Thursday, July 21, 2016

2016 Minnesota Fringe Festival Must-Sees

Well friends, it's that time of year again. Time to shirk all responsibilities of adulthood, abandon your friends, family, and pets, and binge on theater for 11 days straight. That's right, the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the largest unjuried theater festival in the nation, is upon us. This year's festival includes 168 shows less than an hour in length showcasing the best (and occasionally the worst) that this theater/art/dance/comedy community has to offer. I've steadily been increasing my Fringe consumption every year from a mere ten shows in 2011, my first year of Fringing, to a high of 44 last year. The maximum number of shows that any one person can possibly see, while still obeying the rules of the space-time continuum, is 56. That means seeing a show in every timeslot available. I thought it might be fun to see if I can in fact see 56 shows during the Fringe Festival. Just once, to see if it can be done, and then I'll likely never do it again. And let's face it, I'm not getting any younger, I better do it now while staying up past 11 pm for 11 nights in a row is still (barely) within the realm of possibility. I've run seven marathons, so obviously I like giving myself crazy challenges, just to see if I can do it. And also because it's fun, right? Keep reading for a list of some of the shows I'm hoping to see, and why.

First, a few Fringe tips for newbies. And really, in a way we're all newbies this year, because the Fringe is debuting a new wristband system. Gone are single show tickets, gone are paper tickets at all! This year all you need is a daily wristband ($16 on weekdays, $22 on weekends) which will get you into any show that day. I'm told there will only be two lines this year - one for the box office (buy your wristband just once a day, and also check in if you've made reservations) and one to get into the theater (after you've received a token for the show from a volunteer, which is how attendance will be tracked in lieu of paper tickets). That's it! The reason for the change is to make it easier for more people to see more shows, and to encourage experimenting and binging on all kinds of theater. So get out there and Fringe!

A few more tips for the Fringe newbie:
  • If a show is particularly popular, or you really really want to see it, consider reserving a seat in advance. You can also take your chances and just show up. I typically only make reservations for a handful of shows that look like they might be busy (you can check the show's page to see if it's in danger of selling out).
  • All shows are general admission, so get there early for best choice of seating.
  • Shows typically run just under an hour, with a half hour between shows so it's feasible to get from any theater to any other in that time. But it's good to plan to see a bunch in one location to minimize transportation time; the highest concentration of theaters is in the West Bank neighborhood, with 8 theaters within a few blocks (3 in the same building - the Rarig Center on the U of M campus).
  • Bring snacks, water, reading material, and sunscreen - you will be waiting in line, probably outside. And be aware of what line you're in (box office or theater). Ask one of the friendly volunteers in the Fringe shirts if you need help with anything.
  • Keep an open mind - some of what you'll see is really weird. But that can be a good thing! And if you see a dud, well, that's part of the Fringe experience.
  • Each show has five performances, and on the last night of the Fringe (Sunday August 14), the show in each venue that has sold the most tickets receives a sixth show. Keep an eye out for the announcement late Saturday and check out a popular show you might have missed.
  • The Fringe website has pretty much all the info you'll need, so bookmark it on your smart phone for easy on-the-go reference!

And now on to the good stuff, my annual must-see list. I've got 56 timeslots to fill, and I've read through all of the show descriptions and attended the first Fringe Preview (there's another one on Monday the 25th, and you can watch all of the previews on youtube here), and found some really exciting and promising stuff. Here are just a few of the shows on my must-see list this year (in alphabetical order). Click the show title for more information, location, and schedule.

The Abortion Chronicles/When She Became Me: I'm not sure why or how their are two shows about abortion this year, both based on real-life stories, but in an election year it's an important conversation to have as many times as necessary.

AfterLife: Candy Simmons, who wrote and performed one of my favorite 2013 Fringe shows Expiration Date, returns with another original solo show.

Ball: A Musical Tribute to My Lost Testicle: Max Wojtanowicz, part of the team that brought us the original musicals Fruit Fly and Shelly Bachberg, is back with an even more personal original musical, about his recent experience with cancer. As if I wasn't already sold, the preview I saw on Monday (which included no singing) was equal parts hilarious, awkward, and moving.

The Chair-Builders: I love the quirky and charming musicals created by Catalog Models (see also The Unknown Matters and Into the Unreal City), so I'm expecting this to be more of the same, but also different and new.

COUGAR-OKE the Improvised Soap Opera with Music: soap operas, improv, and karaoke by the people who brought us Disenchanted? Yes, please!

Couple Fight II: Friends and Family: a sequel to last year's hilarious Couple Fight, which was just that - real-life couples reenacting their real-life fights. Which is just funny when you're not in the middle of it. This year's installment extends the fights beyond just couples, and again includes Fringe faves.

The Fever: I'm not sure what to expect from this one, but Patrick O'Brien's performance in Underneath the Lintel was so masterful that I'm in for anything he does.

Fruit Flies Like a Banana: Alphabetical Order: these three out-of-towner classically trained musicians wowed the crowds (myself included) with their fast-paced mix of music, movement, and comedy at last year's Fringe. This year they're back with more! Trust me, it's fun, entertaining, and unlike anything else you'll see this year.

Game of Thrones: The Musical: if the title doesn't get you, I'm not sure what else I can say that will. It's Game of Thrones! The Musical!! With puppets!!! Good or bad, it's sure to be awesome.

Gilligan: A Tropical Musical: I was kind of on the fence about this one, until I saw Monday night's preview. The story of Gilligan rapped like the opening number of Hamilton? Genius!

The Gun Show: I heard a few excerpts from this play by EM Lewis at the Protect Minnesota benefit concert last year, and wrote that it "made me want to see the entire play. EM Lewis is one of those people who is in the middle - she grew up with guns in rural Oregon and still owns a gun, but recognizes that there needs to be some changes in the way we think about, legislate, and handle guns. The play is funny, honest, and thought-provoking." I'm thrilled to have the chance to see the entire play, and sadly the conversation about guns only gets more relevant and necessary with each passing day.

Itch: the preview of this show was basically three minutes of a dozen people walking around the stage itching and scratching until they were writhing on the floor in agony. Weird, but also strangely captivating and made me want to see more.

Lewis/Clark: I can't get enough of the foursome (the Tylers Mills and Michaels, along with their better halves Debra Berger and Emily King) that created last year's lovely and inventive To the Moon, so I'm all in for this show. (For another creation by the Tyler Ms, go see The Gest of Robin Hood at the Illusion this weekend as part of their "Fresh Ink" new works program.)

The Lounge-asaurus Rex Show with Lounge-asaurus Rex! (featuring Lounge-asaurus Rex): Tom Reed is back with his unique music/comedy/improv solo show, hooray! This year's show features his creation Lounge-asaurus Rex, the coolest and loungiest singer around. (See also Disney Dethroned and The Hungry Games.)

Now or Later: New Epic Theater got their start with Tennessee Williams' One Arm at the Fringe Festival just two years ago, and have gone on to become a really impressive company with a clear vision and aesthetic, including the recent epic pairing of The Normal Heart and Coriolanus. I expect this show to be another smart, gripping, intense, clearly designed and executed piece.

Know Your B-Movie Actors: you can't see Transatlantic Love Affair at the Fringe this year, but you can see Derek Lee Miller and some of the other TLA crew in this collection of weird-but-true Hollywood stories.

A Pie. A Duck. And a Shoe: after last year's "super delightful" Parent Observation Day, I'm excited to see what Sparkle Productions has up their sleeve this year, in which they promise "clever comedy, marvelous music, delightful dance, and an astonishing live animal act." I'm in!

Smash Hammer: there is one reason to see this show - Sam Landman. If you saw his bizarre and brilliant performance at this year's Fringe fundraiser Five-Fifths, or the Fringe show he wrote last year, or really any of his performances Fringe or otherwise, you know what I mean.

Snow Country: a comedy about a Minnesota airline by and featuring a bunch of funny women is something I will happily support (and very likely love).

Sometimes There's Wine: speaking of funny women, Shanan Custer and Carolyn Poole won an Ivey Award for their last show, 2 Sugars Room for Cream. And now they've graduated from coffee to wine. If it's half as funny and smart and poignant and real as 2 Sugars, you'll want to be there.

Theatre Forever's The Accident Book: after seeing Theatre Forever's lovely and innovative Nature Crown at the Guthrie last year, I don't want to miss anything they do, whatever it is.

There you have it! What's on your must-see list? Add it in the comments below, because I have another 30 or so timeslots left!

Happy Fringe-ing!