Greetings and salutations from the cryogenic freezing chamber formerly known as Central Florida! It may sound churlish to complain about Orlando's chilly temperatures when the rest of the East Coast is suffering through a "bomb cyclone" (whatever the heck that is), but after two decades away from New Jersey winters, my blood has become thinner than our President's skin. So when I wrote last week's annual Live Active Culture preview, naming the Orlando Fringe Winter Mini-Fest among my most anticipated upcoming events, I didn't yet realize what a warm port in an ice storm it would actually end up being.
The second annual Mini-Fest brought a curated collection of top-quality Fringe artists back to Orlando, providing motivation to crawl out from under the cozy comforter and confront the cold. I apparently wasn't the only one seeking shelter, since the lobbies of the Lowndes Shakespeare Center seemed stuffed with familiar, smiling (if slightly chapped) faces, making the Mini-Fest feel like a midwinter reunion of fellow summer camp survivors.
Most of the 25 productions picked to participate were encores of shows that had been awarded Critics' Choice prizes at last May's festival by the Orlando Sentinel's Matt Palm and myself, and it was wonderful revisiting shows like Willi Carlisle's There Ain't No More: Death of a Folksinger (which was my favorite show of the 2017 Fringe) after an additional six months of seasoning on the touring circuit. The Mini-Fest also gave artists a second shot at perfecting their previous show, like Paul Strickland and Brandon Roberts; by refining their plotline and fleshing out the score, they transformed their man-and-his-radio musical Love Hertz from a charming oddity into a hilarious yet illuminating adult fable.
Best of all, this year's Winter Mini-Fest provided post-Christmas presents to unwrap in the form of four shows that hadn't previously been seen at the Orlando Fringe. Varietease's Room 100, whose brief run at the Venue last September was interrupted by Hurricane Irma, made its Fringe debut; the punk-pop dance/drama, which was inspired by the self-destructive romance of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, leaned a little further toward pantomime than choreography for my taste, but boasted a killer '80s aesthetic and a bravura performance by Jack Kreeger. The remaining three productions were all brand-new to Orlando, and each stoked embers of excitement for next spring's festival that this Fringe fan sorely needed to fight off the frigidity.
The Legend of White Woman Creek
The Brooklyn-based Coldharts scored a direct hit at the 2016 Orlando Fringe with their Poe pastiche Edgar Allan, and followed that up last year with their scorching punk musical The Unrepentant Necrophile. But as powerful as those two productions were, nothing could prepare me for the aural and emotional punch packed by The Legend of White Woman Creek. Katie Hartman commands the stage as the spirit of Anna Morgan Faber, a 19th-century pioneer woman whose tragic tale is told through a one-woman folk song cycle. I'm fairly hardened to horror stories, but Hartman's haunting performance raised the hairs on my neck from the spirit-circle start to the agonizing ending. With a fragile yet fiery singing voice that recalls both Björk and Emmylou Harris, Hartman delivers a baker's dozen of heartbreakingly beautiful original tunes which, although written by her with director Nick Ryan, sound as ancient as the Kansas woods where Faber's shade wanders. Not only best show of the Winter Mini-Fest, but one of the most moving musicals I've seen in many moons.
Canadian comic Mike Delamont has become a cult hero on the Fringe circuit as God (who happens to be a Scottish Drag Queen) and her devilish opposite, but in Husky Panda he's playing his riskiest character yet: himself. The show is a rib-tickling hour of standup observations about being obese in an image-obsessed society. Sex, skydiving, seagull assassination and Ryan Lochte's sperm all somehow find their way into Delamont's loopy, loosey-goosey monologue. The show teases the audience with personal insights into the emotional impact of having to shop for clothes in the "husky" section, but any through-line ultimately dissolves in a verbal tidal wave of digressions. I'd have preferred a little more structure and emotional intimacy to Delamont's oration, but his final riff about a runaway treadmill left me rolling in the aisles.
Ingrid Hansen, who last appeared at the 2017 Fringe as one half of the hysterically hirsute Merkin Sisters, returned with Interstellar Elder, a spaced-out comedy that takes audience participation to places where no (wo)man has gone before. In her largely nonverbal role as Kit Peterson, the geriatric custodian on a spaceship full of frozen peopcicles, Hansen blends dance, puppetry and mime into a mind-bending comic cocktail that draws inspiration from sci-fi classics as diverse as Sleeper, Alien and Wall-E. Prosaic props like a feather duster, a television remote and a bag of urine become absurdly entertaining in Hansen's hands, and while an extended segment of her tossing tissues stopped the show's momentum, her finale ensured a standing ovation from the entire audience.