Orlando's semi-annual cold snap arrived last week just in time for the return of the Orlando Fringe Winter Mini-Fest, which warmed the Orlando Shakes from Jan. 10-13. The lineup for the third annual event included encores of some of the best shows from last year's festival – including the 2018 Critics' Choice Best Show, 13 Dead Dreams of Eugene – plus nine shows that had never been seen before locally.
Orlando Sentinel critic Matt Palm and I awarded the first-ever Mini-Fringe Critics' Choice Award to Kafka and Son, Alon Nashman's solo adaptation (co-created with Mark Cassidy) of the influential author's anguished letter to his estranged father. Jewish mothers get all the bad press for being overbearing, but this divisive drama demonstrates how damaging disapproving dads can be. The script is literate yet laced with unexpected humor, and the polished production is packed with powerful imagery, such as when Nashman chews on clumps of black feathers or drags a rusted bed frame on his back.
Other standouts among the previously unseen shows included William Glenn's Into the Meta, an uneven yet ambitious adults-only sci-fi shocker about artificially intelligent pornography, which blends Black Mirror-style social commentary with hardcore hentai; and Trish Parry's Waffle House Daze, which is easily the funniest, most lighthearted show I've seen about being a teenage smack addict.
Here are mini-reviews of more Mini-Fest favorites to watch for over the coming year:
Spare the Rod
Paris Crayton III proves that you don't need to be a Founding Father to find fertile material for a rap musical in your fraught upbringing. A precocious performer, his mother tormented him worse than any imaginary monster, while his adored absentee father drifted further away. The outlines of Crayton's autobiography aren't unusual for a confessional Fringe show, but the specifics of his electric performance are exceptional, especially the breathless delivery of dense beats in the spoken-word poetry and songs that season his monologue.
Crayton bares all onstage – literally and emotionally – and the unsparing details of child abuse and animal torture are almost impossible to bear. Crayton leaves us hopeful that he's torn down the wall that stood between him and his identity, finding forgiveness on the other side by breaking the cycle of abuse. That redemption comes a bit abruptly, but it's impossible not to be moved by Crayton's quest, which will encore at the Center later this year.
You Belong Here
Manic master monologist Martin Dockery has been bringing his tangled tales of acid-soaked bicycle trips, religious theme parks and radioactive fallout zones to Orlando Fringe for a decade. His latest one-man marvel brings audiences along on his most dangerous adventure yet: fatherhood.
An intentionally frustrating series of ever-expanding introductions eventually dovetails into an equally repetitive recounting of Dockery's misguided attempt to enjoy an audio tour of Beijing's Forbidden City, with hilarious digressions into flying movie theaters, cargo pants and the sunnier side of the Chinese police state. The disparate threads don't tie up quite as neatly here as in some of his previous scripts, but life itself is messy and chaotic, especially when you've got a newborn. Dockery will be back with this show in May at Savoy.
Heart Attacks & Other Blessings
Chase Padgett, the former Orlando resident who scored a huge hit with 6 Guitars (which is playing at Theater West End this weekend and at Fringe this spring), strips away his previous persona of stoned ironic detachment and shares how he survived cardiac arrest at age 34. Padgett's shaggy-dog story of achieving sobriety after nearly dying aboard a Disney cruise ship starts at a New Orleans voodoo show and meanders around the hemisphere before ending in Edmonton with a heartwarming matrimonial invitation.
With its catchy ode to pot-fueled procrastination and witty observations on post-breakup practicalities (why isn't there a sad IKEA for newly single people who need all new stuff?), this isn't your typical 12-step tale. The tone slowly shifts from snappy stand-up to inspirational self-help, and while Padgett's clear-eyed intensity has that touch of evangelism common to the newly sober, his command of the stage hasn't lost a step.
The Asylum of Doctor Moreau
Originally performed in 2018 under an altered title, this campfire thriller faithfully follows H.G. Wells's 1895 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, drawing much of its text from the seminal horror/sci-fi classic. Marlon Andrew Burnley (2017's best male actor for Black in a Box) plays the shell-shocked shipwreck survivor trapped on an island full of humanoid beasts; John Terry takes on the titular sadistic scientist and his alcoholic assistant. The twist is that the tale is told using shadow puppets, primitive projections and even a Muppet Moreau, adding an additional layer of surrealism to an already infamously disturbing story.
Terry transforms himself into terrifying creatures – both human and animal – with little more than an eye-patch and length of chain; Burnley brandishes his flashlight like a seppuku sword, stabbing his own soul in sympathetic anguish with the isle's damned inhabitants. Their impressive physical performances are matched by an improved script, which wisely jettisoned some jarring comedy. Look for Moreau's return in May with an expanded cast.