Attention, Orlando: The aliens have landed.
It isn't unusual to feel as if you're in the midst of an extraterrestrial invasion when attending the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. But this year's 21st edition of the annual arts extravaganza, which ended its run at Loch Haven Park on Memorial Day, received an extra dose of the outer limits during its final weekend, thanks to the strange and wondrous weirdness of Big Nazo.
If you happened to be wandering around Lake Eola last Friday afternoon, you might have found yourself immersed in a mass of monstrous mutants with bright cauliflower-like flesh, bulbous bug eyes and tiny flailing tentacles. Human-sized starfish, tricloptic blue trolls, a towering worm in a grandma dress, a robo-saxophonist and a talking dog-human hybrid were spotted on the loose along Summerlin Avenue.
Fear not; it was only Orlando's first exposure to Big Nazo, a troupe of itinerant alien entertainers who arrived here from an unknown galaxy just in time to catch the Fringe. (It appears someone told them it was an “intergalactic” festival instead of just “international.”) Just as the happy-hour crowds were beginning to fill up Thornton Park's watering holes, this team of weirdos wandered along Washington Street from Graffiti Junktion to the heart of Lake Eola and back again, stopping traffic and stunning pedestrians as they waddled. (The sunburnt, sweating creature in the back of the pack pushing a sound system? That was me.)
This movable madhouse, which upended Urban ReThink and caused hysteria at Hue, was only a warmup for the wackiness that followed on Saturday and Sunday, as Big Nazo made their bigger-than-life presence felt at the Fringe. Pop-up appearances at the Mennello Museum for Kids Fringe were highlighted by the creatures crushing the cardboard city created by Squirrel Circus. Over at the adult Fringe across the street, a series of surprise interactive stroll-throughs at the beer tent built up to a Sunday-afternoon performance on the outdoor stage, which included audience interaction, nonsensical singing and dancing, and general monster madness.
OK, so Big Nazo aren't actually invaders from another solar system (shh, don't tell the kids). In reality, this internationally renowned troupe of puppet performers hails from Providence, R.I. The brainchild of artist Erminio Pinque, these friendly foam-rubber freaks were able to attend this year's Fringe as unpublicized underground surprise guest stars thanks to the sponsorship of Heather Henson's Ibex Puppetry, which also presented Davey Rocker and His Barnyard Jam at Kids Fringe. I spent the weekend as stage-manager-slash-Sherpa for the four-man Nazo team, which afforded me (along with assisting artists Jack Fields, Hannah Miller, Brendan O'Connor and Genevieve Bernard) a front-row view of their riotously imaginative improvisations.
The 2012 Fringe was a massive success by any measure, with attendance and ticket sales up 30 percent or more over last year and more than $250,000 returned to the artists. I ended up seeing just short of 40 different productions (not counting several repeat performances) and wrote reviews of half of them for Orlando Weekly's Culture 2 Go blog over the Festival's 13-day run. That's enough theater to reduce even the most persistent patron to a puddle. And as magical as it was to play a monster manager over Memorial Day weekend, I must admit that by Monday morning my mind was mostly mush.
So while I nurse my art-induced hangover, glance over these few wishes for next year's Fringe I discovered scrawled on a beer-tent napkin:
More venues: With 80-odd productions, the Fringe's current roster of theaters is maxed out, but there are underutilized stages in the immediate vicinity that would make great expansion pads.
More fresh food: Loving Hut's absence from the vendor lineup left a hole for vegetarians that Tisse Mallon's Spork Café partially filled, but there's still a need for more affordable non-fried options.
More technology: The free official Fringe iPhone and Android apps (developed by Bad Puppet) were a great start, providing easy access to the schedule. Next year I want to be able to build my show schedule, share it with friends, and buy and use tickets without a printer.
More international: Some of my favorite performers were from Japan (My Exploding Family), Australia (Dirk Darrow: NCSSI) and Canada (Little Lady). Local hits are lovely, but I attend Fringe to find the far-out and foreign – even the interplanetary.