Sunday, April 22, 2018

Review - Twisted Deaths - Uprising Theatre - So, A Trans Man Gets Ovarian Cancer… - 5 stars


The thing that excites me most about Uprising Theatre Company is they’re telling stories I’ve never heard before.  Artistic Director Shannon TL Kearns is also a prolific playwright (Uprising just staged another new play of his, The Resistance of My Skin, earlier this year).  His work is a compelling window into the experience of trans people as part of the larger fabric of our society. 

“The least they could do is give the dying decent coffee.  It’s like they’re trying to kill us faster.”

In Uprising’s current production of Kearns’ new play Twisted Deaths, directed by Ashley Hovell, we find characters both trans and cisgendered, queer and straight, grappling with the failings of the health care system serving trans people in general, and in assisting patients of all stripes with end of life care, and what it means to truly live with a terminal diagnosis.  All of that sounds like a laugh riot, I know, but despite its weighty subject matter (and title) Twisted Deaths has a lot of very welcome humor throughout, and not all of it gallows humor either.  It’s a play everyone should see.  It’ll make you feel more alive, and more appreciative for your life and the people in it.

“There is no cure for this.  You’ll die.  It’s just a matter of when.”

Ryan (Anthony Neuman) and Melissa (Jamila Joiner) are only a couple of years into their married life together, and starting to plan for children, when Ryan gets an unexpected and unwelcome diagnosis.  Ryan, a trans man, has developed ovarian cancer.  (I have to admit, the situation had never occurred to me as a hazard before, but of course if you still have the body parts, cancer can still lay claim to them.) 

“Suddenly they’re looking at you differently.  They’re searching for your history, in your hands, or your face, or your hips.”

The prognosis is unfortunately terminal.  There is treatment which could possibly extend life, but there is no cure.  And the additional months gained might be spent in a lot of pain.  Melissa is naturally reluctant to give up the idea of any additional time together.  But Ryan wants to live, and die, on his own terms and so is resisting treatment - or sharing their news with any friends that could help.  The only exception to this is their mutual friend Jason (Jeff A. Miller), another trans man who runs a trans support group - something else Ryan in which resists participating.  Ryan wants to live as a man, not being reminded of his difference (or his new illness).

“You’d rather hang out with an old lady who talks about God than go to trans group?”

Of course, it was the healthcare system’s issues with Ryan’s trans status that complicated his health in the first place.  There is a shortage of doctors trained to deal with trans health issues.  Faced with either distant treatment centers or a local unsympathetic doctor, Ryan let symptoms go untreated, which allowed the cancer to spread.  The insurance company’s binary gender choices on standard forms add still more complications to the process.

“I’m dying.  I get to decide.  You both stay.”
“I’m dying, too.”
“Not as fast as I am.”


Finally convinced to try a cancer support group, Ryan finds a kindred spirit in Pam (Holly Windle), a widow battling liver cancer.  Neither Ryan nor Pam have any patience for the complaining in the rest of the group, so they take to meeting on their own for coffee.  Pam is struggling with treatment on her own since she and her adult daughter are estranged.  Pam’s reliance on her religious faith is tested both by Ryan’s indifference, and the fact that the hospital chaplain is unexpectedly a woman - Heather (Kendra Alaura).  Heather has issues of her own, given that she’s married to a doctor on staff at the hospital - Jen (Julia Alvarez) - but they have to keep their relationship a secret, for fear of undermining Heather’s career in the church.

“I built this body even when everyone told me not to.”

If you’re thinking, “That’s a heck of a lot to cram into one play” (even a two-act play), you’d be right.  But Kearns does it.  The play is not just funny and human, but also remarkably smart about the way people deal with potentially thorny issues in their relationships with one another, and in battling outside forces and systems seemingly beyond their control.  Because both medicine and religion are represented onstage by people in those professions, they aren’t easily dismissed as one-dimensional villains.  In addition, both Ryan and Jason represent very different sides of the trans experience. Nothing here is simple, but it’s that very complexity that makes the story, and all the characters in it, so compelling to watch.

“People are different than pets.”
“Yes.  People can tell us exactly what they want.”


So many plays are about small things, it’s great to see a play about so many big things, bringing them down to a human level and characters you care about - so you’re feeling as well as thinking.  It’s the best kind of theater.  The design of the production is fairly simple - basic, black-painted furniture pieces and floating window frames against reflective curtains, housed inside a world of evocative sound and light created by Jake Otto.  This puts the emphasis squarely on the people and the words, which serves the play well.  All the performers do a great job.  It’s a wonderful ensemble of actors digging into a meaty script guided by a skilled director.

“Second puberty was no joke.”

The thing about Twisted Deaths that I appreciate the most is that it doesn’t dumb anything down or sand off the rough edges of a situation to make the audience feel better.  Twisted Deaths gives the audience the courtesy of telling it the truth.  Sometimes medicine can’t save you, but you can find a way to save yourself, even if it means embracing death rather than fighting it.  Sometimes you’ve done too much damage to those you love, and they don’t come back, even if you’re dying.  Twisted Deaths is real life, rather than a soap opera version of real life.  That said, I did sometimes wonder what everyone other than the minister and the doctor did for a living, where their money and resources were coming from, since they weren’t exactly dealing with minor expenses or scheduling issues.

“You don’t get to Lone Ranger this one.”

My only other quibble with Twisted Deaths is that it feels like it ends three times in the last ten minutes or so.  That’s not surprising.  It has a lot of points it wants to make.  And that final ending is the most satisfying.  But in the script’s next incarnation, it might want to try connecting the three endings, so it’s not two false starts and a finale, but one point leading into the next.  So much of the play is staged, and so many of the scenes written, to just flow one into another, that this final bit of unexpected choppiness had me - and I think the rest of the audience as well - hesitant to clap until we were absolutely sure it was really and truly over (which has got to be a little unsettling for the actors waiting for a response).

“Illegal doesn’t always mean wrong.”

In addition to the play, Uprising Theatre Company also partners up on each production with community organizations working in the real world on the issues found in the play.  This time around it’s Open Arms Minnesota (www.openarmsmn.org), Compassion and Choices (www.compassionandchoices.org), and Family Tree Clinic (www.familytree.org).  They all have tables in the theater lobby with information and simple, actionable items which audience members can undertake for a good cause.  So be sure to check in with them before and after the show, as well as at intermission.

“You’re gonna regret saying that when I’m dead.”
“Dude!”
“Too soon?”
“Way too soon.”


Though I’m sure the story of Twisted Deaths sounds like a lot to sit through, I can assure you it’s neither overwhelming nor incredibly depressing.  Instead, Twisted Deaths is a powerful (and often funny) affirmation of life, and the peace that comes from making sometimes hard decisions about the way you live the life you’re given.  (runs through April 28, 2018 at the Phoenix Theater)

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Twisted Death poster art, courtesy of Uprising Theatre Company)


Review - My Barking Dog - Market Garden Theatre - A Coyote Takes Over Two People’s Lives, and Then A City - 5 stars


The “why” of a play can often elude me.  There are thousands of plays out there - old and new, from any number of countries or periods of history.  Why a theater company chooses to do a particular play right now, that can be a useful thing to know.  Sometimes it’s obvious.  Sometimes it’s a complete mystery.  Sometimes, you have to think for a minute. 

“Maybe this disemboweled squirrel is your engagement ring.”

With Market Garden Theatre’s production of Eric Coble’s play My Barking Dog, it took me a minute.  Because I had to remember, “Oh, right.  We haven’t always lived like this.  It won’t always be like this.”  We used to live in a country where serious people were trying to address large, systemic problems like criminal justice reform, and climate change, and voter suppression, and community policing.  Now every day we either start off with the thought, “what crazy, corrupt thing did they do overnight while I was asleep?” or “you know, just wake me again when this nonsense is over.”  Because the world doesn’t revolve around Washington, DC.  It keeps moving and changing whether we’re keeping an eye on it or not, whether we’re doing anything about it or not.  So the intriguing issues at the heart of the play My Barking Dog will still need addressing, when the current political storms have passed.  My Barking Dog is actually a great reminder that there’s a wider world out there, if we’re paying attention.

“I don’t even know what I’m saying.  I don’t speak coyote.”

Eric Coble’s 90-minute play starts off as two dueling monologues.  The characters actually don’t speak to each other and share a scene until 30 minutes in.  After that, they still have their moments alone, but My Barking Dog then becomes a shared story.  The whole thing wouldn’t work nearly as well if director Lucas Skjaret hadn’t chosen the two actors he did to tell the story.  Victoria Pyan portrays Melinda, who works for a printing company, loading the paper into the machines, more than happy to take night shifts and holidays and have the factory all to herself.  Mike Swan portrays Toby, who is currently unemployed and searching for work - except it’s the “white privilege” version of unemployed where he still has the resources somehow to continue to rent an apartment and feed himself while he hijacks his neighbors’ wi-fi signals for internet access.  Just as I’m starting to wonder how much longer I’m going to remain interested in these isolated people, no matter how clever the script or compelling the performances, a coyote appears.

“The Wild Needs A Home, Too.”

We never see the coyote, but the unseen animal is always clearly visible to the human characters on stage.  They follow it with their eyes.  They communicate with it.  They leave food out for it.  Then things get weird.  Seriously weird.  Spoiler alert weird, so I won’t go into too much detail except to say that the coyote brings Melinda and Toby together (no, not that way) and gives them each a new mission in life.  Neither of these missions are expected - or even in the mainstream of human thought.  In fact, they’re both in their own way kind of nuts, and yet they’re also both interesting as hell to watch unfold.  Essentially, My Barking Dog is asking the question, are the coyotes, and nature in general, encroaching on human cities - or are humans the interlopers, and the animals are just taking back what’s theirs?  If it’s the latter, how much should humans be fighting the animals?  And should they instead be helping them?

“Nothing prepares the earth for new life like a layer of ash.”

My Barking Dog is a surprisingly simple production.  It’s just the two actors, and for Leazah Behrens’ scene design, a couple of silver chairs, and a painting of a cityscape on the wall of the space.  Lighting designer Jacob Lee Hofer does some of the heavy lifting of defining areas and setting time and place.  There are no props to speak of, just a lot of convincing miming of items and tasks.  That puts the focus on things like costumes, as layers start to come off, and the use of colored chalk on the floor in the final thirty minutes.  The blue chalk lines not only cover the floor, and scrawl graffiti across the cityscape, the chalk dust quickly starts to cover the clothing and skin of the characters.  The production is in the studio space at the Crane Theater which, six months on, still has a lot of the same sound bleed problems it did back when I saw Sing To Me Now last fall.  Their opening weekend has competition from another show across the hall on the main stage; the next week, they have the theater to themselves.  Until then, it’s hard to really hear and appreciate the full sound design created by Kassia Lisinski.  What I could hear was helpful to the story.

“It might not all be accurate but it’s all true.”

Market Garden Theatre is doing a bit of public service with My Barking Dog.  As surreal as the story is, they manage to tell the story in a way that gets the audience to plug back into the concerns of what the world was once like, and fortunes willing, will be again.  Wonder what it’s like surrendering to or collaborating with nature?  My Barking Dog will have you thinking about it in ways you never expected.  (plays through April 29, 2018)

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Victoria Pyan and Mike Swan in My Barking Dog, photo courtesy of Market Garden Theatre)

Friday, March 23, 2018

Review - Year of Bad Men - Life-Sized Meme - Femme Noir - 4.5 stars


If you haven’t seen a play written by Patrick Coyle (and since he’s been doing most of his writing work in independent film in recent years - Detective Fiction, Into Temptation, and Public Domain - his plays have been harder to find), the new theater company Life-Sized Meme has a treat for you.  Coyle’s latest play, Year of Bad Men, described as a femme noir, is playing this weekend at the Phoenix Theater.  I’ll be honest, Patrick Coyle is a friend of mine, and I’ve been a fan of his work as both a writer and an actor for a long time, so consider the source.  But there’s a reason I’m such a fan - the work is great.  And that talent is on full display in Year of Bad Men

“You owe me a life.”

Life-Sized Meme put out a call for scripts and got over 300 of them from quite literally all over the world.  The reason they chose Coyle’s play isn’t because he’s local, it’s because the play’s so good.  And Life-Sized Meme has put the play front and center in the production.  I know that sounds like a weird thing to say (don’t all productions put the script front and center?) - but sometimes a theater company will get so involved in its vision for the production that the play can get lost.  Not so here.  Director Stephanie Alexander and her delightful team of actors really dig into Coyle’s script and enjoy themselves.  The plot is twisty and funny and deeply weird, but it’s not just a jigsaw puzzle.  There are human beings bumping into one another here that have major issues and conflicted emotions that make the ideas of justice and escape and forgiveness and revenge seem very dangerous.  Year of Bad Men is the kind of play where it’s fun just to strap in and hang on for the ride.

“You’re not wanted by the law, are you?”
“I’m a middle school history teacher.”


That ride centers on Tommy Gallagher (Adam Harfield) and the two women who suddenly appear in his life with very different agendas - Mary Sullivan (Stephanie Coffield) and Kim Porter (Haley Hubbard).  Mary is a middle school history teacher with a doozy of a secret who sublets an apartment from touring musician Jason Grant (William Bridger Adkison), right across the street from Tommy so she can watch him, and he can see her as well.  Mary’s aggressive (and successful) campaign to pull Tommy into a torrid physical relationship gets him to set his moving plans aside and stay put for a while.  Which is handy for Kim, because she’s also trying to track Tommy down - turns out he’s her biological father.  Kim enlists the aid of a friendly gay barista named Henry Shier (Adri Mehra), who gives her a couch to sleep on, and tips on how to also land a job at the coffee shop working for Bobby Clayton (Al Fiene).  All the activity in her buildings makes manager Samantha Rose (Ellen Apel) curious enough to call in her private investigator friend Shelly Wasserman (Heidi Ricks) to learn more about Tommy and Mary.  This results in one of the more hilarious info dumps of exposition in recent memory at the top of act two.

“Do you believe people can change?”
“I haven’t seen much evidence of that in my life.”


The danger of these kind of plot-twist-heavy sorts of stories, full of secrets and lies, is that the plot can sometimes overwhelm the characters.  Thanks to the script, a great group of actors, and sure-handed direction, Year of Bad Men manages to avoid this pitfall nearly all the time.   They also all manage the tricky balancing act of keeping the sense of dread alive at the same time hanging out with these characters is also a lot of fun.  And the story isn’t satisfied with just serving up surprises at the end - it wants you to feel for the characters as well.

“The next day I cleaned my car, and forgot about her.”

That said, the character of Kim can get a little lost in the weeds sometimes - this seems to be a script rather than an acting issue.  While I appreciate the inclusion of the gay character of Henry, his boyfriend is conveniently off stage and out of the country, so it’s the heterosexuals that get all the sex, and the headaches that come with it.  Much of the time Henry and coffee shop owner Bobby serve a lot of the same functions in Kim’s story, so I wonder about the necessity for both of them.  One or the other, but not both, might give Kim’s character a little more room to breathe.  And a lot of Kim’s subterfuge seems disconnected from her mission, unlike Mary’s.  Again, less stuff layered on top of Kim’s story might have given the emotional center of her mission more space to take on the weight it deserves.

“I will never ever lie to you, on one condition.  You never ask me any questions.”

Also, as a new company that clearly values new plays and living (even local) writers, just a tip for Life-Sized Meme: the playwright gets listed before the director.  Take a look at the websites and programs of nearly any theater in town - large or small.  Playwrights - female or male, living or dead - get listed after the title, then the director.  Because, as Life-Sized Meme knows, without a writer, you don’t have a script (unless it’s a company-created work, and that’s a whole other can of worms).  It’s both a little thing, and not a little thing.  (Also, inviting the writer to a couple of rehearsals, particularly at the beginning, can help in unexpected ways - like getting that marijuana/potpourri joke to land better and sound deliberate rather than like a mispronunciation.)

“I used to work for the carnival.”
“Really?”
“No.”


Shout-out to the lighting designer Mary “Poff” Southern and sound designer Taylor Jedlinski, who along with the tireless and speedy work from the stage management/run crew team of Jason Paul Gaarder, Matthew Pitts, and Kya Fischer, keep the action moving smoothly among the play’s many locations (which is no small miracle).  The light through Mary’s window is particularly evocative, and director Alexander’s staging makes what could possibly be a confusing set-up physically instead very easy to follow and understand.  (The magic of theater.)

“You’re very kind.”
“Not usually.”


Year of Bad Men is an entertaining play done very, very well.  I’m already looking forward to more from Patrick Coyle, and Life-Sized Meme.  Catch this one while you can, one weekend only.  Final three performances are tonight, Friday, March 23 at 7:30pm, and two shows on Saturday, March 24th, 2:30pm and 7:30pm, at the Phoenix Theater.  (Oh, and if you walk in a little late and there’s some Bollywood-inspired improv comedy going on, don’t worry, you’re in the right place.  Life-Sized Meme called in Bollyprov to be an opening act.)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best Theater I Saw in 2017: For What It’s Worth


Top 10 lists are, in one sense, ridiculous.  Particularly when it comes to theater in the Twin Cities.  There’s just too darn much of it for anyone to see everything, or even a fully representative slice of everything.  But it does get you to sit down and think.  Honestly, going back over all the reviews and records of other things I’d seen in 2017, I kept having the thought, “Wait, that was this year?  That seems like SO long ago now.”  2017 felt like a LONG year for so many reasons, good and ill.  But yet again, it was a really good year for theater - at least the theater I managed to see.  There’s a lot of great new plays and new writers out there, alongside the more established scripts old and new that are making the rounds.  Not counting the Minnesota Fringe Festival, I saw 87 performances in 2017. 

Four of those were things I wrote for, so we’ll set those aside (of course I enjoyed them, and of course I didn’t review them).  For the curious, they were short scripts for the Create A Play On The Bus element of the Vehicle of Expression, part of the Art Shanty Projects, alongside scripts from Charles Campbell, Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney; also one of the competing monologues for Little Lifeboats’ Monologue Madness event; my play This Isn’t A Horror Story was tapped to be part of the William Inge Theater Festival; and a scene from my play TV Boyfriend got the Off Book treatment at HUGE improv theater.

Another 13 of those performances were play readings I saw as part of the William Inge Theater Festival down in Independence, Kansas (including a staged reading of a fantastic Lauren Gunderson play called Ada And The Engine).  Another 16 of those I saw but didn’t review for a variety of reasons - most of them were performances at the Guthrie Theater as part of my second part-time day job in their box office (if I reviewed those, I’d either look like a suck-up or like I was biting the hand the helped feed me). 

So of the remaining 54 I actually did review, the quality came in very much on the positive side.  45 of them ranked at 4 out of 5 stars or higher, only 9 were 3.5 stars or lower.  If I’m holding myself to just ten to highlight, these are the ones that shake out at the top:

1. Sing To Me Now - Little Lifeboats - an amazing new play I wish more people saw (review)
2. The Assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand - Sheep Theater - thinking about this new play still kind of blows my mind; I hope to hell they revive it soon (review)
3. Citizen: An American Lyric - Frank Theatre - wonderful, heartbreaking and inspiring (review)
4. 365 Days/365 Plays: A 2017 Remix - Full Circle Theater - a stunning debut for a new company (review)
5. The Nether - Jungle Theater - mind-boggling, creepy and deeply moving (review)
6. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. - Frank Theatre - subversive, hilarious, liberating - if after 29 years, you don’t have Frank Theatre on your schedule, you’re really missing something (review)
7. The Good Boy and The Kid - Sheep Theater - a new play about professional wrestling has no business being this good, and yet it is - Sheep Theater may be new, but they’re a group you should be following (review)
8. The Baltimore Waltz - Theatre Coup d’Etat - a play that has become surprisingly timeless (review)
9. Fool For Love - Dark and Stormy Productions - another modern classic granted new life with an intimate staging (review)
10. The Whipping Man - Minnesota Jewish Theatre - a fairly recent play with an old-school feel to it (review)

I also should give a shout-out to two Guthrie Theater productions, The Bluest Eye, and Watch On The Rhine, which used the theater’s ample resources to stage two vivid and compelling stories.  Also, the following other productions didn’t make the top 10 list above, but they were the only other shows to rank five stars from me this year - alphabetically by title, they are: The Abominables (Children’s Theatre Company), Anna In The Tropics (Jungle Theater), Hamlet (Park Square Theatre), Little Wars (Prime Productions), Lone Star Spirits (Jungle Theater), and Momentum: New Dance Works Festival, part 1

And an honorable mention to the Jungle Theater’s Fly By Night which, though it had elements that bugged me, did have the added bonus of introducing me to the music of Chris Koza and Rogue Valley (with which I am currently obsessed), and thus also a peek into the world of live music in the Twin Cities (I’ve seen the man play since at the Icehouse, the Turf Club, the North Garden Theater, the Cedar Cultural Center, and because we happened to be on the east coast at the same time, the Ram’s Head Tavern down in Annapolis.)

In addition to the theaters listed above, there  are number of others who crossed my path this year and provided a lot of entertainment and food for thought, so thanks, too, to Bucket Brigade, Chameleon Theatre Circle, Classical Actors Ensemble, Fortune’s Fool Productions, Gadfly Theatre Productions, Girl Friday Productions, Green T Productions, HUGE improv theater, Illusion Theater, Matchbox Theater, Mission Theatre Company, Mosaic Productions, Nimbus Theatre, 9x22, Sandbox Theatre, Savage Umbrella, 7th House Theater, Swandive Theatre, Theatre Pro Rata, Theatre Unbound, Trademark Theater, Transatlantic Love Affair, 20% Theatre Company, Uprising Theatre, Walking Shadow, W.A.R. Theater, Wayward Theatre Company, and Youth Performance Company.  (Phew!)

At the Minnesota Fringe Festival, I saw 56 performances (two of the shows I saw more than once, so it ended up being 53 different productions.)  It was another really good year for Fringe as well.  When the dust settled, 22 of the 53 shows I saw ranked five stars.  14 nabbed 4.5 stars, and another seven got 4 stars.  Only 10 of the shows ranked 3.5 stars or less in my opinion.  Here’s the ten of the five star shows that ranked highest for me:

1. Out of the Shadows - unconventional dance show I saw three times, so… (review)
2. Odd Man Out - a perfect Fringe condensation of a powerful new play (review)
3. Boombox - a last minute entry that deservedly took the festival by storm (review)
4. The Wright Stuff, or You’ll Believe They Can Fly - Carson/Kraft and their comedy co-conspirators hit another home run (review)
5. Spec - Ben San Del enters the world of speculative fiction with a bang (review)
6. Blackout Improv - a Fringe version of their wildly popular monthly show (review)
7. Not Quite: Asian American by Law, Asian Woman by Desire - compelling one-woman show about what it means to be an alien as well as a citizen (review)
8.  A Resister's Handbook (for holding onto optimism in shitty times) - just like the title says, and just what we need (review)
9. It's About Love Again This Year - enchanting, whimsical dance ensemble piece that sticks with you long after it’s done (review)
10. A Pickle - perfect combo of playwright (Deborah Yarchun), actress (Angela Timberman) and story (the Pickle Lady who took on the Minnesota State Fair on behalf of kosher pickles) (review)

The other five star shows that nearly made the top ten list are (alphabetically): Banana Wars, Dungeon, Fool's Paradise, Fruit Flies Like A Banana: World Tour, Good Kids, The Memory Box of the Sisters Fox, The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society, Sevlin and Devlin Presents: Seven Evans In Heaven, Skirmish of Wit: Your Imaginary Forces, Spy In The House of Men: A One-Woman Show With Balls, Stranger-er Things: Netflix and KILL, and Themselves They Made Immaculate: Clara Barton at Andersonville.  (The other show I saw more than once: Atlas Dynamo’s Burnt Offerings - because I sat in with my guitar and played a song with them on the second showing.)

A lot to be thankful for in the year just past, and a lot of strong companies old and new doing great work, so there’s also much to look forward to in the year ahead.  And I’m sure the random chance of the Fringe lottery will serve up another combo of veterans and unknowns to dazzle us as well.  Happy 2018, everyone!

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Review - ben and trish - W.A.R. Theater - 4 stars - A Guy and His Sister’s Ghost (Maybe)


W.A.R. Theater has had shows in the Minnesota Fringe Festival the past two years and I’ve managed to miss them both, although I do remember being curious about them.  (2016, it was Letters; 2017, it was The Heartless, or De Hjertelose, which ended up nabbing the encore slot for an extra performance in its venue.)  So, when someone from the company reached out to see if I wanted to come see their latest production, outside the Fringe, I figured I’d give the group a try.  W.A.R. Theater’s current production is another original play, by the company’s artistic director Michael Johnson, called ben and trish. (yes, the lower case is deliberate, and the period is part of the title.)

“Like a song I knew before I was born.”

Ben (Jeff Groff) is a young man who’s having a rough time of it.  His thoughts turn to his younger sister Trish (Amber Morgan), mixing together moments from their childhood together, as well as their young adulthood.  The play and the production seem to indicate that Trish committed suicide by taking a lot of pills.  Ben’s mental quest seems to be trying to determine what drove Trish to take her life, and how exactly Ben failed her and wasn’t there in her hour of greatest need.

“The tree, the lights, the empty beer cans we left for Santa…”

Director Steve Soler gets strong performances out of both of the actors here.  Despite the dark framework of the story, there’s a lot of lightness and humor scattered among the more serious material.  Groff and Morgan are great at embodying the children Ben and Trish used to be, and equally good at shifting back and forth between child and adult on a moment’s notice.  There isn’t a set to speak of in the Springhouse Ministries’ sanctuary.  The actors are clad in black.  The lighting by Sami Dee is very simple but effective (with a lot more levels of light and shadow than I expected were possible in this space).  A lot of it comes down to just the two actors and the script creating the world, which they do quite impressively.  There is also the regular presence of live music, composed and performed by Zachary Briscoe on percussion, and Elliott Heerman on guitar.  The music is also cleverly used to provide a smattering of sound effects throughout the story.

“My classes are good, my roommate doesn’t sleep with my girlfriend, so - yay!”

The trick here is that there’s an abrupt and unexpected turn in the story about three-quarters of the way through the run time, which I won’t spoil here.  But it has the effect of throwing the whole play up to that point, as well as after that point, into question.  And I’m not entirely sure why the storytellers thought it was necessary.  It doesn’t seem like a great strategy to undercut all the good work of world and character building, not to mention audience connection, you’ve done up to this point, just for the sake of saying “Ha ha!  Twist!  Bet you didn’t see that coming!”  No, I didn’t.  But I’m not sure what you just gained by doing that.  Because now you have not one but two unreliable narrators, and I’m not inclined to believe anything they say, good or bad.  So how do you get to any kind of a satisfying ending at that point, light or dark?

“Is God in the thunder?  Is God in the rain?”

Then there’s the whole “manic pixie dream girl” problem.  Not that Trish is in any way meant to be an incestuous love interest for her brother.  But Trish serves a lot of the same functions as a manic pixie dream girl.  She really exists only in her brother’s imagination and memories of her.  She is not a fully autonomous character with her own needs, wants and agenda.  She exists to serve Ben.  She exists to set his mind at ease, let him off the hook for her death, and get him to embrace living his life again.  Which is all very well and good, but a little self-serving for both Ben and the playwright.  As compelling as Morgan is to watch in the role of Trish, she’s kind of been written into a corner, even before the twist but even more so after it.  The whole thing leans pretty hard on the idea of the audience never questioning white male privilege. Ben's problems are the real problems.  His suffering is the suffering that really counts.  His redemption is meant to be the play’s happy ending.  Given everything we learn about Ben, does the guy even deserve redemption?  I’m not saying a play can't still exist and be satisfying in that territory, but I think it should probably be a little more aware of how and why it’s doing it.  I’m not sure the production of ben and trish. is.

“The difference between who I am and who I could be is unbearable.”

ben and trish. might want to be a tribute and reclaiming by a brother of the memory of his sister, but right now it’s not quite doing it.  Mostly because we end up not being sure what’s real and what isn’t.  In its current form, the story doesn’t really need to be ninety minutes, because at about the one hour mark, the transition back and forth from child to young adult starts to lose some of its punch.  We’re not getting any new information at this point that helps us deepen our understanding of either of the characters or their relationship to one another.  The tactic itself also isn’t showing much in the way of variation.  And while innocence lost as a subject packs a lot of punch, we see a lot of their innocence, but not a lot of specifics about how exactly they lost it.  More of the latter would make better use of the extra running time.

“Is that you?  Let’s begin.”

All that said, ben and trish. is a well-executed production with two very intriguing performances that create an entire world with very little raw material other than words and the actors' own bodies.  It’s theater boiled down to its essential component parts, and when it’s this well done, that’s always worth watching.  Also, strangely enough, Christmas figures prominently in the narrative and thus this is technically an offbeat sort of holiday show.  So if, like me, you hadn’t given W.A.R. Theater a try yet, ben and trish. seems like a good introduction. (running through December 9, 2017 at Springhouse Ministries)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of W.A.R. Theater; Amber Morgan as Trish and Jeff Groff as Ben in ben and trish.)



Monday, December 04, 2017

Review - The Crown of the Holly Queen - Gadfly Theatre - 4 stars - Good Play In Need of a Better Venue


Playwright Eli Effinger-Weintraub writes some of the funniest, smartest, strangest, most human plays being created locally right now.  And I’m happy they've found artistic champions in Gadfly Theatre.  So I was very excited to see they were producing their play The Crown of the Holly Queen.  Despite some hurdles it needs to overcome (described below), it’s still well worth seeing.  Original queer theater is still all too rare a thing, strong writing like Eli’s even rarer, so you should catch it whenever possible.  Plus, you could argue it’s a holiday show, since it revolves around the winter solstice, but it’s a holiday show filled with rites of pagan magic, reincarnation of mythological figures in the present day, and, of course, lesbian sex.

“The good news is I’ve figured out what’s wrong with you.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“Everything else.”


Quirk (Piper Quinn) hasn’t been feeling so well as the summer passes through fall into winter, and it has her best friend Alex (Jada Pulley) concerned.  Consulting with their mentor Gwin (G. Zachariah White), they arrive at an unusual diagnosis.  Quirk is the reincarnation of the Oak King, and Alex is the latest personification of the Holly Queen.  As winter solstice arrives, the Oak is supposed to die with the Holly ascendent.  However, things immediately start turning around with the lengthening of days and the returning of the light, and so then the Holly must die so the Oak can rise.  Given that no one really wants to kill anyone else, the solution lies instead in the Little Death, aka orgasm, aka sex - which, just like murder, tends to complicate a friendship.

“Your smoke alarms are in working order?”
“That’s a terrifying question, but - yes?”


But Quirk and Alex aren’t the only ones dealing with unexpected new identities.  Quirk, Alex and Gwin are practicing pagans, and their sacred grove of trees is under threat from an energy company that wants to run a pipeline through that patch of undeveloped land.  Granted, it’s a pipeline for geothermal energy and thus a useful step against global warming.  But the pipeline has been cutting through a number of sacred groves and killing the spiritual energy in those spaces.  And it turns out that’s not an accident.

“By breath.  By blood.  By sweat.  By bone.  By heart.  By time.”

The other old lives making a new resurgence come from the Round Table of King Arthur’s Camelot.  The woman in charge of the pipeline project is Morgan (Kate Kunkel), aka Morgan le Fay, the powerful sorceress who was Arthur’s lover and greatest nemesis.  Morgan’s intern Gavin (Logan Gilbert-Guy) turns out to be the latest incarnation of the famous knight Gawain.  Oh, and Gwin used to be in charge of the Wild Hunt (look it up), and Gwin alone seems to have full recognition of the past lives lived by themself and others.

“Believe me, if you remembered our prior relationship, you’d stand as far away from me as possible.”

There is a whole lot going on in The Crown of the Holly Queen, and it’s an invigorating challenge to keep up with.  In fact, even though there’s only five characters onstage, each of them has so much story, not to mention an alternate identity with even more backstory, that the canvas almost seems a little overcrowded.  Quirk and Alex could be a play all by themselves.  Right now, the twists and turns of their evolving relationship whip by so fast, it’s hard to process them in a way I think the play wants us to.  There’s also the matter of their pagan faith and rituals which are central to so much of the plot.  We don’t get to spend a lot of time sitting in this world and getting to know it fully.  It’s a window into another way of life but we’re held at a remove from this window.  Similarly, the centuries old battle between Morgan and Gavin could also be its own play.  Gwin and the Wild Hunt, same note.  Cramming them all together, along with the story of the pipeline threatening the sacred grove, it sometimes feels like no plot thread or set of characters gets a chance to fully breathe.  But as I’ve said before in reviews of other shows, I’d much rather a play be too ambitious and take real risks than just play it safe.  I’d rather a play be about too much than too little.  The Crown of the Holly Queen goes all out in regard to complex character and story.

“Some people are bad with feelings, dear.”

In most circumstances, I could more easily note what shortcomings are due to the production or specific cast members but honestly, here the venue makes that kind of determination almost impossible.  I’m torn about even bringing it up but I can’t pretend the venue - Crane Theater’s new studio space - isn’t a major factor dragging the production down.  I’m not alone in being happy that the folks behind Nimbus Theater found a home in the new Crane Theater space that they’re in the ongoing process of renovating.  The Nimbus crew has always been very generous in helping to provide a home for any number of fledgeling and small theater companies, in and out of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, many of them focusing on new work like Nimbus itself. (I enjoyed Nimbus’ production of Redemption this spring, and was sorry to miss their most recent offering, Ludlow.)  But the opening of the new studio space in the old warehouse across the lobby from the larger Crane main stage has been, to be generous, a little rocky.  I saw the inaugural production in the studio, Sing To Me Now, which was running at the same time as The Minotaur over on the main stage.  There’s no sound buffering between the two spaces at all.  While The Minotaur was the louder of the two shows, the sound bleed wasn’t a chronic problem that threatened to detract from the other show.  Here, with The Crown of the Holly Queen, it’s a big problem. 

“That’s not how reality works.”
“Are you sure about that?”


And the killer is, the production across the hall on the main stage is another queer theater, 20% Theatre Company, doing another new work, The Terror Fantastic.  In an ideal world, these two productions would be peacefully co-existing.  Currently, it sounds more like a battle to the death.  The Terror Fantastic, as you might imagine from having the word Terror in the title, is built around elements of horror - mental illness and monsters to be exact.  And there is screaming.  A LOT of screaming.  What feels like nearly constant screaming.  The Crown of the Holly Queen, not so much with the screaming.  The Crown of the Holly Queen has a lot of peaceful, intelligent conversation and complex discussions going on.  And it has tender, emotional relationship moments going on.  And all of them are accompanied by a litany of screaming from the theater across the hall.  This is not the fault of The Terror Fantastic.  Both 20% and Gadfly paid to rent a theater space.  But right now, Gadfly is getting the shaft.  And so is The Crown of the Holly Queen.  The one saving grace is that Terror Fantastic is 90 minutes with no intermission and so they’re done about half an hour before Holly Queen.  So everyone does get that final thirty minutes of environmental silence around the play.  The Gadfly actors are to be commended for their near Herculean powers of concentration.  They stay in the moment, they stay in the play, they compel the audience to continue paying attention.  But they shouldn’t have to work this hard.  I sincerely hope Gadfly is getting a significant discount on their space rental because they might as well be out in the middle of the parking lot for all the control they have over the sound in their space.

“I’ve been waiting for this since college.  Or 700 years, depending on who you talk to.”

And this makes it almost impossible to know where any problems with the production might actually lie.  There are three really standout performances in the ensemble - Piper Quinn as Quirk, G. Zachariah White as Gwin, and Kate Kunkel as Morgan.  Despite all the distractions, they turn in very nuanced and intriguing spins on their characters.  Quinn gives the production its emotional depth.  White manages to make the metric ton of exposition and storytelling fun to listen to, and active in a way that surprised me.  Kunkel skillfully walks the tricky line of not knowing she’s the villain for most of the piece, and then turning on a dime and threatening to burn the whole thing down.  Between the three of them, they hold the narrative together despite the odds.  It’s hard to know whether the rest of the cast just isn’t up to their level, or was somehow let down by the director who didn’t push for anything much deeper than just learning all the lines, or was just undone by all the damn screaming from the production across the hall.  There are little moments, like an actor’s red fingernail polish being flourished in a story about red holly berries, or one character mimicking another character’s movements behind their back because they’ve just heard the same story so many times.  These moments make me think director Cassandra Snow was paying attention to the little things just as must as the larger story concerns.  So again, can’t tell clearly what might be problems inherent to the production itself, or what might just be the venue kneecapping the play before it has a chance to stand fully upright.

“Sex and death are the only things that work.”

You should see The Crown of the Holly Queen.  And the Crane should invest in some serious soundproofing upgrades before they rent out that space again to competing productions.  Because right now, they are competing rather than co-existing, and that’s a shame. A smart, fun, new play like The Crown of the Holly Queen deserves better. (running through December 10, 2017)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of Gadfly Theatre Productions - foreground: Quirk (Piper Quinn) and Alex (Jada Pulley) have a heart to heart as [background] Gwin (G. Zachariah White) looks on in The Crown of the Holly Queen)


Friday, December 01, 2017

November 2017 Writing Challenge - #30 - Illegal Theater

Looks like between 25-27 of you are still writing
CONGRATS!

For better or for worse, do something illegal on stage REALLY.
Like, break the law.
The performers perform an illegal act AND they really do it.

Let your Id go wild
or
Make a social justice point

Abuse the audience or your performers
or
Honor the common man and flaunt the law

Write TWO endings- one for getting away with it. 
One for being arrested.

Cause a riot.
Heal the masses
Which is more fun for you today?

Thank you everyone!
Little Red Cyrano opens tomorrow. If you're around Chicago, I'd be happy to see you there.

**********

OK, raw material for first draft achieved, so I'll try an actual challenge on the day assigned for a change...

**********

Three men walk out on stage dressed in comfortable bathrobes of various styles and colors.

They are WILL, RYAN, and ZAC.

They acknowledge the audience, since there's not going to be a fourth wall.

                          WILL
Good evening, everybody.  Thanks for joining us.

                          RYAN
We should probably get this out of the way.

                          ZAC
Yes, plenty of warning before you crossed the threshold into the theater.

WILL, RYAN and ZAC open their robes and let them drop to the floor.

                          WILL
You were promised male nudity.

                          RYAN
Male nudity achieved.

                          ZAC
I've been hitting the gym pretty hard in order to get ready for this so feel free to ogle as you feel compelled.

WILL gathers the robes and folds them carefully to set aside as he speaks.

RYAN retrieves a bottle of lubricant.

ZAC gets out a string of condoms, unfolding them with a flourish.

                          WILL
So, nudity on stage.

                          RYAN
Simple rule really.

                          WILL
Flaccid penis is art.

                          RYAN
Erect penis is pornography

                          WILL
Which could get us shut down by the authorities.

                          RYAN
Who have been notified.

                          WILL
We are not ashamed of the human body.

                          RYAN
Or the pleasure it can give.

ZAC has begun gently stroking himself to an erection.

                          WILL
To review.

RYAN makes reference to his own penis, for the moment resting, not at attention.

                          RYAN
Flaccid penis, art.

WILL refers to ZAC's penis, at full attention.

                          WILL
Erect penis, pornography.

                          ZAC
Not actual pornography, of course.

                          RYAN
Just theatrical pornography.

                          WILL
And since we've come this far -

                          ZAC
And since you've been warned -

                          RYAN
Might as well go all the way.

RYAN applies some lube to his own buttocks while -

ZAC gets one of the condoms out of its wrapper and puts it on his erect penis as -

WILL keeps the conversation with the audience going.

                          WILL
Now, in case you haven't read the program notes fully.

                          ZAC
We've all be tested, clean bill of health.

                          RYAN
No germs to be spreading around.

                          WILL
And no one here's being coerced.

                          ZAC
All consenting adults.

                          RYAN
Very consenting.

                          ZAC
We're exhibitionists, truth be told.

                          WILL
We didn't believe they were serious when they put out the call for this project.

                          RYAN
And yet, here we are.

                          WILL
It's not the first time any of us have done this.

                          ZAC
Sex, he means.

                          RYAN
Public sex, though, that's new -

                          ZAC
Speak for yourself.

                          RYAN
Really?

                          ZAC
Once or twice.  The danger of it is kind of its own turn on.

                          RYAN
I can understand that.

                          WILL
Yes, it seems you do.

                          RYAN
Oops.

                          WILL
Double the pornography on stage now.

                          ZAC
That's actually quite flattering.  I thought nerves would keep you down for most of it.

                          RYAN
It's kind of exciting to finally have an audience.

                          WILL
     (to audience)
In rehearsals, we all got quite used to each other.

                          ZAC
Very used to each other.

                          WILL
Strangers makes it all a little more -

                          RYAN
Transgressive.

                          ZAC
Ready?

                          RYAN
You know I am.

                          WILL
Does he?

                          RYAN
We might have warmed up a little bit in the dressing room.

                          WILL
I can't leave you two alone for a minute.

                          ZAC
Don't be jealous, Will.  You'll get yours.

                          WILL
     (to audience)
That's true.  We're supposed to keep switching off in rotation for the duration of the run of the performances.  Just to keep things interesting.

                          RYAN
I don't think the producers needed to worry quite so much about us getting complacent without the variety.
     (to ZAC)
Why aren't you inside me already?

                          ZAC
Sorry, pal.  Didn't mean to keep you waiting.

RYAN bends over a bit.

ZAC walks up behind RYAN and slowly inserts his penis into RYAN's anus, while WILL and the audience watch.

                          ZAC (cont'd)
Everything OK?

                          RYAN
Absolutely.  You?

                          ZAC
Oh yeah.

                          RYAN
Will, you might want to further explain to the audience why we're doing this.

                          ZAC
     (thoroughly enjoying himself)
Apart from the obvious.

WILL tears himself reluctantly away from watching in order to talk to the audience.  His attention may wander back to ZAC and RYAN fucking now and again during the following.

                          WILL
Right.  This isn't just porn without a plot.

                          RYAN
     (also thoroughly enjoying himself)
Though we understand that a number of people are annoyed by the artifice of storytelling just to get two human bodies in the same space for the purpose of screwing.

                          ZAC
You can say "fucking."  I mean, at this point -

                          RYAN
You're right, there's hardly any point in being demure about it now.

                          WILL
Some of you wish for a bit more story.

                          ZAC
Either to make it seem less clinical.

                          RYAN
Or because you enjoy bad acting - or convincing yourself that the actors involved are doing it for any other reason than the money.

                          WILL
When you think about it, some of them are extremely good actors.  They've got you fooled.

                          RYAN
Unless the money really is enough to make them happy.

                          ZAC
Or they really love sex and the money's just an added bonus.

                          WILL
The video will follow them around for the rest of their lives, of course.

                          RYAN
Potential downside.

                          ZAC
But some guys would like a record of what their bodies looked like in their prime.

                          RYAN
Or the kind of guys they got to screw in their prime.

                          ZAC
Honestly.  Fuck.

                          RYAN
Fuck.  Guys they got to fuck in their prime.

                          ZAC
Like you.  Damn.

                          RYAN
Like me.
How do I forget your girth?  You were just up in there an hour ago.

                          ZAC
Your ass springs back into shape in remarkably swift fashion.

                          RYAN
Why, thank you, kind sir.

                          ZAC
Just want to make sure I'm not ripping you open.

                          RYAN
I'll let you know.  For now, keep at it.

                          WILL
The producers just wanted to run counter to the puritan impulses of society and revel in the human body, and more specifically the thing that seems to make everyone even more squeamish.

                          ZAC
Guys fucking.

                          RYAN
Anal sex, in particular.

                          WILL
Don't get me wrong, there's all sorts of things you can do with another guy but this particular act really seems to horrify people.

ZAC and RYAN, still having sex, very much enjoying themselves.

                          ZAC
Fate worse than death.

                          RYAN
Central to countless horror and torture scenarios.

                          WILL
Don't get us started on prison movies.

                          RYAN
The human body is a beautiful thing.

                          ZAC
Sex is a beautiful thing.

                          WILL
And the more it's out there in the general consciousness, the less strange and foreign it'll be to people.

                          RYAN
And maybe we can all obsess about actual problems.

                          ZAC
Hunger.

                          WILL
World peace.

                          RYAN
Poverty.

                          ZAC
Disease

                          WILL
Global warming.

                          ZAC
Justice reform.

                          WILL
Voter supression.

                          RYAN
You know, the little things.
     (to ZAC)
Unlike you.

                          ZAC
Why, thank you, sir.

                          RYAN
No, thank *you*

                          WILL
Once the producers have explored this performance concept fully -

                          ZAC
The more fully the better -

                          RYAN
Amen -

                          WILL
The idea is to actually incorporate live sex acts on stage into stories as the play dictates.

                          ZAC
I'm getting really close.

                          ENDING ONE

A policeman appears onstage.

                          WILL
Oops.  Guys.  We have company.

                          RYAN
Please tell me he's a stripper.

                          POLICEMAN
I am not a stripper.

                          ZAC
I should stop now.

                          POLICEMAN
You should stop now.
And put on some clothes.
And come quietly.
I mean -
Come with me.
I mean -
You're under arrest for public indecency.

ZAC withdraws slowly from RYAN.

                          ZAC
Sorry, folks.

                          RYAN
No happy ending tonight.

                          WILL
For anyone.

                          ZAC
Thank you for supporting the experiment, as far as we got anyway.

                          POLICEMAN
Gentlemen.

ZAC takes off the condom and puts it in a nearby trashcan.

RYAN takes a small towel and wipes his butt, then hands it off to ZAC, who wipes his penis.

WILL, RYAN and ZAC put on their robes and leave with the police officer.

ENDING TWO

                          RYAN
You are amazing.

                          ZAC
Right back at ya.'

ZAC has an orgasm inside RYAN.

Their pace slows down.

ZAC catches his breath, lays against Ryan's back, perhaps gives him a little kiss on the shoulder.

                          RYAN
I'm still fully turned on at this point.

                          ZAC
I can take over narrating duties, Will, if you want Ryan to take a turning fucking your ass.

                          WILL
Sounds good to me.

                          RYAN
And me.

ZAC withdraws from RYAN.

RYAN puts on a condom.

WILL take the lube and prepares his ass.

ZAC removes his own condom and tosses it in the nearby trashcan, and takes a small towel to wipe off his penis, as he proceeds to take over narration.

                          ZAC
To review -

ZAC refers to his own now softening penis.

                          ZAC (cont'd)
Art.

ZAC refers to RYAN's, and perhaps also WILL's, much more erect penis.

                          ZAC (cont'd)
Theater pornography.

RYAN's penis slides slowly into WILL's anus.

                          ZAC (cont'd)
We keep switching off like this, we could go on for hours.

                          WILL
The exits are clearly marked.

                          ZAC
     (to WILL)
Relax and enjoy, buddy.  I got this.

                          RYAN
And I got this.

                          WILL
Oh God, I love you both.

                          RYAN
And we, you, buddy.

                          ZAC
You can feel free to leave at any time if you're uncomfortable, or if you've just seen enough for now.  We'll keep chatting and fucking until they need to turn the lights off.

ZAC takes the chance to catch his breath again -

while RYAN continues fucking WILL.

(I could actually keep writing this, but I need to stop and post it at some point.)



(to be continued)