Fringe Day 4: Norse gods, wedding disasters, and an excellent (and dark) take on 'Pinocchio'

'De Hjerteløse' (The Heartless)

'De Hjerteløse' (The Heartless) Courtesy of the Minnesota Fringe Festival

[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]

Couple Fight 3: Weddings!
Rarig Thrust

Just like presenters of confessional first-person shows about childhood embarrassments, the producers of this Fringe franchise will never run out of material. Couples fight, and then they make up, and then they laugh about it. Not all couples, of course, are ready to reenact those fights in front of hundreds of paying audience members — but thank God for theater people and the people who love them.

Following the inaugural 2015 show and last year’s “friends and family” edition, creator Anna Weggel-Reed and director Tom Reed — a married couple themselves — are back with a show centered on the perennially contentious topic of weddings. (Disclosure: Both Reeds are employed by Minnesota Public Radio, where I also work.) As in past years, some of the fights are philosophical, some of them are physical (insofar as fists are banged on the floor in comic tantrum), and some of them are purely goofy.

John and Lacey Zeiler, who stole the show last year with a hilarious and exhausting skit about the travails of parenting, anchor this year’s production with a dinnertime discussion about whether they’re “marriage people.” The running and screaming is left to Rita Boersma, who revisits the post-wedding day that saw her collapsing in a postnuptial frenzy when she realized that some of the guests’ souvenir pies hadn’t been fully baked.

Among the other returning-champion couple-fighters are Shanan Custer and Eric Webster, who points out that after years of starring in Tony and Tina’s Wedding, he didn’t want anything too fancy. “Fancy” certainly isn’t the word to describe what transpired, but at the end of the day — like (almost) all the couples in this warm and engaging show — they found love in a hopeless place.

Good Kids
Rarig Thrust

Several Eagan High School students stand up on the Rarig Thrust stage and declare that they’re all good kids. Of course they are. Almost every young person has family and friends to come to his or her defense, and of course almost everyone sees himself or herself as someone who would never commit or condone a rape. Yet, sexual assaults happen. Bad things happen to, and are done by, “good kids.”

That’s the message of this 2014 play by Naomi Iizuka, written as part of a Big Ten initiative to develop new plays by female writers. It’s already been widely produced at colleges and high schools, and no wonder: It’s designed to spark dialogue about sexual assault, outlining how a situation that may initially seem ambiguous can lead to acts that are unambiguously wrong.

This young cast, under the direction of Nancy Owzarek, offer a rock-solid performance of Iizuka’s carefully structured drama — and the fact that all the actors are high-schoolers themselves lends a special resonance to this story, which was inspired by a well-known incident that took place among Ohio teens in 2012. In the lead role of Chloe, Dexieng Yang holds her conflicted character together while showing the different dimensions that various peers perceive based on their own biases.

A final twist involving the framing character is unnecessary and problematic, despite a fine performance by Jenna Herbrand — can’t a character just be in a wheelchair without that turning into part of the plot? — but Good Kids certainly delivers on its promise to widen a crucial conversation about rape culture.

Playwrights on a Train
Rarig Thrust

Playwrights Kevin Bowen and James Lundy have conceived an ambitious twist on the familiar premise of Strangers on a Train: If two playwrights meet on the 20th Century Limited, can they trade their intimate knowledge of various personal circumstances to provide grist for one another’s creative mills? Seems like a complicated way of doing research, but life ain’t easy when you’re a scribe of stage thrillers with a dark past of your own.

The two playwrights are Hyman Gaines (Bill Marshall), a literary lion who’s just done a decade in the big house for murdering his own wife — although he swears he wasn’t the one who slipped the poison into her J&B. Antonia Brunowski (Caroline Vodacek) is a talkative aspiring writer who swears she’ll leave Hyman alone for the rest of the trip if he just takes a few minutes to share some tips on a play inspired by a cop she used to be with.

As flashbacks and theatrical scenes (subject to revision, of course) unfold alongside the eastbound duo, Playwrights on a Train has a plot just about as complex as anyone would ever be advised to attempt within the confines of a Fringe show. There’s even a twist that would make Hitchcock proud — but this show is only recommended for real mystery nuts due to its clunky execution.

Marshall and Vodacek are both good, as is Anna Olson (familiar to Fringegoers from last year’s acclaimed It Always Rained in Paris), but a hesitant Jack Squier is miscast in the crucial role of a 1950s cop (who, improbably, sports a manbun). It may just be that Fringe is the wrong venue for Playwrights on a Train. With a longer running time, and a more polished production, its creators could have the perfect crime on their hands.

Mixed Blood Theatre

A tongue-in-cheek reimagining of this well-known tale sounds like typical Fringe fare. There’s nothing typical about this production, however, which confirms that Sheep Theater is one of the Twin Cities’ most promising young companies.

Playwrights Joey Hamburger and Michael Rogers, with director Michael Torsch, unveil an unforgettable puppet: utterly creepy and yet oddly endearing. If Tim Burton ever cast a Pinocchio, he might well look like Robb Goetzke. Bald and stiff with eyes perpetually bugged out, Goetzke comes to life with a spine-tingling gasp. Unapologetically drawn to violence and greed, Pinocchio has only his cricket conscience (Rogers) to save him from the grasp of Stromboli (Hamburger) — who, in this telling, is a former organized-crime associate of Geppetto (Jacob Mobley). Gone clean, Pinocchio’s dad wants nothing to do with Stromboli’s Pleasure Island scheme.

Just go with it. What’s remarkable is that Hamburger and Rogers are able to make this reimagined story work in its own right, as well as throwing in a healthy dose of Sheep's wordy, absurdist humor. The company's tight-knit core ensemble have now created several shows together over the past few years, and their mutual trust pays off in character-driven humor like the way Rogers is reluctantly drafted into service by a Blue Fairy (Iris Rose Page) who makes many of her entrances with the warning “Coming in hot!”

The production also ably incorporates composer John Hilsen, who performs his epic score live at stage left. The show, though, ultimately belongs to Goetzke, whose dryly realist but not irredeemable Pinocchio is one of the most compelling onstage creations of the year. Sheep is good at building to spectacular climaxes, and Goetzke’s big confrontation with Hamburger doesn’t disappoint, earning a huge laugh and a rousing ovation. Put Pinocchio on your must-see list.

De Hjerteløse (The Heartless)
Southern Theater

Before De Hjerteløse starts, you might hear fellow audience members reading the director’s note, which begs to be recited aloud: “In a land forgotten by time, ruled by the gods, there lived a giantess: Rán, Norse giant of storms and mother to the nine waves...”

Yes, we’re in the realm of Norse mythology — and physical theater, both very familiar territory for local theater generally and the Fringe specifically. Needless to say, there are trees that become women that become boats, and swooshing swatches of gauze, silvery face paint, and woodland noises created by ensemble members standing in the background trying not to be noticed.

The right audience will settle into this story like a warm sauna, and if you’re not sure whether that includes you, it probably does. De Hjerteløse is theatrical storytelling done well, and what particularly distinguishes this (natch) collaboratively devised piece written and directed by Kimberly Miller is the way its protagonist’s initial certainty threatens to crumble beneath her. She’s scared of the giantess, yes, but also because she’s coming to terms with the fundamental inconstancy of human nature.

Her name is Ingrid, and she’s played with a regal glow by Jayme Godding. When her true love Henrick (Christopher Pitner) is taken captive by the wave mama (Ashley Hovell), Ingrid goes down to the sea hall to offer her own heart (both literally and metaphorically) in exchange for Henrick’s freedom. Things really start to get interesting when Ingrid discovers that Henrick has…well, let’s just say a history.

Well-conceived and sharply executed with the complete conviction this kind of material requires, De Hjerteløse is epic theater with style and brains. It leaves you wishing Ingrid could retire and write a tell-all memoir where she lets you know what she really thinks of the handsome Hendrick and that double-dealing giantess. Now those would be some runes worth reading.