Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review - Waiting For Waiting For Godot - Loudmouth Collective - What Are We Waiting For? - 3 stars

If the comedy title Waiting For Waiting For Godot makes you giggle, then Loudmouth Collective’s current production of that play at Open Eye Figure Theater is just the play for you.  If, like me, that title makes you roll your eyes, then it probably isn’t the play for you.  (This pains me, because I’ve liked both the other productions I’ve seen from Loudmouth - Fuddy Meers, and A Bright New Boise - a lot.  This, sadly, missed making it three in a row.)

“Why must the show go on?”

I hasten to add - there’s not a single thing wrong with Loudmouth’s production.  The cast of Sam Landman, Gabriel Murphy and Sulia Rose Altenberg are all just as good as you would expect them to be - by which I mean, very good, very gifted comic performers, who always deliver their best work no matter what project they’re in, making bad plays bearable and great plays even greater.  The same can be said of the directing skills of Matt Sciple - he always gives a script his best, any play is better off for having him at the helm.  The production team also nails it, particularly Meagan Kedrowski’s set and props, which create a perfect little backstage world littered with clothes, props, fake bits of scenery, costume renderings, old show posters and production shots that seems just like the green room environment a lot of actors spend their time waiting around in at one point or another in their careers.  (And, since it’s a riff on Waiting For Godot, I love the bare coat tree at the back of the room, a nice wink to the tree of the original.)  Megan Winter’s lights, Mary C. Woll’s costumes, Rosemary G. Hartunian Alumbaugh’s sound - all are just right, not overdoing it, but also not leaving any prime opportunity to make the show look and sound better unmined.  Since we regularly break the fourth wall here, even stage manager Elizabeth Stauble gets in on the act, in addition to her regular duties of making sure the whole thing runs smoothly.

“This is a very difficult show to do.  No one even knows what it means.”

The problem, for me, is the play.  Now, everyone around me was thoroughly enjoying themselves, so I probably just need to lighten up, turn off my brain and just let the jokes hit me.  But comedy that is dependent on either the characters being stupid, or the audience being stupid, just makes me cross. And for the most part, that’s all the comedy you get in Waiting For Waiting For Godot.  Thus, my confession at the top that this play just isn’t for me.

“Acting is easy.  They let anyone do it.”

The conceit of the piece is that there are two long-suffering, endlessly patient understudies for the two lead roles in a production of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic Waiting For Godot.  Ester (Landman) and Val (Murphy) wait in the green room, in costume, in the hopes that I guess an actor will suddenly become ill, have a family emergency, get a lighting instrument dropped on their head, or just on a whim of the director they will be yanked offstage and the understudy will go on in their place for the rest of the show, which has already begun.  Periodically, the assistant stage manager Laura (Altenberg) will wander backstage to engage them in conversation.  Like the perpetually expectant but disappointed characters in the real play, these understudies have a long wait ahead of them.  And that’s the gag.  I get it.

“Do not speak to me of God.  I gave up on him years ago.”

This is probably one of those plays where non-theater people see it and think, “Boy, I’ll bet people who work in theater get an even bigger kick out of this because they get all the inside jokes.”  But if you’re actually a person who’s worked in theater in any capacity, you just sit there thinking, “No, that’s not how it works.  And that’s not how that happens either.  And that’s just perpetuating an unhelpful and misleading stereotype.  And… argh!!!!”  Or at least that was my internal monologue watching it.  In a past professional life, I spent a number of years working as a stage manager.  I’ve dealt with understudies.  There are countless actors that have been part of, and continue to pass through, my life.  They all deserve better treatment than this.

“We were dark yesterday.”
“I’m dark most days.”

Is life in the theater absurd?  Yes.  Is an understudy’s role an often thankless and little rewarded one?  Certainly.  Do artists in general and actors in particular frequently do things that are perfect fodder for comedy or satire?  Absolutely.  There is a rich vein of material, grounded in the facts and details of real life and human psychology, that could make for an exceptional comedy.  Even with this basic premise.  The playwright Dave Hanson instead goes for cheap jokes and easy targets, dumbing his characters and the play down to a level I’m sure he expects an audience can better appreciate.  But every time you make a character behave in the way a real person would never do, just to get a laugh, you insult your character, the person on which they’re based, and your audience.  So I don’t laugh.

“No one actually *goes* to Julliard.”

Again, I should probably just lighten up and enjoy Sam Landman and Gabriel Murphy doing physical comedy together.  I should revel in Landman skewering every pompous, fame-hungry actor who didn’t bother to do their homework.  I should be tickled by Sulia Rose Altenberg putting the other actors in their place, and doing her dramatic performance of calling light cues.  They’re all very good at what they do, and they’re working very hard to serve up the laughs.  If you can shut off your brain and just enjoy Waiting For Waiting For Godot for the dumb comedy it is, then more power to you.

“What kind of people wait around for a promise that doesn’t come?”

But because the play is echoing, and frankly drafting behind, a much better play, I frankly expect this play to up its own game and be better.  But it’s not.  I’m not one of those people who sits thinking, “How dare you sully Beckett’s great masterpiece!”  If you’ve got the balls to go there, by all means, have at it.  But don’t settle for being derivative.  Bring something new, your own unique perspective, to the conversation.  Writers are constantly being inspired by storytellers that came before them.  Shakespeare himself “stole” some of his best material from other sources.  But he took that raw material and made it his own, made it better.  I was waiting for something better to come along here.  It never arrived.

3 stars - Recommended

(l to r: Gabriel Murphy, Sam Landman, and Sulia Rose Altenberg in Loudmouth Collective's production of Waiting For Waiting For Godot; Justin D. Gallo Photography)

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Review - Dirty Story - Phoenix Theater - The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict As Sadomasochistic Love Story? - 4 stars

Right up front I just have to say I feel woefully under-qualified, under-read, and under-informed to comment on this play, and yet it’s what I signed on for when I agreed to come and see it.  So, here we go - John Patrick Shanley’s Dirty Story. You probably know Shanley better for either his Oscar-winning script for the romantic comedy film Moonstruck, or his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play Doubt: A Parable.  Here, he’s tackling the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. (And I just lost you, didn’t I?  Maybe I lost you at the title of this post.)

“You ever feel like the old tricks ain’t working?”

Aspiring writer Wanda (Mikaela Kurpierz) goes to renowned writer Brutus (Brandon Holscher) for advice, and gets a discouraging earful of it.  Not discouraged, however, sometime later she joins him for dinner at his place, a loft to which her family also has a connection.  Brutus is an equally rude host, but for some reason Wanda really gets off on the abuse, and the opportunity to hurl it back.  One thing leads to another and suddenly they’re role-playing - she’s wearing a frilly dress and flowing blond wig and tied to a ladder, he’s threatening her with a chainsaw.  Yet when her former boyfriend Frank (Christopher Kent) tries to rescue her, she’s irate and very plain about the fact that she can handle this sadomasochistic relationship without any help from him.  Just before intermission, she declares that her new name is Israel.  And things just get weirder and more allegorical from there.

“If history were about justice, we’d all be on the streets.”

Act Two just flat out places the actors and their characters in the roles of countries or populations tied up in the Middle Eastern conflict.  Wanda is now Israel, Brutus is the Palestinians, Frank is America, and his pal Watson (Andy Josephson) is the United Kingdom.  Wanda is occupying Brutus’ loft, claiming her birthright. Brutus resists being partitioned off into smaller and smaller sections of the place he calls home.  Frank and Watson keep trying to adjudicate the mess and end up making it worse.  The political satire of act two is a little easier to take than the screwy sexual politics of act one but honestly, you’re either on board with Dirty Story, or you’re not.  There’s no middle ground.  Anyone with a strong personal opinion about either side of this issue is going to find a lot to hate and love in Dirty Story.

“One day I’m going to stop apologizing, then watch out.”

Shanley didn’t write this play because it was easy.  Director Denzel Belin and his actors and the Arts Nest Fledgling Program at Phoenix Theater didn’t choose to produce this play because it was easy.  Nobody attends this play because they’re expecting it to be easy.  Dirty Story’s saving grace is that it’s uncomfortably funny.  Really uncomfortable, but still funny. 

“I can’t take my eyes off the spectacle of the world passing me by.”

The thing Dirty Story probably does best is makes one realize how very little one knows about the ongoing troubles in the Middle East.  I understand that a lot of people don’t need to feel like they have command of the facts about a situation before forming really strong opinions.  Personally, I don’t feel like I should be getting really upset about the way Dirty Story portrays anything or anyone until I understand the players involved a little better. 

“You have to care, Frank.  It’s the only thing that keeps you from being a monster.”

Don’t get me wrong, I follow the news (as much as the news follows things that happen in the Middle East).  Unlike Shanley, I don’t feel like I have a solid foundation of knowledge and research I’d need to even write an essay, much less a play, much less a comedy, about an issue this thorny.  It’s almost obscene to think of sitting here offering opinions from a position of relative peace, safety and privilege, about a situation where people are dying on a daily basis and still trying to go about the rituals of their everyday lives.  But then, of course, we’re not talking about the problem at all.  And on it goes.

“Brought to life in the blood-soaked garden of world guilt.”

Shanley’s Dirty Story is at least trying to talk about the problem.  You can quarrel with the method, but its intentions are good.  And if it gets some bewildered people in the audience (myself included) to scurry off and do some reading and engage their political representatives about the issue, then it will have done some real good.  If you want to see a group of actors throw themselves fearlessly at difficult material and wring some strange laughs out of it, then Dirty Story is your ticket. (playing Friday/Saturday 9/9 and 9/10 at 7:30pm, Sunday 9/11 at 2pm at Phoenix Theater)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(poster for Dirty Story at Phoenix Theater - l to r: Christopher Kent, Mikaela Kurpierz, Brandon Holscher and Andy Josephson)

Review - The River - Walking Shadow - Love’s A Messy Thing - 4 stars

Walking Shadow seems to delight in producing plays that it’s almost impossible to talk about without spoiling the plot (or plot twist), and Jez Butterworth’s The River is no exception.  Still, I’ll give it a shot.  Perhaps the safest place to start is with the way Walking Shadow describes the play:

On a moonless night in August, a man brings his new girlfriend to the remote family cabin where he has come for the fly fishing since he was a boy. Will she be the perfect catch -- or the one that got away? A bewitching story about how even our most intimate moments are shaped by the ghosts of the past, from the author of Jerusalem and Mojo.

This is the second time Walking Shadow and director Amy Rummenie have gone to the Butterworth well.  His first major success, Mojo, got the Walking Shadow treatment back in 2010.  Mojo was a very different play - all male, steeped in violence.  Part of my struggle with that play at the time was that the characters were all so completely clueless about their emotions that the opportunity for growth and change was slim.  Here, in The River, you have characters so consumed by and in thrall to their emotions that they’re almost doomed from the start to being overwhelmed and swept away by them.

“I am not entirely sure what love is.”

The man of The River is Andrew Erskine Wheeler, who played the pastor in the recent Walking Shadow production of The Christians (which blew me away in a way few other pieces of theater have done this year).  Wheeler is equally good here in a very different role.  He’s matched in intensity by the two main women of the play, portrayed by Emily Grodzik and Elizabeth Efteland.  These three characters all want love so badly, it’s hard not to root for at least one of them to find it.  Who that’s going to be shifts rather radically over the course of the play’s ninety minute run time.

“Why is her face scratched out?  Why is her dress still here?”

But the play often had me nervous for reasons I’m not entirely sure either the writer or the theater might want me to be.  Blame it on popular culture if you like, but it’s hard not to worry when a man takes a woman to a remote cabin and always has a rather forbidding looking hunting knife on his person.  Toss on top of that the fact that the man always seems haunted by another woman regardless of the one he’s with at any given moment.  Then, just for perverse fun, the writer throws in a reference to Ted Hughes (not a spoiler, but see: Sylvia Plath).  It’s a good reference, and a good poem (read in its entirety I might add).  The play, and the characters,  lean pretty hard on that poem, and even harder on another by William Butler Yeats but it’s a little difficult to understand why.  The rest of the script, Butterworth’s own words, and the performances are so good, the poems hardly seem necessary.

“I always find pictures or photographs unbearably sad.”

The River is one of the better plays about love I’ve seen in a while (I was about to say specifically heterosexual love, but with the focus they have, the translation here is pretty direct across the spectrum of sexuality).  And not love as manifested in a relationship with a plot so much as just that big, unwieldy emotion of love itself - the need, the desire, the ache, the way one willingly deludes oneself into thinking you can ever fully escape your romantic past and not have it somehow taint your relationships in the present.  This isn’t generic love.  It’s quite specific, and those details matter.  The surrender involved is both intoxicating and frightening.  Can we avoid making the same mistakes over and over?  Probably only if we’re willing to identify them and own them.

“I want you to know that I am only with them because I am not with you.”

The River is (thankfully) not about a serial killer.  The River is also not a piece of science fiction.  It’s a play that, rightly, refuses to explain itself, because it’s about the unexplainable.  The human heart is a stubborn and fragile thing.  The River, better than any other play I can think of, manages to nail that terrifying but exhilarating feeling of freefall that happens when you abandon yourself to love.  If you stop and think about it, even for a second, you’d go running in the other direction.  It’s that point in a relationship where you either sign on for the wild ride, or walk away.  Neither choice is ever easy.  Neither is The River.  But it’s a play that doesn’t let you go. (runs through September 17, 2016 at Open Eye Figure Theater)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo by Dan Norman; Emily Grodzik and Andrew Erskine Wheeler in The River)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Review - Boiling Point - A Different Sort of Ladies’ Night - 4 stars

It occurs to me thinking back over the five acts that make up Fire Drill’s latest curatorial effort Boiling Point bringing together local and visiting multidisciplinary performing artists, “This is probably the kind of thing people who have never been to the Minnesota Fringe Festival think the Fringe is.”  All five performers - Jill Flanagan (from Chicago), Pedro Pablo Lander (Minneapolis), HIJACK (Minneapolis), Lazer Vortex (Minneapolis), and Lorene Bouboushian (New York City) are all fairly “out there” either in terms of what they’re presenting to the audience, or how they’re presenting it.  Unlike previous Fire Drill hosting events, Boiling Point is lighter on the spoken word and dance side of things and more on the performance art end of the spectrum (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Another thing that occurred to me is that, as a gay man, I’m probably encountering the bodies in most of these pieces in a different way than, say, any woman or a straight man might.  For want of a more delicate way of phrasing it, I don’t tend to see a lot of breasts or vaginas up close and personal as I move through my life.  Three of the acts in Boiling Point certainly fixed that.  Whereas other audience members probably approach the flesh on display with either an air of familiarity or even titillation, I found myself being reminded, “Oh, right, that’s what one of those looks like.”

Revisiting the press release after experiencing the art can be very illuminating.  Our opener Jill Flanagan is couched in these phrases:

Isn’t it just like a woman to be mischievous, impetuous, and impulsive, to want the freedom to do what she likes?  Chicago-based performance and noise artist Jill Flanagan (Forced Into Femininity) thinks so, and she’ll spread her twisted hysterical ideology with a little soft shoe routine and some jazz standards.

Noise artist, that’s a very useful label.  In the moment, I kept thinking, “Why is that death metal/industrial noise so loud?”  It was so consistently loud - and constantly present - that it had to be a choice.  It also drove a couple of children with sensitive ears outside until the cacophony let up and Jill was done.  Jill was also very transgressive in her use of space and the audience - quite literally climbing over the top of people and pushing her way through the assembled crowd.  The decibel level was so high that, even bellowing at the top of her lungs into a microphone, a lot of the time you couldn’t make out what she was singing or why (and again, this felt deliberate). 

Identifying herself as a trans woman in the piece, Jill had drawn in some cleavage for herself, but made it clear early on that the drawn-in cleavage was redundant.  She whipped out a breast and let it flap around as she sashayed and ran about the space.  All this may sound like a sort of assault on the audience, but that wasn’t Jill’s game.  Jill regularly made it clear that she appreciated the audience being present (and needed them present) in order to tell a part of her story.  While unapologetic and by no means shy, Jill’s strategy was nonetheless to draw in rather than repel her spectators.

Local performer Pedro Pablo Lander gets this set up:

Choreographer and performer Pedro Pablo Lander, who comes to the Twin Cities by way of Caracas, Venezuela and Winona, Minnesota, will share a new work with a soundscore by Joyce Liza Rada Lindsay. Lander will mine “the history within this body, the violent, misogynist, toxic masculinity...the femme, the masc, both, neither, all, the queer, the fantasy, she, he, me.”

The way this concept was manifested was with Lander in a dress, long hair flowing, at the top of the piece.  An older woman behind him soon asserted herself as a disapproving mother figure.  No sooner had Lander accented his face with makeup and styled his hair than the mother figure stepped in to correct him.  Their dance was a fight for dominance, which the mother figure ultimately won.  Soon the hair was restored to something less feminine in style, Lander’s head dunked in a bucket of water and the makeup roughly smeared off his face.  After redressing Lander in men’s clothes, she stepped aside as if her work was done.  Lander had the last word, however, using neckties for a purpose she didn’t suspect.

Local dance duo HIJACK are described as follows:

Minneapolis-based HIJACK, the collaboration of Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder, will present a new dance: Yet another Aftermath. Of escalators of disco lights of uncles of labia of dignity.

Van Loon and Wilder’s piece was easily the one that was the most purely movement-based of the presentations - dance for dance’s sake, if you will.  Unlike a number of the free-wheeling offerings, HIJACK’s moves were all tightly controlled and focused.  There was no feeling of improv.  And like a performer whispering, their highly detailed work made me lean in more to catch the nuances and differences in movement as the piece progressed.  Couldn’t tell you how the escalators factor in, but the disco lights were charming, and as in all instances of female empowerment that night, the labia, though not on public display here, could be nothing but dignified. 

Another Minneapolis-based performance artist, Lazer Vortex, had this write-up:

Minneapolis-based performer, video maker, nightlife wizard, and dancer Lazer Vortex, who makes work that is both campy and reverent, will share a new piece that asks: What does healing look like in an endlessly oppressive world? How do we embody utopias? In this work, psychic warfare requires a very sharp psychic sword.

You know you’re in for it when during preset the artist asks, quite innocently, “Uh, where’s the ax?”  The ax was found and placed among the Lazer Vortex’s other props.  Lazer Vortex’s initial costume was just a lot of strategically placed criss-crossing electrical tape - purple, if my eyes weren’t deceiving me.  With Euro-pop blasting in the background, Laser Vortex (is Lazer her first name in this context? should I call them Mx. Vortex?)… Anyway, Lazer Vortex removed most of the tape and gradually moved on to a different outfit.  This was a fitted clear plastic shroud of sorts, also held together with electrical tape (the kind of piping you’d consider frosting on their gingerbread person silhouette).

Lazer Vortex’s co-star in the piece was a sort of baby walker contraption, though not so much a contraption a baby could walk in as just kind of rock and wobble back and forth in.  A way to keep your baby in place and upright, with no danger of them wandering away from you.  Well, an adult has other uses for such a device.  And when they tire of it, they can always just make short work of the plastic thing with their ax.  Lazer Vortex spent the time being 1 part seductive to 9 parts ridiculous, mocking the notion that their nudity was at all titillating.  If you were going to ogle them, they were going to mock the idea of being ogled in this situation, making the whole thing more playful and silly.

To close things up for the night, we got the work of our other visitor:

New York City-based performance artist Lorene Bouboushian is interested in vulnerability, shame, and the heroic in despair. At Fresh Oysters, she will perform “--extent of Explosive lament on sale--”, a solo on boiling points, class, boundaries of the body, discomfort, and then again why are we here?

Like Jill at the top of the evening, there were no boundaries with Lorene.  She was everywhere.  No corner of the space or the audience was left unexplored.  Rather than a lot of musical accompaniment, Lorene opted for projections on the wall with which she could interact.  She also provided running commentary on her own dance moves, her exploration of the space, the crowd, and herself.  Most of it was geared to be amusing and self-deprecating, a lot of it (funny or not) was contemplative, a little of it was sad or pleading.  After changing into a much more revealing outfit, she decided it was time to crowd surf.  The crowd stood to oblige, she got up in the air, and was passed around for awhile, discussing her place in society and in art.  It’s instructive when a person is in danger of falling how quickly everyone gets over the reluctance to touch or get close to others.  Lorene returned to earth for some final meditations, and then was done.

I feel a little weird labeling Boiling Point for convenience as “ladies night” because none of the artists had much time or patience for standard notions of femininity.  They were just there to be artists and present work, and if anything, the expectations of the label woman, rather than simply human, just got in their way - and they were more than happy to push right past it and make you look at them differently.  (Note: I was informed after initially posting this review that it would be incorrect to reer to Lazer Vortex as a woman.  It's not a label they use - so I've switched out the "she" pronouns for "they" in their section above.)

If there were specific, explicit messages intended by each segment of the evening, I’m not sure how effectively those were transmitted to the audience.  The feeling of each sequence, however, was unique and unusual, and maybe being pushed as an audience through that sort of artist’s lens is enough for a piece that only lasts around 15 minutes.  This was a more challenging assortment of performers than Fire Drill has hosted before, but still very worthwhile.  Keep your eye out for the next one of these.  They’re always bound to gift you with something you either don’t see all that often, or have never seen before.

4 stars - Highly Recommended

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Fringe 2016 - Last day, Sunday 8/14 performances (and encores) of 5 star shows I've seen

(they're all final performances today, folks, so enjoy 'em while you still can!)

5 stars


The Not-So-Silent Planet: A Speculative Storytelling Show - Rarig Arena - full review here

The Abortion Chronicles - Theatre In The Round - full review here


It Is So Ordered: The Supreme Court's Greatest Hits - Intermedia Arts - full review here


Break Your Heart - Intermedia Arts - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Break Your Heart - f**king sonofab*tch, now I have hope (that's inconvenient, but welcome) - 5 stars

The Most Dangerous Game - Southern Theater - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe The Most Dangerous Game: cheesy B-movie skewered by Sheep Theater into hilarious dark comedy - 5 stars


Celebrity Exception - HUGE Theater - full review here

Fruit Flies Like A Banana: Alphabetical Disorder - Rarig Thrust - full review here


Suite Surrender - Rarig X - full review here

8:30pm - 5 STAR ENCORES

Sometimes There's Wine - Theatre In The Round - full review here

Ball: A Musical Tribute to My Lost Testicle - Southern Theater - full review here

Happenstanced - Rarig X - full review here

It Is So Ordered: The Supreme Court's Greatest Hits - Intermedia Arts - full review here

4.5 stars


Grand Theft Autobiography - Strike Theater - full review here


Terror on the High Seas - Bryant Lake Bowl - full review here

8:30pm - 4.5 STAR ENCORES

Apple Picking - Ritz Proscenium - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Apple Picking: for a comedy this dark, it's awfully funny and whimsical; can't fully embrace nihilism so - 4.5 stars

4 stars


Yes! Feed The Monkey - HUGE Theater - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Yes, Feed The Monkey: what an odd little exploration of the absurd, class, racism, and redemption (scratches head) 4 stars

The Chair-Builders - Phoenix Theater - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Chair-Builders: charming little musical but then suddenly it was over; "oh, that's it? Ok." - 4 stars

One Man's Journey Through The Middle Ages - Playwrights Center - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe One Man's Journey Through The Middle Ages: it's my demographic, I sympathize; low-key storytelling, some striking lines - 4 stars


The Gun Show - Strike Theater - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe The Gun Show: really nice performance by Aaron Konigsmark; script makes sharp turns, most of them successfully - 4 stars


Couple Fight 2: Friends and Family - Theatre In The Round - full review here


Four Duets and One More - Barker Center - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe 4 Duets and 1 More: good dance, better ones were when relationship between dancers was clearer - 4 stars

8:30pm - 4 STAR ENCORES

It Always Rained In Paris - Phoenix Theater - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe It Always Rained In Paris: this show should have annoyed me, yet there were parts of it that were quite lovely - 4 stars

3 stars


Sleeper - Intermedia Arts - full review here

2.5 stars


Pistachios - HUGE Theater - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Pistachios - 2 good actors but script skates over surface of potential compelling idea, atheist in Christian family - 2.5 stars

2 stars


Trump's America (It's Hell) - Mixed Blood - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Trump's America (It's Hell): I have seen some weird sh*t this Fringe but... Points for degree of difficulty - 2 stars


The Last Late Night Show On Earth - Bryant Lake Bowl - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Last Late Night Show: fun, if dark, idea left largely unexploited; a little less dead w/the deadpan? - 2 stars

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Fringe 2016 - Saturday 8/13 performances of 5 star shows I've seen

5 stars

1 pm

Oh Snap! My Alien Children Are Trying To Kill Me (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Bryant Lake Bowl - full review here

The Gospel of Sherilynn Fenn (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - HUGE Theater - full review here

Happenstanced (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Rarig X - full review here


The Lounge-asaurus Rex Show (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Theatre In The Round - full review here


Write Me A Song (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Bryant Lake Bowl - full review here
(Special Note: performer Jeromy Darling got himself booked for a wedding nine months ago for this afternoon, so fellow Salvage Project musician Kurt Larson will be doing this performance - still very much worth seeing)


Of Something Human (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Intermedia Arts - full review here

For Worse (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Mixed Blood - full review here


Hostil Watching (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - HUGE Theater - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Hostil Watching: that was one freaky little show; whole lot of levels; need to think about that for a bit but, wow - 5 stars

The Not-So-Silent Planet: A Speculative Storytelling Show - Rarig Arena - full review here

The Disillusionist (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Strike Theater - full review here


Mead Hall (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Rarig Thrust - full review here

Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Theatre In The Round - full review here


Ball: A Musical Tribute to My Lost Testicle (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Southern Theater - full review here

Sometimes There's Wine (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Theatre In The Round - full review here

4.5 stars


It Came From UUFO (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Rarig X - full review here

4 stars


Four Duets and One More (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Barker Center - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe 4 Duets and 1 More: good dance, better ones were when relationship between dancers was clearer - 4 stars

It Always Rained In Paris (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Phoenix Theater - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe It Always Rained In Paris: this show should have annoyed me, yet there were parts of it that were quite lovely - 4 stars


Good Friday With Dillinger (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Rarig X - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Good Friday With John Dillinger: slightly confusing transition but a nice little gangster love story - 4 stars


Lewis/Clark (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Phoenix Theater - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Lewis/Clark: meditation on exploring, literal and personal; lost me a bit on the trail but still enchanting - 4 stars

masc4masc (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Rarig Arena - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe masc4masc: clever lyrics, nice voices, didn't get much past where it started, gay guys are shallow, don't know selves - 4 stars

3 stars


So Bright The Night (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Strike Theater - full review to come
Tweet Review - #mnfringe So Bright The Night: important piece of history w/modern resonance, confusing treatment - 3 stars


Now or Later (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Southern Theater - full review here


Full Heart Living LIVE! The Bootcamp Experience (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Bryant Lake Bowl - full review here

2 stars


My Uncanny Valley (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - Strike Theater - full review to come
Tweet Review - #mnfringe My Uncanny Valley: there's a lot of cool random ideas, if they'd just let one play out long enough for it to land - 2 stars

Friday, August 12, 2016

Fringe 2016 - It Came From UUFO - A SciFi Greater Tuna - 4.5 stars

Tweet review - #mnfringe It Came From UUFO: Mom says not everything needs to be Shakespeare; she had fun,says it's a 5; split the difference - 4.5 stars

Mom had a ball at It Came From UUFO, and kept bringing it up to other people we met around the Fringe because she had such a good time.  When I didn’t immediately share her unbridled enthusiasm, she chided me with an “Oh come on, not everything needs to be Shakespeare.”  Which is true.  I normally stay away from Shakespeare at the Fringe.  I prefer new plays because the Fringe is such a vital showcase for new work and scrappy new theater companies.  And It Came From UUFO is a new play, from a scrappy theater company that’s as regular as the Fringe lottery ping pong balls will allow (past efforts include Fringe 2011’s Rambler Family Ramblers and 2012’s Shakespeare Ate My Brain).

“I love probing - the mysteries of the universe.”

We went because our friend Erin Denman is in the cast but Mom ended up loving everything about it.  It Came From UUFO is about the city of West Winsom’s 25th annual UUFO festival, celebrating the time five citizens were abducted by aliens - and four came back.  Four is a magic number here as the cast of four (Denman, along with Jeffery Goodson, Joe Hendren, and Cynthia Schreiner Smith) plays a multitude of roles, over 20 in all.  The set’s just a big banner behind which the actors rush to put on yet another costume, to emerge as yet another character.  At one point I lost track and could have sworn they had at least five actors, until curtain call proved me wrong.  Phew.

“Now you’re just being cruel.  You know I can’t spell.”

The script is peppered with countless pop culture references, most of them in the scifi/fantasy realm.  Hey, any script that drops a “Klaatu barada nikto” reference is OK in my book.  Creators Barry Shay and Patsy Puckett have managed to cram about as much content into a Fringe time slot as any person should be allowed to.  Blink and you miss it could apply to any number of jokes, characters or plot twists in UUFO.  But I’d rather a play try to do too much than too little, so have at it.  Really, half the fun is just watching the actors sprint through this thing.  There’s even a little low impact audience participation, with the requisite joke about alien probes, of course.

“Duchovny?  Really?”

It Came From UUFO is a lark.  Approach it in that spirit, and you should have a lovely time.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Fringe 2016 - It Is So Ordered: The Supreme Court’s Greatest Hits - Maybe America Isn’t So Screwed Up After All - 5 stars

Tweet review - #mfringe It Is So Ordered: The Supreme Court's Greatest Hits - stirring rhetoric, makes you feel like maybe America's gonna be OK - 5 stars

Matthew Foster (the man at the heart of American Civic Forum, and the brains behind their Fringe show, It Is So Ordered: The Supreme Court’s Greatest Hits) will probably hate me for using this analogy but it’s in support of his really fine production so perhaps he will forgive me.  You know the kind of contact high you get off of watching a really good episode of that TV show The West Wing“Hey!  America!  Government!  Democracy!  Maybe we can make it work after all!”  That feeling?  That’s how you feel as you sit and listen to the performers in It Is So Ordered.  And the even greater thing here is, it’s not fictional.  This stuff actually happened.

“Our Constitution was deliberating written to be frustrating.”

Our host Matthew Kessen (no doubt channeling the voice of Mr. Foster) provides the context and historical/cultural connective tissue between the speakers, but the show is really about showcasing the words and opinions (and dissents) of Supreme Court justices past and present on race, education, and the civil rights of America’s citizens - all its citizens, whether they like or approve of one another or not.  The dissents are often more compelling, and prescient, than the opinions on the winning side of cases, so there’s a mix of both.

“The Supreme Court has lit more than a few dumpsters on fire over the course of its history.”

The night I saw it, the wry wit and intellect of the late Antonin Scalia in a case revolving around professional golf was being read by Pat Harrigan.  Duck Washington got to take on the mantle of the fiesty Ruth Bader Ginsburg talking about drug testing in schools.  Moving backward from the 21st century into the early half of the 20th, Tim Uren took on the pledge of allegiance to the US flag as Justice Robert H. Jackson.  phillip andrew bennett low tackled the subject of race back in the late 19th century as Justice John M. Harlan.  Rachel Flynn got to take down Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2 as current Justice Anthony Kennedy.  And Zoe Benston rounded out the evening as Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissenting in a case grappling with the limits of police power.  Stirring rhetoric in the hands of great actors is a win-win.  Foster and company realize the best thing to do is just get out of the way and let the justices speak.

“The Fourth Amendment doesn’t forgive a police officer just because he didn’t know any better.”

It might not sound to everyone, on paper, like a real barn-burner of an inspiring Fringe show, but trust me, it is.  It was the end of Mom’s fringing for the season (she only stays for the first six days of the festival - but she crams a show in every available timeslot).  It Is So Ordered was Mom’s 30th and final 2016 Fringe show, but it was a perfect way to make you feel a little better about where we are, how far we’ve come, and where we’re headed.  These days, that’s a gift.  More American Civic Forum, please.

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

Fringe 2016 - Mead Hall - Hey, You Got Your Beowulf On My Road House! You Got Your Road House On My Beowulf! Mmmm, Fringey Deliciousness - 5 stars

Tweet Review - #mnfringe Mead Hall: Mom considers this the highbrow version of what UUFO was doing; I agree - 5 stars (F**king Puppet Equus!)

Tedious Brief Productions switches up the formula yet again, and cranks out another very entertaining pop-culture/classics mash-up.  This time, instead of putting Pulp Fiction through an iambic pentameter translator (Bard Fiction), or doing a Shakespearean sequel which bears a striking similarity to a scifi/horror franchise (Tempests), they just put two Fringe interpretations of two classics up side by side and watch them overlap and meld into one another.  Because if Joseph Campbell taught us anything, it’s that the template of a hero story and recycled Hollywood formulas have more in common than we liked to admit.

“I’ll be there faster than you can say ‘wise old teacher who clearly won’t last the length of the film.’”

The set-up is that two battling sets of artists both think they’re scheduled for the same slot in the Fringe Festival.  Clarence Bratlie Wethern gets there first with his one-man tribute to the legend of Beowulf. Kayla Dvorak, Brandon Ewald, Delta Rae Giordano, David Schlosser and Noe Tallen interrupt because they want to get started on their musical version of the cult favorite Patrick Swayze bouncer movie Road House.  One problem - their Swayze stand-in for the role of Dalton (Derek Meyer) is involved in a half-dozen other Fringe shows with competing schedules at venues all over town and he’s stuck in transit.  Grudgingly, the two productions decide to share the stage and slowly start to realize if they play off of one another they can cover more ground - and maybe offer each other either a little more fun, or a little more prestige, depending on which way the wind is blowing in the plot at that particular moment.

“OK, you’re fixed.  And I find you sexy now.”

Writers Aaron Greer, Ben Tallen and Brian Watson-Jones get the best of all worlds here.  They get to make fun of literature, movies, theater, their own old-school/modern classics mash-up strategy, and Fringe artists all at the same time.  Director Carin Bratlie Wethern and the entire ensemble are all enjoying the hell out of this concept. 

“My evil’s starting to wear off.”

Mom was convinced that the audience the day we attended, like her, were mostly English majors because they were getting all the Beowulf jokes just as easily as the Road House jokes.  But you don’t need to have a working knowledge of either to enjoy the lunacy.  Mead Hall fills in all the blanks for the novice viewer.  It also offers added benefits for anyone more familiar with the source material (for instance, for those of you just waiting to see how they work the Road House line “I used to f**k guys like you in prison” into Beowulf, you will not be disappointed.)

“That name will remind us all that you’re more than just a love interest.”

Mead Hall is enjoyable no matter the direction from which you’re approaching it.  Great Fringe fare for one and all.

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

Fringe 2016 - The Adventures of Crazy Jane and Red Haired Annie - A Hidden Gem of Storytelling - 5 stars

Tweet review - #mnfringe The Adventures of Crazy Jane and Red-haired Annie: first thought, "that was lovely"; her voice, the detail, perfect - 5 stars

This is a good example of how a preview, particularly for a traveling Fringe artist, can do you a lot of good.  I had a slot of fill between shows at HUGE that I really wanted to see on Wednesday (Yes! Feed The Monkey! and Hostil Watching - more on those charming oddballs later).  I didn’t really want to travel too far and run the risk of missing a show (plus as it turned out, that was the night of the flash flood warnings and torrential rain so, definitely staying put), that left me in Uptown.  Wasn’t really in the mood for dance, so that left out Intermedia.  It was either walk down to the BLB or stay at Huge.  Looking at both shows, one had better reviews than the other (often from people who reviewed multiple shows, another good sign) AND I’d seen the artist do a preview at the traveling artist showcase the night before Fringe opened (Fringe Eve, as they say).  At the time I thought, hmmm, good storyteller.  Not sure if it’ll wind up on my schedule with so much other stuff floating around, but she’s a very good option to have.  And that’s what tipped me over to staying at HUGE and seeing Laura Packer perform The Adventures of Crazy Jane and Red Haired Annie: Adventure stories for grown-ups.  And boy am I glad I did.

“There will be times when sleep eludes you.”

Laura Packer knows the two most powerful tools in her bag of tricks are her own voice, and her way with crafting words, and she deploys them both to full effect throughout Crazy Jane and Red Haired Annie.  The odd thing is, as I think back on it, Packer is not one of those histrionic solo performers who bounce all over the stage, presenting one showy character after another, modulating her voice and its volume up and down the scale.  She might gesture with her arms, hands or even just her fingers, but she largely just stays put.  And she gets right up in the microphone on a stand and lets her soothing voice do the heavy lifting.  That, of course, and the words.  Oh, those words.

“A scale from the serpent who encircles the earth.”

Packer creates several fully realized fantastical worlds, full of detail, color, light and sound.  There’s a period in one story when the two main characters split up and Packer is switching back and forth between the two storylines of their individual quests.  Not only does she cut out in just the right place to leave you in suspense and flip over to the other plotline, she always lands you right back where you left off, so you’re never confused what’s going on.  That’s quite a trick, and she nails it so perfectly, you’re liable to overlook just how hard it is.

“The world for a moment sounded like tiny ringing bells.”

Even though the title assures you it’s adventure stories for grown-ups, you could be forgiven for thinking the names Crazy Jane and Red Haired Annie are headliners in some child’s fairy tale.  But as entertaining as these stories might be for kids, it feels like only adults are going to get the full impact, understanding how Crazy Jane became crazy, or the “normal” life she left behind, or the stakes involved in saving their friendship, or lost children.  I also think adults especially will appreciate Packer’s soothing voice, and her sense of wonder that is also still oddly based in a thinking person’s reality.

“It told of the true color of the sky when the world was young.”

If you’re looking for some solid, top tier storytelling, Laura Packer has you covered.  I caught her late, but there’s still one performance left in her run (today, Friday 8/12 at 5:30pm).  She’s definitely worth slotting into your schedule.  I was not expecting to see this show, or that this was the kind of show I’d enjoy, and yet Laura Packer and The Adventures of Crazy Jane and Red Haired Annie completely won me over.

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

Fringe 2016 - Friday 8/12 performances of 5 star shows I've seen

5 stars

(we start early today, folks, enjoy!)

Fruit Flies Like A Banana: Alphabetical Disorder - Rarig Thrust - full review here


The Adventures of Crazy Jane and Red Haired Annie (FINAL PERFORMANCE) - HUGE Theater - full review here

Mead Hall - Rarig Thrust - full review here


Oh Snap! My Alien Children Are Trying To Kill Me - Bryant Lake Bowl - full review here

It Is So Ordered: The Supreme Court's Greatest Hits - Intermedia Arts - full review here


The Abortion Chronicles - Theatre In The Round - full review here


The Gospel of Sherilyn Fenn - HUGE Theater - full review here

Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales - Theatre In The Round - full review here

4.5 stars


It Came From UUFO - Rarig X - full review here

4 stars


Couple Fight 2: Friends and Family - Theatre In The Round - full review here


Yes! Feed The Monkey! - HUGE Theater - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Yes, Feed The Monkey: what an odd little exploration of the absurd, class, racism, and redemption (scratches head) 4 stars

3 stars


So Bright The Night - Strike Theater - full review to come
Tweet Review - #mnfringe So Bright The Night: important piece of history w/modern resonance, confusing treatment - 3 stars


Full Heart Living LIVE! The Boot Camp Experience - Bryant Lake Bowl - full review here

2.5 stars


Pistachios - HUGE Theater - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Pistachios - 2 good actors but script skates over surface of potential compelling idea, atheist in Christian family - 2.5 stars

2 stars


The Last Late Night Show On Earth - Bryant Lake Bowl - full review to come
Tweet review - #mnfringe Last Late Night Show: fun, if dark, idea left largely unexploited; a little less dead w/the deadpan? - 2 stars

My Uncanny Valley - Strike Theater - full review to come
Tweet Review - #mnfringe My Uncanny Valley: there's a lot of cool random ideas, if they'd just let one play out long enough for it to land - 2 stars

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Fringe 2016 - Now Or Later - Just Not My Thing - 3 stars

Tweet review - #mnfringe Now Or Later: it's a very particular style of theater and storytelling; still trying to parse it out - 3 stars

I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that I’m probably just not the audience for New Epic Theater.  Which is a shame.  Artistic Director Joseph Stodola is a talented theater artist with a very specific vision, and I admire that.  New Epic works with a killer array of really top notch actors, and their Fringe show Now or Later is no exception.  When you’ve got Jennifer Blagen, Ryan Colbert, Peter Moore, Grant Sorenson, and Michael Wieser all crammed into a single hour of Fringe together, it’s almost not fair to the other shows with which it’s competing.  The playwright on Now Or Later, Christopher Shinn, is an Obie Award winner and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  Stodola also laid out the set with its clean lines, fluorescent lighting tube boundaries, sterile furniture, and color palette of blacks, whites and greys.  You can’t argue with the packaging of the thing or its ingredients.  It just aggravates me more than it engages me.  That may be what they want, but it’s not something I want to keep sitting through.

In the program there’s a quote from Bertolt Brecht:
“The theater-goer in conventional dramatic theater says: Yes, I’ve felt that way, too.  That’s the way I am.  That’s life.  That’s the way it will always be.  The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is no escape for him.  That’s great art - Everything is self-evident. I am made to cry with those who cry, and laugh with those who laugh. 

But the theater-goer in the epic theater says: I would never have thought that.  You can’t do that.  That’s very strange, practically unbelievable.  That has to stop.  The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is an escape for him.  That’s great art - nothing is self-evident.  I am made to laugh about those who cry, and cry about those who laugh.”

New Epic Theater won me over with their 2014 Fringe production of Tennessee Williams’ One Arm - it was one of my favorites of the festival and one of two shows I kept mentioning to people everywhere I went that Fringe when they asked me what was really great that they needed to see.  Then they repulsed me with their 2015 Fringe 21st century spin on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian GrayNow Or Later lands somewhere in the middle.  (Because I felt so burned by Dorian Gray, I had to pass on their double feature of The Normal Heart and Coriolanus earlier this year outside of Fringe season, even though I love the play The Normal Heart and was curious about Coriolanus, because it’s a Shakespeare I haven’t seen performed.)  It feels on some level that New Epic Theater is devoted to the idea of homosexuals suffering as entertainment, and I don’t have a lot of patience for that.

“I think freedom of expression is more than a temper tantrum.”

Here again, in Now or Later, we have John (Sorenson), the closeted gay son of a politician (Moore) poised to win the presidency of the United States.  Everyone is holed up in a hotel on election night, watching the results come in.  John is attended by his straight(ish) friend Matt (Colbert) and stalked by his handler Marc (Wieser) because a minor internet scandal is brewing that could reflect badly on the newly minted First Family of the USA.  John’s mother (Blagen) also gets in the middle of trying to manage the situation.

“There are things in this world that are bigger than you.”

John thought it would be a good idea to defend the idea of free speech at his Ivy League school against fears by his fellow students who are Muslim that they were be verbally assaulted by hate speech as follows:  He dressed up as the prophet Mohamed, went to a sex party to condemn it, grabbed a dildo, and pretended he was fellating his straight(ish) friend.  This being the 21st century, there are pictures and video of the incident.

“I have zero interest in becoming a spokesperson for gay people.”

John doesn’t see what the big deal is.
John doesn’t feel like he should have to apologize because - free speech.
And he’s a private citizen.

“It’s a campaign-induced psychosis.”

As everyone else takes pains to try to convey to John at great length - his dad’s the President of the United States.  John is not a private citizen anymore.  Forget privacy.  For that matter, forget the closet.  And your boyfriend who dumped you who you keep hoping will call.  And your therapist.  And the fact that you flipped your car as a teenager because you were trying to kill yourself.  Because, of course.

“I’m surrounded by these privileged kids.”

In addition to all the white privilege being tossed carelessly about the room, and all the self-loathing, this cast of largely lily white people - most of them in lily white clothes and/or formal wear, keep going on about how the Muslims must feel about everything.  Would it have been too hard to actually have - I don’t know, a Muslim character in the play maybe?  Someone who could actually speak to the experience rather than just being continually referenced as a potential annoyance?

“You can’t get elected President if your son kills himself.”

Everyone in Now Or Later does a great job.  The acting, the look of the production, it’s all first rate.  I just wonder what the point is.  Someone else who sees a lot of theater was just raving about this and I found myself thinking, “Did we see the same play?”  He said it made him think about all the issues these characters were talking about long after he left the theater, and that’s a mark of good art.  With which I would agree.  I just didn’t have the same experience.  I kept wishing we had a lot less exposition and hand-wringing, and a lot more actual action on stage.  The scene between father and son toward the end - that was almost about something.  That made me sit forward in my seat.  Then there was a jarring symbolic move that confused everyone around me.  I explained it afterward because I “got it,” I think.  It just didn’t get me.

But that’s not the kind of theater New Epic wants to do.  So I should just move on.

3 Stars - Recommended

Fringe 2016 - Sleeper - Sleeping Beauty/Snow White: Middle Eastern-style - 3 stars

Tweet review - #mnfringe Sleeper: Middle eastern dance riff on Sleeping Beauty/Snow White tales, colorful though pacing lags - 3 stars

It can be hard sometimes when people who are primarily dancers and musicians want to tell a story and make sure that it’s accessible.  Al-Bahira Dance Theater’s Fringe show Sleeper was taking aim at Sleeping Beauty/Snow White fairy tale territory with their own take on fairies and evil queens and curses and sleeping heroes roused by others coming to their rescue. 

There was liberal use of a narrator (Trevor Hartman) and he definitely kept the energy up and the story moving whenever he was in the driver’s seat.  But I’m wondering just how much actual narration they really needed.  The prologue/setup was useful, but once the story kicked into gear, the colorful costumes (Laurie Olson Williams) and the dance (choreographed by Artistic Director Mirah Ammal) did most of the talking.  The narration was simply repeating things the action was already telling us very effectively.  With some simple tweaks to the dance to reinforce relationships and initial character introductions, you might be able to dispense with nearly all the narration after the opening in shadow.

The friendship of a young woman destined to be queen (“Amara” Barb Fulton) and her supernatural pal, a horned red bird called the Saqra (Ammal, again) becomes strained when the queen forgets the bird whose magical powers got her to the throne in the first place.  The queen also has the bad parenting instincts to dote on her son and ignore his twin sister.

So when three mystical sisters (“Fareehah” Abigail Smith, “Perizada” Cat Robinette, and “AdaraDin” Ladonna Bartol) get invited to the big royal baby celebration but the Saqra isn’t, the bird has had enough.  She takes the neglected girl to raise as her own to become Princess Farah (Alicia Pankratz), and curses the baby who will become Prince Farid (Samson Perry). 

When he reaches his 20th birthday, Farid will touch a bird’s feather and die.  The mystical sisters, of course, jury-rig the curse so it will just be a deep sleep. Still, there’s bound to be trouble when Farid sneaks out of the house to jam with some street musicians (Eric Breece, Wayne Grimmer, “Dr. D” Dave Lake, and Avni Pandya) and then runs into a whole flock of flamingos - as you do.

The ensemble is rounded out by “Asha” Vivian Chow, “Saffiyah” Jessica Dirksen, “Jalilah” Jennifer Emms, Nicole Gibas, Emily Hellerich, Autumn Elise Pennington, and Laurie Olson Williams.

Mom was happy to see a group of dancers that wasn’t solely composed of a bunch of young women all as skinny as stick figures.  A wider variety of body types is always welcome, particularly at Fringe time.  Ammal as the Saqra is clearly the star attraction here in terms of dancing skill, and acting talent.  But as I noted above, with the story fairly simple, and easily conveyed in visual terms, I think you could actually trust the dance and the dancers to get the job done, and not feel the need to script so much of it for a narrator.  Keeping one dance/one sequence flowing into the next might also allow the story to maintain its momentum.  Costume changes, of course, will require some planning.  But if the whole ensemble isn’t used in every big number, then maybe some folks can be getting ready while others hold the stage.

Sleeper might still be a work in progress, but some of it works so well already that it might be closer than the artists think, and might need less “conventional” storytelling to get it the rest of the way there.

3 stars - Recommended

Fringe 2016 - Grand Theft Autobiography - The Entertainment Value of First World Problems - 4.5 stars

Tweet Review - #mnfringe Grand Theft Autobiography - Pinkerton's genial storytelling + Rue's funky music = a very pleasant Fringe outing - 4.5 stars

Some of the first things Mom said (and I had been thinking) after our friend Daniel Pinkerton got through recounting the tales of his brush with the law in his outlaw summer of 1966 were, “He’s lucky it was the sixties.  Today, he’d probably be in jail” and “He’s also lucky he was a white teenager in the suburbs.”  It’s strange how radically the turbulent current events of the past couple of years can cause you to look at things in a very different way.

“I see you cut short another career in child prostitution.”

Pinkerton’s Grand Theft Autobiography is a tale of fifty years ago that doesn’t scan with the America we see today.  That’s got its pluses and it’s minuses.  It’s a simple tale of a simpler time.  “Borrowing” cars, teenage sexual awakening, forging checks, and running away from home, trying to emulate the fake origin stories of your rock and roll icons, all that seems kind of quaint now.  And it’s nice to retreat for an hour into that kind of story.

“Sailors?  Reno was 200 miles inland.  You have to work hard to find a sailor.”

Pinkerton’s friendly, easy-going delivery makes his story go down easy.  And musician Gary Rue and his Fringe band The Delinquents (Megan Mahoney on electronic bass, Kenneth Watson, Jr. on drums, both on backup vocals to Rue’s lead singer on guitar) take Rue’s original songs and give them a 50s sort of Beach Boys bounce and drive.  The musical interludes between tales - and on carefully chosen water breaks for the storyteller - give the whole show a little extra oomph to keep the audience focused.

“Next time, when you let me drive a car, be sure to let me know if it’s stolen.”
“Don’t worry.  They all will be.”

Grand Theft Autobiography is a nicely put together Fringe package that reinforces the truism that we all have a story to tell.

4.5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

Fringe 2016 - Terror On The High Seas - Another Absurd Chapter In The Story of Les And His In-Laws - 4.5 Stars

Tweet review - #mnfringe Terror on the High Seas: you'll feel like you've been on a cruise with Les' in-laws, for better or worse :) - 4.5 stars

Do I really need to tell people to go see Les Kurkendaal’s new one-man show, Terror On The High Seas?  OK, go see Les Kurkendaal’s new one-man show, Terror On The High Seas.  We’re so used to seeing Les do his thing, you might start to think what he’s doing is easy and anyone can do it.  Nope. 

“Senior citizens are running around in various states of confusion.  It’s sheer pandemonium.  Like a herd of geriatric cats.”

It’s hard to believe, but Mom and I have been seeing Les Kurkendaal’s shows in the Minnesota Fringe Festival for ten years now.  Les is based in California, but he’s a regular on the Fringe touring circuit.  Les loves our Minnesota Fringe Festival a whole lot, and we love him in return - it’s why he keeps coming back.  If Mom didn’t see Les’ show, it wouldn’t feel like a real Fringe to her.

“I can’t hear my mother-in-law.  This is awesome yoga!”

This time, with Terror On The High Seas, Les is telling a story primed for comedy - getting roped into traveling with his white in-laws on a 12 day cruise to Alaska.  Les quickly bonded with the other spouses on the cruise who were also signing up for as many of the land-based side excursions as possible in order to escape the ship and their own extended families.  There was also the recurring couples tradition of hanging out at the nearly deserted late night party on board.  But the real story here is a subtle one, and quite sweet.

“You’re just a vegetarian because that’s a liberal thing to do.”

Oh, Les regales us with imitations of his father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and their kids.  But these are ultimately loving, if humorous, portraits.  Though they all may bumble their way through interactions with their son or brother’s black boyfriend, these people mean well.  It takes Les a while to realize that the people he’s trying to escape are actually trying very, very hard in their own way to make sure he’s having a good time and feels like a real part of the family.

“Why can’t we go somewhere normal, like Vegas?”

Some of Les’ previous Fringe shows have dealt with larger issues of racism or coming out or alcoholism or body image or caring for aging parents, though always through a humorous storyteller’s lens.  Here, as in Nightmare In Bakersfield, where Les accompanied his boyfriend to a school reunion, and realized he was having a bit of a problem being the less noticed (or famous) one in the couple, Les is dealing with some of the nuances of negotiating being part of a team.  When that team is a couple, often that means there’s a larger team of extended family.  How do you maintain your own separate identity in this context, and what, if anything, do you have to give up - or share - of yourself?

“Les, I hate to admit this, but you’re part of the family, too.”

It’s just not a full Fringe experience without Les.  So go see Terror On The High Seas.

4.5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended