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Reimagining the Classics at the Minnesota Fringe

Rough Magic Performance Company’s Much Ado About Nothing (as told by Dogberry and Verges. Photo courtesy of the production.

Since its humble origins of fifty-three sparsely attended shows in 1994, the Minnesota Fringe Festival has sprouted into the largest non-juried fringe festival in North America. The 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival consisted of 167 shows at eighteen different venues across the metro in less than a fortnight. Without having to cross the border to Canada or jet to Scotland, Twin City theatre lovers can bask in a ridiculous assortment of edgy theatrical entertainments, from parodic musical adaptations of classic novels, to experimental dance pieces peppered with monologues, to performance art solo shows replete with literal and figurative navel gazing. Nobody could see it all. As a performer, I took advantage of my artist’s pass to taste and see as much of the ephemeral madness as possible.

Originally conceived in 1947 in Edinburgh, Scotland, as a thumb in the eye of traditional arts festivals, fringe festivals typically provide a haven for provocative new work. While the Minnesota version certainly lived up to that promise, it also provided a playful testing ground for evocative permutations on classical theatre, Shakespeare in particular. I arrived at this observation honestly. My wife and I perform a two-handed version of the Scottish play. At the Minnesota Fringe, we were one of at least six small companies paying homage to the bard. Following are observations on three of these Shakespeare reduxes: Much Ado About Nothing (as told by Dogberry and Verges) produced by Rough Magic Performance Company, Skirmish of Wit; Your Imaginary Forces developed by Minnesota SkyVault Theatre Company and Play-Dot’s Mayor Lear of Townsville.

While Rough Magic’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (as told by Dogberry and Verges) could hardly be called traditional, it stuck the closest to the original text. This delightful comic romp, which shared Minneapolis’ Jungle Theatre venue with ten other fringe shows, began with a stage manager and her sheepish intern crisscrossing the stage performing their preshow checklists. As curtain time approached, anxiety intensified when the actors allegedly cast as Dogberry and Verges failed to turn up. In an act of noble desperation, the two stage managers, gamely played by Taj Ruler and Sara Richardson, procured costume pieces from the folds of the center stage clothing rack that they then used to play the roles of Dogberry and Verges, among others. Two rod-arm puppets also magically spawned from the clothing rack. With practiced dexterity, Ruler and Richardson manipulated the puppets as impromptu replacements for the missing characters of Claudio and Hero. The show must go on, and it did, heavily edited to fit the hour long time limit but otherwise as written and with a rough and infectious sense of glee.

Reflecting on Rough Magic’s adaptation, two features stand out. First, the acting consistently impressed…The inventive and nuanced use of puppets stood out as a second dominant impression of the show.

Minnesota SkyVault Theatre Company
Minnesota SkyVault Theatre Company’s Skirmish of Wit; Your Imaginary Forces. Photo courtesy of the production.

Reflecting on Rough Magic’s adaptation, two features stand out. First, the acting consistently impressed. To be sure, fringe festivals often provide a realm of industrious amateurs, but Rough Magic’s six women cast sported three members of Actors Equity. While some members of the cast left off celebrating Shakespeare’s heightened language in favor of a more casual, millennial vocal fry, the small ensemble succeeded overall in making the Elizabethan text both entertaining and accessible. Ruler particularly shined through her hilariously gravel voicing of Dogberry, her twitterpated and appropriately shamed Claudio, and her brooding and volatile Don John.

The inventive and nuanced use of puppets stood out as a second dominant impression of the show. Under Sarah Agnew’s imaginative direction, the most hilarious puppet-work occurred during the balcony scene of sexual voyeurism connived by Don John to trick Claudio into thinking Hero was unfaithful. For this pivotal plot turn, a bathrobe hanging on a center-stage clothing rack flashed open on a hanger only to unexpectedly transform, with the aid of pin spot lighting, into a miniature puppet theatre. Standing in for Borachio and Margaret, copulating sock puppets hilariously emerged from the bathrobe’s proscenium. On a more serious note, the selective moments in which both Ruler and Richardson tossed aside their hand-rod puppets in order to fully embody Claudio and Hero provided the evenings most memorable acting. A vivid flash of this compelling directorial choice occurred near the end of the play when Hero brashly stepped forward to reveal to Claudio that she was indeed alive, to shame him for shaming her. With the puppets cast aside like veils, both actors viscerally connected in this tense portrayal of heartfelt reunion.

The Minnesota SkyVault Theatre Company’s Skirmish of Wit; Your Imaginary Forces differed substantially from Rough Magic’s textually faithful version of Much Ado despite the coincidence that they shared the Jungle Theatre venue. Based out of Rochester, Minnesota, SkyVault Theatre’s website describes the company as “a semi-professional troupe that exists to also provide an opportunity for youth to gain advanced acting experience as they become high school age.” Essentially a devised musical, Skirmish of Wit consisted of a cast of seven singing tweenage actors, all but two of whom also played musical instruments live onstage. One young couple played Beatrice and Benedict; another slightly younger looking couple played Hero and Claudio; three more exuberant actors dressed in loud Hawaiian shirts took on the roles of instrumentalists, narrators, and enthusiastic bystanders. (I would love to credit the actors by name, but the show did not include a program.)

Skirmish’s dramaturgy began with a scene of Shakespeare’s famous verbal sparing between Beatrice and Benedict interspersed with twenty-first century commentary presumably generated in rehearsal by the young ensemble. Before long, these witty banters gave way to jazzy musical numbers in which the actors not only sang about their fractious love, but also accompanied themselves on a rotating combo of instruments that included guitar, banjo, mandolin, string bass, clarinet, and accordion. Essentially, the musical interludes served as a barometer for the status of the romantic relationships throughout the play. This formula continued alternating between couples until the plot resolved, as Shakespearean comedies do, with unending mirth and the promise of a double wedding.

The results were delightful. Like many devised works, the performance occasionally suffered from remnants of labored improv, as well as from the tendency of the young cast to under-project and overplay. Overall, however, the cuteness, earnestness, and raw talent of this lovable gang of young theatre nerds charmed the audience. Surely some credit for their success belongs to the the leadership of SkyVault Theatre Company and its important and transformative mission. Within the ensemble, the actress who played Beatrice particularly shined. Not only could she play the string bass like a nightclub wizard but her smoky, Billy Holiday voice far exceeded her girlish appearance and made her singing interludes irresistible and wise.

If Rough Magic’s version of Much Ado mostly stuck to the text, and Skirmish of Wit sprung off of it, Play-Dot’s Mayor Lear of Townsville jettisoned its Shakespearean source almost entirely. Through wacky postmodern juxtaposition, this loose retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy took place in Townsville, the setting of the 1990s Powerpuff Girls cartoon. Overlaying the plot of King Lear into the Powerpuff universe required acts of desperate anachronistic shoehorning. In this version, the bumbling Mayor, a relatively minor character in the cartoon, took on the role of Lear, sort of. In a plot to seize control over Townsville, the perennial Powerpuff antagonist, Mojo JoJo, tricked the naïve Mayor into taking a vacation to New Jersey. Mojo then manipulated the Mayor into leaving Townsville under the joint managerial control of the Powerpuff Girls. Like her parallel of Cordillia, Blossom—played with requisite lovability by Bre’Elle Erickson—demurred from the task, leaving Bubbles and Buttercup to partition Townsville into a cross between a military dictatorship and Big Brother’s Oceania. There is more, but you get the idea. To help visualize the story, Play-Dot’s production relied heavily on rear-screen projections of animation from the original cartoon that dominated the large cyclorama of Intermedia Arts spacious venue.

Mayor Lear of Townsville earned…some of the more passionately partisan audience reviews posted on the Fringe website. The many supporters of this all female mash-up clearly cared much more about the empowering kick-ass fight-choreography and campy self-reflexive humor than they did the absence of Shakespeare’s arcane language.

Play-Dot’s Mayor Lear of Townsville. Photo courtesy of the production.

I confess to not possessing a history or passion for the Powerpuff Girls phenomenon; this made me a minority in the crowd. Although the cartoon aired its final episode in 2002 (a feature film did follow), this new adaptation written by Minnesota local Daniel Mauleon, clearly struck a nostalgic chord among the enthusiastic audience of mostly female thirty-somethings. As the highest attended show in its venue, Mayor Lear of Townsville earned the coveted encore slot as well as some of the more passionately partisan audience reviews posted on the Fringe website. The many supporters of this all female mash-up clearly cared much more about the empowering kick-ass fight-choreography and campy self-reflexive humor than they did the absence of Shakespeare’s arcane language. On the rare occasions that Shakespeare’s text did make a brief appearance, the fractured intertexts generated laughter not pathos. The funniest of the carnivalized quotations occurred when the Mayor, played with perky relish by veteran fringe actor Natalie Rae Wass, escaped Buttercup’s military dictatorship only to find herself ranting, “Blow winds, crack your cheeks” as she wandered on the dark outskirts of Townsville naked save a fig-leaf over her flesh-colored unitard. While the convoluted plot and rapid-fire cartoon references often defied my comprehension, Shalee Coleman’s direction kept the pace lively and humor zany for her happy, girl-powered fan base.

The 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival successfully continued its legacy as a popular site for peripheral performances. Closing numbers put attendance over 46,000. Merriam-Webster’s defines “fringe” as “something that is marginal, borderline, or introductory in relation to some activity, process, or subject matter.” As this established festival for antiestablishment work closed the curtain on another successful year, Shakespeare aficionados should take heart. A handful of creative theatre artists made room on the margins for inventive reimaginings of the bard. In doing so, they empowered women to play all the parts, granted school-aged actors the opportunity to test the waters of professional theatre, and culled nostalgic postmodern comedy from the bones of great tragedy.

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