With 169 shows, the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival offers dizzying possibilities. The best I've seen thus far:
Crime and Punishment
The latest Live Action Set piece defies easy description, dragging the audience into a netherworld inspired by the famed Russian novel. The audience — all wearing masks and ordered to remain silent throughout the show — wanders through the basement of the Soap Factory, which has been turned into a nightmare fair.
The spectator becomes the main character, Raskolnikov, silently watching his confusion about the world around him, the murder he commits, and the horrors that follow. This fully immersive setting disorients the viewer, until all you can feel is the turmoil of memory, violence, and guilt. The run is nearly sold out, so make reservations first. 8:30 p.m. nightly through Saturday, 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Soap Factory, 514 Second Ave. SE, Minneapolis
Failure: A Love Story
There's no guessing with Philip Dawkins's play. Even the program lays it out. Three Fail sisters living in 1920s Chicago are all going to die within a year of each other. It's not the events, but the telling that makes this a clever and moving piece.
A suitor, Mortimer Mortimer, begins to woo the sisters in turn, but death keeps getting in the way. It could be unbearably twee, but there's serious heart in Dawkins's script, and the top-notch cast dances a fine line between absurdity and tragedy that absolutely beguiles the viewer. 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Friday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Illusion Theater, Eighth floor, Cowles Center for the Arts, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Physical comedy meets existential angst in the latest piece from Comedy Suitcase's Joshua English Scrimshaw and Levi Weinhagen. The pair play a Marx Brothers-style act that runs roughshod through the pleasant, oppressive streets of Minnefreeapolis. They're out to help poor Zeppo K, a pantsless schlub who has been dragged into a Kafka-esque world. This is about honoring the great comics of the past. 7 p.m. Thursday, 4 p.m. Saturday. Illusion Theater
Our American Assassin: Or You Can't Handle the Booth
Making fun of actors and acting is like shooting fish in a barrel, especially at the Fringe. The merry and foul-mouthed crew at Mainly Me Productions are clearly aware of this as they go ahead anyway in a terrifically funny farce. In a twist on Lincoln's murder, the actors at the Booth Theater take matters into their own hands to solve the crime and save the reputation of actors everywhere.
It goes hilariously wrong, of course, and this script never misses a chance to mock actors, the theater, and even the Fringe itself. 7 p.m. Thursday, 4 p.m. Saturday. Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis
Four Humors Does Every Show in the Fringe
Four Humors — which produced Lolita, the best show in last year's festival — didn't get into the Fringe until a couple of weeks ago. Instead of remounting a past hit, the local troupe decided to improvise. The concept: A ping-pong ball with a number between 1 and 169 is drawn, corresponding with one of the shows in the festival. Using just the title, a short description, and a photograph, Four Humors presents its interpretation.
On Saturday, the ball turned up Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner, from which the cast and guest Mike Fotis built a strange and funny improvisation that somehow included the Salt Lake City Olympics, a figure skater gunned down during his final routine, and a few spare mentions of chicken along the way. 5:30 p.m. Thursday, 8:30 p.m. Saturday. New Century Theatre, City Center, 615 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis