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The Fringe: Online criticism, ‘History Camp,’ and ‘Comedy = Tragedy + Someone Else’

And it’s back to the Fringe Festival.

There was a bit of a dip in attendance the opening weekend of this year’s Fringe, with ticket sales down from 18,895 to 17,687 — a not insignificant dip of about 6.5 percent, if I have done my math right. I don’t make much of this, as sometimes festivals will be up and sometimes they will be down, and there was an awful lot going on opening weekend, including three art fairs. But I have repeatedly run into people who have approached the festival this year as I have, seeing fewer shows and selecting them carefully. Of course, chatting with a few people in line to see a show does not a trend make, but it’s easy to see how a combination of four arts festivals in one weekend, plus a larger-than-zero-percent of attendees who have decided to approach the festival’s offering more cautiously, might pare back their ticket sales.

But if sales are down, responses are up. Audiences have been rather avid responders to the plays they see, posting a superabundance of online reviews on the Fringe’s website. As usual, I find these online reviews generally unhelpful, as they are easy to both troll and game, despite the festival’s insistence on online accountability by asking that people post under their own name (a request that has, to a small extent, been ignored.) The festival uses what is essentially a star rating system, with five stars being the highest marks, and zero stars being the lowest. Except they don’t use stars — they use kitties, perhaps because of the statistical likelihood of theater people to turn into crazy cat people. Having been to the homes of many local theater people, which often feature two or more cats, many are already on their way.

I had an interesting Twitter discussion about this subject of online reviews yesterday. On more than one instance, I have seen a show get a few “meh” reviews, and then suddenly be flooded with four- and five-kitty reviews, and I know local theater people well enough to recognize that among the reviewers are friends of the cast and crew. This may not always be system-gaming — a large percentage of theater audiences is often made up of theater people, and performers get comped into a few shows. Couple this with the fact that people are more likely to review plays that they like than one they dislike. Additionally, the few people who leave critical reviews tend to sound rather mean. Suddenly you have a circumstance of kitty inflation, where it seems that every show in the Fringe is averaging four kitties. This doesn’t make it an especially useful tool for choosing whatever show you’re going to see, but whoever writes the Fringe|Famous blog pointed out that the real value in audience reviews may be in maintaining audience engagement. If so, it is self-evidently successful, as people are writing reviews in great abundance.

It has been interesting to watch the parade of hurt feelings that has resulted from audience reviews, despite so many being so favorable. I don’t blame people — I have gotten bad reviews for work I have done, and it stings. But some have opined that there shouldn’t be audience reviews at all, and, come on. Audiences may not be as cautious in how they phrase criticism as professional critics (although some professional critics aren’t especially cautious either), but we collectively have given audiences an extraordinarily passive role in the arts. They get to come in, sit down, applaud at the end, and leave. That is, unless there is an audience talkback session, in which case they get to tell you how meaningful it is that your heartfelt drama about social ills bummed them out. And that’s it. We ask them to pay to see our works, and then discourage anything but their support, and discourage any engagement whatsoever. I honestly sometimes wonder if theater companies wouldn’t prefer to replace their audience with mechanical dummies that applaud at the appropriate moment — that seems to be all they want.

At least the Fringe gives audiences a more active role — they can publicly voice whatever they think about a show, however inartfully they do it. Imperfect though the system may be, it recognizes that audiences are more than just applause machines whose only other job is to buy tickets. And I think there are a few benefits to this. Firstly, they’re going to say it about your show anyway, to friends and in line to another Fringe show — don’t you want to know what they’re saying about your show? Secondly, a little bad press gives a show artistic credibility. I always publish my bad reviews. It makes you seem punk rock.

Troy Zimmerman of "History Camp"
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Troy Zimmerman of “History Camp”

And now, on to the shows that I have seen most recently. I took in one of the festival’s two (or more) a cappella musicals, “History Camp,” which has one of the weirder conceits I have ever seen in a play: That it is possible to gather historical figures at a summer camp for two weeks and, at the end of that period, send back one of them to correct the mistakes of their lives. In fantasy literature, they speak of the “one big lie” — audiences will allow you to base your story around one enormous whammy, and everything else must flow logically from that. I have to give “History Camp” credit for making their one big lie as big as it is. It helps that the conceit of the play is satiric — the historical characters here, including Houdini, Joan of Arc, Marilyn Monroe, and Magellan are all defined by one personality quirk, and it’s always comical. Houdini, as an example, tends to represent the fact that he does magic by simply producing flowers from a hidden pocket and flinging them across the stage. Beyond that there isn’t much you need to know about the historic Houdini, who was a rather small and pushy man, here played by a tall, smiling fellow with a taste for depressed women.

The whole of it is somehow simultaneously buoyed and unmoored by show cocreator Troy Zimmerman, who plays the show’s camp director with a mixture of gung-ho enthusiasm and sudden, awkward embarrassment. In a show whose primary tones are amiability and comical squabbling, Zimmerman often seems genuinely deranged, and he gooses the whole production up another notch. He can’t be alone without engaging in near-obscene warm-up stretching, and he has a slow-motion dumbshow of various sorts of misbehavior that’s as good a moment of physical comedy as I have seen in this festival. Best still, when the musical numbers break out, he sometimes leaps in to beatbox.

I also watched “Comedy = Tragedy + Someone Else,” which seems at first like it might be a mash-up. There have been a lot of these in the Fringe lately: plays in which two disparate stories or genres are glued together, in the way digital technology has allowed musicians to blend, say, the vocals from Van Halen’s “Running With the Devil” with The Beatles’ “Baby You Can Ride My Car.” The results tend to be a bit gimmicky, but, then, being gimmicky has never hurt a show at the Fringe.

Max and Mike Fotis
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Max and Mike Fotis

And so here we have a show in which Mike Fotis, who is a well-liked improvisational comic and storyteller, is onstage with The Danger Committee, a juggling outfit. I should point out that one of the members of The Danger Committee is Caleb McEwen, himself a longtime improv comedian who, for some reason, taught himself to throw knives a while back. The Danger Committee performs a rather traditional comedy juggling act, but it’s constantly undermined by McEwen’s persona, “Reynaldo,” who shares both an accent and an attitude with Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. So they don’t just juggle, but must deal with constant excoriation from McEwen, who is very mean, and very funny.

This show consists of The Danger Committee interrupting Mike Fotis as he attempts to tell one of his stories, and then they take over, forcing him to perform in increasing amounts of jongleur jeopardy as they fling things at him. This ends up being less a mash-up than a matching of wits, especially when McEwan starts oozing contempt for storytelling. “It’s not art if it’s something you might accidentally do at a bar,” he says at one point, and if McEwan throws knives with the same accuracy that he throws criticism, he’s deadly.

The show ends with Fotis in the center of the three jugglers, telling his tale as they toss — something. I won’t give it away, but it is very literally the first time at the Fringe I have seen an act where I was genuinely afraid somebody onstage might die. I have to give Fotis particular credit for this, and not simply because he put himself in what seemed to be genuine danger for the show. He also gets credit because, when I see him from here on out, if he doesn’t seem like he might suffer grievous bodily injury for his art, I’m going to be a little disappointed.

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