Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review - Night of New Works - Savage Umbrella - Squids, Falstaff, and a Hidden Room of Secrets - 3 stars


If you want to get in on the ground floor of the creation of three brand new plays and perhaps help shape their future direction, Savage Umbrella is offering up a showcase of theater in development in their Night of New Works at the Southern Theater this week. You can just be a spectator, you can offer your written feedback, or you can stay and talk directly to the artists after the show in a post-play discussion. Your level of involvement is up to you, but the artists really do want to know what you think and watch how you respond to the pieces on display. Savage Umbrella has mini-surveys in the program with simple but useful questions you can answer quickly such as “What was the most striking thing in the play?” “What are you excited to see more of?” “What could you stand to see less of, or see differently?” “Did anything surprise you?” “Describe the show in three words”  It’s an interesting exercise to digest a work while it’s still so fresh in your mind.  And Savage Umbrella has three very different offerings in this batch of new works, though most of them are largely script based.

The first half of the evening contains two new works-in-progress:

We Had A Second Bathroom, by Eva Adderley and Jordan Lee Thompson
(collaborators - Nayley Becerra, Kit Bix, Joni Griffith, Meagan Kedrowski, and Helena Mueller)

“She stares at the door as if she’s seeing a ghost. The door begins to glow.”

“Lea returns to her childhood home for the first time in over a decade, where she finds the long forgotten second bathroom that her mother moved a cabinet in front of when she was six. Rediscovering the second bathroom leads Lea to think about the existence of the alternate reality she and her family had lived in for years— a reality in which they had only one bathroom. The unraveling of this reality leads Lea down a rabbit hole of memories that force her to confront the construction of not only her past, but her present reality.”


and
A Squid Has Three Hearts, by Mark Sweeney
(collaborators - Amber Davis, Elana Gravitz, Keith Hovis, Claire Morrison, and Anna Pladson)

“Two hearts to pump oxygen, one to pump blood.”

“An exploration of environmental, personal, and political themes around the mystery of the Giant Squid, as well as the growth in squid populations that has occurred because of the rise of temperature in the oceans waters. Biology, mythology, and music act as connective tissue for a series of vignettes about the human experience.”


There’s a brief break for changeover between the two so you can stretch and scribble down your thoughts.  Then after those two there’s an intermission, and the second half is a presentation of the work-in-progress:

Dr. Falstaff and the Working Wives of Lake County, by Scotty Reynolds
(collaborators Jim Ahrens, Adam Baus, Naomi Karstad, Adrienne Kleinmann, Maggie Lofboom, Laura Mason, Natalie McComas, Gary Ruschman, Patrick Webster, and Nick Wolf)

“Reserve Mining is going to pay him to plow everything.”

“Using Otto Nicolai’s 1849 opera--The Merry Wives of Windsor—and the songs of Bruce Springsteen as a springboard, Dr. Falstaff and the Working Wives of Lake County explores the closing of the Reserve Mining Corporation in Silver Bay, the landmark legal battles to stop the dumping of waste rock in Lake Superior, and the layoffs that reduced population of Silver Bay more than 70% in two decades.”


This isn’t a traditional review, of course, because all three of these shows are still under construction. They all used this workshop experience to do different things, and all had script in hand (or on a music stand).  Dr. Falstaff chose to use the opportunity to fast forward past a lot of the music in the piece (though there was still plenty to be had even in the workshop) in order to get the entire plot - beginning, middle and end - laid out for the audience to see, to get a feel for whether it was working.  Second Bathroom kicked off at the beginning of the story and brought it to the end of a sequence that was a good breaking point for now.  Squid was a series of physical performance work (actors as undersea creatures), songs, and scenes - all interrelated, but not necessarily part of the same story.  The performers all threw themselves into the three works, treating them like they were a finished product whether they were acting, singing or squidding (or some combination of the three).

“It killed 87 people and four perfectly good horses.”

Second Bathroom was an absolutely fascinating premise for me.  We’ve all had things that we’ve hidden away, by accident or on purpose, in our homes, and sometimes coming upon them later can open up all sorts of insights into our lives.  The forgotten room, bursting with people and fantasies of the past, seems to be a super-rich environment to explore, and they seem to be just getting started tapping into all its possibilities.

“Will you come?
Will you stand
By the shore,
Into the water?”


Squid was delightfully odd. The actors really had a good time with all the different manifestations of the squid and other sea creatures. The songs were fun, sweet and a bit melancholy. I have to say it was nice having a pregnant lesbian couple at the center of the narrative (people, not lesbian squids, though who knows what the rewrites may turn up). If I had any suggestion for the Squid team it would be to set themselves completely free from the possible restrictions of a single linear narrative and just let loose with as many different manifestations of your central idea as possible.  You can sort it all out later.  Bonus points if you can find a way to make the environmentalist seem like the actual hero of the piece and not just a killjoy trying to spoil everyone’s fun by trying to save the planet. (Maybe if it’s a woman and not a man, for starters? White dudes don’t have all the answers, even if we think we do.) Maybe there’s a talking squid in your future as a central protagonist of one of the storylines?  Don’t let reality get you down.  Finding more ways to make the planetary stakes real in the present moment - in either literal or fantastical ways - would also be cool.  You’re more than halfway there with what you’ve got in hand.

“I can’t wait for the nudist camp ads in the Beaver Bay Bulletin.”

Dr. Falstaff isn’t really my thing but I appreciate the talents of everyone involved.  The combination of the operatic/Shakespearean source material with a real-life slice of Minnesota history is extremely clever. Minnesota humor is often lost on me, being a transplant. Local audiences, including this one, just eat it up, though, and there was plenty of it. The use of Springsteen songs right now just seems to be a placeholder for the play actually presenting a worker’s reality - they could probably ditch it.  The idea of opera music juxtaposed over performers doing manual labor has a lot of potential. Having the full time to show the details of that physical actor research will help, they were understandably under a time constraint here. 

“How much life can this city support?”

Both Falstaff and Squid had this weird undercurrent of “environmentalists are ruining everything!” - spoiling our fun, taking our jobs, etc.  Again, more run-time outside of workshop constraints probably provides more time for nuance.  Dr. Falstaff’s horny subplot may be getting in the way of exploring the real villain, the company that’s been doing all the trashing of the environment, and then blaming lost jobs on the fact that they have to stop destroying the planet.  I realize horny Dr. Falstaff is sort of the central reason for the whole project, however, so that suggestion doesn’t have much of any place to go.  I find the idea of the Minnesota community crushed under the wheels of progress really compelling - but that may not be the sober place this playful piece really wants to go.  Any reason Falstaff couldn’t be the face of the company, who they then bring down, rather than an interloper from the Twin Cities trying to make a fast buck off the yokels of Greater Minnesota?  Really put him in the center of things, and really take him down?  Just a thought.

“Do you want Alice In Wonderland, or spaceships?”

As you can see, there’s a lot of talent on display in Savage Umbrella’s Night of New Works and a lot of very different ideas bubbling up for an audience to mull oer.  They’re playing tonight (Tuesday 5/23) and tomorrow (Wednesday 5/24) over at the Southern Theater if you want to check them out and put in your own two cents worth of feedback.  I’m sure they’d love to see you.  And there are few things more exciting than new work taking shape right before your very eyes.  Have fun everyone.

3 Stars - Recommended

(photo courtesy of Savage Umbrella - ensemble of A Squid Has Three Hearts, in action)



Monday, May 22, 2017

Review - Red Velvet - Walking Shadow - A Play For Theater Nerds - 3 stars


If you’re a hardcore theater nerd, Walking Shadow’s production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet is for you.  I thought I was a theater nerd, but there’s apparently a level beyond my devotion which involves a different knowledge of theater history - and figures therein - which I lack.  The upside is that a play like Red Velvet could teach me a lot if it wanted to.  The downside is that Red Velvet wasn’t really interested in doing that.  As far as the script is concerned, I could catch up or sit confused until it was over, then do a little research to put the whole thing in context (which is pretty much how things went for me).

“Everything looks bad from a certain angle.”

Really, the only person I was nominally familiar with prior to seeing Red Velvet was Edmund Kean, a celebrated British Shakespearean actor, perhaps most commonly known for having his last words reported as “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” But Mr. Kean is only name-checked in Red Velvet.  It is his unfortunate state of health, collapsing onstage during a production of Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in London, that creates the space for another actor’s big break, which is the real subject of Red Velvet. Kean’s collapse has pushed him offstage before the play even begins.

“So I should play what I feel? How avant garde!”

So what are we left with? The theater producer, Pierre Laporte (Andy Schnabel), takes the setback of losing his famous leading man to make a radical change. This is 1833 England.  The role of Othello is traditionally played by a white man in blackface.  Laporte decides to hire an actual black man to do the job.  That new actor is Ira Aldridge (JuCoby Johnson).  Aldridge is now widely considered to be the first African-American star of the English-speaking theater world.  Red Velvet here is digging into Aldridge’s origin story.  It’s a bumpy ride.  For context, though the story is set in Europe, 1833 isn’t just pre-U.S. civil rights movement by almost a century, it’s also pre-U.S. Civil War.  Not the most enlightened time for race relations anywhere.

“I’m just saying, people see what they look for.”

Half the previously all-white cast of Kean’s Othello is scandalized, half is intrigued.  Edmund Kean’s son Charles (Ty Hudson), in the role of Iago, learned Shakespeare directly from his famous father and is none too pleased about a young black man stepping into his father’s role in the play and the company.  Their famous lead actor would also serve as a director, offering suggestions to the other actors on their portrayals. Aldridge tries to do the same and gets a lot of pushback. Charles’ mood isn’t helped by the fact that their leading lady and Desdemona, Ellen Tree (Elizabeth Efteland), is also dating Charles.  Seeing a black man acting opposite a white woman, pretending to be her husband would be bad enough. To take her hand and kiss it? Scandalous.

“If we don’t take responsibility for our work then what are we doing here?”

[I had to be reminded, after the show, that Ellen Tree was also a very big deal in the history of theater at that time. She even played Romeo (which the script makes a nod to, but that’s pretty much all the hint I got that she might be something more than just the standard company ingenue). Ellen and Charles would later marry and take their husband and wife classical theater act on the road, making themselves even more famous in the process.  The writer of Red Velvet knows this, everyone producing Red Velvet knows this, but honestly, the audience could probably use more help than the script seems willing to give.]

“I think in order to act spontaneity, one must always know what’s coming.”

Because Tree is willing to give Aldridge a chance, the supporting players in the company (Sulia Rose Altenberg and Bear Brummel) are also willing to go along.  Another supporting player, Bernard Ward (Michael Lee), at first sides with Charles, but when Charles storms off and Bernard realizes that means that he finally gets to play the lead role of Iago, he’s also more willing to play along with Laporte’s theatrical social experiment.  The only other person of color in the place is the theater’s housemaid Connie (Kiara Jackson), and she’s more comfortable keeping herself out of the middle of this.

“Unfortunately money doesn’t guarantee character.”

Now, the play Red Velvet is originally out of London, and I’m sure everyone in the theater community there is much more steeped in the history and tradition of that theater than a guy living in the Midwest U.S. is. They probably need less handholding in that regard than I apparently require.  Red Velvet is Chakrabarti’s first play, and it premiered at London’s famed Tricycle Theatre, then moved on to a run in New York. Chakrabarti won three awards for it and was nominated for three more, so honestly, who the heck am I to question the thing?  Consider the pedigree of the play, consider the source of the review.  Your mileage may vary.

“Are we doing the right thing?”
“We’ll find out soon enough.”


The weirdest thing about the structure of the play is that it is bookended by Aldridge at the end of his life, on tour doing Shakespeare’s leading men, the final stop being in Lodz, Poland. (Aldridge doesn’t know this is the final stop, that his health problems are finally going to catch up with him in Poland.  But honestly, neither does the audience. The script uses this pivotal moment, but doesn’t give it much context. Again, I learned this after by doing some digging,) Aldridge has his own personal assistant (Lee, again), and is pursued by a scrappy young Polish newspaper reporter (Alternberg again) with the help of a local stage hand who doesn’t speak English (Brummel again). These all seem to be the trappings of success (and spotchecking history after the show, they indeed were). But the friend who attended with me was just as convinced it could be that the Poland stop on the tour was an indication that he now only plays out in the hinterlands, a has-been who never was, undone by the prejudice at the beginning of his career which the flashback making up the bulk of the middle of the show recounts for us.

“You give everything, and you can’t tell if it worked, can you?”

Part of the reason we were confused is that the reality of Aldridge’s actual career means that, really, there’s no suspense in the play. There he is, right in front of us, at the end of a long successful career. Yes, it’s unsettling (as it should be) to see him running into one metaphorical brick wall after another due to racist attitudes - which, honestly, still linger today in all corners of society (even among supposedly liberal, progressive theater people). We know he overcomes this. We don’t get to see how. What we do get to see is people rehearsing Othello, people performing Othello, people reading the reviews of Othello.  The “teapot” style of acting (as Ellen Tree calls it) is jarring to watch, and pretty funny. 19th century theater performing Shakespeare did a lot of proclaiming, facing out and trying to project up into the cheap seats in the far balconies. Not a lot of subtlety, actor interaction onstage or psychological realism going on at the time.  And again, all of this will make a lot more sense if you’ve read or seen a production of Othello before.  I can’t imagine how someone out of that context might be processing large chunks of Red Velvet.

“We sit through lifeless plays that say nothing about who we are.”

Also, weirdly, Red Velvet seems to be more about white people’s racism than it is about the person who is the recipient of it.  Ira Aldridge is the most interesting character here, but there’s a whole lot of white people crowding him out of his own story.  The play keeps indicating it wants to be about him, but the end result finds him too often absent.  Plays create their own world, whether they’re based on true stories or not.  If you have to do research or read extensive program notes prior to a play just to understand on even a basic level what the relationships are and what’s going on, I feel like the play’s not fully doing its job.

“That’s the beauty of being an actor.  You just play your part and go home.”

If you want a peek backstage into the process of putting together a show, Red Velvet definitely gets the details right. The whole ensemble does a great job of working together to create their own particular environment.  JuCoby Johnson is a great actor to build a show around - he’s the right choice to embody an important figure like Aldridge.  But despite having watched the whole thing, I’m at a loss to say what exactly the point was for my watching it.  I’m happy to know Ira Aldridge existed now.  I guess I just wish there was more of him in Walking Shadow's production of Red Velvet. (playing now through May 28, 2017 at the Southern Theater)

3 Stars - Recommended

(photo of JuCoby Johnson as Ira Aldrich in Red Velvet; photography by John Heimbuch)



Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review - Q-Stage - Set B - 20% Theater - Abuse and Release - 4.5 stars


At first glance, the titles of the two pieces in Set B of Q-Stage from 20% Theatre Company aren’t a lot of help.  The first one is called "___________" and the second one is called “e”.  But, actually, once you see them, the titles are kinda perfect.  It’s that kind of show.  Both deal with queer and trans bodies, the first piece through scripted performance, the second piece through dance and spoken word.  Both works in progress are still finding their final form, but each of them contains a lot of powerful material.

“An easy but effective measure to dispel unwanted spirits.”

Of course that doesn’t mean they’re always easy to sit through. The first half of the evening, “___________”, is the most challenging on that score.  Written by Sami Pfeffer, who also co-directed with Kai Greiner, both developing the piece with their performers, real-life spouses Beckett Love and Suzi Love, "___________" is about being haunted by and not entirely able to escape an emotionally abusive relationship. The piece inspired trigger warnings in the lobby, in the program, as well as in the welcome speech by Beckett.  Audience members were advised to do whatever they felt they needed to in order to look after themselves, including leaving the theater for the lobby if necessary. Someone next to me did just that partway into the piece.  They admitted upon their return for the second half of the program that they just couldn’t make themselves watch it anymore.  "___________" doesn’t abuse the audience, but it’s definitely hard to watch.

“I’m not open to engaging you right now.  Please respect that.”

One of “___________”’s primary goals seems to be to get the audience to recognize that abuse occurs in queer couples just as it does in straight couples, and that psychological abuse can be just as damaging and long-lasting as sexual abuse, or the kind of abuse that leaves a bruise you can see.  It’s been a battle just to get the larger society to see queer people of any sort on the most basic existential level.  Seeing other problems queers face on top of that is yet another challenge of perception. "___________" tries to meet that challenge and bridge that gap. This draft of the piece may be a little too good at what it does. It’s so convincing as a story of abuse that it’s almost unwatchable.  That’s actually a badge of honor for writer, directors and performers alike.  The trick for the next go-round of "___________" in its development is to find a way to get people to walk into the theater in the first place, and then to find a way to keep them from giving up on the story because it’s too painful.

“You tied all my clothes into knots.”

It’s good that venues like Q-Stage exist, in which challenging stories like "___________" can be incubated.  I’m not sure how it would survive its infant stages of development if it didn’t have 20% Theatre lifting it up and giving it a platform from which to speak.  It’s been difficult for me to write about this, not because I’ve had this sort of abuse in my own life, thankfully, but because I’m struggling with the whole notion of how you tell a difficult story but still reach an audience with your intended message.

“Some people have suffered real abuse and you’re just undermining their pain.”

Because the message of "___________" is still a little fuzzy. The basics are clear. Suzi Love’s character has survived an emotionally abusive relationship, but is so haunted by it still that their memories have the impact for the audience of being the character’s present reality. Beckett Love’s character is nice every now and again, but largely their behavior is a string of micro- and not so micro-aggressions that chips away at nearly all the self-worth that Suzi’s character has. (I honestly don’t know how these two can do this to each other repeatedly and then go home together and be OK. It must take a lot of self-care both individually and as a pair.  They’re that convincing onstage.)

“We’ll need another’s support as we delve deeper into the darkness.”

In the present, post-breakup, Suzi’s character works for a cheesy tourist attraction that purports to take groups in search of spirits in a haunted house.  The idea of being possessed and haunted is a good match for the character’s real life.  Right now it might be a little too on-the-nose.  If the script leaned on it a little less, let the audience come to it, rather than having it handed to them, the impact of the revelation might feel a bit more genuine and earned.  It’s a tricky balance and "___________" is almost there.

“That memory is so cold now.”

The main challenge is structural. Beckett’s character is in control of the story at the beginning and the end and for much of the middle as well. In some ways it’s a miracle that Suzi’s character registers at all (again, a credit to writing, directing and acting). The play ends as it begins, creating a loop of time with Beckett’s character as the ringmaster. I don’t think the play intends this to be the message but with Beckett at the reins, the play could be construed as saying that Suzi will never escape, never be all right, never be in control. The abuse has no end point. Ever. Now, there are, of course, situations like that in real life.  Is that hopelessness something you want the audience to walk out with?  If so, what are you expecting them to do with that heavy weight you’re asking them to carry?  Here again "___________" is perhaps more of a cypher than it means to be.  (But that’s what second drafts are for…)

“Launch literacy into my bones, I dare you.”

“e” by contrast is a bit of a manifesto. I’ll let the artists’ words speak for a moment with their own summary:

"e" seeks to explore the intersections of race and gender identity in an interdisciplinary artistic format. two queer trans people of color articulate through movement, poetry, music, storytelling and performance art their experiences in the complex and beautiful bodies they live within. "e" touches on the stereotyping of trans-femme bodies, the exploitation of queerness and eating disorders' attachment to dysphoria. we will create our own trans queer narrative. when our voices have often been rendered silent, we will speak our truth. so often the conditioning of our bodies by mainstream media is cis and heteronormative, our racial identities are merely supporting characters or punchlines. "e" stands for exposure. stands for empathy. stands for estrogen. for elevation, enigma, evil.

What does that look like in practice? Creator/performers Simone Bernadette Williams and Holo Lue Choy fill the stage alternately with movement and words.  Williams does nearly all the talking, Choy does more than their share of the movement.  Choy is one of the best arguments I’ve seen for the notion that dancers are most definitely athletes.  The things they can do with their body are mesmerizing.  I can only imagine the degree of difficulty involved.  It’s great seeing Williams and Choy dance together, too, but whenever Choy solos, they’re a marvel.  Williams key strength is putting trans struggles into words - a poetry at once defiant and beautiful.  They are the show’s voice, and it is a powerful one.  Both artists make it clear, you do not want to mess with them.  They will fight back.

“I must have forgotten to warn your blood that it was about to boil.”

Here in “e” we again have an issue of what the ultimate message is.  The pieces of the puzzle don’t appear to be arranged in any particular order.  Each in their own way are very effective.  But collectively they aren’t currently adding up to anything larger.  The audience isn’t brought to any particular end point.  The piece just - stops.  Real life, of course, is not all one thing, headed resolutely in a certain direction with no turning or doubling back.  But art has the advantage of being able to take life and arrange it in a way that life can almost make a kind of sense.  In “e” one thing happens after another, but one thing doesn’t necessarily lead to another.

“I hope you don’t make the mistake I did - take yourself for granted.”

There is a sweet, indeed lovely, ending to “e” with the two performers sitting down together on the floor and playfully eating from pints of ice cream. (It’s the one time we actually hear Choy speak! There’s an example of building something. The entire evening we’ve seen Choy let their body do the talking, and it spoke loudly, just as if sound were coming from their mouth. It’s only when Choy finally does speak that we are reminded, oh yeah, they haven’t uttered a word all night. That tension, broken. It makes the moment of camaraderie that much more meaningful, between the two artists, and between artists and audience.)

“How can I touch somebody who won’t even touch themselves?”

Immediately before the ice cream moment, there’s a solo moment where Williams has been overwhelmed with emotions not entirely positive while painting on their naked body. This, like many juxtapositions across the evening, is striking but I’m not entirely sure the artists have decided what they want to get out of putting these two moments side by side. It doesn’t feel so much like a choice as it does just something that happened. Earlier there are several instances of dead air and silence on an empty stage which, if the components of the evening where arranged differently and the gaps eliminated, would have given the piece a better shot at building momentum from the beginning through to the end. Less stops and starts means more collective impact. How do you get one piece to feed into the next, to get something to build on what came before it? That seems to be the business of the next draft of this performance.  But in the meantime, dang, the words and the movement here are powerful.

“God forbid this is a love poem.”

20% Theatre’s Q-Stage series as a whole feels like it’s reached another level of maturity this year.  The artists all seem more self-assured and in command of their craft, and the presentations - even when still rough and unfinished - have a real polish to them this time.  It’ll be exciting to see what all these artists do next, and who Q-Stage extends its hand to next.  The next time Q-Stage comes around, you should go and see for yourself.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photos courtesy of 20% Theatre: Beckett Love and Suzi Love in “___________”; Holo Lue Choy and Simone Bernadette Williams in “e”)




Monday, May 08, 2017

Review - Little Wars - Prime Productions - A Dinner Party You Can’t Say No To - 5 stars


(Blogger's note: After posting this review, I was made aware of the review of the same production on Talkin' Broadway. And, a simple internet search with the phrase "Gertrude Stein nazis" quickly brought up an illuminating article in the New Yorker. So I'm a bit torn. I still admire the production itself - the design, the acting - even the cleverness of the script. I'd still recommend it on those grounds. However, I agree with the other reviewer's thought that taking this as even a piece of fancy using history as a jumping off point is a bit of a slippery slope, given that the facts fly in the face of a fair chunk of the premise of the fictional story, making the epilogue in particular feel a bit odd. I also feel a bit like I need to do more homework in situations like this - and it makes me wonder why that same homework on some level eluded the writer and the production. Sigh. Art is complicated. Gertrude Stein, case in point. And then today, this interview drops today from Paula Vogel on theater and history...)

Gertrude Stein (Candace Barrett-Birk) and Alice B. Toklas (Sue Scott) invite Agatha Christie (Alison Edwards) to a dinner party.  Agatha invites her friends Dorothy Parker (Elizabeth Desotelle) and Lillian Hellman (Vanessa Gamble). Gertrude and Lillian can’t stand each other. But that’s not the thorniest problem with the dinner arrangements.

“She’ll come out eventually.”
“That would be a good thing to cut on my tombstone.”


Gertrude and Alice are living in the French Alps in June 1940, and Hitler’s soldiers are invading France. France hasn’t surrendered - yet. Gertrude and Alice’s friend Muriel Gardiner (Laura B. Adams), who has unexpectedly arrived a day early, is an operative with the resistance, smuggling passports to Jews so they can get out of Europe before it’s too late. Gertrude and Alice’s housemaid Bernadette (Miriam Schwartz) is German, and a Jew.  In fact, nearly everyone at the dinner party is Jewish, not to mention that Gertrude and Alice are longtime lesbian companions.  What could possibly go wrong?

“For every story worth telling, there’s a dozen secrets worth keeping.”

That’s the premise of Little Wars - a hilarious yet deadly serious play from Steven Carl McCasland. Did this dinner party really happen? Probably not, but the premise fits so tidily in the cracks of history that it’s a tantalizing “what if?” Though McCasland is a very 21st century playwright, Little Wars is fashioned as a very old-school sort of play.  Basically it’s a great excuse to get these towering female figures (and the wonderful actresses who play them) all in the same room together to lob insults and witticisms at one another.  But that’s not the only thing that’s going on here.

“Is that scotch mine?”
“Eventually.”


It’s easy to see why new theater company Prime Productions chose Little Wars as their inaugural production.  Their mission is to “explore, illuminate, and support women over fifty and their stories through the creative voice of performance.”  These women “of a certain age,” women in their prime, dominate the story and the stage in Little Wars.  Only women with this much brass, and experience, can push back against the darkness encroaching on Europe - if they can stop warring with each other for a minute first, that is.  Little Wars explores that notion from many angles - what are human beings, women, artists, expected to do in the face of evil?  If they can’t save everyone, what’s the point in saving anyone?  Is there such a thing as too late in a situation like this?  When you have a powerful voice at your disposal, how do you speak out or fight back, especially when speaking out or fighting back could get you killed?

“As long as people are dying, it is never too late.”

That might make Little Wars sound pretty bleak, but rest assured, McCasland’s script is reminiscent of plays like Claire Boothe Luce’s The Women, or take your pick of any Noel Coward title.  One joke barely lands before the next one arrives on its heels.  And yet these women are all so smart and self-assured that when they turn to weightier topics, it also makes complete sense.  Director Shelli Place and her fine ensemble keep the story moving fluidly back and forth between comedy and drama without skipping a beat.  It’s great fun to watch.

“What can one woman do?”
“A lot.”


If you don’t know the women this play is about, you should.  And if you haven’t seen actresses like these work on material like this, you should.  Heck, you’ll want to applaud Meagan Kedrowski’s set, too.  The thing has so much personality - so vivid and cluttered, with enough entrances and exits for a French farce - it’s practically another character in the play.  Little Wars is a great launching pad for Prime Productions, and a great showcase for all these engaging performers.  Treat yourself.  Even though it’s ridiculously funny, it also has enough of a brain that it doesn’t even qualify as a guilty pleasure.  Just a pleasure.  Enjoy.  (runs through May 21, 2017 at Mixed Blood Theater)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(l to r: Lillian Helman (Vanessa Gamble) and Alice B. Toklas (Sue Scott) share a drink while Gertrude Stein (Candace Barrett Birk) tunes the radio to an update on World War II outside in Prime Productions’ Little Wars; photography by Joseph Giannetti)


Sunday, May 07, 2017

Review - Redemption - Nimbus Theatre - Life After Prison Ain’t Easy - 4 stars


Playwright Josh Cragun, director Mitchell Frazier, assistant director/actor Ernest Briggs, and the rest of the Nimbus Theatre creative team have assigned themselves a daunting task with their latest new work Redemption. They’re trying to wrap their arms around the state of the criminal justice system in America, with a focus on the challenges of prisoners having served their time trying to reenter society after their release. Both the systems of the society at large, and the emotions of people directly involved, present a series of obstacles to be overcome to try and build a “normal” life. The redemption of the title is hard to come by, though not entirely impossible.  The production of Redemption is sometimes confusing, but never less than compelling viewing.  It’s a worthwhile attempt at a complicated conversation.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me the goals were impossible?”

Redemption follows the personal struggles of two recently released prisoners over the course of a summer and into the fall.  Shawn (Ernest Briggs) doesn’t have any family left on the outside willing to receive him, so he must rely on the good graces of his friend Derek (Richard D. Woods) to provide a place to live. Shawn wants to help young people avoid the mistakes he made, but the sorts of places that serve youth aren’t willing to risk having an ex-con on the payroll.  Shawn’s criminal record makes it hard to find both employment and a place of his own to live.  Shawn was convicted of murder in an armed robbery attempt that went wrong.  The widow of his victim, Beth (Julie Phillips), didn’t stand in the way of his release, but has a “no contact” order on file, so Shawn is not allowed to see or communicate with her in any way.  Part of the tension of the play is waiting to see if and how that order might be violated, and what the consequences will be.

“Life is hustling.  Some of it just happens to be legal.”

Beth runs a florist shop. Her employee Dee (Ashe Jaafaru) is the daughter of another convict about to be released.  Dee’s mother Sandra (Dana Lee Thompson) was sent to prison for negligence that led to the death of her son, Dee’s brother.  This turn of events also condemned Dee to a childhood in the foster care system, which had its own challenges.  Both mother and daughter are trying to turn their lives around by going back to school.  A reconciliation between the two will be harder to manage.

“I want you to know there’s a woman here and not just a monster.”

Connecting all of these people is Shawn and Sandra’s overworked but sympathetic parole officer Meghan (Calli Kunz).  Rounding out the ensemble are William L. PanKratz II and David Tufford, each playing a series of different roles.  In fact everyone in the ensemble does double or triple duty playing roles in the present and in multiple flashbacks that pepper the narrative.  As characters recount past events in their lives, members of the ensemble play across age and race to take on the identities of the different people in the story when they were younger, before prison entered their lives. It’s a potentially risky strategy but because the script makes clear who’s playing what role when (and because the performers all deliver in this juggling act of identity), there’s no confusion.  This approach also has the added benefit of breaking down possible barriers created by race in the minds of the audience, helping to expand the scope of the world onstage.

“You’ve got to remember you’re still serving time.”

Time and identity may be fluid in Redemption, but place is always clear.  Set designer Brian Hesser has filled the Crane Theater space with different locations having very specific boundaries and looks.  There’s an apartment space on one side, where Shawn tries to build a new life, and where the events of Sandra’s past life unfold.  There’s the florist shop on the opposite side of the stage, Beth and Dee’s refuge, as far away from the apartment of the past and present as possible, with a gulf of space in between where other scenes can take place.  Behind the apartment is a space with a counter and cash register that alternates between being a store and a garage.  In the center of it all, where the story begins and ends and returns periodically between, is the prison/parole officer’s work space. 

“Out here you’re a liability, in there you’re cheap labor.”

Brent Anderson’s lighting design either focuses on a particular space or allows the boundaries between them to be more fluid, depending on what the story calls for.  Caitlin Hammel’s video design provides title cards to help keep track of time and place in the present, and gauzy jittery loops of images projected on the set to make the flashbacks more visually distinct.  But since the set and dialogue in the script make the settings of each scene pretty clear, the only new information we get in those title cards are the specific dates which remind us how brief the passage of time is in the play. I go back and forth on the importance of that information, and the utility of the title cards.  They’re not distracting, I’m just not all that sure they’re necessary. The fuzzy video of the past, however, is a nice, unsettling look for the generally not-so-happy flashbacks, so some of the extra layer of tech is helping.

“I’m just a piece of human garbage getting tossed from one can to another.”

The one odd storytelling strategy is the revising of personal histories. In the case of both the crimes that sent Shawn and Sandra to jail, the audience gets one set of information early on which the characters treat as definitive.  Shawn killed Beth’s husband, Sandra killed her son. In the case of Shawn, we actually see it acted out on stage.  In the case of Sandra, it’s just reported to us with no details to follow up. Then later, another version of the same crimes gets floated that undercuts both of the previous stories.  In both cases, it seems to want to reframe these tragedies as horrible accidents.  In Shawn’s case, I just don’t buy it.  In Sandra’s case, it’s such a completely different story that it makes me question why the person telling us was so sure in the first place.  In both cases, it seems completely unnecessary. 

“I’m not wasting any more of my time.”

We’ve already seen and gotten to know Shawn and Sandra as human beings.  We don’t need to soften their crimes so late in the story in order to gain our sympathy.  The play is about the difficulty of re-entry into society and forgiveness - forgiving yourself as well as others forgiving you.  Regardless of what the real story is, the victim is just as dead.  Muddying the waters of what the parolees’ crimes actually were doesn’t seem to serve any useful purpose.  It’s not a play about people being sent down the river for something they didn’t really do.  It’s not about being wrongly accused (though, lord knows, our criminal justice system has plenty of that to go around, too).  The redemption these characters seek doesn’t come from somehow making their crimes less horrible. It comes from knowing their crimes are bad and, after they serve their time, forgiving them anyway, and allowing them to build a new life. Redemption does a good job making us care about all these characters as people.  I’m a little baffled why it suddenly screws with its own accepted reality in this fashion.

“I still don’t know what I’m looking at when I see you.”

Even with that little storytelling detour, however, the play holds an audience’s attention for the full evening.  While the play seems realistic in the depiction of some of the struggles these characters encounter being frustrated by the system, it is neither unrelentingly bleak, nor unrealistically sentimental. Its little victories, it earns.  Its little failures are sad, but not unexpected.  Redemption does a good job providing a nuanced view of a complicated subject and making it truly human, rather than a dry documentary full of talking points.  What they’re doing is harder than it looks, and there’s a lot to like about the end result.  Nimbus Theatre cares about this story, and it shows.  You should see it.  (runs through May 14, 2017 at the Crane Theater)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(foreground by gravestone, Ernest Briggs in Nimbus Theatre’s production of the new play Redemption)


Saturday, May 06, 2017

Review - Q-Stage - Set A - 20% Theatre - Gender Outside The Box - 4.5 stars


The first set (Set A) in 20% Theatre Company’s latest edition of Q-Stage tackles gender identity through comedy and dance, both quite successfully.  Up first in the double feature is The Smitty Complex, an absurdist comedy from writer/creator Devin Taylor, co-directed by Taylor and Bri Collins.


“Occupation?”
“I’m an otter.”


Their synopsis is kind of perfect so I’m not going to mess with it:

"Smitty (Courtney Stirn) is an otter looking for an answer to the question: "what am I?" He finds himself in the office of Dr. Handler (Beth Mikel Ellsworth) - an "expert" determined to resolve Smitty's confusion and help him conform to a proper narrative of otterness. What follows is a surreal look at how the politics of medicine and social welfare interact with the politics of fear, identity, and self-determination. It's mostly a story about an otter."

I’ll add that Ellsworth also plays the strident and unforgiving receptionist, a gatekeeper Smitty must engage on the way to Dr. Handler.  There is also a fellow named Butler (Graeme Monahan-Rial) who serves as Dr. Handler’s… well, butler.  He also doubles as the pharmacist at the clinic, ready and willing to help medicate someone into conformity with accepted norms.  Also working at the clinic is a window washer (Logan Gilbert-Guy) who is supposed to be one of Dr. Handler’s success stories, but doesn’t seem particularly happy.

“He’s an artist, and a duck.”

Smitty certainly looks like an otter but his tests came back with two results, one for otter and one for fox, even though his father is a duck. It’s confusing everyone, including Smitty. How is one supposed to check the right box on all the forms? But the longer Smitty spends navigating the system, the more he starts to question its correctness for him.  The system doesn’t seem so much malevolent as it is absurd and incompetent.  So it might be better for Smitty to find his own way without so much well-meaning “help.”

“Whose paw do you hold to keep from floating away?”

The script is delightfully odd, and all the performers embrace the absurdity of the world in which they’re living. An audience favorite was a bird on a stick that kept thumping up against the window to Dr. Handler’s office, something Dr. Handler was convinced was done to torment them (I’m laughing just thinking about it).  Every now and again I had a feeling maybe a scene was going on a bit long, that we stopped getting new information and a character was just repeating themselves or the same strategy.  It may also have been that I just didn’t like seeing poor Smitty suffer any longer than he needed to, and it’s a new work in development, so they may tighten it up as it grows. 

“I could have been an octopus.”

That said, The Smitty Complex is enormously enjoyable and absolutely worth seeing.  The audience the night I saw it were muttering under their breath, almost talking back to the characters onstage, and leapt to their feet for a standing ovation when it was done.

“What a curious way to hold a plate.”

The second half of the set is a new movement and dance piece created and performed by Nadia Honary, directed by Shalee Coleman, called These Floating Bones.  Honary also shot and edited the video projected on the screen behind her during the performance and it’s a very evocative mix of images, largely of the elements - water, fire, air and earth.  Also a meditation on the fluid nature of identity like the play which precedes it, These Floating Bones breaks down into three parts.

“See how the unknown merges into the known.”

In the first part, Honary is hidden beneath a white satin sheet, beginning curled up on the floor, eventually rising to full height. Though moving gracefully in the space with the sheet billowing around her, her head and face always remain under the sheet.  At times the imprint of her face strains against the sheet but doesn’t emerge.  When Honary’s head comes out from under the sheet, it is revealed her face is still under a white featureless mask.  Dancing with and without the sheet continues in the second part with the masked face, but the dancer’s head is never again obscured by the sheet.  For the final part, the mask is removed and Honary’s human face is at last shared with the audience.  In each sequence, familiar moves and patterns recur, looking different because the body and sheet are partnering in different ways. Actual water and paint, for both body and mask, join the elements in this final part of the dance. 

“Look at water and fire, earth and wind, enemies and friends all at once.”

Honary is so in control of the white satin sheet that it’s almost like a human dance partner, responding to her moves.  These Floating Bones is a fascinating piece to watch.  The poem by Rumi which Honary recites once her human face is revealed (“Look At Love”) traffics in the idea of opposites being fluid, flowing into and joining one another.  The movement, video, words and light all combine for an experience that’s hard to put into words but nonetheless feels like it has weight and meaning.

“My beloved grows right out of my own heart, how much more union can there be?”

Set A for Q-Stage this year is a good example of what you can do onstage with both words and motion - and a large otter tail. (I was tempted to make a joke in the headline like, “You otter go see it” but - well, I went ahead and did it anyway, didn’t I?)

Set A of Q-Stage from 20% Theatre Company plays again May 6 at 7:30pm and May 7 at 2pm at Intermedia Arts.

Set B of Q-Stage will take place on May 12 and 13 at 7:30pm, and May 14 at 2pm, also at Intermedia

If you’re looking for brand new queer works of art fresh out of the artists’ brains, Q-Stage is your ticket.

4.5 stars -  Very Highly Recommended

(Otter - Devin Taylor: Q-Stage by Kristi Peterson; Nadia Honary: Q-Stage by Nadia Honary)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review - Prometheus Bound - Uprising Theatre - A Fresh Take On An Ancient Struggle - 4.5 stars


It’s a challenge to make Greek tragedy feel current, but Uprising Theatre Company has cracked the code with their current production of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Of course, it helps to have an adaptation with a modern feel to it, here provided by translator Bryan Doerries, excerpted from his book All That You’ve Seen Here Is God: New Versions of Four Greek Tragedies.  It also helps to have a director with a modern vision of the story, and director Denzel Belin really delivers on that score. Uprising Theatre has also yoked the production to discussions and partnerships with local organizations dealing with the prison population, and the quest for criminal justice reform - particularly addressing the all too common use of solitary confinement as punishment. I thought any or all of these 21st century approaches might feel like a stretch, but surprisingly they all pay off.

“These things were all decided long ago.  I saw them coming around the bend.”

This is probably because story of Prometheus has always been one of a person doing the right thing even though it flies in the face of the current world order and those in power.  Doerries’ adaptation doesn’t change any of the names or relationships involved in the mythology, but stories of power and its misuse continue to resonate across the centuries.  Pick a leader, any current leader, with whom you have disagreements, and discussions of the god Zeus here sound awfully familiar.  The script doesn’t throw around the name Zeus so much as it does terms like leader, ruler, father, etc., so tying the play’s struggles to the present day isn’t hard to do.

“The words of an angry father must always be respected.”

Prometheus (Shahd Elkhier) has defied the rules of her fellow gods and given the secret of fire to humankind.  This will make humans a little harder for the gods to manage, and to say Zeus - leader of the gods - is displeased by this would be an understatement.  (I just have to stop for a second and applaud the brilliant choice to give the role of Prometheus to a woman of color. Having your hero constantly referred to with the pronoun “she” is very refreshing.  Elkhier is great in the title role and defiantly holds the show together, in the face of all her characters’ many tormentors. The cast as a whole is largely female with a number of actors of color and that, too, is a nice change of pace from the standard “theater for white guys” that classical plays often become.  This ensemble does fine work with both the physical and text aspects of the production.)

“At last we’ve reached the ends of the earth.”

Prometheus is taken to the ends of the earth by Kratos (Missy Watson) and Bia (Yvonne Freese), who task Hephaetus (Janay D. Henry) with chaining up, shackling, and driving spikes into Prometheus’ body so she is unable to escape (no stage blood, just convincing physical work by the actors, the squeamish like me in the audience can relax. The torment is no less real, however).  Prometheus is not completely alone, though, as a pair of sympathetic chorus members (Fernanda Badeo and Kendra Yarke) keep her company.  There are also visitors - Oceanus (Damon C Mentzer), Io (Emily Rose Duea), and Hermes (Ronald R Giroux) - who each in their own way plead with, cajole or threaten Prometheus to try and get her back in line, perhaps to even help lighten her prison sentence.  But Prometheus remains resolute, unshakeable in the feeling that she has made the right decision.

“Be careful who you groan for or you may end up groaning yourself.”

Director Belin’s choice for the look of the show mixes modern clothes in blacks, whites and beiges with eye masks that give a nod to Ancient Greek theater without obscuring too much of the actors’ faces.  The decision to open the production with an extended sequence of movement which is symbolic rather than literal, with its own visual refrains, helps lay the foundation for later physical work which will allow the actors to not be constrained by the imprisonment of the title character.  The simplicity and starkness of the setting - black boxes, coat racks - makes things like the white chains which bind the hero or abrupt lighting shifts to deep red really stand out. It also allows the actors and their story to hold the audience’s full attention without distraction.  Less here really is more.  (It would be easy for any of this, taken too far, to slip into parody, but the whole team works hard to keep the story grounded.)

“It is painful to speak, but also to remain silent.  Either way, I lose.”

In fact, the only place this high contrast shifting in both performance and visuals doesn’t quite work is the very end. There have been so many declarations and so many abrupt shifts in the light that when the final line hits and the lights go dark for the last time, it’s not entirely clear the show is over until the actors shuffle into place for curtain call.  The production only clocks in at about 70 minutes.  It could afford to take just a tiny bit more time with that final image so the audience is clear that this is the last exclamation point.  Really give Prometheus’ last words to us a moment to sink in before you yank us back to reality.  As I said before, up until that point the strategy of sudden shifts works.  The end just needs something a little different to set it apart.

“My heart rattles inside its tiny cage.”

The other useful thing about a short production is Uprising Theatre can directly engage its audience after the show in addressing the issues with which the production intersects.  Uprising company members talk to the audience immediately before and after the show to make them aware of the community partner organizations associated with the production.  The organizations all have tables in the lobby, and actual action items audience members can commit to that evening.  There are also audience discussions following each performance, addressing not the process of putting on the show, but rather the themes and subject matter that bubble up from it.  (Sadly, I needed to head out and get started on the review, so I missed the discussion this time around.  But even I could stop by the tables in the lobby, buy a couple of books, and then drop them off with the folks working for the Women’s Prison Book Project elsewhere in the lobby - you can also feel free to bring a book with you to donate, more details at www.wpbp.org.) Uprising’s other community partners for this production are the Minnesota Freedom Fund (a Minnesota community bail fund - www.facebook.com/mnfreedomfund/), and Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing For Change (www.mnnoc.org).  (Don’t worry, nobody strong-arms you here.  You’re free to do as much or as little as you want, no guilt trips.  But if you’re itching to take action, they’ll make it easy for you to do so.)

“You think your house is built from unbreakable boards.”

Uprising Theatre Company’s motto is “Stories To Change The World.”  A tall order, but they seem determined to make theater an active, relevant thing.  I can get behind that.  Productions like Prometheus Bound make it easy to see how they might do it. (I’m looking forward to whatever Uprising has on tap next, and getting a chance to stay for the discussion this time. And, honestly, how often do you find yourself thinking that about a post-show talkback?) (runs through April 29, 2017 at the Phoenix Theater)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of Uprising Theatre Company - the ensemble of Prometheus Bound)