Like topiaries turning up around Epcot, signs of spring have sprung all over Orlando's theater scene. Central Florida's thespians are emerging from their post-holiday hibernations (most common area ursine: Countrybearicus animatronica) which can only mean one thing: The next Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival is less than two months away.
I openly admit to being anything but objective in my enthusiasm for the Orlando Fringe. I've been a paying patron since the late 1990s, when an un-air-conditioned, abandoned storefront was considered an ideal venue, so long as the rats didn't outnumber the audience. I followed the Fest to its comfortable current digs in Loch Haven Parkand have produced a half-dozen shows there since 2004. Heck, I even met my wife there, back when she was associate producer of the festival. (Full disclosure: She's returning this season to supervise Kids Fringe.)
So while it's no shocker to suggest I'm predisposed to be a Fringe booster, even I've been a little surprised by how smooth the transition has been from longtime Fringe producer Beth Marshall to new producer Michael Marinaccio. Despite some doom-and-gloom predictions last summer, the surest sign of Fringe's stability was the success of last month's Fab Fringe Fundraiser. The festival's traditional spring fundraising kickoff was upgraded with an impressive new venue (Hard Rock Live at Universal's CityWalk) and national star power in the form of Fringe veterans Toxic Audio. The Toxic troupe, which started locally before taking off for Las Vegas fortune and Off-Broadway glory, triumphantly took the stage alongside emerging cult heroes the Mud Flappers and Dog Powered Robot for a hallucinatory hoedown that had the audience howling.
I volunteered technical assistance in projecting video trailers of upcoming Fringe shows on the Hard Rock's massive movie screens, and came away impressed by the professional package that Marinaccio and Fringe general manager George Wallace put together for the event. Evidently it paid off, as the reported proceeds exceeded the festival's predictions (and income from any past Fab Fringe) by thousands of dollars.
In another clever change, Fringe is keeping the momentum moving year-round with a monthly “Fringe Happy Hour” show on the first Friday evening of each month at their offices in the Amelia Street Theatre Garage. A couple of months ago I caught Wayburn Sassy's erstwhile wife Winifred; next week's can't-miss guest star will be singer Janine Klein, performing the songs of Adele in her inimitable “gay bar star” idiom.
But the best sign I've seen of Fringe's imminent flowering was last week's theatrical triple feature from Chase Padgett at Orlando Shakes' Mandell Theater. Long a top performer in local theme parks, Padgett exploded on the Fringe scene in 2010 with 6 Guitars, a virtuoso solo showcase for his characterization and songwriting talents. Last year he followed up with Superman Drinks, which shared the virtues of its predecessor and added a dose of depth and intimacy.
Padgett probably didn't need single-night revivals of his popular past productions to build buzz for Nashville Hurricane, his 2012 Fringe offering. So I was more excited for the March 21 premiere of The Bro Show , a brand-new hour of sketch comedy and music that may never be seen again in Orlando (at least in its current form). Conceived with his real-life younger brother Ross, the evening was inspired by the summer they spent on the road together touring Chase's shows across the country. The show alternated surreal stream-of-consciousness skits (cheese-versus-banana racing; one-upping hobos in recall of Monty Python's “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch) with semi-improvised scenes of the brothers building the show between bong hits. Most of the humor comes from the supposed sibling rivalry between hyper-talented Chase and Ross, a clown college dropout and accomplished white-boy rapper who resembles the love child of Jason Mewes and Michael Richards.
I have it on good authority that a script existed at least a week pre-performance, although there was a definite we-wrote-this-five-minutes-ago vibe. Afterward, Chase admitted that this “weird-ass” experiment still needs some workshopping on its way to the Calgary Fringe in August. But it's a big improvement over their winter, when the brothers' home was repeatedly robbed. (Asked if a recent Orlando Sentinel report on their plight prompted donations, Chase scoffed, “Nah, quite the opposite.”)
I'm anticipating Padgett's May return, along with the rest of the Fringe. Until then, I'll explore the Fest's handsome new website (orlandofringe.org), using the TV Guide-style grid to plan my schedule. Between planned rail construction and school schedule shifts, 2012 may be the final spring Fringe; I plan on savoring it.