The Minnesota Fringe is here and in full swing. Here are four shows theater critic Jay Gabler caught on opening night. Stay tuned for more hits and misses during the festival.
DangerVision Productions, Crane Theater
There's something perfectly Fringe about opening a festival with a wake, but despite some dark humor and even a dash of absurdity, Visitation is completely sincere in its engagement with the grieving process.
Visitation has a strong premise: five different writers script different takes on the grieving process, presented as short plays and monologues united by the frame of a memorial overseen by Clarence Wethern as "funeral director," his own interstitial material written by Heather Meyer. To add texture, various artists provide video illustration and animation for each vignette.
While director Amber Danger Johnson oversees a tight production, the individual segments of Visitation don't quite make the impact needed for the show to succeed. Two skits about beleaguered mourners feel rushed and incomplete, while each of a pair of poetic monologues are over before they really settle in. The production's most poignant segment is its most specific: Sam L. Landman's "Vic Mizzy," acted by Karen Bair in a tribute to a deceased friend who transformed the writer's life and art.
W.A.R. Theater, Crane Theater
The Fringe is a happy home for bare-bones productions, but it's nonetheless impressive to see a company really go for it and execute a large-scale, ambitious show within the festival's tight constraints.
Under the direction of Michael Johnson, W.A.R. Theater brings a maximalist yet emotionally intimate aesthetic to Beat. The show, conceived by Johnson with playwright Michael Hundevad and actor Jayme Godding, explores a little-known corner of mid-century literary history. Godding plays David Kammerer, a man who was stabbed to death in 1944 by Lucien Carr (Laura Berger), a close associate of legends-in-the-making Jack Kerouac (Matt Englund), William S. Burroughs (Jay Kistler), and Allen Ginsberg (Gillian Randall).
While Carr successfully defended himself by claiming he was fighting a sexually-charged assault, Beat. reassesses the narrative from a vantage point more sympathetic to the man who didn't survive their confrontation. Hundevad and the cast of collaborators bring an impressively multidimensional lens to bear on the relationship between the two men, with Godding and Berger making an endearing, volatile couple. This could easily be a longer show, which would give the dance intervals and atmospheric live music more opportunity to cast their absorbing spell.
Mad as Nell, or How to Lose a Bly in Ten Days
Rinky Dink Operations, Rarig Center Thrust
There's hardly a production in this year's festival more stacked with Fringe stars than Mad as Nell, this year's comedy from director Josh Carson. The script — by Carson with Kelsey Cramer, Shanan Custer, and Allison Witham — is a very loose comedic account of Nellie Bly's rise as a 19th century journalist.
All four playwrights appear onstage, along with fellow ringers Addie Phelps, Aisha Ragheb, and Tim Hellendrung, plus James Detmar and Sue Scott, the latter two stage veterans whose Actors Equity status becomes the basis of distracting inside jokes. The story centers on an episode when Bly (Cramer) convinces publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Carson) to let her investigate a notorious asylum.
Once Bly's inside, the show becomes as much a parody of asylum stories as it is a celebration of investigative journalism. Custer, Witham, Ragheb, and especially Phelps — whose comic talents shine to their fullest — are priceless as inmates whose alleged lunacy is more precisely diagnosed as simply being women in a patriarchal society. The zingers (and groaners) fly so rapidly, and are delivered with such enthusiastically expert deadpan delivery, that it's just about impossible not to be entertained.
You may giggle so hard you feel yourself losing control of your bodily functions...and don't worry, the asylum has a bucket for that.
Edith Gets High
Devious Mechanics, Rarig Center Arena
Keith Hovis is on a roll. The writer/composer just saw his Fringe hit Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant commissioned into a full-length musical at Park Square Theatre, and Thursday night's packed audience roared appreciatively at his new show, Edith Gets High.
Edith has a more original, and ambitious, premise: the title character (Debra Berger) gets sucked into a video game, where she needs to overcome a series of challenges posed by a resentful troll (Ryan Lear). This is all in the form of, yes, a musical comedy with ratatat wordplay so dextrous that Thursday's audience interrupted songs with applause out of sheer appreciation for how nimbly Hovis wraps his gloriously silly lyrics around impressively intricate melodies. Call it stoner Sondheim.
This kind of material thrives on Fringegoers' energy, and when it's this well-conceived, the result is unforgettable. The video game gags all land brilliantly, and under the direction of Allison Witham, the tight six-member ensemble bring physical fearlessness and high (so to speak) spirits to Hovis' nifty script. The story centers on a loving same-sex couple so exultant in their gaming glee, and so joyfully contrary to the troll's sexist stereotypes, that Edith Gets High will almost make you forget Ready Player One ever existed.