Fringe Day 3: Killer balloon babies, Darwin Award deaths, and a 'Stranger Things' parody

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'The Last Bombardment'

[Editor's note: We're at the Fringe Festival. For the next two weeks, we'll be checking out the amibitious, the weird, and the ugly offerings, and letting you know our thoughts. Be sure to also follow audience reviews as well a www.fringefestival.org.]

Mnemosyne
Southern Theater

In the future, memories will be exchangeable. You can buy them, sell them, or trade them, with the help of red-gloved memory brokers who have shady pasts that even they may not remember -- those memories might have been passed to a lucky, or unlucky, customer. It could be a Philip K. Dick story, but in fact it’s the premise of Mnemosyne. Pronounce it neeMOSS-in-ee.

It’s a brand name given to implantable technology that allows people to record, extract, and import memories. It’s also the name of the Greek goddess of memory, who makes an appearance herself in the latter half of this complex and dark piece of physical theater.

Shalee Coleman directs a compact ensemble of young performers wearing trim vests and generously draped grey harem pants that we can only hope will be the business dress of the future, because they sure look comfy. With both text and movement (including choreography by Taja Will), the artists weave an intricate tale of intersecting lives among characters who may have traded too many memories to ever find themselves again.

While some of the dialogue is a little cheesy, all in all Mnemosyne succeeds with a tense atmosphere (aided by Matthew Vichlach’s soundscape) and an intricately-plotted story of memory and loss.

Stranger-er Things: Netflix and KILL
Phoenix Theater

Longtime Tom Reed fans, who are legion, were glad to find the Brave New Workshop star back in the Fringe mix this year with the latest in his series of pop parodies. He’s previously taken on Disney movies, the Twilight franchise, and The Hunger Games, and now he’s at the Phoenix to do us all the service of recapping the first season of Stranger Things before the second season hits Netflix this fall. (Disclosure: Reed and I are both employed by Minnesota Public Radio.)

To succinctly describe a Tom Reed parody show, you might say that it’s the best-case scenario for what you might get at the piano bar on a fandom cruise. Ably accompanied by Jon Pumper on keys, Reed whips through the 10 episodes (er, “chapters”) of the hit series with reenactions, gag asides, and songs that are occasionally abbreviated by…DEATH.

You may not have realized the world was ready for a rapping Barb, but here she is along with
a frantic Joyce, a swaggering Steve, and a Jim who (in one of the show’s best bits of pantomime) chain-smokes through several orifices at once. Reed even manages to embody the monster, who he aptly describes as resembling “a cubist shark.”

It’s a tricky task to parody a show that, itself, is a meta-media assemblage of references to horror and fantasy tropes of the ‘80s. Reed’s winning strategy is to acknowledge the throwbacks as part of the show’s schtick, affectionately poking fun at the need for nostalgia.

For veteran Fringe-goers, Reed’s return to solo musical parody will itself feed a sort of nostalgia, and they’ll gratefully gobble it up. So will the newbies who don’t even remember the days when, as Reed points out, “phones ran only one app, and it was called ‘phone call.’”

Mayor Lear of Townsville
Intermedia Arts

If you haven’t figured it out from the title, you’ll get it by the time Mojo Jojo’s having his eyeballs scooped out: Mayor Lear of Townsville is a retelling of King Lear in the universe of the Powerpuff Girls. It takes a little twisting to get there, but it would hardly be Fringe without elaborate maneuvering to execute an absurd conceit.

You might feel Leared out after watching Nathaniel Fuller and Stephen Yoakam trade off in the role for the recent Guthrie production, but you’ll simply have to go back to see Natalie Rae Wass’ tireless take on the conceited ruler in the person, here, of the Townsville mayor.

Wass also plays the villainous Mojo, with double-casting and carefully-placed shadows used for the scenes the two characters share.

In this Lear, the Mayor heads off on vacation and aims to split his domain among Blossom (Bre’Elle Erickson), Buttercup (Emily Rose Duea), and an insufficiently appreciative Bubbles (Meghan Wolff). With discord dividing the town’s defenders, subversive forces seize their opportunity.

While Daniel Mauleon’s script is witty, the best parts of Mayor Lear are the exuberant performances and the colorful realization of the Powerpuff Girls’ world. Special credit is due to Sarah Simon’s costume design (Wass’ garb is as detailed and clever as anything you’d see at the Children’s Theatre Company) and to beautifully realized projections that make superb use of the Intermedia Arts screen-wall to draw us into a world of low comedy and high tragedy.

The Last Bombardment
Ritz Mainstage

An eerie tale that packs a wallop, The Last Bombardment will whet your appetite for this fall’s Twin Cities Horror Festival. Writer/director Sean Dillon adapts Kenneth Schneyer’s short story about a small town in a nameless country during a terrible war. The town faces a bombardment — but the bombs come by balloon, and take the form of babies.

The horror, when it comes, hits all the harder because of the top-notch ensemble’s skill at depicting a gossipy, diverse community. As the townspeople react to this strange invasion, you may find yourself laughing harder at this thriller than at a lot of comedies in the Fringe. At first, the locals who don’t catch babies are jealous (“They didn’t go to the best people,” confides a snooty character played by Victoria Pyan). Then, things change.

The Last Bombardment is a marvel of expansive storytelling using economical means, including live music by Erik Ostrom and a simple but powerful prop involving several red balloons. (Mallory Dillon designed the set.) With the upstage curtain pulled back to reveal the Ritz’s weathered wall, the Northeast theater’s mainstage is the perfect space for this unsettling production.

Persephone
Ritz Mainstage

Persephone is a quiet show — literally. There are long intervals of silence as Jennifer Pray sits making paper flowers, or just hugging her knees as she struggles with a debilitating mental illness. In a director’s note, Mariah Larkin cites “personal experiences with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and ADHD,” and the mental challenges faced by Pray’s character are personified by Torre Edahl as a figure who dances with Pray, pulling her away from friends and sometimes outright begging her to retreat into herself.

Although it’s largely a dance piece, Persephone has several scenes with some of the most authentic, naturalistic dialogue you’re likely to hear in the festival. It’s heartbreaking to watch Pray struggle to sustain connection with a lover (Julia Gavin Bither) who knows that patient understanding is necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, to help someone who’s struggling to stay afloat.

Through drama and modern dance, Persephone opens an almost vigil-like space of reflection and acknowledgement. It’s a moving experience, asking the audience to share in the performers’ vulnerability. The show’s conclusion is fitting for this unusual production: the dancers step off the stage and hand one of Pray’s paper flowers to each attendee. Each flower turns out to have a handwritten personal note from a member of the community.

One example: “I don’t have the privilege of existing in any moment where I don’t have to consider how my mental illnesses will impact me on any given day.”

Synchronicity
Mixed Blood

Bedlam Theatre is no more, but Raw Sugar, a company dedicated to “adventurous and imaginative projects driven by women,” captures much of the loose and zany comic energy that used to prevail just down the street from Mixed Blood Theatre, which becomes an Olympic-sized Edina swimming pool circa 1993 for Raw Sugar’s Synchronicity.

A cast of seven adult women and nonbinary individuals channel their tween selves to play the Ladies of Lake Street, a scrappy synchronized swimming team competing in a tournament where the stakes are…well, about as high as they get when you’re in a community swim meet. Penny (Sulia Rose Altenberg) is convinced that her crush Joey Lawrence will show up, while her teammates have more pragmatic concerns. Olive (Danielle Krivinchuk) just got her period, for example, and her friends are no help when it comes to helping her “put on” a giant ‘90s-era Tampon.

Written by Jenny Moeller and directed by Rebekah Rentzel, Synchronicity pulses with the energy of a semi-contained group of adolescents: gratuitously loud, slightly insane, and undeniably endearing. Notes are passed and tears are sobbed, friendships are tested and Skittles are scarfed. You can’t end a comedy about synchronized swimming without a climactic performance, and this one, set to “A Whole New World,” will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

Death in Yosemite
Theatre in the Round

In an administration that has the National Parks spouting alternative facts about climate change, it’s refreshing to see a park ranger tell it like it is. Of course, Death in Yosemite isn’t an official Park Service production — but if not for its flagrant and unapologetic disrespect for the dead, this antic Fringe show could be a very educational feature at the California park’s visitor center.

Co-creators John Newstrom and Tim Wick were inspired by Off the Wall — no, not the Michael Jackson album, the 2007 book that accurately chronicles the many ways people have perished while attempting to enjoy Yosemite’s natural wonders. In the show, Edwin Strout plays a ranger who narrates tales like that of the man who plummeted to his death because he thought he could rescue his friends more effectively than professional park staff, and the guy whose fatal fall came while he was drunkenly posing for a photo.

Death in Yosemite amounts to a sort of Darwin Awards for the outdoorsy set, and the show has fun with a cast of actors who are roped (but not very securely) into enacting one unpleasant demise after another. Dawn Krosnowski taunts the performers as the evil Spirit of Yosemite, enlisting audience members to help hit the hapless hikers with rocks, snowballs, and squirts from water guns.

An extended ending involving the actors’ conspiracy to outsmart the bloodthirsty spirit goes on too long, but for the most part this is a very funny show that teaches some real lessons about park safety. (When a trail is closed, folks, it’s closed for a reason.) If the show’s a hit, maybe we’ll get a sequel. One of the authors of Off the Wall has another book called Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon.


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