by SOPHIE KERMAN
As I scanned the crowds while waiting in line for tickets at this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival, listening in on conversations and taking mental notes on which of the 168 productions I really should not miss, it occurred to me that aside from its obvious entertainment value, going to Fringe is a way to figure out just what kind of theater-goer you really are.
Are you a genre-addict, who sees every Shakespeare adaptation on the list? (There were many, including Nerdyad’s bestselling Hamluke and Tedious Brief’s much talked-about Shakespeare/”Aliens” mash-up called Tempests– but I admit, I saw none of them.)
Or are you an expert in your field, who makes sure to catch every dance piece on offer – but nothing else?
Or did you come to Fringe from out of town, desperately cramming as many shows as possible into one weekend before driving three hours back to Iowa?
Or are you a more casual viewer, who tags along for a fun evening with a friend without worrying about whether you’re hitting all the audience favorites or making optimum use of your Fringe button?
Or maybe you fancy yourself in the loop, tracking the hype and carefully reading audience reviews to craft the ideal Fringe lineup, while obsessively maximizing your viewing potential by grouping your schedule by location? (I started out as one of these, but discovered by Day Two that my threshold for compulsive planning was just not that high.)
No matter your opinion on theater or your capacity to watch four one-hour shows in one evening (or seven in a row on a weekend), the fun of Fringe is that there is a way for everyone to enjoy it. What follows is my personal take on some of the highlights of the 2011 Fringe for all the different viewers out there.
Kid-Friendly: Although several shows billed themselves as kid-friendly, the one that really takes the cake for both kids and adults is Fletcher and Zenobia Save the Circus, a raucus combination of clowning, physical comedy and abundant (and usually well-chosen) use of props. Live Action Setadapted the show from a book by Edward Gorey, and although some moments are a little more sugary than Gorey probably would’ve envisioned them, the ensemble captures his oddball charm.
Community-Oriented: Longing for Qeej (pronounced “Kang”) is a take on a Hmong folktale, performed by over fifty dancers, mostly kids and teens. The costumes are sparkly, the acrobatics are impressive, and it is pretty unbelievable that a group of kids under ten can manage to keep up with synchronized choreography. There’s not much of a plot, but it’s so pleasing to look at that I mostly forgot to care.
Dance Afficionado… or Skeptic: For those who love dance, Fringe had a wide array of offerings this year (especially at the Lab Theater, which provided a cool and cavernous respite from the summer humidity). For the skeptics out there, two productions sold me on the idea that dance can be both fun and provocative. First, Rainy Day Cabaret impressed me with Grim Walks Tonight, a tightly-wound exploration of obsession, anxiety, and anger – with a clumsily tender foray into monster love (all with music by artists like Nine Inch Nails and Danger Mouse). Then, Christopher Watson Dance Company and Jeffrey Peterson Dance put on How Do You See It?, a two-part exploration of relationships. While the choreography of the first half (Christopher Watson’s dancers) is what you would expect from good modern dance, each piece has its own twist: notably, two men dancing a piece originally intended for women and the inclusion of a visibly pregnant dancer. The soundtrack to the second half (Jeffrey Peterson’s dancers) is a combination of female standup comedians and well-known female vocalists (Aretha Franklin, Etta James), and the company manages to combine humor, politics and female empowerment in a way that is neither dogmatic nor cliché.
Solo Artist: To me, one-person shows inspire skepticism. They risk being self indulgent, poorly edited, and badly paced. At Fringe, there are so many one-person shows that I was initially tempted to shun them all – why pick a show at random that is so likely to be mediocre? – but some recommendations from friends may have changed my mind about the solo artist. Seth Lepore (an audience bestseller) inspires us to rethink new-age and self-help commercialism in Losing My Religion: Confessions of a New Age Refugee, while Kevin J. Thornton‘s I Love You (We’re F*#ked) draws on past relationships with a sense of humor that is laced through with deep melancholy. And while it doesn’t fall into the genre of personal narrative, David Gaines‘s 7 (x1) Samuraideserves a special mention: combining masks, pantomime, and clown, Gaines adapts the 3 ½ hour Kurosawa film (“Seven Samurai”) into a hilarious one-hour “cartoon version.” (Ever try to imagine how many ways you can pantomime a gory samurai death? Gaines has.)
Comedian: Joshua Scrimshaw (of Comedy Suitcase) and Joseph Scrimshaw (of Joking Envelope) have become Twin Cities comedy staples, and while Joseph’s Brain Fighters won out at the box office – perhaps for its more clearly kid-oriented, Pokemon-inspired plot – I was laughing harder at Joshua’s The Smothers Brothers Grimm, which featured Laurel & Hardy’s take on “Hansel and Gretel,” Bob Newhart responding to Mama Bear’s 911 call after Goldilocks’ break-in, and the silent film version of “Sleeping Beauty.” The difference for me is in the two plays’ use of narration: while “Brain Fighters” leans heavily on narration to advance the plot, “Grimm” doesn’t have much of a plot at all (and what plot it has is advanced through dialogue featuring child actor Andrew Moy, whose comedy stock is rising fast). For me – as I suspect for much of the adult audience – the laughs came faster without being diluted by narrative asides.
Musical Theater Geek: Although I didn’t see much substance or character beneath the glitter, A Little Bit of Vegas (presented by Offspring Productions) became an audience bestseller for its talented vocalists and production values that go above and beyond any other Fringe show I’ve seen. Personally, I was more charmed by the heart and soul (though not by the cast’s [in]ability to sing on-key) in The Silent Room: A Workers Musical, which ended with a rousing audience chorus of the IWW anthem, “Solidarity Forever.”
Fringe Connoisseur: Some shows defy categorization, while perfectly embodying the do-it-yourself ensemble storytelling spirit of Fringe. In that spirit, I end my review with what may have been my favorite show of Fringe, Red Resurrected. Neither drama nor dance, this piece (directed by Isabel Nelsonand performed by a seven-person ensemble cast) tells the story of Little Red Riding Hood with a perspective that incorporates both modern feminism and grounded Appalachian character. The company creates a near-constant soundscape, immersing the audience in each scene through the drip of a leaky faucet or the creaks and whistles of a forest at night. Each cast member, with a different voice and physicality, adds a unique personality to the production and brings the act of storytelling to a new level (or perhaps returns it to what it once was). And, in one of the rare times that awards really get it right, the show picked up Fringie awards for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Direction, and Outstanding Female and Male Performances!
I mention only a few stand-out shows here, because a review of Fringe could be endless. But to review the experience a whole is a different matter: the crowds who flocked to any number of productions at any number of different times and venues, all of whom seemed to be excited about what they had seen, are a testament to the event’s success. But if there’s one thing Fringe won’t do for you, no matter how long you comb through the website or scan the printed guide, it’s tell you which (or how many) shows to see. So for next year, I would take Fringe’s 168-show smorgasbord as a personal challenge to each member of the theater community. Here you go, Twin Cities: what kind of theater-goer are you?