Thursday, September 1, 2016

Fringe Festival 2016: Favorites and Final Wrap-Up

It's been a little over two weeks since the Minnesota Fringe Festival ended, and it already seems like a dream. A dream of seeing 54 shows (out of a possible 56 time slots and 178 shows) in 11 days, of going out to the theater every day for almost two weeks and seeing 4-7 shows each day, of sitting down wherever I happened to be and blogging on my tablet between shows, of forgoing meals and TV and the usual daily routine in favor of a routine that involved wooden nickels and lines and eating snacks for dinner. And it was a beautiful dream, full of amazing, imaginative, weird, awesome, fun, heart-wrenching, inspiring theater. Narrowing down the 54 shows to a shorter list of favorites was hard! Read on for some of my favorite shows this year (in alphabetical order, with my #1 favorite being Ball: A Musical Tribute to My Lost Testicle). Then take to the comments below to tell me about your favorites. See you next year Fringers!

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. (I also loved the the similarly themed When She Became Me.)

An Accidental Organist
In music, an accidental takes you someplace you didn't expect to go, but you're really glad you went there. That's exactly what this show was for me. I wasn't expecting to go there, but I'm really glad I did. Chicagoan David Boyle is a wonderful storyteller, and since his job as a church organist and choir director means he attends many weddings and funerals, he has a lot of stories. Stories like a little girl in glasses spontaneously dancing at a wedding, or an old man who died shoveling snow for his neighbors. David's New Year's resolution a few years was to expect nothing, and then be grateful for what happens. It's a perfect attitude for Fringe, and for life in general. These well-told stories moved me, tickled my funny bone, and made me wonder at the accidentals of this thing called life.

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.

What if the story of Peter Pan is just something that grieving parents made up to work through and come to terms with their loss? Such is the premise in this new work by devised physical theater duo Animal Engine out of New York. Margaret Darling hasn't left the window in a year, and George doesn't know how to help her, until she suggests, insists, that she is Peter Pan and he is Wendy. The familiar story then plays out with the two actors as the parents playing all the roles and creating the entire world. It's playful and charming, with an undercurrent of loss when we're suddenly reminded who is acting out the story and why. You wouldn't think anything new could be said about or done with Peter Pan, a story that's been adapted a million times, but they managed to find a completely new story to tell. And now I'll never think of Peter Pan the same way again.

Fruit Flies Like a Banana: Alphabetical Order
Three classically trained musicians perform short pieces corresponding to the letters of the alphabet, incorporating dance and movement, and it's absolutely delightful and highly entertaining. I've never seen anyone do what this Boston trio does. No matter how many times I see them do what they do, I'm still amazed and delighted by it and wonder - how did they ever think of doing this? Not only do they play classical and popular music selections on flute, bass trombone, and percussion, but they also incorporate movement (and other weird instruments like a toy piano and boomwhackers). Hanging upside down, twirling around, lifting each other up in the air, or pulling each other around on chairs or the wheeled vibraphone, they entertain the crowd young and old with their unique antics.

When the floor of the Rarig Cente thrust stage is covered with a blood-stained tarp, you know you're in for something weird and creepy. And when Raw Red Meat does the effects, you know there will be blood, and lots of it. The tension and creep factor slowly build as a scientist coldly reports on the events of the outbreak. Compulsively scratching, writhing on the floor in agony, spouting blood from various places on the body, even chewing their own flesh, the researchers' illness seems almost too real, especially when they start lumbering into the audience and the lights go out. Itch most definitely gets under your skin; gross in the best possible way.

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.

Sometimes There's Wine
I love 2 Sugars, Room for Cream so much that I saw it three times. This show is more of the same, which is funny, smart, observational comedy by two of the funniest women in the Twin Cities. Much like coffee, wine is something that people drink to help get them through social occasions. Like weddings, work functions you don't really want to go to, or a long layover at the airport. Toting a glass of wine around the stage, Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool are funny, natural, charming, and very personable as they portray several different women, with a few recurring characters. I could watch these two every day, so I hope they continue to develop Sometimes There's Wine and that we'll see it again.

Three pairs of plays by two playwrights explore the same situations and themes in different but complementary ways. These six short plays, each of which could stand on its own as a fully defined situation and characters, together form a more complete picture around the themes of family, relationships, endings, beginnings, death, and hope. "A customer walks into a record store" becomes two young men flirting, or two older men flirting. "People gather in a church during a downpour" becomes three church ladies planning a party and gossiping, or a stranger comforting a grieving mother. "A son sits with his dying father" becomes an imagined last conversation, or an urgent flight home. It's a fascinating idea for a playwriting experiment that turned into one really well-written, -directed, and -acted piece of theater.

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

Read all 54 mini-reviews here.