In Review: The 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival

FringeReviewHeader2015

As we enter the home stretch of this year’s edition of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, continuing till This Sunday, August 9, there have been many great performances in this year’s line up of 174 shows. Covering every genre from classical theater to avant-garde performance art and every possible variation in between, the United States’ largest non-juried performance art festival is a great mash-up of professionals and debutantes all united by their love of the theatre.

Here now are the reviews I wrote for l’étoile‘s massive omnibus review. Unfortunately, there is no possible I or the rest of the l’étoile team could have reviewed all 174 shows at this year’s festival, so let us offer one sage piece of advice: If, when looking at the list of shows, something intrigues you, then for heaven’s sake go see it! It could be wonderful or woeful, but that’s the risk (and the beauty) of The Fringe! Also be sure to check out their Facebook and Twitter on the evening of Saturday, August 8 as they will be announcing which shows get the Fringe Encore, which is the last show slot of The Fringe on Sunday at 8:30pm at all the various venues and is reserved for the most popular show at each venue.

And now, without further ado, and in alphabetical order….

AND THEN…: A (verb)-Your-Own-Adventure (noun)
presented by New Script Theater
@ Theatre In The Round
Additional Performances: 8/6 @ 8:30pm, 8/8 @ 4pm

I’m of two minds about this show. On the one hand, I appreciate the use of the band Improvestra in collaboration with the show, and I like the concept a lot (the audience choosing the fate of a simple love story). Where the show lost me was in two key parts. As good as Improvestra is, you could take them out of the show and it would still hold. More damningly, while the audience did make choices, it still felt like we were led to make specific choices that the show’s creators wanted; thus taking out the gimmick that the show is supposedly built on. And not even the game cast (including lovely performances from leads Charlie Morgan and Shannon McDonough) can shake the feeling that the choices are not in the audience’s hands.

Fringe2015-Backlash

Backlash
presented by Mainly Me Productions
@ Theatre In The Round
Additional Performances: 8/6 @ 7pm, 8/7 @ 5:30pm

Mainly Me Productions has produced some of the biggest hits in the Fringe’s history (Class of ‘98, Our American Assassin…), so I was surprised by my less than rapturous reaction to their newest show; a tale of a teacher and stand-up comedian who loses it when his student gets better notices. Don’t get me wrong, it’s gut-bustingly funny and the jokes land with aplomb (and delivered by a ridiculously brilliant cast including Josh Carson, Andy Kraft, Nels Lennes, and Sara Marsh in a sparkling production by Mr. Carson). My guess is that the company was having a slightly off night at the performance I went to; bringing their A- game instead of their A game and pushing the jokes harder than necessary. But given the calibre of this company, an off night with this group is still a guarantee of a hilariously good time.

Bobby Gould In Hell
presented by Joking Apart Theater
@ U of M Rarig Center – Arena Stage
Additional Performances: 8/6 @ 10pm, 8/8 @ 2:30pm

As the sequel to his earlier play Speed The Plow, playwright David Mamet took his amoral Hollywood producer Bobby Gould (played by Michael Lee) and sent him to hell. Literally, as it turns out as he is interrogated about his life by a mysterious man and his whiskey-guzzling assistant (Edwin Strout and Tina Frederickson, respectively). Even his ex lover Glenna (Jennifer Maren) joins in on the interrogation. While the script is bumpy as hell, the genuinely fantastic cast (led by director Jean Wolff in a spectacular production) nails the language and emotional hairpin turns of Mamet’s tricky one act. Highly recommended.

Fringe2015-CollyardNelson

Collyard / Nelson’s Guide to Reviewing Fringe Festival Shows & Other Tips to Help Keep Your Cool In the White-Hot World of Amateur Criticism OR “So You Kept Their Postcard; Now What?”
presented by CNM Productions
@ New Century Theatre
Additional Performances: 8/6 @ 8:30pm

Surprise! Alex Collyard, Cody Nelson, Sami Dillon’s comedy is a surprisingly low key, feel-good affair. While you think you’re about to see a normal Fringe show (which, by the way, sounds like an intriguing concept for a Fringe show – especially to the on-point sound design), Messrs. Collyard and Nelson (with their intern Sami, played by Ms. Dillon, in tow) hijack the proceedings to give a mandatory lecture on how to do audience reviews. While the jokes were funny and the main cast are all winning stage presences, the very meta scenario for this improvised show more often than not meandered from bit to bit, which caused the energy to lag at a few points in the show. Even the guest Fringe Legend bit (on the day I saw it it was The Mrs. playwright Emily Schmidt, where she lampooned the stinging review her show got in the Pioneer Press) felt slightly disengaged. Make no mistake, the cast is funny (and the Shakesfeld play sounds perfectly Fringe-worthy and cringe-worthy), but the show needs to be tightened to be worthy of these fine performers.

Confessions Of A Butter Princess or Why The Cow Jumped Over The Moon
presented by Little Lifeboats
@ Theatre in the Round
Additional Performances: 8/7 @ 8:30pm, 8/8 @ 2:30pm

My reaction to Abby Swafford’s nonsensical farce was decidedly mixed. Telling the tale of the Cow Who Jumped Over The Moon and Queen Kay of the Milky Way trying to fight off the evil Princess Kay Chorus, the script has some things to say about loneliness, oppression, and more. That being said, the script’s disjointedness and reliance on pop culture jokes tends to muddy the waters. On the other hand, director Chris Garza has turned it into a sharp, physical farce akin to the Beatles’ films; aided by the clever use of the TRP stage and the energetic and committed performances of the cast (Erin Denman, Hector Chavarria, Madelyne Riley, Briana Patnode, and Alana Horton). Don’t think to much and appreciate it for what it is; a gloriously physical farce.

Damn Kids These Days
presented by Katy Camp Productions
@ Nimbus Theatre
Additional Performances: 8/5 @ 7pm, 8/7 @ 5:30pm, 8/9 @ 1pm

And now for something completely different. Using the soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy as a starting point, director Katy Hays has created a funny look at a certain generation growing up. The fact that it’s performed by an army of kids aged 10-15 throws a fun, if slightly ironic spin on the tales of their parents’ generation. It also helps that the cast is genuinely wonderful and a savvy group of young performers. This show was a very happy accident for me, and I’m so glad I went.

EdgarAllan

Edgar Allan
presented by The Coldhearts
@ Mixed Blood Theatre
Remaining Performances: 8/6 @ 7pm, 8/8 @ 4pm

The sleeper hit of last year’s festival returns as part of a five-city tour, so I shall simply quote my review from last year: “If Edward Gorey were to write a children’s ukulele musical, it would look like this. Hilarious and horrifying in equal measure, Katie Hartman and Nick Ryan’s lovely play about the boyhood of the iconic writer and his new best frenemy at school is a jewel box of a play.” I will go on to add that Hartman and Ryan’s charismatic performances have deepened over the intervening year, resulting in even richer performances without losing any of the charm or creepiness in this sly meditation on boyhood. You owe it to yourself to see this!

Everything You’ve Done That Hurt Me
presented by Offbeat Productions
@ Mixed Blood Theatre
Additional Performances: 8/8 @ 10pm, 8/9 @ 5:30pm

Using the text of a twenty-page breakup letter found on the street, Jonathan Manchester and Brian Ring have created a hypnotic examination into the psyche of a broken heart. The most audacious thing is that Mr. Manchester plays the text absolutely straight; and while it leads to a few comic moments (as he accurately plays the typos and grammatical errors), he economically manages to convey the true heartbreak of the situation. Add in Mr. Ring’s music which manages to give the audience a chance to catch their breath and you have a touching portrait of a man whose world is falling apart.

Fringe2015-Deathstar

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Death Star
presented by Go For Broke Productions
@ U of M Rarig Center – Thrust Stage
Remaining Performances: 8/6 @ 5:30pm, 8/8 @ 5:30pm

(NOTE: I also saw the show but did not review it for l’étoile. Here are my thoughts…)

Any musical parody that manages to reference one of my favorite musicals of all time has my attention. Making fun of all three movies of the original trilogy, this musical spoof flies through the plot at light speed. As well received as it was (and it was, thanks to the fantastic work from the ensemble), in order for you to get the joke you need to have a pretty good working knowledge of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi to get all of the jokes. And frankly, some of the musical parody went for the low hanging fruit in terms of the jokes. But again, that doesn’t really matter as it’s so energetically performed that the crowd can’t help but laugh. But no Spaceballs jokes? Tsk tsk tsk.

Growing Into My Beard
presented by I’ve Seen The Future
@ HUGE Theater
Additional Performances: 8/6 @ 7pm, 8/8 @ 1pm

While the “young gay singer/songwriter writes a one-man show about growing up” could easily be a Fringe genre unto itself, New York-based performer Bay Bryan makes his journey of being “a ginger” (his euphemism) so specific in details (from his growing up in Colorado to his comically bizarre audition for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and more) that the story becomes a universal search for finding love and acceptance. It also helps that Mr. Bryan is a charming on-stage presence and pretty killer singer and songwriter (with influences ranging from Randy Newman, to folk, and more than one member of the Wainwright clan peeking through). As directed with wit and sensitivity by Artem Yatsunov, Mr. Bryan’s show is smart, sensitive, sexy, and joyful. (And on a side note, Shenéné may be the true heroine of this year’s festival. Once you see the show, you’ll understand what I mean.)

High Flight
presented by Mike’s Brass
@ Illusion Theater
Additional Performances: 8/6 @ 7pm, 8/8 @ 4pm

How do you deal with undefined loss? When painter / musician / pilot Mike Bratlie’s plane disappeared mid-flight, the sense of unknowing drove his family mad not having a definitive answer to his fate. In trying to process her feelings, his daughter Carin Bratlie Wethern (artistic director of Theatre Pro Rata) gathered his brass choir and a top flight production staff (playwright Ben Tallen and director and choreographer Windy Bowlsby) to create a piece about these events. The result is an inspired meditation on uncertain loss. With heartbreaking performances from the five person cast (especially Noë Tallen and Derek Meyer as the de facto stand-ins for Ms. Bratlie Wethern and her father), the production is smart, moving, and occasionally funny (the food delivery sequence set to “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” in particular is an inspired and much-needed moment of levity). Ms. Bowlsby has always been one of the most underrated choreographers in town, and it’s refreshing to see her doing more “legit” dance work while still showcasing her great use of physical theatre and physical comedy when necessary. This is a gorgeous production and I hope the creators continue to refine this piece and remount it soon as it needs to be seen!

An Honest Magic Show
presented by Honest Magic
@ New Century Theatre
Additional Performances: 8/8 @ 7pm, 8/9 @ 2:30pm

Magic shows are always tricky beasts in general but Nick Lande’s new show is an absolute delight. Not only does Mr. Lande show off his impressive skills, but the real sleight of hand trick this show pulls off is that it shows off the history of magic and magic tricks in the context of what drew him into the art form in the first place. Given his charming on-stage presence and witty banter, this is one of the most calm and assured productions of the festival, and a refreshing change of pace.

Hope You Guess My Name
presented by Ante-Deluvian Productions
@ Theatre in the Round
Additional Performances: 8/5 @ 8:30pm, 8/8 @ 8:30pm

Actor and writer Ari Hoptman returns back to the Fringe in a big way with the first of two shows. In this witty comedy, the Devil (Eric Webster) enters into deals with Paul (Mr. Hoptman) and Paula (Shanan Custer), but the deals turn sour for everyone (to say more spoils the plot). Mr. Hoptman’s script is packed with more jokes per second than should be legally allowed, and the production (directed by Ms. Custer in a smart use of the TRP space) shows off the script to great effect. And with this powerhouse ensemble (which also features spectacular work from Katie Adducci, Leslie Ball, Steve Lattery, Joshua English Scrimshaw, and Levi Weinhagen), this is hands down one of the smartest comedies of the year. Highly recommended.

Fringe2015-Manners

Manners and Misconduct: Improvised Jane Austen
presented by Burnt Nightingale Productions
@ Illusion Theater
Additional Performances: 8/6 @ 8:30pm, 8/7 @ 4pm, 8/9 @ 7pm

This year’s Fringe was filled with literary adaptations and pieces, but this show is a completely different beast. Using a massive all-female cast, the company creates an improvised story in the style of a Jane Austen novel. While the show was funny, and the references were on point, I felt that to truly enjoy the show you had to have a pretty strong knowledge of Austen’s works and the manners and mores of her characters. Don’t get me wrong; the show is indeed funny, but it feels like you have to be in on the joke to appreciate it.

Merry Spider Cafe
presented by Ferrari McSpeedy Theatrical Productions
@ New Century Theatre
Additional Performances: 8/8 @ 5:30pm

It’s been too long since we’ve seen Ferrari McSpeedy at the Fringe, and their long-awaited return to the festival was everything I could have hoped for and more. Focusing on confusion in the modern age, Joe Bozic and Mike Fotis gleefully whip through a host of characters and surreal situations (a manic chase over a finger, the coming of Cool Jesus, an all girls production of Endgame, and more). If it sounds chaotic, it is. The reason it works is because of Bozic and Fotis’ fully committed performances and split second comedic timing. Mystery Spider Cafe is a masterclass of sketch comedy performed by two of the best comedians at the festival.

Fringe2015-Mom

“Mom?”: A Comedy of Mourners
presented by Box Of Clowns
@ Illusion Theater
Additional Performances: 8/5 @ 5:30pm, 8/8 @ 8:30pm

The Portland, Oregon trio Box Of Clowns make their Fringe debut with this new comedy as three siblings are trying to survive their mother’s memorial service. As created by Jeff Desautels, Laura Loy, and Anna Sell, the show is a true clown show; complete with physical slapstick, object, work, red noses, and more. While there were parts in the middle that got a little muddy, the fearless performances by the company elevates the show into a surprisingly touching story of how a family deals with life when a loved one is gone.

The Morning Meal Society
presented by The Young Artists Council of Youth Performance Company
@ New Century Theatre
Additional Performances: 8/5 @ 5:30pm, 8/7 @ 7pm, 8/8 @ 1pm

There are few films as revered as John Hughes’ iconic film The Breakfast Club. As far as parodies go, this one by The Young Artists Council of Youth Performance Company is a little rough around the edges and sometimes misses the mark (the pulling meat bit was a little odd). But when it finds the mark, it lands and the audience eats it up with a spoon. And thanks to this young, energetic cast, this is a good peek into the future of the Twin Cities theatre scene. -TO’

Oregon Trail: The Musical
presented by Literally Entertainment
@ Mixed Blood Theatre
Additional Performances: 8/5 @ 8:30pm, 8/8 @ 5:30pm

Let’s start with the good news: there is a lot of good in Travis Carpenter and Kyle DeGoey’s musical based on the iconic Minnesota-created computer game. Following five strangers as they try to fulfil their (manifest) destiny, the show is loaded with whip smart jokes, decent songs, a hilarious production design (including an 8-bit prairie backdrop), and sharp performances from a winning ensemble. That being said, Mr. DeGoey’s score tends to sound repetitive over the course of the show without any sense of variation. Additionally, while Mr. DeGoey’s direction is clean and uses the space to great effect, there is a tendency to push the meta humor to the extreme, which leaches the audience out of the story. All that said, the show is solid and the cast sells it with aplomb, and I encourage Messrs. Carpenter and DeGoey to keep developing their truly funny show.

Parachute
presented by Roger that Hamburger
@ Lyndale Farmstead Recreation Center
Additional Performances: 8/7 @ 5:30pm, 8/8 @ 1pm, 8/9 @ 5:30pm

One of the loveliest surprises of the festival is this charming, family-friendly outdoor show. Using the best day of elementary school P.E. (the day when you get to play with the parachute – duh!) as a jumping off point to look at childhood daydreams, the thirteen-member ensemble use the parachute to create a host of startling images (a dragon, the open sea, a troll, and a whole lot more). And while the 30-minute show ends with playtime with the cast and the parachute after the show, I would have loved more audience interaction during the show proper (even though there is an epic water balloon fight that has to be seen to be believed). These quibbles to one side, this is an absolutely charming show for the young and the young at heart.

Fringe2015-ParentObservationDay

Parent Observation Day
presented by By Sparkle Productions
@ Ritz Theater – Proscenium
Additional Performances: 8/5 @ 8:30pm, 8/8 @ 7pm

While the show is credited as created by Alejandra Iannone and Rick Ausland, this rollicking look at a children’s ballet class has the unmistakable stamp of production advisor Jon Ferguson; there’s a sense of playfulness that permeates the production that feels in line with his previous works. All three of the creators have built a fabulously funny and accurate look at a children’s ballet class. Complete with brilliant physical work, breathtaking(ly bad) dancing, some stunning staging (an impromptu ballet set to the “Dance of the Hours” that I refuse to spoil), and beautifully fleshed-out performances from the nine-person cast, this is one observation that has to be seen to be believed.

Petunia and Chicken
presented by Animal Engine
@ Illusion Theatre
Additional Performances: 8/7 @ 8:30pm, 8/8 @ 1pm

As someone who once lived in Nebraska, I am still scarred by the fact that I was forced to read Willa Cather. The great thing about Carrie Brown and Karim Muasher’s charmingly romantic new play about a young boy raised on the farm and his immigrant neighbor / sweetheart which was heavily inspired by Cather’s novels (My Antonia in particular) is that it feels like a lost Cather novel. Using just a hat, a shawl, and two spoons, Brown and Muasher embody a host of characters and a lot of imaginative physical staging (created in collaboration with director Melinda Jean Ferraraccio) to create this world. A truly spellbinding experience!

The Picture of Dorian Gray
presented by New Epic Theater
@ Ritz Theater – Proscenium
Additional Performances: 8/7 @ 8:30pm

As I watched New Epic Theater’s production of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s iconic novella, I was slightly annoyed that the stage was littered with pretty people. But that in a way is the point! Reset in the present day, Aguirre-Sacasa’s play uses the plot of the novella as a scathing critique of the modern age’s obsession with what’s on the surface of people without going too deep. Director Joseph Stodola’s production is not only sleek and sexy (which is to be expected – this is the man who gave us last festival’s soaring production of One Arm), but has no problem going for the metaphysical (and literal) jugular when necessary. And thanks to the smart work of the six-person ensemble (including a revelatory turn by Trevor Goris in the title role), this is a gorgeous gut-punch of a show!

Spicy Masala Chai
presented by Bollywood Dance Scene
@ U of M Rarig Center – Proscenium Stage
Additional Performances: 8/6 @ 5:30pm, 8/7 @ 8:30pm, 8/8 @ 1pm

Last year, Bollywood Dance Scene stole everyone’s hearts with their monster hit Hi! Hello! Namaste?. Thankfully the company has come back to the Festival with their latest Bollywood-inspired play; about three young Indian men navigating the perilous road of romance in Uptown. While the script is a little weak, it serves as a brief interlude to the Indian dancing, which is absolutely spectacular! Not only is the nearly 60-member ensemble fantastic and performs their roles and the dances with aplomb, but it is plainly clear that every single person on that stage is having the time of their lives while performing. And the audience responded to all of the joy radiating off of the stage in kind with the loudest cheers of the entire festival. Spicy Masala Chai is a feel good hit in the best sense in that you genuinely feel good after seeing it. Note: All of their remaining shows are on the verge of selling out so get your tickets ASAP.

Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays
presented by The Ensemble Theatre Company
@ Illusion Theater
Additional Performances: 8/8 @ 8:30pm, 8/9 @ 7pm

One of the valid complaints about the Fringe is that it is very Minneapolis and St. Paul theatre centric. So it’s refreshing to see the Dakota County-based Ensemble Theatre Company to make their festival debut with a remount of the collection of short plays on the state of LGBTQ marriage from a few years ago and now seeing the play as a historical piece. While the production can be hit or miss, the heart is in the right place and is not a bad company debut as far as I’m concerned.

Teacher in the House
presented by Watson Arts
@ Illusion Theater
Additional Performances: 8/5 @ 10pm, 8/7 @ 7pm, 8/8 @ 2:30pm

Performer Susan Jeremy has an interesting day job back home in New York City; she works as a city-certified in-home school teacher working with homebound kids all over the city. Her experiences serve as the basis for her new show Teacher in the House. Using the structure of Law and Order as a framing device, Ms. Jeremy jumps between a dozen characters with lightning precision and full-blooded accuracy. As harrowing as some of her stories can be, there is a lot of humor to balance it out; a testament to Ms. Jeremy’s work with show co-creator and director Mary Fulham. At the end of the day, the show is a surprisingly uplifting story of one woman and the connections she has made with her unusual menagerie of students.

Fringe2015-TrialByJury

Trial By Jury
presented by Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company
@ U of M Rarig Center – Proscenium Stage
Additional Performances: 8/6 @ 8:30pm, 8/9 @ 1:00pm

When I heard that Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company was finally going to make their Fringe debut, I wondered how the company – known throughout the country for their very traditional take on the repertoire of the iconic British opera makers – would do in the festival setting. The answer is “Very fine, thank you very much!” In this rare production of their only one-act opera, the young Angelina (Grace Love) has sued her fiancé Edwin (Felix Aguilar-Tomlinson) over breach of the marriage contract and brought him to court. Hilarity and hijinks naturally ensue in the court of the Learned Judge (Steve Hendrickson). Director Lesley Hendrickson and music director Marina Liadova have guided their massive company and orchestra in a rousing production that is gorgeous and hilarious thanks to the witty turns by the principals (including sharp performances from Jim Aherns, Ryan Johnson, and Waldyn Benbenek) and the full-voiced chorus. This may be “classical” theatre, but it’s done with such joy and specificity that you can’t help but fall in love with it.

Underneath the Lintel
presented by Squirrel!
@ Ritz Theater Studio
Additional Performances: 8/6 @ 7pm, 8/7 @ 5:30pm, 8/9 @ 5:30pm

Glen Berger’s iconic one-man show about a librarian’s quest in tracking down a book returned after 113 years has always been a favorite of actors for being a great story and just a fun script to perform. Veteran television actor Pat O’Brien returns back to the Fringe with his acclaimed take on the material, and his performance is magical. Mr. O’Brien so embodies the role that from the second they enter the theatre, the audience is quickly drawn into the world of the play. And given his game, generous on-stage presence, Mr. O’Brien turns the ending of the play into a surprising quiet miracle that the audience is enraptured.

We Do Every Show In The Fringe
presented by Four Humors Theater
@ New Century Theatre
Remaining Performances: 8/6 @ 10pm, 8/8 @ 10pm

The premise is simple: the performers draw a number and using the official show description and promotional image, they act out one of the other 173 Fringe shows. If this sounds like last year’s production Four Humors Does Every Show In The Fringe, you’re right; it is! Thankfully, it still remains a fantastically playful romp. What helps is the influence of a guest performer who serves as director/creator and changes things for the cast. It also helps that the cast and their guests are among the funniest improv performers in the Twin Cities and make the show a hilarious and genuine experience.

*****

The 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival continues through Sunday, August 9 at various venues throughout Minneapolis. Admission to all shows is $14 plus the Fringe Festival button, which can be purchased at any of the performance venues and is required for entry. 

The Official Closing Night Party will be on Sunday, August 9 at The Varsity Theater, located at 1308 4th St SE in Minneapolis, starting at 10pm. Admission to the 18+ event is free. 

For updates on the festival, please follow their Facebook page and their Twitter feed.

For more information, including the entire festival schedule and purchasing tickets and festival passes, please go to FringeFestival.org.

Photo Credits: Minnesota Fringe Festival

Originally published on 5 August 2015 for l’étoile.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s