Most performing-arts festivals blow. All kinds of shows are crammed into all kinds of venues, with nary a rhyme nor reason for what is playing anywhere, leaving the poor fool who just wants to catch a decent play or two frantically scrambling to find something interesting. For living proof of that, check out the major fail that is the Hollywood Fringe Festival every summer.
But not here in good old Orange County: The Off Center Festival at the Segerstrom Center spreads out for a leisurely 16 days over this month, with six solo or group artists performing 12 times at four venues. It's all orderly and efficient, and while it may not have that used-syringe-needle or rats-scurrying-beneath-your-feet feel as some festivals in shitty neighborhoods in big cities, there's no denying the range of eclectic work on tap for this year's event. Expect everything from a cabaret artist acclaimed as the greatest of his generation to an underground theater company from Eastern Europe that is living all the big talk American artists like to reference when they're all hopped up with "suffering for one's art."
Here is your orderly, efficient guide to this years' offerings:
The Bitter Game. This is emerging "actorvist" Keith A. Wallace's one-man show set on a basketball court. It's a "dark, searing play [that gives] mostly white audiences a one-hour glimpse of what it's like to be a black man in America," according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Wallace was raised in Philadelphia and received his MFA from UC San Diego; Bitter Game was one of the highlights of the La Jolla Playhouse's caffeinated 2015 festival, Without Walls (20 shows in three days—but not as bad as Los Angeles' Fringe. Ugh redux). Samueli Theater. Jan. 12-13, 8 p.m. $25.
Mariachi Flor de Toloache. Oh, the stuff one learns in this gig. The flower of the Toloache plant is Mexico's flower of love and death, used as a principal ingredient in love potions, and the mariachi band that has taken its name is composed of women. The ensemble earned a Latin Grammy nomination in the Best Ranchera category for their self-titled 2014 debut album. And, yes, mariachi, like all musical and performing arts and lots of other stuff, is theatrical in its essence, so save it. Samueli Theater. Jan. 14, 8 p.m. $25.
Latin Standards. Marga Gomez is the daughter of Willy Chevalier, an actor and composer in New York's Latin vaudeville circuit who went from rags to riches and ended up singing in a Spanish restaurant while waiting tables. This is Gomez's latest monologue addressing Chevalier's life and legacy, juxtaposing stories about her father's songs and her youth growing up in New York City with being a lesbian Latina drag queen during San Francisco's gentrification turmoil. Judy Morr Theater. Jan. 19-21, 8 p.m. $25.
Time of Women. A trio of performers from the underground Belarus Free Theatre is staging a Russian-language play (with English subtitles) about three women imprisoned in 2010 during the Eastern European country's fraudulent elections. It's about not cowing to the reigning political order and speaking out and dissenting. As if that's not enough, this company, which has no physical space in its home country, is, according to American Theatre magazine, "a theatrical marvel. It is, arguably, a theater of firsts; the first contemporary company to survive, function and flourish both in exile and at home, despite repression; the first to rely on the internet to direct and create its art; the first to campaign globally for human rights, as well as basic human freedoms." Studio Performance Space. Jan. 19-21, 7:30 p.m. $25.
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Choir! Choir! Choir! Apparently, this is some kind of community-choir deal in which performers interact with amateur singers, all of them busting out pop hits. It's quite the international phenom, as some 1,200 people turned out to join Rufus Wainwright singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" shortly after his death. It's also based in Canada and raises money for 25 different charities, all of which means it's better than being a sullen dick who might write this thing off as overwrought karaoke. Segerstrom Concert Hall. Jan. 25, 8 p.m. Free, but tickets are required.
Justin Vivian Bond Shows Up. Singer/writer/painter/performance artist/actor Bond has received a slew of awards, including an Obie in 2001 and Tony nomination in 2007. In 2011, The New Yorker called the 47-year-old Bond "the best cabaret artist of his generation," and that is way better than being the 96th best. Samueli Theater. Jan. 27-28, 8 p.m. $25.
Off Center Festival at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; www.scfta.org/offcenter. Jan. 12-28. Call or visit the website for more information.