Fringe 2009: Review—”Tragedy of You,” Five stars

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by Matthew A. Everett | 8/4/09 •

Shakespeare and Improv Comedy, Together Again

“Oddly, she still had the composure to speak in iambic pentameter”

Joseph Scrimshaw

The Tragedy of You

This is a brilliant idea, which could be a disaster in the wrong hands. But since The Tragedy of You is the brainchild of Joseph Scrimshaw, you know everything’s going to be just fine. And mighty funny.

single white fringe geek is the blog of matthew a. everett. in addition to being one of seven bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet, he blogs throughout the year about theater and culture.

The idea – pull the name of a random audience member out of the Fate-Bucket (filled with names of people willing to be the subject of the evening). Bring that audience member up on stage, and run them through a series of simple (seemingly) random questions to get some raw material. Return the audience member to their seat. Take the raw material provided and insert it into an established “five act” template for a do-it-yourself Shakespearean tragedy. Oh, and adlib your heart out around the edges, just to keep things lively and unpredictable. Well, more unpredictable.

Also, best not to leave music out of the mix. Composer/keyboardist (and singer) Dennis Curley provided the comedic musical interludes between acts, and prior to the first act, so Joseph would have, oh, just about a minute to figure out how he was going to synthesize all this new information into his storyline. (That has got to be the most exhilarating and terrifying minute Scrimshaw gets to spend onstage in the dark – well, near dark. There’s a mirror ball. That moment in the dark is probably a large part of the reason he does it. Nothing like jumping off an artistic cliff to keep the adrenalin flowing.)

[OK. Spoilers? I guess…?]

What’s something that’s very important to you?

A name to be used for a general, a clown, a senator.

A random verb, a random noun.

Who’s someone you love who is no longer alive?

Make up a swear word.

Would you like to include a bear, or not?

What is your tragic flaw?

[end of spoiler alert]

There are a multitude of questions in addition to the above, the answers to which get scribbled onto an erasable white board which then perches at the front of the stage for easy reference as Scrimshaw works the crowd and spins his tale.

But those aren’t the only details in play. Another thing I found impressive is that, during the interview section at the beginning, Joseph studies his subject, even when the person isn’t aware they’re being studied. Oh, he asks them to walk around just a bit, and say a particular line of dialogue. But he listens well, and pays close enough attention to the person so that he can recreate mannerisms, inflections, little things that make a difference. Not a complete impersonation, just enough “non-Scrimshaw” to remind us whose tragedy he is performing. Scrimshaw comedy can be broad, of course, but the smart stuff, the stuff that reminds you he’s not “just a clown” is often in the subtleties.

It wouldn’t work if Scrimshaw didn’t know his Shakespeare. But he does. People will appreciate it on different levels, depending on how well they know Shakespeare themselves. The great thing about Shakespeare, at his best, is he knew how to create a solid entertaining story, be it comedy or tragedy. Scrimshaw, at his best, has the same skill. Like Shakespeare, he steals from the best and makes it uniquely his own creation. So those with no Shakespeare in their blood can enjoy it for the fun story it is. Those who know a little or a lot of Shakespeare can enjoy it on multiple levels. But everyone has a good time.

And it’s fun to watch the man think on his feet – for some moments never happened before, and will never happen again. For our performance, “The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Cole,” the important thing to her was… oranges (?). So her kingdom was Orangeland. When the evil military general character went out to the audience bellowing, “Do you think I’m a bad person?!” – the woman he landed in front of gave a nervous salute and said, “Sir, yes, sir!” He took one look at the color of her shirt, glared at her and walked away saying, “Don’t ever wear peach in Orangeland again!”

The Tragedy of You was one of a handful of shows that was part of what I jokingly refer to as Mom’s “List of Demands.” She perused the Fringe website, and sent me an email of shows she really wanted to see. Joseph Scrimshaw is not just a returning favorite of mine, but hers as well. This was a demand I was more than happy to fit into our schedule. Mom turned to me as the applause began at the end of the show and said, “We have to come see this again!” She was fascinated by the fact that it would be a completely different show, no matter when we saw it. Part of her also wanted to have her name drawn out of that Fate-Bucket. Days later, she was still pondering, “What would the name of my kingdom be.” A Fringe show that keeps providing entertainment long after it’s over – that’s a damn good Fringe show.

Very Highly Recommended

Their website – josephscrimshaw.com
show page

His video trailer

His Fringe-For-All preview Fringe 2009 – 2:30 Saturday – show #10 Matthew A. Everett is a local playwright and three-time recipient of grant support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Information on Matthew and his plays can be found at matthewaeverett.com.

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