To me, Fringe is all about novelty. You’ve got known local artists using the shorter time slots to test out new material, up-and-coming companies trying to earn a spot on the Twin Cities map, out-of-towners hoping to give us something fresh, and audiences looking for a low-stakes way to explore genres typically outside their comfort zones. And the day pass ticketing system, which was rolled out last year, is quite the incentive - once you’ve seen that one essential show on your list, it is even more cost-effective to keep using that pass and stick around for something completely different!

In that spirit, I decided to structure my Monday evening around the new, hanging out at the Ritz Studio to see what three first-time Minnesota Fringe producers had to offer.

“Cocaine” by Cold Lake Productions

One thing you should know about that “First-time Minnesota Fringe Festival producer” tag on the Fringe website is that it doesn’t mean you’re about to see a bunch of rookies. Director Ernest Briggs and actors Joann Oudekerk and Richard “Doc” Woods have lots of experience on local stages, and for its first foray into Fringe, Cold Lake Productions chose to update a 1921 play by Pendleton King about two addicts in Lower Manhattan.

Although “new” might be a bit of a stretch here, “Cocaine” is a great choice for Fringe. It is very actor-centered, relying on minimal props, and is just a half-hour long, which creates a good window for a snack break before your next show (I recommend Maeve’s Cafe just down the street). The play is one you appreciate rather than enjoy, because it is a bleak and devastating look at addiction, poverty, prostitution, and depression (basically in that order). Woods is captivating as Joe, an out-of-work boxer, setting the scene and maintaining tension with a restless, twitchy physicality that puts the audience uncomfortably on edge before the play itself even begins. Oudekerk’s performance as Nora, an unsuccessful prostitute, is less well-defined. For a character meant to be older, wearier, and more desperate, there is a tentative side to Oudekerk’s movements that gets in the way of her chemistry with Woods. Despite the unevenness, though, the company brought a  century-old play to life with intriguing performances, which certainly hits the mark for a Fringe debut.

“Dame daDA & the Meta Show” by Nichole Hamilton

Dame daDA was a light, refreshing, fizzy beverage after the stewing tension of “Cocaine.” The show’s Fringe page promises audience participation, and lots of it. This is something that typically horrifies me, but in the vein of trying something new, I resigned myself and stuck around - and was very glad I did! It is true that there is ample audience involvement in the show, but Dame daDA extracts participation from her viewers with elegance and ease, and never forces it on an unwilling spectator. Her show is a bizarre alchemy of storytelling, stand-up comedy, charming conversation with the audience, and... ART(?). And though the title and premise may seem painfully pretentious, the experience itself was anything but. Think of it as a game show as seen through fun house mirrors, hosted by the emcee of a burlesque cabaret where the dancers never actually show up. Or don’t think of it at all, just come and see what happens - it is a hilarious, strange, and wild ride. I took home a plastic cow.

“The Well” by Coattail Productions

“The Well” was not the most polished of the three shows I saw last night, but it exemplifies Fringe in so many ways, starting with its very existence as a horror show being directed and acted by comedians from Fearless Comedy Productions and the improv community. Fringe is the perfect chance for them to try something new - and also the perfect opportunity to explore what works and doesn’t work in an unfamiliar genre.

The show takes place on the Scottish moor in a ruined abbey, where a group of raiders has taken refuge after being unceremoniously ditched by their other kinsmen. The setting is the first challenge in a small space like the Ritz Studio, particularly at Fringe. The titular well itself is well-designed, and the costuming is impressive, but the lighting - which needs to be versatile enough to work for ten other shows - just can’t keep up with the play’s need for gloomy, shadowy atmospherics.

The actors, on the other hand, were all excellent. Their performances, which were genuine and natural, made me curious to check out their skills in comedy... and also highlighted the fact that the script itself is rather thin. “The Well” is heavy on plot detail, but fails to be really, hauntingly scary. For me, what it lacks is any allusion to a greater existential fear - a new technology that could go horribly wrong, a psychological skeleton hidden in someone’s closet, or the dark side of a seemingly normal situation. Sure, wells could be creepy, but that doesn’t touch my personal experience profoundly enough to effectively give me the chills.

So what’s new?

By picking out some first-time Minnesota Fringe producers, I set myself up for the quintessential Fringe experience. I saw actors stepping out of their comfort zones, I spent an hour in a world of unexpected wackiness, and I ended up at plays that I otherwise wouldn’t have selected for myself. And all the bits and pieces that were rough around the edges were instructive. By paring down shows to their technical minimum, Fringe brings out all of the components that need to work together to create a successful show - and, because it’s such a simple venue and a short time frame, it’s easier to appreciate a production’s strengths even when one component is lacking. It’s a fabulous laboratory, and I was glad to see some of the new ingredients being added to the mix.