Thursday, September 26, 2013

Weirdest. Ensemble. Ever. (Friday 9/27 - 4pm-10pm)

Outside of the occasional play reading, the last time I did any performing was in the 2000 Minnesota Fringe Festival, playing the world's oldest Jimmy Olson cub photographer in the bisexual adventures of Superman.  Superman was, among other things, carrying on simultaneous affairs with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson.  Lois wore a leather dominatrix outfit. I wore flannel pajamas.  But, hey, I got to make out with a cute guy in tights all summer, so win-win.

Before that, it had been a long break - reaching back to undergrad in Terre Haute, Indiana, where I sat atop an enormous cuckoo clock, in lederhosen, playing the flute.  I was Hans Christian Andersen.  Really, the less said about that production, the better.

Acting is not my calling.  In fact, it's way out of my comfort zone.  I leave it to the professionals.

However, Samantha Johns has lured me into semi-performance again.

Tomorrow, Friday, September 27, 2013.  One night only.  And I am in some very eclectic company (see the roster at the end of the post).

Not really performance so much as simply being.  Deliberately.  In public.  With another person alongside me.

Samantha Johns and George McConnell directed something that was, no question, one of the best pieces of theater I saw in 2012 - Snowf**k (of course they spelled it out in all caps, but I don't want to shout and curse on the internet at the same time, so...)

Samantha and George (and their partner in crime Paige Collette) make some damn interesting theater together.  Just check out Samantha's website if you don't believe me.

The thing that probably interests me most about it is that they're never pretending the audience isn't there, that the audience is a passive spectator.  They want to engage the audience, to pull them out of themselves for a minute or two, or ninety, and get them to really encounter what they're seeing.  It's a conversation.  Even if the audience isn't speaking, they're actively watching, thinking, and responding.  It's not the dreaded "audience participation" but the fourth wall is definitely a creeky old anachronism best shoved off to the side.  Walls in general are not what Samantha, George and Paige are interested in, unless they're knocking them down.

So, there's this arts initiative in St. Paul called Irrigate:

Irrigate is an artist-led creative placemaking* initiative spanning the six miles of the Central Corridor Light Rail line in Saint Paul during the years of its construction. Artists collaborate with businesses, organizations and community groups to change the landscape of the corridor with color, art, surprise, creativity and fun.

* Placemaking is the act of people coming together to change overlooked and undervalued public and shared spaces into welcoming places where community gathers, supports one another, and thrives. Places can be animated and enhanced by elements that encourage human interaction – from temporary activities such as performances and chalked poetry to permanent installations such as landscaping and unique art.

And there's this adult novelty store called The Love Doctor (right near the corner of University and Snelling, just off highway 94) - think Sex World with a lot less neon.  No, I'm not linking to their website, that's the definition of NSFW.  They're at 1607 University Avenue West in St. Paul.  "Your Prescription For Passion" (hee)

Outside The Love Doctor, there are a number of evenly spaced trees along the sidewalk bordering University Avenue.

From 4pm to 10pm on Friday, September 27, 2013, there will be pairs of people between these trees.

According to our instructions, or Performance Score:

-You will perform in between the trees lining the sidewalk - in front of Love Doctor.
-When you arrive. You can pick your location and begin performing.
-Sam will be there - if you have questions before you begin.
-The piece is silent.
-The piece is family friendly.
-The piece does not involve any objects/props other than humans.
[If you would like you may bring something to sit on - if you do not want to stand for 1+ hour.]
-Clothing of your choice. Pedestrian attire.
-Ideally you will remain in one location during your performance time.
-You will be performing actions of intimacy and care.
Possible examples of Intimacy: Holding hands, Brushing a cheek, Hugging, Kissing,
Looking at each other, Standing back to back, Thumb wresting, ETC
[It could be one of these actions, or all of these actions. Or what ever you feel best about.]
-If pedestrians ask what you are doing - we'll have flyers for you to hand them (below)
-With-in this score, please make the piece your own.
-Relax. Have fun. Respect.

-If you would like to stay longer than you signed up for, wonderful!
-There will be photos and video being taken.
-We will have bottled water for you.
-Bathrooms are available in The Love Doctor.

Those flyers we hand out in order to stay silent/not talk say the following:

Ten Statements About THIS.HERE.

1- THIS.HERE. is legitimate.

2 - THIS.HERE. is a reality where intimacy is not something to be hidden.

3 - THIS.HERE. is a small little scream we need you to hear.

4 - THIS.HERE. [re]performs and [re]invents the identity of civilian.

5 - THIS.HERE. is a long-approach to altering landscape.

6 - THIS.HERE. fashions a situation to defeat oppression.

7 - THIS.HERE. is a safe environment to respect, empower, and take care of yourself and others.

8 - THIS.HERE. erases culture artifacts and [re]claims love in its own image.

9 - THIS.HERE. lives in the body, in the mind, in the air.

10 - THIS.HERE. can be performed/lived anywhere by anyone.

"These are our beliefs. You get to have beliefs of your own. What matters to us is not that you agree with us, but that you question the prevailing paradigm and decide for yourself what you believe."
- Easton and Liszt

Project maybe possible by:
Love Doctor.
Samantha Johns.
Paige Collette.
And Viewers Like You.


So yes, it sounds pretentious.  Everything Samantha and George and Paige do sounds pretentious.  They take it very seriously.  They talk about it in a very simple straightforward manner.  But it's not about being confrontational.  It's just about not being passive.  And I never experience theater that these people make as pretentious.  It's always just something they're very excited about sharing with an audience.  Quite literally sharing.  It's not about "look at me and what I'm doing."  It's about "come over here and hang out with me for a while and tell me what you think of this."  Frankly, it's always fun, and odd, and strangely innocent for something that is so often dealing with human intimacy.

This event came up in a random exchange of messages between Samantha and myself and I thought, "Well, I can stand in one place and hang out in silence with a friend for an hour."

Then it occurred to me - who would I ask?

If I had a husband or boyfriend, obviously, that would make something like this easier.  Of course, there's a friend down in Texas, and another friend over in Slovakia, either of whom would said yes and be totally down with the whole idea.  After all, with me it'd be more like hanging out than making out anyway.  So, local...  Samantha had no worries about it, "there are millions of cool local ppl who would look at you for an hour or 2."  Thanks, but I also have to feel comfortable asking them.

And of course, my brain immediately thought, "It should be a guy."  The whole reason I do theater is to tell stories that I don't see, and I figured (rightly, see the roster below) that the whole thing would lean largely hetero.  Even if the "two guys" pairing I brought to the mix wasn't going to be sexual, just the presentation of two men, together, silent, with no beer or ladies involved would naturally send a different message than the expected Love Doctor male-female pairings, or even two women (which people seem more comfortable with, less threatened, even titillated by, for better or worse).  I am, naturally, oversimplifying and generalizing.  It was just my thought process.

So, it'll be me and two heterosexual fellows hanging out between a couple of trees in front of a sex toy shop.  I'm standing for a two hour block, and they'll each tag in for an hour apiece.  And I have absolutely no idea what we're doing.  First is Cade Homselth, dancer, choreographer, aerialist and massage therapist.  Next is Matt Weerts, playwright, actor, and stand-up comedian.  Matt and I will probably have a harder time because we're used to talking so damn much.  Cade's a lot more in touch with the physical side of things.

Worst case scenario - I get to hang out for a couple of hours with a couple of guys like I like spending time with, and we're less than compelling "theater."  Plus I push the envelope of my comfort zone by being out in public with the express purpose of being looked at.  The "what am I wearing" part of my day will be especially fraught.  Matt and I have already planned to go out and eat afterward just to be allowed to talk and decompress.

There's really no hiding here.  We're either close to the doors where the customers at Love Doctor come and go, or we're on the ends where people walking by the Love Doctor have to pass on the sidewalk.  We're getting seen no matter where we place ourselves.  There is no offstage, because there is no stage.

So here's the line-up, starting at 4pm

Billy Mullaney (another Samantha/George regular) and Emily Gastineau are there for the entire six hour stretch from 4 to 10pm.  If you get bored with any of the rest of us, Billy and Emily are always fun to watch.

Also on deck from 4 to 5pm - Amy Salloway and Florence Brammer; Ben Kreilkamp and TBA; Megan (no last name given) with Jim and Oliver (same); and Carly and Chelsea (again, no last names)

Joining Billy and Emily from 5pm to 6pm is the pairing of Elayna Waxse and David Rue

Starting at 6pm; Savage Umbrella regulars Blake E. Bolan and Carl Atiya Swanson and Hannah K. Holman get a daisy chain of pairings going - it's Blake and Carl from 6pm to 7pm, Carl and Hannah from 7 to 8, and Hannah and Blake from 8 to 9.

Joining that, along with Billy and Emily, will be me and Cade (Everett hour 1)

Starting at 7pm, Cade tags out and Matt tags in for Everett hour 2, alongside Billy and Emily, and Carl and Hannah.  Also in play, Annie Enneking with Harper and Flann

I may be done for the evening at 8pm, but Billy and Emily continue, Hannah and Blake pair up, and Alana Horton starts her own two hour block, first with Ben Marcy.  Also in play, John Bueche and Nancy Waldoch, and Emma Buechs and Phoebe DeVincenzi

Winding down the evening, we have the ever present Billy and Emily, while Alana pairs off with Ryan Brownlow.

So part of St. Paul is definitely not shutting down after 5pm tomorrow.

Come watch a bunch of people.  Being.  Together.

I think it's going to be fun.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - No Stopping No Warping No Dying - Beaches, for Dudes

Tweet Review - NoStopping, NoWarping, NoDying does all 3 very well, a Beaches for video game playing dudes, and that's a compliment - 5 stars

When the lights came up after the Fringe show No Stopping, No Warping, No Dying was over, Mom turned to me, impressed, and said, "That was very good."

Yes.  Very.

"It's not really bread.  It's Jesus by the time you eat it."

I freely at admit to knowing next to nothing about video games or gaming culture.  Just something I missed.  So I was wondering how much I'd enjoy No Stopping, No Warping, No Dying.  Even after their Out of Towner Showcase preview with the hilarious Ten Commandments rap song, and the obvious chemistry between the two actors that convinced me to give the show a try.  Would I feel left out by a bunch of inside jokes?  Nope.  The play told me all I needed to know without clunky exposition.  I picked up the knowledge I needed as I went along, following the lives of two friends from their childhood days through adulthood.

"I still have three lives left and you'll be dead soon."

And since I'm gay, of course I made a Beaches reference in that tweet.  No Stopping, No Warping, No Dying has more than a little bit in common with the general trajectory of the plot of Beaches, even if Gavin Reedy has little in common with Barbara Hershey other than being a brunette, and amusing as he was, I don't think anyone would confuse Charles Askenaizer with Bette Midler.

"If I was your dad, I wouldn't leave your mom.  Never.  Your mom's hot."

Ed Krystosek's script leapfrogs nimbly in short scenes through these young men's lives until they have families and children of their own to contend with.  The actors working with director Peter Connor make the sometimes abrupt emotional transitions work.  The transitions between scenes and passage of time are accompanied by amusing electronic versions of pop songs old and new filtered through the sound system of a gaming console.  Speaking of gaming consoles, the most significant part of the set is an enormous replica of an old school Nintendo Entertainment System.  The super-Nintendo opens up in several different combinations to be a sofa, a couple of chairs or a bed, and is another part of the production's peculiar charm.

"You really don't get how jokes work, do you?  You're just funny every now and again out of dumb luck."

The guys are known only as Player 1 (Askenaizer) and Player 2 (Reedy), but even though we don't know their names, we know these guys.  We meet the boys when they discover the joys of Nintendo as a confirmation present for Player 1.  Player 2's parents' troubled marriage unravels over the course of a few quick scenes, and then Player 1's family needs to move away.  The boys' bond survives, however, and they meet up again at college, rooming together and playing games long into the night.  Of course there is a fight over a girl which leads to a fight on the eve of graduation pushing the two men apart for 12 years.

"Always forward, never straight - something my gay uncle says."

But when Player 2's life starts to fall apart after two significant shocks I won't spoil here, Player 1 reenters his life and becomes the strong foundation of support Player 2 needs to make tough decisions and preparations for their shared future.

"Aren't I entitled to a month of breakup sex and awkward breakfasts?"

There's a lot of laughter here, some easy, some borderline.  The very theatrical conceit of the rapid passage of time and the big gaming console as setting is further tweaked by asides to the audience, but oddly they don't distract from the story at hand, or the reality of the men's situation.  Equal credit goes to script, actors and director on that score.  While the audience is never not aware they're watching a play, even with the short scenes the viewer is drawn in by the intensity of the situations and the truth of the performances.

"Promise me you will read Harry Potter so you can talk to the girls.  How are you supposed to teach them anything if you don't know Dumbledore?"

No Stopping, No Warping, No Dying also has a great feel for how guys often just refuse to deal with their emotions, and the violent outbursts that arise when they're trying to keep from letting someone close enough to hurt them.  It also nails the power of a bond between two people with real history together.  It may not be a romance, but it's more than just a bromance.  These guys are brothers in every way that counts.  The actors make you believe the intensity (and awkwardness) of this connection.  It's something the play needs to work when it pushes into the adult years of these men's lives together.

"Tell me a story."
"Close your eyes.  Once upon a time there were two best friends.  And one of them was given an incredible gift."

The fact that No Stopping, No Warping, No Dying covers so much ground quickly and believably is a little marvel.  It's one well worth seeing before the Fringe Festival draws to a close and these guys head back to Chicago.  Hopefully they like us, and they'll come back again with something else soon.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Next performance, today, Friday 8/9 at 4pm
For more information, see their Fringe page

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - Heatwave - Another Great DRP Dance Showcase

Tweet Review - Heatwave indeed! DRP Dance has long-legged ladies dancing up a (summer) storm. Great, varied material, lots of flair - 5 stars

OK, I have to admit I kind of cringe at that tweet now. "Come see the hot babes" may be a great marketing strategy, and that's the spirit in which I offered it, but it also cheapens the other thing I was trying to get across, which is that DRP Dance's Heatwave is a great dance show.

Mom still remembers the duet between Danielle Robinson-Prater (the DRP of DRP Dance) and Sara Stevenson Scrimshaw in last year's Happy Hour.  Mention it and she will be more than happy to go on about the grace and sexiness of these two women dancing together.  They are ideally suited as physical partners onstage and seem to have a comfort level with each other which makes the most wonderful stage pictures possible.  Not ones to disappoint, there's a DRP/Scrimshaw dance, "Sunporch," that closes out Heatwave.

Both Robinson-Prater (also the choreographer of the piece) and Scrimshaw are outfitted in long, patterned dresses and begin the dance folded over one another on all fours, taking turns slowly dragging each other across the stage toward two rocking chairs.  Once reached, the chairs provide a comfortable respite from the toils of the day.  One rests their head in the other's lap, then rises to climb into the other's lap altogether, putting two people in one chair.  They of course get on their feet as well, dancing up a storm.  Throughout, their intimacy makes for compelling viewing.

That dance alone would be worth the price of admission but there's so much more.  There's a rousing opening number set in a dive bar called "LQ Hustle," choreographed by Joanie Mix to the tune of the Pine Box Preachers' "Nobody Likes A Liar," which I went home and downloaded and am listening to right now.  It, and the dance, are a heck of a lot of fun.  The nine dancers involved - Elizabeth Benson, Lindsay Bullock, Haiden Campbell, Alyssa Casey, Rana Kuebker, Makenzie Lewis, Joanie Mix, Bre Poliak and Kyra Scanlon - fill the Southern stage with bar patrons and waitresses alternately dancing with and bumping into each other (deliberately of course), sending the dance in all sorts of interesting directions.  Even the folding chairs and tables of the bar get in on the action.  It's a great way to kick off the show.

Dancer/choreographers Lynn Andrews and Abby Swenson offered up an abstract piece called "The Sound of Worms" - which takes a pair of worms from their dark happy home underground up into the light of day, and then finally on hooks in the deep blue water, waiting for the fish to come.  Kudos to Fringe techs Karen Olson and Kevin Springer going the extra mile to creatively light this one and get the story across.

Scrimshaw has a couple of solos she choreographed that get interspersed between the other acts.  "Bright Summer Moonlight" and "Summer Storm" also allowed husband Joseph Scrimshaw to get in on the act as Chad "Calm Voice" Johnson on the radio.  "Bright Summer Moonlight" has Scrimshaw choosing to sun herself under the moon at night instead, and "Summer Storm" has her breaking out a pair of bright red rubber boots to dance in underneath a big colorful umbrella.

Christin Maginnis' "E Finito?" tells the sad tale of a woman and her waiter (Sam Feipel) at an Itlalian restaurant.  The blue and red checked tablecloths act as ways to bind people together as well as set them loose.  The large restaurant banquet table also gets a lot of action both above and below.

Janika Vandervelde evocative sound sore for "Itch" gets under your skin just as effectively as the motions of the performers.  Choreographed by Deborha Jinza Thayer in collaboration with dancers Renee Copeland, Penelope Freeh, Genevieve Muench, Sharon Picasso and Taylor Shevey, "Itch" offers up a bunch of ominously black clad figures that seem at once futuristic, and also bug-like.  Mom said she could have done with a little less of the bugs, but I think the piece takes it's time precisely to make folks a little uncomfortable before it's done.

All in all, a very eclectic collection of movement from DRP Dance.  Heatwave is definitely one of the dance shows you should catch this Fringe while you have the chance.  Both Mom and I already looking forward to more from DRP in the future.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Next performance, today, Friday 8/9 at 4pm
For more information, see their Fringe show page

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - Turn Signals - Choose Your Own Romantic Comedy

Tweet Review - Turn Signals - high energy cast, goofy road trip stuffed w/fun characters, perfect mnfringe romantic fluff w/out the guilt - 5 stars

[In the Interests of Full Disclosure: I am the writer of a show that shares a venue with this show. Thus, we are both in contention for the extra Encore slot at the end of the festival, which goes to the show with the best attendance in the first four out of their five performances in that venue.  While I write this review honestly and with no thought of sabotaging a show that could be seen as a rival, still feel free to take anything negative I say below with an extra grain (or two) of salt.  Since I heartily recommend this show to you, I'm not expecting this review to do them any harm.  My hope is that it does them a lot of good.]

"If at any point in your life you don't want a treehouse, I've failed as a parent."

Right out of the gate, before the canned Fringe welcome announcement even, Freshwater Theatre's latest Fringe offering of Ruth Virkus' Turn Signals kicks into high gear (no pun intended).  And high gear for this show always means fun.  The trio of Michael Terrell Brown, Dana Bye and Rachel Flynn do a rousing rendition of "Make A Choice" to the tune of Abba's "Take A Chance" which is an a cappella song giving the audience instructions for how to guide the show.

"Oh good, she's out of jail."

Turn Signals is a script designed with several points during which select members of the audience, sitting in well-marked seats so people know what they're getting into, get to choose whether the car (and plot) turn right or left.  Depending on the audience member's choice, the script heads off in a different direction.  The day I was in attendance, we got a con artist at a rest stop, a creepy hotel and other amusing detours I won't spoil here.

"I can't look that bad. I showered today."

The main plot from which the audience diverges with their turn signals involves a road trip for Melissa (Mame Pelletier), Melissa's daughter Janet (Laura Mason) and Melissa's boyfriend Danny (Joe Swanson).  They are attending Melissa's brother's latest wedding, which may or may not go off without a hitch.  In transit, Melissa is wondering if Danny, several years her junior, may be planning to propose marriage for the two of them as well.  She also wonders whether it will be a welcome question if he pops it, and how exactly she plans to answer him. 

"But they shot him, 'cause it's Florida."

Between all the good-natured humor of Virkus' script, the high energy of the cast, and the easy camaraderie of the three leads, Turn Signals makes for a fun, relaxing way to spend an hour.  But it's also an interesting exploration of family dynamics and the decisions for when exactly a relationship gets serious. 

"I don't want to alarm you but I think it might have been a devil monkey."

Melissa's first marriage didn't work out, and daughter Janet has misgivings about mom's latest boyfriend Danny.  Is getting along with Danny somehow a betrayal of her own, unseen, father?  And what of the age difference between the pair?  The script thankfully steers well clear of the soap opera notion of a man being attracted to both the mother and the daughter.  Besides, who in their right mind would throw over Mame Pelletier for another woman of any age?  Mame is fierce and fabulous, always making quirky, strong original choices, and the character of Melissa is no different.  Joe Swanson's laid back boyfriend act is utterly charming.  Even Laura Mason's constant standoffishness as Janet has an understandable basis in the facts of her situation, so we can't hold her reserve against her.  She serves as a constant check against us getting too comfortable with any given moment.

"Just stop trying so hard not to like me."

The opening trio are cast in multiple roles.  Michael Terrell Brown is particularly fun as the mumbling angry clerk at the creepy motel.  Rachel Flynn is having a ball as the many and various incarnations of identical twins (triplets? quadruplets?) who come and go out of every conceivable entrance.  Danny's uncertainty about which aunt exactly he's speaking to, and what her personality quirk might be, is most amusing.  Dana Bye makes for a very disturbing hotel housekeeping staff member as well as the bride who may or may not make it to the altar (and may or may not be doing it for love).

"How did you and Bill meet?  You seem really competent."

Director Amber Bjork and her company of actors have the whole thing running so smoothly, you wonder how any other set of choices but the one your audience makes could be better.  Maybe you have to go more than once to find out.  But even if you only take the show in once, like I did, Turn Signals makes sure you have a good time.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Next Performance, today, Friday 8/9 at 4pm
For more information, see their Fringe show page

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - Brittle Things - Great Script, Weird Scene Shifts

Tweet Review - Brittle Things - go for smart, funny script; winning actors; ignore puzzling unnecessary scene/costume changes - 4 stars

There are all sorts of noble reasons to go see Brittle Things.  But the main reason to see Brittle Things is simple and completely selfish - it's a damn good play.

"You said coming out was the new black."

Ronnie (Amelia Mohn) is a former child TV star who was just starting to get herself more adult roles when her agent (also her sister) Helen (Lana Rosario) had a "great idea" that backfired.  Helen advised Ronnie to come out in the press, after which the big studio backing her blockbuster movie fired her.  A lesbian actress in a big ticket Hollywood romance was considered to awkward to handle.

"I spent four years playing an orphan pyromaniac raised by nuns.  I get it."

Her acting career derailed, Ronnie retreats into her apartment.  But when Ronnie reads a new book, "The Summer of Brittle Things," she regains a little of her old spark.  She wants to meet the author, and perhaps talk about a movie deal. 

"There's this guy everyone thinks is a child molester but really he's just misunderstood."

Since the author Jamie Terry speaks to Ronnie's personal experience so directly, Ronnie assumes Jamie is a woman.  Helen calls Jamie and discovers "she" is actually a man (David Durkee).  Not wanting to disappoint her sister again, Helen gets another "great idea."

"You're an alcoholic data entry clerk who can't get cast in community theater."

Helen hires another of her out of work actress clients, Alison (Danielle Krivinchuk) to pretend to be the author Jamie Terry just for one meeting.  But Ronnie and Allison/Jamie hit it off so well, that Allison decides to use her new identity to romance Ronnie properly, over Helen's strenuous objections.

"If you had any success at all as an actor this wouldn't work."

Naturally, this whole thing is doomed to come off the rails at some point, but it doesn't do so in all the ways you think it will.  Brittle Things has more than a few surprises in store before it's done, all of them quite fun.

"Cheese danish - International Pastry Code for Sapphic Tendencies."

The noble reasons to see Brittle Things?  Well, we don't see enough good new plays, for starters.  We don't see enough plays by local female playwrights like Eli Effinger-Weintraub.  We don't see enough lesbian romantic comedies.  We don't see enough plays with multiple good roles for women.  We don't see enough plays directed by women, here it's Crystal G. Schneider.  But this isn't just theater that's good for you.  It's just theater that's good.

"By the third draft I realized the bitch had to die."

Brittle Things isn't without its head scratching elements though.  The cast keeps things moving along within the scenes at a nice steady clip.  But inexplicably, the shifts between scenes take what seems like an eternity sometimes.  I say inexplicably because there doesn't appear to be any reason for the multiple scene shifts currently orchestrated by the production. 

"Just me dropping by with no ulterior motives."

Yes, the script has a multitude of scenes in a variety of locales but here's the thing - the main locale of Ronnie's apartment is played in one corner of the stage at Theatre In The Round Players.  The other three quadrants of the space are left in a void.  They are each used for other locations in the play.  But since the lighting can (and does) focus us down on particular areas and directs our attention, why didn't they just load up set in all four corners and play them each in turn? 

"The beast with four boobs."

Instead, they stop the action dead for a blackout, load the setting into its assigned corner, and then allow the scene to continue.  This happens between almost every single scene, and there are a lot of scenes.  That's a lot of scenes, that's a lot of darkness, that's a lot of lost momentum for the play.  Exacerbating this is the fact that the chosen sound cue for these repeated blackouts is a ticking clock.  It's not entirely clear while there's always a ticking clock, and unfortunately it reminds us of the time we're being required to wait in the dark for no good reason. 

"The park.  It's so open and full of squirrels.  That one's looking at me!"

It's live theater.  You have our suspension of disbelief at your disposal.  We can pretend we don't see the other parts of the set until something actually happens there. 

"A heart shaped cookie.  How forthright."

In addition to unnecessary set shifting, there were also nearly as many unnecessary costume changes.  Again, it's live theater.  We'll play along and not point out that the actor is wearing the same clothes through the entire story.  The costumes, lovely as they are, don't add anything significant to the narrative.  And they, like the set, are slowing down the action and taking us out of the flow of the story.  That's the opposite of their purpose.  Puzzling choices that sabotage the good performances being put on by all concerned.

"I've been pretty impressed with your ability to stay in character."

Despite the ungainly production values of this version of Brittle Things, the script and the cast more than reward you for your patience.

4 Stars, Highly Recommended

Next performance, tonight, Wednesday 8/7 at 7pm
For more information, visit their Fringe show page

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - One Hit Thunder - Hashtag Twist!

Tweet Review - How many jokes can you cram into 57 minutes? Ask Josh Carson and Co. - One Hit Thunder FTW - 5 stars

There is something wonderfully hilariously exhausting about Mainly Me Production's latest Fringe hit One Hit Thunder.  Mom kept saying she wished she could go back to see it a second and third time because the jokes come flying at you in bunches. 

"No stage ninjas?!"

Between the rapid fire delivery and rolling waves of audience laughter it's easy to miss just as many jokes as you catch.  This is the kind of problem you want to have with your entertainment.

"Uh oh, looks like someone raised the Threat Level to 'Douche.'"

Granted, Mom and I saw it opening night so there was the added suspense of "Will they get the entire joke-stuffed show in under the wire, or will the house lights come up on them before they're done?" 

"I'm not the first person to see a nipple at the zoo and think, 'Why ain't nobody riding that?'"

Jeff Larson, current Fringe Associate Director, and successor to Robin Gillette as next year's new Fringe Executive Director, was in the audience with us that night.  When they made it to the end, the actors gleefully shouted "3 minutes left, Jeff!  3 minutes left!"  To be fair, the house lights were coming up on Sulia Altenberg's rendition of "My Life Would Suck Without You" at the time, but the plot itself was indeed complete at that moment.

"Walk a mile in the other person's shoes. That way, you're a mile away, and you've got their shoes."

That's also part of the fun of a Mainly Me production.  In addition to the breakneck wackiness of it all, a Josh Carson script is always fully embracing the community of where it's being performed.  In-jokes?  Maybe.  But the great thing is such things also work as regular jokes, but work on an additional level if you're in the know. 

"I've read the books so I'm always pissed off."

Every year, they taunt the good-humored Robin Gillette on stage.  Every year, the taunts get more elaborate.  In One Hit Thunder, one of the villains is named Gillette, and his mother was a redhead who is surely going to hell.  They took a swipe at Larson in the script, too, and warned him in the program to "buckle up." 

"It's just for a second, then Courtney Love pops back up."

All that may sound harsh, but that's the thing about Carson - he's a vicious satirist, but he never attacks anyone personally who isn't willing to laugh at themselves.  His comedy is that seemingly impossible combination of razor sharp and completely good-natured. 

"There'll be plenty of time for topical comments at dinner."

He wields comedy like a blunt instrument, but he'd feel horrible if he thought he'd truly hurt anyone's feelings.  It's likely the impetus behind the fact that so many of the characters he plays on stage in his work get the crap pummeled out of them.  He's not going to beat up on anyone else unless he beats up on himself (often quite literally) twice as badly first.

"Let's show everyone that we're not incontinent!"

In One Hit Thunder, party girl Caitlin MacGuffin (Brigid Kelley), daughter of President Tyler MacGuffin (Jim Robinson), has been spirited off to a vague (and not at all racist) third world country ruled by General Radnor (also Robinson) and his flighty son Prince Gillette (Andy Kraft).

"I don't think they have wifi yet."
"I don't think they have 1987 yet."

Rather than send in Jack Bauer-esque CIA Agent Jackson Chase (MJ Marsh) to torture and blow up everyone in his path, the President decides to go with the plan put forth by CIA Analyst Jessica Chambers (Tera Jansen). 

"Oh no!  Hubris!"

Prince Gillette is a big fan of the prince and princess of bubble gum pop songs - dimwitted Blake Bangson (Tucker Garbog) and publicity slut KATJA! (Sulia Altenberg).  Blake and KATJA! put their own on-again, off-again relationship on hold to be drafted into the CIA's plan to distract Prince Gillette so First Daughter Caitlin can be rescued. 

"Play with your Grammy."

All of this may be undermined by Blake's mullet-haired stage dad Joe (Josh Carson) and the General and Prince's various henchmen (also played by Carson).

"Can I have mace?"
"Wait, the spray or the medieval weaponry?"
"Medieval weaponry?"
"Hell no."

One Hit Thunder is a witty stew of jabs at politics local and global, gender roles, and celebrity culture, just to name a few of the targets that are peppered with punchlines.  Josh Carson's script is so smart that you don't have to feel bad for being so well-entertained. 

"My family owes an impossible debt."

Carson makes you work for it just enough that you have to stay alert to really enjoy yourself properly.  This isn't mindless comedy spoon-fed to a passive audience.  This is a collaboration between actors and spectators.  And it's a heck of a lot of fun. 

"Thanks, Chubby Vin Diesel."

(Honestly, I've got twice as many quotes to insert here, but I have to post this and move on to the next review sometime.)

Like my Mom, you may want to go back to see One Hit Thunder more than once.  And thankfully Mainly Me keeps producing theater all year round, so you don't have to wait a whole year until Fringe rolls around again to enjoy some more good laughs.  But in the meantime, catch One Hit Thunder while you can.  It'll get you pumped up for still more Fringing in the days ahead.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Next performance is tonight, Wednesday 8/7 at 8:30pm
For more information, visit their Fringe show page

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - The Education of Murrary Sanderson - What's the Point? (No, Really)

Tweet Review - The Education Of Murray Sanderson - 1/2 doz. strong actors trapped in funny but predictable script w/no clear reason 4 being - 3 stars

I'm in the minority here, but The Education of Murray Sanderson felt like filler to me.  Somebody had 45 minutes of Fringe time to fill, and that works out to about two episodes of your standard sit com melded together, a very special episode, if you will.  This is what they came up with.

"I'm clinically incapable of stereotyping.  I have a degree in gender studies."

The reason this show rates three stars rather than two or two and a half is entirely the doing of the production team.  This cast is working their butts off to infuse these characters with a little humanity.  The director, Samantha Harris, is clearly doing the same.  This is also one of the more complex, reality-based sets I've seen in this space and in the Fringe at large this year.  It was necessary.  The need for a door and desks in particular was strongly indicated by the script.  The group that mounted this production gave the script more support than it dared hope for, and more than it likely deserves.  So I have to tip my hat to all of them for trying so damn hard.

"My phone's dead.  It's never dead.  I charge it aggressively."

But honestly, what's the point?  I'm asking that quite literally.  Because Murray doesn't get educated.  And neither do we. 

"How'd you like it if I came into your house and feng-shuied the shit out of your furniture?"

Is the script funny?  Sure, in a one punchline follows the next kind of way.  Is the humor based in three-dimensional human characters and situations?  No.  The humor is based in stereotypes.  Because we don't need to examine in any substantive way why our society and/or educational system is so screwed up.  We need to make fun of white suburban parents one more time.  Because they're such a big easy target.  Just push the button and cue the laugh track.

"I hope they can pixilate my face like on To Catch A Predator."

Humor can be smart.  Humor can be scathing.  Humor can be deeply moving.  Here, it isn't.  The pond is deep but the stones just skip along the surface and keep things light.  We should demand more from our comedy than merely being anesthetized.  Certainly everyone involved in this production deserved more than they got in terms of source material.

"You can say fuck, although I think that would be ironic."

Four parents are trapped in a classroom in some pseudo-No Exit scenario, unable to leave until they have learned their lesson.  What did they need to learn?  Retail worker nebbish Byron (Nate Morse) needed to learn to stand up for himself and just kiss the girl.  Brassy iconoclast Jill (Courtney McLean) needed to learn to give a nebbish like Byron a chance to get in her pants.  Long-suffering suburban housewife Liz (Maureen Tubbs) needed to learn to stop apologizing for her husband's toolish ways and stand up and ask for the sex she deserves. 

"I thought we were going to read to each other tonight."
"I'll be home before your can say Nicholas Sparks."

Worldly janitor Milt (Zach Coulter) didn't need to learn anything really.  He just had to bide his time in the purgatory of the school janitorial staff (because really, what could be a worse fate, huh?) until his replacement in doing penance came along. 

"Would it sound creepy if I didn't have this facial hair?"

Mrs. S (Andrea Klaassen) is the powerful overseer in charge of these people's fates, so no learning necessary there.  She just keeps them waiting for… no good reason, unless it is perhaps to get them to break down psychologically and start turning on each other, somehow leading to a personal epiphany for each.  Perhaps the S stands for… Satan!  OK, probably not.  She's some sort of omniscient entity who particularly enjoys zeroing in on the misdeeds of white upperclass men and somehow putting them in their place.

"I'm never over the line.  I AM THE LINE!"

And Murray (David Kappelhoff, and/or Jason Bindas).  Oh, Murray.  Obsessive compulsive, embodiment of straight white male privilege Murray.  Where to begin?  Never mind, really.  He's an important, belligerent, spastic sort of fellow.  It's clear that Murray's holding on by a very thin thread here.  His raging neuroses are just barely contained under that blustery veneer.  He protects himself by projecting his asshole-ishness out to everyone around him.  It's a douchebaggery forcefield that's enormously effective at sucking up all the air in the room and deflating any real forward motion of the plot.

"He's having a panic attack."
"He was being an asshole."
"That's how his panic attacks look."

These actors are all working so hard to create human beings out of punchlines, I think they deserve some sort of special commendation.  If you crave the entertainment equivalent of fast food, something that fills an empty space but provides no nourishment, then The Education of Murray Sanderson is a way to shut off your brain and just coast for an hour while someone prods your funny bone reflex.  I'll admit to laughing, but there was no joy in it.

"This is moist."
"I'm flustered."

You should write because you need to write.  Because you have something you need to say.  Because there's a character that demands to live and be watched by others.  Because there's a story that will not let you be.  Because there is an injustice or absurdity that needs dismembering with the tools of comedy, drama, music, movement, puppets, something.  You shouldn't write just because you committed to a time slot and your computer is on and the word processing program is open.

There's no reason for the current version of The Education of Murray Sanderson.  In a festival where so many people are pushing themselves and trying to create something new and make people think, it's the kind of time-waster than makes me angry.

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - Elysium Blues - A New Twist On An Old Story

Tweet review - Elysium Blues- worth it 4 great voices/music; still puzzling out the unexpected revision of Orpheus/Euridyce legend - 4.5 stars

Elysium Blues didn't go where I thought it was going to go.  That bothered Mom a little more than it bothered me, but I'm still puzzling it out.  Writer Jessica Huang, director Ricardo Vazquez and composer Eric Mayson took the time-tested legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and turned it into a rock musical about violence against women.  I kept fighting this concept, but it kept winning me over and pulling me back into the story.

"Sing a requiem for what we wish we did not know."

The primary reasons I kept getting pulled back in are the amazing vocal chops of the cast, particularly Eurydice (Rachel Austin) and Orpheus (Eric Mayson, the composer who also plays a mean guitar).  All their moments of song are high points for the production, both emotional and artistic.

"I'm sleepwalking and everything I love is dead."

Elysium Blues starts off like a modern retelling of the Orpheus/Eurydice story we know.  Eurydice dies and goes to the Underworld, where she drinks from the waters and forgets her old life.  Orpheus follows Eurydice into the afterlife in order to bring her back.  He uses his music to charm those dwelling in the Underworld so he can reclaim the woman he loves.  In the legend, he almost gets her back to the land of the living, but that doesn't happen here, and for good reason.

"Where roots wither and wells runs dry."

Huang's script is written in rhyme which, let's face it, can get on a person's nerves if it's not done right.  This cast does it right.  They don't belabor the rhyme scene, as bad poetry readers would do, but simply say the lines as normal people would converse.  If the rhyme falls in an obvious place, at the end of what would normally be a stopping point in a sentence, so be it.  Otherwise, they breeze on through and let you appreciate the rhyme scene on your own time.  It's a risky convention that pays off mostly because it so beautifully lends itself to characters segueing into expressing themselves in song.

"There's Hades to pay when there's music in hell."

Persephone (Rebecca Wall) is in charge of this corner of the Underworld, and she rules it with an iron fist.  She keeps the populace doped up on the waters of forgetfulness, and cuts off singing as something forbidden, too prone to prompt a person's memory bank to reboot.  Orpheus defies the musical conventions of the Underworld and enlists the locals - Daphne (Shavunda Horsley), Patch (Devin Hueffed), and Hippolyta (Danika Ragnhild) to be part of his band.  The music allows them to overpower Persephone and tie her to a chair.  Her own memories flooding back keep Persephone docile.

"Those eyes so dark, like holes in his head."

However, Persephone has had the foresight to get Eurydice out of sight before Orpheus arrives, entrusting her to the care of Hipster E (Laura Robards).  It is through music that Eurydice and Orpheus find their way back to one another.  But then things take a turn.

"You don't want to mess with memories."

I can understand the inclination to dig into Greek and Roman mythology and give it a modern feminist twist (I've been guilty of indulging that instinct myself).  Women are constantly getting screwed, both literally and metaphorically, in these ancient tales.  The gods and man are repeatedly shown treating women like sex puppets or property or worse.  The problem here is, Orpheus and Eurydice is not one of the better known examples of this.  Medea, Helen of Troy, Cassandra, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, the Trojan Women, sure, sign me up, I'm with you.  The list goes on for days.  But Eurydice?

"Everyone rejoices as he pushes them around."

Eurydice died on her wedding day, and Orpheus was so heartbroken that he followed her into the afterlife.  He charmed the rulers of the Underworld with his music and they let him take his bride back with him to the land of the living - on one condition.  Orpheus would not be allowed to see Eurydice following him as they made their way back.  He would have to trust that she was there.  If he looked behind him before their journey was done, Eurydice would be pulled back into the Underworld, and he would never see her again.  Of course, the poor guy lost his nerve just before they reached the other side, and Eurydice was lost to him a second time.

"Final stop on the Hades line.  There's only one way to ride the train."

Some have argued that Eurydice in this story is little more than a cypher, something men bargain over.  Some have argued that if Orpheus really loved Eurydice, he would either have trusted that she was back there without looking, or he would have just killed himself outright in order to be with her in the afterlife.

"You're hard to shake."

This is the first instance I've seen in which the story is rewritten to cast Orpheus as an abusive boyfriend who pushes Eurydice down a flight of stairs to her death, and then follows her into the afterlife in order to keep manhandling her.  This Eurydice is well within her rights to tell Orpheus off, turn the others against him, and ship him back where he came from.  This Eurydice is better off dead than saddled with a violent loser boyfriend.

"You're not my man anymore.  I'm dead."

Which, OK, that's a valid story, but… I can see Jason as the bad guy to Medea. I can see Agamemnon as the bad guy to all the women in his life - wife, lover, daughters, you name it.  Oedipus doesn't do his mom or daughter/sisters any good.  Pick any god or soldier who forced himself on a woman for pleasure or procreation against her will, I'm right there with you in taking the shine off his hero credentials.

"What's the worst that could happen? It can't kill you."

But why kick the stuffing out of Orpheus?  I'm all for giving Eurydice her own power and voice, but does it have to come at Orpheus' expense?

Here, in Elysium Blues, the answer is yes.  It's a credit to the power of the music, and the musicality of the cast, and staging of the director, that the story works for me, and rates this highly, despite my dramaturgical misgivings.  Elysium Blues is an unusual new take on an old story, and one well worth seeing.

4-1/2 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Next performance, tonight, Tuesday, 8/6 at 10pm
See their Fringe show page for more information

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - Fashion Risk - Nudity That's Not Just About Being Sexy

Tweet review - Fashion Risk despite copious nudity is adorable not prurient; a funny celebration of human beings and their bodies - 5 stars

Natalie Rae Wass is a fantastic and funny performer.  Fringe audiences and Minnesota theater audiences in general already knew that.  With her current Fringe hit Fashion Risk, or The Accidental Nudist, she takes fantastic and funny to a whole new level. 

"He was banned from his church for repeatedly pointing out scriptural discrepancies  he genuinely wanted to understand - and also for packing heat."

The great thing about Fashion Risk is Natalie didn't just throw some nudity onstage so she could generate some buzz and make a quick Fringe buck (though both of those things are certainly happening).  A lot of Fringe shows show some skin as a gimmick.  Get a nudity warning and you're sure to titillate a potential audience. 

"I'm a nudist-sympathetic textile."

But Fashion Risk is about celebrating the human body as a part of celebrating human beings.  Our bodies are big part of what makes us who we are.  Bodies aren't just about sex.  They're not something secret or shameful to be tucked safely away behind layers of clothing.  Bodies, of all shapes, sizes and ages, are beautiful things.  So why not put it out there?

"I know some of you are probably thinking about boners right now."
(Trombone player enters eagerly)

Natalie's parents, Nancy and Nathan, are a key part of the mostly nude cast surrounding Natalie as she tells her tale.  Also disrobing for a good cause are Lou Alvarado, Jesse Corder, Kate Hoff, Katie Ross, Rachel Schwartz, Erin Sheppard (also the choreographer), Gurayn Sylte, and Lauren Vork.  The show eases us into the nudity.  At first it's just people strolling by on their way to perhaps play some nude tennis. 

"I love hugs.  They say, 'I'm willing to be close to you, even when you're a mess.'"

As the story continues, people start coming out on stage and setting up camp.  Some are sunning themselves, some are grilling for a picnic, some are playing the accordion or trombone, some are meditating, some are practicing their golf putt, some are beach combing with a metal detector.  By the end, there's a full-on, all nude celebratory dance number.  But along the way, the presence of these people on stage keeps reinforcing Natalie's main point, that it's important to be comfortable in your own skin.

"Every crack in expectation creates possibility."

Natalie does a great job of subverting audience expectations - not just around the subject and presence of nudity in the show.  It's not a cheat.  It's just not what you thought of when you thought, "Fringe show about nudists."  Actually, I'm not entirely sure what I was thinking when I thought, "Fringe show about nudists."  To be honest, if it was almost anyone other than Natalie Rae Wass leading this show, I might have skipped it.  But because of Natalie, I knew it wouldn't be your average Fringe show showing a little skin (or in this case, a lot of skin).  I knew there was a reason Natalie was telling this story, in this way, now.

"Dressing is a learned behavior."

Natalie holds the stage and tells her story, largely uninterrupted, for the full length of the show.  Not a stumble, not a gaffe.  Just smooth sailing and her signature comic timing and sensibility.  Natalie does this with such poise and quirky grace that you're liable to forget just how difficult it is to do something like that, much less hold the audience's attention when the stage is full of naked people.  The story of Natalie's upbringing, and the insights she shares into nudist culture, are enormously entertaining as well as informative.

"Humans leak." 
(Audience groans, squirms a bit)
"I don't like it either but it's true."

My mom has been commenting on how interesting the Fringe is this year in offering up all sorts of human bodies on display.  Not just your skinny, perfectly toned actor bodies, but "normal" human beings with bumps and curves and a little extra here and there.  Fashion Risk keeps this trend going, and provides a whole host of additional options to the mix. 

"There is this part where Adam and Eve overthink their way out of a nude utopia."

And really, that's the gift Natalie and Fashion Risk are giving Fringe audiences this year.  Sure, a show with nudity might be selling out every performance anyway, but I think Fashion Risk is selling out not just because of a little skin.  I think Fashion Risk is selling tickets because word is getting out - it's a charming lead performance in a piece that helps everyone be just a little less self-conscious about the space they take up in the world.  And we need a lot more of both.

And any show with a pink gorilla suit is OK by me.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Next show, today, Tuesday 8/6 at 8:30pm (but reserve a ticket in advance, the show has been selling out every performance)
For more information, check out their Fringe show page

Monday, August 05, 2013

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - Fringe Orphans 2 - Random Ideas In Neatly Produced Package

Tweet review - Fringe Orphans 2 - impressively smooth-running grab bag of random deeply strange ideas; great (weird) fun - 4 stars

Though I missed Fringe Orphans the first time around last year, I can't imagine it was any better than this.  Fringe Orphans 2: Orphan Harder is a delightfully weird grab bag of random ideas all thrown together and pulled off by the massive ensemble in really fine form.  Often, assemblages of many different ideas like this can end up being less than the sum of their parts.  With Fringe Orphans 2, it all comes together and everything seems to fit - just as if all these people had planned to get together and do a show, rather than being wrangled from any number of different places by creator and producer Brian Watson-Jones.

"You want to do disgusting?  We can do disgusting."

Not all ideas can stand up to more than five to ten minutes of scrutiny.  Sometimes a one-joke premise is just that.  So where can such promising but stunted mini-Fringe shows go for refuge?  Fringe Orphans!

"Attention must finally be paid to such a clone!"

How about a Beach Blanket Bingo-style re-imagining of Shakespeare's comedy Taming of the Shrew?  Behold phillip low's Taming of a Bikini Shrew.  Ever wonder what would happen if you crossed Star Wars and Arthur Miller? Try Aaron Greer's Death of a Stormtrooper on for size.  Wish the Fringe had its own bitch-slapping reality show? Look no further than Les Kurkendaal's The Return of the Real Housewives of Fringe (two of whom are men in drag, of course).  Concerned that barely contained murderous rage lurks in the heart of those self-actualization seminar gurus?  Then beware Jeremy Brandon and his Be The Dream program, the brainchild of John Middleton.  And don't worry - if arming school teachers with guns sounds like a really bad idea to you, there's the consolation of the existence of Adam Sharp's Teacher Boot Camp.

"We all like to be told nice things, but here's the thing.  It's not true."

Fringe Orphans 2 also offers up some physical performance work as well.  Jena Young's belly dance sequence, Crayola's Revenge, is a running series of bits of belly dancing choreography to original music by Scott Keever, performed by Young between the longer sketches.  Each time her costume is accented with a different color sash.  At the end, she dances the entire sequence all at once, wearing all the colors together.

"The safe word is yes."

Jerry Belich's Etude for Two gives us two red-nosed clowns fighting first over a music stand, and then over a kazoo that provides different results for different players.  One clown gets a full orchestral sound to come out, the other clown just gets a sad kazoo sound.  The escalating battle of the non-bands is quite delightful.

"The Sound - Of Food!"

Also great fun is the series of bits interspersed between the other pieces called The Sound of Food.  Creator Amber Bjork teams up with Theo Langason here.  Amber has a bucket of food and a big spoon.  Theo has a microphone.  He announces, "The Sound of Food!" and then the name of whatever food is in the spotlight.  Theo then holds the mic down by the floor on a plastic garbage bag while Amber scoops the food out of the bucket and plops it down on the plastic so the mic can pick up the noise it makes when it hits.  Potatoes, wet hot dogs, guacamole and chips, cottage cheese, tater tots, eggs (four of them, one at a time), and for the grand finale, a whole pie.  It's just as ridiculous as it sounds and yet no one could stop laughing.

"The Skinny Girl's Guide To Tater Tot Hot Dish"

Best of all, though, was a mime performance by Dean Hatton and Kirsten Stephens called Just Around The Corner.  These two physical comedians are such pros, it's a joy to watch them in motion.  It was just the two of them and two enormous white rectangles.  They play out the individual days of two separate people, with the rectangles representing the bed they sleep in, the kitchen table, the subway, the walls of their office cubicle.  They release and switch off rectangles between each other in a graceful dance that ends with the two people finally meeting, and deciding whether they want human interaction after all or not.  It's sly societal commentary masquerading as a bit of whimsy.

"Being a teacher gives you the right to shoot someone."

The line-up is a little different each night (we didn't get the charades sketch or Tim Mooney's Electric Eye the day we went).  You can check the line-up on the Fringe site for the specific list of artists you'd be seeing when you go.  But I do suggest you go.  With no emcee or obvious framework to hold it together, Fringe Orphans 2 nonetheless moves swiftly and smoothly from one oddity to the next, keeping better pace than many a Fringe show with far fewer moving parts.  Congrats to Brian Watson-Jones and his crew for a well-executed bit of Fringe logistics.

4 stars, Highly Recommended

Next performance, Monday 8/5 (tonight) at 5:30pm
See their Fringe show page for more information

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - Bidgood to BidGREAT - Bid-great Indeed

Tweet review - Bidgood To BidGREAT indeed. Laura Bidgood goes solo and owns the stage with her stories like we knew she would - 4 stars

It's hard to find new things to say about how much I enjoy Laura Bidgood telling me stories.  I've liked her since I first saw her in Two Queers And A Chubby back in Fringe 2006.  I said then that "she is brilliant and gorgeous and funny without ceasing" and that assessment holds true, lo, these seven years later.  Until now, she always had her trusty sidekick Curt Lund next to her onstage during Fringe season.  This year, since Curt's getting himself an MBA, Laura has crafted a solo show all her own, Bidgood to BidGREAT: Bumps and Blunders On The Boulevard To Brilliance.  Not that there was any doubt, but an hour of Laura is just as entertaining as a half-hour of Laura.

"I've never been good at instigating fights but I'm very good at supporting them."

The basic structure of a Curt and Laura show was - Introductory patter by the two of them, then alternating stories from each one of them, several times in turn, with either a closing story by one of them, or closing patter with the two of them.  Simple and effective.  Here, it's just Laura.  The introduction here was briefer, basically providing context for the uninitiated and fans alike - "Why am I up here on stage all by myself?"  She assured us that she and Curt had not broken up, and thus, ladies looking for a gay would need to look elsewhere, for Curt is still hers.

"I love the French horn more than I will ever love you!"

Laura offered up a variety of stories, taking us from her childhood up to the present day, though this is hardly an autobiographical one person show in any traditional sense.  We hear of Laura as a young girl, perhaps more fearful of things than she should be.  We learn about how Laura's twin sister helped her stand her ground against their rather territorial terror of a next door neighbor girl.  Laura details the ups and downs of her brushes with musical instruments, and how she wanted to throw over the violin for the French Horn.  A mandatory "fun" outing orchestrated by the boss at one of her day jobs results in an afternoon of inept curling sportsmanship.  Overly enthusiastic friends predict and impending marriage proposal for her, making a couple's weekend away with her boyfriend a tad more awkward than it needs to be.  Late for work, Laura's hastily assembled outfit includes a difficult pair of sagging tights that cause her journey downtown to be more eventful than planned.

"My luscious booty, or as I like to call it, The Point of No Return."

Laura Bidgood's tales are refreshingly free of neuroses.  If there's a potentially embarrassing situation, public or private, Laura just rolls with it.  She refuses to let anything drag her down.  She compares herself to no one else's ideals of what a woman should act or look like.  Laura is her own standard of measure.  It's a refreshing way to go through life, but few of us do it.  So it makes it that much more enjoyable to immerse yourself in an hour of what it's like to go through life like Laura Bidgood does.  There is absurdity, there is humor.  There are no real villains, just the challenge of getting over yourself.

"Kidnappers, hiding in her closet with a bag of candy.  Or worse, kidnappers without a bag of candy."

It's always struck me as odd that the stories which Laura tells, collectively, don't add up to more.  It feels as if they should.  Right now, they're comic snapshots in a photo album.  They may be grouped together in some general way, but there isn't a larger narrative that ties them together.  I'm not saying there needs to be in order for the stories to be enjoyable.  One can partake of the stories like individual candies from a larger box, samples of the inner workings of Laura's comedic mind and the way it shapes the events of life into amusing anecdotes.  One of the hardest things to do in life sometimes is to keep going, and maintain your sense of humor while you're about it.  Laura has that skill down.

"Obviously he's going to propose to me in the hot tub."

And now that Laura also has the ability to craft and deliver her own solo show, maybe that "big picture" photo collage is just around the corner.  Laura Bidgood never fails to entertain me.  Part of me still can't help but wonder if one of these days she's also just going to blow my mind.  She's just that kind of woman.  She always has been.  While I'm waiting and wondering, I'm more than happy to just have the pleasure of her company, taking an hour and spinning some stories.  BidGREAT comes of all shapes and sizes - this Fringe show is just one of her many examples.

4 Stars, Highly Recommended

Next performance, TODAY, Saturday 8/3 at 5:30pm
Visit her Fringe show page for more information

Friday, August 02, 2013

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - A Certain Age - A Certain Audience Is Gonna Love This One

Tweet review - Mom could not stop talking about A Certain Age, I liked it but she LOVED it, recommends it to all - 4 stars

I enjoyed A Certain Age but Mom was transported by it.  She was making audible noises of affirmation to the action and things being said on stage throughout.  As the applause began at the curtain call, she said, "Delightful!"  She talked to the director, the writer and any of the actors who passed in the lobby to tell them just how much she enjoyed it.  She doesn't do that with every show.  She even admitting to tearing up in several places.  "I didn't just relate to those women.  I was those women at different points in my life."

"Zoomba virgin!"

A Certain Age had the largest house of any Fringe show we saw yesterday, and that was at 5:30 on a Thursday night.  People turned out for this thing - more specifically, women of a certain age turned out for this thing.  And if the number of audience reviews already on the Fringe website less than a day later are any indication, word of mouth is moving fast on this one.  Though everyone can certainly appreciate the humor in this show, women in particular are its target audience.  I often write about how important it is that people be able to see themselves reflected onstage in the stories being told.  Certain segments of the audience for A Certain Age are clearly responding strongly to it because these stories don't get told or seen by them nearly enough.  Lucky is the Fringe show that taps into a previously unrealized audience need.  A Certain Age may be that lucky.

"All right.  I'm here.  Bring on the inner peace!"

A Certain Age is written by Jennifer Cockerill with music by Andrew Cooke, directed by Elena Giannetti.  The two actresses in the ensemble - Teri Parker-Brown and Shelli Place - do all the talking here.  The third member of the ensemble - Richard Weber - is largely silent.  He assists with a lot of the scene and costume changes, and is the object of more than a little objectification, but hey, it's the ladies' turn in this Fringe outing, so have at it. (Watch for the ass grab and wink at the end of the curtain call.)

"Do you have to answer everything with a question?"
"Does that bother you?"

The script is a series of vignettes related by subject matter more than plot or character.  Parker-Brown and Place portray a series of women who find themselves arriving at middle age wondering how the heck they got there, what the heck they're doing, and what the heck happens next?  Personally, the end of the show would have packed more punch for me if they'd found a way to link this assortment of stories together with some sort of through line or ongoing characters.  As it was, I felt like I had to start and stop repeatedly, reinvesting myself in new people each time the scene changed, rather than having some kind of cumulative emotional or intellectual experience.

"Whatever, Gumby."

Mom, too, was at first disappointed that she didn't have someone to follow through the show, but that feeling quickly passed for her.  The actresses themselves were both enormously winning personalities onstage, so Mom followed them, and felt rewarded for it. 

"Wanna jazz up your coffee?"

For instance, Mom saw herself in the comedic yoga class sequence at not one, but two points in her life.  In the scene, one harried woman treats us to her inner monologue via voiceover piped in over the sound system.  She finds it impossible to clear her mind, and the jumble of thoughts in there is hilarious.  Mom remembers thinking about all the things she had to do after class as well, rather than focusing on being present in the class and doing something for herself.  She had that kind of wandering mind when my brother and I were kids and she was raising us alone after the divorce.  She also had that split focus in recent years, just barely able to still a little time at the gym as she cared for her own aging mother.

"Now I get excited for parent/teacher conferences because I get a chance to dress up."

The various scenes showed women confused, women competing, women supporting each other, women wondering who exactly they were doing all these things for (like working out), women deciding to focus on the half of life still ahead of them, rather than the half of life they just left behind. 

"No one held a gun to my head and said, 'No, you may not have a life.'"

Is some of the dialogue a little on the nose?  Yeah, but the audience really didn't care.  They were happy to spend time with these women.  They were happy these things were being said out loud.  They were happy these things were being set to music and sung about.  It's easy for everyone to like A Certain Age.  But some people (my Mom included) are going to absolutely love it.

4 stars, Highly Recommended

Next performance, Sunday 8/4 at 8:30pm
Check out their Fringe show page for more information

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - The Concept of Anxiety - Dazzling Wordplay, Mind-bending Stories

Tweet review - Damn, phillip low, Elizabeth Byrd. Mind boggled, mind blown, but delightfully so - The Concept of Anxiety - 5 stars

A lot of Maximum Verbosity Fringe shows have been low tech affairs - phillip low, a music stand, and a glass of liquor is pretty much all you need.  low is a master at spinning words - both composing them on the page and then rattling them out of his mouth in rapid-fire fashion.  Those basic elements are on hand again here in The Concept of Anxiety, but he's turned the whole thing up a notch.  More than a notch really, more like seven or eight notches.  This show is slicker and leaner than your average Fringe show.  It positively hums - high energy on a tight leash.  It's a bullet aimed at the dark corners of your brain.

"I'm sorry."
"For what?"
"I don't know, just on general principle, I guess."

For starters, the simple set is a bit more deliberately dressed - a human skull, a chess clock, a copy of Gray's Anatomy (the textbook, not a DVD box set of the TV show, though wouldn't that be an odd pairing?), a pitcher of water, a bottle of Jameson, a book on Black Holes & Time Warps.

"Every day in medical school, you learn a new way to die."

Also, phillip's not alone this year.  His, until now, largely unseen partner in crime Elizabeth Byrd is front and center, making this solo show more of a duet.  The two are great foils for one another.  Elizabeth sings us an opening number full of wordplay around the old-fashioned notion of bile and the humors of the body.

"My deep and dark secretions, I want them to be known."

Then suddenly phillip appears backlit in the rear of the house launching into his opening monologue and working the audience from the center aisle as he makes his way toward the stage.  The subject is mortality and the flexible notions of time and space, with a generous helping of meditation on those in the medical profession, since phillip is a child from a family of doctors himself.

"They say that Jack the Ripper was a doctor.  What I don't understand is why every doctor isn't Jack the Ripper."

low's regular stage persona Penner makes an appearance in a dream/mirage sequence but the bulk of the performance is given up to two alternating multi-part stories that are mesmerizing puzzles full of evocative and disturbing images and turns of phrase at the same time that they are stories with a fascinating beginning, middle and end.  It's low's voice in the text but having two different human voices playing off one another in the telling of the tales makes for some fun and mind-boggling effects.

"His bladder was backed up so far it felt like his back teeth were floating."

One story is about a boy who wants to see the whole world but the frailness of his body prevents him.  The boy's father develops what seems like an unrelated obsession to complete a massive dragon statue in the field behind their home.  When the boy climbs inside the dragon statue, the obsessions that run through the family intertwine together.

"A staircase spiraling up and up into darkness."

Suicides attempts both successful and failed, parallel universes colliding, a married couple caught in the middle of being both old and young, living and dead, as time attempts to zip itself back together.  It starts as a series of riveting images which end up being part of a much larger and complex tapestry that is real kick to have fed into your brain by Byrd and low.  Even the seemingly simple sound work of Aaron Manthei and David Vogel adds all kinds of beguiling (and amusing) layers of confusion and revelation to the mix.

"How can we say we live in a moral universe and every other universe is immoral?"

Sometimes Maximum Verbosity is loose and goofy and that's a large part of its charm.  But The Concept of Anxiety, entertaining as it is, is sharp as a razor.  I marvel at how this thing was put together.  Though it's early days yet, I'd be very surprised if you see better wordsmithing than The Concept of Anxiety at this year's festival.

"Am I dying?"
"Do you really have to ask?"

You can also find phillip's work on display in not one, not two, not three, but FOUR other Fringe shows this year - he wrote Launcelot and Guenerver for Six Elements Theater over at the Music Box, he wrote and directed a piece that's in Fringe Orphans 2 at TRP, he's acting in Hardcover's The Diamond Lens at Music Box, and he just picked up a performance next Thursday with Stop Talking yet again at the Music Box.  I don't know if there are "all phillip low" packages, but a punch card would do you.  As for The Concept of Anxiety

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Next performance, Saturday 8/3 at 2:30pm
Check out their Fringe page for more information

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Review - The Unknown Matters - A Little Gem of a Play

Tweet review - I love it when a musical refuses to give us an unrealistic happy ending, but still gives us hope - 4.5 stars

An actor walks up to you in the lobby before the show and asks if you want to participate in a little pre-show survey.  One question: in three words or less, what are you waiting for? (other than the show to start)

What are you waiting for?

That's a damn good question.  And The Unknown Matters is a damn good show.

"What we lose and what we choose to leave behind."

Peter (Mark Sweeney, also the author and producer) and Sarah (Katie Bradley) are scientists with personal obsessions thwarted by a lack of funding. They combine forces along with Sarah's brother Eddie (Izzy Waid) who helps them get a crowdsourcing campaign going so they can jumpstart the two quests again. 

"85 percent of the matter of the universe is unknown.  We call this hypothetical mass 'dark matter.' Capturing it is my life's work."

Peter is out to capture the elusive dark matter.  Sarah is hacking into the Kepler Telescope to ferret out proof of a planet circling a distance star which might just be able to support life.  Their lab is an underground bunker, and their days are spent waiting patiently for proof to cross their line of sight.  They allow themselves snacks, and the games that go with them, at regular intervals, and also will break out a ukelele and burst into song. 

"When I first read about the Kepler space telescope, I lost my sh*t."

Peter's health takes an unexpected turn as the dark matter and distant planet continue to remain elusive.  Notions of mortality and how a life is spent, not wasted, abound.

What are you waiting for?

"I was waiting for a planet."
"And I was waiting for proof."

The Unknown Matters is a little gem of a play.  Sweeney's script and songs are just as notable for the things they don't say as the things they do.  This is a production that's not afraid of silence.  It trusts the audience to be able to fill in the blanks.  It doesn't hold your hand or spell things out, but it brings you along all the same.  We get to know the characters, we care about what they care about, we want them to succeed.  Watching the subtle way the characters go from being colleagues to being friends, never making a big deal about it, is lovely.  They take on each other's quests as their own and it just makes us like them more, and root for them. 

"I don't know a thing about love or spirituality but I can talk your ear off about dark matter."

There's a moment when the way someone reappears made me think they might be a ghost and I thought, "oh no!"  My relief that they were safe and sound made me realize how much I'd come to enjoy these characters' company and invest in them emotionally in such a short time.

"Tonight, I record the light!"

I'm torn, because part of me wants more of this story.  It's satisfying as it is, and I didn't feel cheated in any way, but still I found myself wanting more.  Always a good thing.  Never overstay your welcome.  Also, I wonder if watching these scientists not quite reach their goal only works in short form.  Would the audience become too frustrated at having their desires thwarted, not getting a "big" ending with a major triumph, if they invested more than an hour of their time?  It's hard to know.  Right now, that suspense works.  And if anyone could make it work in an expanded format, it would be Sweeney.  The current version of The Unknown Matters proves that.

"But the question is still there, right?  You need to keep looking."

Scientists work and wait for years.  They go down countless blind alleys and run into numerous dead ends.  Sometimes another person has to finish their work.  Sometimes the work is never finished.  But because it's about understanding the universe we live in, because it's about bettering the human condition, the scientists keep asking questions, and keep exploring.  That's a hard thing to dramatize.  But The Unknown Matters nails it.

"We are the explorers.  Stay curious!"

And it's a friggin' musical.  (I know it's kind of insulting of me to insinuate that a musical can't tackle thorny or intellectual subject matter, but I've seen musicals aim for a lot less and miss.  The fact that this one aims so high, and hits the target dead on, that's really impressive.)

"It's just a matter of time."

I worry for shows like this because they never shout "You have to come see me!"  The Unknown Matters is a quiet, intimate, funny, melancholy, lovely little show that could easily get lost in the shuffle of the Fringe noise machine (and I say that with love for the Fringe noise machine, of which I am a part).  But The Unknown Matters… matters.  You should see it.

4.5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Next performance, Saturday 8/3 at 10pm. 
Check out their Fringe show page for more.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Minnesota Fringe Festival - Bidgood to BidGREAT: Bumps and Blunders on the Boulevard to Brilliance - What Happened?! Productions - Laura goes solo

There are three good options in the Loring area for shows for the last slot (10pm, Thursday 8/1) on opening night of Fringe as we make our way back home for the night.

We could stop off at the Theater Garage and see my friend Nick James in the cast of Consequences of Kissing Dragons.

The mischievous Fringe-goer in me almost convinced mom to try out Professor Hotrail and the Time-Traveling Meth Lab at the Music Box because, well, c'mon, there's a puppet, a time-traveling meth lab, and Jesus all in the same show.  That's like a Fringe triple play.  (Fun Fringe Fact: when I typed "meth" into the search engine on the Fringe website, 12 shows came up.)

But we decided to stick a little closer to home at the Women's Club and catch the opening night of our perennial Fringe favorite Laura Bidgood (going solo this year) with Bidgood to BidGREAT: Bumps and Blunders on the Boulevard to Brilliance.

Where's her other half Curt Lund?  She addresses that (amusingly, of course) in her Fringe-For-All preview video (hint: school).

I got to see Laura do a variation on the scared little girl story at both Fringe-For-All and Tim Uren's Ghoulish Delights Fringe preview showcase.  I know the Fringe-For-All has time limits for a super good reason (we artists do go on if someone doesn't stop us), but I missed the loosey-goosey atmosphere at Ghoulish Delights.  The story actually didn't last that much longer, and Laura, as always, knows how to work a crowd, so it was fun to watch her work her spoken word/storytelling magic.  It's why mom and I are looking forward to her show, and why it's a perfect way to cap off our first day of Fringing.