12 Recommended Shows to Watch During the 17th-Annual (and First Digital) Cincinnati Fringe Festival

The 2020 Cincy Fringe will be “an all-digital, totally online, 100% at-a-safe-distance, for 2020-only” affair

May 6, 2020 at 1:30 pm
click to enlarge "Petunia and Chicken" - Photo: Provided by Cincinnati Fringe Festival
Photo: Provided by Cincinnati Fringe Festival
"Petunia and Chicken"

When word came down from the state of Ohio in mid-March that mass gatherings were to be banned — in auditoriums, stadiums, arenas, meeting rooms, theaters, even outdoors — to help control the spread of COVID-19, a lot of scrambling began in the arts world, especially at Know Theatre. Know is the producer of Cincinnati’s annual Fringe Festival and its 17th incarnation had been announced for May 29-June 13. But just what could be presented in the midst of a pandemic? With limitations on gatherings, expectations about social distancing and concerns about protecting performers, some serious reconsideration was required.

By the end of March, Know came forward with a creatively conceived plan. The 2020 Cincy Fringe will be “an all-digital, totally online, 100% at-a-safe-distance, for 2020-only” affair with the same date range that had been previously announced. Performances will be available via online streaming, accessible by anyone with a computer, tablet, smartphone or smart TV.

Tickets will still be required to view shows. All-access passes cost $200 and cover all performances; individual show tickets can be purchased for $11 a piece. If you can show additional support for performers, you can also buy a “Love Your Artist” ticket for $16 per show.

“Because one of the best parts of Fringe is the sense of community that arises between audiences, staff and artists,” the Know Team stated in its announcement, the goal for 2020 is “creating ways for people to connect at a distance.” There will still be voting for the “Pick of the Fringe” awards, using online polls instead of paper ballots. Fringe-hosted digital hangouts and streaming segments will replace the popular nightly Bar Series events, still featuring the zany Fringe newscast.

The Fringe production team has scrambled throughout April to identify artists whose performances can be made available via high-quality video-on-demand. There was a lot to consider, given a record-breaking number of 127 applicants. There won’t be as many offerings as in past festivals, which have topped 40 in recent years, and the happy mingling that’s been a big attraction over the years can’t happen. 

But there are numerous positives. Production costs will be lower, since venues don’t need to be rented, outfitted and managed. There will be broader availability, since there will be no limitations on how many people can view each performance or when they can tune in (aka no sold-out events). It will be easier for people to sample the Fringe, since performances can be observed using internet-equipped devices.

Fringe aficionados will appreciate the opportunity to binge as many shows as they wish, if they purchase an all-access pass. No one will have to hustle from one venue to another with narrow windows of time between presentations.

Fringe virgins, who might have been hesitant to dive in, will have the opportunity to tune in show-by-show. That seems likely to give more Cincinnati theater lovers the opportunity to find out what Fringe is all about, exposure that surely bodes well for future years. 

So what’s going to be made available? Nearly 20 shows will be streamed online. Some are works by locals, including veterans who return annually with work that’s eagerly received. A few others are pulling something together for the first time. There will also be a sampling of out-of-town performers who have spent summers touring the fringe festival circuit across the U.S. and Canada. We’ll also have several opportunities to see recorded reprises of shows that were hits in the past. 

Here are a dozen shows that you might want to consider adding to your Cincy Fringe schedule:

Shows from Fringe Vets

click to enlarge Poster for "Paul & Erika's HOUSE SHOW" - Photo: Provided by Cincinnati Fringe Festival
Photo: Provided by Cincinnati Fringe Festival
Poster for "Paul & Erika's HOUSE SHOW"

It wouldn’t be a Cincy Fringe without the presence of Performance Gallery, a Cincinnati-based company that has produced wildly varied works in every Fringe since the beginning. For 2020 they have assembled a 21st-century fable, Hive Mind, featuring a diverse cast of bees, humans and puppets. They’ll ask big questions and provide whimsical fun. What do you do when the hive is in danger? Swarm? Dance? Buzz? It’s billed as an exploration of the nature and behavior of social creatures.

Erika Kate MacDonald and Paul Strickland have a strong track record as performers in Cincinnati and beyond. They relocated to Cincinnati because they loved the Fringe scene here, but they are well known for shows presented at top-notch festivals across North America. For Paul and Erika’s HOUSE SHOW, streamed from their own couch, they’ll bring household objects to life using stories, songs, digital puppetry and more. Strickland’s monologues about Ain’t True and Uncle False at the Big Fib Trailer Park have been local Fringe favorites annually; last year’s 90 Lies an Hour was a sold-out hit.

Trey Tatum is a non-stop creator of offbeat theater who has partnered with the aforementioned Strickland on several occasions, including for Andy’s House of [blank] at Know. He’s been a regular Fringe presence since his 2014 production of Slut Shaming. A year ago, Zoinks! sold out all of its Fringe performances. For 2020, he’s assembled A New Play by Queen City Flash, a series of comically disturbing tales to kiss and make the hurt go away. Working with director Bridget Leak and performer Jordan Trovillion, Tatum’s fevered imagination will surely run rampant again.

Dr. Dour and Peach from Washington, D.C. presented The Monster Songs at the 2017 Cincy Fringe. For 2020, the “horror comedy clown duo” will offer Love and Other Lures, another set of songs about monsters: vampires, sirens and giant alligators. They both sing — Dr. Dour plays guitar while Peach, billed as “cute,” takes up the banjo and cello. Their musical styles range from Southern Rock to Tin Pan Alley.

The inventive local dance company Pones Inc. has offered fascinating and evocative movement pieces in recent Fringes. Kim Popa’s online contribution for 2020 will be Proximity, rooted in the experience of what is lost and what can be found in our city. Based on crowdsourced suggestions, this will be a dance video using site-specificity to uncover the duet of beauty and grief we are currently experiencing.

Returning Fringe Favorites

click to enlarge "Unrepentant Necrophile" - Photo: Provided by Cincinnati Fringe Festival
Photo: Provided by Cincinnati Fringe Festival
"Unrepentant Necrophile"

Katie Hartman and Nick Ryan from Brooklyn make up the Coldharts, whose shows in Cincinnati have drawn a crowd every time they’ve come to town with their Punk Rock musicals inspired by the American Gothic and Edgar Allan Poe. Perhaps the creepiest of these was Unrepentant Necrophile from 2016, and that’s the one they’ll provide via video. It’s the story of a mortician who falls in love with a man as she prepares his corpse for burial. She has three days until the funeral…but three days just isn’t enough.

Another “return” will feature a streaming presentation of Petunia and Chicken by Animal Engine from New York City. It’s a heartwarming prairie love story, told with folk music and inspired by the writings of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather. Carrie Brown and Karim Muasher portray a Czech immigrant girl and a Nebraska farm boy, respectively, who fall in love and struggle to stay together in the face of the harsh realities of adulthood. They use their bodies and a few simple props — a hat, a scarf — to create fields of wheat, train stations and more. This charming show won a “Pick of the Cincinnati Fringe” award in 2013 and has been a standout at other festivals from New York to Orlando.

Comedian Megan Gogerty from Iowa earned the Audience Pick of the Fringe here in 2017 with her show, Lady Macbeth And Her Pal, Megan. Informed that she’s not suited to play Lady Macbeth, a tragic figure of powerful darkness, Megan sets out to prove everyone wrong — despite her resemblance to a lovable golden retriever. 

Productions from Locals

click to enlarge "m-o-u-s-e" - Photo: Provided by Cincinnati Fringe Festival
Photo: Provided by Cincinnati Fringe Festival

Alexx Rouse performed as a stewardess in her memorable one-woman show, Stow Your Baggage, in the 2019 Cincy Fringe. Her new piece, Quit While You’re Ahead, riffs on the thrill of high school graduation: bonfires, parties…and suicide charts. Say what? Well, Rouse’s pair of characters, Janie and Jason do, to the dismay of their bewildered friend Chad. It’s a hilarious attempt to find something to live for once the graduation gowns are off.

Sarah Willis will present an alternate-reality musical journey through isolation and community, Dream. When Iz gets assigned to Emma’s case in a mission to save the multiverse, they embark on an interdimensional journey through wonder, heartache, temptation and self-discovery. Willis calls her show a queer, quirky musical with an electronic-meets-acoustic sound.

Rory Sheridan is a newcomer to the Fringe, but he’s been acting on numerous stages around town for several years. He’s conceived m-o-u-s-e, in which an archaeologist from the future unearths the autobiography of Walt Disney’s pet mouse, the inspiration for the Disney empire’s corporate mascot. The archaeologist’s challenge: relaying the mouse’s life story to his virtual AI assistant. 

Sean Mette is a familiar, ebullient face on Cincinnati stages. He’s written The Bassoonist. It’s about Johann Geyersbach, who dreamed of becoming a renowned musician. He was a student of young Johann Sebastian Bach at a church in Arnstadt, Germany. Unfortunately, Geyersbach wasn’t a very good musician, and Bach cruelly called him a “nanny-goat bassoonist” in front of the student orchestra. This led to a legendary brawl involving a walking stick and a dagger.

All in all, the 2020 Cincy Fringe should, as in the past, be “Kinda Weird. Like You.”

Additional shows will be streamed online. 

The Cincinnati Fringe Festival takes place May 29-June 13. A list of show descriptions and tickets are available at cincyfringe.com