On Tuesday (May 29), the Cincinnati Fringe Festival enters its 15th season with a 6:30 p.m. party at Know Theatre. Since the beginning, the planning team behind the theater festival, now a 13-day event helmed by producer Chris Wesselman, has never stopped innovating. This year welcomes back Film Fringe, a selection of indie movie offerings at Mini Microcinema on Main Street. It also sees the return of a fan-favorite performance from a decade ago — Mortem Capiendum, a comedy about three snake oil salesmen that first came here 10 years ago — plus free family-friendly offerings on the weekends of June 2-3 and June 9-10 and live music throughout the festival. Fringe will also include multiple art galleries, street performers and an audio installation in an igloo.
And that doesn’t even include the primary lineup: Cincy Fringe’s main component features 35 roughly hour-long performances. Depending on how you look at it, Fringe can be a veritable holiday of theatrical adventures or it can be an overwhelming buffet of too many choices.
In this guide, we have sliced and diced the 2018 Fringe lineup into categories to help you find the kind of experience you’re looking for. Before diving in, we offer two precautions:
1. Cincy Fringe is your opportunity to see something new and surprising. Consider a 2:1 ratio — for every two shows you choose because they sound as though they might be up your alley, add in one with a description you do not even fully understand. Don’t be shocked if that dark horse somehow becomes your favorite.
2. Fringe performances defy easy categorization. Consider ExTrashVaganza! (Theatre Mobile, Cincinnati). Is it a puppet show for adults? A “strange-sational” musical? A punny comedy? A found-object exploration? Yes, yes, yes and yes. (And probably more.) Producers Erika Kate MacDonald and Paul Strickland are each recent Cincy Fringe award winners and are known for their sense of invention.
For more help on dissecting a specific show, peruse CityBeat’s Official Fringe Guide, which includes additional classifications as well as movie-style ratings for language and themes. And, visit cincyfringe.com to find dates, times, tickets and venue locations.
With that aside, let’s get to the fun work of customizing your Fringe experience. We’ve tried to anticipate what you might be looking for.
• “I’m interested in turning history on its head.”
It is not unusual for Fringe performers to draw inspiration from literature, art and history; for example, the show Curie Me Away! (Matheatre, Minneapolis) tells the “radical” story of chemistry’s Madame Marie Curie, “a persistent woman who changed our understanding of the universe.” Billy: The Haunting of William Howard Taft (Autumn Kaleidoscope, Cincinnati) “shows audiences there is more to this president than just getting stuck in a bathtub.” Likely more bizarre than these two will be Walt Fit (Jimmy Grzelak, Philadelphia) — apparently, literary giant Walt Whitman once wrote a health-and-beauty guide, which Grzelak will bring to life through a “Richard Simmons-style workout.” Eddie Poe (The Coldharts, Brooklyn, N.Y.) is a companion piece to The Coldharts’ Edgar Allan (Full Frontal Pick of the Fringe winner in 2015); if this “manic riff” on the writer’s adolescence is half as inventive and macabre as Edgar Allan, you won’t want to miss it. Another promising option is Van Gogh Find Yourself Gallery (#vgfy, New York), which explores the painter’s life; this solo performance includes live painting with help from the audience. Van Gogh is a special event occurring throughout the Fringe and not included in the main lineup.
• “I’m interested in being involved in the show.”
Pick a card, any card — in Please Shuffle the Cards (Erik Tait, Columbus), Tait will ask you to reorder the deck that he uses for his award-winning sleight-of-hand magic. The setup is similar in Doppelbanger (Nick Jonczak, Philadelphia), in which audience members choose Tarot cards to guide Jonczak’s stories; however, Doppelbanger takes an R-rated approach to its tales of “gay obsession, identity, trauma and joy.” If you’re looking for a more interactive experience, visit the MeSseD Tunnel Tour (MeSseD Comics, Cincinnati), “an immersive comic book experience installed in the subterranean basement of Union Hall.” The character Lilliput, a Cincinnati sewer worker, acts as a “guide to a wild world that’s right below our feet.” This tunnel tour, which occurs throughout Fringe, is a special event and not included in the main lineup.
• “I’m interested in social commentary.”
Looking for a dystopian hellscape? You’re in luck. The Mountains Did Quake, The Hillsides Did Tremble (Animal Engine, Minneapolis) uses the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh to spin a tale of oppression and rebellion. As dark as it sounds, previous shows springing from the minds of Animal Engine (Darlings, Petunia and Chicken) lead me to expect great imagination and physical comedy as well. The Amphibian (The Burying Beetles, Cincinnati) deals with “a rebel leader captured by an enemy officer who’s ignorant of the country he’s invaded.” Thrive IRL (Nameless Numberhead, Charleston, S.C.) offers a “post-apocalyptic vaudeville show about YOU,” specifically about social media’s increasingly voyeuristic place in our lives. In The Bureau (Sh*t Talkers Anonymous, Chicago), “It’s been a rough day for the New World Order” as a reeducation workshop goes awry — and, naturally, The Bureau is a musical.
• “I’m interested in having my buttons pushed.”
The Gospel of Barabbas (Hugo West Theatricals, Cincinnati) proudly includes the warning “offensive to all audiences.” Boasting an R-rating for “simulated drug use,” The Gospel claims to be an absurd adventure through biblical Israel, styled “The Big Lebowski meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” A “satanically-possessed pig” might or might not be involved. You have been warned.
• “I’m interested in a flight of fancy.”
Take Flight: An Adventure in Cirque (Imaginez, Chicago) uses aerial silks and acrobatics to tell the story of a clown named Bumbles as he overcomes his fears and experiences the “exhilarating joy of flying into new chapters of his life.” Take Flight dubs itself “a ‘Living Pixar’ tale of courage, resiliency and friendship perfect for all ages.”
• “I’m interested in comedy.”
Bad Poetry Night (A to Z Productions, Cincinnati) is a “kooky, hilarious, cringey” send-up of an open mic night, a satire that bills itself as “Kids in the Hall meets the American Idol open auditions.” The New Adventures of Calliope Jones and Captain Cool (Lucky Ducks Productions, Cincinnati) was cooked up by two members of the local ComedySportz improv troupe — they’ve put together a pun-filled superhero story that takes place in a library.
• “I’m interested in putting myself in someone else’s shoes for an hour.”
Start with She Buried the Pistol (Lydia Blaisdell, Brooklyn, N.Y.), based on the playwright’s great-grandmother’s medical records from a 1930s asylum. Then check out Lost Generation (Society’s Tongue Productions, Cincinnati), a spoken-word exploration of Millennial stereotypes, using the personal stories of “a three-generation Black local literary legacy. ”The Blackface Project (Norman-Reaves Productions, Cincinnati) takes inspiration from Bert Williams, who became the first black man on Broadway — “but at what cost?” Using five years of research in the Ozarks, There Ain’t No More! (Breaker/Fixer Productions, Fayetteville, Ark.) spins a yarn about an old Folk singer as he confronts his troubled past; shockingly, it is the only show this year whose description suggests a “haunting, heartfelt hootenanny.”
• “I’m interested in gaining a new perspective on women.”
You’ve come to the right place. All We Have Borne (Victoria Hawley, Cincinnati) is a direct response to the #MeToo movement, addressing themes of sexual abuse and violence against women. Re-Grooving (Yarroway Productions, Cincinnati), a family-friendly performance that integrates film with dance and movement, charts a journey of identity, growth and transformation. The Last Drag (Jen Spillane, Kansas City, Kan.) promises “a Rap cabaret in one act,” a solo storytelling performance about the lengths one performer went to for success.
And in Delivery (The Functional Shoes, New York), “three women fail to get the message across” in a customer-service debacle. Expect something unique with Delivery; The Functional Shoes took home the 2017 Producer’s Pick of the Fringe for their bizarre and beautiful Romeo + Juliet + Anybodys.“
• I’m interested in gaining a new perspective on mental health.”
Often, words are not sufficient to share experiences with mental illness; Damage (Pedamentum Dance Theatre, Cincinnati) approaches the subject through five true stories told using “dance, poetry and a lamp.” Annalise (Take Two, Cincinnati) deals with two friends coping with mental illness; this production is one of two Fringe Next productions, created and produced by high school students. Fadeaway Girl (Rachel Petrie, St. Paul, Minn.) tells the autobiographical story of Petrie’s experience with bipolar disorder; Petrie “shares her personal stories of derailment, discovery, reinvention, and joy.” Of a different tenor altogether is Show Up (Peter Michael Marino, New York), “an improvised solo comedy based on your crazy life,” in which the audience guides “the content, set and sound for this socially anxious show about you. And there’s a party!”
• “I’m interested in gaining a new perspective on family.”
Set in the Gulf Coast, of Monster Descent (Queen City Flash, Cincinnati) “presents a story about a family on the brink of collapse” with something even more sinister stalking just outside the door. Queen City Flash calls it an “otherworldly, lightning-lit, monster survival tale” about “inherited traits, claws and all;” expect well-executed drama from the same team as The Disappearance of Nicole Jacobs and Slut Shaming.
The Whitest Baby in All of Africa (Welage & Kerns Productions, Cincinnati), a Fringe Next production created by high school students, explores the concept of privilege through the story of an international adoption. In the “near-musical” One More Bad Thing (Homegrown Theater, Cincinnati), two estranged sisters set out to make things right, but first they must take care of — say it with me — “one more bad thing.” Musical Chairs (Gideon Productions, Long Island City, N.Y.), produced by the ensemble behind last year’s Full Frontal Pick for the haunting God of Obsidian, details “the struggles of a three-person marriage in a collapsing nation.”
• “I’m interested in work in development.”
“From workshops of brand new productions to artist-led master classes, Fringe Development is all about using the critical mass of creativity centered around the festival to fuel the growth and evolution of shows and individuals,” says festival producer Wesselman. This year, Fringe Development includes two works in progress. Under workshop is The Origin of Kick Jab Girl (Muwhahaha Productions, Cincinnati), an R-rated superhero origin story that may change your perspective on heroism. H2O, a Play About Water (Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Acting Department, Cincinnati) is an “epic theatrical journey” about the importance of water and was created by 30 students under the guidance of Richard Hess, chair of CCM Drama. This team from CCM will take the show to the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival in Scotland this summer, following its refinement during Cincy Fringe.
• “I’m interested in getting very Fringe-y.”
One of the draws of a Fringe festival is the chance to see art that defies simple description. For instance, Vox Box (Performance Gallery, Cincinnati) dubs itself “a sumptuous sound sensation, like Jabberwocky meeting a blender,” and “an auditory, primal, percussive playground.” On the more narrative end, Aphrodite’s Refugees (MonTra Performance, Boulder, Co.) is an interdisciplinary visual art performance that uses animation and live painting to tell the story of a teenage refugee from Cyprus. I am not certain how to classify bloom (allendance, Philadelphia), but allendance describes it as “a rapid unfolding of three dancers, colliding softly and recklessly with one another, in an unadorned space.” Finally, your guess is as good as mine when it comes to Forealism Tribe Origins (Forealism Tribe, Cincinnati), an “Inter-Dimensional Being’s Earth & Spacetime Journey” bridging performance art, dance and music.
• Fringe Special Events
(NOTE: Many of the special events listed below are ticketed separately from the Fringe primary lineup; see CityBeat’s Official Fringe Guide for details.)
There is so much more than the Fringe “primary lineup.” Certain special events have been highlighted above; others of note include Immersive Igloo (Tom Montagliano, New York), a “pop-up 3-D sound experience” that lives within a 40-foot glowing igloo; trueFringe 2018 (True Theatre, Cincinnati) invites Fringe performers to tell true, personal stories about their lives; and Kevin Thornton’s Final Fringe Forever! (sort of.) (Kevin J. Thornton Entertainment, Nashville, Tenn.) sees Fringe veteran Thornton recount his journeys as he bids farewell to the Fringe life (maybe?). Mortem Capiendum (Four Humors, Minneapolis), a rare returning production, is back because producers Four Humors of Minneapolis are Fringe fan favorites.
If you are a fan of improvised comedy, check out the Improv Festival of Cincinnati Preview, a sneak peek at the upcoming fifth year of this event. This IF Cincy preview will include shows by local troupes Improv Cincinnati and OTRimprov. ComedySportz Cincinnati, an offshoot of OTRimprov, offers “competitive improv” — two teams engage in a friendly battle for laughs using family-friendly improv scenes. In CUSS: Fringe Edition; podcast phenom Travis McElroy (My Brother, My Brother and Me; The Adventure Zone) brings “a comedy talk show with your friendly neighborhood secret society.”
• Family-Friendly Fringe
This year, Cincy Fringe also includes two special events specifically geared toward the family. The Inventive Princess of Floralee (Know Theatre, Cincinnati) is an energetic adventure that slyly introduces STEM concepts through story and dance — and as a bonus, this princess can save herself. The Case of the Kidnapped Backpack (Madcap Puppets, Cincinnati) is a “hilarious musical-puppet-whodunnit” that features music by Fringe favorite Paul Strickland. Both of these Family-Friendly Fringe events are free to the public.
• Film Fringe
Call it a reboot: Cincy Fringe is bringing film programs back to its lineup. Film Fringe will present five nights of indie content through a partnership with Mini Microcinema on Main Street. Film Fringe programs are ticketed separately and range from short films to a musical essay to a playful profile of the “alternative society” of wasps and bees. Worth particular note is Fringe regular Kevin J. Thornton’s How to Get From Here to There, a work in progress which Thornton describes as “a Southern gothic, time-traveling sci-fi gay love story.”
• Fringe on the Streets
Cincy Fringe continues its partnership with the local Art on the Streets initiative to help saturate Over-the-Rhine with art and entertainment. Keep an eye out for buskers and street performers as they unleash their creativity upon the neighborhood.
• Fringe Bar Series
Every night during the festival, after the evening’s last show, Know Theatre’s Underground Bar transforms for the Fringe Bar Series. This year, Cincy Fringe invites bands and musicians White Line Fever, Lemon Sky, Jess Lamb and the Factory, The Matildas, Andrew Biagiarelli and members of Common Center to get the party started. For the full listing of themes and performances, check the detailed event schedule in CityBeat’s Official Fringe Guide.
• Visual Fringe
“Fringe isn’t just about live performance, it’s about all artistic endeavors, including visual art,” Wesselman says. Visual Fringe 2018 will include live photography sessions and interactive outdoor installations, as well as galleries with embroidery, murals, paintings and more.
Some of these performances will make you laugh until you ache. A few will touch your soul in a way you can never quite shake. And let’s be honest: A handful will fall flat. These artists are pushing boundaries and attempting new things in a way that does not always pan out. Your best approach to Cincy Fringe this year, as every year, is to choose a broad variety of performances and enter each with a curious mind and an open heart. Expand your concept of theater, sample new perspectives and know that the show you underestimate might be the one that changes you.
Individual tickets to primary Cincinnati Fringe Festival lineup performances are $15 and discounted multi-show passes are available as well. See the printed CityBeat Official Fringe Guide (or visit cincyfringe.com) and watch CityBeat online daily starting May 31 for reviews.