The 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival runs Thursday, July 30, through Sunday, August 9, and features nearly 175 theater, dance, and other experimental performances. All shows are 60 minutes or shorter and are being hosted at 25 venues throughout Minneapolis.
On a summer night disgusting enough to (almost) make me wish for the frigid Minnesota winter, I climbed the steps of the Rarig Center at the University of Minnesota to watch Everybody Wants You to Live, one of the selections from this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival. Making my way into the basement of the Rarig to the Xperimental Theatre, I walked into a small room completely enveloped in lights of all colors. The theater was bordered with an industrial-style catwalk with stark, black cinder-block walls. There were even lights on the floor.
As soon as I entered, I felt that I was swaddled in the raw energy of the small cast of performers and writers. The director (and co-writer), Spencer David Retelle, reconnected with Margaret Elizabeth Danger Williams to reprise their partnership after their successful 2012 Fringe show Perif Sunglasses. Add in Fringe newcomers Kip Dooley (co-writer) and Alex Burchfield (co-writer and actor) and you have four brilliant minds behind the creation of the show. And brilliant it was!
As I settled into the cocoon, the emotion in the cast practically crackled off the walls like electricity. Appropriately, given the show’s subject, it felt a little bit like I was in a space shuttle—cut off from the rest of the world in the bowels of a building reminiscent of a Church of Scientology, surrounded on all sides by a room that could easily entirely be utilized for this show (and, come to find, it was). Suffice to say, the venue was very apt for a show wherein “four strangers have been selected to be the focus of the media event of the century, a one-way mission to Mars. Alone in the shuttle with just one camera left, they begin to feel the gravity of their decision.”
While the four strangers (Alex Burchfield, Amie Durenberger, Neil Pearson, and Ilana Kapra) are the main focus of the show, there are several peripheral cast members who step in to play family members and the producers of the televised event (Pauline Johnson, Hannah Longley, Jeannie Retelle, Eric Mannah, and Ali O’Reilly, the last of whom is Durenberger’s understudy for the final show). Of particular note was Longley, who delivered several poignant and thoughtful characters throughout the show.
When the show began, a brief viewer discretion for the hypothetical television show was read before they cut right to the chase: lights came up on the four travelers already in the spaceship, discussing their different approaches to the journey. Throughout the show, the stage was used in its entirety: at stage left, the inside of the spaceship with a single camera framing them perfectly, and at stage right, a table with chairs to be used for flashbacks of each character and to capture conversations between the producers of the show. Voiceovers from the television narrator (Johnson) were done from the catwalk.
The scenes in the shuttle focused on the group and their interactions with each other, letting their starkly different personalities shine through in the way they communicated and relieved stress. Anthony (Burchfield) was optimistic and full of hope, never fully coming to terms with the fact that he wouldn’t be returning to Earth. Deb (Durenberger) was a cold-hearted cynic, happy to be leaving the tragedy that was her life back home. Jake (Pearson) was conflicted and mild mannered, unsure of his place in all of this. Lastly, Segolene (Kapra) was a tightly-wound bundle of unpredictable energy, one minute bouncy and the next manic.
Especially strong was Amie Durenberger’s performance as Deb, a “butch” military vet with hints of PTSD. I found my eyes drawn to her throughout the show as her character remained solid and impenetrable. It was like she stepped into the room and was going to space and was angry about the way her life had ended up. I often caught her glaring at the on-stage “camera” with pure anguish while she impatiently threw a ball from hand to hand. There’s no doubt her performance was in part due to expert direction of her character, but it was clear that it was also in large part due to her skill as an actress. This became particularly apparent in a stage-right flashback with her former best friend (expertly acted in an intentionally unrefined character by Longley) in which she was confronted with her “old life” as she said goodbye. “You know what I learned in the military? You know what I really learned? I learned that the only goddamn thing that’s keeping all of us from blowing our brains out with our constitutionally protected guns is this faint, tickling notion that tomorrow is not going to be as fucking boring as today,” she said, and I caught myself holding my breath. Bravo.
While the scenes set in the shuttle were rife with an increasing level of tension between all the characters as they realized the—apologies—gravity of their circumstances, the flashbacks admittedly at times left something to be desired. In one, two actors who otherwise excelled throughout the show came in flat for me in a side-scene about pregnancy: Longley approached Pearson with the news that due to her unexpected pregnancy, she would no longer be able to make the trip to Mars. She was choosing the baby over the mission, and he would have to find someone to replace her. The implication that Longley was choosing a single human (her child) over the opportunity to visit space struck a chord with me in that I realized how important and difficult a choice it was to make. However, a moment that should have been emotionally raw, tense, and emotive instead felt stunted. Pearson didn’t seem invested enough in the relationship for me to feel that he noticed. More than anything, he seemed mad—but not that mad. The conversation was anticlimactic and nonchalant, and for a show about four people realizing the magnitude of their situation, I was surprised that the significance of their non-shuttle lives wasn’t taken a little more seriously. That said, it’s somewhat appropriate that a conversation like that would exist in a world in which four people are sent to Mars purely for entertainment purposes. As you can tell, I’m conflicted about my feelings on this scene.
When the lights came down at the end, I was surprised by how abruptly the show ended—it didn’t feel like there was enough finality to the story for my tastes. More than that, though, I was surprised to find that I wanted more. (Who had the idea to send them to space? How was the project funded? How were these four travelers chosen?) I genuinely did not want it to end. I was just starting to bond with the characters when I was forced to face their demise . . . but there’s something to be said for that, as well. In a world filled with violence and tragedy, it’s unsurprising that a mission of such non-importance would be cut off at the knees at the whims of the producers looking for higher ratings.
When I left the theater and stepped back out into the air, the night felt dramatically cooler—and it had nothing to do with the hour that had passed. The show could have easily been expanded with additional character development to fit a full two-hour slot with intermission, and frankly, it is no small part of me that hopes the show does just that in the future. The show was well crafted and performed by a slew of strong actors and actresses. Like Burchfield’s character, I hold out hope for them all.
Rating: 4/5 stars (recommended)
For more information on this show, visit the Minnesota Fringe website.
Performances for Everybody Wants You to Live:
Friday, July 31 @ 7:00 p.m.
Sunday, August 2 @ 8:30 p.m.
Monday, August 3 @ 10:00 p.m.
Thursday, August 6 @ 7:00 p.m.
Friday, August 7 @ 10:00 p.m.
All performances at the Rarig Xperimental Theatre at the University of Minnesota. Tickets are $14 + $4 Fringe button (button is a one-time purchase and can be used at all Fringe shows).
All photos besides the promotional image at top taken by Sally Foster.