In keeping with the impetus to go forth and multiply, the sixth annual Minnesota Fringe Festival is bigger and broader than ever, with 300 performances in 10 venues around the Loring theater district. While we suspect that the best way to test the fest is still an eight-dollar ticket and a dart thrown at the program from four paces, we've also tossed our battalion of reviewers at the first week of the Fringe to see what sticks.
Below, then, is a more-or-less arbitrary list of the good, the bad, and the really bad--and, of course, the so-bad-it's-really-good. All the listed acts continue through the second week, so there's plenty of time for the intrepid theatergoer to forsake air-conditioned comfort in favor of the theatrical wilderness. As usual, there are no guarantees of quality, but with this much rough there are bound to be a few shiny lumps of coal. And why not call that a diamond? The Fringe Festival runs through August 8. Call (612) 343-3390 for tickets and information.
1633 Hennepin Ave.
Two Tender Eyes Meet: A Butcher Shop Musical
Emily Charlotte Conbere
"I don't get it," whispered the little girl to her mother midway through Emily Charlotte Conbere's weird cocktail of a musical comedy. "What are they doing?" Indeed, most of the audience was probably wondering why the robots running the titular butcher shop were preparing for a "meat raffle," why the Prostitutes/Flowers and the Birds were at odds, why a half-naked man in suspenders was living in a liquor cabinet, and why Conbere's script seemed to consist of randomly organized words. If the little girl's mother was able to formulate any explanation beyond weirdness for weirdness' sake, she would have been kind to share it with the rest of us. Thu 8:30 p.m., Sat 10:00 p.m. (Ritter)
Fifty Foot Penguin Theater
From his father's recollections of the Vietnam War, writer and actor Zach Curtis has crafted his own dramatic tour de force. The loosely connected stream of anecdotes composing War Golems is the familiar stuff of the Vietnam travelogue: fetishized military hardware, hawkish bravado, and death and diversion In Country. Yet Curtis's portrait of a man battling the pull of nostalgia also underscores an oft-disregarded truth. For all its capricious brutality and soul-numbing drudgery, combat is fun. And that is, as Tim O'Brien once noted, both the best argument against war and the reason it will always be with us. Thu 10:00 p.m., Fri 10:00 p.m., Sat 4:00 p.m., Sun 1:00 p.m. (Ritter)
So when will Lilith Fair be calling Vox Medusa for tour appearances? It seems only natural, given the group's commitment to celebrating those of us with two X chromosomes. In Sirens, Kristen Freya leads her passionate troupe of dancers in examining the strengths and shortcomings of historic icons including Echo, Cleopatra, and Lucretia. The brief, almost ritualistic works are well framed by the fiercely sensual and self-assured words of poet Desdamona while music from traditional and club sources completes the nearly Amazonian environment. A good stop for your estrogen fix. Sat 2:30 p.m., Sun 8:30 p.m. (Caroline Palmer)
This macabre show follows a recovering alcoholic and a recovering hooker as they try to regain custody of their baby, only to be blocked by a condescending social worker. Even if you're not a talk-show junkie, it's entertaining to watch these actors move nimbly between hope, anger, and sorrow, pulling laughs from surprise twists while underscoring the pathos behind life. Throughout, the characters seek to return humanity and justice to the talk shows they watch, even as their own lives spiral into a desperation too subtle and lasting for TV. Thu 7:00 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m., Sun 2:30 p.m. (Leyla Kokmen)
Ebullient Theatre Co.
Twentysomethings try to find love amid a morass of cultural jetsam and California cuisine: Hasn't this concept played on every network, including UPN? At the start of this entertaining show, sensitive guy Peir (Patrick Meehan) is receiving romantic coaching from his swaggering "Food Pimp" roommate (Jamison Haase, channeling the entire Brat Pack). Soon they're pontificating on My Fair Lady and unwittingly dating the same repressed artist (Jennifer Paige), who has her own advice-wielding (and nymphomaniacal) roommate (Jennifer LaSalle). Kookiness ensues. Sublimating the range of human emotion into food (cereal as self-love) and videos (a couple picnic in Blockbuster), Meal is an indulgent pleasure. Wed 8:30 p.m., Fri 8:30 p.m., Sun 7:00 p.m. (Guy Branum)
Phoenix Black Box
1819 Nicollet Ave.
The First Blonde Homo Erectus (Stories for a Fire Island Campfire)
Mark Hooker puts a pleasant twist on this variation of the gay coming-(out)-of-age story. Through story and song, Hooker takes us through his life, stopping to sing about Zsa Zsa Gabor, telling of an embarrassing dinner party for Yma Sumac, and reliving how he was kicked out of the Royal Ambassadors for Christ. Delivered with a relaxed and confidential air, Hooker's show holds the audience from the minute he steps onstage. And with his strong tenor putting across some witty songs, Hooker discovers himself without uncovering too many clichés in the process. Thu 7:00 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m. (Doug Collins)
Richard W. Rousseau weaves an improbably elegant and earthy meditation on the limits of existence (and the lack thereof). Beginning with the timeless question of whether poultry preceded omelets in the course of evolution, Rousseau introduces trails of existential inquiry that double back on one another to comic and poignant effect. Gregory the Pious, a newscaster, a dentist, birth-class instructors, and the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History all connect in Rousseau's temporal explorations. While the artist's delivery can veer from pleasantly folksy to a style more appropriate for reading to very young children, the plots swerve and dodge unpredictably and Rousseau handles his life-and-death theme with humor and intelligence. Wed 10:00 p.m., Fri 10:00 p.m., Sun 8:30 p.m. (K. Froebel/Sonya Geis)
Wait a Minute...What?
The Güten Jüngs
Andrew Stanley is my find of the Fringe. From the moment he stumbles onstage as the pleasant but dim technician for an imaginary performance piece, the San Francisco-based actor radiates an utterly endearing naiveté--a rare commodity in the angst-ridden world of the one-person show. Having wandered into the spotlight, Stanley regales us with tales of his father (a jungle boat captain at Disneyland), his work in the theater (as gofer), and his frustrated acting career (he delivers a Brad Pitt monologue from Twelve Monkeys as an example of his craft). It is a rare and uncynical performance in a very funny show, and deserves to be seen by as many people as can possibly squeeze into the tiny Black Box theater. Sat 7:00 p.m.; Sun 5:30 p.m. (Ritter)
1931 Nicollet Ave.
The Man Who Turned Into a Stick (Death)
Japanese playwright Kobo Abe's existential fable does indeed begin with a man turning into a stick. Shortly thereafter, said stick is discovered by "Goth Boy" and "Goth Girl" (Corey Mills and Brenda Hickman), who act eminently goth while keeping their prize from the "Man from Hell" (Doug Durnick) and his statuesque compatriot (Laura McDonnell), who in turn act eminently diabolical while discussing the coveted shaft. Got it? There is probably a provocative metaphor about men and sticks and death buried somewhere in Abe's nonsensical narrative, but be forewarned: This Stick is pretty far-fetched. Thu 7:00 p.m., Sat 4:00 p.m., Sun 4:00 p.m. (Ritter)
Born to Lose
A shifting cast of five or six monologists, drawn from a Fringe-wide pool of fifteen, hold a motorcycle-themed story hour that is good-natured if a bit too sedate to match The Wild One. Opening night, MST3K veteran Mary Jo Pehl recalled her mom's grizzly stories about the menace of the two-wheel death trap, Ken Varnold considered crotch rockets as an icon of male bonding, and Raine Hokan recounted a rebellious week spent on the road as a teen. Label these tales diverting, but not entirely highway worthy. The evening only pushed to the red line when senior hellion Wanda Brown spun a personal history of maturation and motorcycles around the jazzy keyboard riffs of partner Phyllis Goldin. Tue 8:30 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m., Sun 1:00 p.m. (Branum)
John Troyer is certainly a trouper for going through with the opening of his one-man performance piece mere hours after being mugged and battered on Nicollet Avenue. Under the circumstances, it is more than understandable that the Praxis instigator was a bit disjointed in his delivery. Less understandable is what exactly he was intending to deliver. It may have had something to do with time-traveling secret agents or some arid rhetoric about fascism and art or the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. But between frequent blackouts and dreadful techno music interludes, the whole was as alienating as a kick in the teeth. We nevertheless have high hopes that Degenerate--and more important, its creator--will get better soon. Thu 10:00 p.m., Sat 1:00 p.m., Sun 8:30 p.m. (Ritter)
R. Sky Palkowitz
The star of this one-woman show is a semiautobiographical character called the Delusional Diva, who expounds on her nagging parents, her married friends, and lesbianism while she pumps iron and ponders the end of the millennium. Palkowitz includes a handful of other zany characters, including her neighbor, a southern, dope-dealing neo-hippie named Flower; and her grumbling, half-senile father Dave, who clings to the Kabala and digresses into neurotic rants about the downfall of society. While Synapse Hysteria! is disjointed as a whole--the show is true to its billing--Palkowitz provides several hilarious moments and plays the motley cast of characters with wit. Wed 8:30 p.m., Fri 8:30 p.m., Saturday 10:00 p.m. (Jeremy Swanson)
Bald Alice Theatre Co.
Israel Horovitz's brief but blustery melodrama clearly takes its lessons from the Edward Albee school of play writing: Plop a man and woman with a long, unhappy history into a situation and let them speak daggers to one another until they get tired and go away. In this case a fellow (William Franke) accosts a woman (Heather Stone) in a Massachusetts park. We recognize from their first barbed exchange that these apparent strangers have bad blood between them, but Horovitz tries to keep our attention by withholding the nature of their relationship until long after we've given up guessing at it. Only the balanced performances of Stone and Franke keep the whole affair from coming across as the stale dramatic exercise that it in fact is. Wed 7:00 p.m., Fri 10:00 p.m. (Ritter)
Fully Reciprocal Theatre Co.
Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor's study of middle-class Weltschmerz got off to an inauspicious start when Victor (John Schaidler) threw a chair at me (note: if a script necessitates the tossing of furniture, try not to hit the only critic in the audience). Luckily, things got better as they got worse. Victor, it seems, has some unresolved issues with his father ("the saddest man in the world"), his wife (who is also his cousin), his job (septic tank maintenance), and the world at large (a surreal and capricious construct designed to humiliate him). MacIvor's funny and demented script and Schaidler's manic performance as an alienated schmuck make a few flying chairs seem a nominal price of admission to this house of lumpen pain. Wed 10:00 p.m., Sat 2:30 p.m., Sun 7:00 p.m. (Ritter)
Whitney Mainstage, Minneapolis Community and Technical College
1501 Hennepin Ave.
...and God Laughs
Crooked Mirror Theatre Co.
This assortment of Yiddish-inflected sketches uses puppets and masks to tell stories about God's indifference to Man. But, oy vey, when the puppets are shoes, and the masks muffle the voices, how interested can you get? Striving for both humor and insight, these incoherent bits come across as the shtick cut from Fiddler on the Roof. Only some pleasant ambient music, provided by stand-up bass and mandolin, shows glimpses of a culture that is more than the sum of its cute accents and colorful phrases. Thu 10:00 p.m., Sat 4:00 p.m., Sun 2:30 p.m. (Collins)
Although it fails to deliver on the promise of its title, this energetic collection of sketches has enough laughs to win forgiveness for a little bait-and-switch. Playwright Christian Gaylord shows a fine ear for frat-boy vernacular in presenting the party culture of young white folks. (One insightful advice team responds to every comment with the line, "Shut the fuck up!") Rhombus Theatre's animated cast breezes through this material, overcoming the occasional and awkward attempt at significance. Ultimately Free Beer's look at wasted youth makes for intoxicating theater--without any hangover. Thu 8:30 p.m., Sat 5:30 p.m., Sun 8:30 p.m. (Collins)
Willy Loman Is Dead and Gone?
Playwright David O'Sullivan's premise is witty: A surreal local production of Death of a Salesman unleashes the angst of the play into the actors' lives. Unfortunately O'Sullivan attempts to mix in a dose of backstage farce, resulting mainly in awkwardness. For purported actors, this crew is markedly undisciplined: Unnecessary accents and highly mannered line readings abound. Which is to say nothing of the bad jokes (they mistake a gardening trowel for a handgun?!). The best moments of Willy are when the pathos of Salesman rules, but you have to sit through a few fried-fish-eye and unzipped-fly jokes to get there. Tue 8:30 p.m., Sat 2:30 p.m. (Branum)
Whitney Performance Space, Minneapolis Community and Technical College
1501 Hennepin Ave.
Marlowe: To Ride in Triumph
But for the twist of an assassin's knife, Christopher Marlowe might now be the playwright enshrined as "The Bard." Fittingly, Mary Worth Theatre Company's adaptation of C. Douglas Abel's play takes place in the fateful moment before the blade cut short the writer's frighteningly prolific career. As Marlowe, played by Andrew Worm, contemplates the coming rapture, his life's history, literary exploits, and political intrigues flash before our eyes. Much is riding on the shoulders of Worm--and he carries the deliciously lyrical script with a passionate and ultimately tragic portrait of the man who might have been for all seasons. Wed 10:00 p.m., Fri 8:30 p.m., Sat 7:00 p.m., Sun 1:00 p.m. (Ritter)
Put Yourself in My Shoes
Based on a Raymond Carver story, this production includes plenty of the stunned malaise and dysfunctional verbal interaction that mark the troubled author's work. It is difficult to determine whether the discomfort onstage comes from the original story (adapted and directed by Jennifer Arave), or from the performers' difficulty in dealing with their subject. Several clever production techniques keep the story moving: A campy lounge singer croons Christmas tunes between scenes, voiceovers provide ballast for the minimalist action, and a lighting trick opens and closes the play as if to announce that something eerie has occurred. And maybe it has. Wed 7:00 p.m., Fri 10:00 p.m., Sat 1:00 p.m. (Michael Fallon)
1900 Nicollet Ave.
Y2K and the Seven Dwarves
Ever wonder how the Egyptians approved the building permits for those pyramids? Or what country names Popeye likes to recite? Well, Ari Hoptman, a polylingual etymologist, has taken time out of his busy schedule to enlighten us on these and other topics, using some far-fetched--and often hilarious--impersonations and tall tales. At one moment Hoptman (whose stage presence is akin to an animated Ray Romano) becomes an angry swan and the next he leads a religious sing-along (in Latin!) while saving souls in the audience. Careful build-ups spiced with fast laughs make this set appealingly unpredictable. Wed 7:00 p.m., Thu 8:30 p.m., Sat 1:00 p.m., Sun 8:30 p.m. (Palmer)
Kabuki performances are rare enough in these parts that even if Kathy Welch's adaptation of the traditional Japanese form were not very good, it would be worth seeing purely for edification. And Welch's adaptation is very good indeed. The stylized movement and shrill elocution are handled with admirable reverence for the conventions of the form, yet Welch also peppers the timeworn tales of betrayal and revenge with enough bawdy body humor and clever anachronistic references to sell Kabuki! to a Western audience. Sat 4:00 p.m., Sun 7:00 p.m. (Ritter)
A Sense of Place
Christopher Watson Dance Company
Homeis a loaded word. For some it means security, the reliability of the past. Others loathe their memories of stifling environments and endless slights. For choreographer Christopher Watson, home is "seductive if you stay too long." His dances reflect all the bittersweetness and ambiguities of the places we claim as our own--whether we want to or not. Driven by movement, text, and projections, the piece is full of sensations, and endowed with shape and confidence by one who knows his subject well. Manjunan Gnanaratnam's vibrant score provides extra fire in this graceful and mature work. Wed 8:30 p.m., Sat 7:00 p.m., Sun 2:30 p.m. (Palmer)
Peter Peter Pumpkin Theater
In Samson, the blinded and betrayed hero of Israel, the blind poet John Milton found both a natural muse and a tragic figure around which to build his last epic allegory. That Milton never intended his final masterpiece for the stage has not deterred director Mark Abel Garcia from the Miltonic task of reinventing it as drama. Not surprisingly, the results are mixed. While Samson Agonistes is an indisputably beautiful poem, Garcia's cast, and most particularly Dave Tufford in the title role, struggle with the language. And even a few clever theatrical conceits (a cowled tri-chorus acts as the voice of Samson's self-doubt) cannot conceal the fact that this staged poem is just a bunch of actors standing around orating at one another. Fri 8:30 p.m., Sat 5:30 p.m., Sun 1:00 p.m. (Ritter)
410 Oak Grove St.
Call it postmodern vaudeville or metajuggling or whatever you like: The pas de deux of blink is eye-popping. In this year's performance as in past Fringe appearances, the Maine-based duo combines juggling and contortionism to hypnotic visual effect. Even as they toss and twist, however, Fritz Grobe and Morten Hansen plant tongue firmly in cheek with a charming mock ceremoniousness. The slyly achieved objective is, as Hansen suggests, to open our eyes to the possibility of all things. Thu 7:00 and 10:00 p.m., Fri 8:30 p.m., Sat 1:00 and 7:00 p.m., Sun 4:00 and 8:30 p.m. (Ritter)
By turns funny, scathing, and poignant, Upstart Theatre's production samples the voices of five opinionated authors and social critics. Starting with Virginia Woolf, who becomes an emcee for the event, the performers bring to life the characters of a young Jane Austen, a bristling Jonathan Swift, a wry Dorothy Parker, and a dignified Oscar Wilde. The characters not only employ any and all rhetorical tricks to make their points, but also use humorous slides, overhead projections, and a constant centerpiece: the titular soapbox. In the end the show strives to examine exceptional people who think against the grain. Wed 10:00 p.m., Fri 10:00 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m., Sun 5:30 p.m. (Fallon)
1407 Nicollet Ave.
Four Pianos, No Hands
The Gentlemen Callers
Shifting between song stylings reminiscent of They Might Be Giants and energetic sketch comedy, these three boys from our northern neighbor manage to entertain even when the occasional joke doesn't work. Before the audience has a chance to realize how flat a bit about teen sex is, Michael Oliveras has leapt into a goofy monologue he delivers as an eccentric Latin American gigolo. The songs are uniformly amusing, especially "When You're Ugly" and a French-Canadian folk song about Jesus, ham, and pants. The worst one can say of the GCs is that they dance like Canadians. Wed 10:00 p.m., Thu 8:30 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m. (Branum)
I.V. & Violet
Deborah Jinza Thayer/Soft-Eyed Collaborations
St. Elsewhere meets a pack of Dorothy Parker wannabes in a shared program that first succeeds in disturbing hypochondriacs with its clinical fetishism, and later confounds with some excessively cerebral choreography. Deborah Jinza Thayer adorns her dancers with IV tubes and ties their comatose forms to beds, creating a chilling, well-crafted reminder of modern medicine's detached control over the ailing body. Would that "Violet," directed by Heidi Geier of Soft-Eyed Collaborations, had such focus: The perpetually askew work rambles about the stage, revealing its roots as an improvisational exercise while falling short of its more erudite aspirations. Wed 8:30 p.m., Fri 8:30 p.m., Sat 2:30 p.m. (Palmer)
The House at the Edge of the World
Theatre of the Invisible Guests
One half of a play by Minnesotan Richard Zonober, House is the solemn tale of a young woman who has forgotten how to live in a world not dominated by the memory of her rape. Living in a halfway house filled with wacky former mental patients, Ann (Amal Bisharat) has found a balance between insanity and reality. Then an eccentric truck driver falls for her, and things become more complicated. It's an affecting exploration of post-traumatic recuperation, but without a second act, that journey ends abruptly, leaving an ambivalence as honest as it is dissatisfying. Tue 10:00 p.m., Thu 7:00 p.m., Sat 1:00 p.m. (Branum)
Gardens & Spirits
Love is an inescapable subject for dancemaking, and frequently a trite one as well. Luckily Risa Cohen, Penelope Freeh, Brian Levy, and Benjamin Johnson of Precipice Theater manage to avoid florid clichés in their relationship-themed choreography. Freeh's "The Virgin in the Garden" and Johnson's "Hindsight" both embrace emotionally charged partnering but also gently remind us that foolishness sometimes fuels intimacy. "Kissed," a collaboration by Cohen and Levy, has multiple personalities--not all of them compatible. There are indelible moments, though, including a duet that seamlessly blends world-dance influences and a quartet that evokes very private rituals. Thu 10:00 p.m., Sun 4:00 p.m. (Palmer)
Around the World in a Bad Mood
René Foss jokes that she began wondering where she went wrong when she found herself "curled up with Jack Daniel's at 'Bates Motel' in Flint." Happily the search for understanding led Foss to satirize her longtime job as a flight attendant. Foss's brassy, hilarious revue combines musical numbers, comedic sketches, and brief monologues. There's everything from Shakespearean combat over seat assignments to a song with a chorus of hellos that starts cheerfully before turning into an expression of suppressed rage. So why does she do it? As she snarls at one point, "I love people! And I love to travel! Goddamn it!" Fri 10:00 p.m., Sat 5:30 p.m., Sun 5:30 p.m. (Jim MacTavish)
15 West 14th St.
Alligator Girl A Go-Go!
Heidi Arneson's fractured fairy tale revisits separated New Brighton siblings Hansel and Gretel in a yarn that is equal parts Hieronymus Bosch and Monty Python. Hansel, Gretel, and "the Bitch" who tried to make them a meal present soliloquies about incestuous longing, freak love, and a carnal bloodbath. Sound dark? It is, but Arneson keeps the macabre bubbles bursting with discordant references to pop culture and brand-name detritus inspiring much laughter. Emerging from Grimm's typical adolescent trauma, this strange love doesn't waver: As Hansel declares, "The new blemish on your buttock, I bow down to." Thu 7:00 p.m.; Sat 1:00 p.m.; Sun 8:30 p.m. (MacTavish)
Bodies in Motion
Bow Wow! Productions
Nancy (Sandra Struthers) and Eric (Jeff Myhre) are at odds. Should they have a baby? Should they push Nancy's feeble dad (Marcellus Carlin) out of the house and into a home? In therapy Nancy finds the root of her "issues" in the disharmonic convergence of people that is commonly called family. The voyage shows Dad to be a clueless dipsomaniac and Mom (Cheryl Ullyot) to be a princess whose fretting and nagging create two states in Nancy's family life: commotion and dilemma. Unfortunately the family foibles, drawn broadly and with an excess of amusing punch lines, leave the play's inhabitants looking more like caricatures than realized characters. Fri 7:00 p.m., Sat 5:30 p.m. (MacTavish)
The Day of the Lemming
Exeunt cradle-to-grave security and the gold watch for lifetime achievement. Enter lemming Stanley Rush (Joe Kaiser), a cog in the corporate machine with the appearance of a young Jerry Lewis. When Rush is promoted, the show begins to unveil a modern corporate netherworld. Turns out there are sinister cabals of vampiric board members and dangerously seductive board presidents. And there are senior partners obsessed with battlefield rhetoric and sweaty with sexual double-entendres. And, of course, the doughnut-obsessed colleagues; the bored, smart-ass receptionists; and the rumor-filled lunches--these you already know about. Lemming's office mayhem may have you snickering slyly, but remember to be afraid. Wed 10:00 p.m., Thu 8:30 p.m., Sat 2:30 p.m. (MacTavish)
Barneezlebub: A Hillbilly Porn Opera
Although Vice President Al Gore was in town for a campaign meet-and-greet on Friday, it's a good bet that he didn't go anywhere near the Fringe opening of Jerungdu's rock odyssey-cum-porn epic. For theatergoers clamoring for a better class of locally produced porn opera, however, Barneezlebub is a must-see. It is nearly impossible to describe either the plot (a malevolent purple hydra based loosely on a certain children's television icon lures an unwitting hick with a superfluous orifice into the exciting, fast-paced world of adult feature film) or the operatic score--except to say that Tipper would most definitely not approve. Sat 10:00 p.m. (Ritter)