Fringe Days 2-4: 'We save the kindling for the Lutherans'

Categories: Theater
Nightmare without Pants.jpg
Photo courtesy Minnesota Fringe Festival
Nightmare Without Pants
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Joseph Scrimshaw and the Minnesota Fringe Festival go together like any two things that go together. Scrimshaw's shows have long been popular attractions, with the past two ending up as the most popular at the festival.

So it wasn't a surprise that the opening performance of his latest, Nightmare Without Pants, drew a massive audience. The slot, 7 p.m. Friday, was good, the evening sunny and warm, and the line threatened to snake around the Rarig Center.

Inside, they got what they came for: another fun piece of madness from Joking Envelope, as Scrimshaw's scary angry man from the Bureau of Alcohol, Taxes, and Feet forced our dreamer, played by Shanan Custer, to find love within 45 minutes or face the dark, pony-related consequences. It gets crazier from there, and features a scene-stealing performance from John Middleton as Beer Can Mouth Man.

Other high-profile shows drew strong audiences as well, such as the Peanut Butter Factory's Joe Dowling's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet on the Moon, featuring Kate Mulgrew as Lady Capulet at Theatre in the Round.

Christopher Kehoe's play merges the badly conceived production of the title with observations from a quintet of audience members, from a snooty critic (played by Kehoe) to a Star Trek: Voyager uber-fan (they exist?) to a seriously pissed-off actor stuck as an understudy and who is not at all impressed with the work done by his colleagues. 

The action "onstage" is absolutely mad, from the portrayal of the warring factions as humans and aliens live on the moon to the chintzy, sub-Space: 1999 robot that serves as the priest who helps Romeo while in need.

While that keeps the familiar action of the play loose and light, it is the observations from the audience that make this an absolutely winning play. Everyone brings different baggage and expectations to the theater, and these are deftly dealt with through the five characters. Sure, the critic is snooty, but he is trying to frame the play and the experience in a different manner than the feminist college professor. Meanwhile, Erin Denman's Fangirl speaks for anyone who has been desperate for an act to end as she watches the balcony scene's multiple fake endings while desperately waiting to use the bathroom.

Other shows from the weekend:

The duo in Scarborough Fair stay in character from before the beginning and until the bows for their send-up/homage to Simon and Garfunkel. Like a live-action Christopher Guest parody, the barefoot idiots here are so lost in their own world they can't see the absurdity of their existence. It's a piece that takes time to get going, but the two actors (Matthew Frazier Smith and Brendan Johnson) live the concept so strongly -- and sing the songs so well (the guitar playing? Not so good) -- that the charms eventually overwhelm.

Thank u for a funky time has a great concept -- using Prince's Purple Rain as a backdrop to a brutal breakup -- but fails in execution. Writer and performer Scot West starts out strong, building a connection in his life to Prince, but aside from occasional stray notes from the album, that side of the story disappears as West focuses more on the technological divisions between us, and the changes that time brings. All of these concepts are worthy, but they don't hang together very well, which makes the piece unfocused -- though it did make me want to pull out the old vinyl (with the poster!) I bought back in 1984.

Four Humors presents a good, but not great version of Voltaire's famous satire, Candide. The story about a naïve young man and his journey through a bloody "best of all possible worlds" still rings true today, giving adaptor Nick Ryan plenty to work with here. In fact, it's probably too much of a task for the time here, as it gets increasingly rushed near the end. A longer time frame would help not only the story, but would also give the talented performers more time to build on the funny-but-embryonic comedy.

The Music Box at the Rarig Thrust certainly is ambitious, as they present the skeleton of a fully fledged musical during its one-hour run. The trouble is that the show is so sketchy that important nuances in the plot are tossed aside to get to the next song. It doesn't help that the acting is variable, ranging from fine to stiff to dreadful (the singing, thankfully, wasn't a problem; each actor sported strong pipes). The music makes up for part of that (though a terrible mix Sunday made it hard to understand the lyrics over the overamped orchestra), as creator Elliott David Graber has a good story about finding true love in Depression-era St. Louis to tell, and can craft fine songs that showcase the cast's strong singing skills. I think there's a good show lurking here, but this is a case where more would be more.

Finally, Kevin J. Thornton is an odd man, and I say that with all the love in the world. His skewed vision of life is all over Strange Dreamz, his musical storytelling piece at the Theater Garage. Starting off with his first experience of male strippers, via Real People (a segment that had a profound impact on me as well) and running through adventures with video cameras, a straight employee of the Twin Cities' "gay entertainment newspaper," conservatives in his home town, and finally a touching tale about his grandfather, Thornton brings supreme confidence to the stage that is absolutely infectious. In a good way, of course.


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