Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review - Almost, Maine - Mosaic Productions - So Many People, So Little Time - 4 stars

It’s easy to see why people like John Cariani’s play Almost, Maine - why actors like it, why theaters keep producing it, and why people keep going to see it.  It’s an unapologetic romantic comedy that’s in love with the idea of love.  Actually, it’s nine mini-romantic comedies. In the fictitious town of Almost, Maine, nine loosely interrelated stories of couples play themselves out.  Common town locations and familiar names of other characters keep cropping up throughout all nine, but otherwise the stories all take place in their own wintry isolation under the Northern Lights.  But the sprawling population of the town can all be played by just six actors - three men, three women.  They’re almost all two person, male/female scenes - just begging to be done in acting class.  They’re sweet, sometimes bittersweet, one could safely say quirky, often almost adorable.  Which turns out to be both Almost, Maine’s blessing and its curse.

“You gotta love something that makes sense to you, makes you feel good, or what’s the point?”

The brevity of each of the scenes sometimes makes it feel like the script is trying to cram a whole play’s worth of story into just a couple of minutes.  A woman (Amy Vickroy) travels to Maine to see the Northern Lights, invading a stranger’s (Henry Southwick) backyard, in order to make peace with her former husband.  Two ex-lovers (Taylor Evans, Emma McKenzie) unexpectedly bump into one another at a local diner.  A woman in a bad relationship (Tori Ruckle) and a man who can’t feel pain (Mike Hentges) meet in the laundry room of a boarding house.  A long-married couple who’ve drifted apart from one another (McKenzie and Southwick again) are frustrated in trying to rekindle their connection on a date night out skating at the local pond.  A woman (Vickroy again) years too late travels across the country to knock on the door of the man she once left hanging after a marriage proposal - only to be confronted on the front stoop by a man she doesn’t recognize (Evans again).  And that’s only a little over half the play’s running time.  Phew.

“That’s sort of like giving someone a little less air to breathe, every day.”

Some of the other scenes feel more at home and unrushed in this shorter format.  There’s a three part story that bookends the play where a young couple (Hentges and McKenzie again) test the theory that when you’re closest to someone, if you measure all the way around the world in the other direction, you’re actually also the furthest away from that person at the same time.  There’s a whimsical sort of magic realism to a scene where two ex-lovers (Vickroy and Southwick again) meet to return all the love they gave to one another - that love being represented by loads of enormous red bags.  There’s also a tomboy-ish woman (Ruckle again) and her devoted male snowmobiling sidekick (Southwick again) discovering there’s more to men and women together than just riding a snowmobile.  And in a scene punctuated by multiple pratfalls, two male best buds (Evans and Hentges again) come to realize there may be an unexpected reason that all their dates with women turn out so disastrously.  Although now that I say these are the more sketch comedy-esque entries in the evening, I could also make a case that a playwright like Sara Ruhl would make a whole meal of a play out of any of them - red bags of love returned, prat-falling in love, literally traversing the distance of the globe between you and the one you love.

“That’s a planet.  You’re wishing on a planet.”

Director Justin DeLong has assembled a great ensemble here for Mosaic Productions.  Playing multiple characters everyone gets several chances to shine.  The women in particular become quite chameleon-like, disappearing into wildly different characters with costume and hair changes (kudos to costume designer Maggie Myre) that often had me checking the program to make sure I was seeing the same person.  The trouble with a cast this good is that sometimes they’re better than their material.  Just as we in the audience were finally getting to know a character, time’s up.  Just when a story reached a “what the heck is going to happen now?” moment, the script moves on to another set of characters.  No one’s moment of truth really gets to play out.  Cariani has created a host of characters all of whom have history, who seem to have lived before we meet them.  That’s hard to do.  So it’s kind of a shame we don’t get to stick with any of these people for too long.  Of course, it’s always good to leave an audience wanting more, but to constantly frustrate them by never letting anything play out to its conclusion, I’m not sure that’s an equally good thing.

“Drink free, if you’re sad.  If you’re sad, let me know.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but you can also tell that this script was written by a (probably straight) man.  An argument could be made that all the women characters are emotionally unstable or even mentally ill, while the men are meant to come off as noble, long-suffering, decent fellows.  Yes, some men in Almost, Maine aren’t that nice, but these men are all spoken of, never seen, kept offstage.  The women’s shortcomings are all right out in plain sight.  One hopes it’s just an unintentional side effect of episodic storytelling, but when I started to wonder why the play bothered me, that pattern was a big part of it.  Also, there’s a whole lot of uninvited kissing going on, and with so little time to get to know these people, that constant invasion of each other’s personal space feels doubly transgressive in a way that doesn’t really translate to “romantic.”  Points for tossing a little homoeroticism, however brief, into a largely heterosexual lovefest, though (and to the actors, for really committing to it) (for those of you wondering, for better or worse, no, they don’t kiss - they're too busy falling down).

“Oh, so it’s kind of like the opposite of God.”

One other thing that felt like a production choice rather than something required by the script was the flow of the piece constantly being interrupted by blackouts and scene shifts.  The stage in the James Sewell Ballet Tek Box at the Cowles Center is spacious enough, and the scenes themselves small enough, you could set up two at a time on stage and be able to flow directly from one scene into the next.  We can see the actors moving furniture around, we’re already suspending our disbelief.  We could suspend it a little further and ignore a couple of set pieces, then jump right into another story on the heels of the one that came before on the other side of the stage.  We don’t need that much downtime to shift gears and process what we just saw.  And the many stories and people of the town of Almost, Maine might seem a bit more interconnected if we weren’t segregating  them so deliberately from one another.

“Here I am at the end of the world; there’s nowhere to go.”

Still, the script is clever, and almost unbearably sweet.  The actors have a great time creating all these different people and genuinely seem to get a kick out of sharing the stage with one another in varying combinations.  There’s not really a couple that misfires here, and that’s rare, even if sometimes you wish for their sake that they didn’t have such a strong connection to each other.  Lack of chemistry is not a problem any of this ensemble has.  So if you’re looking for something to warm your heart on a chilly night, the kind of show that makes an audience audibly sigh and applaud between every scene, Almost, Maine is weird little town you should definitely visit. (closes this weekend, Sunday 1/15/17)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of Mosaic Productions, photographer Kati Hesley; Henry Southwick and Amy Vickroy)

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Revenge - by poet Elisa Chavez

(This was so good, I needed to repost it here as a reminder...)

Since you mention it, I think I will start that race war.


I could’ve swung either way? But now I’m definitely spending
the next 4 years converting your daughters to lesbianism;
I’m gonna eat all your guns. Swallow them lock stock and barrel
and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table;

I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies.
With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars,
my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck
and your swastikas will not be enough to save you,

because real talk, you didn’t stop the future from coming.
You just delayed our coronation.
We have the same deviant haircuts we had yesterday;
we are still getting gay-married like nobody’s business
because it’s still nobody’s business;
there’s a Muslim kid in Kansas who has already written the schematic
for the robot that will steal your job in manufacturing,
and that robot? Will also be gay, so get used to it:

we didn’t manifest the mountain by speaking its name,
the buildings here are not on your side just because
you make them spray-painted accomplices.
These walls do not have genders and they all think you suck.
Even the earth found common cause with us
the way you trample us both,

oh yeah: there will be signs, and rainbow-colored drum circles,
and folks arguing ideology until even I want to punch them
but I won’t, because they’re my family,
in that blood-of-the-covenant sense.
If you’ve never loved someone like that
you cannot outwaltz us, we have all the good dancers anyway.

I’ll confess I don’t know if I’m alive right now;
I haven’t heard my heart beat in days,
I keep holding my breath for the moment the plane goes down
and I have to save enough oxygen to get my friends through.

But I finally found the argument against suicide and it’s us.
We’re the effigies that haunt America’s nights harder
the longer they spend burning us,
we are scaring the shit out of people by spreading,
by refusing to die: what are we but a fire?
We know everything we do is so the kids after us
will be able to follow something towards safety;
what can I call us but lighthouse,

of course I’m terrified. Of course I’m a shroud.
And of course it’s not fair but rest assured,
anxious America, you brought your fists to a glitter fight.
This is a taco truck rally and all you have is cole slaw.
You cannot deport our minds; we won’t
hold funerals for our potential. We have always been
what makes America great.

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 14 of 20


14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. 

Pick a charity and set up autopay. 

Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.



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

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 13 of 20



13. Hinder the one-party state. 

The parties that took over states were once something else. 

They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. 

Vote in local and state elections while you can.



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

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 12 of 20


12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. 

Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. 

Do not look away and do not get used to them. 

Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.


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

Monday, January 02, 2017

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 11 of 20


11. Make eye contact and small talk.

This is not just polite.

It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust.

If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.


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

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 10 of 20


(holidays... time goes by... back again...)


--> 10. Practice corporeal politics. 
Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. 

Get outside. 

Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. 

Make new friends and march with them.


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

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best Theater I Saw in 2016: For What It's Worth...

Normally I don’t get to tallying up all the theater I saw in a given year until well into tax season, but this year I’m a little ahead of the game on gathering information together so what the heck - for what it’s worth, looking at the list of what I saw, here’s the stuff that shakes out at the top.

Obviously, no ten best list is comprehensive.  There’s just too much theater in the Twin Cities for any one person to be able to see it all (though Scott Pakudaitis tries and gets closer than most of us).  For instance, right off the top of my head, I realize I saw nothing this year at either Penumbra or Pillsbury and that right there should be disqualifying to me.  The bulk of theater companies in town I only got to one presentation of theirs and that’s hardly representative of all the work they do.  Sometimes I got lucky, sometimes I didn’t.

Some of these shows I’ve already written about, some I haven’t.  If I got comps in exchange for writing a review, I did my duty (whether the company in question ended up being happy with the resulting review or not).  If I paid for my own ticket, a lot of times I didn’t weigh in.  It’s a time thing, more often than not.  I have my own plays to write, after all, that’s gotta happen sometime, too.

We’ll set aside the items on my schedule that had to do with plays I wrote.  We’ll just assume the time I spent in the rehearsal room or seeing the script on its feet were the happiest times of my year, which they were.  So, TV Boyfriend, and Discreet, Straight-Acting, Disease/Drug-Free, you know I love you.  (also, a shout-out to Off Book at HUGE Improv Theater, which used a scene from How To Date A Werewolf.)  But on that level, this list isn’t about me.

So, 74 shows seen outside the Minnesota Fringe Festival, 56 shows seen inside the Fringe, 6 play readings, 4 improv events (pitiful tally there), and 6 other random theater events like Theatre Unbound’s 24:00:00 Extreme Theater Smackdown, Fringe previews and the like.  Roughly a third of the evenings of my year spent in the dark watching someone tell me a story with live performers of one sort or another.  (So, my thanks to the following for engaging my brain: Arena Dances, Denzel Belin, Blue Water Theatre, Fearless Comedy, Four Humors, Freshwater Theatre, Gadfly Theater, History Theater, Live Action Set, Loudmouth Collective, Main Street School of Performing Arts, Mission Theatre, Mixed Blood, Nautilus Music Theater, Off Leash Area, Open Window, Park Square, Recovery Party, Sandbox Theatre, Savage Umbrella, Sheep Theater, Swandive Theatre, Theatre Coup d’Etat, Theatre Forever, Theater Latte Da, Theatre Novi Most, Theatre Pro Rata, 20% Theater Company and Workhaus Collective - but you’re not on the list this time around.)

It’s more like a Top 9 to 15 list, nine groups, 15 presentations that grabbed me:

1 - Jungle Theater - The Oldest Boy - Sara Ruhl makes everything okay (review)
2 - Walking Shadow - The Christians - Pardon me, I know it’s church but… damn (review)
3 - 7th House Theater - The Passage, or What Comes of Searching In The Dark - Makes me happy/sad as an audience member and artist (review)
4 - Underdog Theater - Baltimore Is Burning - Very last thing I saw this year, but probably the most urgent piece of new theater created in the Twin Cities.  A meeting between police and community representatives goes horribly wrong - but honestly, it could have gone worse.  There is both despair and hope pulsing through this play and production and it is riveting
5ish - Fire Drill, based at Fresh Oysters Performance Research (a place I am never bored) - Consequences Have Consequences, Semester: Lecture 1 (review), Boiling Point (review), plus Emily Gastineau curating artists at the Soap Factory
6ish - Guthrie - The Parchman Hour, Trouble In Mind, The Lion In Winter (see note below)
7ish - Skewed Visions - EX(remade) (review), Losing Kantor (review) - you have to watch closely and keep thinking the whole time because they’re not going to explain it to you in words
8 - Small Art - You Bring The Party (review) - low impact audience participation (review)
9 - Classical Actors Ensemble - Julius Caesar - oh, so THAT’s why this is a great play (review)

Biggest surprise (no offense intended, I know it’s kind of a backhanded compliment)? - the Guthrie Theater is on this list.  I work at the Guthrie box office, and we are encouraged to see all the mainstage shows so we can discuss them with people calling in for tickets (and if I could keep up with the flurry of things going on up in the black box space, I would).  Because it either looks like I’m sucking up to my employer (if I like the show) or biting the hand that feeds me (if I don’t), I don’t normally write reviews of Guthrie productions.  In general, the work at the Guthrie hasn’t really been my aesthetic.  It has tended to be overproduced, and at a bit of a remove from me as a spectator.  But something exciting is starting to happen at the Guthrie Theater.  Not that they didn’t do solid work before but under new artistic director Joe Haj, things are kind of blowing up.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all three of these shows I tagged have an interracial cast, and a large percentage of non-white actors.  I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the productions were directed by women of color, and two of them written by artists of color.  I think that’s a big part of what engaged me, and frankly blew my mind as an audience member.  This change is deliberate, long overdue, and so very, very welcome.  So I gotta be honest, they creeped into my top ten almost in spite of myself.

Trend? - I apparently have developed an artistic nerd crush on Kory LaQuess Pullam.  He wrote Baltimore is Burning.  He was in two of the improv presentations I managed to see (you need to see some Blackout Improv, if you haven’t yet).  He was in the cast of both The Christians and The Parchman Hour.  If you’re not following him around to see what he’s doing next, you probably should be.  Guess I will be, too.

Place I Am Never Bored - as previously stated, Fresh Oysters Performance Research, a makeshift performance space just a couple of doors down from Open Eye Figure Theater.  It’s the home base right now for Fire Drill (Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney), and Skewed Visions (Charles Campbell) - all of whom I already came into 2016 with an artistic nerd crush on and it apparently shows no signs of dissipating.  Throw Small Art’s You Bring The Party onto the pile and the place hasn’t presented a thing that I haven’t been fully engaged by this year.  You feel extremely necessary as an audience member here.  They are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a spectator of live performance.  I am also, oddly, happiest when I am in this space.  So if you need happy, and different, and necessary, you should check them out.

As for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, if you held a gun to my head, these would be ten shows that engaged me, and stuck with me, the most:

1 - Write Me A Song - I saw it twice, so… (review)
2 - Oh Snap! My Alien Children Are Trying To Kill Me - best solo show I saw (review)
3 - Genesis/Revelations - late viewing in the festival, didn’t get to review in those final days as much, but some of the best dance performance I saw in the Fringe, orchestrated by gifted young choreographer Sydney Burch, keep an eye on SB Movement
4 - Of Something Human - always love me some Tamara Ober (review)
5 - The Not So Silent Planet - mind-boggling storytelling (review)
6 - It Is So Ordered - some much-needed words from our country’s better angels (review)
7 - The Disillusionist - rarely do I find someone’s disintegration this entertaining (review)
8 - Break Your Heart - another late viewing in the festival, didn’t review at the time, but a great piece of open, funny, vulnerable, painful, yet hopeful solo performance by Scot Moore
9 - Celebrity Exception - yay, pansexual romantic comedy (review)
10 - Suite Surrender - a genuine, hilarious surprise (review)

(And because I don’t want to seem ungrateful, a shout-out to the other shows that almost made this list (in the order I saw them): For Worse, Ball: A Tribute To My Lost Testicle, Sometimes There’s Wine, Happenstanced, The Abortion Chronicles, Caucasian Aggressive Pandas and other Mulatto Tales, The Gospel of Sherilyn Fenn, Fruit Flies Like A Banana: Alphabetical Disorder, Hostil Watching, The Adventures of Crazy Jane and Red Haired Annie, AfterLife, Know Your B-Movie Actors, Darlings, An Accidental Organist, and Twice (with special bat cameo)

So, for what it’s worth, there’s my 2016.

Good theater helps my heart, and makes me a better writer, so thanks to you all for giving me that gift.  Keep on doing what you’re doing, and hopefully we’ll cross paths sooner rather than later in 2017.  And if I thought good art seemed necessary last year, here comes a whole new world with the new year (yikes).