Orlando Fringe Festival 2005

From OrlandoCityBeat.com, May 2005

 

My Fringe foray was Maudlin Dementia Returns to the Stage, a one-woman show designed to showcase the range of its author, Chris Caswell, who plays seven distinct characters. Foremost among them is the aptly named Maudlin, an aging theatre legend who bears an uncanny resemblance to an up-and-coming actress named Valerie. Because of this resemblance and Maudlin’s reputation as the second coming of Norma Desmond, Valerie has found it impossible to establish her own identity in the theatre. So she concocts a plot to kidnap Maudlin, take her place in a production of King Lear and reestablish her as a legitimate theatrical talent, thereby increasing her own chances of stage success.

If that sounds convoluted and absurd, just wait until you actually see the play — which I recommend you do. Although Caswell’s script is a bit underdeveloped, she makes up for it with some of the funniest lines and most engaging performances you’ll find at this year’s festival. She and director Courtney Cunningham accomplish more with an empty stage and a head full of crazy characters than most Fringe shows do with a room full of actors and props.

 

I had an hour or so to kill before my next show, so on the spur of the moment, I decided to take in My Dead Friend. I figured the previous one-woman comedy/drama had been good — why not give another a try? However, I quickly rediscovered a lesson I had learned at past Fringes but seemed to have forgotten: A catchy title and interesting premise rarely translate into a good play — or even one capable of holding an audience’s interest for 35 minutes.

In Friend, Fringe newcomer Aviva Christie relates the true story of the suicide of her friend, Sam, who died after hiring termite exterminators to fumigate her house and then hiding out in her home while the chemicals did their work. Christie was the executor of the estate and, therefore, spent about two years not only coming to grips with Sam’s death but also sorting out the endless paperwork that accompanies such an event.

No one can argue that this unfortunate and bizarre occurrence deeply shaped the actress and may be worthy of, say, a short story. But in its current incarnation, Friend is boring, needlessly tedious and not worth the $6.

 

After My Dead Friend, I desperately needed something to liven me up. And I got it with Welcome to the Family, a no-holds-barred, no-body-parts-left-covered comedy. Presented as a live sitcom — complete with an annoying and unfunny Jessica Huckaby as an audience “motivator” — this is the story of a middle-aged couple and their attempts to murder their son’s fiancee, whom they believe will cause emotional damage to this already highly dysfunctional family.

The plot makes little sense, but that wouldn’t really matter if the jokes were better. Unfortunately, though, most of the lines sound like rejects from the WB. The “sitcom” even includes commercials, where the actors bring to life ads for everything from impotence prevention to flatulence inhibitors.

The best that can be said about Family is that it is fast-paced and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Joan Gay, as the mother, does her best to make a bad script amusing, and sexy Liza Gonzalez does more than anyone else to give the production energy — mostly by being entirely out of her clothes on several occasions. Most of all, the actors are having fun, and that fun is contagious. I just hope the erectile dysfunction commercials aren’t.

 

Oh My God Don’t Stop is everything that Welcome to the Family isn’t. While Family features nine actors struggling to bring to life nine characters, Amy Steinberg accomplishes a similar task rather effortlessly all by herself, while at the same time being funny and intelligent. And also like Family, Steinberg’s work features humorous skits about sex, but it presents them in a way that makes you question society’s judgments about sexuality, morality and religion.

Steinberg’s commentaries take the form of a series of short, loosely connected skits. There is the young girl praying to God to let her bat mitzvah go well, while in the next breath asking the Almighty to give her more orgasms. There is the prim and proper sex ed teacher who slowly discovers she is a lesbian. And, best of all, there is God herself, a purple-haired bar singer who belts out — in a surprisingly strong voice — the divine advice for curing overpopulation: “If You’re Not Already Gay, Turn Gay.” The Lord is accompanied on rock and roll guitar by, you guessed it, the Son of God (Justin Beckler) – “hit it, Jesus!”

Although Steinberg and director Tommy Wooten could have developed the more bitingly satirical skits a bit more and ditched a couple of the less funny ones, Don’t Stop is still one of the most entertaining shows of Fringe 2005. And while Steinberg’s suggestion that all humans are bisexual may be a bit overstated, her religious observations are spot on.

 

Working Hard, the Bay Street Irregulars’ parody of the porn industry, is like an adult film without the sex — pointless, embarrassing and unfunny. Written (badly) and directed by Larry Stallings, this is the story of two lesbians, Roma (Marcie Schwalm) and Dee Ann (Laura Rhodes). Roma, an adult-film writer, and Dee Ann, a former porn star, live a quiet suburban life and keep their occupation secret from the neighbors — secret, that is, until they are confronted by two very different visitors.

Nate (Glen Howard) is a porn star wanna-be who threatens to divulge the naughty goings-on to the neighborhood unless he gets a starring role in Roma’s next film, while Reverend Hollis (Michael Scholl) is a conservative preacher who wants to buy the house next door. Throw into the mix an affair between porn director Sammy Swing (John Minbiole) and Dee Ann, and you’d think you’d have enough to make this whole mess interesting, but think again.

Working Hard is filled with enough penis puns, euphemisms, potty jokes and double entendres to literally make you cringe in discomfort. While the audience is kind at first and throws out some chuckles, by the time we’re 30 minutes deep into this pile of porn, you can see the pain on their faces. Save your $9 and take a trip to Fairvilla.

 

In many ways, I saved the best for last at this year’s festival. So many productions at the Fringe feature the disclaimer “mature themes.” Yet those plays are usually the least mature and acquire that label simply for their inclusion of sex jokes, four-letters words and brief nudity. But for a truly mature show, you can’t do much better than Kama Sutra.

Sue Warhurst and Peter McGarry of England’s Eyewitness Theatre return to the Fringe after a year off. And with McGarry’s smart script and the Orange venue’s great lighting and acoustics, the couple can do little wrong in this comedy/drama about middle-age sex. Although the play loses energy toward the end, it is a funny and even slightly touching portrait of two 50-somethings rediscovering not just their sex lives but their personal “mountain” that they must climb to achieve enlightenment.

Copyright 2005 © Tribune Publishing