Monday, August 26, 2013

"Singin' in the Rain" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

For the first musical of its 2013-2014 season, Bloomington Civic Theatre chose Singin' in the Rain, based on one of the most popular movie musicals of all time. Having never seen the movie (I'm a theater geek, not a movie geek), I was less excited about this one than the rest of their season, which includes the epic Les Miserables, the adorably hilarious 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling, and the stage classic Gypsy. But I really enjoyed Singin' in the Rain, which bodes well for the rest of the season. Director and choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrel incorporates some tricky technical elements into the story about the end of silent films and the beginning of "talkies," and, as expected, provides some wonderful choreography that is energetically performed by the young and talented cast. The classic movie musical may not be my favorite kind of musical, but this one is a lot of fun and well done.

Let's start with the choreography. There is of course the iconic title number, in which Hollywood actor Don dances in the rain and doesn't mind because he's in love with his new co-star Kathy. Real water pours out of a spout on the side of the stage, while confetti falls from the ceiling and looks like rain as it catches the light. It's a magical and delightful scene. The "Broadway Melody" montage is also a highlight (even if it has nothing to do with the musical or musical-within-a-musical plot), with lots of tap dancing. The dancing is so great it continues into the longest curtain call ever!

a scene from the movie

Second, the technical elements. Since the plot centers around silent film actors transitioning to talking film actors (with varying degrees of success), it's important to see those films, and we do. Previously filmed material is shown on a screen onstage, with Music Director Anita Ruth playing along live just like they did in the olden days of movies. We see a complete (short) silent film cut together with title cards, and later a talking film with purposely bad sound. They're very well done and entertaining, and essential to the storytelling.

Third, the cast is fantastic, beginning with the four leads (and remember I have no strong impressions of the film so I'm not comparing them to anybody). BCT vet C. Ryan Shipley, as our hero Don, sounds beautiful on the love songs and dances the title number with infectious joy. His Kathy is played by Holli Richgels, a recent college 
Jeffrey C. Nelson, Holli Richgels, and C. Ryan Shipley
graduate and welcome newcomer to the Twin Cities theater scene. With her gorgeous voice, dancing talent, and likeable stage presence, I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more of her on Twin Cities stages in the near future. For comic relief we have the delightful Rachel Weber as Lina, the silent film star with the unbearable voice (but don't let her fool you, she has a lovely voice of her own). Is it wrong that I found myself rooting for Lina? "What's wrong with me?" Nothing, indeed! Last but not least is Jeffrey C. Nelson, who is perfectly cast as the clownish sidekick Cosmo. He has a rubber face and body and knows how to "Make 'em Laugh."

Lastly, I can't write about a BCT show without mentioning the fantastic full (20+ piece) pit orchestra led by Anita Ruth, which warms my former-pit-player heart. Makes a girl wish she had never given up the clarinet.

BCT always puts on a good quality show, and Singin' in the Rain is no exception. Next up: Les Miserables, starring one of my favorite local actors Dieter Bierbrauer as Jean Valjean. But before that, I'm going to my first play at the BCT Black Box Theater, my second favorite math play Proof.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"The Big Lowdown" on the streets of Lowertown St. Paul, by Bedlam Theatre and Live Action Set

I had an interesting new theatrical experience last night. It's called The Big Lowdown and it's put on by Bedlam Theatre and Live Action Set on the streets of Lowertown. Rather than sit in a theater and be entertained by what's happening on the stage in front of you, the audience walks around from stage to stage to view various short pieces, so that you're actually walking in and moving through the theatrical universe. It's pretty darn cool. There are only three performances (I attended a preview) and I highly recommend you check it out this weekend if you're looking for a fun and unique adventure that's part theater, part neighborhood tour, and part community gathering.

The adventure begins at the beautifully restored historic Union Depot in St. Paul, where the audience is divided into 12 small groups (I was told the max size is 40, but there were only five in my group which was a great size for us all to get to know each other a little bit). Each group is given directions to their destination where they meet their "roamer," or tour guide for the night. You are then led to various locations in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood (a neighborhood with which I was not very familiar, but of which I am now a fan) to view short pieces. It's almost like a mini-Fringe Festival, in that there's a great variety of work presented and you're never sure what you're going to see next. I will refrain from telling you any details about any of the performances because I don't want to ruin the delightful surprise of it all. Suffice it to say that I experienced many different kinds of theater, including but not limited to: music, puppetry, storytelling, dance, folktale, circus, painting, poetry, and things I'm not sure have a name. The pieces were in turn odd, funny, beautiful, creepy, delightful, sad, silly, moving, fun, trippy, and fascinating. They took place in locations as various as the bright and open waiting room at the Depot, a darkened room, a rough and unfinished basement, an alley, and a lovely park. Walking around the dark and deserted streets with a small group of companions and only a lantern to light our way, it was as if we were on our own private adventure, with everything happening around us seemingly a part of the show.

My group attended seven of the nine performances going on that night (according to the program, which also includes a handy map), and we were just one of 12 groups. I don't really get how that math works (and I'm good at math), but it's an impressive logistical feat by director Noah Bremer and team to make it all work! Since I attended the first and only preview performance, there were a few moments of extra time here or not enough time there, but in general it all ran remarkably smoothly. And it's an adventure, so it doesn't have to be perfect, that's part of the fun.

I just can't recommend this highly enough; it's the best adventure you can have for $15! Wear your walking shoes, dress for the weather (i.e., hot and and humid), carry a water bottle (although there are a few water stops along the way), bring your adventurous spirit, and be aware of what's happening around you, for around each corner is a new wonder to explore. The adventure begins this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 8 pm (but they ask that you arrive by 7:30 to allow time to be sorted into groups and take care of logistics). Be sure to visit the Facebook event page for details on location, parking, and ticket info. Have fun!

the Union Depot and light rail stop

one of the locations, inside artists lofts

Monday, August 19, 2013

"Shade's Brigade" by The Producing House at the Jerome Hill Theatre

"Feel free to close your eyes." One is not often told that at the theater, and while I do occasionally do that, it's usually due to sleep deprivation and not to enhance the experience of theater. But Shade's Brigade is a unique theater experience. It's a serialized radio play that you can watch live, but that you can also listen to (for free) on I saw Episode 3 last night at the Jerome Hill Theatre in St. Paul and listened to Episode 1 today online. As fun as it is to watch live and see how the story is created, there's something to be said for experiencing it the way it was intended - as a purely auditory experience.

Shade's Brigade is a noir thriller about Captain Jack Shade and his team of colleagues who travel the world having adventures, getting into scrapes, and solving problems. Episode 3 involves a stolen painting that needs to be returned to the museum from which it was stolen, but the mystery is really not as important as the characters and how they go about solving it. All of the actors have great and expressive voices (and do their own sound effects!), but they also put on an entertaining performance for the live audience, despite standing behind music stands with scripts. Eric Webster, who wrote and directs the plays, is Captain Shade, and also narrates in that classic noir style. He's joined by Dave Gangler as the proper Brit, Lee H. Adams, who effortlessly switches between two outrageous characters, the good old Southern boy Cooper and the tough but dumb Ernie, and the delightful Shanan Custer as Kate, former Air Force Pilot and Girl Friday type. They're joined for Episode 3 by local radio personality Brian Turner as a Frenchman who runs into the gang. The cast has a variety of props onstage to create the sound effects, from a squeaky door to a train.

Going to see Shade's Brigage is a little like watching a broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, where you get a peek behind the magic. Or you can close your eyes and just listen, and let your imagination paint the pictures you hear. Take a listen on their website (each episode is roughly an hour), and if you like what you hear, you can check out one of two monthly performances through November (more info here, discount tickets available at Goldstar). I will definitely be keeping up with the Brigade online to see what they get into next!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2013 Wrap-up

2013 was my third year at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. In 2011 I saw 10 shows, followed by 16 last year, and 25 this year. This was my first year with a "Gold Pass," which means that I could see as many shows as I wanted - for free! I attended both Fringe-For-Alls (a sampler in which 30 shows present a 3-minute preview) and read through the list of 176 shows to narrow down the list to those I wanted to see (based either on the preview or the people involved, or sometimes the subject matter). I came up with a must-see list of 28 shows. I was able to fit 25 of those into my 8-day schedule (I had conflicts on 2 of the 11 days of the fest, and wanted to give myself a day off). And since I am not a spontaneous person, I stuck to that schedule (I almost stayed for a 10 pm performance of Clocked until I remembered that's past my bedtime).

And I had a marvelous time. As a Minnesota super-theater-goer, I know that we have an abundance of talent in this town, but it's never more apparent than at the Fringe Fest. I saw a huge variety of shows - musicals, plays, comedies, dramas, stand-up, spoken word, dance, clowning, improv - and almost all 25 were enjoyable. Several of them I absolutely loved, and many I liked immensely. But mostly I was once again impressed at the level and depth of talent and creativity we are lucky enough to have in this local theater community.

In summary, it was a whirlwind 25 shows in 8 days, but it was amazing and well worth the sleep lost and vacation hours spent. From my vantage point, the fest was once again extremely well-organized and impeccably run, thanks to the Fringe employees and many volunteers. And the lines, traffic, and parking were not even that bad. I love the Fringe Fest, and I can't wait until next year!

Here are just a few of the shows that I loved the most. You can read what I thought about all 25 by clicking the link at the bottom of the post.

  • Expiration Date: a one-woman show about a young woman facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer, featuring one of the best performances I saw in the Fringe - Candy Simmons, who also wrote the piece.
  • Four Humors' Lolita: A Three Man Show: a clever, hilarious, well-written, and well-performed adaptation of the infamous movie/book. It's obvious a lot of thought went into this wonderfully ridiculous show.
  • Hello Stranger: the best original music I heard at the Fringe (by local musician/composer Blake Thomas), a charming host, and a delightful experience of human relationships.
  • Shelly Bachberg Presents: How Helen Keller and Anne Frank Freed the Slaves: The Musical: a fantastic cast of local musical theater actors, smartly written political satire, great original songs, and fabulous costumes.
  • Teenage Misery: The Horror Musical: a fun and clever new musical that mashed the stories of CarrieMiserySweeney Todd, and Bye Bye Birdie, featuring a young cast chock full of raw talent.
  • The Unknown Matters: a quiet and lovely musical about two friends exploring the grand ideas of the universe while navigating earthly matters like friendship and snacks.
  • These Old Shoes: an aesthetically and emotionally beautiful tale of love lost and found, in Transatlantic Love Affair's trademark physical theater style.
  • They Called Her Captain: the one show I saw that is begging to be extended into a full-length play, because the material about a woman who becomes a captain in the army in WWII is so rich. Bonus - it's a true story, and the woman and many other characters are portrayed by her real-life daughter.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fringe Festival: "The Cosmic Equation = 2 Wives + 2 Husbands / Adventure"

Day: 8

Show: 25

By: Adventurer Press

Created by: Stephen B. Brooks

Location: Intermedia Arts

Summary: Narrated by a talking horse, two husbands work in an office rearranging numbers, while their wives go an adventure, meet a giant, are turned into dancing pennies, and eventually reunite with their husbands.

Highlights: Unfortunately, my last show of the 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival was also one of my least favorites. I really wanted to love this show - it's about numbers (which I love), the cast includes several actors that I love (Tyson Forbes, Suzy Kohane, and Sara Richardson), and the three-minute preview I saw at Fringe-for-All was funny in a crazy way. But when I saw the whole show, I just didn't get it. The actors are great as expected, fully committed to what they're doing, but it just didn't make any sense to me. What I learned about marriage is that husbands work in an office all day and never come home, while wives go on crazy adventures and get turned into dancing pennies. Huh? The highlights are the musical accompaniment and whenever Sara and Suzy add their lovely voices to it, especially during the singing scene changes, and the attention to detail in the props and costumes.

Fringe Festival: "Once Upon a Chalkboard"

Day: 8

Show: 24

By: The Last Magic

Created by: Tyler Michaels and Tod Peterson

Location: Minneapolis Theatre Garage

Summary: Two men improvise fairy tales based on key words from the audience, integrating sets, props, and costumes drawn on chalkboards by volunteers.

Highlights: Tod Peterson and Tyler Michaels (who play father and son in Joseph at the Chan, now playing) are the perfect pair. Both are highly entertaining actor/singers with a gift for thinking on their feet. They appear to be having great fun together and play off of each other very well. Asking for a suggestion from the audience (a prop or costume piece commonly seen in fairy tales), they create a story on the spot like some odd mishmash of every fairy tale you've ever heard. They each play a wide variety of characters, from a dinosaur to a guardian angel to a king, usually with some form of a British accent. The ask their assistants to draw various things they mention, and much of the humor comes in how bad (or sometimes good) the drawings might be and how they incorporate that into the story. When they can go no further, they end with a "and they all lived happily ever after" and being anew.  Of the seven stories they told at the show I attended, my favorites were the "river song" by an old poet and the young musician who happens upon him, and the passing on of the job of queen's herald. It's a jolly good time watching these two talented artists play.

Fringe Festival: "The Unknown Matters"

Day: 8

Show: 22

By: Broken Boot Theatre

Created by: Mark Sweeney

Location: HUGE Theater

Summary: Two friends and colleagues explore ideas lofty (dark matter, new planets, the universe) and mundane (snacks!).

Highlights: I found the music in this piece, written by Mark Sweeney, to be completely lovely. He and Katie Bradley harmonize about physics and the universe and friendship and life, accompanied only by a ukulele, and the result is hauntingly beautiful. The plot is simple - Peter and Sarah work together, spending their days researching the vastness of the universe, until Peter gets sick and they are forced to rethink their routine and their life. But not in drastic, dramatic ways; this is a quiet and subtle piece. They make great use of silence, leaving plenty of room for ideas to breathe. The question on the chalkboard asks, "What are you waiting for?" Possible answers: "equality for all, adventure, ice cream, planets, dark matter, something to begin." In the busyness of the Fringe Festival, The Unknown Matters is a reprieve of quiet, simple beauty.

Fringe Festival: "To Mars With Tesla or The Interplanetary Machinations of Evil Thomas Edison"

Day: 8

Show: 23

By: English Scrimshaw Theatrical Novelties

Created by: Adrienne and Joshua English Scrimshaw

Location: Intermedia Arts

Summary: A silent film style play that explores the real and imagined life of scientist Nikola Tesla, and his real and imagined enemy Thomas Edison.

Highlights: A few months ago, nimbus theatre did an original play called Tesla about the fascinating and brilliant scientist (best known for developing the alternating current motor). The first half of this piece tells a similar story about Tesla immigrating to the US and working for Edison, and his OCD-like quirks. The second half diverges into an imagined tale of Tesla and Edison travelling to Mars to... well I'm not quite sure why. I find Tesla's real life more interesting that the made-up parts, but it does provide an excuse for some interesting Martian choreography (they speak only in movement). The silent film aspects of this piece are very well done, with expressive silent acting telling the story along with title cards displayed at the back of the stage. The funniest bits include a static electricity fight and a chalkboard brainstorm session about how to get to Mars. The six-person cast all perform well in this style, especially Joshua Scrimshaw as Tesla and Kelvin Hatle as Edison. It deserved its placement among the top 15 shows in attendance.

Fringe Festival: "Expiration Date"

Day: 8

Show: 21

Created by: Candy Simmons

Location: Intermedia Arts

Summary: A one-woman show about a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer who decides not to tell anyone about it until she figures out what it means and what she wants.

Highlights: Candy Simmons, who also wrote the play, gives one of the best performances I saw in the 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival. She portrays a range of emotion, from anger and despair to acceptance and determination, with ease and believability. Acting out multiple parts (with multiple accents) in scenes and speaking directly to the audience, she moves around the sparse stage, populated only by a bench, rolling chair, and doctor's office curtain, with grace and purpose. Expiration Date is funny, sharp, moving, and thought-provoking. Where a lot of Fringe shows abound with silliness (which is not necessarily a bad thing), it's nice to see a more serious and contemplative, but still entertaining, piece of theater.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Fringe Festival: "The Nose"

Day: 7

Show: 20

Title: The Nose

By: The Piltdown Men

Created by: The Piltdown Men

Location: Illusion Theater

Summary: A politician's nose is accidentally cut off by his barber, and the nose takes on a life of its own - running for office against him and stealing the woman he loves.

Highlights: Based on a 19th century short story, The Nose is a delightfully absurd piece, well-performed by the three-man cast (Theo Langason, Matt Spring, and Brant Miller, the latter two also a part of the three-man cast in Four Humors' Lolita). With rapid-fire dialogue, odd and amusing dance interludes between scenes, musical accompaniment that provides a soundtrack (by Alex Kim), zero props or set pieces, and fully committed performances by the three actors in multiple roles, it's just a highly entertaining show. For only the second time in the Fringe, I forgot to take notes after about 5 minutes, so enthralled was I by the show. What else can I say?  It's great - their last show is tomorrow (Sunday) and it's well worth fitting it into your Fringe schedule if you haven't yet.

Fringe Festival: "I Make No Promises, But Someone's Probably Going to Die"

Day: 7

Show: 19

By: Trusty Paper Ship

Written by: Annie Scott Riley

Location: Illusion Theater

Summary: A dark comedy about people waiting to commit suicide by being looked at by the "Giant Eyeball."

Highlights: The tight six-person cast does justice to a smartly written dark comedy that takes place in a world that's very like ours, but just slightly off. A world where people looking to end their lives (and presumably start over in the next one) go to visit the "Giant Eyeball" (not to be confused with the "Grasping Lotus," who makes people into "Omniscient Yogis"). A world where there's an audience watching (us), but only some people know it. A world where an odd and strict warden watches over the proceedings, and everyone has a spiritual adviser. It's in this world that Brianna (Joanna Harmon) meets Adam (Clarence Wethern), and begins to rethink her decision, despite her awful therapist (John Middleton). Bottom line: smart, funny, well-written and well-acted.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Fringe Festival: "Teenage Misery: A Horror Musical"

Day: 6

Show: 18

By: Devious Mechanics

Written by: Keith Hovis

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A young woman in college and her two best friends kidnap their idol Shane West. It ends badly, and they go on a killing spree across the country.

Highlights: What do you get if you combine the Stephen King novels Misery and Carrie with the musicals Sweeney Todd and Bye Bye Birdie? You get this odd and delightful mishmash of a musical, that doesn't shy away from the material it borrows from (the opening song is "attend the tale of Carrie Black," and Conrad Birdie is replaced by Shane West). A little rough around the edges, but the songs are great, with clever commentary on what it's like to be a young person growing up today, and winking jokes about "no time for proper character introduction, we only have an hour." The young actors in the cast may be a little green, but there's a ton of raw talent on that stage, and they perform with such enthusiasm and energy that it's impossible not to have fun watching them. Kelly Houlehan as Carrie has a strong voice and lights up the stage, Jordan Oxborough plays the not-so-smart idol well and sounds great too (talent runs in the family), and Shana Berg is a scene-stealer as the woman with a psychic connection to Shane (their psychic duet is hilarious). It's everything you want a Fringe musical to be - fun, clever, over-the-top, with strong performances and catchy tunes. Musical theater lovers - go see this one!

Fringe Festival: "Elysium Blues"

Day: 6

Show: 17

Title: Elysium Blues

By: The Barkada Theater Project

Created by: Jessica Huang

Location: U of M Rarig Center Xperimental

Summary: This modern retelling of the Greek myth about Orpheus following his love Eurydice into the underworld uses blues music to add to the story.

Highlights: This is a really cool piece, very captivating and transporting, so that leaving the theater feels a bit jarring. We're all familiar with the story - Orpheus' wife Eurydice dies so he follows her to the underworld to bring her back. But this adaptation focuses more on Eurydice and why she left in the first place - turns out Orpheus is a controlling abusive jerk. He comes into the underworld and takes over, tying up Persephone, queen of the underworld, who wants her people to forget the past (by drinking a green elixir) and be happy. But slowly, memory comes back and Eurydice makes a choice. It's kind of trippy but the music is fantastic! And the cast is great - Eric Mayson plays Orpheus as a rock star, with voice and guitar-playing skills to match; Rachel Austin has a strong and expressive bluesy voice as Eurydice; Rebecca Wall is a regal and sympathetic Persephone; and the ensemble supports them well musically and theatrically (directed by Ricardo Vazquez). Bottom line: a fascinating and successful exploration using music to shed new light on one of the oldest stories in the world. I wish I could buy the soundtrack.

Fringe Festival: "Non Edwards's Bob Fosse Makeover"

Day: 6

Show: 16

By: Non Edwards

Choreographed by: Non Edwards

Location: Southern Theater

Summary: To quote the program, "An exploration of theatrical dance production and its components."

Highlights: I saw this show because I was intrigued by the three minute preview in which a dancer transforms herself into a Fosse dancer (i.e., dresses in black and puts on red lipstick and false eyelashes). And I wanted to check off the dance square on my Fringe bingo card.* Unfortunately, this is one of the times when I don't really get dance. It started off great, with five dancers performing synchronized movements with no music to guide them; an impressive feat. The choreography was interesting, and I liked how the dancers started off and ended the show in sweats, but it might have been better as a 30 minute show, as it felt stretched a little thin. I guess I was expecting a more traditional dance piece. Still, it's creative and different, so I give them points for that!

*I'm kidding, there is no such thing as a Fringe bingo card. Or is there? How awesome would that be? With squares for the different genres, as well as things like "shows with a joke about Minnesota," or "shows with more than five swear words." Turn in your completed bingo card and win a prize. Something to work on for next year, Fringe producers.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Fringe Festival: "How to Swear Like a Minnesotan"

Day: 5

Show: 15

By: Joking Envelope

Created by: Joseph Scrimshaw

Location: U of M Rarig Center Xperimental

Summary: A stand-up comedy routine about all the wonderful (and not so wonderful) things about being a Minnesotan.

Highlights: As I think I've made fairly obvious on a number of occasions, I love my home state of Minnesota. And I love a good Minnesota joke, but only Minnesotans are allowed to make fun of Minnesota. It's a good thing Joseph Scrimshaw is a Minnesotan (we know because he lists all of the Minnesota towns he's lived in during his lifetime), because he makes good fun of Minnesota in this show, but in a loving way. It's absolutely hilarious, filled with jokes about hot dish, snow, the long good-bye, out-state family afraid to visit "the big city," Betty Crocker, The Oregon Trail, Minnesota celebrities, Paul Bunyon, and "Minnesota nice" covering up the hot angry cheese inside of us (I like Garrison Keillor's definition - "Minnesotans are so nice they'll give you directions to anywhere except their own home"). And yes, he does swear, including that most Minnesotan of swear words - "uff-da." I'd say you should go see it, but it's completely sold out. Your last chance is the "Audience Pick" at 8:30 pm on Sunday night (reserve a ticket for the U of M Rarig Center Xperimental here).

Fringe Festival: "A Clown in Exile"

Day: 5

Show: 14

By: World Wide Clown

Created by: Mohamed Yabdri and Noah Bremer

Location: U of M Rarig Center Proscenium

Summary: One man (a clown) navigates the issue of travel, love, flight, home, and other facets of daily life.

Highlights: Clowning is one art form with which I am not very familiar. The Fringe Festival is a great place to experience those sorts of things, because the shows are short and sweet. While I'm still not sure clowning is my thing, it was an amusing show. Mohamed Yabdri is incredibly expressive, and even though he only speaks a few words, manages to convey a range of emotions and stories. The use of a coat on a hanger to represent his wife, the repeated motif of a paper airplane, and a suitcase full of props are clever. A little too much audience participation for my taste (maybe because I was one of the unlucky audience members chosen), but worth checking out if you're interested in the art of clowning.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2013 Top Five (or so)

I compiled a list of my five favorite shows about halfway through my Fringe experience, and when it came time to update the list at the end of the fest, I couldn't bear to remove any from the list upon adding new ones from the second half. So it's a bit longer list now.

In alphabetical order, my favorite shows of the 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival are (click on the show title for more details):

  • Expiration Date: a one-woman show about a young woman facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer, featuring one of the best performances I saw in the Fringe - Candy Simmons, who also wrote the piece.
  • Four Humors' Lolita: A Three Man Show: a clever, hilarious, well-written, and well-performed adaptation of the infamous movie/book. It's obvious a lot of thought went into this wonderfully ridiculous show.
  • Hello Stranger: the best original music I heard at the Fringe (by local musician/composer Blake Thomas), a charming host, and a delightful experience of human relationships.
  • Shelly Bachberg Presents: How Helen Keller and Anne Frank Freed the Slaves: The Musical: a fantastic cast of local musical theater actors, smartly written political satire, great original songs, and fabulous costumes.
  • Teenage Misery: The Horror Musical: a fun and clever new musical that mashed the stories of Carrie, Misery, Sweeney Todd, and Bye Bye Birdie, featuring a young cast chock full of raw talent.
  • The Unknown Matters: a quiet and lovely musical about two friends exploring the grand ideas of the universe while navigating earthly matters like friendship and snacks.
  • These Old Shoes: an aesthetically and emotionally beautiful tale of love lost and found, in Transatlantic Love Affair's trademark physical theater style.
  • They Called Her Captain: the one show I've seen that is begging to be extended into a full-length play, because the material about a woman who becomes a captain in the army in WWII is so rich. Bonus - it's a true story, and the woman and many other characters are portrayed by her real-life daughter.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Fringe Festival: "The Gravity of Ghosts"

Day: 4

Show: 13

By: Paula Reed Nancarrow

Created by: Three Storytellers and a Poet

Location: Woman's Club of Minneapolis

Summary: Three storytellers and a poet stand on a bare stage in front of a microphone and simply tell a story that has to do with death.

Highlights: Different than anything else I've seen at the Fringe, this show is storytelling at its most basic. Four authors read a piece that they've written, in a captivating and entertaining way. My favorite is Ward Rubrecht's harrowing and exciting tale of biking through the heart of the city (which, if true, makes me concerned for his safety!). Cole Sarar tells a creepy ghost story about a widow with secrets; Richard Rousseau (last seen in another ghost story at Mill City Museum) is the ghost of the captain of the Titanic, haunting the survivors; and Paula Reed Nancarrow tells a moving story about her grandmother and depression. Even though these stories are about death, in a way, they're also about life and hope. Bottom line: well-written and well-told stories about a topic that's familiar to all of us.

Fringe Festival: "These Old Shoes"

Day: 4

Show: 12

Created by: Diogo Lopes and the ensemble

Location: Music Box Theatre

Summary: Using their trademark physical theater style, Transatlantic Love Affair tells the story of a man packing up his belongings and memories as he prepares to move into an "old folks home," with the help of his loving granddaughter.

Highlights: Transatlantic Love Affair never fails to make me cry. The pictures that they create and the emotions that those pictures evoke are so beautiful; it's difficult to describe if you haven't seen them. The seven actors are on a completely bare stage with no set or props, dressed simply, but manage to create a rich and varied world in which to tell their stories. With only their bodies, voices, and facial expressions, they represent everything from furniture to trees to the characters in the stories. And they always use music very wisely to enhance, but never distract from, the story (Dustin Tessier on an expressive electric guitar). Without giving away too much, the story they tell here is one of aging, memory, regrets, and second chances. The entire cast is wonderful, but Derek Lee Miller and Peytie McCandless are especially lovely as they portray characters at various times in their lives. There's so much going on, such exquisite attention to detail, that it's impossible to see everything. I wish I had time to see this again* so I could drink it all in. My favorite of the Fringe so far, and I doubt anything else I see will top it.

Read more of my fringe fest reflections…

*And maybe I will see it again. They're continuing their trend of expanding Fringe shows at Illusion Theater with last year's Ash Land, to be presented at Illusion in February 2014. Dare I hope for These Old Shoes at Illusion in 2015?

Fringe Festival: "Dear Madde"

Day: 4

Show: 11

Title: Dear Madde

By: Gigglepus Productions

Created by: Madde Gibba

Location: Red Eye Theater

Summary: A "Dear Abby" type reads and sings letters written to her by people asking for advice, mostly about their love lives. She also answers a few letters from the audience.

Highlights: Madde Gibba is funny and charming as she reads letters in different voices, from a 5-year-old boy, to a teenage valley girl, to a TGI-60 woman. Most of the letters are funny, one is sort of sad. She sings a couple of original songs, beginning with "Dear Madde" (a mishmash of various letters she's received) and ending with "Dear You" (say what you feel). In between, previously written material is mixed with improv based on letters from the audience (including the made-up-on-the-spot song "put on a knee brace and mount an otter"). Accompanied by Peter Guertin on keyboards and Josh Kaplan on drums, she sings comically well (a skill I always admire). Bottom line: it's a funny, sweet, and entertaining show. If you have a problem you need help with, go and ask Madde. She might give you a helpful answer, or she might just make everyone laugh.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Fringe Festival: "They Called Her Captain"

Day: 3

Show: 10

By: Less Traveled Productions

Written by: Dawn Brodey

Location: Playwrights' Center

Summary: A local actress plays her mother, who joined the Army in WWII and became a captain, as well as almost a dozen other characters in telling the story of this remarkable heroine.

Highlights: First of all, this is a true story; who knew that women were in the Army in WWII? Maybe I'm ignorant, but I didn't. Second of all, she's still alive (and was in the audience), and her daughter is the sole performer in this show. That's pretty cool. But besides that, it's a great play, in fact it's the first Fringe show I've seen that's just begging to be expanded into a full-length play. The subject matter is so rich that they could easily fill two hours, and I hope that they continue to work on the piece so that we get to see it again, in a fuller version. Maggie Bearmon Pistner plays her mother, Jeanne Goldoff Bearmon, during her years as a young Jewish woman from Brooklyn who decides to join the Army. After boot camp, she's sent to London to work in the personnel department, and eventually travels all over Europe. We hear about this through her best friend in the States, her friends overseas, her host family in London, and other people she meets along the way. Maggie effortlessly transforms into these diverse characters with the help of the costumes (by E. Amy Hill), adding a jacket or hat. It's an inspiring story told by people directly involved with it. It left me wanting to know more.

NOTE: the show I attended was sold out, so if you want to see it you should make reservations in advance (see the Fringe website).

Fringe Festival: "Hickory Minimum Security Correctional Facility Presents: Hoosiers: The Stage Adaptation"

Day: 3

Show: 9

By: Ferrari McSpeedy Theatrical Productions

Created by: Mike Fotis and Joe Bozic

Location: U of M Rarig Center Thurst

Summary: To save their Indiana prison from being shut down, a warden and his director of arts and leisure decide to enter a prison theater competition with an adaptation of the hit basketball movie Hoosiers.

Highlights: I've never seen the movie so I probably didn't get a lot of the references (I gather that the plot and characters in the play mirrored those in the movie), and I wasn't laughing nearly as much as my neighbors, but I still found it amusing and entertaining. How can you go wrong with "competitive prison theater?" The cast is great, led by Sam Landman, who portrays the warden with utter conviction and sincerity, and Mike Fotis, the straight man amidst all these crazy characters who populate the prison. And I enjoyed seeing double-Fringe performer Andy Kraft (who is also in Comedy vs. Calories: FIGHT!) as the "Jupitor Jesus" worshiping inmate. My favorite scenes were the clever montages, something you see often on film but rarely onstage. It's well-done silliness.

Fringe Festival: "Four Humors' Lolita: A Three Man Show"

Day: 3

Show: 8

By: Fat Bottom Jones Productions

Created by: Four Humors Theater

Location: Illusion Theater

Summary: A typically Four Humors adaptation of the 1962 Stanley Kubrick movie Lolita, based on the 1955 novel of the same name by Vladimir Nabokov, with three men playing the titular 12-year-old girl, the middle-aged British professor who's obsessed with her, and every other character.

Highlights: This is a brilliant and hilarious adaptation of this crazy story (which I've never previously seen or read). The three actors throw themselves into their roles wholeheartedly, Brant Miller as the precocious 12-year-old girl (see photo above), Ryan Lear as the professor with the breathy English accent, who also serves as the narrator of the story, and Matt Spring stealing every scene as many different characters. They occasionally break out of the story to comment on it, the funniest when Brant realizes what the story is really about, which leads to a long discussion about whether Lolita is "filth," or whether, "as artists, don't we have an obligation to follow the story wherever it takes us, as long as it gives us more information about what it means to be human?" The staging is simple, just two folding chairs with spotlights creating shadows on the back wall, and the choice of music is spot-on, including such songs as "Don't Stand So Close to Me," "Young Girl," "Go Away Little Girl," and "Suspicious Minds." Bottom line: Four Humors' Lolita is a must-see, it's just fantastic.

Read more of my fringe fest reflections…

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Fringe Festival: "RT + MPLS: The Legend of RT Rybak"

Day: 3

Show: 7

By: Black Market Doctor

Created by: Heather Meyer

Location: New Century Theatre

Summary: A love story between a man (R.T. Rybak, three-term and current mayor of Minneapolis) and a city, covering everything from courtship to break-up to making up again.

Highlights: This is a charming love story, even though one of the parties is a city, not a person. A puppet R.T. Rybak (Michael Krefting) tells us of his romance with the beautiful, complicated city of Minneapolis. Since the puppet has limited mobility, the part of R.T. is played by Ryan Nelson, hilariously charming as he woos his fair city, whom he loves "from the stone arch of her foot to the cherry and spoonbridge of her nose." Anna Weggel is Minneapolis in human form, first rebuffing R.T., then falling for his charms (like helping to rebuild the 35W bridge and instituting the "nice ride" bike system), feeling heartbroken as he leaves her to run for governor, and finally rejoicing in his return. I don't live in Minneapolis so I don't know that much about the mayor (who was in the audience when I saw the show), but reading the R.T. Rybak Wikipedia page, it's amazing how many things about him they've incorporated into the show, from crowd-surfing to cross-country skiing. The show is chock full of local jokes and references, including poking gentle fun at sister city St. Paul. It's charming and funny and very Minnesotan.

Fringe Festival: "Shelly Bachberg Presents: How Helen Keller and Anne Frank Freed the Slaves: The Musical"

Day: 3

Show: 6

By: The Jansonowicz Players

Created by: Michael Gruber, Nikki Swoboda, and Max Wojtanowicz

Location: New Century Theatre

Summary: A musical satirical look at politics, politicians, and history, in which a Minnesota congresswoman reads from her new book (see title), a fresh interpretation of "history."

Highlights: The creators of last year's Fringe hit Fruit Fly: The Musical return with this completely ridiculous (in a good way) offering, featuring a fantastic cast. The always delightful Kim Kivens is perfectly cast as the wide-eyed and misguided congresswoman. She begins to read a story about the inspiring American Anne Frank (played by Caroline Innerbichler as a spunky Nancy Drew type), who just happens to live upstairs from Helen Keller (a hilariously deadpan Mary Fox, stumbling around the stage randomly groping whatever's in front of her). The two become friends and set out to free the slaves, visiting Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln (both David Darrow), his wife Mary Todd, and Marie Antoinette (both Whitney Rhodes) along the way. Eventually right wins out, as our heroines triumphantly "Fan the Flames of Freedom." The show is jam-packed with mixed up historical stories, songs that are fun and lively (despite their messed up messages of "truth"), rousing ensemble numbers, and costumes that are way above average for a Fringe show. Shelly says "I'm not here to talk about facts, I'm here to talk about history," bringing to mind my favorite Wicked quote: "Where I'm from, we believe all sorts of things that aren't true. We call it history." It's scary because it's true. This show pokes fun at that notion in a hilariously entertaining way.

Fringe Festival: "To My Son, Born Five Years from Today:"

Day: 2

Show: 5

Created by: Christopher Kehoe

Location: Woman's Club of Minneapolis

Summary: A man writes a letter to his future son as he wrestles with the idea of what it means to be a man, told in words and movement.

Highlights: Christopher Kehoe enters the stage in a suit, barefoot. The stage is empty except for two folding chairs and a low table with a lamp and writing papers. He methodically and repetitively arranges the items on the desk, clicking his pen repeatedly as if he has OCD. He then begins to write, toss away ideas, and write again, while moving his tall frame around the stage with precise movements (choreographed by Carl Flink), occasionally pausing in his letter writing because "I have a story." By the end of the show he has managed to gather all these pieces together to create a beautiful picture. This show, to me, is the epitome of the Fringe Festival. An artist taking a chance and doing something unique and interesting and a little bizarre, that you might not see any other time of the year. I knew Christopher Kehoe was a brilliant writer from last year's Fringe, but he's also a captivating performer, commanding the stage with his physical presence and unique storytelling style. This show might not be for everyone, especially the Fringe or theater novice, but if you're looking for something different and unique - this is it.

Fringe Festival: "Hello Stranger"

Day: 2

Show: 4

Written by: Tyler Mills

Location: U of M Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: Hmmm... how can I describe this one? It's a one-woman show with lovely original live music, shadow puppets, and audience get-to-know-each-other exercises, all of which ruminates on the idea of how strangers become friends.

Highlights: Debra Berger is charming and disarming as the leader of this experience, for experience it is. A voice-over narration dictates her actions as much as describes them, as she processes the complicated issues surrounding relationships. She asks the audience questions and invites them to participate in exercises to get to know each other. Half of the fun is watching the audience (and since I was sitting behind a couple of the guys from Comedy vs. Calories, I got a double show!). Debra sings three songs, offered as golden apples in the courtship between her and the audience. She is accompanied by one of my favorite local musicians (who also recently co-wrote a new original musical* at Yellow Tree Theatre), Blake Thomas (download his 2008 recording Flatlands for an example of a nearly perfect album). Playing various instruments, he provides a soundtrack throughout the show, sings harmony with Debra, and even entertains the audience with a silly song of his own while she's off stage. The songs are typically whimsical with a little touch of melancholy and that folky sound I love so much. This is a one-of-a-kind show, and I found it to be quite delightful. But be forewarned: be careful who you sit down next to, they might become a lifelong friend (or a Facebook friend that you unfriend in a week).

Read more of my fringe fest reflections…

*If you missed Stay Tuned at Yellow Tree earlier this year, don't worry, you can see an excerpt from the show at this year's Ivey Awards.

Fringe Festival: "Comedy vs. Calories: FIGHT!"

Day: 2

Show: 3

Created by: Joshua English Scrimshaw, Levi Weinhagen, and Andy Kraft

Location: U of M Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: Three comedians consume one happy meal each, and then work for the rest of the show to burn off the calories they've consumed by exercising and performing comedy skits, often at the same time.

Highlights: In this fight, comedy wins! About a half dozen clever and hilarious comedy sketches are tied together around the theme of food, fitness, and body image, some of which are personal and poignant stories. But mostly it's just good fun; I was laughing so much my face hurt at the end of the show! Sketches include a discussion of plastic surgery, the woes of childhood sports, The Biggest Loser as a teaching tool, and a funny spoof of the Tom Waits song "The Piano Has Been Drinking." The show is interactive but not in a scary way. At one point the guys invite all the kids in the audience on stage to play dodgeball, which is super fun to watch from the relative safety of the audience. Bottom line: funniest show I've seen at the Fringe so far. My favorite line: "This isn't the Guthrie, we just ate a cheeseburger on stage!"