Two Reviews From Opening Night of the Minnesota Fringe Festival

PHOTO BY BRIAN FELDMAN PROJECTS

#txtshow (on the internet)

I’ll let you in on a little secret, tonight was my first ever Fringe show. Coincidently it was also Brian Feldman’s first Minnesota Fringe performance. #txtshow (on the internet) is a fully interactive performance piece. Brian Feldman is the creator if the show and the performer but you and I, your partner or BFF, or even your grandmother are the writers. The show takes place on zoom, most of us have become very familiar with zoom over the last few months. Be warned you will have to leave your microphone and camera on for the entire performance. Hey, a reason to put a little effort into your appearance again for a change isn’t really a bad thing. The concept is simple and the tech works pretty smoothly. Once Feldman, in the character of Txt (pronounced Text), sits down at the desk, we the audience begin to feed him lines of dialogue. Feldman reads the lines of dialogue as they come up and does so for about 45 minutes straight.

Every show is different obviously, as the audience for each show provides the script. It’s a little tricky at first but the more everyone participates the better the shows will be. It’s a lot like improve but we as the writers have to be the ones who play nice, always say yes and always try to keep the story alive. It lends itself as a concept to absurdist comedy, non sequiturs, and very strange tangents. Be warned, it could go anywhere so this is not a show for children. Feldman’s strength is in his delivery, he knows how to cold read a line and instinctively how to say it to try and blend it with whatever came before or might come next. My suggestion for any aspiring writers out there is to sign up for one of the remaining performances. Write longer lines of dialogue, try to keep with whatever the general theme is and make the wording as open at the beginning and end as you can. When the sentences flow it’s really quite fun, what doesn’t work as well are one or two words at a time, they frequently don’t blend well. The biggest factor on whether it succeeds or not is you, so participate!

It’s a free show and worth every penny. Upcoming performances of #txtshow (on the internet) are Mon Aug 3 & Thu Aug 6 @ 9:00 PM and Sun Aug 9 @ 5:00 PM https://txtmn.eventbrite.com is the link to sign up. The email you are sent once you register will have a PDF explaining how it works so read through it before the show starts. There will also be links for ways in which you can donate to the performer. Please remember all it cost you was the $5 for a Fringe button and to show Mr. Feldman some love if you have a good time.

GRAPHIC BY TAYLOR WEGNER

The Scranton Strangler: An Office Musical

This is a tricky one. This is a video recording from a previous years Fringe festival. The show itself is good, the quality of the presentation is not. I started to watch it on my TV, but I couldn’t make out the words very well, particularly when they were singing. I quickly switched to my laptop and that was definitely an improvement, but it’s still less than ideal. If it wasn’t free I would say skip it. If you are not a fan or if you have just recently started to watch The Office, I’d skip this as there are actually a lot of spoilers for what happens with the characters in later seasons. If you are a fan of The Office and have seen most of the episodes you’ll probably find enough in the poor presentation to make it worth watching. The actors and the writer know the show and the characters really well. They capture the humor and the essence of all the characters. In fact this is one way in which the fuzzy washed out video actually helps as a few of the actors you can almost mistake for the shows actual cast. Particularly effective are Melissa Noelle Murray as Pam and the actor not listed on the Fringe Website who is channeling Kevin perfectly. It will definitely wet your appetite to hopefully see the show live sometime in the future.

The Scranton Strangler: An Office Musical is a well written show and available to view anytime during the festival with your Minnesota Fringe button. If you don’t have a Minnesota Fringe button yet, go here https://www.minnesotafringe.org/. From this site you can click on the heading along the top where it says buy a button. Buttons are $5 and will give you access to the digital hub. That’ll give you access to a lot of free shows, some live shows, and some recorded shows. Some shows will require an additional payment.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival goes virtual

Hello again fellow theater enthusiasts! It’s been quite a dry spell on the theater going front, but that can end tonight for all of us. The Minnesota Fringe Festival launches tonight and runs through August 9th. Obviously in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic there has been a radical change to this years festival, it has gone virtual. There have been an increasing number of virtual theatre projects in the last 4 months. For the most part I have not been participating in those, I checked a few out in the early days and found them wanting, you may have done the same. Well enough time has passed and I have a feeling that a lot of artists have figured out how to tackle the virtual performance arena. I’m going to dive in and sample as many as I can between tonight and August 9th. I’ll post capsule reviews for the shows I see so that, as is always the arrangement between you and I, you will know where to invest your time wisely.

So some details, which I will correct and add to as I navigate my own way through the Festival.

Go here https://www.minnesotafringe.org/. From this site you can click on the heading along the top where it says buy a button. Buttons are $5 and will give you access to the digital hub. That is going to give you access to a lot of free shows, some live shows, some recorded shows. Some shows will require and additional payment. I will more than likely be reviewing the free shows, giving priority to shows that feature creators or performers I have enjoyed in the past or artists who have reached out directly requesting reviews. I’ll also be getting recommendations from my colleagues at the @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers . Now there are like 70 performances to check out, I’m not going to get through anywhere near all of them. So I highly recommend going through the list of shows and descriptions for yourself and seeing which ones sound interesting to you. You can also check the @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers facebook page to see what the other bloggers have seen and what they recommend. Now as I mentioned there is a lot of free content and I encourage you to take advantage of that, but I also urge you to make donations to The Minnesota Fringe Festival so that this institution survives and hopefully next year we can see they festival live in person. Also, if you can, donate to the artists that are creating all of this theater for us. Remember many of them were full time theater folks and many of them are struggling right now financially. Now, more than ever before I think, as we all binge TV shows and long to leave our homes to see some live performances we realize how much our lives are enriched by artists and how necessary they are to a civilization. So stop reading this, click on the link above, buy a button, and start foraging for fun fringe finds.

Theater Crush Thursday: Mixed Blood Theatre

Forgive me readers for I have sinned, it has been a month since my last post. I spent 2 weeks since my last post at the hospital every night with my son keeping him company (not covid-19 related). That along with the fact there were no shows to attend and review, created the perfect storm of a lack of time and content. I had intended to use the downtime to work on the website and do some features. Somehow the first night home in my own bed and some evening time with my wife led to another two weeks of not sitting down and writing anything. Today that changes. While I have been idle, my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTBers) have been doing what they can. On our facebook page we have started a new weekly feature called Theater Crush Thursdays. You can access our page by searching in facebook for @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers I encourage you to pull it up now and follow the page. Along with Theater Crush Thursdays we are also posting events that are happening online so you can get your theater fix during this time of sheltering in place.

This week I wanted to focus Some attention on Mixed Blood Theatre. I saw six performances the last week theatres were open and three of them were at Mixed Blood Theatre. There is something special about a theatre that introduces you to something that comes to hold a special place in your heart. The three performances were all for their World Premiere Production of Interstate. You can read my review of Interstate here. I had actually previously attended only one other production at Mixed Blood Theatre which was Charm in 2016, long before I began reviewing shows. Charm was another production that like Interstate deals with the Transgender experience. The Transgender community is just one of those with whom they work in their mission to as their website says:

USING THEATER TO ILLUSTRATE AND ANIMATE, MIXED BLOOD CHANGES ATTITUDES, BEHAVIOR, AND POLICY BY PAYING POSITIVE ATTENTION TO DIFFERENCE.

Mixed Blood Theatre website.

My first experience with Mixed Blood as a reviewer was when I was invited as part of the TCTB to come and meet with the co-creators of Interstate prior to the opening of the show. For me, new to reviewing, it was an unprecedented invitation behind the scenes to get a chance to hear about the creation of a show I would be reviewing. What struck me was the welcoming we received from Tim Komatsu the Audience Engagement Manager and the creators Melissa Li and Kit Yan. We were lucky enough to also meet the three young leads who happened to swing through after catching dinner together. Of course they were all very nice and welcoming, they wanted us to review their production. But even after my review was published and I came back for as many performances as I could before they closed early, Tim and the theatre staff were always on hand to assist with accessibility concerns for my son who utilizes a walker.

Accessibility is another aspect that Mixed Blood Theatre take very seriously, whether it is physical or financial, mixed blood tries to remove any impediments it can. They call this initiative “Radical Hospitality” and it takes many forms. They have four advisory councils who help them identify and remove barriers for those who want to engage with Mixed Blood. For Transgender People bathrooms can be a huge issue, Mixed Blood has all single stall restrooms. They are on the second floor and there is an elevator right outside the restrooms for those for whom stairs are not manageable. In terms of economic accessibility, they have a policy of no-cost admission to anyone beginning two hours before every performance on a first come first served basis. For those with the economic resources to attend the theatre there is guaranteed admission, which means buying your tickets ahead of time through the box office online or by phone.

Mixed Blood Theatre focuses on works that address issues of social justice, inclusion, and the unseen and underrepresented in our communities. They tackle works that have social and cultural significance with an eye towards bringing us all closer together. They live up to these lofty goals through the works they perform the outreach programs they participate in and the way with which they utilize their space and treat their audience members.

In this time of uncertainty when every theatre has closed down it is important to remember the people who create these spaces and works. They cannot survive indefinitely without resources, remember when these shows closed early or were cancelled, many tickets needed to be refunded. Most theatre’s operate on very tight budgets and rely on that income for rent, utilities, and payroll. Mixed Blood Theatre is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and as such they rely on grants, donations, and ticket sales to survive. If this sounds like your kind of theatre and a worthy theatre to support (It is!!), please consider making a donation. Another option for supporting the theatre is the membership program. Becoming a member for just $9 a month or $13 for a duo membership gets you access to everything they do all year long. You can become a member by clicking here https://mixedblood.com/box-office/member/. To donate to Mixed Blood Theatre click here https://mixedblood.com/support/. Finally, there is an online event coming up called Radical Hope: A Benefit to Sustain Mixed Blood Theatre on April 25th from 5:00 PM to 5:45 PM. you can learn more about it and RSVP to attend at https://mixedblood.com/support/radical-hope/?mc_cid=3d5784f887&mc_eid=c38eb303cd

I’ve Seen the Future and it’s Miranda Shaughnessy. Starring in Minnesota Dance Collaborative Production HoliDaydream at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

Miranda Shaughnessy Photo by Dan Norman

Minnesota Dance Collaborative’s presentation of HoliDaydream is in residence at The Southern Theater in Seven Corners area of Minneapolis. I spent close to a dozen hours at the Southern this fall at the Twin Cities Horror Festival. It’s a very atmospheric theater perfect for horror plays and, as it turns out, Christmas dance fantasy’s as well. The performance space is broad and deep allowing the dancers plenty of room, and this company makes excellent use of it. I’ve written before about the joy of exploring new forms of theatrics, out of my comfort zone, such as Opera and Dance. HoliDaydream is primarily a dance piece but it has dialogue and some singing as well. It’s something of a special show. When I was told about it, I immediately thought of the great Richard Linklater film Boyhood. This is the sixth year that they have done a variation on this show. The main character Marie has been played all six years my Miranda Shaughnessy. She first played the role when she was age 10 and is now 16. Every year the show follows her through another Christmas, her character another year older. Referencing previous years, just enough to hint at the continuity for the repeat audiences but not so much to make you feel like you came too late to the show if you are a newcomer like me. I love this idea, and I do grieve the fact that I cannot attend the previous five years performances.

The story begins as I suspect each year has with Marie writing a letter to Santa. This year at 16 she is thinking less about all the “things” she wants and more about what is really important, like Bernie in the White House. Then she suddenly has a vision of herself in the future and she is down and depressed and it seems like she has ruined Christmas for everyone. The rest of the show Marie and her friends search the past for clues as to how or why she has ruined Christmas. This is where they reference the previous years adventures and based on those hints, there have been some really interesting themes explored in past years. The story elements lend themselves to dance sequences, first off they are dancers, so they go to a dance studio. But there are also dreams and conversations with people inside Marie’s head, which flow smoothly into dances. The show is filled with dancing, more on that below, but it’s also populated with a wonderful assortment of characters including the Dance studio headmistress and Marie’s Mom, both played with gusto and humor by the Writer and Artistic Director Shelli Manzoline, who created this idea of revisiting Marie every year.

The dancing. I cannot do justice to the beauty of the dancing with the words at my disposal. I don’t want to turn anyone off with all the dance talk. It doesn’t matter who you are, you will be amazed and entertained by this dancing. This is not boring or inaccessible at all. It’s incredibly entertaining and engaging. Minnesota Dance Collaborative doesn’t focus on merely one style of dance, they do everything from ballet to hip-hop. Like previous dance performance I’ve seen, I was amazed at the synchronization and sheer athleticism involved. The first dance number “Back in Time” showcased the precision of the entire company, 14 dancers all moving together quickly and flawlessly. “The Nutcracker Battle Compilation” telling a story solely in movement, expressing not only actions but also emotions with their entire bodies. I even got a few callbacks to earlier in this first season of reviewing shows. The first was a number called “Christmas Calamity” and it’s a parody of “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago, which I reviewed the Theater Latte Da production of. This is one of the few songs in which the dancers actually sing and they all did nice vocal work as well. Second was “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Show, which was done at Park Square this fall. There was even a mention of not saying the “M” word in a theater, referencing of course MacBeth which I saw the Wayward Theatre Company mount as well this fall. Heck, they even mention Fargo ND which is where I grew up! So while Marie was having her trip down memory lane it felt like I was as well. It’s hard to single any of the dancers out as the program does not have picture and bios, but they are all very talented. One Dancer I spoke with briefly after the show was Grace Sjolander who plays Marie’s sister Lucy. Sjolander has been dancing in competition throughout her life and it shows in the precision she brings to here dancing. There are only two male dancers Lawson Sharrer and Cade Kaiser, both of them in the 14 to 16 year old age range I’d guess, both had the dance steps down, both did some fun line readings. Lawson sharrer has that little extra that could develop into something special, he had that little added bit of grace in his dancing and the ability to sell everything with his face.

Speaking of Something extra, earlier this year I reviewed a show at the Minnsky Theatre. In that review I singled out one dancer. In fact, I was so taken with her dancing and performance that I tracked someone from the cast down after the show to get her name so I could mention her specifically. Her Name is Miranda Shaughnessy and she’s a smasher! There is a line from the film Sunset Boulevard, where a retired film star talks about her days in silent films. Norma Desmond says “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”. Shaughnessy has the face and the gift of a great silent film actress. Do not mistake me, she can act with dialogue and I’m not referencing the inaccurate cliche of the overacting silent performer. She has the gift of conveying so much with her face that dialogue is superfluous. Equally effective with drama and comedy. She has the same talent in her dancing, watching her move you are never at a loss to know what her character is feeling. Watching her dance is to understand the beauty of movement. Watching her face is to understand the joy of dancing. One of the joys of seeing as much theater as I do is running across talents like this. I have a small list of local performers that I will make it a point to see everything they are in. Miranda Shaughnessy is now on that list. At sixteen years old she is six years into playing the lead in an annual Holiday production. Of the 13 dance numbers in the show she either choreographed or co-choreographed five of them. There will come a time when this talent will head to New York or LA, but she told me after the show she would want to come back at this time of year to continue her journey as Marie. I hope she’s able to do that. Not many actors get the opportunity to own a role like this, to revisit a character yearly, in a new show with the character aging with them. That’s a rare thing in the world, and it’s something I think she should continue as long as she can. I’m not sure once she goes out into the larger world how long that will be, because she’s going to be big.

HoliDaydream runs at the Southern Theater through December 22nd for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.southerntheater.org/

Six at the Ordway in St. Paul.

Photo by Liz Lauren

The Ordway Center For the Performing Arts is better venue for seeing Broadway shows than The Orpheum in Minneapolis. The acoustics are better, the Seats are more comfortable and have more leg room. But for reasons besides enjoyment and comfort of the audience, most of the big Broadway tours go to the Orpheum. Six is taking a different route, usually the shows play on Broadway and then a touring company is mounted and four times out of five, that tour goes to the Orpheum. For the first time in the Ordway’s 34 year history a show, Six, is going from the Ordway to Broadway. So not only is Six a show about History it is a show that is making history. I urge everyone to take advantage of this Phenomenal show in the comfort of the Ordway, and be a part of history.

Six refers to the six wives of Henry VIII. The six wives tell their stories in song as a singing competition. The audience will be the judge of who had the worst time being married to Henry. It’s essentially a pop concert filled with history and the humor and joy you expect from a fun musical. The show runs about 85 minutes with no intermission. But what it lacks in intermission it makes up for in kick ass music! Each of the queens songs were modeled on a couple of different pop singers the likes of Beyonce, Avril Lavigne, Adele, Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears and Alicia Keys among them. The costumes also take their cue from the vocal inspirations. That said the songs are all original and great, any of them could be on the pop charts. Besides being great musically, they are also filled with clever writing. From the chorus of the final song “Six” where it counts up to six but uses different meanings for the numbers and other plays on words like “Too Many Years Lost in HIStory”. The entire show is filled with top notch music and lyrics by the cocreators Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss.

The set is simple, basically a set of steps in the background, places for the band members and a background framework that lights up in different ways. Simple, but very effective. In a scene where they are describing how Henry is picking his next wife it’s like he is using a life sized tinder app, swiping left to reject, the performer goes to the left and the frame she is in front of goes red. In another scene those boxes are lit to represent church windows with a cross lighting up in the center. There are lights and metallic confetti, it feels like a Pop concert, but one filled with history and all number one songs. I’ve been listening to the music for awhile now and every single song has earned a place in my heart. The cast are the Six queens, we had two understudies performing at the show I saw and they were great, so don’t worry about it if a performer is understudied, you are still getting a great show. The cast is brilliant, what can you say, when they are all so good, singling one out seems like a slight on the others. So here are all six performers I saw and their roles: Nicole Kyoung -Mi as Anna of Cleves, Mallory Maedke as Jane Seymour, Adrianna Hicks as Catherine of Aragon, Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn, Samantha Pauly as Katherine Howard, and Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr. They each create a unique character which shines a light on these individual women who have been relegated to the six wives of Henry VIII. There are 4 band members as well on stage and they as well are all female, and they sound like a super tight pop group, this is just a stellar group of songs.

Besides providing us with great entertainment the show also draws attention through our modern eyes to the inequality that women lived under in those days. It attempts to reclaim these women not as a collective group but as the individuals they were. Reminding us that it’s demeaning and dismissive to reference them simply as a group. They were real people, they were more than just wife 1,2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. It points out that when we reference them in that way we are complicit in reinforcing the attitude of the patriarchal society that men mattered, and women’s value was in relationship to men. Unfortunately this is not a completely obsolete view even in 2019. Like Hamilton, Six uses our modern perspective and music to illuminate the past, making it fresh and relevant again. This is a highlight of the 2019 theater scene in the Twin Cities. I expect it will take Broadway by storm in 2020. I urge you to take advantage of this rare opportunity to see Six now, before it even makes it to Broadway. Aside from anyone who loves musical theater, this is a great show to take daughters too, it is very empowering and may educate them on people they have not been exposed to yet.

Six plays through Dec 22nd for more information and to purchase tickets visit https://ordway.org/.

The Band Visits the Orpheum in Downtown Minneapolis

The Band's Visit, 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical; A woman smiling among officer musicians

The Band’s Visit Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek and Book by Itamar Moses is a musical adaptation of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name written and directed by Eran Kolirin. I saw the film shortly after it hit video over a decade ago, much of the details are gone from my memory but I remember it being a small intimate film, about characters and their interactions. The musical adaptation has a similar feel. This is not a show filled with crowd pleasing dance breaks or large chorus numbers. It’s a quiet piece, many of the songs are about the characters inner lives, memories, philosophies and dreams. Many of the band members play their own instruments, as evidenced by the show they put on after the bows have been taken. I encourage you to stick around, it’s well worth it. Now on my night there were three understudies who performed including James Rana filling in for the lead male role of Tewfiq. Obviously, when you go to a show you hope to see the main cast, but things happen and while I can’t compare the cast I can say that the understudies did a great job.

The plot is simple the The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has been invited to come to Israel to play. Due to the accent of one of the band members they get on a bus going to Bet Hatikva a small town in the middle of the desert instead of Petah Tikvah where the cultural center is located. There’s not a bus until the next day so a local restaurant owner, her staff, and friends take in the band for the night. We follow the bands leader Tewfiq who spends the evening with Dina the restaurant owner. Haled, the band member whose accent has caused the wrong bus tickets to be purchased accompanies Papi one of the Cafe workers as a fifth wheel on a double date. Itzik, who was at the cafe when the band turns up, takes in another band member, Simon. This last band member we follow is thrown in with Itzik’s young child, Father-in-law and fed up wife. The ways in which each of these three group spends their time together is where the heart of it is. It’s a story about finding connections and understanding despite our differences. I think it really speaks to the universality of the human condition.

My favorite song was Omar Sharif, which is referencing one of the ways in which Dina and Tewfiq connected over their mutual love for traditional Arab music and movie quotes. It refers to a exchange of quotes from an Omar Sharif film. Aside from their personal connection for the characters it draws upon the history of film as a universal artform. It’s a well placed detail that helps accomplish the plays intent. Getting across to a large group of people, in a show that runs a mere 90 minutes, and switches between three main threads and a couple of minor threads as well, that revolve around a pay phone, anything subtle is kind of amazing. But that is exactly what The Band’s Visit does. It has a nice blend of humor running throughout but it’s the intimate connections and small scale interactions that make this a very special show. I was in my usual seats in the balcony, and I could pick up on the subtleties in the performances and the script. But if ever there was a show to upgrade to be within the first dozen rows, it’s this one. There are humorous songs like “Waiting” and “Nowhere” and “Papi Hears the Ocean”, and also beautiful songs like “Omar Sharif “, which has a lyrical aspect in music and lyrics. Then there are “Haled’s Song About Love” and “Something different” which blend both in places, while also bearing Dina’s hopes and desires.

The star of the show is Chilina Kennedy as Dina, she gets the most beautiful songs to sing. Her character is also complex, strong and in charge but also a little self destructive. Kennedy plays all aspects of the role with equal skill, whether it be humor, melancholy, regret, desire, nostalgia, jealous, or generous. The other star of the show is the set design by Scott Pask. It effortlessly transforms from a bus station into small desert city street then to an apartment or a roller skating rink. Tyler Micoleau did some really interesting effects with the lighting design. There were two scenes in particular that used really effective use of silhouettes of the characters, that added to the mood of the scenes. It’s easy to see why Plak was nominated for a Tony award and why Micoleau won a Tony for the lighting design. In fact, the show was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 10. Which is kind of amazing for a show that is small and intimate in a lot of ways.

The Band’s Visit is playing through Sunday December 15th at the Orpheum theatre in downtown Minneapolis for more information about the show or to purchase tickets please visit https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/the-bands-visit-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-mn-2019/. Take my advice get as close up as you can, it’s worth the extra money. The Band’s Visit us a beautiful musical that succeeds by doing the opposite of other musicals instead of going big it goes small and in doing so it draws us in deeper into the inner lives of it’s characters.

Family Dinner and The Mess That Follows at HUGE Improv in Uptown

Last night I attended a double feature of Improvisational comedy at HUGE Improv Theater in Uptown. This was not my first ever experience with Improv, aside from what I’ve seen in films Don’t Think Twice or on TV Whose Line is it Anyway? I attended a Improv show in High school and much more recently attended a Comedy Sportz show with the family. But I think it’s fair to say this is still not a performance style or type of show that I’m very familiar with. Which is what made this evening particularly exciting for me. I love theater that’s why I’m doing this is the first place. What I’ve found really exciting in these first few months of reviewing are all the forms I’m being exposed to that are outside of my area of familiarity. Whether it be modern dance, shadow puppetry, interactive, or like last night improv, I’m fascinated by the skill and creativity on display all around the Twin Cities. HUGE Improv is a nice half moon shaped theater, packed a little too tightly with chairs. Easy to excuse as I’m sure they want to fit as many folks in as they can. But if you are on the big and/or tall side like I am, get there early and secure an aisle seat. Like every theater in the Twin Cities they have a nice selection in the theater of craft beers and wine for the drinkers and in the lobby a delicious selection of sodas and flavored waters for the NA’s like me. Being in Uptown, the other nice thing about this theater is they have a parking lot, an overflow lot, along with the usual street parking as well.

Last night I witnessed one of the most terrifying, at least in my mind, types of performance. Improvisation as you probably know means they are creating the show as they go along, there is no script. Anyone can do improv, but it takes a special skill set to do it well. You have to be a naturally funny person, you have to think of funny things to say on the spot, throughout the performance. But that isn’t all, it’s not about simply saying one liners, you have to also react to and feed your co-improvisers. When the improv is working it’s because the performers are building off of each other, and feeding each other lines that have possabilities. Lines that can contribute to a narrative, whether it be a 10 second bit or a 10 minute scene. You have to give the other performer something to play off of. I don’t imagine selfish performers are very good at improv, you cannot always be taking from the the others you have to be generous and giving in order to make it flow. You also have to have a good memory. In a longer scene you have to remember what has happened, who the relationships are between the characters, and even what their names are. There are a lot of balls to keep in the air. To me this would feel like starring in a play, opening night packed house, curtain rises, and you realize you haven’t even read the script. If the performers on stage didn’t make it look so easy and seem to be having so much fun, it would probably create anxiety and panic attacks in half the audience.

The first show was Family Dinner which was created by Molly Ritchie years ago and has become a Twin Cites tradition, this show basically sells out every performance so book ahead. Actually stop reading and buy your tickets now and then come back and finish the review. Ok, did you book? Good! OK, spoilers ahead, that’s a little joke. The beauty of a show like Family Dinner is you can see it every year, in fact, you can see every performance every year and everytime it will be new. This show is what they refer to as long form improvisation. There is a general idea, in this case, a family getting together for a holiday meal. Before the show audience members write down suggestions for secrets the members of the family might have. At the beginning, the director looks at the chosen secrets on a screen and taps the performer she wants to use that secret. Once each performer has a secret the scenes start and trust me hilarity ensues. There is one scripted line in the entire show and that is at the end of Act 1, someone says “Dinner is ready”. There is a brief intermission where a dining room table is set and food is placed on the table. When Act 2 begins the entire cast is at the table actually eating real food and continuing on the narrative they created in Act 1. There is no point in telling you the plot as it will be different every time (see earlier in the review and do try and follow along). What I can tell you is the cast was full of very funny and extremely talented performers. They are: Sam Landman, Vann Daley, Janay Henry, Katy Kessler, Laura Berger, Maureen Lyon Tubbs and Rita Boersma.

The Mess, the second show I took in, was more of a stream of consciousness affair. When it started I wasn’t sure if it really worked. The performers seemed to start ideas and trade a line or two and then others would come on and try something else, even if it didn’t seem like the others had finished their thought or idea. This continued for a few minutes and I started to worry this was going to be too fragmented. But then it seemed like the group struck on an idea they all liked and they ran with it for awhile, from then on they would switch to new ideas or scenes but they more or less played out like sketches, some shorter than others but not just one throw away line after another. I don’t know what the actual process is but I assume the performers have worked together enough that they just have a sense what doesn’t have legs and what does. I wasn’t aware of suggestions being taken from the audience, so I assume they were just riffing on their own ideas. Improvisation as a performance skill must take practice to get really good at, and I suspect working with the same group of performers assists in developing an intuitive sense of what ideas have potential and when an idea has been milked for all it can be and is ready to be discarded and a new scene begun. Improv would terrify me, but based on the performers body language I think there must be something very rewarding and fulfilling about it if you have the gift and have developed the talent. Rita Boersma, Mike Fotis, Eric Knobel, Molly Ritchie, James Rone and Jake Scott are The Mess and they seemed to have a telepathic link that told them when to switch it up.

Of the two shows I would recommend Family Dinner first, basically so you won’t feel bad for having bought your tickets already when I suggested it above. Also It looks like The Mess has a standing show every Saturday night so you’ll have a chance once you are hooked on Improv to take it in. I couldn’t tell you which show I laughed at more, I think my narrative attuned brain appreciated the singular story of Family Dinner, but some of the funniest lines came from The Mess. All in all I recommend following my lead and taking in the double feature. For more about the Shows and to purchase tickets visit HUGE Improv Theater at http://www.hugetheater.com/ Family Dinner runs Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 PM through the rest of December. The Mess performs every Saturday night at 9:30 PM.