Editor's Note: We've asked 11 writers (and members of the Twin Cities performing arts community) to chronicle one day each of the 2014 Fringe Festival. Today, former Fringe Festival Communications Director Matthew Foster. Tomorrow, local actress and singer Sara Ochs. New articles posted at 12 noon each day.
I spent thirteen years on staff at Minnesota Fringe, mostly writing all the copy and doing all the graphic design. I made the tickets and T-shirts. I found Wobbles. I taught marketing workshops. I wrote the press release that went out after the I-35W bridge collapsed the day before the festival started. Craig VanDerSchaegen and I once won an award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits for the website.
I wrote the first producers’ manual on the airplanes and trains needed to go from Minneapolis to Antwerp and back again. One year, there was no documentation for front-of-house volunteer training, so I stayed up all night writing it. I recruited bloggers to contribute to the site and, when we wisely decided Fringe shouldn’t be in the publishing business, found a new home for them at the Daily Planet. I quit three times and was laid off once.
Back when I felt I had something interesting enough to put on stage, I wrote, directed and produced some of the festival’s top-selling shows.
But 2013 was my final year on Fringe staff. Now I’m beginning a new chapter between me and the festival by breaking the organization’s most sacred taboo for staff members. I will state, publicly and unambiguously, exactly what I think of Fringe shows.
For me, this is like leaving the shtetl and ordering a bacon cheeseburger. This is like celebrating my re-election to Congress by downloading Grindr. This is like buying my first baggie of meth for Rumspringa.
It's very exciting. Exhilarating, really.
General observation #1: I have never seen a show at 5:30 on the opening day before. I feel weird for not feeling weird about it.
5:30 p.m.: “The Tourist Trap” presented by Ghoulish Delights
I really like Tim Uren’s work—and Tim Uren himself (we’re friends in real life). This show is another step in Tim’s efforts to develop horror as a theater genre and “The Tourist Trap” is a success.
It’s also a good model of how Fringe’s technical and time limits can sometimes cramp the style of even the most seasoned festival veteran. I kept wanting more, both as an audience member and because the story really wants it: a more elaborate set, more lighting and sound design, more makeup gore, more time to develop relationships between the characters and, overall, more chances for Tim (and his kick-ass ensemble -- my God, Charles Hubbell plays some good creepy) to create the all-consuming sense of dread Tim excels at creating. While Fringe audiences are accustomed to filling much of that in with their li’l noggins, it may not be enough in this case. The story wants more blood than you can mop off the floor in a 10-minute strike.
The concept behind the show is intriguing and I talked to Tim about where he might take this assemblage of characters and the world they inhabit. “The Tourist Trap” takes place in the Black Hills of South Dakota and makes reference both to the area’s history, which was more or less a nightmare from 1860 to about 1910, and to the Lakota nation, who have myths that give Eastern Europe’s most gruesome fairy tales a run for their money. Tim has found some fertile ground to till, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where these characters go.
For me, this highlights the most invaluable part of Fringe for people who are more than casual theater attendees: We get to check in on our favorite artists. We get to see what they’re thinking about. We get a snapshot of their development. We get to trace the progression of their artistry from year to year.
(For any of you who are newcomers to Tim’s horror work, make sure you go to the Twin Cities Horror Festival in October. Ghoulish Delights’ “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Jekyll” is tremendous and you’ll love it. It was among my, the audience’s and the critics’ favorites at the 2011 Fringe.)
General observation #2: When people who know you only as a festival staff member see you without a staff T-shirt, they don’t see you, period. People I have known for years walked right past me tonight. Many people. I am invisible. I am a ghost. I am invisible. I am a window unto other worlds.
7:30 p.m.: “Brazen Theatre’s The Miss Longview Texas Drag Pageant” presented by the Producer’s Association
There really, really, really isn’t a shortage of cultural products that attempt to reach some sort of campy singularity by fusing the over-the-top culture of Texans with the over-the-top culture of gay men. Still, “Miss Longview” does its best to be a Large Hadron Collider of Southernness and gayness by ramming the two together and attentively documenting everything that flies out of the wreckage.
As you might imagine, I’m having a difficult time summarizing the plot. There’s a drag pageant, of course, but then there’s a couple of alien abductions. And an FBI agent gives a local police officer all the documents needed to create a new identity, no questions asked. And the subplot about one of the characters applying to grad school is resolved in less than fifty syllables. Not lines. Syllables.
And out of nine characters, there’s only one drag queen, which seems a rather manifest departure from the original pageant idea altogether. And the boyfriend of the drag queen has slept with everyone else.
And a guy breaks out of the state penitentiary in Huntsville where he was serving a nine-year sentence for sodomy, except that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas struck down those laws eleven years ago. And even when sodomy was illegal in Texas, it was a class C misdemeanor, so even though the law was unjust and hateful, no one convicted of “homosexual conduct” in the last several decades would’ve received jail time.
And then Matthew McConaughey shows up, I guess.
Plot points zoom about at wild trajectories, bouncing off one another, disappearing and reappearing at random, sometimes simultaneously occupying the same point in space-time. It’s easier to accept the show as an extended metaphor for quantum physics than narrative.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some sharp jokes. There are. There is talent among the cast, too. And I thoroughly enjoyed watching the sheriff and construction worker make out. But the single best idea in the script—drag Marilyn Monroe singing an original country-western song about her alien abduction experiences—is dismissed as too ridiculous. No! No, no, no! Too ridiculous is the perfect amount of ridiculous for a show about a drag queen pageant in Texas! And I think I speak for all of us when I say I want to see a man dressed up like Marilyn Monroe sing a country-western song about alien abduction. A number like that would have given “Miss Longview” a massive injection of overblown camp directly into its heart.
Quel dommage, ça.
General observation #3: Ultra Passers looooooove to gossip about every aspect of the festival. Holy crap. I mean, I knew that before. But I didn’t know it. Those box office lines are a Bacchanalia of opinions.
8:30 p.m.: "O.I.N.K. — Our Island Nation Kambubaqing!ngh" presented by Paper Crane Theatre
I’m really disappointed that the pronunciation of “Kambubaqing!ngh” follows no orthography system I’m aware of. The Q alone could have been any number of affricates, voiceless or voiced dorsal consonants, or clicks, but they basically just use it as a placeholder for the General American aspirated [k], so points off for that.
Quibbles aside, I think those of us who measure Fringe in geological epochs should earmark Paper Crane Theatre and the members of this cast for future reference. Put them in the tag and release program, if you will. There are some outstanding performances here and, if my hunch is correct, this will be a show many of us look back on in a few years and think, “Ah, so that’s when I first heard of them.”
“O.I.N.K.” is something of a live-action cartoon. The show itself is not cartoonish—silly, yes, but not cartoonish. But, as in acting for animation, every member of this cast has a freaking great voice and their performances are electrified by it. When Lee Johnson introduces us to the spoiled young Prince, it’s astonishing. And the voice Corey Boe developed for Captun is gorgeous and I’ve decided I need to move into an apartment with a fireplace so that he has a cozy place to read Gabriel García Márquez and Fyodor Dostoevsky aloud to me in the wintertime.
The script itself is okay, and I mean that as praise. From what I can tell, writer-director Tristan Tifft is a young guy, and Fringe scripts written by young guys often make me want to stab myself in the eye. Not so with this one! The story is a goofy take on colonialism, monarchy and... you know, this is verbatim what I jotted down: “I’m not sure what’s going on, but it’s holding my attention. Not entirely sure what else to write.”
Yet I left this show hoping the same company will be at next year’s Fringe. I don’t have that feeling regularly. So, yeah, Tifft should keep writing more stuff. And the rest of us should welcome the Paper Crane gang.
General observation #4: I miss smoking during Fringe. I mean, not really, because cigarettes make the inside of my skull itch and taste like hot ammonia. I don’t miss cigarettes. But I miss smoking during Fringe. Also, I forgot my flask. AMATEUR MOVE, FOSTER. JESUS.
10 p.m.: "What You Will" presented by Renegade Play Reading Company
Presented in tandem with “Twelfth Night” by Rough Magic Performance Company, this is one part of a double-production presentation (I guess that’s the most efficient way of describing it). It’s one Shakespeare script, cut into two parts and presented by two different companies on two different schedules. Yes. Kind of like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs trilogy. You see the woman from “Bleu” enter the courtroom where the divorce proceedings from “Blanc” are happening and it’s amusingly recursive.
The mechanics aside, this is a more straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare than the festival’s had in some time. Okay, well, maybe “straightforward” isn’t the right word. Higher fidelity. Because when you cram something like Shakespeare into two sixty-minute chunks separated by at least several hours (and often several days), it’s not going to be straightforward. There’s not zombies in this one is what I mean. And I heard no references to pop culture. And we should be thankful for that. Because enough already.
I won’t go into too much detail, only to varnish the production in a thick, even coat of praise. Each member of the cast deserves to be singled out: Sasha Andreev, Sam Bardwell, Alayne Hopkins, Catherine Johnson Justice, Katie Kaufmann, E.J. Subkoviak, Clarence Wethern and Emily Zimmer. Some are festival regulars but many are not. But they’re all very good actors and it’s a joy to see them in the Fringe milieu.
That’s my take on the opening day of this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival. Thanks for joining me on this, my Fringe anti-baptism.
Now go see shows!
Or don’t. My livelihood doesn’t depend on my enthusiasm for or your participation in Fringe any longer.