Nature threatened to outdo the onstage action opening night at Herocycle, the revived and revised Minnesota Fringe Festival hit exploring the life and exploits of Evel Knievel. A few minutes into the show, the storm that pounded the Twin Cities Friday evening arrived on Nicollet Avenue. While the Old Arizona didn't lose power like a lot of other venues, the storm raging outside was easily audible from inside the theater, and visible signs showed up as well when at least one small puddle could be seen on the edge of the stage.
It all added to the sense of danger you find in any live performance. What will happen when the carefully rehearsed moments of the show meet the reality of the evening? That was magnified for Herocycle, as it centered on a man as famous for his failures as his successes and employed a string of circus-style aerial acts.
Starting from the last moments of Knievel's life and then going back and moving roughly chronologically through his rise to fame, Herocycle merges the life of the stunt cyclist with Joseph Campbell's theories on the heroic journey. The storytelling arc fits fairly well in the piece, but the recreation of Knievel and his classic jumps make the show really sing.
HerocycleOld Arizona Theatre, 2821 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; www.ftfworks.org
Originally crafted by Erik Hoover and Kym Longhi, with additional material by the company, Herocycle splits Knievel into two characters: the largely earthbound Robert (Hoover) and his high-flying, dark id Evel (Jim Peitzman). They are joined by Sasha Gibbs, who plays Knievel's first wife, Linda, and Beth Brooks playing a reporter out to interview the aging stunt rider and the "Goddess" who overlooks his life.
Though the story follows Knievel's life, this is no strict biography. The show is more about representing the energy and scope of the man's life rather than going blow-by-blow through nearly 70 years of history. The show is often densely layered, with the onstage performance augmented by original music (by Sam Brooks) from the band and a giant video screen showing moments of Knievel's jumps or highly distorted scenes from the stage.
Not all of the stunts are that simple. The show plays on the edge of parody at every turn, loving the subject but recognizing how absurd it is at the same time. After all, it's hard to get too dramatic and dark when three-fourths of the company are wearing tight white jumpsuits with huge collars and stylized American flags.
Those edges — moments where it could all go wrong artistically as well as physically — are the best portions of the show. In one scene, musician and aerialist Maliya Gorman-Carter takes a turn in the sky. That's impressive enough, until they lower her violin from the rafters and she plays a solo while spinning high above the action.
In another, Peitzman attaches a harness to the wheelchair that Hoover's version of Knievel uses throughout the show and starts swinging Hoover and the chair around the stage. It's a gorgeous visual that appears silly in hindsight but again fits in perfectly with the vibe not just of Herocycle but of Knievel's life as a whole.
Some parts may shift too far into parody, like Knievel's late-life baptism on the Hour of Power program. And while the expanded scope gives the show more breathing room than the original 50-minute Fringe piece had, it is getting close to the point of outstaying its welcome. Even that aspect, however, fits in with the life of the man who is best known for not jumping the Snake River Canyon.