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Phone sex, gun control, and the apocalypse: Fringe Fest Day 1

Sheep Theater wowed audiences last year with 'Pinocchio.' This year they return to end the world.

Sheep Theater wowed audiences last year with 'Pinocchio.' This year they return to end the world. 'Kaboom'

No encore performances? As the 2018 Minnesota Fringe Festival began, artists and audiences were still wrapping their minds around the fact that shows aren't competing for coveted sixth-show slots at their respective venues this year.

Instead, the Fringe—seemingly in the interest of making the festival feel less like a horse race—is encouraging everyone to attend the inaugural Festival Awards that will be presented on closing night at Can Can Wonderland.

In the meantime, though, there are a lot of shows to see. We'll be posting capsule reviews of selected productions, starting with four from Thursday's opening night.

The Phone Sex Play
Some Lady's Production, Rarig Center Xperimental

In The Phone Sex Play, Ashley Sierra plays Alicia, a phone sex operator whose unseen supervisor (Maureen Mayberry) keeps telling her not to talk about sex. There's a logic to this: the more Alicia talks about sex, the faster her clients...let's just say, achieve their objective. Her goal is to keep them on the pay-per-minute line for the full 45 minutes allowed by law.

Despite what she tells her clients (all played by an offstage Eric Zuelke), Alicia isn't a married black woman or a barely-legal nymphet. She's a white woman in a cat shirt whose scant income is going up in marijuana smoke, engaged to an unseen man who seems more distant than the client who wants her to proclaim her love while he fucks a pile of cushions.

Written by Sierra, The Phone Sex Play is a slight but endearing—and often amusing—slice of life. It subtly suggests that the clients, who harbor no illusions about the true identity of their interlocutor, are ultimately less interested in their ostensible fantasies than in their inequitable relationships with Alicia herself. Some want to dominate her, some want to get to know her, and some just want to talk. While masturbating.

Rejection
Theatre Corrobora, Augsburg Mainstage

Playwright Hailey Colwell has penned some of the Fringe's best-received shows in recent years, including 2015's Girlhood and 2016's It Always Rained in Paris. This year, Theatre Corrobora is producing Colwell's script Rejection, which once again has young actors conveying some of the most nuanced emotions you'll find at Fringe.

The premise of Rejection is that five friends all find themselves participating in a sociological study by a researcher (Nick Manthe) whose method is simply to ask them to talk about love, specifically with respect to their own relationships.

The seemingly gentle questions have an unsettling effect on Sadie (Emily Rose Duea), who starts to question her long-term relationship with Jade (Morgan Strickland). Their married friends Penny (Lily Lancaster) and Steven (Brady Mueller) decide to participate as well, as Penny is hoping to resolve her feelings of jealousy toward Steven's close friend Margo (Dani Sue Pazurek).

If there were Festival Awards for Best Use of a Settlers of Catan Set and Most Times Characters Are Told Not to Apologize, Rejection would be a shoo-in. Colwell and director Aidan Jhane Gallivan let us simply live with these characters, experiencing their affection and their confusion. Duea, Strickland, and especially Pazurek all turn in standout performances as women who don't want to be defined by their relationships — not so much to the outside world as to themselves.

Gunfighting: An American Story
Hero Props, Mixed Blood Theatre

Gunfighting is a show in the best tradition of Fringe: encouraging an experienced theater artist to take a chance and try something new. In this case, that means the very act of stepping on stage in front of an audience. Seán McArdle, who created and performs the solo show, is a nationally-known prop designer who's made a lot of the coolest stuff you've seen onstage at the Guthrie Theater.

As McArdle explains in this monologue mixing autobiography with national history, his Midwestern upbringing taught him to appreciate guns, but his interests ultimately ran less toward the genuine items than toward detailed props like the Han Solo blaster riding in a holster at his hip. After explaining how carefully prop guns are treated onstage—for very good reasons, which McArdle concisely outlines—the designer wonders why actual firearms aren't given even greater caution.

Therein lies a tale, and it's the history of gun regulation (or lack thereof) in America. Using illustrative slides, McArdle walks through a fascinating talk that culminates in a passionate argument on behalf of gun control. Whether or not you need any convincing in that regard, you'll appreciate McArdle's unique and well-informed perspective on the subject, delivered with a wry sense of humor and the kind of personal passion that makes for an experience you won't soon forget.

Kaboom
Sheep Theater, Rarig Center Thrust

Sheep Theater has created impressive shows in all sorts of settings, but there's something about the impress-me-quick ambience of Fringe that really lights a fire under this up-and-coming company. Last year's Pinocchio was one of the festival's best shows, and this year's Kaboom is a frenzied comedy that had some members of Thursday night's audience laughing so hard they were gasping for breath.

It may seem unsettling to stage a nuclear scare for laughs in 2018, but there's a dark solace in realizing that even a jumpy president (the priceless Robb Goetzke) who's ready to push the button after a sketchy text message is preferable to the one we've actually got, who likes to threaten armageddon on Twitter.

The timing and camaraderie of Sheep's troupe pay rich dividends as the president's advisors—including the vice president (Brighid Burkhalter) and the secretary of defense (Joey Hamburger)—scramble to contain the growing chaos after the commander in chief is abducted.

Hamburger and Iris Rose Page wrote the script, and it's hard to imagine any other company pulling it off with such aplomb. Director Michael Torsch keeps the pace dead-on (so to speak), while composer John Hilsen performs his ominous score live from beneath the thrust stage's "Alpine Slope" of seats. That bunker-like space isn't a bad refuge in uncertain times, and neither is a dose of well-timed comedy.