Friday, September 29, 2023

"Dark Sisters" by Journey North Opera Company at the Southern Theater

I don't go to opera very often; I just don't have time with all of the plays and musicals happening in town that usually take priority. But when my fellow Twin Cities Theater Blogger Carol from Minnesota Theater Love talked on our podcast about how excited she was to see Dark Sisters by Journey North Opera, and then I was invited to a dress rehearsal, I couldn't resist. Written in 2011 by Nick Muhly with libretto by playwright Stephen Karam (The Humans and Sons of the Prophet), Dark Sisters is about women in a polygamous FLDS sect. I prefer my opera modern, in English, and on the shorter side, so this show (running about 90 or so minutes with an intermission) definitely fit the bill. It doesn't hurt that I'm a little obsessed with cults, including Jon Krakauer's book Under the Banner of Heaven about the history of Mormonism (recently turned into a mini-series on Hulu). Dark Sisters is indeed a fascinating story, a unique one for opera, and it's also a beautiful modern score that's gorgeously played by a 13-piece on-stage orchestra and sung by a seven-person cast, six of them women (Journey North is committed to having at least 50% of their casts be women or non-binary, a rarity in traditional opera). It plays for one short weekend only, so head to the Southern Theater (a gorgeous place for opera both aesthetically and acoustically) to take a journey with these Dark Sisters.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

"The (Almost) Complete and (Mostly) Accurate History of Alcohol" at Bryant Lake Bowl

Favorite local funny man Josh Carson and friends have put together a sketch comedy show about that great elixir and social lubricant - alcohol. Ironically, I saw the show about four weeks into a six-week break from alcohol (and caffeine), which I started as part of my marathon training. And even though an injury got me off of the marathon track, I stuck with the alcohol break just to see if I could do it (and I am still in training, if only for the much less physically demanding half marathon). It's an interesting experiment and has made me more aware of how prevalent alcohol is in our society and our social lives. It hasn't really been that hard for me, but there have certainly been days where I wanted a drink to smooth out the edges of a rough day, or just to taste a delicious concoction on a night out. This group of very funny writers and performers have taken all of these ideas, as well as stories of alcohol throughout history, and created about a dozen silly, funny, relatable sketches. You can see it at Bryant Lake Bowl (with dinner and yes, drink service before and during the show) through September 30 only (click here for info and tickets).

Sunday, September 24, 2023

"Falsettos" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

I fell in love with the musical Falsettos, which premiered on Broadway in 1992, when I saw a filmed version of the 2016 revival at a movie theater. The gorgeous and complex score, along with this love story about a messy and complex family, really appealed to me. The national tour came to the Ordway in 2019, and I loved it even more live (natch). At the time I wrote, "I'm hoping that the success of this revival leads to a local production or two in the coming years; I'd love to see some of my #TCTheater faves tackle these rich roles, perhaps with a staging of this intimate story that's more intimate." I didn't have to wait too long for my wish to come true, and there's no theater I'd rather see take on this gem of a musical than Theater Latte Da (although the NE Minneapolis community theater Morris Park Players beat them to it with a lovely and heartfelt production a year and a half ago). This is the first Latte Da show since the departure of founding Artistic Director Peter Rothstein (who likely had a hand in planning the season before beginning his new job at Asolo Rep*), and the first under the reign of new Artistic Director Justin Lucero. I'm happy to report that this production of Falsettos is every bit the Theater Latte Da we know and love - beautiful and relevant storytelling wrapped up in gorgeous music, a brilliant and mostly local cast, with impeccable attention to detail in every facet of design and creation. Falsettos runs through November 5, but don't snooze on getting tickets.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

"Passage" by Exposed Brick Theatre and Pillsbury House + Theatre

Two theater companies are joining forces to bring us Passage by Christopher Chen, loosely based on the 1924 novel A Passage to India. The central question is: is it possible for two people to be friends when one is a citizen of a colonized country and the other is one of the colonizers? Colonization has been a part of world history for hundreds, even thousands, of years, but awareness and discussion of its injustices has never been at a higher level. This play puts a human face on the sometimes abstract issue, and places the audience squarely in the shoes of both the colonized and the colonizers. For more on how this collaboration between Exposed Brick Theatre and Pillsbury House + Theatre came to be, listen to episode 2.3 of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers' podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat, in which my blogger friends from Minnesota Theater Love and I interview the co-directors of this piece, longtime friends and synchronized swimming teammates Signe V. Harriday (Pillsbury House's Artistic Director) and Suzy Messerole (co-Artistic Director of Exposed Brick). Then get your tickets and head to "the jewel of South Minneapolis" to see this thought-provoking and engaging play.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

"The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Guthrie Theater

My 20th season as a Guthrie Theater subscriber begins with a play that was part of my 7th season - the Oscar Wilde classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. This is the fourth production in Guthrie history, the most recent being in 2009 (the year before I started this blog, so no record of my experience exists). Earnest is an absolute confection of a play, full of delicious language, ridiculous characters, and silly situations. This new production is absolutely delightful, from the three gorgeous sets, to the scrumptious costumes, to the fantastic performances by familiar faces and new. See it on the Wurtele Thrust Stage now through October 15.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Broadway tour of "Beetlejuice" at the Orpheum Theatre

Beetlejuice is another in a long line of movie-to-musical adaptations. But as such, it's a pretty good one. I usually prefer more intimate character-driven musicals (that's what Theater Latte Da is for), but it's also fun sometimes to see a big, bold, loud, outrageous, over-the-top musical. And that's what Beetlejuice is - over the top in every way. Costumes, sets, puppetry, slight of hand tricks, performances - everything is big and loud and in your face. And it works; the crowd (some of whom were dressed in costume) was super into it on opening night, and it's a fun and wild ride. The 2019 Broadway production was nominated for 8 Tony Awards, but didn't stand much of a chance against the brilliant Hadestown, which was nominated for 13 and won 8. It closed on Broadway in January, and this tour has been running since just before then. It stops in Minneapolis for one week only, so if you're a fan of the movie, or musicals about death, or loud and fun musicals, click here (and only here) to purchase tickets for this limited run.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

"Rich Dogs" by WeAreMarried at Jungle Theater

We're just two weeks into the new #TCTheater season, and we've had classics and new plays, and now something entirely different. WeAreMarried's original play Rich Dogs is experimental, absurdist theater in which dogs rule the world and humans are their servants. With the way people love their dogs, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch. I'm a cat person (quelle surprise, and yes I have been binging Emily in Paris) so it's a little different, but there are times when I feel like the cats are in charge and I'm the butler - feeding them, cleaning up after them, disposing of mouse carcasses. The talented creative team at WeAreMarried has taken this idea and used it to explore themes of societal norms and structures, classism, capitalism, maybe even art and theater itself. At least I think they are, I'm not entirely sure what this piece is supposed to be about, but that's OK too. Rich Dogs is a captivating, fascinating, perplexing, and wholly unique 90 minutes of theater.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

"The Three Musketeers" at Lakeshore Players Theatre

Lakeshore Players Theatre's ambitious 71st season began in August with the one-weekend-only regional premiere production of the smart, funny, poignant play What the Constitution Means to Me (which is being remounted tomorrow, September 17, and for a few dates in January). They're following up that excellent debut with a super fun swash-buckling spectacular - The Three Musketeers. Playwright Ken Ludwig, whose adaptations of the Robin Hood legend and Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express have been seen around town lately, applies his trademark wit and speed to this story for a fun, fresh, and modern take on the 19th Century French novel that is a familiar part of pop culture. The large and talented cast performs some mightily impressive fight scenes in this simple story of good vs. evil, with a true spirit of "all for one, and one for all." See it at the Hanifl Performing Arts Center in charming White Bear Lake now through October 1.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

"Arsenic and Old Lace" at Theatre in the Round

The 72nd season at the oldest theater in Minneapolis, Theatre in the Round, is a mix of new plays and classics, and they're starting with a classic - the 1939 dark comedy about sweetly murderous sisters, Arsenic and Old Lace. The 1944 film adaptation starring Cary Grant is a popular one, but of course it was a play first (and not surprisingly I've only seen it on stage). Theatre in the Round has gathered a large and talented cast to portray these oddball (but sometimes lovable) characters, with a detailed design in their in-the-round space, and beyond. It makes for a fun and entertaining night at the theater, continuing through October 1 (click here for info and tickets). Content warning: murder.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

"A Chorus Line" at Lyric Arts

A Chorus Line is the quintessential musical about musicals, telling the true stories of Broadway chorus dancers. It's one of only ten musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize, in addition to winning many Tonys and running for 15 years on Broadway (the 7th longest in history). But despite these credentials, it's not done very often regionally. Maybe because of the large cast (26), maybe because of the serious dancing required, maybe because of the unique structure of the show. But the #TCTheater community absolutely has the talent to support this show, as evidenced by the spectacular production that just opened at Lyric Arts, a little theater in the 'burbs that doesn't shy away from challenges (they consistently produce regional premieres, including two this season - 9 to 5 and Kinky Boots). This is a rare chance to see this iconic award-winning show live, and there's simply nothing like it. The music, the choreography, the characters are all brilliantly brought to life on Lyric's Main Street stage in Anoka, and if you're a fan of music-theater, get your tickets now to see this show before it closes on October 1 (or sells out).

Friday, September 8, 2023

"The Chinese Lady" at Open Eye Theatre

If Open Eye Theatre's production of the new play The Chinese Lady is any indication, 2023-2024 is going to be a stellar season of #TCTheater. Written by Lloyd Suh, whose play Bina's Six Apples was seen at the Children's Theater last year, The Chinese Lady is a fictionalized account of the first Chinese woman in America. Known as Afong Moy, she was brought to New York City in 1834 at the age of 14 by a couple of traders in Chinese goods and put on display amongst said goods, in order to increase desire to buy the goods. History lost track of the real Afong Moy after about 15 years, but the playwright imagines her growing old in America, and ties her story to the stories of Chinese Americans, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and violence against Asian Americans throughout the past few centuries. Brilliantly told in 80 minutes, the play is funny, charming, fascinating, devastating, and ultimately hopeful. With excellent performances and gorgeous design, The Chinese Lady is the first must-see of the season (continuing through September 24, click here for info and tickets).

Sunday, September 3, 2023

"Naive. Super" at Norway House

Last night I saw a play that was unlike anything I've ever seen before. That's an unusual occurrence for someone who's been writing about theater for 13 years. #TCTheater artist Kurt Engh's adaptation of the 1996 Norwegian novel Naive. Super is unique not just in the fact that it's a solo play in which a different actor performs the piece each night of the run, but also in its use of technology. Because a dozen people are not going to memorize a 90-minute solo play for a one-night-only performance, the entire script of the play is on stage in some form, either in video projections, or on transparancies on an overhead projector (remember those?), or in notecards or physical pages on the set. It's a fascinating, trippy, thought-provoking story told in a fascinating, trippy, thought-provoking way; I can think of no better way to adapt this work. Whenever you go to the theater, you're going to experience something different every night, but that's never been more true than here, where you have a different actor bringing their own perspective and background to the work for something truly unique every time. What's more exciting than that?! Naive. Super continues at Norway House* through September 17 (click here for a list of performances and performers and to purchase tickets).

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" by Dark & Stormy Productions at Gremlin Theatre

At first glance, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie seems like an odd choice for Dark & Stormy Productions, a company that over the last ten years or so has made a name for themselves doing modern, small cast, one act, darkly funny or darkly disturbing plays in non-traditional locations. This is a period piece (set primarily in the '30s), premiered in 1966 (based on the 1961 novel), two acts and two and a half hours long, with a cast of ten, presented in the traditional thrust space at Gremlin Theatre (D&S gave up their NE Minneapolis studio space during the pandemic). But it's still dark, more on the disturbing than funny side. And the title role is a good one for founder and Artistic Director Sara Marsh - a complicated woman that I'm never sure if I'm supposed to like or not. Upon closer examination, this production, which also features some great performances by current or recent U of M theater students, some making their professional debuts, fits right in with Dark & Stormy's repertoire of smart, intriguing, well done, and yes, dark plays. You can see it at Gremlin Theater in St. Paul (next door to Lake Monster Brewing with daily food trucks) through September 17.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Storyhill Fest 2023

My favorite weekend of the year is Storyhill Fest, the sweetest little folk music festival in the gorgeous wooded lakes of central Minnesota. I believe I've attended all but one of the Minnesota fests (it has its origins in Montana, where Storyhill, aka Chris Cunningham and Johnny Hermanson, hail from). Every year from 2010 (coincidentally the year I started this theater-and-occasionally-music blog) to 2014 I spent Labor Day weekend at Clearwater Forest Camp in Deerwood, a beautiful campus with lodges, camping, hiking, boating, and other activities. But of course, we were there for the music - two full days of folk/country/bluegrass/Americana artists from Minnesota and around the country. I discovered many new favorites in that time (Carrie and Danny, Connor Garvey, Moors & McCumber, Anthony da Costa, and many more), but the reason we were all there was Storyhill - the high school friends who became folk sensations, well, if that's a thing. For over 30 years (with a few breaks) they've been touring Minnesota (beginning with their time at St. Olaf College in Northfield, which of course has a great music program, as well as musical theater) and the country, recording many albums. After the 2014 fest came one of those breaks, but seven years later (it would have been six if not for a global pandemic) Storyhill Fest was back! This is the third fest of this incarnation, and there are rumors it could be the last, as Chris and Johnny are taking yet another hiatus from the duo to pursue other interests. But every Storyhill Fest I've ever attended has been rumored to be the last, and it's always returned - whether that was a year later, or seven years later. No one can say if or when this festival will return, but judging by the music, joy, magic, and love shared amongst the artists and attendees, I believe it'll come around again someday. And I can wait.

Friday, August 25, 2023

"Village Wooing" by The Orchard Theater Collective at the Germanic-American Institute

The Minnesota Fringe Festival is over, and the 2023-2024 #TCTheater season is still a couple of weeks away (watch for an episode of Twin Cities Theater Chat about that). But if you need a theater fix in this quiet time, have I got a show for you! Newish theater company The Orchard Theater Collective began a few years before the pandemic, started by some Guthrie/U of M BFA grads. They've mostly done small cast classics in non-traditional spaces. In the first show I've seen of theirs post-pan, they're doing another small cast classic in a non-traditional space. Specifically the two-hander Village Wooing by George Bernard Shaw outside and inside of the Germanic-American Institute on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Everything about this show is charming - the classic but unexpected rom-com script, the intimate setting, the lovely and natural performances by the cast, even the snacks at intermission! But there are only 5 performances left, with 40 seats per show, so get your tickets now!

Sunday, August 20, 2023

"WHOOSH!" A Ghost Story and Music Performance by Andrew Erskine Wheeler at the Mill City Museum

The 2023 Minnesota Fringe Festival has just ended, but last night I had the opportunity to revisit one of my favorite shows of the 2022 Minnesota Fringe Festival. Andrew Erskine Wheeler's solo play WHOOSH! The Civil War Mythology of Michael Hickey and His Perilous Precipitation Over St. Anthony Falls has been expanded and renamed WHOOSH! A Ghost Story and Music Performance, presented in the most appropriate location possible - the gorgeous Mill City Museum Ruins Courtyard right next to the falls themselves. St. Anthony Falls, which we learn were known as Owamni Yamni by the Dakota and Gakaabikaang by the Ojibwe, play a big part in this story of an Irish immigrant who follows his brother to Minnesota work in the logging industry, and then into the Civil War. It's a beautiful story that combines local history, ghost stories, Greek tragedies, Irish music, and the trauma of war and loss. Andrew once again gives a captivating performance as multiple characters in this story, and sitting there outdoors on a warm summer night within sight of the location of this historical fictional story was a special experience. I say "was" because the two sold out performances are over, but hopefully we'll see WHOOSH again. In the meantime, check out the other events happening at the Mill City Museum (just make sure there's not a football game happening at the same time to complicate the parking/traffic situation, as I failed to do).

Saturday, August 19, 2023

"What the Constitution Means to Me" at Lakeshore Players Theatre

Lakeshore Players Theatre has an exciting lineup of shows for their 71st season in the lovely lakeside town of White Bear Lake. Including Ken Ludwig's Three Musketeers, the classic musical She Loves Me, the return of the Little House on the Prairie musical that premiered at the Guthrie in 2008, the ingenius play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the solo play I Am My Own Wife, and the hilarious musical that reminds us it's a privilege to pee - Urinetown. But first up, a one weekend only production of the regional premiere of the smart, funny, political, and personal Tony-nominated play What the Constitution Means to Me. It's such a fantastic production featuring strong performances and a detailed design, and such an important and relevant play, that I wish it had a longer run. So get out to Lakeshore Players Theatre on this warm summer weekend, and if you miss it, you'll have additional opportunities in September on Constitution Day, and in January (including student matinees) - click here for all of the details.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: Wrap-Up and Favorites

One of the highlights of my theater year is the Minnesota Fringe Festival. This year was the 30th MN Fringe, and my 13th, and it feels like those 11 days went by in a flash. I've seen over 400 Fringe shows in the last 13 years (counting several dozen virtual shows in 2020 and 2021), including 41 this year. That's only my 4th highest yearly total (and 9 short of my friend Rob at The Stages of Minnesota in only his second year at the Fringe), but it was only one short of my max (I took Tuesday off to see the Broadway tour of Jagged Little Pill, and I can't do 10pm shows anymore, especially not while training for a marathon). So basically I spent most of my weeknights and weekends seeing, writing about, and planning for theater for 11 days. It's a thrilling and inspiring experience, but also exhausting. I'm glad the Fringe only comes around once a year. 

Monday, August 14, 2023

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "A Girl Scout’s Guide to Exorcism"


Show: 41


By: Melancholics Anonymous

Created by: Rachel Ropella and Timothy Kelly

Location: Rarig Arena

Summary: It's the summer of 2008, and five Girl Scouts accidentally conjure up the spirit of a famous, and a little angry, environmentalist.

Highlights: This was one of the most frequently sold out shows of the Fringe, winning the venue award for most tickets sold at the Arena. I did not intentionally save it for the very last time slot of the festival, but it was a great end to a wonderful run of theater. It's so funny, and sweet, and real, and weird, and a little bit scary, and overall just so much fun. Five Jonas brothers obsessed tweens (charmingly portrayed by Claire Chenoweth, Anneliese Garner, Meredith Enersen, Samantha Miller, and Aerin O'Malley, giving each a distinct personality) gather for their annual sleepaway summer camp, with a friendly new counselor (Bee Davis), but things are changing. They're growing up, like it or not, causing new tension in the group. Using a ouija board, they accidentally cause one of them to become possessed with an environmentalist who advocates for the hawk, and she gets mad, wreaking havoc on the girls, until they can figure out a way to band together to save their friend, and each other. One of the girls occasionally steps out of the story and narrates it as the chain-smoking present version of the character, which is surprising and funny. This would all be wonderful enough, but as an added bonus Jeffrey Nolan plays the hawk who does the environmentalist's bidding, swooping a puppet on a stick around the theater, facial expressions so telling of the attitude of this creature. I first discovered Melancholics Anonymous during the virtual 2020 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and in a few short years they've become a reliable source of theater that is inventive and delightful and a little bit dark. They perform outside of the Fringe too, so keep your eye out for them.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "The Brothers Dangus Vol. 2: The People v. Dango (A Court-Mandated Parable)"


Show: 40

Category: COMEDY

By: The Brothers Dangus

Created by: The Brothers Dangus

Location: Rarig Thrust

Summary: The trial of a new drug with really unusual side effects that draws on classic crime movies.

Highlights: This was the stupidest show I saw at the Fringe this year, and maybe also one of the most clever. Definitely the most potty humor I've heard in an hour in a long time, including countless poo puns that are so dumb you can't help but laugh. I didn't see Volume 1 last year, but if I had I probably wouldn't have seen Volume 2. It's not really my kind of show, the humor goes a little too far for my taste, but I do admire their efforts and the extreme satire of white nationalists, conspiracy theories, misogyny, and a certain Fringe show that may have been all of the above. The four-person cast (Brian Hesser, Derek Meyer, Zach Morgan, A.J. Sass) is complete committed to the ridiculousness of this story, playing multiple characters both human and otherwise, and sometimes take turns playing the same characters. There are more movie references that I could catch (including the famous A Few Good Men courtroom scene), and wild props and costumes. Amidst all of the craziness going on, perhaps the strangest thing about this show is that veteran #TCTheater actor Charles Numrich is sitting at the back of the stage throughout the entire show, sitting in an easy chair eating, drinking, and reading the paper, and at the very end of the play he comes to the podium to recite a speech. What it all means, I'm not sure, but it's a very strange and funny and well done satire.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "New Origins: Beauty and the Beast"


Show: 39


By: Two Minnie Cooks

Written by: Aaron Cook

Location: Rarig Thrust

Summary: A prequel story to Disney's Beauty and the Beast that explains how the Prince became a Beast, and later, someone Belle could love.

Highlights: In this version of the story, before the one we know, Belle's mother is a witch and a consultant to the King. But after a tragedy the King turns on her and banishes her, along with Belle's sister, who inherited her mother's magical powers. The only way out is for beautiful Belle to marry the Prince, who is an arrogant unread brute. But Belle loves the sweet Gaston, who loves books as much as she does. If this sounds opposite of the characters in the movie, you're not wrong. Working with the Prince's BFF LeFou, Belle's sister casts a Freaky Friday spell to swap the two men so that Belle will fall in love with the Prince. But they fail to inform Belle's mother, who wants to protect her daughter, and casts the spell that sets up the story we know. It's a bit of a convoluted story, but it's plausible in this world, with some cute B&B-esque songs written by Kyle DeGoey (of Fringe hits Oregon Trail, Gilligan, and more), and accompanied by a live musician on keyboard. The cast performs the score and the story well, especially Kaz Fawkes and Drew Atwood who believably swap personalities halfway through and become the other. It's a fun exploration of a familiar story, with familiar characters we know, as well as a few new ones introduced into this world.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "5 Prisoners"


Show: 38

Title: 5 Prisoners


By: Ghoulish Delights

Written by: Pat Harrigan, John Heimbuch, Ariel Pinkerton, Tim Uren, and Duck Washington

Location: Southern Theater

Summary: Five short stories about prisoners that are either weird, funny, or terrifying, or some combination thereof.

Highlights: This was a fun show because each piece was just about 10 minutes long, performed by the same ensemble cast (Tim Uren, Duck Washington, Ariel Pinkerton, Boo Segersin, and Gregory Parks). Prisoner could be literal or figurative in the stories. In a historical piece, a woman is arrested for performing male roles in theater. In a horror piece, a woman donating plasma is inducted into a cult. There's a sci-fi piece in which a man is turned into a random number generator, a dark and disturbing piece about torture, and a fantasy piece about an astronaut captured by aliens. The five pieces vary in tone, cleverly utilize the same few set pieces, and allow us to watch actors playing different characters in the space of an hour. Well-acted, well-written, and an interesting concept - the mini-anthology.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Fargo Allegro"


Show: 37

Category: COMEDY / DRAMA

By: Nightfall Productions

Directed by: Brad Erickson

Location: Rarig Thrust

Summary: A fairly faithful if condensed reenactment of the beloved 1996 Coen Brothers movie Fargo, with Paul Bunyan as narrator.

Highlights: There's possibly no movie that pokes such loving fun at Minnesota as Fargo. So it's ripe for a Minnesota Fringe parody. I haven't seen the movie in ages, but it seems to cover all of the major plot points (even unnecessary ones like Marge's old friend Mike). The cast, most of whom play multiple characters, is completely committed to the campy/serious tone, and the accents. Highlights include Jeffrey Nolan as the fast-talking criminal Carl, Jay Melchior as the hapless Jerry Lundegaard, and Justine Carroll Melchior as everyone's favorite pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (the Minnesota/Scandinavian names in this story are dizzying). There's a live two-person multi-instrument band providing the soundtrack and charming sound effects, with video and images projected into a screen of old bedsheets. The clever set consists of wooden crates painted like cement blocks that are constantly moved around for the many different scenes, the front facade of a car with headlights, and white tulle waved around by the hard-working stagehands to simulate snow. It's all very thoughtfully done, with lots of fast-moving pieces that smoothly come together for a highly entertaining show that's the very epitome of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Yes No Maybe (please explain)"


Show: 36


By: Sandbox Theatre

Created by: Sandbox Theatre

Location: Rarig Thrust

Summary:  A now 41-year-old woman looks back on her high school years in the mid to late '90s through the many notes she received.

Highlights: Kristina Fjellman shares what I believe are her actual notes from high school, which she stuffed between the mattresses on her bed and were later found by her mother. It's done in a clever and meta way; she's brought on stage when the playful and enthusiastic ensemble (Chasya Hill, Charlie Henrikson, Jada Pulley, Megan Campbell Lagas, and Scobie Bathie) point a camcorder at her sitting in the front row. They proceed to ask her questions and throw letters at her (posing as the Ambers inside her head) until she reads from some, the camcorder giving us a close-up of the intracies of folding and doodles in the notes, hundreds of which are piled up on stage like a snowbank. She read letters from her friends as well as a boyfriend, referred to as M, who loved her a little more than she loved him. The use of music as underscoring, original songs sung by the ensemble (including a tribute to everything '90s), and the camcorder which is always on and displayed on the back wall, sometimes pointed at scenes acted out by tiny toy figures, is all very inventive and charming. It's a sweet, playful, nostalgic show.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Monster Science's Greatest Hits: The Ecology of the Muppets"


Show: 35


By: Monster Science Productions

Created by: Reverend Matt's Monster Science

Location: Augsburg Studio

Summary: The Monster Scientist known as Reverend Matt takes a deep dive into the beloved monsters that are part of Jim Henson's world of creation.

Highlights: I saw a Reverend Matt show on the first day of this year's Fringe Festival (The Very Model of a Modern Monster Scientist, in which he hires an assistant), and I saw another Reverend Matt show on the second to last day of the festival. Nice bookends indeed. Rev Matt's (aka Matthew Kessen) second show is a compilation of five of his most popular shows, pulled from his collection of deep dive power point-fueled explorations of various monsters, incorporating pop culture, mythology, and history. I chose to see the Muppets show, having grown up on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, and made a reservation well in advance, since it was sure to sell out (it did). Turns out there's a lot about Jim Henson's creations that I didn't know, and Rev Matt covers it all. From some very violent early coffee commercials, to the only live action movie to feature only puppets (The Dark Crystal), to the beloved Sesame Street, and beyond. He walks us through Jim's life and career more or less chronologically, through his tragic and untimely death at the age of 53. The show is funny and touching and nostalgic, and nerdy in the best way. If you missed Rev Matt at the Fringe this year or want to see more of him, you can see his show at Bryant Lake Bowl the first Thursday of every month (see his website or follow him on Facebook for news on upcoming performances).

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Primary"


Show: 34

Title: Primary


By: Alex Church

Created by: Alex Church

Location: Augsburg Studio

Summary: A longtime Congresswoman loses her primary election and her family all in one day.

Highlights: This show is donating part of their profits to Women Winning, an organization dedicated to helping pro-choice women get elected to positions at all levels, but the story itself does not make a convincing case for anyone to run for elected office. Elizabeth Young has sacrificed everything for her political career, and has the accomplishments to show for it. But when her adopted daughter Anna comes out as gay during the campaign, and she's dating a political reporter, it brings all of the issues bubbling just under the surface out into the open. Elizabeth's marriage is in trouble, and her daughter wants nothing to do with her. Adding fuel to the fire, Elizabeth's seemingly racist but actually supportive mother left the crumbling house Elizabeth's father built to Anna, and the two disagree about what to do with it. The political gets very personal in this drama, coming to an explosive conclusion. The show is well acted (including an unforeseen appearance by the playwright as Elizabeth, which, not having read the program closely, took me a minute to realize), with a recorded video of a clever spoof of a political ad opening the show, and gets into some real thorny awkward discussions between various characters (Anna is having some relationship issues too). Like I said, not the best ad for running for office, but good theater.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Ha Ha Da Vinci"


Show: 33


By: Phina Pipia

Created by: Phina Pipia

Location: Southern Theater

Summary: After getting accidentally transported back in time by Leonardo Da Vinci's experimental time machine, Luca must find her way back.

Highlights: This is a show that could only exist at a Fringe Festival; it's the reason why Fringe Festivals exist. So unclassifiable, such a mix of different artforms, and such an utter delight! Phina Pipia, dressed in the cutest dark green velvet overalls, combines music, magic, slight of hand, shadow puppetry, technical tricks, storytelling, and math to take us on a captivating journey. She plays the trombone, guitar, and floor mat piano hidden under a blanket, and sings as well, songs both original and familiar. The premise is that modern day Luca from Queens is reading about the failed time machine that Da Vinci supposedly invented with mathematician Luca Pacioli, who traveled back in time and never returned, and accidentally travels back in time herself. Through communication on a tiny radio, Da Vinci tells this Luca that she has to figure out a way back. Around this loose thread of a plot are placed the most charming vignettes of music and magic, cleverly using props and puppetry, with a bit of audience participation, full of wonder and delight. And a math trick involving a magic square that I'm obsessed with. I'd tell you to go see it, but sadly this was the final performance. I added it to my schedule at the last minute due to recommendations from my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, and am so glad I did. It was more than worth the walk from Rarig to the Southern and back to catch it.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Dock Work"


Show: 32

Title: Dock Work


By: Jackdonkey Productions

Directed by: Zach Christensen

Location: Rarig Thrust

Summary: A multi-media performance around unions and workers' rights using dance, music, spoken word, and scenes.

Highlights: This is definitely unlike anything else I've seen at Fringe. An experimental devised work like this is exactly what Fringe is for. Directed by Zach Christensen, performers Caiti Fallon, Tessa Dahlgree, and Sri Peck represent dock workers, and really all workers. Wearing black pants and tank top with an orange hat, they dance, perform repetitive movement like someone might do on a dock or in a factory, and perform spoken word or storytelling, alone or as a trio. They're all incredibly expressive, in their movements, facial expressions, and emotional delivery of text. The dances are accompanied by recorded music and later, a live rock band in similar costumes (Karsten Mink, Leo Lerner, and Clark Amann). The only set pieces are three stools, sometimes used as stools, other times as props, and a ball of red yarn that becomes impossibly entangled in the stools and forms a triangle for performance. The spoken pieces are poetry or stories, including the attempts at unionization at a Starbucks. With the prominent current strikes by TV and film writers and actors, it's a timely, powerful, and affecting show that explores the theme of workers' rights in an unconventional way.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Breakneck Midsummer Night’s Dream"


Show: 31


By: Timothy Mooney Repertory Theatre

Created by: Timothy Mooney

Location: Rarig Thrust

Summary: Just what it sounds like - 6 actors perform Shakespeare's most popular comedy in an hour or less.

Highlights: I've seen traveling Fringe artist Timothy Mooney a couple of times before, and typically he performs an entire Shakespeare play in an hour playing all of the characters himself. This time he's brought in 5 additional actors (Schmoo Cutlip, Cindy Sherden, and local artists Alison Anderson, Peter Buckholtz, and J Merrill Motz) to help with the feat of portraying some 20 characters in this normally 2-3 hour story. As usual, Timothy's adaptation gets right to the heart of the story, includes all of the well-known lines (e.g., "Lord ,what fools these mortals be"), and leaves me wondering what was cut out because the story seems so complete and thoroughly, if quickly, told (and makes me think Shakespeare should always be an hour long). The playful and energetic cast is all dressed in black (except for Cindy as Puck who missed the memo, and instead wears a cute Tinkerbell costume as the impish Puck), and dons a vest or crown or epaulettes to signify a character change. At times they're changing characters within a scene, quickly stepping behind one of the half dozen or so trees that make up the forest. Part of the fun is watching them scurry from one character to the next. If you need a traditional but quick Shakespeare fix at the Fringe, there's no better place to get it than Timothy Mooney Repertory Theatre.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Pearl and Eugene: One Last Shtick"


Show: 30


By: Clucklesworth Productions

Written by: Avi Aharoni and Donald C. Hart

Location: Mixed Blood Theatre

Summary: A formerly successful comedy/music duo does one last show to try to save the Jewish retirement home in which they live.

Highlights: It doesn't get much better than Robert Dorfman and Nancy Marvy doing shtick, in fact I could've used more of it! They play lifelong friends Eugene and Pearl, who successfully performed together until Pearl quit to get married and raise her daughter. They both ended up at the same retirement home, performing at the annual talent show, and when a developer threatens to buy the property and kick everyone out, they decide to perform at a fundraiser concert. They're interviewed by a local journalist (Robb Krueger, who also wrote the original music), whom the home's proprietor (Avi Aharoni) warns them not to trust. So when the reporter publishes an article revealing some dirt from their past, it threatens their relationship and the performance. There's a lot of drama and some betrayal, but the true joy of this show is when Nancy and Robert perform as Pearl and Eugene. They feel like good old friends, and they're highly entertaining and hilarious when performing all of the shtick, puns, and double entendres. It's corny but in the best way. The final performance is on Sunday, so you have one more chance to catch this delightfully shticky show.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "The Duet"


Show: 29

Title: The Duet


By: ThickWater

Created by: Ryan Blix & Nicole Weber

Location: Mixed Blood Theatre

Summary: A country duo married couple has seen their success fade, and the offer of a solo contract causes conflict between them.

Highlights: This is a sweet and funny show, with co-writers and performers Ryan Blix and Nicole Weber creating a believable relationship and lovely harmonies (the two original songs they sing sound like country hits). They're dressed in stage ready Western wear, then change into casual Western in their dressing room, where the entire play takes place in real time. The show begins with Stella and Leo performing their big hit "Lucky Coin," based on Leo's habit of letting fate decide big decisions by flipping a coin (and explaining the inclusion of the '90s country hit "Heads Carolina, Tails California" in the fab pre-show soundtrack). But soon the Grand Ole Opry makes way for Slimey's Bar as their star fades. When Stella is offered a solo contract by the label and is told that if she doesn't take it they'll be dropped, the two begin to realize that they want different things. Stella wants the success and stability they once had; Leo is just happy to be with her, even while performing in dive bars. They reminisce about when they first met, and when they got married (with flashbacks), and think about what their life could be life. It's a believable portrait of a musical and personal relationship. Will love win out, or will it succumb to the demands of success in the music industry? You have one more chance to see it and find out.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "The Definition of Loss"


Show: 28


By: Ashen Armor Productions

Written by: Ash Kaun

Location: Mixed Blood Theatre,

Summary: An exploration of grief using dance, movement, and theater.

Highlights: This is a beautifully artistic show, one that's not linear and doesn't spell everything out for you. Which is to say I wasn't always sure what was going on, when we were, or who was who, but that's not a bad thing. Playwright/director Ash Kaun's mother died when she was just 14, and this is her very personal and raw story. She also performs in the show, as both her 14-year-old self, and her adult self, getting through those early days without her mother, and later, after living half of her life without her. The ghost of her mother is there with her (played by Mallory Lewis with real emotion), encouraging her, and trying to help her through it. A shadow of herself at the age her mother died, or maybe even younger (Kyra Scanlan in a non-verbal but physically expressive performance), is also there, mostly hiding, eventually interacting in a beautiful mirrored dance (choreographed by Kyra). This is a lyrical and lovely portrait of one person's journey through and with grief.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "5-Step Guide to Being German"


Show: 27


By: Paco Erhard

Created by: Paco Erhard

Location: Rarig Thrust

Summary: German comedian Paco Erhard talks about what it's like to be German in today's world.

Highlights: I grew up believing that my ancestry was 7/8 German and 1/8 Polish, but after an Ancestry DNA test I learned that it was a little more complicated than that. Current results indicate I'm 32% "Germanic Europe" and 45% "England and Northwestern Europe," but that's close enough (and my obsession with these precise numbers probably indicates just how German I am). So I found this show to be very funny and relatable, as I recognize the characteristics of Germanness in myself and my family. Paco (if you're thinking that's not a very German name, you're correct, it's a nickname he picked up while living in Spain) joked that he thought Minnesota was the Scandinavian part of America, but instead found it to be more like the German part of Canada. He doesn't actually give us five steps to being German, but tells stories and jokes about growing up in Germany and being German out in the world (he's lived abroad much of his life). His usual 80-minute show was cut down to 60 minutes (so much for American freedom), and he makes fun of Germans, Americans, and others throughout his show. He debunks some stereotypes of Germans, and confirms some too - stern, obsessed with order, unfunny. That last one is proven untrue, as Paco is very funny and personable as he makes us laugh about what it is to be German, and what it is to be humans living on this planet together.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Starved": The Astonishing True Story of the University of Minnesota Starvation Experiment


Show: 26


By: Pat O'Brien

Written by: Richard Chin

Location: Augsburg Mainstage

Summary: A dramatization of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment that studied the effects of starvation on WWII conscientious objector volunteers.

Highlights: The History Theatre did a reading of this play as part of their 2018 "Raw Stages" new works festival. That was the first time I had heard of the 1944 experiment at the U of M, in which 36 conscientious objectors volunteered to partake as their wartime service. As someone whose day job is in clinical trials, I find the issues of informed consent and the ethics of science to be fascinating. In this 60-minute (or less) version of the play, we get two know two scientists (Pat O'Brien and John Gottskalkson) and three subjects (Samuel Ahern, Elliot Drolet, and Coleson Eldridge). The conscientious objectors were often belittled and seen as cowards, so they were eager to do something worthwhile - providing data that would help rehabilitate the thousands of starving people in Europe. The scientists conducting the experiment believe in the worthiness of it, but begin to doubt the morality of it as the men grow increasingly thin, depressed, and even psychotic. Even though these men agreed to participate knowing the expected effects, and were free to drop out at any time, things become murky when the effects of the experiment begin to inhibit their ability to think clearly. The three subjects are distinct characters, jokingly referred to as the preacher's son, the New York intellectual, and the wiseass. Throughout the course of the play their energy decreases as they become solely focused on food. It's a bleak and insightful play, well acted by the ensemble (also including Mickaylee Shaughnessy and Vickijoan Keck as various nurses and waitresses - this was the 1940s after all), that doesn't give us any clear answers about the ethics of this experiment, but leaves us to decide for ourselves.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "OPERA PUNKS"


Show: 25




Created by: Kelly Shuda

Location: Rarig Xperimental 

Summary: Short form musical improv.

Highlights: Like most improv, this is a wild ride covering many weird topics. But unlike most improv, it's entirely sung! Five talented musical improvisors (Isabella Dunsieth, Ruben Gomez, Nora Nelson, Michael Rogers, Julia Weiss) perform short scenes based on audience prompts. They're accompanied by Director Kelly Shuda on keyboard and guitar, who sets the style of the song, and also fiercely watches the performers to pick up and pass cues. The show I saw had songs about aliens, amusement park accidents, siblings reuniting and resurrecting their dad, and a really weird story that ended with people (or aliens, or blood cells?) traveling around inside a body. Entertaining and well sung and bizarre.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Funny, Like an Abortion"


Show: 24


By: EnCompass Theatre

Written by: Rachel Bublitz

Location: Rarig Arena

Summary: In a dystopian world where even talking about an abortion can get you thrown in jail, two friends have a party to plan a do-it-yourself abortion.

Highlights: Unfortunately, this dystopian world isn't that far from our own. Maybe not here in Minnesota, where our constitution protects a woman's right to choose, but in many places around the country since Roe v. Wade was overturned. This show is disguised as a comedy, and a funny and entertaining one at that, but it's dealing with some very real and scary issues. Performers Olivia Dubiel and Stephanie Kahle believably play best friends, and when one of them gets pregnant (birth control is also difficult if not impossible to get), she invites the other over for a surprise abortion party. She has a few dozen gift bags, with a home abortion remedy in each (note: the performers make a point to say multiple times - DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!). Each solution is worse than the last, as they contemplate various herbs and medications, as well as going to other countries. The two friends are in different places economically, and that is brought up as a very real factor in getting the care one needs. We never find out what happens to these two women; the performers break out of the story at the conclusion to recite some terrifying facts and stories about things that are happening around the country regarding laws, lawsuits, and personal experiences, sometimes just a few days ago. In times of turmoil, I always look to the artists to show us a way through. These young women are doing that just in talking about and dramatizing abortion rights, and reminding us that the fight is not over. Funny, Like an Abortion is a must-see both for entertainment value and for social advocacy reasons.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Gilda: A Tribute to the Beloved Comedienne Gilda Radner"


Show: 23


By: Helena K Cosentino

Created by: Helena K Cosentino

Location: Southern Theater

Summary: A tribute to the late great comedian Gilda Radner, including history, songs, and sketches.

Highlights: It's obvious that Kansas City-based theater artist Helena K Cosentino loves Gilda Radner, and not just because she tells us so in the intro. Her love, admiration, and respect for Gilda, most famous for being one of original cast members of Saturday Night Live, marrying Gene Wilder, and dying of ovarian cancer at the age of 42, is obvious in how she speaks of her and how she performs. Changing into multiple wigs and outfits, Helena tells us a bit about Gilda's life and career, and then launches into some of her most famous characters. Although I know of and like Gilda, I actually haven't see many of her performances (I'm not a SNL viewer), so it was fun to see her comedy come alive again through Helena. Many of the people in the audience were familiar with her, as they called out her various catchphrases even before they were uttered on stage. Helena also performs a couple of songs, including a tap dance number, that Gilda made famous. The show is very well constructed (she's performed this show at multiple Fringe Festival in recent years, so it's well polished at this point), with just enough history to provide background, but not so much that it overwhelms the performances. Props and costume changes are smartly arranged around the stage, and neatly placed into an open suitcase when she's done with them. If you're a Gilda fan you absolutely have to see this show. And if you're not that familiar with her, like me, it's still a positively lovely and inspiring and moving show about one of our funniest people of the 20th century. A portion of the proceeds are donated to Gilda's Club - Twin Cities, an organization that provides emotional and social support for people living with cancer, continuing Gilda's legacy beyond her comedy.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.