Going to the Minnesota Fringe Festival without attending the annual Joseph Scrimshaw production is like going to the Minnesota State Fair and not eating anything deep-fried: surely there are people who do it, but I don’t know who they are and I’m a little frightened that they might actually be hostile alien beings from another galaxy.
The official numbers haven’t been released yet, but as the top-selling show at the Fringe’s biggest venue—the Rarig Thrust stage—Joking Envelope’s The Damn Audition was clearly the hit of the 2010 Fringe. It’s no surprise, and it’s for good reason: writer/director/producer Joseph Scrimshaw may be the single most consistent artist working in Twin Cities theater. His shows are always funny, and they’re so smart that even edgy artistes who normally would recoil from lines like, “I’m a Lutheran—the closest I’ve ever been to an orgy is a really successful potluck” find that they can’t resist joining the queue with the hundreds of people who made that one of the biggest laugh lines in the show.
I’ve seen and enjoyed many of Scrimshaw’s plays before, but I’d never seen any of his shows performed at the Fringe—so seeing The Damn Audition at Rarig on Saturday was like seeing one of your favorite classic movies on the big screen when you’ve previously only seen it on video. The kind of bits that get warm laughter at the BLB or the Theatre Garage hit the Rarig audience with a boom. Storming onto the stage in character as a testy Hollywood producer, Scrimshaw virtually embodied the spirit of the Fringe. After sloshing a tumbler of whiskey, he demanded of his secretary (Maggie Chestovich), “Show me the monkey!” She produced a stuffed monkey from a desk drawer, and Scrimshaw gazed at it for a moment before getting on with business.
It’s that ability and willingness to give people what they want (a broad parody of an archetypal character) as well as what they didn’t know they wanted (a splash of absurdity) that makes Scrimshaw so successful at the Fringe, and that lifts him well above the suburban dinner-theater lowest-common-denominator crowd despite his willingness to hit easy targets like Hollywood producers, Lutherans, and Scientologists.
Nor is Scrimshaw content with making people laugh; his shows also engage big themes like, in this case, religion and morality. The Damn Audition has three actors (David Mann, Randy Reyes, and John Middleton) auditioning for the role of Satan in a TV show being developed by Scrimshaw’s character. As the audition proceeds, it becomes clear that Scrimshaw wants to give the role not to an actor who can play “evil,” but who actually understands what evil is, how it’s insidiously mundane. One of the most-quoted lines from The Damn Audition has Scrimshaw complaining about how the Nazis have ruined evil for everyone (Mann, asked to try an accent for the Devil, immediately goes for German), but the theme of The Damn Audition is consistent with an observation that’s often been made about the Holocaust: Hitler didn’t push a button to make it happen, millions of people made millions of little decisions that ultimately killed six million human beings.
Of course, Scrimshaw’s not going to bring the show to a screeching halt by stopping to say that: he’ll just slow it down for characters to go on little rants. The rants do slow the show down—the show’s themes could be pushed even further into Freud’s Joking Envelope, for which Scrimshaw’s company is named—but they slow the show down in the sense that a copy of Being and Nothingness would slow a steamroller down. The Damn Audition is a very funny play, and the big-ness of a Scrimshaw show, which sometimes seems uncomfortable in small venues (when nobody in the audience is farther than 20 feet away, you wonder why the actors are projecting for 200 feet), was perfect for the big stage and big audiences The Damn Audition had at the Fringe.
The casting was a coup—but then, in a Scrimshaw show it always is. It’s too late for you to see The Damn Audition (if you’re reading this, you probably did), but Joking Envelope’s 2010-11 season includes new shows starring Phillip Andrew Bennett Low, Tracey Maloney, Mo Perry, Jen Scott, Anna Sundberg, Clarence Wethern, and—of course—Joseph Scrimshaw. I’ll see you there.
Photo: Randy Reyes and Joseph Scrimshaw in The Damn Audition. Photo courtesy Minnesota Fringe Festival.