By the time you read this, this year's Orlando Fringe will be rounding the final turn, heading into its final weekend and award-oriented wrap-up. If you're still going strong and need a bit of ticket-buying inspiration, check out four of our critics' favorite shows of the year below. Space prevented us from running all of their top picks in print, but besides the four printed here, that list includes: 13 Dead Dreams of Eugene, El Wiz, Enter Pursued by a Whale, Fallen From the Toybox, Hello, Mo-to-the-oncle and Nashville Hurricane. To peruse all of our many reviews, visit orlandoweekly.com/fringe2018.
In the Dark is bloody brilliant
In the beginning, there was darkness over the face of the Silver Venue. Quite a bit of darkness, actually. After a while, someone (not God, but maybe one of his minions) said, "Ready!" and there was light, and a whoosh. And it was, as the English say, bloody brilliant.
U.K. physical comedy duo James & Jamesy – aka Aaron Malkin and Alastair Knowles – have brought their award-winning British buffoonery back to Orlando with In the Dark, but this time they've left their tea-sipping antics behind for something more abstract and ineffable. Wearing white faces and gray suits, with the glowing lampshades attached to their heads providing the only illumination, the perplexed pair encounter each other in a void on the cusp of Creation. Through an elliptical series of absurd audience-participation interactions, they attempt to puzzle out the existential answers to Who? When? Where? Why? and WTF?
In the Dark is like a lost Samuel Beckett classic co-written with Douglas Adams and performed by a couple of Cirque du Soleil clowns. (If you know my tastes, you know that's a high compliment.) Sweet and surreal at the same time, it's less literal than their previous shows but more literary, and in my opinion even more entertaining. – SK
(Silver Venue, 7 p.m. Thursday, May 24; 5:15 p.m. Friday, May 25; 3:45 p.m. Sunday, May 27)
Title and Deed stuns with existential intensity
David Lee is no stranger to Fringe success. He won the Critic's Choice award for best male performance in 2015, a Fringe Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 and a Patrons Pick prize back in 2011 for Thom Pain (based on nothing). So he's returning to Fringe with perhaps the highest expectations of any performer not named Chase Padgett. Lee does not disappoint.
This year Lee is again embracing the existential work of New York playwright Will Eno, who also authored Thom Pain, a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in drama. Title and Deed, which made its Off-Broadway debut in 2012, focuses on an oddly haunted man who describes himself as a foreigner, a newcomer to our country (or perhaps our plane of existence), a "celebrant" and a "homesick orphan fuck." Not wholly familiar with our language, this stranger strings words together like bedraggled tinsel garlands on Samuel Beckett's Christmas tree. The result is a prose that's not easily understood but always appreciated.
It's tough to imagine any Orlando performer more suited to the monologue than Lee, whose nearly unbearable intensity – almost too much to bear for him as well as us – will again make him a contender for a Fringe award. Though the material demands patience, Lee (who also directs) brings it fully alive as if he were inventing the sometimes absurdist, sometimes stream-of-consciousness script on the spot.
"Don't walk out on me," Lee asks the audience in one of the play's many meta-theatrical moments. "Don't hate me."
Don't worry, David. There's no chance of that. – CM
(Yellow Venue, 5:15 p.m. Thursday, May 24; 9 p.m. Friday, May 25; 5:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26; 11:30 a.m. Sunday, May 27)
An Excruciatingly Ordinary Toy Theater Show is, in fact, extraordinary
Pittsburgh puppeteer Zach Dorn is nervous to the point of neurosis about his Orlando Fringe appearance. But even if he gets off to an awkward start by flossing popcorn from his teeth for an opener, stick with him and you'll be rewarded with one of the most wonderfully whacked-out experiences of this year's festival.
In An Excruciatingly Ordinary Toy Theater Show Dorn transforms anecdotes from his everyday life into pint-sized performances, which play out on flipbooks and miniature stages he's made out of cardboard; the results resemble a pop-up storybook for clinically insane children. Dorn's surreal skits – which are projected on the theater's upstage wall behind him – involve eating burritos in a strip-club parking lot, feeding sauerkraut to Chloe Sevigny, and his love/hate relationship with YouTube; the briefest, most inexplicable bit is simply a wind-up turtle gyrating to Olivia Newton-John.
Even if he appears at first to be a hot mess, Dorn's precision in livestreaming his ingenious dioramas demonstrates a remarkable dedication to his craft. In his finale, Dorn describes an obscure backstage video of Stevie Nicks as "a moment we weren't meant to see, and probably don't deserve." The same could be said about his exquisite, extraordinary show. – SK
(Black Venue, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 23; 6 p.m. Friday, May 25; 3 p.m. Saturday, May 26; 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 27)
Kevin, King of Egypt is obsessively-compulsively watchable
Mr. Kevin Haggerty (Rob Gee) is an articulate, charismatic man surrounded by idiots who only want to pump him full of medication, so that pharmaceutical companies can get rich and Kevin can be as depressed as everyone around him. It would be impossible not to be outraged by the injustice of his plight, except for one thing: Kevin is a delusional mental patient who insists he's the reincarnation of Ramses II, and persists in escaping from involuntary hospitalization. While on the lam, Kevin detours from his ascension to the Egyptian throne in order to rescue – or possibly kidnap – a lost little girl, and finds a piece of himself in the process.
Kevin, King of Egypt is the final chapter in a mental health-themed trilogy from psychiatric nurse-turned-slam poet Rob Gee, who previously performed Fruitcake and last year's Forget Me Not at Orlando Fringe to great acclaim. Here, Gee (under the briskly paced direction of Tara Garther) plays the title character, plus a 7-Eleven security guard, an alcoholic widower and several others, subtly shifting his voice and posture with each persona in this obsessively-compulsively watchable one-man performance.
This show forgoes Forget Me Not's Seussian rhyme schemes, instead slipping almost imperceptibly between prose and free verse, and it trades the whodunit plotting for an intimate family drama. But Kevin is still crammed with Gee's trademark mixture of killer wit and medical commentary ("Half the patients think they're Jesus, but the doctors all think they're God") wrapped around his inimitable off-kilter physicality, which is amped up to a manic 11 for this role. Rob Gee might not really be the king of Egypt, but he continues to reign over the performance poetry realm at Orlando Fringe. – SK
(Yellow Venue, 10:45 p.m. Thursday, May 24; 7:15 p.m. Friday, May 25; 1:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26; 9 p.m. Sunday, May 27)