This year I was the happy recipient of a Fringe Fest Press Pass so I didn't plan on being too picky about what I saw. But nothing is ever that easy when I have to deal with Rox. I'll spare you all the details of our half an hour conversation in which we tried to determine what, when, why and who, how, where-Uptown by her apartment or downtown by mine, and figured out nothing at all. Then there's my mother who comes to visit me during Fringe every year. I had to figure out which of the 135+ plays would be appropriate Mom material. Since my mother is mortally offended by the work "fuck," any explicit mention of sex, sexual parts, sexual activities or anything that might infer that there would be sexual content in the play. "Color me Naked," was out; "No Smoking, No Pets, No Loud Sex," was clearly inappropriate; "Screwed 2" had to be shunned; "The aberrations of Coitus Exoticus"...well, you get the point. The list of "acceptable" plays/performances was hacked from 135+ to about 40. Still, a large list to choose from. But when I told Rox I planned to see all the dance performances with my mother, she whined, "But Elle, I want to see dance." I didn't even want to think about what it would be like to co-ordinate between me, Mom, Rox and Rox's mother (who is also in town, visiting from LA -- the city of "do no wrong'' where the arts are concerned.) And then there was the fact that Rox had no idea what Fringe was really about, so we had a little Fringe 101 session:
Rox: Elle, what is Fringe? I mean really?
Elle: Visit theFringe website
Rox:But Elle, is it that whole starving artists who can't make it anywhere else so they end up at the Fringe? Or is it more like one of those deals where fringe has actually become mainstream so it ends up being able to get away with anything it wants-regardless of substance. You know, like The Gap?
Elle: No, Rox. It's much more fun than regular theater. It can be hit and miss like anything else, but there're some really good theater happening for just $10.00 a pop. And some "real" stuff where they talk about feeeeelings. Visit the Fringe website
Rox:But if this is better than mainstream, why is it fringe?
Elle: I think this probably goes back to your theory of the dumbing down of America. People are conditioned to believe it's not good unless it costs a lot of money, (read Orpheum), has an intermission and they gotta get all gussied up to go.
Rox: And your theory that people are lemmings. Wow. We've got to talk about this fringe thing. It's so important. Do you think someday fringe will run the world?
Elle: 'Bout as likely as us getting elected President and Vice President of the United States.
Our first play of the Fringe season (about a Minnesota writer struggling to find her voice) was at The Woman's Club of Minneapolis, one of the many Fringe venues, which, under normal circumstances is upstaged by the biggies (read Orpheum again). And why should this theater (or the Loring Playhouse and so many others) live in the shadows of the mainstream? The Woman's club is big, bold, and beautiful; (an ideal spot to host a turn of the century gala where everyone dances the Viennese Waltz in Tuxes and fancy ball gowns?) the theater offers plenty of play space for performers and audiences to have their fair share of their Minnesota Nice personal space. Naturally, we wanted to play like Evita and sit on the balcony, but Fringe folk suggested we "not be afraid" to sit close up.
Elle: For a forty minute play, it started off slowly.
Rox: Yeah. There was a little bit of that I'm Acting!" syndrome going on. But it subsided. They were just nervous, I'm sure.
Elle: I got involved when Dottie (Jodie Kalla) and her husband Harry (Doug Jones) were in the middle of arguing about money: He's opening mail; she's yelling and pacing. When he comes upon one particular piece of mail, he frowns, and as soon as Dottie's back is turned he shoves the envelope down the back of his pants, which we later find out is yet another rejection letter (addressed to her) from the "New Yorker". Then they start arguing about her latest story and what it means to be a "serious writer." So, of course I was interested.
Rox: I wanted to go after the letter straight away. And wasn't he just a cutie?
Elle: Jesus, Rox. Not with the men again. Talk about the play! I thought Dottie's angry reaction to Harry asking how she could be a serious writer with only two publications in sixteen years, was the one serious misstep in the play. Because how can you be a serious writer if you never get published?
Rox: But Elle, think about all the writers who kick ass but never get published. One of my ex's, for example, was the best writer I ever read. He's probably dead somewhere beneath a DC nightclub, but he wrote like none other. He didn't want to deal with the B.S. of getting published. Talk about fringe-he was on the outskirts.
Elle: Point taken.
Rox:Elle, can we be in Fringe next year?
Elle: Rox, you can't do everything. Isn't reviewing theater enough?
Rox: But I want to be on stage. People don't love writers like they do actors.
Elle: How many times do I have to tell you it's not about the whole world loving you?
Rox: Can we at least think about it? And Elle, we forgot to mention the part about Mike Shaeffer, the director. Did we even tell them that we saw his other play-"Cramming Cassandra"-which he not only wrote but directed and acted in as well? I talked to him. He's realllllllly nice. Do you think he's single?
Rox: Actually, he had some great stuff to say. He just moved back here from Alaska and he's all over the Fringe. He's already thinking about next year. And such a nice guy. Both of our moms would like him. I mean, who else in our age bracket writes such mature stuff about relationships and self-awareness? Plus the scenes were really playful. The couple made me smile because it made me feel like I was watching myself, or some version of the self I would like to be. The guy who played Harry was so cute. Elle, do you think he's single?
Elle: Can't you focus on something other than men? What else did Shaeffer say about Fringe?
Rox: He's got a great attitude about Fringe. He's all about the community part. He likes that this gives anyone a chance to do what they love and connect with others who feel the same.
Elle: Did you just say, "he's all about?"
Rox: So? He is. He says, and I quote, "It's a good way to see raw material. It doesn't need to be perfectly polished to be out there and entertain." Something like that. And get this-he says what he wants most is for people to DISCUSS what they saw. Isn't that cool? So, let's discuss. What did you think?
Elle: I think I enjoyed him in "Cramming Cassandra"-he was very funny. I also think we are going to be so far over our word limit that Aislesay is going to read us the riot act. We'd better go on to the next one.
While I hate to root for the away team, (Writer/Director Mark Ehling is from Alabama) "Bath" was the most intelligent thing I saw at Fringe. Performed in a series of mock lectures, this team clearly pokes fun at how seriously we take ourselves with our silly little grids, company cars, quick-fixes, and aspiration for stuff. The deadpan delivery coupled with the raw insight into the pathetic state of humankind's McValues makes Ehling's work well worth following along the lecture circuit. Right Elle?
Elle: Righty-o. Roll-on-the-floor funny. But oddly, what I liked best was the first act: "A Note from the Author" when Ehling stood behind a podium-lecture style-and delivered a ten-minute monologue on what it was like to be paid to transcribe hours of phone calls between the Brothers Anderson.
Rox: Why do you say "oddly?"
Elle: It's usually funnier when actors play off of one another, rather than just one person doing a monologue but he was fun-ny. Good comic timing and yeah, I loved his deadpan delivery.
Usually it's me pissing and moaning about the production. This time it was Rox-only not in words. As the hour (the length of most Fringe plays) passed, Rox sunk slowly deeper into her seat. I could feel her silent "I hate this play, I hate this play" energy-
Rox: Elle, it was early nineties Roseanne Barr! It's dated. I've got nothing against the woman-she was cute, AND she's Jewish for God sakes, right? But the victim mentality is so nineties!
Elle: Did you hear how loud the audience was clapping and laughing? Even more than during "Bath of Surprise".
Rox: That's because all the kids were laughing at the swear words. Swearing sells. It was not funny. I would have preferred her to talk about why she felt a need to complain, and why she struggles so much. I wanted more honesty. This was an old shtick. And I don't think she's helping women who are depressed because she's saying let's complain and be the victim. Or, let's make fun of ourselves as women that men will never go for. She's just perpetuating the notion that image is all. And instead of doing something about it, empowering herself in other ways, or accepting herself as she is, she just complains and man-bashes. She offered no solutions to her problems.
Elle: I see your point though I didn't dislike it to the degree that you did. I didn't care that she didn't have any "answers" to her problems (menopause, aging, obesity, men, among others) because who among us has all the answers?
Rox: But she didn't have any.
Elle: Was she even asking any questions? Seems like she mainly made observations.
Rox: Mainly negative observations and nothing I hadn't heard before. I didn't like that. It just wasn't funny.
Elle: I'm not Miss Positive Pollyanna and you think I'm funny.
Rox: But you have good insights-fresh insights. Anyway, I think you're attitude has really improved lately.
Elle: Gee, thanks, Rox.
Rox loved it so much, she saw it twice! Take it away, Rox.
Indeed I did. You should really catch one of her shows, Elle. No wonder she has her own theatre company and school. As the Cindy Sherman of performance, Twin Cities' local takes us on a one-hour tour of America's archetypes. Ranging from the washed up and addicted lounge act to the Salvation Army sociopath, Arneson embodies the underbelly of our crumbling and superficial sense of security in this country. Served up in her classic satire du jour, "Homeland" is an amalgam of song, dance, and monologue-all done to the musical accompaniment of her sidekick, Andy Schultz. He's got the archetypal tunes down to a science, capitalizing on the sleazy lounge tunes. While she largely targets the political structure of our media-centric society, she also pokes fun at the meaningless way we each prioritize our lives around our love of things, stuff, and appearances, yet remain utterly empty when the glitz turns to goop. That's where Arneson moves beyond the swirling toilet of helplessness and offers a solution to all this chaos: She hangs her concluding acts on the Lynch classic, Blue Velvet, by insisting (as does Rosallini when asked what she is doing while waist deep in sex) the significance of "loving you." While dear Isabella had other things on her mind, Arneson clearly meant to tell us super humans to slow the heck down so we can look someone in the eye once in a while and tell the truth. Unlike Hirsch, Heidi had a solution to her woes. Elle, do you think I'm more Arneson or Hirsch?
Elle: Neither. You're one of a kind, Rox. Did your mom like it?
These four one-act plays must have at least one common required element-so says the "Playwright Members' Roundtable." We, as the audience are supposed to look for them. In fact, there's even a little quiz in the program that was handed to us as before we walked upstairs to the Loring Playhouse's stage. Interesting gimmick, but they didn't need it; all four plays are strong enough to stand on their own, in part because of Actor/Director Chris Kliesen Wehrman. In each of the four playlets (none longer than about ten minutes) Wehrman proved herself the most versatile of the cast-a new-agey waitress serving "gourmet" water; "Peaches", a bear with a New York accent (It was really good, I swear.); June Cleaver with a Minnesota accent; and in "A Postcard from the Corn Palace", (which Rox insists exists in one of those Dakota places) she played a university professor who had a penchant for picking up men during her travels across the US searching for Moorish Architecture-
Rox: And I definitely want to see more from this local writer. He really gets what's up about people. Simple dialog, too. No "I'm aaaaaacting" syndrome in this one. Elle! You haven't even mentioned the men. Didn't you think David Denniger was dreamy? He was like a cross between Robin Williams and my fifth grade math teacher. Do you think he's single?
Elle: I think you need to get a grip.
I didn't tell Mom the play was actually a comedic magic show, (she hates magic) instead I waited till we were in our seats. By then it was too late. Heh. But I knew it would be good. And it was. Phillips and Beriss didn't have any spectacular, dazzling tricks but rather a solid, well, magic and comedy routine. Since I couldn't figure how they made ropes grow and shrink, or how an audience member's dollar bill (which he signed before giving it to the magicians) ended up in a cigar, it was good enough for me. And Mom-she loved it.
Rox: That's it? Are they local? Have we said that we mainly tried to catch local acts? What did you like about Phillips and Beriss? Was he cute? Are they married? Elle: She is local. I don't remember what he looked like. They are married-but not to each other. They had a lot of chemistry together. No, not that kind. They played off each other really well-smoothly.
Rox: Like you and me, Elle.
Elle: Yeah. And Beriss is sort of a groundbreaker. There aren't a lot of women magicians. You would have liked it, Rox. There was even a scene-sort of a little skit, called "How We Met", where they talked about all that stuff you love: the meaning of life, being happy, feeeelings...
Dance Number 1:
Dance Number 2:
What the program called it: Weebles. What I called it: We are all freaks. What Mom called it: Cute.
Dance Number 3:
It's fun to play with dead people and make them live again. What Mom called it: Excruciating.
Dance Number 4:
What the program called it: Fleur sur Merde. What we all called it: Torture in slo-mo.
And so on. And on. And on and on and on and on. Verdict: One of the longest hours of our lives. What did you think, Rox?
Rox: My mother always told me if I didn't have anything nice to say I shouldn't say anything at all. The audience seemed to like it, and I will admit that I don't know squat about interpretive dance. I just know I was bored and didn't feel anything. I don't think anyone was really relating to anyone. I don't see the point in collective shuffling. Besides, I wanted more tumbles and less tics. I did like the one girl in pigtails, though. She somehow tapped into my childhood in a sad way, but only briefly.
Thank God we ended the evening with this performance-alive and energetic rather than the sluggish "Tics, Tweaks, and Tumbles". Mom was woo-hooing, Rox was rocking in her seat and tapping her foot, and I was happy to see a performance with some life in it.
Rox: It was great, but once you've seen "Afro Celt" anyone with a drum is gonna hear from me. Plus, I didn't need the saxophone-it hurt my ears. However, I would see them play outside in a place where I could dance.
Elle: And what about that petite red-headed woman in the front row who went up on stage and danced to one of the numbers? My God, she was like a super-powered Gumby. How can anyone's body bend like that-and so fast, with such rhythm? Mom and I could not stop talking about her. We wondered if she were part of the act or not.
Rox: I think she was friends with the performers.
Elle: Mom thought that Afrika's Ensemble probably had an agreement with her-like if she felt inspired, she could come up and dance. I tell you, I've never seen such a mesmerizing dance performance in my life! And until she danced, I couldn't hear the rhythm in the music. I know you and Mom could, but when music is heavily jazz influenced is difficult for me to hear anything but chaos. See, Rox, It's all perspective, where you're from, your life experiences, likes, dislikes...Or a psych background that causes you to boil everything down to "how does this relate to survival," or men...
Rox: Men relate to survival. Our bodies our designed to procreate so even if we don't want to have children --
Elle: -- We still seek out that connection. Yeah, yeah, Rox. I know.
Anything that is about the agony of hair is okay in my book. Since I have nothing but hair issues, the blurb in the Fringe Guide got me right away. It was so cool how she would read her stuff and perform it at the same time. It was all about her relationships to others in relation to her hair! I could do that. Like once my hair got so big and frizzy that a stranger took pity on me because she thought I was homeless. Or then there was the time-
Elle: Rox! The play!
Rox: She's local but I don't think I have seen her stuff. But I would like to see more of her. I like how something as innocuous as hair can show the horror of childhood on the playground of peers. Elle, did you ever get in trouble because of your hair?
Elle: I once wrote an essay that started, "I am my hair." Yes, I have hair stories. Unlike Sugrue, whose hair was short, thin, and wispy, mine was huge and bushy. Mom made me wear it short till I was fourteen. I looked like a walking mushroom.
Rox: That explains why you wear it long now.
Elle: My crowning glory, as they say. People stop me on the street to tell me what great hair I've got. Poor Renee Sugrue has the same hair she did as a child. I would have been interested to find out how she feels about her hair now. I thought the hair thing was a hook to tell the stories of her childhood. She started off each vignette with a description of her friend's or enemies gorgeous hair as a springboard to launch into something unrelated to hair. I wanted more hair. And more pictures. She projected cute little stick figure drawings on the screen --
Rox: --The "scrim" not the "screen."
Elle: Whatever. She had the one photograph of her as a child but that was it. All the photos she projected on the screen were before the performance where they had no context. She was quite an entertaining storyteller but if the pictures and photos were better integrated throughout her storytelling, it would have made for a stronger performance.
No stranger to comedic timing, local actor Brian Alymer (of Brave New Workshop's "Flanagan's Wake"), plays the "dreamy" gone alkie high school teacher. Writer Brogan's (also a BNW alum) play helps us to remember that most of our own teachers were probably so mean because they were so miserable. "Teen Spirit's plot cleverly weaves wit and modern issues into this all-too-true amalgam of young Americans' most archetypal nightmare: the ten year reunion. While the reunion thing hitches a ride on the many spin-offs of high school reunion movie spin-offs, the dialog is believable, hilarious, and takes us cringing alongside the memories of all the people we used to be, know, and God forbid-still are. While we love the actors, we despise the characters. It's no wonder the audience was rolling.
In real life, Alymer. plays the dreamy tenant who lives down the hall in my apartment building. I asked him why he thinks Fringe is so awesome, to which he said it offers people a fun escape. "While there can be theater that is life changing, it's just as valid if it's entertaining and makes people laugh."
Elle: Isn't that what I always say?
Rox: Yeah, but Teen Spirit opened up all kinds of opportunities for self-analysis.
Elle: For you, maybe. I just thought it was funny.
Rox: Did you go to your 10th reunion?
Elle: Lord no!
Rox: That's why. What does move you, Elle?
Elle: Arthur Miller's "Resurrection Blues."
Rox: You're getting ahead of yourself! That's our next Review!
I feel like a traitor by dissing my second home's (Seattle) portrayal of mental illness, but I guess since I double as a psychotherapist, particularly in the arena of psychosis, I have a right so adhere to my own voices. While I respect the effort to portray mental illness on stage, (especially society's creation of it) as well as showing us how far we have progressed in our understanding and acceptance of it, I still fear that our country's growing misconception of mental illness and its etiology is highly dangerous and is "killing us softly." While I cannot go into detail in a blurb (nor can I deny that Seattle considers itself its own country), I will say nothing more than don't believe everything you see at Fringe. The actresses, though, were extremely animated and passionate; I just hated to see them misplace it into something contrived, dated, and clearly not thoroughly researched. But I am glad I went. I am glad to know that the topic of mental illness continues to be incorporated into the arts, especially since so many artists walk that ever fine line. What did you think, Elle? Elle: I think that was quite an impassioned and eloquent speech there, Rox. By now you know I don't come from quite the same place as you do when it comes to our psychology or other people's thoughts or portrayals of mental illness. I thought the writing was poetic, the acting was fervent and dramatic. They made me believe it was an accurate depiction of mental illness, so I'd say they did a great job! Your mom like it. Said pretty much the same thing as I did.
Rox: Which doesn't make the portrayal of mental illness any more accurate.
We both agreed this was the best show in Fringe. Who knew? "Out on a Limb Dance Company's debut gig at Fringe had all the elements of good theater: dedication to the performance, relating, exploration of archetypes, suspense, empathy, and genuine connection among the cast. In other words, this cast of fifty-one kids ranging in ages from about five to post puberty, gives eighties pop-culture all it's got. Director (and founder of Out on a Limb) Amber Rosah Erling leads us through the roller coaster of childhood and adolescence in a series of dance numbers ranging from heartbreak to break dance, exploring such questions as who am I?, what should I wear? and, am I what I wear? What else Elle? Did you like it as much as I did?
Elle: Yep. Kind of funny because I didn't realize it was "Kid's Fringe" when I picked it out of the guide. The kids were clearly having a blast up there and their enthusiasm was infectious. And, you'll like this, Rox: from the psych POV it was interesting to watch each of them, the born performers playing to the crowd, the inexperienced with either a frozen smile on their face or a look of intense concentration. Erling did an excellent job capitalizing on the strengths of all of her cast by spotlighting those talents: the comedians, tap dancers, ballerinas, etc. And if I could tell who was who in that list of fifty-one names, I'd name names. But as there was no actual dialog, twelve tiny blurry pictures, a list of the characters with the names of those who played them, make it pretty hard to figure out. And maybe that's my only gripe: the program. Yes, as a one-time print buyer, I know how expensive printing can be, but the money should be spent. The audience deserves to know who each one of these fantastic kids is.
Rox: How 'bout a little post production dialog.
Elle: Dialog away, Rox.
Rox: This was a lot of work. But worth it!
Elle: You don't know work until you do html tagging by hand. And we are so over our word count.
Rox: But we saw ten plays! So, really, we're under our word count! I can't wait to go next year. Now I really get it about Fringe. Fringe is a metaphor for the truth. It's the 'zine of the theatre. The grunge of the music scene. The neurosis behind the writer. The Captain Sulu behind Captain Kirk. And even though we were critical, everyone gets an "A" for effort . You know? Elle? Where'd you go?
Elle: I seemed to have forgotten my line. But seriously, an "A" for effort? What the hell are you talking about, Rox?
Rox: Well, do you think as "press" we defeat the purpose of Fringe? I mean, what right do we have to judge what local performers are doing for us out of the kindness and passion of their brave little hearts?
Elle: You're basing whether or not we have a right to our opinions on the basis of money? We see plays for free so we can't be critical? We've been doing this for awhile and now all of a sudden we have to be "nice" because we didn't shell out the requisite ten bucks per play? I've shelled out money for plenty of Fringe plays over the years. You think we should only be critical of the mainstream "Broadway" plays (yeah, read Orpheum)? This is against everything you stand for Rox. What's up with you?
Rox: You're right, Elle.
Elle: And you are too. I also feel like all the performers should get that "A" for effort.
Rox: Have you given any more thought to performing at Fringe next year?
Elle: What? So two theater reviewers could nail us to the cross?
Rox: They'd love us, Elle.
Elle: Mmmm-hmmm. Whatever you say, Rox.
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