Day one of the 2016 Fringe is on the books, and all is well. The new ticketing system seems to have largely gone smoothly, with Fringe-goers easily purchasing wristbands and grabbing admission tokens that staff were very deliberate about referring to as "wooden nickels." City Pages will be catching as many shows as possible over the course of the Fringe; keep checking back for new reviews as they come in. For starters, here are the four shows I caught on Thursday night, from a lost-in-space alphabet to a bloody melee on the Rarig Thrust.
Merkur and Venera, Lunar Autumn Theatre
Rarig Center Arena
The five space explorers in Merkur and Venera go by one-letter code names, which creates a couple of dangers. First, every time the action sags there's a temptation for the audience to start playing mental Scrabble. Second, whenever anyone addresses the character named "A," they sound like the Fonz.
There's some debate early on about whether "apocalypse" is really the best word to describe what's happened back on Earth, but it's close enough that A (Brighid Burkhalter), M (Christine Walth), Q (Nick Saxton), X (Steven Kreager), and Z (Megan Guidry) aren't too tempted to return. (Their loved ones are also supposedly following on a second ship, though in space, you can't hold your breath.) That means they're on a bleak little star trek together, and when interstellar hazards begin claiming lives, A is haunted by her fallen shipmates.
Merkur and Venera is earnestly performed, but the dialogue is clunky, which is doubly disadvantageous since Evan Peterson's script is a lot of tell and not much show. Director Emily Wrolson employs her very minimal props effectively, using creative lighting and sound design to turn the Rarig Arena into a spartan spaceship. In the end, though, the ominous clanks and clunks simply dissipate into the void.
It Always Rained in Paris, Theatre Corrobora
If Fringe shows were movies, It Always Rained in Paris would be the Oscar bait: a mature adult drama amidst outrageous comedies and flashy gimmicks. This elegant, contemplative production comes from Theatre Corrobora, the young company who've come light years from 2013's promising but awkward Critic and the Concubine to this assured multigenerational exploration of love, identity, and regret.
Written by Hailey Colwell, who turned her youthful diaries into theatrical gold for Girlhood at last year's Fringe, It Always Rained in Paris tells the story of Ellie (Anna Olson): a late-thirtysomething Minnesota mom of two who's undertaking a slow, wrenchingly sad divorce from Nic, her husband of 15 years (Bill Williamson). To help see their kids Gabriele (Louisa Schirmacher) and Bastien (Huxley Westemeier, who deserves an Ivey for eye-rolling) through a tough year, they hire Michele (Dani Pazurek), a French nanny who was cared for, as a young girl, by Ellie herself.
Director Aidan Jhane Gallivan sustains a warm but pained tone throughout this thoughtful tale, greatly aided by live music (original, with a dash of Satie) from keyboardist John Hilsen. The story moves smoothly forward and backward in time as Ellie and Nic reminisce about the spark they found in Paris, a spark that was seemingly never meant to last. This is an easy show to recommend for Fringe-goers seeking absorbing storytelling about the subtleties of the heart.
Itch, Three Knives
Rarig Thrust Stage
At a thrust stage, with seating curving around the performers, the audience becomes part of a show's background. That means that at Itch, you get to watch the other Fringe-goers squirm, cover their faces with their hands, and scream — alternately with surprise and with nervous laughter.
A devilish refinement of a show previously presented at the Twin Cities Horror Festival, Three Knives' Itch depicts a crisis at a research facility. A bio-hazard suit rips, a potential pathogen is introduced, and the building is put on lock-down. The effects ripple through the nine-person cast to grisly effect, though it's unclear whether the contagion is physical or psychological.
The actors, many of them longtime collaborators, create an atmosphere of feverish (so to speak) tension and throw themselves completely into the melee, with writer/director/designer Tyler Olsen's bloody special effects exploding across the stage in plumes of crimson. If you're looking to start your pulse pounding after an uninspiring hour elsewhere, get the Itch.
The Fever, Patrick O'Brien
In this tumultuous year of prickly politics and profound tragedy, the Fringe is full of topical shows. Among them is this taut staging of a 1990 play by Wallace Shawn, in which a well-to-do man describes the existential crisis he undergoes when faced with the reality of grinding poverty.
The premise may sound glib or even offensive — just what we need, a woke white guy to tell us about global inequality — but Shawn's script is a searing self-indictment, as the unnamed narrator lashes himself with detailed descriptions of the reality of his life as a person who was born into privilege. If he doesn't reject that privilege, and the comfortable trappings that come with it, how can he live with himself?
O'Brien, a veteran actor well-known for his past production of Underneath the Lintel, keeps a tight focus on this script, which begins as a personal anecdote and builds to an incantatory catalog of the world's injustices. O'Brien brings real authority to the role, convincingly embodying a man who's worked hard but realizes that others have worked even harder, for far fewer rewards.
You may have a rich uncle who you wish would spontaneously deliver this monologue himself; in the absence of that unlikely development, Pat O'Brien is a very capable stand-in.