Placed prominently in the tiny, two-room office of the Fringe Festival is an electronic labeler--the sort that spits out a bit of plastic tape with a sticky back, printed with whatever you type into it. This labeler serves a necessary function at the Fringe Festival, as executive producer Dean J. Seal cannot always remember the names of his dozen volunteer assistants and coordinators. Introducing them, he will gesture vaguely, and they will fill in their name. The volunteers have helpfully tried to overcome this problem by labeling themselves for when they circulate through Fringe headquarters. In fact, if memory serves, they have even labeled some common items in the office, such as computers and long tables.
Seal can hardly be blamed for such minor mnemonic lapses. After all, he is responsible for keeping track of every detail of the Fringe Festival, and with 100 acts and 500 performances that take place at 15 different locations over the ten days of the festival, he has a lot to keep track of. Seal can be likened to Albert Einstein, who reportedly could not be bothered to memorize his own telephone number, saying that he could always look it up. (We've listed showtimes at the end of our capsule reviews and venue addresses in the gray box on page 36 to assist the Einsteins in the audience.)
Whatever mentalist feats it requires of Seal to organize this sprawling thespian campaign, he has done it, producing what is, for our money, one of the best festivals in the nation. Let us compare it to the New York Fringe Festival, which is juried--arguably guaranteeing better shows, but also limiting the enormous variety of productions that the Twin Cities can boast. Worse still, the New York festival takes a chunk of the profits from any play it produces--forever. If Arthur Miller debuted Death of a Salesman at the New York Fringe Festival, for example, he would still be paying a percentage of his profits today, a policy that makes Seal scowl. "Who needs that?" he asks. "There are other ways of getting into Manhattan."
And who needs Manhattan, we ask, when one has the Minnesota Fringe Festival? While it would be impossible to review every single performance in the festival, we have earnestly attempted to peek in on the best--and the worst--of what the festival has to offer in its first weekend (the fest continues through August 6). At $8 a ticket (or $50 for an all-fest pass), the fearless theatergoer can afford to take the plunge along with the performers. And so we have seized our little notepads and golf pencils--required equipment for theater critics--gone through our preparations and ablutions, and set out to document the largest Fringe Festival the Twin Cities has ever seen.
A Circular Play
Theatre of TruthThe program for A Circular Play includes an excerpt from an Antonin Artaud essay. Yet Gertrude Stein's nonsensical "play in circles" doesn't seem to belong to Artaud's Theater of Cruelty; it's closer to Theater of Mild Consternation. In short: Stein plops three people on the stage and has them ramble about roses and circles and circles and roses. Initially, this makes for mild fun--like listening to a chat between the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. The absurdist gibberish quickly grows tiresome, however. As Stein ought to have known, a doze is a doze is a doze. Theatre of Truth's cast tackles the material with vigor, but trying to marshal a good production out of this stuff is rather like horsewhipping ether. Thu 7:00 p.m., Fri 5:30 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m. Phoenix Playhouse Black Box. (Peter Ritter)
A Doll's House
Jill Bernard"Ibsen was being metaphorical," the program reads. "We're not." And therein lies the explanation for one of the most delightful and peculiar features in the Fringe--a staged reading of Ibsen's overwrought one-act of gender liberation, mounted in a tiny, four-foot-by-four-foot cubby at the back of the Acadia's basement. It's a playing area so small that actors must double over to stand and must necessarily step on and push past each other simply to move. This renders lines such as "I've been struggling under the most restrictive circumstances," hilariously literal. Director Jill Bernard has discovered a gimmicky and ingenious way to illuminate some of the desperation and panic in the text. Call Ticketworks at (612) 343-3390 for more information, as seating is very limited. Sat 12:00 p.m. Acadia Basement. (Sparber)
A Shrewd Taming
Margolis Method Theater CenterDarva Conger's visage presides, in video form, over this production, wanting to marry and then divorce a millionaire. In a video segment, she explains that she felt as though she were living out some script; playwright/director Kym Longhi imagines that script as being Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. The story plays out as a hostile corporate merger, with Petruchio and Katharine carrying attaché cases. The resulting clash of romance and commerce is often comical, and it's staged with the Margolis Method's usual physical thrust and panache. Wed. 10:00 p.m., Fri 1:00 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m. Red Eye. (Sparber)
Bringing It All Back Home
Rhombus TheatreAs if the Rhombus Theatre company needed to remind you: Instead of frequenting the Fringe, you could stay home and binge on family sitcom reruns, and then fall comatose from mental malnutrition. In their production of Terrence McNally's suburban satire Bringing It All Back Home, Rhombus milks the well-worn device of superimposing one medium upon another--in this case, a play about a sitcom about a dysfunctional Minnetonka family. But the show doesn't fare much better than the tripe it seeks to satirize, and you will have to strong-arm yourself into mustering laughter when prompted. Who would have thought it was possible to miss a laugh track? Fri 1:00 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m., Sun 5:30 p.m. Phoenix Playhouse Mainstage. (Jeremy Swanson)