While the past couple of Minnesota Fringe Festivals have featured a number of shows about Donald Trump, this year's Fringe finds artists grappling with life in the nation he now leads, where every day's headlines bring fresh hell. Everyone in this year's Fringe seems to be saying, "Yep, everything is awful."
A Justice League of Their Own
Mainly Me Productions, Theatre in the Round
In classic Fringe fashion, this show's title says it all. It's a comic mashup of superhero movies and A League of Their Own. In writer/director Josh Carson's ratatat production, the Rockford Peaches are a quintet of superwomen who are called up from the minors, so to speak, when the male superheros go off-world. They fight crime, but also struggle with interpersonal drama that echoes the plot of the iconic 1992 baseball movie.
The concept is a pitch right down the plate for Carson, a longtime Fringe standby who's mastered the art of gleefully DIY pop-culture satire. He appears in the show as Bruce Wayne, taking the Tom Hanks role of embittered (but somehow still lovable) coach for the Peaches. His cast, who collaborated on the script, include Kelsey Cramer and Sulia Rose Altenberg as sisters with a love-hate relationship, Lauren Omernik as an absurdly overtalented heroine, Emily Jabas as the crew's craftmaster, and understated scene-stealer Allison Witham as a super-strong woman who likes to rearrange cars in parking lots just to fuck with people.
It would be interesting to see what a female-led creative team would have done with this material, but Carson and crew hit a lot of high notes — and do so with relentless energy. If you smiled even a little bit when you saw the name of this show, definitely go check it out.
Tom Reed, Mixed Blood Theatre
One of the most poignant scenes in the acclaimed new movie Eighth Grade has the film's young teens going through the bored paces of an active-shooter drill, an activity that's become for their generation what nuclear-strike drills were for baby boomers and gen-Xers. (Though under the circumstances, it probably wouldn't hurt for today's teens to know their fallout shelters as well.) "We'd like to thank the volunteers from the drama club," says one teacher.
In the show description for Gunplay!, writer/director Tom Reed calls this "the absurd alternate reality of America in 2018." Reed plays Anders, an idealistic young employee of an organization that does the NRA one better and argues that toting anything less than a machine gun is un-American. Laura (a superb Adelin Phelps) is a theater advisor at a small-town high school, her program eliminated by voters who refuse to approve tax levies. She reluctantly agrees to let Anders coach her kids in a machine-gun "education" musical, in exchange for an infusion of funding.
This material could get very dark, but Reed keeps the mood touchingly upbeat. These kids are fully aware they're being propagandized, and they teach Anders that his employer doesn't represent his true values. The show even turns into a sweet rom-com (the characters themselves don't seem to believe it) as sparks fly between Anders and Laura. With Reed's smart, funny script and fine performances — particularly by the hilarious Lauren Anderson in three different roles — Gunplay! makes for a highly entertaining and warmly hopeful hour of theater.
Youngblood in the Desert/The Gateway Drug
OverLaugh Productions, Rarig Center Arena
Never mind the company name, the laughs are few in this pair of dramatic plays that — as an announcement repeatedly informs us — have nothing to do with each other. Seth Conover and Daniel McLaughlin co-star in both.
The first, Youngblood in the Desert, was written by McLaughlin and finds him as a drunken knight on a failed crusade. Conover appears as a Birkenstock-wearing pilgrim asking Youngblood to ensure his safe passage to a holy shrine. What happens when they get there is a pointed comment on the moral bankruptcy of imperialism.
Conover wrote the second, but its pace is so sluggish that it feels like the actors are improvising the script as they go along. It has Conover, now in Crocs, approaching seeming slacker McLaughlin to score some weed. The characters, who grew up together before their paths diverged, have a series of conversations that lead to revelations about their respective insecurities.
It's hard to make a case for this undistinguished material amidst the plentiful offerings of Fringe. It takes a fight over an ear of corn, in the Iowa-set Gateway Drug, for the production to begin to key into the kind of energy that typifies the shows surrounding it.
A Gertrude Stein Christmas
Theatre Unbound, Augsburg Mainstage
The promo photo for this show, with five women gathered around a gift basket, a Stein cutout hovering in the background, might lead you to expect a light and goofy literary riff. NOPE. Strap yourself in for the most deadly serious, deeply strange summertime Christmas show you've ever seen.
Directed by JK Phillips and Melissa J. Simmons, A Gertrude Stein Christmas was devised by the ensemble, inspired by Stein's experimental play Turkey and Bones and Eating and We Liked It. If you only know Stein as a famous feminist and aren't aware of her creative output, you're in for an utterly inscrutable experience.
Maud (Delta Rae Giordano) is gathering with her daughter Henrietta (Laura Wiebers), her stepdaughter Genevieve (Alexandra Gould), her daughter Susan (Jasmine Porter), and Susan's new girlfriend Mary (Stephanie Ruas) for an invisible Christmas dinner. (Even the wine glasses are empty.) That much is apparent, as are some of the family dynamics and the wintery setting that's very well-established by the constant doffing and donning of snow boots.
Beyond that, nearly everything's opaque as the characters speak to one another in Stein's non-sequitur language. This production is not for neophytes, so don't expect anything to be explained.
Theatre Unbound deserves credit for bringing this rigorously avant-garde experience to Fringe, and Stein devotees will appreciate the company's new approach to this rarely-performed (for understandable reasons) play. Just be aware of what you're getting into, so you don't end up like the Saturday audience member who walked out in complete befuddlement. Merry Christmas!
Oncoming Productions, Southern Theater
There's a lot of supernatural science fiction in the Fringe, most of which involves actors in jumpsuits frantically babbling exposition while one of them punches imaginary buttons on a piece of posterboard, followed by a blackout that makes everyone but the audience scream. Geminae is very different.
This gorgeous production, written and directed by Becky Wilkinson Hauser, uses the Southern's mirrorball to splash the weathered walls with a starscape across which astronaut Cassie (Emily Lindholm) drifts. An elegant metal frame, some matte-black set elements, and Rob Ward as "the void" all contribute to a nicely-realized illusion of weightlessness — something most Fringe shows wouldn't even attempt.
Things get hairy when Cassie's oxygen starts to run low. She's in radio contact with her mission-control operator Helen (Victoria Pyan), who's also her sister. When Helen discovers the reason for Cassie's plight, she pleads with her superiors (Sean Dillon and Gurayn Sylte) to rectify the situation. As everything comes to a head in a shocking twist ending, the sisters' relationship comes to the fore.
Fringe is the one Minnesota theater setting where you don't see a lot of standing ovations, but Saturday's audience leapt to their feet with wild cheers for the entrancing Geminae. It's a genuinely suspenseful, pristinely executed show that brings an unexpectedly cinematic sweep to the scrappy world of Fringe.
The Middle Keeps Moving
Loom Lab, Southern Theater
The title of this dance-theater hybrid refers to the ways in which trauma and healing change people through life. When tragedy strikes, what once was normal can seem strange, while the formerly unthinkable becomes an everyday fact.
This idea is explored by a cast of six movers (Julia Bassett, Chloé Bell, Ari Newman, Antonia Gbai, Kaysone Syonesa, Julia Winkels) who devised this piece in a collaboration led by Torre Edahl and Mariah Larkin.
The show starts with a pile of colorful boxes that seem easy to sort and stack for all the performers except one, who seems mystified by the required movements. In time, everyone completes their tasks, and the movers are rewarded with medals. There's a surreal tea party, objects are buried in a mound of dirt, and we begin — but only begin — to understand what these characters are going through.
The Middle Keeps Moving is an understated and warm-spirited piece that has the feeling of a healing ritual. While not a standout production overall, it provides space for reflection and empathy. This year in particular, we could all use a little of that.