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5/26/2005

Culture

GREETINGS FROM PLANET FRINGE

 

Nobody could ever accuse Chris Caswell of overselling a routine, so you may have to prick up your ears to fully appreciate the subtleties of the nuanced character work the New Yorker gets up to in Maudlin Dementia Returns to the Stage, her first Orlando Fringe offering since 2000's Circus Reject Peep Show. The tone of gentle deconstruction remains the same, though the subject matter – a thwarted actress' kidnapping of the reclusive diva she uncannily resembles – is several steps removed from Circus Reject's big-top intrigue. Caswell requires zero props or costume changes to interpret the peccadilloes of her five characters, whose B-picture personalities she has delineated in terms as broad as her delivery is refined. (I particularly appreciated her turn as Spongy Lamé, a lightly cackling Eve Arden type who's almost perversely committed to doing good deeds.) Caswell's brainy/playful performance style vindicates terms like "cute," providing an unlikely but effective complement to the show's underlying critique of the transformative potential of so-called high art.

If you need to prove your experimentalist bona fides, just say you've borne witness to To the Winners. It's 50 minutes (not the advertised 75) of Brazil-spawned performance artist Wilson Loria spinning highly fictionalized childhood memories while done up in Stein's clown white and peek-a-boo genie pants (and, occasionally, distressingly less). There's a certain whimsy to be had in listening to Loria "explain" how he weathered his mother's disapproval and resisted the seductive overtures of the sea god Neptune; as a writer, he's sort of a Latino David Sedaris on hallucinogens. Yet Loria (a former assistant director at New York's La MaMa) is not the best interpreter of his own material, which too often clashes with his misaccented syllables and somewhat tentative delivery. An actor needs to come out brimming with confidence to make an audience actually appreciate being locked in a room with a character that's equal parts Cantinflas and the serpentine bar owner in Good Morning Vietnam; despite some androgynous hip-grinding, Loria doesn't push his bizarre persona far enough. To be fair, the afternoon show I caught was attended by a grand total of six paying customers, limiting the amount of pushing he could reasonably get away with. At least eye contact was easy.

An inside source confided to me that Saturday's performance of Kama Sutra had been "all over the shop," which makes we wonder what glories Britain's Eyewitness Theatre can manage on an "on" night. I savored every moment of Peter McGarry's verbal parrying with on-stage wife Sue Warhurst; together they make a comically stodgy couple of 50-somethings whose attempt to jump-start their sex life the Indian way is threatened by the fact that they're just so bloody English. The show is a reworked version of one that Eyewitness brought to Orlando in 1998, and though I never got to see it, I'd lay odds the WMD reference in the 2005 script is new. Anybody who's had the pleasure of seeing even one McGarry production, though, will recognize his cheery, cheeky reliance on naughty one-liners, which he loves equally whether they sink or swim – thus, so do we. Like all the best Eyewitness plays, this one uses its Benny Hill bawdiness as the pretext to preach that sex is inseparable from a basic emotional decency. When the laughs died down, Kama Sutra had made me feel that true love can transcend issues of age, class and culture – and that the charge might well be led by the owners of "middle-aged droopy bits." (Don't laugh; your own are plotting a future rendezvous with gravity at this very minute.)

Spend some time with local sketch agitators Doodie Humor, and you'll realize how bland and cowardly most "cutting-edge" comedy really is. Bounding on stage joyously pelting each other with ethnic slurs and cries of "Freakin' retard!" the members of this inspirationally fearless group announce Doodie Humor: Number 2 as a liberating stomp through the fields of political incorrectness. Their sophomore outing – another well-planned medley of live and videotaped elements – takes especial aim at religious intolerance and racial profiling; watch for a pet dog whose translated barking uncovers sentiments that would make him right at home on David Duke's front porch. Unlike most of what passes for satire on the left, the Doodie oeuvre is predicated on an understanding that the only way to rob institutionalized hatred of its destructive power is to embrace the truth that it can also be really, really funny. The crowd particularly adores comedienne Michele Simms, as she's simply without equal in playing brain-damaged ninnies who beam with pride every time they get to utter another thundering inanity. What a marvelous retard.

I've already heard it opined that Boy Groove will be remembered as the high point of this year's Fringe, and I'm not inclined to disagree. A complete and utter killer of a musical comedy, this priceless Canadian export chronicles the existential misadventures of a teen-pop quartet that could easily have been incubated in the House of Pearlman. Four supremely gifted actors in headset mikes play the boys, hoofing it up hilariously and applying their own live vocals to some insanely catchy tunes that are all the more commercially viable for being utterly ridiculous. The play really comes into its own, however, whenever an individual performer steps away from one of the impeccably choreographed lineups to momentarily take on the character of a manager, a celebrity girlfriend or any of the other peripheral personalities who figure in the group's rise and fall. Don't do the snobbish thing and write the topic off as superfluous to Orlandoans; just be happy we're uniquely positioned to get all the jokes, and move on with the important business of picking out your favorite group member. Mine's Andrew (Andrew Bursey), "the sensitive one," who looks like a cross between Ryan Adams and any two given Culkins.

"Overrated" is the adjective I'd apply most readily to Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, a morbid little musical whose mostly positive buzz is more easily attributed to its nicely ominous score and off-Broadway-bound PR than to any significant pizzazz in performance. Writer/composer Stephen Dolginoff gets good narrative mileage out of the true story of 1920s thrill killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who murdered a poor young kid just to see if they could. But the dramatic potential of Dolginoff's 16-song cycle gets lost amid some catch-as-catch-can casting. While Mathew Schwartz is passable as Leopold, a bespectacled milquetoast who went along with the murder plot in order to prolong the pair's queer (in all senses) courtship, the pivotal role of the malevolent Loeb has been handed to one Kyle Harden, an inexpressive nonentity who all but sinks the show. Professing himself a Nietzschean superman and then going on to prove he's anything but, the lanky, listless Harden distinguishes himself largely via his valiant attempt to put meat on his slim frame by swallowing every line he can.

Together again for the first time (at least as far as Orlando is concerned), SAK Theater alum Ryan Smith and Discount Comedy Outlet co-founder Brian D. Bradley show us that the state of California has been good to them in 3Man Group, an improv alliance that broadcasts its value in half-hour streams of comic consciousness. The two take obvious delight in talking each other into corners and then hunting for a way out, making their collaboration an invitingly chummy experience, even for audiences too young to remember what fun havoc they used to wreak in their old milieus. It's gratifying to learn that their performing styles are a natural fit, with Smith playing the brainy perpetual-notion machine and Bradley taking a bull-in-china-shop approach that's just plain lacerating: One of his opening-night bits bounced the concept of marshmallow marketing off a plea for white folks to reach out to blacks … and, to a lesser degree, Native Americans. If the Cali gig goes bust, he can always join Doodie Humor.

I Am the F***ing Show! the 22-year-old Sara Jones declares in the title of her one-woman cabaret act. It's easier to give in to the impish vehemence of the statement than it is to figure out what kind of f***ing show she is. As she attacks standards like "Don't Tell Mama" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" with eye-popping gusto, one can't decide if she's paying homage, singing with tongue in cheek or reaching for some third level that's beholden to neither idea. Whatever. Jones has the audience in her hip pocket from very early on, banking goodwill that carries her performance through its rougher patches, like some clumsy between-song banter that's redeemed at the last possible second by a well-aimed glare or faux-tart kiss-off. Her voice, stretched to its limits by a simultaneous stint in Mad Cow Theatre's archy and mehitabel, retains enough moxie to honor her choice of repertoire, making her assertion that she has "the soul of a 45-year-old woman" as believable as it is precocious. I've never felt so old and so young at the same time.

— Steve Schneider

I have a theory that you can take any disaster and make something positive about it by tagging on the words "The Musical!" That's the kernel of Hurricane Me, a high-energy, skillfully done revue by local musician and Fringe regular Tod Kimbro. Set in a coffeehouse, the show has Kimbro and co-stars Christine Morales and Janie Klein reliving the electricity-free days of last summer's hurricane festival. There's just enough plot to motivate the singing, with Kimbro's Charley White the son of a televangelist and Klein's Frances Green his Jewish step-sister and longtime lover. Relations don't improve when the power is out for weeks on end, and the pair is on the verge of some sort of split, which they sing about to a nice backing arrangement.

Hurricane Me shows an evolution in Kimbro's writing, with a pronounced turn toward more complex structures and arrangements and a drift toward the classical Broadway musical style. He writes a mix of long, complicated songs, some of which ("Fast and Easy," "Evil Voice in My Head") stop, drop into relevant dialogue, and then return to the original theme. Others are short, bridging pieces, many of them going to weather girl Morales. All have wonderfully complicated lyrics, and the twin story threads – collapsing romance and collapsing infrastructure – are suitably interwoven. The only departure from reality is the working AC.

Well, the elections are over and Michael Wanzie can return to giving the Fringe what he's best at: catty, campy drag that delivers the goods. His Dragness of God and the Naked Holy Ghost follows a wickedly familiar tack: A mysterious baby is found dead in a convent wastepaper basket, and none of the nuns remembers giving birth. Pools of blood point to sister Agnes (Doug Ba'aser). Perhaps it's divine impregnation – after all, a convent is a holy place, and who can fathom the mysteries of God? That task falls to Tommy Wooten as Dr. Martha Livingston, a chain-smoking physician and investigator. She questions the Mother Superior (Wanzie), a woman with plausible denial and a convent to defend. Meanwhile, a buff and naked Holy Ghost (James Kersey) parades around as often as the plot can bear, bringing us closer to the prospect of on-stage sex as he flitters about.

Everybody on stage is funny, loading humor into action and intonation and proving that spilling stuff can be as effective as a genuine punch line: Wooten gets gales of laughter just by tossing a cigarette butt. Dragness is seriously offensive and seriously hilarious. If you haven't seen these local pillars of rudeness in action, there's no better place to meet them than in a convent.

Pie-Face: The Adventures of Anita Bryant is a show you feel you're supposed to like, but, boy, does it drag (so to speak). Bryant, you'll recall, sought to eradicate homosexuality in the '70s, but her campaign galvanized the gay rights movement, doing the opposite of what she and husband Bob Green had intended. Local favorite David Lee has assembled a detailed documentary on her career, and acts it out in Anita garb. Material is culled from newspapers, TV and even a Playboy magazine interview. Wrapped in a rainbow flag, Lee ends the show declaring his admiration of Mrs. Bryant – she stuck to her guns and he wants to see into her mind. That's a surprise, as he's convincingly painted her as an uninformed zealot, manipulated by a mysterious husband who lurked in the background (yet whose character remains unknown in Lee's script).

There are funny bits scattered through the show, and at times it's touching. The highlight occurs when selected members of the audience stand up and turn their backs on Lee's Anita to the tune of "God Bless America." It's homage to a noteworthy act of civil disobedience, but not enough to save this long-winded lecture. Technical problems with sound and projection don't help, fueling suspicion that the ovation our performance received was for the message and not the presentation.

— Al Pergande

American Obsessions is the brainchild of writer/producer/director Alan Sincic, who shares the stage with Brett Carson, Jamie Cline, Emma A.E. Longster and Kimberly Luffman. Their hour-long show purports to be a "joyride" through the "wilderness we call the American Dream," but it's really just a pastiche of some wordy and rambling stream-of-consciousness monologues Sincic has cobbled together from some of his previous one-man offerings.

Sometimes his writing is clear and purposeful: The two best threads – totally unrelated in tone, but both darkly humorous – are the tale of a man who falls in love with his car and a bit about "catching the ball." But at other times it's difficult to follow the various stories' progressions, especially when the dialogue devolves into literary riffs, the actors uttering words more for their sound than for their meaning.

Since the characters often talk directly to the audience, there's not much of an organic visual story to tell. So Sincic has layered a precisely choreographed series of group movements throughout the performance in order to have the physical energy of the work match the pulsations of his hot-wired prose. But the movement is strangely arbitrary and not related to anything that's being said. The cast performs these physical exercises well, but often at the expense, rather than the service, of the story.

Tim Mooney likes playing himself, but he also can't help impersonating a few other characters while he's at it. At the 2003 Fringe, he created an enjoyable and educational ensemble in his one-man opus, Molière Than Thou. In Karaoke Knights: A One-Man Rock Opera, he invites his audience into his fantasy karaoke bar, where one of several different sides of his personality is always onstage.

The show features 17 songs Mooney has written with composer Ray Lewis; they're satisfyingly delivered by a conjured fraternity of crooners. Some of the songs have a pop-rock feel; others are comically operatic. "Next" has echoes of Tom Lehrer; "Half a World Away" could have been on a Talking Heads album; and the brilliant "Dreaming Tax" sounds like a Tom Waits cover.

Mooney's obsession with trying to find the answer to male/female relationships wears a little thin by the end of his 75-minute show, but he's such a good actor and inventive performer that he's always interesting to watch. And there's no doubt that the man can sing. One doesn't usually go to a karaoke bar to watch others perform, but in Karaoke Knights there are about a half-dozen guys worth listening to.

— Al Krulick

Like a box of chocolates, the Voci modern dance troupe's Fringe sampler, WIRED-less, offers 10 or so concoctions that run the gamut from sickly sweet to exotically rich. That is, after you get through the ineffective opener, "Kite Tails," which is set to a lulling New Age-y composition and has the ensemble moving low to the floor (and below our sight lines). The stellar performances include "Eat Not of This Fruit," a self-choreographed solo by Phillip W. Turner, whose athletic control and artistic grace make for a haunting interpretation of Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit." The seductively freaky "Light Over Shadow" sees Mickey Hart straddling a chair, her back to the audience, allowing the tricks of light and shadow to stun our eyes as her extraordinarily muscled back contorts and shape-shifts. Another fetching favorite is the duet of Dianna Smith and Turner in Ray Charles' "Fever," which is smooth and saucy. The rest of the program is themed around the topic of telephonic communication, but traditional telephones are misused as props. (The cords are awkwardly incorporated into the steps and the phones themselves make a lot of clunking noises on the stage.) In places, the show proves that dancers aren't necessarily actors, yet there are proper Fringe moments in this performing-arts experiment.

I offer my thanks to Dave McConnell for provoking a personal laugh session that had me chuckling at my expense, at his expense and at life at large. Sometimes naughty and sometimes nice, the charismatic wiseass uses a clever device to set his one-hour Interactions show in motion: He appears as Steve, a heavenly employee who's hatching plans to mess with poor Dave's mind. Back in character as himself, McConnell illustrates the success of that agenda – and shows why he hates to interact with people – by telling a long and wonderfully winding story about a recent trip to a Canadian fringe festival (to perform his famed Street Seuss shenanigans). McConnell is a philosophical comedian who can wickedly exaggerate the nuances in the everyday characters he captures: the underachieving "Lysagna" working behind the counter at an airport McDonald's, a player-hating customs agent, Becki the store clerk and so on – all of whom are guilty of wasting his precious time with needless exchanges. Under the direction of Eric Pinder, McConnell's pacing is steady, and he drags around a rectangular box, his only prop, to help punctuate a narrative that reflects his startling and street-smart 20-something sensibilities. McConnell continuously throws out random one-liners, so you have to listen hard to keep up. And all you want is more, more, more.

The script for Obscenity was born from improvisational sessions that drew on the overwhelming talent in the play's ensemble cast (Christian Kelty, John DiDonna, Rus Blackwell, Heather Leonardi, Nikki Darden, Michael Marinaccio, Peni Lotoza, Seth Kubersky and Sarah French). The resulting show is a captivating reflection of that mind-meld. The rumors you might hear are probably true – yes, there is nudity, most prominently Kelty's bare ass, and the opening "trailer" for a sexed-up sci-fi thriller is as raw as it is titillating. But the fine actors propel this adult drama – about a porn star (Kelty) who wants to call it quits to become a chef – beyond its sensational subject matter into the realm of self-realization and its many obstructions. As Kelty's sex-addicted character gets to the root (yes, tee-hee) of his compulsion in order to experience the openness of love, other forces are set into dark motion. This is a provocative, evocative work that doesn't have clear questions and answers; still, that's all the more reason to move past the flashes of hot bodies to feel the press of the hot buttons this fearless crew is trying to push.

— Lindy T. Shepherd

So, how do you really feel about juggling? Does the prospect of an afternoon spent watching this esoteric art give you a rush of anticipation? Or, like most of us, do you say to yourself, "Well, that's nice"?

The fact is, jugglers get no respect. So when you find a juggler who is both technically competent and a little bitter about his standing in the performing arts world, well, then you have a show.

That's the combination that makes Matt Henry's Eye Candy work. Henry is a masterful juggler, has a good rapport with his audience and has devised creative routines. He juggles in the dark, he juggles seven balls at a time, he balances on a tube while juggling sharp garden implements, etc. Kids will love the show.

Adults will too, but more for his self-deprecating comments about having spent a lifetime mastering something so utterly unmarketable. Henry honed his craft after obtaining a degree in linguistics. Then he spent time performing on the streets of New York while living in an unheated loft not zoned for human inhabitation. Such things tend to make you introspective. Henry's running punch line throughout Eye Candy: "Why are talent and technique so divorced from celebrity?" Good question.

Can you sit still for a 90-minute monologue about a guy who almost schtups his guitar teacher's totally hot girlfriend? That's the question you must ask yourself before attending One Frigid Shiny Knight: An Arctic Romance. As raconteur Randy Rutherford himself notes in his one-man saga, you have to be tenacious. He's referring to learning to play guitar; we're referring to listening to him tell the tale.

Knight finds Rutherford a young man working at a bar in Anchorage. One Saturday night, a mysterious troubadour – all tousled blond curls and manicured fingernails – takes the stage. That's Grant, and he plays and sings so beautifully that even drunken fisherman stop brawling and listen. Randy wants to learn to play like that too. So he signs up for the music class Grant teaches at the local college, where he ultimately befriends his mentor. Randy is naive, however, and too smitten by Grant's attention to realize that he's a pompous ass and a womanizer. When Grant abandons his girlfriend – the angelic Cassandra – Randy makes his move.

Rare is the individual who can spin a yarn for an hour and a half and not lose half his audience to the fidgets. Though an engaging, descriptive storyteller armed with a narrative that rarely bogs down, Rutherford still needs an editor. Knight could lose 30 minutes and be much better for it.

— Bob Whitby

The Miss Sammy Show – Episode 1: A Day in the Life of Miss Sammy is a broadly humorous short film that functions largely as an infomercial for Gay Orlando. Written by the omnipresent Michael Wanzie and directed by Jason Piekarski and Wanzie, the only film entry in the Fringe has impeccable production values and showcases a flawless performance by star Sam Singhaus as local icon Miss Sammy. As she careens through her day, colliding along the way with drinks, dolls, dog shit and designer originals (the costumes, by Marcy Singhaus, are fabulous), the high jinks transpire at the Gary Lambert Salon, Wildside Bar and Grill, Parliament House and various other Thornton Park/Winter Park institutions. The storyline that emerges is a kind of gay product-placement Stations of the Cross. Later in the day, Miss Sammy undergoes a religious experience at Mary Queen of the Universe Shrine, so perhaps the comparison is appropriate. Singhaus is not the typical drag queen; like comedic icons Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller and Zasu Pitts, he ranges from antic to wistful, never veering too far into mere parody. We're ready to see what he might do with another character.

Amy Steinberg's brand of empowered female sexuality is hardly original – a heterosexual take on out-and-proud politics, it's been explored in every coffeehouse and fringe performance space extant since the '70s – but it's oddly soothing and good-hearted, never strident. Orlando's Ani DiFranco/Annie Sprinkle amalgam wrote her latest one-woman show, Oh My God, Don't Stop to explore the relationship between sex and spirituality, wondering, "Does orgasm bring you closer to God? Is sex a religious experience?" She morphs rapidly between roles – a Jewish grandmother, her husband and granddaughter, the granddaughter's junior-high teacher, the teacher's evangelist pastor husband and, natch, God Herself. Sometimes left breathless by the quick costume changes, Steinberg nevertheless sympathetically channels each portrayal, from 13-year-old Jamie Hyman's hesitant-yet-ardent curiosity to the Rev. Bobby Fager's struggles against carnal temptation. Standout characters are Zayde Roberta Hyman, ceaseless seeker of new experiences, be they with Presbyterianism or the Pleasure Chest, and God, whom Steinberg imagines as a zonked-out lounge singer. Charming and slightly campy, this is a jocular reminder that nobody's got it figured out, but the Lord wants all of us to keep trying.

— Jessica Bryce Young

How many ways can a New Age-y show involving belly dancing, tribal drumming and Yoruban storytelling go wrong? A lot, one would assume. Yet the presentation of The Extraordinary Fila by Orlando's Shredd Ensemble is far more entertaining than earnest. Drummer/narrator Martin "Greywolf" Murphy keeps the proceedings fast-paced, thanks both to his forceful drumming and his lighthearted delivery of what is, admittedly, a pretty thin parable. Joined by the percussive power (and similarly jovial attitude) of Mfuka Thobos Lubamba and Carlos "C-Los" Hernandez, this highly engaging drumline could hold the show on their own. And perhaps they should. Though Murphy's wife, "Bhrigha" (nee Rebecca Murphy), is a bellydancing instructor, neither she nor fellow dancer Sandra "Selket" Mistretta (who claims 15-plus years of experience as a dancer) shares the comfortable ease of the drummers, which makes their dancing seem a little stiff. That's not to say that the ladies' work is glaringly lacking or bad, but at least at Fila's debut performance, their nervousness was palpable. Hopefully, after they get a couple more shows under their spangled belts, they'll have as much of a good time as the musicians backing them up.

— Jason Ferguson

(The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival continues through Monday, May 30, at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center and the Orlando Repertory Theatre in Loch Haven Park. For tickets and schedule information, visit www.orlandofringe.org or call 1-866-599-9984.)

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