Theater of the extremely absurd

The Fringe Festival expands to campus in its 13th year in Minnesota.

by Sara Nicole Miller

In clumps of chaos and dramatic disarray, Fringe freaks emerge around this time every year when the conditions are just right. For 11 days they twirl, saunter, pontificate and shimmy out of their dwellings and descend upon an unassuming, yet excitable public.

Yep, the Minnesota Fringe Festival is back. Now in its 13th year, the Fringe is a rather idiosyncratic and highly celebrated annual festival of live stage performances known for its bizarre (and sometimes downright horrible) up-and-coming artistic talent and cult-like audience following.

This year there are a total of 167 shows (890 actual performances) in 23 performing venues across Minneapolis, from Bryant Lake Bowl and Intermedia Arts in Uptown to The Rarig Center at the University.

Leah Cooper, the executive director for the Fringe, stressed the importance of geographic proximity when deciding on Fringe venues. Because there is a multitude of shows with small intervals between performances, venues need to be relatively close to each other.

Although the Fringe has expanded geographically in recent years to cover much of the Minneapolis landscape, it initially took root in various venues on the West Bank. And for the first time in eight years, the University is home to four Fringe performance spaces in Rarig Center.

“Many of the participants in the Fringe come from the ‘U,’ so it seemed like a natural partnership,” Cooper said.

Whatever your creative fancy, one of the Fringe shows is sure to satisfy. The playbill boasts a medley of artistic expression, from musicals, puppetry and spoken word to shows that deal with a host of cultural issues. The shows’ very titles are often enough to attract a curious group of Fringe-goers: “Mittens for Fat Kids,” “Thanks for the Scabies Jerkface” and “Condoleeza’s Rites,” to name a few.

If you decide to attend any of the performances, expect to come into contact with all things strange, gaudy and absurd. Even offensive. None of the shows are reviewed, selected or censored. The Fringe decides which companies participate in the Festival by means of a lottery.

All the shows do, however, come equipped with honest warnings about the content. So if someone exposes a jiggling butt cheek or characters spout out profanities, consider yourself warned.

When the frivolities, decadence and occasional mediocrity that characterize your average Fringe are cast aside, the artistic vision of the Fringe is quite an honorable one. The festival seeks to serve both audience and artists within and outside the community. The Fringe-goers get a much-adored dose of frenzied theatrical glee throughout the course of the two-week whirlwind.

The artists also come out victorious. “We give young artists in particular, like students fresh out of the University, an opportunity to learn how to produce their work,” Cooper said. “It gives artists that leg up that lets them grow into business rather than just being trampled by it.”

Whichever side of the stage you happen to be on this year, the Fringe gives everyone the chance to support homegrown and blossoming talent. Not only does it give artists that first step, hands-on mentorship experience in areas such as self-promotion and production, but it provides a positive, supportive platform for an array of free expression – something that the Twin Cities’ arts scene is known for.

Rude with lube
bill Young and Mike Yanke of Me and Bill productions have set out to prove that even the most banal and raunchy of human pursuits can make for great theater. All it takes is a libido, a boyhood love of porn and the autobiography of Jenna Jameson.

“Porn! Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dong” follows a hypothetical tale of Bill and Mike and their attempt to create a stage adaptation based on Jameson’s recent book, “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star.” The play dabbles in musical theater, comedy, dance-offs and the display of a few ridiculously sized plastic appendages. It is a true American boy’s tribute to the porn industry, an ode to an elusive place of absurd sexual fantasy in which many teen boys learn the ins and outs of superficial intimate relations.

The show begins when Mike and Bill are hired by Xavier J. Analslut, the unspecified president of porn, to do a show on the life of Jenna Jameson.

As the Catholic Church hears of their proposed project, they send out Sister Paige Malone (played by University senior Amy Bury), an operative from their “stripper-nun brigade,” to stop them.

However, Yanke’s self-proclaimed sexual dynamism leads Malone to abandon “the dark side of the Catholic faith and embrace the light side of pornography,” Yanke said. Her new porn name? “Jennifer Love-Blewitt.”

The “real” Jenna Jameson, played by Marissa Thompson, hears of the musical and blows up at the thought of an imposter playing her. When she shows up, a fight ensues – conveniently located in a blow-up pool of sex jelly – between her and Sister Malone. Only one emerges from beneath the murky depths.

This profoundly inappropriate play isn’t just about the oversexed lives of high-grossing porn stars. It exposes deeper, more heart-wrenching, everyday struggles of the American male.

“(‘Porn!’) deals with the struggles of growing up Catholic, the struggles of trying to get laid and the struggle in not ever getting to have sex with a porn star, I guess,” Yanke said.

Pack your suitcase
directors Dan O’Neil and Katie Willer are all about creating dialogue in the midst of isolation in unlikely places.

This year at the Fringe, O’Neil and Willer’s theater company, Players of Notorious Temerity, will be showcasing their piece entitled “Baggage.” It consists of two separate vignettes, “North Dakota” and “Baggage,” both of which O’Neil wrote. Seven out of the nine actors and directors of the piece were or are University students.

Although O’Neil and Willer usually work through the lens of political theater, “North Dakota” and “Baggage” deal more with themes of spatial relations, fleeting consciousness and existentialism.

“It revolves around travel and the transient nature of life and journeying and desolation in America,” Willer said.

“Baggage” is set in a cramped passenger car on a train, dealing with the effort on behalf of the passengers to reach out to each other amid an unnatural, confining and delineated space.

” ‘Baggage’ had such a sense of isolation. Ö For me, it was very important to bring that out,” Willer said.

“North Dakota,” on the other hand, revolves around the experience of two American soldiers as they find themselves lost and disoriented in the vast rural landscape of North Dakota.

“The more you know, the more it’s clear that there is a lot out in this space. It’s not just these two kids, it’s these kids and every shitty thing that has happened to them in the past two years over in Iraq,” O’Neil said.

Both vignettes are honest, witty and psychologically compelling. “North Dakota” even has a charming dream sequence with an unlikely prop creature: a Buffalo Fish as one soldier’s mystic guide.

” ‘Baggage’ is more of an existential play. It’s like, we’re here, now what are we going to do?” O’Neil said.

Old school
who could’ve guessed Christina Akers’ senior thesis on contemporary Commedia dell’ Arte would later inspire her into creating a raging high school inspired musical that features faculty members such as “Pimpcipal” and prostitutes disguised as lunch ladies?

It seems perfectly reasonable, since a piece of this very variety, performed by Akers’ company, People Sittin’ Around Doing Theater, will be playing at Bryant Lake Bowl as part of this year’s festival.

“Skool, The Musical” was created with a conceptual framework in mind, focusing on more of the improvisational elements, such as what Akers calls the “physicality of the world,” that deal with the specific style of work.

“I feel that there was some great character work done here, lifting stereotypes of high school to the deeper, stock character level,” Akers said.The choreographer Annie Hanauer is currently a dance student at the University, and actor Adam Streeter is also a University student. He plays four different characters: the British janitor Mr. Wysnor, Kyle the jock, Terrence the stoner, and the Whoremaster.