;One thing to remember about the opening weekend of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival is that the shows are essentially dress rehearsals. More traditional productions have the luxury of at least a week of run-throughs in their chosen venues; not so these mini-theatricales, whose producers have to acclimate themselves almost on the spot to unfamiliar stages. By the time you read the following reviews, many of the technical glitches and other blemishes that plagued some of the first-weekend performances will have been corrected. Listen carefully to audience word-of-mouth to find out which ones haven't.


;;Short on jokes (especially when its multimedia components take a crap minutes before curtain) but long on personality, Lilly & Lila's Lovely Lesbian Hour is a live talk show that offers a different selection of special guests and off-the-cuff insights at every performance. A visit from drag queen Rusti Fawcett was easily the slow point of the installment we saw, which got far more mileage out of the easygoing charm of hosts Lilly (Christine Robison) and Lila (Leneil Bottoms) — not to mention the naughty gyrations of three smokin'-hot go-go girls. (If the frat-boy demo got wind of what's going on here, there wouldn't be seating room for a single dyke.) What makes the show sweet is the unabashed optimism of its central conceit, in which '50s homo homemakers Lilly and Lila have been set free from decades spent frozen in ice, and are relieved to have thawed out in an era — ours — that's far more willing to grant them their basic human rights. Their motto: "We're here, we're queer, you're used to it." Welcome to the future, ladies. And thanks for your patience.

;;A sketch performer and writer par excellence, Peter Hurtgen Jr. arm-wrestles with the stand-up form in Something You Do Not Want To See, a stream-of-consciousness riff on the bizarre, the unfortunate and (once in a while) the downright disgusting. The show has Hurtgen running down a self-compiled list of truly abominable sights, which can get as high-concept as a chainsaw-juggling act in a butter factory. Orlando expat Hurtgen retains enough of a fan base here (and an unquestionably likable presence) to keep the audience on his side, even when he's losing his place in a text that tends toward the redundant and the under-rehearsed. A quick thank-you, and the show is over at the 20-minute mark — half the announced running time. Something You Do Not Want To See ends up being something you could use a lot more of.

;;Possibly the only Fringe show ever named for a nasty crack that was once printed in Orlando Weekly, Ever Expanding is nominally a reference to Amy Steinberg's formerly ample posterior (she's slimmed-down and proud) but more particularly to the boundless soul she pours into her songs and spoken-word pieces. An amalgam of verbal and musical forays with a loose personal-growth theme, Expanding checks in on Amy as a child, teenager and young woman, enduring typical learning experiences — from flatulence masquerading as appendicitis to grown-up heartbreak. The audience eats up Steinberg's caustic-yet-loving asides, such as this description of an old friend: "She sells essential oils, which means she's a lesbian." In lesser hands, the material could seem self-indulgent or even obnoxious, but Steinberg was born with the gift of a revivalist's impeccable delivery, especially in her songs, each of which alights like a long-hoped-for benediction.

;;The theater of self-revelation breaks no new ground in To Silence Me is To Silence …, playwright/director Nicolle Avery's proxy memoir of years of sexual mistreatment. Actress Rachel McCabe, acting as Avery's mouthpiece, scores whatever small dramatic victories she can as she recounts Avery's numbing litany of abuse scenarios and statistics, omitting the most interesting element of the playwright's biography: She was deaf at the time of the molestations. Perhaps this detail was excised to bring the story closer to the universal; if so, it's a mistake. McCabe wanders into the audience, assigning fleeting character roles to male spectators in an apparent attempt to make us all as uncomfortable as our narrator. The climax is a confrontation with her dreaded persecutor (Rick Kennedy), who is denied even the simplest reaction to his verbal damnation — the perfect capper to a play that seems engineered more for personal catharsis than communication.

;;In his humor pieces in The New Yorker, playwright/screenwriter Paul Rudnick regularly proves himself a brilliantly funny man with a tendency to coast when the topic is homosexuality. His faux TV talk show, Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach, may not represent the tippy-top of his oeuvre, but its killer barbs far outnumber the handful of gags that fall beneath Rudnick's creative stature. Director David Lee and star Frank McClain milk the last ounce of bitchy hilarity out of the middle-aged Mr. Charles' public-access manifestos, in which our host reasserts the allure of good, old-fashioned queendom by drooling over a dim go-go boy (funny hunk David Barnes) and answering questions submitted by an unseen viewing audience. (What makes people gay? "I do.") McClain's characterization is nigh on flawless, from his affected squeals to the garish scarf-and-blazer ensemble supplied him by costumers Marcy and Steve Singhaus. It's as if the love child of Quentin Crisp and a used-car salesman were presiding over a lost episode of The Merv Griffin Show in hell. (Have fun fitting that on a poster, fellas.)

;;Early feedback on The Glamorous Andrea Merlyn Magic Show was a disappointed dismissal that the act consisted of "birthday-party magic," and I suppose that's true — if you're prone to hiring as your kids' entertainment a pudgy married guy in a black evening dress, ostentatious earrings and a flip wig. Yes, Merlyn — the femme alter ego of Indiana's Taylor Martin — could pass for an Orlando Opera patron on a bender. But the irony is that his show is better when he ignores the drag angle and just works his time-honored routines, like making ropes of differing lengths appear uniform and running a sword through my friend Kimberly. All the while, Merlyn/Martin is chuckling his way through the same jokes your Uncle Frank hauls out to make Thanksgiving unbearable. There's an eternal appreciation for this kind of stuff; I can always sit through it myself, though I prefer it in smaller chunks than the 60 minutes Martin has reserved for himself. First candidate for the chopping block: An extraneous performance of Frank Zappa's "Let's Make the Water Turn Black," with Martin's vocals falling in and out of rhythmic sync with the instrumental backing track. What? And why?

;;Lisa Sleeper and Karin Amano discover a partnership made in comedy heaven in A Tale of Two Bitches, the story of an American girl and a Japanese-born schoolmate who share a lifetime's worth of trials and misunderstandings. From the moment they set foot on stage together, the ladies are perfect foils for each other, especially visually: Sleeper is big and red-haired, while Amano is tiny and, uh, Asian. They're both accomplished physical comics, which makes the introductory scenes — side-by -side pantomimes performed to taped narration — a deceptively strong kickoff. I say "deceptively" because the show that ensues is underwritten, setting up a number of promising situations and then failing to resolve them in especially clever ways. It's as if two close pals worked up an improv exercise and then tweaked it ever so slightly. Still, you're rolling in the aisles any time Amano gets to go anime-crazy with pent-up immigrant's rage. There's a terrific act here; it just needs a little more time and attention to develop.

;;Got time in your schedule for three Fringe shows but money for only one? See Doodie Humor 3: To the Turd Power, a blissfully impudent romp that earns its title by being exponentially funnier than the festival standard. Once again, Todd Feren's mouthy, multiracial band of sketch comics show how inadequate terms like "biting" and "on target" are to describe satire that shoots a flaming arrow straight into the heart of hypocrisy. From a "war presidency" gone berserk to a horror-movie clip that equates blackness with lycanthropy, there's nary a duff moment in the show — though if I had to pick a favorite, it would be a beauty-pageant parody that lacerates the media's obsession with pretty, missing white girls. Standing out amid a Fringe schedule burdened with safe bets and lazily churned-out ego trips, the Doodies are positively heroic in their devotion to delivering the truth at 60 laughs per minute. Long may they dump.

;; — Steve Schneider




;The economies of scale being what they are, it's natural that a large number of Fringe Festival shows are one-man or one-woman ventures. When the money is tight and the engagement short, the smaller the cast, the better the chances of scraping by. But the monologue is a theatrical endeavor that, although potentially rewarding, is rather difficult to bring off. In the long and short runs, it's only "you" up there. So the character of "you" must be somewhat appealing to the audience, and the actor ("you" again) must be deft and nimble enough to bounce back and forth between playing "you" and commenting on "you." If done well, the results can be glorious. If not, they can range from boring to dismal to absolutely painful for a captive crowd caught in the personal(ity) web you are attempting to spin.


;One one-man Fringe show that approaches the glorious is writer/performer James Judd's Fat Camp, a hilariously funny hour of jokes, observations, reminiscences and digressions loosely based on a two-week stay at a "longevity and wellness retreat" that Judd shared with — no kidding — four of his Mormon aunts from Utah (better known as the MoMo Sisterhood.) Judd's monologue is filled with great comic and descriptive writing ("When life gives you lemons … make frosted lemon squares"); his physical comedy is adroit; and his delivery and timing precise and skillful. Judd has the audience at his mercy throughout the entire hour in this well-paced and good-natured spree (directed by Cynthia Szigeti). It's a monologue that works and works well.

;;On the other end of the one-man-show scale is Life: The Evolution of Man, a pointless and dreary exercise by Elan Farbiarz, a young-looking performer who inexplicably identifies himself as 44-year-old Terry Corey. Rambling from one mundane "biographical" fact to another (his discovery of masturbation at 15; his pursuit of any female who could put an end to his virginity), Farbiarz presents an utterly unremarkable and dismally puerile persona, impossible to like and uninteresting in the extreme. The writing is weak and repetitive, and the whole affair comes off as a painful bout of onanistic self-aggrandizement. Oddly, at the end of the monologue, the actor thanks all those who have ever discouraged or otherwise dissed his various artistic projects over the years. Without them, he opines, he wouldn't be where he is today. All I can offer, after sitting through his latest venture, is a hearty, "You're welcome."

;;Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is Salvador Dali: Dream This, a one-man presentation, written and performed by Dan Khoury, of one of the 20th century's most eccentric and original artists. Dali was both heralded for his intensely personal and surrealistic renderings and loathed and adored for his super-sized ego ("I am madly in love with myself") and his unabashed bravura. (When told once that he had gone "too far," he responded, "But, my friend, that's the only place I ever wanted to go!") Khoury has the look of Dali, right down to his singular mustachios, and his biographical monologue is mildly interesting. We learn something about his takes on fame, art, money, love and the failings of almost every other contemporary and historical painter. But Khoury possesses little of Dali's own showmanship and style. His delivery is muted and so low-key that one suspects that Dali himself would have loudly demanded a greater theatricality from his impersonator.

;;In a more traditional theatrical vein, You're Being Watched, written and directed by Tait Moline, is a four-person drama that falls somewhere between TV's Survivor and Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. A quartet of blue-pajama-clad individuals find themselves locked in some futuristic penal institution, with no explanation of their situation and no apparent reason for their confinement as a group. As their stories tumble out, however, we learn that not only are they all in there for the crime of murder, but there are, in fact, curious connections among them. It's the kind of to-do that might have popped up, say, in an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone a half-century ago. Moline's dramaturgy is not that well-honed, however, and from time to time the momentum peters out and the writing gets repetitive. But there are enough plot twists to keep one interested till the end. The acting ranges from mediocre to acceptable.

;;Sport is an outrageously delicious enterprise staged by the Ghostlight Theatre Ensemble. Mike Gill, Patrick Braillard and Brandon Roberts, three talented and physically funny performers, take the audience on a spirited romp through the world of sports. There is a hilarious tennis routine, a great take on the world of sportscasting, a chess game between two old men, a three-way boxing match, bowling, track-and-field and much more — all brought to us by "Slastic," the troupe's trademark sportswear company. Throughout the proceedings, the trio says nary a word, but the visual humor is uproarious and well-practiced. These guys are having a great time, and the show's goofiness is infectious.

;;Another completely goofy show is The Outer Toons, billed as "A Musical Cartoon Comedy." Created, produced, written and directed by Chris Charles, the revue is a paean to the pioneers of cartoon background music, most notably Carl Stalling, who for decades provided the melodic underpinnings for Disney's (and later Warner Bros.') cartoon factories. The "cast" features a septet of multitalented musicians who wear inane costumes and spend their time engaging in mindless banter and juvenile sight gags. But while Charles seems intent on creating a cartoon-like atmosphere, the troupe's comedy ranks far below its prodigious musicality. While the kids may be amused, adults will try to ignore the mayhem in order to concentrate on the incredibly tight licks of this highly polished combo. Most enjoyable is the xylophone work of Heather Thorn, the only female player in the group.

;;Finally, there's Romance/Romance: The Little Comedy, a delightful period musical written by Barry Harman and Keith Herrmann, and here staged by Robert Dutton, with musical direction by Kathy Slage. Based on a story by Arthur Schnitzler, Romance/Romance was actually produced on Broadway in the late 1980s as the first half of an evening of musical one-acts. The story of two rich and bored society habitués who set out to find true love is set in fin de siècle Vienna and starred Alison Fraser as Josefine and Scott Bakula (later of Star Trek fame) as Alfred. Their roles are played here by Kristen Owen and Todd Allen Long. Both performers have fine singing voices, and make the most of the sparkling and witty score. Though the pair lacks a certain lusty chemistry and tends to play far too frequently to the audience rather than to one another, their harmonies are bright and beautiful. It's a treat to see this undervalued show so lovingly recreated.

;;— Al Krulick


;;I love it when Canadians write about Florida. We're a sort of Holy Land to them, an exotic tropical paradise of stuffed alligators and retired countrymen. In David Belke's All Expenses Paid, withdrawn office worker Lynn Winicki (Rebecca Starr) has a knack for sketching chairs and repelling friendship. Doofus mail clerk (Brian Perry) chats her up, and when she wins an Orlando vacation she doesn't want, he tags along — a decision they both soon regret. The visit to Florida finds a state full of interesting and eccentric locals played by veteran actors Tom Edwards and Karen Johnson-Diamond, a pair who spin brilliant comedy out of seeming nothingness. When a slight romance develops, Rebecca and Brian both underplay their hands, only to discover they both need to moderate their view of other people. This is welcome return for Belke, a veteran of several previous Fringes, so put All Expenses Paid on your must-see list.

;;So many Internet romances end up in chain saw-wielding hostage situations. That's where RealTime's Jessie (Vanessa Sabouth) and Billy (Mark Jenkins) find themselves after a bout of AOL chat and some unprotected D&D. Billy's a geeky guy who might be gay but isn't, and Jessie has some anger-management issues, which is code for regularly beating the crap out of guys in bars. They're surrounded by family and friends, and in the interest of keeping cast costs down, all are played by Sabouth and Jenkins, two energetic Edmonton alumni. I'm leery of these extensive, cast-overloading scripts, but the transforms are fluid and convincing. We're never confused as they bungee jump and sing karaoke and get drunk while the mismatched romance spirals into a relation that may save both of them, or may lead to death at an early age. When the deadly yard tools come out, Billy aces the dramatic crisis situation Jessie needs to believe he's really her type.

;;Canadian storyteller TJ Dawe returns with A Canadian Bartender at Butlin's, another intricate and hilarious story of a summer spent bartending at a seedy resort off the coast of England. The tale begins when he forgets to bring the key to a remote winter-vacation cabin, but moves inexplicably to the U.K., where it takes some time for Dawe to establish that he is NOT a Yank, and that "bumming a fag" in public is perfectly acceptable, yet a "fanny pack" would never be mentioned outside of a blue movie. Mixed in with what leans toward a ghost story are a number of George Carlin-like observations on the absurdity of life and language. With his innocent delivery and ability to slip between accents and personae, Dawe is fortunately performing in the festival's biggest venue, so there should be lots of room for his happy fans.

;;— Al Pergande


;;I can imagine how MentalMania mind-game whiz Mark Stone could correctly identify and spell a name chosen by audience members from a phone book (it has to do with directing audience "choice"). And I can theorize that he was able to do a mass mind reading by somehow spying on the "secret thoughts" audience members were directed to scribble on little pieces of paper.


;But I have to admit that I have no clue how Stone managed his final trick, a stupendous display of super Sudoku that no human should be able to accomplish, without the aid of a computer, in less than a minute. The audience selected a two-digit number – 67 – then Stone put it on top of a hand-held erasable white board and, in 51 seconds, created a grid of numbers that added up to 67 forward, backward, crossways, sideways, in circles and every other conceivable sequence. By the time he drew lines through all the sequences the board was a mass of scribbles, and I was astonished.


;Stone has performed his mental mastery on TV and for presidents. Never mind his yuk-yuk stage patter and corn-pone humor; you'd be a fool to miss your chance to see him at the Fringe.


;— Bob Whitby


;;That theatrical train wrecks are entertaining is likely the perverse consensus of the 300 people who saw Michael Wanzie's musical sendup The Lion Queen and the Naked Go-Go Cub last Saturday. Perversity is a Wanzie specialty. No matter if this gay take on cuddly and confused "Timba" (Tommy Wooten) is performed again, the missed cues, line flubbing and consequent improvisation of the night's performance made for a one-time-only experience that couldn't be forgotten even if I tried. An adorable Host (Brian Wynne) with a bare butt opens the proceedings, making you wonder, How the hell can he get away with this? Wanzie himself, playing Timba's fey Uncle Star, heads off-stage at the scripted mention of Team D lawyers. Script? As the crusty storyteller (Doug of "Wanzie and Doug" renown) — who chants in a melodic roar, "Mama's gumbo, I love my mama's gumbo" — tells us in an aside, creative rewriting is going down. Hanging wild with these Parliament House–tempered boys is Becky Fisher, baring an awesome set of pipes. Her comedic reign includes quick-costume-change turns as Judy Garland, Timba's girlfriend and a squawky bird. No matter how the production bucked, this ensemble of pros rode it with "their teeth and their ass cheeks bared." The coup was made complete with a dancing wiener, and it was stunning.

;;So tight, they squeak; so full of passion, they soar. In Black Voices, a six-pack of proud vocalists/actors (plus a three-woman chorus) accomplish their mission to represent 200 years of black American history, delivering it in song and word. The flow is smooth for 60 minutes, recalling the statements of black Americans both famous and anonymous. There's an excerpt of a bookish speech by Booker T. Washington, a poetic passage from Langston Hughes and sensuous lyrics sung by Billie Holiday. Subject matter reflects slavery, abolition, civil rights, women's rights and racism. We hear the soulful plea spoken by Sojourner Truth in 1851 at a women's convention in Ohio, "Ain't I a Woman," as well as contemporary castigation by poet Essex Hemphill in "To Some Supposed Brothers" and playful feminism by poet Lucille Clifton in "Homage to My Hips." Directed by L'Tanya Van Hamersveld (she also co-wrote the piece in 2003 with Sidney Homan), the compilation gives the actors their turns in the spotlight and then lets them slip back into the congregation. Let it be said that in the Brown Venue, these black voices are giving witness.

;;The title Mercy on the Canvas doesn't give any clue to the plot of this drama penned by Orlando playwright Terry McMurray, and it's just as well: A show about pedophilia in the Catholic Church doesn't sound like much fun. But Fringe expressions are both dark and light, and, in this case, humanely in between.


;The four actors are equal anchors, and their performances are formidable as a housekeeper (Pat Barker), a monsignor (Eric Kuritzky), an impassioned priest (David Lee Bass) and a monster priest (Roger Greco). As all of the action takes place in a rectory, the dialogue and performances alone must supply the building drama. And they do. The good priest is called back from Chile because of a letter he wrote indicting the U.S. government. He's traumatized by his confrontations with death squads, but the church doesn't like controversy. His superiors have decided that the bad priest will be transferred, but without addressing his behavior. Tension mounts for all involved. Decisions not to act cause suffering and decisions to act do the same. What to do? The denouement depends on the starch of Bass, and he holds up admirably. Still, the abrupt close leaves the audience waiting for Act Two.


;— Lindy T. Shepherd