Once More with Feeling
Your mother always said you were talented. So why aren't you one of the 176 depressive poets, moonlighting A-list actors, poodle trainers, storytellers, avenging angels, funambulists, Bush bashers, and visionaries staging a show at the biggest Fringe Festival in the country?
Last year, my job during the first weekend of the Fringe Festival was to see and review a dozen or so shows. This is not the kind of "job" that one can complain about in a tavern filled, for instance, with coal miners or roustabouts. So I complained a bit at home. There is a limit, I argued, to how much one can be entertained in a single weekend, and that limit must start at about eight plays. After a luckless afternoon of frantically racing from one mediocre show to the next to the next, I started to wonder why these productions were so generously attended when, throughout the rest of the year, better shows often play to crowds of six or seven.
But then I took the once proverbial chill pill and wandered, on a lark, into a rather great Fringe show. And all was forgiven. Every year the Fringe produces new mini-stars of local theater, gives us the chance to welcome some bright out-of-towners, lets established troupes and performers try out new stuff, and, of course, gives a stage to some people who might not deserve it. But looking over the 24 reviews that close our Fringe coverage this year, I see considerably more positive reviews than last year. There are even a few certified raves. Perhaps this indicates nothing. This year there are 176 Fringe productions, so 24 represents less than half of the festival's offerings (I never excelled at mathematics). Maybe our critics were just in a better collective mood than last year. This is, after all, a sunny time in world history, and everyone seems to be singing a cheery tune. Or the increase in good reviews might indicate that the 2004 Fringe is not just bigger but better. Let's go with that theory for now.
THE 2004 MINNESOTA FRINGE FESTIVAL
No, It Makes You Look Phat
Storyteller-Performer Amy Salloway Turns Self-Esteem into High Art
Last year, when Amy Salloway was preparing to debut her self-directed one-woman show Does This Monologue Make Me Look Fat? for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the 37-year-old performer had an oppressive case of the jitters. "I was so horrified--I used every single healing art I could think of," she says over coffee at Dunn Bros. She tried acupuncture, herbs, hypnotism, massage, chiropractic, tarot readings. Nothing worked. After all, the punch-in-the-gut solo piece rested on her struggles with poor body image and rotten self-esteem. Naturally, she feared audiences would hate her.
Instead, they laughed. The show launched her career as a humorist and gave her a much-needed boost in confidence. Soon Salloway was taking time off work to jet across Canada, spreading gut-busting, self-deprecating anecdotes to audiences in Thunder Bay, Vancouver, and Halifax. Call it irony, but the work that stripped naked her loneliness became the very thing connecting her to loads of new, if short-term, friends. After a show in Thunder Bay, a burly lumberjack approached Salloway and kindly asked for a hug. Later, while Google-stalking herself, she found a blogger relating to "the Hamburger Moment," a summary moment during which Salloway comes clean about hating her life.
Accolades for the show surprise Salloway. "I don't ever trust that people will like my show," she explains. "I often assume that people will say, 'Oh my God, what an over-disclosing freak!'" But for Salloway, disclosure was just the thing. The show is filled with accounts of true-life incidents, like the time she tested her boyfriend's love by hypothetically asking for his kidney. He declined, and that relationship quickly crumbled. In another tragicomic episode from the show, Salloway retreats to a body-image workshop, only to stumble into her first same-sex affair.
Salloway bites her lower lip, leans forward and confesses, "I'm so shocked that I turned into somebody who does pieces about sex." But amidst this unease, she maintains an affable presence that invites audiences to laugh at her suffering. One wonders if she'll ever let the show's success soak in a little. "I've lived with low self-esteem for so long; it's just ingrained," she says. So, rather than gloat over her newfound acceptance, Salloway is busy procrastinating on making the changes she has in mind for the show's reprise at this year's Fringe. It's "a tremendous, huge, burning goal" yet to be fulfilled. This fuels her current bout of self-loathing: "I'm undecided and stuck about the changes I want to make," she sighs. "It's possible they won't happen." --Christy DeSmith
Does This Monologue Make Me Look Fat?
Jungle Theater, Aug. 6, 4:00 p.m.; Aug. 7, 2:30 p.m.; Aug. 9, 7:00 p.m.; Aug. 10, 5:30 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.; Aug. 12, 2:30 p.m.; Aug. 14, 2:30 p.m.
Shut Your Pie Hole, Beav!
Jim Lichtscheidl Debuts His Silent Sitcom
Jim Lichtscheidl, whose surname was once privately called "very difficult to spell" by the present writer, is a very funny guy. Loose-limbed and in command of a troop of smartly exaggerated facial expressions, Lichtscheidl is the kind of actor who can make you laugh before he even opens his trap, which, as we will see, bodes well for his show at this year's Fringe. He recently earned yuks as the police sergeant in The Pirates of Penzance at the Guthrie Theater, where he has frequently worked since 1998. He also excelled earlier this year in Ten Thousand Things' mirthful reading of Kevin Kling's At Your Service. You may also have seen him over the years at Park Square, Theatre in the Round, or at Brave New Workshop, where he first started to get noticed. (None of the above is meant to suggest that Lichtscheidl is strictly a comedic actor--his turn as Tuzenbach in the Guthrie's Three Sisters was low-key and pensive, while his take on Lear's fool in a Ten Thousand Things production was both ridiculous and trenchant.)
At this year's Fringe, Lichtscheidl stars in a work of his own creation, Knock!, a family comedy centered on Toehead, a 12-year-old boy beloved by his parents and harassed by his older sister. The character is not entirely unlike a younger version of the show's yellow-haired lead, who grew up in Lino Lakes with four older sisters, one of whom, Lisa Spreeman, is playing Toehead's older sister in Knock!
Lichtscheidl is a self-described TV baby, and he calls the show a "theatrical sitcom." "In my mind," he says over lunch at Cafe Barbette, "I see it as a TV show, but I always want to have a live audience." The hour-long show is broken into two episodes: "The Family Pyramid" (the pilot episode, as it were) and "The Love Note," in which Toehead gets his first billet-doux. Unlike TV sitcoms, though, Knock contains no dialogue, and conveys its plots through movement, pantomime, and music by Herb Alpert, exotica composer Esquivel, and others. Knock!'s debut is being presented by leading musical-theater company Theater Latté Da, whose artistic director Peter Rothstein is co-directing the show with Lichtscheidl. Rothstein was out of town for some of the rehearsal period, however, so Lichtscheidl has been honing his craft through his usual method of religiously watching rehearsal videos. "When people find out how much I watch myself on video, they say, 'Oh, you're so vain.' But actually I find watching myself to be excruciating. So it's not about vanity, it's about exacting the science of physical comedy." --Dylan Hicks
Loring Playhouse, Aug. 8, 8:30 p.m.; Aug. 10, 5:30 p.m.; Aug. 12, 8:30 p.m.; Aug. 13, 5:30 p.m.; Aug. 15, 2:30 p.m.
Rick and Andy Ausland
"For some reason, whenever I bang on a bucket, people go crazy," Andy Ausland says.
Later, Andy and his brother Rick will head downtown to bang on five-gallon paint buckets outside the Metrodome. As part of their street performance, the brothers play a few nights a week for roaming downtown crowds high on hook-up hopes and Twins wins. And unlike the poor dude wailing on a sax who might get a stroll-by nod or sympathetic smile, entire crowds gather around the two brothers on most nights to watch them beat on upside-down buckets. "There's gotta be a release when the tension builds," Rick says, "and there's nothing like beating on a bucket to relieve tension."
The brothers view their performance as a means of injecting a peaceful groove into downtown's rowdy get-your-drink-on atmosphere. Without some spiritual bucketing, after all, downtown could burst from the heavy saturation of girls stumbling around in three-tiered minis and catcalling triple-titled entrepreneur/club promoter/ open-shirted dudes. "But those are the people who need it the most," Andy offers.
Despite their desire to spread the love through a beat, the Auslands have been hassled by some passersby unwilling to embrace the one-love vibe. One time, a burly dude on a motorcycle yelled for the brothers to stop playing because, as they surmise, he likes to work in silence when he macks on girls. He told them to get a real job, to get off their butts and work with steel for $12 an hour. "I'm like, I don't really work with steel," Rick says. "I bang on buckets, man."
The Auslands also have been tap dancing since childhood, and incorporate their street music with tap as part of their 10 Foot Five performance group. The brothers, along with an ensemble of musicians and dancers, will be performing Buckets and Tap Shoes at Brave New Workshop as part of the Fringe Festival. Their work has also allowed them to tap all over the world, including Finland and Ecuador, where they performed at midnight during an all-night rave party with pyrotechnics.
The brothers contend that their style of dance is closer to the communicative, African-American roots of tap than to the painted-on-smile stuff out of Hollywood or glitzy musicals. But just because the Auslands' style has a street edge, it shouldn't be mistaken for Aw, Stomp! You Got Served! Bring on Da Noise, Sucka! For them, it's more about serving up the love. "It's fun to make noise with five-gallon paint buckets and watch an entire room dancing and clapping," Rick says. "Life is a beautiful thing." Dude, you just got served. --Molly Priesmeyer
Buckets and Tap Shoes
Brave New Workshop, Aug. 7, 2:30 p.m.; Aug. 9, 10:00 p.m.; Aug. 10, 8:30 p.m.; Aug. 12, 7:00 p.m.; Aug. 14, 7:00 p.m.
With the Greatest of Unease
Risa Cohen Helps Craft an Airborne Fairy Tale
From plummeting angels in Milton's Paradise Lost to thrill-seeking bungee jumpers, bodies hurtling through space mesmerize us groundlings. Perhaps it's the frisson of danger mingled with the illusion of free fall that has made aerialists the rock stars of circus.
Today, however, many aerial artists are stretching beyond the ta-da of big top culture into the realm of contemporary dance. Witness the growing number of aerial dance troupes from Vermont to Argentina, encompassing everything from Cirque du Soleil's lavish spectacles to choreographer Elizabeth Streb's gutsy amalgam of dance and extreme sports. Locally, several dance makers are taking to the air with the most serious of intentions.
Choreographer Risa Cohen's airborne fairy tale The Angel and the Tower, created in collaboration with Circus Juventas and premiering at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, explores the angst of a man imprisoned in a tower. Searching for an angel, he's finally seduced by Humanity (i.e., physical and emotional risk). "I'm trying to pull modern dance into circus arts," says Cohen. "For me, modern dance lacks gravity-defying athleticism, and circus lacks poetic expression."
At a recent rehearsal in a very hot and sweaty gym at John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Cohen and five of her performers lock limbs with apparatus including a rope and harness, aerial hoops, and long swatches of fabric known as "tissue." "The group is more like a collective," says Cohen. "I'm just the facilitator, the one who ties it all together and gets it onstage."
Dancers Denise Armstead and Bill Gladen work on a duet for rope and harness. Gladen sweeps through space in a rock-climber harness attached to a free swinging rope, while Armstead scrambles around him on the floor. "It's about the power dynamic in a relationship," says Cohen. "Does the harness allow you more freedom or hold you in? Is the freestanding person more or less in control?" Later, Cohen, as the angel, climbs the tissue (read: tower), smoothly wrapping the fabric around various parts of her body, then dropping precipitously toward the mat. "Dance is finding the humanity in the tricks," says Cohen. "Even the thrill of the drop, a standard routine in circus, takes on another dimension. You're vulnerable--there's an emotional feeling when you fall, which must be communicated."
Additional performers in the show include members of Circus Juventas, professional acrobats and aerialists, fire dancers, trapeze artists, and a Big Ten Gymnast of the Year fresh from a stint at San Diego's Sea World. "I'm aiming at a theatrical arc that spans the playful, the seductive, the thought-provoking," says Cohen. Whatever the upcoming performances bring, Cohen and her collaborators have certainly generated a petri dish in the sky where fresh ideas can gestate and multiply. --Linda Shapiro
The Angel and the Tower
The Ice House, Aug. 13, 8:30 p.m.; Aug.14, 2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.; Aug. 15, 2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Unlike other Fringes, the Minnesota Fringe is an unjuried festival; the selection process is strictly first-come-first-served. Perhaps, then, what most unites this year's nearly 200 Fringe producers is that they're all reasonably punctual. The festival might tap into some kind of zeitgeist each year, but there isn't really a Fringe aesthetic, unless we're just missing what links The Booty Cruise to Seussical the Musical (possible answers: the English language, bipedal performers, free pickles at the door). Certainly Fringe shows aren't exclusively or even dominantly what we might honestly call fringe-y, though we feel that a core outsider mentality, or at least an active sense of whimsy, should and does remain at the heart of the festival. With that in mind, we asked some of our writers to pick a theater artist, from any time in history, who somehow represents one or several unofficial Fringe tenets. --Dylan Hicks
1. Be Iconoclastic and Flamboyant
Jack Smith's 24-Hour Performance Art
In 1993, I saw Jack Smith channeled by the late actor Ron Vawter at Walker Art Center's Out There series. Though I'd lived in New York in the '60s, when Smith was at the peak of his flamboyant-gay-artiste fame, I had no idea who he was. In that performance, written by Smith and Gary Indiana, Vawter lounged on a ratty settee like some louche odalisque, fiddling with a schlocky Egyptian headdress and the strands of dime-store beads that festooned his bare chest. Here was a man about to crawl out of his skin. A mass of tics and half-completed gestures, he drifted through fantastic monologues, discarding narrative coherence as easily as he peeled off a bevy of wardrobe accessories. Lines like "Cheap jewelry is always crumbling off me" stung with the shock of the familiar. Wow, me too! I thought.
Smith, who died in 1989, teetered on the edge of New York's underground art scene of the '60s. A protean trickster inhabiting a range of colorful personas, he made outrageous movies and created live performances in his loft. Flaming Creatures, his best-known film, features a demimonde of drag queens and transvestites indulging in an orgy of Hollywood kitsch, complete with schmaltzy Orientalia, vampirism, and transgressive Dionysian revels. The film, which featured many of Andy Warhol's veteran performers, eventually became embroiled in a major censorship battle. A section of the 1968 congressional record described it as "five unrelated and badly filmed sequences [featuring]...homosexuals dancing together and other disconnected erotic activity."
But his films are only part of the story. Smith was a performance artist before we had heard of such creatures, and his performing instinct informed his entire stylized and completely discombobulated life (the congressional record got that part right). The art of total transformation was certainly his. Warhol described working with Smith, who performed in Warhol's 1964 film Dracula Batman: "He claimed that as he put his makeup on, he was slowly transforming himself, letting his soul pass out through his eyes into the mirror and back into him as Dracula, and he had this theory about how everyone was 'vampirical' to an extent because they 'made unreasonable demands.'"
Describing a performance by his idol, the '40s B-movie actress Lola Montez, Smith enthused, "The Miraculous One was raging and flaming. Those are the standards for art." Right back at ya, Jack. --Linda Shapiro
2. Be a Crazy Genius or Just Plain Crazy
The Puzzling Brilliance of Robert "Romeo" Coates, World's Worst Actor
The Minnesota Fringe Festival, being an admirably democratic institution, is as welcoming of stage-tested professionals as it is of amateurs of limited technical acumen. This is not, however, why I have chosen Robert Coates, history's most (in)famously bad actor, as my Fringe Ancestor. I'm convinced that he was a genius--a mad or even unwitting genius, perhaps, but a genius nonetheless.
Coates was born in 1772 in Antigua, where he spent much of his life. The son of an exceedingly wealthy sugar planter, Coates inherited buckets of cash and the family plantation, but had no head for business. By most accounts, he had no head for acting either, but that didn't stop him, at almost 50 years of age, from pursuing a second career as a thespian. In 1809, Coates landed in Bath, England, and within days was scheduled to appear as the male lead in Romeo and Juliet. For the production, he appeared in a costume of his own design. In Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow, Rees Howell Gronow, a Coates contemporary who called the actor "as strange a being as any that ever appeared in English society," describes Coates's costume: "In a cloak of sky-blue silk, profusely spangled, red pantaloons, a vest of white muslin, surmounted by an enormously thick cravat, and a wig à la Charles the Second, capped by an opera hat, he presented one of the grotesque spectacles ever witnessed upon the stage." To heighten the comedy, Coates's very tight red pantaloons ripped at the seat during the performance, exposing, again according to Gronow, "a quantity of white linen sufficient to make a Bourbon flag."
The performance itself was just as eccentric. During one of Juliet's speeches, Coates took the opportunity to snort a pinch of snuff. When an audience member asked if Coates would share his tobacco, the actor gallantly brought the snuffbox into the house. He delivered a soliloquy in a whisper inaudible past the front row. He changed lines at will, on the grounds that he was improving on the script. He spoke in a rhythm seemingly unrelated to the meaning of the words. And for Romeo's death, Coates carefully prepared his deathbed and then took several minutes to give up the ghost in ludicrously overdone fashion. "Die again, Romeo," yelled one wag in the crowd, a request Coates obliged--twice, going through the same protracted motions each time.
Performances such as this made Robert "Romeo" Coates, as he came to be known, a celebrity. Audiences flocked to see the man known as the world's worst actor. He was just as famous offstage. He always wore outlandish, diamond-encrusted clothes, and rode in a scallop-shell-shaped carriage that bore a coat of arms of a cock-a-doodle-dooing rooster along with the message "Whilst I Live I'll Crow." What was most puzzling about Coates, though, was that he never suggested that his act (or his life) was a joke. Quite the contrary. He claimed to be a great actor, and by all reports his love of Shakespeare and the theater was genuine and deeply held. Though he indulged odd requests from the crowd, he was sometimes obviously hurt when the groundlings took the heckling and fruit throwing too far. During one performance, he interrupted a performance to recite a poem of his own composition that attacked his critics, and drew a standing ovation for the interlude.
In his amusing Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck, Paul Collins writes that "Robert Coates...in utter innocence, invented Camp." To be sure, whether the actor was a sadly oblivious goof or an incredibly dedicated prankster, he seems to have predicted a great many modern art forms and phenomena: performance art, anti-celebrity, Andy Kaufman-style comedy, outsider art, The Gong Show. He was a pioneer. He died in 1848 when he was run over by a hansom cab. If you're having a drink after one of this year's Fringe shows, crow once for Romeo Coates. --Dylan Hicks
3. Make Plays Not War
Grabbing a Snack and Smashing the State with Maxine Klein
Though she has an Obie Award lying around her Minneapolis home, has collaborated with both Tyrone Guthrie and Howard Zinn, and was once called "perfect" by arbiter of perfection the New York Times, playwright-director-activist-academic Maxine Klein has no interest in resting in the plush confines that her theatrical and scholarly laurels might justify. Her platform remains a soapbox, a street corner, a public protest, and hole-in-the-wall theaters with broken folding chairs and no heat. Here, Klein is at home. Here she speaks for the rights of the poor and powerless. To do otherwise would contradict everything she has fought her whole life.
I met up with the Mother of all Michael Moores in the house of Minneapolis's experimental Bedlam Theater, where she was rehearsing. (Full disclosure: I first met Klein when she was casting an early run of Ambush at the Bedlam Theater. This piece reflects gems that have fallen from Maxine's mouth over a period of time--it's not often that you get to work with one of your heroes.) Klein acknowledges me while swallowing something unidentifiable slathered in hummus. While exhaling to say hello, she also inadvertently launches a veritable artillery of crumbs and chickpea matter.
"What captivates me is what I see happening in the real world," says Klein, impatiently pushing her silvery bangs out of her eyes. "A work must show people struggling for change, not holding on to their little piles of power. Today's critical playwright is too often pressured, coerced, influenced, and seduced into supporting the status quo in form and content. The artist is shackled, the audience is robbed, the theater impoverished."
A retrospective of Klein's directorial accolades includes the Boston premiere of Emma by Howard Zinn, with whom she also co-authored Playbook. Approaching Simone hit the boards in 1969, in turn bringing the Obie to Klein. As a playwright, Klein deals with elements of America that are terrorizing in and of themselves, and masterfully tempers her activist passion with mirth. With her recent endeavor, Ambush, Klein scripted a dark comedy satirizing the potential and current ramifications of the Patriot Act.
Klein's pursuits on the fringes of the political theater span over half a century and include more than 100 productions. But despite her accomplishments, self-satisfaction is a literal impossibility for Klein. "Satisfaction leads to complacency, with which I would be immensely dissatisfied," she says. When asked how she got her start, she says, "With the truth. Art does imitate life. Life can be a bed of roses, but it is not enough to admire a bouquet or to be enamored by the promise of the bloom. Be aware of the thorns, my dear. Be aware of the thorns. We all bleed. After all, peace, like war, has a price." --Katherine Preble
4. Be a Cocky Bigmouth
How Marivaux Wagered His Way into the Canon
Imagine the romance of playwriting. Shakespeare wanders London with a quill in hand. Albee writes as a birthday gift to himself. Tennessee Williams lies about his age to get his first major funding. Now...forget it. Pierre Carlet de Chamblain did. By 1712, the dawdling, twentysomething son of a financier found himself flunking out of the renowned Faculty of Law of Paris. He spent his time freeloading (as post-Renaissance young men were wont to do) and attending literary salons hosted by wealthy dilettantes. At one such rendezvous, attendees were exalting the rare genius of comic writers, including the recently departed Molière. Unmoved by the tributes, Pierre declared that this kind of writing wasn't difficult. The salon scoffed and dared him to try it. Three days later he brought back The Prudent and Equitable Father, or, Crispin the Happy Scoundrel. He'd composed the short farce in rhymed verse, just to ensure that he'd win the bet. Though many passages were clearly lifted from a play enjoying a popular run at the time, all agreed that young Pierre had talent. The play survives; the salon's consensus is debatable. Contemporary critic Jean d'Alembert later noted the play is a "chrysalis...from which trained eyes can comb out under a microscope the kernel of his talents and flaws." Pierre never sought out a production, not eager "to lose in public the wager he'd won in private," and the play was published anonymously. None of these seem like ringing endorsements. It would be a decade before Pierre wrote another play, though by then he'd published several novels under the name by which we know him today: Marivaux. Despised by most zealots of good taste for his pomposity, his public aversion to Molière (his favorite times to bad-mouth the adored dramatist were while rehearsing with the very same troupe that had made Molière famous), and his appearance of indiscretion with his leading lady, Marivaux would write 30 plays in 30 years (including The Triumph of Love, performed at the Guthrie in 1991). He remains the most produced native playwright in France--after Molière, of course, surely to Pierre's chagrin. So if you're thinking about producing your own work at next year's Fringe, disabuse yourself of the romance of playwriting. Make a bet. --Matt DiCintio
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