The cast of “Roar” sings the show’s opening number.
Throughout the pandemic, live theater has looked a little less…live. Recorded performances and streaming shows replaced packed houses and concession stands. No house managers were around to pluck cell phones from rude audience members’ hands.
That pattern’s held for KC’s 17th annual Fringe Festival, which has gone virtual for the second summer in a row.
If there’s a silver lining of Fringe’s pandemic plan B, it might be that audience members no longer have to race between venues or navigate competing show schedules. All of this year’s 49 shows can be streamed on-demand from home. Some producers have even leaned into the new format, experimenting with creative cuts and camera tricks.
Experiments don’t always succeed, of course. That’s the beauty of Fringe, where artists can take risks without facing the financial or reputational hit of a regular-season run. The risks are lower for audiences, too: single tickets for a Fringe show are either $5 or $10, depending on length. (Fringe completionists can purchase “All Access” passes to see an unlimited number of performances in a certain window of time).
Here’s what’s worth streaming (or skipping) from this year’s festival:
“Roar: A New Musical,” by Bodhi Theatre
Fans of poppy power ballads and Sara Bareilles-esque anthems will find plenty to admire in “Roar,” a new musical by Kevin and Allison Cloud with an unusual subject—dancing circus bears—but conventional charms.
For Fringe, the songs are stitched together with narrated exposition. Most of the conflict happens off stage, and what little remains unfolds in predictable ways—it’s not hard, for example, to speculate on the motives of a character named “Evil Clown Joe.” But the songs are catchy, the cast is strong and Heidi Van’s smart direction makes the most of the hybrid theater/film form, creating memorable stage pictures with tight camera framing. Darcie Hingula earns my “Best of Fringe” vote as Sarah, a bear who would rather sing than dance. Hingula’s voice is expressive and achingly clear (and powerful enough for a bear). The cast’s vocals are well dubbed, and the technical elements are polished across the board. Musical lovers won’t want to miss this.
“Molière than Thou,” by Timothy Mooney Repertory Theatre
I know Timothy Mooney can act. I’ve seen him do it—he’s been a frequent flyer at KC Fringe Festivals in the past. So I have no explanation for his torturous sing-song performance as Molière in a one-man, greatest-hits revue of the great French playwright’s famous speeches. Over the course of sixty minutes, Mooney introduces the audience to a Rolodex of scenery-gumming characters distinguishable only by their wigs. His delivery—whether the source material is “Tartuffe” or “The Doctor In Spite of Himself”—is rife with artificial pauses, canned emphasis, and a singular devotion to rhyme over reason. The result is a performance as overblown as the recorded audio and a show that paradoxically distances us from its central subject.
Anyone caught railing about “the kids these days” should be prescribed this showcase of short plays written and performed by local high school students in the Repertory in School Empowerment (RiSE) program. The student works are inventive and unpredictable, ranging from a dramatic reimagining of Gang of Youths’ “Achilles Come Down” to a multi-act script about a vindictive principal using bioweapons on disengaged students. They’re also a unique relic of pandemic-era art: cast members recite lines through masks and act from a distance, and surprisingly little is lost in translation.
These are script-in-hand readings, not fully mounted plays, so expect pauses, rough edges, and high school shyness (the audio’s also extremely quiet; wear headphones). Still, “In Their Own Words” offers a worthy infusion of optimism about KC as an arts incubator. Standout moments include the energetic performances in Willie Anderson’s “The Children of Destiny” and the tender dialogue in Piper Brown’s romance “The Feeling Is Mutual.”
“Qaddafi’s Cook,” Belville Productions and Bons Tempos Theatre
Most people are familiar with the violent end of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. His bizarre fixations in life have received less attention (excepting that scrapbook of Condoleezza Rice). “Qaddafi’s Cook,” written by Lance S. Belville and Carlos Ambrosi, uses the dictator’s taste for fine dining as an entry point into the lives of his staff.
Most of the action is in the rearview mirror: we don’t experience events so much as hear exposition as a CIA agent (Lynn Lohr) reads aloud from the journal of one of Qaddafi’s many cooks. But that static treatment works thanks in large part to actor Alvaro Flores’s nuanced, emotionally honest commentary as Freddie, a sous chef and Mexican transplant tasked with selling his home country’s cuisine to an unappreciative and paranoid dictator. The script’s strength is its smart portrayal of the infrastructure of evil—of the fragile, fear-based alliances and silences that can be more destructive than any one man.
“The Black Creatures in a Mezzopiano Afternoon,” The Black Creatures
Fringe isn’t just about theater—the festival showcases dancers, musicians, and visual artists, too. Make room for a stripped-down peek into the musical experimentation of dark-pop/hip-hop duo The Black Creatures (comprising Jade Green and Xavier Martin). The pair start with a piano-led version of their song “Elements,” trading the record’s dance-y beats for wistful chords and dreamy-smooth vocals.
This is Fringe in its pure experimental form: no show-pony polish or spendy production values, just talented performers with an idea and a sound. The pair embrace that spirit with a couple of freestyles, including one that builds off of the Lorraine Hansberry quote (and Nina Simone lyric) “young, gifted, and Black.” The magic is seeing Green and Martin play off each other with unforced ease. “That was cool, that was something,” Green tells Martin after a few experimental piano bars. It is.
The Kansas City Fringe Festival runs virtually through August 1. For more information, call 816-533-5890 or visit kcfringe.org