King of Comedy

After 12 Fringe shows and dozens of local plays, Joseph Scrimshaw makes it big with Adventures in Mating

A TALL MAN WITH FLOWING LOCKS and a cell phone strapped to his belt strides down the aisle like a techie Fabio. His date lowers her eyes and takes a swig from an electric-blue martini glass. Across the aisle, a teenager in Velcro-fastened deck shoes places a trembling hand on another teen’s knee. As the lights dim in the sold-out Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater, seduction is in the air. Judging by the title of tonight’s performance—Adventures in Mating—seduction will also be onstage.

Or will it? When a waiter welcomes us to “Café Serendipity,” he explains that this is “interactive” theater: we, the audience, will determine the outcome of the protagonists’ evening. Each time the waiter rings a bell, we will be faced with a decision regarding their fate, er, date. Red wine or white? Medium or rare? Seduction—or total annihilation? Tonight, we’re the playwright and puppet master, swooping in to shift the plot like a deus ex machina—or, in this case, the deus ex marinara sauce.

The show is written, co-produced, and acted by Twin Cities native Joseph Scrimshaw, otherwise known as half of the Scrimshaw Brothers comedy duo. Adventures has been performed in New York and England, and will soon travel to Bulgaria. The play came together two years ago when Scrimshaw, a 12-year Minnesota Fringe Festival veteran, decided to create a Fringe show that’s more sad sack, less madcap than his usual work. The tragicomic world of 21st-century dating emerged as a theme of what Scrimshaw envisioned as “a sort of sad version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Characters were crafted from contemporary dating archetypes. Jeffrey, the lead, is an insecure, underemployed Star Wars fan out for a night of wild abandon (he promises his date he’ll rock her world “from midnight until approximately 20 minutes after midnight”). Miranda, his date, is a prim editor whose immediate goal is marriage—to someone who will adore her 28 cats, including Lawrence of Cat-rabia and Chairman Meow. The “Choose Your Own Adventure” structure allows the show to evolve, in theory, forever. There are 60 possible combinations of 40 different scenes, at the moment; the audience could, for instance, force Miranda to endure a lengthy exegesis on Star Wars history and have Jeffrey ejected from the restaurant.

Scrimshaw wanted to devise a new way to keep audiences engaged; making them collaborators in the performance seemed a surefire way of doing so. Indeed, he believes that if theater is going to thrive, it must adapt to changes in culture. “People turn their noses up at interactive theater,” he explains. “It’s so easy to sweep aside the ADD generation. Everyone says, ‘They all watch too much TV—let’s just do Shakespeare.’” But Shakespeare, Scrimshaw points out, created for the culture he lived in: peasants wandered in and out of his long works. High art forged in the furnace of popular desire: that’s where Scrimshaw has his sights.

Scrimshaw found his calling in theater as a visual arts major at the University of Minnesota when he discovered that his favorite part of class was the group critique—essentially, improvised live performance. Over the past 13 years, he has written, acted in, and produced dozens of local shows, including the long-running collaborations Look Ma, No Pants! and The Scrimshaw Show. Someday, he says, he hopes to own a theater with his wife (and Adventures co-producer) Sara Scrimshaw. Until then, his ambitions are simply stated—“I’d like to be able to do nothing but write and perform theater and comedy,” he says—and he’s at work on his next Fringe show, Macbeth’s Awesome Scottish Castle Party. Meanwhile, Adventures continues indefinitely at the BLB—“Every Monday night,” says Scrimshaw, “until they make us stop.”