The nadir arrived when an audience member loudly identified Matt Palm from across the room, and led the crowd in a chant demanding he "review the show!" Watching the reticent fellow writer redden, I swiftly stepped out the back door lest the mob turn on me next.

Though it ended sweetly enough, with the audience forming archways with their arms for the ape to exit under, I emerged wondering what the experience implies about Orlando's cultural character. Are we raging narcissists who can't stand seeing someone else in the spotlight? Are we so focused on always being "entertaining" that we've lost patience with more abstract art? Or are our smartphone-addled brains simply incapable of silently "being" anymore? I don't have any answers, but I'll be a monkey's uncle that it took a guy in a gorilla suit to stir up these questions.

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