Fringe Festival 2009: Robots, penguins, and bodily urges


When I called up the Minnesota Fringe Festival's executive director, Robin Gillette, a couple of days before the festival opened, something she said kicked off an alarming memory.

"Things are going bizarrely smoothly," she told me.

As always, the state of things is measured in relative comparison. Two summers ago, when Gillette was about to launch into her first Fringe in her new job, the I-35W bridge collapsed. Attendance and revenue dipped opening weekend, but by far less than anyone might have feared. In those weird, supercharged hours after the tragedy, folks got on with making and communing with art, not to ignore what had happened but to deny cruel fate its power to keep us from embracing the moment.

And if the Fringe is about anything, it's the moment. For a brief summertime window, we realize that we're surrounded by artists, thinkers, dancers, and provocateurs. Some of them are familiar, some come from other places, and others emerge from nowhere with a story to tell or an experience to impart. Sometimes they're brilliant, other times they fall on their face; but we rarely leave without a sense that everyone in the room has shared something worthwhile, that convening in a place on a summer night and giving way to the fantastic was precisely the right thing to do.

Of course, the festival is labyrinthine, and running it requires a combination of the ruthlessly mundane and the outright nutty. Gillette sounded positively blissed-out by how well the cogs and gears were turning.

"We're at the point where the team that's in place is a really solid group of people," she said, including both the Fringe's year-round and seasonal staff. "So many systems are set in place that the tweaks we're making are for fun."

Oh, yeah: fun. Mustn't forget about that one. To help on that score, we've prepared our annual Fringe package: reviews galore, nuts-and-bolts info on venues and tickets, and some questionnaires we sent to Fringe performers when the festival was still just limitless potential.

"Of course, it's the Fringe and there are the random surprises," Gillette added, pondering the preparation and how things might play out. "It's super geeky, but it's really exciting."

What she said. —Quinton Skinner

2 Sugars, Room for Cream
Shanan Wexler & Carolyn Pool Productions

The title gets it half right. There are indeed two sugars, embodied by the two-woman company of Wexler & Pool. But there isn't a whole lot of cream. The versatile, vivacious ladies do throw themselves with caffeinated abandon into the string of skits, most of which revolve around the Last Acceptable Stimulant. However, none of the situations—involving weary professionals, giddy social networkers, disturbed mothers, and ashamed readers of Twilight—lasts long enough to become engrossing, and they're not funny enough to work as comedy sketches. Still, a couple of moments indicate what a promising show this could be with more work: a wonderful rendition by both players of the jazz standard "Black Coffee" and an unsettling closing skit involving a killer hangover, some available java, and an impromptu filter that would be more appropriate in prison. Fri 10 p.m., Sun 5:30 p.m. U of M Rarig Center Xperimental. —John Ervin

SunsetGun productions

Candy Simmons depicts three incarnations of one soul though time, from the early part of the 20th century until today, in a varied, magnetic, and captivating performance. First is an Appalachian nurse whose single-minded pursuit of motherhood leads her to a sideline in assisted suicide (voluntary and otherwise). She's followed by a sadly alienated Wisconsin housewife in 1960. Next comes a brittle and emotionally disconnected career woman in present-day New York. The script, by Chris Van Strander and Simmons, is concise and dynamic, with all manner of internal crosscurrents, and Simmons's performance is chilling, a bit heartbreaking, and rarely less than fascinating. Thu 5:30 p.m., Sat 2:30 p.m. Intermedia Arts. —Quinton Skinner

Axed! (The Rockstars' Remix)
Rockstar Storytellers

Rik Reppe, Dave Mondy, and Courtney McClean weave spoken-word tales of, respectively: an eccentric hermit artist who finds love on the remote island where he lives; a time spent at a Christian camp, involving love and revenge; and a paranoid's journey off the grid, in the bedroom, then into the frying pan and the fire. A rapid-fire format of moving from speaker to speaker, segment to segment, adds to the enjoyment through the differences in each speaker's style. Reppe fares best this time out, with his story of a weird diner owner who finds improbable, and short-lived, happiness. Wed 5:30 p.m., Fri 7 p.m., Sat 10 p.m. Bryant-Lake Bowl. —Quinton Skinner

Kari Kelly and Molly Dimba

Kari Kelly and Molly Dimba put together a series of riffs, song fragments, and spoken-word segments focusing on their mutual magnitude in the upper torso, or what they call the "breasticular area." They also share a love-hate relationship with their titular boobs (pun intended) that entails a mortal fear of bathing suits, the need for multiple sports bras, and a funny sketch imagining their effect during adolescence on their male counterparts. It all comes off as light, funny girl talk, transparently half-baked for certain stretches, but also with a sense of long-needed unburdening regarding their sweater puppies. Hey, they said it. Fri 5:30 p.m., Sat 7 p.m. Gremlin Theatre. —Quinton Skinner

Burning Man and the Reverend Nuge
Tommy Nugent

Tommy Nugent started at age five as a fervent Baptist, then moved on to the Pentecostal church and a spell at a college where he and his classmates spent their evenings engaged in laid-back activities like driving demons out of one another. In this one-man monologue, he tells how he lived his dream of becoming a pastor before it all came crashing down in his early 20s. Out with the faith, then, and in with bartending at a strip club and having a go at professional gambling. It's insanely self-involved, but it still reaches a lovely conclusion, and Nugent is in his element as a storyteller. Wed 7 p.m., Sat 4 p.m., Sun 5:30 p.m. Gremlin Theatre. —Quinton Skinner

Buyer's Remorse
Sarah Gioia and Steve Moulds

Steve Moulds's new comedy opens in the confusing aftermath of a grisly murder, with the blood-spattered Parker (Sam Landman) realizing that a mistake has been made when Matt (Matt Rein) turns out to be a friend of the victim rather than the agent of his demise. Things coalesce into a wholly entertaining and funny story about the bureaucracy of hired killers and the sad adherence of a character billed as Man of Few Words (Ian Miller) to a computer with which one infers he would like to be more than friends. Landman carves out a character as pathetic as he is morally bizarre, and there's more blood by the end. This is the sort of find that keeps us coming to the Fringe. Wed 5:30 p.m., Sat 4 p.m., Sun 4 p.m. Mixed Blood Theatre. —Quinton Skinner

Comedy of Errors
Bedlam Theatre

It's the Bard meets the Marx Brothers in the Bedlam parking lot, as the company presents a cut-down take on Shakespeare. The bare essentials are here: Two sets of twins, long separated and ignorant of the others, end up in the same place at the same time. Calamity and hilarity ensue. Director Jason Ballweber doesn't let up for a moment, pushing the farce well into the red and using the vast outdoor space—even the roof—for good effect. And the actors, when faced with a choice, have gone broad, broad, broad, all to the audience's delight. Thu-Sun 7 p.m. Bedlam Theatre parking lot. —Ed Huyck

Allegra J. Lingo

Allegra Lingo weaves music from Aaron Copland with stories of her domestic life, her fixation on writing, and a retelling of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. At first it feels as though the seams are going to burst, but Lingo nicely rides the tides of Copland, revealing bits of herself as she goes, and finally working up to an understated but effective point. The one-person semi-confessional is either a staple or a tired leftover, depending on one's point of view, but Lingo is at the top of her game here. After all, a passion for art (and existence) isn't passé. Wed 8:30 p.m., Sat 7 p.m. U of M Rarig Center Arena. —Quinton Skinner

The Curse of Yig
Tim Uren

While this short story is definitely a lesser piece by H.P. Lovecraft (he ghost-wrote it from notes by collaborator Zelia Bishop), it has enough of the author's signature creepiness to make for a good, scary story. Tim Uren (who tackled Lovecraft's Rats in the Walls in 2006) is joined by Amy Schweickhardt as they tell of Oklahoma settlers who believe they've run afoul of an ancient native snake god. Their storytelling is a bit rough in spots, but it all pays off in the final minutes with some true scares in a dark cabin where dawn never seems to come. Fri 10:30 p.m., Sat 7 p.m. Mixed Blood Theatre. —Ed Huyck

An Intimate Evening with Fotis Part lll
Mike Fotis

A man (Mike Fotis) sits down at a table and reads aloud, while a woman (Jen Scott) accompanies him on standup bass. In the hour that follows, we get to know about Fotis's Boy Scout past (including testicle punching), his extreme stress in crafting a new Fringe show without the aid of nicotine, and the destructive powerhouse that is his new puppy. Thrown together? Perhaps. But Fotis is developing into such a force as an observational storyteller, with ace timing and a gift for the devastating throwaway line, that it's easy to forgive him his procrastination—because he is hilarious. Fri 8:30 p.m., Sat 10 p.m. Mixed Blood Theatre. —Quinton Skinner

June of Arc
Sandbox Theatre

Note to playwrights: The 1950s ended nearly 50 years ago; it's time to find a new shorthand for bland conformity. Ryan Hill's script never moves far beyond the "My, weren't those oppressive, soul-crushing times" tale we've seen so often before. The show essentially presents a monologue by übermom June Cleaver (a fine Heather Stone), who looks back at her lost dreams as her husband and children demonstrate decades of decay and downward mobility. That is broken up by onstage presentations of era commercials that attempt to draw irony from a well that long ago dried up. Mon 8:30 p.m., Wed 8:30 p.m., Sat 10 p.m. Rarig Center Xperimental. —Ed Huyck

Jurassic Dork
Jonas Goslow

Jurassic Park was as cold-blooded, oversized, and all-devouring as the dinosaurs it kept us waiting, and waiting, to see. So there's a hilarious thrill in watching John Skelley send it up in this one-man show, taking on all the ridiculous accents and implausible plot twists, all the while rooting against the cute little children. His props are ridiculous, his performance is pleasingly maniacal, and the man never stops moving and delivering dialogue straight from the source. Of course, the secret is that one has to have affection for the material to bring it down with such passion: It's an homage to fromage. Fri 10 p.m., Sat 2:30 p.m. Gremlin Theatre. —Quinton Skinner

Like a Virgin
Jimmy Hogg

In his latest piece, British storyteller Jimmy Hogg looks at his adolescent introduction to sex, from discovering a stash of porn magazines to his first time with a woman. Hogg entertains with awkward, embarrassing details—a love for the early works of Paula Abdul, making out just after eating a sausage roll, and "doing it" while a puppet show runs on TV. Using only his voice and body (and a few well-placed sound cues), Hogg keeps the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, whether he is telling the main story or is on one of his many side excursions. Mon 7 p.m., Wed 10:30 p.m., Sat 2:30 p.m. Mixed Blood Theatre. —Ed Huyck

Mansion of Dust
Sara Stevenson Scrimshaw

Sara Stevenson Scrimshaw and Joseph Scrimshaw are two "professional European dusters." She's a pragmatic soul from Sweden, he's an existentialist wreck from France, and together they've been hired to neaten up a haunted house. So who's behind the scary goings-on—a little girl's ghost, a hungry troll, or the crazy caretaker with the glass eye and tarot cards? This unlikely duo is determined to solve the mystery while gleefully butchering their accents, tossing out culturally specific one-liners, falling in love, and dancing with a zest that could easily raise the dead. Fri 10 p.m., Sun 7 p.m. Southern Theater. —Caroline Palmer

The Morning After the Summer of Love
Scream Blue Murmur

The Scream Blue Murmur are an Irish performance-poetry quintet who travel the world chanting verse and singing songs of a political bent. Before visions of Bono keep you away, the songs and poetry are raunchy, angry, and delightfully perverse. In this show, the troupe compares the bloody, war-ravaged election year of 1968 to the bloody, war-ravaged election year of 2008 (in America, not Ireland). Since they often perform in bars, the performance is frankly better suited to venues where spectators are stewed—especially the sing-alongs (yes, audience participation is expected). The best of the pieces imagines terrorism being solved by a ménage à trois in which terrorists are given a, uh, penetrating piece of the orator's mind. The show is complemented by video appearances by Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and a spooky Jim Morrison murmuring "Unknown Soldier." Thu 7 p.m., Sat 1 p.m., Sun 7 p.m. Intermedia Arts. —John Ervin

Warsh lut Productions

The oft-charming Oops! opens with two best friends (Colin Waitt and Jasmine Rush) waiting for the results of a pregnancy test sometime after the pair indulged in a bit of alcohol-inspired coital recreation. It's bad enough that she gets knocked up right after graduating from college, stickier still that the father of her child is resoundingly gay. Waitt pens the script here, and while at times the proceedings veer too closely to the standard clichés of panicked young expectant parents, he and Rush have a genuine youthful charm and chemistry that makes for an entertaining, at times giddy experience. Wed 5:30 p.m., Thu 10 p.m., Sat 1 p.m. Minneapolis Theatre Garage. —Quinton Skinner

Pathos, Punchlines & Painkillers
The Nanny Bumpkin Presents

We're used to a certain degree of self-revelation in the one-person show, but Montreal's Chris Masson certainly lets fly. After a wobbly intro positing himself as a youthful romantic and (plausibly) wealth-free performer and student, he launches into what is apparently his own story, about meeting a woman on the internet, having her come down with cancer before they can tryst in person, then embarking on a strained but sincere romance, with death looming throughout. A better storyteller than poet, Masson crafts something that becomes surprisingly interesting and touching as it moves along, awkward moments and all. Fri 8:30 p.m., Sat 2:30 p.m. Bryant-Lake Bowl. —Quinton Skinner

Tamara Ober

Tamara Ober tells and dances this original story of a Candide kind of gal who loses everything—her money, her way—but finds herself in the process. Using a bench, a stool, and a low-slung microphone that she has to dip and flatten herself to reach, Ober as the wildly imaginative Pipa channels dreams, meets up with magicians and high-wire artists on her way to the supermarket, and vainly chases a butterfly all the way to a rooftop. She narrates her story in many different voices (some live, some recorded), but it's her sinuous, ingenious moves that animate this enchanting tale. Fri 8:30 p.m., Sun 2:30 p.m. U of M Rarig Center Xperimental. —Linda Shapiro

The Problem of the Body: Why Is Our Society Ashamed of Bodily Urges?
Professor Damon Rudman

Most people don't want you to pass gas, urinate, or copulate in their presence. If you need a play to tell you that, and about why our culture demonizes bodily functions and most things sexual, Professor Damon Rudman is your man. In a college-style lecture, the professor enlightens his audience about the good ol' days when people openly screwed around with prostitutes, wrote extensively about excretion, and generally didn't think corporeal desires were bad. Rudman then tries to figure out why society changed. Often meandering off topic, and frequently out of sync with the PowerPoint slides illustrating his talk, Rudman is a likable instructor, but more rehearsal wouldn't hurt. The Problem isn't a required course, but it makes for a decent elective. Sat 5:30 p.m., Mon 7 p.m., Fri 8:30 p.m., Sun 2:30 p.m. —Ben Palosaari

The Red Tureen
Doolin & Dingle

A son returns home, an old mystery is solved, a fight rages against the British, a love unfolds, and a population contemplates the future in the midst of a famine. The Red Tureen, written by Kevin Bowen and Jim Lundy, offers all of that, plus a wedding and more than 20 songs, all in an hour-long musical. The result of putting so much into such a short play is that a connection to the material is lost. The cast members, especially the women, are able to create some good moments, but the musical would benefit from rewrites of some stilted and clichéd dialogue, and a longer running time in which the characters and plot could be fleshed out more. Tues 8:30 p.m., Fri 4 p.m., Sun 7 p.m. U of M Rarig Center Theatre Thrust. —Keith Hovis

Ready at Will Dance Collective

Successful site-specific performances reveal something new or unexpected about a familiar space. Downtown's Colonial Warehouse is rich with history as a powerhouse for streetcars around the turn of the 20th century. Now an office building, it still retains historic integrity. The members of Ready at Will Dance Collective do little, however, to substantively comment on the warehouse's past or present. Their improvisatory dance structure offers few variants or innovations, and the audience members just dutifully follow the performers, waiting for their next seemingly random decision, be it in the stairwell, bathroom, or empty hallway. Seems like a lost opportunity. Fri 7 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m. Colonial Warehouse. —Caroline Palmer

Slow Jobs: Servicing America for $12 an Hour
What Happened Productions

It's not every day that a play gives the audience a collective pink slip, but this storytelling extravaganza by Laura Bidgood and Curt Lund does just that. From there, it's a trip down the rabbit hole of dead-end jobs, crushed dreams (even if that dream is working at Taco John's), and ruined office potlucks. Bidgood and Lund are both engaging storytellers, and their tales find the balance between the terrifyingly mundane and awe-inspiringly bizarre. It all comes together in Lund's epic tale of a revolt at a deli counter fueled by a copy of Norma Rae and a display case of ancient salads. Tue 5:30 p.m., Wed 10 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m. Rarig Center Arena. —Ed Huyck

Something Witchy
Partizan Theater

Rachel (Catherine Johnson Justice) begins her day with some heartily rancorous squabbling with her daughter Cody (Lindsey Alexandra Hartley), and things don't get any better from there. Cue the arrival of a stranger (Chris Carlson) who possesses a charged bit of info about Rachel's past and the Manson Family. Far more dark and intense than usual Fringe fare, this show is well served by a one-hour format, in which Justice's and Carlson's characters negotiate, confess, and, in Justice's case, transform into some frightening psychic terrain. In four short scenes, we confront atrocity, blind obedience, and the grinning face of darkness. It's a bit of a relief when the house lights come back on. Thu 10 p.m., Sat 5:30 p.m. U of M Rarig Center Thrust. —Quinton Skinner

Walking Shadow Theatre Company

On the surface, Squawk seems like a case of Fringe Mad Libs. "Hey, let's do a play about the army, but with a penguin!" Instead, playwright John Heimbuch (author of last year's hit Shakespeare's Land of the Dead) takes us deep into the absurd world of a hotshot young officer and his penguin roommate, Lt. Falkland. There are plenty of trials, and the end offers more of a one-liner than a message. The small cast and Spartan staging only focus the eye on the real star here—the Falkland puppet that becomes as much of a real character as the humans onstage. Tue 7 p.m., Thu 8:30 p.m., Sat 1 p.m. Gremlin Theatre. —Ed Huyck

Strange Weather
The Great Heresy Theater Company

This new play by Sarah M. Wash takes place hundreds of years in the future, with the oil run out, the climate in the crapper, and the ascendancy of apparently feudalistic Christian tyranny. Crop failure looms imminent, strange things are roaming the countryside, and the small town of Badwater pins its hopes on the visions of Cassie (Natasha Smith). After the arrival of a weird preacher-man (David Talarico), a series of machinations leads to tragedy and just about the bleakest of endings. There are some good notions here connecting a dystopia with a backwoods past, but the execution is lacking. Thu 8:30 p.m. Minneapolis Theatre Garage. —Quinton Skinner

Domini Orlando

A detective, a pedophile, and a disgraced cop walk into a shrink's office.... Roughly speaking, that's the plot of Dominic Orlando's Strong, a play about three people who share a psychiatrist and dark secrets. The quickly paced drama battles the threadbare material of run-of-the-mill cop serials with fair characters who keep their cards close to the vest throughout the story. What makes the play work is the relationship—reminiscent of George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men—between a former police officer and his disturbed friend, played by the always-adept Terry Hempleman and the remarkable Sasha Andreev. Orlando's short play "Little Green Man," an exercise in snappy dialogue, precedes the main performance. Thu 7 p.m., Fri 10 p.m., Sun 7 p.m. Minneapolis Theatre Garage. —Ben Palosaari

Tales of the Expected
Ari Hoptman

Though the title is meant to be ironic, the audience merely gets a trio of slightly fractured fairy tales that never get far enough from the sources to be really fun. By this time, we've all seen twists on Sleeping Beauty and Jack and the Beanstalk, and a middle section about some pirate-like sailors onboard a car ferry never really launches beyond the obvious "arghhs." A talented cast, under the able direction of Peter Moore, makes for some good moments, but it's hard not to be disappointed by the latest piece by the talented Hoptman. Wed 7 p.m., Thu 5:30 p.m., Sat 5:30 p.m. Rarig Center Proscenium. —Ed Huyck

This Show Will Change Your Life!
David Mann

David Mann and Scott Jorgenson send up the crushing vapidity of inspirational speaking and self-improvement by offering their own cheerful, nearly content-free take on the genre. The proceedings are breezily funny, beginning with video testimonials from people they have ostensibly helped (transparently Mann and Jorgenson, the latter in drag), moving through deeply unhelpful bullet-point tips on health and money, and finishing by taking money from the audience. As they point out, you can't spell "success" without "u." Best to leave some profundities where they lie. Thu 10 p.m., Fri 7 p.m. Intermedia Arts. —Quinton Skinner

The Three Bonnies
DA Dance

Six seasoned performers deliver a dance-fueled rumination on relationships to songs by Bonnie Raitt, whose "Let's Get Back to Talking About Fundamentals" pretty much sums up creator Denise Armstead's themes: You gotta have love and true grit, and look to the horses for wisdom. Armstead, a performer of febrile intensity, packs a lot of homespun philosophy and kick-butt dancing into an hour. The movement often reflects the lyricism and sensitivity of horse behavior, which we witness in some terrific film footage as dancers circle one another like skittish colts or, after a bit of wrangling and high-flying partnering, settle into some hard-won love on the range. Fri 8:30 p.m., Sat 8:30 p.m. Ritz Theater. —Linda Shapiro

Tragedy of You
Joseph Scrimshaw Productions

Joseph Scrimshaw brings his interactive comedy from Bryant-Lake Bowl to the Rarig Thrust, and it is a well-oiled, massively entertaining thing. An audience member is chosen at random from a pool of volunteers, then quizzed by Scrimshaw. The answers serve to fill in the blanks for a Shakespeare-style, sprawling five-act odyssey that gives Scrimshaw ample room to improvise and navigate his plot. He spews an immense amount of verbiage, some on the fly, some scripted, batting for a ridiculously high average. It does indeed end in tragedy, and (appropriately) the jester has the final say. Wed 10 p.m., Sat 10 p.m. U of M Rarig Center Thrust. —Quinton Skinner

Untitled Duet with Houseplant
Noah Bremer

Playwright and performer Noah Bremer has certainly earned the fans who chortled loudly and waved lighters at his one-man show. After all, he's boyishly charming. He's a master of physical comedy and choreography. And he's among the Fringe Festival elite, a local favorite who carries shows with his name alone. Whether these followers knew of his work with Minneapolis theater company Live Action Set or recalled 2005's much-praised Fringe show Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban, their enthusiasm was matched only by his joy in performing. Those not familiar with his comedy, however, might find it hard to enter Bremer's world—a nonlinear place in which he (as various characters) distributes carrots to the audience, pantomimes the inflation of his own hand, and laments the pace of his romance with Gertrude, a houseplant. Forty-five minutes of silliness, intense energy, and earnestness make experimental theater seem approachable—but it's hard to appreciate an experiment that has no hypothesis to reference. Thurs 8:30 p.m., Fri 10 p.m., Sun 7 p.m. Rarig Proscenium Stage. —Erin Adler