The 2019 KC Fringe Festival is in full swing. Here’s what we’ve seen so far.

We’re deep in the heart of the 2019 Fringe Festival, which has brought about 75 shows in 14 different venues throughout downtown and midtown.

With such abundance, the same dilemma arises every year: How to choose? Buzz by word of mouth is one way — but helpful mostly after the festival has begun.

Preparing for opening weekend, July 19-21, we put our ears to the ground and closely perused the Fringe-program lineup. We made our lists and whittled them down. Many show times overlapped — one has only so many ways to massage a schedule. A Fringe festivalgoer must be a hard decision-maker. 

Each act this year gets five performance dates. We settled on 10 shows, to get ourselves started — see our reviews below. (Shows run through Saturday, July 27, with “bonus” performances by each venue’s Best of Fringe winners on Sunday, July 28.) 

Some venues have more than one stage. (Shows scheduled at Quixotic in the Fringe program had to move to the Unicorn’s Levin Stage, causing some initial confusion among Fringe patrons.) 

Photo courtesy of Caitlin Cook

On the festival’s opening night, when a show let out at one Unicorn stage, three women wandered over to the ticket table for Caitlin Cook: Death Wish at the other. “What is she going to talk about?” one asked a Fringe volunteer. “Is she funny?” They were there, so decided to stay. And, yes, the “LA-born, NYC-based” Caitlin Cook is funny. And insightful. And sometimes poignant. (But her show isn’t all haha, for those searching for straight-up comedy.) In a mix of storytelling, humor, autobiography, visual projection, and acoustic guitar-accompanied original song, the Oxford-educated art historian sings and talks of human foibles, her own included; the nature of faith (or lack thereof); our special talents (“superpowers,” she calls them); the irony of solo synchronized swimming; and the role of chance in life and death. Sometimes she sings too fast or too softly, and her wit may be a bit subtle at times. But she lets us in on the things that frighten her, and she gives comedic voice to others’ personal fears. Her favorite pizza topping is pineapple, she admits early on, and she killed a man. It’s up to us, she says, to decide which is worse. You might be surprised by your conclusion. (Caitlin Cook: Death Wish, at Unicorn Theatre’s Levin Stage, with a final performance at 6 p.m. Tuesday)

Comic-book fans can chase the theatrical equivalent of a sugar rush on Union Station’s City Stage, where Right Between the Ears presents Fantasmo vs. the Vampire Women. The radio comedy — actors stand in front of mics; a foley artist supplies live sound effects — follows a doddering professor and his Valley Girl daughter as they confront testy vampires, an evil scientist, a malapropist robot, and a man named “Canard Pustule.” Corny gags abound, and the script has plenty of stale Boomer jokes about vegans and “Netflix and chill.” But the cast holds our attention with crisp character voices (Michael Foster and Shawn Patrick Murphy are especially strong) and the whiplash energy of a Saturday-morning cartoon. Stay for the distinct pleasure of watching Mary Ellen Kriegh, the company’s effects artist, MacGyver file cabinet drawers into robot feet. (Fantasmo vs. the Vampire Women, Union Station’s City Stage, 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 9 p.m. Saturday)

Stewart Huff, Donating Sperm to My Sister’s Wife. // Photo courtesy of Stewart Huff.

Stewart Huff dropped out of college to be a road comic, he says, causing his Southern Republican father to ask, “Why can’t you be more like your lesbian sister?” The Kentucky-raised, Georgia-based stand-up’s Donating Sperm to My Sister’s Wife touches on the title’s theme and the story of his becoming an “uncle baby daddy,” while also veering into topical tangents. He compares a Shakespeare sonnet with overpass graffiti, and he points out the absurdities of human nature, religious ritual and our country’s history. (His observations on the writing of the U.S. Constitution alone are worth a ticket to his show.) He’s perceptive, funny, smart, and even heartfelt when speaking of his two sisters and what he has learned from them. His liberal views don’t always win over audience members. A man once stormed the stage and punched him, he says. But this doesn’t seem to bother a guy who writes his material with a bar setting in mind. (Donating Sperm to My Sister’s Wife, at Unicorn Theatre’s Jerome Stage, 8 p.m. Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. Thursday and 9:30 p.m. Saturday)

At the Loretto Auditorium, Enlarged to Show Texture subverts audience expectations (and the show’s advertising) in a tragicomic meditation on both metal music and odd-couple friendships. The script, by Fringe veterans Tara Varney and Bryan Colley, starts strong. Varney is equal parts convincing and heartbreaking as she tries to regain shaken confidence by delivering a brief, glib taxonomy of metal music. Sharp material on friendships and forgiveness plays to a rapt audience. But as the show rolls on, the script veers into more predictable territory, with long monologues on beauty standards and self-esteem that feel less fresh and affecting than Varney’s performance. (Enlarged to Show Texture, Loretto Auditorium, 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 6 p.m. Saturday)

Stay at the Loretto for Bang, a hypnotic one-woman show about the life of Joan Vollmer — a woman largely known for her tragic death at the hands of writer William S. Burroughs during a drunken game of William Tell. Playwright Dan Born fractures the chronology to paint a layered, complex portrait of Vollmer that doesn’t sacrifice intrigue or suspense. Crucial to the show’s success is actor Alisa Lynn, who shifts fluidly between a sardonic cutup with amphetamine-fueled energy and a vulnerable young woman hungry for intimacy and connection. Lynn’s precise, physically expressive performance makes the recounting of Vollmer’s life feel action-packed and immediate. Bonus: Bang is a brisk 45 minutes, making it easy to fit into even the most packed Fringe schedule. (Bang, Loretto Auditorium, 6 p.m. Tuesday, 9 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday)

Tim Mooney, Man Cave. // Photo courtesy of Tim Mooney.

Out-of-towner Tim Mooney (home base, Illinois) returns to KC with his original one-man show Man Cave, “a sci-fi climate change tragicomedy” that imagines a dystopian future of upward-trending temps. The play’s protagonist, Tim, lives in survivalist mode, isolated in northern Canada, with his own water, solar power and enough cans of Campbell’s soup to last him a couple of years (the stuff of a Warhol nightmare, he says). Is he alone? Holed up in his “Hobbit home,” he speaks out over radio waves to whomever on the planet or in the universe might be alive and listening. The captivating actor elaborates on our fatally flawed human history and “sins of excess,” and of procreation as a race to the bottom (“no pun intended,” he says). “Our brains aren’t bailing us out.” It’s heady stuff. Will humans evolve to extinction? he asks. When Mooney explores the technologies and public policies that drove the planet to this place, his words dip into the more scientific-specific, but his idea-packed monologue is also darkly humorous, richly filled with literary reference and metaphor, and ultimately sad. Man Cave certainly has an effect, bringing on some self-induced guilt when filling up the car on the drive home. (Man Cave, at Center for Spiritual Living, 7:30 p.m. Friday and 9 p.m. Saturday)

The Unicorn’s Jerome Stage was filled for The Summer House, an absorbing period drama by Christie Kennard that imagines a story, based on historical events, about the wives of Jesse and Frank James, when they briefly lived north of Nashville, Tennessee, in 1881, under aliases. The beautifully constructed dialogue befits the time period and rolls languidly off the tongues of the talented cast: Emmy Panzica-Piontek as Jesse’s wife, Zee James (aka Josie Howard); Stefanie Stevens as Frank’s wife, Anna James (aka Fannie Woodson); Casey Jane as neighbor and friend Kate Cantrell Eastman; Margaret Shelby as Kate’s mother, Ellen Cantrell; Sam Wright as Bill Ryan (aka Tom Hill), who rode with Jesse James; and Marek Burns as Jesse and Zee’s young son. The James women try to live a normal, respectable life, but find it stressful to navigate society, particularly when the neighbor Kate becomes, well, neighborly. The plot thickens when outlaw Bill Ryan comes to stay, and the women worry over their husbands’ safety and their ability to keep their cover. The James women also play a role in Kate’s own desire for change. It’s an engaging story. An added bonus: the stunning period costumes (by Mary Traylor). (The Summer House, at Unicorn Theatre’s Jerome Stage, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday)

Drama lovers should make time for Deceit at Just Off Broadway Theatre. The living-room drama, written and directed by Derek Trautwein, starts with a familiar premise: Russ, a once-successful literary novelist, has been banging his head against a typewriter(!) for years, trying to live up to his first effort. But the script’s twists and turns are surprising enough to hold our attention through some of the harder-worn tropes (baldly confessional monologues in lieu of dramatic scenes; characters looking at photographs and feeling feelings). Strong performances, especially from supporting player Ryan Morehead, give the show’s tense late-play revelations added weight. (Deceit, Just Off Broadway, 8 p.m. Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. Thursday and 1:30 p.m. Saturday)

The Kitchen Plays, by Leslie Revelle Zucker, is a trio of short plays taking place in family kitchens. Peopled by skilled actors, the works are light, heartwarming, funny and just a pleasant way to spend a Fringe Fest hour (or, in this case, 45 minutes). Flight Pattern is a humorous and touching look at a middle-aged couple of empty-nesters, adjusting to life after their daughter has left. Shelley Wyche is the emotional mom, and Peter Leondedis is the supportive dad, who offers some refreshing insights. (The chirping birds in the background, though, may be a bit overdone.) Something Old, Something New starts out with stereotyping — here, a Jewish family preparing for a Passover meal — but transforms into a lovely and funny piece about a mother (Kelly Main), a daughter (Meghann Deveroux) and a grandfather (Larry Goodman) holding on to traditions while trying to introduce change. (One suggested amendment to the script: It’s OK for gentiles to attend a Passover seder.) In the final piece, 37 Kisses, a mother (Margaret Shelby) and her daughter (Daijah Porchia) meet up in the kitchen during a sleepless night on the eve of the daughter’s wedding. A heart-to-heart talk, in which the mother reminisces about her own courtship and wedding, ties in to the sweet title of the play. And we’re talking Hershey’s. (The Kitchen Plays, Just Off Broadway, 8 p.m. Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. Friday and 4:30 p.m. Saturday)

Jeannette Rankin, born in Montana in 1880, was an activist in the suffragette movement, a committed pacifist and the first woman elected to Congress, in 1916. J. Emily Peabody, from Minnesota, portrays Jeannette Rankin: Champion of Persistence, in the one-woman show she wrote. Rankin’s life spanned nine decades (she lived to protest the Vietnam War), and Peabody’s frequent costume changes reflect her passage through time. Rankin, who tried to have an impact on peace and labor movements throughout her long life, went to Congress twice — again in 1940, in time to be the lone vote against entry into World War II, when pacifists were “akin to Communists,” she says. The one-hour show is primarily a chronological telling, and Peabody’s rendition doesn’t emphasize any one life event over another. (And when dealing with Southern senators for women’s right to vote, did Rankin offer to suppress the franchise of black women? The script is unclear.) But the show is motivation for further research, and its message may be an effective one: A man asked Peabody to pose for a picture with his granddaughters after the show. (Jeannette Rankin: Champion of Persistence, at Unicorn Theatre’s Levin Stage, 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 6 p.m. Saturday)


2019 KC Fringe Festival

Through July 28; for festival and performance information, see kcfringe.org.

Categories: Culture