by Juleana Enright
I’ll admit – though it may seem antithetical to my argument – I am a slave to drama. My Netflix account is filled with suggestions from nonsensical category amalgams, like “Critically Acclaimed Dark Drug Dramas featuring a Strong Female Lead” to “Cerebral Movies about Dysfunctional Families with Gay Protagonists.” It doesn’t always make me the most popular during movie nights. But lately, just lately, I’ve been into…comedies.
It’s not some inane quality I’m searching for, something to take my mind off the day and make me laugh out of necessity, because recently the things that capture my attention yet still fall under the comedy umbrella have this way of sideswiping me, commanding an emotional response that I wasn’t at all prepared for – is that a tug at my heartstrings? I’m laughing; I’m crying; I’m thrown into an existential crisis. Call it quirk funny, call it smart funny, just don’t call it a comeback. The fact of the matter is, these nu-bred comedies – whether scripted or not – are subtle nods to their comedic roots – improv, slapstick, and unpredictable humor made famous by comedians like Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Lucille Ball and Jerry Lewis and reinvented throughout the years by everyone from Chevy Chase and Shelley Long to Judd Apatow and Tina Fey. Of course we love it; it’s familiar. And yet, it feels “au courant,” novel even.
Fast forward to the present, Fringe Festival week in particular. In a sea of independent shows, some self-servingly dramatic, or overly touching, some that seem created specifically for an esoteric audience of one – “sci-fi mystery horror with GLBT & political content, underwater puppetry with loud noises and gunshots” – it’s like those Netflix sub-genres, but the theater version. So – and this is the question that I ask myself every Fringe season – what is it about some shows that merit a line out the door while others fall flat. When it comes to local comedy, what does it take to hustle up a proper guffaw these days? Why do we crave comedy?
In an age where practically anyone can create an online user account and become a virtual critic, launching an original Fringe show is the ultimate in actor/writer/producer vulnerability. Just ask Maggie Sotos (writer/director) and Sean Hansberry (cast member) of Troy! The Musical, a hilarious retelling of the Trojan War that incorporates a Greek history lesson with a raunchy jokes, satirist showtunes and, yes, even an old school can-can kick-line. The show has been an audience fave, selling out two performances and snagging rave reviews including one from the Pioneer Press calling it a “must-see.”
I caught up with these Fringers hailing from both sides of the spectrum – Hansberry, a Fringe alum and Sotos, a Fringe virgin – to chat about what it takes to win over an audience and evolve in the local comedy scene.
l’étoile: What attracted you to this particular parody?
Sotos: Ancient Greece is a fascinating area to study, but I always found books like The Odyssey and The Iliad to be terribly dry reads. I wanted to bring out the excitement and the drama of the Trojan War in a way that would capture people’s attention and make them feel emotionally connected to Homer and Virgil’s characters.
l’étoile: Since the Iliad is such an expansive and canonical work, how did you manage to miniaturize its scope to fit into a Fringe show? Which parts did you subvert and which did you want to keep somewhat historically accurate?
Sotos: Although we have modernized the show a bit – Menelaus probably did not have solo cups at his actual wedding anniversary – I wanted to keep the plot as historically accurate as possible. I started with the big moments that the audience would remember – Helen running away to Troy with Paris, the Trojan Horse, Achilles’ being shot through the heel, etc. After we had those moments in place, we worked on developing the relationships between characters. It was fun to develop characters like Clytemnestra and Hecuba, who don’t get very much stage time in the ancient texts but who play important roles none the less.
l’étoile: Tell us a little about the cast and what it’s been like working with musical director Joseph Ye.
Sotos: I’ve improvised with Joe in the past and knew he was talented and hard-working. He’s an old Fringe vet and has been incredibly energetic and supportive for the whole process. I texted him back in May and asked if he would be interested in writing the score to a musical about the Trojan War. He texted back, “That sounds like a wonderful pain in the a$$. I’m in.” I would come to him with a few notes in my head of what I thought a song should sound like, and he would flesh it out into an entire two-minute love ballad. That type of talent is incredible to me. As far as the cast goes, we are a rag-tag mash up of my theater friends from college and fellow improvisers from the Twin Cities. Sometimes casting your pals can be a huge mistake, but this group’s work ethic, cooperation and positive attitude have set the gold standard in my book.
l’étoile: Why a comedy? How do you think this specific genre (musical comedy) affects the emotional response of the audience?
Sotos: In truth, I sort of have a secret hatred of musicals – probably because I was never good enough to get cast in them in high school – therefore I wrote this show as a sort of backhanded slam against the genre. If you listen closely to the song “Let’s Build a Horse,” it actually details the Greeks’ plan to sack the city of Troy and commit mass murder: “No need to force the doors, we’ll burn them up like s’mores! Let’s build a horse!” And the audience loves it. We are more forgiving of theatrical characters if they sing and dance for us at some point.
l’étoile: Puppetry, jazz hands, condom jokes, lots of innuendo…without giving too much away, what else can viewers expect from Troy! The Musical?
Sotos: Spanx. Lots of Spanx. The togas we wear are perfect for the show but they are also a little skimpy. The first two rows definitely are in for a treat.
l’étoile: Sean, you’re no stranger to Fringe shows or local theater. Tell us about your background and Fringe involvement.
Hansberry: Well, two years ago I was a stage manager because I had just been laid off and a friend from improv was producing a show that he needed help with. So I gladly spent my time managing and acting as assistant director. Last year I produced and (kind of) directed an improv show for the Fringe called Delores Grimm: Fairy Tale Marriage Counselor. I played The Beast from Beauty and the Beast (the Disney version).
l’étoile: I remember “Delores Grimm.” Quite hilarious. It featured a parody of famous fairy tales. Do I see a parody theme appearing or is that merely a coincidence?
Hansberry: Merely coincidence! Last year we came up with an idea that honestly we thought would just make people wet themselves with glee from not only our humor but from the childhood stories they grew up with and seeing them in the future! This year was all Maggie Sotos. She came up with this concept, wrote it all and had the music written by Joe Ye. The fact that four of us were in a show together last year is merely a nod to our collective talent.
l’étoile: Outside of the festival, what shows/comedians would you consider as ones to watch?
Whoa, get ready for a list! Well, I have to pump my upcoming shows: Sean and the Ladies do musical improv and we are ready to start yet another run at HUGE Theater Thursdays at 8 in August and September. Fridays at HUGE I have SPORTS!, an improvised sports movie (think Rudy, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers) through August and then Fridays in September, GONE (the improvised tribute to Lost) both at 8pm. And I will be in the cast of The Uncensored and Improvised Story of Ichabod Crane for the late shows at Comedy Sportz Theater. Beyond my own awesomeness, you can catch amazing things at HUGE theater pretty much every night of the week! Please go see The Bearded Men, Splendid Things, The Minneapples and so many other awesome acts there. Wanna see some great stand up? Check out my good friend Robert Baril or any other comic at The Sauce, the first and third Sundays at Cause. It’s free!
l’étoile: Other than just attending the shows, what other ways can locals show their support for Twin Cities’ comedy and theater scene?
Hansberry: Constantly attending!…Well, there are also plenty of opportunities in HUGE Theater, this is a non-profit theater that relies on member support and volunteers. None of us get paid for performing here. The people that run it are not into making money and are usually performing right along with some of the newer people on the scene.
l’étoile: Comedy doesn’t always garner the respect it deserves. It often gets categorized as callow or superficial? What would you say to those criticisms and how does your style of comedic improv reclaim the genre?
Hansberry: I think the state of comedy is changing. Look at the most popular comedic movies of our time. Bridesmaids, The Hangover, a whole slew of Apatow, McKay and Will Ferrell movies. People – without even knowing it – are sucking up improv movies like never before! Some of the best parts of these movies are the extra features where you get to see all the cut lines and gag reels. What people (for the purpose of this interview) in the Twin Cities don’t realize is that it is happening every night and they just don’t know about it. At HUGE theater Monday, Friday and Saturday you will get groups of that same caliber. Not to mention the improv sets (and mainstage shows) of the Brave New Workshop – the longest running theatrical satire theater in America! So, it’s not just me or certain groups I’m in, it’s the whole scene that is reclaiming this genre. Right now there is a giant wave of people that are similar to what comedy experienced when Belushi, Martin, Chase and Murray started making cinematic gold!
Troy! The Musical has two more performances during its Fringe Festival run. Catch the show Wednesday, August 8th at 7 p.m. and Saturday, August 11th at 1 p.m. To purchase tickets in advance – which we highly suggest – visit the Fringe’s website. $12 tickets, $4 Fringe button.