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)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Review - Rhinoceros - 7th House Theater - Who’s The Rhinoceros and Who’s Really Human? - 4 stars

As experiments go, 7th House Theater’s presentation of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is a pretty successful one. 7th House wanted to get Ionesco’s anti-fascism absurdist comedy/drama up in front of audiences on the night of the inaugural for new President Donald Trump (though I can’t imagine why, can you?), so they made it happen.   Barebones production values by designers Amber Brown and Paul Bigot, just 10 days of rehearsal with director Lauren Keating, scripts in hand and off they go. The cast is so good (and has clearly memorized so much of the text) that the scripts quickly fall away from your conscious vision. There’s a person on the sidelines with a script to call out a line if someone gets lost or off track but I only saw that happen once and the actors didn’t even break stride, they just kept moving on with the scene. Rhinoceros feels like a full production, even though some of the seams are showing, and that’s a deliberate part of its charm.

“How do you know where normality stops and abnormality begins?”

The evocation of the rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?) who invade the world of the play is quite clever. There are musicians posted at the corners of the house surrounding the audience, and a gathering of various noise-making devices around the edges behind the crowd. Singing, music (composed by Kendall Anne Thompson) and noise combine with human bodies thundering around the periphery of the audience to give the feeling of a large noisy animal (or several) thundering by. Musical cues and building noise in the background herald the coming transformations or invasions and help ratchet up the tension for the audience watching, particularly since most of the time the rhinoceros is heard and felt but never seen.

“They just carry on and stand aside as if nothing had happened.”

I went in not having read the script recently, ready to let the story hit me however it would, and I have to say I came away a little perplexed. Rhinoceros is supposed to be a simple, if absurd, allegory (at the time it was written, to understand the rise of fascism and the Nazis in Europe, the better to never let it happen again). People turning into rhinoceroses was a way of symbolizing people falling under the sway of fascist ideology - losing their humanity, and any care for their fellow humans, becoming part of a large and destructive force crashing through society and undoing its norms.  I did some reading afterward, which always has the potential to be dangerous, but I think the thing that really threw my brain out of whack was the remnants of the outside world that I brought into the space with me when I sat down to see the show. Ironically, the situation outside that prompted the play inside in the first place. Watching coverage of President Trump’s inaugural day colored the way I viewed the central character in the play.

“How can this happen in such an intelligent country?”

Because the rhinoceroses are supposed to be the bad guys here.  I’m supposed to be siding with the humans, not the monsters they become.  Berenger (Ashley Rose Montondo) is ultimately supposed to be our hero.  The one human resisting transformation.  But I don’t like the guy, er gal.  Pardon the gender vacillation there, but one of the many great things about the production is they take the male role of Berenger and give it to an actress. Nobody in the world of the play blinks. Is this a woman playing a man (which was where I came down most of the time while watching), or a lesbian on the butch side?  Doesn’t matter.  Daisy (Cat Brindisi) is Berenger’s love interest either way.  Everyone treats that as a non-issue, which I understand, given that the larger concern at hand is that all the humans in society are slowly turning into rhinos, and wreaking havoc as a rhinoceros set loose in typically human surroundings will do.

“That seems clear enough but it doesn’t answer the question.”

The stumbling block is that as an audience member I see the bad behavior of the human beings right in front of me, but I only sense, don’t see the destructive work of the rhinoceros.  And many characters in the play speak longingly of the beauty and freedom of the rhinoceros. And let’s face it, the rhinoceros is a dangerous but noble beast.  If I had to turn into an animal, I could do worse than a rhinoceros.  (Make it clear that the rhinoceros means I’d be a Nazi and then I’ll have another opinion, of course.) But right in front of me I see a guy so bored with his job he’s become an alcoholic who is perpetually late to meetings with friends.  I see a guy who shoves a woman (in the script it indicates he slaps her) - either version accomplishes the same thing: I’m kind of done with the guy and don’t blame the woman for walking out. 

“I didn’t see it personally but a lot of really reliable people did.”

Also, there are some eery stretches, particularly in the second half when Berenger and Daisy are alone together, when I wondered, “Would this be how Donald and Melania spoke to one another if they were in the bunker together, hiding from an outside world they no longer considered safe?” Suddenly the fascist isn’t an animal presence outside the scene, but a human being inside the scene. And at times that human being is almost sympathetic. What am I supposed to do with that kind of cognitive dissonance? (Not that cognitive dissonance is a bad thing.) Berenger is dressed in orange, doesn’t really want to do their job, and has people say things about them like, “You can only predict things after they’ve happened.” Can you blame me for getting a Trump vibe?

“We mustn’t start feeling remorse.”

But I'm honestly not sure if that’s what 7th House is aiming for here. Their intent seems to be to present Ionesco’s allegory of fascism in which the humans are the good guys, and the humans that morph into rhinos are the bad guys. But it’s all just a little fuzzy, for the reasons stated above. The final image, of Berenger railing “I will not capitulate!” while being confronted by a rhino, who then removes its horn also confused me. I couldn’t be sure if it was a prelude to Berenger recovering a human from the rhinoceros side, or Berenger was about to be co-opted into being a rhinoceros as well.

“It frightened the poor pussy!”

Maybe the strategy resulting in my confusion is deliberate.  Everything else about this production of Rhinoceros is polished and professional - the performances, the direction, the use of live sound and music, the multiracial casting (Montondo and Brindisi are joined on stage by AJ Friday, Anna Hashizume, Kiara Jackson, Grant Sorenson, and composer/musician Thompson), the spare design (the use of children’s chairs for one sequence is delightful). Maybe my losing track of who I’m supposed to be rooting for in this particular production isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Maybe me being unsure is not a bad way to leave the theater after Rhinoceros. And, honestly, that’s Ionesco for you. Funny, but strange. (runs through 1/29/17 at A Mill Artist Lofts, just follow the signs that say Rhinoceros)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(artwork courtesy 7th House Theater)

Fresh Oysters Performance Research Presents "Piece By Piece: Lux String Quartet & Tom Comitta" - 1/22/17

Here's the first example for 2017 of why Fresh Oysters Performance Research is a place I am never bored:

I saw the Lux String Quartet as the musical guest during Billy Mullaney's remounting of an episode of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, and I got a sampling of Tom Comitta's work in Mullaney's Uncreativity Festival.  Now I get more of both, back to back - that's a win-win kind of evening in my book, at the same time that it's an experiment in being an audience for two very different kinds of art.  If you're looking to finish off your weekend with some artistic input, Lux is at 5:30pm tonight and Comitta is at 7pm.  Details below:

Fresh Oysters Performance Research Presents PIECE BY PIECE: LUX STRING QUARTET & TOM COMITTA


Lux String Quartet (MN), Tom Comitta (CA)


Fresh Oysters Performance Research 512 East 24th Street Minneapolis, MN 55404


5:30pm (Lux String Quartet) and 7:00pm (Tom Comitta) on Sunday January 22nd, 2017


$10 suggested donation at the door

“Lux must be pretty well practiced at collaboration because they do play beautifully.” —Classical MPR

“[Tom Comitta] strikes the rare chord of being cleverly comedic, visually intriguing, and conceptually challenging all at once.” —East Bay Express, Oakland, CA

On Sunday January 22nd at 5:30pm, Lux String Quartet will be playing a recital featuring works by Mozart and Dvorak. At 7:00pm, LA-based poet Tom Comitta will be reading selections from his forthcoming novel, The City of Nature.

Fresh Oysters Performance Research presents these two events side-by-side as modes of listening united by subject matter while radically separated by medium, structure, and centuries of history.

Minneapolis-based Lux String Quartet will kick off their Minneapolis leg of their 2017 season at Fresh Oysters with Dvořák’s American Quartet and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Dvořák composed this quartet during his residency in Spillville, Iowa; Lux performs Dvořák’s quartet in their visits to schools around the state, describing the music as illustrating the Czech-born composer’s experience of the rural Midwest landscape. The 1st violin’s soaring melody as "little leaf floating down a river”, the pulsating rhythm in the 2nd violin represents "waves on the water," and the the viola and cello’s arpeggios are the "river rolling slow and steady like the Mississippi”.

Comitta will be performing an excerpt of his forthcoming book The City of Nature, which exhaustively collects sentence-long nature descriptions from canonical novels—ranging from Ulysses to Their Eyes Were Watching God to Watership Down—and collages them together into a single, unbroken nature novel. All characters from source texts are removed apart from chirping birds, trotting horses and the whale from Moby-Dick.

Doubling as a kind of data analysis, the book documents how novelists drag nature through the peaks and troughs of human drama. Clouds and rain bring gloom (“the ground sobs”) and thunder brings rage, but when the sun returns it’s all smiles. The book is the result of three years’ worth of collecting, cataloguing, and compiling nature excerpts from countless books.

Audience members are welcome to come and go for either or both performances. Clearly, one should not expect a conventional listening experience: Both feature attempts to sonically describe the indescribable beauty and complexity of nature. Both evoke a listening experience of timelessness and reverie. Their methods, however, are radically different, as Lux’s classically-structured quartet pieces illustrate musical countrysides which stand in stark contrast with Tom’s overflowing description of nature, rendering a continuous landscape panorama through language.

Cocoa will be served.


Established in 2013, Lux String Quartet was named Classical MPR’s 2015-2016 Class Notes Artists, spending the season visiting schools around the state, performing and interacting with students. Continually exploring the boundaries of possibility for the string quartet form, they have been found unexpectedly performing in local coffee shops for “Lattes With Lux” as a way to insert the string quartet into everyday life, alongside classical venues for recitals ranging from standard repertoire to new music. Their members consist of Erika Blanco (violin), Sam Rudy (violin), Benjamin Davis (viola), and Lars Krogstad Ortiz (cello).

Tom Comitta is a Los Angeles-based poet and artist, whose language-based work has exhibited nationally and internationally. From 2011-12 Comitta composed and conducted nine operas with The San Francisco Guerrilla Opera Company. He has exhibited at LUMA Foundation, Zürich; swissnex, San Francisco; Reed College, Portland; Robert Berman/E6 Gallery, San Francisco and The Kala Art Institute, Berkeley. Comitta has two poems in The New Concrete (Hayward Publishing, UK), an anthology surveying the “rise of concrete poetry in the digital age.” Comitta has held residencies at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Bay Area Video Coalition, Minnesota Street Project/Little Paper Planes and San Francisco Arts Education Project.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Why I Read My Last Think Piece On The Death of Democracy on December 1st

December 1, 2016 - it’d been just a few weeks since the election, not even a month. I’d read yet another think piece on the death of American democracy. Then I was reminded that December 1st is World AIDS Day, and I was suddenly back in grad school again - the first World AIDS Day, December 1, 1988.

It was before the magical cocktail of drugs began turning AIDS from a fatal diagnosis into a chronic but manageable illness. It wasn’t the beginning of the horror show, but it wasn’t anywhere near the end either. It was my first year in the three year program at the Yale School of Drama.  We were all still sort of strangers to each other.  A random assortment of people gathered in advance of December 1st, figuring that we should do something. We knew people, a lot of people, the arts community was getting hit hard. So we came up with some ideas about raising visibility.

One of them was to assemble a display on the subject in the downstairs lobby at the Yale Repertory Theater - that was the place with all the space, where the audience gathered, where refreshments and restrooms were (where we held the opening night parties). A display there meant that everyone seeing the current production would be sharing a room with information on AIDS during intermission, nowhere else for them to be.

I volunteered to put the display together. I don’t recall anything about it being especially incendiary, other than the fact that it was about AIDS, and we were just starting to talk about AIDS in the same way we finally got over whispering about cancer. I remember spending an evening on my hands and knees in the lobby, affixing images and text to poster board and sturdier display frameworks - all to go on a long table with pamphlets and the like. Almost painfully earnest, handmade, and well-intentioned, but hey, none of us had ever done this before.  It was the first World AIDS Day.  It was something.  It was a start.

One of our professors, Dennis Scott, appeared. Nice to see a friendly face. Also nice to see an instructor’s face, since other than our faculty advisor on this event, it was pretty much an all student driven affair.  Dennis told me he had a poem he’d written that he’d like to have included in the display, if that was all right.  I eagerly took it from him, happy to have something artistic, something from one of us, in the mix. I wasn’t entirely sure why he felt compelled to offer something for the display - he was married, with children. But I figured he must know somebody, too.  Maybe several somebodies.  So up the poem went.

Returning for the fall of my second year, I noticed Dennis had lost a lot of weight, and was sometimes walking with a cane.  There were whispers.  Returning for the fall of my third year, Dennis was in a wheelchair.   There were whispers.  Then he was in the hospital.  There was certainty.  Then he was gone.

There was going to be a memorial service for the school community.  I turned his poem into the office, with a note that he had offered it up as part of that first World AIDS Day display just a couple of years before.  A few days later the Dean of the school called me into his office and said the family would like me to read the poem at his memorial service.  So I did.

We’ve been here before, people.

I remember a time when the government didn’t give a crap whether some of us lived or died.

So gay people finally came kicking and screaming out of their closets because their lives depended on it.  We organized, our friends by our side.  We fought back.  We kept speaking out until things got done.

As Tony Kushner wrote in Angels In America: ““We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come…You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

One of the things I didn’t realize the Obama administration had taught me until recently was this:

The President works for me.
The Vice President works for me.
Every member of the Cabinet works for me.
The Speaker of the House works for me.
The Minority Leader in the House works for me.
The Majority Leader in the Senate works for me.
The Minority Leader in the Senate works for me.
Certainly my two Senators and one Representative work for me.

So we talk to them, however we can.  We let them know when we’re pleased and when we’re not.  We let them know what we expect of them and we hold them to account.

This guide is useful.

It’s 655 days to the mid-term elections.

Let’s get moving, my friends.

Welcome to 1988.

Some of us have been here before.  And we survived.

The nice thing about it this time around is it feels like all of us, not just some of us, are in the fight now.

So, all things considered, we should be able to make the load a little easier for one another to bear.

Here’s that poem Dennis put in my hands over 28 years ago.

He’s gone.  It remains…


for the blessed
it comes
in the act of loving -
a cry of birds hoping South
a perfect sentence
sudden as candlelight's leap
at my wife's mouth -
comes at any moment
that will reassert the permanence of dreams
the possibility of dancing

since there is no armour
but the festivals we make
hand over hand
(the heart's drum louder
than any sound of soldiers falling)

till the war is over
let us celebrate
ourselves, all that is kind
and carnival, living
without goodbyes
without the acquiescences of grief
of ending

That small victory, only.

Dennis C. Scott
July 1987

Welcome to 1988, everybody.

Act up.  Fight back.  Make some art.

The Great Work begins.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 16 of 20

16. Learn from others in other countries. 

Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. 

The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. 

And no country is going to find a solution by itself. 

Make sure you and your family have passports.

Yale historian and Holocaust expert Timothy Snyder wrote: "Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so." 
Snyder's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (which includes former Secretaries of State), and consults on political situations around the globe. He says: 

Above, #16 of twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.