Good Fringe hunting

"Hot" is the watchword for director John DiDonna's nifty production of David Hare's The Blue Room, which casts Heather Leonardi and Michael Marinaccio as a panoply of sexual archetypes. If the sporadically naked butts on stage are what's putting the clothed butts in the seats, then so be it. The real reasons to see the show are the naked talent and honesty of its local interpreters. The actors' intense commitment never falters as their characters pair up, consummate their initial attraction and move on to the next messy coupling. There's slightly less distinction between the male roles than the females: Marinaccio is often relegated to playing the uptight stooge as Leonardi runs wild with her predatory and/or psychologically disfigured characters. Meanwhile, the back-wall slide projections time the various carnal encounters with an unforgiving precision that has every fella in the room wincing.

The temperature is frigid in the Margeson Theater, but that doesn't prevent whirling dervish Charles Ross from working up a sweat. And foaming at the mouth. And nearly passing out as he re-creates the greatest film trilogy of our time – in one hour, and without the help of costumes or props. His One-Man Lord of the Rings is the rip-roaring good time anticipated by those of us who saw him give Star Wars the same treatment last year. This one's heavier on pantomimed action than dialogue, yet Ross still slips in some good Hobbit-skewering gags while leaving the material's emotional core unmolested. His Gollum is Serkis-perfect, though I was just as impressed to learn that the guy does a heck of a mean Treebeard. Elvish is everywhere!

A play by Joseph Reed Hayes is a welcome oasis of cultured smarts at the Fringe, which tends toward the bawdier side of the spectrum. His Solos takes as its topic the development of jazz, as revealed by the decades-spanning story of a trumpeter (Jay T. Becker) and his wife (Luerne Picart Herrera), who secretly pens all his "original" compositions. Music fans will have a leg up in discerning how their working relationship reflects the flow of an entire American century; no such foreknowledge, though, is required to appreciate Hayes' smooth hand with dialogue. The show's biggest failing is its lack of balance. Herrera is simply too green to hold her own against the polished Becker, and the live jazz combo tends to drown out the actors' words instead of enhancing them. I've heard this flaw is being addressed, but you should still try to sit as far away from the band as possible.

The award for Best Play Title at the Fringe belongs to T.R. Swamp Rat's Downhome Moonshine Whorehouse. Sean Keohane is back with another puppetry-filled adult musicale that's just as likely to sail over your head as grab you by the 'nads. If you're familiar with the Muppet classic Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, you're in for a modern-day reworking that more realistically addresses the issue of single parenting among cute critters. It's got armadillos in lieu of otters; seeing Pa get creamed at the side of the road is the first sign that Keohane's vision will be, shall we say, darker than Henson's. The show is more clever than funny, and the mix of recorded puppet voices and live speech is sometimes off-cue. The secret weapon: a musical score that's both a note-perfect parody of Muppet melodicism and impossible to banish from your memory. It's totally catchy, like most things one finds in whorehouses.

Orlando has fully caught on to the appeal of master monologist TJ Dawe: The rousing standing ovation that followed his first area performance of The Curse of the Trickster seemed to surprise even him. Or maybe that's just part of the nice-guy persona he uses to sell his pithy observations about the idiotic behavior of outwardly intelligent beings. The "trickster" of his show's title is an inner voice we all follow that invariably leads us to self-destruction. (Imagine a Satanic cousin to Murphy of Murphy's law fame.) Dawe tells us how the trickster has wreaked havoc on his own life, cleverly interweaving those anecdotes with a running list of Things You Never Hear. The man is a genius at choosing and delivering his words for maximum impact, rendering any disappointment that this foray isn't as structurally complex as 2002's The Slip-Knot a minor quibble at most.

Anitra Pritchard and Erin Muroski may own the distinction of having discovered the first technical glitch in the newly refurbished Studio Theatre (the Purple Venue): an air-conditioner alarm that emitted a low whine throughout most of their second performance of Parallel Lives: The Kathy and Mo Show. Riffing on the intrusion with an assuredness only refined talent can manage, they went right back to their roof-raising take on the Kathy Najimy/Mo Gaffney classic, a program of two-character skits that suits these funny ladies to a T. It takes a certain something to hold one's own onstage with Pritchard (whose drunken-cowboy routine may even be better than Najimy's), but whatever that something is, Muroski has it. This duo exhibits great chemistry, even if what they're doing is largely a reverent rereading of the original team's template.

Taking the leap into solo-act territory with Sushi and the City, Karin Amano strikes a petite figure and speaks in an exaggerated, Asian-flower diction that seems to place an ellipsis between every two words. Is it a gag, or is that really her? Before you can figure it out, she's off and running, going for the Caucasian jugular in an extended monologue that retraces her efforts to locate Mr. Right on the Internet. Like the evil sister of one of the pliant geishas in Cry for Happy, Amano explains how she weeded out the losers whose looks, incomes and libidos didn't meet her standards. Putting an immigrant spin on material that could otherwise come across as pedestrian, the actress has the audience in her back pocket the entire time. That goodwill comes in handy during the show's unrelated finale, a bizarre conflation of kabuki theater and home cooking that's frankly unnecessary. I guess it wouldn't be sushi if you didn't overdo it.

Intelligent casting sparks Joe's NYC Bar: The Beginning, a prequel to the experimental, interactive franchise that bowed at Fringe 2001. Caroline Ross is flat-out adorable as Josephine, proprietress of an illegal, Depression-era tavern that will one day metamorphose into the conversational nexus point Joe's. Orlando Powers, playing a Cotton Club singer beloved by Josephine's free-thinking clientele, has the enunciation, posture and demeanor of 1930s blacks down cold, affording some moving moments when his character's presence at the bar is questioned by less enlightened visitors. The smooth ensemble work becomes crucial when this heavily plotted story of community and justice gets up to third gear. A few wordy speeches at the three-quarter mark threaten to unravel the work, but the steam is recovered in an exciting climax that drew an actual gasp on the night we visited. And in theater, you don't argue with gasps.

The Nutty Professor is the kind of play that gives new meaning to the words "delight" and "charming." Star Michael Andrew gives two tour-de-force performances as milquetoast scientist Julius Kelp (who in Andrew's conception is as much Ed Grimley as Jerry Lewis) and as Buddy Love, the hilariously boorish id-creature Kelp unleashes on the world. It's a motive, keenly aware romp, wittily staged by director Patrick Flick and buttressed by an excellent supporting cast that knows how to distinguish itself without overshadowing the star. The music is terrific, as anyone familiar with Andrew's vocal gifts would anticipate. Yet he's first and foremost an actor, which becomes clear as his character gradually and poignantly comes to terms with his true nature. Whatever you do, don't miss this joyous chance to watch Andrew embrace the Kelp within.

— Steve Schneider

Irene Dixon (Terri-Lyn Storey), a precocious teenager from North Vancouver, has a tenuous grip on reality. In Joan MacLeod's 1992 one-act The Hope Slide, we learn that she also has a terrific story to tell. It's about her brush with the remnants of the Doukhobors, a little-known Canadian sect whose nonviolent ways, unorthodox social customs and political firebrandism set them against the norms of Canadian culture.

The grown-up Irene also tells a story. Hers is about a friendship and a man whose death from AIDS pushes her notions of hope to their limit. Actress Storey portrays both Irenes in this one-woman play that follows the "shifting shorelines, erupting rivers and falling mountains" of the character's inner life. It's a moving and lyrical tribute to an almost vanished culture, as well as to the vanished men whose lives were laid waste by another kind of seismic event.

Time Out! With Didi and Rose introduces us to two friendly and engaging housewives whose cable-TV show has garnered them a devoted following in Secaucus, N.J. Their weekly video get-together is rampant with sage advice; empowering nostrums; stories of personal triumphs and tragedies; forays into public policy; and conversations about pasta.

What could have been a failed Saturday Night Live sketch quickly becomes a rollicking, laugh-filled event in the capable hands of actresses Suzanne O'Donnell and Jilline Ringle, whose onstage chemistry suggests years of bada-bing, bada-boom comic interplay. If more TV shows were like this, I wouldn't mind paying my cable bill quite so much.

Writer/director Rocky Hopson has said he hopes And the Moon and the Stars and the World will be "a powerful and poignant slice-of-life drama that taps into the psyche of everyday people." I'm not sure that "powerful" and "poignant" have been achieved, though this story of an unhappy video-store clerk, his abandoned stepmother and the jilted lesbian creative-writing teacher who befriends them both is often interesting and generally well-acted. Jarred Sharar is particularly enjoyable as a 21-year-old who's at odds with his mother, his absent dad, his own sexual identity, and just about everything else in his circumscribed and lonely little world.

But the play, built over seven months with the cast's input, lacks a coherent point of view or overriding theme. The characters are strong, distinct and well-crafted, but the work itself teeters somewhere between an alternative-lifestyle soap opera and the kind of reality show that attempts to infuse the daily lives of its often immature and dysfunctional subjects with some sort of dramatic energy.

— Al Krulick

— Al Krulick

In The Tele-Con, we find a small-time fund-raiser (Nick Giordano) struggling to carry on his father's tradition and raise money for "the kids" with his trademark 22-hour TV marathon. Dad died on the air last year – a very nice touch – but things aren't going as well now. Our hero's orange-haired girlfriend (Deniece Alvarado) has ditched him for another; the blowhard announcer (Darren Vierday) insults a major celebrity contributor; and most of the on-air acts suck (and not in a good way). A small boy (Logan Kennedy) wanders backstage, and the announcer puts him in a wheelchair to beg for sympathy from the TV audience.

As things bumble along in the stuffy Blue Venue, the show seems to last 22 hours itself. Despite the lugubrious pacing, it's not clear why anyone does anything, and most of the pretend acts aren't entertaining on any level. This show even gets the versatile Charles Frierman, one of the funniest guys around, to not be funny in his role as a singing janitor. Kennedy smirks the whole way through, never coming close to looking pathetic. He just looks like he scored something big by getting on this cramped stage. The rest of us scored big by getting out.

With Driving Miss Cherry Blossom, playwright Eric Pinder has spun out another clever mix of physical humor, poignancy and bizarre-but-believable situations. Pinder plays Troy, a young man who heads to Tokyo intent on a career as an itinerant haiku poet. An in-flight meeting with an old buddy of his father sets him up with a bad day-job: working for Mistress (Karin Amano), a feisty woman with a drinking problem and huge interest in a tea factory. His job is to drive her around in a 1986 Caddy while she hits him with a rolled-up Orlando Weekly and heaps abuse on him. But Troy becomes accustomed to it, and affection grows between them.

Director Ray Hatch pulls it all together on a minimalist stage (two folding chairs and a free paper). Pinder carries the main thrust of the story, while Amano brilliantly plays all the Asian supporting roles: drunken businessman, ditzy girlfriend and, best of all, a dung-flinging monkey. Driving Miss Cherry Blossom dissects the cultural clash beautifully while never condescending. Funny and poignant, it's a real gem.

With 90 minutes of material and a 55-minute slot, James Judd claims he's sped up his delivery of his 7 Sins. But fast-forward only works on dirty movies, not comics. It's a great shame: Judd is funny enough that you might want to drag him to the beer tent and try to pry the other 35 minutes out of him.

The verbal game Mr. Judd plays takes his life and relates it to the Big Seven no-nos. Amazingly, each one of the sins fits into a handy little narrative mold: He gets into a situation, does something sort of reasonable, screws up (but no worse than you or I would) and pulls himself out of it with a skill set honed by a lifetime of soap operas.

Judd's jokes are hyperfunny, making the show a witty, sophisticated, refreshing breeze as he relates the opera of his life, set against a very loose backdrop of transgressions. Your life might be as funny. But you can't just watch the soaps. You gotta live ‘em.

Lemonade finds the acting team of Tommy Wooten and Doug Ba'aser back in campy drag (although not so campy that they couldn't shop at Publix unnoticed). Mabel (Ba'aser), a frumpy woman of substance, performs a service for other proper ladies by starting a roadside bar disguised as a lemonade stand. Soon enough, competition shows up in the form of big-haired Edith (Wooten). Old friends, they take to talking; as alcohol looses the lips, tales are spun of cheating husbands, burned children and a host of other ills that have help to define the women and their neuroses.

Though the drag element adds a level of surrealism to the show, the story is basically gentle, and might be just as effective with actual old women swilling sugar and citric acid. Either way, Lemonade is more a slice of life than a compelling drama, but not a bad way to top off an evening.

— Al Pergande

— Al Pergande

Best described as a performance-art piece, Fish Tales and Swan Songs uses folk tales, familiar songs, poetry, opera, pseudo-ballet, puppetry and storytelling to communicate lessons on the lifelong pursuit of happiness. You won't always know what's going on, and therein hangs part of the show's message: You may not always understand life, but, if you let it, the journey will be sublime.

Under the delicate direction of Chad Lewis, husband-and-wife duo Becky Fisher and Joe Swanberg craft a poignant love letter – to each other and the audience – that is sealed with humor. Nathan Shifflet provides acoustic backup for the performers, adding a beatnik-coffeehouse feel that is further enhanced by a PowerPoint slide show – all of it tied together seamlessly. You won't want to let this fish story be the one that got away.

Michael Wanzie has subtitled his Wanzie's Living on the Edge "A 'Fair and Balanced' Rant with Songs," which is presumably facetious. Eight songs by Wanzie and longtime collaborator Rich Charron are sandwiched between unabashedly slanted monologues and dialogue about controversial topics – including abortion, gay-marriage rights, AIDS, the Religious Right and Sept. 11.

Actress Janine Klein approaches the material with a refreshing naturalness, while Frank McClain uses a broader musical-theater style. The mix doesn't always work. McClain is given the task of espousing most of Wanzie's opinions; the words seem foreign and discomfiting in his mouth. The show is at its best during the musical numbers, including three new songs and others from past Wanzie-Charron collaborations. They range from the nearly silly ("Big Ole Lesbian Song") to the touching ("Love Makes a Family"). Klein shines when she belts out the Broadway-worthy "Step Into the Light."

Wanzie's script is filled with funny one-liners and quick exchanges, but the didactic rants tend to run on. He's more effective when he uses outrageous characters to open audiences up to his caustic sentiments.

Audience members are "tattooed" by a rubber stamp once they get seated for Tim Mooney's science-fiction thriller, Criteria. The play is set in a future in which our Social Security numbers have become part of our identity ... though the actual Social Security system died out long ago. Our country in the 2300s is divided into three territories; the people of each region are identified by a single-digit number that brings with it prejudices based on history and locale.

Like all good sci-fi, the play poses intriguing possibilities. In the world Mooney creates, the color of our skin is no longer an issue due to centuries of interracial mating, but still we have found a way to separate ourselves.

Mooney's tale is a tad predictable but fascinating all the same. Using minimal props, it recalls tales told around the campfire, which only adds to its chilling tenor.

Man 1, Bank 0: A Comedy of Errors revolves around one of those annoying phony checks we all receive in the mail. As a joke, Patrick Combs decided to deposit one such check he received – in the amount of $95,093.36.

"Nobody has fun with their bank any more," he says. "Everyone takes their money so seriously." Lo and behold, the check actually cleared, but that didn't mean the money belonged to Combs ... or did it?

The charming Combs has a casual delivery – peppered with lots of "dudes" and "bros" – that catches you off guard. Even his offhand remarks are funny. What really makes the show work is his genuine disbelief over the true-life events he relates. We can't help but cheer this winsome hero each step of the way as he "sticks it to the man" for all of us.

— Scottie Campbell

The monologue Drama Queen reveals the current status – body and soul – of British-born, Toronto-based actress Alex Dallas, whose life has been full of drama, onstage and off. Sitting in her cozy chair on a set that evokes a parlor-room intimacy, the self-professed "drama queen" expertly draws us into her state of mind, her lively British accent leading the way as she quick-cuts from one recollection to another.

Each of Dallas' stories – oral sex with a Muslim, her father's penchant for being lost and found, performing Hamlet on a trampoline – bursts forth with a spontaneity that belies her skill. With nary a sermon or subliminal message, each story subtly offers the audience one more piece to the puzzle that is her. The exchange feels like a witty conversation, even though Dallas is the only one doing the talking.

Writer/actor/director Dave McConnell's self-penned Gossip inventively exercises the power of words. Written in rhyming verse a la Moliere (as translated by Richard Wilbur), his story of a pregnant teen is part soap opera and part cautionary tale. It's an artful trick to conjure everyday dialogue within the disciplined framework of iambic pentameter, and the majority of McConnell's contemporary rhymes work amazingly well, especially when he performs them himself in a style that's more urban rap than classic theater. Most of the other young actors in this ensemble piece follow their leader with a similarly natural flow. My only regret is that the play's pivotal overdubbed narration wasn't delivered by McConnell, left instead to the character of the troubled teen who offered more of a stiff recitation than an impassioned counterpoint.

One could argue that McConnell's harsh statement about socialized hypocrisy doesn't cover any new ground. But that doesn't mean that the message isn't just as relevant today as it ever was. McConnell's passion is his power.

— Lindy T. Shepherd

Are you watching, Lou Pearlman? Perhaps The (Weekly) Actor of the Year Competition, a send-up of pay-to-play "talent" contests, ought to ask the local impresario himself to act as one of its rotating group of celebrity judges; one of the folks onstage might hit the big time.

The setup? Six hungry troupers compete for the title in song, scene and by literally acting their way out of paper bags. (This last, while a very funny conceit, could probably be cut – the show is too long and the payoff's not as amusing as the concept). There's actual talent here, though it's engaged in the service of presenting hoary theatrical stereotypes (The Method Actor; The Broadway Chorus Boy; The Aging Soap Actress). In particular, Dye-Anne Klein, as performance artist Zasu, transcends the pigeonhole to create a believable and unique characterization. Also a standout is Shelly Burch as Carlotta, the soap-opera queen: Her performance defines "committing to a role."

Child actor Kaitlyn Harrow's star turn has gotten the lion's share of attention this Fringe; suffice it to say it's warranted. Mr. Pearlman, take note – this kid's the real thing.

You hate to kick a sister when she's down, but ouch. Suzanne Willett's Pain: So Funny It Hurts is aptly titled. It's a one-woman exploration of the pain she's experienced in her life; unfortunately, it's structured as 90 minutes of stand-up comedy. A solo show examining the performer's life is not an original idea; casting it in comedic form is not an impossible idea; but Ms. Willett needs to work on both the truthfulness of her material and the skill and timing of her delivery.

The show begins with her re-enacting her birth, leading one to expect a comprehensive study of her title subject. But there are odd holes. She mentions excessive drinking many times and AA once; surely alcoholism is a painful theme? It's not delved into. Her biography informs us she served in the U.S. Army (certainly an uncomfortable, not to mention timely, topic) which garners one throwaway reference in the show; but again, it's not explored.

Then there are the misfires. Too many of the jokes sailed over our audience's head and landed with a (painful) thud. Menopause jokes and baby-boomer quandaries might play better at a 20th high-school reunion; Fringe-goers offered up a few polite chuckles.

Painful for the performer, perhaps, but really painful for the audience. At least she knew what was coming – we got blindsided.

— Jessica Bryce Young

(The Orlando International Fringe Festival continues through Sunday, May 30; for details, call 407-648-0077 or visit

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