by Christy DeSmith   August 11, 2011

Christy DeSmith finds the aesthetic appeal and visual storytelling of this show (like all Live Action Set productions) utterly compelling - and that's good, because the script itself doesn't quite bear its fair share of the narrative burden.

FIRST, A PREFACE TO MY AFFECTIONATE REVIEW OF FLETCHER & ZENOBIA SAVE THE CIRCUS: this show isn't for everyone. One problem is the show's venue, the echoey train shed behind Mill City Museum -- it looks beautiful, and the ambience serves the mood, but the poor acoustics end up muddying what you hear from the actors on stage. The other, bigger problem is that the dialogue is fumbled and sloppily constructed in the first place. Clearly, the script is supposed to be simple: Director Sara Richardson explains in the program notes that much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the out-of-print children's book by Edward Gorey on which the show is based. Nevertheless, the resulting narrative is hardly coherent.

That said, Live Action Set excels at imagery and tone. For example, Fletcher & Zenobia is set in 1920s France (a popular period to romanticize these days), and the costumes are pitch-perfect. I loved the suspenders and handlebar mustaches donned by the ensemble performers. My favorite, though, was the finery worn by the director's sister, actor-dancer Kimberly Richardson -- especially her golden ballerina dress and sparkly leotard.

Not only does she wear the most fantastic costumes, Kimberly Richardson gets to play the most interesting character. Yes, she's the best thing about the show! As Zenobia, the beautiful doll, Kimberly is one of the most charming performers I've encountered lately. When Zenobia steps into the limelight -- by this point, she is helping to save the circus -- Kimberly captures the nuanced delight an attention-loving beauty must feel when she's distinguished from the crowd. Thanks to Kimberly's background as a dancer, she's even able to maneuver the show's most impressive circus stunt (don't worry, I won't spoil it here).

Fletcher & Zenobia has plenty other virtues, too: the cast's sweetly goofy mannerisms; the handmade masks of a rhinoceros, a tiger, and other circus animals; the three-piece band cranking out jangley carnival tunes. Yes, I'm dwelling on the superficial here. That's because I like Live Action Set best when they engage visual storytelling. In fact, I've admired only one of the company's scripts -- Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban, which premiered at the 2005 Fringe Festival.

Still, I'm always seduced by their scrappy aesthetics. Take this example from Fletcher & Zenobia, an early scene involving a train crash: Using little more than headlamps and drinking glasses, the cast effectively communicates the disaster and its wreckage.

Sadly, what's conveyed less clearly is the human toll of the crash: The characters move in a jumble; with the mumbled dialogue and obscuring echoes of the venue further complicating the issue, I could wrest my ears for only so long. After a while, the narrative proved too elusive. So, I relaxed. I stopped trying so hard to piece together a cogent story. Instead, I just picked out the pretty images wherever I could.

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Related performance details:

Fletcher and Zenobia Save the Circus, adapted from a book by Edward Gorey by Live Action Set, is on stage at the Mill City Museum. Shows are: Aug. 12, (7 p.m.); Aug. 13, (4 and 7 p.m.); Aug. 14, (2:30 and 5:30 p.m.).

Check back regularly throughout the Fringe Festival for more short reviews on mnartists.org, sent in from our intrepid performance critics on the scene.

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About the author: Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. Formerly an editor at The Rake and Mpls.St.Paul magazines, DeSmith now writes about art, culture, and interesting personalities for a handful of local and national titles.