Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review - And Then They Fell - Gadfly Theatre - So Much Potential... - 3 stars

I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story can find its audience.  But I also don’t think every audience member is a fit for every story.  For that reason, I probably shouldn’t have attended Gadfly Theatre’s production of Tira Palmquist’s play And Then They Fell.  Unlike most of the people in the audience, I’d already read this new play.  So I knew what I was in for.  Part of me was just hoping that in the time since I’d read it, due to lessons learned from other productions, the playwright might have changed the ending.  Nope.

“Just you and me and the radio and the wind, and no one will be able to stop us.”

What kills me is that I’m a huge fan of Tira Palmquist and her work, and yet this is the first review of one of her plays I have to write.  I think she’s an enormously gifted playwright.  She writes about important things in beautiful and accessible ways.  She’s had some productions at major regional theaters around the country and seems like she’s one of those writers who’s poised to really break out - writing about the right things in the right ways at just the right time

“The terminal velocity of a bird without flight is…”

Because of her local ties, she submitted three plays to Workhouse Theatre Company when I was helping run their new play reading series, the Greenhouse Project.  We ended up doing readings of two of them, Two Degrees and Ten Mile Lake.  If you ever get a chance to see either play, you should.  I look forward to some local theater finally picking them up and running with them the same way theaters in other parts of the country already have.  Two Degrees blends grief and the concern over global warming into a compelling and personal play. Ten Mile Lake brings a headstrong adult daughter and her unforgiving father together at the old family cabin as his health begins to fail in a play that resists sentimentality in amusing ways.  The first play Tira Palmquist sent us was And Then They Fell.  Even though the play didn’t connect with us, the writing certainly did, so we asked for more and got the wonderful payoff of reading Two Degrees and Ten Mile Lake.  So when I learned Gadfly Theatre Productions was doing And Then They Fell, I felt strongly that I should go, not just because of Tira but also because of Gadfly.

“Is God trying to tell us something?”

Gadfly is a theater devoted not just to putting queer stories and queer artists on stage, but to developing and supporting new work, and living local playwrights (heck, they’ve even done a short play of mine).  Even though our aesthetics don’t always line up (which probably means I’m not as good a feminist as I’d like to be yet), I want to be supportive of Gadfly in return for all the important work I feel they’re doing.  Also, I hadn’t yet seen anything in their new home at the Fox Egg Gallery yet, so for that reason as well I was curious.

“I’m trying to help you.  I need to hear your side of the story.”

In her director’s note, Gadfly co-artistic director Cassandra Snow said she, too, had originally passed on And Then They Fell after reading it, partly because her number one rule for theater is - no dead girls, no dead queers.  I am fully behind such a rule.  Mostly because, let’s face it, you can count on popular culture as a whole to give you more than enough dead girls, more than enough dead queers - that is, when they portray girls or queers at all.  (Personally, if I can joke about a piece of art - even my own, using a variation on one of my favorite satirical movie quotes, "I love my dead gay son" - then something's wrong.)  So if you’re a theater like Gadfly, avoiding adding more to that particular pile is a great guiding principle.  For And Then They Fell, Gadfly decided to break that rule.  Though that’s unfortunate, I can understand the temptation on a couple of different levels.

“Trauma of an unknown origin.”

The first draw, of course, is Tira’s writing - her way with language, her humor, her compelling characters.  The second - and really the primary strength of And Then They Fell - is the central relationship of the play between two young outcasts just trying to survive high school - a teenage girl named Jordan (Mindy Vang) and a trans teenage boy (pre-everything) named Cal (formerly Calista) (Adele Bolier).

“Looking up at the sky that wouldn’t hold them.”

Cal has already been kicked out by their parents for asserting their identity as a boy rather than a girl.  Cal crosses paths with Jordan as her own home life begins to unravel.  Jordan’s mother Crystal (Starla Larson) hasn’t ever been on the wagon long enough to fall off, and has now gotten herself some mandatory time in both detox and jail due to the latest in a string of DUI arrests.  Crystal thinks the best thing for Jordan is to send over Crystal’s ex-boyfriend Dwayne (Troy Stolp) to look after her daughter.  Like so many of Crystal’s life decisions, this is another unbelievably bad idea.  Because Dwayne looks at 17 year old Jordan as a younger, fresher version of her mother, and that can’t end well for anybody (so, naturally, it doesn’t). 

“I don’t know who you are, but you’re not my child.”

When Jordan can’t take life with Dwayne anymore and hits the streets, Cal takes her under their wing and tries to help her avoid doing anything stupid or dangerous.  Given the “dead girl, dead queer” warning we’re given in the program, it’s not a spoiler alert to tell you that Cal is only partially successful.  Given that same warning, I was a little afraid I’d forgotten something or there’d been a rewrite and we might be subjected to both.  We are, blessedly, not.  But the human cost of this story is high enough, no worries.

“We don’t have to tell your mom about this, right?”

The third draw for the script is Jordan’s fascination with the sudden death of a whole flock of birds in a small town in Arkansas.  New Year’s Eve, a whole flock of birds just falls out of the sky.  Not shot, not poisoned, their bodies showing internal injuries more like they’d been beaten to death.  This happened two years in a row on New Year’s Eve 2011 and 2012.  Other mass bird death phenomena have occurred elsewhere in recent years around the world, for various reasons.  The metaphorical link to how society has seemingly abandoned its children, many of whom then fall victim to any number of unfortunate ends, is a powerful one.  The poetic turns of phrase associated with birds in the script, as well as sound effects, and the surprisingly simple but effective stage trick Gadfly pulls off of a single black feather dropping out of the sky at key moments, all work really well.  Getting the metaphor to stick the landing is a little trickier, because neither the source of the metaphor or the play itself really fully deliver on their promise in this regard.  But you can feel it just out of reach.  As an audience member, you keep trying to will the play to get across that particular finish line, but it falls short.

“When you’re eighteen you can jump off a cliff if that’s what you want.”

The cast, which also includes Kjertina Whiting taking the spotlight as a number of quite different supporting characters, all do really solid work.  Vang and Bolier as the duo of Jordan and Cal are especially winning.  The problem right now, and this isn’t really the production’s fault, is that the play doesn’t really give them enough room to grow.  They get a significant amount of stage time comparatively, but I’d argue that the play is currently too short and too crowded.  Right now, even with an intermission wedged in (which - other than for purposes of relieving people’s bladders - you don’t really need), the play is barely over 90 minutes.  So much happens so fast that the characters don’t get a lot of room to breathe. 

“And they keep falling,
and falling,
and falling.”

Also, Jordan and Cal are original creations, but all the adults around them are people we’ve seen before.  They’re almost stereotypes - the junkie mom, the lecherous boyfriend leering at the mom’s teenage daughter, the well-meaning school official with their hands tied, the friendly but feckless squatter anarchists, the abusive cop, the colorful waitress at the local diner, the TV preacher, the lovable school janitor.  In a telling moment, Cal recounts to Jordan the story of the day their father kicked them out of the house and disowned them as their child.  That adult character, too, is a trope, but in Cal’s storytelling, they came alive for us in the audience.  We didn’t need to meet them or see it happen.  It was more important to see how it affected Cal.  The actor delivers.  If I were a dramaturg on this script, I’d encourage the writer to take the play, scrap everyone else and just focus on Jordan and Cal, and make it a full length.  The characters and relationship are so rich, you can get a full play out of that.  Those supporting players can easily be sketched in as stories they tell one another.  Of course, that means a different ending (but let’s face it, I’m lobbying for that anyway).  Right now, it feels like these characters and their relationship are being squandered in material that doesn’t live up to their potential (I get the same feeling about the cast in this production as well).

“Being sober doesn’t really suit her.”

Two other things related more to the production than the script are getting in the way of the story right now.  One of them feels like sloppiness, the other one feels like a failure of nerve.  First, the sloppiness.  This has to do with scene shifts.  And Then They Fell takes place in a little over a dozen scenes and almost as many locations. The Fox Egg Gallery is limited in terms of usable space but even what they had probably could have been better utilized.  Since writers give an audience credit for an imagination and suspension of disbelief which can handle multiple locations sharing the same space, then directors (as a species, not just in this instance) need to start treating scene changes as connective tissue in their storytelling rather than something that happens while you’re waiting for the next scene to start.

“I like to hear you talk.”

Look at one scene, look at the scene that follows it.  Do they have a character in common?  Great, have that character walk out of the one scene into the next.  Have the lights follow them and let the other character fade into the dark and walk away.  If instead the set of characters in the next scene is completely different from the set of characters in the current scene, rather than stopping everything dead for scene shifts between every single scene, maybe leave the setting for both scenes on the stage at the same time and just shift the lights, new actors walking on talking while old actors walk off to get ready for the next scene.  Choose to move as few things as possible, as little as possible.  Keep the momentum going.  Don’t allow the audience to check out on you.

“Unless someone’s beating the sh*t out of you, it’s better than out here.”

Is a bench required for an upcoming scene?  Is there a reason it couldn’t already be there off to the side?  If it needs to be moved into place, could the character who has to sit on it move it into place, in character rather than neutrally (not because they’re responsible for setting up a bus stop in reality but because we’re watching the human face of a character, and not so much what they’re doing)?  If the bench isn’t necessary for the next scene but isn’t in the way, could you just leave it alone?  If there are multiple times people need to sit down in different locations, we don’t always need to have a completely different chair every time.  Let the characters, dialogue, light and sound set the scene rather than the specificity of the furniture.

“She just seems so sure.”

And I know scenes without dialogue are uncomfortable for an actor, but if there aren’t any lines, don’t allow them to pretend they’re saying something we just can’t hear.  Force them to act with their body, most importantly their hands, their face, and if necessary, their hips.  Body language.  Learn how to use it.  Don’t be embarrassed.  Don’t rush through it as quickly as possible.  Linger longer than you think you need to because the audience needs time to take it in and catch up with the visual impression you’re trying to make.  This isn’t TV or film, there are no quick cuts - particularly since most of the time there’s going to be a scene shift before and after.  Think about flow into and out of those scenes and take your time.

“You’re not exactly a different person but you’ve changed something important.”

Now for the failure of nerve.  One character forces another character to perform oral sex on them in this play.  Sexual assault, plain and simple.  Statutory rape, to boot.  (Again, there is a warning prior to the show, so this is hardly a spoiler.)  I don’t agree with sexual assault of a minor as a necessary storytelling device in this context, but it’s there in the script.  The theater chose to do the script.  I’m fairly certain the script doesn’t say, “The lights go down - even though it’s the middle of the day and the rest of the scene is clearly well lit.  We hear the man enjoying himself.  We hear the girl coughing, no, gagging.  In the dark.  Then suddenly the lights return and the girl is breaking away from the man and dry heaving all over the stage, disgusted with what she’s done.” 

“[This music’s] really angry.”
“Yeah, exactly.”

Here’s the thing.  The play doesn’t cut away from the fellatio so that it’s something that happens in between scenes off stage.  The theater chose to do the play.  This is part of the play.  I’m not saying someone actually needs to perform oral sex in front of us.  But the play requires a theater to simulate it.  We watch a man force a girl to her knees.  He should face upstage and block her from our view.  But she’s going to have to have her face at a level with his crotch.  There is going to need to be movement.  He is probably going to have place his hands on the side of her head.  She needs to get down on her knees, she needs to get up off her knees.  Because the play requires it.  The theater chose to do the play.  I don’t like it any more than the theater company does.  (Heck, I didn’t even want to type the last two paragraphs.)  But the theater needs to do what the play requires of it.  Is it awkward, uncomfortable, and even triggering for all parties involved?  Absolutely.  But the theater is telling a story.  The theater knew what it was getting into when it read this script and chose to do it.  And if the theater doesn’t want to tell that part of the story, then don’t. do. the. play.  Find another play.  The theater chose the play because it was taking an unflinching look at the way a society fails its children.  If the production flinches first, the audience won’t.  Chose plays the theater can commit to fully or don’t do them.

“Come July you’ll be praying for a night like this.”

The audience the night I attended was filled with teenage girls.  I’d wager a lot of them were there to support their friends in the cast.  Part of me was grateful that a lot of their parents seemed to be there with them, though some were there unaccompanied.  Good on everybody for supporting live theater, and complicated live theater at that.  But I wondered, “What must they be thinking when they watch this?”  Because I was also trying to figure that out for myself.

“You got me now.”

I have never seen the point of watching human suffering as a form of entertainment.  That just doesn’t seem to be enough of a point for indulging in it.  Without a message, I don’t find it cathartic.  I can’t watch most horror films, slasher films or torture porn.  (In the same vein, the value of most shooter video games escapes me.)  If someone is going to suffer and die onstage, I need there to be a reason.  And not just, life sucks, and in life people suffer and die.  Gee thanks, I know that.  Tell me something I don’t know.  Tell me something I didn’t bring into the theater with me.  Raise my awareness.  More importantly, point me toward a solution.  In the play, not before and after the play with talkbacks and representatives of community organizations doing good works.  In the play.  The other stuff is great, but if it’s the only thing justifying the existence of the play, if the play isn’t providing its own context, then the play has failed to fully create a world and explore the options available in it. 

“A heavy dark sky letting go a burden of birds.”

By contrast, even though Citizen deals with a thousand injustices and disappointments in a society burdened by institutional racism, Citizen opens your eyes and makes you think, makes you care.  That’s not suffering as entertainment, that’s an exploration of suffering that makes a point, that offers hope through knowledge, a way forward, a way out.  The specificity of it makes it universal.  And Then They Fell often feels generic and unspecific.  The things about it that really sing, noted above, chiefly Jordan and Cal, don’t get the room to grow that they need.  Partly because it feels too short, partly because it seems to be crowded right now with a lot of unnecessary noise around the edges of the central relationship.

No dead girls.  No dead queers.

After And Then They Fell runs its course, I think that rule needs to go back into effect.

Forewarned is forearmed.  All that said, I still recommend supporting Tira Palmquist and Gadfly by seeing this production of And Then They Fell(performing now through March 26, 2017)

3 stars - Recommended

(photo courtesy of Gadfly Theatre Productions; left to right, Mindy Vang (Jordan) and Adele Bolier (Cal)).

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Review - Citizen: An American Lyric - Frank Theatre - Just Go. See It - 5 stars

(I apologize in advance for this review, as I am doubtless saying somewhere below something stupid or insensitive about which I am still unforgivably clueless.  I labor under no delusions that anything I write is news to anyone.  We learn by doing…)

“The rules that everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you.”

Go see Frank Theatre’s stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric.  Just go.  See it.  Then go out into the lobby and buy yourself a copy of the book, and read it.  It’s one of the best pieces of theater I’ve seen so far in this still young-ish new year and easily the most important.  It’s the nicest thing you can do for yourself and your self-awareness.  Citizen: An American Lyric is smart and sharp and funny and painful and sad and heartbreaking and yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, hopeful.  Because we are all human, and thus sometimes insensitive or stupid.  We regularly need people willing to help get us up to speed with things of which we might otherwise not be aware.

“This unsmiling image of you makes him uncomfortable.”

A co-worker and I regularly have a conversation about representation in theater.  When I see something featuring actors of color as a majority of the cast, I get excited because I feel that signifies progress.  And, frankly, these days, such shows are just more interesting to me than blindingly white stories I’ve seen a million times before.  My co-worker, a person of color, also having seen these shows, invariably responds that, yes, it’s nice, but honestly the show isn’t telling people of color anything they don’t already know.  The show is essentially designed to make white people better acquainted with the racism and imbalance in society and art that already exists, but doesn’t (seem to) impact them directly (yet).  This makes writing reviews like this one, which I’ve been trying to formulate since I saw Citizen: An American Lyric last weekend, a seemingly impossible task.  Anything I say, lined up next to the insights and skill of Claudia Rankine, is just going to seem hopelessly naive or clueless.  But I want you to see it, so I have to say something.

“Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying.”

So is Citizen: An American Lyric telling audience members of color anything they don’t already know?  Probably not.  Is it telling me anything I don’t already know?  Yes and no, but here’s the thing - I don’t think anyone should be getting points for understanding how bad things are if they’re not also working to change them.  Pundits, politicians and community leaders frequently say we need to have a discussion about race, locally and nationally.  Citizen: An American Lyric does that.  And it needs to, because, frankly, anyone who’s white who has friends who are people of color most of the time has no idea what questions to ask.  Or how to avoid saying something stupid.  And, as Citizen points out time and again, people of color have a hard enough time just navigating through the daily injustices and micro-aggressions that are built into our society.  The last thing they want to do, or should be asked to do, is relive all that just for the benefit of explaining it to people who have never experienced it.

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

Frank Theatre’s production Citizen: An American Lyric in an odd way serves as a friend of color who is infinitely patient in explaining to their white friends all the things they don’t know (or don’t see). There’s a reason Rankine’s book was a New York Times bestseller (the only poetry book to do so in the nonfiction category), a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the 2015 T.S. Eliot Prize,

“As light as the rain seems, it is still raining down on you.”

and the winner of: the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry (also a finalist in the Criticism category - the first book in the award’s history to be nominated in both categories),

“This would be your fatal flaw - your memory.”

winner of the 2015 PEN Open Book Award, the 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry, the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Collection,

“Only then do you realize that you are among the others, not among friends.”

winner of the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry, the 2015 VIDA Award in Poetry, the 2015 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award in Poetry,

“The man knows more about the unoccupied seat than you do.”

winner of the 2015 PEN American Center USA Literary Award, and the 2015 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry. 

“You fall back into that which is reconstructed as metaphor.”

It was also named a Best Book of the Year by the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, New York, the New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, Slate, and Time Out New York

“Take your foot off your throat.”

The reason people couldn’t throw enough awards at this book is that Claudia Rankine has a unique gift for crystallizing these moments of clarity when people see the world, and the other people in it, for what it is, what they are.  Rankine has the gift of giving people better sight, and better understanding.  If you can’t see the problem, you can’t fix it.

“No amount of visibility can change the way one is perceived.”

So how do you stage a book of poetry?  Rankine gets Frank Theatre more than halfway there because Citizen: An American Lyric is a book that’s very conversational and down to earth in tone.  It’s like having a talk with someone you know really well, someone who believes that they can tell you anything - that you will hear it, and that you’ll understand.  Some locations are called out in the text - a car, a driveway, a subway, a Starbucks coffee shop, a tennis court, a soccer field.  Others need to be created through staging and design.  Director Wendy Knox has a mix of Frank regulars and newcomers in her cast, all of whom have a substantial list of credits ranging from the small stages of the Minnesota Fringe Festival all the way up to the Guthrie Theater.  Actors Heather Bunch, Hope Cervantes, Michael Hanna, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas and Dana Lee Thompson bring these words to life as few people can.

“Although no one is chasing you, the justice system has other plans.”

The cast is backed up by a stellar bunch of designers who give them a striking canvas of sound and light on which to work.  There isn’t a physical set, just six chairs.  The real setting of the scene happens thanks to Mike Wangen’s lighting design, Bill Cottman’s projection design (with a video assist from Maxwell Collyard), and Michael Croswell’s sound design. Whether the actors are dodging the sound of raindrops, sitting in their car staring at the garage door late at night, or watching/reenacting the tennis saga of Serena Williams, the design elements all reinforce their work and invite the audience into their world.  The most vivid examples include the Serena Williams section of the play (where we get to see the sports news coverage mixed with live action moments, and the sound of tennis balls being hit can sound like gunshots); a verbal and visual litany of just a fraction of the names of the people we’ve lost to gun violence, police violence and racism; and a sequence where the actors find themselves trapped against a wall of words.

“You think this is an experiment, and you are being tested.”

Where the play makes its strongest emotional marks, though, are the “smaller” moments illuminating much larger issues, and bringing us closer to the human heart of the work.  A white woman stands, rather than take an empty seat next to a black man on a train.  A woman of color chooses to sit with him.  A white man brushes past a small black child, knocking the child down.  The child’s mother pursues the man, wanting him to see her child, wanting him to apologize.  Men of color who the mother does not know move to stand behind her in solidarity.  Moments inside a person’s head where they wonder “do I say something? do I call this out? what is it going to cost me if I don’t? what is it going to cost me if I do?”

“It isn’t like this moment hasn’t happened before.”

You wouldn’t think a play could cover the ground from Trayvon Martin to Hurricane Katrina and a host of other challenges, tragedies and catastrophes is such a short time and leave its audience feeling invigorated rather than depressed or exhausted.  But that’s what Frank Theatre’s dance with Claudia Rankine’s words do in Citizen: An American Lyric.  The friend who attended with me was left speechless for a few minutes.  I was energized, but also well aware of the nearly impossible task of talking about Citizen: An American Lyric without sticking my foot in my mouth - repeatedly.  Forgive my blundering above and if you remember anything, just remember this:

Go see Frank Theatre’s stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.  Just go.  See it.  It’s easily the most important piece of theater I’ve seen so far this year.  It’s also the nicest thing you can do for yourself and your self-awareness.  (I'm going to go back to reading my copy of the book now.) (runs now through April 2, 2017 at Intermedia Arts)

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

(cast photo - front row, left to right: Dana Lee Thompson, Hope Cervantes, and Heather Bunch; back row: Michael Hanna, Joe Nathan Thomas and Theo Langason; photography by Tony Nelson)

Review - Thurgood - Illusion Theater - Great Actor Playing A Great Man - 4-1/2 stars

Honestly, if you have an opportunity to see James Craven act in anything, you should go see it.  The man is fantastic.  Right now at Illusion Theater, James Craven is taking on the mantle of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice on the United States Supreme Court, and before that a fierce advocate in the courts as a lawyer for one ground-breaking civil rights case after another.  Mostly famously he argued successfully in the Brown vs. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court on which he would one day himself serve.  The Brown case struck down the segregationist policy of “separate but equal” schools for children of different races as a fiction and made school integration the law of the land.  In fact, before joining the bench, Marshall argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them.  As judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, he made 112 rulings, all of which were later upheld by the Supreme Court.  And as U.S. Solicitor General, arguing cases for the government, he won 14 of the 19 cases he presented.  He then served on the Supreme Court for 24 years.

“Equal Justice Under Law - I hope so.”

Thurgood the script, written by George Stevens, Jr. and directed by Illusion’s Executive Producing Director Michael Robins, has all the intelligence and humor, and the amazing personal journey, of Thurgood Marshall himself.  This production is a home-based extension of a tour traveling the state of Minnesota this winter of the same play, with Ellen Fenster in the director’s chair and Neal R. Hazard in the title role.  It’s good of Illusion to give those of us in the Twin Cities a glimpse of the play as well, with Craven embodying Thurgood Marshall.

“If I die, you just prop me up and keep on voting.”

Thurgood Marshall led a remarkable and important life, from his birth as grandson of a former slave, to sitting on the highest court in the United States. James Craven is a remarkable actor, more than suited to a subject of this magnitude.  That’s why I wish Stevens’ script was just a little more adventurous and challenging.

“If Eisenhower had fought the Second World War the way he fought for civil rights, we’d all be speaking German right now.”

Thurgood is a fairly standard treatment of a person’s life on a one-person play format.  It marches through the chronology of Marshall’s life in an almost exclusively linear fashion.  It tries to give everything it covers pretty much equal weight, which has the unfortunate effect of making everything about Marshall seem a little less remarkable.  The play takes the form of Marshall in a lecture hall, and it’s good as far as it goes.  In this context, it just doesn’t have the room to go very far.  It’s hard for a single person and this script, even with audio visual aids, to fully populate the world that Thurgood Marshall grew up in, and then changed for the better.

“I am going to die someday.  At 110.  Shot by a jealous husband.”

Still, Thurgood Marshall the man is larger than life, whatever the format, and James Craven is just the man to bring him back to life for us.  If nothing else, it’s sure to inspire you to go learn more about the man, his life and times, for yourself.  So if you get a chance to see Illusion Theater's production of Thurgood, you should. (runs through March 19, 2017)

4-1/2 stars, Very Highly Recommended

(James Craven as Thurgood Marshall; photography by Lauren B Photography)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Review - Mere Trifles - Theatre Unbound - Nothing Mere or Trifling About It - 4 stars

Theatre Unbound has put together another intriguing assortment of short scripts by female playwrights, this one a gathering of established plays and newly commissioned work, under the collective title Mere Trifles.  But there’s nothing mere or trifling about it.  It’s another solid outing in Unbound’s tradition of past presentations of short works old and new - Girls Got Pluck, Aphra’s Attic, and Girl Shorts 2013, 2014 and 2015

“If there’d been years and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you…”

Mere Trifles is partly in celebration of the fact that the lead-off script of the evening, Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, is over 100 years old (1916).  Glaspell’s script is paired with Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s short play Poof! (from 1993) to bookend the evening.  In between are two brand new scripts commissioned by Unbound from Rhiana Yazzie (A Few Pearls) and Maxie Rockymore (Bang-Bang Check!).  The whole evening is directed by Kate Powers, guiding an ensemble of six actors playing in combination across all four scripts (Lynda Dahl, Pedro Juan Fonseca, Adam Gauger, Nicole Goeden, Brian Joyce and Delinda “Oogie” Pushetonequa).  A quick shout out has to go to Ursula Bowden’s scenic design, which thanks to an industrious stage crew transforms quickly into four different setttings, all the while a profusion of chairs stacked high on stage and floating in the air, surround the proceedings.

“Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while.  That was a crime.  That was a crime.  Who’s going to punish that?”

This isn’t the first time Unbound has tackled Trifles.  I remember seeing their first presentation of it in Girls Got Pluck back in 2005.  Trifles is a polished little gem of a play, well worth revisiting.  There’s a reason it’s held up so well over time.  Glaspell brought her journalist’s eye for detail to this reimagining of an actual court case she followed for the newspapers.  A farmer has been murdered. His wife is suspected.  Two women (Goeden and Pushetonequa), one of them the wife of the sheriff, accompany the sheriff (Gauger), the county attorney (Fonseca) and a neighboring farmer who found the body (Joyce), back to the crime scene.  The men are there looking for clues.  The women are there to gather some things to take to the dead man’s wife in her jail cell.  This is the early 20th century, so the men aren’t paying a lot of attention to the women.  But the women end up seeing key clues about the case around the house which the men completely miss.  This leaves the women needing to decide what they’re going to do about the knowledge they’ve acquired.

“The patron saint of battered wives.”

Nottage’s Poof! is a bit of a revenge fantasy.  It’s a most amusing dark comedy about a woman (Dahl) who tells her abusive husband to go to hell, whereupon he spontaneously combusts down into a pile of ash and a bad pair of eyeglasses.  The woman calls down her upstairs neighbor (Pushetonequa) for help with what to do next.

“Take that, genocide!”

The best of the new works is Yazzie’s A Few Pearls. An estranged mother (Dahl) and her adult daughter (Pushetonequa) accidentally cross paths at the airport, both of them headed home for the grandmother’s funeral.  Long buried family secrets and the source of old resentments of course come bubbling to the surface.  The mother is written as a delightfully cold fish.  She’s too smart and too strong to succumb to sentimentality and emotion - both of which her daughter loves to wallow in.  Yazzie’s motherly creation is a treat for an actor to play and Dahl takes full advantage of the opportunity.  At a few points, the script leans a bit too heavily on spelling out the symbolic significance of its title.  The rest of the script, and the two actresses, are all so good that the audience really doesn’t need the metaphor hammered home for them.  In fact, you could skip the explanation and callbacks to it altogether and the script would be just as satisfying.  Most audience members could come up with their own explanation of the title, given the scene they’ve witnessed done so well.

“The princess of miscarriages.”

The other new script, Rockymore’s Bang-Bang Check!, is less successful, mostly because it requires so much suspension of disbelief that it ceases to hold together as a story with any characters we care about.  The set-up is that there’s a TV crew filming a piece about an unemployed abusive drunk (Joyce) and the cop wife (Dahl) who lets him push her around.  The director for the TV show (Gauger) is verbally abusive in real-life to the stage hand (Goeden) as well as his own offstage wife on the phone, while in reality the actors playing the husband and wife caught in a cycle of abuse get along just fine.  Where the whole thing stretches credulity until it breaks revolves around two things - a prop gun/real gun switcheroo, and a TV script so bad that even soap operas don’t sink to its simplistic depths anymore (and I doubt they ever did).  If Bang-Bang Check! is meant to be a satire, then it’s pitching itself wrong both on the page and in production.  Everyone on stage commits to the premise, but sadly it’s a failed enterprise.

“Somehow we just don’t see how it is with other folks until - something comes up.”

That said, three out of four isn’t a bad average for a collection of shorts, and Trifles, Poof!, and A Few Pearls are all so good that they more than make up for the other script.  You can catch Theatre Unbound’s Mere Trifles at SteppingStone Theatre through March 12, 2018

4 stars - Highly Recommended

Review - The Awakening - Savage Umbrella - Why, Exactly? - 4 stars

I’ve been struggling with Savage Umbrella’s remounting of their adaptation of Kate Chopin’s 19th century feminist novel The Awakening ever since I saw it last Friday.  I wasn’t familiar with the source material and I missed the original production, so what I saw that night is all I have to go on.  I’d be interested to see if people who know the book or saw the play in its first incarnation experience the story any differently.  Because I keep encountering more and more theater lately where my brain keeps insisting that I answer a set of pesky questions: Why tell this story, in this way, at this particular time, for this audience?

“I cannot permit you to stay outside at night.”
“Don’t speak to me that way again.  I won’t answer you.”

Edna (Emily Dussault) has the kind of problems you wish you had.  The woman is drenched in privilege.  If she has a fit and throws a chair across the room, a servant will come in and pick it up for her.  She has such a great nanny that we have to constantly be reminded Edna has two children.  They don’t impact her life in the slightest, and remain offstage for the entirety of the evening.  On top of this not one, not two, not three, but four people are living in various states of infatuation and love with her - male and female. 

“I want to feel your wings.  I want to see if your wings are strong.”

There’s Edna’s husband Leonce (Seth K. Hale), who makes sure the whole family can afford to live a very comfortable life, and looks after appearances for society’s sake when Edna can’t be bothered.  There’s the local womanizer Alcee (Mike Swan), who finds Edna fascinating and well worth seducing.  There’s lesbian musician Mademoiselle Reisz (Alexis Clarksean), who’s overtly homoerotic with Edna, but never in a way that crosses a line without permission.  Most of all there’s Robert (Nick Wolf), one of the adult sons of the family that runs a vacation resort where Edna’s family spends an eventful summer.  Edna and Robert’s summer flirtation opens her eyes to a world of possibilities, even if Robert himself is too mindful of society’s rules to allow himself to fully surrender to an affair with a married woman.

“Things like this seem small but we have to take them seriously.”

To provide a counter-example for Edna, there’s her friend Adele (Amber Davis), Adele’s very affectionate and loving husband Alphonse (Russ Dugger), and their son Ari (Thomas Ferguson, Daniel Rovinsky).  Not only does the child actually make a cameo appearance on stage, Adele’s pregnancy introduces motherhood to Edna in ways with which Edna apparently is unfamiliar.  Just talking about pregnancy makes Edna squeamish.  Edna was apparently unconscious on the best of drugs when she gave birth (twice) because when Adele later calls for Edna to be present at the birth of Adele’s latest offspring, seeing the miracle of life firsthand really throws Edna for a loop.  All these folks are surrounded by host of other people representing a largely disapproving society (Nayely Becerra, Lauren Diesch, Nathan Gebhard, Aaron Henry, Rachel Kuhnle, Eric Marinus, and Tinne Rosenmeier), countering Edna at every turn in her experiments with liberty and free will.

“I thought I might die out there all by myself.”

This is a tragedy in the old-fashioned sense - a person of privilege in society falls from a height much greater than the rest of us would have to fall.  This is the 1890s, in Louisiana of the old South.  Edna is a woman.  She is stepping out of line - worst of all in a puritan nation, sexually - so, one way or another, she will be punished.

“When I’m near you, how can I help it?”

The thing I have the greatest problem is, naturally, the one thing I can’t speak about - the ending.  It would be a spoiler of the first order.  Depending on how optimistic you’re feeling, you could argue that the ending could be interpreted a couple of different ways.  But if you’re too optimistic, then any potential escape for Edna means it wasn’t really a tragedy after all, right?  And if your worst fears are confirmed, well, I’m not sure a shower of rose petals falling from the sky makes anything better (no, really, that happens).

“Of whom, of what, are you thinking?”

Much as I wrestle with the story, Savage Umbrella’s production is fantastic.  It looks gorgeous.  The costumes in particular (by Sarah French with assistance from Alexandra Gould) not only set the period beautifully but the change in palette from the brightness of summer to the dark, rich colors when vacation time is over and the family returns home for the second act visually reinforces the flow and mood of the story.  Lights and setting (Adam Raine and Meagan Kedrowski, respectively) also play a huge role here - from open, expansive and light in the first half, to focused down, constricted and dark in the second half.  It’s not the sledgehammer approach I probably make it sound like.  Something as simple as billowing fabric, lit from inside, hanging in the air, later released to hang down straight, opaque and casting shadows has enormous impact on the tone of the piece.

“I hope you have some suitable excuse.”

And the acting here really is something.  Director/adaptor Laura Leffler-McCabe has assembled a cast here that knows how to do a slow burn on Edna’s simmering emotions, with Dussault of course, leading the pack.  The whole thing would not work without her, and her cadre of suitors (Clarksean, Hale, Swan, and Wolf).  I also nearly left out the music, which is almost another character in the play, composed by Candace Emberley, performed by a trio of piano (Nic Delcambre, also music director), clarinet (Carley Olson) and violin (Alissa Ona Jacobsen).

“I am thinking I would like to be alone there with you, in the sun.”

My struggle with the story may in part be due to the balance of the three parts of it.  There’s the awakening of Edna to the fact that she probably has more choices in life than she’s been allowing herself.  That’s all of act one.  The other two parts of the story are her waking life, if you will, and the unraveling that follows.  You could argue that the first half of the second act, that waking life, is another phase of her awakening, in which case the unraveling seems even more abrupt and rushed.  I might be more accepting and less troubled by the outcome, as a spectator, if I felt I understood it better.  The awakening itself is a really slow burn, and that sexual tension and gradual teasing out of Edna’s new consciousness works, because the production as a whole makes it work.  The unraveling needs the same kind of grounding and attention, because right now it feels like it comes out of nowhere and then we’re in a headlong rush to the finish line.  Edna seems to be managing things just fine, and then all of a sudden she’s just not anymore.  Let’s face it, when someone walks out in a nurse’s uniform at the end of a play, that’s Tennessee Williams’ shorthand for “someone’s lost their marbles.”  And I’m not sure the setup feels like it’s leading to that payoff right now.

“The years that are gone seem like dreams.”

Also, the novel’s vestigial tail (no pun intended) of the author’s narrative voice brought to life at random points by the ensemble becomes a bit of a distraction.  The regular character-based acting here works so well, and makes the story so clear, that the additional flourishes of language feel like an unnecessary gilding of the lily.  The ensemble voice is largely a function of Edna’s inner voice anyway.  Finding a way to hand those duties off to an actress of Dussault’s caliber - or maybe a single  additional voice rather than a multitude - might be a more effective way to get those thoughts out.

“I wonder if any night on earth will ever again be like this one.”

All that said, the look, the mood, and the atmosphere of The Awakening, as well as the central performances, make it well worth seeing.  I’m just still struggling personally with the “Why?” of it all. (performs at the Southern Theater through March 18, 2017)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(Nick Wolf and Emily Dussault as Robert and Edna in Savage Umbrella's adaptation of The Awakening; photographer: Carl Atiya Swanson)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review - As You Like It - Classical Actors Ensemble - Always a Pleasant Time In the Forest of Arden - 4 stars

As You Like It is one of my top ten favorite plays of all time.  So I’m either your best audience (if you get it right) or your worst nightmare (if you screw it up). Thus I am happy to report Classical Actors Ensemble is currently doing a lovely job with Shakespeare’s popular romantic comedy over at the Crane Theater space.  It’s nice to be able to steer people to a production of a play I like so they can like it, too.

“They are in the very wrath of love and they will together.  Clubs cannot part them.”

As You Like It nails the idea of love in all its messy, varied glory. Along the way it also toys with notions of identity and gender in amusing and thought-provoking ways.  It has some of Shakespeare’s very best roles for women and all the women in this cast take full advantage of the opportunity.

“Hang there my verse, in witness of my love.”

Rosalind (Samantha V. Papke) is left behind at the royal court when her father Duke Frederick (Randall J. Funk) is sent into exile by his brother Duke Senior (also Funk).  Duke Senior’s daughter Celia (Käri Nielsen), is both Rosalind’s cousin and her best friend.  When Duke Senior later decides to banish Rosalind, Celia decides to run away with her friend, dragging the court jester Touchstone (Joseph Papke) along with them.  Venturing outside of court, Rosalind decides for their protection it’s best to put on the disguise of being a young man instead, calling herself Ganymede.

“Sweet are the uses of adversity.”

They venture out to the Forest of Arden in search of Rosalind’s father Duke Frederick.  Frederick has been accompanied to Arden by loyal attendants (Cody Carlson, James Coward) and a melancholy philosopher named Jacques (Arthur Moss).

“The worst fault you have is to be in love.”
“’Tis a fault I will not change for your best virtue.”

Rosalind and Celia purchase a farming homestead with the help of a local shepherd named Corin (Joe Wiener), and get swept up in the romantic shenanigans surrounding another local young shepherd Silvius (Tom Conry) and his love interest the shepherdess Phoebe (Megan Daoust), who takes a liking to Ganymede instead. 

“Praised be the gods for thy foulness.  Sluttishness may come hereafter.”

Touchstone also gets in on the action by catching the eye of another young shepherdess named Audrey (Emma VanVactor-Lee), who is followed around by yet another lovesick shepherd named William (Carlson again).

“An ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own.”

Also ending up in the Forest of Arden, for various other reasons, are Orlando (Jordon Johnson) and faithful family servant Adam (Alan Tilson), both put out of their home by Orlando’s troublesome older brother Oliver (Taras Wybaczynsky Jr.). 

“I am he that is so love-shaked. I pray you, tell me your remedy.”

Orlando and Rosalind had previously met and become smitten with one another at court.  Now Orlando meets young master Ganymede in the woods, who claims he can cure Orlando of his lovesickness if only Orlando will treat Ganymede as if he were his dream girlfriend Rosalind and try to woo him.  And off we go to the races...

“Chewing the food of sweet and bitter fancy.”

Love triangles, quadrangles, reunions, and transformations abound in the silliest and most delightful of ways, culminating in a four-couple wedding at the end.

“Your gentleness shall force, more than your force move us to gentleness.”

Director Joseph Papke (with assistance from Zach Curtis, Randall J. Funk, and Joe Wiener) and his design team of Dietrich Poppen (set and lights), Marco T. Magno (costumes), and Jordan Johnson (props), put a 1980s gloss on the whole thing, but don’t allow it to get in the way of the story.  It just gives them permission to use colors, music and fashion they might not otherwise have felt they could get away with. (For instance, Orlando's poems are stuck all over the forest on Post-It notes.) Occasionally the era also seeps into the performances - as when Tom Conroy plays the supporting role of Charles the Wrestler in full WWE mode (which is extremely amusing to a degree I was not expecting), or when Papke plays Touchstone as if channeling Christian Slater from the movie Heathers (though thankfully less homicidal).  This last is a schtick that could get old or overdone, but Papke skillfully walks the line that keeps it from tipping over the edge.

“I do not desire you to please me, I desire you to sing.”

The cast as a whole does a commendable job keeping things light and swiftly moving, but there are standouts.  The trio of Samantha Papke as Rosalind, Käri Nielsen as Celia, and Joseph Papke as Touchstone make a great combo of strangers in a strange land leaving the court for the forest.  Randall Funk does wonderfully subtle work distinguishing the two Dukes from one another without turning either one of them into a cartoon (which is trickier than it sounds). 

“Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history...”

Jacques is a role you can overdo or underdo, but Arthur Moss gets it just right.  Jacques seems essential to the story, and is always welcome when he appears.  The Seven Ages Of Man speech (“All the world’s a stage…”) is a heavy lift to make fresh and new after all these years, but Moss does a great job.  Tom Conry doing double duty as both Silvius and Charles is a lot of fun, and he has a couple of great foils in Megan Daoust as Phoebe, and Joe Wiener as Corin (who almost steals the show out from under everyone else with wry wit and offbeat comic timing).

“He that wants money, means and content is without three good friends.”

I have to admit the opening scene between Orlando, Oliver and Adam had me a little worried.  Both the comedy and the brotherly conflict was played so broadly that I thought for a minute “hoo boy, this might be a long night.”  Thankfully all three actors quickly settled into their roles after that, and Oliver’s transformation in the second half especially had me appreciating Wybaczynsky’s acting chops a lot more.  Overall, this As You Like It had a slightly bumpy start but ended up a very pleasant ride.

“Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

If you’ve never seen As You Like It before, this is a nice way to get introduced to the story.  And if, like me, you’ve seen a lot of As You Like Its, this one will feel like you’re getting reacquainted with an old friend. (Classical Actors Ensemble’s production of As You Like It plays at the Crane Theater through March 5, 2017.)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(Pictured (clockwise from left): Samantha Papke, Joseph Papke,
Taras Wybaczynsky Jr, Käri Nielsen, and Jordon Johnson; Photo credit: Lou Bedor III)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review - Anna In The Tropics - Jungle Theater - Yes, it IS Hot In Here - 5 stars

You know that question, “Is it hot in here or is it just me?”  In the case of the Jungle Theater’s production of Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Anna In The Tropics, it is both hot up on stage, and given the response of the audience, also hot for the people watching the show.  People in the audience were fanning themselves, sighing, whooping, and generally exhaling in a way that indicated they were very hot and bothered, in the best possible way, by the story unfolding in front of them.  When you put together Cruz’s script with the team of actors and designers recruited by director Larissa Kokernot, you can hardly blame anyone for being a little carried away.  If the winter weather’s getting you down, let Anna In The Tropics heat you up a little bit.

“I believe everything counts if you have faith.”

Nilo Cruz takes us back to Florida in the late 1920s, when cigars were still rolled by human hands, and to help them pass the time, the employees of the cigar factories would hire a lector, someone to read to them while they worked, helping their minds to escape the monotony of their task.  Santiago (Al Clemente Saks) and his wife Ofelia (Adlyn Carreras) own one such cigar factory.  They work there alongside their two daughters Conchita (Nora Montañez) - with her husband Palomo (Rich Remedios) - and Marela (Cristina Florencia Castro). Santiago’s half-brother Cheche (Dario Tangleson) also helps run the factory but is frustrated in his attempts to modernize it with machines.  He wants full ownership of the place, and Santiago’s gambling may give him an opportunity to take it. 

“We must look after the dead, so they feel a part of the world and they won’t forget us.”

The new lector they’ve brought in to read, Juan Julian (Juan Rivera Lebron), chooses Tolstoy’s classic novel of love and infidelity Anna Karenina.  The women are quite taken with the story, but the Cheche and Palomo have their own personal reasons for being less enthused.  Cheche’s wife ran off with another lector, and it looks like Conchita may be inclined to repeat history.  Much of the play is a slow burn, and an enticing one at that.  There were a couple of abrupt turns in the plot (don't worry, no spoilers) which jolted me, but given how worked up or swept away everyone in the story can get, emotions were bound to boil over in ways I couldn’t predict.  The final outcome, though, is very satisfying, and the very final image quite beautiful.

“Some coats keep winter inside them.”

This beauty is an equal product of Cruz’s words, the actors’ artisty under Kokernot’s guidance, and the design of the world around them.  Andrea Heilman’s set is simple but just gorgeous. The walls are made up of lines of translucent yellowed pages from a book.  At key moments in the action, the pages will rotate on the wires on which they hang, and the wall opens up to the blue sky, sun and hint of clouds behind them.  Barry Browning’s lighting interacts with Heilman’s set in these moments to seem almost magical.  Sarah Bahr’s costumes, Paul Bigot’s wigs, and C. Andrew Mayer’s sound design all reinforce both the time period, and also these heightened moments of romance and fantasy.  This production takes the sensuality of the words in the script and brings them to full life onstage in a way that easily swept the audience right along with it.  Anna In The Tropics is the kind of play you enjoy surrendering to.

“You changed.”
“It happens, when lovers do what they’re supposed to do.”

I could blather on, but I don’t want to risk giving too much away.  And honestly, there’s something going on at the Jungle Theater with Anna In The Tropics that you can’t nail down in a review.  You need to go see for yourself and just let the story take you.  So stop reading this review and go do that.  Trust me, you’ll be treating yourself. (runs through March 12, 2017)

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

(photo: l to r: Juan Rivera Lebron (Juan Julian), Al Clemente Saks (Santiago) and Adlyn Carreras (Ofelia) in Jungle Theater’s production of Anna In The Tropics; photographer: Dan Norman)

Review - Marie Antoinette - Walking Shadow - Sympathy for the Devil? - 4 stars

I have to hand it to Walking Shadow Theatre Company.  When it comes to the plays Walking Shadow produces, I never leave feeling neutral or unengaged.  I either love the play wholeheartedly, or am sitting there scratching my head thinking, “OK, I know you know what you’re doing, so that must have been deliberate.  But why are you screwing with my head in this particular way right now?” 

“I wasn’t raised.  I was built.  I was built to be this thing.”

Last year, their production of The Christians was one of the very best things I saw all year.  Their production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens just a few months before that was also fantastic.  From their Fringe Festival beginnings with The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, to live action puzzle boxes like 1926 Pleasant or Saboteur, to more recent high points like Gabriel, Walking Shadow always puts on a hell of a show.  Then they’ll do something where I feel jerked around as an audience member with things like The American Pilot or Lasso of Truth or Mojo or The Coward or The Sexual Life of Savages or, most recently, The River - and I’ll be thinking, "Hey, cut it out, that hurt, why’d you do that?"  To be clear, it’s not that I don’t want them to do that.  I just want to better understand why.  You can add their current production of Marie Antoinette to that latter category.

“We are great friends, you and I.  Let’s not trouble it with facts.”

Walking Shadow chose to produce David Adjmi’s script about the doomed French queen on the eve of the French Revolution well before the results of the most recent American presidential election.  This isn’t a response to the reality of a President Trump.  One wonders what lens we’d all be looking at this play through if we ended up with a second President Clinton instead.  The play was originally commissioned and produced back in 2012, the year we reelected President Obama for a second term.  But is anyone really asking me to sympathize with clueless rich people in power as my protagonists?  Or to think of the people protesting and rioting in the streets in order to change their way of life for the better as the bad guys?  Current events seem to be fighting this play pretty hard at the moment.

“It’s like dishes breaking and clattering everywhere you go.”

Cognitive dissonance is the order of the day, and this production of Marie Antoinette serves it up in fine style.  If you’ve seen any other Walking Shadow production, then it will come as no surprise when I tell you the show looks stunning.  Annie Henly’s set is spare, but populated in just the right way by Sarah Salisbury’s props that you get a feel for the opulent Versailles.  Katherine B. Kohl’s costumes (and of course all those wigs by Robert A. Dunn) do a lot of the heavy lifting for the show by being WAY over the top in a way that nails the excesses of the French monarchy perfectly.  With Michael Croswell’s sound and music compositions, it’s the little things that knocked my socks off.  Marie has a line (just before everything starts going down the crapper), saying at the end of a scene, “I still feel there’s something inside of me that’s trying to get out.  A little bird flapping its wings at the inside of its cage.”  As she moves to go and the lights begin to fade, we hear the sounds of a bird’s wings (which I know sounds obvious, but the clarity of the sound and volume at which it’s pitched made it the perfect ominous foreshadowing for me).

“They’re always angry.  That’s not a barometer of anything.”

The acting ensemble is stuffed with fine performances, led of course by Jane Froiland as the title character.  Her character embodies the tough to love/tough to hate aspects of the play perfectly.  She’s a smart choice around which to build a production.  Just as you start feeling bad for Marie Antoinette, she’ll do something off-putting, more likely say something off-putting.  She regularly swears like a sailor but that isn’t as offensive as some of the breathtakingly clueless things she says that have no grounding in everyday reality or empathy for common people.  You could try and feel sympathy for her as a parent who lost a child.  And you want to feel bad when she’s separated from her remaining young son (Hal Weilandgruber) late in the play, but you just saw her shove him away from her only minutes before.  Hardly mother of the year material. 

“Helen of Troy did that.  She’s my inspiration.”

Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI (Zach Garcia), like nearly all royal marriages at the time, was more international power-brokering between countries than a relationship grounded in any genuine bond of affection.  Louis seems just as clueless, if not more so (if that’s possible) than Marie about the real world their royal bubble of privilege exists in.  Teresa Mock and Derek “Duck” Washington help round out the “haves” in this society, with Julia Alvarez and Anna Sutheim filling in some of the “have nots.”  Meanwhile, David Beukema and Suzie Juul do double duty in multiple roles both high society and lower born.  Paul LaNave stands out for embodying the menace and danger of the French revolutionaries.  And just for good measure, we have Neal Beckman as a horny anthropomorphized Sheep, who also doubles as a harbinger of doom.

“I had the goats and sheep perfumed. I don’t like rustic smells.”

Adjmi’s script is both poetic and profane.  It manages to make these shallow people just human enough to sympathize with, then promptly reminds you why they don’t deserve our sympathy.  The production jerks you back and forth just like the script wants it to.  In fact, the only real stumble in presentation is the often unnecessarily long scene shifts.  It feels like the changing of elaborate costumes and wigs is often the culprit here.  But even the movement between scenes where that isn’t a factor seems to leave us in semi-darkness much longer than it needs to.  A brief window of time between scenes, for us to digest what’s going on, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But if it goes on too long, then we start to drift away from the story and you have to spend precious time in the next scene dragging us back and rebuilding the momentum of the tale. 

“Inequality is unnatural.”

Also, while there was gorgeous work done on a painted backdrop by Wendy Wazut-Barrett, a handful of the supertitles projected on that backdrop weren’t fully visible to anyone who wasn’t sitting right in the center section of the house.  They probably should have sat someone off to the side to watch while they were incorporating the projections to catch that.  And given the fact that it’s a fairly large backdrop, centering some of those longer titles in shorter bursts and using up more of the wall, top to bottom, to project them on might have solved that problem.

“Ten years from now, how will you remember me?”

Strong script, equally strong cast, strong design - director John Heimbuch and Walking Shadow once again have pulled together an impressive package of theatrical elements.  I’m just not sure why they’re poking me in the brain with this particular story right now.  Still, I have to admit, watching Marie Antoinette, I was never bored.  That’s what happens when you dangle an answer to a question tantalizingly just outside my grasp.  Check it out for yourself - then maybe you can explain it to me - or probably, we’ll just argue about it.  I imagine Walking Shadow’s fine with either outcome, as long as we’re talking. (runs through March 4, 2017 at Red Eye)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo: Jane Froiland as Marie Antoinette, costume by Kathy Kohl, photo by Walking Shadow)

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Review - The Whipping Man - Minnesota Jewish Theatre - They Don't Make 'Em Like This Anymore - 5 stars

The Whipping Man is a quiet little surprise of a theatrical production, and that is a most welcome thing.  I missed Penumbra Theatre’s regional premiere of Matthew Lopez’s play eight years ago but it’s easy to see how it became one of the most produced plays in regional theaters around the country in recent years.  And it’s not just because it’s a single set, three-person show that makes it logistically easier for a theater to produce.  They don’t really write plays like The Whipping Man much anymore, which makes me appreciate it even more fully. 

“You don’t get to be free.  You work to be free.”

The Whipping Man is a play that just allows three richly drawn characters to exist in the same space together in varying combinations, and over the course of the story, these three people just keep revealing new things about themselves, one layer at a time.  The revelations keep coming right up into the very closing minutes of the play.  And it’s not filled with a lot of melodrama or wailing and bombast.  These characters feel things very deeply, and have a lot of cause for grievance, but they don’t get what they want with a lot of yelling and screaming.  It’s the quite moments in The Whipping Man that are the most telling, including that final, very loaded moment when the lights begin to the fade at the end of the play.  A moment filled with a strange kind of hope.  A hope we desperately need right now.  Put a story like this in the hands of a talented director - Sally Wingert - and three skilled actors - Warren C. Bowles, JuCoby Johnson, and Riley O’Toole - as the Minnesota Jewish Theatre does, and you’ve got a powerful piece of theater.

“Don’t question me about the history of this house.  I know the history of this house.”

The Whipping Man takes place at the end of the Civil War (I know, I know, I had the same knee-jerk “Oh man, I’m not sure I want to go there right now” response, but go there, you get an enormous payoff).  A young Jewish Confederate soldier (yes, apparently we had those, I feel slightly remiss in my education) Caleb DeLeon (O’Toole) returns to his family estate to find it looted and in ruins. But an old  faithful family servant, Simon (Bowles), now a free man rather than a slave thanks to President Lincoln, still stands guard over the house. A younger freed slave who is Caleb’s age named John (Johnson) also soon makes an appearance.  John has been helping himself to the contents of unguarded neighboring estates and now returns to the DeLeon place, which was also once his home.  Though absent, Caleb’s father, and Simon’s wife and daughter, all cast long shadows over the memory and relationships of the three men taking refuge in the ravaged homestead.  Caleb has been wounded in one of the Civll War’s final battles and it’s up to Simon and John, who can no longer be commanded, but only asked, to help keep Caleb alive.  All these men have something to fear, and all these men have something to hide.  But at the same time they all have something to hope for.  And that’s what ultimately makes The Whipping Man such a satisfying experience.

“War is not proof of God’s absence.  War is proof of God’s absence from men’s hearts.”

To say too much more would give away some of the many interesting surprises and turns in the plot and character revelations, and in the case of The Whipping Man, it’s really best to go in blind and go on the journey.  Honestly, I heard “beloved Twin Cities actress Sally Wingert makes her directorial debut” and I didn’t even care what the play was.  I wanted to see it.  The three actors involved just sweetened the deal.

“You did it because you could; simple as that.”

[Strange side note: the only other time I’d heard of The Whipping Man was in the context of the show Thatswhatshesaid, a performance art piece that touched down twice in Minneapolis before heading home to Seattle and causing no end of controversy. The premise was simple: take TCG’s list of new plays most produced by regional theaters around the US in a given season; thread together the lines and stage directions dealing with the female characters in those plays. First the plays written by women (the minority), then the plays written by men. Off to the side of the stage, someone performs the idea of turning the pages of the play, seeking out the next line for a female character. The Whipping Man was on the most produced list.  The Whipping Man has no female characters.  For the section having to do with The Whipping Man in Thatswhatshesaid, the audience got to sit and listen to the sound of 72 pages being turned.  On to the next play…]

“Like it or not, we are a family.”

The Whipping Man deals with the thorny topics of race, privilege, free will, and the human family large and small in ways that are so firmly rooted in these particular characters whom we care about, that you feel the impact, for better or worse, of the choices these people make and the society in which they make them.  We don’t get sidetracked so much by what they say, and are able to focus on what they do, and what it means.  The Whipping Man deals in hard truths in a surprisingly gentle but still powerful way.  It doesn’t spare the audience, but it also doesn’t attack them.  Nor does it leave the audience without hope.  These days, that’s a great and necessary thing for a piece of theater to do.  We could use more theater like Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s production of The Whipping Man. (running through February 26, 2017)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo: l to r: Warren C. Bowles as Simon, Riley O’Toole as Caleb, and JuCoby Johnson as John in Minnesota Jewish Theatre's production of The Whipping Man; photography by Sarah Whiting Photography)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Review - Miranda - Illusion Theater - White People Adrift in the Middle East - 4 stars

Miranda has the makings of a great play, so I’m glad Illusion Theater commissioned the script.  Playwright James Still is a multiple nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and you can see evidence of why in Miranda (and also why Illusion Theater has produced five very different plays of his over the years). The script is smart and funny, and it couldn’t ask for a better set of actors to perform it than the ensemble that director Michael Robins has gathered here.  A story of CIA operatives based in the middle eastern country of Yemen in 2014-2015, Miranda keeps revealing different layers in a series of tangled interrelationships between the CIA agents and the local population, both struggling with the threat of civil war in a country overrun by terrorists.

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”

Miranda (Carolyn Pool) rarely uses her real name unless she’s around her CIA supervisor Reed (Steve Hendrickson). Miranda had been working in Jordan until she was caught in the middle of a terrorist bombing there.  Now she's undercover in Yemen.  The physical shock of the bombing has left an occasional ringing in her ears, an injury she uses as a way to cross the path of Dr. Al-Agbhari (Delta Rae Giordano), a Yemeni woman running a health clinic exclusively to serve women in her country.  Since the doctor needs supplies for the clinic, and Miranda needs information, which the doctor can get from her patients, they develop a mutually beneficial working relationship.  Meanwhile, Reed and Miranda’s cover is running a program called Building Bridges, which provides art and learning opportunities for local children.  Their current project involves Shahid (Ricky Morrisseau) and a production of Shakespeare’s Othello.  When things go sideways for the mission, as they have a tendency to do in Yemen, the higher ups at the CIA send in another supervisor, Lauren (Beth Gilleland), to help get things back on track.

“It’s easy to get lost inside a war that’s lost inside a war that’s lost inside a war that’s lost inside a war.”

By the end of act one, things are so up in the air between all the parties that it’s hard to know who to trust, or if there’s any way this is going to end well.  And then a funny thing happens in act two - all the tension gets sucked right out of the play.  All the potentially explosive crosscurrents between people get quickly defused and everything gets tied up in a neat little bow at the end.  And while the relationships between people only get richer and more interesting, and the acting keeps buzzing along at the high quality it had from the very start, you could be forgiven for wondering what the point of it all is.  The heat gets turned down quickly on any life or death stakes.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not lobbying for a nihilistic world view or a conclusion where everyone is lying in a pool of their own blood.  But no actions seem to have any consequences here.  Which is weird, because it’s Yemen.  Things aren’t exactly calm and friendly.  In real life, just like in the play, the escalating terrorist occupation of the country meant that the CIA had to dismantle its operations and pull its people out pretty much altogether in 2015.

“Yemen is a country of many secrets, and no mysteries.”

But the play seems to posit that, hey, as long as our white American intelligence agents emerge unscathed, all is right with the world.  They continue on their personal journeys of discovery and sure, Yemen’s still a mess but hey, what can ya do? It’s the Middle East.

“You have my word.”
“How does that help me?”

Two moments in the second act that happen almost in passing crystallized this odd feeling for me. Sahid walks with a limp, and we finally learn why in act two (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler of any major plot points). He makes a joke that the state bird of Yemen is the drone. That causes Miranda to ask if Sahid was injured in a drone strike. No, it turns out he was a child soldier guarding a checkpoint when a suicide bomber came along. So the play mentions drones, but the bad thing that happens to a character we like isn’t America’s fault, it’s those evil terrorists. Phew, Miranda doesn’t have to feel bad - other than, you know, she’s lying to this kid about who she is and why she’s really in Yemen, and America is still launching drone strikes into the country which usually end up with civilian collateral damage as well as taking out their terrorist target.

“Bin Laden still shows up in my dreams, makes himself right at home, like he lives there.”

Later on, Miranda worries to Lauren about the fate of one of her informants and she is reassured that the informant and their whole family has been safely relocated (offstage, unseen). Good thing the play takes place over a  year ago, because now any Muslim informants helping American intelligence agents would find themselves out of luck - no America for you to escape to and start a new life, but hey, thanks for the help turning against your people.

“Remembering the past, that’s easy.  Imagining a future, that’s work.”

It’s a very white American take on the situation in the Middle East, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But when someone else’s country is coming apart at the seams, I have difficulty caring about whether Miranda is having a hard time sleeping, or wondering what really happened to her brother on 9/11, etc. At one point, a character opines about, “Paranoia, the great American privilege.”  The agents here have the privilege of not thinking much in terms of life or death in this play because it’s not their home that’s being ripped to shreds.  They still have a place they can go to when it’s all over.  Not when the war is over, mind you, just when their mission is considered done.  They’ll leave the cleanup in the aftermath for the locals to do.  If the characters were more troubled by this, I might not have to be.  Or at least I'd think the play cared about someone other than its white protagonists.

“You cannot wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.”

All that said, the characters are so interesting, the dialogue so sharp and the acting so good, I can almost forgive the world view of the play being mildly out of whack and devoid of genuine consequences.  I want Miranda to continue to grow, and I’m glad Illusion Theater has helped get it this far.  Miranda is still worth seeing.  (now through February 18, 2017 at Illusion Theater)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(photo: Steve Hendrickson as Reed, Carolyn Pool as Miranda in Illusion Theater’s production of Miranda; photography by Lauren B Photography)