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Fringe Day 3: SmashHammer, celebrity books, couple fights, and more

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As Republic, the restaurant serving as Fringe Central for this year's festival, closed for the night on Saturday, actors and producers and fans were still milling about the patio in the warm weather, trading war stories. ("I can't believe they actually pulled it off!" "Remember when that guy just walked onstage?" "I kept the blood bag under my armpit.") It's that time of year again.

Minnesota Fringe Festival

Minnesota Fringe Festival
$16 weekday passes; $22 weekends

Here's another batch of Fringe reviews.

SmashHammer: The Heavy Metal Musical featuring the Heavy Metal Stylings of the Heavy Metal Band, SmashHammer, SmashHammer
Southern Theater

If your Fringe experience doesn't need a grey-bearded wizard grabbing an electric guitar and ripping a sick solo during an ear-splitting heavy metal anthem...well, you do you. Everyone else will probably enjoy SmashHammer, a loose but rocking metal musical about a righteous quest to save a totally bangin' princess from a real wicked dude.

Imagine Tenacious D doing Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and you'll have some idea of the tone ofSmashHammer. A spoof so unashamedly low-rent that the villainous Secundus (Sam Landman) gets laughs by brandishing a Minecraft weapon, SmashHammer helps the audience identify supporting characters by putting them in T-shirts that alternately read VILLAGER and "ORC."

A gentler pace might have helped some of the gags land more effectively, but... gentle?! This is metal, dude! The wizard Barabas (Eli Stone) narrates the action and slings his musical axe while the spunky (when you see the show, you'll understand that word was not chosen lightly) warrior Nicodemus (Madison Olimb) and the defiant Princess Sarai (Ali Daniels) sing their hearts out. Oh, and the music? It's actually great.

 

 

Theatre Forever's The Accident Book, 7 Hornets Theatre
Ritz Theater Proscenium

For Jon Ferguson, creating beautiful things onstage is like breathing. The director of collaboratively created theater unfailingly captures moments of sublime transcendence, and there are a couple of those near the end of The Accident Book. Ferguson's trademark spirit of fun and experimentation suffuses the entire show, but this is among his least structured efforts and you have to be willing to go with the flow.

When you enter the theater, you're given a lanyard bearing a name you'll be addressed as for the remainder of the show. Don't worry if you're not into participatory productions: jumping in is optional, and involves only modest tasks like improvising hand gestures. Everyone seems to be at a seminar of sorts, though no one — not even the actors onstage — seems entirely clear as to precisely what's supposed to be happening.

The ensemble of several actors eventually leads the audience through a series of what you might call unprofessional development exercises: visualizing peace, signaling synergy, and learning about what it means to be a team. Things take a turn when one character does the splits and rips a hole in the... fabric of his reality. Everyone onstage crawls through, and the show concludes with a few alluring visual effects and a collective epiphany. That's right. Go with the flow.

 

 

Take Talkback, Six Four Six One Productions
Ritz Theater Proscenium

Take Talkback is a farce full of eccentric archetypes and outrageous situations, but the best part of the show is the first five minutes, when Christine Karki has the stage to herself as Becky, the artistic director of Beulah Community Theatre (you can hear in her voice that it's spelled "theatre" instead of "theater").

As the audience waits for the actors and director of a play called Take to emerge for a post-show discussion, Karki handles a few matters of "housekeeping" that precisely nail the spirit of the Beckys of the world: bringing a little culture to the world's less cosmopolitan corners. Laden with chunky jewelry and wild fabric prints, Karki seems delighted at the prospect that the talkback might be delayed: "Shall I vamp? I can vamp!"

The creative team eventually do arrive: Take's reluctant director (Ben Thietje), its costars (Bobby Gardner and Anna Weggel-Reed, clutching a mug of tea the size of a jacuzzi), and even its reclusive playwright (Patrick Kozicky). Things proceed as awkwardly as expected, until the stage is stormed by two disgruntled actors (Joe Bombard and Angie Martin), waving pistols and demanding to be allowed to show the playwright they were unfairly passed over for the leading roles.

The further Adam Hummel's script veers from recognizable reality, the less compelling the play becomes. Guns are such freighted symbols — in this year, of all years — that their gratuitous deployment makes the show feel less like Clue than Reservoir Dogs. There are some funny moments in Take Talkback (I especially enjoyed Gardner's Method-like absorption of his surly Take character), but the show might have worked better if the hijacking of this post-show discussion wasn't quite so literal.

 

 

Couple Fight II: Friends and Family, Weggel-Reed Productions
Theatre in the Round

I missed last year's original Couple Fight — but like Beverly Hills Cop, you don't need to have seen the original to enjoy the sequel. The show's clever premise is to have pairs of friends, relatives, and dating partners reenact actual fights they've had. A lot of fights seem silly after the fact, and Couple Fight embraces that truth by revisiting arguments over football, smoking, who gets to drive, and Disney pencils. (Full disclosure: The show's creator, Anna Weggel-Reed, is a coworker of mine at the Current.)

"Friends are the family you choose," declares director Tom Reed in a voiceover introduction, "and family are the family you don't choose." You have to see Couple Fight to believe just how many warm and fuzzy feelings you can get watching sisters (Angie Martin and Casey Haeg) argue about whether or not it's too cold to go canoeing and a mother-daughter duo (Emily and Pat Schmidt) fight over whether the daughter really needs those fancy princess pencils instead of good ol' Ticonderoga number twos. There's even a quasi-argument over race between a pair of BFFs: BriAnna M. Daniels, who's black; and Sulia Altenberg, who's white and literally squirms her way through the entire scene.

The show is stolen, though, by familiar Fringe faces Lacey and John Zeiler, a married couple who reimagine a bedtime tussle between Lacey and their young daughter with John in the role of the diapered daughter. Cheap laughs? Of course, but also so rich.

 

 

Celebrity Book Club, Outlandish Productions
Theatre in the Round

Celebrity Book Club must have seemed like surefire fun: a rotating panel of Fringe celebrities take the stage to read excerpts from books by actual celebrities who, notwithstanding their national fame, lead much sadder lives. At Saturday night's "Celebrity Children" edition, though (each performance has a different theme), everything went painfully wrong in a cringe-worthy cascade.

First, the banter of host Curtis Q. Hendrix (Dan Hetzel) landed flat, especially the misogynistic harassment of his co-host Georgia Peach (Sulia Rose Altenberg). The host was called out on it by his onstage guests, but it set a sour tone for a night that quickly got even less sweet.

David Beukema (The Real World Fringe Festival) then presented his assigned reading: Mommie Dearest. He read, of course, the infamous coathangers passage, which just served to remind everyone that the book is actually about child abuse.

Next, Brad Erickson (The Life of Charles Schulz) presented a truly appalling passage from the memoirs of Dustin "Screech" Diamond, who detailed how he used to parlay his Saved by the Bell fame into the uninvited groping of adolescent girls at Disneyland. One young woman sitting near me buried her head in her hands and murmured, "Just...stop...talking."

Finally, Anna Hickey (In the Time of Spies) and her deadpan sister Laura Hickey ("I have a day job") tag-teamed a reading from Miles to Go, the pre-Bangerz autobiography of Miley Cyrus. That was at least relatively innocent, but still, it seemed disingenuous for Minnesotans to howl at Miley's enthusiastic description of Tennessee's goofy Mule Day celebration when we ourselves attach near-religious significance to butter-head princesses.

In the end, Hendrix/Hetzel asked the panel and audience to choose whether each of the three books should go in the trash or onto his permanent bookshelf. When it looked like Mommie Dearest was headed for the can, one man in the audience actually stood up, walked onstage, took the book out of the host's hands, and placed it on the bookshelf. "Please don't put this in the trash," he said. "It means so much to me."

It's funny (or not so funny): the nerves you can hit when you're not even trying to.

 

 

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Jeremy Terry Productions
Ritz Theater Proscenium

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is precisely what it promises: a completely sincere rendering of the origin story, inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman's original tale. Brendan Jones' play is performed by a wide-eyed cast of young actors and by Paul Brissett, demonstrating what it might look like if Bob Balaban played Drosselmeire.

There's a reason that most productions of The Nutcracker tend toward the lavish, and this production is challenged by its (of necessity) sparse stagecraft, but the Ritz Proscenium is a fine venue for this voyage to a world of fantasy and derring-do, with the elegant Kaitlin Noble in the leading role of Marie Stahlbaum. While she looks a little old to be playing with toys, at least this show avoids the creepy spectacle common to Nutcracker ballets, in which a preadolescent girl is romanced by a fully-grown man with a costume head and a codpiece.

In the antic atmosphere of Fringe, this straightforward exercise in storytelling feels like it's dropped in from another world — which, in a sense, it has, having first been presented last year as a staged reading in New York. This premiere fully-staged production, fluently directed by Fiona Lotti, is a capable show that will entertain grade-school children and those adults who are looking for a little Christmas in August.