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Review: New Orleans Fringe Festival

Will Coviello and Tyler Gillespie on the good, the bad and the strange of the Fringe

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The New Orleans Fringe Festival featured a stunning array of choices, from comedy and musicals to a puppet history of Storyville and aerialist acts. There were more than 70 shows, and below are some of the highlights and disappointments from those viewed by Gambit.

  One of the most polished and popular shows was the comedy Cabaret Macabre, presented by Washington D.C.'s Happenstance Theater at the Marigny Opera House. Inspired by Edward Gorey characters, the show featured a string of short vignettes about stuffy and clueless upper-class Victorian socialites, along with a few maids and a butcher with a cleaver and a bloody apron. In the climactic bit, "Dangerous Croquet" (pictured), a slow-motion slapstick battle royale raged as mallets swung and almost always connected with an unintended, unsuspecting target. Perfect comic timing and clever clowning made it a hilarious and flawless show.

  New York's Aztec Economy presented a much more gruesome drama about miners trapped in a collapsed West Virginia mine. Much of Butcher Holler Here We Come was performed in the dark in the intimate space at The Mudlark Public Theatre, and the five characters rattled on in mining jargon, keeping audiences guessing about what exactly had gone wrong. As buried resentments surfaced, the intense drama heated up. The piece was well-acted and the darkness and confusion drew the audience into the miners' world.

  Montreal's Krin Haglund is a veteran of Cirque du Soleil and other modern circuses and her show was presented at the Den of Muses — its rafters hung with ribbons and trapeze bars. With those details, audiences may have expected a show full of stunning acrobatic feats. A lead-off aerial piece that was part homage to Black Swan was high-flying, vigorous and impressive. But the show was more of a cabaret act full of gentle clowning. Haglund sang clever and silly songs, including one about the dangers of eating shellfish, and she did a baton act with a baguette. The most fun sequence combined her acrobatic skills and charm when she invited an audience member to share a glass of wine with her, and she held her glass with her toes and drank most of the bottle.

  At the Mudlark, the Mudlark Puppeteers presented a history of Storyville, focusing often on infamous madam Lulu White. Titled Blue Book, which referenced the directories of Storyville prostitutes, the company used a parade of marionettes and rod and shadow puppets to trace the history of sex, race and prostitution from the earliest days of colonial Louisiana to White's demise after Storyville was officially closed. The narrative was as detailed about laws governing race relations as it was graphic about attractions and services offered in the red light district. The show was candid, fast-paced and often funny.

  In performance artist John Michael's solo show John Michael and the Order of the Penix at The Shadowbox Theatre, Michael discoved a lightning-shaped mark on his penis. His piece compared the Harry Potter-world fear of naming Lord Voldermort to the taboo of discussing AIDS. Delivered with frantic comic energy, Michael recounted his sex life using cupcakes and ice cream as metaphors. The show was original and interesting.

  At the Marigny Opera House, Gayland was a much more straightforward musical invoking an alternate world in which most people are homosexual and "ungays" demand the right to marry. Willow (Brittany Scofield) is engaged to an evangelical lesbian but finds herself attracted to a straight ("wrongosexual") man named Zack (David Kaplinsky). The singing and original score were very good, especially a song about the mismatching of soup and salad, but the piece stuck to archetypal characters and predictable situations. It needed a few surprises.

  The aerialist show Icarus featured impressive work by San Franscico's Rachel Strickland and Meredith Starnes on hoops, rope and a harness rig they created. Both donned a winged costume at times, but it was very hard to discern a storyline.

  Two shows at the Backyard Ballroom were very straightforward. Emma's Parlor was a toy theater historical piece about anarchist, labor activist and birth control advocate Emma Goldman. The short, entertaining show offered many memorable snippets from Goldman's writing and speeches. Aimee Germain's Keebles Family Cabaret was far less eloquent. A slapstick show about a vaudevillian family led by a mother-daughter duo, it featured ragged song and dance, raunchy innuendos, a couple of burlesque acts and brownies baked on stage. It was very light-hearted and funny but rough around the edges.

  Philadelphia's Groundswell Players presented Underground Railroad Game, a drama about two teachers, one black and one white, who try to make Civil War history come to life with a school game. But when they become romantically involved, they find racial history and assumptions affect even their enlightened minds. Jenn Kidwell and Scott Sheppard created and starred in the nuanced and gripping piece.

  A few shows left much to be desired. Gogol Annex's Antebellum drew crowds to the Mardi Gras Zone warehouse, where they were expected to stand during the 30-minute piece. The show featured three historic New Orleans characters in a series of solo spotlights: the murderous prostitute Bricktop raged and issued threats; a notorious gambler ate a chicken and bemoaned his losses; and an egotistical opera diva implored people to buy souvenir dolls and sausages. The characters didn't interact or reveal much else, and overall the piece felt hollow. The Dark Fantastic was an hourlong story told by Martin Dockery at The Shadowbox. His attempt to string together disparate tales of wonder and the search for human connection would have been stronger had it been shorter, and rather than using any performance skills to bring it to life, he sat at a table for the entire hour and rarely varied his tone or went beyond a limited repertoire of hand gestures.

  Many of the most pleasurable shows were the most daring and unconventional ones. For audiences as well, trying new things often delivers the biggest rewards. — WILL COVIELLO AND TYLER GILLESPIE

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