General 8-7-2004

Daily Fringe: Val Valentine

Val Valentine has written her take on "Before Dark" at the Minneapolis Theater Garage (also read about Goddess Menses, "No Exit," tequila, and other things Fringed).

Thursday, August 12

“Before Dark” at the Minneapolis Theater Garage

performed by The Live Action Set

Spanning the seasons of the year, the four players and one pianist of “Before Dark” entertain exquisitely. From discomfort to amusement, the audience experiences a range of emotions. Describing it would be like narrating a dream. The associations with each scene were probably very different for each viewer, which makes it a crazy group experience. The play didn’t tell us what to think, but it made people consider, question and imagine. I will attempt to convey what I saw, but it might sound really weird. If it’s indecipherable by words, then I suggest you just go watch it.

First a clowny pirate sat on my lap and took a photo before the show. When the show began, two gals were on the scene. One I shall call Blue and the other Militant. Blue is a momsy type with saucer-wide eyes and a perky step. The Militant wears strips of bullets across her chest and likes to play with guns. The pirate sang a pirate song atop a ladder. Militant walks across stage carrying a wad of beads and feathers behind her back. The rear curtain opens, revealing the guts of the theater and a swimmer, being eaten by fish. Blue lights put everything underwater. The swimmer’s guts fall out and credits roll across the curtain. The live pianist is a gorgeous addition to the cast, and provides a brilliant soundtrack.

Next, a mailman delivers the other characters mysterious packages. Then Blue carries mounds of luggage to set up a sales display. It’s a well-choreographed moment. There’s a dance scene between her and the Militant and then she takes it all apart. Soon she’s riding a stationary bike to rapid piano accompaniment. Blue makes a mental to-do list. Militant builds a bomb from a computer motherboard and a ketchup bottle. Blue girl speed feeds her babies and mops up. She answers the phone call from Militant, as “suicide hotline” and Militant spreads her message of doom. Blue hangs up and the mailman delivers her a scissors. Blue walks in playing cello to her fetus. Militant takes out the fetus and puts a bomb in the womb. Pirate pops out of a trunk playing a mouthorgan and chooses a co-pirate from the audience. He them puts his new pirate in the trunk. The mailman tries to woo Blue but she piles her suitcases on him. There is a final fight scene, and then it’s Winter.

Strange, no? The flow of seasons managed to cinch the randomness together. By the final scene, I was extremely moved. Maybe I was in a weird mood, but when the snow was falling and the piano playing gently, I felt a little teary. The back of the program says, “Live Action changes you.” It’s true.

Wednesday, August 11

Goddess Menses & the Menstrual Show

The eleven young women in this show must’ve had a great time putting it together. Though occasionally getting down and nasty, overall this well-rehearsed show educates those not in the know. That means, if you have a daughter who hasn’t started her period yet, this would be a good, dramatic way to introduce the Goddess Menses. Or to introduce the universality of the bloat/crave/bitch factor to that special man in your life. Or to get your brothers to leave you the hell alone when you’re weepy during a Saran Wrap commercial.

Costumes of red tops and black bottoms were consistent, with individual touches for each performer. I saw a similar effect in “Everything and Nothing,” but this was way more showy. Here they used sequins, feathers, pants or sexy tights. The live piano and band added to the showiness, too. Dance and song was well choreographed, while other sections felt spontaneous, like when the girls told stories about different aspects of ‘Bloody Mary’s wrath.’ My girlfriend who came thought it was like a younger version of “The Vagina Monologues.” These tales often dealt with most embarrassing moments, from a high school point of view.

A hilarious skit about a health teacher instructing girls how to insert a tampon alluded to adults’ discomfort in relating the facts of life. In not naming the parts of female genitalia, adults can instill a sense of shame in young girls. I think it would’ve been a good time to at least brush on the safe sex message (as opposed to abstinence education) but perhaps that was sufficiently implied by the sketch. The actress who played the instructor has great presence, and her Julia Childs-ish accent was spot on.

“Goddess Menses and the Menstrual Show” is a little mean to men and hermaphrodites on occasion. I don’t think they mean it, though. Nothing wrong with poking some fun; they even parody the idea of girl power itself, with a skit called “The PowderPad Girls.”

Variety-show quickness made the hour fly by. The house was packed, and high energy always makes theater more engaging. I think it’s safe to say that most young girls can relate to the awkwardness of the scenarios presented by Youth Performance Company. Bring your brothers, too.

Tuesday, August 10

“Unemployable,” presented by nimbus, directed by Cockroach

In the Heart of the Beast Theater sits at the edge of the Fringe, but its insides make it one of the most pleasant spaces. With a capacity of around 300, there’s plenty of room. The players really have to project, though, to get their voices to carry up and out. “Unemployable” features Tom (Sam Ahern) blowing various interviews, from high-tech jobs down to the Qwik E. Mart. “I’m an alcoholic. I’m petty, vulgar, forgetful. I vomit and have seizures from anxiety.” His partner Mary (Maranda Cohrs) is a couch potato actress supposedly trying to land a role.

Each character embodies the self-absorbed, neurotic tendencies of negative artist stereotypes. They miscommunicate constantly, and are in competition with each other more than acting as a team. Jesse Kuntz plays the “Man,” who interviews Tom at each job, finally coming alive as a freaky, tweaky glue-sniffing boss at a factory producing prosthetic limbs. The costumes are the highlight of the show, as the props get incrementally weirder, incorporating swim flippers, a pink flamingo and Elvis sideburns. Though the play touched on the concept of complete freedom overwhelming the average person with possibilities, the performance was more geared towards revealing absurd contradictions in relationships with others and one’s self. The play started a little late and ended late, which wasn’t a good thing due to HOTB’s distance from other venues.

Fast Fringe 2: “The Ecstasy,” presented by The Spanish Ladies, directed by Bryan Bevell

The format of this one appealed to me. Five shorts could offer a few different perspectives on theater. I mistakenly thought each playlet would be a different set of actors; maybe that’s why the tone seemed to vary little throughout. Four of the five plays were macabre humor: a young man tries to decipher his crazed mother’s rantings; literary characters wait in limbo to be summoned by the muse; a killer for hire explains his job to his daughter; a telephone customer service company antagonizes its customers. The monologue where a murderer explains his motives flows well from the daddy/daughter sketch, but its serious tone and lack of any physical action is an awkward changing of gears. Colleen Barrett has a rich, melodic voice that she molded to each separate role with aplomb. Overall it reminded me of playacting for forensics speech club in high school.

“Everything and Nothing all at the Same Time,” created by the company, directed by Jon Ferguson

I was infatuated with this premise from the start: aliens come to earth with the mission of experiencing the range of human emotion in one hour. I liked the sci-fi silliness of the concept. The players wore black and white uniforms and glossy white wigs. They invited the audience to offer definitions of emotions, and then selected five at random. They managed to portray joy, fear, anger, grief, and love. Anger came easiest; eventually, love conquered all. The synchronized dance was sweet; the long pauses were not. Supposedly knocking out the lights was a great technique to throw the whole theatrical system into question. There was a lot of body humor, and physical action like running and wrestling. Each actor exuded a good amount of stage presence and charisma; I thought the two ladies in particular gave outstanding performances (Katie Kaufmann and Blythe Staley.) The improv element threw me off; I was expecting something more structured based on the synopsis. I can see how it’s tricky, in that improvisation is a huge challenge that might work out smashingly or easily fall flat. The audience really got into it, though, and helped the company pull it off with only a few awkward blank spots.

Monday, August 9

“No Exit,” Jean Paul Sartre, performed by Tenth Muse, directed by Amanda Sterling

“No Exit” is indivisible from its creator, Jean-Paul Sartre. He wrote it while at the height of his fame as a philosopher, coining existential angst. He felt scrutinized under the microscope of society. All actors share the sentiment. Do actors lose their consciousness of acting when offstage? Can they ever be true and real, or is it always a performance? I tend to think that we’re all fronting. Each word we say on any given day is our own personal feint. Our mannerisms and our movements determine who we are; when we’re gone, as in, dead–like the characters in this play–the judgment of our lives is left to those whose lives we’ve touched.

Garcin (James Snyder) duly invokes the spirit of Sartre in his performance. Tense, quivering, supremely self-conscious, he bolts around the stage, pacing it like the cage it is. Inez suffers her final resting place coolly, with a mysterious, sociopathic glint in her eye. Played by Stephanie Kulbeik with deadpan seriousness and wicked poise, Inez throws the scene into turmoil with her uncanny notion of her fellow prisoners’ deepest vulnerabilities. She establishes her presence so firmly that by the time we meet Estelle, (Sarah Chamberlain), it’s no surprise that she wholly falls for her.

Who is the torturer? Each person expects to come face to face with the devil. While watching the last wisps of their earthly presence be erased and forgotten, they struggle to figure our why they three are chained together for all eternity. They suspect they’re in hell. Before they can confirm it, they must find out why they are here: the eternal philosophical question. Each contains a dark secret for which they believe they should be punished. Dialogue twists that get to the nitty-gritty quickly reveal Sartre’s insistence on revealing doom as preordained.

The players express each character with superb body language. The clever portrayals become necessary as the language of the play has become antiquated, with phrases like, “I haven’t any idea,” “I shan’t’ and “Cad!” Its consistency allows for some entrance to another era, though it takes awhile to get used to the style.

The lack of mirror as loss of existence metaphor makes for a useful plot device. When Inez tells Estelle, “I will be your mirror,” and then fawns over her completely, it’s not enough. Estelle needs the man in the room, Garcin, to complete her identity. Suddenly the trio forms an unlikely love triangle that will likely shift dynamics as long as they continue to validate each other’s existence.

“No Exit” is pretty heavy/abstract in meaning, which leaves it open to interpretation. As far as on stage chemistry, the Tenth Muse participants were convincingly magnetic and also repellent.

Sunday, August 8
Teatro del Pueblo presents Tequila

Under the spell of opening nights from Friday, I was determined to hit up at least one more show opening. At Fringe Central I had run into Billie Konze, a neighbor from college days, who told me about her show, Tequila. I read the description and figured it would be family-friendly, so I brought my boyfriend and his family who were visiting from out of town.

Normally I’m averse to musicals. They short-circuit my attention span. The song parts in Tequila were minimal, though – one at the beginning, middle, and end. Sophia’s song gave me goosebumps, actually. Ms. Konze can belt it out, too.

Director Nikki Bettcher found ways to use the entire stage effectively at Howard Conn Fine Arts Center. Live music from a band at the edge of stage created a festive atmosphere. A bar, a table and an easel were spread out to give depth to the imagined space. When singing or dancing, or in a time-stop sequence, the players used the lip of the stage, drawing in the audience.

The tale takes place in a bar in Puerto Vallarta, a city celebrating its centennial in 1951. Barkeep Braulio (Paulino Brener) swaps confidences with Marty (Billie Konze) over some of the strong stuff. Marty’s left her husband in Chicago; Braulio’s about to leave his lover to go back to Brazil. Elena (Joy Chavarria) owns the bar. She is an artist struggling to perfect her vision, while harboring wounds from a fragmented friendship with Frida Kahlo. As they swap stories, in bursts Sophia (Silvia Pontaza). Her husband’s dead, and she fears she’s the prime suspect.

Once all the plot gets established, the performance offers up some of its finest, funniest moments. Pontaza doubles as a suspicious, cigar-wagging detective; Brener plays a spastic religious woman spreading the word about malaria. Under red lights in a dreamlike sequence, spitfire Elena takes on Frida in a paint-off, finding peace within herself to accept her own glory.

The tale sews itself up squarely in the end, with a tidy, happy ending for all. Isn’t that the way of most musicals? The story, written by Pontaza, pays close attention to historical details, like the ending of WWII and what that meant for working American women. Teatro del Pueblo’s production presents feel-good elements alongside life’s intense difficulties, with a modest amount of song in the mix.

Saturday, August 7

In Defense of SiN sold out. Granted, I showed up 3 minutes before the show. (Parking = considerable logistical challenge.) They even turned a performer’s mother away at the door. So it goes on opening night at MN’s 11th Fringe Festival. Intermedia Arts is in the heart of it, too, serving a dual purpose as theater/gallery; there was a visual feast up in there. Minneapolis 55408 is a neighborhood of diverse, talented artists. Eric Touissant’s graffiti / realism drew me in big time. Lucy Dinsmore’s dark oils slurp at the light in a pretty, hungry way, and I noticed Jun-Pierre Shiozawa sold his “Bar”: congratulations! Victor Yepez can weld; Lisa Moll’s pinup girls look sharp in shards of colored glass. Timothy Piotrowski understands that there’s something in sepia photography beyond nostalgia; but there’s too much beauty in Ben Olson’s scared little boys. Lyn-Lake serves up a good ‘hood. (Tatters is having a 50% sale for two days. The proprietor generously hooked me up early. I wasn’t spozed to tell you that. Sorry?)

Brave New Workshop’s foyer is lush red, but cramped while waiting for tickets, which really need to be given out sooner! (I had to pee but the doors were closed.) With such potential for chaos, between show comings and goings, I can see the need for the system that’s in place–but still.

A Year In the Life of Slippery Goodstuff. I checked it out because I love hip-hoperas. Suddenly I realized that the rapping cowboy from Olympia could only be Chris “Sandman” Sand, friend of my childhood friend Ryan’s bandmate Jen. (Ahh, La Ronde-iscal theme was to turn up later…) DJ/Louise/Cindy Wonderful (Jonah Carpenter) rocked the house, had a great falsetto and dance moves. The trucker Donald Smucker (Shawn Parke) narrated the tale sprung from a young man’s unconscious. Or his loins…Yeah , so the guy’s so stung when his wife disses his male organ that he loses his memory. He then reinvents himself sexually (in the purple stall at Roxy’s in Bismark) as a rapping porn star. He then joins the midwest cocaine/country music scene, and becomes a jizillionaire off selling his primo potent semen. (Graphic prop provided.) A lot of giggling burbled throughout from the cutie Uptown audience, but the most fun was when chick band Scream Club incarnated via karaoke and freaked on his ass, literally, to bring his memory back so he could embrace his George “Smallness.” Love yourselves, babies, cuz you’re beautiful! They came a long way from Olympia, WA to play here, so give ‘em props. They’re putting it ALL out there. Consider yourself warned…

Even trickier parking by Loring Playhouse. The players from Shantz Theatre of Chicago are doing The Van Gogh Exhibit by Matt Fotis. What an ear for dialogue! Conversational flows naturally between angry mommies in a museum, a husband and wife, two brothers, a father and daughter. Everyone’s talking about the Van Gogh show: “Have you seen it?” “Where’s the shipment?” “I’ve never met a Stan.” Highly quotable piece, smart, philosophical. I found myself struggling to figure out who is Carl, is he the guy in the news, and why? If I’d only known it was a circular tale, like David Hare’s The Blue Room. Once I realized everyone was playing multiple characters from scene to scene, I enjoyed trying to make the connections. Players did, actually, do a wonderful job distinguishing variable characters through costumes, speech patterns, and mannerisms. Relationships are tenuous, vibrant things. The Van Gogh Exhibit explores twelve of them with insight and wit.

They’re really cracking the whip on the out-of-towners. They all performed short bits from their shows Thursday night at a pre-fest opener. By the end of opening night at Fringe Central, the kids were looking a bit haggard. Still going, though: love for the lights and the action will recharge the batteries in any performer. Many more shows await! The Punk piece will likely be cool….More soon.