THEATER REVIEWS

KC Fringe Festival opens with hilarity, quirkiness and variable results

Updated: 2013-07-22T00:47:52Z

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

The opening night party for the 2013 edition of the KC Fringe Festival was winding down.

More than 300 prospective festival-goers had gathered Thursday at the Spencer Theatre in the UMKC Performing Arts Center to drink and watch about three hours of “teasers” by festival performers meant to whet the audience’s appetite for what was to come over the next 10 days.

Some viewers used the brief performances as a guide, inking check marks by shows they wanted to see in the printed festival guide and X-ing out those they had already seen enough of after 21/2 minutes.

The performers reflected the nature of the annual festival — a mix of professionals, amateurs, serious artists and exhibitionists. Actors, dancers (including belly dancers), singers, burlesque artists, magicians, acrobats, jugglers and improv performers all crossed the stage. Filmmakers talked about their works. And the emcee, comedian Lucky DeLuxe, festooned with tattoos, kept the evening moving with humor and punctuality in a succession of snug dresses.

By the third hour the audience began to thin out. But the Spencer lobby still offered glimpses of what was to come during the festival’s weekend-to-weekend lineup of performances and art exhibits.

In one corner a young man in a top hat swayed on stilts. A couple of Kansas City playwrights, Frank Higgins and Michelle Johnson, conversed. Performer Kevin Thornton had positioned himself near one of the auditorium exits holding an enormous, impossible-to-miss, handmade placard promoting his one-man show, “Stairway to Kevin.”

Katie Hartman, in an ankle-length dress and braided hair, stood near the box office, strumming a guitar to music from her folk opera “The Legend of White Woman Creek.” Relaxed laughter drifted from a group of young people near the bar.

Cheryl Kimmi, the festival’s co-founder and executive director, had been scurrying around town at warp speed for days helping to get the 10-day gathering, run completely by volunteers, ready for showtime. She gets by on a few hours of sleep a night during the festival.

“If I get five, I’m happy,” she said.

The challenges, as usual, were complicated. Kimmi had hoped to line up 200 or more volunteers, but by opening night she had fewer than 100. And then there were the errors in the festival’s printed schedule.

“As many eyes as we have on it, we still screw up,” an apologetic Kimmi said. The festival website — kcfringe.org — has the most up-to-date information, she says.

Over the next couple of days, Kimmi was able to report the arrival of more volunteers.

This reviewer caught shows Friday and Saturday nights at the Unicorn Theatre and the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, where performances were filled to at least three-quarters capacity. Some were sold out. According to the festival, attendance numbers (1,494 on Friday, 1,747 on Saturday) marked a slight increase compared to 2012.

Those first-weekend offerings were diverse and variable in quality. Here’s a sampling:

• “Outta Beer and Outta Space,” by Forrest Attaway, directed by Katie Gilchrist. The title pretty much says it all in Attaway’s romp about a couple of East Texas rednecks who are abducted by aliens on their way to the beer store.

Good actors — Nick Uthoff, Phillip Russell Newman, Matt Leonard and Melissa Fennewald — maximize the humor, and Attaway introduces an improvisational element by asking the audience for random words the actors then have to integrate into the script. On opening night the results were hilarious.

Remaining performances: 8 p.m. today, 6:30 p.m. Friday and 11 p.m. Saturday at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St.

• “Wiccans in the ’Hood,” by Michelle T. Johnson, directed by Harvey Williams. The performances are uneven, but Johnson’s story about occultists gathering for midnight ceremonies at a cemetery in an African-American neighborhood is offbeat and interesting. Veteran actress Lynn King anchors the cast. Also of note: Poet José Faus makes an impressive acting debut as a spiritual leader. The guy looks like he belongs on the stage.

Remaining performances: 9:30 p.m. Friday and 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Unicorn.

• “Bedtime Solos,” by Jakob Holder, directed by Bob Paisley. Holder’s psycho-sexual avant-garde drama invites the audience into the innermost thoughts and feelings of a man and woman who have just made love. Strong performances from Amy Kelly and Jordan Fox make this a compelling 60 minutes of theater. Disturbing, occasionally amusing and strangely life-affirming. The show goes to the international fringe festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, later this summer.

Remaining performances: 9 p.m. today, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 9 p.m. Thursday and 9 p.m. Saturday at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St.

• “Long Live the King,” written and performed by Ansuya Nathan, directed by Guy Masterson. Nathan spins a charming tale recounting the arrival of her parents in Australia as immigrants from India on the day Elvis Presley died. Playing multiple roles and shifting back and forth in time, Nathan creates a loving, quirky portrait of her mother, who embraces Elvis’ music as she struggles through a difficult pregnancy — which culminates with the birth of this show’s writer and performer.

Remaining performances: 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday at the MET.

• “Lucky Streak — A Musical,” by Vicki Vodrey, directed by Alli Jordan. Vodrey is a talented playwright, but this wildly uneven show needs to go back to the shop. This is a musical set to Barry Manilow songs and tells the story of an Arkansas rube who moves to New York, becomes a rock/pop star, falls in love with his old high-school pal’s girlfriend and tries to save her from an abusive relationship.

Vodrey’s program notes reveal that this is a full-length show that was cut to 90 minutes for the festival. It may have suffered in the editing. With Jeff Smith, Mandy Mook, Sean Hogge, Victoria Barbee and Ashley Otis.

Remaining performances: 8 p.m. today, 6 p.m. Wednesday, 6 p.m. Friday and 9 p.m. Satuday at the Unicorn.

Sunday, the final day of the festival, will be the “Fringe Hangover,” a reprise of the most well-attended shows at each venue. Those performances should be announced on the website by late Saturday or early Sunday.

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

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