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"We'll never go back to Edinburgh again," says Brian Sostek of the world's original and biggest Fringe Festival. "Our venue was supposed to be a theater tent, but our contact turned out to be a big freak--he had stopped responding to our e-mails and phone calls, and by the time we got there our venue literally never materialized. People were showing up to an empty square with nothing there, no signs, nothing."
Sostek, along with Megan McClellan, is one half of Sossy Mechanics, a dance-theater company that presented Dance in the Dark at this year's festival. Back in 2003, the group scored big at the Minnesota Fringe with Trick Boxing and subsequently spent four months performing at Fringe fests held all over the globe. In other words, he ran away from home to join the circus, still a leading nightmare among American parents. Reached by phone, Sostek is quick to describe the travails of the traveling performer playing small venues. Like the time McClellan sprained an ankle in Prague, necessitating an impromptu replacement, or the time a failing Fringe tried to take them down with it.
"In Seattle, we were one of three shows chosen to extend our run," he says. "Then when we got home we discovered that they knew they were bankrupt and they were using us to cover their losses. We ended up screwed out of a couple thousand dollars."
But here in Minnesota we are of the bill-paying, obligation-honoring ilk. No one is guaranteed a big crowd, or a favorable critical reception, but when out-of-towners arrive at, say, the Jungle or Mixed Blood, they will find a fully functioning theater in which to do their thing.
So what, exactly, is the thing this year? At first glance, one sees plenty of light comedies, one-person shows about varying degrees of personal nuttiness (has anyone done Unhinged at the Fringe yet?), and tons of sex. It's not just this author's prurient mind--quite a few photos in this year's program feature sexy images, and show titles include Adventures in Mating (see review below), LICK!, We Make Porn Artsy, and the intriguingly titled I'm Naked and I'm Ready (see review below).
Questioned about her role in this erotic theater conspiracy, Fringe executive director Leah Cooper is evasive. "I don't know how it happens," she says. "Every year there's a trend: all musicals, all zany hilarious comedies. This year we have mimes, jugglers, and clowns. And sex, sex, sex. A lot of it is the Teen Fringe. We don't censor the teens, and it turns out that when you let teens talk about whatever they want, they talk about sex."
While youth is apparently not entirely wasted on the young, a scan of the Fringe schedule yields few examples of topical political shows--whether inspired by youthful idealism or the more jaundiced eye that comes with age. Today's political realities (and the odor of mendacity in the air) could conceivably have led to a spate of productions about war and truth, so it's a bit of a surprise that so few 2005 Fringe shows are overtly drawn from current events. Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban (see review, p.26) is a clown show about living in wartime, and I Voted for Gummi Bears tackles suppression of African American voters. Still, given the times, one might expect more agitation on the stage.
"I am a little surprised," Cooper says. "I think if they're like me, they're feeling jaded about talking about it."
One artist not avoiding controversy is Ben Kreilkamp, whose When Reason Sleeps is represented in the Fringe flyer by a photo of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Kreilkamp points out that his new show is part of a series about his personal journey. "I'm disturbed by the image," he says of the photo. "And I'm disturbed by our country's policies about torture as I understand them."
When asked about the dearth of politics at the Fringe, Kreilkamp is measured in his response. "You might be looking in the wrong place," he says. "The Fringe is mostly about other things. It's best known for its entertainment value."
So, amid the darker currents of the moment, we set out for a weekend of fun. Why not, one supposes. On opening weekend I witnessed an amazing shooting star in the middle of a performance on the roof of Joe's Garage, then a couple of nights later took in the bowlers at Bryant-Lake while trying to talk my way into a sold-out performance. I saw an overly refreshed audience member make a noisy exit mid-performance, and a monologue punctuated by a blown fuse and sudden pitch dark. And, as luck would have it, though perhaps luck could have had it in such a way more often, I even saw some excellent theater. What follows is a partial critical guide to the festival's triumphs, follies, must-avoids, and breakaway hits. Please come fully clothed and prepared.
Adventures in Mating
In Joseph Scrimshaw's latest work, a couple meets for a blind date but can't be held responsible for its inevitable failure. Claiming 30 different scene combinations, the play relies on the sadistic tendencies of the audience to guide the doomed evening. (Choose Your Own Adventure fans will be happy to know that several scenes end in death.) While some of the shtick reeks of cliché (do we really need another snooty waiter?), there's enough genuinely hilarious mob-driven comedy to make up for the inclusion of an overly familiar cat-collecting 30-year-old woman hell-bent on getting a ring. Wed. 10:00 p.m., Sat. 10:00 p.m., Sun. 10:00 p.m. Brave New Workshop. --Lindsey Thomas
Charlie Bethel's Gilgamesh
Rediscovered a little more than a century ago, the ancient epic of Gilgamesh alarmed and excited scholars with its pre-echoes of both Greek and Hebrew myth; here solo performer Charlie Bethel takes on the story himself, narrating and embodying the adventures of the titular god-king, his wild-man sidekick Enkidu, the Sumerian pantheon, and the citizens of Uruk. Bethel's storytelling tricks--repetition, varied and comic voices, deflating asides--are better at spotting the myth's ridiculousness than building its primal hugeness. What is missing is an impressive Gilgamesh himself. In Bethel's rendering, the hero is less specific and energetic than the gods, divine bulls, demons, and death-cheating sages he meets. The breezy pace favors action over Joseph Campbell-ish rumination, and there's plenty of sex and violence, but the second half's moments of death, loss, and futility are well-timed and fully felt. Wed. 8:30 p.m., Thu. 8:30 p.m., Sat. 4:00 p.m., Sun. 5:30 p.m. Illusion Theater. --Geoff Cannon
Chicks in Space
This space-opera spoof sees a crew of women hitting the cosmos at warp speed in search of a better world with clean air and water, an excess of insect life, happening bars for their robot associate, and a ban on performances of The Tempest. When members of the crew start disappearing one by one, it's up to Stacey Poirier as The Captain to put things right (in tearful fashion). Alas, many of the gags fall flat, in part because the ridiculousness of the source material--such as William Shatner's notorious emoting and penchant for Kirkian lechery--is left largely unmined. Fri. 2:30 p.m., Sun. 7:00 p.m. Intermedia Arts. --Quinton Skinner
DAVID MANN AND THE ROGUES
Without sufficient humor and horseplay, a Shakespearean adaptation of The Godfather could be an insufferable gimmick. Luckily, Corleone, a memorable take on the Mob classic, is a treat for Shakespeare geeks and Puzo freaks alike. Those who don't know the Bard from Luca Brazzi might miss some of the fun (the re-imagined tollbooth shoot-out is a highlight), but writer David Mann's crackling wordplay transforms a theatrical in-joke into a feat of language anyone could admire. The performances, particularly Kate Eifrig as Waspy Kay, are as strong and witty as the material. Fri. 8:30 p.m., Sat. 2:30 p.m. Minneapolis Theatre Garage. --Diablo Cody
Dancing Dirty with Lee and Mr. Bo
JADED OPTIMIST PRODUCTIONS
In this affable and easygoing one-man show, Howard Lieberman intertwines his own life story with that of his father, a dancer who took his initial inspiration from Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Lieberman traces his own trek from longhaired '60s slacker to '80s high-powered New York attorney with self-effacing humor and restraint, tossing in a few dance moves in the process. Ultimately the story turns out to be one of fathers and sons, with Lieberman expressing the anger and disappointment he felt for his dad with a reporter's distance and the acknowledgment that death voids all grudges. Fri. 1:00 p.m., Sat. 10:00 p.m. Acadia Café. --Quinton Skinner
Carson Kreitzer's new play takes place in an afterlife populated by Jayne Mansfield and two waiters--one of whom is Ron Goldman, who was murdered along with Nicole Brown Simpson. Ryan Lindberg gives a solid take on a fictionalized Goldman as would-be Hollywood player, and Wade A. Vaughn is haunted and spectral as a man who has been dead a bit longer. Catherine E. Johnson as Mansfield is languorous and glamorous while seeming to play things through thick gauze. Nothing much happens, but as free-form theater it is diverting and much funnier than its ghoulish outlines might suggest. Fri. 8:30 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m. The Jungle Theater. --Quinton Skinner
Everyone's a Winner
ME AND BILL
This show from writer-director (and City Pages account executive) Mike Yanke was initially envisioned as a sitcom pilot (complete with a mediocre opening comedian), and it will serve to remind audiences why reality television still reigns supreme on TV. While the premise offers potential laughs--a college grad gains employment at a suicide-prevention hotline only to learn the "counselors" answering the phone are as dysfunctional as the callers themselves--the underdeveloped characters and scanty plotline will have you searching frantically for the remote (not provided with admission, alas). The show does effectively juxtapose live performance with projections of pre-taped scenes, which, unwisely, don't include a laugh track. Wed. 2:30 p.m., Fri. 7:00 p.m., Sat. 2:30 p.m. Red Eye Theatre. --Erin Adler
For the Rest of My Life
This quirky offering from former Minnesota Viking Esera Tuaolo is a one-man memoir-style show (and cabaret), but naturally it concerns several other offstage figures, most prominently Mitchell, the love of Tuaolo's life. Years ago, Mitchell's grandmother prophesied that everything would be all right for her then-struggling grandson once he met "a Sarah," which seemed a touch far-fetched after Mitchell came out. But then Mitchell brought home Tuaolo, whose first name is indeed pronounced like the woman's name "Sarah" preceded by "uh" or "a." Mitchell's mom was overjoyed, even if, as Tuaolo jokes, "the Sarah turned out to be a 310-pound Samoan." That sweet, romantic story is the highlight of this likable if not fully formed show. Tuaolo covers his pained childhood and the bigotry and self-doubt he faced as a closeted professional athlete, and builds up to his meeting Mitchell, deciding to adopt children, and coming out and becoming an activist for LGBT equality. Tuaolo has a tendency to overact, and his unimaginatively structured script fails to make all of his memories come to life. He has charm and conviction to spare, though, plus a good voice in the Vandrossian mold, which he uses on a half-dozen or so gospel and R&B songs of varying familiarity and quality. Wed. 10:00 p.m., Sat. 8:30 p.m. Illusion Theater. --Dylan Hicks
Going to 2nd Base with God: A Stormy Romance
The title of Holly Davis's one-woman show refers to a story she tells about going to a faith-healing church service and being offered the chance to speak in tongues. She declined, and posits it as a benchmark in the process of lifelong seduction between herself and the Almighty. Along the way she touches on her cats, her perfect sister, and the depression that casts a dark cloud over her life once she was "inside the white picket fence." The show is at its best when Davis cuts loose, such as during a dialogue with the aforementioned deity, though it runs long and could stand an edit. Thu. 6:00 p.m., Sat. 8:00 p.m., Bryant-Lake Bowl. --Quinton Skinner
Funny in the Head
ACTORS ALLIANCE OF SAN DIEGO
These three short comedies are sharply written, but alas, only one avoids awkward pacing. In the first performance, Matthew Scott is convincing as a drug-addled, suicidal therapist confronting a patient who's combating Hollywood's superficial glare. But it's uncomfortably slow and, well, a tad too L.A. superficial. The second playlet, "Sick in Love," speeds things up a bit, with an inspired and dark premise about a doctor whose wife lives in a blinking box. But in the concluding piece, "Serial," Allyson Collins largely redeems the show with a portrayal of an incredibly forward lawyer-lush embarrassing herself with clueless brio at a holiday party. Wed. and Sat. 4:00 p.m. Brave New Workshop. --Molly Priesmeyer
Henry Arms Left His Arms on the Bus
HOUSE RED THEATRE COMPANY
The premise of this play is wonderful: A highly dysfunctional family discovers a picture of Henry VIII in their mailbox, and all four members begin to project their unfulfilled fantasies onto the quickly framed photo. The verbally abusive mother and adopted daughter fall in love with the king, while the lonely, narcoleptic janitor father who "can't do the mattress jig" befriends him. Unfortunately the family members and their resentments stay where they began during this 35-minute family fight. We're only given some new dimensions to the characters at the very end, when the play takes an abrupt turn that doesn't quite make sense. Fri. 10:00 p.m. Mixed Blood. --Molly Priesmeyer
I'm Naked and I'm Ready
PATRICE SNEAD AND SAMANTHA DEAN
The earnest, no-boys-allowed wit of Sex and the City mingles with something considerably darker in this series of monologues about a multiracial twentysomething woman searching for love. The charismatic Samantha Dean performs solo with limited props, and her penetrating, often accusatory gaze is the show's best asset. The material generally fails to transcend the mundane (does anyone want to hear another story about a guy who doesn't return calls?), but its bolder moments succeed. While the use of poetry and music throughout the show is distracting and unnecessary, Snead and Dean's willingness to be exposed without pretense is refreshing, and Dean has major star quality. Fri. 7:00 p.m., Sat. 4:00 p.m. Interact Theatre. --Diablo Cody
I'm Sorry and I'm Sorry
This show's self-proclaimed comparison to Cirque du Soleil isn't to be taken lightly. Mime makeup, battered and ill-fitting suits, and a character who spends half the show speaking French make for an experience that's très strange. It's an ideal setting for an hour-long debate over how Frenchy's knife ended up in his pompous actor friend's back. Although the argument gets tedious, pratfalls and more stabbings manage to take up the slack. Still, the slapstick and circular logic can be at odds, and the duo's considerable talent, like the show's rapid-fire bilingual banter, often gets lost in the mayhem. Thu. 10:00 p.m., Sat. 2:30 p.m. Brave New Workshop. --Lindsey Thomas
London After Midnight: Victorian Tales of Crime and the Supernatural
This campy production from Steve Schroer's page-to-stage company follows a vampire and the characters he touches throughout London as mobs break out, bodies are dug up, and Sir Robert Peel (Sean Byrd) begs a delusional Queen Victoria to create a new police force. The drawn backdrops are flipped from a cemetery scene to the Queen's castle as quickly as the actors shift from hooligan to gentleman. Six actors play twelve characters, so the scenes, based on penny dreadfuls and some more legit lit from the Victorian era, can feel a tad discombobulating at first. But mostly this fast-paced play is a hoot. Wed. 8:30 p.m., Thu. 5:30 p.m., Sat. 7:00 p.m. MCTC Studio. --Molly Priesmeyer
THE THREE STICKS THEATER COMPANY
Mythed invokes the gods of faux naïveté in a musical that seems to blend Monty Python and The Fantasticks. This sweetly scatological Welsh myth brings forth a flower maiden (born of a magician out of a lot of belching and tummy rubbing) who marries a geeky, Welsh-spitting lad, but inevitably falls in love with a macho hunter intent on wiping out the moose population and getting rid of an inconvenient spouse. The excellent cast animates objects such as a malevolent rocking chair and sadistic cuckoo clock, creating witty images out of simple things (fingers as puppets, audience interaction, a miniature theater that is also a keyboard). Fri. 4:00 p.m., Sun. 7:00 p.m. Red Eye. --Linda Shapiro
Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban
NOAH BREMER AND JON FERGUSON WITH THE LIVE ACTION SET
Noah Bremer and Jon Ferguson teamed up with local genre blenders Live Action Set to create a work that should immediately be given an open-ended run. Inspired by a news article about a Baghdad café, this collaboration features Bremer as the charming and innocent owner of an unfortunate eatery located within a war zone. The multitalented cast juggles roles as besieged townspeople, sound-bite-wielding politicians, a conflicted soldier, a rebel, and a grieving mother. Funny, moving, and sometimes even terrifying, Mr. Boban provides an intelligent and provocative response to the violence of our times. Wed. 8:00 p.m., Thu. 8:00 p.m., Fri. 8:00 p.m., Sat. 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Soap Factory. --Caroline Palmer
The President, Once Removed
FIFTY FOOT PENGUIN THEATER
Ari Hoptman's play takes as its source the history of James Garfield's rise to the presidency, his shooting, and the two months it took him to die. Things are played straight, and the all-male cast attains and retains a solid ensemble energy. The show is essentially a string of vignettes, alternately depicting the backroom machinations that brought Garfield and onetime rival Chester "Chet" Arthur to power, then retreating into haunting voice-overs dramatizing Garfield's descent. While it isn't uniformly riveting, it's done with a good deal of intelligence and a generally ace cast. And you'll walk out finally knowing who Chester Arthur was. Sun. 5:30 p.m. Minneapolis Theatre Garage. --Quinton Skinner
The Princeton Seventh
This cerebral story from writer-director James Vculek takes place in a hotel bar in Toledo, Ohio, where a group of bookish misfits has gathered to mark the passing of an obscure poet. Alex Cole plays a crime novelist, James Cada is a writer lauded by the highbrow world, and Ari Hoptman's character changes his personal story with alarming frequency. (Catherine E. Johnson, in one of three Fringe appearances this summer, is a scene stealer as a young strumpet and, later, a kvetching old wife.) What transpires is a somewhat off-putting take on literary celebrity--until Vculek pulls the rug out from under your expectations in Act 2. Thu. 8:00 p.m., Fri. 2:00 p.m. Bryant-Lake Bowl. --Quinton Skinner
Quarter Life Crisis
URBAN SAMURAI PRODUCTIONS
Aaron Christopher's short comedy gives us twentysomething couple Daniel (Nate Hessburg) and Danielle (Emily Blanchard): he a passive nice guy, she psychopathically indecisive. They go out for dinner together and pretty much everything unravels, to the point at which Daniel is prepared to renounce heterosexuality and Danielle wants to get it on with the world at large. It's quite funny in spots, though the characters' histrionics frequently waltz back and forth across the line that separates the amusing from the grating. Recurrent appearances by Christopher himself as a delusional waiter help things along. Fri. 5:30 p.m., Sat. 7:00 p.m. Brave New Workshop. --Quinton Skinner
Sorry, Wrong # Blondie
CENTER FOR PERFORMING ARTS
Perhaps inspired by the great Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz conspiracy, a group of teens connect the dots between Blondie's Parallel Lines and Lucille Fletcher's radio drama about a woman who overhears a phone call detailing a murder. In this hybrid, a Greek chorus of suits in skinny ties à la Blondie's male members antagonizes the hysterical woman in between choreographed lip-synched numbers. Despite a few somewhat appropriate tunes ("Hanging on the Telephone" and "One Way or Another" work well), the production lacks hard evidence of an intentional homage, which is probably the point and which doesn't dampen the outlandish charm of the whole endeavor. Still, the eerily calm "Fade Away and Radiate" following the call is particularly Lynchian. Wed. 2:30 p.m., Fri. 4:00 p.m., Sat. 4:00 p.m. MCTC Whitney Mainstage. --Lindsey Thomas
Two friends convene at a lousy greasy spoon for a bite to eat after the cremation of their best friend. From there, this comedy noir keeps the audience guessing with ample doses of offstage vomit, death, and titanium body implants. Mic Weinblatt directs his own witty script with a deceptively offhand rhythm, getting fine performances all around. Julie Barnes's waitress seems to answer what Flo from Alice would be like with a loaded gun in her hand, while Bud Prescott's underwear-clad dirty old man lends things a filth factor. A spirited and consistently funny production. Thu. 5:30 p.m., Sun. 7:00 p.m. Loring Playhouse. --Quinton Skinner
Three multimedia playlets march steadily forward, from May Mahala's flatly paced Orchid to Molly Balcom's cleverly episodic Preparing for War, in which mashed potatoes and a mouse that roared play significant roles. Last and best is Andreas Levi's Seventeen Witnesses. When a shaky pilot collides with a flock of geese, we hear about it from 17 POVs, including an elegiac Cessna 152, a flock of mock-heroic geese, even some dancing clouds. Levi's inspired script references everything from the mythic pretentiousness of Revenge of the Sith to Aristophanes' trenchant wit, aided and abetted by Liz Wawrzonek's tongue-in-cheek choreography and Adam Sekuler's lyrical video. Sun. 4:00 p.m. Intermedia Arts. --Linda Shapiro
MELISSA BROWN AND DANCERS
Birds are big this summer. Penguins rule the multiplex and now cranes are in the Fringe--or at least people imitating cranes in love. And then there's "Balloon Don't Touch the Ground," in which three dancers wearing bonnets festooned with lamb ears and lion manes scamper about. A duet, "Upon the Cattle Chute, " appears to have been inspired by Temple Grandin's livestock confinement studies. Occasionally Brown considers humans--"The Appetites" depicts corporate types who want to devour the world, but her other works about bipeds are pretty but insubstantial. Brown is at her best when she walks and talks like the animals. Fri. 7:00 p.m., Sat. 10:00 p.m. Intermedia Arts. --Caroline Palmer
What's an Indian Woman to Do?
RAVING NATIVE PRODUCTIONS
The situation surrounding What's an Indian Woman to Do? sounds like either an understudy's ultimate fantasy or her greatest nightmare. Actor Jenn Torres (scheduled to star in this one-woman show) unexpectedly had to drop out, leaving Simone Rendon to take over. Rendon does well portraying Belle, a woman exploring the complexity of her Native American heritage while scheming against her blond, blue-eyed, Ojibwe-speaking nemesis, Katrina. The cleverly written piece brings to light intriguing questions surrounding identity and cultural appropriation. However, during the performance I saw, it was hard to shake the inkling that the role was intended for someone else or that Rendon (understandably) wasn't yet comfortable as Belle--generating identity issues of an entirely different kind. Wed. 5:30 p.m., Fri. 8:30 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m. Interact Theatre. --Erin Adler
Why Actors Can't Love
JUNE 1ST THEATER COMPANY
This short play is an unqualified pleasure. Chloe (Maggie Chestovich) and Patrick (Jim Lichtscheidl) are ex-lovers who meet up in a Chicago hotel room two years after a messy breakup. Chloe is an actress, and in the intervening years Patrick has penned a scathing memoir of her insincerity and shallowness. Soon enough, though, the pair finds there is still a low-key spark between them, and the question of whether they should reunite hangs in the air. The performances are spot-on and appealing, and Allan Staples's script is full of subtlety and laugh-out-loud lines. Terry Hempleman directs the cast to a near-perfect chemistry. Fri. 7:00 p.m., Sat. 2:30 p.m. The Jungle Theater. --Quinton Skinner
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