ORLANDO

An angst-filled Jewish teenager goes to summer camp …

…The workers at a gay nightclub in New York City experience a bizarre time warp…

... A 12-year-old boy becomes obsessed with writing a love letter to a girl in his class, only he wants to write it on her leg …

… A grief-stricken father contemplates murdering the man who accidentally killed his young son…

Welcome, folks, to the 16th annual Orlando International Fringe Festival.

One of the Orlando region's great, great treasures, the festival opens its doors to aspiring and established playwrights, directors and actors alike, who want a platform for their work. Anyone who can pay the filing fee gets a stage to perform on, and the results can be fascinating. Of the four shows I caught during the Fringe's week-long run, diversity was the key word.

Experimental, hilarious, somber and dramatic, campy, with songs and dancing … two of the shows acted by a single performer, and the other two by large casts … there's always something for everyone at the Fringe, from naughty, naughty to family friendly. The quality of the shows, not surprisingly, also was widely divergent, and what I caught ranged from knockout good to mixed to pretty awful.

Held every May in Orlando's Loch Haven Park, the 12-day festival is "a celebration of theatre and the arts," the Fringe organizers note in the program book, under the heading "Fringe 101."

"Its mission is to provide an accessible, affordable outlet that drives diverse elements of the community together and inspires creative experiences through the arts," they note.

Buttons are sold to patrons, who then get to pick among a whopping 67 plays being performed at separate venues around the park. On weekends, the shows run virtually all day from 11 a.m. straight through midnight. The plays start precisely on time because you can book a show at 2:50 p.m., as I did, and it runs for 60 minutes, and then your next show is at 4 p.m. So you have 10 minutes to bolt over to the next one - no late entries, thank you. It's not uncommon during the Fringe Festival to see people scampering across Loch Haven Park, frantically rushing to the next show. It's pretty madhouse at times, but great fun.

The Fringe Festival shows often move onto other theaters, both locally and nationally. Last year's Fringe produced one solid hit in "Bathhouse: The Musical," which went on the road after attracting good reviews at its Loch Haven Park run. One of the plays I caught this year, "Father's Day," may have another future: The producer, Marc Bryant, announced at the start of the show that he was planning to turn it into a movie. There's always something fun going on at the Fringe.

Here's a look at what I caught during this year's madcap festival.

SO KISS ME ALREADY, HERSCHEL GERTZ! Four Stars

Amy Salloway, on loan to Orlando from Minnesota, wrote and acts in this comedy about a 15-year-old Jewish girl whose mother is about to get a hysterectomy, and can't endure a summer of recovering from the operation and dealing with her daughter at the same time. So Amy gets sent to Jewish Camp L'Chaim, where she learns traditional Jewish songs, the history of her religion, and the benefits of kosher cooking. But it's not all fun for Amy, who is overweight and a geek; she laments sleeping in a room filled with skinny, model-like girls. Then her life really takes a turn when the biggest dork among the boys, Herschel Gertz, takes a liking to her. When he learns she ran out of quarters to buy stamps at the camp canteen, he offers her some of his. When she accepts, he removes his shoe and pulls some quarters off his stinky bare foot. Is this the beginning of a great romance, or what?

Oy ve, is this play funny! Salloway is a riot as she performs all the parts in this tale of budding teenage romance in a most unique environment.

It's hard to say which is the most talented: Salloway the writer (her gift for rapid fire one-liners is superb), Salloway the comedian , or Salloway the actress. I say that because for all of the play's rich humor, Salloway also takes us into some very poignant moments, as Amy struggles with the kind of growing pains that any of us can relate to. She has some painfully awkward moments in her courtship with the big doofus Herschel, and we suffer each humiliation she goes through right along with her. It leaves a very hysterical play with a touching, two-hanky ending.

FATHER'S DAY One and a half Stars.

"Father's Day" is a very earnest drama, one that explores complex issues of family, faith and anger. Unfortunately, it's not a very good one, and suffers from a painfully obvious script.

Edward is a regular blue collar guy, happily married and with a young son, who is feeling the strains of work. One night he loses his temper when his son breaks something. Edward really comes to regret that when the boy is killed in a car accident by a reckless driver. Awash in grief, Edward struggles to cope with his loss, and isn't able to find solace from the local parish priest, who urges him to seek answers from God on how to cope with a tragedy. Instead, Edward is more persuaded by angry co-workers who urge him to hunt down and get revenge on the man who killed his boy.

"Father's Day" is an odd mix of a more thoughtful version of "Death Wish," combined with some sub-par Dr. Phil-like soul searching and emotional anguish. The play by Rob Micai has it heart in the right place and is obviously very sincere in trying to deliver a positive message. But Edward doesn't make a very believable transition from grieving father to bat-wielding vigilante, and the dialogue is so stilted and hackneyed that it all feels like a failed TV drama. Some of the scenes - like when the killer and his girlfriend have a picnic and discuss getting peanuts out of M&Ms - are agonizing to sit through.

BREAKING GLASS Three Stars.

Alan Sincic is a talented local actor who has given some memorial performances locally, including playing a kindly college professor with a dark secret in the Mad Cow Theatre's recent production of "Bus Stop."

"Breaking Glass," which Sincic also wrote, is an experimental piece where he creates several characters, starting with a Southern gent searching for his dog Sandy. There's no plot to connect it all, just vivid monologues; the most memorable is a 12-year-old boy, bored in class, who becomes fascinated and obsessed when he notices that one of his classmates is writing a love letter to a girl -using a pen, and writing it on her leg. Sincic decides to do the same thing and, in a droll bit of audience participation, he picked a woman from the audience, found someone to contribute a pen - and did indeed write a rather lengthy letter on her leg. The woman chosen from the audience was a good sport, and it gave Sincic's show a clever edge. The play also gave Sincic an opportunity to prove what a fine character actor he is.

BOYS, BOYS, BOYS! Three and a half Stars.

Douglas E. Huston's play has a great concept. It's 1978; the workers at a gay nightclub in Manhattan get ready for the evening show. Then a group of middle-age folks show up, and the young performers and stage managers notice these faces look awfully familiar …Suddenly it hits them. The older strangers who moseyed in are all of them, circa 2002. Suddenly these young dancers, singers, drag queens, etc., get to see how they turned out two decades later. Some of the young performers, though, notice that their older selves don't show up …

"Boys, Boys, boys!" is not a time-warp, science fiction thriller, but a comedy-drama about the changes that the gay community experienced from the late 1970s to this decade - as they went from the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s to the angry activism of groups like ACT UP!, to the invention of drugs that extended their lives and health considerably.

Huston makes the interesting point that attitudes about casual sex ended up running full circle, from the anything goes view of the pre-AIDS 1970s, to safe sex in the 1980s and 1990s, and now to a younger generation that may think safe sex and condoms are passé when medicine can dramatically fight the disease. He pits an older generation that went through the most harrowing days of the AIDS crisis to a younger generation that views it more as a nuisance.

That theme provides the show with both strengths and weaknesses. For the characters who were not directly impacted by AIDS, the dramatic tension is thin; there's a cute go-go dancer who is depressed because he ended up putting on lots of weight and losing his trim figure, and a drag queen who still remembers the aching night in 1978 when his true love walked out on him. It makes you wonder: Didn't anything more momentous happen to these guys over the course of two decades than a beer belly and a bad date? Don't any aspects of their family life, career, jobs and political activism hold more weight than what they see on the morning scale?

But the show isn't all high drama; it has some very funny comedy, including a hilarious spoof of "Gone With The Wind" that's as side-splitting as it is tasteless, and plenty of songs and campy humor to keep things lively. The cast is quite good, although you have to thrill to Barbara Solomon as Liz, the stage manager and oldest of the bunch, and Joan Gay as her younger self in 1978; these two brassy, tough-talking, hot tempered broads steal every scene they're in.

So keep your eyes out for some of these shows, which may find a life beyond the Fringe's short existence. And if you missed the Fringe Festival this year, pull out your 2008 calendars and mark late May as a crucial time when the Fringe happily returns.

Michael W. Freeman can be reached at michael.freeman@Direct Gates.com or at 863-421-5577.