Over the course of many conversations in theaters, bars, cafés, and impromptu sidewalk gatherings during the Minnesota Fringe Festival, I’ve been reminded of just how much genuine congeniality and support theater artists here give one another. Maybe I’m young and maybe I’m naive. Maybe I haven’t yet endured years of feeling irrelevant and struggling to pay bills; but all the clichés about the cattiness of theater people, or the viciousness of show business? I just don’t see it here. Or, when I do see it, it’s overshadowed by a much warmer and much brighter authenticity that radiates from the countless artists we have here who are in it for the right reasons.
And while I’ve been struck by all these warm-and-fuzzies over the course of the Fringe, I’ve also been struck by just how little of this warmth, support, and enthusiasm artists tend to give themselves and their own work. I can’t tell you how many times I heard actors or directors say in the run-up to opening, “I don’t know…” or “we’ll see…it’s looking pretty rough,” when I asked them how rehearsal was going. Several of these shows ended up receiving encore performances, and all the ones I saw had more than a little redemptive value. These disproportionately negative feelings about one’s own work are part and parcel of creating art, but I think they can be exacerbated by The Fringe, as the creation, rehearsal, and tech periods are so rushed.
For the final weekend of Fringe, I decided to theme my final blog post with the ultimate Fringe approach: just go out there and see what happens. Rather than using a pre-selected theme to choose my shows, I simply chose three I had been wanting to see, and let themes emerge naturally. (Or not. In a fit of artistic rebellion, I’m daring my editor to stop me).
My day started at The Southern, with the highly celebrated “De Hjertelose,” a devised piece created by WAR Theater and Kimberly Miller. Drawing on Norse mythology, the ensemble created a profoundly resonant piece with startlingly little. Making efficient use of an axe handle, some scarves, a musician, and movement sequences, WAR and Miller conveyed a simple and profound story of loss and reclamation in a style that recalled Peter Brooke’s “The Mahabharata” which played at The Guthrie earlier this year. The story’s heroine, Ingrid, reclaims her power from a deceitful husband and a vengeful giantess — but unlike the feminine heroes of many other mythical retellings, does so without losing her compassion and sisterhood. The actors and musician remained onstage throughout the show in a presentational style, though this never distracted from heat of the moment.
I could hardly have chosen a more different second show, “Anarchy! (a handbook),” an experimental piece created by Carleton professor Roger Bechtel and an ensemble of young actors from Carleton and the Twin Cities. Here, the presentational style was much more clearly in the forefront, with pre-show actor warm-ups, and Bechtel himself sitting at a tech table next to the playing area throughout. This absurdist (and surprisingly heartfelt) romp through Anarchist political theory revealed both the power and limitations of theory, how it can both inspire action and prolong inertia. Watching the director and the actors watch each other was at times as much fun as the action on-stage. The audience was never allowed to forget that theater is a constructed event — which, perhaps, exposed something about political events, too. The show managed to stay buoyant despite the rather heavy political events it reckoned with, and left us wondering what side we will choose if, or when, the scale of political violence in our country escalates to a point that forces us all into action.
My day ended on a far more somber note, with Underdog Theatre’s “Odd Man Out,” at the Rarig Arena. It was also the only show of the three that did not have an explicitly presentational style. I give writer/director Kory Laquees Pulham a lot of credit for staging a fairly conventional family drama at the Fringe, which, because of the small amount of props and set pieces allowed, tends to favor more experimental and presentational pieces. The story was mostly told as a living room family drama, but for a few movement sequences, which were chillingly poignant. (In one, the protagonist James’ father confesses his infidelity to his son and pleads him to not reveal it to his mother, while the two sit back-to-back, giving each audience member in the arena theater a uniquely different vantage point during a pivotal and heartbreaking moment). A family drama staged in such a minimalist and muscular style reminded me of the Tony-winning “A View from the Bridge,” an Arthur Miller play usually staged in a realist style that celebrated director Ivo van Hove stripped down to its bare essentials in London and New York several years ago. Although some scenes in “Odd Man Out” dragged on, with repetitive arguments piling on top of each other, Underdog’s second major piece in the Twin Cities, after a major debut earlier this year, promises more excellent work to come.
So, OK, fellow artists, I get it. We’re humble Midwesterners, and making art is fraught with worry and messiness. But I say, let’s give ourselves a little more credit going forward. Having some more swagger doesn’t make you a jerk. You know what I’d love to hear next time I’m at the bar after a show? “Hi, I’m so-and so- My show is called such-and-such, and you should come see it. It’s awesome.”