Well, the Minnesota Fringe Festival is officially over, but it was definitely an interesting year. I managed to catch four shows across Minneapolis over the last two weekends, and each were, in their own ways, an adventure.
From the corporate spires of Downtown, to the trendy streets of Uptown, to the blocky grey edifices of the University of Minnesota’s West Bank (to mention a few), expectation defying productions spring up at theaters and venues over Minneapolis in the dog days of summer, as July turns into August. In the Twin Cities, we are known for our love and support for live theater, and no event showcases this tendency more than the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which this year showcased 169 different productions at 19 different venues, from a plethora of backgrounds, genres, styles, and art forms. There are shows for kids, shows for adults, and shows for adults who are kids. You could choose your favorites from among musicals, dance, improv, or drama. Whether you are looking for humor, horror, pathos, the sublime, the absurd, or the genre defying, there is something to peak just about any interest, even those whose interests are very, very specific.
I have been going since seeing a production of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” a one man show staged by local actor Tim Uren in the basement of the Mill City Museum in 2006, and it was so awesome I’ve been going back every year since. Every year was a surprise, and every year offers something completely different; I’ve seen musicals about giant balls of tinfoil and xenophobia, a mime production of Hansel and Gretel, an adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson’s, ”Mask of the Illuminati,” and a comedy about squirrels and self actualization.
According to the City Pages, the Fringe had a record amount of tickets sold this year. The four shows I saw (beating the general average of three shows seen in 2013) each had a totally different take on the art of drama, though it was hard to decided on just those four- there were at least six others I had wanted to see as well! This year included probably the least successful show I’ve seen as well as among the most successful, and in general, a fun time was had all around.
Here are some short reviews of the plays I saw, along with a nearby restaurant recommendation.
Amateur Hour by English Scrimshaw Theatrical Novelties
The first show I made it to was “Amateur Hour” at the Illusion Theater, tucked away on the 8th Floor of the Hennepin Center of the Arts on Hennepin avenue. Before the show, I enjoyed some delicious pomegranate gelato over on Nicollet Mall at the great little crepe place Le Belle Crepe. I’d recommend this place for lunch in downtown in particular, I stopped by a lot when I was working or volunteering downtown.
As for the show, it was a fun and amusing production that I enjoyed from beginning to end, a great opening to the Fringe. Featuring a cadre of dancers, comedians, and actors showcasing their evolution and background as performers and artists by showing off their juvenalia, the first dreams that nudged them onto the stage. Whether adorably awkward poetry, adorably awkward dancing, or adorably awkward and terrible jokes, everyone’s story was both heartwarming and also super funny, and it brought on some major nostalgia of my own early attempts at writing stories and plays. Should I even look back?
“The Ohman Stone,” by It Works
Oh, the Ohman Stone. Oh man, the Ohman Stone. What to say? I basically HAD to go to this one, promising “THEE” most controversial show ever on the Fringe (debatable) as, during my time as a masters student of history, the Kensington Runestone was my chosen thesis topic. Like many people who happen upon this topic, I find myself intrigued by the weirdness around this roadside attraction. I could go on and on, believe me. This obsession was definitely evident in every minute of this play, which I believe could safely be called a “labor of love,” in which every cast member “put in their heart and soul,” so passionate were they towards the authenticity of the runestone (or KRS, to aficionados).
Hosted by Intermedia Arts on Lyndale, I enjoyed some delicious tea a few doors down at La Société du Thé, a great place to peruse an exhaustive list of loose teas as well as enjoy a pot of it. The show, sadly, was not quite so tasty. The story of the runestone, hoax or “authentic” is a rich vein to mine from, and a musical celebrating this Minnesota icon with ghosts seems a great idea, you betcha. However, in what could have been an amusing take on the ridiculous nature of the debate, there was instead a deep undercurrent of bitterness and spite running throughout the play.
I do not want to go into any long winded debates here, but suffice it to say, as a runestone skeptic (one of those horrible villains), this was an insulting, exploitative, heavy handed piece of pro-runestone propaganda. When they weren’t mocking people for not buying their conspiracy theories, they were pausing the proceedings to deliver preachy pedantic “power point” lectures that would glaze over the eyes of anyone, let alone someone who had never heard the story or its background. The bizarre and frankly creepy love story tacked on added nothing and seemed really out of place. The music seemed almost an afterthought to just repeating pro-runestone arguments to the audience, with the ghosts, romance, and afterlife motifs being mere set dressing. Sadly, while there was some nice music, the lyrics and dialog were often cringe worthy.
“The Ohman Stone,” I feel, will not change anyone’s minds who were not already decided on the topic; in fact, my friend who had never heard the stone prior to the event felt he was insulted by this one sided attack. Okay, enough about that!
The History of Minnesota Unscripted, by the Theater of Public Policy
I was very happy to see this show (again, because Minnesota history), and was excited to go down to the Bryant Lake Bowl, home of some great craft beers and a place where I’ve often seen some quality improv. I’ve seen the Theater of Public Policy before and was always impressed with their brand of political discussion and improvised humor and this was a great way to do it! Each show at the Fringe invited a different local historian to share a story of Minnesota history, which would then be riffed on and interpreted by the talented actors of the Theater.
I was lucky enough to be at the show hosted by Doug Hoverson, author of Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota. He told some fascinating stories about the history of brewing and beer in Minnesota, and I’m glad I picked up a pint of Steel Toe Sommer Vice to enjoy with the show. Nothing like a tasty beer while learning fun facts about the first brewery in Stillwater, Andrew Volstead, and the invention of malt liquor in Minneapolis (who knew?), the theater took Hoverson’s thought-provoking background and used to poke hilarious fun at Minnesota, our love of beer, and it’s changing status in the state. Who knows? Maybe next time they’ll be joking about how we used to not be able to buy beer on Sundays? You never know!
Twelfth Night by Rough Magic Performance Company
The last play took us to the U of M Rarig Center on West Bank, the home for us history majors at the U. For this one, I invited my parents, and after dinner across the river in Dinkytown at the great Wally’s Falafel and Hummus– I highly recommend checking this place out, and the tea, in particular, is great (served with fresh mint, sage, or other herbs).
As for Twelth Night, it was a funny, heartfelt, and intriguing take on Shakespeare, this was charming interpretation of the famous play, with what seemed to be some influence from Wes Anderson movies. Great customs, evocative acting, and sharp humor, this is really showcases the best of the Fringe.The gender bending and shifting romance were played up here, though one can definitely see the Shakespearean origin of “insta-love,” and it was all condensed into an hour. I would definitely see more Shakespeare interpretations from this team (sadly, I did not make it to it’s companion piece, What You Will, which may have explained the guy in the socks!). I will definitely look out for this group next year!
So, speaking of next year, the Fringe will be scheduled between July 30 and August 9, 2015. So go and check it out- tickets are $12 each, along with a $5 admission button that is used for all shows and also can get you discounts at other productions throughout the year- next year, I’m thinking about getting a 10 show pass and checking out even more shows!