Storyteller Paul Strickland needs to officially be proclaimed a local treasure. He first came to the Cincinnati Fringe in 2013 with his tall tales of “Ain’t True and Uncle False,” perhaps the most prominent and certainly the most colorful residents of the Big Fib Cul-de-Sac Trailer Park. He’s returned annually with one show or another (in fact, he relocated to Cincinnati because he discovered a kindred artistic community nurtured by Know Theatre and its annual Fringe festival), more often than not expanding his universe of whopping lore about folks shaped with puns, jokes, asides to the audience, musical punctuation, exaggerated impersonations and sundry other devices that make his performances fly by. His show for 2019, 90 Lies an Hour, is aptly named.
He eases a crowded audience (performances in an overheated, converted church kitchen in Over-the-Rhine) into his performance with a quick outline of what’s in store: Three stories inherited from Uncle False, plus a song. Even before he steps to the microphone in a pool of light, he’s disarmed everyone with his blend of quick wit, tongue-in-cheek narrative and genuine sincerity.
The first story is about how Ain’t True and Uncle False met as kids, the front door to a long, happy marriage peppered with stories of their own and neighbors’ amusing shenanigans. This one is about a car fueled with swear words (none are ever spoken outright) that seven-year-old False dubbed “Castle Cuss-a-Lot” and proclaimed himself the ruler of until True came along, age “five and seven-eighths,” to challenge his authority. Their first love is viewed through a kind of funhouse mirror.
The second story is a made-up eulogy for pig farmer Mel V. O’Droit. Uncle False needed assistance for this task because no one in the trailer park really liked the guy, a man who reportedly failed at everything he did. But we receive more than a few laughs from the remarks, including how Mel and his wife Ima coined numerous phrases — from “piggyback” to “hog heaven” — that you might have thought had other derivations. They live in a house that straddles two time zones, a clever device that adds a touching ending to Ima’s passing.
The third story is about a city at the bottom of a lake; it has four chapters and guitar-strummed sound effects. First, we meet a politician making extravagant promises, citizens willing to be drawn in, and an imaginative venture seemingly doomed for failure. Then we meet people whose lives are shaped by the sunken city (populated with slowly disintegrating mannequins). It feels sad until love bubbles to the surface. Strickland’s performance ends with a touching song about not letting go.
That’s how his tall tales work: You’re laughing minute-to-minute, but they suddenly turn philosophical and poignant. He’s a master, and we’re lucky to have him back year after year. Get a ticket if you can — they’re selling fast.