General 8-2-2003

The Fringe: Ongoing Coverage

Kim Surkan and Jakki Spicer will be providing their insights and opinions, their perceptions and raves and gripes, about a wide range of Fringe events. Stay tuned for daily coverage!

Pieces are posted sequentially; scroll to the end for the latest from the Fringe!

Fringe: The Buildup

Kim Surkan

About this time every year bits of colored paper start floating around the Twin Cities. It’s what I call The Fringe Fest Handbill Phenomenon, the valiant attempt of over 1,000 artists to put their respective shows at the top of each Fringe-goer’s must-see list. These scraps can be found in coffeeshops, bookstores, galleries, libraries, co-ops–anyplace with a bulletin board or a vacant bit of countertop.

As July wears on, the flurries of handbills evolve into a veritable blizzard; unbidden, they make their way into my pockets and turn up on my coffee table at home. The piles become increasingly unruly, a symptom of something gigantic approaching. I can feel it coming.

So the Fringe Festival begins. At some point I stop shuffling through handbills in the vain hope of getting organized and once again finding my coffee table. I grab a highlighter and head out to a local café for a latte and an official Fringe program. In less than 24 hours I will be at the first Fringe show of the 2003 season. Time to make a plan.

There are many ways to “do” a Fringe Festival; the trick is to figure out what works best for you. Some stats: 162 different shows, 20 locations, 60-90 minutes per show, 10 days to soak up as much performance as possible. In the five years I’ve been fringing (is that a word?) I’ve observed some radically different approaches to show selection. Here are a few:

The Inertia Method: Pick a venue known for comfortable seating and find a chair you like. Stay there for ten days. Highly popular with couch potatoes.

The Dart Method: Tape the Fringe schedule to a dartboard. Blindfold yourself, and throw as many darts as you like at the board. Go wherever they land. Caution: Clear all living creatures from the vicinity before trying this.

The Eavesdropping Method: On the first day or days of the Fringe, lurk around some of the venues with a notebook and write down what people say as they come out of shows. Check facial features for smiles or looks of disgust. This method is somewhat flawed in that it is most successful in determining what NOT to see; the hits can sometimes be hard to get into later in the run.

The Stalker Method: Find an interesting-looking person or group of Fringe-goers and follow them. See what they see. This is a good method for the indecisive.

The Interview Method: Ask people you see what they have been to, and whether they liked it. Then you only have to decide whether or not to trust the advice of a total stranger.

The Review Method: Read your local paper for the critics‚ idea of what’s good and what’s bad. As in the Interview Method, you‚ll still have to decide whether or not to trust the advice of a total stranger.

The Classic Method: Read the program and circle what appeals to you. Go to as much as you can.

The Fanatic Method: Buy an Ultra Pass, choose one show in each time slot and SEE THEM ALL. Caution: Even for veterans, this method has been known to cause burnout.

However you decide to make your picks, remember to HAVE FUN! It’s what the Fringe is all about. . .

The Good Parts: A Celebration of Literary Sex
Hardcover Theater

Jakki Spicer

After the cast showers us with a smattering of titillating, overlapping snippets of literary smut, the narrator assures us that, yes, this show is educational and, yes, he is certain that we are here for the higher callings of edification. Certainly no one would be in attendance for such prurient reasons as pure arousal. By which we are certainly meant to infer that yes, indeed, we would be.

This tension of hiding our pleasure gives The Good Parts its appeal; it behaves not unlike the lover who is advised by Ovid to tease his amour, never rushing to the pure animal lust of the thing. Don’t misunderstand—the excerpts director Steve Schroer has chosen for his production are spicy, and some should arouse a tingle in the loins of all but the stony or dead. Nevertheless, they are tempered both with humor and not infrequent reminders of the prudish desire to cover up that lies alongside the craving to display in the history of sexual writings, like antagonistic but ultimately passionate bedfellows. When the cast members, within their first five minutes of being on stage, undress before the audience, it is not skimpy black negligees they reveal, but comfortingly chaste white pajamas. And this, somehow, is completely sexy. Perhaps it is the special appeal of Minnesota modesty, but here, it works.

The show is preformed on a sparse stage, with nothing on it but bright red folding chairs and music stands to hold scripts; the show is a series of dramatic readings. And the costumes, as noted, are nothing more, or less, than white pjs. But the actors, although occasionally erring on the side of hamminess, bring the lurid texts alive, igniting in the imagination all the tasty details of steamy sex scenes, from 1001 Arabian Nights to Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The Good Parts does a bang-up job of reminding us that, despite the testimony of various obscenity cases, sex is not so much dirty and naughty as it is fun, and talking about it (that is, talking well about it) is fun – not as Cosmo talks about it, but as Anais Nin or the Earl of Rochester did, lingering over the surprising pleasures of teeth and tongue and flesh, rather than instructing us in glossy diagrams of what is sure to give him The Best Orgasm Ever.

If you’re looking to get lucky, skip the latest romantic comedy at the megamall, and bring your date to The Good Parts. For educational purposes, that is.

The First Day: Traffic!

Kim Surkan

On the first day of the Fringe Festival I belatedly discovered that not only are there more venues than there were last year, but they are scattered geographically farther apart. Given the additional complication of the Uptown and Loring Art Fairs opening on the same weekend, the practical result is that I spent more time driving in gridlock and trying to find nonexistent parking spots than anyone should have to on a Friday afternoon.

Moral: If you intend to see many shows in a day, double-check to make sure the location- and time-combinations are possible! Otherwise, stock up on parking karma. . .

Not following my own advice, my zigzag day began at the Jungle on Lake and Lyndale, where I stopped in to see Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Office. I’ll be honest — I chose it for its time slot — but in addition to being the very first Fringe show on the schedule, it was also amusing. Gurley Brown, for those of us too young to remember, was the “original Cosmo girl” and penned such favorites as Sex and the Single Girl and Sex and the Office in the early 1960s. The show is a campy how-to imparted from the author (Kirby Bennett) to Jane (Abigail Hoover), an aspiring young secretary.

Next I drove southeast to the Fringe’s newest venue, Pillsbury House Theater, on 34th and Chicago. My high hopes for Dominatrix Reloaded to be an edgy and alternative show were soon dashed, however — it turned out to be some less-than-inspiring skits loosely woven together by a group of improv performers.

Heading downtown in rush hour was no fun, but I had next chosen Tell Me on a Sunday, which just happened to be slated for the Illusion Theater (think Hennepin Center for the Arts, on the 8th floor). Pattie Nieman played Emma, a young English woman newly arrived in New York, in this musical show consisting entirely of numbers by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Despite a few opening show memory lapses, it was a very solid, connected piece using song lyrics to narrate the character‚s rather troubled search for love.

Parking tip for downtown venues: Rapid Park on the edge of the Warehouse District is a great cheap alternative to pricey ramps and lots if you don’t mind walking a block or two.

Zipping away and back toward Loring (did I really only have to pay a single greenback to park?), I managed to shoehorn my car into a semi-legal spot near Eat Street and sprinted to the Whitney main stage for Emma Goldman. Although I admit to having already been a Goldman fan and closet anarchist when I entered the theater, I would have been captivated by Catherine Elizabeth Johnson’s performance even had that not been the case. Her one-woman show was definitely the highlight of my five-show Fringe day; a good script and stellar acting should put this one at the top of everyone’s list.

By this time the thought of climbing back into my hot car and trekking over to Old Arizona had dulled my inclination to check out Rogue’s Harbor, so I put that on my list for another day and took a break at Dunn Brothers.

Picking up a compatriot at Intermedia Arts (hint: carpooling is another great option for tricky venue-hopping), I found myself back downtown a second time for Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf, the late show at Hey City downstairs. A great fan of these two icons, I was skeptical but ultimately won over by Kirsten Frantzich and Josette Antormarchi in their earnest portrayal of the legendary women.

So ended what was a rather long first day at the Fringe — humming Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” to myself, I finally headed home. Tomorrow, I thought, is another day.

Clouds and Taxidermy; The Art of Being (Psychotic)
Hungry Little French Girl Productions

Jakki Spicer

It’s not that I don’t appreciate unpolished amateur theater. One of my favorite performances, in fact, was a version of Iphegenia at Aulis performed by sixth-graders in their school gym. It’s just that one hopes for something redeeming in a play, whether it’s the script or costuming or set design or acting or lighting or ideas. Sad to say, Clouds and Taxidermy and The Art of Being (Psychotic) provide nothing convincing in any of these areas.

Well, to be fair, Sean McConnell and Craig Fernholz, the two actors in the first ten-minute piece (Clouds and Taxidermy), weren’t terrible; they just didn’t have much to work with. They meet on a roof in the middle of the night for no discernible reason, and proceed to display for the audience their respective characters’ states of being: one sane, responsible, and tense; the other a carefree nut-job.

One can only assume that this sketch is supposed to be a short meditation on the nature of sanity, or friendship, or betrayal, but nothing actually coheres. Why they are on the roof, or meeting at all, is anyone’s guess, and strangely, although there is a relatively lengthy discussion about the fact that it is not raining, the background track of rain never ceases.

The second, longer play, The Art of Being (Psychotic), does no better communicating its ideas. The story is of Max—convicted of murdering his wife and serving her to diners at their French Bistro—and the relationship he develops with Rosalind, his social worker in prison. While Amirali Raissnia, as Max, manages to put in a few good acting moments, the script leaves out so much information as to render the main points blunt and dull. Furthermore, the actors are at times inaudible, the innumerable scene changes often lasted longer than the scenes, losing any momentum the play might have had, and in one crucial scene, a vase of geraniums completely obscures the leading actress.

It’s easier, perhaps, to attack the little things—the stage lights coming on to soon or too late, the poorly fitting costumes, the inconsistent sound track. But what is most disappointing about these pieces is their rendering of insanity as nothing more than a cliched rehashing of what we already think we know. The insane can be charming, it is true, as charming and as civilized as Hannibal Lecter, but Anthony Hopkins has already played that out. And sometimes what is termed insane does just seem to be reasoning with an unconventional logic, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest already articulated that idea, not to mention Thomas Szaz and Michel Foucault and Sigmund Freud.

While there is yet much to say about insanity, these plays don’t quite get at any of it. If you’re interested in insane behaviors, difficult choices, and the pain of destroying that which you love, go see Iphegenia at your local elementary school.

Fringe Blog ˆ A Second Day

by Kim Surkan

Sometimes it is truly amazing what can be accomplished onstage in just 60 minutes; if the Fringe Festival is sometimes guilty of forcing its patrons to sit through new and unpolished work, there is also some very professional theater to be found on the program. “That’s MISTER Benchley to You, Mrs. Parker” is one such example. This two-person show is based on the enduring friendship between Robert Benchley (Edwin Strout) and Dorothy Parker (Carolyn Pool), literary figures who made names for themselves in the early part of the 20th century writing theater criticism in New York, first for “Vanity Fair” and then “The New Yorker.”

The personalities of these two figures make for outrageous witticisms that keep this show moving as it paints a portrait of Parker and Benchley’s unique relationship. The script is intelligent, and Matt Sciple’s direction makes the most of this tightly-written story. Both actors have previous relationships with the characters they are portraying, so the whole thing comes off as a far better and more refined work than most Fringe offerings. “That’s MISTER Benchley” is staged at the Loring Playhouse; the house is not huge, so get there early to ensure yourself a seat.

Another show worth seeing if you can get a ticket to it is “The Industrials,” a piece presented by the Ministry of Cultural Warfare. The show has been selling out at Intermedia Arts, a venue conducive to its multimedia format. “The Industrials” is based on actual films from the 1950s that might be best described as instructional cinema, giving audiences advice on going steady, how to be organized, how to interact socially so as not to appear a snob, nuclear safety, and much more. Cleverly, the group has minimized the actual footage to present a comic and critical view of American society in its theatrical enactment of scenes from the films by live performers. It’s definitely worth the trip up Lyndale.

For those interested in movement theater, “Heretic” is an interesting performance. Niki McCretton is back with her signature solo work after touring “Worm-Hole” across the international Fringe circuit last year. McCretton’s character has been exiled for her fanatical religious beliefs, and we watch as she attempts to fulfill her penance of filling a tank with tears in order to return to society. As always, her work relies on the development of ritualized movement, creating a language of meaning unique to the character’s isolated world: a thought-provoking piece.

Another one-woman show worthy of mention is “The Art of Ruth Draper,” a series of four monologues by Kathleen Douglass. Don’t go looking for a connection between the pieces, and keep in mind that all were originally written prior to 1935. These pieces aren’t earth-shattering, but from a historical perspective they are interesting and still speak to audiences today.

Shtick and Its Relation to the Unconscious

Partizan Players

Jakki Spicer

In his 1905 work Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud makes the unlikely connection between the high seriousness of psychoanalytic investigation and the silliness of comic one-liners. James Vculek, the author and director of Shtick and Its Relation to the Unconscious, returns the favor, introducing the figure of Sigmund Freud to the schlock of the Catskills, Summer 1928.

Shtick is, at times, little more than a Borscht Belt production itself, channeling Henny Youngman’s sensibilities and giddy, Yiddishkeit song and dance routines. And yet the introduction of Freud—an outstanding Richard Ooms in a campy, slightly naïve avatar of the famed psychoanalyst—is what gives this show its turn at brilliance. The plot centers around Jackie Witz (Ari Hoptman), a comic who has lost his gift for slaying audiences, and his agent’s attempt to bring his shtick back to its former vigor (“How long is your shtick?” Freud asks) with the help of Dr. Freud, author of that famous book on wit, and, Jackie insists, “the biggest sex quack.”

It is in this noted book (which, incidentally, is one of Freud’s least humorous works) that Freud claims incongruity is a main component of jokes, and Shtick makes the best of this apparent truth. Reviving the pleasures of Yiddish puns and mother-in-law jokes is one thing, but putting Freud on a Catskills stage is quite another. Reciting his texts as introductions to semi-amusing jokes is Freud’s attempt at shtick, but observing his obvious delight in what the audience finds incomprehensible is both painfully uncomfortable and very funny.

The editor of the English edition of Jokes, interestingly, admits that there are so many terminological difficulties within the text that translation is nearly impossible: “The German and English terms covering the phenomena seem never to coincide.” As Ooms’s Freud demonstrates, one could say the same for psychoanalysis and shtick. But it is in this lack of coincidence that the humor emerges. When Jackie jokes that something is meshuggeh, Freud responds by saying, “Meshuggeh is not a word I am taking lightly.”

There are some difficulties with the play, however. It is narrated by Molly (Kara Greshwalk), a young girl posing as a boy in order to get a singing waiter job at the resort, but it is not entirely clear why she is necessary to the play at all, except to introduce a female character into an otherwise all-male cast. . . . and a cross-dressing female at that. Molly is remarkably over-acted as well, while the other characters remain deadpan or, in Freud’s case, unself-consciously goofy. Perhaps it is merely another layer of incongruity, but it plays rather awkwardly. Still, this is the best crossing of Vienna and the Catskills that I’ve yet witnessed, and seeing Ooms’s incarnation of Freud is worth the trip in itself.

I ended my day back where I started, at Loring Playhouse, where I took in Outward Spiral’s Five Women on a Hill in Spain. The Twin Cities’ resident GLBT theater company delivers a solid production of this lesbian drama, but Claire Chafee’s play waxes a bit philosophical so it ends up on the abstract side. Vacillating between two distinct (and unrelated) lesbian relationships, characters ruminate on a female cosmonaut, writer’s block, a Mayflower suicide, and the meaning of life. Perhaps I was missing my roadmap to this lesbian odyssey.

Does this Monologue Make Me Look Fat?

Amy Salloway

Jakki Spicer

Subtitled “A collection of stories both horrible and hilarious,” Amy Salloway’s series of monologues delivers much more than one might imagine. Centered around themes such as overbearing mothers, failed relationships, and fat-positive workshops, these skits might have been yet another depiction of the sad mix of desire and desperation that “Cathy” comics seem to be tediously fueled on. But Salloway’s rendition of these emotions is hilarious, and that hilarity brings their horrible emotional kernel back to life.

Salloway’s sketches attempt to make sense of the world a single woman lives in, striving for something better than what she has, trying to understand what she wants, and to convince herself that she’s allowed to ask for it. But to describe it this way, without Salloway’s wit, humor, and stage presence, is to discredit it. Many such attempts, in their insistence that women need to build their self-esteem and take the world by the horns, inadvertently (one hopes) end up reinforcing that self-same lack of self-regard. The attempt to use the desire to overcome low confidence to forge a community between women, in fact, names low self-esteem as “woman’s condition.” And then, such attempts imply, to not take the world on, to not be some hybrid monster of Martha Stewart and Xena and Cindy Crawford (or is it Oprah Winfrey?), is to be betraying your feminine potential, to fail as a woman. Who needs it? Really, such happiness is completely overrated, particularly when it becomes another unaffordable commodity.

But Salloway manages, for the most part, to avoid this trap. Her use of humor is both honest and good-natured, and her portrayal of various characters, while not entirely nuanced, is utterly convincing. One gets the sense that, although they may seem a bit ridiculous or unsympathetic at times, Salloway admires each and every one of the characters she depicts. But it is the humor that makes these pieces work, and saves them from falling into a self-indulgent exposé of feminine woes. While Salloway knows how to evoke emotion on a serious note as well, it felt more manipulative when she did, like a womanly Stephen Spielberg tugging at your heartstrings. It is the humor of the horrible that Salloway is so adept at.

For instance, the opening monologue, “Moontime Prayer,” a reverent and distressed conversation with the goddess Uterus, delivered in Elizabethan English, is brilliantly funny. One needs expertise neither with Shakespearean prose nor pre-menstrual pain to appreciate it. And the longest piece, “Lesbian for a Weekend,” the story of the narrator’s weekend at a fat-positive workshop—really, it seems, more of an opportunity for a lesbian sex-romp—is radiantly rendered. From the surprise and discomfort of a straight woman at such a gathering, to the excitement of initiation, to the disappointment of being just one of the girls, Salloway uses humor as it should be used, to evoke emotions that are both surprising and somehow commonplace. The opposite of Brechtian theater, perhaps, Salloway’s monologues manage to familiarize that which might otherwise be strange, and to do so with a humor that makes a momentary community out of an audience gathered in the anonymity of darkness.