In the Fringe Crowd

Warm nighttime breezes and overcast skies greet the few people waiting June 1 on the front steps of Over-the-Rhine landmark Memorial Hall. The audience sits on the stairs while the 8:10 p.m. perfor

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Warm nighttime breezes and overcast skies greet the few people waiting June 1 on the front steps of Over-the-Rhine landmark Memorial Hall. The audience sits on the stairs while the 8:10 p.m. performance of A Comment from the Peanut Gallery, one of the first shows in the 2005 Cincinnati Fringe Festival, is about to get underway.

The festival, a grassroots collection of new dance, theater and performance art, begins with storm clouds overhead — as good a metaphor as any.

Regulars from surrounding streets and the nearby Drop Inn Center fill Washington Park outside Memorial Hall's front doors. They're proof of the gritty neighborhood street life that continues no matter how many Over-the-Rhine buildings are rehabbed into high-end condos.

The Fringe Festival and Over-the-Rhine are welcome bedmates, optimistic about big-time tomorrows and yet stuck in today's reality of empty pockets. How could anyone — at least anyone who supports vibrant city life — not cheer for future successes?

Grand Music Hall next door is dark and foreboding except for some rainbow-colored May Festival streamers that continue to flutter from the brick building's front columns. Music Hall has turned its back on the Fringe Festival, like many Cincinnati establishments, a wasted chance to take part in something creative and youthful.

But rundown Memorial Hall is half alive and a welcome spot for Fringe Festival attendees to gather, linger and support arguably the city's most significant arts festival.

The two Memorial Hall rooms being used by the festival are old and antiquated, a welcome contrast to the young performers and the timely content of their performances. Pictures of infantry war monuments hang on one of the auditorium's back walls. Props for dr. pain on main, another Fringe performance, stand in the back of the first floor conference room next to an 1865 square grand piano.

It's Wednesday night, and the crowd is small but enthusiastic. The Fringe is meant to appeal to a select few, although it's clear on this night that attendance is below expectations.

"This audience is too small," Cincinnati Experimental Arts Development and Finance Director Jeff Syroney tells the crowd. "Go out and find four friends."

The star of A Comment from the Peanut Gallery is Les Kurkendaal, actor and monologist who describes himself as cocoa brown skin and dreadlocks. His performance is a swift moving and intimate show where he recounts his challenges playing Star Trek as a kid, when he was stuck playing the African-American female crew member, a trip to New Orleans during Mardi Gras and the challenges of Los Angeles life for a young, gay black man.

"I'm a queen who wanted hair that moved, and a weave was not an option," Kurkendaal tells the audience.

The laughs outweigh the bursts of solemnity, and by the show's conclusion he's re-conformed the reasons for Fringe — bringing art and artists that Cincinnati audiences ordinarily wouldn't have the chance to see.

Kurkendaal is hanging around the Memorial Hall lobby the following night. The crowd is the same size for Dan Bernitt, a recent high school grad from Louisville who performs his gay life monologue Moments of Disconnect. Bernitt lacks Kurkendaal's stage polish and presence, but his words are thoughtful and often insightful. He's a performer just getting started, and his potential outweighs his talent today.

A few days later, Fringe Festival volunteers gather at 1219 Sycamore St., one of two galleries for Visual Fringe, an exhibition of regional artists complementing the performances. Fringe volunteers fill the building's front room, but the art continues past the rickety stairs to the upper floors.

This is a squatters' gallery that tests viewers with sweltering temperatures, peeling walls and low attic ceilings. It's a wonder that canvases don't melt from the heat.

The space is too raw, and yet the ideal behind the show compensates for some of the aggravation.

Hunched over on the building's top floor, you realize that it's always easy to say, "Let's put on a show." It takes real nerve to put on a festival that's approximately 120 shows over 12 days, and the effort is as worthy as the results.

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