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Fringe Fest provides a launching pad for some shows

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Funny thing about KC Fringe — even when it’s over, it’s not over.

The annual festival of music, dance, theater, film and visual art in venues scattered across the Crossroads and midtown officially wrapped up Sunday. But the ripple effects continue.

Katie Kalahurka, for example, will reprise her Fringe show, “Lessons From Marlene,” this Friday and Saturday at the Fishtank Performance Studio to coincide with First Friday.

Vicki Vodrey’s impressive play, “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon,” which received its world premiere at the Fringe, moved on to New York to be seen as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival this week.

Samn Wright and the creators of “Slaughterhouse Opera,” a rock musical about the zombie apocalypse, plan to mount a Kickstarter campaign to record the piece.

And David Gaines, who attracted sizable audiences with his “7 (x1) Samurai,” stayed over to conduct a clowning workshop Tuesday at Just Off Broadway Theatre.

The eighth edition of KC Fringe appeared to come off without a hitch, although some spectators were still confused by the requirement to buy a $5 festival button before buying a ticket to an individual show. But most people who attend the festival and learn how it works tend to take its general inefficiency for granted.

There were 160 artist entries this year, which translated into 459 performances at 20 galleries, theater spaces and other ad hoc performance venues. Events followed a complicated, staggered schedule. The festival’s website is well-organized and fairly simple to negotiate. But this all happens with a volunteer work force. The only people who get paid are the tech crews who run lights and sound for performances.

Throughout the year the organization is run by an operations committee of 23. During the festival itself, that number jumps to 140. The front-of-house volunteers — the people who sell and tear tickets — put in an estimated 3,000 hours this year, according to festival director Cheryl Kimmi.

Part of the time is consumed by the nightly task of tallying that day’s attendance by physically counting paper tickets.

“We have a team that does that every night, and we’re usually here until 2 or 2:30 in the evening,” Kimmi said.

Kimmi said the festival leaders have a wish-list that includes an automated ticket system, but there’s no money for one in the immediate future. The festival receives small grants from the ArtsKC Fund, the Missouri Arts Council and the city of Kansas City, but most of the festival’s revenue comes from the sale of the $5 festival buttons.

Kimmi said the festival has formed a development committee to explore more fundraising options. Kimmi is glad the tech crews can be paid, and she said the next step would be to pay the house managers at the venues.

“We’re planning to take it to the next level,” she said. “We have to grow it correctly.”

Last year the festival attracted an audience of about 14,500, and Kimmi said the festival was on track to match that figure once the final tally is in. Anecdotally, this reporter saw no sparsely attended shows this year, and two were standing-room-only.

Kimmi said attendance on most nights grew by double digits compared to last year, including a 27 percent jump on the first Saturday of the festival. But midweek performances, which usually attract fewer spectators than weekend shows, experienced a huge increase: 49 percent on Monday and 55 percent on Tuesday.

The final Friday of the festival saw a big drop-off, which Kimmi jokingly attributed to the opening night Olympic ceremonies on television.

From a critic’s perspective, the festival has played a significant role by allowing performing artists an opportunity to take risks and by exposing the public to experimental performances. It has also helped break down some of the barriers between art forms.

“There are different crowds for different things,” Kimmi said. “The fashion-show crowd is very much focused on the fashion show. But we have some crossover. That’s what our goal is, to cross over these audiences so we give the hard-core theater crowd an opportunity to experience dance and music, and we have the hard-core dance crowd who has the opportunity to experience theater.”

Fringe Festival highlights

The final week of the KC Fringe Festival, which ended Sunday, offered typically diverse performances. Here are some highlights:

“Sexing Hitler,” written by Bryan Colley and Tara Varney and directed by Varney. This peek into a weird corner of Nazi history — Heinrich Himmler’s decision to manufacture inflatable “comfort dolls” to prevent the spread of venereal disease among the troops — managed the neat trick of being raucously amusing, touching and ultimately haunting all in one package.

It was a loose-jointed performance, but central to the show’s success was dancer/choreographer Amy Hurrelbrink, who played the doll prototype. In the eyes of her manufacturers and the soldiers who “test” her, she gradually acquires human characteristics, only to be destroyed in the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

“Lessons From Marlene,” written and performed by Katie Kalahurka. Kalahurka is a gifted comedian, and her trippy, absurdist step into a kaleidoscopic dream-world populated by the ghost of Marlene Dietrich and a character named Katie, among others, becomes a showcase for a memorable performance. The show, directed by Vanessa Severo, has been extended through the weekend. Kalahurka will perform the piece at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Fishtank, 1715 Wyandotte St. Call 816-809-7110 or go to brownpapertickets.com/event/260143.

“Buck Hoss,” written by Scott Cox and directed by Trevor Belt. Cox’s attempt to transpose “The Bacchae” by Euripides to a backwoods Americana context didn’t quite work, but the Fringe production showcased some strong performances, particularly by Corbin Hernandez and Chris Roady as cousins, both preachers, each claiming divine ordination. The show admirably addressed heavy questions about human spirituality and our conceptions of God.

“Pilgrimage,” written by Ry Kincaid and directed by Bob Paisley. Kincaid’s rock musical based on Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” was an impressive achievement. Kincaid’s rhyming verse was consistently clever, and his songs were irresistible. He had a formidable cast to help him bring the show to life, including Cody Wyoming, Katie Gilchrist and Vi Tran.

“Skillet Tag,” written by Pete Bakely and directed by Sam Slosburg. This was the second memorable R-rated farce I saw at the festival — the first was Natalie and Talia Liccardello’s “Ice Cream Social…Issues” — and it again demonstrates that there’s an appetite out here among the great unwashed for rude, crude comedy. This show depicts a “team building” exercise at a megalomaniacal executive’s home that goes terribly wrong, resulting in a series of murders and some very strange sex. The festival cast was strong, with standout performances from J. Will Fritz and Kenna Hall.

“7 (x1) Samurai,” written and performed by David Gaines. This was the most polished show I caught during the festival. Gaines celebrates and spoofs Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” in this 60-minute performance.

Gaines has performed this piece a lot and it showed. He’s a highly skilled clown, and his mime-based performance, punctuated with guttural samurai “dialogue” and the occasional phrase in English, was very funny but also conveyed something of the film’s epic sweep.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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