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This year’s Fringe Festival tried too hard to be important

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The best shows at this year's Fringe Festival toyed with their points rather than pounding them.

Creating the loudest noise in a week full of buzz, The Death of Cupid was atypical Fringe fare. It ran two hours and featured a sizable cast of pros and graduate-student actors. And it was written and directed by Kyle Hatley, the assistant artistic director of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, an institution whose interest in "fringe" has traditionally been limited to the lacy frills on its pillows and draperies. Yet the daring and joyous Death of Cupid was also perfectly typical, an example of all that the new Rep brings to Kansas City: frequent surprises, impressive polish and a season's worth of memorable moments in a night.

A musical exploration of Lysistrata and "the dangerous, dark art of cock blocking," Hatley's on-the-cheap extravaganza featured gods, beauties and swollen phalluses by the score; moments of beauty and horror but also a comic seduction right out of Mel Brooks; a front-porch string band; rock-gospel numbers that Katie Gilchrist tore the hell up; one-liners such as "Women are made of three things — breasts and lies," beautifully delivered by Matt Rapport; and a set-piece show tune in Hades. Hatley even worked in the invention of free will.

The show wasn't perfect. I wished for more singing and less shouting, and some dark scenes concerning the end of the age of gods aspired for tragedy but didn't hit. That said, if the run weren't over, I would catch it again. Here's hoping that Hatley brings it back.

Playing a wicked, flighty Aphrodite, Vanessa Severo was a highlight of Death of Cupid — as she is in any show, including her own Advice From a Spider.

Severo wrote, directed and starred in Spider, a talking-insect fable as shaded and spiked with human cruelty as any great fairy tale. Heidi Van starred as the titular arachnid, a manipulative storyteller who makes no apologies for her nature. Severo flitted through as a rambunctious and naïve butterfly who announced, "There's so much to see in my 20 to 40 days!" Tragically, she got tangled up with that spider.

The energetic Van also turned up as a Björk-like rapper from Nova Scotia in BOOM! An International Lost and Found Marching Band. This musical curio was like a hipster Fellini's United Nations: comic actors and gifted musicians playing orphans from around the world, making music that was funny and melancholy. It offered silliness and was unconcerned with making a point about things.

There were points to be made in Danielle Conover and Dan Griffiths' absurdist comedy Miniature Housewife. An examination of how consumption and anxiety have shaped women's lives, the show was all plotless set pieces, some delightful and some unsettling.

Conover starred as an anxious housewife who seemed literally married to a house. (A male visitor wore a suburban home over his face.) The housewife fretted about her kitchen, certain that something was not right but unable to identify it. Occasionally, a frightening woman on a video screen suggested products she might purchase, which led the housewife to try gorging on cookie pills and stuffing a sponge into lady parts that she hadn't previously considered unclean.

Conover aced the clowning, always finding fresh expressions of nervousness.

But some other shows elevated point pounding over artistry.

I loved the first two monologues by homeless characters in Brad Shaw's Visible Scars. By the sixth monologue, though, I'd almost forgotten the powerful work of some of its actors, such as George Forbes. Did the last character really have to suffer homelessness, HIV and a threesome with a john and his own mother to set up an attempted overdose? Why not invite the audience up to piss on him, too?

Almost as dreary was Bryan Colley's Lingerie Shop, a work that couldn't decide whether it was a meta or a meat comedy. Colley addressed the conceptual muddle that has kept me from attending burlesque shows for years: that parading half-naked actresses around isn't exploitative as long as said actresses deliver post-post-feminist speeches about said exploitation. The actresses stripped and came on to each other, and then smashed out of the story to denounce (and truss up) the male playwright who had dreamed up such sexist nonsense.

By the end, the characters had turned on the crowd, announcing that their exploitation was due to the audience getting what it wanted. If that were true, Lingerie Shop would have had better jokes and wrapped up 15 minutes earlier.

The next night, a belly-dance show by Lawrence's Raghsidad offered relief. While not particularly good and sometimes marching in a lock step that recalled the old Space Invaders game, the dancers enjoyed their bodies and their movements, and they seemed to hope that we might, too. In turn, our enjoyment fed their enjoyment. After centuries of this, is it really such a bad thing?

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