Zany, wild, unpredictable, irresistable: welcome to Fringe!

ORLANDO – It has a fairly long title, but for anyone who has lived in Central Florida for the past two decades and loves the local theater scene, it really just comes down to one word:
“Fringe is the biggest and baddest arts party/creative schmorgasboard that you can find on the East Coast,” said Paul Castaneda, executive director of the Greater Orlando Actor’s Theatre, or GOAT.
The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival kicked off the spring Fringe season on Monday night with the annual Fab Fringe Fundraiser, an opportunity to sample food and drinks, to take part in auctions and raffles, and to meet some of the creative forces behind this event, which was held at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center.
This is, as Fringe’s Producing Artistic Director Beth Marhsall noted, a special year for the event that brings together more than 70 shows in Loch Haven Park.
“It’s our 20th year, and the theme of it is ‘The Reunion,’ “ Marshall said. “One of the cool things is we’re celebrating all the things we have done over the years.”
It’s a homecoming, in a sense, for past Fringe artists, some of them — like veteran stage director John DiDonna — once again involved in this year’s Fringe festival.
DiDonna’s production this year will be “Unspoken,” which he described as a “dance-spoken word multimedia project” that includes Punch & Judy-type puppets, similar to the ones DiDonna used last year in his Halloween production, “Phantasmagoria.”
Fringe, he said, is the ultimate theater experience – such a wild collection of pieces that there’s virtually guaranteed to be something for everyone.
“It’s everything from high drama to classical works to bizarre new works,” DiDonna said. “Twelve days just to see theater – how incredible is that?”
Fringe General Manager George Wallace said there are definitely 75 shows booked for Fringe this year, about three less than in 2010, although his office is still negotiating with a few artists who are on a waiting list to see if their productions can get accommodated.
“We’re right on target with last year,” Wallace said. “It’s such an eclectic mix of first year performers and veterans who are coming back here. We have a lot of new artists this year as well.”
That would appear to be good advertising for any veteran Fringe audience members who have come to expect the offbeat, zany and unpredictable during Fringe – artists who are given the opportunity to let their creative juices run wild and see what they come up with. Fringe’s philosophy, as its Facebook page notes, is “100 percent UNCENSORED, 100 percent UNJURIED, 100 percent ACCESSIBLE.”
“We’re the oldest Fringe festival in the country,” Wallace said. “And it’s a big year for us. There’s a lot to be excited about.”
The 2011 20th Annual Orlando Fringe will be held May 19-30 in Orlando’s Loch Haven Park at various theater “venues,” including stages inside the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre and the Orlando Repertory Theatre. In keeping with the homecoming/reunion theme this year, “Our program book will be looking like a yearbook,” Marshall said. “On Wednesday, May 18 we will have our ribbon cutting ceremony, and then we’ve got the 12 days of Fringe.”
Hosting this event has been a wonderful experience over the years, said Rita Lowndes, who runs the John & Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Theatre.
“We’re delighted to have the building so well used,” she said.
Al Pergande – who bills himself on his business cards as “hack writer,” “raconteur,” and “bon vivant” – is one of the returning artists. He first produced a Fringe play in 2004 called “Go Left Right,” “which was completely awful beyond words,” he said – and then followed it up in 2009 with “The Mayor of Orange Avenue,” of which he said “I thought it went well. It had a few issues.”
This time, Pergande is producing the comedy “Big Swinging Dick’s Topless Bar,” about a guy named Dick who tries to turn a failing bar into a success by making it a strip joint, with comedic results.
Fringe, he said, is distinctly unique because “It’s like this massive place where you’re not responsible for anything – unless you’re producing a show. Then you’re responsible for everything.”
To learn more about Fringe, email, log on to, or call 407-648-0077. The Fringe Festival office is at 398 W. Amelia St. in downtown Orlando.

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“Praising What is Lost”: a haunting new play in search of a larger audience.

ORLANDO – Samuel Burstein lives through his rich, atmospheric memories, ones he fondly looks back on for comfort. Now living in a nursing home, those memories are what keeps the elderly man happy.
The only problem, his grandson Marc believes, is that none of those memories are actually Samuel’s. His grandfather’s visions may be vivid, they may seem genuine, but they’re of people he never met, places he never lived, experiences he never had. And it all has Marc worried.
“These aren’t my grandfather’s memories,” Marc tells Dr. Gabriel, his father’s physician at the nursing facility. “None of them are real.”
In a sense, though, Samuel may be following in his grandson’s own footsteps. In addition to observing his grandfather’s medical treatment, Marc’s days are busy trying to build a stable relationship with his girlfriend, Rachel, while also piecing together his estranged relationship with his strong-willed and often critical sister, Beth. Marc’s method of escape, it seems, is strikingly similar to his grandfather’s: he creates fiction.
“Being a writer, my trade is stories,” Marc says. And fiction provides temporary relief – for both of them.
“Praising What is Lost” is an original, full length play by Orlando’s David Strauss, which had its premiere today at the Orlando Public Library. The Playwrights’ Round Table presented a staged reading of Strauss’ play with a cast of seven that included the author himself in the lead role of Marc.
It was part of ArtsFest, an ongoing celebration of the arts across Central Florida, which features 220 events in 81 venues across four counties, and is being produced by United Arts of Central Florida. The artistic activities continue through Feb. 13.
“This is a work in progress,” said Charles R. Dent, president of the Playwright’s Round Table, of “Praising What is Lost.” Dent joined the actors during the performance to read the play’s stage directions.
“This is how we do these things,” Dent said. “We give them a tryout.”
“Praising What is Lost” is an intimate drama, and one that doesn’t necessarily follow the typical path of opening quietly and then building toward shattering moments or sharp dramatic twists. It’s about people you might feel like you know quite well, who have issues and concerns they’re grappling with that any of us could easily relate to – including the fact that Marc, as a healthy, virbrant young man, has to suddenly confront some uncomfortable issues about aging and mortality more directly now that his beloved grandfather is struggling with Alzheimer’s.
Marc looks to comfort from Rachel, who responds by offering to bake him cupcakes and give him a backrub while he watches “Star Trek.” He’s also working to smooth over the rough patches in his sometimes rocky relationship with Beth.
Samuel is in a nursing home, taking part in a trial program for patients recovering lost memories. Samuel’s progress seems good, at first; he remembers a lot, and he’s happy to be able to recall fond moments he lived through. But everything he tells the family worries Marc and Beth, since they don’t recognize a word he’s saying as being something from their grandfather’s past.
But their concerns are meaningless to Samuel, who brags “I feel more alive, more connected than I have in years.” Whether the memories are his own or just dreams he’s created, they enable him to cope.
And the family’s dilemma comes home in a heartbreakingly real moment when Marc decides to take his grandfather’s photo so he can post it on his Facebook page. When Samuel asks to see the picture on Marc’s digital camera, he’s horrified at the image that stares back at him.
“Oh, my God,” he says in dismay, “What happened to me. How did I get so old?”
Recalling his youthful days – the images that stir now in his mind, keeping him content – he says, “Look at me – I’m not film star handsome anymore. I’m ravaged. Look at my white hair.”
Reality, it seems, can be a struggle to confront.
After the reading, Strauss said the play was semi-autobiographical, based in part on his own grandfather being placed in a nursing home.
“I like the dynamic of people having to make decisions they may not be ready for,” he said. “Drama is about conflict.”
Strauss creates a haunting portrayal of a situation any of us with an aging parent or grandparent could be asked to take on. His characters’ reactions are fascinating to watch. Let’s hope “Praising What is Lost” finds its way from a staged reading to a fully produced show in the near future. It deserves to find a larger audience.

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Strong lead actress, fellow cast members bring Broadway’s “Aida” to life in Orlando.

ORLANDO – It could be just an odd coincidence – perhaps not – that months after the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre decided to produce the Elton John-Tim Rice musical “Aida,” the opening weekend would coincide with an explosion of civil unrest and violence in the very place where the play is set.

It’s been estimated that the street protests in Egypt calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak started with a group of Internet-savvy young political organizers. Some of the protests started online, through Facebook, and the organizers got a good sense of just how strong the movement would become when more than 90,000 people signed up online.

Since then, tens of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in cities across Egypt, while the government responded by shutting down the Internet in the region, making access to the Facebook and Twitter websites inaccessible from within Egypt. That prompted President Obama to “call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they’ve taken to…. interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century.”

“Aida” was taken from a children’s storybook version of  the Verdi opera, and later was acquired by Walt Disney studios for a possible animated feature film. The movie eventually got shelved, but the source material evolved into a stage musical with songs by John and Rice. Although it’s set at a time well before the Internet, Facebook or cell phones came in handy, the story’s themes are in some ways eerily similar to what’s happening in Egypt today: the call for freedom from an oppressive government, opposition to brutal rule, the desire to end the injustices that a group of people feel they live with every day.  In a strange coincidence, the themes of the musical and the voices of the Egypt protestors seem to complement one another.

As Paul Castaneda, the play’s director, points out in the progam’s liner notes, “ ‘Aida’ is a musical about a clash of cultures, about what happens when a stronger, more modernized, and in their minds more cultured society interacts and eventually wars with one they consider to be backwards and beneath them. That is a theme that is repetitive within the human experience — and as relevant today as in centuries’ past.” Click on CNN and watch the national news broadcasts tonight, and you might conclude they’re saying the exact same thing. 

Desiree Perez (as Aida) and Adam McCabe (as Radames) star in the GOAT revival of Elton John and Tim Rice's musical "Aida."

GOAT had an interesting challenge in staging “Aida” at the Goldman Theater at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center.  The Broadway version had the kind of extravagant budget that brings with it elaborate sets, stunning costumes, a live orchestra and flashy light and sound effects. GOAT doesn’t have a Broadway budget, obviously, and the Goldman Theater certainly isn’t similar in size to a Broadway show for expensive tickets.

It shows – the GOAT production has minimalist sets and relies instead on that most old-fashioned community theater approach, asking the audience to invest their imagination into the story.  It’s a gamble that I like largely works, for a couple of reasons.

“Aida” tells the story of Radames, captain of the Egyptian army, who returns with his soldiers from the land of Nubia, Egypt’s long-time enemy. The soliders capture several Nubian women, and he becomes fascinated with one of them, Aida, after she tries to free herself by engaging in a sword fight with one of his soldiers. Radames decides to save the women from the misery of serving in the copper mines by making Aida a handmaiden to his future bride-to-be, Princess Amneris.

Radames’ father, Chief Minister Zoser, greets his son’s return by letting him know the Pharaoh is dying and Radames will soon become the next ruler of Egypt – although Zoser declines to mention that he’s been poisoning the Pharaoh to speed up his son’s rise to the throne.

Radames, on the other hand, is increasingly drawn to Aida – a dangerous proposition.

The GOAT production gets off to a good start with the introduction of Desiree Perez as Aida, the defiant, brave and smart Nubian who finds out all too quickly that being intelligent is seen as both a liability and a threat to your oppressors – similar, I note once again, to the current situation in Eygpt. Perez gives us an Aida we really want to root for, one we believe could lead her people out of their oppression if only she didn’t lack the means to do so.

Krystal Gillette is equally good as Princess Amneris, whose opulant lifestyle masks her own insecurities, including her uncomfortable sense that her fiance has little genuine interest in her. Ian Clark makes a suitably loud and aggressive villain as Zoser, and Adam McCabe gives us a Radames who finds it easier to control an army than control his own romantic feelings. Suitably cast, this small scale production of a splashy Broadway musical manages to survive nicely without the razzle dazzle that a big budget would deliver, because the performers dive into the heart of the show: two lovers trying to figure out if they can follow their hearts when tradition warns them not to go there.

In the actors’ hands, the absence of huge Egyptian sets doesn’t even seem like an afterthought by the third song.  It’s no surprise that “Aida” has become a popular choice for school and community theater revivals; the play’s themes are, as Castaneda noted, fairly timeless, and that couldn’t have been more true this weekend, as I watched Diane Sawyer report on the violence in Cairo at 6:30 Sunday night, and then watched “Aida” at 7:30.

If I have any quibbles with the show, it’s with Elton John’s score. Some of the music is quite good, but overall it lacks the killer hooks you might associate with, say, tossing “Elton John’s Greatest Hits” into your car CD player and remembering why he completely ruled FM radio for so long in the 1970s.  His “Aida” score isn’t always that polished, but maybe I had higher expectations than I should have based on the songwriter’s reputation.

In any event,  I found that the play’s second act successfully captures a growing mood of suspense and tension as Radames’ passion for Aida swamps  his understanding of the grave dangers that puts her in.  Is “Aida” one of those musicals that really belongs to the cozy intimacy of the small stage? I’d  have to have seen the Broadway version to honestly answer that, but I will say this story works well in GOATS’ hands.  Freedom, you end up concluding, has been terribly costly over the centuries, but is worth the ongoing battle.

“Aida” runs now through Feb. 13, at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center at 812 E. Rollins St. in downtown Orlando. For tickets, call 407-872-8451 or log on to

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