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.
Fringe is over for another year and while I shall miss it terribly, eleven days is a good length.
Saturday was only the second day of the Festival where I didn’t have a performance and Sunday all three of my shows closed, one right after the other. So on the final weekend, I didn’t see as many performances as I would have liked.
Much as I wasn’t thrilled about Fringe Central this year, I actually spent Saturday night there and instantly regretted having waited so long. I mean, I’m still not nuts about the Red Stag. But I got to talk to artists whose work I enjoyed and finally introduced myself to the new Executive Director.
It was all very lovely and while I didn’t much care for the Red Stag, I remembered why I really like Fringe Central.
So even though Fringe is over, here is my final batch of shows I saw/appeared in on Saturday and Sunday. Tomorrow, I’ll try to do a round up post.
Watching this show will either convince you that something needs to be done about the treatment of women in musical theater or – gosh – you are a horrible human being, I guess.
Looking through the lens of roles for women in a lot of classic musicals of the mid 20th century that are still, for some idiotic reason, being produced, they point out the puzzle of being an actress looking for roles in musicals. I mean, you can love the music of “Carousel” but have you really ever thought about the play?
And what about that last scene in “Grease?” The one where Sandy changes everything about herself to get her man?
Maybe you knew all of this already. But the show doesn’t just point out the horrible misogyny in musicals you thought you loved. It points out how that misogyny manifests itself in the choices of the musicals that are produced, the types of actresses producers are willing to cast and the way women are treated at auditions.
We theater people think of ourselves as woke and yeah – I guess we are more liberal than your average non theater person. But most of us are still white and most of us are still gatekeepers when it comes to giving roles to people of color, women who are outside a very narrow age and body type standard, and recognizing that “Carousel” may be a classic but holy fuck is it awful.
The show was filled with great performances, emotional stories, and fantastic singing (of a lot of disturbing lyrics). The message was on point.
I was listening. I hope a lot of other people (in the position to do something about the problem) were as well. Read More…
I see more theater during the Fringe Festival than during any other time of the year. Of course, it is a lot easier to see theater during Fringe.
It is all in one place (more or less). Everything is only fifty minutes long (more or less). I’m usually already there anyway.
I love live theater but you really can’t do better than the zero entry of the Minnesota Fringe. One show is ten bucks. Four shows (on a weeknight) is nineteen. Some of them might not be great shows but at five dollars a show, who cares?
For creators, the entry point is equally easy. Less than $50 to enter the lottery. Less than $500 to pay your producer’s fee. Someone else does a ton of marketing for you.
The only downside is that lottery system. Sometimes you get in. Sometimes you don’t. You are always taking a chance.
For me, the chance is always worth it. Fringe is about taking chances – whether it is the show you decide to produce or the show you decide to watch.
Here are the shows I watched/appeared in on Friday!
Long form improv is finding it’s way into Fringe more and more in no small part to the way HUGE Theater has been successfully cultivating the art form for a few years now.
Shrieking Harpies is one of my favorite kinds of long form improv because they add a musical element, which is hard as hell and I can’t help but admire. Rather than just telling a story (that they are making up because that is how improv works), they are singing a story. That they are also making up.
I bring this up not because it surprises me but because it impresses me.
It should impress anyone, to be honest. Lizzie Gardner, Taj Ruler, and Hannah Wydeven all have really good voices and clearly work together very well. They almost never stepped on each other, actually found harmonies when singing together (which – I repeat – they were making up), and put together a great story.
Since it’s improv, they might not put together a great story next time. But I’m fairly certain they will.
I’ve been interested in writing a horror show for a while just because I think it poses a lot of different challenges for me as a writer.
“Geminae” is the kind of show I’d like to write.
It combines hard Science Fiction with horror elements in a way that got some great reactions out of the audience members I was sitting with. What will scare you is not so much the conclusion of the story as the revelation of the bad decisions some of the characters are making.
The staging of the show was inventive – especially given one of the characters was supposed to be weightless. The actors really sold the fantastic elements and I thought Emily Lindholm and Victoria Pyan, who were the emotional center of the piece, carried the weight of the show with a lot of skill.
Horror is a hard genre to get right. I’m pleased to have seen so many shows this year that have been making it work.
Gabriel Mata is a great dancer. Not just good. Great. He is powerful, graceful, evocative, and understands how to bridge the gap between the dance and his audience. Last year’s “Out of the Shadows” was one of my favorite Fringe shows. Which says a lot because in general, dance shows don’t really connect with me.
Dreaming may not have spoken to me as someone who isn’t really interested in dance the way “Out of the Shadows” did but it shows that Gabriel still knows how to bring his audience into the world of dance. What you need to understand about the show is right there in the title.
Though a series of dances, he brings us through a world of dreams that can be terrifying, comforting, confusing, and joyful. Sometimes the dreams inspire dances. Sometimes the dances inspire dreams.
I think Gabriel understand his art form like few others do. But more than that, he knows others will appreciate that art form more if he lets his audience in.
I may not go to a lot of dance at the Fringe. But as long as Gabriel is there, I’m going to keep being open to the experience.
Also – that show image? Damn.
Our penultimate performance was a little odd from a writer’s perspective. The audience was responding but not always at the places we expected. They would laugh loudly at a joke that had previously just gotten chuckles and then wouldn’t respond to a joke that had gotten a huge response in every other performance.
You have to roll with such things in a comedy. You never know what, from one night to the next, will land with the audience.
I was very gratified that the Star Tribune rated our show one of the ten best shows at this year’s Fringe. An accolade like that is great and appreciated and it also triggers imposter syndrome.
See, I love the show. I love what the actors and directors did with it. I love that I managed to write something that went beyond the simple premise that was the initial idea. I’m proud of what we did.
But to me, it’s just this silly show where we substitute words for swear words and think about what “Family Friendly” really means. It isn’t TOP TEN material. I look at other shows that just blew me away this year and think “man – I wish I could write something that good once in my life.”
I can name ten shows I think are better than the show I’ve written. Not because I think I wrote a bad show but because to me, what I write isn’t spectacular or brilliant. It’s just what I write.
So it is really humbling and awesome that someone thought this show was that good. I’m sure there are others who would rate it as one of the worst shows they saw this year.
Both responses are equally valid, of course, as theater is subjective.
I’m proud of the show so I’ll just try to stick to bragging about the fact that at least one reviewer out there was as happy with what I produced as I was.
Fringe has two hubs instead of three this year. For various reasons, there is no Uptown hub. It makes things easier (especially when you have three shows on the West bank) but I miss the craziness of trying to make a mad dash across town.
I guess that’s silly. It really sucks to drive from NE Minneapolis to HUGE theater only to find that the show you wanted to see sold out ten minutes before you arrived. On the other hand, maybe you just go over to Jungle to see whatever is there and you are completely floored by something you didn’t even know you should be seeing.
A lot of things change with Fringe every year. And if you’ve been there for a while, you probably have opinions about what is better and what is worse. I know I do.
It’s why I have mad respect for the people who run Fringe. Because everyone involved from the artists to the audience has an opinion. And all of us are probably going to share it.
And that has to be exhausting.
So look – some things are better this year. And something things are (in my opinion) not as great. But Fringe is great no matter what. We can complain about the details but I guess it’s just because we all want it to be a little bit more perfect.
Here’s what I saw and performed in on Tuesday!
Interesting thing about this show – when the audience is big enough to really laugh at it, it runs about 47 minutes. When the audience is small and kind of chuckles, it runs about 42 minutes.
That’s how much time laughter adds to a show. And it’s why writing comedy can present such a challenge. You have no idea how long your show actually lasts.
I bring this up because Tuesday at 5:30 is a tough time slot and our audience was pretty light. I think it was a good show. But not too many people saw it.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.