Thursday, July 30, 2015

2015 Fringe - Top Ten

If you're wondering where the Top Ten list is for 2015, it's over on the Twin Cities Daily Planet.  Here's a link

2015 Fringe - Top 11-20

Because I can't help myself and stop at 10 (the top 10 list is over at the Twin Cities Daily Planet), here's another 10 to make it an even 20 you should consider this year -

11 - Honest Magic – An Honest Magic Show

A lot of magicians would have you believe their "secrets" are the most important part of magic, but are they right? This is a show that tries to redefine magic as something for everyone, not just magicians.

This is that rare show that I saw last year that I’d happily go see again, so I’m glad it’s back this year so more people get a chance to see it.  Nick Lande is a clever and genial performer who really knows how to work a crowd.  It’s the least gimmicky, but most fun, magic show I’ve ever seen.  For me to give 5 stars to something without a script and a plot is pretty rare, but this show earned it.  It’s one of the best reasons to brave downtown traffic and parking to catch a Fringe show at the New Century this year.

12 - Offbeat Productions - Everything You’ve Done That Hurt Me 
(Written by… someone who lost their notebook)

Did you write a spiteful 20 page break-up letter? Did you subsequently lose that notebook in front of my home? Your relationship is now on display with a performance by Jonathan Manchester, music by Brian Ring.

This capped off the night of previews by traveling Fringe artists and it was pretty damn funny.  Every awkward sentence structure, every botched turn of phrase, every hilarious misspelled or misused word by the heartbroken and angry anonymous author is delivered with such conviction by Manchester, and then retooled into equally goofed up but earnest song lyrics for the acoustic guitar by Ring, that it made the whole thing twice as humorous as it might otherwise be.  Sometimes found text is really the best material, in spite of itself.  And if it’s all a gag and they made this up, bravo for making it so convincing.

13 - Pair of Animals – Post Traumatic Super Delightful

The lives of survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders weave together in a wickedly funny and piercingly insightful half-clown/half-monologue/one-woman show about a community trying to heal after sexual assault.

Even after seeing the preview of this, I have NO idea how it’s going to deliver on the premise but performer/writer Antonia Lassar has been working the Fringe circuit for a few years now, and judging by her stage presence, she clearly knows her stuff.  I’m intrigued, and going.  Curious?  Here's a video to help:

14 - Leonard Cruz Tanztheater – Falling Man

A solo performance that responds to the work of Max Beckmann and the famous photo of a man falling from the World Trade Center. Themes of falling and rising through dance and story telling will be explored.

Again, the premise of the show makes me go, “Huh?  Really?” and yet I still find it strangely compelling.  And performer Leonard Cruz isn’t also just the choreographer, he’s got a PhD in this sort of thing.  Dancing since he was four, working with all sorts of big names in the dance world -  locally, nationally, and internationally.  But I didn’t know any of that when I saw his preview last night, I just knew the man could dance.  No music.  Just silently moving through the space of the Ritz stage in the way most regular human beings cannot.  I’m fascinated to see how this idea manifests itself through dance.  Here's a video snippet for you:

15 - Delve Theatre – Two Jokes, One Act: The Boar & The Proposal

Popova mourns her lost lover. Smirnov can't keep his pistol in his pants. Lomov has a heart attack. You've never seen two of Chekhov's hilarious "jokes in one act" spliced into a single farce quite like this!

I’ve already enumerated all the reasons I’m excited about this show - from the performers to the source material to the director to the way they knocked it out of the park during that first round of Fringe previews.  Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to chuckling through the whole thing.  Some video for you:

16 - Preus Productions – Hank and Jesus (Hay-soos)

Finally sober, Hank is adrift with only his kind heart and bad country songs for navigation. A helpful visitor nudges him on a new path, home for a family Christmas, and closer to the miracle he really needs.

I’ve also already touched on the reasons I’m drawn to this show after reading up on it and seeing their Fringe preview.  You should give it a look.  Some video for you:

17 - Ghostbridge Theatre – Everywhere You Look

Muslims are persecuted in a dystopian future America where fear and freedom walk hand in hand. In the search for truth, a lawyer, a detective, and an imam are driven to a tragically violent confrontation.

Though it doesn’t sound like a happy-go-lucky kind of Fringe show, I know the playwright and have been meaning to see a Ghostbridge production for a little while now.  This seems like a perfect opportunity.  Hard but important subject matter, so I’m more than a little curious to see how it plays out.

18 - The Fourth Wall - Fruit Flies Like A Banana

Working at break-neck speed, 3 performers combine music, theatre, & dance in this madcap variety hour. YOU choose the show order! "This show made me weep, it was so beautiful and fun." 5 Stars, IndyFringe 2014

One of two shows in the top 20 this year that sold me purely on the strength of their previews in the traveling artist showcase the other night.  Enjoyed them so much they bumped two other shows out of their place on the list.  But also one of two shows with a horrible title that gives no hint at how great they are or what the heck the show’s about.  The giddy energy of the performers of Fourth Wall is crystallized in their preview when they grab a flute, a slide trombone and a rolling xylophone and start playing the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, while also bouncing and twirling all over the stage at the same time.  Honestly, the lungs on these people.  This video gives you a taste.  Mom was so enchanted by them we had to change our previously planned schedule to fit them in.

19 - Soma Acrobatic Theatre - Terra Incognita

A heart-pumping acrobatic expedition into the unmapped terrain of the heart. Join us as we climb mountains of longing, dive into oceans of loss, and find wellsprings of joy in this surprisingly intimate play.

The second of the “what the heck were they thinking with this generic title?” traveling Fringe shows that captivated the audience, myself included.  (Seriously, someone who’s good with titles, help these people.) This time, rather than music, it’s dance, or rather acrobatics, sort of a combo platter of the two.  The female performer took her place rather emphatically in the middle of Fringe Executive Director Jeff Larson’s introduction and kind of intimidated him, which was very amusing.  Then once she and her movement partner got going, wow.  Things the human body is apparently capable of doing that most of us mere mortals can’t come close to accomplishing.  Even though they had the grace and athleticism to make it look easy, the audible gasps from the audience throughout reaffirmed that no, it’s not easy.  They’re just that good.  This video will serve as a sampler:

20 - Bollywood Dance Scene – Spicy Masala Chai

Creators of 2014's best-selling MN Fringe show return with a stirring Bollywood dance drama of original storytelling and choreography. Love, wisdom, and comedy are the perfect recipe for a hot cuppa...romance?

This show doesn’t need any praise from me.  It probably doesn’t even need me in the audience.  This is the group that came out of nowhere last year and because of their enormous cast size and joyful way of erupting into a sort of flash mob Bollywood dance number outside of various venues racked up all kinds of impressive audience totals and nabbed the encore slot for their theater.  They may even be partially responsible for the mini-wave of Indian/Bollywood-style Fringe offerings this year - introducing a new crowd to the Fringe who watched the show and thought, “Hey, I can do that!”  (Those other shows are Hey Bangladesh, and Best Bollywood Inn.)

So does it matter that the writing and plot are a little creaky and the acting might be a little wobbly?  Nope.  Because these artists are having so much fun dancing on stage that the happiness just emanates off them in waves and can’t help but be contagious.  I couldn’t help smiling myself during their Fringe preview earlier this month, and I am slow to grin when I’m watching these previews. 

The wonky CD player at the Rarig Center was acting up during their night of previews, and so the big cue to launch them into the dance number midway into the preview was held up, the actor frozen in place, waiting with a smile on his face.  The army of dancers poised to burst in.  The audience finally starting to chant “Mu-sic! Mu-sic! MU-SIC! MU-SIC!”  We wanted our dance and were not going to be denied due to technical difficulties.  It was worth the wait.  The dance was super fun to watch.  (This video isn't that preview, but you'll get the idea.)

And, as if they were baiting me, they presented the bones of the plot as three potential romantic couples - a couple of color, an interracial couple, and a gay couple.  Seriously.  A gay couple.  In the middle of all this family friendly merriment.  Good on them!  If you were trolling me, you succeeded.  I’m probably going to try and get a ticket, even though you don’t need me.  They’ve got another hit on their hands.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Fringe Preview - Stuff That Reminds Me Of Other Things: a walking tour

Stuff That Reminds Me Of Other Things: a walking tour presented by Keely Wolter

Stretch your legs, get out of that dark theater, and join us on a whimsical walk through your tour guide's past experiences.

This walking tour concept rises or falls on the personality of your tour guide.  The whole show is based on events from her life.  So is it going to be entertaining or a snooze?  Judging by the presentation by tour guide/creator Keely Wolter and her director/collaborator/able assistant Rachel Petrie, it looks like a lot of fun. 

“Thanks for participating, or not participating.”

Wolter and Petrie play off each other well and they have great comedic timing.  They used the preview as a way to humorously lay out the general ground rules of the walk - and reassure anyone leery of "audience participation" (complete with air quotes).

And there will be walking, rain or shine, so wear comfortable shoes and be ready for a half a mile stroll with frequent stops (no stairs, just a half a block’s slight uphill climb along the way).  Not a show for my Mom, unfortunately (the walking part of the walking show didn't work for her last year), but I might tag along after her visit’s over.  Wolter and Petrie seem like they’d be a lot of fun to hang out with for an hour, and it’d be a nice change of pace to get out and about.

Fringe Preview - Hank and Jesus (Hay-soos)

Hank and Jesus ('Hay-soos') presented by Preus Productions

Finally sober, Hank is adrift with only his kind heart and bad country songs for navigation. A helpful visitor nudges him on a new path, home for a family Christmas, and closer to the miracle he really needs.

I accidentally walked in on these guys rehearsing in the men’s room while pulling on their cowboy boots.  It was nice to find out what show they were doing.  I’m learning to play guitar myself, so when I see two guys playing acoustic guitar onstage - and playing and singing well - you’ve already got me hooked.  Fringe posted a video, listen for yourself:

“If I had a woman, she would leave me.”

Judging from the show description and additional info on their Fringe page, there seems to be a spiritual element in the mix as well, riding along on the wave of comedic country music that’s at the center of the performance.  Mom likes country.  I like guitar and new plays by local writers.  We both like a good play with some discussion of religion mixed in.  We’re probably going to see Hank and Jesus.

Fringe Preview - Bras and Bros

Looking for Fun(Bags) presented by Up Top Theatre

Brandon and Shirley desperately want to reconnect, but when he asks her for "mammary intercourse" things quickly go awry in this bawdy farce about lovers, friends and the misplaced faith we can have in them.

Love and Persuasion presented by New Endeavors

We challenge you to consider how far you would go to get what you want in this tragic revenge play about two lovers, and a man who always knows just what to say.

Me, You, and Steve presented by Green Sea Productions

It's romance vs. bromance in this comedic depiction of the ultimate third wheel. Can Erin find a way to put a bit more distance between her fiance and his best friend Steve, without ruining the wedding?

Bras are all over the Fringe website this year.  Bras both empty and quite fullBras of many shapes, sizes and colors.  And, judging by the content of the first night of previews, there’s a lot of bros as well.  I’m not entirely sure how I feel about any of that.  On the one hand, “yay! the human body!  not a shameful thing, let’s enjoy it.”  On the other hand, all three of the above shows were written by men.  Also fairly safe to assume, straight, white men. 

So are the characters in these plays treating women as objects or as people?  In all three cases, it’s honestly hard to tell.  In Me, You and Steve - the Me is a woman (or at least that’s what the show description leads you to believe), and she’s trying to navigate the tricky waters of wanting some alone time with her fiancĂ© without the added bonus company of his best friend, who is far too invested - and in the middle of - their relationship.  You don’t want to make a person choose between their best friend and the new love of their life, but there have to be some boundaries, right? 

In Looking for Fun(bags), it’s all about the breasts - or rather guys’ obsession with them.  We’ll just let the phrase “mammary intercourse” sit there and marinate, shall we? 

Those two play for laughs, while it seems like Love and Persuasion is playing for keeps.  When a show describes itself as a tragic revenge play, there are two lovers, and another guy whispering in the man’s ear about his unbroken winning track record with women, things can’t end well.

My challenge in watching these is that they all feature actors, whether I knew them before or not, that I like, and whose performances I enjoyed, even if the subject matter was borderline.  In two of the previews, it was only guys onstage talking about women, the women never appeared.  Granted, it’s a three minute preview, you have to go with your best material, it can’t always include all the characters.  Me You and Steve at least had the titular female Me on stage, but the air in the scene, as in the burgeoning relationship between man and woman, is being sucked up by the oppressive attention of the best friend. 

Should I hope for the best - well-written, fully realized female characters portrayed by strong actresses that influence the outcome of the three stories rather that just being incidental to them?  Or should I expect more of the usual, that being the opposite?  Are the plays commenting critically, actively satirizing gender inequity?  Or are they merely reinforcing it? 

There’s plenty of ill-fated heterosexual romance on display at this year’s Fringe, as there is every year.  Should any of these shows be on my schedule?  I’m genuinely torn.  The fact that the performances are making me reconsider productions I could just as easily have written off is a point in their favor.  And it could be more than enough to justify the entertainment of folks looking for exactly what these plays appear to be offering.  I am, I will admit, in the minority here (both literally and figuratively).

Fringe Preview - Two Jokes, One Act

Two Jokes, One Act: The Boar & The Proposal presented by Delve Theatre

Popova mourns her lost lover. Smirnov can't keep his pistol in his pants. Lomov has a heart attack. You've never seen two of Chekhov's hilarious "jokes in one act" spliced into a single farce quite like this!

As Jeff Larson rightly pointed out, “That was the first one of these previews I could hear all the way backstage.”  Married actors Laura and Zach Delventhal, and their onstage partner in crime Aaron Konigsmark, really went for broke on this comedic preview.  Full-on, over the top histrionics, voices at full throttle, they were slinging Chekhovian insults at each other with great verve.  Fringe posted a video, listen for yourself:

“That turnip ghost!”

Sometimes I didn’t even understand the words with which they were insulting each other (non-four letter word insults were so much more complex back in the late 19th century), but they seemed suitably incensed so I happily played along.  It was a (deliberate) farce in the best sense of the word. (I have to admit, personally knowing the actors were married made me feel a little weird that they were playing father and daughter, but again, the thing was so much fun I willingly bought into the conceit.)

“She used to run around with an architect!  An architect!”

If your knee-jerk reaction to hearing the name Chekhov is “boring” then you haven’t seen Chekhov done properly.  He’s hilarious when he wants to be. (And yes, Two Jokes One Act is an exception to that “leaning away from established writers toward new plays” rule I normally have going.  Good comedy and good actors who do comedy well, and a director (Victoria Pyan) who knows how to stage farce, are all too rare, even at Fringe time.  You have to embrace the good stuff when you see it.  Plus, I personally know all these people deliver good theater - Zach, Aaron and Victoria have all acted in plays of mine, Laura and Victoria have directed plays of mine.  Knowing one person involved in a show makes it hard to resist.  Knowing everyone?  It’s on the schedule.)

Fringe Preview - Demo Tape

Demo Tape presented by Philip Simondet

With songs more self-aware than the characters that perform them, this original musical comedy pokes fun at the tribulations of forming a band.

Demo Tape was, hands down, the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the first set of Fringe previews.  The gimmick of their show postcard actually being a demo CD is smart, but visually a little bland, and it’s also their show image.  The description is tight but, again, nothing that makes any alarm bells go off that say, “You must see this.”  However, their preview kicked some serious butt.  Fringe posted a video so you can see for yourself:

“We’re not sure what’s causing all the buzzing, but it’s on every track.”

On one level, it was just a song, but man, was it the right song.  The guy playing it knows his way around a guitar, he knows how to deliver a song, he knows how to work a crowd.  His partner in crime, a silent and forlorn young woman, almost apologetically lays out the guitar case for tips, and then timidly enters the audience to hand out their CD.  She may be in character, but she still got that thing in people’s hands.  Honestly, how could you say no to her?  She was still in character handing out the CD after the previews were over, standing by the guitar case in the lobby.  I made sure to smile and say I already had one (which I do, and I’m looking forward to listening to).  Those in the audience who didn’t get one I’m sure went looking for them afterward. 

“Please find us on Bandcamp.”

The show is basically theater about the struggles of artists, so it normally wouldn’t be my thing.  But the song was clever, and funny, and enormously entertaining.  And the musicians (and those who love musicians) in the crowd I’m sure enjoyed it on a whole other level than the rest of us.  There was a lot of knowing laughter inside and between the bigger full audience laughs, which just kept coming.  Still don’t know a thing about the plot, but if one song can be this much fun, I’m all for signing on for the rest of the show.  This is a prime example of how a good preview can make your show stand out in a very crowded field.

Fringe Preview - Confessions of a Delinquent Cheerleader

Confessions of a Delinquent Cheerleader - presented by FurTrader Productions

Who were you in High School? Hear true stories of a reformed cheerleader/bad girl at a private school back in the late 1980s. At times hilarious, at times tragic, she shares her "glory days" for all to judge.

You know how some people are just naturally funny, they can’t help themselves?  They’re not trying hard to make you laugh, they’re just what seems to be effortlessly amusing?  That’s Mame Pelletier, the brains and talent behind Confessions of a Delinquent Cheerleader.

"Hi, my name is Mame, and I'm a recovering cheerleader."

I remember several years ago when a writer friend of mine and I saw Mame participate as an actor in Theatre Unbound’s 24:00:00 Xtreme Theatre Smackdown and we both had the same reaction about her, “Who the heck is she and where has she been hiding?  She’s fantastic!”  Every time I’ve seen her since then, she’s just delightful and a lot of fun to watch in action, no matter what she’s doing on stage. 

This is one of a handful of shows I was already really excited about getting to see, and bring Mom to see.  She’s seen Mame in other people’s plays, but she’s never seen Mame under her own spotlight.  So these tales of her cheerleading days back in the 1980s should be a real hoot. 

Mame even has her own wheel of fortune, which will determine some of the comic stories to be told each night at random.  She has a set portion of the story that everyone gets to hear, of course.  But a little randomizer in the mix never hurt anything.  (The winner for Fringe Preview night: Menses.)

I’m really happy to see Mame create a showcase for herself like this, and equally happy it gets to brighten up this year’s Fringe.  Mom has accumulated a list of favorite performers in the Fringe over the years.  After this, Mom will be asking each year as Fringe rolls around again, “What’s Mame doing this year?”

Fringe 2015 - Firing Up The Old Blog Again

My Fringe press pass came in the mail the other day.  Mom has arrived for her week of Fringing and her Ultra Pass was waiting for her.  Time to start up the old Fringe blog again.  The Twin Cities Daily Planet, where a lot of blog content has resided in recent years, is undergoing some changes this year with a new owner/publisher, new editor in chief, and it’s currently between arts editors.  There will still be a chunk of content under the Daily Planet banner, but there’ll be a lot of content hanging out here as well.  I’ll try to link across the two platforms and tweet a lot to direct the Fringe curious to the coverage as it arises.

For those of you who may be partaking of this blog for the first time this year, my mom comes to visit from out east in Pennsylvania and binge on the first six days of Fringe with me.  It happened by accident one year and then became an annual theater pilgrimage for her.  She’s game for pretty much anything, so content will not be a limitation.

She is, however, in her late 70s (though she doesn’t look or act it), so since I want to keep her around for many years to come, I’m going to try not to grind her into the ground.  This will be challenging, because she gets an Ultra Pass and wants to squeeze all the theatergoing out of it she can.  That means 30 shows in six days.  We could hop in my car and zip back and forth across town the whole time.  The smarter course of action is to find clusters of shows in the same neighborhood each day and give ourselves a little chance to breathe between shows.

I’m a playwright, so I gravitate to new plays and local writers over established plays.  I’m gay, so if there are attractive men of any age in a show, that’s a bonus - actual gay content, even better.  I’m a softie, so I will lean toward seeing as many of the traveling Fringe acts as I can, because I like to be a good host city, whatever they do is something I don’t get a chance to see any other time of the year, and if they believe in their story enough to pack it up and carry it with them around the country, that makes me curious.  I also find myself strangely susceptible to being wanted, so if an artist sends me a press release or even just invites me on Facebook, I’m more likely to give them a second look.  The more I know about a show, the harder it is sometimes to say no to it.  All these rules are made to be broken, of course, and Mom also has her favorites, so with luck and random acts of scheduling chance, we'll probably end up with a nice cross section of what's on tap this year.  Follow along!