Among the shows revived at this year's Orlando Fringe Festival are three Sentinel "best of the festival" winners from years past: "Dance for Grandma" "Onomatopoeia" and "6 Guitars."
In "Dance for Grandma," Scott Whittemore combines endearingly low-key magic, songs both comic and sentimental on a ukulele, and charming storytelling in a sweet tribute to grandmothers everywhere.
"Onomatopoeia" is a sweetly nostalgic tale of love and hard times, featuring skillfully performed old-timey music.
In "6 Guitars," Chase Padgett embodies six different characters -- from an African-American senior citizen to a twentysomething rocker doofus -- as he also shows off his musical chops on the guitar. This love letter to music is engaging, funny and expertly polished.
But to give the rookies a chance, we're putting only never-before-recognized Fringe shows on our annual "best of the fest" list. (We know "Man 1, Bank 0" was here before, but not when the Sentinel picked the best of the fest.)
Here are condensed critiques of the 10 shows selected by the Sentinel reviewing team. For the full reviews of these -- and every ticketed show at this year's festival -- go to OrlandoSentinel.com/fringe.
Now, alphabetically, the Best of the Fest:
'Arts or Crafts'
At last, a play that dares to ask a question that has haunted me for years: "Where is the art in 'The Wedding Singer'?"
Rob Roznowski's extremely funny play "Arts or Crafts" is a series of vignettes that might make audience members think about how we define art as a society -- if only they can catch their breath from laughing so hard.
A talented cast, directed by Debra Christopher and Cathy Randazzo, gallivants through a series of sketches that don't try to explain the difference between art and craft, but rather let the audience laugh at such universal objects of mirth as pompous critics, crack-revealing plumbers and pretensions of all sorts.
In one skit, the "Mona Lisa" wonders why she is considered among the world's greatest works of art. "I wasn't even smiling," she says with a puzzled frown, while other actors strike other famous painted poses.
This tight-knit troupe has it all: timing, delivery, physicality. How are they so funny? It's an art.
60 mins. Rated G-14. Gold venue. Shows: 5-24, 7:45 p.m.; 5-26, 4 p.m.
Matthew J. Palm
"The Boxer" isn't fighting fair. There's something about the combination of a depression-era setting and the silent movie approach that just makes a sentimental moment hit that much harder.
As for the laughs? Those are completely thanks to Jester Theater's cast. Gemma Fearn plays the winsome but resourceful heroine in this hilarious tribute to silent film. A meal ticket -- and maybe, true love -- comes along in the person of the Boxer (Brandon Roberts), who is bound for a prizefight despite the fact that he cannot punch through a slice of bologna.
Fans of Roberts' mugging in PB&J Theatre Factory's many silent comedies ("Sport," "Sleigh") will not be surprised to see that he's completely in his element here, as is the rest of the cast. Hardly a minute goes by without at least a chuckle during the Boxer's road to the ring, and a cleverly staged dream sequence had me in tears.
60 mins. Rated G. Pink venue. Shows: 5-23, 7 p.m.; 5-25, 6:15 p.m.; 5-26, 11:15 a.m.
'Chase and Paul...'
If only everyone could keep their sense of humor through adversity like Chase Padgett and Paul Strickland. The guitar-playing duo kick off the show with "Everybody is a Critic," featuring lyrics cribbed from the worst reviews of their solo shows. ("Padgett should cut about half the cast of his one-man show," reads one. Ouch.)
Sorry, guys. I don't have much to add to that song, but Padgett and Strickland aren't lacking in material. The pair have a winner in this loose but charming showcase of harmony and humor. A solo turn allows Padgett to show off his flair for musical improv, but the real highlight is watching these guys play off one another. The songs are typically simple ditties that allow their voices to shine through, and Strickland's grounded humor is a perfect complement for Padgett's optimism.
60 mins. Rated G-14. Gold venue. Shows: 5-23, 11:30 p.m.; 5-25, 3 p.m.
Who needs Flash Gordon when Jett Backpack is defending the universe? A silly send-up of sci-fi B movies, "Jett Backpack and the Battle at the End of the Universe" goes to comedy -- and beyond.
The show involves many of the creative (some might say manic) brains known for their work on the equally loopy "Dog Powered Robot" franchise, so that means there's enough ham and cheese on stage to build a first-class submarine sandwich.
But that's all to the good in this romp. John Bateman, as the title character, sports painted-on abs and milks every laughable line out of self-important lines such as "I have a hangover..." -- studly pause -- "from sex." Leer.
Jennifer Guhl is a plucky starship captain who makes an admirable straight (wo)man to Bateman's silliness. As the evil villain (hiss), Kevin Sigman chews enough scenery to give himself indigestion. And David Almeida is a stitch (especially for "Star Trek fans" as a sensitive, female crew member.
In the wrong hands this could very quickly go wildly off course, but Josh Geoghagan's script and Kevin G. Becker's direction keep this piffle headed for the stars.
60 mins. Rated G-14. Yellow. Shows: 5-23, 5:45 p.m.; 5-24, 6:30 p.m.; 5-25, 1 p.m.
Matthew J. Palm
It's so easy to empathize with John Grady. He's just a nice guy trying to make it in a cold, hard world of bullies and thugs. In his one-man show, "Little Pussy," Grady shares a few of his life-changing moments. Not big ones like weddings or childbirth, but smaller moments -- like being confronted by junior-high tough guys in the locker room.
As Grady deftly shows, those smaller moments can be just as important to the human psyche.
In "Little Pussy," Grady talks of "battle wounds," but his battles aren't physical ones (well, mostly not, anyway). They are internal struggles on what it means to be a man. His vivid writing brings to life that quaking 12-year-old in the locker room, a nervous twentysomething facing down street punks, a New Yorker confronted by a belligerent Halloween drunk.
"The bus to manhood is leaving, and I am not on that bus," he wryly relates in one story. But the manhood he achieves -- a belief in being his brother's keeper -- is one to emulate. And the story of his journey to manhood is one to remember.
60 mins. Rated G-14. Pink venue. No shows remaining.
Matthew J. Palm
Delightful, whimsical and heartfelt, "Loon" exposes the most basic human emotions with charming, original style. The Wonderheads, a Portland, Ore., theater company, have devised a visual and aural treat in which a man falls in love with the moon.
The man is played by Kate Braidwood in an extraordinary full-face mask. With pants hiked too high, tie hanging too low, stooped shoulders and a little shuffle, Braidwood creates Francis the janitor -- excuse me, custodial engineer.
Francis' fanciful story is told without words. You'll never miss them
Wistful cello music sets the tone. Pop standards like Tom Jones' "It's Not Unusual" cue a change in mood. And that mask, despite immovable features, is remarkably expressive.
"Loon" is a touching depiction of loneliness, hope, disappointment, grief and love. It's absolutely beautiful.
60 mins. Rated G. Green venue. Shows: 5-24, 5:30 p.m.; 5-25, 8:30 p.m.; 5-26, 12:45 p.m.
Matthew J. Palm
'Man 1, Bank 0'
In the ongoing battle between man and machine, score one for our side.
That's the loosely presented moral of "Man 1, Bank 0," everyman Patrick Combs' tale of how junk-mail check, an ATM, a practical joke and the banking bureaucracy yielded unexpected riches that were compounded into a windfall of fame and trouble.
On a whim, Combs deposited a seemingly obvious pretend check for $95,093.35 into his ATM. When his bank honored it, the suddenly rich slacker boards an emotional roller-coaster that rushes past greed, guilt, joy and anxiety toward a spectacular comedic triumph.
Although not an actor, Combs delivers his tale with flawless comedic timing and remarkable stage presence. His story is augmented by a slideshow that features key documents and quirky personalities in an unbelievable, but true string of events.
And the ending? It's also rich in humor and heart, with a feel-good twist for the practical joker, too.
Put all that together and this show about money is really priceless.
75 mins. Rated G. Orange venue. Shows: 5-24, 9:45 p.m.; 5-25, 1:30 p.m.
In the realistic and very funny "Pillow Talk," two young men are spending the night on the only bed in the trailer that's home to one's grandmother (and her vicious ferret).
The consistent humor flows mostly from personality and situation, not jokes, as the play gently raises ideas about friendship, expression and the walls we humans build around ourselves.
Playwright Peter Tolan has a good ear for how friends talk -- they know what buttons to push, for one thing. And under the direction of Jamie DeHay, actors Jay Pastucha (shy Doug) and Kurt Roth (brash Aaron) charmingly depict the awkwardness that can come with male friendship in our society.
Pastucha and Roth have a younger-sounding Jerry-George vibe from the old "Seinfeld" sitcom. Even as they drive each other nuts with their tics and neuroses, the underlying affection is clear.
The playwright tantalizingly leaves unanswered questions about the guys. With a piece this entertaining and polished, let's hope there's a sequel.
35 mins. Rated M. Purple venue. Shows: 5-22, 9:15 p.m.; 5-24, 6:45 p.m.; 5-25, 6 p.m.; 5-26, 8 p.m.
Matthew J. Palm
College Professor Keir Cutler thinks Shakespeare is the center of the universe. Indisputably. Fanatically. Insanely?
In Cutler's laugh-a-minute classroom parody, he is "Teaching Shakespeare." But it's not teaching as we think of it. Cutler, you see, is the sort of instructor so in love with his subject, he won't even consider criticism of the playwright.
"Assume the author is infallible," he pontificates. "Defend everything about him."
He's spoofing the Shakespeare faithful, of course, but you can substitute any fanboy (or fangal) obsession of your choice. What tempers the silliness is the pathetic air that hangs over Cutler, lost and alone in his Shakespeare love.
Even while being pompous, he seems pathetic -- a difficult feat and one that generates laugh after laugh. Cutler, it turns out, has just received evaluations from his students -- and let's just say they aren't good.
He rails about how theaters have ruined, yes, ruined Shakespeare by taking the emphasis off the words. (His advice: If you must see a Shakespeare play, "bring your text, a flashlight, and read.")
His fervor wrings every last laugh out of this. Shakespeare haters will get the joke. And Shakespeare lovers -- if they have a sense of humor -- will be rolling in the aisles.
50 mins. Rated G-14. Yellow venue. Shows: 5-24, 5 p.m.; 5-25, 6 p.m.
Matthew J. Palm
'Underneath the Lintel'
Spellbinding. And yet, the ingredients aren't the usual witches' brew: A pair of trousers. A laundry claim ticket. One extremely overdue library book. It's this last item that begins the journey of the Librarian, who we meet as a fussy, obsessive man. These are the traits that jolt him out of his insular world on a globe-trotting quest to track down the last owner of a book returned 123 years late. What he finds instead is -- at the very least -- a whole new reason to live. At most, it is proof of the existence of God.
As the Librarian, Pat O'Brien does full justice to Glen Berger's script in this one-man show. A veteran screen actor, O'Brien comes equipped with a bug-eyed stare that puts every frayed nerve of his character on display -- often to great comic effect. Keeping up with him on his breakneck pace through history, philosophy and myth may require a seat belt. It's worth it.
60 mins. Rated G. Yellow venue. Shows: 5-25, 11:15 p.m.; 5-26, 3 p.m.
Orlando Fringe Festival
What: Short plays, music, comedy and other performances; plus an art show and weekend activities for kids
Where: Performances at Loch Haven Park, 777 E. Princeton St.; Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave.; and The Venue, 511 Virginia Drive. Visual Fringe art at 1427 Alden Rd.
When: Through May 28
Tickets: Buy a Fringe button ($9) at the festival to participate (not required for children 12 and younger). Then, show tickets are $11 or less. Kids Fringe and Visual Fringe are free.
More information: OrlandoFringe.org
More reviews: OrlandoSentinel.com/fringe
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