The 'Lolita' test: Lawsuit alleges censorship at the Minnesota Fringe Festival

Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" story has become part of the American canon.

Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" story has become part of the American canon.


One of the most compelling dramas at the Minnesota Fringe Festival didn’t play out under the lights. Two actors with minor parts performed entirely through off-stage narration. Reviews were mixed. 

Over several years of entries at Fringe, writer/performer/provocateur Sean Neely has forged a reputation. To some, he’s a daring artist whose bold entries stand out at a festival dedicated to challenging pieces. To others, he’s a publicity-hungry miscreant whose foul “art” doesn’t fit the term.

Neely specializes in plays that star him telling a first-person story. A couple years ago, an unsuspecting audience watched him read from a “journal,” dropping racial epithets and sketching a plan for a mass shooting.

At 2015’s festival, Neely acted the part of a man who confessed to his dying mother that he’d raped two women, and announced his desire to assault a third. He started each performance assuring the crowd the whole story was true.

When it was over, audience members staggered out, many wondering aloud if they’d just witnessed the confession of a serial rapist.

At one performance, police investigators sat in the crowd. Afterward, they met Neely backstage and told him someone had reported the show, but said they’d seen nothing criminal.

Neely wants his performances to convey “the horror” of despicable acts by bringing audiences into the mind of the “actual perpetrator.” 

“Some people don’t care to hear from those people,” Neely wrote in an email. “And that is where the controversy, I guess, begins.”

Last year’s play incited a new volume of complaints, says Jeff Larson, the festival’s director. “There have been calls for censorship of [Neely’s] work. And we’ve always defended him.”

Until now, says Neely, who claims this year Fringe rejected what might’ve been his most controversial play yet: a monologue from the point of view of a convicted pedophile.

The Arizona playwright is now suing the “uncensored” and “uncurated” festival for violating its one inalienable rule: If your numbered lottery ball is randomly selected, your play is in. On the last day in February, Neely’s ball was one of nearly 170 picked. About this, the playwright and the promoter agree.

Neely’s play won a small grant from the Minnesota Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. The group’s chairman, Warren Maas, welcomed a plot that wasn’t about pursuing a sex offender and bringing him to justice. 

In a March email to Larson, Neely wrote that his show “pushes against the liberal mindscape of sexual acceptance.”

According to the suit, Larson’s reply effectively shot the show down, citing the “gray area” of “fantasies involving children.”

“I can’t afford the lawyers and insurance to protect the festival from liability and keep you [Neely] out of jail,” the lawsuit quotes Larson writing.

Larson said the rejection of Neely’s play “had nothing to do with the contents of his show,” but wouldn’t elaborate on why it didn’t make the stage.

Larson has his supporters. Anti-Neely Fringe-goers say he’s just reaching for the spotlight. (One refused to talk, saying he wouldn’t feed Neely’s “need for attention.”) Some speculated that the whole thing was just one more avant-garde piece.

Not so, says Neely’s attorney Ochen Kaylan. Kaylan blames Fringe’s popularity, hinting that its success in winning sponsors puts pressure on organizers to kill off controversy before it starts.

“If they advertise as ‘uncurated’ and ‘uncensored,’ then they have to live with that,” Kaylan says. “My sense is, this year, they didn’t want to deal with it.”

Katherine Glover, a 15-year veteran of fringe festivals, says her theater friends are split on the Neely affair. One half says he’s “brilliant.” The other thinks he’s a “scumbag.” She’s surprised how many of the latter half supported the alleged blocking of his work.

“If it’s uncensored, then scumbags have a right to see a show,” Glover says. “I would just encourage people who don’t like it not to go.”

In 2013, the festival staged a comedic send-up of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s tale of adult lust for a pubescent girl. Kevin Ohi, an English professor at Boston College, says Lolita is “the greatest American novel about desire” in the 20th century, and thinks Nabokov might have been testing himself — and his reader.

“It was an aesthetic challenge,” Ohi says, “to make us like Humbert Humbert, or to make us feel his desire, and be won over by his language.”

It’s a tall order for even Nabokov. In less gifted hands, material that heavy can take an ugly form.

Kaylan likens Neely’s attempts at stage realism to the title card that flashed before the movie Fargo: “This is a true story.” (It wasn’t.) Remove the safety net of illusion from upsetting material, and suddenly it feels like both artist and audience are teetering on that wire.

Katherine Glover believes theater already has its own built-in form of justice: “Bad reviews.”

To the attention-starved artist, there is no harsher punishment than playing to an empty house.

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