Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fringe Festival 2011

Minnesota's Fringe Festival has been over for about a week now, so it's time to reflect a little on my experience.  I attended ten shows in three days at five different venues, and saw some amazing performances.  It was my first time attending so I wasn't sure what to expect.  But now that I know what it's about, I don't plan to miss a year again.

First, the logistics.  The fest was extremely well organized and well run.  Each show runs 60 minutes or less, with 30 minutes between shows.  That's quite an amazing feat when you realize that they have to load out the sets, cast, and audience of one show and then load in the sets, cast, and audience of the next show.  All the transitions that I witnessed seem to run very smoothly.  The staff and volunteers were friendly and helpful, and the website is easy to use and informative (if a bit slow in loading at times).  I had bought advance tickets (online) for most of the shows I attended, but for a few of them I just showed up, and didn't have any problems (of course that depends on the show, venue, and time).

I only saw ten of the 168 show that were presented this year, but I think I got a pretty good sample (although perhaps a little heavy on the musical, but that's my thing).  Next year I'll do a little more research to make sure I don't miss any of the good ones.  (But let's face it, you're going to miss something.)  I thought about ranking the ten shows, but that proved impossible.  So instead I'll list my top three (in alphabetical order):

History Camp: a super fun a cappella musical about what happens when various historical figures go to camp.

Twisted Apples: a beautiful one-act opera by Nautilus Music-Theater about a woman in a small town in the Midwest whose dreams have passed her by, that will eventually be part of a three-act opera.

Underneath the Lintel: an amazing performance by Pat O'Brien as a librarian whose world is changed when he finds a long overdue book that leads him on a chase around the world.

And here's the rest, many of which I also loved:

Disney Dethroned: Snowcahontas and the Tangled FrogBeast: a hilarious and clever spoof of Disney princess movies by the multi-talented Tom Reed.

The Duties and Responsiblities of Being a Sidekick: a comic exploration of what it's like to be a sidekick and play second fiddle to the superhero.

Minnesota Middle Finger: a sharp three-person cast exploring the Minnesota psyche when trapped in a snowstorm.

Recovery: a moving look at two people who meet in chemotherapy.

Robot Lincoln: The Revengeance (The Musical): a weird and wacky (and slightly incomprehensible) musical imagining Lincoln and other presidents as robots.

Those Were the Days: A Tribute to TV Themes: seven great singers mourn the death of the TV theme song by singing the classics (what would we do, baby, without us?).

Uptown: The Musical: a group of dirty hipsters fight to keep their neighborhood local, and do it in song!

I'm always impressed by the immense quantity and quality of theater talent in this town.  The Fringe Fest showed me just how deep that talent goes.  It's an amazing display of creativity and art.  Some hits and some misses, but the sheer number of unique and original theater on display in ten short days is a beautiful thing.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fringe Festival: "History Camp" by Late Night Menu at Mixed Blood

History Camp is a really wonderful show.  Smart, funny, and silly, it's something I've never seen before - a completely a cappella musical!  As much as I love a pit orchestra or an on-stage band in a musical, an a cappella musical is a pretty cool idea.  One that's wonderfully executed by Late Night Menu, creators of last year's infamous Fringe show (which unfortunately I haven't seen) Zombie High School.  This year's offering is about a camp where historical figures compete for a chance to go back and live their lives over again.

Camp counselor JR welcomes eight historical figures to the camp.  Emily Dickinson is not very happy to be outside, but Amelia Earhart is excited about everything.  Ferdinand Magellan is in his element, while William Shakespeare is above it all.  The boys and girls retreat to their separate cabins where Marilyn sings to the girls about showing them "What You Got," while the boys sing about "Glory" in beautiful four-part barbershop quartet style harmony.  The cast goes on a series of expeditions, competing for the "time travel badge" which will allow one of them to return to their life.  As thing suspiciously go missing, they accuse each other until they begin to realize that "JR" isn't who he seems to be.  In the end they join together for the greater good, having become fast friends at History Camp.

I'm having a hard time singling out anyone in this cast, they were all so great in their diverse roles, and their voices blended beautifully.  Anna Weggel's Amelia Earhart got laughs every time she opened her mouth and spoke in an enthusiastic and hilarious accent, sort of early 20th century East Coast.  Her rivalry with Katia Cardenas's Joan of Arc was amusing as well.  Troy Zimmerman (who also directed the show) was the charming and motivating counselor JR, until he turned menacing.  Andrew Berkowitz wrote the music and lyrics and also played Harry Houdini, in love with Emily Dickenson.  The songs were original and fun with great harmonies.  And without an orchestra to provide cues and back-up, the singing flowed seamlessly out of the dialogue.  I don't know why a cappella musicals aren't done more!

This was my last Fringe show this year.  I was just hoping to stay awake through the 10 pm show, but I ended up being delighted and entertained (even if I did stifle a few yawns which had nothing to do with the performance).  It was a great end to a wonderful first experience at the Fringe Festival.  I'm already looking forward to next year's fest and thinking about how I can fit in even more shows.  If Late Night Menu has a new offering (or even a reprise of Zombie High School), it will definitely be on my must-see list.

Fringe Festival: "Robot Lincoln: The Revengeance (The Musical)" by OT Pro-Ductions at the U of M Rarig Center Thrust

I have to admit it, Robot Lincoln: The Revengeance (The Musical) was the one Fringe show I saw that I didn't quite get.  It's a fun and creative idea - a musical parody of Abraham Lincoln and other past presidents as robots - and I do love re-imagining American Presidents in bizarre, crazy, fun musicals.  But it was a little too weird and scattered for me.  Still, it was interesting to see with a few amusing moments and great performances.

After his assassination, Lincoln is brought back to life by Uncle Sam(antha).  But John Wilkes Booth kills him again, with an army of past presidents who have also been brought back to life as robots.  Fortunately Lincoln is able to be rebooted and brought back to life again, and Uncle Sam provides him with his own army of robot presidents.  Some of the robot presidents are quite clever with fun and expressive costumes.  They all have special powers appropriate to their character; Jack Kennedy's power is that he causes women to swoon.  The battle between the robots is campy fun.  The robots eventually make peace and join together to fight a common enemy - a robot Genghis Khan (aka Robo-Khan), and Lincoln and Booth become friends.

There were some great performances, particularly Jason Garton as an almost sympathetic John Wilkes Booth, Libby Slater as a splendidly patriotic Uncle Sam(antha) and a loopy Mary Todd Lincoln, and David Wasylik as the formidable but beatable enemy Robo-Khan.  The songs are fun and original, but the band was canned.  The thrust stage at the Rarig Center seems like a little too big of a space for the piece (the balconies were closed), but that's not their fault.  A clever premise that needs a little more work.

Fringe Festival: "Minnesota Middle Finger" by Ben San Del Presents at Theatre in the Round

As you can see in the picture to the right, if you flip someone off while wearing mittens, the effect is lost on the recipient.  They just think you're waving and don't recognize the rage behind the gesture.  Such is the premise of Minnesota Middle Finger, in which three virtual strangers are trapped together at the end of the world, which of course in Minnesota takes the form of a 100+ inch snowstorm. Florence and Adam are neighbors who attend a neighborhood party together, mostly because Florence can't think of a good excuse to turn down Adam's proposal.  They wake up the next morning hungover to discover that they're alone in the house with a stranger named Thomas.  The three of them get to know each other quickly whether they want to or not, and must figure out how to survive.  It's a bleak situation, but this play is anything but bleak.  Filled with Minnesota humor, it's sharp and funny and ends with a cliffhanger!

Florence (Leigha Horton) is the good girl who never swears and has her life planned out, but finds something somehow missing.  Adam (Tim Hellendrung) is the nice but slightly nerdy guy (he played trombone in the high school marching band) whom pretty women always overlook.  And Thomas (John Middleton) is argumentative and slightly crazy - he carries a gun around, which fortunately is only a BB gun.  Flo and Adam don't recognize him from the neighborhood, so he eventually admits that he used to live in that house until he fell on hard times, and came to the party with thoughts of hanging himself in the bedroom.  But since the end of the world appears to have arrived, he decides to stick it out.  The three entertain themselves by playing board games, eating pop tarts and pancakes, and arguing with each other.  The truth comes out when the world is ending, and it's not always pretty.  They eventually decide to do something about their situation.  The ceiling is threatening to cave in, so they yell and make noise in attempt to get it to collapse, and then hope to find a pocket of air somewhere on the edges.  That's where the play ends, and we never know if they were successful.

This three-person cast is great, very natural and funny and with great chemistry.  It was also a popular show; it won the encore award, meaning it had the most ticket sales at the venue.  Which I don't disagree with; personally I loved the beautiful opera Twisted Apples, but Minnesota Middle Finger is more accessible and audience-friendly.  A fun exploration of the Minnesota psyche, relationships, and something we Minnesotans are familiar with - being snowed in.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fringe Festival: "Uptown: The Musical" by Box Wine Theatre at Mixed Blood

I saw a flier for Uptown: The Musical a few months ago at the Southern Theater and thought it looked cute and sort of RENT-like, so I was happy to see it on the list of Fringe Festival shows.  And even happier to discover that it is cute, if not very RENT-like.  There are some similarities - a group of young bohemian friends in an urban setting trying to make their way through life - but Uptown is all lightness and fun without the tragic undertone of RENT.

Uptown takes place in a coffee shop in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis (a neighborhood that's much too hip for me), called "The Dirty Hipster."  The colorful characters that populate the coffee shop are the barista Kate (who has been working there much longer than she intended), her musician boyfriend Quentin, a couple of Star Trek dorks, a guy who loves his bicycle, an unemployed young man who still lives with his parents, and a woman who earns money by participating in studies and donating plasma.

The loose plot involves the hipsters protesting against the arrival of a chain store in Uptown - "Trader Jack's."  They make signs and rice krispie treats to get people to come to the coffee shop for a benefit concert featuring Quentin's band.  They plan to buy a billboard with the money proclaiming the evils of chain stores in Uptown.  The benefit is great and everyone has a wonderful time ("out of many we are one, out of one we are many, stay strong stay vocal, keep Lyndale local!"), but unfortunately they don't raise much money.  Quentin decides that it's time for him to grow up and leave Uptown (for St. Paul), and the remaining hipsters decide to donate plasma to make some more money and continue on their quest.

The songs are catchy, whether they're about Obama, emus, Star Trek, or plasma.  The cast is extremely likeable and capable, with varying levels of dancing and singing talent.  Jon Michael Stiff moves like a trained dancer, and Sarah Frazier as Kate has a great voice.  Andi Cheney plays Astrid with a frenetic energy that's appropriate for someone in the middle of a sleep deprivation study and living on caffeine.  It's a fun and diverse cast of characters that would be fun to hang out and drink some coffee with!

See all of my Fringe reviews.

Fringe Festival: "Underneath the Lintel" by Pat O'Brien's Vanity Theatrics at the U of M Rarig Center Arena

Underneath the Lintel is a beautiful, funny, profound one man show about a librarian who goes on a quest to investigate a long overdue book, which changes his life forever.  The man in question is TV and film vet Pat O'Brien, who gives a remarkable performance.  From the moment he walks onstage (about ten minutes before showtime, setting up a table, chair, and a few props), he creates a character so specific and real you believe he's a real person.  He's a stereotypical librarian - nervous, fastidious, precise.  He lives in an orderly world where nothing ever happens, until one day he finds a book that's over 100 years overdue in the night return slot.  The book is a travel guide filled with clues that get him to leave his small town in the Netherlands and travel the world.  A cleaner in London, a train in Germany, a P.O box in China.  He presents the "evidence" he has collected, all neatly numbered and labeled as a librarian would do.  When the clues lead him back hundreds of years, he begins to suspect that the man he is chasing is the mythical wandering Jew, condemned to wander the earth, never resting, never dying.

The librarian gets more and more agitated as his scavenger hunt leads him further and further down the road.  He takes a week's sick leave from his job and is gone for months.  When he finally returns to the library, he's fired.  Everything he knew and loved about his life is taken away and he's faced with an existential crisis.  Does the wandering Jew exist?  And what does that mean about life?  About God?  About why we're here?  Is life just Hobson's choice - no choice at all?  Underneath the lintel (which means doorway or entrance way) refers to the little choices we make that profoundly change our life, and we don't even realize it until much later.

In an afterword written by the playwright Glen Berger, he writes, "in the face of overwhelming existential bewilderment and terrible suffering, to respond with a little defiant dancing (in all its myriad forms) is a very human and very wondrous thing."  As is this play.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fringe Festival: "Those Were the Days: A Tribute to Television Themes" by Blue Umbella Productions at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

Remember how I said '80s music is not my thing?  That's because I spent the '80s watching TV.  So Those Were the Days: A Tribute to Television Themes is totally my kind of show.  The music is entirely from TV show theme songs, with a few commercial jingles thrown in for good measure.  Being a lifelong TV addict, I knew most of the songs they sang, and even the ones I couldn't quite place, I recognized because they're so much a part of our pop culture history. 

The show takes place at a memorial service for the TV theme song, which is long dead.  And it's true, even though I've never really thought about it before: TV shows don't have theme songs anymore.  Back in the days before DVRs or even VCRs, we were forced to watch the credits and commercials, and the theme song was like another character on the show.  But those days are gone.  Don't get me wrong, there are some amazing shows on TV right now.  But no one goes around singing the theme song of Mad Men or Parks and Recreation, which is a little sad. That's why it was so much fun for me to remember all these great shows and their theme songs; it's amazing how the music brings you right back.  And some of them are actually really good song in the hands of musical theater professionals such as these.

The songs are organized by theme - kids ("sunny day, sweeping the clouds away, on my way to where the air is sweet"), teenagers ("you take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both, and there you have..."), family ("as long as we've got each other"), friends ("thank you for being a friend"), and love songs (including the theme song of my favorite '80s sitcom, "I bet we've been together for a million years, and I bet we'll be together for a million more," although sadly they only do a snippet of the song).  Mostly they just sing a line or two of each song, enough to make me wish they'd do the entire thing.  One song they sing in its entirety is the theme song of Greatest American Hero, "believe it or not I'm walking on air," which was actually a hit song on the pop charts.  And there was a sing-along to perhaps the best TV show theme song of all time: "who can turn the world on with her smile?"  The show ended with Pastor Ben saying that you can still find good music on TV if you just listen, as the cast sang the unofficial theme song of Glee, "Don't Stop Believing."  (And really, if any show should have a theme song, it's Glee!)

I had a blast at this show, remembering some of my favorite TV shows.  Those Were the Days is presented by Blue Umbrella Productions and written by Paul Wittemore and Suzanna Winter, who are also members of the cast.  Along with the other five cast-members, they do a great job of bringing these songs to life.  I'll leave you with this, which still makes me smile every time I hear it.

Fringe Festival: "Disney Dethroned: Snowcahontas and the Tangled FrogBeast" by Tom Reed at Mixed Blood Theatre

When I saw the title Disney Dethroned: Snowcahontas and the Tangled FrogBeast on the list of Fringe shows, I was intrigued.  But it wasn't until I recognized the name Tom Reed that I knew I had to see it.  I've seen Tom as his alter ego, the smooth and smarmy Lounge-asaurus Rex at Sample Night Live, and as the naive college graduate/puppet Princeton in Mixed Blood's sweet and silly and wicked production of Avenue Q earlier this year.  Smart, funny, quick-witted, and possessing a better voice than a funny man should, I knew he'd be a great host in this evening of skewering everything Disney holds sacred.

Disney Dethroned is a hilarious spoof of Disney princess movies.  You know the story: the princesses are taught to be cute and find a man to marry, the princes are chauvinistic and controlling jerks, the fathers are dead and the mothers are mean (or vice versa).  The show consists of five parts, with two well-known princess stories mashed together in each to form a loose and nonsensical plot ("it's Disney, don't think too hard").  Tom plays all the roles, from our heroine "Princess Disney," to the evil queen, to the fairy god-mama-genie, to Walt Disney's frozen head.  He transforms into each character using only his facial expressions (see photo above), his voice, and the carriage of his body.  He also sings a few re-inventions of Disney songs, including a song I memorized as a teenager and can still recall word for word, The Little Mermaid's "Part of that World."  Only in this version, Princess Disney explains that stars are just balls of hydrogen and can't hear your wishes or make them come true!  (How's that for reality check?)  The seven dwarves, or something like them, make an appearance, including Elmo, Gimli, and Pawlenty.  There's also a rap from the original creators of most of Disney's fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm.  Actually they're not really the creators of the stories, they just "wrote stuff down."

This show is funny, smart, silly, and a lot of fun.  Not only is Tom a talented improv comedian (his resume includes the Brave New Workshop), he also has a great voice.  He's not just joke-singing, he can really sing.  In fact if I have one complaint about the show, it's that he didn't sing enough!  (But I'm a musical theater nut, so I can always use more singing.)  This was the longest line and most packed house of the five shows I've been to so far, so it might be wise to order tickets before you go.

See all of my Fringe reviews.

Fringe Festival: "Twisted Apples" by Nautilus Music-Theater at Theatre in the Round

Day 2 of my Fringe Festival experience was even better than Day 1.  The three shows I saw ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.  The ridiculous (and I mean that as a compliment) took the form of Disney Dethroned and Those Were the Days.  But first, the sublime: Twisted Apples by Nautilus Music-Theater.  What other words can I use to describe this original piece of musical theater/opera/"music-theater?"  Breath-taking.  Heart-wrenching.  Quietly powerful.  Beautiful.  The best thing I've seen at the Fringe so far, and I have a hard time imagining that anything else I see this week will move me more.

Twisted Apples is a companion piece to Nautilus' 2010 Fringe entry, Untold Lies, and one of three planned one-act operas that will eventually form a three-act opera.  The piece is based on several stories from Sherwood Anderson's 1919 short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio.  The narrator is a young man named George Willard, reminiscing about growing up in a small town in Ohio with his parents Tom and Elizabeth, owners of a small hotel.  As a young girl, Elizabeth had dreams of an exciting life.  But when she saw that all the other girls were marrying, she decided she should get married too.  And Tom happened to be there at the right time.  She became tied down to her family and the hotel, and never lived the life she dreamed of.  In contrast to Elizabeth's open, creative, imaginative spirit, Tom is a serious businessman who wants his son to follow in his footsteps.  Therein lies the conflict of the piece.  Elizabeth, who suffers from a mysterious illness, senses that her life is ending and she'll never get the chance to live as she dreamed of.  More than anything, she wants her son to continue to dream and live as she no longer can.

As Elizabeth, Norah Long (whom I've seen in numerous shows around town) gives a gut-wrenching performance.  She conveys Elizabeth's frailty with a slight catch, almost wheeze, on the intake of breath, and the trembling of her hands, but there's nothing frail about her voice.  Powerful and beautiful, it fills the intimate space at Theatre in the Round.  Gary Briggle is an equal match for her as her husband Tom, and her doctor, Doc Reefy.  Elizabeth and Doc Reefy discover they are kindred spirits, and share a beautiful duet.  His knuckles remind her of the twisted apples left on the trees after the harvest, and he shares that when he needed to pray, he invented gods to pray to.  And now he realizes that she prays to the same gods.  Joshua Hinck rounds out the cast as George, with an effortless voice.

The music in this piece is amazing.  Jim Payne wrote the libretto and Robert Elhai wrote the gorgeous music.  Jerry Rubino on piano leads the fabulous four-piece orchestra (viola/violin, accordion, and clarinet - which is always a thrill for me to hear because I used to play the clarinet, and hearing one in the theater always makes me wish I still did!).

I can't say enough about this show.  If you love musical theater as I do, you must see it.  It's a work of art.  I left the theater and found the sunlight and the real world jarring, because I was so engrossed in the world of Winesburg.  I didn't want it to end, and I cannot wait to see this piece in its entirety.  In the meantime I'll be reading the book to learn more about these fascinating characters.  I've wanted to see Nautilus Music-Theater for a while now, but for some reason I've had a hard time catching their shows.  I'll definitely make more of an effort now that I've had a taste of the sweet and secret Twisted Apples.

See all of my Fringe reviews.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fringe Festival: "Recovery" by Mike Loretta Productions at the Gremlin Theatre

The reason that I chose to see this Fringe show is that it was playing right after another show I wanted to see at the same theater.  I figured as long as I was braving the horrendous construction on University to get the Gremlin Theatre, I might as well stay for another show.  Not a bad reason in this jam-packed festival.  But it wasn't the only reason; the description of the show looked interesting, and it features a group of artists from my second favorite theater town - New York City.  I'm glad I went.  I found it to be moving and funny and poignant.

Recovery tells the story of two leukemia patients who meet in chemotherapy.  They both have had difficult lives before the cancer, losing a spouse in different, difficult ways.  Jason Emanual is Michael, who learned he had cancer when he was hospitalized after a car accident.  He had stepped into traffic in an attempt to kill himself after his wife left him.  He's struggling with being alone and trying to find his place in life.  He finds a kindred spirit in Katheen (Sarah Kanter), whose husband was killed in a car accident.  She pushes Michael away at first, not wanting to get tied up in a relationship while she's fighting for her life.  But eventually she comes to realize that even though they know life is going to end, it's better to go through it together while they still can.

Michael and Kathleen's doctor has issues of his own - his wife is mentally unstable and he's having an affair with the spunky nurse, who is also a cancer survivor.  With her fiery red hair and bright red lipstick, Lucille is the spark of life in the otherwise sad and dreary hospital.

The play is beautifully acted and beautifully written (by Mark Jason Williams), with just about every character delivering long soliloquies to the audience.  The show was a nice complement to the previous show (the light and fun Duties and Responsibilites of Being a Sidekick).  Much heavier and thoughtful, but in a good way.  At times funny, Recovery is a poignant and thoughtful exploration of life and death, relationships, and hope.

Day One of my Fringe Festival experience was a success.

See all of my Fringe reviews.

Fringe Festival: "The Duties and Responsibilities of Being a Sidekick" by The Barkada Theater Project at Gremlin Theatre

I've never been to the Fringe Festival (the Midwest's largest performing arts festival) before this year.  This may seem strange coming from a theater geek like myself, but I've found the huge list of shows to be overwhelming.  How do you know what to see?  But this year I decided to just pick a few shows and go.  I have a five-show Fringe marathon day planned for next weekend, but after I ordered my tickets I kept hearing about other shows that sounded interesting.  So it's ending up to be more than just one day (as it should).  Next year I'm definitely getting a ten-show pass (or two!).

The first additional show that piqued my interest is The Duties and Responsibilities of Being a Sidekick.  I saw a postcard for it at the Theatre Garage when I was there for Girl Friday's Street Scene last week.  I couldn't resist the idea of the talented and hilarious Randy Reyes playing a superhero sidekick.  And it lived up to my expectations: funny, quirky, and entertaining. 

Randy plays Barrel Man, sidekick to the superhero Gentleman Li.  As Barrel Man complains to his sidekick friends, the sidekick does all the work and gets none of the credit.  The scene of the super-friends commiserating about the super-life was a little Dr. Horrible-esque (which is a very good thing in my book).  As with most superheroes, Barrel Man's alter ego Justin is not quite as confident as his super-self.  Justin has a crush on the girl at the coffee shop, Isa, and in scenes of painfully hilarious awkwardness, he's unable to tell her how he feels.  But with the help of his friends Jack (aka Paso Doble, dressed just how you'd think) and Jill (who transforms into the delightful Fruit Fly in white go-go boots), Justin finally gets up the nerve to walk Isa home.  When they're attacked by a mugger, Justin defends them and has things under control, until Gentleman Li arrives and manages to make a mess of things while simultaneously impressing Isa.  But in an interesting turn of events, Isa is not who she seems to be either, and her motives for fawning over Gentleman Li are something other than romantic.

The play was written by Eric "Pogi" Sumangil, founder of the Barkada Theater Project (and sadistic dentist to Randy's Seymour in Mu's Little Shop of Horrors earlier this year).  The cast is great, especially Jason Michael Vogen and Katie Bradley as the sidekicks.  There are some pretty impressive fight scenes (choreographed by Pogi and Allen Malisci, who also plays Gentleman Li), including some slow-mo punches.  The Duties and Responsibilities of Being a Sidekick is a "super" fun show and a great choice for my first Fringe Fest show!

See all of my Fringe reviews.