VETERAN COMEDY PERFORMER JOSEPH SCRIMSHAW has concocted a show that could have been nothing more than an elaborate Mad Lib version of Shakespeare. He invites an audience member onstage — the night I attended, the show was The Tragedy of Steve — and asks them a series of questions, such as “What is your tragic flaw?” The answers are then woven into Scrimshaw’s faux-Shakespearean play.
Done uncleverly, the results could have been a show where everything was already settled, but for a few nouns and verbs provided by the hapless audience member. But Joe Scrimshaw is anything but unclever — he’s always had a taste for cerebral, if frequently daffy, comedy, and his Fringe production is no exception. So, what you do get is a five-act play, done in under an hour, that not only satirizes the conventions of Elizabethan theater, but also is constructed from the audience’s suggestions, and to an extent that is occasionally dazzling. The climax of each iteration of Tragedy of You, for example, must be built from two random words chosen by the selected audience member; it demands a sort of improvisational virtuosity which, alone, is worth the price of the show.
Moreover, the entire world of the story is created from the audience’s suggestions. It’s hard to detail precisely how this is done, except by example. So, during the Tragedy of Steve, Scrimshaw’s audience volunteer of the evening was asked for something he found especially important; his response: “baseball.” When Scrimshaw then started the show (in which he plays every character, with live musical accompaniment by Dennis Curley), Steve was king, and his kingdom was one entirely informed by baseball: the castle was designed to resemble the Metrodome, and warriors carried baseball bats rather than swords. Certainly a fair amount of the show is preset — who lives, who dies, and when a bear appears. But it’s all transformed, and frequently warped, by each individual show’s Mad Libs game to such an extent that it’s unlikely two shows will remotely resemble each other, but for the most superficial elements of plot.
Tragedy of You is dazzling experiment in improvisation, buoyed by Scrimshaw’s exceptionally quick wit. But it’s possible to get so caught up in the sheer hilarity of the thing that you miss the really notable thing about the show — that it is purely a theatrical creation. It’s discouraging how often plays that have no real reason for being plays are staged — they might a well be short movie scripts. But this production couldn’t exist as anything but a live performance in front of an audience, both because it relies on the crowd participation for the basis of a story which is, then, invented and elaborated spontaneously as we watch. This is something both of the Scrimshaw brothers, Joesph and Joshua, deserve credit for: they continuously remind audiences of just how fun live performance can be, even when it is wildly experimental. You’re not likely to see a more daring piece of theater this year; you’re also not likely to see a more entertaining one.
(Watch video taken from the Tragedy of You Fringe-for-All show below)
Fringe performance details for this show:
Joseph Scrimshaw Production’s Tragedy of You is on stage at the University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center Thrust for two remaining shows: August 5 @ 10 pm and August 8 @ 10 pm.
Check back regularly throughout the Fringe Festival for more short reviews on mnartists.org, sent in from our intrepid performance critics.
About the author: Max Sparber is an arts writer and playwright, as well as being the editor of the MnSpeak section of Secrets of the City and Daily Glean writer for MinnPost. Max is an active blogger, and most of his own projects, as well as his arts writing, can be found on his blog at http://www.sparberfans.blogspot.com/.