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Best of the Fest: Our top Orlando Fringe shows of 2017

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Caws and Effect

You'd have to be birdbrained to miss this mesmerizing show

For those of us old enough to remember the days before every classroom had a TV, the overhead transparency projector was the lowliest of media presentation devices, way less cool than the 16-millimeter projector and even lowlier than the filmstrip. Well, now I apologize for anything bad I've thought about overhead projectors in the past, because Mind of a Snail Puppet Co.'s Chloe Ziner and Jessica Gabriel have opened my eyes to their potential with this winning fable, which unfolds through ingenious live animation.

Dressed as stylized ravens and squawking instead of speaking, the Vancouver duo dangle hand-painted celluloids, shadow puppets and swirling bowls of water over their pair of projectors with amazing precision, casting moving images that look like they were plucked out of a half-remembered storybook from your childhood. The word balloon script, which follows a pair of wisecracking crows who inadvertently alter the natural world, is packed with dad-joke animal puns, but the synchronization of the visuals with the original pre-recorded acid jazz soundtrack would be mesmerizing even if you didn't read a word.

Whether you are searching for a family-friendly production that will keep your kids entranced, or seeking the ultimate psychedelic aid (shame there are no 4:20 performances), you'd have to be birdbrained not to catch Caws & Effect. (Silver Venue through May 28)

O-Town: Voices From Orlando

A show about the Pulse attack and our community's response to it, simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful

Forty-nine people were murdered at Pulse Nightclub last June 12, but the number of lives affected by that tragedy number in the thousands and millions. A survivor, an artist, a cop's wife, a museum curator, a high-school student and a half-dozen others impacted by Pulse have all shared their stories in their own words through O-Town, an anthology of monologues derived from interviews conducted largely by creator-director David Lee in the wake of last summer's shooting.

With Lee, one of Orlando's most honored theater artists, helming an all-star cast of local favorites – Daniel Cooksley, Rebecca Fisher, Jenn Gannon, Henry Gibson, Gabriella Juliet and Matthew Rush – it's little surprise that I ended this emotionally charged show with a serious case of, um, allergies. But what's remarkable is how restrained most of it is; instead of rending their clothes with every word (which would be understandable, considering the subject matter), the cast holds their passions in check behind moistened eyes, allowing the audience enough breathing room to really absorb their words before the full-throated, three-hanky ending.

O-Town is not so much about the Pulse attack itself but our community's response to it, and is therefore simultaneously the most heartbreaking and most hopeful show I hope to see at this (or any) Fringe. It's a mandatory addition to my Fringe "don't miss" list, but if you must miss it this time around, O-Town will be reprised with additional material at Shakes on June 11 as a benefit for the onePulse foundation. (Brown Venue through May 28)

There Ain't No More: The Death of a Folk Singer

A poetic celebration of America's original art form

Writer-performer Willi Carlisle is a huge, hulking man in a backwoods plaid-and-overalls ensemble, and when he begins his show by applying a grotesque old-age mask as he starts rambling in a gravelly Arkansas accent, you may be forgiven for fearing you've walked into a chainsaw massacre movie. But at the Fringe, first impressions can be deceptive, and after a few moments you'll discover that There Ain't No More is one of the miracles of this year's Festival, a poetic celebration of America's original art form that is simultaneously ancient and avant-garde. 

In this one-man operetta directed by Joseph Fletcher, Carlisle relives the late 20th century, from post-WWII to the Vietnam era, through the eyes of a reclusive rural raconteur. He weaves authentic American music, including joyful square dances and jarring murder ballads, into an epic ode to a vanishing touchstone of our culture, while simultaneously making a solid argument that folk songs are our best historical document of underclass concerns. 

Carlisle has a gifted touch with the fiddle and accordion alike, and his juggling banjo tricks are a hootenanny and a half. But it's his rapturously lyrical script, stuffed with evocative homespun imagery that you could spend a lifetime unpacking, that makes this show the most pleasant surprise of my Fringe so far. Even if you formerly felt that folk music is "boring," as Carlisle's character claims, There Ain't No More will make you a true believer. (Purple Venue through May 28)

Wanzie With a Z

Unsparingly introspective autobiography showcases a vulnerable side of the local impresario

Michael Wanzie is famous as the king of Orlando's gay-friendly theater scene, having established the Parliament House as a legitimate theatrical venue and selling more Fringe tickets than any producer in the Festival's history. But if you walk into Wanzie With a Z expecting a lighthearted revue or one of his popular parodies, like The Lion Queen, brace yourself, because this unsparingly introspective autobiography showcases a vulnerable side of Wanzie that few of his fans have seen.

Wanzie narrates his own life story with this assistance of his younger selves, Mikey (Josh Lefkowitz) and Mike (Joshua S. Roth), as he travels from 1950s suburban Connecticut to the 1964 New York World's Fair to 1970s Walt Disney World. There's some delicious dishing about Wanzie's early career as a Jungle Cruise skipper and plenty of name-dropping about Orlando theater history, which may not connect with uninitiated viewers. But the meat of the show, a devastating account of his lover's death from AIDS, will make you bawl even if you've never heard of Wanzie before.

Director Kenny Howard makes full use of Doug White's multilevel set, and the banter between Wanzie's bickering selves keeps the anecdotes moving along at a healthy pace. The play almost stumbles into schmaltz at the 11th hour with an unnecessary final song, but ultimately succeeds in striking enough emotional chords to make it a strong early contender for the best of this year's festival. (Orange Venue through May 28)

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