Monday, August 8, 2022

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Årsgång: What You Follow Follows You"

Day: 4

Show: 15


By: The Winding Sheet Outfit

Created by: The Winding Sheet Outfit

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A beautifully haunting and hauntingly beautiful tale of a young girl in Sweden and her encounters with the supernatural.

Highlights: Over the last several years, The Winding Sheet Outfit has become my number one Minnesota Fringe company, and this show is a prime example why. No matter the (usually historical) topic they choose, the show is always beautifully and thoughtfully designed, scripted, and performed, in a way that casts an absolute spell over the audience. Here we have the story of Lajla (a childlike and empathetic Kayla Dvorak Feld), who loses all of her family in a plague and has to move in with the pastor and his wife. She misses her family desperately, and is accompanied by the spirit of a deceased friend (the always delightful Boo Segersin), thereby keeping a connection with the other side. The Årsgång in the title refers to a legendary Swedish practice of seeing the future by going for a walk in the woods on the longest night of the year, which Lajla experiences as she tries to straddle both worlds. The cast (also including Matthew Kessen, Derek Lee Miller, Kristina Fjellman, and Megan Campbell Lagas) earnestly and believably brings this story to life, both as humans and animals. The story is accompanied by lovely music played live by Amber Bjork and Joshua Swantz, mostly off stage but still a vital part of the show. The only set pieces in the intimate in-the-round space (TRP has become my favorite Fringe venue) are slender bare birch trees, and animal half-masks made of birch or some other natural material (both designed by Derek Lee Miller), and cast is dressed in simple period appropriate clothing of muted colors. All elements of this piece come together with such beauty, grace, and purpose to tell a cohesive and compelling story. I would love to see them remount this show in December as it definitely evokes that still winter feeling. Leaving the spell of this show to walk out into a cold, crisp, dark winter's eve would be a thrilling experience. Until then we'll just have to imagine the snow and the cold.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Slender Vale"

Day: 4

Show: 14

Title: Slender Vale


By: Oncoming Productions

Created by: Oncoming Productions

Location: Mixed Blood Theatre

Summary: An improvised horror story that takes place in a small town in Northern Minnesota called Slender Vale.

Highlights: Improv is usually done for comedy, but this time it's done for horror, although it's funny too at times. Based on the prompt of three cards drawn from a deck (e.g., a bog, a voice) by a narrator, who also adds interjections to fill in background or guide the story, a rotating cast of improvisors tells a spooky story. The night I saw it, the story revolved around a couple of influencers staying at a cabin in Slender Vale, who got involved with the locals and went to the dangerous bog, despite being warned against it. A local teacher cast a spell to make one of the influencers fall in love with him, but it got out of control (natch). Effective horror may need more plotting than this format provides, but the music and lighting add to the spookiness factor, including strobe light effects, spotlights in the dark, and eerie sounds provided by a live musician.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "WHOOSH! The Civil War Mythology of Michael Hickey and His Perilous Precipitation Over St. Anthony Falls."

Day: 4

Show: 13


By: Wheeler In The Sky

Created by: Andrew Erskine Wheeler

Location: CFPA Black Box

Summary: A compelling historical solo show about Minnesotans who fought in the Civil War, the history of St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, the indigenous people of this land, and how all of the above are related.

Highlights: Once again, Andrew Erskine Wheeler throws himself completely into this character, or rather characters. He starts the tale as an Irish immigrant who followed his brother first to the logging camps of Northern Minnesota, and then to the Civil War. He tells his story directly to the audience, how he was injured in the war, was given a job after the war by his sergeant (who, spoiler alert, is Andrew's ancestor), and survived a tumble over the falls. Andrew personifies all of these people, with a change of accent or accessory to his period costume. Into this story he brilliantly weaves the history of the falls (known as Owamni Yamni by the Dakota and Gakaabikaang by the Ojibwe), Indigenous and White people's stories and legends surrounding it, the infamous painting in the Minnesota State Capitol about Father Hennepin's "discovery" of the falls (read more about that here), and the horrors of war and its aftermath. With direction by Allison Vincent, the show seamlessly flows from one story to the next, one character to the next, and might possibly utilize the most props in the Fringe, which Andrew flawlessly manipulates to help tell the story. He also employs jokes and modern references, and a few charming moments of fourth wall breaking, and brings the audience to tears with his passionate and emotional portrayal. At the end of the show, he offers an opportunity for a donation to the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center and encourages the audience to seek out Native stories. Rather than another White man telling a story that isn't his to tell, he's telling stories from Minnesota's shared and complicated history, and encouraging the audience to acknowledge, explore, and understand all parts of our history. WHOOSH is a thoughtful and detailed show that's as fun and engaging as it is educational and inspiring.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Icterine"

Day: 4

Show: 12

Title: Icterine


By: K_e_r_n

Created by: Sarah JK Shoemaker

Location: Bryant Lake Bowl

Summary: An exploration of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" using movement and music (icterine is a shade of yellow, particularly as it relates to birds).

Highlights: It might help to have some familiarity with the source before seeing this show - the early feminist short story about a woman diagnosed with "hysteria" after the birth of her son, that criticizes the late 19th Century medical profession, as well as the oppression of women and strict gender roles. In this incarnation of the story, the woman (Nora King) spends a lot of time alone in her room, and interacting with the nanny (Sarah Shoemaker) who is taking care of her son. Rather than a linear narrative, the piece uses movement and music (live singing and recorded instrumental music) to express the themes of the story, and incorporates some of the author's other writings. It's oddly mesmerizing as as the cast brings great emotion to the story through interpretive dance. There's no curtain call, leaving the audience without any closure, but with encouragement to discuss, write a letter to your future self, and "give yourself empowerment and love."

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Changing the Narrative: Climate Stories for Justice"

Day: 4

Show: 11


Created by: Jothsna Harris of Change Narrative

Location: Bryant Lake Bowl

Summary: A series of songs, poems, and stories about the personal side of climate change and environmental justice.

Highlights: A lot of Fringe shows are big and boisterous, funny or dramatic, but this is a show that transcends entertainment into something more meaningful. Based on the premise that stories will move people more than facts and figures, this powerful and moving show presents the human side of climate change. Three women from local organizations working for climate justice (Whitney Terrill of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, Nicole Ektnitphong of Climate Advocacy Lab, and Leslee Gutiérrez Carrillo of COPAL) tell their very personal stories about what drew them to the work of environmental activism, touching on the relation between migration and climate change, environmental racism, sustainable farming, and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. Between their stories we hear poems and music from the duo Buffalo Weavers, drawing on indigenous traditions and advocating a greater connection with Nature ("don't personify the river, riverfy yourself"). Rather than a depressing lecture on how our way of life is unsustainable, this is an inspiring and engaging show that provides a ray of hope that if we're thoughtful and work together, we can create a better world for all of us.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Bob and Reggie Go To Bed"

Day: 3

Show: 10


By: Comedy Suitcase

Created by: Joshua English Scrimshaw & Levi Weinhagen

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: A completely wordless comedy about... well... two nitwits going to bed.

Highlights: I would happily watch Levi Weinhagen and Joshua English Scrimshaw do anything, which is what most of this show is. Just watching them put on pajamas and get into bed is hilarious. It's just good old-fashioned comedy, the kind that works in any era, geography, or age of audience, in the Buster Keaton silent film kind of style. I'm certain these two go home with bruises and abrasions every night the way they heedlessly throw their bodies around the stage, all for the sake of comedy. They're joined for part of the show by Sulia Altenberg as a tough chain-smoking Tooth Fairy. They keep hitting each other in the face to make their teeth fall out to get more money out of her, which does not make her happy, culminating in a ridiculous slow-mo fight scene employing tools of dental hygiene. While without verbal dialogue, this show is far from silent; composer/musician Rhiannon Fiskradatz creates a soundscape for the show on guitar, percussion, and various other instruments, the sounds making the physical comedy even funnier. At one point the boys are "locked" off the stage and find themselves in the audience, running around gleefully and playfully interacting with the audience. Eventually all four performers end up back on stage, along with a few stragglers they've picked up in a conga line through the audience. This show is just pure joy and delight and laughter. If you don't want your face to hurt from laughing too much, you should avoid this show at all costs.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Piñata"

Day: 3

Show: 9

Title: Piñata

Category: COMEDY

By: Nocturnal Giraffe

Directed by: Joy Donley

Location: Rarig Center Xperimental

Summary: A very funny comedy about moms on a birthday party circuit that sounds a little bit culty.

Highlights: The comedy trio of Greta Grosch, Katie Consamus, and Stephanie Cousins (with a cameo by Elizabeth Efteland as more than just a clown) are a joy to watch as three very different moms relegated to the penalty zone at a child's birthday party because of bad behavior. The pressure to impress and conform amongst this circle of well-to-do mothers of children at an exclusive school makes it sound very much like a cult, but somehow these women are able to move beyond that and recognize the humanity in each other (after a lot of fighting), bonding over the reasons that each of them doesn't quite fit in. Rarely moving from a small square of turf marked off by pool noodles, the cast expertly delivers the tight and funny script, employing physical comedy and perfect timing in this polished and professional show. A momedy even those with no offspring can enjoy, as it tackles themes of "keeping up with the Joneses," the pressure to conform and fit in, and realizing that sometimes you need to break the rules because the rules are stupid.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Life Underground"

Day: 3

Show: 8


By: Brad Lawrence

Created by: Brad Lawrence

Location: Augsburg Studio

Summary: A solo storytelling piece about living in NYC, the wonder of the subway system, going deaf, and maintaining connection with the world.

Highlights: I love NYC, and I love the subway system. It'll take you anywhere you need to go in the greatest city in the world, and observing your fellow riders is like experiencing a microcosm of the world at large. Brad Lawrence also loves the subway, and he actually lives there and rides it regularly. In this very personal and personable show, he tells some fun and funny stories about moving to the city for a girlfriend and an acting career (one worked out better than the other), working as a mover which allowed him to see inside the lives and apartments of New Yorkers, and funny subway encounters (pro tip: if there's only one empty car on a train, do NOT get on it). He maintains his conversational tone, looking the audience right in the eye in the intimate space of the Augburg Studio, as the topics turn a little more serious. It was on the subway where he noticed the worsening hearing in one ear, and debilitating bouts of vertigo (as some with motion sickness, I can in some small way relate to the latter). He also opens up about his fears about going deaf, namely that he'll lose connection with the world around him. But I'm not worried about that for him, as this very funny, very real, very human show is the epitome of connection through storytelling.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "A Day with the Newhearts"

Day: 3

Show: 7


By: Melancholics Anonymous

Created by: Rachel Ropella and Timothy Kelly

Location: Mixed Blood Theatre

Summary: A mock 1960s sitcom set in Minnesota that turns very dark when the Newhearts try to force their new neighbors into their "Minnesota nice" way of life.

Highlights: Complete with a theme song, laugh track, and ads, A Day with the Newhearts feels very much like a sitcom about a happy family in the early '60s (there's a reference to "that new baseball team the Twins," so around 1961 or so). Mom, Pop, and daughter prepare for a barbecue with their new neighbors, a single mom (horror) and her clingy and socially awkward son. Daughter tortures son with news of a recently escaped serial killer, Pop shames single mom for her independence and plans to open a business, but Mom admires her for the same reason, feeling stifled in her Stepford/Minnesota nice life. Things go from odd to deadly very quickly, as we see the dark side of Minnesota nice (which definitely exists, although hopefully not to this extent). The cast (Claire Chenoweth, Bee Davis, and Matthew Humason along with the creators) fully commits to the dark and campy sitcommy tone; costumes, set, and props are charmingly period appropriate (including some Tupperware pieces I recognized from my childhood); and the Minnesota references (scotcheroos, hot dish, and snicker salad) are plenty. It's a darkly funny and disturbing show, consistent in tone, and perhaps a morality tale about how not to welcome new people into the community.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Endometriosis: The Musical"

Day: 2

Show: 6


By: Ripped Nylons Productions

Written by: Maria Bartholdi (book and lyrics) and Kristin Stowell (music and lyrics)

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A musical about one woman's struggles to be heard by her health care providers, and eventual diagnosis of endometriosis.

Highlights: It's only day two, but I can already tell you this is going to be one of my favorite shows of the festival. Firstly, it's a great and unique topic for a musical - who else is singing about women's reproductive health?! But we should be! Years in development, it couldn't be more timely with recent legal changes that have set women's reproductive health and rights back 50 years. And on top of that it's beautifully and cleverly written, both hilarious and poignant, and utterly relatable for any human who has ever menstruated. Songs cover the pain and shame around the menstrual cycle (why can't we say period at the dinner table, or on stage?!), constant doctors visits at which our protagonist is told her debilitating pain is normal or is all in her head, doctors prescribing birth control for any and all ailments in females from a very young age, and the novel idea that our reproductive organs and our reproductive choices shouldn't hold us back from doing everything we want to do. I hope and suspect that this is only the beginning for Endometriosis: The Musical. I'm not saying it'll end up on Broadway and win a Tony for best score like another female-centric musical that started at a Fringe festival, but I think it needs to be seen by more people than just five (likely sold out) Fringe performances. I would love to see it expanded to a 70-90 show (the happy ending wrapped up a little too quickly, I think there's more to explore there), and if they recorded a cast album of this fabulous score I would buy it, listen to it in my car, and sing along with every word. And they should lock this cast down because they're perfection. The two guys in the show (Christian Unser and Drew Tennenbaum) are great and very funny playing multiple (often antagonistic) characters, but this show belongs to the women. Abby Holstrom, who plays our protagonist Jane, appears to be new to #TCTheater and I look forward to seeing her again. Her portrayal is so empathetic and real, she really grounds the show in humanity amongst the wackiness going on around her, and has a voice that's so crystal clear and full of emotion I found myself tearing up in some of the more poignant moments. She's supported by a comedy/vocal dream team of a trio in Nora Sonneborn, Tara Borman, and Aly O'Keefe playing multiple characters and singing gorgeous harmony (particularly in the song "Birth Control" which you can watch here). 

This mini-review is already too long and I haven't even mentioned the adorable DIY costumes and props, the smart and interesting staging/choreography in the in-the-round space (by choreographer Krista Grover Winkka and director Maria Bartholdi, who also voices some very funny and bizarre interstitial bits about a serial stabber), the fabulous three-piece live on-stage band (with music director/composer Kristin Stowell on keyboard), the perfect sound mix (TRP is a such great space for musicals, no mikes necessary), and the way they expertly walk the line between outrageous comedy and tender moments about this very real and relatable issue. You'll just have to see it for yourself, and I recommend making reservations because their first night was nearly sold out. Friends, this is going to be the breakout hit of the 2022 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and deservedly so.

The first step in recording a cast album - the song "Hide."

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "The Real Black Swann , Confessions of America's First Black Drag Queen"

Day: 2

Show: 5


By: Kurkendaal-Barrett Productions

Created by: Les Kurkendaal Barrett

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: A solo storytelling piece about the country's first drag queen - a former slave, as it relates to Les' experience being a Black gay man in America.

Highlights: It would be enough to tell the fascinating and ground-breaking historical story of William Dorsey Swann, a man born into slavery who became the first gay rights activist, but this is master storyteller Les Kurkendaal, so this piece is so much more than history. He weaves a compelling story that combines history with the present, the personal (Les' experiences with racism and police injustice throughout his life) with the political (the murder of Black men from Trayvon Martin to George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter movement). This is the first time I've had the pleasure of seeing Les perform live, and he's quite captivating. He doesn't just sit there and tell his story (with no notes or anything), he moves around the stage, using props, and pulling us right into the story with him. The Real Black Swann is a fine example of a solo storytelling show that's both intensely personal, and highly relevant to the current world we live in.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "On a Stick: A Minnesota State Fair Musical"

Day: 2

Show: 4


By: Literally Entertainment

Created by: Literally Entertainment

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: A disgruntled and wealthy Minnesota ex-pat tries to buy the Minnesota State Fair but is thwarted by a local band who reluctantly enters the amateur talent competition and somehow saves the day.

Highlights: This isn't my favorite creation from Literally Entertainment (see The Scranton Strangler and Gilligan), but it's a lot of fun. The kinda ridiculous plot involves a local band in need of a break who goes to the Fair with flyers to try to get people to come see them play at Harry's bar, and instead finds themselves playing in the talent competition, despite lead singer Meg's (Sarah Frazier) protestations that she hates the State Fair (eventually revealed to be due to a childhood talent competition trauma). And somehow they get tangled up in the delightfully evil Richard Effinghead's (Kaz Fawkes) scheme to destroy the Fair. A bunch of stuff happens, but of course our friends end up on top, with the help of a magical cookie fairy named Sweet Martha (Shell Wolfe, who almost steals the show). As you'd expect it's chock full of local references, specifically to our great get-together (nobody hates the State Fair!), a celebration of all things Minnesota, as well as the power of music and friendship. Written by the Literally team of Kyle DeGoey (music and lyrics) and Travis Carpenter (book), the show features live music by Lindsey DeGoey on piano, in addition to several cast members playing in the band onstage. This one may not be their most clever or original musical, but it's a fun and Fringey good time.