Final Fringe Roundup 2019: Dark times at Chuck E. Cheese, sinking ships, and rewarding oddities

'Chocolate Covered Chicken Wings'

'Chocolate Covered Chicken Wings'

Our theater critic Jay Gabler made it to nearly 20 Fringe shows this year. Use our roundups as a guide as you navigate the final weekend of this epic fest.

Chocolate Covered Chicken Wings
Paradox Productions, Augsburg Studio

Chocolate Covered Chicken Wings takes a dark turn, but it doesn't have to turn very far: There's something fundamentally unsettling about adults playing the roles of children. Add the suggestion that animatronics may be lurking nearby, and you get one of the Fringe's eeriest shows.

Inspired by childhood experiences at Chuck E. Cheese, playwright Catherine Hansen imagined two kids' birthday parties in successive years at the same theme restaurant. (The title refers to one of the venue's signature offerings.) Celebrating her 11th birthday, Sally (Natalie Shaw) is still reeling from the loss of her late peer Bruno (Mitch Vosejpka), whose 10th she attended the previous year. In its second half, the show flashes back to reveal exactly what happened at Bruno's ill-fated fete.

Tones swing wildly and the plot unfolds in fits and starts, but director Aidan Jhane Gallivan and her cast make the lumpiness work in their favor by keeping Fringe-goers on our toes. It's hard not to be impressed by the downright frenetic performances from Vosejpka and, as a young rival to Sally, Sophie Widman, with Sage Backer and Bailey Hess as party guests with cooler heads. That said, the show really belongs to the extraordinary Shaw, whose Sally is an unforgettable creation: both hilariously over-the-top and poignantly earnest.

That Sinking Feeling
Octopode Theater Co, Rarig Center Xperimental

There's something irresistible about escaping the high heat of Fringe-season dog days and heading out to the high seas...even if you know the voyage isn't going to end well. Landing on our 10,000 fair shores from the saltier state (commonwealth, technically) of Massachusetts, the artists behind That Sinking Feeling scored the right venue in the subterranean Rarig Xperimental, where you always feel like you're in Das Boot no matter what show you're seeing.

The room's dynamic lighting (shout-out to the unseen Fringe tech) supports these several stories of ill-fated expeditions, inspired by true stories from nautical history. The four energetic performers pull out some deep tracks, so to speak, but they also know you've got to play the hits, so yes, there's a Titanic reference.

Written by Andrew Agress and Raphael Stigliano, That Sinking Feeling is a light and good-spirited show. While there aren't a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, the production is animated by a game ensemble anchored by MVP actor Becca Myers, whose sprightly performances (best of all as a doomed captain's loyal pooch) lift every boat. The only segment that totally tanks is a cringe-worthy "nautical erotica" reading. Seamen, sperm...yep, we get it.

'Ploys for Ensemble Glitz and Crisis Actors'

'Ploys for Ensemble Glitz and Crisis Actors'

Ploys for Ensemble Glitz and Crisis Actors
Toot, Southern Theater

The festival is called Fringe, after all, and it's occasionally nice to be reminded that "adventurous art" doesn't just mean "God, I hope this won't suck." Thus Ploys for Ensemble Glitz and Crisis Actors, a proudly bizarre and deliberately disorienting experience created by Eric Larson. You'll spend the whole show trying to figure out what's going on, and the big reveal feels like an inside joke.

When the names Charles Campbell and Emily Gastineau pop up as "collaborative conspirators," Twin Cities theater vets know to brace themselves for some audience participation, absurdist humor, and unexpected visual delights. That's all in store at Ploys for Ensemble Glitz, which relies on the completely committed and endlessly watchable performer Kenzi Allen to keep the experience engaging for Fringe-goers who otherwise might not be inclined to play along.

The expansive, evocative setting of the Southern Theater also works in favor of Ploys, which might be most concisely described as a sort of seance to summon the ghosts of this year's other Fringe shows. Fellow artists might be inclined to echo the plague-stricken villager in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "I'm not dead!" No, but the end is nigh. Soon this will all be a memory, including Allen's inscrutable perambulations.

When Ploys concludes, Allen and fellow performer David Melendez applaud the audience. You'll definitely feel like you deserve it.