Indie 500

With roughly 100 productions and 500 performances, the Minnesota Fringe Festival turns low-budget theater into a two-week marathon

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.

--Max Sparber

 

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)

Daddy RockiN' No Jewelry Allowed Comedy Show

Fancy RayHere's something that's strange but true: Fancy Ray, erstwhile gubernatorial candidate, cable-access talk-show personality, and self-crowned "best-looking man in comedy," has a mother. I can testify to this because I sat next to her at Fancy Ray's first Fringe foray, an entertaining scramble of impersonations, standup bits, and riffs on his famous narcissism. Pitching homeopathic products and adult bookstores on TV, Fancy Ray seems more sales gimmick than human--a weirdly androgynous Little Richard look-alike with gravity-defying hair. In person, though, his self-appreciatory humor and goofy energy come through clearly. I'm sure his mom would agree, anyway. Thu 8:30 p.m., Fri 5:30 p.m., Sun 8:30 p.m. Hennepin Center for the Arts Little Theatre. (Ritter)

Dang! The Ari Hoptman All-Request Show

Ari HoptmanFor the past year, locally beloved wit Ari Hoptman has been studying philology in Berlin. Appropriately, the best shtick in this, a compendium of his best shticks, affectionately skewers the Teutonic sense of humor (which is to say, humorlessness). Hoptman also manages to make fun of philology with a deadpan lecture on the history of the word boeuf. Hoptman's style is cerebral and Alpo-dry, but also seizure-inducingly funny (q.v. his delivery of an evangelical sermon entirely in Latin). For his local following, this Fringe appearance is a welcome homecoming. One caveat: Get your tickets early; Hoptman, like so many philologists, draws a big crowd. Thu 8:30 p.m., Fri 1:00 p.m., Sat 4:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., Sun 8:30 p.m. St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral. (Ritter)

Degrade School

Heidi ArnesonAn ASL interpreter was present at the performance I saw, desperately trying to keep up with Heidi Arneson's relentless, poetic stream-of-consciousness show about childhood. But it is impossible to imagine how the interpreter dealt with such unusual phrases as "zipper up your snicker-hole" and "bread-wrapper twist-tie rings." Arneson's popular, half-decade-old one-woman show has aged well. Every detail is crisp, alternating between the hilarious and the poignant with frightening speed; sometimes, such as when a teacher admonishes her class to place their heads on their desks and "listen to the sound of the shame," it manages to be both at once. Wed 10:00 p.m., Fri 2:30 p.m., Sat 7:00 p.m., Sun. 5:30 p.m. Acadia Cabaret. (Sparber)

DNA and the Dancing Fool

Alex PodulkeAlex Podulke displays impressive talent in writing and starring in the one-man effort. Playing Rupert Suavé (a.k.a. Koeceritz), a man who shakes free from his corporate shackles for a career as an interpretive dancer, Podulke peppers the audience with both humorous and dramatic soliloquies. Although some parts of this show are less inspired than others, Podulke's raw energy and magnetism ultimately win the day: He leaves the audience with a meaningful commentary on the role of the artist in society. Wed 10:00 p.m., Fri 7:00 p.m., Sun 5:30 p.m. Phoenix Playhouse Black Box. (Jonathan Kaminsky)

Edward III: The King and the Countess

Council of Doom Theatre CompanyShakespeare is hard to do. The temptation to tear at one's bosom and shake one's tiny fist at the sky is strong. Pacing is essential or the iambic pentameter will eat up your lines. Improv is out of the question. That said, the young Council of Doom Theatre Company does an admirable job with Edward III, the bawdy history-cum-tragedy recently added to the canon after centuries of obscurity. Occasionally a line will get lost in a moment of overplayed emotion, or some stubborn Elizabethan phrase will take two or three tries. But the troupe successfully uses modern costumes and an empty set to focus attention on the action in this fiery and lurid drama. Fri 7:00 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m., Sun 5:30 p.m. St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral. (Tricia Cornell)

Kabuki! 47 Samurai

Green T ProductionsDon't let the title fool you, as there are considerably fewer than 47 samurai in this production. But then any more would have been unnecessary, because the few who retell this story of betrayal and revenge in feudal Japan do it so well. A Kabuki production may seem peculiar and mannered at first--and it is, but no more so than a cartoon. With this production, thinking of it as a cartoon is helpful, as great fun is had at various characters' expense. Unhappy patrons at Kabuki performances are famed for throwing their seat cushions onstage, but few will fly during this production, even when the script takes a fast potshot at Governor Jesse. Sat 8:30 p.m., Sun 4:00 p.m. Minneapolis Theatre Garage. (Sparber)

Keep Off the Tracks!

Richard W. RousseauAfter Richard Rousseau wraps up his hourlong cock-and-bull story, you may want to invite him for a pint at your local watering hole so you can hear a few more humdingers. The middle-aged storyteller and St. Paul resident reminisces about his delinquent boyhood days--which include a stay in the mental ward and a relentless quest for leprechauns and gold--in a small New England town during the late 1940s. With his slightly gruff yet winsome voice, Rousseau mixes the right amount of fantasy and sentiment to keep you eagerly jumping from tangent to tangent until he brings it all home. Sat 2:30 p.m., Sun 7:00 p.m. Phoenix Playhouse Black Box. (Swanson)

Listen

Naked Muse ProductionsAn eco-conscious, Gen-X version of Romeo and Juliet, Listen mulls over too many tired topics of a now-bygone decade. Written and directed by local playwright Leah Cooper, this comedy/love story tracks Joe (Casey Greig), an ambitious, wannabe marketing executive caught between the temptation of corporate success and the beautiful Katie (Maggie Chestovitch), a passionate poet on the make to save the world from its polluted fate. "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wanna hug a tree," the promotional materials boast. The only thing I wanted to embrace at the end of this show was my pollutant-emitting Ford Tempo--the better to carry me hastily away from the theater. Fri 2:30 p.m., Sun 5:30 p.m. Red Eye. (Jen Boyles)

Look Ma, No Pants!

Scrimshaw BrothersRoll over, Brad Pitt, as Mime Club replaces Fight Club in this lineup of shtick, skits, dance, and improv. The gut-wrencher of these loose-limbed routines is "Comedy in a Nutshell," in which Joseph Scrimshaw plays an aged but feisty vaudevillian who reveals his funny-man tricks before the final rim shot can yank him off life's stage. Another highlight is an interactive routine involving Star Wars vs. Winnie the Poohorigami, which goes from silly to sublime as the hard-to-please audience refuses to settle for paper versions of Yoda and Storm Troopers, demanding instead to see "The Force" folded. Thu 11:30 p.m., Fri 11:30 p.m., Sat 11:30 p.m. Phoenix Playhouse Black Box. (Eric Dregni)

Love's Lines, Angles and Rhymes

Dash ProductionsFinally: A coming-out tale transmogrified through a time machine. Delve into Professor Anderson's mind as his youthful leap from the closet and his sister's impending wedding find unusual parallels in the 16th Century. This means plenty of doublets and pantaloons as the actors switch from dreams of soap-opera stars to erotic fencing lessons--all enhanced by an Eric Satie soundtrack, which is timeless. Karen Wiese-Thompson keeps the comedy rolling as the seen-it-all mother/housekeeper, while the other dreamers melodramatically exchange dialogue like, "I'll go to Hell!" "I'll go with you!" Thu 10:00 p.m., Sat 10:00 p.m., Sun 8:30 p.m. Phoenix Playhouse Mainstage. (Dregni)

Martini AND Olive: Caught Between Two Love Handles

Grant Richey and Judy Heneghan"Why do Martini and Olive need security?" asked an unwitting audience member before this show. Responded security officer Stuart (Dan Rooney): "I've seen it in Sheboygan, in Pewaukee, too. Once you see these famous personalities on the stage you're gonna go crazy. You're gonna storm the stage, rip their clothes off!" Not quite, but like everything else in this locally cherished cabaret romp, the security bit is deliciously overdone. Among the "celebrities" are Seventies-stylin' Vince (Peter Staloch), an absurd trio of dancers, and, of course, Tony (Grant Richey) and Olive (Judy Heneghan), whose kitsch orgy converts nearly every audience into schlock swingers. Wed 7:00 p.m., Fri 1:00 and 8:30 p.m., Sat 7:00 p.m., Sun 5:30 p.m. Music Box Theatre. (Kaminsky)

Newsprint Nightmares/Tabloid Dreams

Mary Worth Theatre CompanyThe Mary Worth gang has a reputation for flavoring their material with a quirky theatrical sensibility and a dash of camp. It's not surprising, then, that their latest offering finds its inspiration in the fertile, lumpen fantasies of supermarket tabloids. The show's three vignettes, ripped, as they say, from the headlines, are too delicious to give away. Let it suffice to say that the actors who report them are sensational. Laura Respess and Natalie Diem are especially good as happily oblivious trailer-trash gals. Along with habituates of those dear tabloids, these women hold faith in the weirdness and wonder lurking beneath the everyday. Fri 4:00 p.m., Sat 7:00 p.m. Minneapolis Theatre Garage. (Ritter)

One Egg Short of a Carton

Fully Reciprocal Theatre CompanyJohn Schaidler's amusing play concerns that ever-aggravating subject--the missing lunch. Here, it's an egg-salad sandwich. Over the course of five lost lunches, disparate--but always obsessive--reactions to this little tragedy come in for consideration. In one vignette a trailer-park tornado victim is more concerned with the loss of his sandwich than with his windswept family photos or even his home, because the meal "so represented where my life is right now." These various lost-sandwich scenarios are interrupted by voiceovers conveying fun egg facts, and sometimes-relevant monologues delivered by Patty Matthews on such subjects as Humpty Dumpty's first appearance in ovoid form. Thu 10:00 p.m., Sun 8:30 p.m. Acadia Cabaret. (Bridgette Reinsmoen)

Play on Birds

Council of Doom Theatre CompanyYou don't have to be an obsessive birdwatcher to enjoy this slight but chipper collection of skits; you simply need to have some history with geeky obsessiveness (Vampire: The Masquerade fans, for example, will experience a haunting familiarity while watching this show). But what is most entertaining about the production is its willingness to deteriorate into utter foolishness, such as when performer Sharon Koval Stiteler wages war against a puppet squirrel. It's silly but sublime. Sat 5:30 p.m., 7:00 p.m., Sun 2:30 p.m. St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral. (Sparber)

Rent Boy, Strawberry Boy

Roll the Dice ProductionsSounding rather like a Gertrude Stein script about male prostitutes, Michael Lewis Schurter's play folds back on itself constantly, repeating single phrases and whole reams of dialogue ("Anyone ever tell you that you got a cute face?") to make oblique points about...what? Truth? Beauty? Honesty? I am not certain what the syllabus is here, but the stylized staging by Jennifer Blackmer is moody and fascinating. And it is always a pleasure to see attractive performers strip off their clothes onstage. Wed. 7:00 p.m., Fri 2:30 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m. Hennepin Center for the Arts Little Theatre. (Sparber)

Sex With David Mann

David MannFirst off, the title of veteran Fringe performer David Mann's new one-man show is expository rather than interrogative. Nevertheless, those who come won't be disappointed (pun only slightly intended). Embodying a dozen or so characters throughout, Mann offers a mix of dramatic monologues and coital comedy, including, it should be noted, the most outré use of produce for demonstration of sexual technique since Phoebe Cates made sweet love to that carrot in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Mann's sex talk isn't all giggles, though. He's also able to guide us through some fairly rough emotional territory: insecurity, desire, fear, and uncertainty. Come to think of it, isn't that what sex is all about? Thu 8:30 p.m., Fri 1:00 p.m., Sat 10:00 p.m. Minneapolis Theatre Garage. (Ritter)

Such Tricks (Shakespeare the Magician)

Theater Zero presents Ben KreilkampWhen Ben Kreilkamp tells his audience, "Make yourselves comfortable. There's a lot of words to absorb," everyone settles obediently into chairs, as if conditioned for a lecture. In addition to the roles Kreilkamp tackles in the 17 monologues of this one-man show, he also plays the rumpled professor onstage, stopping to explain an odd word or to expound gently on the background of the speeches. Kreilkamp can be nearly anyone in the Shakespearean repertoire--Juliet's nurse, Lear, Puck--and he savors every line with an obvious love for the Bard. Wed 8:30 p.m., Fri 8:30 p.m., Sat 1:00 p.m., Sun 4:00 p.m. St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral. (Cornell)

Super Freaks

Frontier TheatreMusicals may be making a comeback, and indeed this production is back for its second Fringe Fest. The show features a cast of attractive young people hoofing their way through a series of off-color scenes poking fun at local sexual mores. If you're the kind of person who laughs at nuns singing about self-stimulation or at the spectacle of a man serenading a blow-up sex doll, then this is your ticket. But you'll have to sit through endless goofy aphorisms about sex, some half-assed choreography, and two horrible German accents along the way. Thu 10:00 p.m., Fri 8:30 p.m., Sun 4:00 p.m. Hennepin Center for the Arts Little Theatre. (Michael Fallon)

Tall Tales from the Kentucky Cycle

The Polar ProjectThis excerpt from Robert Schenkkan's Pulitzer-winning epic takes place shortly after the Civil War and features a family of naive, self-described hillbillies who are visited by a slick-talking traveling "storyteller" with a hidden agenda. "J.T. Wells," as he calls himself, successfully uses his charm and a cache of entertainments, including a fractured version of Romeo and Juliet, to win the group's trust--with the exception of the daughter's wary boyfriend. A few clichés ensue (country girl is taken with sophisticated newcomer, doubts the simple life she has never before questioned), but there are some humorous--and maybe even touching--moments. Fri 7:00 p.m., Sat 4:00 p.m., Sun 1:00 p.m. Phoenix Playhouse Mainstage. (Reinsmoen)

The Last Cherry Pit

Ministry of Cultural WarfareWith comedy troupes sprouting in the Twin Cities like crabgrass, it is nice to see a group that tackles more than improv games and hastily assembled, yawning sketches. This first production of the Ministry of Cultural Warfare offers a jolting, dreamlike look at the life of István Örkény, a Cold War-era Hungarian writer known for bitterly absurd short stories. The resulting production is disquieting and smart--a good thing for comedy to be. Fri 5:30 p.m. Acadia Cabaret. (Sparber)

The 17 Rules of Show Business

Fifty Foot Penguin Theatre CompanyThe reunion of actor chums who chose different career paths provides the background for this big-issue debate forum, which pits TV vs. Theater, Career vs. Family, and Commerce vs. Art. Regrettably, this original script by Fringe czar Dean J. Seal often forgets Rule of Show Business #18: Ponderous exposition is no substitute for witty dialogue. Still, the cast is energetic and likable, and there are enough zingers lobbed at the biz to make the endless explaining go down more smoothly. Edwin Strout is properly saintly as Chaz, a children's theater producer, and Zach Curtis plays Foster, an avaricious Hollywood exec, with oily glee. Fri 10:00 p.m., Sat 5:30 p.m. Sun 1:00 p.m. Acadia Cabaret. (Cecile Cloutier)

These Shorts Feel Funny

Breath of Fresh TheatreThe woman sitting next to me summed this one up succinctly: "The sketches were kind of like Saturday Night Live," she said, "except they weren't funny. Or maybe I just didn't get it." While one could quibble with that analysis--who would confidently claim that SNL is funny?--her description isn't far off. Kyra Mesich's four short comedies and three "interludes" leave the audience struggling to understand the premises and plots. They almost definitely involve romantic relationships and a classic by MC Hammer--that much is known. But are the stories at all connected? How? And what's the point? One thing is for sure, though: Coming in from the heat and sitting through this show can leave one's shorts feeling funny, indeed. Wed 8:30 p.m., Fri 4:00 p.m., Sun 2:30 p.m. Phoenix Playhouse Mainstage. (Erin Adler)

Three Ship Armada

Three Ship ArmadaPicture this: Three friends get together and decide to put on a show, but their talents are, well, rather uncomplementary. What to do? Well, in the case of Three Ship Armada, they decide to do the show anyway. That is, Daniel Schultz performs his Italian clown act; Raymond Yates sings hootenanny-style ballads; and Gabriel El Gato dances classical Spanish flamenco. And the show culminates in a hilarious show-stopping slapstick free-for-all that involves a dance on top of breakfast cereal, a frenetic chase through the audience and auditorium, and a slow-motion violent collision that would do Mel Brooks proud. Sat 2:30 p.m., Sun 7:00 p.m. Hennepin Center for the Arts Little Theatre. (Fallon)

Vixens: The Sexy Bad Girl Revue

Buffalo Gal ProductionsSexy has never been this wholesome. Really. I'd bring Grandma to see these six women strutting onstage in bustiers and tap pants (and often less). They make growling and dropping your voice to registers somewhere below Marlene Dietrich's look practically innocent. Vixens: The Sexy Bad Girl Revue is 13 of the I-am-woman-hear-me-roaringest numbers from Broadway, played sassy and scintillating. Although at the first performance the sound system often turned strong voices into shrill mush, the performers nearly brought down the house with songs like Lieber and Stoller's "I'm a Woman" and "Cell Block Tango" from Chicago. Thu 8:30 p.m., Fri 1:00 p.m. Music Box Theatre. (Cornell)

Wildlife

Fleneur ProductionsIn this one-man performance piece by Brooklynite John O'Donoghue, an artist new to an unnamed city embarks on a steady descent into madness. While disjointed soliloquies abound (the guy is nuts, after all), O'Donoghue brings a venerable arsenal to the project: His body movement is fluid and powerful; he has a gift for ranting; and he bears a striking resemblance to Tom Waits. And so the actor ensures that even if audiences cannot relate to the emptiness of this drifting soul, they can at least be entertained by it. Fri 4:00 p.m., Sun 5:30 p.m. Hennepin Center for the Arts Little Theater. (Kaminsky)

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