Spend enough time in the places where theater lovers tend to congregate, and you'll hear some grumbling that Loch Haven Park just isn't the right environment for the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, which completes its move from downtown with this weekend's 14th annual edition. To hear some folks tell it, housing the weeklong celebration of the underground performing arts entirely inside the Lowndes Shakespeare Center and Orlando Repertory Theatre where legitimate stages and functioning air conditioning are the rule rather than the exception just isn't "Fringe-y" enough.
Those naysayers obviously never had to put on a show in one of the hell-hole temporary venues that used to be the Fringe's lot. Anybody who has ever attempted to perform a 60-minute monologue while fetid water dripped on his head and the over-amplified voice of Steve Perry wafted in from outside wouldn't be so quick to equate squalor with charm.
So here's to the comparative luxury we'll all experience at this year's Fringe, which eschews last year's half-downtown, half-Loch Haven arrangement in favor of uptown exclusivity. And let's not worry too much about the hoity-toity surroundings having a chilling effect on the shows' irreverence: The 2005 lineup still includes plenty of naked bodies and potty-mouthed diatribes, for those who can't live without that sort of thing. Hmmmph.
Patrons with slightly loftier matters on their minds will be happy to hear that the Fringe's turn toward comfort is renewing its ability to attract distinguished out-of-town performing groups. All hail the return of England's Eyewitness Theatre, back after a one-year hiatus. Yet for all the homecomings on the schedule and this year's festival has a few there's a sense that its organizers want to position Fringe 14 as much as a new undertaking as an improved one. There's even been a name change, with the addition of the essential word "theatre" reflecting the sad fact that, in 13 years of operation, nobody beyond the already converted seemed to know what the hell a "fringe festival" was, anyway.
Other alterations take the form of scaling down: Comparing this year's schedule to the previous ones, you'll notice that fewer shows are being performed in fewer venues. That isn't the preferred operational model of anybody involved, but rather an unavoidably economical response to last year's festival, which culminated in the latest and perhaps most life-threatening in a long line of financial crises this congenitally uncertain endeavor has suffered. For a while there, it looked as if its very future were up for grabs. So before we carp that Fringe 2005 is too something too upscale, too small, too dismissive of its past for its own good we might want to consider ourselves fortunate that we're getting one at all.
Now let's see what we can expect from the 51 shows on the schedule.
3Man Group When Ryan Smith of SAK Theater and Brian D. Bradley of Discount Comedy Outlet hit the bricks a few years ago to seek their respective fortunes in L.A., Orlando lost two of the most nimble comic minds it's ever had. This sure-to-be raucously received homecoming show reveals what the Angelenos have been getting in 3Man Group, the curiously named improv duo that Smith and Bradley formed shortly after their move. Breathe deep the long-form lunacy, and note how trim and fit the fellas look performing it. (Shhhh ... drugs.)
American Cake He once favored the Fringe with a show called Tastes Like Chicken, and now Chicago actor/writer Jonathan Pereira reaches for a slice of just desserts. Having his Cake means experiencing Pereira's vision of a nation preoccupied with "love, pride and devotion." And calories, apparently.
American Obsessions Writer/performer Alan Sincic's salute to homeland insecurity was originally written as a series of high-octane monologues, but he's fleshed it out to accommodate the voices of a five-person cast, some of whom shared the stage with him in Mad Cow Theatre's recent production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.
Boy Groove Straight from Canada where everybody has health insurance and beavers get to do whatever the hell they want comes an award-winning parody of the teen-pop phenomenon. And if you think that shoving Orlando's nose in the boy-band miasma it spawned constitutes major huevos on the part of our neighbors to the north, we're betting those huevos will be mighty tasty indeed: The show's satirical book and score represent the latest discovery of PKF Productions, which previously brought TJ Dawe, Charles Ross and Randy Rutherford to Florida.
Breaking News: By All the Rules Local filmmaker Frank Zanca (Shadow Raven) masterminded this ensemble comedy about life at a tabloid newspaper. A Russian actress' move to West Palm sets the story in motion, revealing the multifarious peccadilloes of a roomful of wacky reporter types. Yep, we're an endlessly fascinating bunch, all right. (CANCELLED)
Doodie Humor: Number 2 We don't get nearly enough of twisted genius Todd Feren's sketch-comedy troupe and their filthy-minded flouting of social taboos. This sophomore outing is at a slight disadvantage due to lessened participation from brilliant comedian Jay T. Becker; softening the blow is the addition of two new cast members, plus stepped-up appearances by the wonderful Megan Moroney. Do this Doodie.
Dragness of God and the Naked Holy Ghost Nothing's sacred to writer/actor/gay gadabout Michael Wanzie not even the sacred. For his unique retelling of the convent mystery Agnes of God, Wanzie has conscripted customary cronies Tommy Wooten and Doug Ba'aser to join him in putting a transvestite sheen on the fun topic of infanticide. Actor James Kersey, um, fleshes out the show with full-frontal nudity. As the movie's Agnes, Meg Tilly, once said, "It's a terrible thing to be dropped on your head."
Dr. Suzy's Therapy Room First-time Fringers The Clarion Refugees perform an original comedy about a psychiatrist who finds her clients in the pages of fairy tales. Writer Susan Mitchell is a former therapist and director Jack Lowe was once a defense attorney, meaning that the show's three-person cast enjoys two things every actor should have: a good lawyer and constant mental health care.
E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One When they say "pluribus," they mean it: The preview we saw of this startup improv venture numbered so many cast members that we had to look twice to make sure we weren't on stage. Thankfully, we weren't, which means more creative elbowroom for folks like the eminently talented Richard Paul.
The Extraordinary Fila Downtown's Blue Lotus Center sponsors this update of a traditional African teaching story, in which two men who are closer than brothers find their harmony rent asunder by the usual influences i.e., world-beat drumming and belly dancing. But it's the promise of live snakes that has us most excited. We love snakes.
Extreme Improv West Palm improv outfit Name Change Pending makes another run at the Fringe, subjecting themselves to unimaginable physical and mental punishments just to fan the flames of our sick amusement. Works for us.
Eye Candy Master juggler Matt Henry returns to the Fringe to show the less dexterous among us which means everybody else on the planet how much gravity he can defy when he really feels like it. Randy Cabral, who customarily performs with Henry under the moniker Trained Human Club, is sitting out this engagement, but even on his own, Henry can move more than enough air to keep you spellbound.
First Comes Love Lemon Meringue Pie Productions tenders an original musical (Eight big songs!) about a playwriting duo whose tumultuous home lives interfere with their work ... and vice versa. Patrons of last January's PlayFest will remember this show as part of a workshop trilogy presented by The Vine Theatre.
Go Left Right Orlando Weekly theater critic Al Pergande presents a second airing of his politically informed sex comedy, first seen at last January's PlayFest new-play festival. An all-new cast and director (Anitra Pritchard) interpret weird Al's story of compulsive copulation and lost consciousness. Oh, and pizza.
Guaranteed to Make You Laugh! South Carolina improv crazies The Have Nots introduce themselves to the Orlando Fringe by making a promise that lesser groups would shrink from. And while we're always tempted to view a "guarantee" as the impetus for a nice big legal settlement, we're more than willing to give the Not-sters the benefit of the doubt.
Heartman The Sons of Thunder Theater Company (last year's Incantations) uses music, dance and original art to adapt Joyce Greco's e-book a musing on God, love and contentment. Fun trivia: Company co-founder Nathanael Fisher was slinging webs as Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure back when Tobey Maguire still had an Uncle Ben.
Horror Over Drinks Fright-flick stalwarts Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kruger and Pinhead (from the Hellraiser series) get reacquainted at their high-school reunion, in an original script by John Bateman. Yeah, yeah, we know how it sounds, but the scuttlebutt that's reached us is that the writing is quite good, and even "sweet" in places. Honest.
Hurricane Me Playwright/song stylist Tod Kimbro revisits two of his favorite motifs Floridian natural disasters and '70s-style power balladry in this rock opera based on the real-life calamity of Hurricane Frances. Kimbro's secret weapon: featured vocalist Janine Klein, whose awesome pipes can immobilize small animals at 60 paces.
I Am the F***ing Show! Little Sara Jones may have been the breakout star of the 2004 Fringe; her appearance in the murder musical Truth and Other Lies led to showcase roles at Mad Cow Theatre, including a recent one-woman cabaret gig. Not bad for a gal who was still in college at the time, but the question now is how well Jones' old-school brassy-belter persona is going to fit with the Fringier stunts she has planned, like onstage bathing. Talk about working clean.
The Incubus Air-O-Dynamic Productions says its Victorian-era supernatural comedy is "more fun than sex in the Haunted Mansion." Throw in a big ol' bag of Doritos, and you'd have the Orlando Weekly staff singing the chorus of "My Favorite Things."
Inexcusable Fantasies Book early to avoid disappointment: Baltimorean Susan McCully's quartet of queer monologues has a truncated performance run that ends Wednesday night, May 25. Martha Stewart obsession and lost massage wands are among the subjects of McCully's "dyke drama."
Interactions Having made a controversial but courageous leap into ensemble-drama territory with last year's Gossip, white-ghetto raconteur Dave McConnell (the Street Seuss series) is back to the format that made him a Fringe celebrity: facing an audience one-on-one. This time, the bad boy of wordplay riffs on the social atrocities committed by "the stupid people we all have to interact with." Direction is by Eric Pinder, who has proved his extreme non- stupidity as the author and star of shows such as last year's Driving Miss Cherry Blossom.
It's A Wonderful Life Just in case you're never near a TV at any time during the months of November and December, The Green Room Company offers its own take on Frank Capra's timeless heart-warmer.
Jumblefunk (Episode One: Misadventures in the Screen Trade) Fringe freshman Reid Nicholson says his hour-long comedy is "a one-man show with other people." Set in a Starbucks and centered on the insidious phenomenon of writer's block, the story is informed by Nicholson's experiences in film and TV production. Talk about a way to get half the Orlando audience on your side.
June Cleaver Writer/director Linda Lenzen Treiber offers a send-up of political power couples, as embodied in the skeleton-hiding antics of a congressman and his wife. The Mishap Gap Community Theatricals production takes Jackie O and Hillary C as its precedents, though we're of course hoping that Beltway shrews like the Bush matriarchs are up for (at least) equal ridicule.
Kama Sutra Of all the signs that the Orlando Fringe may be rebounding from its latter-day woes, the clearest is the return of England's Eyewitness Theatre, which sat out the 2004 event due to the previous year's technical nightmares. Their re-emergence on the scene is such a cause for celebration that we won't kill the mood by pointing out that this middle-age sex comedy is a rerun of a show Eyewitness performed here in 1998. Or that there's no role for Jo Haydock, scrumptious star of all the group's more recent forays. Or that ... oh, hell! Just color us dead chuffed to have you back, lads.
Karaoke Knights: A One-Man Rock Opera Regular Fringe visitor Tim Mooney (Moliere Than Thou, Criteria) must win some sort of award for dedication: He came down from Illinois last month just to perform a few minutes of his latest work. It's a five-character, 17-song cycle about the peculiar inner force that drives amateurs to show off their voices in bars. (Down here, we call that force "beer," Tim.)
Labrador/The Slip-Knot/Maxim & Cosmo We're always happy to welcome back master-level monologist TJ Dawe, whose way with a painstakingly worded observation has no equal on the performing circuit. But we'll admit we're disappointed that the bulk of Dawe's Fringe 2005 tenure is made up of reprises of two past hits: The romantic memory game Labrador and the workforce memoir The Slip-Knot will each receive three encore performances. The faithful will want to show up on the final Saturday, when Dawe will instead devote his slot to a preview reading of his latest work, Maxim & Cosmo.
Maudlin Dementia Returns to the Stage Consider this a case of receiving a gift you had almost given up hope of getting. New York's Poison Pixie Productions set Fringe 2000 on its ear with the elegiac big-top tale Circus Reject Peep Show; having given every subsequent Orlando Fringe a pass, they're finally back with Maudlin Dementia, in which Chris Caswell plays a fading stage actress and the crazed lookalike who kidnaps her. There are five other characters in this "very physical" one-woman show, Caswell says. We can't wait to meet them all.
The Miss Sammy Show Episode 1: A Day in the Life of Miss Sammy Not a stage play but a full-fledged cinematic experience, this camp romp is bypassing the film-festival circuit to allow Fringe audiences a peek into the absolutely fabulous existence of gender-bending diva Miss Sammy. Oh, how we long for 3-D.
My Dead Friend Newcomer Aviva Christie balances dark humor and pathos as she recalls the weird-but-true circumstances of a friend's passing, and her own efforts to settle the deceased's estate. If you think we're going to make a joke at her expense, you must assume we can't wait to know what hell looks like.
Not Quite Right There must be more improv troupes in this year's Fringe than in any previous three, and you know what that means: We all go over to Wayne Brady's house and beat the shit out of him for making it look profitable! Seriously, NQR seem to be a fairly clever bunch, and they'd have to be: They honed their craft in Melbourne, where taking suggestions from the audience means inviting responses like "Speak louder, sonny" and "Please reattach my oxygen mask." (We keed! We keed!)
Obscenity Taking the concept of the all-star cast to an almost ridiculous extreme, this determinedly controversial story of an aging porn star and his unlikely love boasts contributions from hometown heavy hitters Christian Kelty, Heather Leonardi, John DiDonna, Michael Marinaccio, Nikki Darden, Peni Lotoza, Seth Kubersky, Sarah French and even the mighty Rus Blackwell. The script arose from improv sessions undertaken by the cast a process that's in the past birthed Fringe shows both inspired and leaden. But with so much marquee value in the mix, there's almost no way to lose.
Oh My God, Don't Stop There wasn't a better moment of the Fringe's recent preview night than Amy Steinberg's excerpt from her latest one-woman comedy, in which she plays a stable of mouthy characters with one thing on their minds. (No, not macrobiotic cooking; sex.)
One Frigid Shiny Knight: An Arctic Romance Canadian stand-up memoirist Randy Rutherford (My Brother Sang Like Roy Orbison; Weaverville Waltz) returns to tell us what it was like to be part of a love triangle while growing up in Anchorage, Alaska. Our guess? It blew hot and cold.
Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant David Lee's long-awaited psychobiography of the notorious breakfast-table fascist has all the elements of a one-man tour de force. The able Lee plays not only the title character, but Dr. Laura and Adolf Hitler, too. Bonus points for whoever can tell them all apart.
The Sexcapades of Darby Quinn University of Central Florida sophomore Desirée Proctor wrote this comedy about a couple that experiences the pain of sexual role reversal. Their three-day affair makes us question who is actually the "man" in the relationship and who is the "woman," says author/producer Proctor. Helpful hint from a college graduate: The one holding the TV remote is the guy.
The Sex Change Operation The Firefox Players aren't planning to perform gender- reassignment surgery live and on the stage; like UCF's Proctor, they're mounting a theatrical study of male and female behavioral roles, as interpreted by a four-person cast and set in an "altered reality." Hey, that's where most of our dealings with the opposite sex seem to take place.
Steve Trash: Speechless One of four "Mainstream Fringe" shows being marketed this year to family audiences, the ecologically minded Trash's wordless comedy uses sounds effects, music and other aural stimuli to protest the noise pollution that infringes on all our lives. If he can do something about theatergoers who refuse to shut up after the lights go down, he'll be our hero for life.
Theme Park Diva: The Musical The folks who made the Disney-roasting documentary Dream On Silly Dreamer say they're currently working on a film version of this musical exposé of attractions work, which tickled in-the-know audiences at Fringe 2003. In the meantime, this encore run will refresh our memories of what happens when an up-and-coming performer rubs up against her park's reigning queen of kitsch.
Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story Already performed in New York, Chicago and Boston and headed for an off-Broadway run even before the Orlando Fringe wraps this original musical the probes the oddball love between real-life murderers Leopold and Loeb, whose slaying of a young boy inspired the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rope. In the "strange bedfellows" department, it's produced by the same crew that brought you last year's Streakin'!
Timeshare! A Musical A young saleswoman tries to make her first deal, giving Smood Mollie Productions the foundation for a singing, joking, self-abusing exposé of the hospitality industry. Pay your money and find out if the story and score are condo-riffic or merely a last resort.
To the Winners We love anybody who can get an audience scratching its collective head, which is what Brazilian-born performer Wilson Loria did with his recent preview of this show's highly disorienting mimetics and accordion melodies. Fixing the crowd with a stare that could stop rush-hour traffic, the pancake-faced Loria laid only the barest groundwork for his one-man show, which he says concerns a young man's effort to relearn a vital life lesson. We call it a chance to find out just how avant-garde this festival can really be.
Trey Christ Local writer Marc Ackerman spins a story of three mental patients, each of whom believes he's the messiah. The story was inspired by the book Three Christs of Ypsilanti, in which Michigan doctor Milton Rokeach related his experiences with just such a trio of sufferers, whom he treated by putting them into group therapy together. Jesus, that's harsh.
The Trial of Dody Boyle Beloved local actress/photographer Caroline Ross directed this Irish-inflected comedy, a forum for playwright John P. Kelly to skewer adultery, revenge, the legal profession and many other things not traditionally associated with Bono. The cast includes the perennially affable John Hill, star of Theatre Downtown's recent Sweet Bird of Youth.
Vocal Fusion A cappella vocalization didn't disappear from the Orlando Fringe when Toxic Audio redirected its efforts to off-Broadway. On the heels of Mosaic's well-received appearance in last year's The Nutty Professor, five-year-old quartet 4:2:Five takes the stage to push the limits of contemporary music without instrumental accompaniment. The boys publicize themselves as the winners of Ed McMahon's Internet-based talent contest, nextbigstar.com and anybody who curries the favor of Mr. Alpo himself is OK with us.
Welcome to the Family Playwrights' Round Table presents a live sitcom about a married couple and the grown children who live with them. The televised motif extends all the way to commercials for products not yet available on your storekeeper's shelves. This way to the erectile-dysfunction gags!
What Was I Thinking? The perpetually nonthreatening Andy Dooley serves up another gently humorous mixture of personal memoir and self-help sermon, keyed to the idea that we all do things we're not proud of from time to time. Hopefully, this show will not be one of them.
WIRED-Less It's almost irrelevant to hold a critical opinion of the Voci Dance troupe: When it comes to modern styles, they're practically the only game in town. Forward-thinking devotees of synchronous movement will no doubt flock to this showcase of playful routines, the latest step in the creative evolution of a project that remains all but unique in the Fringe's canon.
Working Hard This just in: The Bay Street Theatre in Eustis is a hotbed of pornography. That's where writer/director Larry Stallings hatched the idea for this send-up of the adult-film industry, which was written expressly for some of Stallings' castmates in Bay Street's Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Only a few of those actors have seen the project through to opening night, but the concept remains the same: A pair of lesbian skin-flick writers living in suburbia are taxed by simultaneous visits from their director and their conservative neighbor.
Zen An Orlando/Miami cross-production, this six-character drama numbers three cast members from each locale. Leading light Josh Horn is technically in both camps, having cut his teeth here as part of iMPACTE! Productions before heading south. Look for appearances by Fringe faves Tammy Kopko and Jarred Sharar, plus Rollins College breakout talent Jill Jones.