Fringe Day 5: Ifrah Mansour keeps audiences rapt, 'Wellstone' struggles with thruthiness

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Ifrah Mansour in her previous project, 'How to Have Fun in a Civil War.'

[Editor's note: This is our last Fringe review installment. Go forth with the knowledge that there are many great shows to see. We hope you find at least one of them through reading this series. Happy fringing! Find schedules and more info at www.fringefestival.org.]

The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society
Rarig Thrust

In an era when we watch TV with one screen on the wall and another in our hand, podcasts serve as a reminder of how gripping audio-only storytelling can be. They also serve as a reminder of how awkward audio ads always manage to be. (“Before we say more about this tragic murder, we need to pause for a second to tell you about the best and easiest way to build a website!”)

The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society is a podcast itself, revisiting and analyzing hair-raising dramas from the golden age of radio. It’s also a live performance, in which some of the Twin Cities’ most cruelly charismatic actors recreate those shows. At the Fringe, they’re presenting a pair of horror shorts connected by a shadowy theme. The first has a young couple terrorized by shadows that are only potent in the dark (needless to say, everything comes down to a single candle), and the second is an episode of the long-running series starring the invisible crime-fighter known as the Shadow.

Shanan Custer, Joshua English Scrimshaw, Tim Uren, Eric Webster, and Joe Weismann (who also handles the all-important organ duties) have this down cold — not just the technical aspect, but the tone. There’s a bit of the foley fun that Prairie Home Companion listeners love, but it’s the scripts that really make these shows a blast. Chilling as it might be to experience these tales (complete with old-school ads) alone in the dark, it’s much more fun to experience them with a crowd. When that “owl” screams in agony in the depths of the spooky woods (spoiler: it’s not really an owl), a shiver and a chuckle ripple through the audience at the same time.

Finding Mohamed
Rarig Xperimental

Ifrah Mansour is a name to know on the local theater scene, but her solo work transcends theater: it’s performance art, it’s social history, it’s education. It’s suitable for children, but challenging for all ages. Her show How to Have Fun in a Civil War, inspired by her childhood memories of the 1991 Somali civil war, triumphed last fall at the Children’s Theatre Company. This season she’s headed for the Guthrie Theater, which has just announced that she’ll be part of the Solo Emerging Artist Celebration next spring.

Her Fringe production is Finding Mohamed, a meditation on the plight of refugees. The show ends with a montage of videos and information related to the global refugee crisis, but that concrete grounding only comes at the end of a tense performance where much is left intentionally ambiguous.

Mansour’s character wakes in an eerily quiet space, a hand-painted cloth hanging behind her and the sounds of waves echoing as a projected video shows sea turtles scuttling across a beach, dodging hungry crabs and ultimately plunging into the water. Nervous near the point of panic, Mansour goes through a cycle of actions dictated by sounds that cut in unpredictably: when there’s a harsh knocking, she grabs a bundle and brandishes a pin, seemingly ready to defend herself. When a voice counts down, she prepares to plunge into an unseen body of water. When she can, she counts her meager possessions and pins the flaps of her hanging fabric.

We keep waiting for something to happen, for the story to advance — but eventually, we realize that’s exactly what Mansour’s character is doing as well. She waits with obvious dread, perhaps with hidden hope. Eventually, we hear children calling, perhaps to her. Despite the lack of a conventional plot, Mansour keeps us rapt with her intense, wordless performance.

Roger Ebert called film “a machine that generates empathy.” The same could be said for theater, and for this unsettling show in particular.

Frankenstein
Rarig Arena

When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail — and when you’re Victor Frankenstein, everything looks like an opportunity to reanimate a corpse. That’s a takeaway from Windmill Company’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which Frankenstein creates a monster but the real monster turns out to be… yep, exactly.

Director Grace Barnstead and her six-person cast have boiled a 75,000-word novel down to a series of sketches so spare that they’re hardly even there. In scenes enveloping long silences, punctuated by blackouts, we meet Victor Frankenstein (Jacob Krohn) and his creature (Julie Manning, her identity represented by a foam headwrap). Victor weds Elizabeth (Laura Mason) with his BFF Henry (Maurice Fields III) by his side, but the fact that the couple’s officiant keeps shining a flashlight in their faces at eerie angles serves as a subtle tipoff that they might not live happily ever after.

The officiant is played by Lisa Day, whose character, the “narrator,” is a ubiquitous yet ambiguous presence. She seems to taunt Frankenstein, spurring him to ever-greater atrocities. Is she a conscience? A demon? A spectator? All of the above, perhaps, but her near-constant presence tends to distract. Although there’s a dark, patient energy to this Frankenstein, it definitely needs some tightening at the joints.

Wellstone: An American Musical
Rarig Thrust

The audience is never more engaged with Wellstone: A Minnesotan Musical than during the show’s coda, when three actors stand onstage and recite a litany of political events that have transpired since the senator’s 2002 death. The house murmurs approvingly for Obama and hisses for Trump (who, we’re informed, unquestionably colluded with Russia). That’s not to say the whole show should simply have been a timeline of the past three decades in Washington, but just about anything would improve on the current incarnation of this lumpy historical drama.

Playwright Bryn Tanner and composer Zach Miller have a general idea of where the components of a successful Wellstone story might be found: the plot focuses on his final months, voting against the Iraq War while wrestling with the decision to renege on his promise not to seek a third term in office. Subplots involve Wellstone’s relationships with his wife Sheila and his brother Stephen.

Tanner and Miller, however, also insert a lot of material that’s unnecessary at best and dubious verging on offensive at worst. The show has Wellstone (Michael Turner) hiding his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis from his wife (Cayla Marie Wolpers) for years, and having lowballs of whiskey shoved at him by then-Senator Hillary Clinton (Rachel Lawhead) — who, here, goes so far as to carry a bottle of booze in her bag.

It’s not surprising that a Wellstone musical would paint Clinton as a sellout pragmatist, but what is surprising is that this show seems more engaged in her political evolution than his. Turner bears no resemblance to Wellstone either physically or in demeanor: he’s sheepish and apologetic, capturing nothing of the legendary liberal’s moral fire. When the mere mention of Al Franken gets people as excited as your entire musical about Paul Wellstone, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

The Murmur of Murder
HUGE

“I never thought of myself as a public servant,” says Detective Dawkins (Aidan Jhane Gallivan) after being elected mayor. “More of… just… a servant.” Suddenly the lighting changes and Gallivan, switching to an English accent, is off on a long tangent about an unrequited romance in the scullery. The non sequitur monologue reaches its climax with a quick Harry Potter reference, and then we’re back to the mean streets of Minneapolis, where a killer known as the Larcenist Arsonist may still be at large.

The Murmur of Murder takes a classic noir setup and packs it with so many puns, flights of fancy, sight gags, and existential monologues that it’s distended almost beyond recognition.

Everything is fluid, including the gender identities of detectives Dawkins and O’Malley (Allison Schmidt), who are played by women but referred to as “gentlemen,” and never referred to with pronouns or first names. They fear a former colleague has fallen victim to the Larcenist Arsonist, who kills, and then burns, after taking a trophy. You know, something like a basketball trophy or a speech trophy.

Some of the jokes land, a lot of them don’t, but they just keep coming in this relentlessly quirky show written by Justin Feit and director Brady Meuller. Gallivan fares best, staring the audience down and daring them not to take her seriously as she rifles through her loopy lines. The show’s highlight is a brief audience-participation interlude, with the cast members proving quick on their feet as improv actors. That scene also lightens the mood, which otherwise tends toward the dreadful. At least it’s dreadfully funny… occasionally.


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