The Capital Fringe Festival rolls on: Audiences engineer a quickie Date Lab in the improv "Play Cupid!"; an actor confesses in "12 Steps"; and "Paul Gonsalves" blows in on a rare gust of jazz.


Allyson Harkey and Klenn Harrigan in "Play Cupid" at the 2016 Capital Fringe Festival. (Sonia Zamborsky)

"Play Cupid!"

"Is anyone here on a date?" Brett Steven Abelman asks us.

He's decked out in a lab coat and thick-rimmed glasses, clipboard in hand. When a couple of people nod, he smiles. Good. He needs people who know what they're doing.

And in "Play Cupid," we have a big job to do. Over the course of the night at Atlas Performing Arts Center, we'll get to know five actors, then set them up on dates and watch it play out. It's "theater where the audience makes choices." And it's a blast.

The show open with each "contestant" in a makeshift corral. The nervous Jakes (a winning Klenn Harrigan) paces and wrings his hands -- he doesn't date much. Brianna (Kara Turner), a sweet, type-A PR strategist, smiles nervously; Kyle (Elizabeth Hansen), a hipster bartender who doesn't believe in gender pronouns, chills.

Rounding out our options: Ali (Niusha Nawab), an enthusiastic intern who says, "Sometimes I come on too strong" (we believe him) and Jessie (Allyson Harkey), a lobbyist with the proclivities of Samantha on "Sex and the City."

The performers introduce themselves and answer some host questions. Then it's our turn. "What Hogwarts house would you belong in?" someone asks. The actors gamely improv their way through, mixing jokes with character insight.

Afterward, the audience votes on who they'd like to set up. It's a charged discussion -- are we trying to help the characters find love, or are we looking for the biggest trainwreck? Even after the date starts (we sent Jakes and Jessie off), we have a lot of power. We can vote at any point to try a new pair.

It's a fun show, mixing improv and stand-up with cringe-worthy first dates and moments of emotional honesty. I wouldn't miss it. And if I may make a humble suggestion: Pair Jakes and Kyle? I really think they'd be good together.

-Amanda Erickson

60 minutes. July 15, 21 and 24 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE.

"12 Steps"

Richard Sautter is an addict. But his drug of choice isn't pills or alcohol; it's acting.

And in a neat bit of meta-theater, he begins his recovery journey on a tiny stage at the Argonaut pub, performing his one-man show. "Fringe is my equivalent of a church basement," he says. "And my audience will be my higher power."

Richard Sautter in the solo "12 Steps" at the 2016 Capital Fringe Festival. Photo: Mariah Ligas. Richard Sautter in the solo "12 Steps" at the 2016 Capital Fringe Festival. (Mariah Ligas)

In "12 Steps," Sautter meditates on the dark side of show business -- the near constant rejection, the soaring highs and crushing lows, the drain on the bank account. "This isn't a show," he says at one point. "It's a cry for help." He talks through his own life and career, using the 12 steps of AA as a framing device (they flash up in the background as Sautter narrates).

It's a likable show, and Sautter's a likable actor. He's a charming storyteller, allowing hints of vulnerability to shine through even as his character keeps things light. It's funny, and there are lots of winky asides.

Sometimes, that's to the show's detriment. There are moments when Sautter sidesteps emotional intimacy, choosing instead to make a joke. When he talks about who his addiction has harmed, he doesn't offer anything close to a real accounting of the cost art can have on the artist and the people closest to him.

Instead, he phones a friend, wondering whether he might have done something wrong in the moments after curtain call, when some actors "black out." No, the friend assures him (they have a real conversation, by the way, as Sautter puts his cell on speaker), it's all good.

I doubt that would fly at AA.

-Amanda Erickson

50 minutes. July 15, 16 and 17 at the Argonaut, 1433 H St. NE.

"Paul Gonsalves on the Road"

Nearly a quarter of the offerings at Capital Fringe are musicals this year, from bluegrass to pop. But there seems to be just one about jazz, and a tasty one at that.

“Paul Gonsalves on the Road” is a revival of the Arthur Luby play first performed at Fringe in 2012. Once more it’s directed by Andy Wassenich and stars Davey Yarborough, the longtime D.C. jazz man and award-winning educator at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. (The show is at the Logan Fringe Arts Space's Trinidad Theatre.)

Few could handle the role of Gonsalves, but Yarborough is clearly up to the task as he plays a number of deep, evocative breathy solos on ballads for which the Duke Ellington Orchestra tenor saxophonist was known.

Gonsalves was most famous for the crazily energized soloing in a 1956 Newport Jazz Festival performance credited with single-handedly reviving the career of Ellington, the D.C.-born bandleader and musical force. But the play is set much later, in 1972, when an Ellington performance at the University of Wisconsin was marred by a drunken Gonsalves collapsing onstage. Gonsalves returned unexpectedly to discuss his career in a master class the next day.

Sleeping on a street overnight, the musician remembers key moments in his life. Some of these moments were researched by Luby (a D.C. lawyer who caught Gonsalves on the decline), including a sparsely attended Rhode Island show replicated in the play.

If Yarborough sometimes stammers with his lines, it fits the portrait of the jazz man who was most articulate with his horn. Addison Switzer plays Ellington with elegance and gravity; Keith Irby, as the bandleader’s son Mercer Ellington, is sympathetic but firm. Tony Thomas II well evokes the pain of a son left behind. And while the cast merely poses with instruments while Yarborough plays, it still makes for some fine musical interludes.

Gonsalves died in 1974 at 53, days before Ellington's death (the bodies were laid simultaneously at the same New York funeral home). Tuesday’s Fringe performance of this solid work came on what would have been Gonsalves’s 96th birthday.

-Roger Catlin

75 minutes. July 17, 21 and 24 at Logan Fringe Arts Space: Trinidad Theatre, 1358 Florida Ave NW.

IF YOU GO:

Fringe tickets $17, plus one-time purchase of a $7 Fringe button. Available online at www.capitalfringe.org, 866-811-4111 and at Fringe venues.