The opening of the new Guthrie Theatre, which, on the outside, frankly resembles an IKEA, caused a lot of excitement, but thus far, the best show of the summer in the Twin Cities is the Jungle Theatre staging of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning solo play, “I Am My Own Wife.” I saw this dynamic play, featuring its original star, Jefferson Mays, at Playwrights’ Horizons in 2004, and described it at that time as “one of the finest examples of playwrighting I’ve encountered.”
Staged and designed for the Jungle by Joel Sass and featuring a remarkable performance by Bradley Greenwald, this is the biography of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite who survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin. Born Lothar Berfelde, he had murdered his abusive father. He restored a mansion, transforming it into an antiques museum, and was honored for his achievements, but accused of ratting out a friend when his Stasi file was revealed.
Produced during Gay Pride Month, the Jungle Theatre production was outstanding, and serves as a terrific reminder of our past, teaching lessons about heroes whose lives many did not know about.
The Minnesota Fringe Festival began on August 3, 2006. While I’ve learned to pace myself at the Fringe to not go overboard, still, on the first night I saw four shows. While I missed a few things I had hoped to see, overall, it was a really great theatre going experience.
All the following shows were part of the Festival.
Remember Who Made You
“Remember Who Made You” is a solo piece written and performed by Jeffrey Barnes, who creates six very distinct characters, all questioning or commenting on the manner in which the Bible has been interpreted for modern consumption by those “learned men.” J.D. is a minister working on a sermon filled with narrow-minded opinions, but considers what he can do to help those members of his flock who don’t fit the mold of other parishioners; Tyler is a young man who realizes he’s gay after a debate at Bible Camp; Jacob’s Dad wants advice from his minister so he can help his son not be identified as a “sissy,” while Michael’s boyfriend discusses his reactions to Michael’s experiences with Out of the Darkness, a program for “ex-gays.” A seminary professor shares a hidden life, and the Lord reminds us to “Remember Who Made You.” The show is a thought-provoking representation of Bush-era thinking.
Thanks for the Scabies, Jerkface!
A twenty-something performance artist and college student, Dan Bernitt takes us through a year in his life in his solo piece, “Thanks for the Scabies, Jerkface!” A brilliant storyteller, Bernitt talks about leaving home and attending Western Kentucky University. His roommate, Darryl, is in the ROTC, and an accomplished homophobe, we learn about “Gay Wars,” a game straight-boys play by acting gay with their buddies, turning it onto a sort of combat. Darryl’s defining grace is his amazing porno collection. When Darryl’s parents meet Dan and his boyfriend, they insist that their son find new digs. Homophobia is evidently learned behavior. Dan gets an itching rash and determines he has scabies. His mother reminds him not to “whore himself out,” and the mites that cause this disease wind up all over his dorm. At an audition for a reality TV show, Dan meets a boyfriend, who neglects him, and after his career as a performance artist takes off, he realizes that he’s scared to be alone, yet contemplates breaking up with his boyfriend. Dan Bernitt has a knack for making his body language express volumes that’s as refreshing as his storytelling. It’s a good show.
Don’t Drop the Soap, or, Lutherans Gone Wild!
Joe Kolbob’s solo play, “Don’t Drop the Soap, or, Lutherans Gone Wild!” is similar to both Jeffrey Barnes and Dan Bernitt’s pieces. Focusing on growing up gay in a Wisconsin Christian environment, young Joe likes the Mamas and the Papas, gets boners in the school shower, especially when he sees Brad, and describes dumb things done to freshmen at Prep School as he tries to survive. He writes a weekly letter to his mother, and later on, talks about her feelings when the Jeffrey Dahmer situation appeared, learning about his mother’s feelings about gay people. Kolbob talkes about foolish ideas and attitudes as organized religion lays a heavy guilt trip on gay and lesbian youth. It’s a superb memoir of adolescence to which many of us can relate.
Bitter Boy’s Musical Journey from Negative to Positive
True to form, for his Fringe presentation, “Bitter Boy’s Musical Journey from Negative to Positive,” author-director Steven Meerdink has assembled a fine cast that features Shaun Nathan Baer, Lavina Erickson, Crystal Manik and Marlin Rothe. He’s gathered material from musicals that features the work of Cy Coleman, Lerner and Loewe, Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, Lopez and Marx, and Jerry Herman. That’s a lot of talent which must be served. The audience is taken through Meerdink’s life, which he wants to be a musical, preferably written by one of those composers. He dreams of being Lesley Ann Warren in Cinderella, waiting for his Prince to whisk him away to a fairy tale castle. As we all know, things don’t work out like a fairy tale.
The curious thing about this is people who were actual participants in Meerdink’s life are on the stage. The show builds to the big number as the hero belts out his feelings in a song, and if anything is revealed here, it’s that Meerdink knows how to sell a show. It’s slick and professional, if not completely convincing, because what this boils down to is musical theater as personal therapy (there’s at least one show like this in every Fringe). The lead character learns that he’s HIV+ and feels guilt over it, but eventually, despite a preachy ending, things work out. Lavinia Erickson is a standout in the ensemble, giving a beautiful performance as the mother.
Rock, Shock & Awe
One of the great traditions in American play writing is plays that are based on war-related stories. Such classics as “Mister Roberts” and “Teahouse of the August Moon” led the way for playwrights such as David Rabe, and the war in Iraq is sure to give us more outstanding works. The first of these is “Rock, Shock & Awe.” Set in the bar of a small town in the Red River Valley, this musical focuses on peoples’ reactions to 9/11. There’s Vi, the waitress who swaps barbs with Bud. This pair represents the survivors of the 1960s. Jake, who’s about to be laid off from the plant, is in love with Allie, a High School Social Studies teacher. They are married, and shortly thereafter, Jake is sent on active duty to Iraq. While Allie tries placing current events into perspective, she faces opposition from some of her students who think that George W. Bush is a fine “Christian thinking man.”
Written and directed by Virginia Derus McFerran, with a score by Bob Derus, this is a very professional show. The set is enhanced by deliberately blurry slides which serve as commentary on security levels as well as backdrop, and there’s even a meat raffle in the midst of the show. Mark Quinlan as Bud, Geraldine Gulbranson as Vi, and Taous Khazem as Allie, give fine performances, but Matt Rein as Jake brings a style similar to Harry Connick, Jr. to his performance. With the exception of an unnecessary and rather sloppy final sequence that features a Gospel Choir, this is a terrific show!
Jungle Mary Bang Bang
Just who are the Sherman Brothers? The actors don’t tell us, instead reveling in the opportunity of performing their glorious music in the Blue Umbrella Productions staging of “Jungle Mary Bang Bang.” Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman are brothers who’ve composed many of the scores for movie musicals over the past forty years, including “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Charlotte’s Web,” the little-known, but lovely “Slipper and the Rose” (worth a rental if you can find it), and of course, many films for Disney. Performed by the talented ensemble of Windy Bowlsby, Lori Maxwell, Bart Ruf, Paul Whittemore and Suzanna Winter, and by a talented band, it’s a cleverly conceived revue. Among the highlights: “Sisters Suffragette,” done in the style of the Andrews Sisters, the rock’n’roll trio of “You’re 16,” “Tall Paul” and “Let’s Get Together” is done as a gay piece; there’s a delicious medley of wordplay songs, and the annoying “It’s a Small World,” heard daily on city streets from roving ice cream trucks, is beautifully rendered in five-part harmony. Although songs from some of their movies, and from “Over Here,” their one Broadway show are barely featured, don’t think twice, because this whole show is completely charming, and it’s an absolute must see!
Corncobs, Hotdogs and Other Dirty Secrets
[Fringe audience abuse #1: overlong, limp script.]
Having attended many Fringe performances over the years, undoubtedly, there are people who don’t think Fringe audiences deserve any level of quality. Such is the case with “Corncobs, Hotdogs and Other Dirty Secrets,” a trio of one-acts by the surprisingly untalented Dennis Monn, which plays like a script rejected by the producers of “Mamma’s Family.” An overlong, limp script is played by a nameless cast (there is no program to identify them), but why would anyone want to spend an hour with them? In the first scene, the dialogue is drowned out by Rod Stewart (maybe that’s not such a bad thing). Why is it that people driving fake vehicles onstage always do it wrong? The actor playing Steven, the hitchhiker trying to give advice on the craft of hitchhiking tries, but overall, this is just audience abuse.
Bud’n’Wally: A True (Love) Story
Drawn largely from Darwin Porter’s trashy biography “Brando Unzipped,” Jeff Baenen’s “Bud’n’Wally: A True (Love) Story” is attempt at revealing what made Marlon Brando, played by Tharen E. Callanan and Wally Cox, played by Matthew Leviton, lifelong friends. Following his death, Brando’s ashes were mixed with Cox’s and scattered in Death Valley. Set in Brando’s hospital room, shortly before his death, Brando bemoans the lost of his great friend. Cox appears and what could be fascinating quickly drifts into tedious whininess that goes nowhere near the depths it should. Cox evidently hated his TV career and resented Brando’s success. Baenen’s directing is amateur at best, with actors meandering listlessly and hitting no real dynamics. Callanan has Brando’s lisp, but lacks the actors’ charisma. Presumably because Cox has been deceased for three decades, and less is known abut him, Leviton gives the better performance. Audiences would be better off reading Porter’s book than spending an hour with these actors.
An American Vanishing
Sim Varner’s “An American Vanishing” is a unique solo work. Influenced by the monologues of the late Spalding Gray, Varner has concocted five individual plays, which he compares to Shakespeare, and he’s performing only one section at each of his five Fringe performances. If audiences miss any section, he recaps them. Wearing a theatrical mask at the top of his show, he explains that he’s been diagnosed with leukemia, and then takes his sweet time using monologues to put his life in order. The partner of the late Tribune reviewer, Mike Steele, he explains that a perfect Martini is a literal whisper of vermouth and all vodka. William Faulkner based a character in “The Hamlet” on his paternal grandfather, (played in the film version by Orson Welles). “An American Vanishing” was so different from other Fringe fare, that it can’t be anything less than fascinating. I commend Mr. Varner for putting himself on the line this way. Bravo!
Songs for an Unmade Bed
My mind wandered a lot during the Nautilus Theatre production of “Songs for an Unmade Bed.” Judging from Ben Krywosz’ staging of the piece, I’m beginning to think the material plays better on the CD. Mark Campbell asked 18 composers, Jake Heggie, Stephen Hoffman and Chris Miller among them, to score his lyrics, and what evolved is a song cycle about a young, gay man commenting on his life in New York. For the Fringe, J.P. Fitzgibbons was cast more for his vocal talent than for his look. Fitzgibbons rarely moved his gaze to any part of the audience, instead it was planted on the back wall throughout most of the show. There was never much connection with either the audience or the combo onstage with him. Krywosz’ direction consisted mostly of pillows being thrown around, which got tiring after the third time. As my mind wandered, I kept hoping someone else would come onstage and counterpoint the songs with Fitzgibbons, because the show had no dimension. There was so much potential for this material, but our time was wasted on this mediocre production.
Tale of the Guttersnipe
[Fringe audience abuse #2: ensembles takes it self too seriously, appearing to be above it all.]
“Tale of the Guttersnipe” is written by Hotensia MacLeod (who appears as a Balladeer) and directed by someone with the dubious name of Kitty Katt. It is a modern interpretation of an ancient tale about the time when Christianity rather violently damaged Pagan religions. It was done in the style of a folksy musical, with cross-dressing actors, many of whom had vocal projection problems, or forgot their lines. Because the audience had no idea what was going on, and it was so poorly executed, it was difficult to care. Except for Andy Sisson, no one in the cast deserves mention. Even though it was only a half-hour long, it’s still a waste of the audience’s time.
Two Queers and a Chubby
A simple set consisting of music stands and chairs as Laura Bidgood and Curt Lund take the stage for “Two Queers and a Chubby” (the other queer of the title is a guest, and on August 7, there were two guests: Benjamin Imker and Ritchy McFadden). The performance began with a series of definitions of “queer” and “fag hag.” The audience is treated to a series of delightful monologues on varied topics, such as a step-by-step guide to becoming a fag hag, how it feels to be the link to the gay world for straights, a high school band and drama geek’s first love, creating a bar for nerdy gays, and how online dating is all about marketing. The featured performers question labels and popular culture, and how straight men’s fascination with video games often leaves women cold. The show is full of value lessons for all of us.
[Fringe audience abuse #3: production companies which try to squeeze an important, full-length play into the Fringe time limit.]
Such is the case with the Tenth Muse Theatre staging of Martin Sherman’s “Bent,” which was a milestone in gay theatre when it was first presented a quarter century ago. The story focused on Max, a gay man who is arrested on the Night of the Long Knives, when many “perverts” were condemned to death camps. Denying he’s gay, he bribes the Nazis to give him a yellow star, identifying him as Jewish, instead of the pink triangle, identifying him as gay. At Dachau he arranges for Horst, a gay man he met on the train, to work with him in an assigned, useless task of moving rocks back and forth. The problem is that audiences unfamiliar with the play will assume this abbreviated edition is the script that has impacted so many. By trimming much of the first act, director Amanda Sterling has destroyed the emotional core of the text, and taken away any conviction the cast may have created. While Sasha Andreev as Max, and Joe Bombard as Horst, work hard to make things work, the audience was restless during the performance I attended, and any attempts to create period detail were destroyed by the amateurish yellow star on Andreev’s costume and by the visible stomach tattoo and boxer shorts Bombard was wearing. It’s sad that such a powerful play should be a victim of audience abuse.
[Fringe audience abuse #4: author directed.]
“Voodoo Love,” is an example of why some authors shouldn’t direct their own work. Larry Bieza claims that this is a play that will entertain everyone, and that people are required to attend. It took me exactly twelve minutes, when the first walkouts occurred, to lose total interest in this ridiculous sitcom about a couple who waste their time talking to one another’s ex’s before going on a date and finding out they actually have a lot in common. These tedious proceedings are interrupted by musical interludes, which bring the only life there is to the last 36 minutes of this exhaustingly dull play. Were it directed at breakneck pace, without giving us time to think, it would be much better, but still tedious.
Dirty Little Showtunes!
I have long enjoyed Gaydar Productions, but, frankly, I was disappointed by “Dirty Little Showtunes!,” which I looked forward to seeing. Directed by Gaydar’s producer, Rick Anderson, while having many delightful highs, the production could have used more rehearsal and a more variation in its staging. It had a talented cast. In his rendition of “Somewhere That’s Pink,” the melody borrowed from “Little Shop of Horrors,” Greg Bowman had a lovely time and did amazing things on that chair! Jacob Mahoney, who appeared in Gaydar’s “End of the World Party,” made the audience want to discipline him following “Daddy is a Boy’s Best Friend” (melody from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"). Dan Duwe and Buddy Mahoney were a pair of “Bossy Bottoms,” the melody stolen from “Mame,” and a quintet on phone sex taken from “Bye, Bye Birdie” was a treat. Sadly, Jay Irwin threw away his satire on Gilbert and Sullivan, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Homosexual” and that’s where things need to be tightened. It needs a few more costume pieces, and some more dancing if this is going to work. It’s not bad, but it should be much better.
Set at a frantic disco pace, “Wonderland,” La Vie Theatre’s adaptation by director Jason Schommer of Lewis Carroll’s classic was the hit of the Fringe. Filled with outstanding choreography, and insider Minnesota political jokes, the show follows Alex, who passes out while listening to a folk singer. He winds up in Wonderland, the hottest disco on the planet. He encounters a King of Hearts in leather chaps, lesbians Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the fey Chester El Gato, and a Queen of Hearts in drag, who chops off the heads of penises. The Mad Tea Party scene is done in a Country-Western bar, where “Like a Virgin” is done as a line dance. Anat Shinar, Andrea Ivy and Joanie Mix add marvelous choreography, and Wonderland is silly fun with standout performances by Cadbourne Hamblin as Alex, Jason Durst as the King of Hearts, Fran Benjamin as the Queen of Hearts, and Paula Weakley and Stephanie A. Weiss as the Tweedles.