Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Fringe Festival 2016: Mid-Fringe Favorites

Well friends, we've made it through the halfway point of the 11-day, 168(167?)-show Minnesota Fringe Festival. I've seen 29 shows in the last 6 days, with 20+ more scheduled for the final 5 days of the fest. If you have not yet indulged, there's still time to get your Fringe on! Below is a list of my favorite shows so far (in alphabetical order). Five of the below listed shows I saw on one glorious mind-spinning day, after which I tweeted: "Friends, after just 3 days & 14 shows I'm so full up w/ humanity I'm not sure how much more I can take before my heart explodes." That's the beauty of this thing we call Fringe.

The Abortion Chronicles
This collection of real-life stories about women's (and a few men's) experiences with abortion is a powerful, moving, important piece giving voice to women's stories that aren't often told. About a dozen stories from health care workers, friends, and the women themselves give a varied picture of the reasons for and effects of abortion. Everyone in the cast beautifully delivers these stories, some of which they wrote themselves and some of which are others' stories, but all emotionally felt. 40+ years after Roe v. Wade it's important to be reminded why legal abortion is a necessity, especially in such a human and relatable way as this. Kudos to Ariel Leaf, Ruth Virkus, Ben Layne for collecting and sharing these stories. I don't know what else to say but go see it, bear witness to these women's stories, and maybe be inspired to share your own story. (Note: I'm looking forward to seeing the similarly themed When She Became Me this weekend.)

In a one-women show about three women in different times and places trying to figure out what they want in life, Candy Simmons fully inhabits the characters and makes them seem human and relatable despite their oddities. With a change of accessories and accents, and a few images projected to set the time and place, Candy becomes each of these women, their stories tied together around the theme searching for one's identity, as a woman and as a human. Funny, poignant, well-written, beautifully brought to life in a compelling performance. What more can you ask for in a Fringe show?

Ball: A Musical Tribute to My Lost Testicle
Friends, this one is the best of the bunch, and Max Wojtanowicz gives the best performance of the fringe. Even though it may not technically be acting since he's essentially playing himself and telling his own story, it's one hell of a performance. Firstly, he's as funny and charming and beautiful of voice as always. But even more than that, he shares his heart and soul with the audience in a beautifully and painfully real way, entertaining and connecting at the same time, which is the essence of art. The show is funny, clever, and well-structured, and the songs are fantastic and still stuck in my head. When you can take a painful and difficult experience and turn it into something that's entertaining, engaging, and moving, that's a true gift.

Break Your Heart
This one-man show by Scot Moore is quintessentially what the Fringe is about, quintessentially what theater is about. An artist takes a life experience, the good and the bad of it, and turns it into art that's both a personal catharsis and something that entertains and touches the audience. On what was supposed to be an 8-week trip around the world with his girlfriend, Scot instead encounters heartbreak and a solo journey to amazing and unexpected places, both geographical and emotional. In addition to being beautiful personal expression, the piece is also really well constructed and the technical elements are spot-on. I exited the theater feeling like I'm seeing the world differently now. That's the best possible result of theater.

Couple Fight II: Friends and Family
If you just need to laugh, go see this one. Fringe favorites reenact a real-life fight they had with a loved one - spouse, parent, friend, child, sister. Created by Anna Weggel-Reed, directed by Tom Reed, and written by the cast, it's the first Fringe show that brought me to tears of laughter. With fights about topics both silly and serious, the show allows you to laugh at this human experience we all share. It's nicely put together with intro and ending scenes that include a snippet of all fights, and each scene is introduced like a boxing match (perfect for the in-the-round setting). And then a little girl named Lila shows up for the curtain call and steals the show.

This original story of discovery, adventure, and friendship is inspired by the real-life adventures of Lewis and Clark, but takes it into the territory of imagination. Everything that this group does (performer/creators Debra Berger and Emily King, collaborators Tyler Mills and Tyler Michaels) is indescribably lovely, funny and whimsical yet strangely moving and somehow profound. In this story, the fictional female adventurers Lewis and Clark reunite after many years apart for one more grand adventure. Lewis/Clark combines movement, music, historical writings, storytelling, and LaCroix sparkling water in a completely unique and innovative way.

The Life of Charles Schulz
The life of St. Paul cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, is told through a conversation with the man himself, portrayed by Brad Erickson. With a crew cut and glasses straight out of the '50s, Brad becomes Charles Schulz as he tells us about being teased as a child, going off to WWII shortly after the death of his mother, being rejected by the red-headed girl, and his eventual success as a cartoonist and family man. The familiar characters come to life before our eyes as "Sparky" draws with a black marker on an easel sketchpad. The sweet and simple story pulls at the heartstrings and taps into that nostalgia for childhood, as we get to know the quiet, kind, humble, unassuming, regular guy behind it all.

Now or Later
The political is personal, and the personal is political. In this play, the political and personal are very closely intertwined as college student John struggles with the notoriety of being the son of a politician, soon to be the president. He's sitting in a hotel room (represented with New Epic's usual crisp, clean design) with his friend watching the results roll in. They're visited first by John's father's frustrated staffer, then by John's mother, and finally by John Sr. himself. John stands up for himself and his freedom of expression, until he realizes just what lengths his parents will go to. An hour of intense dialogue, weighty and timely topics, clear direction, and five excellent actors. Many Fringe shows are very "fringey," this one is not. It's high quality drama, right in line with New Epic Theater's two-year trajectory that's been a pleasure to watch.

And a few more than I loved (click title to read full reviews):

For full details and these and all shows in the Minnesota Fringe, be sure to check their website. Happy fringing!

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.