Scarborough Fair

CAVEAT: I am once again touring a one-man show to the Kansas City Fringe Festival, affording me a unique opportunity to review some shows coming to the Minnesota Fringe in earlier stages of development – with the reminder that live theatre changes from performance to performance, and shows may undergo significant alteration from Fringe to Fringe.

Scarborough Fair
DESCRIPTION: This musical comedy features the sassy melodies (and harmonies) of Simon and Garfunkel. With little more than a guitar and an egg shaker, these spiritually-driven travelers warm hearts and melt faces.

(SCENE: the lobby of the Bolender Center in the KC Ballet. We are flyering the crowd. There is a lull in patron movement.)

ME: Hey, so…what show are you with?
HIM: I’m with Scarborough Fair.
ME: Oh…oh, right, that’s the, uh, the Simon and Garfunkel thing…right?
HIM: Yeah, yeah…that’s right.
ME: So which one are you? Paul or Art?
HIM: Um, it’s not really…it doesn’t really work like that.
ME: …oh?
HIM: Yeah, we’re not really so much a Simon and Garfunkel cover band, so much as, like, two idiots who are obsessed with Simon and Garfunkel.
ME: Oh.

(Pause.)

ME: …so, like, if Bill and Ted thought they were Simon and Garfunkel.
HIM: Yeah. Yeah, exactly like that.

…and he was right. It was exactly like that.

(So ridiculously tempted to just end the review right there.)

I was on the fence for this one – because, as we’ve established, I only sort of vaguely skim show descriptions, and was therefore under the impression that this was some poker-faced tribute to Simon and Garfunkel. Which, I mean, I like them well enough – not a huge fan, but I certainly have derived my share of enjoyment from their well-known songs – but, I dunno. I mean, it’s the information age. If I want to listen to Simon and Garfunkel, I can just go listen to Simon and Garfunkel. In fact, I’ll go do that now.

(pandora.com=bliss)

So what we have here are interpretations of Simon and Garfunkel songs, quite serviceably delivered, punctuated by some clowning, and interspersed with some comic business between the two performers.

They’re both charming and approachable. Overall, the show was thoroughly pleasant to sit through: none of the jokes were amazingly hilarious – I rarely laughed – but I had a big silly smile plastered on my face through most of it. And reasonably engaging, as well. I wonder if my attention would have drifted less if there was more of a narrative in place – we get bits and pieces of their story (e.g. how they met, how they started a band, et cetera), but they end in pretty much the same place they began, without much variance in between.

Still: sweet, playful, charming. And probably the kind of thing that Paul and Art would have been into. For an hour, at least.

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Storms Beneath Her Skin

CAVEAT: I am once again touring a one-man show to the Kansas City Fringe Festival, affording me a unique opportunity to review some shows coming to the Minnesota Fringe in earlier stages of development – with the reminder that live theatre changes from performance to performance, and shows may undergo significant alteration from Fringe to Fringe.

Storms Beneath Her Skin
DESCRIPTION: Are you a boy or a girl? Are you sure? I am transgender, which complicates things. This show is about my experience, as well as apologies, surgery, the equations of sex, the weather, boobs, and more.

I’m a fan of Rebecca’s – of both her skill and thoughtfulness – but not always a fan of her work: I remember struggling with portions of her show last year (and it’s been too long, I’m afraid, since I saw it to recall exactly why – I just have a clear memory of chafing at some of her creative decisions).

Not so with this one. See, her background is that of a teacher, and this show – and I want to use this word in a way that emphasizes that this is a good thing, and not a bad thing – is, ultimately, a lecture. An extremely creative, playful lecture, punctuated by things like graph jokes and song parodies and heightened language – most of which are successful – but with the entertaining devices stripped away, this is a performer standing on a stage and laying out information.

Fortunately, the information here is compelling. I’m not someone who struggles greatly with his gender identification, but the issue of *identity* is one that fascinates me, enough that I’ve written extensively about it.

Most admirable, in my view, is the cool detachment with which she lays out the process of hormones and hair removal and surgery – I often find myself getting lost in the shrill emotionalism that surrounds these issues, and found her frankness totally refreshing.

After the show, she had a brief Q&A with the audience, in which she asked us for suggestions – particularly areas of the show to change/tighten/improve. And, yeah, I was a bit on the spot, but I kept turning aspects of the show around in my mind and couldn’t really find major points of contention.

(I thought for a while about one of the more emotionally heightened points of the show – it was jarring, in the context of what surrounded it – but then I thought, no, because what this show is about is *conveying information* — and the *emotional* process is very much a part of that, and that sequence conveyed much of that process quickly and clearly. I wrestled, too, with some more poetic, heightened-language sequences, but they ended up providing a solid throughline for the show as a whole. This is an impressively well-constructed, well-balanced show.)

Almost never pick up merch after shows, but bought a copy of her book on my way to the next venue.

The Dust

CAVEAT: I am once again touring a one-man show to the Kansas City Fringe Festival, affording me a unique opportunity to review some shows coming to the Minnesota Fringe in earlier stages of development – with the reminder that live theatre changes from performance to performance, and shows may undergo significant alteration from Fringe to Fringe.

The Dust
DESCRIPTION: Explore contemporary myth and belief through the archetypes of Death, Fate, Memory and Man. Using dance, poetry, experimental music and visual art, we’ll confront the heaviest of thoughts: our own mortality.

So I saw this group’s production of Mother Tongues last year, and was fairly lukewarm. I perked up a bit at their show description (see, I *do* read them!) (Sort of. Sometimes.), particularly at the phrase “explore contemporary myth and belief” because I am kind of all about that thing. Which was a bit misleading, since the show primarily seems to be a meditation on mortality, which is okay because I am also kind of all about that.

I found their outing this year to be a great deal more compelling for me than the last one, and I think a lot of that has to do with limiting the number of bodies onstage. (I should mention that I’m drawing entirely from memory here, regarding a show I saw once, a year ago, so I may misspeak – but I recall there being a much larger cast.) They’re better served, I think, by allowing us to keep an intense focus on individual movements – and this is an incredibly, meticulously detailed show.

(The other standout is the sound design – I wasn’t certain if it was a single, unbroken track, or if multiple tracks were being combined live, being slid in and out manually beneath the action. Very impressive, very cool stuff. And I say “sound design” rather than soundtrack because there’s very little music here – there’s static, and heartbeats, and whispered phrases, and it’s extremely effective. In fact, I gained new appreciation for it when, partway through, an actual song began to slither through the speakers, and it was so freaking startling to actually get something with, like, melody and rhythm and *clear human emotional intent*.)

That said, yes, it’s modern dance, and it can be a challenge to maintain focus on for a non-specialist. I don’t necessarily require clear narrative to be engaged by my entertainment – in fact, some of my favorite works of art have nothing of the kind – but in its place, I need something to hold my attention: captivating dialogue, cool images, et cetera. And this show has plenty of the latter.

(I wonder if it would have helped me – and I’m very, very hesitant to say this, because it was also one of the things I very much *liked* about the show – if it had had clear beginnings and endings: there are entrances, and exits, and solos, but for the most part the action and audio is continuous. Which is very, very cool, and one of the things that was very, very cool about their last show, so I’m guessing it’s a stylistic marker – but I suspect that it’s also part of what encourages my attention to drift.)

This is carefully, laboriously, scrupulously constructed – the performers are clearly exhausted by the end of the show, and working pretty crazy fucking hard to hold your attention. It’s just hard not to let your own attention be exhausted, as well.

Dead Wrong

CAVEAT: I am once again touring a one-man show to the Kansas City Fringe Festival, affording me a unique opportunity to review some shows coming to the Minnesota Fringe in earlier stages of development – with the reminder that live theatre changes from performance to performance, and shows may undergo significant alteration from Fringe to Fringe.

ADDITIONAL CAVEAT: Katherine Glover is a prominent member of the Minneapolis storytelling scene, and the two of us have worked together often over the years.

Dead Wrong
DESCRIPTION: Years after a brutal assault, a young woman grapples with new evidence that suggests she may have sent the wrong man to prison. A solo drama inspired by actual events.

So having followed Katherine’s work as a storyteller, the greatest surprise for me (and the most embarrassing evidence that I obviously often only skim show descriptions) was that this one isn’t really a storytelling show – it’s a dramatic monologue. (i.e., the distinction I’m making here is that she’s not using third-person narrative, but speaking as a character wholly other than herself.)

It’s a bigger leap to make than you might think, and it changes how you work in almost every detail – rhythm, cadence, physicality, pacing, not least of all emotional arc – and for the most part she handles it beautifully. (Credit should also, I suspect, go to the use of a director, Nancy Donoval – another local storyteller who’s worked with similarly-themed material.)

Speaking of which, one of the pleasant surprises of the show for me was that it’s not really *about* the sexual assault: it’s there, it’s the emotional engine that drives most of the initial action, but it’s sketched out quickly and effectively – because ultimately, this is a story about *justice*, and the various other issues that get drawn into that (not least of all one of my personal favorites: the strange, often unsettling ways that time and memory work). And I’m pleased, greatly, with the ambiguity she embraces.

(If I’ve got one point of hesitation, it’s that I occasionally had difficulty following her perspective in the narrative. She seems mostly to be speaking in the past tense, referring to events that happened some time ago. So, for one example, when she describes reading a newspaper article, then says “I feel sick” and runs to the side of the stage – is she recalling that she felt sick at the time? Is she sick at the memory? Reliving her emotional state?

I get that this is the kind of uber-technical thing that probably nobody other than another monologist would obsess over, but I still think it’s a worthy and interesting issue: it’s how we follow her emotional arc through the story, and it occasionally wasn’t clear to me.

The answer I found myself embracing for most of the show was that this was the process of reliving a story emotionally in the retelling of it – which has some nice resonances, I think, with how trauma victims can find themselves constantly reliving their abuse. And I was able to follow this reasoning pretty consistently throughout, only losing it at a few points.)

So – yup. It’s good.

PROFILE: Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief

 
I know, I know, I should probably limit myself to talking Fringe, but sometimes there’s just too many other great projects going on. So here’s something to actually *go out and see* in the upcoming weeks, as opposed to reflexively reloading the Fringe site 69,105 times.

SHOW TITLE: Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief
PRODUCER: Mission Theatre Company
HAILING FROM: Minnesota
SHOW DESCRIPTION: As the wrongly accused and suffering wife of Shakespeare’s tragic Moor, Othello, Desdemona has long been viewed as the “victim of circumstance.” But as Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel demonstrates in her comic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s play—aligning tongue-in-cheek humor while raising serious questions as to the role of women through the ages—Desdemona was far from the quivering naïf we’ve all come to know.
WHAT CAUGHT MY INTEREST: I had the pleasure of working with the founder/producer, Andrea Rose Tonsfeldt, when I directed her in my romantic comedy Penner vs. the Hydra back in February 2011. She was a standout, by which I mean my directing process was basically me saying “By the way, I forgot to mention that you’re manipulating a giant puppet, here’s a pair of ski poles and some goddamn duct tape, let me know if you need anything” and walking away, which she took in admirable stride. So, yes, I’m keenly interested in seeing anything she puts together.

Just who do you think you are, anyway?

We are Mission Theatre Company – the Twin Cities newest performance practitioners. I am Founding/Artistic Director Andrea Tonsfeldt; actor, costumer, producer, etc! MTC was created as an expressive outlet for me when living in Iowa (what else is there to do!) When I moved to Minneapolis in 2009 I brought MTC with me. The company has been dormant for a while and in February I decided it was time to shake off the dust to that is why we are doing Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief July 12-20, 2012! MTC strives to create theatre that is entertaining as well as engaging and thoughtful. Our first productions have been female centric but that is not the focus. We will continue to solicit work that enriches audiences and participants alike. That is who we are today…

So what’s the big idea?

The big idea is Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief! In this feminist retelling of Shakespearee’s tragedy Othello, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning plyawright Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive), the Moor’s wife Desdemona (Abby DeSanto), Iago’s wife Emilia (Andrea Rose Tonsfeldt) and the prostitue Bianca (Anneliese Stuht) emerge from teh background to drive the action. This daring deconstruction of Shakespeare’s tragedy gives audiences a glimpse into “real” life on the island of Cyprus and a peek into what goes on behind closed doors while the devious Iago goads Othello into a jealous rage. As it turns out, there’s far more to Desdemona than the original Othello reveals. Perhaps Vogel’s Desdemona is not as innocent as the original seems, but she is much more real.

How did you come up with a screwy idea like that?

We are doing this show because it was time for Andrea to perform again…And it is a fun and exciting story of friendship, fighting, stereotypes and preconceived notions.

Why should I care?

Women in corsets and high brow bathroom humor…enough said!

Justify your show’s existence in haiku form.

Drama as humor
Hot women in corsets fight
Laugh and cry tonight

Fringe Website Live!

Happy Treason Day, everyone! The Fringe website officially went live on July 1st, which means that, hurrah, I finally have content to analyze. So let’s dive right in:

THE VIRTUAL POSTCARD TABLE

…and my verdict is: awesome. (Although it is sort of weird that the vertically-designed cards are, like, twice as large as the horizontally-designed ones. I get that it’s a presentation thing, but still…)

And as a student of marketing, it’s a pretty fantastic way to survey, at a glance, a variety of approaches. Here’s two extremes, both by companies I know nothing about:

Bohemian RAPPsody

I’ll confess that this is one my eye simply drifts over – there are bodies doing something interesting, but there’s just too much information. At a glance, all I see is tiny text and tiny figures:  it requires me to peer fairly closely to decipher it, and it’s simply lost in a table full of other images.

Threads

I’d point to this one as being more successful: it’s a simple, clear image and title. There’s more information on closer examination, but it immediately hits you with something distinctive. (Bonus points for an image that asks a question that the show has to answer: “Why is the cute white girl wearing a paddy hat?”)

My personal favorite, however, has to go to…

Font of Knowledge

Ba-dum-bump, the Shelby Company, of which I’m a long-time fan. Regardless, I think they knocked it out of the park with this one: it’s arguably cluttered as well, but I’d say it succeeds, again, by having an immediately clear, distinctive image and title. Beyond that, it has an *aesthetic*: it promises all sorts of hard-boiled noir goodness.

Those are just images, though. The Fringe site being the cutting-edge piece of technology it is, it promises us something more fantastic still: images that *move*.

VIDEO TRAILERS

Let’s get to it. Here’s two that I found hugely successful:

COOL IMAGES

Cards on the table that I have known  – and have worked with – Kirsten for many years (also that I’ve seen this particular show in other Festivals, and highly recommend it). And this: yes. It’s a single joke, a simple joke, that’s both nicely executed and doesn’t wear out its welcome.

Here, on the other hand, is a company I know nothing about, but successfully caught my eye with this. Again, its strength is its simplicity: it doesn’t tell me what their show is, it *shows* me. Shadow puppetry is awesome, and this did exactly what a trailer is supposed to do: pushed my interest from zero percent to well over fifty.

STAND-UP COMEDY

Here’s an interesting contrasting case. I think that these are two excellent stand-up comics: and I think that one trailer works, and the other doesn’t.

Both groups chose to excerpt their shows for their trailer. If I had to guess, I would suspect that Mary’s excerpt is from the beginning of her set, while Billy’s is from the middle. (I’m happy to be corrected, if I’m mistaken.)

Mary’s excerpt feels like an introduction: we can hear the audience getting to know her, and we do, too. It feels, weirdly, like the first couple of minutes of a date: the awkward getting-to-know-you phase, and she comes off as absolutely charming.

In Billy’s excerpt, we can hear that the audience is *loving* what he’s doing. I’d say his material here isn’t amazing – it’s mostly puns – but the audience is grooving on it because of the relationship that he’s already established with them. They have an affection for him, so they enjoy his company and want him to succeed. The issue is, he hasn’t yet established that relationship with *us*, who are watching at home – so we’re eavesdropping a relationship that we’re not really a part of.

They’re both obviously skilled at what they do. But I walked away from Mary’s trailer feeling a great deal of warmth to her and the show; I walked away from Billy’s feeling like a detached observer.

TOO FREAKING LONG

I’ll confess that I stifled a groan when both of these came up, at the sight of the time listing in the corner: both are about seven minutes. That’s not a trailer: that’s a short film, and if you’re doing what I’ve been doing – i.e. sitting down and watching all of these in a row – well, I was getting pretty goddamn restless.

Two quick observations, then: the content of one of these videos is very strong, the content of the other one is not. But both of these videos would have been exponentially more successful by simply pulling out their most successful two minutes.

A LITTLE TOO META

I know Les pretty well – we’ve seen each other on the circuit for years. I like him, and his shows, a lot. So seeing him on the screen generated a lot of warmth from me. The issue is that it worked for me because I’m *already* affectionate towards the guy – for someone who doesn’t know anything about him, this video doesn’t convey what they need to know. The people a video like this will work for are the people who already know him. What’s frustrating for me is that he’s a skilled writer/performer – but the video doesn’t convey that. So what does it look like to someone who knows nothing about him?

Possibly something like this. I’d speculate that if I knew who these people were – if I already liked them – I would find this charming. But I don’t, so I don’t.

FAR ENDS OF THE BELL CURVE

So here’s my least favorite trailer on the site:

“You, yes, you darling audience, have no idea what these four women are capable of.”

That’s…accurate, yes. One of them’s a dancer? I guess? Another one does…something into a microphone?

See, for all I know, this show could be absolutely amazing. But what really rubs me the wrong way about the language of this trailer – and the language of their show description, as well – is that it assumes that I’m stupid.

Its braggadocio suggests that I would be amazed by the very idea of creatively skilled women! But…I’m not a fifties sitcom dad. I’ve been working alongside amazingly skilled women for the bulk of my career. I *know* that women are equally capable of producing amazing artistry. I also know that women are equally capable of producing lazy hackwork. What I *don’t* know is which category this show falls into, because the trailer didn’t convey that to me.

…as opposed to this trailer, which didn’t bother to *tell* me anything, because it was too busy *showing* me.

This is, hands-down, my favorite trailer on the site. I’ve never seen either Tamara Ober or Present State Movement – though I’ve wanted to, as they’ve been very successful at Fringes past. And now, I think I see why.

See, it’s interesting because this trailer shows off what she can do physically – and marries that to some very cool filmic stuff. It’s not just about what she can do with her body, but what she can do with her *presentation*. And it’s the combination of elements of here – the song, the movement, the stop-motion – that adds up to something I found very compelling. Yeah, I’m game to see what she can present onstage.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. For any of this — there’s a ton more videos and images on the brand-spankin’-new Fringe Festival site. Go forth, and analyze.