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Q.C. Fringe Festival brings out the freaks

Art-hopping for drama, stand-up and improv

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As my summer pilgrimages to Edinburgh in 2006 and New York in 2009 had shown me, fringe festivals are city animals. So it wasn't surprising that the first Queen City Fringe Festival had a personality all its own during its four-day run, Oct. 3-6. Venues in the Plaza-Midwood, Elizabeth and NoDa neighborhoods provided the atmosphere, and performers of all stripes — mainly actors, stand-up comedians, musicians, dancers and improv groups — set them aglow.

When the festival map went up on QCFringe.com, there were 25 venues marked with the blue queen bee festival logo. Eighteen of these actually came into play as the schedules rolled out, first by venue at the website and then, on the eve of the festival, with an email providing the chronological lowdown on more than 125 performances.

Over three evenings, starting no earlier than 5 p.m., we managed to pack in eight events at seven venues, five in places where we'd never seen performances before.

Day 1: Drama

We were out of town back in June when Shakespeare Carolina's Frankenstein played at Spirit Square, so we jumped at the chance to catch up when it reappeared at UpStage. I'm so glad we did, for Michael Ford's joint at 3306C N. Davidson St. seemed far more attuned to the absurdist, Chaplinesque heart of this production than the relatively formal Duke Energy Theater ever could.

Set, costumes and masks had a funky slapped-together feel that chimed comically well with the slapdash methodology that Victor Frankenstein used to create his notorious monster. Clad in the goofball mask and costume designed by Jon Pritchard, the Victor we saw from S. Wilson Lee was more like a mad aviator than a mad scientist, a visionary Orville Wright or an eccentric Howard Hughes — not so impossibly outré when you consider that he tracks his creature way up past the Arctic Circle.

Director Chris O'Neill, without a mask, was an apt Creature with whimsical rubber hoses sprouting from his chest, striking a sensible compromise between the bestiality imprinted in the popular imagination and the more evolved character Mary Shelley actually chronicled in her classic novel. Katie Bearden rounded out the cast of this edgy harlequinade, portraying Victor's mom, his unlucky devoted bride, and the Gorton fisherman who hears Victor's incredible narrative.

From UpStage, we zipped down to CAST for the USC Lancaster Players' production of Keely and Du, the 1994 Jane Martin drama about that nightmarish phenomenon, pro-life terrorists. I hadn't seen the piece since Janet Isenhart directed a solid production for Actor's Theatre of Charlotte upstairs at Spirit Square in 1995. Aside from the experience of the cast, all in favor of the Charlotte company, the biggest difference between the two versions was the casting of Du. She's the well-meaning nurse who becomes the primary caregiver for the kidnapped Keely as the pro-life zealots spirit her away from an abortion clinic, shackle her to a brass bed somewhere underground, and seek to bring the unborn fetus to term — while laying on some heavy-duty proselytizing.

Where Jinny Mitchell was old and white in the Actor's Theatre production, Timisha Collins was young and black, giving an entirely different tang to her pious delusions. On the other hand, Keely was anything but a saint, and Jessica Tobin made me cringe when her brutal defining moment finally came.

Day 2: Stand-Up

Seeing a schedule crammed with stand-up comedians, I decided to devote my second evening at Q.C. Fringe entirely to a quest for funny — sandwiched around our On Q excursion. So we started early, taking in the 5 p.m. Friday Jump-Off at Snug Harbor.

Except for the scarcity of seating, the pirate saloon was perfect for the stand-up medley hosted by Eddie Conz. The host was easily as polished as anyone he introduced, eclipsed only by the rapid-fire spot by Roxanne McDonald. Among the others, only Darisse Smith and Jason B had a secure hold on mediocrity. The remainder introduced me to the surreal universe of beginning and aspiring comics. Here I discovered inchoate attempts at comedy that were untethered to any definite subject or leading to a punchline. Reminding me of a lazy C-Span telecast, a couple of the performers abjectly yielded the remainder of their time.

Nightclub attire is not required among today's hip comedians, so when a young lady arrived toward the end of the Jump-Off, dolled up in a World War 2 style that hinted she might be the Boogie-Woogie Bugle Girl from Company B — except for the tattoos — I instantly took notice. As it turned out, she was the headliner for the 6 p.m. Queen Sheba Show, an event that promised stand-up and poetry.

The poetry began without notice to those of us who were spending the break outside in the Snug Harbor front patio, so I missed the opening of Sheba's menstruation poem. At the rapid rate she was reading it, I found that climbing aboard for the ride took a little more time. Sheba has style and writing talent; plus, she's attractive. At this point, all these assets are swirling in interstellar space, yet to congeal into a viable form. Sadly, we missed the belly-dancing event that was to follow, but the sight of the cherubic performer clad in the fairy wings, amid a bevy of other freaky delicacies, convinced us that it would have been memorable.

After dinner and an excursion to On Q's The Children of Children Keep Coming at Spirit Square, we returned to Plaza Midwood at 10 p.m. for Chesney Goodson, lured by the opportunity of finding out "why Chesney was voted by Charlotte Magazine as Best of the Best for stand-up." We left Common Market after about 45 minutes with that question still unanswered. Merely hosting another parade of comics, Chez himself seemed rather wasted.

The salient topic was usually the alley where this comedy medley was being inflicted. A semi-covered outdoor space with a split canoe serving as ceiling ornaments, this quaint corridor seemed perfectly suited for cockfighting, an activity that the loudest patrons, wielding their Pabst Blue Ribbons, would have enjoyed.

Day 3: Improv

Heeding her groans, I promised Sue that we wouldn't do another evening of stand-up. In future Q.C. Fringe fests, that will likely mean a return to theater events, assuming that more companies from near and far will flock to this celebration now that founder/visionary Jimmy Cartee has pulled it off.

This year, we booked a trio of improv events, beginning at 6 p.m. with Austen & Friends Improv All-Stars at Red@28th, a hookah bar down the hall from CAST at 2424 N. Davidson St. It has been a couple of decades since I've done improv with the defunct Improvability troupe, but I remember the excitement and the terror vividly. Austen DiPalma, our host, was the one performer at Red who has managed to move beyond the deer-in-the-headlights stage of performance, but the rest were very good, and there was a fine variety of audience participation shticks, including a song made from the history of my relationship with Sue. Or what we divulged, anyway.

When we hit NoDa 101, my planning hit a snag since they didn't serve food. We ducked in a couple of doors up toward 36th Street, grabbed dinner and returned in time to see the end of the Humor Therapy Improv performance. The Raleigh ensemble sported a higher confidence level, also picked on me during my brief stint, but just weren't as wacky as the Austen All-Stars, though our sampling wasn't really enough to render authoritative judgment.

So onwards to Smelly Cat, where DiPalma reappeared as part of the 9 p.m. Will Jacobs Stand-up/Improv Comedy Fusion. Unlike the Chesney Goodson, the event turned out to be exactly as described, with Jacobs deserving the Best of the Best accolades among the stand-up artists we saw. DiPalma, Darrell Smith, Chris Layton and Colby Davis also contributed to the merriment.

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