ONLY THE PERFORMERS have a solid idea of what to expect at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. And often they, too, are surprised: During one infamous show, in which actors drove audience members around downtown Minneapolis, police stopped the thespians on suspicion of picking up a prostitute.
So it’s surprising that the organization behind it all is so, well, organized. Credit Leah Cooper, who stepped down last year as head of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, with ensuring the financial and administrative stability of what is now the nation’s largest unjuried theater festival, with 162 shows running this year from August 2 to 12.
The festival’s new executive director, Robin Gillette, sports an impressive arts pedigree as well, having served as production coordinator for the Lincoln Center Festival in New York, a $10 million celebration of music, dance, and theater that has showcased such performers as Mikhail Baryshnikov and the New York Philharmonic. Gillette wants to apply her administrative acumen to expanding the Fringe’s audience base, emphasizing the festival’s accessibility (no ticket more than $12, no show over 60 minutes). And she’s exploring ways to give the Fringe a broader year-round presence, possibly remounting shows throughout the year or taking them on the road to greater Minnesota. Already, the $3 Fringe button, which offers the holder reduced ticket prices during the festival, is good for discounts at various theatrical venues.
But even as the festival changes, it also remains the same, an open forum for anyone with the $400 entry fee and an hour’s worth of material. This year, many familiar themes and artists re-emerge. There is Star Wars: The Musical and Hansel and Gretel: The Musical. Shakespeare is parodied thrice: by Fringe favorite Joseph Scrimshaw in Macbeth’s Awesome Scottish Castle Party (skewering not just the bard but also interactive theater); by Bedlam Theatre, which promises to send Joan of Arc on a “rampage” through three Shakespeare plays; and by the profanity-prone producers of a show called Die Hamletmaschine, who have recast Ophelia and the doomed prince as dangerous psychos and promise to “f— you up.” Yet another show enlists Shakespeare himself as a character, spying for the queen.
Historical twists predominate, ranging from frequent Scrimshaw collaborator Tim Uren’s one-man portrayal of a chance meeting between James Joyce and Albert Einstein to Warm Gun Productions’ setup of Osama bin Laden playing miniature golf in Tora Bora. Tapping recent musical history, the troupe Commedia Beauregard stages I Hate Kenny G, which involves strippers and the eponymous, perpetually unhip saxophonist.
The safest bets, as always, are the shows that have already won over audiences at fringe festivals elsewhere. This year’s touring productions include The Comedy Jesus Show, a multimedia satire in which audiences can ask questions of Jesus, and Omar Sangare’s solo piece about a man suffering from overambition, for which Sangare won the Best Acting award at the New York Fringe.
The best shows this year, however, may prove to be neither the retreads nor the comedies but the more thoughtful productions. Take Nor Did the Atomic Bomb Drop Itself, a slate of stories performed by local playwright Erica Christ, storyteller Richard Rousseau, and actor Tom Cassidy, about the absurdity of international politics and, Christ says, “what wine goes with which conflict.” Or The Broken Brain Syndrome, in which artists with brain injuries tell their moving, often funny stories of processing life a little differently than most people.
Still, the Fringe’s strength is usually its outrageousness. And so one hopes that the audience members recruited to play the gentleman caller in Bouffon Glass Menajoree and the cast of a MoliÃ©re play in MoliÃ©re Than Thou are put to hilarious use. And that the show Principles of Economics, performed by a PhD candidate from the University of Minnesota, is not as straightforward as it sounds.