Day 2 at the Fringe: Bollywood numbers and more

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With the Minnesota Fringe Festival's first weekend behind us, Fringers are ready to settle into what passes for a routine over the remaining days: bouncing from show to show, checking schedules and mapping bike routes, scanning lines to see if there's anyone we know. Stay hydrated, keep a grip on those wooden nickels, and keep reading for my takes on four more shows.

Minnesota Fringe Festival

Minnesota Fringe Festival
$16 weekday passes; $22 weekends

Bezubaan: The Voiceless, Bollywood Dance Scene
Rarig Thrust Stage

In three years' time, Bollywood Dance Scene has gone from being a surprise smash to being nationally notable. Their 2014 Fringe debut, Hi! Hello! Namaste?, was that year's highest-selling show. Last year's entry, Spicy Masala Chai, became not only the highest-selling show in Minnesota Fringe Festival history but, festival administrators believe, likely the highest-selling show in the history of American Fringe festivals.

You have to see a Bollywood Dance Scene show to appreciate just how inspiring they are on so many levels. Community theater productions with massive, multiracial casts, the company's Fringe shows weave original stories around dance performances of existing Bollywood songs. While the stories are accessible to the company's wide audience — and written with amateur actors in mind — they're knowing and forthright, engaging topics both silly and serious.

This year's show, Bezubaan, is a full-throated call for tolerance — of Muslims in particular. (An example of the script's sensibilities is the way it pivots straight from a gag about Minnesota/Wisconsin rivalry into a discussion of Hindu/Muslim suspicion.) It's awkward that there's only a single Muslim character, who is literally silent, but he's played by the handsome and fleet-footed Arun Velliangiri, who meets his match in a star-crossed romance with Sophie Gori's Hindu character.

By the end of the show, narrators Hetal Ascher and Madhu Bangalore are frank: America's tolerance is being put to the test, and the stakes may never have been higher. The open-hearted spirit of Bollywood Dance Scene leaves the company's big audiences with reason to hope.

The Abortion Chronicles, the Red Letter Society
Theatre in the Round

The program notes that the stories in The Abortion Chronicles are all true, but that would be clear even if we weren't told: These stories are too specific, too ambiguous, too full of real pathos and unexpected humor to have been made up. These are the stories of women who have had abortions, as well as their partners and their children and their friends.

A pro-choice cri de coeur, this collection of monologues and duologues is aimed most passionately at those who believe women choosing abortion are heartless or thoughtless. We hear the details of each of several specific decisions, from performers — in some cases actors, in other cases the actual people who lived these experiences — who cut straight to the core of what was in every case a painful choice they knew they had to make, and that they were glad for the right to.

Curators Ariel Leaf (who also performs), Ben Layne (who directs), and Ruth Virkus (dramaturg, with Alyssa Thompson) frame the show as a slice-of-life hour in a women's health clinic. That approach makes superb use of Theatre in the Round's distinctive stage, which is the perfect setting for this multi-voice show. It also allows for the voices of clinic employees, who describe the courage and determination it takes to run a clinic providing abortion services in an often hostile environment.

The Abortion Chronicles is an often riveting show that peels away the layers of rhetoric and hyperbole to reveal the realities of these women's very personal choices.

 


Lewis/Clark, Rhymes with Montana
Phoenix Theater

I really hope that the reality of life on Lewis and Clark's expeditions was like this. Elaborate explorer handshakes. Mystical tactile encounters with the natural landscape. Talk of love while leisurely paddling across placid lakes. Liltingly harmonized fireside singalongs. The gentle washing of one another's hair. Fart jokes.

Probably the actual Lewis and Clark only indulged in the last, but Emily King and Debra Berger provide Fringegoers the opportunity to experience their alternate version of frontier life in this appealingly eccentric show. The two play white-clad explorers (they must bring their own bleach) on a journey that seems at first purely abstract, then perhaps literal, and finally allegorical: a journey through an intimate friendship, with its lows (as in America's golden valleys) and its highs (as in Mount Everest).

The warm interplay between King and Berger — and a score of percussion and electronics, performed live by Derek Trost — sustains this often challenging, sometimes frustrating show that packs a profusion of ideas into its loose narrative. The story struggles to maintain its footing (I'm getting into the metaphorical spirit here) amid detours into vignettes that have, for example, King dancing the part of a skinned rabbit and Berger singing a tragic folk song. It makes for a dreamlike hour of theater, but I found that I kept waking up.

 

Celebrity Exception, Giant Giraffe
HUGE Theater

The premise of Celebrity Exception made for a tidy gag at Fringe Previews. Mark (Corey DiNardo) is taken aback when his girlfriend Kayla (Lizi Shea) claims a "celebrity exception" for movie star Xander Lucas (Daniel Flohr): If she ever, by some miracle, gets the chance to sleep with Xander, it won't count as cheating. When the actor actually comes to town, the script is flipped: Xander's not into women, and he is into Mark.

That much fills three amusing minutes, but can the setup sustain 42 minutes more? The answer, I'm happy to report, is absolutely yes, with some big belly laughs and a dash of surprisingly intense erotic heat.

With a smart, well-paced script from Katherine Glover and completely confident performances from a cast that also includes Emily Rose Duea (in an invaluable supporting turn as Mark's sister), director Callie Meiners makes the most of this material. Moments like Xander's surprise appearance in a coffee shop, his seduction of a straight-but-flattered Mark, and the inevitable moment where Mark has to reveal to Kayla exactly why he was out all night are played to great effect.

The show works as well as it does because it takes the sex seriously, but near its conclusion the script dips almost too deeply into the troubled emotional waters the characters have stirred. Still, the show's buoyant humor prevails, and it ends on a high note, with the performers inviting you to tweet your own celebrity exception. The implied advice: Be careful what you wish for.


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