Teen angst, local history, and a binge-drinking game show: Fringe Day 4

'Hephzibeth, Woman of Iron'

'Hephzibeth, Woman of Iron'

As the first weekend of Fringe drew to a close, buzz was spreading like wildfire.

In true Minnesotan fashion, Fringe-goers typically tend not to name names (except maybe in a stage whisper) when it comes to the shows that disappoint them; praise, though, they sing loudly and frequently, knowing that as likely as not someone associated with the production is somewhere within earshot. Here are seven hot takes.

Hepzibeth, Woman of Iron
Camelot Productions, Ritz Theater Studio

This is a play in the grand community-theater tradition of the old-timer who looks up from her knitting, smiles, and proceeds to tell a true story about how things used to be. In this case, the old-timer is the octogenarian Hepzibeth J. Merritt (Lauren Nickisch), chatting with her granddaughter (played by the audience) on a sad day around the turn of the 20th century, as her sons head off to finalize a settlement with John D. Rockefeller, who's taking control of the family's mining interests on the Mesabi Iron Range.

The Merritt family were among the most significant pioneers of European settlement and development in northern Minnesota, and Nickisch — who also wrote the show — brings them alive in the warm glow of a matriarch's love. Bustling about a tea set in front of a massive hanging quilt, Hepzibeth reminisces about moving to Duluth to start a new life with her family in her 40s, ultimately describing how the family had the rug pulled out from beneath them by Rockefeller.

There's a lot to unpack about this Eurocentric picture of early Minnesota history, but we understand we're seeing it through the rose-tinted glasses of a proud mother and grandmother. Hepzibeth is elegantly written and confidently performed, a good way to fill in the gaps of your local knowledge.

BurnOut County, Minnsky Theatre

It's not an old saying, but it might as well be: You'll never go broke making fun of Wisconsin in Minnesota. That's especially true if you're local comedy favorite Mary Mack, whose loyal audience packed the Minnsky Theatre on Sunday for an hour of riffs on the northern reaches of the Badger State, where Mack grew up.

She's joined for BurnOut County by her husband, Tim Harmston, who tosses in a few jokes of his own and co-stars in a series of sketches about a couple named Don and Dawn, who are rethinking their divorce as they sit around their new bug zapper and try to figure out what to do with its USB charger — it's ultimately explained to them as involving the "nooks and crannies" on a computer.

If you're familiar with Mack's heavily accented, comically hesitant voice, you'll know what to expect in BurnOut County. It's decidedly light regional humor, clean and non-political. You'll probably find yourself chuckling your way through the show, but not much of it is likely to stick with you.

Eddie Poe
The Coldharts, Ritz Theater Mainstage

On the burgeoning local horror theater scene, the Coldharts have made quite a name for themselves, as frequent performers and as co-founders of the Twin Cities Horror Festival. Though they're now based in Brooklyn, both members of the duo, Nick Ryan and Katie Hartman, have histories with companies including Four Humors, which Ryan co-founded.

They're best-known for their prior Fringe hit Edgar Allen, and they describe Eddie Poe as the second in "an unfinished triptych of shows adapted from the short story 'William Wilson.'" That 1839 Poe story, inspired by his own youth, explores the idea of a doppelgänger. Here, Hartman portrays the wicked alter ego of young Poe, arriving at the University of Virginia as a secretly engaged man with the best of intentions to avoid drinking and gambling.

Atmospherically gothic with a surprising amount of humor deriving from the uptight young Poe and his various entanglements, Eddie Poe sizzles with delicious temptation. Ryan's Poe contrasts spine-chillingly with the grotesquely exaggerated performance by Hartman, and the automated gels on the Ritz's lights lend an eerie rustle every time the scene is about to splash red.

And What You Find There
Reliquaries, Ritz Theater Studio

Three multigenerational versions of Alice revisit Wonderland in this show, encountering various figures from the girl's youthful adventures there and reconsidering what those strange creatures had to teach them. They never meet the Duchess, though, which is too bad, because this saccharin show could sorely use some crockery-tossing.

Baku Campbell (who scripted the show), Zoa Dru, and Lillie Horton begin the show by falling down a rabbit hole and introducing each of themselves as Alice. They're searching for a fourth, unseen Alice, who seems to represent the innocent girlhood they've left behind. They carry only a few picnic baskets, which yield the props necessary to turn actors into the caterpillar/butterfly (life lesson: embrace change), Humpty Dumpty (life lesson: don't build walls), and the White Queen (life lesson: live in the moment).

The premise has potential, but with unfocused writing, glacial pacing, and unimaginative stagecraft, And What You Find There fizzles. Skip it.

Hit the Lights! Theater Co., Ritz Theater Mainstage

"You've got a few minutes, dude," said one Fringegoer to another, checking his watch just before 7 p.m. on Sunday.

"Fuck it," said his friend, running for the bar, "I'm going!"

The black-clad cast of Whales spend their pre-show heartily encouraging audience members to grab beverages so as to play a game that involves taking a chug whenever a whale or a ship appears on the rear-projection shadow screen. If you follow their rules, you'll definitely finish your beer before the end of this rowdy exploration of the world of Moby-Dick.

Less a conventional narrative than a game show mixed with a rock musical, Whales feels like it could have been designed by a teacher trying to get students psyched up for a unit on Herman Melville's classic novel. Frequently pulling audience members onstage, the Whales crew demonstrate the size of the eponymous mammals, outline the division of ship's spoils, and instruct their Fringe-going crew on proper harpooning technique.

Between skits, the story of Moby-Dick is told with multilayered shadow puppetry; the whole show is soundtracked by a live rock band. Consistent inventiveness and high spirits distinguish this highly recommended show, by an NYC-based company who also have a production (Horsetale) in the concurrent Family Fringe.

'Teenage Subterfuge'

'Teenage Subterfuge'

Teenage Subterfuge
Iris Papyrus Productions, Rarig Center Arena

A lot of teens blame their parents for their various frustrations, but Molly (Lily Jones) has better reason than most: Her mom Meg (Christine DeZelar-Tiedman) is an alcoholic, and her dad (Steve Cox) is fucking Molly's therapist.

Teenage Subterfuge centers on the relationship between Molly and Meg, but like Meg's booze-addled brain, Robert Eichinger's script is full of episodic spurts and half-finished thoughts. Cox plays both Meg's divorced husband and Molly's horny boyfriend, an awkward conceit that's compounded by the fact that director Jesse Richards has Cox stalk in circles around the pair of women when they're sharing scenes together.

Molly, we learn, has struggled with an eating disorder, but that's told rather than shown: For a show in which the characters are constantly talking about their feelings, both central characters are strangely opaque, in part because there's so much stage business for them to attend to, with constant blackouts for changes of scene.

What if the show had just been framed as a single extended exchange between Molly and Meg, with all the men absent? That might have allowed these two characters to live and breathe together. As it is, they feel suffocated and cut off from themselves and from the audience.

Far Away by Caryl Churchill
Wayward Theatre Company, Rarig Center Arena

If you're looking for a dose of challenging playwriting at the Fringe, but you're not quite ready to dive into A Gertrude Stein Christmas, try Far Away. Caryl Churchill's 2000 play, directed with chilling zeal by Sarah Nargang, depicts a deliberately disorienting dystopia where the very elements of nature are at war with one another.

The play starts with a seemingly mundane exchange, as a young girl (Ulla Collins) comes downstairs into the kitchen of her aunt (Jane Zilch), unable to sleep because of a disturbing sound she says she heard. As it happens, she heard more than just a sound — and she saw quite a bit, too. That unsettling prologue leads to a sequence of scenes set in a hat shop, where a romance between two employees (Hannah Steblay and Michael Kelley) blooms even as we learn just what the hats are being made for. By the end of the play, the fabric of existence seems to be tearing itself apart.

It's a stark and surreal wartime story, uncomfortably resonant with our current historical moment. A large cast fill Rarig's small Arena stage with strong performances, drawing the audience into a deepening web of tragicomic mystery. It's a devilishly accomplished, touchingly human production that serves as a fine introduction, if you're not already acquainted, to the work of an important British playwright.