Fringe Hits and Misses

The numbers are in: For the first four days of the Minnesota Fringe Festival this year, the top-selling shows were “Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead” by Walking Shadow, “The Cody Rivers Show Presents: Stick to Glue,” “An Inconvenient Squirrel,” by Joseph Scrimshaw, “Musical the Musical” by Urban Samurai, and “Mortem Capiendum” by Four Humors Theater. I wouldn’t expect this to change much over the next week: the top shows are a combination of reliable out-of-towners with polished productions and reliable locals with polished productions–and all comedies. On the surface, it would appear that the Fringe will pass this year without major discoveries or disappointments. But that’s because the surprises have mostly been quiet–and pleasant–ones.

The shows that work best this year are not the loudest or most outrageous, as in years past, but often the least ambitious, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. Simple storytelling–a stool and a script, two performers at the most: these shows stand out for their solid writing. See “An Intimate Evening with Mike Fotis: Part Two,” “In Rehearsal,” “The Pumpkin Pie Show,” “Tipping the Bucket.” This used to be a recipe for narcissistic disaster, but many of these stories are not even autobiographical but well-written character studies, and those that are personal are more reflective than navel-gazing. This may be the most welcome and surprising development at the Fringe in years, and as the rest of the entertainment world, from reality TV to Brangelina, seeks to pass off shallow biography as drama, this embrace of real storytelling is refreshing.

The other surprises are the quality musicals. “The Mistress Cycle” typifies the trend: a serious, poignant take on five famous mistresses throughout history, sung by talented singer-actors who deserve larger stages in the local theater scene. The show’s creators, alas, aren’t local, but the choice of material was nonetheless a sophisticated one. Used to be, a couple of crazy Canadians jogging in place and playing air guitar would provide the festival’s musical highlights. Strong voices and earnest performances are carving out a virtuosic niche.

The infusion of physical/movement theater is also promising in the wake of Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s waning. Live Action Set may surprise everyone but their core followers with their creepy (re)exploration of deviant behavior in, well, “Deviants,” directed by former Jeune Lune principal Bob Rosen, but the challenging content and dance-work keeps the edge honed for a theater world one can expect to play it safe in coming seasons. Here’s simply hoping LAS doesn’t succumb to the same theatrical pitfalls as Jeune Lune, which could’ve used a script doctor’s services from time to time—one can’t survive on imagery alone.