Monday, August 22, 2011

Review - An Evening With Jonbenet Ramsey - Wolfpack Productions - 5 stars

Here's hoping Wolfpack Productions' staging of An Evening With Jonbenet Ramsey doesn't fall victim to the double-edged sword that is its title. The title is catchy, of course, but is just as likely to put people off who might be afraid of an evening of sensationalism or victim theater. An Evening With Jonbenet Ramsey is happily neither of these things. Instead, in the hands of writer/director Walter A. Davis and actress Bethany Ford, An Evening With Jonbenet Ramsey is a stellar piece of solidly written, finely acted theater that allows you to feast on words and a meaty character study, and then take a lot to think about with you when you leave the theater.

"There was a boy, once. It was different with him. It was like an island with him."

I have to admit, I was wary when I settled in to partake of the play, even though the premise was intriguing. If pre-school beauty pageant contestant Jonbenet Ramsey hadn't died, but survived whatever trauma befell her back on Christmas of 1996, what kind of woman would she become? Not only that, but what would she look like 14 years into our future, at the age of 35 (if she were still alive today, she'd just have turned 21)? In a series of monologues, the woman and survivor was not the bitter bundle of neuroses always on the verge of tears which I feared she'd be. This reimagined Jonbenet has taken all the right lessons from all the wrong turns in her life. She has a wicked sense of humor, and a great sense of theatricality. Which is not to say she's performing for us. Far from it. She steadfastly refuses to perform, and instead takes us behind the curtain of the performance that most people think constitutes their real life. She is sympathetic to those who must put up with the daily shocks and disappointments that put tiny dents in their dreams of a better life. But she's not going to coddle you. She uses the fact that she has your attention in order to engage you in a little chat about how to live life as if you're fully awake, which few of us do.

"I've learned how little there is to learn."

Davis' script is in love with words (this Jonbenet is a voracious reader) and with theater and, by extension, with life itself. Giving longer life and a spine of steel to a child forced into beauty pageants who was murdered at the age of six is something I honestly didn't think was possible. The idea of it, though admirable, seemed like it was destined to be just a writing exercise, or worse yet a stunt. But Davis manages to create a portrait of a woman whose present is informed by, but not defined or limited by, her past.

"Do you know how terrifying it is for me to want anything?"

I've seen Bethany Ford give a lot of emotionally raw performances, but this script allows her to do something quite different. Tears only threaten to come once, late in the game, and even then they don't fall. This is a performance of quiet strength, earthy humor, coiled sensuality, and more than just a little swagger. This isn't Bethany Ford finding her everyday self in a character. This is Bethany Ford disappearing into a character, and it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch, not to mention full of surprises. There were all kinds of quick, easy choices to be made here - both script and acting-wise. The production settles for none of them. Each blackout between monologues, you can almost feel the audience holding its breath. You're afraid to applaud and break the spell. You're just waiting to see what comes next.

"A wolf caught in a trap will gnaw its own leg off in order to be free."

A quick nod must also be given to Bethany's acting partner, the lighting design of Ariel (Pinkerton) Leaf. There are a lot of bold choices going on here - abrupt changes in levels and color of light, frequent use of shadow and complete darkness, even some canny usage of the houselights when Jonbenet directly addresses the men or the ladies in the audience. It's a design that draws attention to itself in the best way, by making you focus more closely on the script, and the theatricality with which this Jonbenet lives her life.

"To come upon a sentence that bites into you like a judgment. That's what reading is."

An Evening With Jonbenet Ramsey is exactly the kind of theater that on the surface makes me leery, but when I experience it, I'm mighty glad I went.

"I'm sorry. I couldn't breathe for a minute there."

You should push your own reservations aside and go, too.

Very Highly Recommended

Only three performances left, this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, August 25, 26 & 27, 2011, at the Cedar Riverside People's Center (425 20th Avenue South in Minneapolis). Curtain time 8pm. Tickets and more information at and

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fringe 2011 - 5 Star Reviews - Life-Altering Experience

Here's a bunch of handy links to all the 5 star reviews of shows in this year's Fringe. 5 stars - Life-Altering Experience, Class of 2011 would be...

Camelot Is Crumbling - Maximum Verbosity - 8/9/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

The Day The Nineties Died - Callow Youth Productions - 8/9/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Deadline - Interplanetary Appeal - 8/10/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Disney Dethroned - Tom Reed - 8/8/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Domino's Pizza Saved My Life - Dylan Fresco - 8/6/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Flesh - Present State Movement - 8/6/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

I Love You (We're F**ked) - 55BC (Kevin J. Thornton) 8/8/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Luke Comes To Life - Charakter Ministry of the Arts - 8/7/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Minnesota Middle Finger - Ben San Del - 8/12/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Nightmare In Bakersfield - Les Kurkendaal - 8/10/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Our Freaking Kids Show - Mainly Me Productions - 8/7/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Red Hamlet - Red Theatre - 8/5/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Red Resurrected - Transatlantic Love Affair (Isabel Nelson) - 8/14/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Something's Gone Wrong In The Dreamhouse - Scream Blue Murmur - 8/10/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Sousepaw - Shelby Company - 8/8/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Fringe Review - Red Resurrected - Isabel Nelson - 5 stars

Well, it took me 37 shows but I've finally seen one that I'd really like to see a second time. It's also one that everyone else should see if they love good theater.

(And Red Resurrected nabbed the encore slot at the Lab Theater as the most popular show at its venue, so I get my wish of being able to see it again. That's where I'll be come 8:30 this evening.)

"Every so often, a woman finds a path in the darkness."

I was starting to think it was me. Maybe I was just tired. But other people I've talked to, including my Mom, have been feeling the same thing. If you ask someone what they think is good in this year's Fringe, they can rattle off a good half dozen names, and then come up with a couple more besides. And you're bound to hear some different names every time you ask the question. The overall level of work in this year's Fringe is really exceptional. But if you ask somebody, "What is the one show I absolutely have to see?" there's a pause. Because while the overall level of quality is exceedingly strong, there really haven't been that handful of shows that pop up above all the rest. Shows that a friend of mine described as the kind you get "evangelical about. Grabbing people by the lapels and saying, 'you must see this show.'" A lot of us are fans of a lot of shows. But missionary zeal on behalf of something you've seen, that was lacking. Too many good shows, that's a good problem to have. Not having that one or two "great" shows? That makes a Fringer kind of wistful.

And that's how I was feeling, until I saw Red Resurrected.

"Sometimes it feels like your heart is as rough as your hands."

Director Isabel Nelson's Red Resurrected is just the sort of follow-up we'd expect from her after her fantastic Fringe outing last year, Ballad of the Pale Fisherman (which I was excited to learn will be remounted in an expanded form as part of Illusion Theater's Lights Up series this winter. If you missed it before, or want to see it yet again, make sure you keep an eye out for those dates.)

Just because we expected great things from this director and her ensemble, however, doesn't mean I was prepared for just how great it was going to be.

Talking to another friend after the show (who'd unfortunately missed Fisherman last year), I struggled for words to describe both productions.

"Fisherman was great, one of the best shows I or anyone else saw last year. But this, Red Resurrected, it's just astonishing," tumbled out of my mouth.

Also at a loss for words, my friend said, "That's a really good word for it. Astonishing."



That's a word I haven't thrown around much yet this year. And if any production deserves it, it's Red Resurrected.

"Everything looks the same. Every step you take is further from where you started."

Problem was, I was resisting it ever so slightly, even though I knew I shouldn't. Because Red Resurrected was one of what seemed like an army of Fringe shows this year all picking apart fairy tales in various ways. Intellectually, I knew based on past experience with Fisherman that Red Resurrected would be different. But it was still a little hard to get excited about "one in a series." Glad I finally got over that and got out to the Lab Theater to see for myself. The advance buzz didn't surprise me. Their Fringe-For-All preview (below) promised another solid, ensemble-created work. Boy, did they deliver on that promise, and then some.

"Don't lie to me. That's the devil in your mouth. Wash it with something holy."

The reason it's so hard sometimes to put a production like Red Resurrected into words is that so much about the production is about what's not spoken. The words not said. Things seen. Things unexplained. The blank spaces between what people say and do that load everything with so much subtext that you think your brain might explode. It's great to be swept up in a story like that, to be invited in, to be asked to follow along and use your common sense. "You know what's going on here," the show seems to say. "I don't really need to explain it, do I? Just watch. Trust your eyes and trust your gut. You know what's going on here."

Red (Adelin Phelps) is a young girl with no parents, so she is raised collectively by the people of her mountain village by the woods. There's the kindly Mr. Oak (Diogo Lopes). There's the flinty, unforgiving Mrs. Quinn (Heather Bunch) - who has a doozy of a secret I won't spoil. But mainly, there is the Cooper family - Mr. Cooper (Derek Lee Miller), a woodsman; Mrs. Cooper (Allison Witham), and their son Tommy (Willie Gambucci), Red's age. The town all loves Red. But as Red grows into a young woman, some people love Red a little too much. Mrs. Cooper of course loves having Red around as the daughter she never had. Tommy and Red have an easygoing rapport between the two of them that seems to promise something more in the future. But it is Mr. Cooper who inadvertently sets Red's larger journey in motion.

"Man gets enough maple he can building anything he wants to. Last him the rest of his life."

Around the edges of Red's story is the story of another woman, who is also our narrator (Anna Reichert, the leading lady/selkie in last year's Fisherman). This other woman also wandered off into the forest, as Red longs to do. The woman's disappearance, and reappearance, caused the town much hardship. But you're not quite sure she's real, until Red comes face to face with her in the woods herself. The woman gives Red shelter, when the rest of the town has turned against the young woman, and helps Red to discover her own powers of healing. (The scene where Red heals an injured wolf, played by Miller, is wordless and magical to watch.)

The ensemble isn't just playing people here. They are the trees in the woods, the rooftops of homes, the fire in the fireplace, the leaky sink and flaming stove in the kitchen. These seemingly lifeless things have a voice beyond human speech, and watch the doings of the humans living among them intently. They are a Greek chorus of eyes rather than mouths. Everything the story needs - characters both human and animal, location, props, sound - the ensemble creates out of thin air with nothing more than their bodies and voices, and a simple costume for each which never changes. Sometimes ensemble-created work can be a mess. Too many people with too many great ideas and no filter, no outside eye or guiding hand. Director Nelson sits outside the story, taking the best of what her ensemble has to offer and helping to shape it into a lean, beautiful piece of storytelling.

Something as monumental as the passing of time can be conveyed in the subtlest of moves. Red and Tommy start out as children. When they grow up into young adults, a change in voice and a change in the way Phelps and Gambucci carry themselves, the way they live in their own skin differently, conveys volumes without anyone wasting time on clunky exposition.

"Sometimes there's a darkness in this world no matter where you turn. Some things you just can't save."

Ballad of the Pale Fisherman and Red Resurrected both center on strong female characters, but in different ways. Fisherman was a story of love and community found and then lost, and the sea was ever present. Red Resurrected, on land rather than sea, in the woods of a mountain town, is also about the loss of community, but rather than love being the catalyst and central concern, here the tale is more about how Red finds herself as a person, separate from her town and extended family, as she transforms from a girl into a woman.

Red Resurrected is such a rich, full evening of theater, though, that words can't really do it justice. Like all the best live performance, you need to be in the audience to experience it. I liked being part of that experience so much, I'm going back for seconds. And as anyone who reads this blog will tell you, that kind of thing doesn't happen much, at Fringe time or any other time of year.

Very Highly Recommended

Their Fringe-For-All preview...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fringe 2011 - 4-1/2 Star Reviews - Damn Near Perfect

Here's a bunch of handy links to all the 4-1/2 star reviews of shows in this year's Fringe. 4-1/2 stars - Damn Near Perfect, Class of 2011 would be...

I'm Making This Up As I Go - Samuel Spadino - 8/11/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

SCOTUS! (Supreme Court of the United States) - Serious Hedgehog Arts - 8/5/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Son Of A _______! - Paper Crane Theatre - 8/12/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Fringe 2011 - 4 Star Reviews - Excellent

Here's a bunch of handy links to all the 4 star reviews of shows in this year's Fringe. 4 stars - Excellent, Class of 2011 would be...

Angelina Jolie Is A Zionist Whore!, or Plan 9 From Baghdad - Partizan Theater - 8/8/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

The Attic Room - RE/Dance Group - 8/10/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Robot Lincoln: The Revengeance (The Musical) - OT Pro-Ductions - 8/8/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Uncle Tom's Condo - Milliepad Productions - 8/12/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek versio

Fringe 2011 - 2-1/2 Star Reviews - Not Bad, Still Needs Some Work

Here's a bunch of handy links to all the 2-1/2 star reviews of shows in this year's Fringe. 2-1/2 stars - Not Bad, Still Needs Some Work, Class of 2011 would be...

The 612 - Rogues Gallery Arts - 8/12/2011
Twin Cities Daily Planet version
Single White Fringe Geek version

Fringe Review - Uncle Tom's Condo - Milliepadd Productions - 4 stars

Mom knew I was interested in seeing Uncle Tom's Condo from Milliepadd Productions because of Greg Nesbitt's charming preview performance at Fringe-For-All. Despite that evidence and the show description...

"Do you sound white on the phone? This and other complicated questions can only be answered by this hilarious send-up of social and racial attitudes and how they "color" our world. Can these things be solved in less than an hour? We'll see. "Uncle Tom's Condo" uses the opportunity of live stage to advance the emotional resonance of our country's ongoing struggle with racial, gender, and now, sexual equality."

...we honestly didn't know what to expect beyond the song (video below) (which it turns out is the closing number for the show).

Like the superhero band that sings that last song - with the cast dressed up as Captain America, Spiderman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the queen of the Amazons on Paradise Island - Uncle Tom's Condo is a strange mix of different styles of entertainment that all gather under the umbrella of the subject matter of diversity. Some things fit more comfortably under that umbrella than others. The reason I recommend it as highly as I do is that when Uncle Tom's Condo brings its points home most effectively, it does so in a way that I can't imagine too many others replicating, and in a way that furthers a discussion we all need to continue having.

If anything, this genial production runs the risk of, rather than taking its subject too seriously, perhaps not taking it seriously enough. Everyone in the cast is so well-adjusted about dealing with various forms of prejudice and discrimination, that the anger and the bite to the humor that always seems to be lurking just beneath the surface is never allowed to fully manifest itself.

The production also sets up a false premise at the start. There is a timeline of racial history in America, threaded together alongside touchstones in pop culture (an example - Medgar Evers and Malcolm X are murdered, Star Trek and Batman premiere on TV). This timeline leads to the birth of Nesbitt himself, and from there the history shifts to key moments in the development of his own racial awareness. But it also detours to things which have nothing to do directly with the subject at hand (an example - his father dies of cancer around Christmastime, Nesbitt stops believing in both Santa and Jesus) (And that's a whole other Fringe show I'd actually be curious to see). But because of this biographical trip through time, the production gives the impression that it will be sort of a one man show with a supporting cast. The reality is that the whole thing is more of a variety show, with each cast member - Mark Beck, Jo Mary Fahey, Mahmoud Hakima and Kirsten Stevens - delivering their own multicultural awakening moments throughout the evening in between the comedy sketches.

The most effective sequences are the ones that are allowed to breathe. Uncle Tom and Uncle Ben (of converted rice fame, carrying a box of his product with his smiling face attached) sit down and have an honest and amusing chat about the changing fate of their characters in society over the years. Nesbitt is called into human resources along with all his other black co-workers to have one-on-one discussions about a troubling racial incident on the job. Nesbitt rightly points out that only the black people are being called in to be asked how they feel. "I don't see you calling all the white people in and asking them if they like beating up black people." When Nesbitt asks how it feels to be a woman in the same workplace, that sets her off on a humorous rant of her own.

The things that are less effective are the things that leave us wanting more. There is a passing reference in the timeline made when the vocabulary for dealing with minorities changes. Slaves become colored people, colored people become blacks, blacks become African Americans. A comedy of semantics that only this cast could do justice to seems to be asking to be birthed here, but it doesn't happen. There is also an incident when Nesbitt offers to give Beck a late night ride home after rehearsal for their rock band, and suspicious police circle around and come knocking on their car windows before they even have a chance to get the car started. Beck, the white man, starts to get indignant, while Nesbitt keeps his cool and lets it pass. He doesn't agree with the officers' assessment of the "suspicious" situation, but he doesn't mouth off either. While this subtly speaks to years of experience dealing with these sorts of nuisances, and is nicely played, I found myself wanting to know more about the history of where that coping strategy came from.

Though the aphorisms and jokes are amusing, and the personal monologues engaging, as far as they go, the group seems talented enough to take the whole concept so much further. Maybe they ran out of time. Maybe the lessons learned from this production will bear fruit in future theatrical outings. As it stands, Uncle Tom's Condo is an amiable, enormously accessible production about a subject that many still find touchy to talk about. Uncle Tom's Condo wants you to know that it's OK to talk, and OK to laugh. How else is the really ridiculous stuff we all still put each other through ever going to change?

Two performances remain - Friday 8/12 (tonight) at 10pm, Sunday 8/14 at 4pm

Highly Recommended

That catchy closing tune...

Fringe Review - Minnesota Middle Finger - Ben San Del - 5 stars

Ben San Del has morphed from a great stand-up comedian into a really solid comedic playwright. Minnesota Middle Finger is a wonderfully entertaining example of the next step in his evolution as a writer. Ben is a favorite of Mom's as well as mine so we went and caught his sold-out opening night performance.

"You're going to defend her honor after the whole 'eviscerating your dignity' thing?"

Gotta say, not a big fan of the title at first, but after seeing the play, it makes perfect sense. This is the guy, after all, who gave us titles like Mittens For Fat Kids, Strawberry Fields Temporarily, Animal Cracker Genocide, and last year's Fringe hit A Nice Guy's Guide To Awkward Sex, so I expect a lot. With all those previous titles revealing a meaty underbelly when each show had run its course, I should have realized that this year's title would turn out to be more than a cheap joke to get people's attention and get them in the seats. Minnesota Middle Finger is an ideal metaphor for the passive-aggressive struggle these characters all go through individually and in relationship to one another.

"Being bad at lying is just as good as being honest."

Like last year with ...Awkward Sex, writer/director San Del collaborated on the script, getting assistance from fellow Fringer Phillip Andrew Bennett Low. The two have such similar comic sensibilities that it's impossible to tell where one's work ends and the other's begins. Nice thing to have in a collaborator, I'm envious.

"I used to play the trombone. My parents didn't want me having sex in high school."

Any comedy that starts with what just feels like the end of the world (a drunken morning after the party rude awakening) and ends up being about the actual end of the world, yet still leaves room for hope and survival without feeling contrived or overly sentimental, that's a mighty agile comedy. And they got some mighty agile comic performers to bring it to life. Three people are trapped in a house together under an apocalyptic blizzard that threatens to crush the house itself. High stakes?, check. Reason for characters who really don't want to be stuck together to not be able to escape?, check.

"I think it's safe to say we're terrible survivalists."

Florence (Leigha Horton) accompanied her neighbor Adam (Tim Hellendrung) to a housewarming party the night before for their neighborhood's new arrival, a rock musician. Adam would like to be more than just friendly neighbors, but Florence is all about keeping him at arm's length. The only other company they have is party crasher Thomas (John Middleton), a lawyer who used to own the house in which they now find themselves trapped. The house was lost to him when his financial fortunes took a turn for the worse, and the housewarming gave him a perfect opportunity to sneak in and take a look at the old place.

"You're not going to make fun of me?"
"You got there first."

The other partiers, embarrassed by behavior Florence can't remember and Adam refuses to enlighten her about, departed for supplies and never returned. Now Florence, Adam and Thomas are forced to reconstruct the uncomfortable truths about the night before even as they struggle to figure out how they're going to survive being aggressively snowbound. Even if they escape, is there a world out there to escape to anymore?

"It's Minnesota weather. You don't like the apocalypse? Wait five minutes."

Skewering the faux politeness of people who are perpetually conflict averse is rich material which San Del and his actors dig into eagerly, mining the subject material for all the awkward comedy a person could ask for. I don't know where San Del comes up with these ideas, but damn, my funny bone is glad he does. Solid, well-built, entertaining comedy which doesn't require you to check your brain at the door is hard to come by. After Minnesota Middle Finger, just like every year, I look forward to seeing what Ben's got up his sleeve next.

Two performances remain - Friday 8/12 (today) at 4pm, and Saturday 8/13 at 7pm

Very Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - The 612 - Rogues Gallery Arts - 2-1/2 stars

Of all the Fringe shows Mom and I saw together, we thought The 612 from Rogues Gallery Arts was the only one that didn't quite hold together.

It's better in the idea stage that it turned out here in execution. A site-specific theater piece, set in a garage converted into an art gallery. Four writers - Marcus Anthony, Mahmoud Hakima, Ruth Virkus, Duck Washington - tackle the subject of life in the 612 (telephone area code for Minneapolis) from a variety of angles. Local visual artists - Danya Althany Aletebi, Joseph Naughton, Erin Sayer, Danny Sigelman, Chris Williams - design the backdrops and set pieces for each of the plays. Three directors - Philip Henry, Crystal Schneider, Paul von Stoetzel - get the scripts on their feet with the help of an ensemble of actors - Shad Cooper, Jesse Corder, Kate Gunther, Linda Hayen, Ann Rice, Ashley D. Scott, Ryan Scott, Darrin Shaughnessy - several of whom do double duty appearing in more than one of the plays.

The main problem here is a lack of focus. That might have been remedied by having a single director instead of three. But it felt more like a lack of a clear directive at the producing level. There's Virkus' "Powderhorn Triptych" whose three parts serve as the overall framework for the presentation. But the other plays inside that structure are so independent from the triptych that you end up wondering what the production as a whole is trying to say, or is even about. There isn't anything here that invokes the personality of Minneapolis any more than any other city. The four scripts as a group don't feed into each other literally in terms of plot or thematically in terms of intellectual and emotional territory, so there's no accumulated experience for the audience that pays off at the end, making the whole greater than the some of its parts. The publicity describes the show as "an artistic hodgepodge" and its a fairly accurate assessment, though I'm sure they didn't mean in it the way that I experienced it.

Virkus' script - about a man lost in a park by a lake ("like that narrows it down," he says) unable to discern his location, unable to get home - is actually an interesting exploration of the human creatures who come out in the late hours of the night, early hours of the morning. It evokes the feeling it's going for, but I think it suffers by being split into three sections for the needs of the show. Together, the three parts make a complete picture. Separated, with completely unrelated stories in between, the cumulative impact is dissipated.

The most successful script is Hakima's "One Step Forward," in which two long-time friends (Cooper and Rice) inch toward expressing deeper feelings toward one another. The script plays with patterns in the language in inventive ways which the actors use to create different shadings each time they appear.

"Strike" from writer Anthony suffers from being a script that requires a sudden shift backward in time almost 80 years, in a production that otherwise is rooted in the present. Again, since there is no payoff in terms of the union riot having a ripple effect for the characters in the present of the other plays, the whole things seems like some weird sideways jump.

Washington's "Polar Expeditions" finds a couple stranded in a car in the snow in the middle of winter and they offer an extended riff on how damn cold and miserable it is to be in Minnesota at winter time. Amusing in that it takes place in the furnace of summer, where the audience receives small paper fans to keep themselves cool while the actors struggle under multiple layers of clothing. But not something we haven't heard before. If the change in seasons, like the change in time, added up to anything in the larger context of the production, we might have had an interesting portrait of the city. As it is, we've got four individual stories, some of which work better than others, which remain separate rather than a part of something larger.

Like I said up top, I admire the idea of The 612. The realization of the idea onstage still needs some reworking to accomplish its mission.

Four performances remain - 2 on Friday 8/12 (tonight) at 7pm and 10pm, 2 on Saturday 8/13 at 2:30pm and 8:30pm

Fringe Review - Son Of A _________! - Paper Crane Theatre - 4-1/2 stars

Considering I spent the first six days of the Fringe seeing shows with my mother, Son Of A __________! from Paper Crane Theatre was a great final show for Mom to close her Fringing year. Why? Because it's all about a mother and her gay son, of course. Also a great final show for Mom because it's good to go out on a high note. And Son Of A __________! is a really solid piece of theater.

"I come from a family of liars. Big ones."

The first thing that strikes you about Son Of A __________! is the set and costume design. As you wait for the show to begin, you are faced with a stage on which a table and two chairs have had their surfaces painted with random numbers. When the musicians walk out, they, too, are clad in shirts and slacks with numbers painted on them. The two actors, when they arrive, same thing. Fringe has gotten me so used to barebones theatricality that when someone actually takes the time to orchestrate the space with a metaphorical design element, it makes a bigger than expected impact. The meaning of those numbers (no, this isn't Lost), as well as the meaning of the many tiny colorful spiral notebooks littering the front of the stage, comes into sharp focus only in the play's final minutes. The clues, however, are threaded through the narrative in meaningful but unobtrusive ways. It's a lovely payoff.

"I'm a 24-year-old man with part of a 51-year-old woman inside of me."

Also paying off in surprising ways is the use of movement. Levi Morris (writer/director/performer) has orchestrated this whole production with great eye for the choice of just the right details and use of patterns in all the right places. He also has a well-developed sense of when to let things go unexplained, and when to explain them, also when to break those patterns of movement. For instance, there is a woman onstage (Elizabeth Behnke) who never speaks, but we learn through her interaction with Morris that she is a stand-in for his mother. In the opening sequences, when Morris is younger, the mother character walks over, gets Morris set up physically in space, then passes a hand up over his face to start the scene in motion. At a point partway through the action of the play, Behnke leaves the stage. Morris is older. He is on his own. He must find a way to get himself into position and started on the next task. Behnke is gone just long enough that when she reappears at the end, the visual of her reuniting with Morris on stage lands with real impact.

"Will you hold this (prop)? It's going to be really important later, I promise."

The play also opens with an extended sequence of movement which is almost a dance. The moves clearly have meaning, beyond just a human body cutting a path through space, but their exact meaning is unclear, until the end. After witnessing the course of the mother/son relationship, Morris repeats the opening movements again in which Behnke so reluctantly enlisted him at the start. This time, Morris narrates the dance. Just brief phrases. But they, and the movements, are call-backs to the various scenes which have gone before. It's a clever, efficient summing up, and again, because we've followed these characters through this sequence of time, the return to this dance, now done by the son alone, packs a punch.

"Her eyes are wild but defeated. She cannot save the house."

The use of music is also finely calibrated. Sarah Gillund performs on keyboard with Kathleen Watson on cello(?) (viola? I'm horrible with identifying musical instruments sometimes. All I know is she wasn't standing so it wasn't an upright bass. Large stringed instrument, sitting down so... cello or viola). The original music, by Gillund, Watson and Rachel Goble, stays on the right side of the musical soundtrack line usefully reinforcing the action, never straying into being emotionally manipulative. Another element working seamlessly as part of a larger whole.

"I try to cry at least once a month."

Morris is a game performer, never afraid to look ridiculous, and thus he never does. As the one doing all the talking - mostly as different versions of himself, sometimes as his mother - he's shouldering most of the load for the production, and he does it very well. His confidence and stage presence go a long way toward making the production work as well as it does. Though silent, Behnke is nonetheless a formidable presence, and she and Morris work extremely well together.

"Raising six kids. $17,000 below the poverty line."

Ultimately, this isn't a complete portrait of either mother or son, but it isn't meant to be. Who can ever truly know themselves, or their parents? But Morris is way ahead of most of us, taking his family story and structuring a coherent narrative framework around it. Picking through key incidents and smaller moments which reflect the sum of a human being. It's a linear narrative, but with a lot of blank spaces (given the title, this isn't unexpected) - because it isn't Morris' whole life, or even his mother's whole life, just the thread of their lives which they shared together.

"The keys are in the ignition. The van is still running. My mother is halfway up the steps. My heart is still beating."

There's just one tiny step missing here and it's the space between the specific and the universal. In the program, Morris states that he hopes Son Of A __________! brings to mind the audience's relationships to their own mothers, and the lessons of the incidents from their own period of growing up from children to adults. Really, though, Son Of A __________! just gave me a window into Morris' mother, and by extension into Morris himself. Even though I was sitting right next to my mother, I wasn't thinking of the larger notion of motherhood as it related to me, or to the world of mothers and children in general. When Mom and I spoke about the play afterward, we were talking about it in an abstract artistic sense, not in any personal sense. I'm not sure how you get from where Son Of A __________! took me, and where it says it wants to take me. What the show is giving me now is quite a lot. If it wants to go further, then I guess that's the next step in its evolution. Right now though, just as it is, Son Of A __________! is a well-polished, impressive piece of theater.

One more chance to see, Saturday, 8/13 at 8:30

Very Highly Recommended

Their trailer

Their Fringe-For-All preview

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fringe Review - I'm Making This Up As I Go - Samuel Spadino - 4-1/2 stars

Go see I'm Making This Up As I Go.

They have one more show, tomorrow, Friday 8/12, at 10pm.

"I told my dad about the gang shootings in my neighborhood and his advice was, 'just remember that they're more scared of you than you are of them.' No, dad, I think that's bears."

I'm Making This Up As I Go is funny, and it's good, but it's struggling. It needs an audience, and deserves an audience.

"I'd hate to wake up some morning and think, now, 'I'm gay.' Realizing you're gay in your 40s is like discovering you like skateboarding in your 30s. 'Aw man, that seems really cool, but I can't do it now.'"

Last night I was part of an audience of 8.

In a house that seats 115.

And three of those audience members were volunteers that the house manager allowed to sit in on the show because, well, if she hadn't, there would have been 5 people in the audience.

"I used to be a movie critic. Everybody hates movie critics so much that I started telling people I had a different job so they'd hate me less. I said I performed abortions on unicorns. Now before you go getting all indignant just remember that unicorns don't exist... until the third trimester."

Now normally what I call the pain threshold for audience attendance is "at least more people in the audience than there are on stage."

But that's for regular theater.

"Is that sandwich for me? No, I didn't spit in this one. Next one, that one's for you."

For stand-up, like I'm Making This Up As I Go, the pain threshold is a lot higher. You need a critical mass of people willing to laugh. Who can feed off each other's energy, and then feed a little of that energy back to the comedian at the microphone.

"So I'm cuddling with my girlfriend. She says, 'I feel so safe in your arms' and I'm thinking, 'Really? What about this spindly little body of mine screams Safety to you?' If Justin Bieber mated with a tree frog, their kid would look come out looking something like me. I'm not going to be very good in a crisis."

And though I love my adopted people of Minnesota, you're not always the most demonstrative folks to have in an audience. I could see around me that there were a lot of smiles, chuckles, etc. But audible response was largely wanting in a tiny crowd of 8. (I myself can laugh out loud only so much before people start to question my mental health. I crossed that line here, but hell, somebody had to.)

Thus, though each comedian in I'm Making This Up As I Go - John Conroy, Trevor Anderson, Josh Florhaug, and Bryan Miller - was working his ass off, I got the distinct impression that every one of them thought they were dying up there.

"No, I'm not affecting a lisp, this is the way I normally talk. Dating was hard, until the internet, when I could hit the "S" key instead of the TH."

Maybe if the house lights had been up, so the comedian would not have had the barrier of darkness between them and us. Maybe if they could have seen the smiles, directly engaged each of us, throwing a few jokes to that woman, or this guy.

"My roommate pees in the shower, which I wouldn't mind so much, except that always ends up getting it on my leg. I'm like, 'Dude, come on, I know you can aim.'"

Maybe if, like storytellers working in a group, they could have hung out onstage and provided more audience backup for their compatriots. Maybe it wouldn't have seemed so, well, sad as well as funny.

Because they were funny. They were all very funny.

"Yes, my last name is Anderson, and some of you may think that's a boring last name. I like to think of it as a genetically successful last name. The Bakers got their name from baking, the Schumakers from shoe-making, but the Andersons, they just kept making more Andersons."

I can't speak to the line-ups of other comedians or their material in the previous three performances (every show has a different line-up). Maybe those folks earned the one, two and three kitties the audience was throwing at them online, maybe not. I can't say.

"My parents got me that existential set of children's books - Why's Waldo."

What I can say is that the only reason I'm Making This Up As I Go isn't getting a five star review from me is I can't really vouch for the final line-up of comedians sight unseen. And honestly, I'm Making This Up As I Go needs an audience to complete the theatrical circle of life and give birth to an honest to God show up there onstage. Right now, I'm evaluating it in a vacuum. For me, good stuff all around. Your mileage may vary.

"My friends all know I'm an alcoholic and one of them still sent me an invitation to a Beer Pong tournament. That's just wrong. You don't see me challenging my Grandma to a game of Memory."

This had to have been one of the toughest rooms any of those guys have worked since they first started doing stand-up. I think the first guy actually gave up and left, because he didn't hang around for the curtain call at the end. Or maybe he just had to report back to the halfway house (his routine was all about involuntary rehab, after all). Either way it's a shame, because he deserved a final round of applause from us just like all the other guys.

"I took a job as a bartender. That's the natural progression for a music student. Yeah, my mother didn't find that joke nearly as funny as you all did."

So go see I'm Making This Up As I Go.

They have one more show, tomorrow, Friday 8/12, at 10pm.

Stand-up comedy is a great way to spend a late Friday night.

And yes, there are 15 other shows going on at the same time.

But trust me when I say to you, none of those shows needs the audience love nearly as badly as I'm Making This Up As I Go does.

And Sam Spadino is a great host. He is taking all of this in stride. (He's a stand-up comedian, he's survived worse).

"I think we're honing in on that encore slot," he good-naturedly joked. "Our audiences have been... well, declining in number actually but I feel like we're about to crest again. It's coming."

The guy's already losing his shirt on this. Don't take his pants, too.

I know that with most reviews I'm basically saying all the time, "Go see this show." That's nearly always my subtext (unless it's stinker, and the Fringe has a surprisingly low percentage of stinkers this year. I'm normally not this lucky, quality overall is delightfully high).

I write about theater because I want people to see theater. I know firsthand how hard it is to create theater. Even people who end up making bad shows aren't trying to make bad shows (unless they're psychotic). I won't lie and say a show is great if it sucks (even if my friends are in it). I don't want people to waste their time, have a bad time, and then think less of theater as a whole because of it. Defeats the purpose of what I do.

I want people to see good theater. Because if they see good theater, they'll hopefully come back and see more theater. And I really want people to see Fringey theater because it expands the boundaries of what you thought you liked and opens you up to appreciation of things which might not otherwise cross your path (I am a fan of dance and improv comedy because of the Fringe, just for starters, and I'm even gaining a grudging respect for musicals). Fringe exposes you to a variety of different types of entertainment and live performance, and that's a very good thing. Fringe just makes smarter, better audiences.

Samuel Spadino crossed my path when Mom and I stopped in for some Galactic Pizza over the weekend. When we mentioned we were Fringers, he mentioned that he had a show. Just up the street, at Intermedia Arts. They'd gotten in with just a couple of weeks' notice, so getting the word out (not being in the program that everyone refers to so assiduously) had been a challenge. It's a stand-up comedy showcase, every performance has a different line-up of four comedians, plus Samuel as the master of ceremonies. Stand-up and Fringe don't have a lot of immediate audience crossover, so that's another challenge (just ask Ben San Del - and look where he is now, top of the Fringe heap.). Even when you have all the time in the world, it's easy to forget that in addition to making the art, you have to also market the hell out of the art so your audience knows you're out there. Audience reviews on the Fringe site can help, unless they're less than kind.

Sam has been a relentless campaigner not just for his show but for SCOTUS (written by his friend Brandi Brown), a show I also highly recommend. He even mentioned it when Mom and I first met him and he was trying to talk up his own show at the same time. So he's embraced the spirit of Fringe. I'd like the Fringe to embrace him back just a little.

So if you weren't already committed, by family and friends actually in the cast of other shows, to see one of the other 15 shows on Friday night, 8/12 at 10pm, go see I'm Making This Up As I Go.

It's a funny show, a great capper to the evening, and you can take comfort in the fact that nobody needs you more.

Very Highly Recommended

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fringe Review - Something's Gone Wrong In The Dreamhouse - Scream Blue Murmur - 5 stars

Scream Blue Murmur gives us just enough time to really miss them, and then thankfully they come back for another visit. I enjoyed them so much in 2007 with Pack Up Yer Troubles, that they were on my Top 20 list when they reappeared in 2009. Mom didn't get to see them then, though PhatBob did make a guest appearance at the Fringey talk show Hogg & The Humors that same year. I thoroughly enjoyed The Morning After The Summer of Love though it was quite literally the last regularly scheduled thing I saw at the Fringe that year, so I didn't end up reviewing it. They were so popular with everyone else, they landed the encore slot on the schedule (which was right after the show I saw, so I could have made it a back-to-back double feature if I'd stayed put).

"Smoke a pack of Camels, like the doctors do..."

Knowing they'd likely be quite popular again (and the Out of Towner Showcase bore that out), I made sure to get them on Mom's schedule this time around, and early. First day, last slot. Something's Gone Wrong in the Dreamhouse was a perfect way to end our first day of Fringing for 2011, and a mighty fine part of any Fringe day for the rest of you (but make reservations or get there early - they pack the place).

"The women, still missing their men at war..."

Even though they're a poetry/spoken word/music concert/lovefest kind of Fringe show, just like great Fringe dance shows Scream Blue Murmur - Aisling Doherty, Brian Faloon, Gordon Hewitt, and Chelley McLear - and Something's Gone Wrong in the Dreamhouse need to be experienced to be fully appreciated. My words cannot convey the way they make words dance in their poetry. My words cannot convey the way you just can't help smiling from the inside out when they engage the audience in song. My words cannot convey the uneasiness alongside a sense of calm that hanging out with these folks instills in a body. So because my language skills are inadequate to the task here, I have no problem recommending them to anyone. If you've experienced their shows before, then you know what I mean. If you haven't, well then you owe it to yourself to find out.

"Is this really what you want for your feet?"

Scream Blue Murmur doesn't wait for the house lights to dim or even the whole audience to be seated before Something's Gone Wrong in the Dreamhouse kicks into gear. They're not going to waste that ten minutes of pre-show. They're going to hand out water bottles filled instead with random bits of glitter, re-purposed as percussive instruments. If you're not shaking your bottle, then you will be called to account. This is full contact Fringing. They expect you to participate. They will teach you a song while you wait for the show to begin. Audience members are cajoled into coming up on stage and sharing a microphone, dancing and singing.

"Where justice can't see, their arms can't reach me..."

Things get loud, things get soft. Things get angry, things get tender. You are among friends. I was taking notes and shaking my glitter filled water bottle at the same time. If I don't want to be left out, I must multi-task. There is something so liberating about playing music. They know this, so they want to share it with as many people in the crowd as possible. It's the theatrical equivalent of a revival tent meeting.

"Persistent reliving of traumatic experience, shell shock..."

Something's Gone Wrong in the Dreamhouse is delving into the upheavals taking place in the 1930s. Which is comforting, of course, because we don't fight wars anymore and the economy's in great shape and we don't have a race problem in our country, and women's rights, also not an issue. All that's solved, so looking at how so much has changed, well...

"Squeeze the air right out of their lungs..."

I'm being sarcastic, of course. And yeah, it's a little weird watching white people, even white people with Irish accents, decrying the woes of black people in America, but it's supposed to be weird. And if nobody talks about it, it's not like the problem goes away, it just never gets any closer to being solved. It just sits there, festering. So, go ahead, poke the wound. Make me think. Then run your fingers through my hair and make me feel like it's going to be OK somehow, but do it by singing a song or reciting me a poem, or making me help you do it.

"Breathe in Scream Blue Murmur, breathe out..."

Plus, they're pulling in the local talent as well. "It's amazing what you can pick up in a bar on a Saturday night," one of the Scream Blue Murmur ladies intoned. The night we saw the show, they had a musician named Bo Brunner joining them on saxophone, and it was like he'd been jamming with them for ages, just one of the crew. (And if that's what you can pick up in a bar on a Saturday night, I clearly need to get out more often.) (Courtney McLean will be sitting in on banjo during other performances.)

They've got multimedia, too, and while it certainly adds to the overall experience, honestly, I'd be happy just to spend time in their company in a blank unadorned room with regular houselights. Scream Blue Murmur and Something's Gone Wrong in the Dreamhouse is one of the best ways you can spend an hour of Fringing this (or any other) year. I hope we don't have to wait another two years for them to wander into Minneapolis again, but you don't have to wait that long. They've still got performances Wednesday 8/10 at 8:30, Saturday 8/13 at 5:30 and Sunday 8/14 at 1:00.

Very Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - Nightmare In Bakersfield - Les Kurkendaal - 5 stars

The name of the producing company for Nightmare In Bakersfield is quite apt - The Adventures of Les Kurkendaal. Every year since I first introduced Mom to Les, both onstage and off, she puts his shows at the top of her list of things she most wants to see. "It's like another chapter in the story." Exactly.

Someone commented to me that, after Les did the introductory segment of his show at the Out of Towner Showcase, their spouse turned to them and said, "I think I've seen this show before." Well, yes and no. Les' shows are always about Les in one form or another. But it's how he chooses to process his life with each passing year that is most telling.

Someone else who's been privy to more of Les' productions over the years than I have noted that he becomes more accomplished in his storytelling skills with each passing Fringe. I'll second that assessment. It's been great fun to watch him grow, with the added benefit that the shows just keep on getting better. Like visiting an old friend in more ways than one, a friend who only improves with time.

"I have everything I need right here."

I got on the Les Kurkendaal bandwagon late in the game. He was already a fixture at the Minnesota Fringe, visiting faithfully from sunny California, one of our biggest fans (and we, his) by the time I finally saw Christmas In Bakersfield in 2006 (and introduced him to Mom in 2007 when he remounted the show).

From Attack of the Big Angry Booty (2008) to The Gayer Show (2009) to Drink Drank Drunk (2010), Les hasn't just been mining his life for easy laughs. He uses a healthy sense of humor (and perspective) to create stories about the rough edges, bumps and bruises of life - weight issues, troubled relationships with parents, alcoholism - that don't get bogged down in "pity poor me." That smile of Les' is earned. His gift to his audience is that anything can be gotten through, if you want to make it happen badly enough - and you keep your eye on the things that are really important.

"Oh, you do porn!"

In Nightmare In Bakersfield, Les is struggling with something less obvious, but just as insidious - wishing your life was something else so much that you forget to appreciate the good things you already have. Les' husband Mike is lauded as one of the 100 Most Famous People to come out of his hometown of Bakersfield. So when Mike's class reunion rolls around, everyone back home at his old school is anxious to see him. They just don't know Mike's gay. So when Les comes along for the big occasion at Mike's request, that makes things interesting.

"What happened this time, were you voted Miss Bakersfield?"

Les has to deal with his unexpected jealousy at being the "less famous" one in the couple. He also has to deal with people constantly mistaking him for the only African American Mike's class had in their ranks (a man who wisely decided to stay away from the reunion).

"I guess all black people really do look alike to them."

There is, naturally, a colorful cast of characters, but here's where Les' tale is different from previous ones. Les creates this large cast of characters and keeps juggling them as he recounts the big night of the reunion. These people aren't simple cartoons. They start to reveal other layers. As does Mike, who doesn't seem to have any problem introducing Les as his partner, and correcting people if they get it wrong. It's no big deal to Mike, he just wants everyone to know he and Les are together, and patiently pushes past people's confusion until the light dawns.

"Where is that lovely wife of yours?"

Learning that contentment is not the same as settling, that's a tricky one. Continuing to push for your dreams without forgetting or discounting all you've accomplished, that's also tricky. And Les is finding that balance as he gets introduced to his husband's past, very happy to be part of his present and future.

Is Nightmare In Bakersfield hard-hitting, edgy Fringe fare? No, but that's not what Les and his shows are about. They're about the simple things that are so simple we tend to overlook them. They're the little moments inside the big picture, keeping both in perspective. And each new show is another part of a still larger picture. People like Mom and me are just waiting for the next chapter of the story. Knowing Les, he's already lived it and is just trying to figure out how best to find the humor in the twists and turns of a life well-lived, and use that to encourage us to do the same.

Very Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - The Attic Room - RE/Dance Group - 4 stars

The Attic Room from the Chicago dance troupe RE/Dance Group may be a case of both me and Mom paying too close attention and getting in our own way.

We probably just should have set the program for the production aside and let the show wash over us a bit more. The program indicated the piece was one 45-minute dance theater work in 26 segments. I immediately start doing the math. Mom was trying to follow along in her program in the near dark. If we'd been less interested in trying to figure out where one segment ended and the next began, we'd probably have entered the world of the overall piece more easily. The emphasis in our heads should have been more on "one 45-minute dance theater work" and less on the demarcation of the 26 moving parts. Because one segment flowed into the next fairly fluidly most of the time. It wasn't so much about beginnings and endings within the framework as it was an overall accumulation of experience.

"There's a path. At least I think there's a path. You have to squint your eyes to see it."

When it's at its best, The Attic Room, has a delightful feeling of whimsy about it. The situation, though strange, is also strangely simple. There are six bird people - Stacy DeMorrow, Carolyn Marcotte, Jonathan Monroe-Cook, Melanie Rockwell, and artistic directors Lucy Riner (the R) and Michael Estanich (the E, and choreographer of this piece). And by bird people I mean human beings in normal clothes - button down shirts, slacks, vests, blouses, skirts, and long dresses - and feathered half-masks over the top of their heads, beaks were noses would be (all designed by Brenda DeWaters). Human eyes are fully exposed within their feathery framework, however, so it feels sometimes more "masquerade ball" than "mutant hybrid."

The six bird people are in an attic space - two high-backed wooden chairs, stacks of old books, an enormous rug, a rolled-up map, a set of tiny lamps with their own paper shades, and a large wooden basket full of paper cranes set into flight by a large electric fan pointed to the sky. But the space does not confine them. Those these bird people never take flight, their imaginations set them loose. A combination of music, spoken text, and movement create a much larger world.

"Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled, from across that lonesome ocean."

They hop over small stacks of books like stepping stones to cross a stream. They use their bodies to create a large sailing ship, books sometimes used as oars, rolled map as a telescope. They often look out to the audience as if we were a distant shore they were setting out to explore. They curl up around one another in moments of easygoing intimacy. They dance balancing tiny lamps in their hands. They set one of their own giggling as they tickle her with their feet, holding her aloft while laying on their backs in a group, legs straight up in the air. They create an undulating mountain range for one of them to walk over, the back person in line shifting up to the front as the walking dancer steps from one person onto the next, keeping the human pathway twisting and turning.

Best to just let the spoken text wash over you as well (by Estanich, Larry D. Thomas, and the company). It's more poetry than dialogue. Like the movement, it's evocative rather than specific - opening the attic world to the larger one beyond with a feeling of wanderlust and mystery, rather than specific details we're meant to understand and take literally.

"I once thought I was made of glass."

The music worked for and against them. Like the spoken text and the movement, it was best when it was less specific. Instrumental passages worked most effectively, feeling most like a soundtrack to their adventures. Often the lyrics to songs did more harm than good. I'm sure this may also have to do with the personal experience the audience members have with certain songs which they bring in with them. Much as I enjoy hearing the old pop tune "Magic" from The Cars, or Barbara Streisand belting out "Don't Rain On My Parade," they pull me out of the action. I start thinking "music video," or wondering where exactly this music is coming from, as if it should have a source in the attic room (a stack of a dusty LPs by an old phonograph maybe). Because I have a specific feeling about certain tracks, I start to ruminate on what significance the music has to the bird people and why they chose to listen to it.

I do have to thank them though, for introducing me to Nanci Griffith's cover of Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather." That six minute stretch of music and movement was among the production's most successful. A perfect marriage of source material and new context among those six human-bird bodies. It completely enchanted me. (I'm actually listening to Griffith warbling that ditty on a loop while I type this review.) For that segment alone, this attic is well worth visiting, but there's much more to enjoy. Just check your brain at the door, set the program aside, and follow where the bird people lead you.

Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - Deadline - Interplanetary Appeal - 5 stars

Jake Scott, one half of the improv duo Interplanetary Appeal, is a returning favorite from back in Fringe 2009 when he was on my Top 10 List for Rumspringa the Musical - a play he both wrote and performed in. While I had my issues with some of Rumspringa the Musical, I couldn't resist its catchy comic premise of "Amish girl falls in love with a robot." A similar quirky sensibility infuses Scott's collaboration with James Rone in this year's Fringe, Deadline: A Choose Your Own Adventure Story. Rone and Scott have been honing their idea in local improv comedy showcases throughout the year, including good ol' HUGE Theater, and the hard work has definitely paid off. Deadline: A Choose Your Own Adventure Story is a snappy sampling of long-form improv comedy.

"There's a reason we don't write together. You don't like me. I don't like you."

The framework Interplanetary Appeal has chosen is a perfect vehicle for any number of improv scenarios. It's based on something that itself was a kind of improv in book form. James Rone plays Edward Packard, and Jake Scott plays Ray Montgomery, the two men behind the successful "Choose Your Own Adventure" series of books for young readers back in the 1980s and 1990s (which makes this - gulp - a period piece? I feel suddenly old. Anyway...) The books were structured in such a way that at pre-determined junctures in the story there was a choice to be made. The reader would choose option or the other, and based on that choice the book would head down a different path.

"You got drunk and told R.L. Stine to go f**k himself."

As this story begins, Packard has moved on and is writing other books, when Montgomery turns up at Packard's office, begging for one last collaboration. Montgomery has talked the publisher into putting out one last edition of "Choose Your Own Adventure" but only if he can convince Packard to write it with him. The two actually wrote the novels in the series separately all those years, with one exception. Copyright issues eventually drove a wedge between them. This fictional last chance collaboration is something the audience sets in motion and continues to guide throughout.

"They're gonna ban that book faster than you can say 'ban a book.'"

Before they unfold the initial Packard/Montgomery framework, Rone and Scott ask the audience for an example of a career (they hastened to add, but not quite fast enough for our crowd, a career you would like to see a play about). Someone called out "Astronaut!", but not before someone else beat them to the punch with "Teacher!" And so it begins...

"Where did we leave those (invisible, mimed) copies? I think they were right here."

Except for a couple of grumbling asides, the duo gamely created not one but two teaching adventures. In the first, Scott was a gym teacher facing school cutbacks but also the possibility of joining a union. Unfortunately, after deciding to unionize the children to attack their school principal overlord, Scott learns that his teacher has signed not a union contract, but a contract with the devil for his soul. The final choice - go on a mission to retrieve his soul, or hang out and have drinks with the school secretary and her co-workers.

"The contract you signed, did you read it?"
"Of course not, I'm a gym teacher."

The second scenario found Rone as a science teacher running afoul of an unhappy parent and her minister, who didn't take kindly to all that evolution stuff. When meeting with the minister, the science teacher was struck down, not by God, but by a sandbag falling from the rafters. Upon further investigation, Rone discovers Jennifer the Missing Link living up there and helps her escape - to the consternation of the faithful. The final choice - to dupe Jennifer the missing link into believing you have feelings for her so you can keep her around for research purposes, or to simply lock her up and study her, write an amazing paper and sit back to drink in the world's acclaim.

"You're just praying in the middle of our conversation? That's rude."

Your plot scenarios will of course be completely different, for every audience chooses a different career, and every career path forks in many different directions. Between the two plots in which one partner takes the lead, the other a host of supporting roles, the two authors return to Packard's desk and squabble over how "that first story idea is never going to fly with the publisher" (the publisher isn't big on unions, unions are tools of the communists! what, you think the evolution vs. organized religion plotline is going to be less tricky for them?) Ultimately at the end, they find a way to bring their two plot strands together (perhaps they can unionize the missing links!) and agree that maybe this one last collaboration wasn't such a bad idea after all.

The sense of conflict at the start, as well as the notion of two different stories in which they each take a turn in the role of hero vs. second banana, and the plot reboot in the middle, means there's more going on underneath the surface of the improv that's fueling the choices. Keeping that extra layer of the plot in play gives the scenario an added level of difficulty which is fun to watch play out.

"You teach in the music department. If there are cuts, you should go first."

Also, sometimes the audience choices clearly appalled the character/performers, as when the audience chose to string poor Jennifer the Missing Link along and let her believe that the science teacher was falling for her, just in order to keep her in line to use as his research project. Well, they have a way of compensating for that. It seems the female missing links devour their mates. Ooops. Bad strategy, science teacher. The end. Then the duo steps forward and lets us know they can turn back the chapter to the other (less morally reprehensible) choice and let that one play out instead. When the audience chose to have the gym teacher ditch the search for his soul to have a chance to hang out with a cute lady, he warned her, "I don't have a soul, is that going to be a problem?" "That's OK," she replied, "I've got enough soul for both of us." The end.

(Side note - I have to say again how much I appreciate good improv artists who don't get hung up on issues of sexuality, these guys being an example. Sometimes the supporting character in the scene is a woman. Whether they're a convincing looking woman or not isn't the point so much as that they commit to it emotionally. If the characters are interested in each other, the guys don't shy away from getting close or wink at the audience as if to say, "Totally not gay here" or "What a joke, right?" They play the scene. The fact that it's two guys playing out the scene isn't a big deal to them, so it isn't a big deal to us. Nicely done.)

"Do tears mean the same thing to your people?"

With multiple choices at several points in each story thread, Rone and Scott may be making their lives harder, but they're making for a more engaged audience, which is a smart way to go. Also, it keeps them from getting bored, or running out of ideas (not that I imagine either of those problems ever presents itself for these guys). Gotta be on your toes when you're willing to take the audience on as a third improv partner.

"You dumb sh*t, they can't put on earmuffs if they're doing pushups!"

Deadline: A Choose Your Own Adventure Story is a great way to give the audience the illusion of structure (which just makes some folks more comfortable) while still giving long-form improv the free rein it always has to go anywhere it wants. Clever idea, smartly done, and it's never the same show twice.

Very Highly Recommended

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Fringe Review - The Day The Nineties Died - Callow Youth Productions - 5 stars

The Day The Nineties Died won't be the most popular show at this year's Fringe. But The Day The Nineties Died is the most important show I've seen at this year's Fringe.

"You show me one instance of non-violent revolution, I will bow down and kiss your feet."

The Day The Nineties Died is an incredibly polarizing production. In fact, Mom and I were warned off going to see it, more than once, on the day of the performance. I'm so glad we didn't listen.

"It's a little bit cult-y, but..."

Because The Day The Nineties Died was recommended to us by someone who knows I like new plays. They thought the production was tackling some big issues in new ways, and for that reason alone it was worth seeing. Mom and I happened to run into the person who recommended the show right after seeing it and we said, "Thank you so much for telling us to see that show. We both loved it!"

"10 beers in, typical Wednesday night..."

And The Day The Nineties Died doesn't seem at first glance like an easy show to love. The production is described thusly...

"At the dawn of the 21st century, a group of anarchists plan an attack on an international summit of globalization leaders. But will their idealism give way when confronted with the reality of destruction?"

"If they didn't have commercials, how would I know what I'm supposed to buy?"

It's only now that I sit down to write this review (must post quickly, get the word out, see this show) that I see they billed it in the "comedy" and "satire" categories. The production description of "hair raising yet hilarious" is actually more apt. Because The Day The Nineties Died is funny. Often very funny. But the underpinnings of it are deadly serious.

"If you don't familiarize yourself with the issue, how are you any different than Timothy McVeigh?"

The weird thing is that it's not about the disillusionment of youth that leads to apathy and indifference. It's the kind of disillusionment that leads to action. These characters want to fix things. They've just come to the conclusion that they only way they can do this is with bombs. What's fascinating is that you not only understand them, you kind of agree with them. And that's the point where you start to think, "OK, either they're crazy or I am, or we all are."

"You were one of 'those' girls. What happened?"

The chief strengths of this strange and wonderful script are the youth, humor and intelligence of its writer/directors - Anders Lee and Ben Yela. An older playwright would have gotten the voice of the characters wrong. You listen to the characters speaking and you think, "This isn't somebody guessing about the way young people talk. This is actually the way young people talk." (Edited, yes, none of us are this erudite in real life, but the correct impulse behind the language is there.) This is an extrapolation of all those "what the hell's wrong with the world right now?" discussions you have the luxury of pursuing in college. The next question, "what's it going to take to change things, and how can we do it ourselves?" are taken to their logical extreme here. Perhaps the authors started with "what would it take to convince me that blowing something up was the correct solution?" and backtracked from there. However they arrived at this script, I'm glad they didn't let anyone talk them out of it.

"It's not complicated. It isn't e = m... uh..."

I'm also glad they found this cast to help them. These are some fine young actors. They have better control over their voice and manner than some actors I've seen at this year's festival with twice their age and experience. They make the discussion of this anarchists' plot, and the reasons behind it, so easygoing and unforced, it's both amusing and more than a little terrifying.

"You guys have no grasp of fen shui whatsoever."

Martin (Sam Pearson) brings his high school dropout sister Maya (Suzi Gard) back into his life at exactly the wrong time. Sure, Maya needs to escape their abusive parents. But Martin's on the verge of attacking an international summit of the WTO, World Bank, and IMF with his fellow believers Nivea (Chelsie Newhard) and Jack (Jeff Shockley). When Martin first informs Maya of the plan, she recoils, but Martin makes a convincing case (and he's her big brother) so he brings her around. After getting their final instructions from The Specialist (Yela), the group plays host to a couple of college jocks that Maya picked up nearby. Chad (Lee) and Brad (Luther Nelson) are momentarily swayed by the lure of cheap beer and pretty girls, but only one of them has an epiphany that sticks. The next morning the bombs are set and ready to be triggered...

Spoiler alert - then 9/11 happens.

Yeah. They go there.

It's not video footage. Just the soothing voice of Aaron Brown on CNN, after the planes have both hit, as people are still trying to process what is happening. And then the buildings start to fall...

"There are no words..."

This is actually the first use of 9/11 in a play that's ever worked for me. A big part of it is the way the actors sell it. But it's the right choice for a play making this argument. Ballsy as hell, but right.

There are so many places this play could have gone completely off the rails. I just kept sitting there thinking, "please don't screw this up, please don't screw this up, please don't screw this up."

And you know what? They don't.

Right to the very end which is swift, surprising, economical, and perfect.

"These are fantastical times. Buildings are on fire."

There are little things that nagged me like "Why are they leaving the briefcase in the hotel room?" "Why are they coming back instead of just heading out of town and watching the news coverage from hundreds of miles away?" But that's me as an audience member, focused, laser-like, on all the details because part of me wants them to get away with it. And, honestly, that's little stuff that I'm willing to gloss over given that so much of the rest of it works so very, very well. This is hopefully not the last we've seen of this play, and that's what minor cosmetic rewrites are for.

"You've gotta look at this like it's an honor. You're going to be a part of history."

This play could only have been birthed in an incubator like the Fringe, because it needs an audience to grow. And the Fringe makes it so much easier for this play and its audience to find each other.

You want a play that makes you laugh, seduces you, then gives you a little slap on the back of the head?

You want a play that makes plays seem like they're worth a damn?

You should go see The Day The Nineties Died. Augsburg Mainstage. Two more chances - Wednesday 8/10 at 10pm, Saturday, 8/13 at 7pm.

Callow Youth Productions, my ass. We should all be so callow.

The Day The Nineties Died isn't for everyone. But it might be for you. Don't let anyone talk you out of it.

Very Highly Recommended.