Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Summer hits with Irma Vep
and the Minnesota Fringe Festival

Park Square romps through a campy Irma Vep

I'm not partial to melodrama, a Victorian theatrical form that features a suffering heroine, a wildly improbable plot and lashings of sentiment and sensation. That said, Park Square Theatre gives Charles Ludlum's comedy, The Mystery of Irma Vep - A Penny Dreadful a vigorous staging; it's cleverly executed, entertaining but not fall-out-of-your seat funny.

Vep is an exercise in high spoof and dexterous acting, and this production rises to the occasion but, by opening night, its acting duo had not yet quite found that connection with an audience that can turn glee into doubled-over laughter.

Two actors play eight roles in a convoluted story set in Lord Edgar Hillcrest's isolated moorland manor house, Mandacrest (think Mandalay). Irma Vep is Lord Edgar's three-years-deceased wife, who consorted with a wolf and exerts her will on the living (think Rebecca). There's a Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper, Jane, who can't forgive the hapless Lady Enid for being Lord Edgar's new wife. Then we have Nicodemus, a deformed groundsman, an Egyptian tomb robber, a mummy and a vampire. Oh, and don't forget the likeable werewolf! Well, you get the picture.

With his tongue in his cheek, Ludlum pilfered from classic works to write Vep. Beneath all the larking about, you'll find borrowings from "Rebecca," Wuthering Heights," "Jane Eyre," "The Mummy," "The Raven" and Shakespeare, to name a few.

The play opens on director Joel Sass' period Victorian set. In a nice touch, he gives Park Square a proscenium arch, complete with florid cherubim, a grand red curtain and footlights. Most of the action takes place in a detailed Victorian living room, hung with a hunter's trophy heads and a chandelier made of antlers. French doors lead out to a Gothic garden. The curtain opens to sound designer Greg Brosofske's spooky music and booming thunder and lighting designer Michael Kittel's lightening flashes - yes, the weather is in on this melodrama, too.

At the heart of Vep's fun is the able gender, personality and costume-switching feats of skinny Charles Hubbell and rather more pouchy Steve Lewis, who play all the roles.

Hubbell takes on Jane, the intractable maid, a fraught Lord Edgar and an intruder of indeterminate lineage. Lewis is everybody else: Nicodemus the groundsman, Lady Enid and Egyptians, Alcazar and Pev Amri. The two actors embrace their roles with gusto, playing with wink-wink candor to the audience.

Vep revels in naughtiness and self consciousness. Lord Edgar and Lady Enid greet each other with such overt desire that it mounts to virtual coitus. Hands grab breasts (falsies) and paw (hmm) genitals. Lord Edgar, overacting, and I mean way overacting, stops mid-sentence to compliment Nicodemus on his dramatic rendering of lines lifted from Shakespeare. In one amusing sequence, Lady Enid orders Jane the maid to fetch Nocodemus. "That's impossible," a stunned Jane points out. Enid insists, and the problem of one actor being two people is entertainingly solved.

Most accomplished are the lightning-speed role switches. Accents, body language and appearances change. Nicodemus exits stage-left and, in the same breath, turns up stage-right as Lady Enid, redressed and bewigged. Nothing short of special engineering of Amelia Busse Cheever's elegant costumes could make this possible. But wigs and caps are mostly straight, although gaps in Lady Enid's back closures hint at Cheever's quick-change secrets.

The first act feels a bit slow; the second moves at a clip. I am resistant to melodrama, but the secret is to simply surrender to Vep's over-the-top, school-boy nonsense.

The Mystery of Irma Vep - A Penny Dreadful July 25 - August 23. Thursdays 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 8:00 p.m., Sundays 2:00 p.m. $ 25-$30. Park Square Theatre Historic Hamm Building, 20, West Seventh Place, St. Paul. 651-767-8487.

Photo: Petronella Ytsma

Minnesota's 10th Fringe Festival explodes into nation's largest Fringe Fest

The noun fringe can be used as a passive verb, as in "that curtain has been fringed." But when thousands of avid show-hoppers pound Minneapolis sidewalks to go fringing, from August 1-10, fringe becomes a super-active verb.

Thirty two thousand fringers attended 135 shows last year, catapulting the Minnesota Fringe Festival to the top of the list for the US' biggest non-juried Fringe Festival. Executive director Leah Cooper hopes 2003's attendance will soar to her goal of 35,000 attendees.

With a leap to 162 shows this year, there's certainly enough performances to tempt fringers. But Cooper faces a challenge to maintain the Minnesota Fringe's nine years of explosive growth in a time of shrinking state grants, strapped corporations and rising unemployment.

"It's a hard year," she admitted. "We lost our States Arts Board grant at the 11th hour. The Arts Board's funds were cut by 40 percent." That cost the Fringe $20,000, and ad sales and corporate sponsorship have been less certain this year. "We paid off $28,000 of a persistent $55,000 debt last year," a determined Cooper added, "and we'll pay off the rest this year."

Levels and Lines
By Highjinks Dance Company

Three on the Seesaw
By Front Porch Theatre

By The Theater Gallery

To reduce costs, Cooper took a cut in pay and reduced salaries for her slender staff and for the technicians who light and mike the shows. With great reluctance, she also reduced the door-take of artists from 75 to 65 percent. "We didn't want to do that," she said. She hopes to return the artists' cut to 75 percent next year.

Cooper is confident that the talent and the sheer buzz of the festival will continue to prove irresistible to fringers. Shows range from Harold Pinter's mesmerizing Ashes to Ashes, the wacky fun of a new Kevin Kling monologue, a singles piece called Beer Googles: the Musical! to an acrobatic Critters by Nu Vole Dance Theater. Then there's the Spoken Word, Visual, and Family Friendly Fringes.

This year, the Family Fringe features 33 shows that include comedy, drama, puppetry, dance and song, located in the two theaters of the Minneapolis Community and Technical College on Loring Park, with children's tickets costing only $5.

"We've kept the ticket prices at $10 a show for adults again," said Cooper, "and we've added a commemorative Minnesota Fringe button that fringers buy once for $3. It will help out with costs, and there are benefits. You can spot other fringers and find out which shows to see, and it gets you a discount at local restaurants, like Joe's Garage." A roving house manager also hands out free tickets to button-wearing enthusiasts.

Even better value for the serious fringer is the unlimited $100 Ultra Pass that gets you into all the shows you can possibly see in 10 days. For the less committed, the Punch Card gets you into five shows for $40.

The Loring Park neighborhood continues to be the venue-rich heart of the Fringe, but after losing two sites in the Loring area and having a 50 show-long waiting list already stacked up by February, Cooper has continued last year's expansion into other Minneapolis areas.

She seeks to cluster venues, so that fringers can move easily between shows in a given area. The clusters are in the Loring Park, Uptown, Lyn-Lake, Powderhorn and West Bank neighborhoods. All venues are air-conditioned.

This year, Cooper followed the Edinburgh Fringe's example and invited some performers to locate and negotiate directly with venues. This initiative has led to what Cooper calls satellite venues. One group, the Neo Futurists, will mount Drinking and Writing, at Grumpy's Bar on Washington Avenue. "Their play looks at the relationship between writing and drinking," said Cooper, "and they'll have an actor behind the bar."

Cooper encourages fringers to go to the new League of Extraordinary Fringers blog site and to contribute to Vox Fringe, a Web page for ad-lib reviews at

All Minnesota Fringe shows are non-juried, which means they sign up on a first-come-first-served basis and are not judged for quality. "It's important to keep the Fringe open to everyone with an idea," said Cooper. "That's the true creative pulse of the Fringe."

The Minnesota Fringe Festival August 1 - 10. Children $5. Adults $10 at door, $12.50 in advance from Uptowntix at 612-604-4466. For times, venues and shows, pick up a Fringe schedule at locations around Minneapolis, pick up the July 30th issue of City Pages, or visit

Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area

Elizabeth Weir

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