Tuesday, August 12, 2014

2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival Wrap-up

My house is a mess, there's no food in the fridge, my DVR is overflowing, my kitty thinks I've abandoned him, and I'm seriously sleep deprived. But it was all worth it! The 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival has come to an end, and I was lucky enough to see 37 of the 169 wonderful, frightening, charming, hilarious, disturbing, heart-breaking, heart-warming, inspiring, ridiculous, innovative, and/or delightful shows presented at this year's fest. Over 9 days (I gave myself two days off in the 11-day festival), I laughed, I cried, I meandered around the West Bank, I recoiled in horror, I tapped my toes, I enjoyed music both original and beloved, I learned about different religions and cultures, and my heart was broken open and put back together. Of course, not all of the 37 shows were great, but I did not regret seeing any of them. I also try not to regret the great shows that I did not see, because it's a given that you're going to miss something. This is only my fourth Fringe, but I think I'm starting to get the hang of it.

Here are a dozen of my favorite shows (in alphabetical order), with my favorite 2014 Fringe show being Failure: A Love Story because it was beautifully written, directed, and acted, and made me feel so many things.

Crime and Punishment - an immersive wild ride through a haunted house sort of adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel
After seeing this show, or rather experiencing it, my initial thought was "I don't know what just happened, but I want to do it again!" I've never experienced anything quite like it; it takes theater beyond the boundaries we're comfortable with into a completely immersive experience that engages all of the senses. The sights of many little intricately detailed spaces around every corner, the sound of people whispering in your ear or shouting from behind a sea of white sheets, the touch of a hand on your arm as someone pulls you into another room, and the sickly sweet and fruity smell of fake blood. Since I'm not familiar with the source material, I didn't get much of a cohesive story, which is not necessary or perhaps even desirable in this case. And did I mention that the audience members have to wear masks? At first I was less than enthusiastic about it but soon came to realize that the masks are absolutely essential to the experience. Not only does it differentiate your fellow audience members from the actors, but it gives you something to hide behind and not worry about your reactions. I cannot even imagine the logistics of making this work, with so many things happening in so many places, in the dark! Kudos to Noah Bremer and the cast and crew for pulling it off. Crime and Punishment is a crazy brilliant theatrical experiment.

Failure: A Love Story - a whimsical, delightful, heartbreaking, and truly lovely story
It's the late '20s and the Fail sisters are going to die. That much we know, but watching it all unfold is a series of delightful and heartbreaking surprises. Director Joshua James Campbell and this beautiful eight-person cast have created the perfect tone for the show, walking that delicate line between lighthearted quirky comedy and heartbreaking and heartwarming love story. This story of an oddball family consisting of three sisters, their adopted brother (who may or may not be in love with them), and the charming young man they all loved is told through talking animals, epic swims, anthropomorphized clocks, charming ukulele music, tragic untimely deaths, and unexpected love. This show is everything I want from a Fringe show, really everything I want from theater - funny, quirky, whimsical, musical, poignant, touching, surprising, moving, and utterly heartbreaking. I was reduced to a weepy mess at the end of this show because it touched me so deeply in so many ways with its true and beautiful depiction of love in its many forms. "Just because something ends doesn't mean it wasn't successful."

The Finkles' Theater Show!!! - a brilliantly and hilariously awkward spoof of theater
Theater novices Carl and Wanda Finkles (Ryan Lear and Rachel Petrie) enter a festival and put on a show about putting on a show. What they lack in theater know-how they make up for with boundless enthusiasm. The charmingly awkward Finkles walk us through their journey of finding out they made it into the festival, holding auditions, rehearsals (complete with instructions on what differentiates good theater from great theater - don't break that fourth wall!), a big dance number (which starts out silly and peppy and slowly disintegrates as the Finkles tire when the chorus of "Holding out for a Hero" keeps repeating and repeating), all the way through to show night, when everything comes full circle. It's all very meta. But while Carl and Wanda may be theater amateurs, Ryan and Rachel are professionals and a true delight to watch as they effortlessly pull off this trick of looking like rubes. This could be the most brilliantly awkward 60 minutes of theater you'll see this year.

Four Humors Does Every Show in the Fringe - hilarious improv comedy
Rather than creating an original piece as Fringe faves Four Humors usually do, they're improved a different show every night based on the title and description of another Fringe show chosen at random. I'd watch these guys do anything (these guys being Ryan Lear, Brant Miller, Nick Ryan, and Matt Spring). And when you go see this show, that's pretty much what you can expect - anything. A big show was made of the random drawing of the numbered ping pong balls, and the lucky winner was Fish Stories. Somehow guest performer Tim Hellendrung heard "the one that got away" and immediately thought - Katie Holmes. So these fish stories included a grocery store meet-cute, a wish-granting time-traveling poorly mimed fish, a fight scene between said fish and Tom Cruise, and an escape to post-apocalyptic Canada. In between shows Tim read some "audience reviews" of the show, which was a hilarious spoof on what these reviews sometimes are. This show is silly and fun and inventive, and it's a joy to watch these guys work.

Hour Town - Our Town set in Minnesota with Garrison Keillor as the stage manager
This show is littered with Minnesota references, which I love. Everything from Joe Mauer's bilateral leg weakness to Jesse Ventura's recent court win, from Paul Bunyon to Little House on the Prairie, from pedal pubs to a list of Minnesota-made movies. But that's not the only thing that makes Hour Town unique. The creators have also added puppets, pop culture references, and music. While not everything works, enough of it does to make this show a delight. And while some of the poignancy of the original gets lost amidst the goofy humor, there's still a touch of it here, particularly in the repeated use of the song "Que Sera, Sera," which perfectly fits with Wilder's theme of appreciating life in the moment because you don't know what the future will be. The large cast does well with the many roles; Brad Erickson does a spot-on Garrison Keillor impression, and as the young lovers Drew Tenenbaum and Sulia Altenberg are fresh-faced and charming (and Sulia has a lovely voice and looks like a young Judy Garland, Minnesota reference not intended). It's a clever take on a classic and appeals to those of who unabashedly love (or at least love to complain about) our home state.

Into the Unreal City - a musical walking tour through the West Bank neighborhood
One of four all new "site-specific" shows at the fringe, Into the Real City takes place on the city streets and campus walkways of the West Bank neighborhood. Musician Zeke and writer Bet are happily married but struggling to find time for each other and their dreams. As we follow them, they run into younger and older versions of themselves. Not much happens; they sing a few songs, ask questions, and look forward hopefully into the future - "the doing and the learning and the figuring." It's unabashedly sincere and romantic - the cynical need not apply. Along the way you get to experience the sights and sounds and smells of the neighborhood in an immersive experience. Yes sometimes you can't hear them, or there's a bit of awkward silence while wait-wait-waiting for the light to change, but that's part of what makes this a wonderfully unique experience - just what the Fringe is for.

Jumpin' Jack Kerouac - a bunch of non-dancers share the joy of dance
In a show that could be subtitled "Dancing with the Writers," choreographer Windy Bowlsby turns nine writers, who are decidedly not dancers, into just that. And like that great pop culture icon that is Dancing with the Stars, even though some of the dancers might not be technically proficient, they perform with such joy and an open heart that you can't help but be moved by the dance. The brilliant thing that Windy has done is that she hasn't just forced dances upon these novices, she's talked to them and learned about who they are and what they want to accomplish or express in this experiment, and used that as an inspiration for the ten or so dances presented. And she shares some of those words with the audience to help us understand the inspiration. This is a Fringe show that will leave you smiling and happy, and perhaps give you the courage to dance your own dance.

Kafka Nuts - a screwball comedy in the vein of the Marx brothers
This show is a rapid-fire succession of puns and physical comedy, and it's just plain fun. Joshua English Scrimshaw and Levi Weinhagen are a couple of attorneys attempting to help poor pantsless Zeppo (Joe Bozic) when he's arrested for some nameless crime. There's a chase scene, a trial, a metamorphosis (into a mime), musical interludes (by the fabulous Rachel Austin), and lots and lots of puns followed by pointed looks at the audience. What else is there to say? It's great fun, good old-fashioned comedy, well performed by the cast (which also includes Kelvin Hatle as judge, priest, cop, etc.).

Marie-Jeanne Valet, Who Defeated La BĂȘte du Gevaudan - innovative storytelling bringing new life to an old legend
This is Fringe storytelling at its best - creative, innovative, original, using puppets, props, and music to tell a story in a thoroughly engaging way. The four ensemble members - Megan Campbell Lagas, Theo Langason, Derek Lee Miller, and Heather Stone - not only created the piece (based on legend) but also play multiple characters and provide the sound effects and music. Red ribbons or cloths represent blood, two-dimensional puppets are used to illustrate the beast's killings, and sticks become rifles with bayonets. It's funny and amusing in parts, but also spooky or poignant at times. The beast is not the only thing terrorizing the town; the townspeople also suffer from extreme poverty and hunger. The King, who doesn't seem to care if his people starve, sends in soldiers, wolf hunters, and his master of hunt to kill the beast. Even after the beast is gone, the people are still hungry, and it's hinted that the upcoming French Revolution will kill the real beast terrorizing these people.

Now I See - a live reenactment of a 1930s radio broadcast
This story of a man who finally achieved his life's dream of becoming a manager of a boxing champion, but gave it all up, is a beautiful, powerful, intense drama, well told by the ten-person cast. It's fun to imagine this as a radio broadcast, but it's even better to be able to see it embodied before you. Sam Ginsburg tells his tragic story, to the listeners/audience, along with a series of flashbacks. Lucas Vonasek gives an emotional, compelling performance as Sam, with a great Brooklyn accent. Dave Berkman is sympathetic and likeable as the art student turned boxer whom Sam discovers and makes into a champion. The rest of the cast portray all the other characters - reporters, boxers, the crowd - and provide sound effects from trains to bells. The boxing scenes are well choreographed, with freeze frames at the pivotal moments, and fun to watch even though I'm no boxing fan. This radio broadcast turned live performance is a clever idea, and well executed.

One Arm - heartbreakingly beautiful and intense drama from Tennessee Williams
In this adaptation of a Tennessee Williams unproduced screenplay, a which a young boxer loses his arm and his identity, and turns to prostitution to survive. And like most Tennessee Williams plays, this one is a heart-breaker, full of tragic characters leading lives of despair. Ollie's (a compelling Bryan Porter) life is full of promise as a champion boxer until he loses an arm in an accident that kills two of his friends. Suffering from survivor's guilt and loss of identity, he falls into a life of hustling, traveling around the country to get by, not feeling anything. Until he ends up on death row, when the feelings come flooding back. The excellent supporting cast plays many well-defined characters in a series of perfect two-person scenesOne Arm is beautifully written, directed (by Joseph Stodola), and acted, with a well-designed and clever set, and feels like a full and complete story despite it's under 60-minute run time. This moving portrait of a beautifully tragic character and the equally tragic people he meets is completely absorbing, an extremely professional and well done Fringe show.

Shakespeare Apocalypse: A New Musical - a super-fun and Fringey musical
Similar to last year's Teenage Misery, writer Keith Hovis does not shy away from borrowing lines and themes from beloved musicals, from Little Shop of Horrors to Wicked. In the somewhat convoluted story, actor Peter goes on a rant about Shakespeare that goes viral, causing Shakespeare and friends to come back from the dead to terrorize the world, or something like that. The details don't matter, it's enough that the show is chock full of humor, great songs, and an energetic and talented young cast. Philip C. Matthews brings his usual passion and charisma to the role of Peter, Jill Iverson shows off her star power and gorgeous musical theater belt as Peter's friend, and Peyton McCandless is charming as a young blogger. Shakespeare Apocalypse is Fringe musical theater at its best.

I could go on and on, but instead I'll just list a few others I loved: DreamboysFrom Here to MaternityKitty Kitty KittyMainly Me Productions' Our American Assassin; Or You Can't Handle the BoothNatural Novice, REACHSex and Sensibility, Top Gun: The MusicalA Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, and What You Will/Twelfth Night

That's it friends. I hope you enjoyed your Fringe as much as I enjoyed mine. Let's do it all again next year, shall we? "Just because something ends doesn't mean it wasn't successful."