2018 Fringe Festival Wrap-up
I saw 34 shows at the Fringe Festival this year and appeared in ten. I had a hand in writing three shows. I watched one show twice because it was that good. I most likely missed at least as many good shows as I ended up watching.
The Festival is a glorious orgy of creativity. To expect any one thing beyond many different interpretations of theater is foolish.
I love that it takes nothing more than $30 and an idea to have a chance to be in the Fringe. Hell, you don’t even need an idea. You just need to apply. When you get in, maybe the idea will come to you.
Or maybe it won’t.
I saw some truly great shows this year. They were great not just by Fringe standards but by theater standards. I produced work that I was immensely proud to have created.
The experience is energizing and life changing. Every year.
Here, then, are my top ten shows at the 2018 Minnesota Fringe. As I’ve no desire to rank them, I shall list them in alphabetical order. Narrowing the list down to ten was a painful task but I’ve opted to go with ten rather than five because five was agonizing.
I should also note that these shows were, for whatever reason, my favorite. I saw many good shows that didn’t make this particular list. Some of them might have been objectively better, but these are the ones that will stay with me the most.
Have I written about this production enough? Apparently not.
The only show at the Fringe I watched twice, “Blood Nocturne” was, to me, a masterful piece considering the difference between how history oft times redefines reality and how women with power are frequently vilified for no other reason than because they are women.
Starting with what we believe we know about the Countess Erzsebet Bathory, the play used music, folk tales, dance, and even (sometimes) humor to show how much much we don’t know.
Meticulously staged, sharply written, and brilliantly acted, this play was never boring and frequently compelling. It grabbed me from the moment the lights dimmed until at least ten minutes after I’d left the theater. There was not a single moment in the show that felt out of place.
This show will be one of the last things I forget when I have Alzheimer’s.
What I love about Gabriel Mata is his understanding of the ways dance doesn’t always succeed. At it’s worst, dance can be aloof and impersonal. The audience seems almost like an interloper – there to watch but not to interact.
Mata breaks down the walls between audience and dancer. He joins them together in an experience that neither could have without the other.
This is what binds together all good theater – an interaction between the audience and the performer. When that bridge is not built, the audience is left wondering why they are even there.
Mata has a deep respect for what the audience brings to the equation. He wants us to appreciate his work for the story it tells and he takes the time to help us understand the story though movement but also, sometimes, through words.
His stories may come from him but he wants to give them to his audience. More than most, he knows how to make that connection.
Fruit Flies Like a Banana
Years ago, I met a guy named Bill who was a magician and juggler. He would come up to you with a new trick every now and again and would present it to you with an excited grin that showed you he wasn’t showing off. He was just so damn happy with this new thing he figured out and he wanted everyone else to be just as happy.
When I watch Hillary, Neil, and Greg perform, I feel the same kind of joy. That the three of them are talented is without question.
That they share their talent with the same kind of joy I always perceived from Bill is why I can’t stop watching. They don’t expect you to be impressed that they can play a song while riding on hover boards (although you should be). They want you to have fun with the fact they are doing it. Because they clearly are having fun doing it.
When these three are on stage, they are inviting the audience into the envelope of joy they feel when they do what they do. They love it. You can feel it and you can see it.
I know some people will walk out of their performance unchanged. And their experience is their own so I shouldn’t judge it.
But something tells me people who can’t find the joy in a show like this are likely people I don’t need to spend a lot of time getting to know.
Gunfighting: An American Story
Sean McArdle knows a lot about guns. As a prop creator, he’s worked with fake guns for most of his adult life. As a result, he has a lot of thoughts about real guns.
He decided to bring those thoughts to audiences at the Minnesota Fringe.
And I have to say he easily won me over. He may not have had the most polished stage presence or the most inventive staging but what he did have was good information thoughtfully presented.
I leave a lot of Fringe shows pleasantly surprised by a concept I didn’t think would actually work. Here, I left the show inspired to understand more about a subject because it is one thing to think that guns and gun culture are a problem. It is another to understand guns and gun culture to the extent you can actually talk about change.
Sean doesn’t just have that understanding. He figured out how to share it with others in a way that is neither disrespectful or condescending. If real change is to happen in our country, it will happen because of people like him.
Hamlet, But Hamlet is a Chicken
Shakespeare and Fringe go together like pop culture mash ups and Fringe (guilty). Every year there is some kind of take on one of the Bards works. Or possibly a Shakespearean version of a modern classic.
I like Shakespeare myself and I enjoy the many ways the Bard has been tackled at Fringe. To impress me, though, you really need to come up with the newest of new takes on Hamlet.
And so we come to “Hamlet, But Hamlet is a Chicken.” As advertised, Hamlet was a Chicken.
Had that been the sole conceit of the show, it may have still generated a few laughs. Certainly To Be or Not To Be was greeted with rolling laughter as our chicken wandered about the stage, saying nothing. It was both absurd and delightful.
What happened in this show, though, was a seemingly random stream of bizarre rules for each scene. The rules were so strange and different, the audience couldn’t possibly guess what might be coming next. I know I never imagined Gertrude would be played by an egg shaker, for instance.
As long as there is a Fringe, Shakespeare will have his place. After “Hamlet, But Hamlet is a Chicken,” however, I think it will be a long time before anyone masters the combination again.
Next: The Musical (A Sidekick Story)
Is it presumptuous to include a show I helped create?
I left out the two shows in which I appeared on stage but I couldn’t leave Next off my top ten. Having co-written the show with Angela Fox and Jason Kruger, I stepped away when it came time for rehearsal. With Angela as music director and Jason as director, I figured 2 out of three writers were already in the room and there didn’t need to be a third.
So seeing the finished product on stage was a revelation. I had been happy with what ended up on the page but seeing the way everything came together transformed the work in ways I could not have anticipated.
The two young women in the lead (RoRo Germ and Honara Smith) were perfect. The show covered every emotion with equal care and conviction, shifting from laughter to pathos to kindness and love without effort.
And it ended up being one of four shows to receive a Best Show award from the Fringe audience. Which…what??
So yeah, it was my show. But it truly was better than what I could never ever imagined it would be so while I hope you forgive me for choosing a show I helped create, I can’t in good conscience leave it off the list.
Not Fair, My Lady
Along with “Gunfighting,” this was the only Fringe show that pushed me to do something.
By looking at the horrible roles for women in classic (and modern) musical theater along with the horrible way most actresses in musical theater are treated, the show forced you to evaluate your own behavior. I came away thinking about all the ways the theater community, which is theoretically so progressive, constantly fails when it comes to representation.
It is all fine and dandy to commit to never producing “Carousel” again (I’m good with that). But once you say “sure, I’m going to produce musicals (or plays) with better roles for women,” what are you going to do next?
Are you going to change the audition process? Are you going to stop forcing women into the “mother” role after age 30? Are you going to cast women of different body types as the ingenue? Or even different skin color? Why can’t Belle be played by a person of color?
It isn’t as if one thing is wrong.
“Not Fair, my Lady,” was entertaining, yes. But it was also a reminder to every theater professional in the audience that we can do so much better.
The Screaming Skull
Tim Uren’s show about the destructive nature of self consuming guilt was great writing to begin with and it was elevated by Eric Webster’s nuanced performance in the lead.
As his character became more and more drunk and less and less guarded, the performance changed and evolved. His insistence that he wasn’t scared became less convincing with each glass of liquor.
The subtle use of sound effects enhanced the experience and actually served to make the situation a lot more creepy. The relentless sound of waves crashing against the shore created a sense of inevitability. A sudden gust of wind or crash of thunder would remind us that nature is not always our friend. The gentle crackle of a fire enhanced the feeling of isolation. A piercing scream was both sad and terrifying.
Everything about this show was understated. It wasn’t the big moments that made everything work for me. It was a constant progression of small but significant moments.
Last year, Hit the Lights! took Fringe by storm with “Dungeon.” Their creative staging and use of sound and light was something that felt fresh and new.
WHALES delivers a lot of the same kinds of staging but builds beyond shadow puppetry and lighting effects (not to suggest for a moment those things are insufficient). It starts with Moby Dick but evolves to tell a larger story about whaling and the way it exploited both the sailors who did the work and the animals they killed.
It was every bit as good as “Dungeon” and I actually enjoyed it more because there were lots of sea shanties (I love sea shanties) and I have always been fascinated with whales.
It was, to paraphrase my friend Matt Kessen, aimed directly at the lucrative Tim Wick market.
Hit the Lights! is a refreshing company doing refreshing things. While you may think you know what to expect from them, I have a feeling that will never be the case.
What To Do In Case of Dinosaur Attack
Oh hey – speaking of Matt Kessen!
Matt Kessen has been doing his Monster Science presentations for a while now and they always combine his dry sense of humor with actual interesting information about the monsters he describes.
It might be easy to shrug off a Fringe show as simply five helpings of something he’s done before. To do so would ignore the inspired nature of the topic and his deep and delightfully nerdy breadth of knowledge when it comes to dinosaurs.
Yes, he has done this kind of thing before. Rarely, however, has he achieved the sort artistic purity he achieved here. His delivery and execution were perfect for the topic matter.
Because, you see, telling people you are going to lecture them on what to do in case of dinosaur attack will unquestionably get them to come and watch. It is what you do once those people are in the theater that defines success or failure.
That Matt told us exactly what we needed to do should dinosaurs attack was to be expected. That there may be no-one on Earth who could have done a better job doing so while simultaneously keeping their audience in a near state of exhaustion from constant laughter is the true accomplishment.
Because there was no way I could do a top ten without leaving off a show I really loved/enjoyed, the following shows just missed the cut:
A Justice League of Their Own
The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society Versus the Nazis
Slapdash Panic: Comedy Suitcase Ended up in the Fringe with 3 Weeks Notice and No Show!
Walking While Black in Moscow
Book of Shadows
Emily Dussault was not the only reason “Blood Nocturne” was so good, but she was probably the most important one. Her singing voice is rich, clear, and perfectly controlled. I could listen to her sing Celine Dion’s greatest hits and while the music is the closest thing to a personal hell I can imagine, Emily’s voice would make it tolerable. She made the Countess Erzsebet Bathory complicated and powerful.
Honorable mentions to Boo Segersin, who never fails to make me say “damn” when I see her on stage and to Roro Germ and Honara Smith because they helped “Next” reach a new level.
Eric Webster owned the stage in The Screaming Skull. He did almost all of the work by himself and when he got to the curtain speech, you could the emotional toll the performance took on him. I know a lot of really good actors who might have had difficulty with that role. Eric nailed it.
Honorable mentions to Duck Washington in Pulp Fiction because he had nearly every important moment in the show resting on his shoulders and he nailed every single one of them and also to Gabriel Mata because nobody ever talks about dancers as actors but acting is exactly what he did.