New Year's should normally be a day for bundling up in winter wear and warming yourself by a cozy television. But when 2016 arrives with temperatures in the mid-80s, one's mind naturally leaps ahead to spring. What luck, then, that the Orlando Fringe festival, which celebrates its silver anniversary in May, stepped up with a perfect hangover cure for this hot holiday: a cool evening of comedy at Orlando Shakes with one of last year's Fest's best and most bizarre acts.
At the 2015 Fringe, I called Butt Kapinski a "chaotic, bewildering experience that is often extremely odd but never boring." For the gonzo gumshoe's "Very Satanic Christmas" encore (Jan. 1-3), performer Deanna Fleysher doubled down on the audaciously intimate audience participation that made her first Orlando appearance a must-see (and must-squirm) hit. Fleysher's private investigator alter ego is back, still sporting a back-mounted personal spotlight sprouting from his Sam Spade overcoat and spouting noir narration with a speech impediment that puts Peter Cook (as The Princess Bride's clergyman) to shame. His haphazard investigation techniques are also intact, mostly involving interrogation of the motley riff-raff who make up his audience, whose seats are scattered around the stage to ensure no viewer is safe from being ensnared in the story.
For this Christmas tale, Butt bumbled into a case even more lurid than his last, tracking a missing child through an underworld of motorcycle gangs, lesbian orgies and surprisingly sympathetic pedophiles, all culminating in an intervention by Satan himself – with all the supporting roles played by the spectators. Last time, I got a lap dance as Kapinski's hooker girlfriend; this time I had a far less glamorous role as an exploding spleen, but at least I wasn't the guy getting his head licked.
What makes this more than just an outrageous adult twist on a typical audience participation storytelling show are the meta moments, as when Fleysher drops out of character to lament her personal life or lecture on the history of Epicureanism and Anton LaVey. The show concludes with an atheistic call to arms that revealed a fascinating divide in the audience. Some of these tonal shifts were disturbing and uncomfortable in a theatrically satisfying way, and I felt they were better integrated than in the last production, but the primary plot seemed even more perfunctory this time around.
Kapinski's comeback, which included a performance workshop with Fleysher on Jan. 4, was the first 2016 installment of the Fringe Year Round series, which continues Feb. 5-7 with Martin Dockery and Vanessa Quesenelle in their surreal seriocomic plays The Pit and Moonlight After Midnight, which we awarded the 2015 Best Show Critics Choice Award. On Leap Day, the annual Fringe fundraiser will feature Fiely Matias and Dennis Giacino (Orlando's original "Oops Guys") with songs from their past hits Asian Sings the Blues and Disenchanted, plus a sneak peek at their newest project.
Of course, as the festival's recent tagline says, "Anyone Can Fringe," and especially this year, everyone seems to want to get out of the audience and on stage. A record number of applications necessarily resulted in one of the most heartbreaking show selection lotteries in memory, with many of my favorite veterans left low on the wait-list. I myself pulled some of the names out of the proverbial hat (actually a bucket) and can attest to the fact that it was completely random, if only by the evidence that my wife got listed nearly last. But while I'm sympathetic to the proven performers who weren't picked, I'm excited to see fresh, unknown talents get an opportunity.
And though the lottery is over, it isn't the only way into the Fringe. Some artists that did get in are holding open auditions, such as writer Michael Wanzie, who is reading for his drama In Close Quarters: A Story of Love and War at Orlando Shakes on Jan. 9; visit wanzie.com for details. Alternatively, create a site-specific show under the Bring Your Own Venue umbrella, submit art to the Visual Fringe or volunteer for the Festival.
Some shows I'm excited to see didn't enter the lottery at all. For the 25th Fringe, the Orlando Rep's Universal Theatre will be dedicated to Fringe Teens, which will present shows from top local high schools every Saturday. Fringe is also seeking donors to fund $500 sponsorships for each school district. Some of the planned productions seem quite precocious (James Brendlinger's Lake Howell troupe is tackling Talk Radio), so I look forward to seeing the next generation of Fringe stars in action.