The 612

The 612 by Rogues Gallery Arts

(Disclosure: I am currently in a show with one of the four writers.)

The 612 is a reference to the area code, and as such is composed of three short plays (with a fourth framing and weaving in between the others) about Minneapolis. All four are entertaining, and none of them is unpleasant to sit through. All four also do a nice job of sidestepping the easy, tired jokes about Minnesota (there is a reference to hot-dish, but it’s ironic).

The strongest of these was a short scene, taking place during a series of labor strikes — a brief moment of three disparate characters making contact with each other under violent, frightening circumstances. It manages to be touching while avoiding sentimentality, and does it so effortlessly that I think it’s easy to overlook how complex the scene is — I find one character’s act of brutal savagery at the beginning to be totally credible, and his later acts of reluctant sympathy to be equally credible, and that’s kind of remarkable.

The weakest scene was the most abstract, almost absurdist. Actually, I found the writing to be quite lovely, a pair of characters communicating in a series of recurring, lyrical fragments. The performers seemed competent, but I think that they (or the director) made a poor decision — to perform the piece in a kind of cutesy, cartoonish, over-the-top style. Perhaps the sense was that the writing was stylized, so the performance should be, as well, but I disagree — I think the piece would have been beautifully effective if the performances had been understated, naturalistic, engaged with as though they were saying nothing unusual at all.

I’ve expressed a deep, abiding love for this strange, schizophrenic city, and the four disparate pieces did an excellent job of expressing that. I left the theatre, stepped into Uptown, and began the walk to my car positively buoyant. There’s a lot of local color in the Festival this year — but this was the one that, perhaps because of its very lack of focus, reminded me of why.

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The Folly of Crowds: A Heterosexual Buttsex Play

The Folly of Crowds: A Heterosexual Buttsex Play by Clay Sushi Productions

Okay, so I was initially turned off by the title/image of this show, and then I was turned on again by the description and oh God this sentence ended up in a different place than I intended.

My sense, reading the description, was that the premise could be a jumping-off point for a funny and interesting discussion of sex and gender and power and all that good stuff. Turns out that the play goes more for a soapy revenge plot, and while it’s hardly fair to criticize the show for not being what I wanted it to be, it still feels a bit disappointing.

In any case, the dialogue and performers all seem competent. But the great question that leaped into my mind, watching this, was: when the hell did my biological clock prematurely tick over into “cranky old man”?

The play revolves around a group of inertial college students, terrified of the professional world and preoccupied with their sexual relationships with each other. And what does it say about me that my reaction to them is, “Why don’t you grow up and deal with some real problems?” And, yes, while I fully appreciate the fact that much of the play is there to satirize them, that doesn’t mean that I enjoy spending time in their company. I breathed a sigh of relief when a functioning adult character was introduced, followed by a sigh of disappointment as it was revealed that he has the impulse control of a toddler.

This character was a clear audience favorite, and it’s here that I should register that my response seemed to be wholly aberrant — the audience tittered dutifully at every reference to anal penetration. (Can’t you just decide whether or not it’s something you’re comfortable doing? Indeed, one of the main character’s arguments consisted of the fact that they’d been so promiscuous, that it was the only action that could hold any meaning for them.)

The last scene felt a bit tacked-on to me, as it seemed to suggest that that discussion had been what the play was actually about, when the vast bulk of the action had revolved around a rather juvenile prank. (I particularly resented the last minute or so, since it seemed to be trying to introduce some more profound themes that would have had to have been introduced much earlier for them to have an appropriate impact.)

I realized after the fact that the playwright, Mat Smart, was also the author of “A Standing Long-Jump”, a Fringe show I saw last year that left me with much the same response — well-written, well-composed, and revolving around a series of characters I kind of wanted to strangle. He seems to have a great fascination with the intoxicating power of (the early stages of) romantic love, and that’s emphatically one of the themes that I find wearisome, which may account for my inability to connect with his work.

Our Freaking Kids Show

Our Freaking Kids Show by Mainly Me Productions

Josh Carson is one of those writers who has the rare ability to both write jokes, and to hang those jokes onto a functioning narrative.

I commented after seeing their preview that the conversation between the characters was eerily familiar to me, after six years of working in children’s theatre. Man, did the show as a whole bear that out. Pretty much all of the characters were instantly recognizable to me (in particular the overbearing stage mother — as soon as she took the stage, all I could do was groan and think “Oh, man…I’ve met, like, ten of you.”)

By far what impressed me most about the show was the willingness to place the adults and children on a level playing field (and this is woefully rare in children’s theatre). Particularly in the realm of slapstick — the adults are violently, hilariously cruel to the children, both verbally and physically, and this is mitigated by the fact that the kids are perfectly capable of dishing it out as well as taking it.

Funny to sit through, and of the shows that I’ve seen, the one I find myself inspired to continue quoting days later.

Brain Fighters by Joking Envelope

Brain Fighters by Joking Envelope

I’m typically a great fan and a great defender of Joseph’s scripts — a defender of the fact that they tend to be much deeper, layered, and more complex than I think his audiences acknowledge. (Perhaps that’s representative of a kind of prejudice against — well, not comedy, but particularly the broad, farcical style of comedy that he favors.) So here’s a show that I found myself chuckling at pretty consistently throughout (it features his usual tight comedy writing — the man has a way with a one-liner), but walked away feeling a bit lukewarm about the whole experience. What gives?

The obvious point is that I’m not really in the target age range for this show, although I maintain a longtime interest in children’s theatre. There’s a lot here to like — he doesn’t shy away from complex language, he pushes the plotting to a fairly dark place, I thought that the “invented profanity” schtick was an inspired way to do dirty jokes in a wholesome manner. The ensemble is excellent — Joseph and Mo are both established comic talents, but he’s found a wonderful new instrument in Randy Reyes, an Equity actor who seems totally prepared to commit to any ridiculous idea (e.g. shouting “I am cute and squeaky” repeatedly, with utterly poker-faced conviction). To say that the script wouldn’t have worked without someone like him may seem like a veiled insult, but it had someone like him, so it’s all to the good.

Part of it may be that I find many of the ideas to be laid out in a way that I find too explicit for my tastes in Joseph’s writing for children (and, indeed, I recall chafing at this in An Inconvenient Squirrel). I wonder if I wouldn’t feel more positively towards the whole affair without the explanation and summation at the opening and closing — and, yes, I totally get that the “morals” are being delivered in a comic, even subversive manner, but they’re still morals and they still make me squirm a bit (and, if anything, I was much more hostile to the device as a child).

Still, like I said — laughing from beginning to end. My overall experience was a pleasurable one, and one that seemed to be borne out by the others in the theatre with me.

A tussle!

Earlier today, I received the following message (via my editor):

Mr Low:

I feel I should defend myself against your scurrilous attack upon my methods and my character.  

The controversy seems to center around my reading of the history surrounding the sad case of Father Louis Hennepin.  I do not claim to have access to secret knowledge.  My conclusions were formed by the circumstantial evidence:  historical references to Hennepin’s long lost secret diary, duLhut’s statement that Hennepin would not tell him where he had gone and the fact that his burial place is unknown which tells me he left the church prior to his death.  

You say Hennepin’s lies are fairly well documented.  By whom?  His most prominent critic was Francis Parkman, head of the History Department at Harvard in the mid to late 19th century.  Mr. Parkman came West and lived for a short time with the Dakota.  Somehow he formed the opinion Hennepin could not have traversed the length of the river in the time frame laid out by Hennepin himself.  Mere speculation on his part.  Not surprising for such an anti-catholic bigot as Parkman.  But that’s how history is written.

I did find a time and distance chart by the US Army from 1823.  The distance from New Orleans to Fort Snelling is listed as 1600 land miles, 2065 river miles.   Steamboat time upriver is 22 days, downriver 11 days.  I then concluded Hennepin could easily have accomplished his river length journey.  He did not have to stay in any navigable river channel.  He could easily have used relays of paddlers or even a fast canoe with multiple paddlers as they did on the Great Lakes. Or he could have taken the journey in stages.  How do you or anyone know what the exact circumstances were?

But the most damaging part of your screed was directed at the last nine lines of the show.  You describe it as a “stunningly condescending lecture” showing “naked contempt” for the audience.  But in reality it’s just a summation to match the introduction at the beginning of the show.  Given the tone of the whole work, it’s as playful as the rest of it.  You do not have to go out and spread the word.  I’m just asking you to keep an open mind.

TC Daily Planet has my press release and my contact.  You chose not to inquire as to the reasons for my conclusions.  You simply gave your own interpretation precedence.  As one arm-chair historian to another: write your own show.  Stop being a bully with a pulpit.  

Sincerely,
Bob McFadden 

Sidestepping for the moment the, er, rather personal invective – I’ve sought his permission to reprint his e-mail in full, since I think there’s actually a worthy discussion to be had here.

Not to bog this down into a deconstruction of source texts, but my main point of contention would come from the words composed by Father Hennepin himself – fourteen years after his publication of Description de la Louisiane, he wrote a follow up entitled Nouvelle découverte d’un très grand pays situé dans l’Amérique entre le Nouveau-Mexique et la mer glaciale, which flatly contradicts several of his own facts, including but not limited to:

1) the height of Niagara jumps from 500 feet to more than 600 feet;
2) the Sioux war fleet swells from 33 to 50 canoes;
3) St. Anthony Falls gains another 10 feet in height; and
4) a 6-foot snake gains several feet, as well.

Those are some of the clear, measurable contradictions within his own source texts: he also generates much “new information” between the publication of the two books (claiming to the first white man to paddle on the Mississippi, and that Joliet and Marquette never reached the river, for one) – and there is surely worthy debate to be had over what his motives may have been (and, indeed, the latter fact was commendably discussed in the play itself), but it also surely raises an eyebrow.

My primary contention, however, is the fact that the above facts are really kind of irrelevant in a discussion of the play. You were generous enough to take the time and energy to seek me out and e-mail me – but without this review, your audience has no access to this dialogue. There were no sources cited in your programme, nothing on the website. Yes, I have your contact information, but I chose not to inquire as to the reasons for your conclusions because of the fact that my audience and your audience are the same – the only information they have access to in the moment is what you choose to put on the stage.

But in reality it’s just a summation to match the introduction at the beginning of the show.  Given the tone of the whole work, it’s as playful as the rest of it.  You do not have to go out and spread the word.  I’m just asking you to keep an open mind.

I also strongly object to this characterization of the closing speech: it was far more than a simple summation. I can’t recall the exact phrasing, but I do recollect a call to the audience to actively spread the work of the redeeming Father Hennepin’s story to others – a call which suggests, if only through uneasy implication (and that’s a very slippery little thing), the factual basis of what the show’s just said to us. But rather than a back-and-forth, I’d cheerfully invite you to submit the text of the closing speech, and allow the audience/readership to analyze intent on their own.

I’d like to thank you to take the time for reading, and for composing a thoughtful response – I’m well acquainted with the stresses of producing a Fringe show, and the associated frustrations when critics don’t seem to connect with what appears on stage. My objections to the show remain, intensely so, but I certainly hope that no personal animosity was conveyed in my expression of that.

I’d like to open this discussion up the readership – what are your thoughts on the debate? Are my objections unfair? Beyond this, I would like to encourage all of you to go out and catch one of the remaining performances, taking place at the Rarig Proscenium, tonight at 7pm, Wednesday at 5:30pm, and Thursday at 8:30pm – for surely the author’s best arguments are put forth in the work itself.

Dripping in Spit: The Resurrection of Father Louis Hennepin

Okay, so — this is one of those shows I’ll confess caught my eye early on, largely because it’s one of those I-swear-I-had-this-idea-already situations. Father Louis Hennepin is a historical personage who’s always fascinated me — he easily merits a full-length show — and, in fact, I have piles of notes and research buried somewhere laying the groundwork to do just that. Looks like someone beat me to it.

The interesting thing about the guy is the fact that — well, historians have long characterized him as an extremely mendacious personality, almost a Baron Munchausen of the early Americas, and as nearly as I can tell the data seems to bear that out — he’s somewhat infamous for significantly altering his own stories from edition to edition of his work, and that’s been exhaustively documented.

This show takes issue with that, claiming that he was both misunderstood and misrepresented by…well, what seems to be nothing less than a kind of conspiracy against him. I’m not necessarily sold on this, but, okay, I’m prepared to follow it for the purposes of a play.

The play itself is…okay, well, it largely consists of alternating between a traditional, dialogue-driven drama, and a kind of direct-storytelling-to-the-audience in the character of Father Hennepin. I’ve seen this sort of experiment performed several times, and this is one of the less successful examples of that — I found myself bewildered at several points (“Why is he explaining all his thoughts and feelings to…oh, okay, I get what’s happening”).

But, wait…I think it goes deeper than that™. I’m extremely uneasy with the practice of putting words in the mouths of historical figures, which is, yes, kind of the heart of historical drama. But even so, I would have preferred some ambiguity. I didn’t need to know exactly what he was thinking and feeling at every given moment — I would have been perfectly happy to observe his words and actions, and draw my own conclusions. There was something strangely invasive about the asides.

Likewise, the characters had that awkward tendency to — in much of their dialogue — explain to each other things that they already knew. And, yeah, it’s a way of clueing us in, but boy was it heavy-handed. I’m very much in the camp that, if you’re taking me to another place and time, it’s okay if I don’t understand the significance of everything that goes on — I’m happy to observe and figure things out as I go.

(One thing that I *did* like, and that actually goes a long way for me, was the fact that no accents were affected, either European or native — we heard them as they likely heard themselves, and each other. There was also an unusually clear-eyed portrayal of the sheer brutality of many of the Native American tribes — quite politically incorrect, and also quite historically accurate.)

One of the stranger aspects of the attempt to redeem Father Hennepin — claiming that he was unjustly slandered — is that, in order to do so, they kind of have to slander everyone else (including, most notably, Robert de LaSalle), which I find a morally dubious prospect. History aside — as far as the show goes, it creates a bizarre effect — that of a kind, rational man, surrounded by cackling cartoons.

So, there’s a lot here that’s really interesting, and even as a lot of the presentation didn’t work for me, I’m feeling very sympathetic to the whole project, and struggling to find ways to meet it halfway — when at the very end of the play, one of the actors steps out, and in the author’s voice, proceeds to deliver a stunningly condescending lecture, explaining the message that we’re intended to take away, and…

…oh, come on. What. The. Fuck.

So many problems with this. Let’s start with the fact that it pulls the play firmly out of the realm of thought experiment — out of being a playful what-if scenario — by claiming to have access to secret knowledge, and to have somehow enlightened us from the conspiracy. Moreover, charging us to go out and spread the good word. And, here’s the thing — you didn’t give me any data. All you did was tell me another story. I have no reason to trust your analysis over that of any other armchair historian. I’m not necessarily rejecting your version of events — but why on Earth should I give it any credence?

(Moreover — the idea that what this play is saying would need to be flat-out explained to me — in a play that has largely consisted of characters communicating in expository dialogue, for fuck’s sake — it’s an act of naked contempt for the audience, on a scale I haven’t seen in quite some time.)

In this aspect of the show, ironically, I find the spirit of the Father Louis Hennepin that history remembers — a spirit of mendacity, willing to boldly state any outrageous claim, knowing that the audience it’s being presented to has no access to the true facts behind it. As the show doesn’t bring forth anything beyond wild speculation, I can’t regard it as anything more than a subversion of history, and that…doesn’t sit well with me.

A Little Bit of Vegas

A Little Bit of Vegas by Offspring Productions

Quickly glancing at the title and image of this show — as well as witnessing two previews — did not convey to me what I find to be the most critical marketing hook: that this is a period piece.

(And, of course, it’s the first line in the show description: “It’s 1958.” I would not have guessed that, after sitting through the show — I would have placed it a decade or three earlier — they reference flappers, and I recognized a few of the tunes as 1930s jazz numbers.)

So the plot itself isn’t all that interesting — an astonishingly, jaw-droppingly naive woman becomes a Las Vegas showgirl at a seedy venue, and is somehow shocked at the fact that this requires some heavy doses of moral compromise on her part. Likewise, the characters are stock characters, not painted with a great degree of psychological depth — there’s the wacky gay stereotype, the catty infighting behind the scenes, et cetera. This is not a great detriment to the piece, because this isn’t really *about* either narrative or character — this is largely about evoking place and time.

So…how successful is that? I’d say middling — the script is written in that early-film style, with the extremely heightened dialogue characteristic of the plays and movies of the period. The actors are fairly hit-and-miss with their ability to engage with it.

(This ties, tangentially, into the developing fascination I’ve been having with the evolution of acting styles through the years — my favorite example is to compare the original Star Wars movies with the prequels. The originals are convincing, because they have a body of actors who are prepare to deliver their lines with broad strokes — Harrison Ford is utterly convincing uttering utterly absurd dialogue — as opposed to, say, Hayden Christiansen, who is a competent actor, but laughably miscast, attempting to apply whatever tortured, introspective version of The Method he uses to space opera. Likewise with this show — naturalistic delivery comes off as unconvincing to me with much of the dialogue, and it’s only a portion of the cast that can fully commit to hitting the heightened style of the text.)

Likewise, the songs were hit-and-miss for me — taking place in a musical venue, many of the songs were diegetic (which I enjoyed), but the ones that weren’t came off as fairly bizarre to me. There’s an art to introducing music in musicals, so that they seem to emerge naturally from dialogue, without being jarring, and many of these songs (skillfully performed as they were) — boy, did they jar the hell out of me.

The accompaniment consisted of a synthesizer and a trap set. I was seated — pretty much right next to them, I’ll grant — and consequently they drowned out some of the lyrics for me. I have mixed feelings about synth accompaniment, and they remain mixed — sometimes I wasn’t conscious of it at all, at others it sounded — synthetic and cheesy. (Not that I have a better solution — a larger band would be impractical.)

The dances fared better. They weren’t perfectly executed, but they weren’t intended to be. In fact, there was actually a good level of subtlety, in watching how the backstage rivalries played out onstage — subtle enough that you could blink and miss them. The girls were easy on the eyes, which also goes a long way for me. Moreover, not just generically pretty — but the fact that we got to know who they were made them more compelling, both physically and sexually.

I was most impressed with their exploitation of the space — they really used every corner of the black-box, and the staging was quite skillful in arranging action throughout the area, sustaining a sense of bustling activity. This was likely aided by the ludicrously fucking huge size of the cast. Seriously, I feel like some sort of medal needs to be awarded to the director, for their sheer technical ability to track that amount of movement.

Which is why it’s a little disappointing to conclude that there just wasn’t much here to hook me, particularly in light of the amount of talent inhabiting the stage — certainly I have no particular objection to having spent an hour in their company, but the fact that I spent most of my time ticking off a laundry list in my head of missed notes suggests that I wasn’t ever able to fully engage in the world they were trying to build. There’s an impressive amount of moving parts here, but they never quite come together in service of the show.