Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Fringe Festival 2017: Mid-Festival Favorites

We're halfway through the 11-day, 15-venue, 167-show Minnesota Fringe Festival. I've seen 25 shows, with another 20-some on the schedule for the next five days. Here are a few of my favorites so far. I haven't seen everything on my must-see list yet, so be sure to check that out for more recommendations. And you can read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

There are five days left of Fringe - so get out there and see some shows! Full schedule, venue, and ticketing information can be found on the Fringe's handy dandy website.

My favorite 2017 Minnesota Fringe shows so far, in alphabetical order (click on the title for full show information):

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.


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.


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're looking for a powerful and affecting drama at the Fringe this year - ODD MAN OUT is 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.

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 Gebratatose, 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.

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!


This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

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