It’s been two days since the end of the 25th annual Orlando Fringe, and Fringe Festival fanatics are still drying out – literally and metaphorically. The rain deities that had provided mostly delightful weather throughout the festival turned angry during the closing ceremonies, but a dedicated core huddled around the outdoor stage Monday with their final Fringe beers to hear the 2016 Critics Choice Awards, which I helped select along with the Orlando Sentinel’s Matt Palm and critic emeritus Elizabeth Maupin.
With more than 130 ticketed shows in this year’s Fringe, it was impossible for all of us to see every production (I hit the wall after seeing 75 individual shows, not counting repeats), but we each saw all of the top contenders and found quick consensus on the final awards. While I wasn’t personally able to publish reviews of all the winners, I proudly stand behind this list as representing the best of the 2016 Orlando Fringe:
Best show Edgar Allan (The Coldharts, Brooklyn, NY): This darkly funny fantasia about pubescent Poe was anchored by a standout performance (see below) and represented the “Fringe” ethos at its best.
Best original script Inescapable (RibbitRePublic, Mississauga, ON): I’m still scratching my head over Martin Dockery’s rapid-fire mindbender, a taut thriller that eats its own tail.
Best play (comedy) The Animatronicans (MoLaughs Comedy, Orlando): It may not play in Peoria, but seeing this with a theme park-loving hometown audience was the most sidesplitting hour I’ve enjoyed since the Iger era.
Best play (drama) Thomas Jefferson: My Master, My Slave, My Friend (JD Sutton, Orlando): A fascinating historical subject, solid script and direction by JD Sutton and Laurel Clark, and award-winning acting (see below) made this a real-life Hall of Presidents no one slept through.
Best play (musical) Simpleton: The Legend of President Trump (Acting Passionate Presents, Lakeland): 2016 was the year of Lin-Manuel Miranda in Orlando as it is on Broadway; Thom Mesrobian’s Hamilton spoof was almost as entertaining and even more topical than the real thing, without the outrageous ticket prices and multi-month wait. Audiences agreed, making this the top-selling show of the entire Festival.
Best solo show (drama) Rocket Man and Kaleidoscope: By Ray Bradbury (Ant Farm and Kangagirl Productions, Orlando): David Lee, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award for his long history as a Fringe performer, once again cemented his reputation as Orlando’s best actor with a sci-fi spoken word tour de force enhanced by spectacular celestial projections.
Best solo show (comedy) Stewart Huff: Sense Ain’t Common (Stewart Huff, Winterville, GA): Huff’s latest redneck rant was the first Fringe show I saw, at a preview months before the festival, and no other solo show was funnier than his hysterical litany of how horribly history treats unorthodox thinkers.
Best solo show (musical) From Broadway to Obscurity (M-! Productions/Eric Gutman, Huntington Woods, MI): In a festival full of fine singers, Gutman was the best male belter by a mile, and his journey from the Midwest to the Great White Way and back was as moving as it was musical.
Best physical theater Trick Boxing: Swingin’ in the Ring (Sossy Mechanics, Minneapolis, MN): Equal parts Depression-era morality tale, low-tech puppet show and ebullient swing-dance demonstration, this sweet, spirited tale was one of the hidden gems of the festival.
Best dance show VarieTease: Carnivale (BlueLaLa Entertainment, Orlando): In 2007, Blue blew my mind with her first Fringe foray; this year’s remounting touched my heart. It set a new standard for spectacle that future Fringe shows will be hard-pressed to top.
Best female performance Katie Hartman (Edgar Allan): Hartman’s cross-gender interpretation of the ukulele-plucking poet was creepy yet compellingly charismatic, inspiring compassion even in the depths of his criminality.
Best male performance Jim Braswell (Thomas Jefferson): With the stoop of his shoulders, the flickering of his eyes and the sadness in his voice, Braswell’s heartbreaking embodiment of Jefferson’s slave Jupiter transported the play from dusty history to the powerfully immediate present-day.
Best ensemble performance 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche (3hreeE Theatre Company, Orlando): It’s impossible to single out any of the ladies in director Mike Carr’s post-apocalyptic romp, because the splendid cast’s comic timing was as impeccably, organically synchronized as any I’ve seen.
Technical achievement award Space (Hubris Theatre Company): Many Fringe shows have stepped up their production values, but none approached the polish of Evan Miga’s screen-ready props and the slick videos Walter Lowe & Blackburst Entertainment created for Corey Volence’s sci-fi drama.
All told, the 2016 Orlando Fringe sold more than 50,000 tickets (up from 42,000 in 2015) and returned more than $400,000 in ticket sales to performers (up from $374,000 in 2015), making the 25th Fringe festival the most successful yet on paper. It was also satisfying personally to see how far Orlando has come in the years I’ve been attending the festival, especially with past Festival producers like Brook Hanemann and Matt Wohl retuning for the silver celebration.
As I look forward to Fringe 26, I’ll continue to wish for some of the same things I’ve suggested after past festivals: a more useful festival schedule app (this year’s was a small step forward); more consistent communication and coordination between Fringe central and the off-campus BYOV venues (some of which were spread too far this year to efficiently bounce between); more affordable and healthier food around the beer tent. But for the most part, the 25th Fringe left little to bitch about. Fringe Year Round monthly performances will be back, and the road to Fringe 2017 will begin before we know it. Until then, Orlando’s arts community could use a collective nap.