Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

I actually have some history with this text — there was a little black book in my father’s study when I was growing up that had a translation of this, that I was obsessed with for about a month, even trying to use it as the basis for a short story (which was, no doubt, a significant step up from the Dragonlance novels that were the basis of everything else I wrote at that time). The thing that struck me when I heard about this project was that it’s one of the most atheatrical (there, I’ve used the word in reviews twice today, I’m going to get it into the Fringe lexicon if it kills every one of you) projects I can imagine — there’s no story. No, really. It’s a textbook. A textbook with some flashes of profound insight, a few clever one-liners, and one or two illustrative parables, but for the most part it makes about as much sense as adapting Mathematics: Applications and Concepts.

So it’s remarkable that this show is so successful, because at its core it’s really nothing more than a lecture — a lecture with a heavy dose of schtick slathered over the top, but for the most part the audience really is sitting down and being given a classic tactical manual.

The twist? The illustrations contributed by the ninja, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say mimes dressed as ninja. The text is divided into lessons, and as the lecturer reads, the points are illustrated by rapid-fire knockabout slapstick. This is pretty inventive — there’s puppets, some actual illustrations, and even a mambo at one point. This show rides on its constant visual stimulation.

The schtick starts to wear thin by the end — there’s only so many variations you can make on what is essentially a very simple joke. But it’s a good joke. And you can never, ever, under any circumstances, have too many nut-punches.

Roofies in the Mochaccino

I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to say — I’ve already reviewed so many of the pieces that make up this show at the dozens of showcases he’s performed at leading up to the performance.

Much of his comedy hinges on pop-culture references, and there’s a real artfulness to it — there’s a reason that one word will work where another won’t, and it has to do with both the sound that it makes and the image it evokes — there’s a reason “Jim Morrison” is the right joke where “Jimi Hendrix” wouldn’t be. There’s also a surprising sentimentalism here, underneath all of the filthy, filthy jokes, and at least one piece that seems to be played almost totally straight.

Glancing around at his audience numbers, I hope that he’s not on the way to becoming another Dean Hatton — a brilliant, funny, hardworking performer who just can’t seem to get an audience. I’m sincerely baffled — this guy should be a Fringe hit, and I don’t understand why he isn’t. Is it the poetry stigma? Is that all it is? Because that’s pretty lame.

My War: From Bismarck to Britain and Back

Boy, is this ever a tough sell to a Fringe audience — an epistolary script, performed by three older women, standing or sitting at three music stands. And it’s one of the most compelling things that I’ve seen so far.

The content is a big part of that, no doubt. It’s been said that one of the great truths of politics is that, deep down, most people just want tomorrow to be more like today. Here’s the story of two women who had no real interest in politics, no real interest in war — but events forced them into becoming a part of history. They’re ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, and that’s what makes this compelling stuff. Some audience reviews seem to be complaining that they wish the acting was more theatrical, and that seems to be missing the point to me — these are women who face both the horrors and trivialities of war with a Midwestern stoicism, and the events they witness are more powerful for being understated. Histrionics wouldn’t help this show a bit.

I will say that at times the show seems almost stubbornly atheatrical (is that a word? I guess it is now) — there’s a few simple tech or music devices that wouldn’t have undermined what they were doing, and would have helped provide some more structure to the show as a whole. But for the most part, they erred on the side of simplicity, and that’s absolutely the right decision for this story.

So this is pretty much one of my favorite storytelling shows that I’ve seen in the Fringe thus far, not least because it’s one of the strongest stories. I love going to new places and experiencing things I’ve never experienced, and this was a nice break from the therapeutic confessionals that seem to be making a comeback this year. It’s not going to be as popular as The Pumpkin Pie Show, because in many ways it’s its opposite — but it has a lot more to say, and it says it quietly. In between all of the other hyperactive and histrionic Fringe theatre, swing by Jeune Lune, sit, and listen for an hour. It’s a welcome change of pace.

Trying Guilt

This is yet another show that falls under the category of “bursting with talent, bursting with ideas, but still doesn’t really work as show” for me. There’s plenty of cool stuff here — not least a set of shoeboxes that is used in various clever ways, and some pretty impressive sound design. There’s flashes of inspired writing here, some more poetic pieces and some comic pieces that could easily be plucked out and stand effectively on their own.

But they combine to be something less than the sum of their parts. There’s so many characters here, and so many interweaving storylines, and just so many moving parts to this whole show, that I found it impossible to follow — the performer is an engaging stage presence, but this many characters need to be sketched out quickly and effectively in a few broad strokes, and I lost track of when she was who doing what. My attention drifted several times during the performance, and I was pretty much lost at what seemed to be a fairly intense denouement.

So, yeah. Lots of cool stuff here, and I’ll be seeing whatever they do next, but I have to confess that overall this one was a bit of a miss for me.

Karaoke Knights – A One Man Rock Opera

Most of the reviews that I’ve seen have been complaining about the venue — that it’s a divey bar, tucked out of the way (Lord knows, there’s not many shows that will get me on the 21A voluntarily); that it takes place in a bar that’s still executing its business while the show is going on. I dunno about everybody else, but this was exactly the Fringe experience I was looking for. This is a BYOV used well, and all the things that are being complained about are the point of the production — the irritated befuddlement of the patrons, the servers clattering away in the background. The point of the show is public humiliation, and the reactions of everyone else in the bar, from contempt to apathy to a kind of grudging fascination, becomes a critical part of the performance.

See, I don’t know if this is Tim Mooney’s most personal show, but it certainly feels like it, as he takes on a variety of lonely, often socially awkward men competing in a Karaoke bar. The songs all begin with him covering classic tunes, but rapidly fade into what seem to be the internal musical monologues of the various characters. He’s not afraid to be surprisingly vulnerable with us, and it simply wouldn’t have the same effect in a theatre venue.

I dunno. I guess a lot of people out there are seeing Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead for the third time, and I hope they have a wonderful experience. But this kind of show is exactly the experience I’m looking for when I Fringe, and this is the first one that really brought it to the table. After all, heading off the beaten path is kind of the point…right?

Paul Bunyan Runs for President

Y’know, I have to be honest — I feel almost guilty for laughing as much as I did at this show. Because it’s such a dumb, obvious gag, and it plays out with few variations for an hour. But something about this hits me right in the goddamn funny bone, because I was laughing. Steadily throughout, almost without pause. Covering my mouth, giggling like a schoolboy. More than I did at the Scrimshaw thing. More than I was at Cody Rivers. I have no idea exactly why I find this premise so cripplingly hilarious — and I have no idea if anybody else would — but, man. I was practically out of my seat half the time.

There’s some political undercurrent — there’s a level on which this could be read as a history of the Republican party for the last several decades, with Johnny Inkslinger as a kind of heartbreakingly earnest libertarian and Paul Bunyan as, well, every political candidate they’ve put forth since Reagan. (And it’s both amusing and troubling to note that the actor playing Paul Bunyan is so damn appealing that we effortlessly forgive him the incredibly vast cost in human life his actions cause.) But this is less hard-hitting satire than it is a goofy farce, setting loose a dumb, cheerful giant to plow through the world of politics.

So, yeah. Definitely the funniest show I’ve seen in the Fringe so far, in terms of laugh-to-minute ratio. Under sixty minutes, too, so they won’t fuck up your schedule.

Secrets of the Little Yellow Diary

So I’m trying to do my first car-less Fringe, which means that I spent Monday asking anyone I happened to run into if they’d give me a ride to whatever they’re seeing next. I ended up at the Ritz, and got a humbling lesson in just how far out of the loop I am — because I hadn’t heard a damn thing about this show, and the house was packed.

It’s extraordinarily well-done — the performer is one of the old guard of musical theatre in the Twin Cities — but I can’t say I cared much for the content, which seemed to consist of adapting a bunch of diary entries by a thirteen-year-old girl into song-and-dance numbers. I spent the first fifteen minutes wondering when the play was going to start, then looked at everyone laughing around me and realized that this was the play.

This kind of entertainment really hinges on nostalgia, and it rarely works for me — my childhood didn’t resemble this. Being a pre-teen isn’t something I recall fondly, and it’s not something I really have any desire to go back to. So watching someone relive these fond memories is, I imagine, like watching someone have either a religious revelation or a mind-shattering orgasm — they’re only interesting unless you’re actually having one, and if you’re not, the experience is just kind of frustrating. In fact, watching this show, I felt the way that I often do reading Jane Austen or watching Beavis and Butt-Head — I recognize that the characters I’m seeing are intended to be held up to ridicule. But that doesn’t mean that I really enjoy spending time in their company.

Plus, watching a grown woman gallivanting about in a pair of pink pajamas — I found myself wondering whether this kind of romanticization of childhood is really healthy. But that’s a broader issue, I suppose.

So, I wrote a bunch of stuff that makes it sound like I hated it, and that’s not really true. I didn’t really laugh, although the packed house was guffawing throughout. And I’m troubled by some of the undercurrents of this kind of theatre. But she’s a phenomenally talented singer/dancer, and musical theatre groupies will have a real goldmine of material to enjoy. I’m just, y’know, not really one of them.