Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review - Masquerade At Bernard’s - Fearless Comedy - 4 stars

The 1980s “buddy comedy with a corpse” movie Weekend At Bernie’s gets the Shakespearean iambic pentameter treatment from the good folks at Fearless Comedy Productions.

That’s probably enough to either entice you to immediately buy a ticket or run screaming in the opposite direction.  It all comes down to how you feel about Weekend At Bernie’s.  If you consider it a dumb but delightfully stupid movie that you can’t help laughing at, then Masquerade At Bernard’s is the play for you.  If you didn’t feel like you should waste your time on Weekend At Bernie’s when it wasn’t written in verse, I’m not sure this production is going to change your mind.

“Not the Merchant of Venison!”
“The very same.”

The thing is, everyone involved with Masquerade At Bernard’s is clearly involved in a labor of love here.  Weekend At Bernie’s is over 25 years old but it still makes them laugh, and they want to share that laughter with you, so they’ve repackaged it in a way that will make it seem even sillier.  Let’s face it, Shakespeare was not above lowbrow humor.  No matter how serious the script, you can always find a dick joke.  Often a whole lot of dick jokes.  And the comedies - well, the man was obsessed with twins, mistaken identity, and women in drag as men (and, again, dick jokes) so he was hardly taking the high road.  I’m not saying Masquerade At Bernard’s is full of dick jokes, but would Shakespeare have appreciated the slapstick inherent in a couple of guys pretending their dead boss is still alive and hosting a big party at his beach house?  Absolutely.

“My clumsy ways did charm her, it seems.”

I can’t really summarize the plot any better than this random internet synopsis:

“Fun-loving salesmen Richard (Dan Britt) and Lawrence (Trevor Hartman) are invited by their boss, Bernard (Phil Henry), to stay the weekend at his posh beach house. Little do they know that Bernard is the perpetrator of a fraud they've uncovered and is arranging to have them killed. When the plan backfires and Bernard is killed instead, the buddies decide not to let a little death spoil their vacation. They pretend Bernard is still alive, leading to hijinks and corpse desecration galore.”

“Drunken Bawdy Butterflies - methinks I’ve finally found a name for my minstrel group.”

In addition to those basics of the plot there are of course the required love interest for Richard, played here by Tara Lucchino.  There are also the bad guys who decided to kill Bernard in the first place (Matt Allex, and his hitman Matthew Kelly).  Both these guys are bewildered by the fact that Bernard doesn’t seem to stay dead, and so they keep on trying to kill him.  Also in the mix are Lauren Haven, Rachel Flynn, and Mickaylee Shaughnessy, as various party guests, beach dwellers, children, and gravediggers. (Because, if you’re going to give something a Shakespearean gloss, you gotta have a gravedigger.)

“Did he really write ‘Ha ha’?”
“Yes, he also wrote ‘Kill them’”

Director Duck Washington co-wrote this stage adaptation with Brian Watson-Jones, a veteran of the Tedious Brief Fringe shows of recent years which mined a similar vein of satire.  And though as subject matter, Weekend At Bernie’s is no Pulp Fiction (Bard Fiction), or Aliens (Tempests), or heck, even Road House (Mead Hall), the formula still works, mostly because of all the things I’ve said above.  Fearless Comedy loves the original, and loves this take on it; it’s actually not as weird an idea as you first think it is, and the fun they’re having with it translates quite quickly to the right audience.

“I felt sorrow for thee, thou excrement.”

I’ll admit my attention wandered a little bit in the first half, not because the cast was doing anything wrong, but more because it just takes a farce like this a while to wind up and get going.  Once Bernard is dead and it’s time to party with a corpse, though, the thing kicks into high gear.  The fun begins in earnest and keeps on going all the way to the end, when a mischievous youngster finally gives Bernard a proper burial in the sand, and our gravedigger narrator teases the sequel.

“I do not ride as Tawnella does.  I do but watch.”

Masquerade At Bernard’s is a clever premise, executed with a lot of good-natured energy.  Everyone at Fearless Comedy wants you to have a good time.  And they succeed.  Shut off your higher brain functions and just revel in the silliness.  (through October 30, 2016 at Phoenix Theater)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

Friday, October 21, 2016

Review - Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (or: The Peril of Choice) - The Recovery Party - 4 stars

It’s hard not to get political when writing about The Recovery Party’s latest offering, Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (or: The Peril of Choice), because it sprang from the absurdity of a political conundrum.  We live in a country of abundance, but if that’s the case, then why do we have 27 varieties of Oreo cookies, and only two choices for President of the United States of America?  Already someone on the internet is screaming “What about third party candidates?”  The Recovery Party has an answer for Gary “What is Aleppo?” Johnson and Jill “I question the FDA/vaccines” Stein, too. (See? I fell the down the rabbit hole already.)

“I’m all for equality, but not if it’s something I don’t agree with.”

But we’ll set that aside for a minute because The Recovery Party didn’t set out to make an explicitly or exclusively political satire, though the underpinnings are certainly there throughout.  The Recovery Party set out to make something funny of the idea of having too many options, and something funny it very much is.  Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is definitely about a first world, largely white, problem.  They wisely acknowledge this as well.  At one point, two of the ensemble become cranky old men, basically The Recovery Party’s version of Statler and Waldorf (“Go ahead, boy!  Funny it up!”)  And these old guys point out that it’s a little weird for a satire about choice to be performed by a cast of five white dudes.  But there you are.

“See that blue wire? Cut it - if you want to kill us both.”

Whether it’s too many wires to choose to cut in order to diffuse a bomb, too many radio stations all playing the same song, or too many pizza toppings, The Recovery Party skewers our society of excess.  Multiple choice can lead us through a maze if we’re trying to get healthy, or it can lead to the breakdown of critical thinking if you’ve got everyone insisting that you teach them a version of evolution that doesn’t conflict with their beliefs (even though their beliefs aren’t supported by fact).  A plethora of corporate sponsors can turn the names of locations and events into a word salad until names mean nothing at all.  If someone’s looking for a particular way of being thanked, or served, or taught how to do a magic trick, that rigid insistence can lead to disappointment and communication breakdown on all sides.  When a parent doesn’t want to face the fact that their child’s a spoiled brat, they can come up with all sorts of ways to spin it (but be honest, sometimes it’s a relief just to hear the truth, that your kid’s an a**hole).

“Parsley, sage, rosemary and anchovies.”

Writer/director/performer Joshua Will, musician/composer/performer Dennis Curley, and their fellow performers Jeffrey Cloninger, Eriq Nelson, and Jim Robinson power through a series of over two dozen rapid-fire scenes and songs that move seamlessly from one to the next.  Callbacks to previous characters, jokes and situations abound.  Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is a tight and very funny piece of writing.  The guys do just as well with the off-beat musical numbers as they do the scripted comedy scenes.  In pretty much every case, the songs sort of come out of left field, yet they’re strangely grounded in the satirical reality of the scenes out of which they spring.  There’s everything from a more traditional musical theater number (only this one’s a dad telling his son about the horrors and disappointments of love) to a full-on Bollywood number that springs out of car radio on a deserted stretch of road.  There’s some white guy rap, some acoustic guitar, a little something for every sort of amusement.

“It sure felt good but it didn’t feel right.”

The only place Why We Can’t Have Nice Things wobbles a little bit is in a series of scenes that center on a guy accidentally selling his soul to the devil and trying to negotiate to get it back.  Both God and Satan get tied up in this (alongside the devil’s minions, who all look alike so everyone has trouble telling them apart).  There’s a lot of funny material here, just like the rest of the show, but around the edges it starts to feel like each of the scenes goes on a little long, after they’ve clearly made their point and the original joke has landed.  It’s hard to tell if the show is just worried the audience might not get the point, so the repetition is necessary, or if it just doesn’t know there could be some trimming to sharpen things up.  And because the show wants to be sure to encourage you to get out and vote, it starts to stray into potentially unuseful (and unintentional) analogies where Donald Trump is the devil so then Hillary Clinton by process of elimination must be…

“Your double negatives shall be your undoing, sir.”

Maybe this is the one place where a white, Judeo-Christian lens is too limiting.  After all, there have been countless religions, gods and monsters throughout human history.  Even if you widened your scope to include just current mainstream religions, there’s plenty of material there.  Honestly it’s probably a whole other show, the peril of religion rather than the peril of choice.  The fact that the rest of Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is so intelligent and clever makes the simplicity of using God and the Devil as stock characters for a gag fall short of the character-based work evident in the rest of the evening.  But it means well, and it’s still funny, so it makes me inclined to forgive the misstep.  Like I said, that’s really the only time the smooth-running production feels just a bit halting and clunky.  They probably just need to put that particular piece of the cake back in the oven to cook a little longer.

“Improv.  Isn’t that where actors on stage make up little plays on the spot and pretend they’re funny?”

Overall, Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is operating at a level of comedy and social satire quite a few notches above your standard comedy fare full of sex and fart jokes (come to think of it, I can’t recall a whole lot of foul language either, so, kudos for not taking the easy route, Recovery Party).  It kept me fully engaged for the entire running time and that’s not something I can say about a lot of theater these days.  (The place was packed the night I saw it and people were laughing their butts off all around me, so I wasn't alone in enjoying it.)  This also seems like a troupe that builds on whatever they’ve done before, learning and improving as they go.  Why We Can’t Have Nice Things is already really good.  So I can only imagine what The Recovery Party has in store for us next.  Meanwhile, catch this show if you want a laugh, they’ve got plenty to go around. (through November 6, 2016 at Bryant Lake Bowl)

4 stars, Highly Recommended

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Review - Losing Kantor - Skewed Visions - Put Your Cardboard Blinders On - 5 stars

Skewed Visions seems to delight in making my job as a reviewer harder, and I have to say I’m thankful for that.  Few theater artists tend to twist my view around about what it means to be an audience member quite the way Charles Campbell and his collaborators do.  The other thing that is frankly a genuine relief these days - given the state of art and the world in general - is that the Skewed Visions’ mission seems to be in part to bring not just humor, but gentleness and whimsy and a much absent feeling of fondness for the human race.  Not to feel like you’re escaping so much as being reminded, yeah, people aren’t all bad.  Just to be able to be amused without turning off one’s brain, to feel better about people and life and not just a little more hopeless, that’s a gift.  Skewed Visions offers it generously, here again in their latest piece, Losing Kantor.

“My last advice: remember everything and forget everything…”

The making my job harder part is the prism through which you are asked to view Losing Kantor.  When you arrive you are given a cardboard object about as long as your arm.  This object is a tiny forced perspective hallway, complete with a couple of window openings and a tiny door at the end.  You look through it from the large end (there are even tiny flaps to accommodate those of us with glasses), out through the tiny doorway (sort of like looking backwards through a telescope).  Then Charles Campbell and his fellow performers Annie Enneking, Megan Mayer and Billy Mullaney present Losing Kantor in much the way Skewed Vision would present anything other piece.  But you’re watching it through a tiny portal.  You can get a tiny bit of peripheral visual by looking out the little window or pulling back a bit and letting your eyes see past the flaps.  But basically you need to decide how you’re going to watch the piece.  Follow the noises, focus on faces or hands, random props, or something on the opposite end of the room just for fun. 

“In the end, nothing is less personal than the face, and this lack is everywhere avenged.”

Some audience members choose to watch “traditionally” without the cardboard gizmo and I’m sure it’s equally fun to watch that way.  The audience I was part of was game to keep their big cardboard snouts on their faces the whole time.  It, of course, made it impossible for me to take any notes, so I had to scurry home and type some quick thoughts from memory.  But the trade off was worth it.  You have to hold the cardboard hallway up, there’s no straps to hold it in place for you.  As a result, that effort, plus the constant need to decide “where am I going to look now?” keeps you fully alert, engaged with the piece, and aware of your own body.  It’s a challenging but rewarding viewing experience.  Someone should take a picture of all of this from the outside, these big-beaked people/birds watching other humans put on a play in front of them.  When they offer you a “facial corridor vision machine” on your arrival, take one and stick with it.

“…poor fragments of my own life will become ‘ready-made objects’.”

What are you watching?  First of all, any soundtrack that includes Elvis Costello, Bach, Drowning Pool, Chopin and Chicago is OK in my book.  The Chicago track “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” is particularly fun because it’s playing over the cast getting in a slowly escalating slap fight while looking at frames on a gallery wall, with some additional enthusiastic lip sync performance toward the end by Mayer.

“They would emerge and keep returning stubbornly, as if waiting for my permission to let them enter.”

All the segments of the evening (lasting a little over an hour), have their inspiration in the work of visual artist and theater director Tadeusz Kantor.  Do you need to be familiar with Kantor or his work to “get” or enjoy the evening?  Nope.  I can say this because I went in with zero knowledge (yes, I admit the gap in my education).  I am aware now, though, of how a lot of Campbell’s work is filled with echoes of Kantor.  A little post-show research now means I’ll recognize the fingerprints when I see them in the future.

“The weak walls of our ROOM, of our everyday or linear time, will not save us…”

There’s an obsession with chairs - and people struggling physically with chairs in oddball ways (the opening sequence finds each of the performers struggling to enter the Fresh Oysters Performance Research space and walk across the room, all the while being entangled somehow in a chair).  There are people bundled up in coats.  There is the use of physical frames to try and frame the way the audience chooses to look at or remember an image onstage.  There are soldiers.  There are bodies dragged away.  There are people pretending to be revving up a race car.  There are people getting completely wrapped up in brown paper and then slowly breaking free.  There are people engaging with parts of mannequins as stage partners.  There’s a moment when that slap fight turns into just people lying next to each other on the floor, looking up at what would be the sky and the stars.

“…when we want to shelter and protect, to preserve, to escape the passage of time.”

Each time a sequence is completed or an image is “framed,” that frame is then hung on the wall.  At one point when the wall is full of frames, each performer takes a frame off the wall and steps through it.  Mullaney gets the smallest of the frames and, contortionist that he is, he manages to get himself through it in a way that doesn’t seem quite possible.  The frames also get draped with black fabric at one point.  At another junction, an even larger frame is placed around all of them.

“…behind the doors, a storm and an inferno rage, and the waters of the flood rise.”

Losing Kantor is an intriguing set of moments and images strung together and focused through your own cardboard set of blinders.  It’ll make you think differently about theater, and about being an audience member.  And it’s, strangely, not the least bit weird or taxing.  It’s actually quite refreshing and reinvigorating.  I’m not saying you should watch all theater through a cardboard tube.  But doing it once or twice is actually a lot of fun. (playing through October 22, 2016)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of Skewed Visions - front to back, Annie Enneking, Megan Mayer, and Billy Mullaney of Losing Kantor)

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Review - Antigone - Theatre Coup d’Etat - Wrestling With The Giants - 4 stars

There’s a scene in Theatre Coup d’Etat’s new adaptation of the Greek legend of the ill-fated Antigone that kicks so much ass that if the rest of the show had been that good, the thing would have been 5 stars in a walk.  It’s a nightmare sequence centered on a couple of actors and a piece of black cloth creating a two-headed spirit beast that’s done so simply, and yet is so unsettling and creepy, the happy theater part of my brain was crowing, “That!  More of that, please!” 

“The whispers you have heard are true.”

The challenge with this new version of Antigone is that almost none of the other departures from the source material of Sophocles’ original play work nearly as well.  On the flip side, a lot of the times the production cleaves more closely to the original, I found myself thinking, “Well, that’s a weird choice, where did that come from?”  Then I looked at the original play afterward and found out, Oh, that’s in there.  Doesn’t work here, though.

“The briefest way is best in a world of sorrow.”

Devised theater is hard, so I applaud Coup d’Etat for taking a swing at it.  (By the way, am I required to preface their name now as the Ivey Award-winning Theatre Coup d'Etat, since they have two?  Congrats on the award for Equus, everyone!)  They regularly team up with strong actors, so an ensemble-created approach to a classic story seems like a smart variation on the kind of work they already do.  This production of Antigone shows a lot of promise in that direction (again, the nightmare sequence).  They probably just need more time to work on strengthening those muscles, and maybe more lead time to really land the version of the story they want, and give themselves permission to stray further from the letter of their source while still remaining true to its spirit.

“Sometimes our first efforts aren’t always our best.”

Quick refresher: Antigone (Lauren Diesch) is one of the daughters of Oedpius (killed his father, married his mother, gouged his own eyes out).  So, Antigone and her siblings are just (no pun intended) royally screwed by fate from the get-go.  Oedipus cursed his two sons (Antigone’s brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices) with a divided kingdom.  The brothers tried to avoid splitting the kingdom of Thebes by agreeing to take turns ruling it in alternate years.  But after year one, Eteocles (Jason Paul Andrews) decided he didn’t want to give up the throne.  So Polyneices (Michael Johnson) felt he had no choice but to get a foreign army to back him up in trying to take the kingdom from his recalcitrant brother. 

“The gods cannot accept one without the other.”

In the ensuing battle, the brothers kill each other, leaving their uncle Creon (Brian Joyce) in charge as new king.  Creon decides that Eteocles will get a hero’s funeral but Polyneices will be left to rot in the street and be picked at by birds and dogs.  Anyone who tries to bury him will be sentenced to death themselves.  Guess who decides to go ahead and bury Polyneices anyway?  Our title heroine, of course.  And no amount of pleading from her remaining sister Ismene (Jayme Godding) can keep Antigone from doing it.  And no amount of pleading from Creon’s wife Eurydice (Sue Gerver) or their son Haemon (Jeff Groff), who’s engaged to marry Antigone, can keep Creon from his determination to punish any offender, even if it’s a member of his extended family.  To say this is going to end badly for a lot of people is an understatement.

“Fate is at your doorstep.  Its shadow stretches across your kingdom.”

One of the other strongest moments in the play is when Antigone and Creon are alone together, hashing out their conflict of loyalty and decency versus the rule of law.  Antigone admits that they need to play out the roles that fate has dealt them, even though that means Creon is probably going to have to put his niece to death.  Because they are both equally right and equally wrong in the circumstances that led them to this moment, Diesch in particular as Antigone just nails it here.  There is also an earlier moment, when the four guards (Kelly Nelson, Antonia Perez, Franklin Wagner and Patrick Webster) meant to prevent anyone from burying the brother’s body catch Antigone in the act.  One by one, for their own reasons, they decide to wait to arrest her, to turn their backs and pretend not to see her, so that she has a chance to pay honor to her fallen brother.  It’s in moments like this where the work of adapter and director Meagan Kedrowski, collaborating with her fellow artists, really sings.

“I have accepted my role.  Now accept yours.”

These key high points are unfortunately surrounded by a lot of head-scratching choices in storytelling.  Was it necessary to create a love triangle that isn’t sufficiently developed and doesn’t really pay off  The four guards mentioned above also act as a more traditional Greek chorus, here tagged as Fates, and they’re very effective in this role.  But then this version of the Antigone story also gets a narrator that is in addition a character called the Nurse (Lori Castille).  It’s a Greek tragedy, and you already have a chorus.  Why do you also have a narrator?  And why is that narrator not Antigone telling her own story for a change?  And why does the narrator we get feel like she’s actually the Nurse from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet who wandered into the wrong play? 

“You’d kill four innocent people with families but you won’t let me bury my own brother?”

Why do we spend so much time in flashback scenes of the brothers and sisters when they were kids?  If you’re going to insist on inserting flashbacks, it would have been more useful to have relatively recent flashbacks of these people as adults, so we could understand better who they are in this story, and the choices that led them to this impasse (that led two brothers to want to kill each other, for instance).  That’s how you get me to care about them.  Showing them as kids veers pretty close to the territory of unearned sentimentality and tear-jerking.  Get me to care about them now, in the present, I’ll cry for you.  Don’t drag kids into it. 

“Doesn’t death make all men equal?”

And another Shakespearean nod finds a whole scene devoted to Creon bantering back and forth with one of the guards who is cast in the thankless role of one of the Bard’s buffoonish clowns - the kind that wears out their welcome and flogs their jokes to death long before the scene is over.

“We cannot simply do what we think is right.”

The notion of class and privilege is also tackled in an uneven manner.  Most of the characters central to the story are of royal blood.  The four person chorus plus the Nurse get a lot of stage time, and all of them would be considered of a lower class than the main characters.  But the discrepancy between what some people may do and get away with, and others may not only seems to pop up briefly and sporadically when the story feels like addressing it, rather than being threaded through the whole narrative to get some additional thematic leverage.

“This path leads only to death.  I cannot let you walk it alone.”

Because in this ancient and fictitious war, at least the leaders of the nation go into battle along with the other fighting men.  Right now we’ve got a government that sends only a sliver of a percentage of the American population off to fight two wars that we barely acknowledge, and that Congress didn’t even bother to vote on - and they’ve lasted for well over a decade.  Also, in the current political climate here at home, with the struggles between communities and police, watching a bunch of mostly white people debating the opposing sides of the moral and legal questions of being allowed to honor and bury their dead seems a bit antiseptic, and not nearly as messy as it probably should be.  It also feels like an opportunity missed.

“The time we have to please the dead, sister, is far longer than the time we have to please the living.”

All of which goes by way of saying that this production of Antigone is a mixed bag.  Nearly every performer gets a chance or two to shine, and goes for it.  Some ensemble moments really stand out.  But there’s a lot of stuff rattling around in here that seems either confusing or misplaced.  Antigone remains a powerful story, and Theatre Coup d’Etat does its best to deliver on the promise inherent in the tale.  It’s still well worth seeing, but you can be forgiven for thinking about the show it could have been.

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(photo by Craig Hostetler; Lauren Diesch as Antigone)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review - Waiting For Waiting For Godot - Loudmouth Collective - What Are We Waiting For? - 3 stars

If the comedy title Waiting For Waiting For Godot makes you giggle, then Loudmouth Collective’s current production of that play at Open Eye Figure Theater is just the play for you.  If, like me, that title makes you roll your eyes, then it probably isn’t the play for you.  (This pains me, because I’ve liked both the other productions I’ve seen from Loudmouth - Fuddy Meers, and A Bright New Boise - a lot.  This, sadly, missed making it three in a row.)

“Why must the show go on?”

I hasten to add - there’s not a single thing wrong with Loudmouth’s production.  The cast of Sam Landman, Gabriel Murphy and Sulia Rose Altenberg are all just as good as you would expect them to be - by which I mean, very good, very gifted comic performers, who always deliver their best work no matter what project they’re in, making bad plays bearable and great plays even greater.  The same can be said of the directing skills of Matt Sciple - he always gives a script his best, any play is better off for having him at the helm.  The production team also nails it, particularly Meagan Kedrowski’s set and props, which create a perfect little backstage world littered with clothes, props, fake bits of scenery, costume renderings, old show posters and production shots that seems just like the green room environment a lot of actors spend their time waiting around in at one point or another in their careers.  (And, since it’s a riff on Waiting For Godot, I love the bare coat tree at the back of the room, a nice wink to the tree of the original.)  Megan Winter’s lights, Mary C. Woll’s costumes, Rosemary G. Hartunian Alumbaugh’s sound - all are just right, not overdoing it, but also not leaving any prime opportunity to make the show look and sound better unmined.  Since we regularly break the fourth wall here, even stage manager Elizabeth Stauble gets in on the act, in addition to her regular duties of making sure the whole thing runs smoothly.

“This is a very difficult show to do.  No one even knows what it means.”

The problem, for me, is the play.  Now, everyone around me was thoroughly enjoying themselves, so I probably just need to lighten up, turn off my brain and just let the jokes hit me.  But comedy that is dependent on either the characters being stupid, or the audience being stupid, just makes me cross. And for the most part, that’s all the comedy you get in Waiting For Waiting For Godot.  Thus, my confession at the top that this play just isn’t for me.

“Acting is easy.  They let anyone do it.”

The conceit of the piece is that there are two long-suffering, endlessly patient understudies for the two lead roles in a production of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic Waiting For Godot.  Ester (Landman) and Val (Murphy) wait in the green room, in costume, in the hopes that I guess an actor will suddenly become ill, have a family emergency, get a lighting instrument dropped on their head, or just on a whim of the director they will be yanked offstage and the understudy will go on in their place for the rest of the show, which has already begun.  Periodically, the assistant stage manager Laura (Altenberg) will wander backstage to engage them in conversation.  Like the perpetually expectant but disappointed characters in the real play, these understudies have a long wait ahead of them.  And that’s the gag.  I get it.

“Do not speak to me of God.  I gave up on him years ago.”

This is probably one of those plays where non-theater people see it and think, “Boy, I’ll bet people who work in theater get an even bigger kick out of this because they get all the inside jokes.”  But if you’re actually a person who’s worked in theater in any capacity, you just sit there thinking, “No, that’s not how it works.  And that’s not how that happens either.  And that’s just perpetuating an unhelpful and misleading stereotype.  And… argh!!!!”  Or at least that was my internal monologue watching it.  In a past professional life, I spent a number of years working as a stage manager.  I’ve dealt with understudies.  There are countless actors that have been part of, and continue to pass through, my life.  They all deserve better treatment than this.

“We were dark yesterday.”
“I’m dark most days.”

Is life in the theater absurd?  Yes.  Is an understudy’s role an often thankless and little rewarded one?  Certainly.  Do artists in general and actors in particular frequently do things that are perfect fodder for comedy or satire?  Absolutely.  There is a rich vein of material, grounded in the facts and details of real life and human psychology, that could make for an exceptional comedy.  Even with this basic premise.  The playwright Dave Hanson instead goes for cheap jokes and easy targets, dumbing his characters and the play down to a level I’m sure he expects an audience can better appreciate.  But every time you make a character behave in the way a real person would never do, just to get a laugh, you insult your character, the person on which they’re based, and your audience.  So I don’t laugh.

“No one actually *goes* to Julliard.”

Again, I should probably just lighten up and enjoy Sam Landman and Gabriel Murphy doing physical comedy together.  I should revel in Landman skewering every pompous, fame-hungry actor who didn’t bother to do their homework.  I should be tickled by Sulia Rose Altenberg putting the other actors in their place, and doing her dramatic performance of calling light cues.  They’re all very good at what they do, and they’re working very hard to serve up the laughs.  If you can shut off your brain and just enjoy Waiting For Waiting For Godot for the dumb comedy it is, then more power to you.

“What kind of people wait around for a promise that doesn’t come?”

But because the play is echoing, and frankly drafting behind, a much better play, I frankly expect this play to up its own game and be better.  But it’s not.  I’m not one of those people who sits thinking, “How dare you sully Beckett’s great masterpiece!”  If you’ve got the balls to go there, by all means, have at it.  But don’t settle for being derivative.  Bring something new, your own unique perspective, to the conversation.  Writers are constantly being inspired by storytellers that came before them.  Shakespeare himself “stole” some of his best material from other sources.  But he took that raw material and made it his own, made it better.  I was waiting for something better to come along here.  It never arrived.

3 stars - Recommended

(l to r: Gabriel Murphy, Sam Landman, and Sulia Rose Altenberg in Loudmouth Collective's production of Waiting For Waiting For Godot; Justin D. Gallo Photography)

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Review - Dirty Story - Phoenix Theater - The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict As Sadomasochistic Love Story? - 4 stars

Right up front I just have to say I feel woefully under-qualified, under-read, and under-informed to comment on this play, and yet it’s what I signed on for when I agreed to come and see it.  So, here we go - John Patrick Shanley’s Dirty Story. You probably know Shanley better for either his Oscar-winning script for the romantic comedy film Moonstruck, or his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play Doubt: A Parable.  Here, he’s tackling the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. (And I just lost you, didn’t I?  Maybe I lost you at the title of this post.)

“You ever feel like the old tricks ain’t working?”

Aspiring writer Wanda (Mikaela Kurpierz) goes to renowned writer Brutus (Brandon Holscher) for advice, and gets a discouraging earful of it.  Not discouraged, however, sometime later she joins him for dinner at his place, a loft to which her family also has a connection.  Brutus is an equally rude host, but for some reason Wanda really gets off on the abuse, and the opportunity to hurl it back.  One thing leads to another and suddenly they’re role-playing - she’s wearing a frilly dress and flowing blond wig and tied to a ladder, he’s threatening her with a chainsaw.  Yet when her former boyfriend Frank (Christopher Kent) tries to rescue her, she’s irate and very plain about the fact that she can handle this sadomasochistic relationship without any help from him.  Just before intermission, she declares that her new name is Israel.  And things just get weirder and more allegorical from there.

“If history were about justice, we’d all be on the streets.”

Act Two just flat out places the actors and their characters in the roles of countries or populations tied up in the Middle Eastern conflict.  Wanda is now Israel, Brutus is the Palestinians, Frank is America, and his pal Watson (Andy Josephson) is the United Kingdom.  Wanda is occupying Brutus’ loft, claiming her birthright. Brutus resists being partitioned off into smaller and smaller sections of the place he calls home.  Frank and Watson keep trying to adjudicate the mess and end up making it worse.  The political satire of act two is a little easier to take than the screwy sexual politics of act one but honestly, you’re either on board with Dirty Story, or you’re not.  There’s no middle ground.  Anyone with a strong personal opinion about either side of this issue is going to find a lot to hate and love in Dirty Story.

“One day I’m going to stop apologizing, then watch out.”

Shanley didn’t write this play because it was easy.  Director Denzel Belin and his actors and the Arts Nest Fledgling Program at Phoenix Theater didn’t choose to produce this play because it was easy.  Nobody attends this play because they’re expecting it to be easy.  Dirty Story’s saving grace is that it’s uncomfortably funny.  Really uncomfortable, but still funny. 

“I can’t take my eyes off the spectacle of the world passing me by.”

The thing Dirty Story probably does best is makes one realize how very little one knows about the ongoing troubles in the Middle East.  I understand that a lot of people don’t need to feel like they have command of the facts about a situation before forming really strong opinions.  Personally, I don’t feel like I should be getting really upset about the way Dirty Story portrays anything or anyone until I understand the players involved a little better. 

“You have to care, Frank.  It’s the only thing that keeps you from being a monster.”

Don’t get me wrong, I follow the news (as much as the news follows things that happen in the Middle East).  Unlike Shanley, I don’t feel like I have a solid foundation of knowledge and research I’d need to even write an essay, much less a play, much less a comedy, about an issue this thorny.  It’s almost obscene to think of sitting here offering opinions from a position of relative peace, safety and privilege, about a situation where people are dying on a daily basis and still trying to go about the rituals of their everyday lives.  But then, of course, we’re not talking about the problem at all.  And on it goes.

“Brought to life in the blood-soaked garden of world guilt.”

Shanley’s Dirty Story is at least trying to talk about the problem.  You can quarrel with the method, but its intentions are good.  And if it gets some bewildered people in the audience (myself included) to scurry off and do some reading and engage their political representatives about the issue, then it will have done some real good.  If you want to see a group of actors throw themselves fearlessly at difficult material and wring some strange laughs out of it, then Dirty Story is your ticket. (playing Friday/Saturday 9/9 and 9/10 at 7:30pm, Sunday 9/11 at 2pm at Phoenix Theater)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(poster for Dirty Story at Phoenix Theater - l to r: Christopher Kent, Mikaela Kurpierz, Brandon Holscher and Andy Josephson)

Review - The River - Walking Shadow - Love’s A Messy Thing - 4 stars

Walking Shadow seems to delight in producing plays that it’s almost impossible to talk about without spoiling the plot (or plot twist), and Jez Butterworth’s The River is no exception.  Still, I’ll give it a shot.  Perhaps the safest place to start is with the way Walking Shadow describes the play:

On a moonless night in August, a man brings his new girlfriend to the remote family cabin where he has come for the fly fishing since he was a boy. Will she be the perfect catch -- or the one that got away? A bewitching story about how even our most intimate moments are shaped by the ghosts of the past, from the author of Jerusalem and Mojo.

This is the second time Walking Shadow and director Amy Rummenie have gone to the Butterworth well.  His first major success, Mojo, got the Walking Shadow treatment back in 2010.  Mojo was a very different play - all male, steeped in violence.  Part of my struggle with that play at the time was that the characters were all so completely clueless about their emotions that the opportunity for growth and change was slim.  Here, in The River, you have characters so consumed by and in thrall to their emotions that they’re almost doomed from the start to being overwhelmed and swept away by them.

“I am not entirely sure what love is.”

The man of The River is Andrew Erskine Wheeler, who played the pastor in the recent Walking Shadow production of The Christians (which blew me away in a way few other pieces of theater have done this year).  Wheeler is equally good here in a very different role.  He’s matched in intensity by the two main women of the play, portrayed by Emily Grodzik and Elizabeth Efteland.  These three characters all want love so badly, it’s hard not to root for at least one of them to find it.  Who that’s going to be shifts rather radically over the course of the play’s ninety minute run time.

“Why is her face scratched out?  Why is her dress still here?”

But the play often had me nervous for reasons I’m not entirely sure either the writer or the theater might want me to be.  Blame it on popular culture if you like, but it’s hard not to worry when a man takes a woman to a remote cabin and always has a rather forbidding looking hunting knife on his person.  Toss on top of that the fact that the man always seems haunted by another woman regardless of the one he’s with at any given moment.  Then, just for perverse fun, the writer throws in a reference to Ted Hughes (not a spoiler, but see: Sylvia Plath).  It’s a good reference, and a good poem (read in its entirety I might add).  The play, and the characters,  lean pretty hard on that poem, and even harder on another by William Butler Yeats but it’s a little difficult to understand why.  The rest of the script, Butterworth’s own words, and the performances are so good, the poems hardly seem necessary.

“I always find pictures or photographs unbearably sad.”

The River is one of the better plays about love I’ve seen in a while (I was about to say specifically heterosexual love, but with the focus they have, the translation here is pretty direct across the spectrum of sexuality).  And not love as manifested in a relationship with a plot so much as just that big, unwieldy emotion of love itself - the need, the desire, the ache, the way one willingly deludes oneself into thinking you can ever fully escape your romantic past and not have it somehow taint your relationships in the present.  This isn’t generic love.  It’s quite specific, and those details matter.  The surrender involved is both intoxicating and frightening.  Can we avoid making the same mistakes over and over?  Probably only if we’re willing to identify them and own them.

“I want you to know that I am only with them because I am not with you.”

The River is (thankfully) not about a serial killer.  The River is also not a piece of science fiction.  It’s a play that, rightly, refuses to explain itself, because it’s about the unexplainable.  The human heart is a stubborn and fragile thing.  The River, better than any other play I can think of, manages to nail that terrifying but exhilarating feeling of freefall that happens when you abandon yourself to love.  If you stop and think about it, even for a second, you’d go running in the other direction.  It’s that point in a relationship where you either sign on for the wild ride, or walk away.  Neither choice is ever easy.  Neither is The River.  But it’s a play that doesn’t let you go. (runs through September 17, 2016 at Open Eye Figure Theater)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo by Dan Norman; Emily Grodzik and Andrew Erskine Wheeler in The River)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Review - Boiling Point - A Different Sort of Ladies’ Night - 4 stars

It occurs to me thinking back over the five acts that make up Fire Drill’s latest curatorial effort Boiling Point bringing together local and visiting multidisciplinary performing artists, “This is probably the kind of thing people who have never been to the Minnesota Fringe Festival think the Fringe is.”  All five performers - Jill Flanagan (from Chicago), Pedro Pablo Lander (Minneapolis), HIJACK (Minneapolis), Lazer Vortex (Minneapolis), and Lorene Bouboushian (New York City) are all fairly “out there” either in terms of what they’re presenting to the audience, or how they’re presenting it.  Unlike previous Fire Drill hosting events, Boiling Point is lighter on the spoken word and dance side of things and more on the performance art end of the spectrum (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Another thing that occurred to me is that, as a gay man, I’m probably encountering the bodies in most of these pieces in a different way than, say, any woman or a straight man might.  For want of a more delicate way of phrasing it, I don’t tend to see a lot of breasts or vaginas up close and personal as I move through my life.  Three of the acts in Boiling Point certainly fixed that.  Whereas other audience members probably approach the flesh on display with either an air of familiarity or even titillation, I found myself being reminded, “Oh, right, that’s what one of those looks like.”

Revisiting the press release after experiencing the art can be very illuminating.  Our opener Jill Flanagan is couched in these phrases:

Isn’t it just like a woman to be mischievous, impetuous, and impulsive, to want the freedom to do what she likes?  Chicago-based performance and noise artist Jill Flanagan (Forced Into Femininity) thinks so, and she’ll spread her twisted hysterical ideology with a little soft shoe routine and some jazz standards.

Noise artist, that’s a very useful label.  In the moment, I kept thinking, “Why is that death metal/industrial noise so loud?”  It was so consistently loud - and constantly present - that it had to be a choice.  It also drove a couple of children with sensitive ears outside until the cacophony let up and Jill was done.  Jill was also very transgressive in her use of space and the audience - quite literally climbing over the top of people and pushing her way through the assembled crowd.  The decibel level was so high that, even bellowing at the top of her lungs into a microphone, a lot of the time you couldn’t make out what she was singing or why (and again, this felt deliberate). 

Identifying herself as a trans woman in the piece, Jill had drawn in some cleavage for herself, but made it clear early on that the drawn-in cleavage was redundant.  She whipped out a breast and let it flap around as she sashayed and ran about the space.  All this may sound like a sort of assault on the audience, but that wasn’t Jill’s game.  Jill regularly made it clear that she appreciated the audience being present (and needed them present) in order to tell a part of her story.  While unapologetic and by no means shy, Jill’s strategy was nonetheless to draw in rather than repel her spectators.

Local performer Pedro Pablo Lander gets this set up:

Choreographer and performer Pedro Pablo Lander, who comes to the Twin Cities by way of Caracas, Venezuela and Winona, Minnesota, will share a new work with a soundscore by Joyce Liza Rada Lindsay. Lander will mine “the history within this body, the violent, misogynist, toxic masculinity...the femme, the masc, both, neither, all, the queer, the fantasy, she, he, me.”

The way this concept was manifested was with Lander in a dress, long hair flowing, at the top of the piece.  An older woman behind him soon asserted herself as a disapproving mother figure.  No sooner had Lander accented his face with makeup and styled his hair than the mother figure stepped in to correct him.  Their dance was a fight for dominance, which the mother figure ultimately won.  Soon the hair was restored to something less feminine in style, Lander’s head dunked in a bucket of water and the makeup roughly smeared off his face.  After redressing Lander in men’s clothes, she stepped aside as if her work was done.  Lander had the last word, however, using neckties for a purpose she didn’t suspect.

Local dance duo HIJACK are described as follows:

Minneapolis-based HIJACK, the collaboration of Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder, will present a new dance: Yet another Aftermath. Of escalators of disco lights of uncles of labia of dignity.

Van Loon and Wilder’s piece was easily the one that was the most purely movement-based of the presentations - dance for dance’s sake, if you will.  Unlike a number of the free-wheeling offerings, HIJACK’s moves were all tightly controlled and focused.  There was no feeling of improv.  And like a performer whispering, their highly detailed work made me lean in more to catch the nuances and differences in movement as the piece progressed.  Couldn’t tell you how the escalators factor in, but the disco lights were charming, and as in all instances of female empowerment that night, the labia, though not on public display here, could be nothing but dignified. 

Another Minneapolis-based performance artist, Lazer Vortex, had this write-up:

Minneapolis-based performer, video maker, nightlife wizard, and dancer Lazer Vortex, who makes work that is both campy and reverent, will share a new piece that asks: What does healing look like in an endlessly oppressive world? How do we embody utopias? In this work, psychic warfare requires a very sharp psychic sword.

You know you’re in for it when during preset the artist asks, quite innocently, “Uh, where’s the ax?”  The ax was found and placed among the Lazer Vortex’s other props.  Lazer Vortex’s initial costume was just a lot of strategically placed criss-crossing electrical tape - purple, if my eyes weren’t deceiving me.  With Euro-pop blasting in the background, Laser Vortex (is Lazer her first name in this context? should I call them Mx. Vortex?)… Anyway, Lazer Vortex removed most of the tape and gradually moved on to a different outfit.  This was a fitted clear plastic shroud of sorts, also held together with electrical tape (the kind of piping you’d consider frosting on their gingerbread person silhouette).

Lazer Vortex’s co-star in the piece was a sort of baby walker contraption, though not so much a contraption a baby could walk in as just kind of rock and wobble back and forth in.  A way to keep your baby in place and upright, with no danger of them wandering away from you.  Well, an adult has other uses for such a device.  And when they tire of it, they can always just make short work of the plastic thing with their ax.  Lazer Vortex spent the time being 1 part seductive to 9 parts ridiculous, mocking the notion that their nudity was at all titillating.  If you were going to ogle them, they were going to mock the idea of being ogled in this situation, making the whole thing more playful and silly.

To close things up for the night, we got the work of our other visitor:

New York City-based performance artist Lorene Bouboushian is interested in vulnerability, shame, and the heroic in despair. At Fresh Oysters, she will perform “--extent of Explosive lament on sale--”, a solo on boiling points, class, boundaries of the body, discomfort, and then again why are we here?

Like Jill at the top of the evening, there were no boundaries with Lorene.  She was everywhere.  No corner of the space or the audience was left unexplored.  Rather than a lot of musical accompaniment, Lorene opted for projections on the wall with which she could interact.  She also provided running commentary on her own dance moves, her exploration of the space, the crowd, and herself.  Most of it was geared to be amusing and self-deprecating, a lot of it (funny or not) was contemplative, a little of it was sad or pleading.  After changing into a much more revealing outfit, she decided it was time to crowd surf.  The crowd stood to oblige, she got up in the air, and was passed around for awhile, discussing her place in society and in art.  It’s instructive when a person is in danger of falling how quickly everyone gets over the reluctance to touch or get close to others.  Lorene returned to earth for some final meditations, and then was done.

I feel a little weird labeling Boiling Point for convenience as “ladies night” because none of the artists had much time or patience for standard notions of femininity.  They were just there to be artists and present work, and if anything, the expectations of the label woman, rather than simply human, just got in their way - and they were more than happy to push right past it and make you look at them differently.  (Note: I was informed after initially posting this review that it would be incorrect to reer to Lazer Vortex as a woman.  It's not a label they use - so I've switched out the "she" pronouns for "they" in their section above.)

If there were specific, explicit messages intended by each segment of the evening, I’m not sure how effectively those were transmitted to the audience.  The feeling of each sequence, however, was unique and unusual, and maybe being pushed as an audience through that sort of artist’s lens is enough for a piece that only lasts around 15 minutes.  This was a more challenging assortment of performers than Fire Drill has hosted before, but still very worthwhile.  Keep your eye out for the next one of these.  They’re always bound to gift you with something you either don’t see all that often, or have never seen before.

4 stars - Highly Recommended