Hamlet, but Hamlet’s a Chicken
Weird, smart and funny as heck, this pared-down Shakespeare classic sounds like a one-joke premise — and, yes, Hamlet is played by a hen (at my performance, it was Tilly, who is gray, very fluffy and excellent at sitting silently in a basket). But there’s a new joke, and a new acting exercise, for each scene: Everyone’s in a kiddie pool, or everyone speaks like they’re Valley Girls, or Claudius is struggling to open a big jar of pickles, etc. It’s endlessly inventive, and the 400-year-old play proves such a blank slate that “Chicken” could be about many things: questioning its relevance, demonstrating its sturdiness, or simply saying that the modern world is ridiculous, so “Hamlet” might as well be, too.
(8:30 p.m. Sun. & Wed., 10 p.m. Thu., 4 p.m. Aug. 11, Minnsky Theatre, 1517 Central Av. NE., Mpls.)
Lizzie Gardner, Taj Ruler and Hannah Wydeven take just one suggestion from the audience and turn it into a full-blown comedy musical through the wonders of long-form improv. The first performance of this silly romp featured squirrels, evil forest princesses and trolls, but there’s no telling what future audience suggestions will instigate with this clever troupe. It’s a riot to watch these three comics, accompanied by Justin Nellis on keyboard, get their story in a twisted knot and find their way out of it in surprising, hilarious ways. Even at the inevitable choppy moments, the trio sails through with ebullient charm.
(10 p.m. Mon., 7 p.m. Tue., 5:30 p.m. Aug. 10, 2:30 p.m. Aug. 11, Augsburg Studio, 625 22nd Av. S., Mpls.)
British playwright Caryl Churchill’s dystopian 2000 play gets an intriguing, must-see production. The most haunting scene is when hooded, handcuffed figures with fancy headgear are paraded on their way to execution as an onstage audience applauds, seeing only the fashion and oblivious to their roles in a world order that benefits them but is built on horror. Sarah Nargang’s absorbing production, with a live band led by Tim McVean and a strong cast featuring Hannah Steblay as a possible rebel against a system moving inexorably toward destruction.
(7 p.m. Fri., 1 p.m. Sun., Rarig Center Arena, 330 21st Av. S., Mpls.)
Even a gorgon can’t stop Mother Nature, which delayed the debut of this outdoor extravaganza until last Sunday. It was worth the wait, and worth the trip to Logan Park in northeast Minneapolis for a true Fringe experience. The familiar elements of the Medusa story are here — snake-headed woman, Perseus and his shield, an eventual beheading — but it’s amped up to 11 through the merged talents of musicians, videographers, dancers from Vox Medusa and fire artists from Infiammati FireCircus, who add primal intensity to Medusa’s path from priestess to demon. The show builds in intensity along that dark journey, ending in a truly fiery display. The giant flaming sword would not be out of place in a “God of War” game.
(8:30 p.m. Fri.-Sun., Logan Park, near NE. Broadway and Jefferson Sts., Mpls.)
A Family Friendly Pulp Fiction
The basic joke of this show is right there in the name. The concept of sanitizing Quentin Tarantino’s famously profane, hyperviolent film is ridiculous enough to make a decent comedy sketch, but the show jells into a sharp satire on the hypocrisy of Hollywood, family-values advocates and internet “tone police.” Tim Wick’s script follows “Pulp Fiction” beat for beat, swapping out curse words with nonsensical soundalikes (“Minnesota-fringing”), censoring all references to sex, drugs and gambling, but leaving the multiple homicides very much intact. Bolstered with running meta-commentary from the cast, it’s pretty fringing funny.
(10 p.m. Fri., 4 p.m. Sun., Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Av. S., Mpls.)
Bill Santiago really just wants to talk about his love for his daughter and his grief over his father’s death. He gets there by way of a rapid-fire disquisition on faith, physics and Schrödinger’s cat that takes his audience on a whirlwind tour of world religions and the origins of being. His clever, funny and sometimes baffling wordplay, darting eyes and malleable face create a riveting presence as he knits together Einstein, Lilith, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics, Dr. Seuss and the Kama Sutra into a meditation on love, loss and regret. It’s a headlong leap into metaphysics but Santiago manages to stick the landing.
(5:30 p.m. Fri., 8:30 p.m. Sat., Strike Theater, 824 18th Av. NE., Mpls.)
Based on Tim O’Brien’s remarkable book from 1990, this one-man show inventories the memories a Vietnam War veteran carries through life. Actor/storyteller Jim Stowell is totally convincing as the narrator, carefully unspooling O’Brien’s expertly crafted tales from foxholes and battlefields — and from a fishing boat on the Rainy River in northern Minnesota, where the young man nearly deserts to Canada. “I was a coward,” Stowell tells the audience, repeating one of O’Brien’s famous passages. “I went to war.” Stowell has a light-footed way of shifting mannerisms and voice to inhabit the book’s various characters, from war buddies to a daughter born long after the conflict. His stage adaptation is engaging, evocative and highly recommended to anyone carrying stories — whether experienced firsthand or inherited — from this terrible war.
(8:30 p.m. Sat., 4 p.m. Sun., Ritz Theater Studio, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.)
“Omigosh, they’re already on stage. This is magical,” said the woman who entered behind me. True, on both counts. “Kaboom”-goers are greeted by the backs of Robb Goetzke, as an idiotic (fictional) U.S. president and Joey Hamburger as defense secretary. Sheep Theater’s sure-footed homage to “Dr. Strangelove” — updated to include present-day, our-world-is-a-mess concerns — is smartly, explosively funny. The president has received a nuclear threat, he’s ready to retaliate (his target will alarm Minnesota’s neighbor to the south) and everyone in the room where it’s happening is about as equipped to deal as the dolts on “Veep” are. Comic magic.
(4 p.m. Sat., Rarig Thrust, 330 21st Av. S., Mpls.)
The Fringe has so many half-baked shows, it’s thrilling to see something as polished and well-executed as this new play by Milwaukee-based writer Deanna Strasse. “Summers” offers a variation on the theme of Americans having revelatory romances abroad. Mara (Samantha Papke), an English teacher in her mid-30s, hires a younger Czech escort for trysts. Their straightforward transaction gets complicated by feelings. Director Kimberly Miller’s production is a gem with excellent, honest performances by Avi Aharoni, who plays a lady killer with strength and sensitivity, and Papke, who wears the complexity of her emotions in her cadences, on her brow and in her whole twisting being.
(8:30 p.m. Fri., 7 p.m. Sun., Rarig Center Arena, 330 21st Av. S., Mpls.)
The subject is witchcraft in one of the most beguiling shows at this year’s festival. Brave New Workshop veteran Taj Ruler shares her memories of spells she created as a teenage witch through spoken-word segments while director Erin Sheppard and her troupe present a string of pieces embracing familiar witch tropes. We get Snow White, then a three-part tale of revenge against a couple who ridicule a witch, and — most chillingly — “Salem Town,” as the witch trials play out to the skittering sounds of DJ Shadow. Like so much of the best horror, “Book of Shadows” is by turns funny and frightening.
(1 p.m. Sat., 2:30 p.m. Sun., Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Av. S., Mpls.)