Editor’s Note: For everyday of the Fringe, a different writer will provide a kind of tour of their experience that day. More travelogue than criticism, you can find a new essay by noon each day and catch up on the whole package here.
My first day of Fringe began with an Itch and ended with The Fever. In between, there was Lockdown and Ricochet. And here I was trying to avoid the apocalyptic tone creeping in from all sides on the Internet these days. How did this line-up of shows happen to me?
But, before I go there, I want to say that I feel like the best thing about my experience of the Fringe Festival last night was that it wasn’t on the Internet. Could that be a new Fringe slogan? “The Minnesota Fringe Festival: It’s three-dimensional!”(You’re welcome, Fringe. It’s all yours.)
If you work at a desk at all these days, you’re spending crazy amounts of time in front of a computer screen, and if you’re participating in American culture at all, you’re spending even more time—binge-watching prestige television shows, catching up on the latest controversial thing that Trump said, clicking on that funny cat video your college roommate sent you. Screens, screens, screens.
In many ways, I have little opinion on the quality of the shows I saw. I just want to thank each and every person who worked on them for standing in front of me to do them. In front of me. In three dimensions. As the lights went down and the people came on stage, I could almost feel my brain unclench.
Rebel Without a Plan
For the first day, I picked all the shows I was going to see based on nothing but what looked good in that time slot. I ignored the advice of sticking in one neighborhood. (Twice I found parking spots directly in front of The Phoenix Theatre because I cavalierly went from the Rarig Center to Uptown, back to Rarig and back to Uptown again. Note to Fringers: It’s really not a big deal. I always had time to spare.) I ignored my own advice about having plan.
I just looked at the schedule and decided I didn’t want to see anything that talked about Donald Trump. Enough already. I also didn’t want to see anything that looked like a wacky satire, send-up, or mash-up or a biting comic joy ride. Also, because, Donald Trump. Everywhere I look on screens these days is Donald Trump—who is to me both a racist, anti-Semitic personification of the worst, most child-like parts of the American id and somehow, at the same time, a walking-talking wacky satire, mash-up, comic joy ride all his own. I don’t know how precisely that paradox is possible, but I wanted my Fringe experience to take me somewhere else.
Turns out I wanted to see some theater, in an almost classical sense. The first two plays I picked (Itch and Lockdown) both literally used the extremely conventional (and laudable) construct of locking some folks in a room and turning up the pressure on them. The last play I saw (The Fever) is one of those scripts that I’ve always wanted to see, by a respected writer, performed by a high-quality actor. Ricochet, in my 8:30 slot, is dance. Nothing is more three-dimensional than dance.
Do you want some recommendations? Dear World, I’m not a critic. I go back and forth on whether criticism is a necessary part of the art world, but I know that I would be mortified if I actually wrote something in the following paragraphs that an artist wound up quoting in their promotional material with the tag “MinnesotaPlaylist says. . .” I can’t stop you, but if you do, I’d like you to buy me a drink at Fringe Central please. It’s the least you can do to help settle my stomach. Honestly, I think anything that happens on a stage in three dimensions is better than anything you can watch on a screen tonight—even when it’s bad. I mean it.
Itch, by the way, isn’t bad. It’s actually not too different than a B movie horror flick that you might see on television—except its better because it’s live! There’s something awesome about watching the expert manipulation of blood tricks and gross-out effects live that thrills the bones more than when you see it on a screen. When you see it live, you realize how magic all this narrative craft really can be. And it’s more gross. Or, in simple language, blood spurting is fun. Blood! Fun! Lots of blood, and some cool fleshy stuff, and a really good use of cell phones as lighting equipment.
At one point, an actor drenched in blood crawls off the stage and walks slowly through the back row of the audience, stopping periodically to stand quietly over the shoulder of an audience member. I love you, Director, for using the three-dimensions of the space to creep me out just a little bit more.
There’s also something in this play that the writer of it might explore more—maybe elevate it from the B movie nature of it to something a little bit more, if he wanted. Something about the itch of jealousy, or love, or passion, or desire, and how that can spread like a disease, and what that means to be infected with passion that is motivated by something other than just the constructs of plot, and the need to have everyone be afraid. Right now, the script quickly settles into a fun, well-directed romp through the various excuses the company could find to use stage blood. It’s a delight. But I also did wonder whether the “itch” metaphor extended into something a little more meaningful. It isn’t necessary to enjoy the show but it did seem to me that it was there, somewhere, buried underneath the gore.
I chose to see Lockdown at 7 pm because I once almost wrote a play with a similar premise. Because I once almost wrote a play with a similar premise, I feel as though I shouldn’t say much about this play. I’ve been reviewed in the past by critics who thought they had a better play in their head than the one they were watching on stage, and I know from experience that when you’re thinking that, then you’re not watching the play in front of you. All I can think to say is that I would have explored power dynamics more than they did here. In Lockdown, they mostly explored the gun control debate and, a little bit, the motivation for different individual’s fear. They’re totally entitled to do what they want, so I’m going to leave it at that.
What’s the difference between post-modern and eclectic?
Ricochet had T.S Elliot poetry and dance. A cappella singing of music from the early 1900s, jazz dance, some recorded music from the early 1900s, some a cappella singing of what sounded like spirituals, a version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and even an excerpt from a song from the musical Hamilton. I have no idea what it added up to or was supposed to add up to. No idea. Can’t even speculate. Was it modernism, post-modernism, post-post-modernism, or just eclectic. No idea. But it was pleasurable enough to watch. (Side note: This is where the day pass idea really comes in handy. Don’t know if I would have made a point to see this, but I enjoyed watching it since I was there.)
Dancers have the best posture ever. Whenever I got to a dance show, I walk out wanting to stand more upright like they do. Oddly, on screen, that rigid yet relaxed posture generally conveys how robotic we all have become in some kind of dystopian future. Has anyone ever captured the true beauty of dancer’s physicality on film? Why does that gorgeous muscularity seem so dystopian on film? (Kevin?)
It’s nice to watch dancers dance while they’re singing too.
T.S Elliot poetry works really well with dance. It’s so muscular and fleshy, so flawed and sonic and mysteriously earthbound while attempting to defy gravity. I don’t think I’m recommending you see Cats. In this piece, they used the hard stuff like The Love Song of J Alfred Profrock and The Waste Land, but I will admit that it did make me wonder about Cats.
I really do wonder what all that stuff had to do with each other, Whitney Huston and T.S. Elliot and all of it. I’m not complaining; just wondering. If anyone has any ideas, please email me.
Wrapping it Up
Patrick O’Brien is a compelling presence on stage. Honest, easy, and powerful. The Fever is a dense tangle of words, philosophy, and economics, but O’Brien maintains a live wire-like connection to the audience, toggling between a barely controlled hysteria and an out-of-control hysteria. It was a monologue full of Marxism, even quoting and explaining passages from Das Capitol, yet it was the most emotionally moving piece I saw all night.
That said, I’m not sure it’s working as it should quite yet. I suspect O’Brien will refine how well the script lands as he performs it more. Something, on this first night, felt to me a little unmoored, as though he were still finding how precisely to modulate the “fever” of the main character. Or maybe it was late, and I was tapped out? Who knows. So many things can affect a live performance differently than those things on a screen that have been captured exactly the same way once and can be watched at our own convenience. Something in the script or the performance last night didn’t exactly work for me—which I say because I think I’m pretty sympathetic to the argument the script is making yet I also didn’t fully buy it.
Thankfully, I’m not a critic so it isn’t my job to figure out what or why precisely—not that the majority of critics in this town ever try particularly hard to “figure anything out” but still I always thought that was the job.
I finished the evening up at this year’s Fringe Central, The Republic, and enjoyed the satisfied but exhausted look on the face of the artists who I ran into there.
Again, let me return to my gratitude—whatever you did last night, you did it live and in person, you put yourself out there, and I am grateful to you in more than just a pro forma, isn’t-that-sweet kind of way. I am genuinely profoundly sick of a culture that is lived behind screens, where you can dehumanize or feel dehumanize so easily.
Thank you for making me feel more human.