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. 

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Tales from the Fiefdom"


Show: 22


By: Gnarly Bard Theater Company

Written by: Bubba Holly & Louie Opatz

Location: Southern Theater

Summary: A very fringey musical about people in the Middle Ages, just trying not to die.

Highlights: If you're looking for a fun, silly, fringey musical with catchy and clever songs that are well-sung by a talented and committed cast, look no further. With songs like "Come to the Apothecary," "I'm Not a Witch," "I Don't Wanna Sh#t in a Bucket Anymore," "The Pleasant Peasant," and "Sir Lance-a-little," how can it not be fun? The seven-person cast (Madison Fairbanks, Bubba Holly, Ryan Huxford, Megan Kim, Clare Rollinger, Haley Sisler-Neuman, and Nicole Wilder) sings unmiked to a recorded track with songs of varying styles of pop music - Country-Western, Beach Boys, doo wop, and more (or at least that's what I heard). The topics sung about are very bleak - the plague, the burning of women as witches, and constant warfare and violence - but the music is so happy! The cast performs cute and fun choreography wearing Renn Fest-esque costumes, and set pieces include the apothecary's shop, where much of the action takes place, a stake for burning at, and a charming DIY fire. It's really a delight and everything you want in a Fringe musical. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Broadway Tour of "Jagged Little Pill" at the Orpheum Theatre

The Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill, with the title and most of the songs coming from her iconic 1995 debut album, only ran for six months on Broadway, due to a long interruption by a global pandemic. But the good news is that it's now touring across the country, and you can see it in Minneapolis now through August 13. Alanis is such a great storyteller; her songs are so full of complex and clearly written characters, drama, and emotion, that they're perfect fodder for a musical. Diablo Cody, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno, wrote the book and has crafted a modern story of a family dealing with a multitude of issues, that utilizes the songs well. There are occasional slight tweaks to the lyrics to fit the story, but the emotional core of each song, and Alanis' work in general, is retained. It's a messy, dramatic, and ultimately hopeful story about a family and community that loves and supports each other, even if they're flawed people who make mistakes, i.e., humans. As a longtime fan of Alanis (Jagged Little Pill came out when I was in college, but I wasn't really into pop music at that time, so I didn't embrace her until the mid-aughts, and prefer the 10th anniversary acoustic version of JLP), I loved hearing her songs onstage sung by this amazing company of actors. How someone unfamiliar with these songs would appreciate the show, I can't say, but I like to think it would stand on its own. See for yourself at the Orpheum Theatre - click here for the official ticket purchasing site, and to find information on the student/educator rush.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: Mid-Fest Favorites

We've reached the halfway point of the 30th Minnesota Fringe Festival. I hope you've seen some great shows, but if not - it's not too late! There's still plenty of time to see some adventurous art! I've seen 21 shows so far in the first five days of the festival, and after a day off to see the Broadway tour of Jagged Little Pill, I'll be heading back to Cedar-Riverside to see some more. 

Here are my favorite shows so far, in alphabetical order (click the show title for full review and link to show page):

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "BRUTUS"


Show: 21



By: Rebecca Wickert and Ella Eastman-Kiesow

Created by: Rebecca Wickert and Ella Eastman-Kiesow

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A retelling of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar with a mostly female cast and creative team.

Highlights: The creators and much of the cast are recent or current U of M theater students, and it's exciting to see the thoughtful, creative, unique work of young artists, making the future of #TCTheater look bright. With perhaps the largest cast I've seen at the Fringe this year, they tell this story of violence and betrayal in a taut and intense 60 minutes or less. Dominique Drake makes for a regal King Caesar, Alexis Neumann is a sympathetic Brutus who kills their friend, and Amber Frederick is all broiling intensity as the chief conspirator Cassius. The ensemble uses movement, choreography, and fight choreography to tell the story in a physical way (with choreography by Nakeema King). There's also recorded original music (by Colin Fitzsimmons and The Buttress) adding to the tone and intensity. The stylistic look of the show is achieved by extreme face makeup, consistent hairstyles, and wild costumes of unknown period. It's all very thoughtful and intentional and beautifully constructed.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Baldwin's Last Fire"


Show: 20

Category: MYSTERY

By: Black Lives Black Words International Project

Written by: Reginald Edmund

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: Historical fiction about acclaimed American author James Baldwin solving a mystery of missing children in France.

Highlights: James Baldwin solving a crime? Why not, it's Fringe! The play is cleverly written (by Reginald Edmund), weaving in the themes of Baldwin's writing as well as some of his words. We open in a garden in Paris, with James Baldwin (played by veteran theater and film actor Harry Waters Jr.) writing and narrating the story. His caregiver Park (Jake Quatt), who shares the narration duties, attempts to get him out into the city, where an African woman approaches him for help finding her missing child, one of many. Even Baldwin recognizes the ridiculousness of an American writer trying to solve a crime in France, until Park convinces him he could use his notoriety and influence to help. So begins our adventure, with the ensemble (Jacob Hellman, Matt Saxe, and Ashe Jaafaru) playing multiple characters. The creative storytelling includes a large rectangular cube made of what looks like metal pipes, but must be something much lighter, as the cast moves the structure around to represent a car, a door, a window, and any number of other ideas, draped with large pieces of colored fabric. It's a compelling story, well told, and a fun imagining of another kind of life for a well known historical figure.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Audacious Ignatius: Lost in Atlantis"


Show: 19


By: Kyle B. Dekker

Created by: Kyle B. Dekker

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A deep dive into the life and work of Minnesota's second Lieutenant Governor Ignatius Donnelly, early conspiracy theorist.

Highlights: Truth is stranger than fiction, which is one of the reasons I love history. I had never heard of Ignatius Donnelly before, a fact playwright/performer Kyle B. Dekker acknowledges and explains. Donnelly went from a promising political career in Minnesota to a proponent of wild theories like the lost city of Atlantis, and that Francis Bacon wrote the Shakespeare plays, with a little racism along the way. In period dress, Kyle tells the story of Donnely's life, reading some quotes from him and his contemporaries. It may be an "info dump" as he says, but it's a fascinating and well told one. A couple of visual aids help with the storytelling - a trading card of the presidential hopeful, a map showing the supposed location of Atlantis, and covers of his books. But this isn't just an interesting look at an eccentric historical character. Kyle ties his writings to current day politicians and conspiracy theories, because knowing our history helps inform our present. As Shakespeare (or Bacon according to Donnelly) wrote - "what's past is prologue."

Monday, August 7, 2023

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Stabby Stab Stab"


Show: 18


By: Special When Lit and The Winding Sheet Outfit

Written by: Nissa Nordland Morgan

Location: Crane Theater Studio

Summary: A retelling of the true story of two Wisconsin tweens, obsessed with the story of Slender Man, who stabbed one of their classmates 16 times.

Highlights: This first ever co-production between the artists who brought us the wild and wacky Colonel Sanders story Finger Lickin' Good and the beautifully haunting Årsgång: What You Follow Follows You at last year's Fringe debuted at the Twin Cities Horror Festival last fall (it's like a mini genre specific Fringe Festival). They're remounting it as an independently produced show at the Crane Theater, with shows every night at 8:30 or 10:00. It's an easy 5-10 minute drive from the main hub of the festival, so I recommend stopping by at the end of one of your days. You will be rewarded by a dark and creepy, yet sad and lovely tale. Written by SWL's Nissa Nordland and directed by TWSO's Amber Bjork, it really is the perfect blend of the former company's wild sense of fun and the latter's meticulous and thoughtful attention to detail. Nissa and Kayla Dvorak Feld play the two girls, both so believable and somehow empathetic despite their horrible deeds. Like TWSO always does, Stabby Stab Stab explores the human side of the splashy headline, and posits a theory for how this childhood friendship went so terribly wrong. With a live soundscape created by Derek Lee Miller and Sam Landman, beautifully designed (by Amber) projections of text and images, and cute and creepy props that fill a child's bedroom, this show effectively tells this true story with a thorough, thoughtful, and consistent tone of creepiness, tragedy, and humanness. It's performed in the Crane's smaller studio space (making it a sellout risk), which only makes it more intense and intimate.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "When You Hear the Chime"


Show: 17


By: Alchemy Arts

Created by: Nichole Carey and Andrew Lester

Location: Southern Theater

Summary:  Two children playing in an attic tell each other stories.

Highlights: These two grown-ups (husband and wife team Nichole Carey and Andrew Lester) embody children at play in the most delightful way. Sick of playing hide and seek, the girl makes up a new game, in which they tell each other their favorite stories using the boy's recently deceased grandmother's clothes and props. Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Alice in Wonderland, and The Hobbit all come to life in a playful way as they try to one up each other, sometimes breaking out of character to go over the rules (no swears!). Things get a little serious when the girl talks about her mom and brother fighting, and the boy confesses his sadness at the death of his grandmother. They vow to always be friends, and to always play. Andew, a dancer, imbues every movement with grace, building to a gorgeous dance number. Nichole, a singer, has one lovely song. With a few charming props and set pieces, it's like playing dress-up and make-believe, for grown-ups. A sweet show that reminds us of the importance of telling stories (and isn't that what Fringe is all about?).

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Mother Courage Bear and Her Children"


Show: 16


By: Clevername Theatre

Written by: Alexander Gerchak

Location: Southern Theater

Summary: A retelling of Bertold Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children, as Care Bears.

Highlights: I didn't think there could be a more Fringey mashup than Winnie the Pooh and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But then Clevername Theatre followed up last year's brilliant weirdness with this mashup of the Care Bears and Brecht. It's so strange and clever, I'm not sure where to begin. We're introduced to this tale of the centuries long "Sunshine War" by a stern Director (Connor McEvoy) speaking in a German accent, giving a short intro to every scene with zero emotion (other than perhaps annoyance). Mother Courage Bear (Grace Barnstead) sells "cards" and "likes" from her cloud cart (a commentary on our social media obsessed culture), with her children Humanity Bear, Hubris Bear, and Sandwich Bear (in the original play, Mother Courage has a daughter named Swiss Cheese). Other bears we meet include Cowardice Bear, Drudgery Bear, and Prostitution Bear. Children go off to war, bears are murdered, and we get to the eventual unhappy ending. The cast (also including Thomas Buan, Nick Hill, Victoria Jones, and Will Vierzba in multiple roles) stays completely serious despite the ridiculousness of the story (and the costumes - pastel t-shirts and pants with matching ears and a belly patch), even into curtain call. It's a high-concept Fringey show that's well executed with great attention to detail.