Live Nude Theater Cheap Cheap Cheap!

(Okay, a few of the performers in the nation's biggest Fringe Festival aren't nude. but a lot of them are.)

"We'll never go back to Edinburgh again," says Brian Sostek of the world's original and biggest Fringe Festival. "Our venue was supposed to be a theater tent, but our contact turned out to be a big freak--he had stopped responding to our e-mails and phone calls, and by the time we got there our venue literally never materialized. People were showing up to an empty square with nothing there, no signs, nothing."

Sostek, along with Megan McClellan, is one half of Sossy Mechanics, a dance-theater company that presented Dance in the Dark at this year's festival. Back in 2003, the group scored big at the Minnesota Fringe with Trick Boxing and subsequently spent four months performing at Fringe fests held all over the globe. In other words, he ran away from home to join the circus, still a leading nightmare among American parents. Reached by phone, Sostek is quick to describe the travails of the traveling performer playing small venues. Like the time McClellan sprained an ankle in Prague, necessitating an impromptu replacement, or the time a failing Fringe tried to take them down with it.

"In Seattle, we were one of three shows chosen to extend our run," he says. "Then when we got home we discovered that they knew they were bankrupt and they were using us to cover their losses. We ended up screwed out of a couple thousand dollars."

But here in Minnesota we are of the bill-paying, obligation-honoring ilk. No one is guaranteed a big crowd, or a favorable critical reception, but when out-of-towners arrive at, say, the Jungle or Mixed Blood, they will find a fully functioning theater in which to do their thing.

So what, exactly, is the thing this year? At first glance, one sees plenty of light comedies, one-person shows about varying degrees of personal nuttiness (has anyone done Unhinged at the Fringe yet?), and tons of sex. It's not just this author's prurient mind--quite a few photos in this year's program feature sexy images, and show titles include Adventures in Mating (see review below), LICK!, We Make Porn Artsy, and the intriguingly titled I'm Naked and I'm Ready (see review below).

Questioned about her role in this erotic theater conspiracy, Fringe executive director Leah Cooper is evasive. "I don't know how it happens," she says. "Every year there's a trend: all musicals, all zany hilarious comedies. This year we have mimes, jugglers, and clowns. And sex, sex, sex. A lot of it is the Teen Fringe. We don't censor the teens, and it turns out that when you let teens talk about whatever they want, they talk about sex."

While youth is apparently not entirely wasted on the young, a scan of the Fringe schedule yields few examples of topical political shows--whether inspired by youthful idealism or the more jaundiced eye that comes with age. Today's political realities (and the odor of mendacity in the air) could conceivably have led to a spate of productions about war and truth, so it's a bit of a surprise that so few 2005 Fringe shows are overtly drawn from current events. Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban (see review, p.26) is a clown show about living in wartime, and I Voted for Gummi Bears tackles suppression of African American voters. Still, given the times, one might expect more agitation on the stage.

"I am a little surprised," Cooper says. "I think if they're like me, they're feeling jaded about talking about it."

One artist not avoiding controversy is Ben Kreilkamp, whose When Reason Sleeps is represented in the Fringe flyer by a photo of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Kreilkamp points out that his new show is part of a series about his personal journey. "I'm disturbed by the image," he says of the photo. "And I'm disturbed by our country's policies about torture as I understand them."

When asked about the dearth of politics at the Fringe, Kreilkamp is measured in his response. "You might be looking in the wrong place," he says. "The Fringe is mostly about other things. It's best known for its entertainment value."

So, amid the darker currents of the moment, we set out for a weekend of fun. Why not, one supposes. On opening weekend I witnessed an amazing shooting star in the middle of a performance on the roof of Joe's Garage, then a couple of nights later took in the bowlers at Bryant-Lake while trying to talk my way into a sold-out performance. I saw an overly refreshed audience member make a noisy exit mid-performance, and a monologue punctuated by a blown fuse and sudden pitch dark. And, as luck would have it, though perhaps luck could have had it in such a way more often, I even saw some excellent theater. What follows is a partial critical guide to the festival's triumphs, follies, must-avoids, and breakaway hits. Please come fully clothed and prepared.

 

Adventures in Mating
JOSEPH SCRIMSHAW
In Joseph Scrimshaw's latest work, a couple meets for a blind date but can't be held responsible for its inevitable failure. Claiming 30 different scene combinations, the play relies on the sadistic tendencies of the audience to guide the doomed evening. (Choose Your Own Adventure fans will be happy to know that several scenes end in death.) While some of the shtick reeks of cliché (do we really need another snooty waiter?), there's enough genuinely hilarious mob-driven comedy to make up for the inclusion of an overly familiar cat-collecting 30-year-old woman hell-bent on getting a ring. Wed. 10:00 p.m., Sat. 10:00 p.m., Sun. 10:00 p.m. Brave New Workshop. --Lindsey Thomas

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