2018 Fringe Reviews – Day 5

The long weekend days have ended (until next week). Weeknights at Fringe are considerably more civilized since the start at 5:30 rather than 1:00. With performances every night, the most I can see in a single evening is three shows.

I can’t even fathom seeing a show in every slot. The few times I’ve come close, I’ve fallen asleep in at least one show. I feel terrible about doing so, of course, since the show in question is usually not to blame.

One thing that has helped this year is the lack of Fringe Central time. It makes me a little sad since I enjoy hanging out with friends in the evening. But Red Stag Supper Club just hasn’t excited me as a venue and it has made going home after a day of Fringe a more desirable alternative. I hope to make it to Fringe Central a couple of times before Fringe is done. I miss the experience.

But not going makes it easier to stay awake.

Walking While Black in Moscow

I can’t believe I’ve been involved in the Fringe for this long without seeing one of Les Kurkendaal’s shows!

Mischief managed, I guess.

I think what makes Les’ story of spending time in Russia compelling to me is the fact I kept thinking about it later. On the one hand, there is the almost amusing fact that he was considered almost a novelty by most people in Moscow because he was black.

On the other, there were the conversations he had with other gay men about how being gay in Russia was completely fine. As long as you didn’t tell anyone you were gay.

Yes, there is an undercurrent of danger but this isn’t a sad story. Les is a stranger in a strange (to him) land and he takes risks because it beats sitting in his hotel room being bored. He’s exploring a new country and he’s also exploring a new relationship.

I’ve made some questionable decisions while traveling. I’ve never regretted them because they always had a way of working out. So too, did it seem things worked out for Les. He took chances and came away with some great stories.

Fortunately, he’s good at telling them to others.

Jeanette Rankin: Champion of Persistence

I ended up at this show by accident. Turns out the show I thought I was going to was at the Rarig Xperimental. I had time to get to the other theater but I figured what the hell?

Jeanette Rankin is a fascinating woman. She was as suffragette, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, a fierce peace advocate who voted against US involvement in both WWI and WWII, and an activist up to the day she died.

This show, unfortunately, was a rather plodding and dull biography. For some reason, J Emily Peabody, who played Rankin and wrote the script, spent much of the show changing clothes to indicate the passage of time. Every time she moved to a new time period, she would change a hat or a skirt or a blouse. Sometimes all three.

The costume changes didn’t add anything to the presentation and at times turned into a needless distraction.

Because there is so much to the story of Jeanette Rankin, most of it was left out of the show. It wasn’t until later in the show it became clear that both times she served in the House of Representatives, it had been for a single term.

It felt as if there was so much information to pack into the show that they forgot to make the information interesting. And that was a real shame because the subject of the show was most definitely interesting.

The Complete Works of William Shatner (Abridged)

Our second performance played to a smallish house (Monday night isn’t the greatest time slot) but it was a good audience. They were engaged and seemed to get even the deepest of cuts. It didn’t hurt my co-writer was in the audience and most of the deepest cuts had come from him.

We also got a very nice write up in the Star Tribune. So hooray!

Slapdash Panic: Comedy Suitcase Ended up in the Fringe Festival with Three Weeks Notice and No Show!

As the title may suggest, Levi Weinhagen and Joshua English Scrimshaw came off the waiting list for the Fringe Festival with only three weeks left to go. This is, we, are assured, completely true.

The conceit of the show is that they don’t have a show. An entire show about having no show could end up being something other than uproariously funny.

I mean, it could if it weren’t in Levi and Joshua’s hands. Because they know what they are doing and while the show may look like chaos, it is meticulously controlled chaos.

Audience members are regularly enlisted in this show because if you “don’t know what you are doing,” what better way to fill time than to get help?

They gently skewer the Fringe Festival, some other Fringe performers, and each other but the whole thing has the feeling of a farce in which someone forgot to give the characters their scripts.

You will see better shows at the Fringe. But I’m not sure there will be any that are more fun.

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2018 Fringe Reviews – Day 4

I was part of two submissions to the Family Fringe this year. Neither of them were accepted (although “Next” did get picked in the regular lottery so it happened anyway and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” will be part of the Horror Festival). I like the idea of the Family Fringe and I hope it succeeds.

That said, I have only been to one show at the Family Fringe and that is probably all I’ll attend.

The big problem is the schedule. Because it’s 30 minutes removed from the rest of the Fringe, going to a Family Fringe show means you effectively have to spend TWO slots to see one show. You can’t possibly see every show anyway so why would you want see a show that costs an extra time slot?

The assumption, I think, is that the folks bringing their families to Family Fringe are not going to spend a lot of time at the main Fringe. I don’t think that was a good assumption.

The concept is new and I have no doubt it will see considerable changes in coming years (assuming it continues). But that one decision was, I think, a major miss.

Deep in the 100 Acre Woods: a “Pooh” – Dunnit?

Full disclosure: This show was produced by Fearless Comedy and I’m the Artistic Director. I approved the show and have been hands off ever since.

I approved the show because a Noir murder mystery based on the characters from Winnie the Pooh sounds like the perfect Fringe show, doesn’t it?

So as much as I can be fair about a show I approved for production that was written, directed, and starred several friends of mine, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Rather than offer a critique of the show that can’t really be fair (even though it was seriously very good), I’m going to critique the Minnsky theater a little.

The biggest issue with this show was the theater. The acoustics are lousy and the play (because it is based on film noir) was wordy. That’s not a great combination. I lost some of the actors lines and it wasn’t because they were too quiet. It is because the theater swallowed them up.

All that means, I guess, is I will do my best to avoid producing any wordy shows there.

Fruit Flies Like a Banana

In their fourth year at the Minnesota Fringe, The Fourth Wall was part of the Family Fringe (there was a reason for the lead-in).

They are great. And I can’t miss their show because it would be unfair. To me.

This year, they took pieces from the last three productions they have done at the Minnesota Fringe. I got to see some pieces I loved from previous years and, because I didn’t see them their first time in town, I also got to see some pieces I’d never seen before.

By far the best part of the experience was seeing them with people who had never seen their show before. That lovely “oh my god – did they just do what I think I just saw them do” moment is delightful and given they are performing 18 pieces in 45 minutes, those moments happen more than once.

I may see better shows at the Fringe in a particular year but the sheer amount of talent and joy for performing these three possess brings me back over and over.  Doesn’t matter where they are performing, they are a must see.

A Family Friendly Pulp Fiction (Not Appropriate for Families)

I wrote it. And I have a cameo. So I was there.

The second performance was a lot tighter. We cut a few moments that didn’t seem to work and the actors were more confident with where the laughter might fall.

The show was a dumb idea. It sounds like it is a one joke show. Somehow, it isn’t. That pleases me.

Kaboom

A couple years ago, Sheep Theater did an adaptation of Most Dangerous Game that was one of my favorite finds. I didn’t see their show last year for reasons that are not clear to me.

I might have missed this year had it not been the best looking show in it’s time slot.

As a silly take on Nuclear Annihilation I don’t wish to describe too extensively for fear I will spoil the experience, “Kaboom” was a lot of fun. It was frantic in the best ways, ridiculous without spending too much time winking at the audience and, most importantly, none of the actors looked like they knew they were in a comedy.

The cast was uniformly good but Robb Goetzke was a standout as Mr. President. He had the juiciest role, to be sure. But it was also the easiest to mess up and he never did.

The show has some scenes, mostly having to do with the Vide President, that were a little slow, but that complaint is minor. Overall, I was happy to rediscover Sheep Theater and I won’t miss their next Fringe show.

The Flashlight Zone: 20 Science Fiction Plays in One Hour

I wasn’t much in the mood for this show. I imagined that it would be lighter fare – especially given the enthusiasm with which the actors encouraged audience members to pick the order the plays would be performed.

Most of the plays were about dark and even somewhat morose so there was an odd shift in tone between audience members shouting out plays and the plays themselves. I was OK with it at first but I kept hoping for some break. I wanted one of these stories to have a positive outlook.

A few did. But not very many.

My réponse, however, says more about me than it does about the show itself. The actors understood the emotional resonance of the scenes and did a great job shifting characters (a necessity given that most of them had to play at least a dozen).

I also really appreciated that the relationships in the plays didn’t take gender into account. There were some man/man relationships, some woman/woman relationships, and some man/woman relationships. It didn’t feel like the choices were made for any other reason than to put the right actors in the right roles.

I did leave wishing the show had been a little lighter. I don’t want to blame that on the show, though. They have no obligation to deliver what I want.

The Screaming Skull

Damn.

Tim Uren has been producing one person horror shows for some time. They have all been good because he understands how to build dread slowly. There isn’t really a gotcha moment in these stories. There is just a creeping feeling that it is all going to go very badly and you, the observer, are going to be powerless to stop it.

This year, Tim helped operate some creepy offstage sound effects and handed the on stage responsibilities to Eric Webster, which was a great choice. Webster takes his character from calm, comfortable and a bit guarded to drunk, terrified, but resigned to….something.

The sound effects really worked to heighten the experience even though they were quiet and subtle. Waves lapping against the shore. The crackle of a fire. An occasional gust of wind. You felt like you were in a cabin by the sea and that you might be stuck there with something very sinister.

I know that a one person show like this might not be everyone’s first choice but this one person show ought to be at the top of anyone’s list.

 

2018 Fringe Reviews – Day 3

Being a writer can be strange. For Family Friendly Pulp Fiction, I have one tiny cameo so I spend the entirety of every show pacing backstage and hoping the audience laughs at the jokes. Every time they laugh, I feel a sense of relief. Every time they don’t, I’m wondering how I could have written it better.

I think writing comedy is harder than writing drama. Because you don’t know if anyone is going to laugh at what you’ve written until it lands on stage.

Drama is great, mind you. Not trying to cast any shade on the many fine writers of drama. Nor am I suggesting it is easy to write drama. Because, hell, I can’t do it very well.

So maybe what I should say is being a playwright who focuses on comedy is harder until the play gets on stage and people laugh at it. Because then, at least, you know you succeeded.

Anyway, this is what I think about when I’m pacing backstage during one of my shows.

On to what I saw on day 3 of the Minnesota Fringe!

A Justice League of Their Own

Oh Josh Carson you magnificent bastard.

First off, a mash up of super heroes and A League of Their Own is such a great idea I’m shocked no-one has thought of it before. Hell, I’m shocked Josh never thought of it before. He probably did. He just had other, better ideas he wanted to do first.

Josh writes great comedy. He gets great people to perform his comedy. If he has a weakness, it is that he writes too much great comedy. In super hero terms, that’s not even a major weakness. Poor Superman! He’s too strong! Poor Spider-Man! He’s too good at swinging on webs!

So the biggest challenge faced by this show is the fact the actors are forced to rush through the dialogue simply to get it all in. It is still funny and well acted and everyone should see it. But I keep wondering if the Fringe needs to come up with a special 75 minute slot just for Josh Carson so his actors (and he) can actually enjoy a laugh for a couple of seconds.

That isn’t realistic, of course. And if they did that, Josh would just write more jokes.

I need to quickly point out that Allison Witham’s performance is particularly great. She has nicely understated delivery and facial expressions and I found I was always looking at her when she was on stage.

Gunplay!

Hey – speaking of magnificent bastards and comedy writing, how about Tom Reed?

I was surprised by this play because it was a play. I’m used to Reed’s one person shows where he sings and talks his way through a subject. This time, he did some singing and talking but he did it with other actors! I wasn’t expecting that.

His show takes a shot (heh) at the NRA without being wildly anti gun. Which is smart because the minute he became even mildly anti-gun, he’s probably attract protesters.

Just kidding. The Fringe is only ten days long. It might take longer than that to get mobilized.

Just kidding. They can mobilize in five seconds. Only group faster than the is the Westboro Baptist Church.

ANYWAY – the show is really good. And no, it isn’t pro gun. But it does suggest that there might be an acceptable middle ground between ALL THE GUNS and maybe sometimes not all the guns. And it also suggests that teaching our kids to be prepared for the next school shooting might not be as important as preventing the next school shooting.

You might not notice he’s saying those things because you’ll be laughing too hard. Unless you are in the NRA. Then you’ll probably be organizing a protest.

Book of Shadows

So with a dance piece by Erin Sheppard, it would appear my Saturday morning was just packed with Fringe celebrities.

Sheppard’s dance pieces, especially her horror inspired ones, are always inventive and fun to watch. “Fun” might not be the best word given the macabre themes but I like watching them so I’ll stick with “fun.”

Most of her shows include a storytelling element to tie the show together and (I expect) to give the dancers time to take a quick break and change costumes before the next piece.

The stories by Taj Ruler didn’t entirely sell me in this production. They were short and frequently talked of her thirteen year old self dabbling in witchcraft.  There needed to be some sort of bridge.

By this I mean – the story would bridge to the dance thematically, but in the story, the witchcraft didn’t work (because witchcraft doesn’t work), it was a childish fantasy. Then the dances would be about witchcraft that worked but it wasn’t a childish fantasy. It was a dangerous and dark reality.

For some reason, that was a little bit of a disconnect for me.

No matter that disconnect,  I’ll watch Erin and company dance whenever I’m able. Her exploration of horror themes through dance is always worth my time.

The Complete Works of William Shatner (Abridged)

The third of the shows I’ve written to open, I admit I lacked some level of enthusiasm for this show.

It was originally mounted at the Fringe six years ago and it did very well. I wasn’t ashamed of it. But it had happened, you know? As much as it is nice to have your work performed, I spend a lot of my time thinking about what the next thing is. This was so six years ago.

As we got into rehearsal, though, I remembered how proud I had been of this work.

My genre is to come up with some completely stupid idea (A Family Friendly Pulp Fiction) and then find a way to make it work. That’s what I do. When Bill Stiteler said he’d co-write this show with me, I was happy to have the help.

Because can you really make fun of William Shatner for an entire show?

The answer, really, is no. But we figured out how to make the show about more than Shatner jokes. The end result turned out great. And the actors we have this time around are really killing it.

So yeah, I wasn’t enthusiastic about it at first. But I am now.

Far Away by Caryl Churchill

The theme of this post apocalyptic play didn’t entirely appeal to me but I can’t complain about the staging. Visually, I really enjoyed it. The scene changes made great use of the Rarig Arena (a space I must admit I hate) and the performances were all really impressive – especially Hannah Steblay, who had a very long and challenging monologue to end the play.

I enjoyed the way the simple set pieces were rearranged to suggest different times and places or even different parts of the same place. The use of several ensemble actors created a sense of danger as the main characters could never really be sure who was on their side and who wasn’t (which is very much the kind of world created by the text).

There were times I was confused if certain characters were supposed to be the same characters we’d seen earlier in the show. It’s possible that the text mentioned names and I completely missed it. In looking up character names later, I got my answers.

This was a polished and well done production of a show I didn’t particularly like. That I wasn’t nuts about the source material is really my problem. The source material was well written and had a lot to say. I guess I wasn’t in the mood to listen to that particular story.

Bits & Bobs: An Evening of Short Plays

I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a show with five short plays could be a little uneven. Unless every one of the five plays is a masterpiece, you are almost guaranteed that response.

Bits & Bobs was, indeed, uneven. I feel like there were more misses than hits, though.

The acting was all very good and my main criticism would be the writing of the plays presented. Of the five, there was only one I really enjoyed. The rest felt either overly long, overly obvious, or overly obtuse. The final play, in particular about butter heads at a county fair was mostly a single joke (albeit a good one) that stretched beyond the point it was still funny.

I understand why it was last because, seriously, butter heads. Unfortunately, it ended up being a weak finish. There was another play about two people in a memory care unit that could have been sweet but the playwright was focused on a surprise reveal that wasn’t a surprise.

The show wasn’t painfully bad. It wasn’t bad at all. The writing just never drew me in. When I watch something and find myself thinking about it as a writer, I know that the writer left something on the table. I shouldn’t be thinking about how the show was written. I should just be enjoying the show.

 

2018 Fringe Reviews – Day 2

Generally, the opening few days of the Fringe involve a lot of shows by people I know. That way I can front load with stuff I know I want to see either to support my friends or because I have a lot of confidence in the company who produced the work. Then I can listen to audience members and read reviews to find the shows I didn’t know about but should have.

There isn’t a right or wrong way to do the Fringe. At times, I’m just at a theater and decide to see what’s next. Sometimes, that decision is a great one. Sometimes, it is….I’m going to say less successful.

For day 2, I’m still watching the shows I already knew I wanted to see. But we’ll rapidly start transitioning to the experiments. And the experiments can be a lot more fun. Because you just don’t know what is going to happen.

Remy Raygun of the Space Brigade: A Build-Your-Own Space Adventure

I love everything about the concept of this show. A build your own space opera with live music that is also a choose your own adventure? I’m in.

Where this show had a little trouble was execution. I’m not talking about actors having trouble remembering lines because that happens in a lot of shows on opening night. The issue was the show really promised to be something with a lot more action and what took place on stage was really static.

I lost count of the number of times the actors formed a straight line across the stage and basically didn’t move from that configuration. The audience voted for “action” twice and the end result was something that wasn’t active. In a choose your own adventure, that is doubly frustrating because it feels like a tease. As an audience member, I was given a choice but the result of that choice isn’t what I thought I was going to get (note I voted for the non action option both times).

The actors were enthusiastic and grasped the silliness of the concept. I love the fact the cast was diverse and all women. I still love everything about the concept. I got lost, though, because the show needed urgency. It needed to feel kinetic. But (for me at least) it just didn’t.

I note that there were, apparently, some audio issues that may have caused some challenges.

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2018 Fringe Reviews – Day 1

The 2018 Minnesota Fringe Festival has begun!  This year I find myself involved as a writer in three different shows and an actor in two. I watch as many shows during the Festival as I can, schedule permitting, because I just love the crazy theatrical orgy that takes over the Twin Cities theater scene for these ten days.

A few notes on my reviews:

I don’t use a star rating system. If you got a show on the stage, you are great. Maybe I didn’t like your show and for that, I’m sorry because I honestly want to love everyone’s show. Going to bad theater doesn’t make anyone happy.

If I don’t like a show, I’ll try to be constructive as to why. As a writer, my bias is always going to lean towards what is wrong with the writing. There could be other issues but the writer is likely to experience the bulk of my wrath because that’s what I know about.

So I’ll be as brutally honest as I can. But I can never be that brutal because seriously – they made a show! I just love that Fringe lets anybody make a show.

A Family Friendly Pulp Fiction (Not Appropriate for Families)

This would be one of the three shows I wrote. The concept came from the inclusion of a Family Fringe as part of the festival this year. I loved the idea but got to thinking (as I do) “what is the worst conceivable idea for a Family Friendly show?”

I don’t know if a Family Friendly Pulp Fiction is the worst conceivable idea for a Family Friendly show. Debbie Does Dallas might be a little worse.

But starting from that weird idea, I decided to turn Pulp Fiction into a “family friendly” experience.

I knew that just substituting swear words, however, wasn’t going to be more than a five minute gimmick. Fortunately, I was able to add more meat to the bones of that dumb idea and the result is something I’m really proud of.

More than that, I’m proud that the reviews so far from the Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune, and Shit Analysis have all picked up on the deeper themes I was exploring. That’s pretty cool.

I’m sure I’ll write more about this show because I’ll be there four more times.

Next show is Sunday at 5:30 PM at Theater in the Round Read More…

Shit that Pissed me Off 7/27/18

Parade Announcer Gets Called on Sexist Bullshit by a 12-year-old

This is a great story so before I start with a trademark rant, let me just say how fantastic it is that a 12-year-old girl recognized the sexism at work and said something.

In Russell Township, Ohio, there was a parade. Parades happen in a lot of small towns so this is nothing to be surprised about. Taking part in the parade were the local girl and boy scout troops. Also not much of a surprise. It gets the kids out of the house and engaging in physical activity. I’m all for it.

As they walked by, the parade announcer said the boy scouts were the “future leaders of America.” OK, I guess. Seems kind of presumptuous but OK.

Then the girls walked by and the announcer said they were just there to have fun.

In reference to the Cyndi Lauper song which, though catchy and awesome, sends something of a poor message when it comes to the ambitions of young women.

Also, I’m guessing the Girl Scouts of Russell Township weren’t dressed like this (not that it would be a problem if they were).

Julianne Spyer was walking with the Girl Scouts that day and was none to pleased to learn that the boys were future leaders of America and the girls just wanted to have some fun. She wrote a letter to the editor and it went viral.

Everyone is super proud of Julianne for calling out the sexism displayed but I have to wonder – what now? Do you think that we are suddenly going to start doing better because of a 12-year-old in Ohio? Or are we so busy patting the kid on the head that we are going to stop there?

I also wonder, if this letter had been written by someone who was not a twelve year old, would it have gotten any attention at all? Would anyone else have noticed the subtle sexism that the announcer probably didn’t even think about?

I don’t wish to belittle what Julianne did one bit. She noticed something wrong and she spoke up. Her actions end up being irrelevant unless the next local parade announcer doesn’t make the same mistake. Or gets called out when they do.

Let’s celebrate Julianne because she is an awesome little girl and one of the future leaders of America. Even better, let’s celebrate her by actually listening to her message.

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Shit that Pissed me Off – 7/20/18

Trump Corner: The Russia Problem

I don’t usually lead with Donald Trump because he’d pretty much always a problem. Him and the people who blindly accept everything he does as anything other than the actions of a narcissistic racist whose every action is meant to make things better for himself and his family members.  And who is also a sexual predator.

This week, Trump had a private meeting with Vladimir Putin and proceeded to throw his own intelligence agencies under the bus in the press conference that followed. What he did was so blatant, even Fox news had to acknowledge it at first. They couldn’t side with Trump until a day later when he basically said that he didn’t mean what he said and also fake news.

Because the news is super fake when it is quoting what Trump said into a microphone.

Now all of this was bad. But I feel as if we lost something while we were all being pissed off at our President for being a clueless asshole.

He had a private meeting with Vladimir Putin and we still don’t know what they talked about.

Did Putin ride to the meeting on a horse while shirtless? WE DON’T EVEN KNOW THAT!!!!

Putin has even announced he is beginning to work on military agreements reached at that meeting. But we don’t know what those agreements are. It isn’t even clear that our military is aware of what those agreements are.

Understand, our President called the European Union our “foe” last week. He then had a closed door meeting with Putin in which even his staff was not allowed. And he got together with Kim Jong Un earlier this year.

When a President of the United States has nicer things to say about two dictators than he does about democratically elected leaders of state, it should scare the ever loving shit out of you.

This isn’t politics. Stop loving this guy because he’s a Republican. He isn’t. He’s a guy who will do anything and everything to better himself.

I don’t know what he talked about with Putin. And neither do you. Don’t get caught up being pissed at him for insulting the US intelligence community to forget that he was buddying up to an oppressive dictator.

….and so was Putin.

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