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Live Active Cultures

Chase Padgett's theatrical triple feature is a promising sign of Fringe Festival's imminent flowering

Like topiaries turning up around Epcot, signs of spring have sprung all over Orlando's theater scene. Central Florida's thespians are emerging from their post-holiday hibernations (most common area ursine: Countrybearicus animatronica) which can only mean one thing: The next Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival is less than two months away.

I openly admit to being anything but objective in my enthusiasm for the Orlando Fringe. I've been a paying patron since the late 1990s, when an un-air-conditioned, abandoned storefront was considered an ideal venue, so long as the rats didn't outnumber the audience. I followed the Fest to its comfortable current digs in Loch Haven Parkand have produced a half-dozen shows there since 2004. Heck, I even met my wife there, back when she was associate producer of the festival. (Full disclosure: She's returning this season to supervise Kids Fringe.)

So while it's no shocker to suggest I'm predisposed to be a Fringe booster, even I've been a little surprised by how smooth the transition has been from longtime Fringe producer Beth Marshall to new producer Michael Marinaccio. Despite some doom-and-gloom predictions last summer, the surest sign of Fringe's stability was the success of last month's Fab Fringe Fundraiser. The festival's traditional spring fundraising kickoff was upgraded with an impressive new venue (Hard Rock Live at Universal's CityWalk) and national star power in the form of Fringe veterans Toxic Audio. The Toxic troupe, which started locally before taking off for Las Vegas fortune and Off-Broadway glory, triumphantly took the stage alongside emerging cult heroes the Mud Flappers and Dog Powered Robot for a hallucinatory hoedown that had the audience howling.

I volunteered technical assistance in projecting video trailers of upcoming Fringe shows on the Hard Rock's massive movie screens, and came away impressed by the professional package that Marinaccio and Fringe general manager George Wallace put together for the event. Evidently it paid off, as the reported proceeds exceeded the festival's predictions (and income from any past Fab Fringe) by thousands of dollars.

In another clever change, Fringe is keeping the momentum moving year-round with a monthly “Fringe Happy Hour” show on the first Friday evening of each month at their offices in the Amelia Street Theatre Garage. A couple of months ago I caught Wayburn Sassy's erstwhile wife Winifred; next week's can't-miss guest star will be singer Janine Klein, performing the songs of Adele in her inimitable “gay bar star” idiom.

But the best sign I've seen of Fringe's imminent flowering was last week's theatrical triple feature from Chase Padgett at Orlando Shakes' Mandell Theater. Long a top performer in local theme parks, Padgett exploded on the Fringe scene in 2010 with 6 Guitars, a virtuoso solo showcase for his characterization and songwriting talents. Last year he followed up with Superman Drinks, which shared the virtues of its predecessor and added a dose of depth and intimacy.

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