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click to enlarge Theatre Group Gumbo in 'Mind Eater'

image courtesy Orlando Fringe

Theatre Group Gumbo in 'Mind Eater'

The 10 best shows currently onstage at Orlando Fringe Festival 2021 

I've "only" reviewed 48 shows so far in the past week, but these are my 10 favorites. Be sure to check out all the 2021 Orlando Fringe Fest reviews before you go.

The 500 List
Pink Venue, $12
Modern American troubadour Ryan Adam Wells makes a welcome return to the Orlando Fringe with a "sidequel" that runs parallel to — and is even more moving than — his previous award-winning solo show, Beers About Songs.

The 500 List follows Wells and his college buddy Dave on a Rolling Stone magazine-inspired cross-country road trip, which served as the catalyst for his escape from an abusive relationship.

Wells structures his narrative around an EP's worth of his bluesy country-fried rock songs, which both serve up catchy hooks and serve as musical underscores for Wells' melodious monologues. His fluent marriage of memorable tunes and wry humor brings to mind the classic story-songs of Arlo Guthrie, like "Alice's Restaurant" and "Motorcycle," only with aggressive ostriches. What appears at first glance to be a picaresque play about romantic misadventures ends up as an emotionally involving tribute to the power of friendship. Wells' final song begs listeners to "keep your eyes open to the love all around your life"; look around the theater as his moist-eyed audiences exit, and you're sure to see love in abundance.

Ain't Done Bad
Silver Venue, $12
With Ain't Done Bad, dancer-choreographer Jakob Karr has gifted the Fringe with the most polished, professional, propulsive piece of contemporary dance theater in the Festival's 30-year history. Karr (an alumnus of So You Think You Can Dance and Cirque du Soleil) stars in a story inspired by Reba McEntire's "Fancy" as filtered through Orville Peck's catchy pop-country albums, playing a small-town boy who leaves behind his protective mother and disapproving father for lust and love in the big city.

His Manhattan-based dancers — Lauren Cannon, Adrian Lee, Jordan Lombardi, Ian Spring, Reed Tankersley and Tanner Wilson — are all incredibly skilled technicians, and it's thrilling to see a stage full of male dancers who can be powerfully masculine and simultaneously achingly vulnerable. Karr's thoughtfully developed choreography reminds me in the best way possible of modern masters Mia Michaels and Pina Bausch, and his cast conveys their characters clearly without heavy-handed overacting. Joel Zishuk's textured lighting is some of the best I've ever seen in the Silver Venue, designer Zachary Feivou's spinning mirrors are simple perfection, and even the scene transitions are utterly seamless.

At a certain point, I stopped taking notes and simply marveled at the show, which is just about the highest praise I can offer. You done bad if you ain't already made plans to see this superlative production.

Alchemist of Dreams
Orange Venue, $12
After several years of more intimate, autobiographical VarieTease shows at the now-demolished Black Venue, Alchemist of Dreams marks the dance troupe's welcome return to fantastical spectacle in the expansive Orange venue. Choreographer Baby BlueStar plays the proprietor of an Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus-style emporium of lost hopes, forgotten wishes and dark dreams. Joyce Arbucias provides helpful scene-setting voiceover narration, as each VarieTease regular gets a moment to shine in the spotlight. Highlights include Jack Krieger's delicate duet with an illuminated pole; a comical striptease from Tymisha Harris (who can earn applause just by doffing her mask), a hilarious dance of loose-limbed nonsense with Katrina Soricelli, and a fiercely emotional solo to Unsecret's "Fallout" from Megan Boetto.

Putting the "variety" back in the company's name are a brief drag opera and a Cirque-esque acrobatic sequence featuring a limber contortionist. But by far the most emotional part of Alchemist of Dreams was watching Blue pirouette across the stage again after enduring years of injury and rehabilitation. VarieTease shows are always a must-see at Fringe, but this year's edition overwhelmed my heart with joy the way Carnivale did over a decade ago.

Cross Country: A Self-Help Musical Performance
Pink Venue, $12
An orphaned office drone (T.J. Washburn) and an underemployed ingenue (Angel Marin) seek liberation along America’s lonely highways in Cross Country, a tunefully touching dramatized concept album from writer-composer Dan Drnach and director James Honey.

Drnach serves as the troubadour narrator, observing as his unnamed characters struggle to leave behind hometowns that stick like tar, spend the night alongside strangers in anonymous motels, and finally arrive at their destined destinations. There’s not much depth to the plot, as the only obstacles the protagonists have to overcome are minor mechanical problems and their own inner monologues; but Drnach’s songs, which remind me of The Who and Green Day with a mellowing hint of CSN&Y, could be hit singles on alternative college radio (if that were still a thing). Fair warning: this show may make you want to leave Loch Haven Park, hop in a convertible, and take off toward California with the top down and radio blaring — which would definitely be a waste of your remaining Fringe tickets.

ExperiMental
Red Venue, $7
If you are one of the millions of people who were blown away by Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself on Hulu, you’ll be mesmerized by the feats of mentalism being performed live and in person by Los Angeles illusionist Steven Nicholas. He begins this brand-new act by demonstrating that he’s memorized pi to nearly 10,000 decimal places, before using playing cards and classic novels to seemingly prove that anyone is capable of such mental gymnastics.

A big part of Nicholas’ appeal is the way he makes it appear that his volunteers are the ones making the magic work, even as he subtly tugs their psychological strings. With only a handful of attendees at the preview performance, I got pulled onstage to participate more than once, and still have only the vaguest idea of how he got me to create a semi-successful “memory palace” in a matter of moments. I also really appreciated how he tied the beginning and finale of his show into a personal story about overcoming childhood challenges, and wish he incorporated more of that kind of autobiographical intimacy throughout his personable patter. He might not have his own Frank Oz-directed special (yet), but don’t underestimate the minor miracles Nicholas is capable of conjuring with his supercharged mind.

Judas
Red Venue, $12
Even if you've been a major character in multiple Broadway musicals — not to mention the Bible — you haven't really made it today until you've had your own solo special on a streaming service. That's why Judas Iscariot (writer-star BeeJay Aubertin-Clinton), who has spent the past 2,000-plus years trapped on Earth after that whole crucifixion mishegas, is finally exposing his deepest secrets to a live studio audience.

People always ask when the Second Coming is coming, but Judas really wants you to know what kind of boyfriend Jesus was. Between swigs of liquor and snorts of stimulants, Judas dishes on the disciples, dissing the lesser apostles as mere "garnishes" while giving Mary Magdalene props for being a "blinding fucking sunbeam." Clinton's monologue, which ranges from manic to maudlin, mixes stoner philosophy with savage jabs at organized religion, which he says is "constantly getting in its own way" by "building houses out of rose-colored glass, and then throwing stones."

It's probably best to skip this one if you can't stand the thought of your Lord and Savior having a sex life. But for the more open-minded viewer, Clinton navigates a delicate balance beam between salaciousness and spirituality, and successfully uncovers a heartbreaking passion in the center of the greatest story never told. Add this one to your Netflix queue now.

Mind Eater
Yellow Venue, $12
Japan's Theatre Group Gumbo scored a blockbuster success at the 2019 Orlando Fringe with their outrageous fast food satire Are You Lovin' It?, and although I laughed out loud, I was a bit bothered by the show's reductionist take on Americans. This year they've revived their early hit Mind Eater, which was originally developed over 20 years ago for Australian and Asian audiences.

Happily, their mocking meditation on reincarnation and love feels far more universal, while still being every bit as funny. A jilted girlfriend desperate to lose weight; a lovelorn woman seeking a suicidal partner; and an altruist who takes "giving until it hurts" a little too far are the three souls whose slapstick life-cycles we observe, alongside a green-spangled emcee and floss-dancing angel. The underlying message — we are all connected, follow your heart — comes across in any language, and the medium (giant glowing jellyfish, flying internal organs and an overstuffed sumo suit) is like an anime fever-dream come to life on stage. It's a minor miracle that Theatre Group Gumbo made it from Osaka to Orlando, but even if they'd only taken a cross-town bus, their ebullient acts of absurdism would earn my standing ovation.

click to enlarge Donna Kay Yarborough in 'Rosegold' - IMAGE COURTESY ORLANDO FRINGE
  • image courtesy Orlando Fringe
  • Donna Kay Yarborough in 'Rosegold'

Rosegold
Blue Venue, $12
Say hello to Jamie; Jamie is an alcoholic. Jamie is finally opening up about the formative traumas that led her to drink, in an effort to unburden herself of the demons that plague her. You've seen this kind of well-intentioned self-help testimonial at Fringe countless times before, and you can tell exactly where it's going ... until writer-performer Donna Kay Yarborough takes a sinister turn deep in the woods, tearing away the gossamer veil that separates our reality from the shape-shifting shadows lurking beyond the corner of your eye.

It's impossible to reveal more about Yarborough's plot without jeopardizing the nerve-jangling joy that comes from discovering this psychological thriller's chilling secrets; suffice it to say that fans of Stephen King, David Lynch and H.P. Lovecraft will find plenty to sink their canines into. Even if you aren't usually a fan of horror, Yarborough's understated intensity will suck you in as she weaves a richly absorbing world in only 40 minutes with nothing more than a folding chair and laser-focused gaze. You'll hold your breath until you gasp at Yarborough's final blackout, and you may find yourself glancing over your shoulder, lest the nightmare she summons follows you home.

Seeger
Gold Venue, $12
Today's teens may scoff at the notion that a song could change the world, but popular music was the social media of the 1960s, and if memes can now help pick the President, part of the credit (or blame) must go to pioneering folk singer Pete Seeger. As a kid, I listened to the complete recording of his historic 1963 Carnegie Hall concert on constant repeat, so attending Randy Noojin's eerily accurate recreation of the late artist-activist was like reuniting with an old friend.

Even if you didn't grow up singing summer camp standards like "If I Had a Hammer, "Turn Turn Turn" or "Goodnight Irene," Noojin's performance — which is illustrated with a Ken Burns-style slideshow of historical photos — will grab you with fascinating factoids from the formative years of the Civil Rights movement. I never knew before that Seeger taught "We Shall Overcome" to Martin Luther King Jr., who incorporated its lyrics into his sermons, or that beloved balladeer Burl Ives exposed fellow Communists to Joe McCarthy's HUAC hearings.

Noojin not only captures Seeger's distinctive singing voice and fluent banjo playing (which becomes the subject of self-deprecating running jokes) but also his warm, optimistic personality. Audience participation was a sort of religion for Seeger, and Noojin's enthusiastic exhortations to sing out loud might make some masked audience members a little uncomfortable. But I'm willing to bet that by the time he concludes with the iconic Cuban protest song "Guantanamera," Noojin will have won over a number of newly minted Pete Seeger fans in his audience.

Shakespeare's Reservoir Dogs
BYOV: The Abbey, $12
With their last two hit Fringe shows, Hardly Working Productions gave us Elizabethan reimaginings of Ghostbusters and Terminator 2. This year, they continue to work their way down my all-time favorite film list with a Shakespearean staging of Quentin Tarantino’s debut crime thriller, and it’s easily the best effort yet from director David Strauss and producer Deena Ronayne. As in the movie, four color-coded thieves gather after a botched jewel heist to determine which one is the canker in their hedge, but this team has traded in their handguns and pop culture references for razor-sharp rapiers and classical allusions.

Credit goes first to Stephin Hopley’s smart script, which faithfully follows QT’s original screenplay beat by beat, but transforms the text into Olde English verse; the dialogue brims with clever nods to Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice without slavishly cribbing quotations or simply swapping in archaic pronouns. But the true honors go to the gender-blind cast, led by three exceptional actresses in the central roles of the injured Sir Orange (Nikki Darden Creston), the paranoid Sir Pink (Katherine Riley) and the world-weary Sir White (Marcie Schwalm). They all tackle their testosterone-soaked roles and make them their own without imitating the iconic original actors; Creston’s brief take on Tim Roth’s drug-smuggling monologue is a particular highlight.

Fans of the film will find great fun in recognizing the iambic equivalents of quotable dialogue, but even those ignorant of the original will enjoy the potent plot, sharp performances and brutal stage combat choreographed by Bill Warriner. Fair warning: The scene where Sir Blonde (John Reid Adams) gleefully mutilates an officer of the law (Jim Cundiff) remains as gory and disturbing on stage as it was on screen. The show’s only real missteps involve Rob Del Medico’s minstrel character, who strums Renaissance rewrites of K-Billy’s super ’70s soundtrack; his audience-participatory rendition of “Hooked on a Feeling” is hilarious, but his entrances and exits seem to slow down the pace of every scene change instead of smoothing over the transitions as they should.

That one nitpick aside, Shakespeare’s Reservoir Dogs is the best such high-concept film parody I’ve seen at Fringe in years, because it understands and respects the source material without being afraid to tweak it. Lend this talented crew your ears ... just don’t expect to get both of them back.

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