There are two kinds of Minnesota Fringe Festival fans, according to executive director Dawn Bentley.
“One camp goes to a lot of theater and this is a way to have a smorgasbord. And there’s a camp that Fringe is what they do for theater but they do something else other times of the year,” said Bentley, whose organization has 142 one-hour shows Aug. 1-11, ranging from “Bill and Ted” spoof “Wilhelmina and Theodore’s Exquisite Victorian Adventure,” to “Stoopidity,” which celebrates the black man’s body, to a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, “Mighty Real.”
Why find your way into one of those camps? Bentley describes Fringe as a gateway for theater newbies, priced roughly the same as a movie ticket ($14). She also highlights the democracy of choosing participants by a lottery.
“It’s the great equalizer in the performing arts. It’s available to everyone, both artists/producers and audience members, and it’s a way for someone to connect with someone else through the arts,” said Bentley.
Actually, not all shows are available to everyone. Sellouts occur, especially in the second weekend, so it’s wise to plan ahead. Otherwise, you may end up like Bentley, who snoozed on booking her ticket to buzzy “The Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist” last year and couldn’t get in.
How to choose from 142 possibilities? Mess around with the website, where you can search by genre, venue or artist. Or: we have a few ideas.
The word “fringe” is in the name but the talent is not fringe. The fest showcases top artists, ranging from Brave New Workshop veteran Taj Ruler (whose five shows include a “Measure for Measure” update that also features Guthrie/Jungle actor Mo Perry and is written by the biggest theater name of them all: a guy called Shakespeare). Fellow BNW fave Lauren Anderson wrote a couple of shows and appears in “Size.”
Another improv expert, Shanan Custer, has seen Fringe shows she and Carolyn Pool created become full-length hits at Park Square. She appears in three shows, including “Mad as Nell, or How to Lose a Bly in Ten Days” (also featuring “Prairie Home Companion” alum Sue Scott) and co-wrote “Size.”
Outside of Shakespeare, the biggest playwriting name in the fest is Edward Albee (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), whose seldom-seen, two-character “The Zoo Story” will appear. Andrew Erskine Wheeler, who starred in “The Great Society” at History Theatre and “The Christians” for Walking Shadow, wrote and performs “Booth’s Ghost,” a memoir play he calls “ ‘Hamlet’ meets Haunted Mansion.” Emily Michaels King, who co-created last year’s “Animus,” also uses autobiographical elements in “Magic Girl.”
The sharp ensemble of Sheep Theater, which created last year’s explosively funny “Kaboom,” returns to lampoon religious extremism in “A Cult Classic.”
Musical theater is tricky to get right, but that doesn’t scare off Fringers. In fact, a show that debuted at the 2017 Fringe became a full-length hit that just closed at Park Square, “The Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant.” Its creator, Keith Hovis, is back with “Edith Gets High,” in which Edith (played by Debra Berger) gets sucked into a video game, where she embarks on an epic quest.
Tuneful parodies are almost always a thing at the Fringe. The Minnesotaiest of them is “Chisago: The Musical,” in which elements of the beloved show about women who kill are transposed to Paul Bunyanland. Mashup “The Scranton Strangler: An Office Musical” uncovers homicide in the beloved sitcom. Tom Reed, who has crafted musical parodies that zip through all of the Harry Potter and Twilight series in 45 minutes, takes on Westeros in “Game of Toms: One-Man Game of Thrones.” Ayn Rand also gets something you never knew she needed — show tunes — in “Atlas: An Objective Musical,” whose creators compare the results to “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
More straightforwardly, “Chorus” follows one on tour. “Moon River” is a 1944 romance between two women. And “The Kid” sounds like a high-wire act: an improvised concert featuring a hot singer with a cold love life.
Many 2019 shows are women-centered, which Bentley attributes to short, lower-cost Fringe shows being able to react relatively quickly to world events.
At least three examine genres through a #MeToo lens. The aforementioned “Wilhelmina” includes a critique of male privilege. As indicated by its title, so does the mythic “Xena and Gabrielle Smash the Patriarchy.” And “Stuck in an Elevator With Patrick Stewart II: The Wrath of Fandom” uncovers toxic masculinity in the sci-fi world.
The creators of last year’s “Not Fair, My Lady,” return with “Size” to “tell the diet industry to eff off and celebrate every body,” and “The Shrieking Harpies” is a musical/improv show about female friendship. And co-artistic director of Full Circle Theatre Martha B. Johnson puts her stamp on a pair of shorts, “Glass and Lady M.”
All of those themes come to a head in “Tess Jones, Space Archaeologist,” which has an unusual back story: It was written by Michael D. Krefting, who then realized the spin on ’40s radio dramas was not his story to tell, so he turned it over to a mostly female cast and crew.
True crime has been a sensation at least as far back as “In Cold Blood,” but the popular “My Favorite Murder” podcast may have something to do with a mass of murderous Fringe shows.
Sometimes, they’re inspired by the real world: “Aileen” depicts Aileen Wuornos, a rare female serial killer who earned Charlize Theron an Oscar for portraying her in “Monster.” “Beat” purports to reveal the facts about a long-disputed killing among the 1950s Beat poets: Was victim David Kammerer stalking his killer, Lucien Carr, or was it the other way around? “The Tale of the Bloody Benders” is about an actual family of murderers, who operated out of that hotbed of crime, Kansas. Troubled by gun violence, writer Jay McMahon wrote “Not Here, Not Now” in an attempt to understand the decision to carry a gun, while “War Stories” redefines war by looking at various real-life events, including the massacre at Florida’s Pulse nightclub.
Several shows take a more satiric approach to killing, including “Good Friday the 13th,” described as “a sacrilegious slasher satire.” “Renaissance of the Dead” combines two great tastes that taste great together: zombies and a renaissance festival. And, speaking of zombies, “How to Come Back From the Dead” may sound like a guide for those who’ve just powered through four Fringe shows back-to-back-to-back-to-back but it actually offers handy tips for coping with the undead.