On the verge of the Fringe

Though the early-evening party that took place last Saturday at the Cairo nightclub was billed as a sneak preview of this year's Orlando International Fringe Festival, the term "pep rally" might have been more accurate. A room that was heavily populated by theater-community insiders lavished indulgent applause on 18 performing groups, all of whom have committed to take part in the 10-day, downtown marathon of comedy and drama that's just beginning to assume its final shape.

As master of ceremonies Brian Bradley noted, the ninth annual sampler of upcoming Fringe selections was a tribute to "those people who got their crap together so early" -- i.e. three weeks before the festival's April 28 through May 7 run. Given a few minutes each to strut their developing stuff, the companies broke into their material with a finding-their-feet enthusiasm that was dampened only by the venue's physical limitations.

I've seen theater in dance dens before. In Cairo, come to think of it. And it was not good. But Matt Wohl, the festival's producer, professed satisfaction with the preview's return to the Egyptian-themed hot spot. (The club also hosted the party back in 1998.) "This is what the Fringe is all about," he assured.

He meant taking the arts into new and unexpected environments, not putting up with crummy acoustics. Still, the inability to properly hear what was going on from as little as 10 rows back was a persistent problem. Kim McKenzie's extended monologue from "Bigfoot Stole My Wife" was nigh on impossible to decipher; it only made matters worse that she delivered most of it from upstage. The nurse's uniform she wore was my strongest clue that the show will have something to do with medical anomalies. Maybe.

Fosse about the little things

While waiting for an excerpt from his first-ever musical, "Loud," to be unveiled, director/writer Tod Kimbro confided his concern that the number's prerecorded instrumental bed would be mixed too hot. (If that's your worry, you probably shouldn't surrender a CD emblazoned "LOUD" to the audio booth.) As it turned out, the playback level was just fine, but the onstage miking was so poor that whatever lyrical wonders Kimbro had in store for us remained mysteries.

There was no mistaking the vocal power of Becky Fisher, who belted out a tune from Upstart Productions' "Miss Bird Is Singing" with irresistible fervor. For once, we could make out a few of the words: "My nipples start to throb inside my bra," Fisher sang. No wonder she was so worked up.

Realizing that a few minutes is hardly enough time to establish the context of a scene, some of the players elected to substantially deviate from their Fringe scripts. Blake Gardner promoted his one-man show, "Failure: An Epic Adventure," by essaying an off-the-cuff criticism of his own worthiness, even venturing into the audience to lead a heckling chant. Fans of Gardner's whinnying neurosis responded with a tumult of approval.

The Cerulean Group trumpeted its adaptation of "Salome" with a jokey set of character introductions, Julia Granacki's title vixen suffering the cruelest taunts. "The jury is still out on the beauty part," another character said of her resume. It was the second ignominy of the month for Granacki, who recently earned a measly $40 in the group's "Win a Dream Date With Salome" fund-raising auction. This town just doesn't support the arts.

Run for the heels

Given the truncated, technically impaired nature of the 18 segments, attempting to predict the festival's highlights would be premature and unfair. I will say, however, that Michael Wanzie and Doug Ba'aser's "Trailer Trash Tabloid" shows every sign of being its best rural drag-queen melodrama. (As was demonstrated Saturday, there will be at least two.)

Lewis Routh, the writer of "TTT," said that the production would be even better upon the arrival of costumes designed by Skip Stewart, who provided the outfits for the "Lion King" show at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Stewart, Routh reported, was undaunted by the Fringe show's meager budget, and had nixed corner-cutting suggestions with the assertion, "If they can buy it at Sears, it doesn't belong on stage."

A bit from "Inspector Jipps and the Club of Castrated Men" saw the always-watchable Katie Furlong playing chief inquisitor to Sean Keohane's ridiculously bewigged Oscar Wilde. On the children's front, Impacte Productions' "Thieves, Giants, Witches, Genies and a Firebird in a Palm Tree" boasted an intentionally and hilariously casual rendition of "Someday My Prince Will Come" by Kimber Taylor. After her memorable portrayal of an earnest but foul-mouthed cheerleader in last year's "Jane Does Dick," Taylor has all but cemented her status as the Fringe's queen of rosy-cheeked subversion.

All in all, it was a grand evening of professional esprit de corps, one that required only a slight leap of the imagination to bring anticipation to a boil. No, the Fringe Festival is not yet upon us. But as someone once said of Manhattan, I can't wait to see it when it's finished.


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