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On the Fringe 

Will Coviello, Tyler Gillespie and Brad Rhines review shows from the New Orleans Fringe Festival

click to enlarge Goat in the Road Productions presented Numb at the New Orleans Fringe Festival.

Goat in the Road Productions presented Numb at the New Orleans Fringe Festival.

The New Orleans Fringe Festival featured more than 80 shows, including comedy, clowning, burlesque, aerialists, musicals and much more. It was a good year for traditional dramas, and below are reviews of 16 shows. Apologies to all the shows we were unable to review.

  At the 2011 Fringe, playwright Matthew Hancock and Aztec Economy presented the spaghetti Western spoof My Aim Is True, in which a silent stranger murdered his way through a tumbleweed town. In My Horse's Name is Loneliness, presented at the Purification Plant, the silent stranger walks into a Mayberry-like town featuring characters similar to those on The Andy Griffith Show. The sheriff jails the murderer and struggles with his commitment to nonviolence as citizen vigilantes try to enforce their own justice, revealing an unseemly underside to Mayberry.

  Hancock's caricatures are brilliant, and excellent acting made the show soar. As the supposedly idyllic hamlet showed its true colors, the cold-hearted, straight-shooting stranger became a source of dry humor and wisdom. This piece mixed up time periods, genres and cultural references and made anything seem possible and funny.

  In Numb, Goat in the Road Productions crafted an erudite discourse on the slow and relatively unaware early period of medical use of nitrous oxide and anesthesiology. It added exuberant playfulness, direct address of the audience and gratuitous breaking of the fourth wall. An actor (Ian Hoch) broke character to say the doctor he played wouldn't repeat a long list of medical diagnostic terms, and to placate the audience, he said, "I'll play a bird later."

  Writer/director Chris Kaminstein's play focuses on a trio of doctors and their spouses and associates, who work, socialize and experiment with laughing gas. The unconventional stage at the improvised space dubbed the Ether Dome was narrow but deep and the actors bounced around it constantly. Dance, physical clowning and clever movement and sound effects added to the piece's upbeat tone. The entertaining show drew solid performances from all six players.

  At the Art Klub, (Almost Definitely) Questionable Acts was more than the sum of its parts. In the absurdist vaudevillian show, CB Goodman and Josh Rice strung together vignettes incorporating puppetry, mime, slapstick and acrobatics and touched on intimacy, relationships and social issues. They imagined executed Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti as a Laurel and Hardy-like comedy duo. Goodman and Rice interacted with the audience throughout the show. Though they struck a good rapport and many of the gags were oddly poignant, a unifying theme was not clear.

  Based on accounts of the lives of 19th-century prostitutes from different parts of the U.S., director/co-creator Jenny Sargent's For the Sins I Can Remember is an absurdist courtroom drama set in purgatory, featuring bumbling angels in powder wigs and pancake makeup as prosecutors. The piece examines gender roles and biases, and the woman on trial is a prostitute accused of "criminal intimacy," but the fate of another unnamed, silent woman seems to be at stake as well. There were funny moments, and the clowning also was used to animate the life of an "incorrigible child" who grew into a "lewd woman." The woman challenges the angels and accounts for her actions in a vulgar cabaret number. Performed at two venues, including the Marigny Opera House, it left some questions unanswered, including the relationship between the silent woman and the hardships and choices of the prostitute.

The aerial theater company Paper Doll Militia's LoopsEnd combined two unrelated pieces at the Old Ironworks. In the first piece, two identically costumed women performed a duet on two intertwined heavy chain loops. While industrial music played, the two engaged in a physically demanding routine, constantly pulling the chains into different configurations as they held onto and at times suspended one another. The second piece involved a stilt walker and five women climbing on white ribbons, at times bunched like ropes and at times used as screens or hammocks. The show's most dramatic moments featured five performers working at a furious pace, climbing, twirling, changing ribbons and creating mesmerizing chaos in the air. At times the aerial work was elegant, but more often it was gymnastic in its strength and speed. The narratives were abstract, but the company impressed with its riggings and busy aerial choreography.

  Exquisite Mistake reimagined Henry James' novel The Portrait of a Lady as an interactive mod dance party with impromptu dance numbers and an upbeat, bluesy score. In the immersive experience at the Art Klub, audience members were the guests of honor, a stand-in for Isabel Archer, the protagonist who unexpectedly inherits a fortune. Various characters — an old friend, a sad single father and a sensible cousin, among others —are eager to share in Isabel's windfall. It was engaging, although it seemed like a better experience for those familiar with the novel.

  Presented in a Victorian home on Royal Street, The Other Mozart featured Maria Anna Mozart, sister of Wolfgang Amadeus, holding court in one room as the audience looked on from an adjacent room. Maria Anna recounts how she and her brother traveled Europe to great acclaim. But when Maria Anna reached an age where her public performances were considered improper for a woman, she was forced to give it up.

  Maria Anna (played alternately by Sara Fellini and writer Sylvia Milo) was surrounded by an ornate 18-foot white dress as she revealed feelings of jealousy and woe. The drama wasn't tightly woven and at times moved slowly, but it offered insightful perspective on a forgotten talent.

  In The Wake, presented at the Old Firehouse, Ben Moroski played Pete Harrisburg, an aspiring playwright and performer debuting his first one-man show, a tribute to an ex-girlfriend. In an amusing bit of meta-performance, Pete breaks character to address the audience directly: He's met a new woman, who turns out to be the ideal companion, except for one detail — she's dead.

  The Wake is an interesting vehicle to comment on intimate relationships. Pete exalts in finding a woman who doesn't judge him, but he projects himself on to her image and he sees himself reflected back. It's an absurd premise that Moroski plays straight, but the joke of loving a corpse wears thin. Moroski's strong performance carried the show.

  In the mime and clowning piece, Palindrome, The Incredible Incredible's identically dressed Matthew "Poki" McCorkle and Justin Therrien meet for the first time. They mirror and repeat each other's movements to see if they're seeing their own reflections, and the street-clowning piece gets off to a slow start. Both are skilled at solo illusions such as holding a suitcase in place while walking around it and pretending to be unable to push or pull it in any direction. The show took off when they added their own twists on familiar tricks. Therrien put the handle of a fork all the way into his nasal cavity and then flipped pieces of fruit into McCorkle's mouth and fed a volunteer from the audience. He then ran a very long plastic string through his nose, which McCorkle pulled slowly at first, and then quicker — and then he jumped rope with a doubled-over length and ran to the far ends of the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center space. The piece could have been 20 minutes shorter, but the two have very polished skills and good comic timing.

Painted in white, caked-on makeup, Windy Wynazz sang, danced and joked in her one-woman show UnCouth at The Shadowbox Theatre. She mixed burlesque and acrobatics and made clowning around sexy. Although driven by her zany energy, the show followed a thoughtful storyline about a daughter trying to please overbearing parents. Wynazz occasionally brought audience members onstage, and in one of the most successful of such segments, she accused a woman of giving "eyes" to her cardboard cutout boyfriend. Then, the two had a shootout using toy guns. A talented and skilled physical comedian, Wynazz put on an all-around fun and exciting production.

 In Blanche Presents, life-long friends Blanche and Stella have a complicated relationship and both harbor jealousies. Their conflict spills out during a surprise party Blanche (Lucy Shelby) throws for Stella (Ariel Lauryn), and their friendship unravels in an exaggerated and hilarious way. During the shindig, Blanche, wearing a prom dress, pulls out a gun to confront Stella, who falls into a wooden chest and remains stuck for a portion of the show. The two try to resolve the fight the best way they know how — by performing a dance number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The show offered many laughs and proved a frantic friend is sometimes the best kind.

  Reese Johanson packed disparate experiences into her reflection piece, They Don't Eat Corn Here, at Zeitgeist. It started slowly with a long solo by an accompanying cellist before becoming a travelogue and observational piece about different cultures' customs, diet and etiquette. It offered a long, funny sequence about trying to find a bathroom while traveling in a foreign land. A segment inviting audience members to contribute answers to questions on a "Customs Declaration Form" handed out before the show segued into a sort of sound poem as recorded answers were mixed and replayed. Together with video projections, dance and poetic snippets, it was a busy piece. A broad conclusion tied the work together, but the narrative's focus suffered from incorporating too many elements and ideas.

  In Beyond Desire, 10 local poets, including Kaycee Filson and Panzachual, collaborated on a group work describing the feeling of falling in love. The performers described "unhinging" a lover's jaw and the desire to climb inside a partner's body as if it were a sleeping bag. The poem/play followed the trajectory of two people, and the performers' lines mixed together. The poets acted as composites of the lovers and performed with disregard to gender. Some movement and dim lighting at The Shadowbox Theatre added to the piece's sensuality. While some moments seemed overly sentimental — every fight was a blowout — the production compellingly evoked emotional truths about an intimate relationship.

  Also at The Shadowbox, Dallas' Elaine Liner explained that a "sweater curse" is a knitting project started but never finished. For example, a knitter begins making a sweater but her boyfriend breaks up with her before it's finished. In her show, Sweater Curse: A Yarn About Love, Liner shared stories about her "sweater curse" experiences and mixed in a history of knitting. Some jokes were hokey — regarding online dating she said, "That's not OK, Cupid" — but Liner was warm and charming, and her dissing of crocheters drew some of the biggest laughs.

  In Bibliomancer, self-described Arkansas mind-reader Paul Prater described audience members' relatives and attempted to learn their thoughts. He shared personal stories, and was engaging throughout the show, but a couple spots went underdeveloped. He smoothed over rough spots with quick jokes, but in this type of show, the performer needs to build to more challenging feats, and Prater needs to work on his pacing. While some audience members at The Shadowbox Theatre likely remained skeptics, no one should have left without feeling entertained.

  In her one-woman show, Wit & Wrath: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker, Claudia Baumgarten animated Dorothy Parker, the famous writer, Vanity Fair theater critic and founding member of the 1920s literary group, the Algonquin Round Table. She used the wit's famous quip, "I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three, I'm under the table. After four, I'm under my host." Parker's legacy of barbs provided plenty of zingers at the Dryades Theater, and Baumgarten occasionally interacted with the crowd. While she was charming and impeccably costumed, Baumgarten didn't have a strong delivery and some of the show felt stilted.

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