At the Fringes

Dean J. Seal, producer of the Fringe Festival, wants you to get hooked on "fringing"--that is, spending a day walking from one show to the next. Getting you addicted is a daunting goal for a small-theater community that would just love it if you went to, say, a show a month. To encourage this habit, the good fringe folks have made it possible to see three shows a night, and as many as six on a weekend day, with productions running from 2:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.

While the Fringe has a reputation for, um, varied quality, we found that the majority of the works were rather good--and even if they weren't, hell, they weren't more than an hour long. The shows listed below, though not all recommended, do have something to recommend. Though the festival is conveniently located in venues within a few blocks of Loring Park, the intrepid theatergoer should still heed a few cautions. Bring a sweater: The Woman's Club is arctic. Drink plenty of fluids: Loring Playhouse and Ballet of the Dolls studio are equatorial. And, it should go without saying, know when to say when.

STOLEN CIRCUITRY  with Matt Jenson and Heidi Geier
STOLEN CIRCUITRY with Matt Jenson and Heidi Geier

Call 823-6005 for more information, or check the Fringe Web site at members.aol.com/mnfringe/.

FOUR STORIES Upstart Theatre dedicates itself to reanimating all those dusty works that you were assigned in English 101 but probably didn't read. Selling tickets to a Norton Anthology is hard work, but thanks to Upstart's exceptional cast and fine dramatic intuition, there is no mildew on these Victorian tales of repression and possession. Director Craig Johnson also gives the performance of the Fringe, re-creating Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" with heart-palpitating urgency. Tamsen Brock's sanity disintegrates before our eyes in her rendition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." Beyond the fine acting, this local company also achieves seamless transitions and gently elegant staging; as Johnson delivers the prologue, Poe's "Annabel Lee," he methodically uncoils a rope around the stage, defining the boundary within which each character will suffocate by his obsessions. Sa 2:30 p.m., Su 8:30 p.m. Loring Playhouse. (Anne Ursu)

PRE-HANSEL AND POST-GRETEL In Heidi Arneson's one-woman production, the Gretel of Grimm Brothers fame has survived to grow up in modern-day America, but her encounter with a witch's odd culinary habits has left her with some, shall we say, issues. Consisting primarily of Gretel's bizarre series of true/false questions and non sequiturs, the engaging, often humorous creation of this Minneapolis performance artist is laced with imagery of incest and sadism. If that weren't scary enough, there's also a gruesome auto wreck, and, perhaps most horrifying of all, bad country-and-western music. This variation on the fairy tale suggests that the inner lives of Hansel and Gretel--and presumably the rest of us--are no less convoluted than that of the witch who sought to turn the tots into a midmorning snack. Call it (gulp) food for thought... Th 10 p.m. Red Eye. (John Pribek)

freak The Loring Playhouse was characteristically sweltering for the start of this talky drama. PJ Harvey was blaring from the production next door, and the two actors on stage (Amy Rydberg and Steve Lattery) were sitting still talking rather quietly about relationships. It is a testament to Bruce Abas's script that in five minutes I found myself engrossed in the play. Abas, a local playwright and director, methodically exposes the tangled history (and histrionics) of a group of four friends whose interaction is defined by posturing and deceit. The sexual gaming that ensues creates palpable erotic tension on stage. It's an ugly display of human nature, and we can only hope to distance ourselves from their behavior as we find ourselves thinking newly about each character, "What a...freak." F 8:30 p.m., Sa 7 p.m., Su 2:30 p.m. Loring Playhouse. (Ursu)

SissY The antagonist in John Troyer's one-person show is Chron, a government agency of the future that utilizes time travel to perform some convenient "historical editing." It's allowed for some unfortunate abuses, including that of some French existentialist guerrillas who have transplanted Sisyphus into a contemporary office job. There, the boulder man faces elimination by a melancholic Chron assassin and imminent downsizing thanks to the merger of Temps R' Us and Monkeyland. Joyously original, n'est-ce pas? Now, go back and read the last few sentences again, inserting "Blackout...Pause" between each phrase. There lies the impediment to Troyer, a self-styled small-theater renegade, and to the potential of this performance. SissY allows too much downtime while it creates its dramatic context, time for us to be alienated by our confusion. W 8:30 p.m., F 10 p.m., Sa 7 p.m., Su 2:30 p.m. Ballet of the Dolls studio. (Ursu)

I'M MAD (WITH POWER) This one-man comedy recalls the experience of zoning out with a long-lost, eccentric friend. Harmon Leon may terrorize you, may threaten to kill a child if you don't laugh at his jokes. You may see through his simplistic bits and the wisdom of a dreadlocked vegan from San Francisco. But more often you'll laugh at his anecdotes filled with pop culture and his big persona. Imagine: Stephen Hawking as Ginger Spice's replacement. See "Bobo the Stripping Bear" perform a tease to AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long." And just when the humor starts to drag, Leon follows rad-dude protocol, switching on the tube to show classic television moments. If you've never seen William Shatner do his spoken-word rendition of Elton John's "Rocket Man," here's your chance. F 8:30 p.m., Sa 10 p.m. Whitney Performance Space. (Christina Schmitt)

THE DEVIL AND BILLY MARKHAM Shel Silverstein's clever children's writing is beloved by many, but it's the author's work as a jazz poet and playwright that's on display here to dramatically different ends. The first production from a new local company, Valhalla, The Devil and Billy Markham puts a fresh spin on the familiar premise of dealing in souls with the prince of darkness. The hero here is a gambling man whose luck runs out in dice and pool, forcing him to use devious methods to regain what he's lost. It's a bit disconcerting at first to hear Silverstein's upbeat rhymes employed to describe a sleazy gambling joint and a whorehouse--not to mention the use of the word fuck--but soon the seeming incongruity fades and the production becomes downright amusing. Sa 5:30 p.m., Su 7 p.m. Whitney Main Stage, Minneapolis Community College. (Bridgette Reinsmoen)

NO REDEEMING SOCIAL VALUE "Hi! I'm a blatant dramatic device!" So says Tao Jones (Joey Metzger) to us, the audience, as the impresario of Matt Sciple and Bald Alice Theatre's farce. Tao instructs us to find our inner sluggards and retire at home on the soft spot in our couch, rather than venturing out to live entertainment. We don't know it, but Tao is preparing us for his theatrical modest proposal, an ingenious grant-getting device (supported by the NRA). While Tao is talking, museum guide Agatha falls in love with a painting; the painting (Ellen Apel) invites her in and lets Agatha lick her banana. The play dabbles with questions about how spectatorship defines art, funding prescribes theater, and artists devalue reality. Mostly, though, it's funny. F 10 p.m., Sa 8:30 p.m., Su 2:30 p.m. Whitney Main Stage. (Ursu)

SEX, DRUGS & WACKA WACKA The words "Wacka Wacka" need to be used with extreme caution. Witness the sketch comedy of the Scrimshaw Brothers (Joshua and Joseph Scrimshaw and brother-in-spirit Tim Uren), who focus too much on the wacka wacka to the detriment of the subtler rhythms of comedy. No matter how wacky your Chris Farley impersonation is, how funny is it really at this particular cultural moment to do a sketch centering on his widely reported insecurities? The sketches occasionally reveal promise in the young group, as in the one that depicts a director of mime pornos who aims to "put the pant back in pantomime." But the all-important Hee-Hee to Ho-Hum ratio is far too low to make this performance anything more than Wacka Wacka. Sa 10 p.m., Su 5:30 p.m. Whitney Main Stage. (Ursu)

V.I.P. CIRCUS Carla Stangenberg's one-woman show purports to tell what reality lies behind the many facades in a New York City topless club, with Stangenberg depicting sundry dancers, employees, and customers. The transitions from character to character are smoothed by the music and introduction provided by Divaship, her onstage DJ. Divaship's music not only creates the scene but nearly steals the show. In one scene, Matt the doorman lures a customer into the club with a snippet of the bass-heavy beats that emanate from inside. As the door swings shut, we return to "Staying Alive" and Matt's Travolta-style posturing. W 7 p.m., Th 7 p.m. Red Eye. (Reinsmoen)

5 CLOWNS AND A CIRCUS This little circus won't pose a threat to Ringling Brothers, but for pure absurdity and big-top bravado I'll take the endearingly loopy world of locals Laurie Van Wieren and the B-Specifics. These would-be clowns adopt ordinary feats and turn them into daring maneuvers. See Judith Howard walk the tightrope that lies on the floor! Be amazed as Van Wieren balances a goldfish bowl on her head! Watch Tom Carlson guide Rosillini the cat through feline contortions! Thrill to Fawn Bernhardt's command of a rubber ball! And behold Pablo, the very sad clown, who whimpers his way throughout, injecting a doe-eyed sense of pathos into the hyper-hilarity. A gem of a piece. Th 8:30 p.m., Sa 8:30 p.m., Su 5:30 p.m. Ballet of the Dolls studio. (Palmer)

...AND THE FEAR CRACKED OPEN Call it Scenes from a Marriage, Minnesota-style. Local performers Audrey Crabtree and Lynn Berg have crafted a fresh and witty telling of the making and unmaking of a love affair. It's an old story, but this production delights in exploiting the clichés. A chance encounter leads to inane flirting, which leads to a crackling-voiced phone call, which leads to the first date, which progresses as first dates will: Here's my life story, now let's have sex. We then see a film of the relationship's salad days (a black-and-white beauty that looks like one of Buñuel's home movies), meet the mother (a very opinionated body puppet), and feel some pain through a '50s-style musical break. The meta-theatrics slyly inform a production that explores just how surreal love can be. Th 8:30 p.m. Red Eye. (Ursu)

PSYCHE! OR HOW I BECAME A LOVE GODDESSPsyche! casts Greek love goddesses as S&M fembots hanging out in a seedy leather club. They go about their business there in the company of ugly mortals who primp in the bathroom in a ritualized dance. Tease hair, check teeth, fluff breasts, smell armpits. Tease hair, check teeth... Aphrodite (Lisa Cesnik), a dominatrix/icicle in spandex and Frank-N-Furter makeup, fixes her hatred on the stunning Psyche (Kelly Hilliard), who wears a white tube dress and mary janes. The story is told mostly through wordless movement, including a gorgeous seduction scene between Psyche and Eros (Leif Jurgensen in leopard-print getup). It could be a bit more user-friendly (character names in the program, say), but this combination of skill and originality is the Fringe at its best. F 8 p.m., Sa 10 p.m., Su 7 p.m. Ballet of the Dolls studio. (Ursu)

MINNESOTA GODDESS Frontier Theatre's concept promises delicious absurdity: Demeter the earth goddess tills a Minnesota farm with daughter Persephone, until leather-clad Hades steals Persephone off to Hell/Minneapolis. But when the play begins, it features women in denim and spring-line halter tops dancing in a circle and singing about earth goddesses. Could this be serious? Soon, though, we do laugh, as a horny Hansen-haired Hades (James Lekvin) seduces Persephone (Sally Sodaro), and she runs the gamut of pink-collar jobs, serenaded by brainwashed co-workers. But, alas, just as Hades must be dumped, Persephone must turn to socialism, and the production takes itself seriously again. Just a few shades of irony short of being delightful. W 8:30 p.m., Sa 10 p.m. The Woman's Club. (Ursu)

STOLEN CIRCUITRYYoung choreographers have the advantage of a fresh kinetic palette when spinning movement ideas, but they also run the risk of re-treading territory well traveled by their mentors. This local showcase exemplifies both possibilities, with Matt Jenson and Heidi Geier expressing themselves clearly through sharp-witted, mature works. Jenson's "Go Ahead Cling to Me, Dear" is a euphoric, full-body love slam while Geier's quiet "Vows" evolves from innocent pickup to eerie domination game. Deborah Jinza Thayer's "Astroturf" made me imagine (and wish for) synchronized swimmers interpreting Blade Runner; and while Risa Cohen's "Babble" presented well-timed, antic moments, she still needs to discover her own creative voice. W 8:30 p.m., Th 10 p.m., Sa 5:30 p.m., Su 4 p.m. Loring Playhouse. (Caroline Palmer)

CHARLATAN In the history of impresarios, there was probably none greater than Sergei Diaghilev, the man who brought the Russian Ballet to Paris and sparked a golden era of dance led by icon Vaslav Nijinsky. New York actor Tony Tanner takes the stage as Diaghilev and ably conveys the reviled svengali's story. A pompous name-dropper driven by his basest lust and greed for recognition, Tanner's Diaghilev is altogether arrogant. Yet the actor's portrayal is a richly honest take on the man who proclaimed he could put "into conjunction major planets." As a fine example of nuanced character acting, Tanner's one-man show is also an engaging slice of dance history. Th 8:30 p.m., Sa 5:30 p.m., Su 4 p.m. Whitney Performance Space, Minneapolis Community College. (Palmer)

WHY she WEARS A SUIT chu young works' production is a charming bit of pop psychology. So why does "Little She" (Paige McGinley) wear a suit all the time? She likes the fashion statement but her mother, therapist, and new girlfriend--and the gay bashers on the street--can't get past the shock of a woman in a tie. Forced to decide whether to change her look, and therefore herself, our heroine ends up naked, caught in the sticky web of everyone else's values. Energetic performances by McGinley and "Big She" (Marisa S. Felt) help us root for the suit, and more importantly, the person wearing it. W 10 p.m. Red Eye. (Palmer)

A THOUSAND FIRES OF DARKNESS: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION OF FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA Flamenco dance and spoken word combine in this dramatization of Lorca's poetry. Bullfights and love serve as central themes, best communicated here through the poetry of this Spanish artist, and through the visual metaphors of ambient lighting and shredded cloth. The dance pieces, although cleverly foreshadowing many of the vignettes, could stand to be less self-conscious and a little more soulful. W 10 p.m., F 10 p.m., Sa 4 p.m. Loring Playhouse. (Schmitt)

THE POKER GAME/THE WEDDING It's silent film on stage in these two shorts by 12th House Theatre, and the result is pretty much what you'd expect: Actors dressed in black, white, and gray approximate 8mm-film movement, while they mug, pratfall, and pull suspenders. The production, however, does nothing you don't expect, and as a result we watch 45 minutes of gimmick. Any story is lost in the mess of six people flitting about. (The tiny stage and school-auditorium ambience of the Whitney Performance Space certainly don't help matters.) That said, the cast performs its gimmick well, much to the joy of the people sitting behind me snorting with glee. Th 7 p.m., Su 8:30 p.m. Whitney Performance Space. (Ursu)

VENUS DYING Alyce Finwall and Jennifer Hart have set aside their glittery Ballet of the Dolls dancing shoes to birth a frustrating chamber piece. For all the obvious effort that went into the choreography (with terrific dancing by all), the gals nonetheless let themselves down, as their love-triangle tale repeats every Guiding Light stereotype in the book, without a trace of irony. Hart, a jilted lover abandoned for the inevitable "lady in red" (Finwall), punishes herself for not embodying idealized beauty. Meanwhile, her black-clad conscience (Zhauna Franks) chastises each new display of insecurity. In the end we're left with a section called "Surrender." Human? Sure--but revenge is still sweeter. Th 7 p.m., Sa 5:30 p.m., Su 4 p.m. Ballet of the Dolls studio. (Palmer)

WRECKAGE Peter Blomquist may be the best local playwright no one has heard of. His plays put hyper-kinetic characters in explosive situations, and communicate their travails with frantic, stylized dialogue and the blackest of humors. In Wreckage, Frank (Blomquist) has been left brain-addled by a train wreck. He lives under the care of his wife Sarah (Karah Bausch) and her lover, Jimmy (Corey Patrick). Blomquist's dialogue is a steady rat-a-tat-tat that grows in urgency as the play simmers. Soon the volume rises, the characters stomp, the words fly; by the end the sound is as assaultive as the situation has been all along. Finally, when we are left alone with Frank's mind and his memories, the quiet becomes cathartic--along with Frank we are finally given peace. Th 7 p.m. Loring Playhouse. (Ursu)

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