I woke up this morning with a slight hangover. That's nothing unusual at Fringe time. What is unusual is that this slight hangover is from two beers. Two. And they were pilseners at that. I recall the Fringes of my youth, in which I could watch shows all day, drink all night and still get up fresh-faced and rosy after three hours of sleep and actually go to work. Now Fringe Central is too loud, I can't eat greasy food after midnight, and I'm still lounging around in my pajama pants trying to recover from two beers.
Tell me truthfully: am I old now? This is my 14th Fringe in a row, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm out of the game, if I've seen it all already, if I should settle in for old-timey classics and yelling at youngsters.
It's a strange year at the Minnesota Fringe. Well, everyyear is a strange year at the Minnesota Fringe. The random nature of the lottery and the normal nature of randomness assure that there will always be some weird confluence of ideas that looks like a deliberate trend but is really just reality tickling our stupid brains with its usual pantheon of false patterns.
This year, the false pattern that my particular brain is spotting is one of repeats. The Fringe has a new Executive Director and a new Artistic Director and they doubled down this year on making room for a huge number of out-of-town artists to join us, all in an effort to shake things up a little bit. Yet this year's festival seems full of remounts and rehashes. A quick trip down the show list turns up a number of shows that we've seen before in the Twin Cities: Broken English, Mother Tongue; Book of Shadows; Eddie Poe; MEDUSA (no, not the other Medusa); Right, Wrong or Bomb!; The Buttslasher; and The Complete Works of William Shatner (abridged).
This doesn't include continuations of Fringe franchises like Couple Fight, Fringe Orphans andThe Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society. Even the amazing Fruit Flies Like a Banana, the touring artists that blew us away with their fresh, inventive style a few years ago, have built their show in the new Family Fringe around recycled bits from their past performances. And, of course, there is the usual selection of mashups and remixes and "something, something THE MUSICAL".
This year, in a vain attempt to stave off my impending slide into aging irrelevance, I have been making the conscious effort to see only new work and out-of-town acts that would be new to me. See, I'm hip. I'm fresh. I'm with it. I'm down with what all the hip and cool kids are doing these days. What's that? Nobody says, "hip", "fresh" or "with it" anymore, except with eye-rolling irony?! Damn it!
But, still, you gotta try, right?
And, yet, as is the nature of randomness, the schedule that I made for the particular day that Minnesota Playlist has me reviewing shows is a list of performers and companies that are all pretty familiar to me.
Walking While Black in Moscow
Touring artist Les Kurkendaal has been stopping by our Fringe Festival for years, and he's always got more gossip to share. There's nothing revolutionary to what Kurkendaal does. He's a solid storyteller, and he's not going to pull out any new techniques or tricks, he's not going to try to blow your mind with boundary-pushing, genre-bending, experimental wordplay. His observances of his time walking around Moscow as a gay black man (after being warned that Russians hate black people and despise gay people) are funny and interesting, but not particularly revelatory. He's not seizing on any grand metaphor or honing his delivery to a razor edge. He's Les. And you just plain like Les.
The experience you get with Kurkendaal (even if it's your first time seeing him) is like sitting down with an old friend that you haven't seen in a couple of years as he spills all of the stuff that happened to him in the intervening time all at once. The last time we caught up with Les, he had just taken an ill-advised cruise with his longtime boyfriend and the longtime boyfriend's extremely white and conservative family from Bakersfield, CA. Now he blows into town and announces that he's got a new boyfriend and that they took a trip to Russia together?! OK, Les, we have to get a drink so you can explain this all to me. And then you'll take off, and we won't hear from you until you blow into town again with another weird turn in your life. But, you know, it's kind of fun, because it's Les. And you like Les.
This show is full of chock-a-block clowns that I know. Kaitlen Osburnis a graduate of the famous Dell'Arte International school (as well as being the Fringe's Audience and Volunteer Services Director). Neal Skoyis a former Ringling Bros. clown (and you might have also seen him as an amazing village idiot at The Renaissance Festival). Mohamed Yabdri is an international clown and performer (and, if you're from Algeria, you will definitely know him as one of the stars of a hit TV series there). Together, they are a delightful trio of red-nose clowns going about their normal jobs. It's not really clear what those jobs are. It doesn't really matter, though, because, being true clowns, they're going to get distracted from those jobs and almost immediately plunge down various ridiculous rabbit holes, winding up in absurd circumstances. There's a trick with a rope (both real and imaginary). And masking tape (all real). There are spray bottles to the face. And waffles. And a long fart joke. 'Tis a silly place.
The show begins and ends with a quote from Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, and I'm still not sure I understand why. There's not much in the way of plot or character development (though, a regular non-clown does get dragged into their world and experiences some kind of personal epiphany), but that's all beside the point. Watching these three accomplished physical performers careen through bit after bit is enormously satisfying, and the show pulls out several genuinely beautiful moments that you don't see coming until they land. There's no revolution in clowning or overly-intellectual deconstruction of the art here. There is nothing more than the pure, simple delight of watching three incredibly good clowns practicing their craft with precision, open-heartedness and joy.
J. Merrill Motz (or just "Motz"--which rhymes with "boats"--as most people know him) has been incubating and growing under the Fringe's warm glow for years. His specialty has been crafting one-man shows around ridiculous, somewhat contemptuous characters and slowly peeling back the top layers to reveal the sadness and vulnerability that the ridiculousness and contempt hide. This reached it apotheosis at last year's festival with his production of Knifeslingin'and its protagonist, the ever-enthusiastic, over-the-top, know-it-all knife-fighting instructor Ted "Critter" Montana (Motto: "Crap happens. Bethe crap.") Every year I have seen Motz at the Fringe, I have thought, "Wow, that's his best show yet," and he has learned well how to balance the nutty comedy of his characters with a genuine empathy for their struggles.
This year, though, Motz has completely flipped his script and delved into a corner of the horror genre. At first blush, his character Chester (who prefers his nickname "Chewie") seems like a pretty normal guy. He's kind of a schlub; he's kind of a sadsack; he's probably like a lot of guys you know. Chewie volunteers for a study run by the dating app that he's been unsuccessfully using for years and finds himself interacting with an AI voice running him through a series of "yes or no" choices. Then things get weird. Then they get more weird. Then they get dangerous.
There is a "horror" tag on the show, but the scares are not so much the in-the-moment, "oh, shit, don't open that door!" variety as they are the morbid dread from an episode of Black Mirror. As the layers get pulled back on both Chewie and the AI he's interacting with, you realize that the alienation, resentment and violence that are uncovered there might be hiding inside any number of those normal guys you know in the real world; and, even worse, that the manipulations of technology-driven media are cultivating and refining that alienation, resentment and violence into something even more malevolent.
Comedy Suitcase is definitely the most "establishment" thing that I saw today. Levi Weinhagen and Joshua English Scrimshaw are old favorites around these parts. They're both witty and entertaining and more than willing to physically hurt themselves in ill-advised pratfalls. Basically, they'll do whatever it takes to make sure you have a good time. When they suddenly came off the Fringe's waitlist a few weeks ago, they decided to lean into the panic that comes from not really having anything prepared at the zero hour and see what happens.
What you get is a ramshackle cobbling together of ideas as the duo desperately tries to run out the clock. They do dumb prat falls, recite an FDR speech, bicker, do more dumb prat falls, dance, bicker some more, and do some more dumb prat falls. If you've seen Comedy Suitcase before, you might notice that they are, in fact, recycling bits from past shows, and it's certainly far less polished than their usual fare. You might take all this as negative criticism, but it's not. I had a genuinely good time watching two guys just try to fill time.
OK, now I'm cheating. I didn't actually see this show on the day that I was assigned to cover Fringe, but I would be remiss if I didn't say something about it. I just had a day of shows that was basically like hanging out with my old buddies from college. It was a good time. Some of them are doing some cool new things, and some of them are doing the same old thing they always did, but it's all cool. We know each other. We speak the same language. It's comfortable. We all need that from time to time.
However, in the true spirit of the Fringe, of seeking out newer and weirder stuff, there is nothing more Fringey than this show, in the best of all senses. Yes, Hamlet is played by a real chicken. That, in itself would be Fringey enough. I could imagine a decently funny rendition of the show with a bunch of actors playing Shakespeare straight with a hen clucking contentedly away in the middle of all the sturm und drang. But, in Grand Island Theatre's production, the chicken is just the start. This is merely the baseline of its far-out trip. It only gets weirder from there.
We've seen just about every dumb thing draped over Shakespeare in an attempt to make him "hip," "fresh" and "with it" again, and it always feels forced and disjointed, so this show has decided to run with it and cram every dumb thing you could layer on top of the bard into one ridiculous stew. In this scene, all the characters are in a kiddie pool. This scene is sponsored and therefore features elaborate product placement. This scene is cut down to only the lines spoken by the least important character. And then there's the famous "To be or not to be speech," which is the most brilliant Dadaist thing I have ever personally witnessed. At every moment, I thought, "OK, that was great, but they couldn't possibly top themselves," and then they did!
After that performance, I ran into Fringe ED Dawn Bentley, and I told, "That's it! Fringe is over! They just perfected it. We should all just go home." My girlfriend said, "They just proved it's time for me to hand it all over to the younger generation. I'm done. It's their world now."
I realize now that the members of Grand Island Theatre are about the same age as I was when I first started producing at the Fringe. You know what? My old ass is OK with that. It looks like the future is in good hands.