For newcomers and veterans alike, the sheer scale of Kansas City's Fringe Festival can be overwhelming. Starting July 18, local performers, playwrights and spoken-word poets converge to mount 363 shows, presented across 19 venues in 11 days. But don't let the numbers intimidate you. Whether you attend 20 shows or just a couple, Fringe offers unparalleled access to fresh, uncensored theatrical thrills.
Anything can happen in live theater, and Fringe compounds that spirit. Productions are unjuried and often experimental, and some shows' post-performance talkbacks invite audiences to participate in the creation of stage magic. From the frenetic herd of Fringe acts, we've culled a few of the most promising.
At MET (3614 Main), Central Standard Theatre presents the International House of Theatre, a rotating buffet of four globe-trotting productions (including Adelaide, Australia, and Oakland, California). IHOT serves up a satisfying short stack of imports and domestics, among them Bedtime Solos and The Submarine Show. The latter takes audiences on a two-man acrobatic undersea adventure, with highly physical performances from a Cirque du Soleil veteran and an Emmy-winning digital puppeteer. Expect a show as eclectic as the program description ("a cappella foley mime"). On the other side of the dramatic spectrum, Jakob Holder's Bedtime Solos tracks a couple's intimacy and isolation through three different sexual encounters. The language is often dreamlike — erotic, existential, dense with Holder's lush images and passionate poetics, the thinking person's 50 Shades.
The festival ought to just knight Vicki Vodrey. Her third Fringe musical in four years, Lucky Streak, follows Joey (played by Jeff Smith), a small-time country singer hoping to make it big in New York. Country-music haters, never fear: Her latest mashes several genres, including gospel and jazz, into a love story with humor and heart. And the unifying principle is less honky-tonk than Copacabana: The tunes are all well-coifed chanteur Barry Manilow's, repurposed for the stage. This Mamma Mia! for Fanilows opens on the Unicorn's Main Stage (3828 Main).
Also at the Unicorn, Coterie Ignites produces Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen, by Kathryn Walat. What happens when Longwood High's "third-most-popular sophomore" joins the math team? We're pretty sure you can solve for x. Model meets mathletes may seem a little derivative now (familiar from Mean Girls and The Big Bang Theory's nerd-blackface pastiche), but Victoria Martin's eponymous star, the talented and funny Daria LeGrand, suggests more Ellen Page than Lindsay Lohan. Walat's script balances the equation by adding smart quips and emotional depth to the formula of geek gaffes and grrl power.
On the Unicorn's Jerome Stage, Michelle T. Johnson (The Kansas City Star's "Diversity Diva") stages her Wiccans in the 'Hood, a play that premiered at New York City's Midwinter Madness Festival earlier this year. Wiccans examines four friends' religious ritual in an urban graveyard, and the assumptions and misgivings of the cemetery's neighbors. The titular religion takes a backseat in Johnson's surprising comedic drama about race, ritual and fear of the unknown.
At the Fishtank (1715 Wyandotte), Heidi Van directs An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein, a collection of the schoolyard poet's comic one-acts. Take "adult" to heart and leave the kids at home — The Giving Tree, this ain't. Silverstein's adult plays are saucy and delightfully bizarre, and the Fishtank Acting Apprentices lend bubbly energy and snappy comedic timing to the laugh-packed scripts.
Also at the Fishtank, a late entry to Fringe: An Evening of Alli Jordan, which features two short scripts by the home-team playwright. Jordan's ballsy work shocked audiences at the Fishtank's "Drunken Shorts" series in June, and they demanded reprises of BookSpace, a lighthearted literary comedy, and Burn, a dark, intense drama starring an unusually subdued Forrest Attaway. Burn's acting makes the dialogue crackle, and director Bryan Moses' innovative staging flares up palpable tension in the Fishtank's intimate space.
If you're feeling indecisive, there's always the Fringe Hangover. Timid types can wait around until July 28 to sample the festival's biggest hits. The shows with the best attendance at each venue earn bonus performances at those venues that day, followed by the closing party at Fringe Central (Open Fire Pizza, 3951 Broadway).