by Todd O'Dowd
If you have been following the currents of the Twin Cities art scene, then you know that the first two weeks of August our beloved town gets swept up in the epic pageantry that is the 2016 Minnesota Fringe Festival. The eleven day performance art festival (which happens to be the largest non-juried performance art festival in the United States) had a lot of changes this year (the button became irrelevant, day pass wristbands, etc.). But there was one thing that I was not prepared for…
It was good.
I mean really, really good.
Let me put it this way: In all of the years I have attended the Fringe (as either a performer, volunteer, or critic), this was one of the strongest Fringe Festivals I’ve been to. Whether it was by sheer luck in my choices (and I like to think that I’ve developed a pretty keen sense of what works), but even I was surprised by some of the pieces this year.
So, rather than review every show I saw this year, I decided to shift my thinking and pose a test: Which shows, as I reach the tail end of the festival, are still sticking in my mind? And so, here are the eleven shows that are still haunting me as I madly dash to the end of the festival. And now, without further ado…
Apple Picking – Some shows are bullet and critic proof because of the known factor of the talent involved. And writer/director Ben San Del has stacked the deck of his trippy romantic comedy with a ridiculously talented ensemble (including Mo Perry, Natalie Rae Waas, Jason Ballweber, Christopher Kehoe, Joshua English Scrimshaw, and Rachel Petrie. While his script could be a little tighter in hindsight, Mr. San Del manages to find every inch of comedy in it, and directs his ensemble to give pitch perfect performances across the board.
Ball: A Musical Tribute To My Lost Testicle – Given how beloved actor / singer Max Wojtanowicz is in town, it would make sense that he would take the crushing blow life dealt him (stage 3 testicular cancer) and turn it into a one-man musical. And sure enough, he has turned his tragedy into a hilarious and heart-warming musical triumph! Sensitively but not cloyingly directed by his longtime partner in crime Nikki Swoboda, and featuring spot on original tunes by Jason Hansen, Michael Gruber, and music director Andrew Cooke, Mr. Wojtanowicz has created one of the most life-affirming shows of the festival!
Broken English, Mother Tongue – I missed Javier Morillo’s show last year, but boy howdy am I glad I didn’t this year! Using the stories of his childhood on a base in Puerto Rico, Mr. Morillo’s stories are funny and heartfelt, and as guided by director Levi Weinhagen it’s a well told story delivered in a charming manner. What I would like to challenge Mr. Morillo, as he further develops the piece, is to really commit to it being a one-man show and “show” us what’s going on rather than “tell”ing us. A subtle difference, but one I feel Mr. Morillo can deliver on.
Darlings – Last year, Carrie Brown and Karim Muasher of Animal Engine made a dazzling Minnesota Fringe debut last year with the beautiful Petunia and Chicken. This year they’ve taken another literary subject and spun it on its head with their reimagining of Peter Pan from the perspective of Mr. and Mrs. Darling, trying to console themselves over their missing children. Being familiar with their work, I was expecting a daring physical performance from both actors. What I was not expecting was how deliciously dark the show was going to be as Brown and Muasher have taken their idea (which, in the wrong hands could be seen as bad fan-fiction) and turned it into a searing portrait of a couple disintegrating before our own eyes (more in line with Edward Albee than J. M. Barrie). An absolute gut-punch of a show.
In The Time of Spies – Whenever Joe Bozic and Mike Fotis, the dynamic duo behind Ferrari McSpeedy, put on a show, I consider it an instant “must see.” And by god, their latest – a mash-up of various spy shows – is great, glorious, theatrical hay. While this can feel at times less like a play and more like an overblown sketch, Mssrs. Bozic and Fotis and their dazzling ensemble (including James Rone, Rita Boersma, Jason Ballweber, and Anna Hickey) make every joke land with the precision of an Olympic gymnast doing a floor routine while hopped up on Red Bull. The premise is solid, the jokes are plentiful, and the cast is top drawer. My challenge to the Ferrari McSpeedy boys is to refine and expand the piece into something more substantial.
Mead Hall – This should not have worked. If you told me “Hey, Todd! Go see a mashup of Beowulf and Road House!,” I would have smacked you. But here’s the thing: The talent involved have taken this to something exciting. Aaron Greer, Ben Tallen, and Brian Watson-Jones’ script is surprisingly hilarious and makes the insane premise work while being faithful to both source materials. And Carin Bratlie Werthen has gotten spectacular work from her ensemble (with such heavy hitters as Clarence Bratlie Werthen, Kayla Dvorak, Brandon Ewald, Delta Rae Giordano, Derek Meyer, David Schlosser, and Noe Tallen). This is the kind of mashup I can believe in!
Now or Later – I tried, you guys. I tried to be impartial to the company that won Best Debut last year in our year-end list. But damn it all, director / designer Joseph Stodola and New Epic Theater have once again come up with a taut, thought-provoking piece of theatre. Presenting the area premiere of Christopher Shinn’s political drama about a presidential candidate, his son, and a random act of stupidity that comes crashing down on them on election night, Stodola takes the timely script and zeroes in on the notion of a father and son who can not see eye to eye. While Shinn’s script gets a little messy at the ending, Mr Stodola and his ensemble (headed by gutsy turns by Peter Moore, Jennifer Blagen, and one of the best performances I’ve ever seen Grant Sorenson give) make this a show that you need to see.
Orpheus and Eurydice – When I heard that Garden of Song was actually attempting to present Gluck’s iconic opera, I was surprised and delighted. And sure enough the resulting production was a charming respite from the usual Fringe fare. While Sara Fanucchi and Betsie Feldkamp’s voices are on the thinnish side, their voices are perfect for Gluck’s shimmering melodies and Fanucci in particular is up to the challenge of Orpheus’ famous lament (which is only hampered by the cast singing in English as opposed to the original Italian). All in all, it’s an artistic risk that pays off and builds on Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company’s triumph last season; which will hopefully pave the way for more opera in the Fringe.
Sometimes There’s Wine – If there was any justice in this world, Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool would be at that level where other women would admire them, men would fawn over them, and the gays would be shrieking “OHMIGODILOVEYOU!!!!” at their every appearance. The last time these two were at the Fringe, it was the debut of their IVEY-winning 2 Sugars, Room for Cream. Now the revered actresses / writers / comediennes are back with the debut of their follow up to their hit show, focusing on one of the world’s great libations and the situations it causes / helps / hinders. If you know the two actresses / writers in question, then you know that it’s going to be performed well. What makes this so special is that Mmes. Custer and Pool have refined their comedic timing from exceptional to laser-accurate while sacrificing none of the emotional beats therein (which is a credit to them and director Anya Kremenetsky, who has staged the work beautifully in Theatre In The Round’s tricky space). This may be a play driven by personalities, but oh what personalities!
The Abortion Chronicles – Probably the most politically loaded show the Fringe this year (and that’s in the face of all the Trump pieces), co-creators Ariel Leaf, Ruth Virkus, and Ben Layne have put together a beautiful collage of stories that tackles the topic of abortion from all sides and viewpoints with so much sensitivity and grace that we the audience are transformed (or at least they were the day I saw it). Thanks to an astonishing ensemble (which includes Ms. Leaf, Scot Moore, Nissa Nordland, Mame Pelletier, and the great Linda Sue Anderson) who performs with such grace, this is one of the most beautiful and moving shows of the festival.
The Final Tubby Bye-Bye – And now, for something completely different. Play-Dot’s look at the last days of the beloved English children’s show is a surprisingly funny, surprisingly poignant piece of clowning and physical theatre. Director Shalee Coleman and her ensemble are perfectly keyed into the source material and each other and manage to create a surreal yet dazzling piece of theatre that I can not stop thinking about.
The 2016 Minnesota Fringe Festival continues through Sunday, August 14.
For more information, including the entire festival schedule and purchasing tickets and festival passes, please go to FringeFestival.org.