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Minnesota Fringe Festival

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Show reviews by Justin Alexander

A Wonderful Surprise by Justin Alexander
Rating: 5 kitties
Livelihood launched itself off the waiting list for the Fringe less than two weeks ago, so it hasn't had much of a chance for promotion or buzz. This is unfortunate, because a lot of people are going to miss a truly wonderful show. The script is perhaps 5 minutes too long (with the extra bulge coming in the middle), but Greseth and Hessburg are like live-wires -- they're entertainment personified, liquified, and poured into the finely crafted mold of Willer's clever and engaging direction.

The William Williams Effect
Best Drama of the Fringe? by Justin Alexander
Rating: 5 kitties
This might be the best drama in the Fringe this year. I have a few quibbles with the script (the consequences of the botched hanging seemed inadequately explored; there are a couple of sequences in which the trial-then-reenactment structure felt repetitive), but it's a powerful story powerfully rendered. The actors also deserve commendation: Every performance weaves itself into a seamless whole. I'm tempted to single out Vaughn's tour de force in the title role or Stout's deft ringleading as the narrator, but then I'd be forced to also call attention to Salo's suppressed torrent of emotion and Kevin Singer's delicate portrayal of youthful corruption and on and on and on... Nor should the direction be forgotten. Columbus presents a complex narrative with equal measures of clarity and cleverness.

All Aboard for the Arctic Circle... by Justin Alexander
Rating: 5 kitties
First, the script. It begins with the gimmick: There is a penguin in the military. And if this were any other Fringe show, the gimmick would be milked for 45 minutes and we'd all go home with a smile on our face and vague satisfaction in our hearts. But SQUAWK isn't content with the gimmick: Instead, it raises the stakes and chooses to become a legitimate dramedy. At first it feels like the Hollywood version of the story... but, even there, Heimbuch isn't satisfied. He inverts the drama again... and again... and again. Second, the penguin. Yes, it steals the show. The puppet itself is a work of art, and the puppeteering is excellent. To properly describe the accomplishment, allow me to describe the inverse: There was one brief moment during the production where the puppeteer needed to assist in a scene change. As his hand shifted from the puppet, all life seemed to fall away from the penguin... and I was literally shocked, because I had become completely immersed in the illusion. Third, the cast. Exemplary. They're acting off a puppet and they're making it work. They're making it work without you even thinking about the fact that they're MAKING it work. And then there's the rest of their performances, which are equally impressive. Fourth, the staging. Elegant. Simple set pieces are rearranged with seamless choreography into an endless panoply of scenes that flow in and out of each other. With a less skilled hand at the helm, the pace of the play could have easily become fatally disrupted -- but instead every scene pulses with a unique life while the play builds ever higher. Fifth, the allegory. It isn't. Oh, the nature of the material will certainly allow you to read many allegories ONTO the piece, but the play was not written AS allegory. The play is simply the story of a penguin in the military. And whatever lessons you choose to take away from the experience are, in my opinion, the stronger and richer for it. In short, SQUAWK is goofy and surreal and fun and memorable. It's not to be missed.

A Cynic Tells Love Stories
A soul bared... by Justin Alexander
Rating: 5 kitties
Katherine Glover captures a universal tale through the specificity of her own experiences. And she tells it very, very well. A Cynic Tells Love Stories is funny and sad and heartwarming and touching and clever and honest and... Well, it's a lot of things. Glover delivers on a lot of levels and in many different ways. I can't think of a better way I could have spent this hour of my life.

Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter
Consistently Superb by Justin Alexander
Rating: 5 kitties
This is a consistently superb production of Pinter's surreal and nuanced script. The performances, in particular, are a delightful study in contrasts.

Buyer's Remorse
Brilliant! by Justin Alexander
Rating: 5 kitties
Simply brilliant! Moulds' script is virtually flawless, devastatingly clever, and rib-achingly funny. Gioia stages it with an elegant, yet evocative, simplicity. And then there's the cast. They are an exemplary assemblage of talent, and they take advantage of the strong foundation given to them by Gioia and Moulds to blow the roof off the theater. As I write this, the Fringe is yet young. But Buyer's Remorse could very easily be the best show of the year. It's not to be missed.

Untitled Duet with Houseplant
Goofy, Heartfelt Fun by Justin Alexander
Rating: 5 kitties
This was the last pre-encore show I saw at this year's Fringe, and I'm glad it was: It left me with a smile on my face and a lightness in my heart. Bremer's performance is marked by its sincerity. In fact, the sheer intensity of this sincerity can guile you into believing that you are seeing nothing more than a charming, goofy man prancing antically for your entertainment... even as Bremer seamlessly assumes one character after another. The illusion drops away abruptly as Bremer's characters begin interacting with each other and their stark contrasts are suddenly given definition. This, in itself, then calls attention to the subtler threads of narrative and theme being woven throughout. In the final moments of the piece, this revelatory triumph reaches its climax as order is plucked from chaos and Bremer reveals that every moment of seemingly zany, irreverent fun has, in fact, been in service to a single, symphonic narrative.

Bard Fiction
An Elizabethan Masterpiece by Justin Alexander
Rating: 5 kitties
The program notes that the goal of the production is not to satirize Pulp Fiction with archaic language, but rather to retell its story in an Elizabethan style. It succeeds brilliantly, dramatically, and comically. High quality verse trips off the tongues of a massively talented ensemble, and Bratlie's direction finds clever ways of bringing Tarantino's clever cinematography to the stage without aping the film. I saw the show with someone who had never seen the Tarantino original. I, myself, have not seen Pulp Fiction in years. Not only did we both love the show, but it inspired us to both track down copies of the film so that we can rewatch it and then come back to the theater and enjoy Bard Fiction all over again.

Epic Storytelling by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
The content of this show is exceptional: Allegra Lingo's mixing of anecdote, auto-biography, personal politics, Greek epic, and classical music is expertly done. Unfortunately, I feel somewhat frustrated by the microphone she uses during the performance. Either the mic or the sound system flattens her voice and robs the piece of some of the nuance it might otherwise possess. This caused some sections to fall flat for me which might otherwise have soared.

The Harty Boys in The Case of the Limping Platypus
Ceaseless Laughter by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
My sides were left aching after this show. Some of the biggest laughs to be had at this year's Fringe.

The Curse of Yig
Bone-chilling... by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
The Curse of Yig gets off to a slow start, with the production choosing to keep its performers perhaps a little too distant from the literary material. For perhaps 10-15 minutes, the result feels too much like a book-on-tape being performed on the stage. But then the production loosens up, and as Schweickhardt and Uren ease into their mutual panoply of characters the tension ratchets up at an alarming pace. And then Schweickhardt gets into the "plain bed of pine" and delivers a bone-chilling performance that left the audience completely riveted in their seats and utterly defenseless to withstand the gut-wrenching and horrific conclusion. The result is a deeply memorable evening of theater. I recommend it highly.

Awesome Aliens by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
Little Green Man is the delight of the evening -- a clever, tight script combined with strong, memorable performances set a high bar. Strong, unfortunately, doesn't clear that bar. The performances -- particularly from Emily Gunyou Halaas and Terry Hempleman -- are extraordinarily good, but they're ultimately betrayed by a confused script that fails to realize the full potential of its dramatic material. The script is as much frustrating as it is disappointing, and it is to the actors' credit that they succeed in creating memorable and entertaining theater despite being somewhat hamstrung. Long story short: Little Green Men is excellent and worth the price of admission all by itself. Strong has a questionable script, but is nevertheless powerful and moving on the strength of its actors.

Blue Ribbon Burlesque
Sexy and Funny by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
Blue Ribbon Burlesque is both funny and sexy. Despite the rather daunting vastness of the Proscenium (when the artform seems to demand a greater intimacy), it felt like everything a burlesque should be.

Stalled: An Elevator Story
Hilarious ensemble by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
The ensemble for STALLED is hilariously extraordinary. Every single moment of this play is literally teeming with activity. No matter where or when you turn your eye, you'll find something entertaining to watch. The script is not necessarily perfect, but the performances are so relentlessly engaging that it doesn't really matter. Also noteworthy is the design and direction: With the tight, confined space of the elevator as a limiting factor, it would have been easy for the show to become an amorphous blob. But crystal clear direction, vibrant and unique costuming, and the sparsely elegant set combine into distinctive, clever, and memorable staging. Certainly the most entertaining hour you will ever spend in a stuck elevator.

Comedy of Errors
Shakespeare's Fringe Show by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
If Shakespeare were writing a Fringe show, Comedy of Errors is probably the play he'd: A single idea developed with endless, largely nonsensical riffs. So Bedlam's abbreviated 50 minutes production feels just about perfect. They utilize their outdoor space in numerous, clever ways and keep the material feeling lively and fresh through. It is very, very funny (which is probably the important bit). And very, very fun (in the way that only good outdoor theater can be).

Tragedy of You
A Comical Tragedy by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
Scrimshaw's improv work is exceptionally funny and his dissection of Elizabethan tragedy successfully walks the tricky tightrope between erudition and hilarity. Here's the long and the short of it: Do you like Shakespeare? Do you like to laugh? Then you'll like Tragedy of You.

The Actor's Nightmare
Slick Production by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
I've somehow managed to slide through life without ever experiencing The Actor's Nightmare. So while I was familiar with the conceit (an actor finds himself onstage without any idea what play he's supposed to be doing), I had the opportunity to discover the play for the first time on Tuesday night. I was surprised to find that Durang's script was the weakest link of the night. It's something of a one-trick pony that overstays its welcome, and then midway through tries to transform itself (rather unsuccessfully) into a drama. But it's a fun little piece of theater, and Renaissance Productions do it admirably. Jeffrey Goodson in the lead role is particularly notable. If you like the play, then this production will delight you. If you've never seen the play, then it's something worth seeing at least once and this would be a good time to do it. (And if you don't like the play, you don't really need this review, do you?)

Jurassic Dork
A Tour De Force of Impersonation by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
John Skelley is a gifted and funny mimic. He perfectly recreates Jurassic Park scene by scene, combining his own precise impersonation with clever prop-work. Where the show really begins to shine, however, is when Skelley uses his recreation of the film as a foundation for satire and commentary. Unfortunately, the show is half over before Skelley really starts to make the material his own. However, this is -- in the grand scheme of things -- nothing more than a quibble. The show is enormously entertaining and well worth your time. In particular, Skelley's perfect sense of timing -- both dramatic and comedic -- weaves a finale that literally propelled the audience into a standing ovation. And so I say, once again: Bravo.

Like a Virgin
Stand Up With Spice by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
Jimmy Hogg provides a hilarious stand-up routine with the added spice of some deeper storytelling. The act would not be out of place at the Acme Comedy Club, and if that's what you're looking for, then Hogg delivers.

Silent Poetry 2
Incredible Talent by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
Dean Hatton and Kirsten Stephens have both achieved an amazing mastery of their bodies... and they use it to entertain you! ... okay, that sounded dirty. But, in all seriousness, Silent Poetry 2 is a tour de force of talent and creativity. It was pure entertainment from one end of the hour to the other. I left the theater with a huge smile on my face.

The Return of LICK!
Renew the Ban! by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
I am hearby petitioning the Fringe Festival to renew their ban on Lick! Their sequin-festooned performance left me vastly over-sexed, and with my family's history of congenital genital heart attacks I feel my health was recklessly put at risk. With that being said... I adored the show. In one part a satire of dance shows and in one part a comedy about the members of Lick!, the production swaps ably from one source of comedy to the next -- keeping you off-balance in a way that only heightens the comedic enjoyment.

Made Up: Confessions of a Counter Girl
Short, but sweet by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
I was lucky enough to catch the last performance of Made Up, and so, unfortunately, my words of praise can't be used to encourage anyone to see it for themselves. But I am compelled to offer my praise for a funny, touching, and truthful look into the heart of Jennifer's characters. She kept my captivated from lights up to lights down, and I found myself often thinking back to her vibrant and memorable characters the rest of the day.

Secrets Revealed: Opera Bob Opens His Drawers
Exquisite Opera Sampler by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
Four tasty morsels of operatic delight with some cleverly rewritten hors d'Ã…"uvre inbetween. A thoroughly pleasant, funny, and dramatic way to spend an hour.

The Rise of General Arthur
Mesmerizing by Justin Alexander
Rating: 4 kitties
Low draws you inexorably into a world of magical realism drawn with equal parts from the esoteric corners of Arthurian legend; modern headlines; and Low's well-honed storytelling sensibilities. This is not merely a transplanting of Arthurian legend, it's a transformation. Low's lyrical words and characterizations perhaps put me most in mind of King's Dark Tower -- something both common and epic; strange yet familiar. I'm writing this review after Low's final performance at the Festival, but the program suggests that Low intends to continue developing this work. It would be well worth seeking out future performances of this material.

Masha 3000
Wanted More by Justin Alexander
Rating: 3 kitties
Erin Search-Wells is a gifted performer and in Masha 3000 she establishes a plethora of really fascinating material. Unfortunately, I wanted more. I wanted to see this material developed into something robust. Without that development, Masha 3000 -- at a short 25-minutes -- performs like a short story that should have been a novel. With that being said, I didn't feel short-changed by the experience. There are risks being taken here and they pay off with a unique and rewarding theatrical experience. I'm hopeful that Search-Wells will continue developing this material: I want to see a fully-realized vision of the future. I want to see a better integration of live performance and technology. I want to see Masha's dependence on technology fully developed so that the devastation of its loss can be felt. I want the questions of identity to be answered in countless, conflicting ways. I want to see a richer use of the Chekhovian source material. I'm happy with what I got. But I want more!

Strange Weather
A mixed bag by Justin Alexander
Rating: 3 kitties
The highlight of this production is John Kunik's performance as Troy. Kunik overcomes a weak script and frequently questionable direction to deliver a consistently immersing and emotional portrayal of a man trapped by circumstance and hopelessness. There are other strong performances to be found here, as well. Unfortunately, not everyone is as skilled as Kunik at overcoming the weaknesses in the script -- which frequently raises issues without confronting them; provides its characters with questionable motivations; and beats its fair share of strawmen.

I'd Kick Puppies for You
Great script by Justin Alexander
Rating: 3 kitties
I found the script for I'd Kill Puppies for You to be surprisingly sophisticated, nuanced, and clever (with the exception of the beach scene, which inexplicably repeats the same 15 second joke for 2-3 minutes while laughter turns to tittering turns to awkward silence). Unfortunately, the script is not as fully realized in the production as it might have been. While there are well staged moments and some commendable performances, there also untraversible tracts of unpolished awkwardness. Special note must be made, however, of the finest G-rated metaphor for sexual relations I have ever seen on the stage. I tip my hat to it.

Disappointing by Justin Alexander
Rating: 3 kitties
Although Helen features some truly fun performances and some extraordinarily high production values, I feel it is ultimately betrayed by a simplistic, braying script. Although edited to fit into a Fringe slot, the play still shrieks its thesis statement repeatedly, hammering home its message in the most awkward and transparent of fashions.

Needs more sock puppets... by Justin Alexander
Rating: 2 kitties
Hannah Norris is a consistently bright light of quirky fun in this otherwise murky production. The script is uneven and left unaided by the uneven (and flat) performances given by the rest of the cast. By way of example: Half-way through the show we get a running "gag" in which one of the characters keeps trying to use their sock puppets and the other characters shout them down. The problem? The sock puppets were the funniest part of the first half of the show. The production seems to lack an understanding of its own strengths, rendering it incapable of developing or capitalizing upon them.

Habitat: A Documentary Theater Project
Not Enough by Justin Alexander
Rating: 2 kitties
In defter hands, the adaptation of true stories to the stage could have resulted in a deep exploration of the homeless. Unfortunately, HABITAT instead glosses over its material, battering the audience with constant variations of an unsupported refrain: Most homeless people don't want to be homeless. Most people don't become homeless of their own choice. Many homeless people are not unwilling to get work, merely unable. These things are all true, but since the work featured the real words of actual people from the streets of Duluth, it would have been nice to see some of these ideas developed into dramatic and specific narratives. The production certainly flirts from time to time with the idea that it might become something more, but never commits to it. In the end, despite the clever and engaging work by the director -- who renders the play in a fluid blend of physically overlapping narratives -- I found it difficult to stifle my yawns.

A Dream Play
Great Costumes by Justin Alexander
Rating: 2 kitties
The central problem with this abridged production of Strindberg's A Dream Play were the lack of stakes: It felt as if everyone was arguing over nothing more consequential than what type of tea they should order at tea time. This apparent lack of care or urgency, combined with Strindberg's surreal imagery, left the production feeling curiously lifeless and rather baffling (despite my own familiarity with the script). The costumes, however, were marvelous.

The Tenth Muse
Baffling and Boring by Justin Alexander
Rating: 1 kitty
I was baffled and bored by a show which structured itself like this: (1) Korenne tells you about an interesting historical person who did X, Y, and Z. (2) Then Korenne sings a song which largely consists of saying, "There was an interesting person who did X, Y, and Z." The repetition and forced sing-alongs do nothing to help the pedestrian and rather mediocre folk songs. I was similarly bored and baffled by the entire narrative arc of the "Tenth Muse" -- a tale which starts nowhere, goes nowhere, and tells you nothing.

33 Dates
Painfully Disappointing by Justin Alexander
Rating: 1 kitty
The script for 33 Dates has a lot of raw potential, but it desperately needs heavy revision before being ready for an audience. The jokes are unfocused and the punchlines are often delivered two or three times (apparently under the misguided belief that if a joke is funny once, it'll be even funnier if you repeat it three times in rapid succession and with minor variation). The script is not helped by the cast's mediocre and uncertain performances. Nor the awkward and poorly paced staging. And then there's the single, painfully off-key and largely inaudible "song oddly jammed into the middle of the show. This would be a 0 kitty review, but the raw comedic potential of the script does occasionally gel into a handful of hearty laughs. In many ways this is a frustrating production, because the potential for something funny and memorable can be seen strewn across the bloated carcass which has instead been presented on the Mixed Blood stage.

Maria: A Contemporary Tragedy
Mad-Libbing Greek Tragedy by Justin Alexander
Rating: 1 kitty
The show promises "MEDEA thrust into the present-day United States", but simply playing mad-libs with a Greek tragedy doesn't accomplish that. Particularly when the playwright can't even be bothered to give the mad-libs even the most basic semblance of sense. For example, you cannot take a Greek chorus forced to serve as helpless witnesses to horror specifically because they are a Chorus and not actual people and replace them, line-for-line, with three house wives who are actually standing right next to Maria when she decides to murder her son. Nor can you simply search and replace the word "King" with "Supreme Court Justice" and expect to end up with something that makes the least lick of sense. I think there's massive potential in the idea of taking the basic dramatic form of Medea (a woman taken from her home country and then discarded when the next piece of pretty meat comes along) and transplanting it into a modern setting: The quiet desperation slowly dissolving into murderous madness could be quite moving. But MARIA isn't willing to do the work. Instead, the script takes short cuts and the result is palpable nonsense lacking both the grandeur of Greek tragedy and the understated power of domestic tragedy. In addition, the staging of the play was monotonously one-dimensional: The three house wives of the Chorus spend almost the entire play huddled around an upstage table, while the rest of the play consists of people walking in straight lines between the up-right door and the down-left entrance. The performances throughout the play were inconsistent. The only actor who truly rose above the lackluster material was Catherine Hansen, who -- in her few, too-brief moments as a messenger at the end of the play -- made interesting choices and conveyed them with strength. Lisa Gilbert, in the lead role as Maria, offers tantalizing moments of talent. However, her tendency to swallow the ends of her words is only a symptom of a larger habit of distancing herself from the material. If Gilbert ever dares to stand-up and face her material, I would expect great things from her.

Schrödinger's Cat Must Die!
Not Enough World Domination by Justin Alexander
Rating: 1 kitty
As a piece of theater, Schrodinger's Cat made for a great high school physics lecture. I feel slightly uncharitable in writing a 1 Kitty review for the play because it rates highly as a high school lecture or a Science Museum presentation. But the show wasn't advertised or described as a mildly entertaining Introductions to Physics lecture. It was advertised as a an one-man show about a Mad Scientist, and although that conceit is applied as a faint patina to the lecture... it is ultimately an exercise in bait-and-switch that left me bored with the simplistic and unrevelatory treatment of its subject matter and upset that I had been misled into sitting through it.