Sunday, October 2, 2022

"46 Plays for America's First Ladies" by Theatre Pro Rata at Crane Theater

If I'm late posting this review, it's because I went down an internet rabbit hole about the fascinating 46 (or more) First Ladies. Because the new play 46 Plays for America's First Ladies, by virtue of covering all of these women in about two hours, only gives us a brief hint at each one of them. Someone needs to write a musical about one or more of these women* (looking for a next project, Lin-Manuel?), maybe Harriet Lane, adopted daughter of "lifelong bachelor" James Buchanan, or Lucy Webb Hayes, who accomplished so much that even five people talking at the same time couldn't cover it. Written by five different playwrights, this yet-to-be-published and up-to-the-minute play (ending with Jill Biden, 2021-?) is mostly a comedy, but not without some social and political commentary (not-so-fun fact: many of the early First Ladies owned slaves). It's a funny and fascinating whirlwind trip through the history of this country, as seen through the eyes of the women behind the men who were presidents. With some hope that maybe one day, this country will get with the times and elect a woman to lead outright, instead of just from behind.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

"The Thin Place" at DalekoArts

It's October, and #TCTheater is starting to get spooky. There's something about a chilling story that's so satisfying when the leaves start to turn and the weather gets cooler. A few days after I saw Theatre Elision's hauntingly beautiful Ghost Quartet, I made the gorgeous drive out to New Prague to see DalekoArts' regional premiere production of Lucas Hnath's new play The Thin Place. My drive was rewarded with a thoroughly chilling and captivating story, told by a great cast and sparse but effective design. See this deliciously spooky story at the Prague Theatre in charming downtown New Prague weekends through October 9 only!

Thursday, September 29, 2022

"Ghost Quartet" by Theatre Elision at Elision Playhouse

Theatre Elision is back with their first full production since the lovely Islander in July of 2021 (my first post-pandemic-hiatus show). They're bringing back their annual spooky fall hit Ghost Quartet, with a few updates to the production. I've seen it a couple times before, and it’s definitely the type of show that gets better with repeat viewings. The song cycle by Dave Malloy (Tony nominated for Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812) weaves related tales in and out through the 90-minute show, in a way that doesn't quite make sense, but somehow fits together to form a cohesive and compelling story. In a little over five years, Theatre Elision has created and filled a niche with excellent productions of small-cast, one-act, original or rarely done musicals. Ghost Quartet is one of their most successful productions, and one that has only gotten better over time. It's musically gorgeous and truly haunting, a perfect choice to kick off the #TCTheater October scary season (continuing through October 8).

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

"Doubt: A Parable" at Theatre in the Round

To open their historic 71st season, Theatre in the Round is presenting the 2005 Tony-winning best play Doubt: A Parable. In roughly 90 minutes, the intense and tautly written play explores ideas of faith, doubt, gender, race, class, sexual abuse, and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that allowed such abuses to continue. Presented in a series of mostly two-person scenes, expertly written and well performed by this cast, the play is not so much about whether the accused is innocent or guilty, but about how we as humans deal with the doubt and uncertainty that exists in many areas of life. Doubt is truly a parable that can be applied to so many situations (especially today with so many sources of "truth" flying at us), with no clear answers, leaving the audience feeling a bit unsettled. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

"Merrily We Roll Along" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

Stephen Sondheim was 91 when he died last November, but it still felt too soon, like there was still more he could do and write and say. But the good news is he left us an incredible body of work, songs and musicals and stories that will never die, as long as there are companies like Theater Latte Da to perform them (which many seem more eager to do in the wake of his recent passing, the Guthrie will produce Into the Woods next summer). Latte Da teased us with a couple of Sondheim cabarets at Crooners earlier this year, and is now opening their 25th season with the lesser produced Merrily We Roll Along. The 1981 Broadway flop was reworked a few times, and has gained popularity over the years*. I knew nothing about it before seeing the show, but I knew that I was in good hands with Theater Latte Da, my favorite interpreters of Sondheim's work. Seeing this production it's hard to imagine why it wasn't an instant hit, but I guess the show took a while to find itself, similar to its characters. The unique backwards storytelling is interesting and challenging and fun, as the pieces fall into place in this story of three friends trying to make it in show business, while still holding on to what matters. As per usual with Theater Latte Da, it's an all-around impeccable production that made me fall in love with this piece and want to see and listen to it over and over again.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

"Iphigenia at Aulis" by Ten Thousand Things at Luminary Arts Center

This fall, Ten Thousand Things, my favorite interpreter of Shakespeare and other classic works, brings us the Greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis. Because they are not yet able to tour the show to their usual locations of community centers, homeless shelters, and prisons, they are presenting this show in a sort of hybrid style between the usual stripped-down bare-bones production in a small space surrounded by a few rows of chairs, and a more traditional proscenium style production. They also performed the show outdoors, which may have had a more TTT feel, but in the former Lab Theater, now known as Luminary Arts Center*, it still maintains the TTT hallmark of making classics feel fresh, relatable, and relevant, if in a more formal theater style (but still with "all the lights on"). They're set to return to touring this winter, which will likely bring back their usual style, but in the meantime, Iphigenia at Aulis is a gorgeous production with a large and hugely talented cast, that uses an original score to tell this ancient story.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

"Once" at the Duluth Playhouse

Walking along the greatest of lakes yesterday morning, watching the rising sun turn the clouds shades of pink and orange, while the waves lapped at my feet at the seagulls played in the water, I knew it was absolutely worth driving 300 miles roundtrip in 24 hours to see one of my favorite musicals in my favorite Minnesota city. I'm not saying you should also make the long drive to see Duluth Playhouse's production of the lovely eight-time Tony winning musical Once, based on the 2007 Irish movie and featuring music by stars of the film Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, but if you're itching for a Minnecation, or happen to be in Minnesota's favorite vacation spot along the North Shore of Lake Superior, you should definitely check it out, or maybe catch something else in the Playhouse's busy and ambitious 2022-2023 season on multiple stages, which culminates in the Minnesota premiere of Kinky Boots next summer. Not just for nature, adventure, shopping, and eating, Duluth is also a destination because of its incredible arts and culture scene.

Friday, September 23, 2022

"Vietgone" at the Guthrie Theater

Next spring, the Guthrie Theater will celebrate its 60th anniversary; I've been a season subscriber for about a third of that time. Their new season (the first full-length season since the pandemic) begins with a play that may challenge some of its traditional audience, but that's not a bad thing. In fact, in the case of Qui Nguyen's ambitious and genre-blending play Vietgone, first seen in #TCTheater about five years ago at Mixed Blood Theatre, it's a very good thing. Rather than yet another story about the Vietnam War told from the point of view of Americans, it's a love story set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, as told by the son of Vietnamese refugees. Vietgone is part rap musical, part romantic comedy, part bawdy sex comedy, part war story, and all engrossing. It's in-your-face and squirm-inducing, but is utterly effective in communicating the refugee experience and making at least this audience member rethink their views on the Vietnam War and American involvement.*

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

"The Humans" at Park Square Theatre

To open their exciting new season, Park Square Theatre is presenting the regional premiere of the 2016 Tony-winning best play The Humans by Stephen Karem (whose Sons of the Prophet they produced a few years ago). This play about a typical family Thanksgiving dinner is devastating in its specificity, in its relatability, in its raw truth, and in the way it lays bare what it is to be human and part of a family. And therein lies its beauty. I saw the Broadway tour, as well as the recent movie adaptation, so I knew we were in for a treat. The stunning design and excellent cast lived up to my expectations; the show cuts deep and is hard to shake upon leaving the theater. If you're a human, you will be able to relate to The Humans - the good, the bad, and the ugly of it. See it in the historic Hamm building in downtown St. Paul through October 9 (#bringtissues).

Sunday, September 18, 2022

"Lumberjacks in Love" at Lyric Arts

Lyric Arts is easing into their ambitious season with the charmingly corny musical comedy Lumberjacks in Love. In the vein of Deer Camp the Musical or the Don't Hug Me series, Lumberjacks is full of local humor (northern Wisconsin, but that's pretty close to Minnesota*), dumb but amusing humor, and goofy songs. But thanks to the amiable cast you can't help but fall a little in love with these oddball characters in their search for (or running scared from) love. 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

"Singin' in the Rain" at Lakeshore Players Theatre

To open their impressive 70th season in White Bear Lake, Lakeshore Players Theatre is presenting Singin' in the Rain. The classic 1952 movie musical was written by legendary musical theater team Comden and Green, and adapted into a stage musical in 1983. It's a big old-fashioned musical with comedy, romance, dancing, and tons of familiar songs, and the team at Lakeshore does a great job in this fun, feel-good musical. See it in the beautiful Hanifl Performing Arts Center weekends through October 6.

Friday, September 16, 2022

E/D Presents "The Show" at the Crane Theater

#TCTheater artists Emily Michaels King and Debra Berger officially joined forces in 2018 under the company name E/D, debuting with the "uniquely beautiful and chillingly disturbing" mixed media piece Animus. They were scheduled to open their second original piece, entitled simply The Show, on the unlucky date of March 13, 2020. We know how that story goes; it was cancelled due to a global pandemic. They rescheduled it for sometime during the 2021-2022 season, again cancelling due to delta or omicron or whatever variant was raging at the time. But now, finally, this glorious pink explosion of a show is fully alive and running, but only for two more nights! The short two-week run closes on Saturday, so get yourself to the Crane Theater quickly to see this emotionally raw, thoughtfully executed, and completely engrossing show by two uniquely talented artists, who combine to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Click here for all of the details and to purchase pay-what-you-can tickets.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

American Players Theatre 2022, Spring Green WI

If Middle Earth had a theater, it would look like American Players Theatre. Situated on over 100 acres in the woods of Wisconsin about an hour west of Madison, the sprawling grounds include several picnic areas on rolling hills with artwork and lights hanging from the trees (very Hobbiton), where people set up elaborate picnics complete with baskets, tablecloths, and stemware, and then you walk through tall forests where the Elves might have lived sometime in the past to the "Up-The-Hill" theater, with performances out in the open in a natural amphitheater. The permanent outdoor theater was built in 1980 and renovated a few years ago, and includes about 1000 cushy comfy waterproof seats around a thrust stage, with not a bad seat in the house. The stage is set against the woods, which are lit up at night in rainbow colors. The light of the sun, stars, and moon is amplified by huge sets of stadium lights, specifically directed where they are needed (stage, aisles, audience). The setting couldn't be more magical, but more importantly, the theater that has been produced in that space for over 40 years is fantastic. I don't know how it took this Midwest theater lover so long to discover this national gem of a theater. Their eight-show summer season continues through the first week of October, with a 9th show being presented in their indoor theater from late October through November, so you still have time to make the gorgeous four-hour drive from the Twin Cities to Spring Green (if you can get tickets). Otherwise, start making plans for their 2023 season, opening in June. If you're a theater fan living in the Midwest, APT is an absolute must-see.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

"God of Carnage" by Dark and Stormy Productions at Gremlin Theatre

For their 10th anniversary season, Dark and Stormy Productions is trying something new - performing in an actual theater, rather than the Northeast Minneapolis studio space that was their home for five years pre-pandemic, or a number of other found spaces (most recently - in a jacuzzi in Stillwater). But what hasn't changed is their tradition of doing one-act, small-cast, darkly funny plays, and God of Carnage is one of the best of that sort. The 2009 Tony-winning best play was first seen in #TCTheater at the Guthrie, when I called it "a tightly wound, intense, darkly hilarious four-person play about what happens when our baser natures come to the surface." Lyric Arts did it several years later, and now it's a perfect fit for Dark and Stormy. Since the theater space they chose is the Gremlin Theatre, it still has that intimate up-close-and-personal feel (if you're in the front row you may want to duck at a few moments). The sharply written four-person play is perfectly cast with some of #TCTheater's best actors, which makes for a very entertaining evening. Pair it with libations from Lake Monster Brewing next door and food from their rotating schedule of food trucks, enjoyed on their outdoor patio, and you have a practically perfect late summer night out (continuing through September 11).

Friday, August 26, 2022

"Pickup Truck Opera Volume 2: The Magic Flute" by Mixed Precipitation at Dodge Nature Center

Mixed Precipitation's "Picnic Operetta" has been a staple of summer outdoor #TCTheater since 2009, combining classic opera, pop music, and passed bites of delicious food. In 2020, rather than letting a global pandemic shut them down entirely, they transitioned to the "Pickup Truck Opera" format, a similar opera/pop music mash-up performed out of a 2011 Ford Pickup that they drove around to local parks. They expanded on this idea in 2021, and return with Volume 2 this year, performed at parks and gardens not just in the Twin Cities but around the state. This year's mash-up features Mozart's The Magic Flute and "groovy beats from the 90s discotheque." As expected from this troupe of traveling artists, this Pickup Truck Opera is a super fun, silly, sweet, and accessible experience of music, theater, and community. You can see it at various locations in the Twin Cities Metro Area, plus Hastings, through September 11 (click here for dates, locations, details, and free reservations).

Saturday, August 20, 2022

"Groupthink" at Six Points Theater

The 2022-2023 #TCTheater season officially begins after Labor Day, but Six Points Theater is bringing us a juicy appetizer prior to the start of the regular season. The world premiere new play Groupthink is a darkly funny and so-real-it's-scary look at the world of PR and social media. A group of coworkers at a PR firm plot and plan to make their horrible clients look better to the public, and the scary part is - it works. In what would be a tight 90-minute-no-intermission play, if not for the intermission, the talented cast and crisp design bring us right into this world that doesn't seem so far from our own.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Storyhill Fest 2022

 

After seeing 23 shows in 7 days at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, I headed Up North to see 10 concerts in 2 days at Storyhill Fest, the best little folk music festival in Minnesota. I attended Storyhill Fest every year from 2010-2014 (I think I just missed one in 2009), after which it went on hiatus for a few years. Storyhill Fest was scheduled to come back in 2020, but we know how that story goes. Finally, in 2021, I returned to Clearwater Forest Camp in the Brainerd Lakes area for two glorious days of music, and it was like the past 7 years slipped away. It was such a welcome return to a favorite place and event, especially after the many long months without any performing arts in 2020-2021. This year was the second year of this second incarnation of the Minnesota Storyhill Fest (similar fests have also been held in Storyhill's native Montana in the past), and once again it was a joyous celebration of music and community. There was vague mention of "next time" without any firm details, but follow Storyhill on Facebook or sign up for their newsletter for the latest information about the next Fest, and other upcoming Storyhill concerts. Read on for photos and info about the 8 additional artists who performed, all beautifully unique variations of the folk singer/songwriter genre, and click on their names to be taken to their website where you can listen to and/or buy their music, and find out about upcoming performances. Several of them are Minnesota-based, and if not, they'll come around again soon.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: Wrap-Up and Favorites

It's the closing weekend of the first fully live and in-person Minnesota Fringe Festival in nearly three years, but my fringing time is done, at least until next year. I've moved on from my favorite theater festival to my favorite music festival (Storyhill Fest in Deerwood). Sitting in a coffee shop in Crosby, reflecting on the eperience of the last seven days, in which I saw 23 short pieces of theater / music / storytelling / dance / spoken word / any combination thereof, the overwhelming feeling is gratitude. Gratitude that despite a global pandemic, financial issues, and cancelled performances, adventerous audiences (of which I consider myself a part) were able to gather to experience adventurous art (of which I consider myself an admirer). After two years of (mostly) virtual festivals, I didn't realize how much I missed this until I was back. To be immersed in a life in which the only goal is to see as much theater as you can, to eat, sleep, and breathe theater, is a theater blogger's dream. But the best part of Minnesota Fringe is the community feeling it engenders. Walking down the street, particularly in the Cedar-Riverside hub, and seeing so many theater-goers and theater-makers there for the same purpose, and chatting about theater with artists, friends, and strangers, is something that only happens at Fringe. Though I only saw 23 of the 100+ shows, and I know I missed some great shows (follow my friends at Lettered in Theatre and The Stages of MN, as well as the OG Fringe blogger Single White Fringe Geek, for continuing coverage), that tiny feeling of regret and FOMO is overwhelmed by feelings of satisfaction and happiness that Minnesota Fringe is back! Read on for my favorite shows of this year's fest, and visit the Fringe website (sometimes slow but very informative) for today's schedule. There's still time to get out there and #seethefringe, #bethefringe, #supportthefringe!

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Michael Bay's Bridgerton VII: Revenge of the Forlorn"

Day: 7

Show: 23

Title: Michael Bay's Bridgerton VII: Revenge of the Forlorn

Category: COMEDY / PHYSICAL THEATER / SCI-FI

By: Snikt! Bamf! Thwip! 

Created by: Tim Wick & Jami Newstrom

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A spoof of Netflix's smash hit series Bridgerton, with some Michael Bay transformers elements thrown in.

Highlights: Confession: I had to google Michael Bay to see what movies he was involved in, so I was definitely there for the Bridgerton of it all. And I was very satisfied in that regard. The story revolves around our favorite BFFs - Penelope Featherington (Angela Fox) and Eloise Bridgerton (Alison Anderson). There's a dashing suitor known as Viscount Studleywright (Michael Bloom), a meddling mother (Breanna Cecile), and even a voiceover by Whisledown (Dawn Krosnowski). But here our heroines also have to deal with the evil Lord Montjoy (Edwin Strout) and his inept accomplice (Samuel Poppen) trying to sabotage the Bridgerton ball and therefore the entire family's reputation. There's a running comentary about how the men simply do not hear the women (funny because it's true), and the benefit of guilds (i.e., unions). About halfway through the show, it turns from Bridgerton to Michael Bay, with our characters losing their charming British accents and instead speaking and acting like crass Americans. There are explosions, and fights, and transformers! But in the end, the two friends come back together and vow to take their lives, and their stories, into their own hands. The Fringe isn't the Fringe without a trendy pop culture spoof, and this show fills that spot nicely.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Cowboy Cat: the musical!"

Day: 7

Show: 22

Category: COMEDY / MUSICAL THEATER / HISTORICAL CONTENT / KID FRIENDLY

By: Foxhill Studios

Created by: JL Charrier

Location: Mixed Blood Theatre

Summary: A musical western set in a cat-loving town in a land known as Wyomesota.

Highlights: This was actually my least favorite show in the festival (something has to be!). A clever concept (a cat ranch in the old west) and a valiant effort, but it didn't quite come together. There were too many plot threads dropped - the show opens with a cat burglary and the audience finds out who the cat burglar is (which doesn't really make sense) but the characters don't nor do they seem to care, someone possibly killed their first husband but it's never resolved, and something about a long lost child that came out of nowhere. They tried to shove too many things into the show - cat puns, Minnesota and pop culture references, anachronisms - and it felt a little unfocused. But the cast (JL Charrier, Tabitha Kerr, Christopher J. Devaan, Bob Alberti, and Mikayla Bode) is game for the ride and fun to watch; the songs are also fun, with new lyrics set to the tune of old timey country western songs and accompanied by a live guitar player dressed in black (Andrew Christophe); and who doesn't love a catty singalong.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "The Man From Earth"


Day: 7

Show: 21

Category: CLOWNING / COMEDY / ORIGINAL MUSIC / SCI-FI / STORYTELLING

By: Kyle Munshower and Company

Created by: Spiral Theater

Location: Rarig Center Xperimental

Summary: The story of a cave man living in modern times who decides to tell his friends, colleagues, and associates who he really is.

Highlights: "Elliptically Clever and So Dumb." Spiral Theater's tagline pretty much sums up this show. The cave man now known as John Oldman's millenia long story is clever and dumb and very funny. Directed by Kevin Duong, the four-person cast (Noah Branch, Liv Stewart, Lydia Moran, and playwright Kyle Munshower as Oldman) perform in a very consistent serious and overly dramatic tone. There's so much fun word play (ten years vs. tenure, quarters vs. quarters) and references to obscure and well-known events throughout history. A little like Forest Gump, Oldman was present at many important events, from Jesus Christ's crucifixion to Lincoln's assassination. Inspired by the 2007 film of the same name (which I haven't seen but now want to), but taking on a clever, funny, and silly life of its own.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Black Wall Street: Dreamland Theatre"

Day: 6

Show: 20

Category: DRAMA / PHYSICAL THEATER / AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION / HISTORICAL CONTENT

By: Doc Woods & Friends

Created by: Doc Woods & Friends

Location: Augsburg Studio

Summary: A reenactment of what happened inside the Dreamland Theatre during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Highlights: Like most White Americans, I only heard about this gross injustice in recent years (specifically through the HBO series Watchmen). This show doesn't try to tell you what happened on that tragic day, rather it makes you feel what happened. From the moment the show starts, the audience is immersed in the thriving Black community, gathered for a night out at the movies with friends and family. We see people entering and greeting each other, and then settling in beside us to watch the previews (cast includes Charla Marie Bailey, Dante Pirtle, Quintin Brown, Camrin King, B.E. Kerian, Kari Elizabeth Godfrey, Mike Galvan, and Emmanuel L. Woods). Clips from historical Black films from the early 20th Century (another thing I didn't know about) are played on the big screen, while the cast reacts to them and chats with each other. Even though I knew what was coming, I almost forgot about it as I enjoyed the show. Which made the eventual interruption with news of a probable lynching and ensuing violence even more shocking. The sounds of the massacre overwhelm the space, as a video reenactment of the events happening just outside the theater where we were virtually sitting plays on the screen. The visceral experience gets into your heart and gut in a way that a documentary or narrative drama could not. This show gives the audience a tiny glimpse into what the victims of that night felt, which can only spur one on to learn more about what happened, and do what we can to prevent racial violence and make reparations to its many victims all over this country.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "The Hysterical Woman"

Day: 6

Show: 19

Category: COMEDY / DRAMA / HISTORICAL CONTENT / LGBTQIA+ CONTENT / POLITICAL CONTENT

By: Fortune's Fool Theatre

Created by: Ariel Pinkerton

Location: Rarig Center Xperimental

Summary: A collection of new and classic stories, news pieces, and poems around the idea of the historical and continuing diagnosis/accusation of "hysteria" in women.

Highlights: This powerful and moving collection includes pieces written by cast members, female writers like Mary Oliver and Emily Dickenson, and moments in history. Performed by a five-person ensemble (Ariel Pinkerton, Linda Sue Anderson, Rachel Flynn, Destiny Davison, and Andrew Troth), each piece is a little story unto itself, some funny, some tragic, all relatable. Stories about women at the doctor's office, or a conversation with her partner, or with a coworker. And when the interaction goes well and the woman is listened to and heard, the cast interrupts with "this never happens" and provides informative background about gaslighting, sexual harassment, or medical misdiagnoses. Which is funny because it's true, and we begin to expect it. Particularly impactful is the reading of Anita Hill's testimony at the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and a mash up of the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" with Britney Spears's recent testimony to end her conservatorship. The staging (direction by Nicole Wilder) makes good use of the Xperimental space, and the individual pieces flow smoothly from one to the next, comprising a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This piece illustrates the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same. We still call women "hysterical" when we don't like what they're saying or doing, if not in so many words. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Swords & Sorcery: The Improvised Fantasy Campaign"

Day: 5

Show: 18

Title: Swords & Sorcery: The Improvised Fantasy Campaign

Category: COMEDY / IMPROV / AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION

By: The Bearded Company

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A completely improvised fantasy tale using elements of Dungeons and Dragons (familiarity not required).

Highlights: I don't know anything about D&D, but I love what this crew does with it (I suspect that any real game wouldn't be as fun as this). I first saw this show back in the 2017 Fringe, and then again in 2018. In the last few years the Bearded Company has come out with a podcast with a similar concept, called Break the Dice, which is entertaining to listen to, but I forgot how much fun it is to watch them do their thing in person. The physicality of the improvised story adds a whole new element, as they twist their bodies to embody various creatures, and enact slow-mo fight scenes. The premise is fairly simple: guided by game master Allen Voigt, a rotating cast of improvisors (Maria Bartholdi, Laura Berger, MJ Marsh, Tyler Michaels King, Tyler Mills, Joe Rapp, Chris Rodriguez, and Lucas Vonasek) tell a story of druids, elves, dwarves, and other magical creatures. They explore and fight, occasionally asking Allen to roll the dice to determine the success of a move they want to make, whether it's persuade someone, or slash at them with a dagger. Musician Jack Barrett provides a score and soundscape so seamless and appropriate it's hard to believe it's improvised, while Ryan Klima provides sound and lighting effects to add to the story. After many years of experience, this team has become experts at this unique form of storytelling, seeming to read each other's minds as they create a story on the fly. The only bad thing about the show is that it's one continuing story, so we're left with a cliffhanger at the end of the show, which makes me want to go back and see it again!

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Finger Lickin' Good"

Day: 5

Show: 17

Category: COMEDY / HORROR / ORIGINAL MUSIC / AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION / HISTORICAL CONTENT

By: Special When Lit

Written by: Heather Meyer & Nissa Nordland Morgan

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: A sort of true biography of Colonel Harland David Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, that turns into a wild tale of sex, greed, and chicken.

Highlights: I don't know what kind of genius and/or warped minds think of an idea like this, but it's cluckin' brilliant (I can't resist the chicken puns any more than this team can). And it's also completely ridiculous, in the best way. Sam Landman is the perfect Colonel, with the swagger, the accent, the iconic white suit (when he's wearing anything at all), and the magnetism of the man who started the world's second largest restaurant chain. We traverse more or less chronologically through Harland's life, from his unhappy childhood, to his marriage and many affairs, to starting the KFC franchise, and eventually selling it (which, in this retelling, he regretted). The ensemble (the playwrights along with Rita Boersma, Jonathan Feld, and Duck Washington, all playing multiple roles, and chickens) are hilariously over the top as they tell this story, using lots of clever chicken props. All of the above would make for a great show, but the cherry on top is Shanan Custer as the frazzled fact checker, standing just outside the story, providing sound effects and checking in her big book of facts. Watching her watch the show, and react to the shenanigans, makes it even funnier. The show also includes a couple of original songs (by Nicholas Nelson) with some funky chicken choreography (by Laura Mahler). There aren't really any horror elements in this piece, except for one delicious final moment that maybe isn't necessary, but makes my vegetarian heart glad. Audiences may come for the salacious show image (the best one in the fest this year), but they'll be rewarded by a wholly original and wildly creative story about an iconic figure whom we thought we knew, but it turns out we didn't know him at all.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Who's Afraid of Winnie the Pooh?"

Day: 5

Show: 16

Category: COMEDY / LITERARY ADAPTATION

By: Clevername Theatre

Directed by: Alexander Gerchak

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A retelling of the classic Edward Albee play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the characters from Winnie the Pooh.

Highlights: The key to making this premise work - Pooh, Piglet, and Christopher Robin as characters in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, is to play it with deadpan seriousness. And this cast does just that. In this version of the story, Winnie the Pooh (Thomas Buan) and Piglet (Stephanie Johnson) are the unhappily married couple who invite the new couple in the Hundred Acre Wood, Christopher (Nick Hill) and Hunny (Stephanie Callaghan), over for cocktails. The cocktails being honey, or nectar, or sweetened condensed milk, on which out party-goers proceed to get drunk, which is when things get dicey. They take turns telling stories that may sound familiar to Winnie the Pooh readers, only with a decidedly more sinister turn. Playwright/director Alexander Gerchak doesn't miss an opportunity in the mashing up of these two familiar but very different worlds, dropping in lots of little nuggets. The mid-century costumes and design are spot on, characters dressed in the familiar color (Pooh is in faded yellow, Piglet in pink) with animal ears to remind us where we are. The vintage bar is well-used, and much honey and sweetened condensed milk is consumed over the course of the play. This unexpected, genius, and well executed mash-up is the kind of thing that can only happen at Fringe, and the reason that we love Fringe, and the reason that we need Fringe!

Monday, August 8, 2022

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Årsgång: What You Follow Follows You"

Day: 4

Show: 15

Category: DRAMA / HORROR / ORIGINAL MUSIC / PHYSICAL THEATER / HISTORICAL CONTENT

By: The Winding Sheet Outfit

Created by: The Winding Sheet Outfit

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A beautifully haunting and hauntingly beautiful tale of a young girl in Sweden and her encounters with the supernatural.

Highlights: Over the last several years, The Winding Sheet Outfit has become my number one Minnesota Fringe company, and this show is a prime example why. No matter the (usually historical) topic they choose, the show is always beautifully and thoughtfully designed, scripted, and performed, in a way that casts an absolute spell over the audience. Here we have the story of Lajla (a childlike and empathetic Kayla Dvorak Feld), who loses all of her family in a plague and has to move in with the pastor and his wife. She misses her family desperately, and is accompanied by the spirit of a deceased friend (the always delightful Boo Segersin), thereby keeping a connection with the other side. The Årsgång in the title refers to a legendary Swedish practice of seeing the future by going for a walk in the woods on the longest night of the year, which Lajla experiences as she tries to straddle both worlds. The cast (also including Matthew Kessen, Derek Lee Miller, Kristina Fjellman, and Megan Campbell Lagas) earnestly and believably brings this story to life, both as humans and animals. The story is accompanied by lovely music played live by Amber Bjork and Joshua Swantz, mostly off stage but still a vital part of the show. The only set pieces in the intimate in-the-round space (TRP has become my favorite Fringe venue) are slender bare birch trees, and animal half-masks made of birch or some other natural material (both designed by Derek Lee Miller), and cast is dressed in simple period appropriate clothing of muted colors. All elements of this piece come together with such beauty, grace, and purpose to tell a cohesive and compelling story. I would love to see them remount this show in December as it definitely evokes that still winter feeling. Leaving the spell of this show to walk out into a cold, crisp, dark winter's eve would be a thrilling experience. Until then we'll just have to imagine the snow and the cold.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Slender Vale"

Day: 4

Show: 14

Title: Slender Vale

Category: DRAMA / HORROR / IMPROV

By: Oncoming Productions

Created by: Oncoming Productions

Location: Mixed Blood Theatre

Summary: An improvised horror story that takes place in a small town in Northern Minnesota called Slender Vale.

Highlights: Improv is usually done for comedy, but this time it's done for horror, although it's funny too at times. Based on the prompt of three cards drawn from a deck (e.g., a bog, a voice) by a narrator, who also adds interjections to fill in background or guide the story, a rotating cast of improvisors tells a spooky story. The night I saw it, the story revolved around a couple of influencers staying at a cabin in Slender Vale, who got involved with the locals and went to the dangerous bog, despite being warned against it. A local teacher cast a spell to make one of the influencers fall in love with him, but it got out of control (natch). Effective horror may need more plotting than this format provides, but the music and lighting add to the spookiness factor, including strobe light effects, spotlights in the dark, and eerie sounds provided by a live musician.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "WHOOSH! The Civil War Mythology of Michael Hickey and His Perilous Precipitation Over St. Anthony Falls."

Day: 4

Show: 13

Category: SOLO SHOW / AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION / HISTORICAL CONTENT / KID FRIENDLY / SHAKESPEARIAN ELEMENTS

By: Wheeler In The Sky

Created by: Andrew Erskine Wheeler

Location: CFPA Black Box

Summary: A compelling historical solo show about Minnesotans who fought in the Civil War, the history of St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, the indigenous people of this land, and how all of the above are related.

Highlights: Once again, Andrew Erskine Wheeler throws himself completely into this character, or rather characters. He starts the tale as an Irish immigrant who followed his brother first to the logging camps of Northern Minnesota, and then to the Civil War. He tells his story directly to the audience, how he was injured in the war, was given a job after the war by his sergeant (who, spoiler alert, is Andrew's ancestor), and survived a tumble over the falls. Andrew personifies all of these people, with a change of accent or accessory to his period costume. Into this story he brilliantly weaves the history of the falls (known as Owamni Yamni by the Dakota and Gakaabikaang by the Ojibwe), Indigenous and White people's stories and legends surrounding it, the infamous painting in the Minnesota State Capitol about Father Hennepin's "discovery" of the falls (read more about that here), and the horrors of war and its aftermath. With direction by Allison Vincent, the show seamlessly flows from one story to the next, one character to the next, and might possibly utilize the most props in the Fringe, which Andrew flawlessly manipulates to help tell the story. He also employs jokes and modern references, and a few charming moments of fourth wall breaking, and brings the audience to tears with his passionate and emotional portrayal. At the end of the show, he offers an opportunity for a donation to the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center and encourages the audience to seek out Native stories. Rather than another White man telling a story that isn't his to tell, he's telling stories from Minnesota's shared and complicated history, and encouraging the audience to acknowledge, explore, and understand all parts of our history. WHOOSH is a thoughtful and detailed show that's as fun and engaging as it is educational and inspiring.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Icterine"

Day: 4

Show: 12

Title: Icterine

Category: COMEDY / DRAMA / HORROR / PHYSICAL THEATER / LITERARY ADAPTATION

By: K_e_r_n

Created by: Sarah JK Shoemaker

Location: Bryant Lake Bowl

Summary: An exploration of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" using movement and music (icterine is a shade of yellow, particularly as it relates to birds).

Highlights: It might help to have some familiarity with the source before seeing this show - the early feminist short story about a woman diagnosed with "hysteria" after the birth of her son, that criticizes the late 19th Century medical profession, as well as the oppression of women and strict gender roles. In this incarnation of the story, the woman (Nora King) spends a lot of time alone in her room, and interacting with the nanny (Sarah Shoemaker) who is taking care of her son. Rather than a linear narrative, the piece uses movement and music (live singing and recorded instrumental music) to express the themes of the story, and incorporates some of the author's other writings. It's oddly mesmerizing as as the cast brings great emotion to the story through interpretive dance. There's no curtain call, leaving the audience without any closure, but with encouragement to discuss, write a letter to your future self, and "give yourself empowerment and love."

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Changing the Narrative: Climate Stories for Justice"

Day: 4

Show: 11

Category: ORIGINAL MUSIC / SPOKEN WORD / STORYTELLING / HISTORICAL CONTENT / POLITICAL CONTENT


Created by: Jothsna Harris of Change Narrative

Location: Bryant Lake Bowl

Summary: A series of songs, poems, and stories about the personal side of climate change and environmental justice.

Highlights: A lot of Fringe shows are big and boisterous, funny or dramatic, but this is a show that transcends entertainment into something more meaningful. Based on the premise that stories will move people more than facts and figures, this powerful and moving show presents the human side of climate change. Three women from local organizations working for climate justice (Whitney Terrill of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, Nicole Ektnitphong of Climate Advocacy Lab, and Leslee Gutiérrez Carrillo of COPAL) tell their very personal stories about what drew them to the work of environmental activism, touching on the relation between migration and climate change, environmental racism, sustainable farming, and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. Between their stories we hear poems and music from the duo Buffalo Weavers, drawing on indigenous traditions and advocating a greater connection with Nature ("don't personify the river, riverfy yourself"). Rather than a depressing lecture on how our way of life is unsustainable, this is an inspiring and engaging show that provides a ray of hope that if we're thoughtful and work together, we can create a better world for all of us.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Bob and Reggie Go To Bed"

Day: 3

Show: 10

Category: COMEDY / ORIGINAL MUSIC / PHYSICAL THEATER / KID FRIENDLY / NON-VERBAL

By: Comedy Suitcase

Created by: Joshua English Scrimshaw & Levi Weinhagen

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: A completely wordless comedy about... well... two nitwits going to bed.

Highlights: I would happily watch Levi Weinhagen and Joshua English Scrimshaw do anything, which is what most of this show is. Just watching them put on pajamas and get into bed is hilarious. It's just good old-fashioned comedy, the kind that works in any era, geography, or age of audience, in the Buster Keaton silent film kind of style. I'm certain these two go home with bruises and abrasions every night the way they heedlessly throw their bodies around the stage, all for the sake of comedy. They're joined for part of the show by Sulia Altenberg as a tough chain-smoking Tooth Fairy. They keep hitting each other in the face to make their teeth fall out to get more money out of her, which does not make her happy, culminating in a ridiculous slow-mo fight scene employing tools of dental hygiene. While without verbal dialogue, this show is far from silent; composer/musician Rhiannon Fiskradatz creates a soundscape for the show on guitar, percussion, and various other instruments, the sounds making the physical comedy even funnier. At one point the boys are "locked" off the stage and find themselves in the audience, running around gleefully and playfully interacting with the audience. Eventually all four performers end up back on stage, along with a few stragglers they've picked up in a conga line through the audience. This show is just pure joy and delight and laughter. If you don't want your face to hurt from laughing too much, you should avoid this show at all costs.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Piñata"

Day: 3

Show: 9

Title: Piñata

Category: COMEDY

By: Nocturnal Giraffe

Directed by: Joy Donley

Location: Rarig Center Xperimental

Summary: A very funny comedy about moms on a birthday party circuit that sounds a little bit culty.

Highlights: The comedy trio of Greta Grosch, Katie Consamus, and Stephanie Cousins (with a cameo by Elizabeth Efteland as more than just a clown) are a joy to watch as three very different moms relegated to the penalty zone at a child's birthday party because of bad behavior. The pressure to impress and conform amongst this circle of well-to-do mothers of children at an exclusive school makes it sound very much like a cult, but somehow these women are able to move beyond that and recognize the humanity in each other (after a lot of fighting), bonding over the reasons that each of them doesn't quite fit in. Rarely moving from a small square of turf marked off by pool noodles, the cast expertly delivers the tight and funny script, employing physical comedy and perfect timing in this polished and professional show. A momedy even those with no offspring can enjoy, as it tackles themes of "keeping up with the Joneses," the pressure to conform and fit in, and realizing that sometimes you need to break the rules because the rules are stupid.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Life Underground"

Day: 3

Show: 8

Category: SOLO SHOW / STORYTELLING

By: Brad Lawrence

Created by: Brad Lawrence

Location: Augsburg Studio

Summary: A solo storytelling piece about living in NYC, the wonder of the subway system, going deaf, and maintaining connection with the world.

Highlights: I love NYC, and I love the subway system. It'll take you anywhere you need to go in the greatest city in the world, and observing your fellow riders is like experiencing a microcosm of the world at large. Brad Lawrence also loves the subway, and he actually lives there and rides it regularly. In this very personal and personable show, he tells some fun and funny stories about moving to the city for a girlfriend and an acting career (one worked out better than the other), working as a mover which allowed him to see inside the lives and apartments of New Yorkers, and funny subway encounters (pro tip: if there's only one empty car on a train, do NOT get on it). He maintains his conversational tone, looking the audience right in the eye in the intimate space of the Augburg Studio, as the topics turn a little more serious. It was on the subway where he noticed the worsening hearing in one ear, and debilitating bouts of vertigo (as some with motion sickness, I can in some small way relate to the latter). He also opens up about his fears about going deaf, namely that he'll lose connection with the world around him. But I'm not worried about that for him, as this very funny, very real, very human show is the epitome of connection through storytelling.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "A Day with the Newhearts"

Day: 3

Show: 7

Category: COMEDY / HORROR / ORIGINAL MUSIC / HISTORICAL CONTENT / LGBTQIA+ CONTENT

By: Melancholics Anonymous

Created by: Rachel Ropella and Timothy Kelly

Location: Mixed Blood Theatre

Summary: A mock 1960s sitcom set in Minnesota that turns very dark when the Newhearts try to force their new neighbors into their "Minnesota nice" way of life.

Highlights: Complete with a theme song, laugh track, and ads, A Day with the Newhearts feels very much like a sitcom about a happy family in the early '60s (there's a reference to "that new baseball team the Twins," so around 1961 or so). Mom, Pop, and daughter prepare for a barbecue with their new neighbors, a single mom (horror) and her clingy and socially awkward son. Daughter tortures son with news of a recently escaped serial killer, Pop shames single mom for her independence and plans to open a business, but Mom admires her for the same reason, feeling stifled in her Stepford/Minnesota nice life. Things go from odd to deadly very quickly, as we see the dark side of Minnesota nice (which definitely exists, although hopefully not to this extent). The cast (Claire Chenoweth, Bee Davis, and Matthew Humason along with the creators) fully commits to the dark and campy sitcommy tone; costumes, set, and props are charmingly period appropriate (including some Tupperware pieces I recognized from my childhood); and the Minnesota references (scotcheroos, hot dish, and snicker salad) are plenty. It's a darkly funny and disturbing show, consistent in tone, and perhaps a morality tale about how not to welcome new people into the community.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2022: "Endometriosis: The Musical"

Day: 2

Show: 6

Category: MUSICAL THEATER

By: Ripped Nylons Productions

Written by: Maria Bartholdi (book and lyrics) and Kristin Stowell (music and lyrics)

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A musical about one woman's struggles to be heard by her health care providers, and eventual diagnosis of endometriosis.

Highlights: It's only day two, but I can already tell you this is going to be one of my favorite shows of the festival. Firstly, it's a great and unique topic for a musical - who else is singing about women's reproductive health?! But we should be! Years in development, it couldn't be more timely with recent legal changes that have set women's reproductive health and rights back 50 years. And on top of that it's beautifully and cleverly written, both hilarious and poignant, and utterly relatable for any human who has ever menstruated. Songs cover the pain and shame around the menstrual cycle (why can't we say period at the dinner table, or on stage?!), constant doctors visits at which our protagonist is told her debilitating pain is normal or is all in her head, doctors prescribing birth control for any and all ailments in females from a very young age, and the novel idea that our reproductive organs and our reproductive choices shouldn't hold us back from doing everything we want to do. I hope and suspect that this is only the beginning for Endometriosis: The Musical. I'm not saying it'll end up on Broadway and win a Tony for best score like another female-centric musical that started at a Fringe festival, but I think it needs to be seen by more people than just five (likely sold out) Fringe performances. I would love to see it expanded to a 70-90 show (the happy ending wrapped up a little too quickly, I think there's more to explore there), and if they recorded a cast album of this fabulous score I would buy it, listen to it in my car, and sing along with every word. And they should lock this cast down because they're perfection. The two guys in the show (Christian Unser and Drew Tennenbaum) are great and very funny playing multiple (often antagonistic) characters, but this show belongs to the women. Abby Holstrom, who plays our protagonist Jane, appears to be new to #TCTheater and I look forward to seeing her again. Her portrayal is so empathetic and real, she really grounds the show in humanity amongst the wackiness going on around her, and has a voice that's so crystal clear and full of emotion I found myself tearing up in some of the more poignant moments. She's supported by a comedy/vocal dream team of a trio in Nora Sonneborn, Tara Borman, and Aly O'Keefe playing multiple characters and singing gorgeous harmony (particularly in the song "Birth Control" which you can watch here). 

This mini-review is already too long and I haven't even mentioned the adorable DIY costumes and props, the smart and interesting staging/choreography in the in-the-round space (by choreographer Krista Grover Winkka and director Maria Bartholdi, who also voices some very funny and bizarre interstitial bits about a serial stabber), the fabulous three-piece live on-stage band (with music director/composer Kristin Stowell on keyboard), the perfect sound mix (TRP is a such great space for musicals, no mikes necessary), and the way they expertly walk the line between outrageous comedy and tender moments about this very real and relatable issue. You'll just have to see it for yourself, and I recommend making reservations because their first night was nearly sold out. Friends, this is going to be the breakout hit of the 2022 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and deservedly so.

The first step in recording a cast album - the song "Hide."