Sunday, August 20, 2017

Fringe Festival 2017: Favorites and Wrap-Up

Well friends, the Minnesota Fringe Festival has come and gone once again. As always, it was a crazy, exhausting, exhilarating whirlwind of theater in which I saw 49 shows in 11 days. By all accounts it was a successful festival, with over 46,000 attendees seeing 870 performances of 167 shows (see all the numbers and lists of top-selling shows here). There were many shows that I loved, and I'm sure many great shows that I missed. Most of all I appreciate the variety and diversity of the art that is showcased at the Fringe, much of which I don't have (or take) opportunities to see throughout the year.

You can read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here, and below is a few of my favorites (in alphabetical order). See you next year Fringers, and be sure to follow Cherry and Spoon throughout the year for other #TCTheater opportunities.

This show is the reason the Fringe Festival exists. Most shows - dance, sketch comedy, drama, musicals, even clowning - have another performance home. But where else can someone give an hour-long history lesson about the banana that manages to also comment on the US military through history to today? What Derek Lee Miller has done here is, simply put, brilliant. It's like if John Oliver were to do a piece on the so-called Banana Wars, and at the beginning you think, "why is he talking about the Banana Wars?" And at the end you think, "OMG why isn't everyone talking about the Banana Wars?! Smedley Butler, people, Smedley Butler!!" Using a series of silent film placards, Derek walks us through these small, brutal wars (which I won't even begin to explain here, just go see the show), interspersed with personal remembrances, all to paint an ugly picture of greed and power. Smedley Butler, by the way, that guy with the funny name you've never heard of, was the most decorated Marine in history who at the end of his life spoke out against the US military. Like a speeding freight train, Derek barrels through history at a breakneck head-spinning fast-talking pace that makes 60 minutes feel like 10. This show probably won't make you feel good about the world or about being an American, but like a good John Oliver piece, it'll make you glad you know about the Banana Wars. And you'll never look at a banana the same way again.

Couple Fight 3: Weddings!
I hope the Weggel-Reeds continue to do this show every year. Because nothing is funnier than watching funny people fight with someone they love about something ridiculous. In this hilarious installment, married couples reenact a fight before, during, or after their wedding. Andy Rocco Kraft and Rachael Davies fight about food sampling for the reception caterer. Laura Zabel and Levin Weinhagen fight about the wedding playlist. Nicholas Leeman and Colleen Somerville Leeman fight about getting the wedding invitations done on time. Rita Boersma and Justin Hartke (played by Richie McLarn) fight about her Pinterest project gone wrong. John and Lacey Zeiler fight about the decision to get married at all. And in the one non-couple fight, Heather Meyer explains to her friend Jim Robinson, who is constantly trying to set her up, that she's just fine on her own. I'm sure these fights were traumatic at the moment, but it's the kind of thing you look back on and laugh. And fortunately they do it in front of an audience so we can all laugh with them, and get a little peek into some of our #TCTheater faves' lives and relationships.

The Fourth Wall Ensemble, aka C. Neil Parsons (trombone), Greg Jukes (vibraphone and other percussion), and Hilary Abigana (flute), is back at the Minnesota Fringe Festival for the third year in a row. Every year it's the same basic premise - a series of short songs performed with inventive movement. This year the performances are structured around a "world tour" theme, with 14 pieces inspired by various places around the world or written by residents of these places. This trio is so creative (and they use the in-the-round space really well), I have literally never seen anyone do what they do, and that alone is reason to see them and why we need fringe festivals. But it's also an extremely fun and entertaining show that flies by while also educating and exposing the audience to various composers and music styles past and present. The pieces are arranged in random order chosen by the audience, and the Antarctica piece was the perfect finale when I saw the show; it's truly beautiful and haunting with some awesome movement on curved boat-like structures. Indescribable. I played the clarinet in high school and let's face it - the band kids are the nerds in the strict social structure that is high school. But these cats make playing instruments cool. My favorite fringe moments are those "how do they even think of doing that?!" kind of moments, and this show is chock full of them.

Family-friendly and funny, this show was a perfect start to my Fringe. Creator/performers Joshua Scrimshaw and Levi Weinhagen go through a series of ten lessons, spelled out on a chalkboard, to demonstrate various facets of physical comedy. Food props, a drone, an over-sized inflatable raft, and the performers' bodies all are used in the service of comedy. Expertly performed, Levi and Joshua make it look easy, and we in the audience get to enjoy the fruits of their pain. The silent action is accompanied by Marc Doty on the keyboard (because otherwise the silence could get awkward, as it does in one lesson), who also gets to be part of the show. I wrote in my must-see list that this show is a no-brainer, and it is. A sure bet at the Fringe that is just pure joy, laughter, silliness, and a bit of awkwardness in the best way.

#TCTheater artist Jen Maren reveals a true story from her past, when her mom put her on the Sally Jessy Rafael show to get a prom date. I laughed and winced for an hour, and ended it with tears in my eyes. In what is really a love letter to her mom who "loves her recklessly," Jen tells her story with great drama and flair. Her mom just wanted her to be happy, so in 1992 she responded to a plea from Sally for girls who didn't have a date to prom. Jen (a budding performer who thought this might be her big break) and her mom flew to NYC, signed a contract, and were told what to say, how to act, and what to wear. Photos and clips from the show are displayed on a video screen, as Jen writhes in horror in a robe eating M&Ms and drinking wine from the bottle. She doesn't talk about the inherent misogyny, strict gender roles, and heteronormativity of the prom itself (no I'm not bitter that I never went to prom, it's true, prom is horrible!), that could be an entire show unto itself. Rather this show is a memoir in story and song of what it's like to be a young person growing up in this world, and how, if you're lucky, your parents do what they think will make your life better and happier, even if it does the exact opposite.

The Memory Box of the Sisters Fox
This story of the Fox sisters, founders of Spiritualism, is a haunting and beautiful show, the cause of my first tears actually shed at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival (it's not Fringe without at least a few tears). The Arena space is set up like a seance circle of empty frames and candles, and with overflow seating, people were seated on the floor just outside the circle so it really felt like we were conjuring something together. Maggie and Katy Fox (Boo Segersin and Kayla Dvorak Feld playing the charming and precocious younger versions, Kristina Fjellman and Megan Campbell Lagas playing the older and sadder versions) are directed to tell their story, even the painful parts. They walk us through the joy and pain of their careers as mediums, from their initial discovery, to scientific evaluations by doubters, to eventually confessing to fraud. This is a very thoughtful, detailed piece down to the period clothing in stark white and black and the charming but creepy soundtrack created by a number of instruments and noisemakers. The wonderful and believable cast (also including director Amber Bork) sings some gorgeous harmonies on traditional songs like "In the Gloaming" (responsible for the aforementioned tears). In the world of the play, the sisters truly believed in what they were doing, and confessed only because they were forced to. Who knows what the truth is, but it's comforting to believe that those we love are still with us even after death. Regardless of what you (or they) believe, this is a mystical, magical hour of theater, storytelling, and music.

This show is like listening to your friends tell travel stories, if your friends were good storytellers with great life experiences to pull from. The storytellers are Ariel Leaf, best known for her Mermaid show (which I sadly have never seen), and Scot Moore, who shared his beautifully tragic (or tragically beautiful) travel story in last year's Break Your Heart (one of my faves of the 2016 Fringe). They take turns telling stories and interacting in a conversational, natural way. We hear about Ariel's travel fling gone wrong, Scot's one perfect night of connection, Ariel's struggle with finding a place to pee (my greatest travel fear), Scot getting high in a shopping mall in Canada, and that glorious feeling of returning home. I could have listened to Ariel and Scot tell their travel stories for another hour or two. And now I want to plan my next trip and have a few adventures of my own.

Catherine Johnson Justice adapted and Sarah Agnew directs this perfectly delightful Shakespeare adaptation that starts with a couple of stagehands (Taj Ruler and Sara Richardson) wondering what to do when the actors don't show up. This is one show you'll want to show up early for as the comedy starts before the pre-show announcement. The stagehands soon take things into their own hands and tell the story on their own, with the help of actors Alayne Hopkins, Catherine Johnson Justice, Elise Langer, and Kirby Bennett, and a couple of puppets. The star-crossed love stories of Hero and Claudio, and Beatrice and Benedick, are clear and concise in the less than an hour time limit, while the occasional breaks out of the play within a play add interest and fun to the proceedings, and this cast is full of comedians with perfect timing and hilarious comic choices. After seeing this and the lovely Twelfth Night adaptation What You Will, I'm beginning to think Shakespeare should always be 60 minutes long.

If you were looking for a powerful and affecting drama at the Fringe this year - ODD MAN OUT was it. Playwright and director Kory LaQuess Pullam has constructed a compelling story with complex characters that unfolds in under an hour, with an ending that left me wishing for an Act II to continue to explore this family and their issues as they relate to issues in society at large. Our main character is gay college freshman James (Malick Ceesay), whose complicated relationship with his father (LaMont Ridgell) is revealed in a couple of flashbacks. The main action takes place around the funeral of James' grandfather, and everyone in the family is dealing with something. James' uncle Charlie (Kennie Cotton) is avoiding child support and sleeping on his brother's couch. James' father cheats on his mother (Charla Marie Bailey), and his sister (Am'Ber Montgomery) sells drugs and isn't ashamed of it. And grandma (CiCi Cooper) is just trying to hold it all together. Add in James bringing his boyfriend home to meet the family for the first time and you have a situation ripe with conflict. And conflict there is. This excellent cast of actors mostly unknown to me all give powerful performances that brought me right into the story and made it feel almost painfully real.

While the Fringe website described this play as "pure Minnesotan," it felt pure Irish to me, and not just because of the accents. (Do people go ice fishing in Ireland? A quick google search tells me yes.) Andrew Erskine Wheeler and Jamie White Jachimiec both give wonderfully real performances as this charming Irish couple, you can feel the love and tenderness between them. Finn one day wakes up finding his foot has fallen off, and wife Dove doesn't seem too disturbed by it. We then flash back through their relationship from their first meeting on the ice, to their wedding, to the loss of their child. Beautifully staged by director Lanny Langston with inventive use of a sparkling white cloth to represent different things, beautiful performances by the actors, and that distinctly Irish mixture of sadness and joy all combined to leave me feeling all mushy.

A Pickle
In this true story of a woman who petitions the Minnesota State Fair to add a category for Kosher salt brine pickles, a pickle is more than just a pickle. It's a symbol of one's cultural heritage, a symbol of inclusion. Such is the true story of Doris Rubenstein's pickles. In a nearly perfect hour of theater, playwright Deborah Yarchun has written the story as an engaging one-woman show with direct address to the audience, bouncing back and forth between "the pickle story" and other significant moments in Doris' life. She describes herself as possessing a series of jars that hold the important things in her life - baking, her upbringing, social justice, and of course, pickles. When Doris entered her pickles in the "other" category at the State Fair, the judges disqualified them because they didn't understand the traditional Kosher salt brine pickles, because they're different than the pickles they usually see. Which is when pickles become a symbol for a whole lot more, and Doris becomes a bit of a local hero. This is a great story, well written, and personified brilliantly by Angela Timberman, so personable and funny and real. It's no wonder this show sold out all of its performances and won the encore slot.

RomCom-Con: A Meet-Cute Musical
This meet-cute musical is super cute. Book writers Nathan Kelly and Kerri O'Halloran have filled the show with rom com references old and new. The show pays homage to the genre that is loved by so many, including our meet-cute couple Will (Aaron Cook) and Samantha (Erin Kennedy), while turning some of the tired tropes on their head. When Will jumps in to defend Sam to her ex Brock (Edd Jones), who comes to the rom com dressed as his favorite rom com character Severus Snape, she protests that they've only just met and she doesn't need him to defend her. And then goes on to explain that true love doesn't happen in an instant, but builds with time and hard work. The super charming and appealing cast also includes Hannah Parish as a rom com guru/fairy godmother, and Nimene Sierra Wureh and Drew Tenenbaum as the best friends who have a meet-cute of their own, even though we're told "true love is for main characters only." Kyle DeGoey (music and lyrics) has once again written a clever, fun, and genre-specific Fringe musical (see also Oregon Trail and Gilligan).

On paper the story doesn't sound like much - two happy and close sisters die one day, one ending up in heaven and one in hell, and the one in heaven has to go get the one from hell and bring her back. Where does that even come from?! But when brought to life by the Ferrari McSpeedy gang (Anna Hickey, Erin Sheppard, Joe Bozic, John Gebretatose, Mike Fotis, Rita Boersma, Ryan Lear, and director Jason Ballweber), it's pure delight. A bunch of silly gags, fake fights with invisible weapons, cute little songs (with Ryan on ukulele), and puppets are just some of the fun elements that fill out the tale. It almost feels like some of the show is improvised but it's hard to tell, and some of the most fun moments are when the cast crack each other up. Several shows have sold out the tiny Ritz Studio space, so you'll want to make reservations in advance to see this expert exercise in comedy.

STRANGER is a beautiful, truthful, quiet, thoughtful show that really brings the audience into the unique experience of being a Jewish person of color. The three actors (Fernanda Badeo, Gabrielle Dominique, Ricardo Beaird) are all beautifully honest in their portrayal as they tell the varied stories of Jews of color (collected from extensive interviews). One of the best things that theater can do is provide a place for different voices to be heard, and this is a voice and a story I haven't heard much. Movement (designed by Emily Madigan) and sound (designed by Izzy Burger Welsh) are thoughtfully used to help tell the stories, which include a Jewish woman from Brazil whose parents move to the U.S. in search of a better life, an African American man who chooses to become Jewish, and a little black girl who's teased by the other kids for observing Passover instead of eating Easter candy. Much attention to detail is paid in the storytelling and the result is a poignant, moving, cohesive show in which people are allowed to give voice their own experiences.

I love Stranger Things with its nostalgic '80s feel and slowly building horror suspense. But it's also kinda ridiculous and the perfect target for a parody. There is no better person for the job than Tom Reed, the master of the pop culture musical comedy parody. From the moment he pops out of the dark to the moment he disappears into the dark, he hilariously and fairly accurately walks us through all eight episodes, or chapters (or cassette tapes full of blood, or Trapper Keepers made of teeth). Tom plays all of the characters (the tween boys, boy-crazy Nancy, frantic mother Joyce, damaged Chief Hopper, silent Eggo-loving Eleven, and more) in this loving homage that also pokes fun at the plot holes and inconsistencies (don't overthink it). My favorite of the half a dozen or so songs (accompanied by Jon Pumper on keyboard) are fan favorite Barb's rap, and Nancy's ode to the monster "Dear Demogorgon" set delightfully to the tune of Hamilton's "Dear Theodosia" . If you've watched Stranger Things you'll love this even stranger-er and funnier Things, and if you haven't, this show will likely still be a fun trip that will make you want to watch the series!

As I left the Crane Theater at 11 pm after snagging the very last token to There Ain't No More I thought to myself, "I don't know what the hell that was, but it was somethin' all right. It sure was somethin'!" Willi Carlisle (who's been gathering acclaim for his show at Fringe Festivals across the country) gives a tour de force performance. He starts the show as an old man dying of heart failure, telling the story of his life. He's so believable that I was shocked at how young he was when he removed the mask. I'm at a loss for words to describe this show; it's a crazy brilliant ride across decades and countries, accompanied by folk songs which Willi sings and plays on five different instruments (guitar, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, and some sort of small accordion), and scenes displayed on a scroll that Willi turns himself. Even though I wasn't quite sure when he was the old man (who talks about a girl he loved and lost, and his time serving and playing for the troops in Vietnam), or when he was a narrator, or when he was a song collector, I was happy to go on the ride wherever he led me. A mix of history, folk music (my favorite genre), commentary on war, death, life, love... this show is unlike anything else you'll get at the Fringe and definitely something to see.

The Zoo Story (New Version)
In 1960s NYC, a "transient who lives in the rooming houses on the Upper West Side" approaches a middle class family man reading on a bench in Central Park. Wikipedia tells me that Edward Albee's 1958 one-act play (his first) "explores themes of isolation, loneliness, miscommunication as anathematization, social disparity and dehumanization in a commercial world." Does it ever! What starts out as an amusing conversation between the frantic Jerry and the reserved Peter turns into something a bit more intense as Jerry describes an existential encounter with a dog that gets at the very nature of life, death, and love. The wordy script is thought-provoking, and Sam Ahren gives a remarkable performance as Jerry, physically transforming into this crazy (or perfectly sane and brilliant) man with almost scary reality. Brad Erickson is also fantastic in a more subtle performance as Peter, who may not be as together as he seems. Directed by Pat O'Brien (who stars in that other tragic two-men-sitting-on-a-park-bench show, Whisper Into My Good Ear), The Zoo Story is one well worth listening, and one that will leave you pondering the weighty themes for some time to come.