After the cancellation of Orlando Fringe’s Winter Mini-Fest, the Mini-Digi-Fest takes the starring role

The show must go on

Peter Michael Marino presents 'Planet of the Grapes' at Orlando Fringe's Winter Mini-Digi-Fest
Peter Michael Marino presents 'Planet of the Grapes' at Orlando Fringe's Winter Mini-Digi-Fest photo by Miki Odo

"It is with great sadness that we let you know that due to the Omicron we are canceling the 2022 in-person Winter Mini-Fest," began last Thursday morning's disappointing but unsurprising missive from Orlando Fringe Festival executive director Alauna Friskics. "As the Omicron variant is spreading extremely fast, we feel the most responsible action is to reduce contact with each other. And, as a festival that relies on out-of-town artists to fulfill a robust festival, it is not responsible to ask them to travel here at this point in the pandemic."

This understandable but aggravating in-person pause on the anticipated sixth annual installment of Orlando Fringe's four-day mini-festival, which was formerly scheduled to run Jan. 13-16, is a big blow to all involved, especially out-of-town artists like writer-performer Paris Crayton III, a past Critic's Choice winner who was supposed to be traveling here from Atlanta to premiere his latest one-man play.

In an interview prior to the cancellation, Crayton told me he spent the past couple years "learning who I am outside of being an artist for the first time in my life. That's been a journey, but I am coming to terms with who Paris is, and that has a lot to do with the show."

The show he was planning to debut was Bloodline, an autobiographical story about three generations of men, inspired by Crayton researching the origin of his own name during the pandemic. He says the play, which was directed by Orlando legend Dennis Neal, is a "sequel of sorts" to [his acclaimed drama] Spare the Rod, but whereas "Spare the Rod dealt with pain and my childhood, this one deals with love; finding love and all things love."

Upon learning of Mini-Fest's cancellation, Paris posted on Facebook: "Art makes you whole, although it can sometimes put a hole in your pockets. It can sometimes feel like an abusive lover that you keep running back to. But we're tired y'all. We're real tired. ... Once again, an artist is out of a job. When will it end???"

Mini-Fest's cancellation also stung the Festival staff [full disclosure: including my spouse] who worked hard preparing the event for its relocation from Loch Haven Park to Downtown Orlando, where it would have occupied HÄOS on Church and The Depot in the nearby Floridabilt building. But, festival producer Lindsay Taylor says, "As disappointing as it is to cancel the in-person festival, I think our Winter Mini-Digi is going to be a great example of the resilience our artists have in pivoting in these circumstances."

The Winter Mini-Digi-Fest that Taylor refers to is the online understudy that has been bumped up to the starring role this season, and will now start a week earlier than originally announced. From Jan. 13-23, patrons can visit orlandofringe.org/wmf6-2 to enjoy on-demand, prerecorded videos of over a dozen different shows for only $10 per production. New-to-Orlando offerings range from Manic Mirror Productions' Parallax, a futuristic fable about fame and trans-humanism; to Neechie-Itas by Anishinaabe artist Jo MacDonald, an outrageous comedy celebrating Indigenous sisterhood; to Something in the Water, a monster-movie spoof inspired by artist S.E. Grummett's experience coming out as transgender.

You can also relive last May with video revivals of hit shows from the 2021 Orlando Fringe, including award winners like Shelly Cooper's La Divina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas, the haunting Rosegold by Donna Kay Yarborough, and Jordan Bertke's satire The Sack: A Play on Superheroes.

And if you are desperately craving human interaction — albeit via video screen — two productions will be livestreamed on select dates between Jan. 19-24. Phoenix Tears is presenting Recovery, a Zoom-based stand-alone prequel to their Posthumous sci-fi series about the afterlife; and illusionist Jimmy Ichihana will demonstrate his close-up sleight-of-hand skills via webcam during Magic on the Fringe.

One artist who understands the value of pivoting to virtual production is New York-based writer-performer Peter Michael Marino (Desperately Seeking the Exit, Stand Up), who told me that creating the toy theater parody Planet of the Grapes with the long-distance collaboration of director Michole Biancosino and composer Michael Harren was "one of the best things to happen to me as an artist. At this time of my life I think I really needed things to be shifted for me to think differently, and I hate to say it but the pandemic was really good to me," he says, despite contracting a breakthrough case of COVID around Christmas.

With a background in set design but no prior puppetry experience, Marino cast his fruitful reimagining of the 1968 film with plastic berries and wine corks, which he deftly manipulates using magnetic rods. Until now the show has been performed live, but Orlando audiences will see a recording from Edinburgh Fringe, which Marino says is "the one show that none of the characters entered late [and] none of the sets fell over." And although this spoof is side-splittingly funny (the puntastic image of "grapes riding scallions" instead of "apes riding stallions" had me rolling), it also remains remarkably faithful to the progressive ideals embedded in Rod Serling's original script while mocking both Charlton Heston's clichéd machismo and our modern response to him. "I'm a pretty woke guy," says Marino, "but I also like making fun of wokeness."

click to enlarge Erika Kate MacDonald and Paul Strickland bring 'The Barn Identity' to a secret Orlando location - COURTESY PHOTO
courtesy photo
Erika Kate MacDonald and Paul Strickland bring 'The Barn Identity' to a secret Orlando location

Finally, a couple of Winter Mini-Fest artists are ignoring the cancellation and coming from Kentucky anyway for unofficial, unsanctioned performances. Fringe favorite Erika Kate MacDonald (Evacuated!, Tap Me on the Shoulder) and her musical partner Paul Strickland (13 Dead Dreams of Eugene, Away Now) will premiere her lush, dark DIY comedy The Barn Identity Jan. 19-20 at a secret, socially distanced outdoor venue [full disclosure: It's my backyard]. Visit bit.ly/BARNresORL for details.

"On Thursday morning we were doing an invited dress rehearsal of the show with our phones off, so we found out the festival had canceled immediately after a performance," MacDonald wrote me as they were driving to Orlando. "I looked at Paul and said, 'Maybe we just find a way to do it anyway?' He said, 'It won't even be close to the craziest thing we've done recently.'"

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