The Eternal optimist


As a creator myself I find it hard to balance my love for art and my distaste of things I don’t like. I know that is a messy statement, but I think art is never seen unbiasedly nor should it be. When people say they don’t like country music, or Transformers 3, or musicals, I can’t help but wonder if that's true. I dare to ask WHAT don’t you like. Breaking down the mechanics of any one expression of art can certainly open up topics for debate but when we are juggling what's good and bad through the lense of personal bias and construct, well then who really knows what they like and don’t like?

Our frame of reference is all we have when diving into a creative work and that involves so much; Our history, the history of the piece, the venue, the story, our friends, etc… The sheer odds that all of these variables can line up seem insane. Which in a way is what we love, the ability to debate opinions between bands from the 90’s and Sondheim's quieter works until the sun comes up. The Fringe is the perfect place for all these thoughts and feelings to happen.

What I have always been good at is finding the redeeming qualities in life, from restaurants to shitty bands. If someone else in the world likes it, then I want to see what they see, because I don’t feel art exists on just one side of a good/bad line. What I did this year was pick four shows that did not have stellar ratings, or had no ratings at all. I attended these shows with the frame of reference that I am going to find all the things I love about them. Sure there might be holes in the story or a few lines dropped, but so what. These artists worked hard on their creations, and I want to see what all the fuss is about.

US-52 South

A short and dramatic description about a van and a bomb intrigues my late night CSI mind. But how can they get this done on a small scale production? First I walk into the Strike theatre which is a cool repurposed warehouse in the Thorp Building. A perfect throwback to a beatnik era of artists finding venues in unlikely places. The show is Eli played by director Susie Campbell with just a phone and a stool. Without an idea of how this unfolds she starts calling people she loves. Through these conversation we hear the story that unfolds and the interpersonal relationships that are most important to her in what could be her last moments.

What I love is the creativity and clever use of minimalism. By using the phone we are easily able to access these characters as if they were there. I was impressed by the mundane nature of some conversations which, in my opinion, is how the phone actually works, once you have gotten over the whole bomb thing. We learn about Eli by piecing her life together by what is most important to her. You learn about love, family, disappointment, and her ultimate fears which got her into this predicament.

The show was accompanied by realistic sound design which had a great subconscious effect. I thought this piece was creative and had an amazing concept and even had a couple of on-stage cameos. I stayed curious to see the end - emotional realism in an exaggerated world.

The Intrepid

Walking into this show I had no context of what I was going to see. Which was no problem thanks to the detailed program. The Intrepid is a cultural and historical interpretation of the story of Mohammed Yusuf Khan. This is a true story about a peasant in the 18th century who raised himself to high rank in the military, ultimately leading the resistance in Southern India from the English and French. All of this I did not know, which the creators assumed hence putting the story in the program. Similar to a biop movie, we know what happens as it is history. This brought me up to speed immediately which allowed me to take the show in as it was intended.

The show was filled with characters, actors, dancers, drummers and colorful costumes. It was visually a beautiful show and kept my eyes busy. What I took from this piece was more than just a telling of a story, I took this as a window into a community I did not know. Produced by the Minnesota Tamil Sangum (MTS), I could see that this was the work of an organization and a whole community of people coming together. This would explain the enormous cast. The Intrepid was not designed to audition and hire actors to rival all other shows, this was a piece that gave stage to a group of people who share a love for their culture, and a love for each other. And the only way to handle the fears of being on stage is to be there with your friends and family. This is why I loved this piece. Art is available for anyone who wants it and a lottery style festival is the perfect way to give everyone a chance. I learned new history about another culture, I heard fantastic Indian music, and felt for a brief moment a part of the Minnesota Tamil community.

PHD (Po H# on Dope) to Ph.D. How Education Saved My Life

This show did not have any ratings because it was the first night. So for my third show I was pleased to review something new, and Dr. Elaine Richardson put on one hell of a show! A one woman piece cataloging the journey Richardson has taken through good and really bad. It opens with a song that immediately brings us to Cleveland Ohio in the 60’s as a kid. With no set she created the world for us to enter. The next hour opened up an unbelievable story about what Mary has been through and put herself through.

She tells graphicly about her parents fighting and how she tried drugs with her friends. That lead to the life of a hooker with multiple pimps, time as a junkie, and the struggles of having children in the middle of all that. Her story is one of hope and perseverance and I couldn't help but feel that if put in that situation that I couldn’t make it out. Per the title she has worked her way to a PHD in English and by her own gumption changed her entire life. Elaine sings and dances and cries with every inch of her heart and soul. This performance was breathtaking and magical. A delight to all who attend.

Blackbeard’s Revenge

We have all heard these stories of Blackbeard in the movies and books as a kid. So at first it seems redundant to tell this story again. But being the optimist I am, I was excited to see what if could offer. Immediately walking in I am greeted with a live acoustic trio in full costume and instruments of a shanty town or a shanty ship. Music became the theme as a unnamed beautiful singer came on stage to perform old traditional pirate songs. Acting much like a greek chorus, unseen by the characters, the songs act as an emotional interpretation to the moods of our pirates.

This show was a full cast of committed and era specific characters. The costumes were elaborate and on point, as well the accents and verbose old english phrases. Minimal but specifically detailed set pieces created a deeper level to get lost in. But the real gem of this piece is the alternate turn in the story. I won’t give away too much but who says you can’t change history? I’m sure a lot of people but I don’t think Blackbeard will mind.

My intentionally biased reviews aim to find the best parts of any artist's creation, and by my mind these shows had a lot to offer.  

Headshot of Benjamin Kelly
Benjamin Kelly

Benjamin Kelly has been a performer and producer in the Twin Cities for 15 years. He has toured with a number musical acts such as Sexy Delicious and John Mark Nelson. Benjamin has created many theatrical works such as Chewing Marbles and Bear & The Barrel. Currently he is the director of the Good Arts Collective, a member driven arts organization creating productions and community, which we founded in 2015.