I had agreed to write on Tuesday night’s programming of the Minnesota Fringe before some unforeseen circumstances forced me to actually perform in the show I directed. So, needing to be at The Illusion Theater for an 8:30pm performance anyway, I decided to adjust my schedule and take some neighboring productions also performing at the Illusion.
Is this a “conflict of interest”? Well, no, if only because (regardless of what tumbles out of my keyboard following this) these three productions are winning efforts that are totally worthy of your time and attention. And I’d say that about the other shows at the Illusion I didn’t see, or really about any other production in the festival. I’m not a big fan of the “see it/skip it” binary, especially at Fringe. So: see these, see some others, buy a 10-punch pass to help your wallet.
That said, I still found some interests conflicted.
First of the night was Petunia and Chicken by Animal Engine Theatre Company, a charming two-person rendering of Willa Cather’s work. Their “About Us” section says their work tours to schools (among others), and it shows; they use no set, employ very few props, and work entirely within a medium pool of light for the hour. Their attention to world-building feels calibrated for the attention span of a younger audience, but it gets a bit heavy-handed for my adult brain.
Joining the two performers this night is the ASL interpreter, and he becomes my conflict of interest for the hour. I wonder how many ASL interpreters working in the Twin Cities know how good they are at acting, because this guy is excellent. And if one thinks about it for too long, it makes sense: interpreters need to be fundamentally articulate, engaging, and calm storytellers, all qualities that theater artists should bring to their work (or at least not take for granted). Maybe the interpreter wasn’t so much a conflict of interest as a safety net; when the show fumbled a bit in articulation, engagement, or calm, this guy was here to catch my attention and lob it back onstage.
Next up was “Mom?”: A Comedy of Mourners by Box of Clowns, a three-clown meditation on the passing of a family member. This hour’s conflict of interest was unavoidable: the members of Box of Clowns and I went to school together in California, and I was lucky enough to see the very first iteration of “Mom?” back then, when it was a ten-minute play. How do I engage with it now?
I’m finding, as the show goes on, that I’m unable to check the luggage of this friendship at the door and to be able to appreciate this play anew, like the roomful of other Minnesotans. Instead, I see the lineage of prior drafts and their predilections as performers. I remember what that red nose means to each of them, and how each one of them is actively playing into the nose or away from the nose in their own unique way.
I remember these huge breakthroughs two years ago when Jeff (Frank) first glued a mustache to his red nose, or when Anna (Mango) began speaking in gibberish. I don’t know where I am during their show, but it hardly feels like I’m in the theater with them this Tuesday night. And when the show is over and the Minnesotan audience applauds and walks away smiling, my brain can only process the disappointments. A muddied back-and-forth here. An inarticulate turn there. Some quiet bits that didn’t need to be quiet. I’ve seen them play better than this, and I think they know it too.
Last of the evening was High Flight by Mike’s Brass, an interdisciplinary showcase of choreography by Windy Bowlsby, text by Ben Tallen, and live music by a five-piece brass band. Their work circles around the disappearance of Mike Bratlie in 2012, and the emotional-logical reverberations thereafter. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bratlie once and to sing in one of his arrangements (“musician” was one of many titles the man could claim), and I find myself imagining how differently this production must hit to a complete stranger to the Bratlie family than to someone much closer to them.
This hour’s conflict of interest came from the interdisciplinary nature of the work. The piece presents very capable text, dance, and music, but the three remain rigid and separate throughout the night. It’s almost as if the disciplines are fighting for naming rights to the show (a “dance show,” a “music show,” etc.) rather than relaxing into a beast that is at once none of them and all of them. The diligence of the artists seems to be working against them; the personal dilemma is more cerebrally described than emotionally explored, the choreography concerned more with poise and technique than free expression. It is good, compelling work, I just want it to be more unhinged.
But again--see these, see some others, buy a 10-punch pass to help your wallet.