Our top reviews from the 2022 Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival

Best of the Fest

"Star Shanties"
"Star Shanties"

After two years of pandemic scalebacks and cancellations, the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival (through May 30; orlandofringe.org) has bounced back, and we've bounced with it. Below are just a few of the many, many reviews we have posted so far , and you'll want to act fast: With just five more days of shows, tickets will be selling out.

Star Shanties: Songs from a Galaxy Far, Far Away

The ragtag crew of the "Wretched Hive" has just survived a pirate attack while on a shady interstellar shipping run on the Outer Rim. Desperate for galactic credits to repair their vessel, they accept the undignified assignment of entertaining inhabitants of the Or-Lan-Do system (located on the Fringe of known space) with their time-honored work songs about the Kessel Run, Hondo Onaka and other obscure icons from that galaxy far, far away.

Back in the prehistoric days before MegaCon and social media, science fiction-obsessed fans celebrated their geekdom at gatherings by "filking," or singing traditional-sounding folk songs with original lyrics about Hobbits or Spock. Star Shanties may not explicitly use the word filk to describe their Star Wars-inspired songs, but they clearly fall into that noble nerd tradition with this funny, full-throated delight for Jedi masters and nerf-herders alike.

Writer-director Arthur Rowan (known on the RenFaire circuit as Rowan the Bard) teamed up with Ashley Willsey (producer of 2014's Fringe hit Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) for this minimalist yet slickly produced production, which features costumes that would be perfect for Disney-bounding on Batuu and cargo-crate props that look like they could have been jettisoned from the Millennium Falcon's smuggling hold. The idea for this show may have started as a spoof but this talented quintet takes their singing very seriously, and a tender ode to Alderaan's explosion nearly brought a tear to my eye.

This show is best enjoyed by those invested enough in George Lucas' universe to know Princess Leia's mother's name (spoiler: It's Breha) and appreciate jabs at the Galactic Starcruiser's pricing structure. And the brief but witty book linking the musical numbers brims with fourth wall-breaking meta jokes, while simultaneously doing more to develop its characters' personalities than Episodes VII though IX put together did. But you don't have to know Lekkus from Lothal to enjoy the lusty a cappella harmonies and primal hand-drummed percussion.

If there's a flaw, it's that (like many real folk songs) the tunes tend to go on for one or two verses longer than necessary, but at under 45 minutes this saga certainly doesn't outlast its welcome. With all due respect to the other spacefarers out there, this might be my favorite saga-inspired Fringe show since Charlie Ross' One Man Trilogy. At the risk of sounding cliched: The Force is strong with this one.

I Lost on Jeopardy

For years, my wife has been encouraging me to audition for the iconic television quiz show Jeopardy!, based solely on my mastery of useless trivia, but I've always refused based on my inability to contend with the clicker. It turns out that you can accurately simulate chiming in at home using a spring-loaded toilet paper roll holder. That's just one of the fascinating pieces of ephemera I learned from Winnipeg history teacher George Buri, who was one question away from achieving his lifelong goal of being a winning contestant before being foiled by a Final Jeopardy question.

In this funny and unexpectedly inspiring one-man show, Buri takes us from his 25-hour road trip to Kansas City for an in-person audition to his final heartbroken drive away from Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California. Along the ride, we learn tips for getting on the air — don't be overly opinionated or too introverted — and trace the roots of Buri's obsession back to his childhood playing the abominable 1980s home version, when Hollywood felt as far away from his Canadian home as the moon.

The appeal of Jeopardy!  might be elusive to trivia muggles, but those (like Buri and I) with the genetic predisposition toward intellectual competitiveness understand the appeal of finding self-respect in the accumulation of obscure knowledge. I can certainly identify with Buri's wry self-awareness about how useless his singular talents are now, in a world with smartphones and Google. But it turns out that, in game shows and in life, the winner isn't always the smartest or fastest, but the one with an unnatural ability to handle pressure.

Buri's tale might not be a major tragedy in the big scheme of things, but between laughs he builds tension around the story of his defeat like it was the Super Bowl, making it impossible not to empathize with his agony coming so close to his dream, only to have it snatched away. But everyone who plays Jeopardy! — or the game called life — loses eventually; what matters is that you're willing to play.

Buri didn't get rich or famous like he hoped, and he's made peace with his loss on Jeopardy! likely being the longest-lasting fact of his existence. Buri has the courage to embrace his biggest failure; may we all learn to be so brave.

Bugged Lady

Take an exploratory field trip away from the Fringe campus to nearby Harry P. Leu Botanical Gardens and you'll find the most fascinating — and frightening — introductory biology class you'll ever attend at Bugged Lady.

Professor Levi (Sandi Linn) is lecturing on invertebrates she has known and loved — as well as misogynistic academics she has hated and lost — in a truly one-of-a-kind performance that fuses the pleasures of Wild Kingdom with The Silence of the Lambs. As Levi gleefully gives the audience an intimate look at her collection of real live insects — including hissing cockroaches, stinging scorpions and hair-flinging tarantulas — she slowly lets slip the gory details of her bug-based homicides.

Linn, who wrote the script herself, is a trained scientist and education supervisor for Leu Gardens, so I'm sure you're perfectly safe attending her class. But her increasingly agitated performance is so magnetically authentic — and her animal assistants so primally triggering — that you'd better arrive for class early and bring paper for taking notes ... just in case.

click to enlarge "Generic Male" - PHOTO BY MARC SAFRAN
photo by Marc Safran
"Generic Male"

Generic Male: Just What We Need, Another Show About Men

At first glance, actor Ashley Jones appears so entirely average that you'll insist you must have met him before, but I can pretty much guarantee you've never seen an acrobatic clowning show as cleverly complex as Generic Male. In this virtuoso showcase of both verbal and physical gymnastics, Jones and his overbearing stage manager (Darren Stevenson) harass hapless audience members into helping them perform a slickly executed series of physical comedy skits skewering stereotypes of masculinity. Kicking off with a synchronized dance number in possessed sweatpants and an absurdly overblown argument over stolen seating, the show only gets more surreal from there. This pair doesn't merely break through the fourth wall; they tear it down entirely and dance merrily on the rubble.

The staging of some moments involving costume changes and wired microphones were clunky, leading to a few uncomfortably slow transitions during the press preview. However, the pair swiftly recovered with a moving military mime solo, followed by a wondrous weight-balancing duet highlighting the balletic beauty of male connection that becomes the show's enduring image. Generic Male is like Cirque du Soleil meets Samuel Beckett with a dash of Monty Python, a combination that I enthusiastically endorse for all audiences, whether or not you support the premise that the generic white male patriarchy needs to perish.

The Family Crow: A Murder Mystery

Russel, the prodigal son of the prominent Crow family, has perished, and every member of his family — from right-wing patriarch Cameron to singing sister Sheryl — is a murder suspect. Luckily, acclaimed avian Inspector Horatio P. Corvis is on the case, sorting the clues from the red herrings in this ridiculously riveting tale of violence, betrayal and wonderfully terrible word play from writer-puppeteer Adam Francis Proulx, the muppety maestro behind 2017's hit 12 Angry Puppets.

The gory details of this detective spoof are appropriately intricate, but ultimately less interesting than the tuxedoed Proulx's delightfully droll delivery, as he deftly dances between the different characters using the charmingly handmade puppet perched atop his top hat. With little more than his feathered friend and low-budget lighting provided by pedal-controlled knockoff Luxo lamps (plus a desk fan for flying effects), Proulx had me laughing hard before his sardonic detective satire had barely begun.

This sly script may not have the same depth of social commentary as his last show. But if you appreciate self-deprecating humor — and self-assured puppetry — enough to walk down a very long road for a very bad joke, flock to see Proulx before the crowds start crowing about him.

click to enlarge "Be a Pirate"
"Be a Pirate"

Be a Pirate!

Has bingeing on Taika Waititi's hit Hulu series Our Flag Means Death piqued your interest in privateering? Veteran writer-performer Thom Mesrobian would be happy to have you join Sharktooth Sam's motley crew in the Margeson for an hour of tall tales and sea shanty sing-alongs aboard his surprisingly substantial sailing ship set. The son of a feared marauder and part-time wench, Sam seeks to follow in his father's footsteps before finding his own less-violent path into piracy; his voyage becomes a veiled metaphor for pursuing your passions in life, regardless of the reward.

Be prepared for plenty of audience participation yo-ho-ing along with the pillaging, but pass on the rape and murder because this scalawag would no sooner disrespect a woman than wear white after Labor Day. Mesrobian's salty original songs are catchy, and he delivers them with a harmonious growl that would do Blackbeard proud. Kids will enjoy the poop deck and booty jokes; parents will appreciate the PG13-rated references that sail over their children's heads, as well as the more thoughtful moments in Mesrobian's well-crafted serio-comic script. Slap on a temporary crossbones tattoo, and swig a mug of grog, because you don't want to get left on shore when Sharktooth's schooner takes to the open sea. 

LeLand Loves Bigfoot

When a stranger in a Kentucky bar wearing a hat that reads "I pooped today" asks you back to his farm to meet Bigfoot, you say YES. At least you do if you are comedian Stuart Huff, the Fringe circuit's redneck answer to George Carlin, a keen observer of rural America's absurdities who is always searching for his next side-splitting, thought-provoking tale. If you've seen Stuart Huff at his previous Fringe Festival appearances, you may not recognize him at first glance this year, thanks to his COVID-era crazy old mountain man beard, but you'll instantly recognize this stand-up master's distinctive voice as soon as he launches into his latest hour of humane hilarity.

Perhaps Huff's greatest talent is his ability to listen to absolute nonsense that he disagrees with — like the ramblings of a Scooby-Doo-obsessed moonshiner — and digest it into world-class comedy. Flat Earthers, crystal worshipers and snake handlers all fall under his withering gaze, but Huff doesn't merely mock their madness; he warmly embraces anyone (as long as they aren't racist or homophobic) as part of the fabulously fabulist human family. And lest you think Huff only shoots at backwoods targets, he also lets loose on Orlando's money-sucking theme parks with dead-eye aim.

It can feel increasingly hard not to hate dangerous fools (especially those who vote) but Huff is here to remind us that anger isn't the answer — love and laughter is. Huff says he likes to live in the zone between chaos and capitalism; I'd be happy to hang out there with him, if I get to hear more from this Festival's finest stand-up performer.

Constellations

Hey, did you know that your own elbows contain the secret to immortality, if only you could lick them? What's probably the weirdest pickup line in history prompts a romantic dramedy of interdimensional proportions in Nick Payne's Constellations, one of my top picks for the most moving play at this year's Festival.

Real-life couple Mike Carr and Julie Snyder have undeniably adorable chemistry as urban beekeeper Roland and university physicist Mary Ann. The stellar script sees their relationship evolve from an awkward meet-cute and sexy second date drunkenly debating quantum cosmology into an acrimonious breakup over infidelity and an eventual reconciliation.

Constellations' reality-bending twist is that each misstep along their romantic road is met by a celestial ding that resets time and gives them a second chance at saying the right thing. In this infinite multiverse, every decision we make — especially those involving matters of the heart — leads to an entirely different parallel dimension, as we are only particles being knocked around by immutable mechanical laws.

After starting out as a deceptively quirky romantic comedy, Constellations eventually reveals itself to be something far more complex, taking a dark turn into [spoiler alert/trigger warning] cancer and assisted suicide. Payne's play is intentionally circular, but Jerry Jobe Jr.'s deft direction defuses any potential confusion by keeping his actors emotionally grounded throughout. A segment told entirely in ASL was one of the most compelling moments of communication I've witnessed at this Fringe.

There may not be easy, linear explanations in this story — just the same as in real life — but while plenty of other shows have come close, this was the first show in this year's festival to push me over the edge into full-blown tears.

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