Puppets, Costume Racks, and Swordfights:
Theatrical adaptation is an enticing yet tricky endeavor. The story is already set (hooray, less work!) yet it comes with the risks of offending nitpicky purists, or merely repeating what’s already been done. Each year the Minnesota Fringe is awash with adaptations of low and high cultural artifacts, from Carmen to Buffy. On Day 4, I set out to see the most ambitious and promising Fringe adaptations, and came away with some helpful insights about why the form is uniquely well-suited for The Fringe, and what ingredients can make them soar.
“Much Ado About Nothing, told by Dogberry and Verges,” by Rough Magic Performance Company
Retelling a classic story from the perspective of minor comedic characters is always a good move (forget Rosencranz and Guildenstern, can you imagine a remake of Pirates of the Caribbean told from the perspective of these guys?), and while this version of “Much Ado” doesn’t literally center the clowns Dogberry and Verges, the story is certainly told in their spirit. The two characters open the pre-show as two “Fringe volunteers” standing on either side of a costume rack: one is a sassy Fringe veteran, the other a naive college intern. Whatever anxiety the audience has about comprehending Shakespeare (much less have something clever about it afterwards) is put to rest by the relatable, humorous back-and-forth between the volunteers as they nervously buy time for their tardy actors. The costume rack is put to good use throughout the play, serving both as a touchstone for changes in time and place, as well as for costume changes for the versatile cast of six, streamlining the story and giving the players plenty of opportunities for physical comedy. What most impressed me was how Rough Magic has managed to adapt a Shakespeare play into an accessible, hour-long story without losing the original text’s nuance and subtlety; this may be the gold standard of Shakespeare at The Fringe. Many productions seek to make The Bard more accessible with distracting gimmicks and over-the-top cultural references, but Rough Magic does so by the merits of clear, swift storytelling, playful puppet interludes, and well-defined, relatable character relationships. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that the company has perhaps the most talent-laden crew in the whole Fringe; if there are any magic bullets in theatre, a well-workshopped script and good acting are certainly in the arsenal.
Takeaways: create a frame story with relatable, contemporary characters; balance heady language with physical comedy; hire top talent.
“Swords and Sorcery: the Improvised Fantasy Campaign,” by Bearded Men Improv
“You lost me at ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’” a friend replied when I told her about this show. I’ll admit, too, D&D-themed anything is not my jam. But this is different; this is Bearded Men Improv. The Beards’ reputation precedes them as improvisers--they’ve been performing together since their college days, and routinely sell out Huge Theater in Uptown--and this show does not disappoint. The group has somehow turned countless hours of watching LotR, GoT, and staging swordfights in their parents’ basements into something useful: a serial improv show that has audiences literally jumping out of their seats. It’s quite a treat to see such a raucous crowd at Theatre in the Round, often the site of much more sober theatre during the “regular season.” I was a little worried as I took my seat in Theatre in the Round that I’d get lost in the medieval board game references, but they’ve taken only what’s necessary from D&D. The show is done like most long-form improv, with the team creating the scenes and characters as they go; but a microphoned Dungeon Master, wielding the trademark 20-sided dice, adds wrinkles to the story at his or the players discretion. For example, when a gallant, dragon-slaying knight pauses the action to ask the Dungeon Master for a Charm, to negotiate his way out of being killed by a sly huntress, and the Dungeon Master reports that the dice has rolled a 3 (out of 20), the knight turns and says, “c’monnnnn, you don’t realllly wanna kill me, do you?” Similarly, when a 14 year-old apprentice Knight finds himself in combat with The Big Bad Guy, and his attack rolls a 18, the crowd jumped to its feet cheering the underdog as he sliced and diced his way to victory. The D&D world gives the players a plethora of stock characters and scenarios to play with, and the Dungeon Master’s dice ups the drama and the comedy whenever called upon.
Takeaways: all it takes is one simple component of a game to heighten drama; choose a world with plentiful stock characters; men in cloaks reenacting boyhood fantasies is intrinsically funny.
“Skins,” by Collective Unconscious Performance
Like “Much Ado,” this piece makes good use both of a framing narrative and puppetry. This adaptation of “the dark family of Cinderella stories” begins with lead Emily Zimmer not as a princess, but as a Scholar giving a lecture at a conference on Fairytales and Mythology about the violent patriarchal pathology of fairy tales and the need to reinterpret and reimagine them. Though perhaps a touch didactic, Zimmer performs the bit humorously, and we’re off to the races with a clear understanding of the show’s central conceit. Supported by a basket of sleeve puppets, Barbie dolls, and (twice in one day?!) a costume rack, and playful sound design, the actors tell a simple story that, like “Much Ado,” resists simplistic reduction. The fairytale is buoyed by surprising interludes, like naked Ken and Barbie reciting a scene from Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” and the Princes, Queen, and Prince, busting out into a red carpet runway bit inspired by the reality show “Drag Race.” Because it’s clear from the beginning that 4th wall-breaking interludes are part of the show, they’re never distracting, and allow some breathing space from the fairy tale, which is, even though cleverly retold, inevitably formulaic. “Skins” had us all laughing and swooning, and proves Zimmer’s Professor from the top of the show correct: in fairy tales, there’s plenty of value to be mined beneath all that patriarchy.
Takeaways: use sleeve puppets. Costume racks rock. Break the 4th wall judiciously. Establish your conceits early.