Minnesota Fringe Festival 2007
A few thoughts on just a handful of the 150-plus shows that descended on the Minnesota Fringe Festival at the beginning of August. I would expect to see some of these pieces again in the coming months – either in full-fledged productions or in future showcases. And now ...
This clever compilation show gets high scores, not just for its "meta" look at the Fringe and its foibles, but in the sheer quality of the work presented. Four performers present solo works, while a pair of experts analyze their adherence to Fringe-show trends (references to God, the wearing of costumes and - of course - nudity, all rank high). The performers and their stories – Leigh Herrick's spiritual drumbeat, Sheila Simon's tale of a jerk in a chicken suit, Katherine Glover's close encounter with a man o' war, and Harvey the Chainsaw's nerd-driven triptych of tales – make up for the interstitial, which have good ideas but need more focus to bring them to life. The star of the evening is Harvey the Chainsaw's pieces, where a wild mix of nerdy obsessions, true-to-life details and a glorious talent for making extended metaphors that work made me wishing to hear more of his stories.
Plenty of Fringe shows are a mess – loaded with more crazy ideas than coherent sense. At their best, these ideas cascade off each other, creating a great ball of energy that fuels the show through its rough spots. The Chuck Mee Project doesn't reach that point; instead, it leaves the audiences mostly puzzled instead of entertained. The able cast tries hard during this journey through the clichés that tie Middle America together, sometimes hitting (a serial-killer-in-training Boy Scout; a volleyball game involving a boy in an iron lung), often missing (a crazed-but-wise bum with nothing to say) and never reaching that messy critical mass that you long for it to be.
Jimmy Hogg, whose Curriculum Vitae was a massive hit at last year's Fringe, returns with an insightful look at a misspent youth. Layering several stories of his teenage years of unemployment, adolescent longing and, yes, petty crime, Hogg tells his tales with brazen humor and clinical to-the-point painful realization of his own faults. His characterizations are spot on, and, while the piece jumps from story to story – centering on a traumatic night out that ends with the threat of prison looming over the young narrator's head – Hogg juggles them like a trained master with three chainsaws and a flaming baton in the air. Hogg is quickly becoming a favorite of the Minnesota Fringe (and other festivals I would imagine) and is a talent worth watching.
Disaster nearly struck in the first few seconds of the show when an overeager actor pulled the plug on the production's countdown clock. "Does anyone have a watch?" one of the actors asked in controlled panic. A bit of fiddling later and the clock was back, ticking away the seconds of this wild ride through Jules Verne's tale of twisted timetables and seat-of-your-pants train rides. With a five-person cast, a spare set that centers on a map of the world that follows Fogg's progress, and a story-theater approach, the company blazes through Verne's story, sticking to the book – and all of its eccentricities and Victorian cultural artifacts – throughout. They even toss in a false ending when Fogg and his band believe all is lost, before the laborious explanation of why that is not true is produced. It's a jolly, funny and thrilling ride through a piece of fiction that is far stranger than any of the films. And in the end, the players even had 43 seconds left on the clock.
The Ministry's latest assault on everyday sensibilities dances on the edge of pretension from the opening moments of the narration – which are delivered in French. Yet writer/director Matthew Foster is well aware of this, noting that the use of the language is as much about finding a boyfriend as it is digging deep into the human condition. Mixing filmed segments and on-stage action, The Tyranny of God's Love pokes into plenty of sensitive areas, from the nature of family hate to the ennui of urban living to the belief that if we think positive, good things will come to us. Foster pours a heaping helping of Catholic guilt all over these concerns, hinting at the deeper questions that most would rather hide. The show doesn't always hang together as well as it could and some of the targets (hey, yuppies are shallow and ruining Uptown!) are a tad easy, but Foster and the rest of the team here leave plenty of food for thought.
Molly, Jill Anna Ponasik's character in this song-cycle by Bill Corbett (best known as one of the writers on Mystery Science Theater 3000, though this is far from that kind of show) and Ralph Johnson, moves to New York from the heartland and then finds it difficult to catch her breath. It's not just the different pace of the new home, but the people, the lack of relationships and lack of meaning that keep her finding her way. Give the creators credit for not giving Molly a schmaltzy lover to make things better. Instead, it all comes from within. In this case, from within Ponasik's remarkable performance, which starts with her clear voice and extends to her expressive performance – one that lets you see all of what she sees, even though the only thing on stage is the performer, clad in a paisley sundress and black sneakers. Loss of Breath is a short piece, but evocative enough to stay in the mind after other, flashier shows, have faded.
The Minnesota Fring Festival ran from August 2 through August 12. For more information, visit www.fringefestival.org.