Polars, Twins team up for the Fringe

Had it not been for the North High School administration's concern over a certain piece of furniture and its availability to hormonal teenagers, three of its alumni might not have known what to name their fledgling theater company this year. But, as it stands, thanks to the lore created around a sofa removed from North High's choir room by wary educators, former Polars Jonathan Wemette, Heather Hannigan and Kevin Albertson were inspired to name themselves The Couch Under the Stairs when presenting their new Minnesota-themed 2006 Fringe Festival original play, "Johan Santana's Perfect Game."

"The North High administration was not happy with any furniture that allows teenagers to lounge too much," explains Albertson, a 2002 alumnus of the North St. Paul school and one-third of the "Santana" cast. Wemette, who wrote the script, and Hannigan graduated in 2001.

The trio connected through their mutual interest in choir and theater, performing in North High productions like "Oklahoma!", "Guys and Dolls" and "You Can't Take It With You." Most of those productions were directed by Grant Richey, who premiered his take on "The Wizard of Oz" last week with the District 622 Summer Theatre program.

"Grant was an amazing director," Hannigan remembers. "He treated us like professionals."

"As soon as college started, it didn't seem like a gigantic jump from what we had already done," adds Albertson, who just graduated in May from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in communications/theatre arts. "High school was like a boot camp."

If that's the case, then The Couch Under the Stairs is currently preparing itself for the guerrilla theater experience of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, an 11-day presentation of 168 different plays in 23 different venues taking place Aug. 3-13 throughout Minneapolis. It's the first time any of the three North grads will participate in the largest non-juried performing arts festival in the country and, like many of the festival's theater companies, they've already experienced firsthand the kind of last-minute decisions and spontaneous creativity the Fringe tends to inspire.

"Originally, the plan was it was just to be the two of us," Wemette says of his initial idea for a two-man show with Albertson. "About a week or two before the Fringe needed a title for our show, we changed the idea."

Wemette, whose father is Joe Wemette, assistant superintendent of Roseville Area Schools, quickly changed his focus to the national pastime and added one more character. "In one grueling weekend, I wrote one draft of the show, read it with Kevin, then read one with Heather and didn't really like that," he says.

"I think the current version is version '6.0.'"

Play-mates

So goes the process of producing a play for the Fringe Festival when the only parameters given are that it be between 60 and 75 minutes long, it have minimal technical needs and that producers pony up $400 as an application fee.

In early February, most shows are chosen from a public lottery of hopefuls (a process started last year after the festival, now in its 13th year, had more applicants than it had slots to fill in 2004).

Wemette's group (unnamed at the time, of course) was selected in the lottery and ultimately given five time slots to perform in the Tony-award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune's small stage space downtown.

The 14 Fringe venues this year stretch from Bryant Lake Bowl and Intermedia Arts in Uptown to four spaces on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus, not to mention the nine venues included in the Bring-Your-Own-Venue category. Companies producing a BYOV show pay a $250 fee and provide their own performance space, ranging from outdoor parks to warehouses and, this year, a pool at the downtown YMCA.

"I love how open the structure is," Wemette says of the Fringe's eclectic offering of mostly original pieces. "And I like that you can write for a very specific audience."

Though most of Wemette's high school theater experience was on stage, he has already had some success with his playwrighting endeavors since then. Having graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts a little over a year ago where his original comedy titled "Three Days in Hell" was produced, Wemette's work has also been seen in San Francisco, the Netherlands and the New York Times.

He is preparing for an internship with Florida Stage this fall, and recently completed a stint as a literary intern at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

"I got to spend one week in the new space," Wemette says of the famed theater's new multi-million-dollar home along the Mississippi River that opened last month. "I like it here (in the Twin Cities). I never wanted to escape Minnesota."

Albertson, who grew up in Maplewood, has a similar take on his home state. After experiencing all he felt he could theatrically in Madison and having founded his school's first student improvisation troupe, The Understudies, Albertson is back indefinitely to pursue roles on some of the many Twin City stages.

"I spend my days looking for jobs and I've been auditioning," he says. "I never really branched out in the Minneapolis theater crowd (before college)."

For Hannigan, who graduated last summer from the U of M in Mankato after studying speech pathology (which she'll continue to study in grad school this fall in River Falls, Wis.), it wasn't always clear whether she would continue her high school theater habit after leaving North. But, despite not majoring in the field like her Fringe partners, Hannigan ended up being cast in several college productions anyway.

"I was in a couple of shows; I had to still do it," says Hannigan, who is spending her summer working at a camp in Oakdale after having assisted a speech pathologist at Brimhall School in Roseville before that. "That's why it's been so great to do this (Fringe show) because I don't know how motivated I'd be in auditioning."

From stadium to stage

In spite of its somewhat haphazard beginnings, the trio speaks excitedly about "Johan Santana's Perfect Game," a play that follows two friends' superstitious belief that if they keep holding hands during the Twins ace pitcher's fictional no-hitter, he'll pull out a baseball miracle ("Two straight guys holding hands is funny," Albertson explains).

"I like the idea of someone being superstitious and discovering that they actually have control over a game," says Wemette, a lifelong Twins fan himself. "I think it would make an awesome idea for a movie."

Albertson says he has only recently taken an avid interest in the Twins and hopes his excitement over the team's recent streak of wins (that may earn them a wild-card spot in the playoffs) will be shared by potential audience members. Nevertheless, he stresses that the show has comedy elements that transcend sports.

"It's 'Seinfeld' set in Minneapolis. It's very Larry David-esque," Albertson says, referring to the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" star's style of situational comedy. "The story is sort of a love triangle."

Forming one corner of that triangle is Hannigan's character, girlfriend of Wemette's character and decidedly not a baseball enthusiast.

"My character is relatable to non-fans," she says. "The whole show is very relatable to regular Minnesotans."

In fact, the show is peppered with several local references, including the Walker Art Museum, the Guthrie and Grain Belt beer, a nod to the landmark neon sign atop the defunct brewery that can be seen from outside the Jeune Lune.

Then there's that title ...

"I want one baseball fan who has no interest in theater to come see this," Wemette says. "We're using the title as the ultimate marketing ploy. ... I really wanted to embrace having as many local things in there as I could."

In fact, with most of the show's action revolving around a living-room sofa, the trio's North High history will be represented in the Fringe by more than just their namesake.

Of course, if they could have used the actual "couch under the stairs" disposed of by North authority figures years ago, they would have jumped at the chance.

After all, they're producing this play out of their own pockets and that couch probably would have been free.

Ryan Kathman can be reached at rkathman@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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