Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fringe Festival 2015: Wrap-Up and Top 15 Shows

Here it is, mid-August, and another Minnesota Fringe Festival has come and gone in a whirlwind of 909 performances of 174 shows at 15 venues around Minneapolis (plus 9 site-specific shows), with a grand total of 50,330 tickets issued (get all the numbers in the press release here). Phew, is anyone else exhausted? Yet also suffering from a post-Fringe malaise? I've certainly been enjoying hanging out with my kitties and finishing my summer-long Scandal binge (yay, Olivia and Fitz!), but it feels strange not to be spending all my time seeing and writing about short works of theatrical creativity. Ah well, it was wonderful while it lasted, and I managed to fit in 44 shows while still taking 2 days off in the 11-day festival. I've already shared my Top Ten from halfway through (or really two-thirds through) the festival, and I've added a few more from my last three days of Fringe-ing to come up with a Top Fifteen. (There are another 5-10 shows that could have made this list, but if it were too long no one would read it!) So without further ado and in alphabetical order, here are my 15 favorite shows from the 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival, which was, as a whole, entirely satisfying, unexpected, delightful, bizarro, and wonderful. See you next year, Fringers!

105 Proof or The Killing of Mack "The Silencer" Klein
Transatlantic Love Affair applies their beautiful and evocative physical theater style to an original story that's a bit darker and more dangerous than their past shows. This story of how a small town boy becomes a Prohibition bootlegger still has plenty of lovely moments in the way this eight-person cast creates everything in this very specific world using just their bodies and voices, with no props or set. But there's also a sense of danger and suspense as the stakes keep getting higher for the ambitious Jonathan and his brother as they get deeper into the world of the Chicago mobsters. The human moonshine still is impressive, the car chases are playful, the creak of the door is consistant, and the gunfights are so fast and sudden and lifelike that I wanted to hit the rewind button and watch them again. 105 Proof has all of the playfulness and inventiveness we've come to expect from TLA, but applied to a story that's not so dreamy and more sinister, deepening the range of stories TLA can tell. The cast is, as always, beautifully specific in their creation of multiple characters and inanimate objects, and it's nice to see some new faces alongside TLA veterans. If you've never seen a TLA show before, what are you waiting for? And if you're a die hard fan like I am, 105 Proof will show you another side of them.

Brother Ulysses
This is one of those Fringe shows that's so uniquely wonderful, I cannot possibly describe it. You just have to see it to know what it is, and if you didn't, I'm sorry for you. I don't know where these guys came from, or why I had this show on my schedule (I guess the combination of history and a capella intrigued me). But it was a delightful surprise on my last day of Fringe-ing. Brothers Christian (writer) and Andrew (director) Gaylord tell us that this show was inspired by James Joyce's novel Ulysses, but not in the straight-forward adaptation kind of way. They talk about Napoleon, and Alexander the Great, and various other figures from history, myth, and literature. They sing in beautiful a capella harmony, sometimes making use of one of those recorder/looper thingies. They climb on and over a single tall block in the center of the stage in strange and interesting ways. At times Andrew reads passages from the book, which all of a sudden morph into Fringe commentary. Christian passionately portrays Napoleon, and Andrew juggles audience members' shoes for no reason in particular other than it's amusing. This show is so creative and odd and charming and unexpected. I think my post-show tweet sums it up best: "I'm not sure what just happened but it was beautiful."

Comedy Suitcase Presents the Averagers
The Averagers is one of the funniest shows I saw at the Fringe this year. The premise is pretty ridiculous - a ragtag group of superheroes including Captain Average, the spoiled boy-god Paul Bunyan, the single mom Black Woodtick, office supply billionaire Iron Range Man, and the super sensitive Bulk travel through time and save the world from Nazis and a blue ox, as told by a guy named Stanley. There are Minnesota references aplenty (including a "too soon?" joke about the Lindbergh kidnapping), and tons of physical comedy as the group fights and shoots things at each other. The show is incredibly loose and playful (perhaps because I saw the final scheduled performance) - everyone was ad libbing and toying with the audience and having fun, which makes it impossible for the audience not to have fun with them. And this show definitely wins the prize for best interaction with the ASL interpreter, as she (unknowingly but not unwillingly) became part of the show. The Averagers sold out all but their first show, and received the encore, and it lives up to the hype. Moral of the story: if you see "Comedy Suitcase" attached to a Fringe show, reserve tickets early and go see it, and prepare to laugh.

The Consolation
Friends, this one is intense. The Consolation is not your typical fun and frivolous Fringe show. The story of a Nazi war criminal on trial may not be new, but it's beautifully and succinctly told in this thought-provoking play that lays bare all of the complexities involved and leaves the viewer with an unsettled feeling. Eichmann is at times infuriating and at times sympathetic, thanks in part to a brilliant performance by David Mann. Scenes of the trial in front of an unforgiving judge are interspersed with scenes talking to an unnamed visitor who seems to be trying to understand how one can be driven to do such horrific things, which Eichmann tries to explain was just a bureaucratic job to him (seen in flashbacks with his assistant), despite the fact that millions died as the result of his paperwork and meetings. And then there's the experiment. Dr. Milgram asks the subject to deliver increasingly greater shocks to a person in another room, and even though he's disturbed by the pain he's inflicting on this stranger, he continues. The play is well constructed by playwright Ari Hoptman, with scenes and timelines intersecting and flowing into one another. Clear direction by Jean Wolff and great performances by the cast bring this story to life in a disturbing way. The Consolation is a heavy drama, beautifully done, that makes one think not just about the crimes at hand, but the complicated idea of following orders vs. following your conscience.

In this super creepy cool retelling of the Frankenstein story, a young boy becomes obsessed with the book to an unhealthy degree. Victor's story is told in a nonlinear fashion, and just like the original Dr. Frankenstein (and Victor himself), we need to put the pieces together to come up with one disturbing whole. Victor is often the narrator of his own story, and we see flashes back to his childhood mixed with scenes from the present at a dark and scary cabin. Scenes often move from one to the other in the middle of a conversation, with characters disappearing and appearing as if by magic. Tyler Olsen wrote, directed, and designed the show, and has created a terrifying and starkly beautiful world. The whole show is done in the dark with hand-held lights and one floor light, flashed on and off at appropriate times to create some really beautiful images with contrasting light and dark. The sound design adds to the creep factor, from the moment you walk into the theater to the sound of buzzing flies. The excellent cast is fully committed to the creation of this world, centered around a raw and emotional performance by Miles Duffey as Victor, with the nimble Joanna Harmon as his girlfriend, Jay Kistler as a childhood friend, and Garrett Vollmer and Noah Bremer as some pretty scary monsters. The whole thing is really well done and yes, there is blood, and some pretty messy clean-up. Moral of the story: don't let your children read Frankenstein.

Fruit Flies Like a Banana
Have you ever watched three people tango while playing instruments? Or heard Mozart performed with plastic tubes? I have. Out-of-towners Hilary Abigana (flute), C. Neil Parsons (Trobone), and Greg Jukes (vibraphone and other percussive instruments) are so clever and innovative in addition to being musically talented. As if performing 22 short pieces in an hour (with time visibly ticking down) isn't hard enough, they let the audience choose the order by picking cards with names like "Toy Piano Man," "How Not to Bow," and "Ginger Minus Fred." Most pieces feature music by classical composers arranged for new instruments and performed with some sort of movement. Most impressive is Hilary, with the core strength and breath control that allows her to play the flute while flying like superman, jumping rope, and hanging upside down. This show is so playful, fast, and fun, you might not realize you're also getting an education about classical composers. In this totally unique Fringe experience, time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a a banana. Look what people can do!

Getting to Ellen
Local transgender activist Ellen Krug's memoir of her life and transition, beautifully brought to life on stage with three actors playing her, is definitely one of the most moving and inspirational true stories you will see at the Fringe this year. Firstly, Ellen's struggle to love herself and live her own life, even if it hurts those she loves, is something everyone can relate to in some way. Secondly, playwright David Ahlers has beautifully and brilliantly adapted the book to the stage by portraying Ellen's story through monologues delivered by three different actors along with scenes between Ellen and her therapist and wife. The writing, along with the direction by Patrick Kozicky, is so clear and precise that it somehow makes perfect sense that these three people are Ellen. Finally, Amy Schweickhardt, Joe Wiener, and Catherine Hansen are equally excellent at portraying Ellen's struggle with living her true self, with not a false note among them. The writing, direction, and acting make it so easy to understand and empathize with issues that most of us who have not personally experienced them struggle to make sense of. An inspirational story is one thing, but when it's brought to life with such professionalism, honesty, and heart, it's a truly special event that seems to transcend this little theater festival.

Ghosts of the Living, Ghosts of the Dead
One woman simply and beautifully reads her story about dealing with the deaths of three people in her life that affected her in different ways. Fringe can be so frantic, rushing from one show to another, most of which are busy or silly or ridiculous, packing everything they can into the allotted time. In that crazy space, a show like this one, with one person standing on stage reading a story into a microphone from printed pages on a music stand, is so quietly refreshing. From the deaths of a complicated grandmother, a father she never knew, and a beloved friend, Ashley Kress weaves a moving, poignant, heartfelt story of grief, loss, confusion, and hope. There's something beautiful about one woman standing on stage telling her story, speaking her truth with straight-forward simplicity and eloquence and no artifice. I had tears behind my eyes and a lump in my throat throughout the performance, as I felt every step of Ashley's journey over the past year. It's not the Fringe if you're not reduced to a weepy mess at least once, and this show delivers that beautifully heart-wrenching experience.

Friends, this one is a gem, and some of the best acting you will see at the Fringe this year. Dustin Bronson and Katie Kleiger are both products of the U of M/Guthrie BFA program (and were both in June and the Paycock earlier this year), and are great testaments to its success. As this normal and very real couple going through normal and real challenges, they both give such natural, honest, raw, and fully realized performances. I completely bought into their relationship that is so believable, it began to feel like eavesdropping on a conversation. Because this beautiful play by Duncan Macmillan is written as one long conversation. Even though it spans years, the conversation never ends, as one scene begins almost before the previous one ends and locations change (on a stage that's bare except for two folding chairs) in the blink of an eye. Things happen, and nothing happens, as this couple navigates life and all its joys and challenges. Dustin and Katie lay their souls bare on stage and it's a beautiful thing.

Pretty Girls Make Graves
I never miss a Loudmouth Collective show. They specialize in smart, well-written, intense, small-cast shows that are funny or heartbreaking or both. Written by Artist in Residence Sam Landman and directed by Artistic Director Natalie Novacek, this new play in which two women meet after a man they both loved died, and bond over '80s bands, boxed wine, and vintage exercise equipment, falls neatly in Loudmouth's wheelhouse. It's one of those two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking plays, which I love, especially when the talk is this smart and funny and real. After she finds out her boyfriend died, Carla (Emily Dussault) goes to his apartment and meets his sister BMX (Katie Willer). They discuss his love of Jethro Tull, Carla's love of The Smiths, and Carla's love of Duran Duran. But even if you, like me, don't get a single one of the music references, you can still enjoy this little slice of life and exploration of two characters that feels very real, until it takes a surreal turn. See this show for sharp writing, directing, and acting - one of the more professional shows you'll see at the Fringe.

Shelly Bachberg Presents: Orange is the New POTUS: The Musical
If you saw the 2013 Fringe hit Shelly Bachberg Presents: How Helen Keller and Anne Frank Freed the Slaves: The Musical, then you know what to expect. But you don't need the background to appreciate this smart, funny, ridiculous political satire that also includes TV and musical theater references while delivering a half dozen fantastic new songs. This is the third new original musical by creative team Max Wojtanowicz (book and lyrics), Michael Gruber (music and additional lyrics), and Nikki Swoboda (direction and more), and the experience and teamwork shows in this ridiculously funny show that's a mash-up of the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black, musicals like Chicago and West Side Story, and the worst that politics has to offer. And the cast is to die for. The incomparable Kim Kivens reprises her role as Shelly from the first show, and I can't imagine anyone else in the role. Her parody of you-know-who is spot-on hilarious and her vocal control is impressive as she sings to great comedic effect and delivers Shelly's ridiculous lines with campy convictions. She's backed by three music-theater divas as her cellmates - Kendall Anne Thompson as Viper, Joy Dolo as Lazy Eyes (having a lot of fun with Crazy Eye's unique mannerisms), and Erin Schwab as the Russian Bread. Along with Todd Bruse as a guard and campaign manager, they take you through this silly tale of Shelly winning over her cellmates and escaping to become president, inspiring catch phrases along the way like "you can even" and "hashtag blessed." This show is a great example of the Fringe musical at its best.

Stuff That Reminds Me Of Other Things
This charmingly original show, one of nine site-specific shows at the Fringe this year, features two bright and spirited guides leading a small group of participants on a tour around the U of M West Bank neighborhood telling delightful stories. Creator Keely Wolter is a disarming and engaging guide not just through the neighborhood but also her life, telling seemingly random and disconnected stories from her past. The stories range from silly to profound as she tells of anxiety, friendship, and dreams. Just when she gets to a particularly poignant point in a story, she lightly says "OK, let's go!" and it's on to the next memory. The soundtrack for this tour is a series of walking songs, from The Brady Bunch's "Sunshine Day" to "Walk Like A Man" and "These Boots Were Made for Walking." Director Rachel Petrie is an able and willing assistant (and I'm going to hold her to her promise to do her own memory tour next year). Each participant is given an official guidebook with photos related to the stories, in which they are encouraged to write down things that the stuff reminds them of, for the next holder of the guidebook to read. The tour is charming and engaging, encouraging participants to notice the beauty that's all around them, and is a nice chance to stretch the legs and enjoy the fresh air after a long week of Fringe-ing.

To the Moon
So much loveliness it's hard to describe. Let's start with Tyler Mill's lyrical and poignant and funny words (see also Jonah and the Whale). Then add in Derek Trost's evocative musical soundtrack to the story. All of it creating a picture in the mind's eye, made real by the cast which includes the playwright (as the father), Debra Berger (as the mother), Emily King (as the narrator), and Tyler Michaels (as everyone else - children, women, men). It's a sweet and simple story, but the joy is in the telling. Tyler Michaels is a master at creating a character from the inside out, and it's a pleasure to watch him do it multiple times in the space of an hour. The other Tyler and Debra are so warm and sweet and funny as this comfortably loving couple (they've had practice - they're married in real life.). Last but not least, Emily presides over the story like Alanis Morisette in that movie where she played God. The only props onstage are two stools, which are used almost as inventively as the props of movement and physicality. To the Moon is my favorite kind of Fringe show - genuine and beautiful and whimsical and dreamy.

Underneath the Lintel
Pat O'Brien brings his excellent one-man show back to the MN Fringe (I saw it four years ago). On the surface it's a funny and quirky little play about a Dutch librarian who becomes obsessed with a book that was returned 123 years after it was taken out. He follows a clue left in the book which leads him on a chase around the world, collecting even more clues. He's assembled and labeled all of the clues and gives us, his audience, an "Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences," using slides, audio recordings, and frantic scratchings on a flipchart to bolster his case that this man he's following is indeed the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander the earth, never resting, never dying. So you see it's not such a simple story after all, but a profound one that ponders the very big ideas of the meaning of life and death. Pat O'Brien, having performed the piece at festivals around the country, gives a masterful performance. From the moment he walks onstage about ten minutes before showtime, nervously setting up his display, he has us believing he is this man. He becomes increasingly more frazzled as the "presentation" goes on, urging us, or maybe himself, to believe... in something. Why are we here? Why do we die? How can we possibly know how one small choice made "underneath the lintel" can affect the rest of our lives? Pretty heavy stuff wrapped up in a quirky and funny little play.

A Woman in Berlin
This one-woman show based on the book A Woman in Berlin, written by an anonymous woman about her experience in 1945 Berlin, is absolutely devastating and difficult to hear, but unfortunately it's not a unique story. Throughout history women have always been the spoils of war, but women have also always been survivors. So too this anonymous woman in the beautiful and beleaguered city of Berlin, one of many who was repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers at the end of WWII. She figures out a way to survive in this new world in which the old rules and morals no longer apply, living with one officer as a protector to keep the other soldiers away. Eva Barr has adapted the book and portrays the woman with such raw honesty that by the end I believed she was this woman. Chain-smoking (or rather pretending to, people can't chain-smoke on stage in 2015), shuffling papers, and nervously pacing as she reads her memoir to be recorded, she brings the audience right there to the terrors of wartime that are particular to women. It's unthinkable. But Eva Barr helps us to face the truth by so beautifully and devastatingly telling this anonymous brave woman's story.