Dispatches from the outer Fringe

You know the Orlando International Fringe Festival is up and firing on all cylinders when you see something wholly unexpected -- like a human skull resting on a windowsill in the Church Street Exchange, mere feet from what is currently the Orange Venue. Closer inspection reveals the skull as a leftover prop, and you sigh in relief. The only other explanation -- that the English performers have settled in comfortably enough to conduct one of their quaint Druid rituals -- is too disturbing for words.

No virgins are sacrificed in Molly, Eyewitness Theatre's adaptation of the final chapter of James Joyce's "Ulysses." But there is a saucy, tour de force performance by Joanne Haydock as Joyce's Molly Bloom, who wakes in the night to enumerate the shortcomings of her sleeping, never-seen husband. Molly's gripes are intensely personal and biologically specific, causing the audience to squirm, then guffaw, at the literary equivalent of Too Much Information. There's never too much of Haydock, however, whose ability to hold a room in thrall is without peer.

Keeping the Yank end up is If Americans Are So Awful Then Take Your Hand Off My Knee, Carolyn Cohagan's charming one-woman show about her quest to carve a respectable self-image from our wretched national reputation. Cohagan's winning personality, cartoonish props and effective mimicry of her colorful ancestors easily carry us through the occasional slow spots in her narrative. Her versatility would be welcomed in George Bush's Nuts (or How I Learned to Enjoy Real Time War Footage on LSD), a sporadically amusing comedy polemic in which Baltimore's Brandon Welch denounces right-wing policy through the mouths of a variety of demographic types, including a corporate drone, an unemployed yahoo, a cross-dressing white supremacist and a gay activist. Welch's agenda is laudable, but there's not enough differentiation between his characters, and the paucity of killer punch lines within his thinly disguised sermons makes the play more of a good cause than a good time.

To contribute to a worthy cause and get a full return on your investment, see Killing Lincoln, a terrific history-based drama that has thus far been poorly attended. Working from an original script by Amy Russell, Tennesseean actor Terry Weber plays the "mad, mad totally bad" John Wilkes Booth, whose attempt to perform a theatrical biography of his nemesis, Abraham Lincoln, is increasingly undermined by his own venomous prejudices. The sometimes indistinct shift between the characters' voices (Weber also plays a coterie of related personalities like Stephen Douglas) is the only stumbling block in a fascinating production that thrives on Weber's extreme emotional involvement.

Marching (or is it stumbling?) across some of the same thematic ground, General Sherman Burns in Hell has former Orlandoan Ron Ross Ross playing Union militarist William T. Sherman, plucked from eternal damnation to deliver a lecture in the elastic morality of warfare. The reasonably promising concept dies with the swift realization that Ross can neither act nor remember his lines, which he has typed out and placed on a centrally situated podium for handy reference. (Whaddaya expect from a show that only costs $1, anyway -- total recall?) He also trots out a hand-drawn chart of Civil War operations, using it to retrace the trail of bloodshed while he nearly sprays the front rows with his apparently uncontrollable expectoration. The play then becomes the world's slowest, wettest game of Stratego, albeit one in which the bomb isn't hidden.

Motel California, on the other hand, is a hoot and a half. Their sights fixed unerringly on the absurd, comedians Richard Harrington and Chris Kauffman mount a sly story of a Belgian seeker (Harrington) who embarks a new life's path due to the God-like influence of erstwhile Eagle Don Henley. A nearly mute sidekick (Kauffman) provides the stage-managing support to our hero's hilariously perfunctory anecdotes, which are punctuated by silly songs that don't rhyme and a zoology quiz for the audience. You could win a beer!

Fellow New Yorkers the Old School Theatre Company revive a 1949 pulp detective story in Preview of Murder, delving straight-faced into the smoky tale of a mysterious set of homicides. Though Old School's fliers cite The New York Times' plaudit, "Laughs ... in a mad, crazy flood," the chuckles heard are actually the spasmodic byproduct of embracing noir on its own terms. Lead actor Matt Wagner, who plays private dick Nick Ransom, is the most engaging presence in an interesting, if somewhat subdued, genre exercise.

Broader by far is Pot Luck Productions' staging of David Willinger's Andrea's Got Two Boyfriends, a 1986 comedy-drama about three developmentally disabled adults and the exhausted counselor who cares for them. Combine Willinger's patchy script with the acting style necessary to project to the back row of SAK Comedy Lab, and you appear to have all the ingredients for a tasteless caricature of retardation. The fine cast, however, plays the material big and big-hearted, so that we laugh with the characters instead of at them. It's a rich piece of work.

As always, every moment of your attention is rewarded by the six fresh-faced Chicago comedians who call themselves Mission IMPROVable, now so popular here that it is almost impossible to imagine a Fringe without them. (Note to MI's business managers: I said "almost.") On this outing, the supernaturally skilled improvisers momentarily depart from game-laden antics to explore seven styles of long-form construction, giving them room to delve into complex, character-based motifs and running gags. What's constant? An impeccable comic sensibility, and their infectious enthusiasm as they simultaneously sabotage and get off on each other's ideas.

There's serious self-effacement in the title of Street Seuss Deuce: The Equal Sequel, Dave McConnell's second annual round of parental-advisory poetry. This sequel is not merely "equal," but rather the evidence of exponential growth in McConnell's skills as a writer and performer. Last time, his presentation was faltering but cute, a well-meaning amateur hour that most of us found pretty entertaining. Within one year, he has somehow made himself into the assured, expert ringmaster of a comprehensive three-ring circus of smut, smarts and social awareness. (His expanded supporting posse is likewise delightful.) In turn, McConnell's audience has become a howling, foot-stomping throng that responds to his naughty but responsible rhyming with fervent standing ovations. The phenomenon is nothing less than thrilling to witness.

In between performances last weekend, McConnell admitted that Fringe is the one week all year in which he can feel proud of himself. With "Street Seuss Deuce," he buys himself cred to burn for the remaining 51.

Steve Schneider

In Problem Child, a gritty black comedy by George F. Walker, actors Yvonne Suhor and Damian Jungermann play Denise and R.J. Reynolds, a couple of down-and-out, blue-collar lovers who are holed up in a seedy motel room, awaiting a call that may never come because the phone only works intermittently.

If luck does happen to break their way -- which is pretty unlikely, given their past brushes with life's harder knocks -- a social worker named Helen (Lauren O'Quinn) may ring to tell them that they can reclaim the young daughter the state has taken away from them, having deemed them unfit parents.

Feeling that justice will evade them, Denise attempts to convince Phillie (Dan Dyer), the drunken hotel handyman, to launch a preemptive strike and kidnap their "stolen" child. The play's farcical action and comic complications are underscored by the characters' undisguised anger and sadness, giving their doings a bitter and immediate honesty. Good acting from the entire cast sells the package convincingly. A solid piece of work from Art's Sake Studio, as directed by Amanda Calpey.

Young and innocent-looking Chris Zapatier belies his cherubic appearance while taking Cringle's Comedy Cornucopia into some pretty bizarre areas of his off-center psyche. In one segment of his six-sketch show, he plays an actor who specializes in bestiality; in another, a male escort who sells his services like an insurance agent.

Only some of Zapatier's comedic arrows hit the mark, and he has much to learn about how to develop material and segue out of a bit's premise. But his writing shows promise. If he is as sharp as he is bold, he will work out the kinks in his kinky subject matter, the better to wind up on "Saturday Night Live" someday -- which may or may not signal progress.

Solitary, written and directed by Rob Anderson, is a similarly mixed bag of sketches and monologues that centers on the notion of "one -- one person, one thought, one's private life, one's confession, one's death." The best character work of the collection occurs in "Boxed In," wherein Colleen Kelly plays a dimwitted woman named Dolly, who has been buried alive by her sinister lover. Mike Mayhall also gives a sharp performance in "Disappointment," which takes us through the final moments of a killer's life as he sits strapped in an electric chair.

"In the Trenches" is a fun look at an average guy living through the hell of being the only man in a house full of females, and "The Quiet Ones" treads familiar ground with hilarious results, as two losers at a prom fantasize about their dream lovers. I give "Solitary" a 75 percent, mostly because the players dance well together under Anderson's precise staging.

Strong ensemble work sparks Farrago, a postmodern soap opera with a cast of off-kilter, self-absorbed characters who often fall over the edge into violence and/or psychosis. Don Fowler, Janine Klein, Michael Marinaccio, Megan Whyte and Timothy Williams are all splendid as the mixed-up denizens of a darkly comic universe where overstimulated but unfulfilled gen-Xers couple and uncouple in rapid-fire succession, oblivious to the damage they inflict on those around them.

These surreal personae nonetheless retain an emotional immediacy and intensity that make their twisted stories both sympathetic and compelling. Though the script proper is credited to Tod Kimbro (who has given the Fringe some its best writing over the last few years), John A. Valines III and Peter Hurtgen Jr., its edge undoubtedly comes from the months of improvisational work the cast members undertook with the aid of the Invisible Arts Project's Chad Lewis, in which they hashed out dialogue and sharpened their characters' impulses and motivations.

In playwright Joseph Reed Hayes' A Little Crazy, an elderly Jewish man, Avram Mordecai Saltzman (local favorite Paul Wegman), who is dying of cancer decides to spend his final days with his grandnephew, Harry Bronski (Matt Curless), a New York lawyer in his mid-30s. Their time together is spent reminiscing and sharing stories about themselves and others.

While the dialogue is interesting and often amusing, this two-person character study lacks tension -- or, indeed, any real dramatic action capable of propelling the story forward. Wegman, an actor of considerable ability, veers perilously close to caricature as his character is left without a compelling conflict to work through. Simply "being" Uncle Mordecai, although a pleasant enough excuse for a visit, is not enough to sustain this slim work.

As monologues go, Canadian writer/performer T.J. Dawe's "Labrador" was the sleeper hit of last year's festival. Dawe continues his brilliant series of one-man "true-life" stories with the fabulously funny and manic The Slip-Knot, an 80-minute, nonstop riff on his history of servitude in a series of low-level, low-paying and low-self-esteem-building jobs.

Dawe is a keen observer of the workaday world in which he often finds himself immersed, and his self-effacing, honest mode of reflection is always achingly funny and all too recognizable. A lover of language, he is painfully aware of the ways in which euphemistic speech destroys meaning and nuance within the homogenized culture of giant corporations and government entities.

Like a jazz musician on uppers, Dawe often strafes his audience with prolonged, breathless, bebop phrases, machine-gunning us with more words per minute than seems humanly possible. "The Slip-Knot" proves that the only prerequisites for a complete theatrical experience are a good story and one really good storyteller.

Another polished one-man offering is the sly, show-biz satire Waiting for Napoleon, by actor/writer (and sometime theme-park performer) Eric Pinder. The plot concerns an actor's torturous attempt to portray the entire complement of characters in Tolstoy's "War and Peace" for Literature World, an attraction devoted to the great classics of fiction.

Along the way, we are treated to Pinder's soliloquies on classical music, opera, the role of the fool in Shakespeare and the complicated web of personages in Tolstoy's largely impenetrable tome. Pinder also offers his impersonations of an overwrought technical worker, a gay costume designer, a pompous director and the unseen but always satanic "marketing department" of the theme park.

He caps his paranoid depiction of a performer's agony with an "actor's nightmare" scene, a seminude, hyperactive tap-dancing routine that should be enough to drive any would-be theater artist out of the profession and into something safer -- like skydiving.

Al Krulick

Written in the mid-1990s by composer Eric Lane Barnes, Fairy Tales: A Gay Musical Revue got its start in Chicago but has just now found its way to Orlando. As presented by Chataqua Productions, a talented ensemble of performers who all excel at the musical-revue format, the show is both uproariously funny and extremely moving.

Layden Sadecky -- who, along with fellow performer Jennifer Bascom, had a huge hit with the Fringe's "Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should" Know a few years back -- delivers several screamingly funny, over-the-top numbers and brings down the house with the song "My Ambition" (which, incidentally, is to become a member of the Partridge Family.)

In "The Ballad Of Tammy Brown," Bascom serves up with heart-wrenching pathos a song about a lesbian's teen-age alienation. Desta Sheridan's "The Gay Guys," a riotous lament from a woman who seems to be plagued with the same curse as Liza Minnelli, is also a crowd pleaser.

Scott Weyrauch and Jim Howard round out the superb ensemble, with able direction by Greg Triggs and effective choreography (given the limited space) by T. Robby Pigott.

Also on the musical front, Fringe favorites Toxic Audio return with Putting Words In Your Mouth. Though Orlando's national reputation for melody may rest on Creed and numerous boybands, the City Beautiful's true musical treasure is this dynamic a cappella group.

This time, Toxic Audio presents some new numbers and revives some favorites, all connected by the thread of word definition. While the theme is stretched a little thin, mainly to showcase some of Toxic Audio's classic numbers (as when the word "impersonate" is used to present Paul Sperrazza's superbly spastic rendition of Michael Jackson's "Thriller"), other instances are pure genius. The standard "Autumn Leaves" reaches hysterical new heights as Michelle Mailhot reinterprets the song in a variety of languages, from Korean to German to a certain playground favorite.

The true wonder of Toxic Audio, though, lies in realizing what amazing things the human voice can accomplish. Where else can you hear an impeccable version of "Wipeout" that relies only on a couple of hand-held microphones and the sounds that emanate from a throat?

In addition to performing its own show, Toxic Audio teams with SAK Comedy Lab for Captain Goodness vs. The Injustice League. An improvisational comic-book spoof, the show rarely soars above its one-note script. Super hero "Captain Goodness" (Jeremy James) and inspector Dan Jurious (Jay Hopkins) take on a motley assortment of super villains, including Big Debby (Anitra Pritchard), The Remote Control (Brendan Jennings), Mr. Nefarious (Rene Ruiz), his sidekick, Jimmy (Sperrazza), and Maxine Factor (Megan Whyte).

Captain Goodness sees the cast picking audience members' brains for occupations and activities to throw into the improvisational mix, but it is never made totally clear how these loose ends will be tied together. When the affair does come to its cookie-cutter conclusion, the use of audience input is sorely uninspired.

Ruiz showcases his fine acting talents, James makes a likable superhero and Jennings gets in a few funny ad libs. But, overall, the show is a rather lackluster effort from two talented ensembles who should know better.

Slightly more successful at mining comedy from improv is Franco Productions' Sloth. Through random card selection, audience members choose the roles that a company of fictional film actors (a former football pro, a D-grade B-picture star, etc.) will play in an impromptu movie.

As a Stuart Smalley-like character interviews their director, the actors play out the referenced scenarios. The strong premise could easily build into plenty of zaniness, but the young cast seldom capitalizes fully on the absurd situations.

At the low end of the Fringe scale is Johnny Crosskey's collegiate comedy The Freshmen. Flubbed lines, misfired lighting cues and uninspired performances make this freshman effort feel more like it belongs on the roster of a real school's amateur-talent show.

Following the play's opening-night performance, an unsatisfied audience member asked, "Didn't they have to audition this show to get selected?" The answer is "no." And, love it or hate it, that's what makes the Fringe a unique theatrical experience.

Brad Haynes
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