City of Sideshows

Amid all the carnival barking of the fringe, we tell you which tent shows deserve your ten bucks

Ah, the Fringe, the Fringe, the Fringe. Here it is, the one Twin Cities theatrical experience that fully deserves to be referred to as an event. There are familiar pleasures to be had at any Fringe, many of them tangential to the 130-odd shows on offer--and the spoken-word and Visible Fringe, too. It's a marvelous social experience, wandering from show to show, often at a fast clip, given the nearly overlapping showtimes. There's the bonhomie of hobnobbing and comparing notes with fellow Fringegoers, sharing drinks at the end of the day, or engaging in other group activities perhaps best left unmentioned. (For example, one crowd of Fringe performers and attendees escaped last year's sweltering heat with an impromptu naked late-night swim.)

That said, 2002 seems to be a year of transition for the Fringe, making this edition something of a mystery. First, there is the departure of the Fringe's most tireless producer and promoter, Dean Seal, in circumstances that remain murky and vaguely unsavory. The earliest Minnesota Fringe festivals were not promising affairs--as the 14 people in attendance would tell you--and though his management style may have been erratic, Seal deserves credit for rescuing the event from likely extinction. Now, there are more venues than ever, including such established Minneapolis stages as the Jungle Theater, the Illusion Theater, and both the upstairs and downstairs of the Hey City Stage. This proliferation, along with a host of corporate sponsors and a free all-day trolley, suggests a steady march toward unabashed professionalism.

So the Fringe has moved two steps forward, and the price reflects it. The cost of individual shows has nudged upward to $10 (or $12.50 reserved), and the price of an Ultra-Pass, which allows audiences to see an unlimited number of shows, has lurched from $75 to $90. (Call UptownTix at 612.604.4466 or go to Meanwhile, quite a few Fringe mainstays are back, such as the omnipresent Scrimshaw Brothers. Indeed, they will be represented by three shows: a Fringe production of Look Ma, No Pants, as well as Joshua Scrimshaw's Shut Your Joke Hole and Joe Scrimshaw's The Worst Show at the Fringe. (This last show features actor David Mann, himself a Fringe pillar.) Also on tap is a one-woman show by Heidi Arneson, a puppet performance by the Galumph troupe, and another act of agitprop anarchy by the Ministry of Cultural Warfare, all veterans of this theater campaign.

That noted, the 2002 Fringe also seems to be taking at least one step backward. Last year's affair featured a few distinctly high-end performances. Kevin Kling remounted his one-man 21A, while playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and playwright/performer/Mystery Science Theater 3000 alum Bill Corbett brought a dazzling pair of monologues, The Murderer and the Martian, to the stage in person. A completely open and unjuried booking policy has always been a point of pride for the Minnesota Fringe. Yet the presence of some more established talent last year drew audiences that may not have turned out to watch a cross-dressing recent college grad offering epiphanies realized while sitting on the crapper. This year has its share of talent, but it cannot boast the wattage of 2001.

Neither does it offer the sort of unrestrained weirdness of past seasons. There is nothing comparable to Jill Bernard's production of A Doll's House, performed in 2000 in a minuscule cubby in the basement of the Acadia. (Talk about domestic claustrophobia!) Nor is there anything to match avant-garde maven John Troyer's 2002 show, set in his own apartment. For those of us who look to the Fringe for the utterly unexpected and inexplicable, the generically salacious show descriptions featured in this year's Fringe guide boast little to be excited about.

But then, something at the Fringe always surprises. Using a complex mathematical calculus, we at City Pages have selected a fair sampling of Fringe plays for your attention. Though the formula is proprietary, we can reveal the broad outlines: We scanned the Fringe guide looking for shows that featured puppets, nudity, and violence, and took it from there.--Max Sparber

Now & Again Productions

"So you're here to see a sex show?" Elysabeth Ashe teases us. Mais oui, with a title like that. She starts to talk about flirting. The guy next to me mutters his disappointment and leaves, perhaps for the friskier Skyway Lounge across Hennepin. Loren Niemi, Ashe's improv partner, ups the ante, describing a bodacious barmaid crammed into a crawfish costume, and a white-trash Wisconsin strip joint. Ashe, in turn, wiggles through a nightclub fantasy. It's all funny and thoughtful, but this pair's carnal musings are about as titillating as Garrison Keillor reciting Henry Miller. Where's Susie Bright when you need her? Thu 10:00 p.m. Hey City Theater Downstairs. --Caroline Palmer


Larry Pontius

Lawyers have bad reps, sometimes deservedly so, but rarely has a boorish barrister caused such upheaval as in this wacky night-of-a-thousand-masks story. After a legal mishap at McDonald's, our hero (portrayed interchangeably by Nancy Ruyle, R. Charle Rollings, and Larry Pontius) searches for the "American Way." Turns out things are weird everywhere, what with all the scheming cows, alien abductions, hot-dog-stand philosophers, and psycho beauty queens. Director Anthony Paul keeps the comedy well-paced, and while Pontius (who also designed the masks and puppets) sometimes forces the parody, he lovingly portrays the USA at its eccentric best. Thu 7:00 p.m., Sun 8:30 p.m. MCTC Whitney Studio. --Caroline Palmer

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