Minnesota Fringe Festival: Medea

CAVEAT: I again toured a 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.

SHOW TITLE: Medea
PRODUCER: Amber Bastards
HAILING FROM: Minnesota
SHOW DESCRIPTION: How do you cope with betrayal? How do you avenge yourself when you lose the life you sacrificed everything for? This adaption of Euripides’ Medea breaths new life into the tragedy of the woman from Colchis.

 

Greek tragedy in
which feminism is all
the rage: sorry, kid.

“Why Medea?”

I hosted a late-night show at the Kansas City Fringe, and these are among the first words I blurted out when the director of this show was on. I see a lot of theatre, and in the past few years I’ve seen a surprising number of takes on this story — on either Euripides’ script or on the core legend itself (I reviewed one such production not too long ago, in which I laid out many of my underlying neuroses with the tale, so I’ll just link to it here and not clutter up this particular review by reiterating them.)

The gender politics seem to be the obvious hook, but I’ve found that productions that seize on that — that try to layer over 2000 years of feminist theory onto the script — cause the script to collapse. It can’t contain them. So it’s to this company’s credit that they don’t seem to be trying to do that: they seem more interested in the theatricality, in the character drama; in exploring a theme, rather than relaying a message.

Greek tragedy poses a lot of challenges to a modern audience, and it strikes me that for a director it combines the challenges of both creating an ensemble show with creating a solo show. I found the ensemble half of the show — the choral work — to be uniformly excellent: the voices are well-balanced, sliding elegantly between each other, slipping between characters and observers seamlessly. They’re tossed into modern dress without drawing attention to the fact. (I want to give a particular shout-out to the actor portraying Jason: the temptation is to make him into a cackling villain, but he chooses to play him with a humane exasperation that is, by far, the more interesting choice.)

The other half of the show is composed of dramatic monologues by Medea herself. I want to make two things very clear:

1) this character, and these monologues, are an extraordinary challenge for even the most seasoned actress; and
2) this actress is excellent in many respects, particularly in her vocal control. She finds the changes in attitude and rhythm, can shout, can whisper, and can shift between the two almost musically, which is critically important — since these scripts are as much about aural as narrative pleasure.

I want to articulate those points so that I can be clear when I say that her performance didn’t wholly work for me. I haven’t yet seen a performance of the character that has, so it’s an open and worthy question whether the problem lies in the script or in my response to it.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the character has to strike a careful balance between vitriol and vulnerability — and the latter is particularly important, because it informs the former. Without, she becomes the cackling villain, and I don’t think the play works on those terms. I’ve played my share of monsters and madmen over the years, and know the cathartic pleasure that generates from an audience — and the actress’ pleasure is visible, diving into the character’s menace with enthusiasm. But Euripides, more than any of the other ancient Greek tragedians, strikes me as the one with the greatest interest in subtle psychological touches — touches that I’m afraid I missed.

Perhaps I was overly aggressive in my interview — I noticed the cast pulling back, and another artist laughingly described me as a “pit bull” — but as I attempted to state in apology at the time: I’m asking because I think the questions are interesting. And the fact that the questions are interesting is precisely what makes this show worth seeing.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

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Minnesota Fringe Festival: The Legend of White Woman Creek

 

CAVEAT: I again toured a 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: I have not worked closely with either Nick Ryan or Katie Hartman, but we’ve been working in the same places and in similar styles long enough to have more than a passing familiarity with each other.

 

SHOW TITLE: The Legend of White Woman Creek
PRODUCER: The Coldharts
HAILING FROM: New York
SHOW DESCRIPTION: The American frontier, 1867-A young woman flees her war-torn home to start a new life in an unfamiliar land. A thirteen-song cycle of love, betrayal and redemption sung by the ghost of Anna Morgan Faber.

Kansas Ghost Story,
Sung by zombie Joan Baez,
Lit by candlelight.

I’ve been a fan of the two creators for some years now — hell, I’ve been a fan of Nick Ryan for pretty much as long as I’ve been doing Fringe — so I assumed that I had a pretty good idea of what to expect: some deep, interesting ideas with some very flashy presentation. Which is why I was startled to realize, about ten minutes into the show, that this was exactly what the show description promised: a song cycle, controlled and restrained. A song cycle with an enjoyably ludicrous and high-concept frame story, certainly, but the vast bulk of this story is told by a woman, standing in one place, and singing.

So it’s a good job that this hits all the right notes for me — certainly both content and style are slam-dunks for my particular set of obsessions (as was stated in my interview with them: “It is the perfect show for fans of ghost stories, music and the American West“, an assertion that I found proved to be wholly accurate). Beyond that, Katie Hartmann has not only a pleasing voice, but that rarer gift of being able to emote effectively while singing. A show with so little in the way of theatrical devices hinges, I find, on subtler modes of holding the audience’s attention, on rhythm changes, on slight catches in the breath or a sustained, mournful note — all of which she manages to commendably hit: this is that rarest of animals, straight-up melodrama that manages to not plummet over the edge into being maudlin.

Moreover, this isn’t the idea piece I was expecting, but a character study. It’s not dissecting the broad, social implications of what happens to this woman (although it certainly invites you to) — it’s about illustrating her own evolving state of mind. It’s critical to the success of this that the story is so damn simple. There’s very little that actually happens in it, and most of the plot details are spoken in a sentence or two between the songs. The songs aren’t about conveying narrative information, but emotional content, and consequently I imagine most could be pulled out of context into successful solo pieces — I wouldn’t bat an eyelash at hearing any one of these as a single — but combined, they make one hell of a concept album.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

Like those Japanese ones that sound like a sneeze?

PRE-FRINGE PROFILE: BLOODYMERRYJAMMYPARTY

CAVEAT: The playwright, Heidi Arneson, is also the venue manager for the People’s Center Theater, which I have rented on several occasions.

SHOW TITLE: BLOODYMERRYJAMMYPARTY
PRODUCER: blank slate theatre
HAILING FROM: Minnesota
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Zombies, Lesbians, Pillow Fights, the Total Woman converge at a 1972 jammy party. Party games turn deadly, the dead play Truth or Dare, Bloody Mary is conjured, and female shame transforms into wild pride!
WHAT CAUGHT MY INTEREST: Every word in that show description (the marketing density in that thing is insane). The fact that this is a lauded show I missed the first time around. The fact that Heidi is a remarkable artist/administrator whose work I have yet to see a full hour of.

Just who do you think you are, anyway?

Hi, I’m Heidi, a multi-armed Minnesota artist. Over the past couple decades, I’ve cranked out a slew of one-woman comedies about childhood, sexuality and family: DEGRADE SCHOOL, PREHANSEL & POSTGRETEL, HEIDI HOUSE, HOMELAND SECURITY, GRRL, etcetera, and led workshops to help others (such as Amy Salloway, Howard Lieberman, Maria Bamford, and many more dancers, poets, writers, actors, and, most notably, male inmates) get up onstage and tell their stories. I found that we all have stories of love, loss, redemption and adventure; and when we share our stories, we heal, transform and connect. For the last few years, I gave performing and teaching a rest, in order to buff up my other arms (writing the never-finished-novel, finishing the 100 year old house, painting Midwestern and Italian landscapes,  and turning my urban yard into an edible garden). Now all those acts are underway, I’m plotting to get onstage again, in a two-woman show, long in coming ( I wrote a first draft in 1979), with longtime actress/writer friend Mim Solberg from NYC.  Who knows? Maybe we’ll rock the Fringe 2014 with our work about being middle-aged artists who still have sharp teeth.

So what’s the big idea?

BLOODYMERRYJAMMYPARTY is a musical 1972 girls’ slumber party set in the suburb of Peachy Village, Minnesota. There are all the games, Truth or Dare, Lift, ghost stories, crank calls and exploding hormones you’d find at any 20th century tween-fest, (it’s tons of !FUN!), but underneath the frivolity, everybody has a secret, something they’re trying to hide, something that’s eating them up alive, some passion they’re dying to express. Holly will not put food in her mouth. Kathy with a K has a murderous rage.  Mother Madge has unrequited urges. Dad Roger has forbidden lusts. Sheri with a “shh” has the “Lesbian Curse”. Director Adam Arnold, brave leader of blank slate theatre, calls this play a seven-layer cake. Every breath is packed with as many intrigues as there are characters. In the darkest moment of the darkest night of the year, once all the secrets have been revealed, a rule-breaking, wildness ensues. The play includes two songs by my daughter, Alberta Mirais, sassy scoring by Ian Boswell and musical director Frankie McCleod, precise stage managing by Taylor Hall, and stellar acting by Noa Beckham-Chasnoff, Maggie Erickson, Hannah Graves, Kendall Kent, Julia Kindall, Lucy Lawton, Lucas Levin, Jacob Mullin, Lizzie Potts, Jackson Raynor and Hanna Sprout.

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

I started creating this show over 20 years ago.  First it was entitled SLUMBER PARTY, then MARY MARGARET, PLEASE APPEAR.  This play bloomed from a cluster of personal histories I was trying to process through autobiographical performance art. So I performed all the characters myself, to get into their skin, and I performed this ubiquitously, in order to understand that uncomfortable time. Developing the play, doing it over and over, gave me insight into other girls, and into being female in my culture, and into some of our iconic myths, like  Bloody Mary Margaret, the wicked old woman in the mirror.  What happens if you say her name ten times? In the dark, rehearsing alone, in an empty theater (People’s Center Theater, some two decades ago) I discovered the main message of the play, which is so important to me, as a woman and as an artist- as I go through my life-long transformations- that trusting in your own wildness can set you free.

After finally putting the one-woman play to bed, I did a Bedlam musical, BEAVERDANCE; this convinced me I could expand my little one-woman show into a full-cast musical, so all the thirteen year old girls could fully speak.

Inline image 1

(Photo by Heidi Arneson, of Kendall Kent and Lizzy Potts.)

Why should I care?

1972 was a crazy time. “Women’s Libbers” were out bra-burning, and Title Nine had just passed, giving girls equal rights to educational and sports funding, but THE TOTAL WOMAN, a book requiring women to be submissive sex-pots with  perfectly kept houses, and greet their husbands at the door with empathetic  martinis, dressed in only Saran Wrap, was a bestseller. Girls back then struggled with conflicting messages. Be submissive and be strong. Be a tender Barbarella and an Out-spoken Bitch. Be dieting for a 24-inch waist, and simultaneously save the world. Blank slate theater is performed by youths; we asked the teenage cast if these conflicts were obsolete. They replied “NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT. WE ARE STILL STRUGGLING WITH ALL THESE SAME ISSUES.”

Justify your show’s existence in haiku form.

THE BLOODY, MERRY, JAMMY PARTY
(an almost Haiku)

Oh no. Must I go? I must.
The Party Awaits.
The blood, the buzz, the Pizza Spins;
Social games I’ll never win.
Most dreaded and most lovely.
This Sleep-over will set me free.

Inline image 3

PRE-FRINGE PROFILE: It’s Raining Inside Again: The Arts Administrators Show

 

SHOW TITLE: It’s Raining Inside Again: The Arts Administrators Show
PRODUCER: Punch the Printer Productions
HAILING FROM: Minnesota
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Wholesomeness meets pandemonium as Mr. Rogers goes behind the scenes of your local theatre company to explore the depths of a unique and peculiar ecosystem: the administrative office of an arts nonprofit.
WHAT CAUGHT MY INTEREST: The administrators are the unsung heroes who make art happen. Isn’t it time they had a show of their own?

Just who do you think you are, anyway?

 

We’re Arts Administrators (the people who do all the business-y things for artists and arts organizations). And we’re also artists. And some of us are not arts administrators- we’ve got dancers and puppeteers and techies and designers and a professor and lawyer for good measure. And sometimes we get so angry and worn down, and the printer jams so repeatedly, that we’d like to punch it.

So what’s the big idea?

We mashed up Mr Rogers Neighborhood with the chaotic story of the theatre company in his imagination. Mr Rogers, ever calm, genuine and reliable is a comfort for us left brainers working in a right brain world. The theatre company in his imagination, is more like what our lives are actually like. It may seem like we embellished a bit, or exaggerated here and there, and while, of course, we did a little (this is theatre after all!), a surprising amount of what you will see happen, or hear said on stage is based on real events that have or are happening in the administrative offices of arts organizations all over the Twin Cities.

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

It all began with snakes in a bowl. On a desk. In a office. After the snake incident, we got to thinking: weird shit happens all the time in the arts, from ridiculous audience members to overzealous volunteers, incomprehensible show titles and novelty-sized props. Conversations with our colleagues led to the birth of a google doc (because we love cloud-based tools) to capture the best quotes and tales. After a year of accumulating some of the strangest, funniest, and sometimes saddest stories of the world behind the spotlight, we decided we should do the only thing we professionally know how to do: make a show!

We hope we’ve created something fun and funny that illuminates an oft forgotten section of artists: us type-a, organized, just-trying-to-make-sense-of-it-all producers, marketers, program managers, and grant writers.

Why should I care?

Well, for starters, if you work, or have ever worked, in an arts organization or even just non-profit in general, there’s likely to be some (if not all) of the show that will feel really relatable. And if it’s not something you’ve experienced before, we think it will be a fascinating, and more importantly, hilarious insight into the world behind the curtain. Also, Mr Rogers… need we say more? 

Justify your show’s existence in haiku form.

Mr. Rogers knows
Mercury’s in Retrograde.
Arts administrate!

PRE-FRINGE PROFILE: OCCUPY This! Tales of an Accidental Activist

 

SHOW TITLE: OCCUPY This! Tales of an Accidental Activist
PRODUCER: Tommy ‘Rev. Nuge’ Nugent
HAILING FROM: Michigan
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Fringe vet Tommy Nugent (“Burning Man & Rev Nuge” ’09) went to Occupy Wall St. & Occupy Detroit just to carry funny signs, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Revolution – he started to believe in it.
WHAT CAUGHT MY INTEREST: This dude actually filled out one of the very first Pre-Fringe Profiles back in 2009. Let’s see if he’s still got the knack.

Just who do you think you are, anyway?

 

I’m just your average pentecostal preacher turned strip club bartender turned professional gambler turned law school dropout turned street magician turned motivational speaker turned touring Fringe solo performer and accidental Occupy activist.

Oh, and I am the leader of a small but enthusiastic cult.

So what’s the big idea?

A 40 year old suburban dad (and part time Fringe artist) visits Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Detroit just to shoot footage for his youtube channel and photobomb the news with funny signs. And then he accidentally joins the movement.

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

I came up with an idea like that by living a screwy life like that.  I really thought I was just gonna wave around my “Rev. Nuge: 99% Love, 1% Asshole (percentages may vary)” sign and go home, but I ended up jumping into the Occupy movement with both feet – shooting video and writing articles for the media team, protesting, fighting bank foreclosures, and camping in a downtown park with Occupiers alongside the homeless people who were already living there.  

Why should I care?

I’ve written and performe dsix solo shows. This is the first one that has sort of…laid itself out before me. Like “oh yeah – there’s the narrative and this is how I’m gonna tell it.” It’s become my most successful (and maybe my favorite) show, and it was a complete surprise.

Justify your show’s existence in haiku form.

Funny thing happened –
laughing at the Revolution,
then working for it.

PRE-FRINGE PROFILE: Medea

SHOW TITLE: Medea
PRODUCER: Amber Bastards
HAILING FROM: Minnesota
SHOW DESCRIPTION: How do you cope with betrayal? How do you avenge yourself when you lose the life you sacrificed everything for? This adaption of Euripides’ Medea breaths new life into the tragedy of the woman from Colchis.
WHAT CAUGHT MY INTEREST: They’re currently down here with me in Kansas City, and their director blurted out that they’d just come off the waiting list in Minneapolis. Hell, I’m enough of a mythology geek that they would probably have been on my list anyway.

Just who do you think you are, anyway?

 
We are an amalgamation of current students and recent grads of Carleton College, who call themselves the Amber Bastards. We got the name from the lighting gel color Bastard Amber, because the only thing better than a theater in-joke, is a theater in-joke with swear words. Myself and Rachel Linder, who plays Medea, did KC Fringe last summer, and after a (very good) year in the Twin Cities working on other people’s projects, we wanted to take on something of our own. That we where able to put together such a wonderful group of actors who were willing to go traipsing around the Midwest doing Greek tragedy with us is both a miracle and what transformed the idea of a Fringe tour from a crazy pipe dream to marginally doable. We just finished KC Fringe and will be going onto Indianapolis after this, so it’s been a very nomadic summer.

So what’s the big idea?

Our show is basically a stripped down version of Euripides’ Medea. There are a lot of words in that play and we had to get it down to an hour, so I started with the public domain translation by Gilbert Murray from 1912 and then did a lot of rewriting to stream-line the story and update the language. I wanted to preserve the essence of Euripides’ play so the form is pretty much straight-up Greek tragedy: we’ve got the Chorus, the long oratories, the disturbingly graphic descriptions of off-stage violence. We just translated it from a 5th century b.c. amphitheater to a 21st century blackbox. 
 
How did you come up with a screwy idea like that?
 
I was a history major as well as a theater major, so I am fascinated by anything old. I am also nigh unto evangelical about anything old, so I’m fascinated by the challenge of resurrecting old scripts and making them have the same power and meaning for modern audiences that they would have had for their original audiences. I spent the spring semester as a stage management intern at the Playwright’s Center which basically involves sitting at a table with a bunch of playwrights, directors and actors who are incredibly good at what they do and watching them midwife new plays into being. So I started wondering if we take questions that we ask about new plays in development and start asking them about old plays, could we create a version of Medea that felt fresh and alive, but was still something that the ghost of Euripides’ would recognize as his own. 
 
Why should I care?
 
There’s a lot of painfully esoteric reasons why you should see Medea. You should see it because this is our theatrical heritage. Without the Greeks we wouldn’t have actors, we wouldn’t have tragedy and comedy as we think of them, we wouldn’t even have summer theater festivals, with the Athenians invented as part of the worship of Dionysus. You should see it because it engages with some really interesting gender politics, which are both very exciting and a little uncomfortable for 21st century feminists; for all the plays we have about angry men, this is one of the few about a totally unapologetic angry women.
 
But really you should see it because it’s a great play. Going to a Greek tragedy may feel like eating the spinach of the Fringe Festival, but the characters and the story have stood the test of time incredibly well, the actors are excellent, and it raises some very interesting questions. Plus spinach is good for you. 
 
Justify your show’s existence in haiku form.
 
I feel like I should buck the question for the sake of genre and write you Homeric epic poem, but I doubt you’d print it. So: 
 
Greek tragedy in
which feminism is 
all the rage: sorry, kid.