The self-described “theater kid” from Sarasota is coming home for the Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival to perform her one-woman show, “The Princess Strikes Back: One Woman’s Search for the Space Cowboy of her Dreams.”
If you guessed that Montalbano is a “Star Wars” fan, you would be right. She saw the original movie when she was 13 years old and immediately started crushing on Hans Solo, played by Harrison Ford.
But it wasn’t until she saw “Star Wars” again years later on the Disney+ streaming service that she realized most of her romantic relationships resembled that of Solo and Princess Leia, the late Carrie Fisher’s character.
Being a performer, Montalbano wanted to share that revelation with an audience. “Storytelling is how I do comedy, so I went to an open-mic night and talked about a crush I had on a boy when I was 13,” said Montalbano, who lives in Chicago.
That open-mic performance evolved into a one-woman show that she has been performing at fringe festivals around the country since July 2021. But it wasn’t until now that she had a venue to present “The Princess Strikes Back” in Sarasota.
It’s all thanks to Megan Radish, founder of the Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival, which runs June 8-11 at the Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts. In addition to “The Princess Strikes Back,” the fest will present eight other performances of roughly an hour each.
Like Montalbano, Radish is a Florida native. Before founding the nonprofit Squeaky Wheel Theatre Group in 2020, she worked in regional theater for nearly a decade, in a variety of roles at venues ranging from the Ogonquit Playhouse in Maine to the Utah Festival Opera.
About five years ago, Radish decided to get out of the theater business, which can be hard on the body for those involved in scenery, props, lights and the other nuts and bolts of production. But after a hiatus, Radish found herself being drawn back to theater and specifically to fringe.
"What is fringe exactly?" you might ask. Good question.
As its name implies, fringe is not mainstream. And it’s not one type of performance. It can be drama, dance, comedy, music or all of the above. “Smorgasbord” is a word you hear a lot when people talk about fringe.
“I’ve been watching fringe for years,” says Radish. “I’ve seen some very unique shows. I’ve seen classically trained musicians perform on Segways.”
In addition to offering a little of this and a little of that, fringe pushes the boundaries. It tests limits, so perhaps it’s best to leave the kids at home. If you’re easily offended or have rigid ideas about who and what is acceptable as entertainment, you should probably stay home too.
“Fringe is a home for things that may not get a stage elsewhere,” Radish says. “Most of what we do is about accessibility and advocacy, both for artists and audiences.”
Not sure if fringe is for you? Radish has come up with a way for you to find out. A fringe “teaser” showcasing the nine performances in the festival takes place on June 7. It costs just $5, plus $5 for a festival badge required to attend all of the shows.
In addition to the $5 button, all festivalgoers must buy a ticket to each show they attend. Prices range from free to $12. All proceeds from tickets go to the shows’ creators, who are responsible for their own publicity.
In addition to prodigal daughter Montalbano, Sarasota-area artists presenting their works at the Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival include Katherine Michelle Tanner, Jessica Pope and Scott Keys.
Tanner, an actress, musician, dancer and filmmaker, stars in “Shakespeare’s Lovers.” The play incorporates 29 of Shakespeare’s sonnets and 19 of Tanner’s own. Asked to describe the play, Tanner replies, “It’s about a male poet and a female painter who meet in a pool of water, a river. There’s a narrator. Things happen and it gets intense.”
The set of “Shakespeare’s Lovers” is built like a children’s pop-up book. “What we use for the water is a surprise,” Tanner adds.
The Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival is a trial run for “Shakespeare’s Lovers,” which Tanner’s new theater company, Tree Fort Productions, will perform later this year.
Even though fringe is new to Sarasota, it’s been around since 1947, when it got its start in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to Radish, there are four fringe festivals in Florida, with Orlando hosting the longest-running fringe festival in the U.S.
Radish had the chance to meet with representatives from fringe organizations near and far at the World Fringe Congress held in Orlando last year. “We’ve got a WhatsApp and we’re always chatting,” she says. “It’s been a wonderful resource to getting started down here.”
Speaking of getting started, it wouldn’t have been possible without the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, says Radish, as well as the support of sponsor Deep Creek Eye Care.
Reached last week in Chicago by telephone, Montalbano was counting the days until her return to Sarasota. She’s invited her parents and friends from FST theater camp and high school to see “The Princess Strikes Back.” Says Montalbano, “I’m inviting everybody.”
It will be an old home week of sorts because Scott Keys, who is starring in “The Sequestered Jester” at the Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival, was her high school drama teacher. Keys recently retired as chair of the theater program at Booker Visual and Performing Arts High School.
“It’s really wonderful that Sarasota is getting a fringe festival,” Montalbano says. “The city has such a strong theater community, and this is something that’s been missing. I hope people will come out and see what it’s about.”
Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.