2023 Fringe Festival: Orlando Sentinel’s Best of the Fest

This is the final weekend of the Orlando Fringe Festival and as always the Sentinel’s reviewers have chosen our best of the fest. We’ll get to those in just a moment.

First off, a reminder that per tradition, any show that has appeared on the best of the fest list in past festivals is disqualified — and there are five productions that fall into that category this year. They are:

  • “Ain’t Done Bad” (Renaissance Theatre, 60 minutes): A gay-themed coming-of-age story told with style and verve through dance.

  • “Bugged Lady” (Leu Gardens, 55 minutes): A wily professor shows her class the bugs she studies — and talks of the human pests she has encountered in this pro-woman dark comedy.

  • “Generic Male: Just What We Need, Another Show about Men” (Orange venue, 60 minutes): Two multitalented men take on the patriarchy in a mesmerizing show of physical feats and emotional storytelling.

  • “I Lost on Jeopardy!” (Purple venue at 54 W. Church St., 60 minutes): This energetic and funny tale tells of a real-life experience on the TV game show but finds deeper insight about how we live our lives.

  • “Nashville Hurricane” (Silver venue, 60 minutes): Chase Padgett’s story of a country-music legend is enhanced by his funny script, sharp characters and excellent guitar playing.

If you missed those in previous festivals, don’t let them slip by this year. Also, there is a special encore presentation of Jon Paterson’s “How I Met My Mother” (Pink venue, 60 minutes) at noon on Memorial Day.

I highly recommend this show; in fact, I recommend it so much, that I will remind you of what I wrote about this “humorous, heartfelt and moving” production at its Winter Mini-Fest debut in January:

“No relation to the similarly named TV sitcom, Paterson’s personal and inventively engrossing piece details his relationship with his mom, from teen rebel to her primary caregiver at the end of her life.

“Paterson skillfully transitions between his young self and more mature adult, and he has an eye for the details of living in the 1980s — watching “Dallas,” playing Atari.

“He beautifully tells the story’s difficult details without self-pity, and his tale is all the more poignant for that. Directed by Vanessa Quesnelle, “How I Met My Mother” is so well-constructed that laughing in one moment and reaching for a tissue in the next feels completely natural. … this is the type of Fringe show a critic hopes for.”

Don’t miss that one, and now that we’re up to speed, here are the new shows — listed alphabetically — chosen best of the fest by reviewers Dewayne Bevil, Patrick Connolly, Lania Berger and myself.

“Absolute Magic” (Savoy, 60 minutes) “Decisions determine our destiny,” intones magician Keith Brown dramatically at one point. His show more than lives up to its title with more than its fair share of jaw-dropping tricks.

But what elevates “Absolute Magic” is how Brown serves as an ambassador for the genre. He speaks simply but sincerely about how magic is the great equalizer, a unifier for humans of all races, economic classes and nationalities.

He describes the childlike wonder that envelops us when we see something that seems unbelievable — and then he proceeds to demonstrate as joy spreads over our faces at his latest magical feat. Amazing.

— Matthew J. Palm

“Dick Sweat: Private Investigator” (Blue venue, 60 minutes): A theater critic has been murdered in this comic mystery presented with charm and flair. Written by T.J. Washburn, who co-directed with Brandon Roberts, “Dick Sweat” features plenty of laughs and a particularly bravura sequence from Tyler Lawson as a mime and Anna LeFlore as his poetic “translator.”

Washburn takes a lot of familiar Fringe tropes — the film noir style, the double-entendre puns, the character archetypes — but lifts them with fine comic acting, a clever script and a satisfying conclusion. While the mystery builds through witness interrogations, he lets the comedy momentum slip a bit. But this is a diverting romp.

— Matthew J. Palm

“Easy as Pie (A James & Jamesy Comedy)” (Silver venue, 60 minutes): Fringe veterans James & Jamesy dress as clowns and showcase their unique brand of comedy, toying with the idea of “a pie reaching for the height of its potential.” The duo has a way of breaking the fourth wall and keeping the audience engaged the entire hour they’re on stage.

Delve into a clown’s mind (literally) to face failure and past experiences that come back to haunt. Will James find strength in vulnerability and complete the pie/face fusion? See this spectacular show to find out.

— Patrick Connolly

“Every Good Story Ends With One” (Savoy, 60 minutes): Storyteller extraordinaire Martin Dockery spins a tale centered on Adelaide, Australia’s “Garden of Unearthly Delights,” and his comic story of a mystery romance proves absolutely delightful.

The multiple-award winner opens his story with an anecdote that lets us know he apparently can be socially awkward, but that’s never evident onstage. Dockery transports listeners to a bug-ridden hostel, a hostile theater. This frolic doesn’t dive as deep into the human psyche as Dockery is prone to do, but he still raises ideas about hope and faith — or, since he repeatedly insists, to great effect, that he “is not religious,” ideas about the value of kindness.

The crux of his story rests on another Fringe performer telling him “You don’t know anything about storytelling.” Experiencing this romp would unquestionably change her mind.

— Matthew J. Palm

“Fruit Flies Like a Circus Peanut” (Orange venue, 60 minutes): Musicians Hilary Abigana, C. Neil Parsons and Greg Jukes are back and displaying their customary joie de vivre as they expand the boundaries of classical music with Abigana on flute, Parsons on trombone and Jukes on percussion and accordion. They can make a Gershwin piano prelude sound jazzy and joyous without a piano in sight, though a Radiohead trombone composition seemed morose.

In keeping with the circus theme, there’s knife juggling (by Jukes, whose face is an emotional roller coaster in itself), and aerial silks performance by Abigana and Parsons. This trio’s zest for what they do is so powerful that even if a midair trombone solo failed to come off, it just makes the audience root for them even more.

— Matthew J. Palm

“Grabbing the Hammer Lane: A Trucker Narrative” (Brown venue, 60 minutes): A father, a son and a great divide born of hurt is at the heart of this poignant drama. Playwright David M. Proctor plays both roles, telling essentially two views of the same story: Long-distance trucker Matt is speaking with a therapist after a falling out with his father. (The titular “Hammer Lane” is a trucking reference, but you don’t need to know anything about the industry to be pulled into the show.)

It’s a fascinating portrait of family dynamics, the hurt caused by words and the disappointment caused by unfulfilled expectations. As directed by Proctor and Marlon Burnley, though, each emotional beat plays with a naturalness in the acting that grounds this tale of two men in need of redemption in urgent reality.

— Matthew J. Palm

“Multitudes” (Yellow venue, 60 minutes): Timothy Williams is terrifying. In his riveting “Multitudes,” he peers into humanity’s psyche and discovers a horror show magnified by today’s social media life. Williams examines what leads seemingly normal people into a cult mentality, whether Hitler’s Germany or Heaven’s Gate. And, what makes so many of us fascinated with such mass movements?

In between spinning his chilling thoughts, he tells the story of Mary, a wannabe actress who is recruited to join a new truthful-acting program.

It’s a smart show, and one of the smartest ideas in Williams’ writing can’t be revealed without ruining a wonderful, dreadful surprise. For those brave enough to face this provocatively cerebral hour, what a trip it is.

— Matthew J. Palm

“My Grandmother’s Eyepatch” (Purple venue at 54 W. Church St., 60 minutes): Hmmm, what’s a word that means funny and yet awkward? In the spirit of Fringe, I’ll stick to one that’s made up: Fawkward. That describes Julia VanderVeen, the sole actor in “My Grandmother’s Eyepatch.” She’s so very fawkward in the best way.

“Eyepatch” is set at a memorial service for VanderVeen’s grandmother, audience members are mourners, and VanderVeen (an actress playing an actress) stammers her way into turning the spotlight onto her, whether doing a “Macbeth” scene or questionable card tricks. Her physical comedy is strong, downright Carol Burnett-esque at times. Some bits could be tightened, but maybe that would throw off her fawkward timing.

Warnings: Audience participation, a paranormal moment, a cringe-worthy physical skill, tender ending. But what the fawk. Check it out.

— Dewayne Bevil

“The Old Man and the Old Moon” (Teal at 54 W. Church St., 75 minutes): This musical charms with a vibe that combines Broadway’s “Once” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” with Disney-Pixar’s “Finding Nemo.” A young cast — several of whom worked on a high school production of the same show — tells the story of why the moon waxes and wanes as a whimsical Old World tale of adventure.

A ladder, chairs, a bucket: The props are rudimentary, which adds to the charm. The performers provide their own musical accompaniment, which adds to the impressiveness. Director Nicholas Wainwright plays to his young actors’ strengths — Aryan Cheruvattah’s Old Man and Dominic Pineda in multiple roles are particularly engaging.

— Matthew J. Palm

“1nce Upon a Lie — Paul Strickland” (Gold venue, 60 minutes): Paul Strickland is back with another round of folk tales about places that don’t exist but are everywhere and things that never happened but happen all the time. He describes his stories perfectly, so I’ll use his words: “They aren’t factual,” he explains of the comically insightful tall tales. “But they are true.”

This year, Strickland is focused on change — and how we humans can fear it or embrace it. (In a smartly meta moment, he admits he changed his mind about a show element.) As always, Strickland’s music is on point, the stories charm and Erika Kate MacDonald’s steady direction keeps the pace just right.

— Matthew J. Palm

“VarieTease: XX” (The Abbey, 60 minutes): Blue Star’s troupe is all about forward motion: Performers seem to be marching, trains rush by, poetry is read about resilience. It’s a top-notch dance experience, marked with athleticism — a multi-performer back roll, a moving pyramid — and with grace.

One number evokes Broadway’s Fosse, another the Roaring ’20s. The Abbey space is used well, with the aisles full of vitality that complements the lovely synchronicity on the stage.

The movement to an overtly political segment brings the forward motion to a halt, a clear reference to Florida’s recent anti-LGBTQ legislation. But with such beautiful lighting, costumes and brilliant theatricality, how could things not end on a hopeful note?

“Our journey continues,” reads narrator Joyce Arbucias, “with our faces to the light.”

— Matthew J. Palm

“Wit & Wrath: The Life & Times of Dorothy Parker” (Blue venue, 60 minutes): Claudia Baumgarten plays her titular real-life character, and her script takes advantage of the brilliant literary canon created by Parker’s career that began when she joined the editorial staff of Vogue magazine in 1916 and made her the voice of the flapper era. Carefully selected and brilliantly woven together, Parker’s writings are used to tell the story of her fascinating life.

Baumgarten’s one-woman show is well-crafted, deeply researched and performed with the panache suitable for one of the quickest wits ever published. Parker’s poetry, reviews, and social commentary are exquisitely quotable and exhibit why witty rhetorical devices such as sarcasm, satire and euphemism — delivered with a martini in her gloved hand, and perfect vintage dress and hat — are just as funny today as they were 100 years ago.

— Lania Berger

“Your Bard” (Red venue, 60 minutes): Nicholas Collett is Will Shakespeare in this first-person show and portrays the writer with authenticity and depth. lf.

A well-researched and cleverly-crafted show, “Your Bard” gives William Shakespeare the opportunity to defend the fact that he is, indeed, the writer of the vast canon of literary works attributed to him.

Fans will appreciate the clever script with its quotations and mentions of Shakespeare’s works, as well as historical facts that Collett reacts to exquisitely. Non-Shakespeare fans will appreciate how easy it is to follow along and learn about a man who paved the literary road for us over 400 years ago.

— Lania Berger

“Your Mom’s in My Top 8” (The Abbey, 60 minutes): Here’s a rocking concert featuring hits from the days of crafting CD mixtapes.

Find references to Ask Jeeves, dial-up internet and Windows Media Player, which at one point the bass player remarks are “lazy and contrived ways of telling us what time period it is.” These kinds of comedic “break the fourth wall” moments are interspersed throughout the show, but the real highlight is powerful vocals and talented musicianship showcasing faithful, energetic covers.

This show appeals to anyone who has fond memories of growing up jamming to the likes of Green Day, Blink-182, Avril Lavigne, Paramore and My Chemical Romance.

— Patrick Connolly

Orlando Fringe Festival

  • Where: Shows at Loch Haven Park are in color-coded venues; off-campus locations are identified by name.

  • When: Through May 29

  • Cost: $10 button required for ticketed shows, then individual performance tickets are no more than $15.

  • Schedule, tickets and more info: OrlandoFringe.org

  • More than 100 reviews: OrlandoSentinel.com/fringe

Follow me at facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com.