I’ll take just about any excuse to hang out on a college campus in summer. For one thing, it’s a great reminder that I was in my element as a college student and I was a fool to ever graduate. For another thing, it’s a uniquely low-pressure environment. When most of the students are away, a college campus is a silent, sprawling citadel of potential, a hub of academia put on pause.
Pedaling up to the University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center for a 10pm Thursday Fringe show felt like an especially rarefied experience. I didn’t encounter another soul biking up the steep hill from River Parkway or on the outskirts of the campus. The Rarig, though, hummed with activity. The steps outside teemed with people leaving the 8:30 shows, people heading into the 10 o’clock shows and costumed characters handing out flyers for future shows. It was an oasis of artistic energy in the desert of summer at the U.
I decided to ease my way into my late night Fringe agenda with Comedy Suitcase’s Comedy vs. Calories: FIGHT!, partially because sketch comedy is a familiar fit for late-evening viewing and also because I’m a sucker for a catchy premise, and actors striving to burn off a Happy Meal’s worth of calories over the course of a performance is a pretty good one. I liked the idea of watching three comedians exhausting themselves physically at an hour when a good bit of the audience was probably getting drowsy. It was a solid pick, an appropriately energetic, charmingly ragged production that captured the spirit of opening night.
The show opened with Joshua English Scrimshaw, Levi Weinhagen and Andy Kraft shoveling McDonald’s down their throats, an act that clearly – and rather hilariously – was not included in the rehearsals. The troupe’s visible discomfort at scarfing food they’d presumably never go near in daily life generated the kind of genuine, unscripted laughs that I’d hoped would be a hallmark of the late shows. The whole show had an endearing looseness about it. Much of the physical comedy was stuff that couldn’t be too tightly scripted. Heck, one sketch was literally just a bunch of people playing dodgeball on stage.
It all seemed to dovetail nicely with the 10pm audience, many of whom were, judging by the pre-show chatter, Fringe aficionados on their second or third show of the evening. That’s a lot of theater to take in on a Thursday night, especially if you’ve already spent weeks or months prepping for a show of your own. The bleary-eyed, half-capacity crowd at the Rarig Thrust looked more than willing to sit back and let the silliness of three guys cracking jokes while working out wash over them.
For my part, this was my first show of the festival, not to mention one of only a handful of Fringe shows I’d ever seen. I was bright-eyed and happy to find Comedy Suitcase digging for a bit more substance amidst the chaos. The highlight of the show for me was watching each man take center stage and deliver a monologue about his personal relationship with physical fitness (striding on a stair-stepper all the while, of course). Weinhagen tied his love of The Biggest Loser into his own recent massive weight loss. Scrimshaw reflected on the pain and pleasure of being the last kid picked for grade school sports. Kraft flashed back to the number one sports role model of his youth: Spider-Man. Each monologue was funny, sure, but they also dipped into deep wells of intimate, relatable humanity. Looking around the Thrust, I could see that connection registering on a lot of faces. Funny premise aside, I’d wager that the things said in those monologues will be what most of the audience remembers about this show. Well, that and the bit at the end when the sweat-soaked performers ran through the crowd giving people hot, moist hugs.
The show wrapped up around 11 in the most appropriate way possible for the first late shift of the Fringe: with the performers visibly spent and gasping for air. Scrimshaw underlined the point with a frenzied “It’s Thursday night! GO HOME!” I took his advice and strolled back into the stately ghost town of the U of M, feeling all the more inspired to pedal hard on my ride home.