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Best bets from the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival

Custom dress by Idle Child. Special thanks to Amy Nystrom of Speakeasy for modeling and 4 Seasons Dance Studio for the space.
Custom dress by Idle Child. Special thanks to Amy Nystrom of Speakeasy for modeling and 4 Seasons Dance Studio for the space.
Benjamin Carter Grimes

There's nothing staid about the Minnesota Fringe Festival. It's a crazy patchwork of hundreds of actors and dancers presenting 169 shows at 15 venues over 11 days.

In a community packed to the gills with theater, the Fringe holds a special place. An expected 50,000 people will take in the festival. That means artists have to work extra hard to be heard above the din. You'll find them packing venues armed with postcards for their shows, cheerfully trying to draw you into the most unusual plays.

"People go to the Fringe to see the sort of theater that isn't usually available elsewhere — inspired, idiosyncratic stuff," says Kathy Welch, whose Green T. Productions will present a dance interpretation of the science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It's all part of the let's-put-on-a-show vibe. This doesn't mean the event itself is disorganized; 11 months' worth of planning goes into producing these 11 days. It falls to new executive director Jeff Larson to control the chaos.

One of the distinct charms of the Fringe is that it is completely unjuried. Getting into the festival is a matter of having your number called during the spring lottery. Beyond that, there's just a basic fee for a quintet of guaranteed performances.

Everything else is up to the performers. Want to create a sequel to Shakespeare's The Tempest, using James Cameron's Aliens as your template? Sure. Want to present a piece provocatively titled Fashion Risk or the Accidental Nudist? Go for it. How about an all-male adaptation of the Stanley Kurbric film Lolita? Four Humors turned that concept into a critical darling in 2013.

The Fringe is, well, all about the fringes — and taking risks. Noah Bremer and Live Action Set tend to do that with all of their projects. But this year, that means an immersive version of Crime and Punishment spread throughout the basement of the Soap Factory.

"Take risks. Be bold. Do what you are good [at], but delve further into that set of skills than ever previously imagined," Bremer says. "The Fringe is meant to be a place of innovation and danger. If your show isn't pushed toward the edge of failing, you haven't gone far enough."

Think of Fringe as a nirvana for hardcore theatergoers, two weeks where one can bathe in the creativity that makes live performance such a joy. It's also an excellent way to get a taste of the Twin Cities' vibrant theater community.

Individual tickets are cheap, and no show runs more than an hour. The venues are clustered primarily around Uptown, downtown, and the West Bank, which makes it easy to sample a wide swath in a single day.

One of the hubs is the University of Minnesota's Rarig Center, where four theaters (and a nightly show/walking tour) means you can have up to 29 shows to choose from on a Saturday or Sunday.

If you aren't the type to pick a show based on its title — but really, who wouldn't be intrigued by the Happy Vagina Puppet Show? — listening to a show's buzz is the next best thing. You can find online reviews on the Fringe's website, or just hang around and listen to the word of mouth. People love to talk about the shows they have seen, and will recommend their favorites.

"No matter how many times we do the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the most nerve-wracking part of the process is that initial weekend's reaction," says Jonathan A. Goldberg, leader of the Brooklyn-based Shelby Company. "You are checking your phone constantly to see if anybody has posted a complimentary review. You hope a bunch of people are coming and are compelled to write something about your show. You want people to react strongly, like they have to say something in order to actually experience the show. Like the conversation following the show is the epilogue. In the Fringe, that epilogue can make or break you."

10 Intriguing Shows

The best bets from the Minnesota Fringe Festival

Crime and Punishment

Live Action Set

In 2008, Live Action Set covered the interior of the Soap Factory with massive sheets of plastic to protect the stage from spilled milk — and provide just the right touch of the bizarre —for Deviants. This year, the award-winning company returns to the art gallery for an intriguing adaptation of Crime and Punishment. "It is an immersive experience where the audience can follow any character they choose, or explore environments on their own," says director Noah Bremer. "There are no places or time to sit and watch a typical 'scene.'"

That's par for the course for Live Action Set, whose Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban was the top-selling show at Fringe 2005. "I want the audience to walk away feeling like they were the main character of a dark and moody fever dream," says Bremer. "I want them to feel unnerved, swept up and questioning reality."

 

The Soap Factory: 8:30 p.m. July 31-Aug. 3; Aug. 7-Aug. 9; 10 p.m. Aug. 1-2; Aug. 8-9

Kafka Nuts

Comedy Suitcase

The madness keeps on coming from this duo, creators of the popular Harty Boys spoofs and last year's Comedy Vs. Calories: FIGHT. Comedy Suitcase, a perennial favorite at the Fringe, mixes broad comedy with pop culture. "The Kafka Nuts is an all-ages stage adaptation of The Trial by Franz Kafka — as performed in the style of 1930s anarchistic film comedy," says cast member Joshua Scrimshaw. "Because why the hell not?"

The characters "are forces of primal comedy chaos that whirl in and out of scenes, destroying or at least deconstructing anything that gets in their way," he adds. "Plopping them into the world of Kafka gives them plenty of power and bureaucracy to attack, and allows them to shine a little gleeful light into an otherwise dark and oppressive story."

Illusion Theater: 7 p.m. Aug. 1; 1 p.m. Aug. 2; 5:30 p.m. Aug. 5; 7 p.m. Aug. 7, 4 p.m. Aug. 9

Real Dead Ghosts

Shelby Company

Brooklyn's Shelby Company's clever scripts and instantly recognizable characters have made it an attraction along the North American Fringe circuit. Its previous hits include Sousepaw, the tale of a drunken, down-on-his-luck ballplayer making one last attempt at joining a league of any kind, and Font of Knowledge, a spy-centric adventure about a super-dangerous book font.

This time around, the subject is ghosts — and relationships. "It's about a young married couple who go on an anniversary trip to a cabin in the woods who realize they have a lot of problems to work out," says playwright Jonathan A. Goldberg. "It's a contemporary play about a relationship that has hit a wall, and the things we do in attempts to resurrect the past, the memory of which is always more attractive than what really happened."

Mixed Blood Theatre: 8:30 p.m. Aug. 1; 2:30 p.m. Aug. 2; 7 p.m. Aug. 4; 10 p.m. Aug. 6; 7 p.m. Aug. 9

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant

The Catalysts

The company behind Fruit Fly and Shelly Bachberg Presents: How Helen Keller and Anne Frank Freed the Slaves: The Musical takes on another prime target: Scientology. Xenu, Tom Cruise, and L. Ron Hubbard stand in line for mocking in this Obie Award-winning show. The tone promises to be similar to last year's rollicking hit, Shelly Bachberg, where a twisted version of American history came to life through the mind of a congresswoman eerily similar to Michele Bachmann.

This time out, it's religion under the spotlight. "The actual teachings of the Church of Scientology, as well as the life of the church's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, are explained and dissected against the candy-colored backdrop of a traditional nativity play," says company leader Max Wojtanowicz.

New Century Theater: 5:30 p.m. July 31; 1 p.m. Aug. 3; 7 p.m. Aug. 5; 8:30 p.m. Aug. 7; 7 p.m. Aug. 10

The Tourist Trap

Ghoulish Delights

Playwright and director Tim Uren (The Rats in the Walls, The Curse of Yig) keeps the terror coming when a group of people pay a visit the Bingham House, a home dedicated to a notorious South Dakota serial killer.

The cast includes local theater vets Ariel Leaf, Amy Schweickhardt, and Clarence Wethern.

Theater in the Round: 5:30 p.m. July 1; 1 p.m. Aug. 2; 7 p.m. Aug. 5; 10 p.m. Aug. 8; 7 p.m. Aug. 9

Into the Unreal City

Catalog Models

It's time to take a walking tour of Minneapolis, though this one includes comedy, music, and fake history. The show takes place on the streets of the West Bank, where the audience (limited to 20 for each performance) follows Zeke and Bet as they revisit their happy and hard times.

"We've incorporated the intimacy you find with another person in the spaces people use every day: talking to your partner as you walk home from work, or a late-night drunken conversation in a corner doorway," says co-creator Gemma Irish. "We were interested in doing something as big and theatrical as a musical, but taking it out of the theater and placing it in the real world."

Tour leaves the U of M Rarig Center daily at 7 p.m.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Green T Productions

Proto-humans, HAL the computer, and David Bowman collide in this dance adaptation of Stanley Kubrick's classic film. The story of humanity's growth launches from its first flowers of sentience into the furthest reaches of outer space.

"The original show ran close to two hours, so we have had to cut a lot to fit into the 60-minute Fringe format," says director Kathy Welch. "But I think it is resulting in a very sleek, tightly packed performance. No action or word can be extraneous, and I think Fringe audiences will appreciate that."

 

Illusion Theater: 5:30 p.m. July 31; 1 p.m Aug. 3; 7 p.m. Aug. 6; 5:30 p.m. Aug. 8; 7 p.m. Aug. 10.

Speakeasy

Bodytalk and the Peace Gang

Artists will be in your face and flying through the air in this dance/movement revue that embraces a 1920s vibe.

"This year we wanted to include aerial artists and the other Fringe venues didn't allow for that," says director Rebecca Abas. "We also wanted to take down that fourth wall and mix actors and audience with cabaret-style seating. We want the audience to have a foot-tapping, shoulder-shimmying, interactive experience, maybe even dress up in '20s fashions and play along or sit back and watch."

Four Seasons Dance Studio: 7 p.m. Aug. 2; 5:30 p.m. Aug. 3; 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Aug. 8; 8:30 p.m. Aug. 9.

Fotis Canyon

The Importance Of Being Fotis

Storyteller and comic Mike Fotis has a deep background in local comedy, from the Brave New Workshop to original shows. His work as a storyteller, mining everything from close encounters with bats to troubles with video games, has earned Fotis high ratings among Fringe fans.

University of Minnesota Rarig Center Thrust: 5:30 p.m. Aug. 1; 4 p.m. Aug. 3; 7 p.m. Aug 4; 8:30 p.m. Aug. 9; 1 p.m. Aug. 10

Fifth Planet

Joking Apart Theater

David Auburn's one-act play features a story about two astronomers and the ups and downs of their Earthbound relationship. "It is a remarkable show that charts the developing friendship of two diverse people who would have never connected in any other way, except for these chance encounters," says director Edwin Strout.

Fifth Planet features 44 scenes in a 60-minute play.

Theater in the Round: 8 p.m. July 31; 5:30 p.m. Aug. 2; 2:30 p.m. Aug. 3; 10 p.m. Aug. 6; 5:30 p.m. Aug. 9

Kafka Nuts

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