Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review – BFA 2008 – Final Productions - 4-1/2 stars (4 of 4)

“I wish I took more pictures.”


This year’s collection of completely random scene work had a great hook, something which also gave the performance its own peculiar structure and place in the larger framework of these final projects. The actors were asked to choose some text – be it song, poem, letter, speech or scene – which they wanted to serve as a snapshot of their work as part of the larger portrait or performance “yearbook” of the class as a whole. In many cases, it was a way to offer up a completely different side of their performing chops that weren’t on display in their roles in the three new plays, and they all took full advantage of it.

Nicole Rodenburg, a comic neurotic mess of a character in "The End," here takes on the regal bearing of Hermione in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” on trial for her life for adultery and treason, facing down the man she loves who no longer trusts her. Kelsey Olson, a mousy character in pursuit of a famous childhood friend gone missing in “When I Was A Ghost,” walked out and blew the roof off the place with an aria from Handel’s opera “Rinaldo.”

Joseph Newton and Allison Snow, such a cute awkward couple in “Be Here Now,” become a lecherous fraud and the woman trying to lure him into showing his true colors in a scene from Moliere’s “Tartuffe.” Rolando Martinez, the lovelorn empathic superhero in “The End,” takes on the role of murderous Richard III, in his early days of villainy as the deformed Richard of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, part 3.”

A trio who all played more reserved characters in “When I Was A Ghost” all get to open up in a big way – Christine Weber belts out the song “Meadowlark” from “The Baker’s Wife;” Daniel Jiminez threads together three of Shakespeare’s sonnets into an ode to the pleasures and pitfalls of love; and Sam Bardwell gets to rip into a rousing speech to the troops before battle from “Henry V.”

Two of the sister characters from “Be Here Now” also get to tackle larger than life roles from the Bard – Alia Attallah slips into the skin of Cleopatra (of “Antony and…” fame), and Kate Durand shows us the unraveling mind of Lady Macbeth. Duncan Frost, a damaged soldier who knows the score in “Be Here Now,” breathes life into poor clueless Lenny from “Of Mice and Men” – a sweet guy who doesn’t know his own strength, for which everyone else around him always seems to pay the price.

Ladies who either did or didn’t get a turn to sing in their new play roles got to switch places. Whitney Hudson sets aside her killer singing voice, so fully on display in “When I Was A Ghost,” to interpret two letters of love – one from Beethoven to an unknown paramour, the other from an Elvis fan to her well-known beloved. On the other side, Ashley Marie Peterson, a reserved, non-singing superhero in “The End,” got to open up in song about her bewildering but nonetheless intense love for “Taylor, the Latte Boy.” And Courtney Roche, agent to the music stars in “…Ghost,” here gets to sing a little song herself about the comedic perils of dating men from “Baltimore.” And yet another person with a musical number in “…Ghost,” Grant Heuke, this time got to go the Arthur Miller drama route, as a damaged soldier from a different era, Chris Keller from “All My Sons.”

A couple of performances even got me interested in plays that hadn’t been on my radar. Hugh Kennedy, who I liked very much as Patrick the castoff fiancĂ© and sustainable architecture geek in “Be Here Now,” took on the title role of the Shakespeare’s beleaguered “Richard II,” looking on very hard times indeed, and losing his faith in his hopes to prevail – all of which got me very curious about the rest of that script. And Grant Chapman, no longer in superhero drag from “The End,” was so heartbreaking in the grip of unrequited love as Housman in “The Invention of Love,” I was actually compelled to go out and buy myself a copy of Tom Stoppard’s script. I don’t remember the last time that happened.

Before a rousing chorus of the bittersweet anthem “(I Wish I Could Go) Back To College” from the naughty puppet musical “Avenue Q” by the whole gang, Christopher Peltier and Elizabeth Stahlman reminded me again how much I love David Hare’s play “Racing Demon.” The collision of devotion to a religious calling and the needs of the heart and the flesh is expertly examined in a scene of a man and a woman headed toward some kind of break – a breakthrough, a breakdown, a break-up. Great stuff, and again, a very different sort of couple than the college kids on the verge of graduation, and perhaps a break-up of their own, which Peltier and Stahlman played in “The End.”

The other thing I really was drawn to, apart from the sense of cohesiveness about the whole affair, was the support that all the members of the ensemble lent to each other’s scenes on a regular basis. Rather than let Lady Macbeth or Lenny or Richard III or Chris Keller or Cleopatra or Housman or Hermione or Richard II wander about by themselves, pretending to talk to or be observed by people the audience couldn’t see, cobbling together a monologue out of something that was meant to be a scene with several characters, everyone pitched in and fleshed out those smaller roles around the edges. The person being spotlighted wasn’t alone. They had context. They had partners. If a person needed a hand, that hand was there. One gets the sense that all these actors really enjoy working together, and will miss being a part of a regular ensemble. Just another thing that made “Snapshots” a fitting send-off, and a great companion piece to the three new plays.

Highly Recommended

“Snapshots” plays only one more time, on Saturday night, April 26,
2008 at 7:30pm. Tickets are free, but you should call for a reservation at the Guthrie box office - 612-377-2224. Performance is in the Dowling Studio on the 9th floor of the new Guthrie theater complex at 818 South 2nd Street in Minneapolis.

Review – BFA 2008 – Final Productions - 4-1/2 stars (3 of 4)

“I’ll be your tree. You can be my bush.”
“Watch your mouth.”


Of the three new plays being performed in repertory, “When I Was A Ghost” is the weakest as a script. The performances are all still really solid, so for that reason it’s still worth seeing. The script itself is an interesting experiment in structure that allows for a lot of intriguing breakout moments for each of the actors involved. But all the pieces, written by Deborah Stein in collaboration with the ensemble, and abetted by director Lear Debessonet and dramaturgs Lauren Ignaut and Carla Steen, don’t ultimately add up to a satisfying whole.

The conceit is that there are six strangers, all stranded in an airport lounge in Iceland, each connected in some way to a singer who has mysteriously disappeared. The play returns a number of times to the opening sequence of the people, waiting in their own isolation. Each time it returns, the audience has learned a little more in the intervening time about one or more of the characters, and can look at them with new eyes. Other scenes are seen from more than one angle, through a different character’s perspective each time, each time with a different impact.

Abby Banaby (Whitney Hudson, in possession of a rafter-shaking set of pipes) is all too-willing to put her music career in the hands of opportunistic agent Sam Sames (Courtney Roche), and ditch her reluctant singing partner Davis Truck (Daniel Jimenez) in the process. Just as quickly as Abby enjoys her rise to fame and its perks, she flames out and flakes out, and vanishes. A childhood friend Dash (Kelsey Olson) embarks on a journey to seek Abby out, wherever she may be. A blue-collar worker Dotie (Sam Bardwell) is inspired by Abby’s voice to try and push his own young daughter into the spotlight as a way of trying to improve the family’s fortunes. A devoted fan Lou (Grant Heuke) channels his idol’s talent in a big musical number. Meanwhile the airline ticket agent Dasha (Christine Weber) harbors either secrets or delusions about her own past as everything from figure skater to secret agent.

There’s a great moment at the beginning when ordinary sounds – a computer keyboard, a phone, someone eating yogurt, another person tapping absently on a guitar case – all blend into a rhythmic force that drives the play into its world of music. The play could have used more smooth transitions like that. Things like the James Bond and VH-1 Behind The Music parodies and the lonely fan’s big musical number were fun, but as seeming non sequiturs they didn’t always add to the audience’s understanding of who these people were, or why they cared, or why should we. There are the bones of an interesting idea lurking in “When I Was A Ghost.” It just doesn’t seem fully formed yet. Still, it’s…


When I Was A Ghost” has only three more performances before it closes this weekend - Thursday, April 24 at 7:30pm, and Saturday and Sunday, April 26 and 27 at 1pm (but I believe Sunday’s performance may already be sold out). The plays are paired up in different combinations on Thursday through Saturday, and all three play on Sunday. Tickets are $10, or $7 for students and seniors. Reservations and more information at or by calling 612-377-2224. Performances are in the Dowling Studio on the 9th floor of the new Guthrie theater complex at 818 South 2nd Street in Minneapolis.

Review – BFA 2008 – Final Productions - 4-1/2 stars (2 of 4)

“This isn’t the last time we’re all going to see each other. Right?”


A group of college friends gather one last time on the eve of graduation to participate in a shared ritual. The fantasy series of books they all grew up reading has just published its final volume. So, per the tradition that has bonded them through their college years, they dress up as their favorite character, wait in line all night to get a copy of the book, and then trek to a family cabin to hole up and read it to one another. The problem is, the book’s author has warned the public that one of the characters will meet with tragedy. None of the friends is prepared to witness the death of their superhero alter ego. The prospect of fictional death fills many of them with foreboding about their own fates.

Playwright Sheri Wilner takes what could have been either maudlin or melodramatic, or just a Harry Potter rip-off, and instead gives us “The End.” “The End” is a nice balance of reality and fantasy. It isn’t overly sentimental nor is it all gloom and doom. Director Jackson Gay and the ensemble of actors get the tone just right. Something momentous is about to happen to all these people, but it’s not the end of the world. The end of “a” world perhaps. But life will continue. By the end, the audience gets a clear picture of all of these characters individually, and as a group. They definitely have the skills needed to face life, with or without each other. Something will be lost, but the world of possibilities before them isn’t so scary. Of course they have to face the loss, and the fear, to get to that place. And it’s a lot of fun to watch them grapple with it, on the page and off.

I sort of wish the program had everyone’s superhero names as well because they were a lot of fun, and I neglected to jot them down. Wilner’s book within a play is a theatrical device that she uses very well. This is augmented by the fact that each of the ensemble clue the audience in on their particular superhero’s backstory as each of them writes to the author of the book to make the case for their alter ego’s survival. These individual spotlight meditations, which the play drops in and out of at decidedly comic moments, also reveal a great deal about the character of the college students themselves, and their fears about the future. As each person unfolds before us, the group dynamic the play returns to becomes richer and fuller. It’s a deceptively simple structure, and could have been over or underdone. But they all got it just right.

Franklin (Grant Chapman), a dancer in female superhero drag, lives boldly, like his alter ego, a young woman who can control the elements of nature. He refuses to let anyone deter him from his dreams, including his parents. Because of this he hounds his friend Maddy (Ashley Marie Peterson), since she gave up studying dance to focus on medicine. Maddy is coming to grips with the fact that she’s just not talented enough, and trying to find something else she cares about. She doesn’t appreciate being accused of selling out, or abandoning her dream. Edie (Nicole Rodenburg) is a bundle of nerves about change approaching on all fronts way too fast for her liking. Felix (Rolando Martinez) secretly hates the damn books and wishes it all were over, except for the fact that this bizarre book group helps him stay close to someone he cares deeply about – someone who is dating someone else, and has no clue about the depth of his real feelings. The irony of the fact that his superhero is empathic and can read minds isn’t lost on poor Felix. Maria (Elizabeth Stahlmann) is worried over impending surgery, due to be performed right after graduation. The surgery can insure her health, but may cost her the one thing she values most, her singing voice. Maria’s boyfriend Jack (Christopher Peltier) wishes he could stop time like his superhero doppelganger – “one foot out the door in the real world, one foot still in the dorm room, in shoes I didn’t have to pay for.” He worries that his current level of popularity can’t last, that he’ll be easily forgotten, that he won’t be enough of a man for his girlfriend, whose life and possibilities seem so much larger than his own. So he brings the beer. “They always miss the person who brings the beer.”

The End” could have been just a story about a bunch of privileged white kids and wannabe artists who don’t know how good they have it. If it had been, it would have worked my last nerve. But it turns out these nearly college graduates know exactly how good they have it. They know how tenuous it all is. The fact that they do appreciate it, that they don’t take it for granted, is one of the play’s main charms. Their biggest fear isn’t selfish. Their biggest fear is that they’ll lose each other. They know this fear is very likely to be realized. They wonder what they’ll do without the emotional safety net that each of them provided for and received from the others. For anyone who’s lost a friend to distance or time or neglect, the moment these characters are grappling with is extremely poignant, even if they are grappling with it in capes and spandex. This, of course, is the other main charm of the play – the fact that it refuses to take itself too seriously. But it always laughs with, never at, its characters.

The performances are all deeply felt, and completely disarming. You can’t help liking these characters, and these actors. To use the word adorable in describing this play sounds dismissive, but it’s meant as a compliment. You just want to take the whole production and give it a hug. Then, of course, you sit down, and discover the production has placed a whoopee cushion on your seat. Best not to take anything, including your role as an audience member, too seriously.

Very Highly Recommended

The End” has only three more performances before it closes this weekend - Friday, April 25 at 7:30pm, and Saturday and Sunday, April
26 and 27 at 1pm (but I believe Sunday’s performance may already be sold out). The plays are paired up in different combinations on Thursday through Saturday, and all three play on Sunday. Tickets are $10, or $7 for students and seniors. Reservations and more information at or by calling 612-377-2224. Performances are in the Dowling Studio on the 9th floor of the new Guthrie theater complex at 818 South 2nd Street in Minneapolis.

Review – BFA 2008 – Final Productions - 4-1/2 stars (1 of 4)

(Every now and again I lift my moratorium on writing about shows at the Guthrie – because, honestly, they don’t need any help from me. The reasons for lifting it vary, but most often it’s because I think there’s a production of real merit going on that, for whatever reason, folks may be overlooking. And while there’s a big spectacle production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” going on on the thrust stage, and a great co-production with Penumbra Theatre on the proscenium of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” [more on that last one later], there’s also a series of new plays going on upstairs in the Dowling Studio that are closing this weekend, and I wanted to give them a nudge, because two of them are quite good indeed, and deserve bigger crowds.)

“Where are you? What time is it?”


Tweaking Chekhov is dangerous business. Not long ago, we just had an entire month of the Russian playwright in a variety of permutations at the Bryant Lake Bowl under the banner of a Twin Cities Chekhov Festival to bear that out. For those who love Chekhov, you will be measured under the looming shadow of the great master. For those who hate Chekhov, they wish you’d all stop whining and get over it. But I love both Chekhov and Carson Kreitzer’s work as a playwright, so I had high hopes for her modern day riff on “Three Sisters” entitled “Be Here Now.” I wasn’t disappointed.

Yes, there are three sisters – Liv (Kate Durand), Shel (Alia Attallah), and Izzy (Allison Snow). Yes, they once lived in the big city, and now live somewhere not so big. Yes, they long for travel, and long for change. Yes, there are soldiers involved, though this one – Jim (Duncan Frost) - is shipping off to Iraq. Yes, there is unrequited love, and infidelity (though, refreshingly, it is emotional rather than sexual, at least at first).

But here’s the big difference. These are women of the 21st century. They have options, and they take them. They have choices, and they make them. Izzy wants to sate her desire for far-off places. So she pawns her late mother’s necklace, given to her for her 18th birthday, and hops a plane to New Zealand. Shel is bored by her fiancĂ© Patrick (Hugh Kennedy), so she strikes up conversation, and extended email correspondence, with soldier Jim. Liv is tired of being the surrogate parent for her younger sisters in the aftermath of their parents’ death many years before. She’s tired of living in the family home as if it’s a museum and not really hers. So she puts her own needs first and ends up doing a lot more than just redecorating.

Be Here Now” is also just as much about the men, even if it is always somehow in relation to these three women. Patrick isn’t without his charms and his passions, something Liv is quick to notice when Shel casts him aside. The war changes Jim – and the man who comes home promises a very different life, and challenges, for Shel. Izzy learns a lot about just taking a breath and appreciating where you are, as well as where you’re headed, from a zen surfer dude named Steve – who bears a striking resemblance to the lovelorn skateboard boy Zeke who Izzy left behind (not surprising, since both are played by Joseph Newton). Relationships get tangled and untangled. Family gets expanded and redefined. So does home.

Benjamin McGovern’s direction keeps things flowing smoothly despite multiple plot lines, locations and time shifts. The actors are all in tune with each other and their characters and are a joy to watch in action. The set design of rolling flats and highly mobile furniture by Randy Farris is fluid and multifaceted, and in its own way, a seventh actor in the production. The liberal use of music throughout, as part of Montana Johnson’s sound design, is a great reinforcer of mood and tempo. Craig Gottschalk’s lighting design is full of vibrant color and shadow, and gorgeous. Cana Potter’s costumes strike just the right note of individuality for each character, and evolve as they do. Also, a nod must be given to stage manager Adam Ehret and assistants Caitlin Milligan Sheaffer and Stacy Davis Spensley, for making sure all these balls stay in the air so effortlessly.

Be Here Now” is so full of beautiful moments – solo, duo, and ensemble; spoken and unspoken – it’s a wonder that they’re all packed into a single act. It’s a lovely script, lovingly executed. It’s a great piece of theater.

Very Highly Recommended

Be Here Now” has only three more performances before it closes this weekend - Thursday and Friday, April 24 and 25 at 7:30pm, and Sunday, April 27 at 1pm (but I believe Sunday’s performance may already be sold out). The plays are paired up in different combinations on Thursday through Saturday, and all three play on Sunday. Tickets are $10, or $7 for students and seniors (a steal, really, at twice that). Reservations and more information at or by calling 612-377-2224. Performances are in the Dowling Studio on the 9th floor of the new Guthrie theater complex at 818 South 2nd Street in Minneapolis.

Seriously, don’t miss this one.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Fringe Archive - 2004 - Community

Some posts related in tangential ways to the 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival during the time I was covering it include the following...

Support Your Local Theater Hosts

Theater by Women, Stories for Everyone

Audience Reviews

Best of the Fringe? - a little post festival gossip pops up in an unexpected place...

Fringe Archive - 2004 - My pre-Fringe Top 10

If You Held A Gun To My Head...

...or, if I could only see ten Fringe shows, what would they be and why?

A complete rundown on all ten, which are...

1. Chamleon Theatre Circle - Death Penalty Puppetry

2. Claire Simonson - The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

3. The Mayasphere Project - Metamorphoses

4. Brown Bee Productions - Philosophy: The Music of Ben Folds

5. Aspect I Studios - The Judas Cradle

6. Theatre Latte Da - Knock!

7. Ammala Dance & Music - On The Beaded Fringe 2: Traveling In Hip Circles

8. Five Man Job - Improv A Go-Go: Deathmatch

9. Tim Uren - 10,000 Comic Books

10. The Artsy Guy - Patrick and James: A Love Story

Plus a list of the shows that would be next in line, including...

1. Ari Hoptman - Delware and Other Lies

2. Ferrari McSpeedy - Punk Rock Awesome

3. Outward Spiral Theatre - The Valets

4. Tom Cassidy - Osama Kincaid, Painter of Terror

5. Skewed Visions - Pipes

6. Maximum Verbosity - Lokasena

7. Gaydar Productions - EAT! A Generous Buffet of the Karen Carpenter Songbook

8. Teatro del Pueblo - Tequila

9. Infinity Star Productions - VISION'S TALE: Curse of the Machine / Cycles of Social Haunting / Birth of Vision

10. Big Empty Barn Productions - Whiskey Bars

11. Heidi Arneson - The Queen of Block E

12. The Scrimshaw Brothers - Look Ma, No Pants, The Last One

13. Joseph Scrimshaw - Jack and Ben's 10th Annual Bar Crawl and Moveable Feast

14. Anne Dimmock - The Swimmer

15. Illusion Theatre/Brent Doyle - Six Steps Part Deux

16. Unitard - KBYE Now News Hour

17. Two Time Theatre Company - A Superhero Story

Plus some Hidden Gems, shows that might not be on your radar but should be, including...

1. Topsy-Turvy Theatre - Mary Kelley Sunshine Box

2. Terra Icognita - Dix

3. Inept Productions - This Love Train Is Unstoppable and I Am the Conductor

4. Illusion Theatre - Funeral Director's Wife

5. Alan Berks - Goats

6. Walking Shadow - Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen

7. Lost In The Cove Productions - Sonata Blue

8. Rough Magic Performance Company - Spoonface Steinberg

And a Guilty Pleasure I probably shouldn't be attracted to, but can't help myself...

U Betcha! eX-posed! - Hamel Road Theatre Project

Also, there were some welcome returnees from the 2003 pre-Fringe Top 10 list, including Mom, and the early buzz on these sure things...

Plants and Animals - Scot Augustson of Seattle, WA

In Defense of Sin (My Friends' Best Stories) - Ministry of Cultural Warfare

Whoppers - Kevin Kling

Fringe Archive - 2004 - Life of a Blogger (and Mom)...

The 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival was a weird one for me because in addition to the usual blogging work, I also had a play of mine being produced (Dandelion Snow), and was helping to produce a two-slot showcase of short plays called Fast Fringe. Juggling all that made for an interesting Fringe experience...

Minnesota Fringe Festival - A Love Story

Early Buzz - Honorable Mentions - since I wrote Dandelion Snow, and was producing Fast Fringe 1 and 2, I didn't feel right putting them in my Top 10 list for the whole festival, but of course I needed to mention them...

Dandelion Snow - The Readthrough

Dandelion Snow - The Interview

The Next Generation

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Sax and Violins Revisited

Live Nude Fringe Revisited

Dandelion Snow - the first week of rehearsals

The Fringe's Bitch

I Feel A Song Coming On

Dandelion Snow in Lavender Magazine

Random Suggestions

The Amazing Fringe Race

A Crash Course In Fringing

Fast Fringe in the Wall Street Journal

Save These Shows From Their Titles

To All The Shows I've Loved Before

Fringe Time Management and Other Stories

Stuck In Traffic

Out of Order

4-1/2 Reasons I'm Seeing The 7 Project

Dandelion Snow - The Review

Piece of Sh*t

Number Crunching

Fringe Archive - 2004 - Fringe Snapshots

Since I can't type all day and see theater at the same time, here are some quick and dirty overviews of some of my Fringe days as they went flying by...

For some reason, Days 1 and 3 didn't get a snapshot. Hmmmm...

Day 2

Day 4

Day 5

Half-Way Point Summary

Day 6

Day 7

Day 8

Day 9

Day 10

Fringe Archive - 2004 - 5 Stars - Life-Altering Experience

Productions in the 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

5 Stars - Life-Altering Experience

Death Penalty Puppetry - Chameleon Theatre Circle

Jack and Ben’s 10th Annual Bar Crawl and Moveable Feast - Joseph Scrimshaw

Knock! - Theater Latte Da

The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen - Walking Shadow

Look Ma, No Pants - The Last One - The Scrimshaw Brothers

The Origin of Consciouness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind - Claire Simonson

Philosophy - The Music of Ben Folds - went back a second time - Brown Bee Productions

Pipes - Skewed Visions

Plants and Animals - went back to see it a second time - Der Stamen Spielers

Punk Rock Awesome - Ferrari McSpeedy

Fringe Archive - 2004 - 4-1/2 Stars - Damn Near Perfect

Productions in the 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

4-1/2 Stars - Damn Near Perfect

Before Dark - Live Action Set

This Love Train Is Unstoppable and I Am The Conductor - Inept Productions

Metamorphoses - The Mayasphere Project

Osama Kincaid, Painter of Terrorism - Tom Cassidy

Patrick and James: A Love Story - went back and saw it a second time - The Artsy Guy

Vision’s Tale: Curse of the Machine/Cycles of Social Haunting/Birth of Vision - Infinity Star Productions

Whiskey Bars - Big Empty Barn Productions

Fringe Archive - 2004 - 4 Stars - Excellent

Productions in the 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

4 Stars - Excellent

10,000 Comic Books - Tim Uren

Feeling Faust - CalibanCo Theatre

From The Diary of Virginia Woolf - Nautilus Music-Theater

Goats - Alan Berks

ImprovAGoGo - Deathmatch - Five Man Job

In Defense of Sin (My Friends’ Best Stories) - Ministry of Cultural Warfare

John and Jen: Part One - Nautilus Music-Theater

Murderers - Illusion Theatre

The Swimmer - Anne Dimock

Women! Live On Stage! - Theatre Unbound

Fringe Archive - 2004 - 3-1/2 Stars - Good Job Plus

Productions in the 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

3-1/2 Stars - Good Job Plus

Agog - Spoken Word Productions

Dix - Terra Icognita

The Judas Cradle - Aspect I Studios

Lokasenna - Maximum Verbosity

Mary Kelly Sunshine Box - Topsy-Turvy Theater

Six Steps Part Deux - Illusion Theater

The 7 Project - Red Dilemma

U Betcha! eX-posed! - Hamel Road Theatre Project

The Valets - Outward Spiral Theatre Company

Fringe Archive - 2004 - 1 Star to 3 Stars - Life's Too Short up to Good Job

Productions in the 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

1 Star - Life's Too Short

1-1/2 Stars - Life's Still Too Short

2 Stars - Not Bad, Needs Some Work

2-1/2 Stars - Not Bad, Still Needs Some Work

3 Stars - Good Job

uh... none...

Fringe Archive - 2004 - 0 Stars - Run For It

Productions in the 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

0 stars - Run For It

Everything And Nothing All At The Same Time - Theatre Transcendare

Monday, April 14, 2008

Review - Exit Strategy - Cricket Productions - 4 stars

“I have options. Lots of options.”
“Name one.”

Exit Strategy” by local writers Bill Semans and Roy M. Close has one of the funniest first acts on a play that I’ve seen in recent memory - full of one-liners based solidly in character, acted with a great deal of panache. It’s the kind of first act which completely wins you over, endears the characters to you, and makes you wait eagerly for intermission to be over and the second act to begin. For that reason alone, I can highly recommend you see it.

Two more great reasons to see “Exit Strategy” are the performances of Shirley Jean Venard as Mae, and Charles Nolte as James. The prickly but caring relationship between Mae and James is the heart of the play around which everything else revolves. One couldn't ask for a better pair of actors - at any age - to shoulder that load. Venard (72) and Nolte (84?!) go through their paces like actors half their age. And that's the point of the play - "You're never too old. Never." At the outset of “Exit Strategy,” the owners of the Penley, the boarding house where Mae and James live, decide to close the place down within another month's time. The two sparring friends are at a loss to know where to look for a new home. The demise of the Penley is seen as just another signifier that James and Mae's options in general are shrinking in number, and time is running out. But instead of collapsing into despair, they meet the challenge with humor and high spirits. When the opportunity for an actual adventure comes along, one that's a little on the shady side, but might also ease their financial woes, they grab it. They don't leap in without some reservations, but the excitement is too alluring to pass up.

Mae is the live-in caretaker for the Penley, and James is its sole remaining tenant - a former actor and professor who resigned amid scandal. These two characters know how to push one another's buttons and they do so repeatedly, with enthusiasm. Though James is gay and Mae straight, the chemistry between the two indicates an important platonic relationship in both their lives. Venard and Nolte rip into these roles with gusto, wearing them like a second skin, falling into an easy rhythm of conversation both argumentative and supportive. They're an old married couple in all ways but one.

The adventure which comes their way is brought to them by Alex (playwright/actor Semans), an ex-con who may or may not be running a con on Mae and James. He befriends them and acts as referee to their occasional spats. Then Alex lets them in on the real reason he rented a short-term room at the Penley. Alex's caper could bring them all a financial windfall - as long as it goes off without a hitch.

More than just a caper play, “Exit Strategy” is an examination of the later stage of life, when your body may not always cooperate, but your mind and spirit are as lively as ever. The play is awash in memorable lines, from the playful...

"We don't have a rodent problem. All our rodents are quite content."

to the wistful...

"I'd like to fall in love again. I must be out of my mind."

from humor dark...

"I hear a daily nap adds years to your life."
"You sound like that's a good thing."

to bawdy...

"Women over sixty. It's like Tasmania. Everyone knows it's down there somewhere but nobody gives a damn."

from the philosophical...

"I submit that the difference between a brothel and a whorehouse is the presence of a band."

to the gasp-inducing...

"Sometimes I feel like I've sucked my last cock."

(in response to which my friend leaned over to me and said, "So do I, James. So do I.")

There's frank talk, but it's always good talk - grounded in character, shining with intelligence, wit and humanity.

The only real weakness of the script is that in the second act it tends to run out of steam in places. The caper takes a bit of prominence over character. The caper also takes place in another location. Though James Bakkom's setting of the Penley is fantastic - a faded ramshackle abode with telling details in place both onstage and out the windows, down the halls and into the wings - it ain't going anywhere. The actors leave, things happen offstage between scenes, and are later reported to the audience. Though this can, and does, also provide a measure of suspense, it's also less immediate as a storytelling device. Also, at the end of the first act, the trio is on the verge of launching into their adventure. Every entrance in act two, starting with the opening one as the lights come up after intermission, holds the promise that things will kick into high gear. Instead, the execution of the crime is repeatedly delayed - almost as if the play itself is stalling for time. Any time spent with Mae and James is fun, not at all time wasted, but I sometimes found myself wishing they'd get on with it. However, that said, the play ends on a high note - and as long as you end well, the audience will forgive much. In this case, there’s not that much in need of forgiveness.

In a play this dependent on only three characters, all the performers need to be at their best. Bill Semans, thought often charming as Alex, is not yet on the same level in performance as Venard and Nolte. When interacting with either or both of them, their energy feeds him well. When Alex is supposed to be driving the action, sometimes the play falters. Strangely, though Semans is co-author of the script, he is the only one of the three who ever seems to be visibly struggling to remember the lines. Still, it’s early days in the run. As the trio spends more time in front of audience, the bumps will no doubt be smoothed out.

Looking at the larger picture of offerings on stage right now in the Twin Cities, theater could be seen as a young person’s game. On that count alone, “Exit Strategy” is an unique experience. Rather than waiting around for someone else to create a production with the kind of mature leading roles they’d like to see, Cricket Productions went out and did it themselves. Age aside, Venard and Nolte are turning in wonderful performances that deserve to be seen. The first act of the script literally crackles along, it’s a delight - and overall, the story and characters are a lot of fun right to the end. Director Howard Dallin pulls all the elements together well. The set is wonderful. Plus, Lynn Musgrave’s sound design does a great job of setting this fictional locale in the larger present day world, both outside the walls of the Penley and within. And musical interludes are scattered throughout but never overdone. It’s nice work all around. On many levels, theatrical productions like this don’t come along that often. You should see it.

Highly Recommended.

Exit Strategy” from Cricket Productions is performing at the Mixed Blood Theatre (1501 South Fourth Street in Minneapolis) through Sunday, May 4, 2008 - Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $30 ($27 with Fringe button, $25 for seniors and groups, $20 for students). Call the Mixed Blood box office at 612-338-6131 or purchase tickets online at For further information on the production, visit their website at

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Review - The Piano Tuner - Live Action Set - 5 stars

“And then what happened?”
“They lived happily ever after.”
“And then what happened?”

The friend who accompanied me to “The Piano Tuner” had never seen or heard of Live Action Set before. Trying to describe the group’s style - a mix of standard theater, dance, clowning, music, and physical theater to produce an ensemble-created performance (just for starters) - sort of defies language sometimes. Words seem inadequate. One almost has to see it and take it in to understand it. When the actors left the stage after their final bows and the applause finally died down and the house lights came up, I turned to my friend and smiled, saying,

“And that’s what they do.”

In response, my friend said, “I’m going to be thinking about that all night.”

Sadly, “The Piano Tuner” is only on stage for a single weekend. It opened Thursday, April 10th and closes Sunday, April 13th. So if you’re just looking for a quick answer to the question, Should I go?, the answer is an emphatic yes. (Basic information on location, times, and tickets is at the bottom, just scroll down.) “The Piano Tuner” is, hands down, the best thing Live Action Set has done since their breakout production, “Please Don’t Blow Up Mr. Boban” three years ago. Other things they’ve done have been interesting, or good, or interesting *and* good, but not this good. “The Piano Tuner” is going to rank up there as one of Live Action Set’s very best.

About halfway through the performance, I was feeling pretty confident as both audience member and reviewer. It all seemed pretty straightforward. Figured I could sum it up neatly in a couple of sentences in terms of plot and thematic concerns. Then suddenly,
everything and everyone onstage started opening up in unexpected ways. The whole thing started blossoming, new layers were unfolding one after another. Popping up in a back corner of my now over-stimulated brain was the thought, "Holy crap, they've done it again."

"The Piano Tuner" starts out as a comedy/satire of the nuclear family before the nuclear age, when progress was measured by chopping down forests, phones were not mobile, an entertainment center was a single-slide projector with individual images changed by hand, and everything was powered by a relatively new wonder known as electricity.
Father (Ryan Hill) has been so efficient at his work that he's completed his mission and done himself out of a job. Not answering the phone or opening the mail isn't the effective financial strategy he hoped it would be for keeping the creditors at bay. A man with no occupation or purpose to give his life meaning can be a dangerous thing to have around the house. Mother (Katie Melby) becomes obsessed with keeping the family piano in tune as some sort of bellwether of good fortune. Father and Mother's two-and-a-half children, Alistair (Galen Treuer), Ramona (Kimberly Richardson), and Ibsen (Eric Sharp), try to keep things upbeat and orderly in their way. But the troubles of the parents have a way of trickling down to the offspring.

Enter the Piano Tuner (Tim Cameron), a man who inadvertently bewitches the women and children in the family simply by virtue of being present and attentive, two things that Father is not. Romantic notions coalesce around music which invades the home in the voice and notes and shapes of an Ideal Woman (mezzo soprano Laurel Cameron) and Ideal Piano Tuner (music director/pianist Paul Kovacovic, in tails no less) upstage and in
view at a grand piano beyond the bounds of the family living room. "The Piano Tuner" uses comedy and music, plus a smattering of menace and a whiff of tragedy, to peel back the labels on things like love and family and hope and progress and keeping up appearances. The Live Action Set ensemble pokes around in the corners to uncover the details that reveal new variations on familiar themes.

Live Action Set as a group has been trying to find the right mix as they explore new ways of working, and new subject matter, and I think, with "The Piano Tuner," they may have finally nailed it. Hearing about "The Piano Tuner" ahead of time, and then seeing it, were two very different things. For me, a Live Action Set show has always meant, in some measure, seeing Noah Bremer, Megan Odell, Galen Treuer, and Vanessa Voskuil on stage together. Often with collaborators around them, but always there in plain sight, front and center. The weird, and great, thing about "The Piano Tuner" is that two of the central four aren't onstage at all, and a third is only onstage in a supporting role and never speaks, and yet I still felt, "Yup, this is a Live Action Set production." With Megan Odell in the director’s chair and Noah Bremer as assistant director, the LAS sensibility is firmly in place as a guide. The Twin Cities theater community being as rich as it is, there are many equally skilled ensemble theaters creating new work collaboratively around town. So “The Piano Tuner” has a great network of artists to draw on, which it does. Ryan Hill heads up Sandbox Theatre, Katie Melby is a founder of 3 Sticks Theatre Company, Eric Sharp is one of the founding members of Perpetual Motion Theatre Company, and Kimberly Richardson and Tim Cameron between them have worked prior to this with - among others - Jon Ferguson, Civic Stage and LAS itself. So all of these artists are more than game, and able, to step into the Live Action Set process. They not only become part of it, they enrich it with their own varied experiences working in the same vein, but different styles. It’s like fielding the theatrical equivalent of an all-star team, people who don’t normally get to play together for more than one game, but when things click, it’s a hell of a game to watch.

It would be possible to fill many pages dissecting all the various bits of poetic dialogue, visual set pieces, and stunning physical moves these people pull off, but in the end it would just be reducing something to words on a page than really needs to be seen living and breathing to have the proper impact. So I’ll just give a nod to a handful, to give you a sampling of what you’ll have in store when you go - and you should, go.

There comes a point when Father sets an impossible task for his three children, just to reassert his dominance over them. They can’t win, and still they try. All of this is represented as some pretty intense physical work between characters, executed with precision by Ryan Hill as Father, and Kimberly Richardson and Eric Sharp as the two kids who fail the test, and a determined Galen Treuer who will - not - give - up.

The music, and lack of it, is always highly charged. Occasionally it serves as a soundtrack, but most often, the piano from Paul Kovacovic and the vocals from Laurel Cameron allow the repressed emotional world of the other characters to open up, to yearn for more, to even reach out for it. The Piano Tuner goes from not being able to hear a note coming out of the piano, even though Mother insists it sounds awful, to hearing exactly what the woman of the house hears, being able to satisfy both her need for beauty and his own. (“An instrument like this holds a great deal of tension,” he says. Which of course takes the prize for understatement of the evening.)

The dialogue is not standard theatrical fare. The story is built more on physicality and stage pictures than words. The words which are present are always loaded with multiple meanings, a load that only gets heavier as the play progresses and the stakes get higher. Each time the Piano Tuner comes work on the instrument, Father gives him payment the tuner feels is too generous.

“This is too much.”
“You’ve done enough.”

As the Piano Tuner and Mother grow closer with each visit, the connection is not lost on Father. Father also sees his own children gravitating toward the Piano Tuner. Each repetition of those two lines as the man of the house sees the intruder to the door holds greater meaning for each man. Tim Cameron as the Piano Tuner and Ryan Hill as Father go from strangers to potential adversaries with very little other dialogue passing between them.

When the family furniture is gone, the children get chalk and draw on the floor to outline where the walls and doors and furniture all used to be. The ways the family plays along with this gesture, respecting the boundaries outlined, pretending the chairs and loveseat are still there, are both sweet and a little sad. When the line of the wall is later defied in an attempt to escape an unpleasant reality, it has genuine impact, and a note of grace about it.

The combination of set and lighting design by Paul Whittaker - particularly toward the end, when the contrast of light and dark, color and shadow, is more stark - is gorgeous.

While everyone in the cast is uniformly wonderful, I have to take a moment and state that Kimberly Richardson and Katie Melby are starting to freak me out. This is, oddly enough, a good thing, though nonetheless unnerving. Even though Kimberly has created a couple of my favorite lovelorn misfits on stage in recent years, and I have seen Katie in several works by 3 Sticks Theatre Company, for the life of me, I don’t recognize them. They disappear so completely into whatever character they are portraying, personal identity seems to slide right off them. I meet them in offstage situations and introduce myself and they must gently remind me we’ve already met. I’ll be watching a production like this one - with Melby as Mother and Richardson as daughter Ramona - then look at the program and see their names and find myself thinking, “Really? That’s them? Wow.” So, hat’s off to you both, ladies, for being such good chameleons that I’m constantly off balance.

And since my friend mentioned it first, kudos to Noah Bremer for turning on the sexy in this one, as the wordless head of the moving crew. Not just clown sexy, or adorable dorky sexy, which he’s done before, but full-on “I’m not sure if I’m safe around this guy” sexy. My friend is a new convert to Noah’s fan club. Me, I always knew he had it in him. Even in a supporting role, Bremer leaves quite an impression.

An experience this rich, I could go on (and already have) but I want to get this posted and do my bit to spread the word. Though I hope “The Piano Tuner” comes back, and soon, for now, time grows short.

Very Highly Recommended.

The Piano Tuner” by Live Action Set still has one more performance at the Southern Theater (1420 Washington Avenue South in Minneapolis) this Sunday, 4/13 (tonight) at 7pm. Tickets are $20 (and worth every penny). You can get reservations and more information at or by calling 612-340-1725. You can learn more about Live Action Set and how to support their good work at

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Review - American Apathy - Urban Samurai - 4-1/2 stars

"Isn’t there a war?"
"A war?!"
"A war or some such thing. I thought I heard there was one."
"That’s right. I think I remember hearing something about that."
"Which war is this?"
"It was on TV. I think it was the news?"
"The news. I can’t stand that show."

"American Apathy" has been dogging my thoughts ever since I saw it on Saturday. It refuses to let me go. This is either the funniest horror story I’ve ever seen, or the most depressing comedy I’ve ever seen. It’s an incredibly smart play about really stupid people. It’s also a very deep play about really shallow people. None of which I thought was possible. But playwright Aaron Christopher proved me wrong.

"American Apathy" is the story of Ron and Judy Cummings’ American dream/nightmare. They live in the high-end area of the suburbs in a perfect house with ever more perfect accessories. They have a son we never see - whose school friends they don’t really know, who pops up in passing discussion of things like condoms and hypodermic needles, and who joins the Marines - which any audience knows isn’t going to end well. Judy (Melissa Bechthold) spends a lot of time with her friend Elaine (Marcia Svaleson) getting all kinds of bad advice on everything from shopping to having an affair ("It’s not cheating, it’s supplementing"). Elaine’s husband David (Ryan Grimes) is in a constant game of one-upmanship with Ron (Nate Hessburg) about who can be the one to most conspicuously consume. A delivery guy and a financial planner (both portrayed by Tim Reddy) try to bring a dose of actual reality to Ron and Judy’s lives, but it doesn’t stick.

All of which sounds like the last kind of show I’d want to see. But it turned out to be exactly the kind of show I most enjoy. The kind that entertains me even as it gets under my skin. Even though I want to scream at these characters for their selfishness and stupidity, I end up caring about them in spite of myself. I take no pleasure in their pain. And I never stop hoping that they’ll wake up.

"American Apathy" is tremendously funny. Most of the comedy ends up being pitch black, but that doesn’t mean you stop laughing. The play is walking a fine line, because it would be easy to portray these people as monsters, or morons, or both. And they are. But they’re also still human under all that denial and vapidness. Aaron Christopher has written a sharply observed script. Matthew Greseth has directed it in just the right tone, not sketch comedy (though in the wrong hands, this could play that way), nor completely unforgiving satire. Neither Greseth nor the actors ever seem to forget that these characters are human beings. They’re human beings who often do and say awful things, but they’re no less in need of, and no less capable of, redemption. Any comedy this dark that has one of the main characters repeatedly put a rifle in their mouth during the final scene, but not allow them pull the trigger, is positing the possibility of change, and redemption.

As Ron and Judy, Nate Hessburg and Melissa Bechthold take Christopher’s keenly observed characters and present them in all their complexity. They don’t seem, at first, to have a lot of depth. But Ron and Judy are different from their friends in that they sense that something is wrong. It doesn’t bother them much at first. But the growing realization that something is missing, that the shiny surfaces of their lives have a hollow center, troubles them both almost from the start. The fact that there is no purpose, that they are continually pretending everything is just fine, that it is all, on some level, an act that is growing oppressively more difficult to maintain, lurks just behind everything they do. The beauty of the play, and the acting, is that no one ever comes right out and says any of this. They don’t need to. It’s written on their faces. It lives in between and underneath the words. It’s wonderfully subtle stuff that trusts the audience to dig beyond the initial laughter into what’s really going on.

By contrast, Marcia Svaleson and Ryan Grimes as fellow suburban couple Elaine and David are deliciously unrepentant. They don’t see a thing wrong with the way they live and are more than happy to drag Ron and Judy along with them to reinforce how right they think they are. They’re not happy, but they’re also not burdened with a conscience the way poor Ron and Judy are. They sleep just fine at night, and if they’re troubled, they buy something new, pick up a different human plaything, or remodel the house. Svaleson and Grimes get to say the things most of us don’t dare let ourselves think, and they revel in the opportunity. These aren’t characters who want you to like them. They just want to be the center of attention. It is in contrast to these larger than life egos that Ron and Judy start to look a bit more normal, even familiar. It’s a terrific balancing act between the four of them whenever they share the stage.

The design challenge for something like this is - how do you imply affluence without actually having to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to literally stage these people’s lives? The clever solution they settled on was to make everything on the set (designed by Svaleson) out of wood and gray paint. The audience projects their own ideas of what the house must be like onto this blank slate (plus, at the end, there’s a surprise hidden inside all that gray). The costumes (by Emily Blanchard) are upscale in look without going overboard. Again, implication rather than literal reality. Hessburg also did double duty, helping on the prop front. Something as simple as a recurring gag with bottled water goes a long way toward establishing the lifestyle here. Every character grabs a bottle from an enormous onstage stock whenever they’re thirsty, takes a sip, then screws on the cap again and tosses it into the trash. Thirsty again? Grab another. There’s plenty. It’s only when times get tough that they try and force themselves to carry the same bottle around and drink from it more than once. There is also a series of elaborate projections both pre-show and in between scenes that establishes time, place and level of luxury. The projections also include vicious pseudo-advertisements in styles both old-fashioned and new that skewer the lifestyle we’re watching unravel.

The thing I admire most about "American Apathy" is that it isn’t content just to mock these people. That’s too easy. It’s done all the time. What this play seems to be trying to do is actually understand these people and their motivations. Why would people with functioning brains choose to live this way? It doesn’t allow the audience the simple pleasure of laughing at these characters, and then dismissing them. The Urban Samurai crew know that the people depicted in this play are the last people who are going to bother going to a theater to see it. Essentially, in a situation like this, you’re preaching to the converted. The audience for this play already agrees with the basic premise. So why see it? Because after you leave, and turn on your cell phone, and get your car to drive home, you realize you’re not that different from the people on stage you just spent two hours watching.

Oh, we’re not that bad, we reassure ourselves. But it’s a matter of degree. It’s not just the characters onstage who need epiphanies. Because if the self-satisfied people on the left wing of political discourse can’t unseat an unpopular president, can’t stop an unpopular war, and can’t hold any of their elected officials accountable for anything, how much better are they, really? If people are still dying, and nothing changes, and no one is willing to sacrifice even a modicum of their own comfort for the greater good as the entire country goes down the crapper, well then, it’s a good thing we have clear-eyed snapshots like "American Apathy" to explain to those who come after us how anyone could let it get this bad. And, honestly, the only way you can take a splash of ice cold water in the face like that, is to laugh, a lot. Like any other really good comedy, "American Apathy" goes down nice and smooth. It’s the aftertaste that’s a bitch.

The only reservation I have about the play - and it’s the thing that’s nagged at me the most - is the lack of any real solutions. Ron and Judy, in a sense, wake up to reality at the bitter end. But then what? Yes, I guess we could just wait around for those insulating themselves from the outside world to have someone they love ripped from them senselessly by death as a wake-up call. But that seems to let everyone in the audience off the hook. "Oh well, they’ll realize someday. And we’ll be here to say I told you so." Maybe it’s enough for a play this smart to clearly lay out the big question, "What’s it going to take for things to really change for the better?" However, since the audience for this play is quite likely already carrying that question around with them on a daily basis, what is "American Apathy" adding to the discussion? Humanizing "the other" is important, yes. There’s certainly enough dehumanizing behavior going on in need of some counteracting. But some kind of suggestion for how to deal with the other would be most welcome.

Still, the numerous positives here far outweigh anything else, so "American Apathy" still comes...

Very Highly Recommended.

"American Apathy" from Urban Samurai performs at the playwrights center (2301 Franklin Avenue East - the corner of Franklin and 23rd Avenues - in Minneapolis) through April 27, 2008. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $14 online or $16 at the door ($10 for students and seniors online, $12 at the door). So save yourself a couple of bucks and visit them on the web at Plus, there’s a video trailer to give you a sample of the satire in store.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Review - Rockstar Storytellers (May Edition) - 4-1/2 stars

It’s hard to know exactly how to review something like the Rockstar Storytellers’ “Undressed” series because essentially it’s an ongoing set of works in progress. Given the caliber of talent involved (they are Rockstars, after all - and yes, they earn the title), the quality of the new material is uniformly high. Plus, some of the performers are tossing out stories they’ve been working on for a while. So it’s not all fresh meat, though fresher than most. Does one grade on a curve, cut some slack for rough edges? Knowing the artists, I figured the answer to that would be no.

The setup is simple - first Friday of every month, 10pm at the Bryant Lake Bowl, the Rockstars present a show centered around a particular theme. This month - Anger. Or, “Undressed - Eat My Shorts - Stories of Anger (Mis)Management.” This month’s host - Rik Reppe. This month’s featured storytellers - Courtney McLean, phillip andrew bennett low (yes, he likes the e.e. cummings lack of capital letters), Allegra Lingo, and Allison Broeren. This is a fantastic idea because a regular lament of storytellers and spoken word artists is that, between Fringe Festivals, they don’t have much of an opportunity to develop their work by actually getting it in front of an audience. So a group of storytellers joined forces to start changing that reality. Now, on a monthly basis, they’re engaging and building the audience for storytelling throughout the year.

It’s a really loose, fun sort of format. The crowd is sometimes encouraged to be a little rowdy, even mouth off to the host. Rik Reppe is a particularly rough and tumble master of ceremonies. He’s not averse to making fun of the concept, his fellow performers, or the audience. And the crowd and his fellow performers are more than happy to return the favor.


“F*ck Mike Fotis!”

Rik was supposed to have a co-host this Friday evening. But the Brave New Workshop production Mike was performing in was so popular, the theater added another Friday night showing, and the co-hosting gig had to be deferred to another time. Rik made several running gags out of this (reference the above quote). Much hay was made of the fact that Fotis has a reputation for being funnier than Rik is, and how Fotis is supporting himself on his performance work alone and doesn’t have to sell his soul to corporate America - like Rik does. The crowd got into the spirit...

“When’s Fotis’ show?”
“It’s on now,” Rik replied. “You’re missing it!”

When Rik mentioned an upcoming tour of his solo show “Glorious Noise,” someone shouted, “Mike Fotis should do it instead!”

“Hey, the poop comes out there.”

“Johnny Chavez just grabbed my ass!”

Courtney McLean had a new story about how an unwelcome goosing from a football player at her high school cemented her feminist leanings.


“My penis is larger than a gorilla’s.”

“The only thing magic is good for is f*cking with people.”

phillip andrew bennett low rocketed through a twisted tale of a recluse who discovers passage to an alternate universe on the other side of the nest of cabling under this computer. This universe is one in which the recluse can indulge his violent, abusive, sacrilegious and sexual desires with impunity - until that universe turns against him.


“Get back in there and accept the body and blood of Christ, goddammit!”

“Dude, I’m not the mermaid. I’m the guy on the boat.”

Allegra Lingo insisted on the unlikely premise that she never gets angry. This morphed into recounting an incident of injustice against Allegra at her first college, which she let slide. Party because she was already in the process of transferring anyway, partly because... well, it was easier not to go up against the establishment. Easier for her. Injustices at that college continue to happen to other female students. Might they have been prevented, or even just diminished in number, if Allegra had stood up for herself back then? She’s not sure, but it haunts her. And makes her wish she could get angry, rather than always follow the impulse to try and avoid conflict at all costs.


“I had a day today that made me so angry I want to take a nap!”

“Mom insisted that I get angry all the time. It made me so mad, I hung up on her.”

Allison Broeren, glitter in her hair, took the stage to rail against the absurdity of corporate policies regarding sick time. Or rather, the lack of sick time. Whether people insist on inconveniently getting sick or not.


“Mr. Pig F*ck! You are f*ck of pig!”

“Oh, so now you are bad-ass pig f*ck?!”

Rik Reppe rounded out the evening with a story of an accident-prone taxi driver who had more rage issues (and a more bizarre vocabulary of insults at his disposal) than Rik does.


It was a well-balanced evening - the funny and the disturbing, the polished and the halting. The two most successful pieces of the evening were Phillip’s and Rik’s. It may have been new material Phillip was reading off a music stand, but he barreled through it at a fluid, breakneck pace that, while never too fast to understand and follow along, nonetheless left me breathless. In a good way. The poet and performer were in high gear in Low’s story. (Note to Phillip - Really. Truly. Stop apologizing because you think you might offend or disappoint people. On the first count, just go ahead and offend them. On the second, you’re your own worst critic. You are, consequently, never (n-e-v-e-r) as bad as you fear you are, and almost always far better than you imagine possible. Lighten up.) Rik’s taxi stand standoff was refreshing in part because he was completely off script, and completely dismantled the stage setup everyone else had used all evening. He bellowed, “I don’t know how you can be angry behind a microphone and if you’re not throwing some sh*t around!” Mic stand, gently, off stage left. Stool and music stand tossed and shoved off stage right. He paced the stage like an animal in a cage. It was a high energy, comedic cap to the night’s story collection.

Courtney, Allegra and Allison’s tales all had a lot of promise - and humor - but are still taking shape. Courtney and Allegra’s experiences of humiliation still seem to be too tender for them to dive into fully, despite the passage of time. The extended prologues on both in retrospect almost seemed like an avoidance tactic. Knowing how skillful both women are at mining unpleasant truths for humor and humanity, I’m looking forward to their digging deeper. Both they and the audience will reap the benefits of the next level of work. While Allison got more directly to her point, she then tended to wander off into tangents, though they were often mighty funny tangents. Having the personal experience she does navigating our tortured healthcare system, I’d be very interested to see what happens when she goes directly for the jugular.

(Side note - because it came up during the show and then after as well - if all the artists I’ve heard lately, on and offstage, who admit to this time-wasting they’re doing, took all the time they currently spend cruising around and filling out quizzes on Facebook and MySpace, and instead channeled it into actual creative projects... my God, the volume of plays and stories and poems and solo shows we’d have on our hands. If you’ve got that much freedom from your corporate overlords, open a word document instead and start typing. It’s much less suspicious and far more worthwhile than a networking website.

Yes, the fact that I’m saying this in blog form is not lost on me. The fact remains. And I’ll try to keep taking my own advice.)

But, as Allison said once or twice Friday night, I digress.

As for the monthly installment plan of “Undressed” from the Rockstar Storytellers - love the concept, love the performers all gathered on one stage, love most of the content this time around to boot. Rockstar Storytellers are a damn fine companion on a late Friday night.

Very Highly Recommended.

Next up for the Rockstars, first Friday in May - May 2nd at 10pm at the Bryant Lake Bowl (810 West Lake Street in Minneapolis) - “Undressed - Barefoot in the Spring - Stories of Rejuvenation.” Your host - Dave Mondy. Your storytellers - Allegra, Phillip and Courtney are back, along with Laura Bidgood and Amy Salloway. Tickets are $10, $8 with Fringe button. More information to be had at and

Meanwhile, until your next Rockstar Storyteller fix, next month’s host Dave Mondy is winding up the inaugural run of his very popular “Radio All-Stars,” yet again at the Bryant Lake Bowl, this Sunday and next, April 6th and 13th. 8pm start, 7pm doors. Tickets $10 day of show, $8 in advance or with Fringe button. More at

Plus phillip andrew bennett low’s troupe Maximum Verbosity ( be tackling one of Lewis Carroll’s epic fantasy poems as part of the showcase “Alice In Biffyland” at the Center for Independent Artists ( - April 18th through 26th. For those who like supporting a good cause, there’s both a cancer fundraiser and a farewell to an artist being deployed to Iraq in the same run here. (Good luck to you both, and - yikes)

Also of note, there’s going to be a live recording session for the Rockstar Storytellers’ first CD on Tuesday, July 15th, 7pm, also at the Bryant Lake Bowl. Details coming soon.

Rockstar Storytellers swag is available at

And yes, you can befriend or be-fan them on MySpace and Facebook, lord help us (yeah, you’ll find me on their friend/fan lists). Just search in either place for Rockstar Storytellers.

Rik Reppe can be found online at and

Courtney McClean can be found at

Allegra Lingo can be found at

Allison Broeren can be found at and

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Review - Rabbit Hole - Jungle Theater - 5 stars

“That’s a nice thought. That somewhere out there, there’s a me that’s happy.”

It’s not often a production can make me forget I’m sitting in a theater. But in the second act of “Rabbit Hole,” when a character unexpectedly walked in who had caused a great deal of pain to all the other characters onstage, I let out an all-too-audible “Oh, crap” in an otherwise suddenly hushed house.

Rabbit Hole” is in many ways an extremely simple play. But that is its secret. Because, for all its simplicity, and probably because of it, “Rabbit Hole” is also a very powerful play. Very real, very human, very funny, and very powerful.

This is in large measure due to its script, the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, written by David Lindsay-Abaire. It is in equal measure due to a great cast and overall creative team. The Jungle Theater’s production is pitch perfect.

Rabbit Hole” is a story of five people trying to rebuild and move on with their lives in the aftermath of the accidental death of a five-year-old boy named Danny.

The grief is not fresh - at the start of the play, the accident is many months past. But the grief is still debilitating. Danny’s parents, Becca and Howie (the fantastic pairing of Amy McDonald and Lee Mark Nelson), are back to something like their regular routines, but not quite. Becca’s sister Izzy (the brash and funny Maggie Chestovich) and mother Nat (the wonderfully loopy Nancy Marvy) are trying in their own awkward ways to help and play along like things are back to normal. But Jason, the young man behind the wheel of the car when Danny chased the family dog into the street, is repeatedly reaching out to contact them. Jason (a shy but determined Jason Peterson) turns out to not only be central to all their pain, but also to their healing.

Director and set designer Bain Boehlke has gotten a quintet of fine performances from the actors, and given them a great environment in which to live. Becca and Howie’s home is all earth tones and clean surfaces. There are only two exceptions to this borderline sterile atmosphere. One is the now unoccupied bedroom at the back of the stage that used to be Danny’s - all bright colors, posters and toys. Above the bed, there is an enormous circular hole in the ceiling - a very nice touch, and one that looms as large over the proceedings as the boy’s absence. The other burst of clutter is a collection of videotapes by the VCR at the front of the stage - tapes that are some of the last remnants of Danny’s face and voice. Everywhere else, the family photos have been removed. The dog has been sent off to live with Nat. Danny’s drawings have been taken from the refrigerator and packed away in boxes. The details of this lived-in, and not lived-in, house are revealed in moments both comic and heartbreaking throughout the course of the night.

It’s that mix - the silly with the sad - which makes the story work. Otherwise, it would be too much to bear. Blackouts between each scene - things which normally drive me crazy as killers of a story’s momentum - are actually critical here. The scenes are so full of feeling and humanity, the audience needs a chance to breathe, and these tiny bits of focused darkness provide them. The gentlest of music and swift scene changes keep the flow going. “Rabbit Hole” is a story that breathes, ebbs and flows, but never seems to wander. It is always headed steadily toward those final moments of humor and grace - even if the audience at times isn’t sure Becca and Howie will ever get there - or what it will look like when they do. It isn’t a simple “Hollywood” happy ending, but we wouldn’t believe it if it were. It’s a real, and hopeful, ending - all the more uplifting for being so hard won.

Shifts are occurring in everyone’s lives which drive them forward in spite of their loss. Becca insists she and Howie sell their house to try and escape the memories of their son. Howie in his loneliness demands the dog be returned. Izzy, the irresponsible younger sister, is pregnant. Nat keeps trying to draw parallels between the death of her grandson Danny, and her own son, Auggie, Becca and Izzy’s brother. Becca resists the connection because Auggie died in adulthood, not in childhood, and under very different circumstances. Becca’s resistance to Nat’s attempts to comfort her causes moments both amusing and uncomfortable, and ultimately even tender. Two very different mothers come to a shared understanding about what it means to lose a child, even as another child is poised to come into their extended family. Meanwhile, Jason, the unfortunate driver of the car which hit Danny, is on the verge of graduating high school. He wants to find a way to make piece with Danny’s parents, something to which Becca and Howie have very different reactions.

Jason’s first attempt to reach out comes in the form of a science fiction story he wrote for his high school literary magazine. It is a story he wants to dedicate to Danny. The tale centers around a son searching for a lost father through holes in time and space - rabbit holes - leading to parallel universes, where different versions of the same people lead alternate lives with different outcomes. That “oh, crap” moment I mentioned at the beginning is Jason’s next attempt - the first time all five characters share the stage together, meeting for the first time since the accident. The final attempt at reconciliation comes when Becca agrees to meet with Jason - a meeting Howie wants no part of. This meeting allows Becca to have a conversation she will never be able to have with her own son - a conversation that is by turns awkward and sad, but also, finally, sweet.

Lee Mark Nelson and Amy McDonald are polar opposites in grief as Howie and Becca. Nelson’s Howie is a man whose emotions threaten to overwhelm him - a man who feels he is losing his wife as well as his son. McDonald as Becca at first might seen distant or detached to some audience members, but it is taking all her strength to keep her emotions in check, just to get through each day. The two share the same house and the same loss, but struggle throughout the play to reestablish the bond between them.

Maggie Chestovich as Izzy has a hard time living down her character’s wild past, but pregnancy seems to ground her, even if it doesn’t entirely change her. She can often see more clearly than her more conventional sister and brother-in-law.

Nancy Marvy is delightful as Nat, a woman who never seems to have gotten the hang of motherhood - as her three grown children bear witness (two alive, one dead). Though she’s often wildly inappropriate, and you often want to shake some sense into her, she never stops trying to do the right thing - even if most of the time it eludes her.

Jason Peterson in reality is well past his high school years, but his youthful looks and squirrelly body language as the character also named Jason fully embody a boy on the way to becoming a man. Life and circumstances have thrown Jason a major curveball on that journey, but he struggles, just like the rest, to do what is right in an impossible situation.

Everyone’s work behind the scenes is also just right - Amelia Cheever’s costumes, Barry Browning’s lights, Sean Healey’s sound, and John Novak’s props. Jessica D. Finney’s stage management keeps the whole thing running smoothly.

With a script, performances and support this good, it’s easy to get lost down this “Rabbit Hole.” And it’s a journey well worth taking. It reaffirms the value of life, love and family (however peculiar) in the face of death.

Very Highly Recommended.

Rabbit Hole” continues its run at the Jungle Theater through May 11, 2008 - Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 7:30pm. Tickets range in price from $26 to $36, depending on the night, with discounts for seniors, students and groups of six or more. For reservations, call the box office at 612-822-7063, or online at Half price rush tickets are available a half and hour prior to performance. The Jungle is located near the intersection of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue (2951 Lyndale Avenue South in Minneapolis).

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Fringe Archive - 2005 - Community

Other random posts that don't fit anywhere else...

Best of the Fringe, Best of the Twin Cities

Lend Outward Spiral Theatre a Hand

The Latest from Skewed Visions

Thirst - Round 3 - details

They're at the Starting Gate... - Get a sneak peek at Man Saved By Condiments and help support Starting Gate Productions while you're at it...

Fringe Archive - 2005 - Fringe TV

The 2005 Minnesota Fringe Festival edition of the TV show I host, "Cue To Cue - A Conversation About Theater in the Twin Cities"

A Between Fringes set of episodes

The Great TV Shuffle

TV Update - a preliminary guest line-up

Another TV Update - Hope I didn't jinx anybody. Including myself...

My Fringe TV Guests - Taping Day 1 - The Scrimshaw Brothers, Allegra Lingo, The Early Stage, Aniccha Arts, Emigrant Theater...

Fringe TV Broadcast Alert

What Is This Fringe TV You Speak Of?

My TV Guests - Taping Day Two - Leah Cooper, Rik Reppe, David Mann & The Rogues, MedusaHead Productions, Teatro del Pueblo, Players of Notorious Temerity, Ballet of the Dolls, and more...

CUE TO CUE - a TV show covering theatre in the Twin Cities - Info on our latest Fringe guests, the coming week's broadcast schedule on SPNN Channel 19, and future schedule on TPT-17...

Fringe TV Guests, Past and Nearly Present - Kung Fu Hamlet, Man Saved By Condiments, Shanghai Extravaganza, The Talk - An Intercourse on Coming of Age, Skits-Ophrenia

Fringe Archive - 2005 - The First Fringe Lottery (and Ping Pong Ball Awards)

In 2005, the Minnesota Fringe Festival instituted a lottery system for determining who would make the cut for the schedule, and who would hang out on the waiting list (sometimes not for long, sometimes longer) for this non-juried festival.

Since the lottery was done via a spinning chicken-wire cage full of numbered ping pong balls, I naturally thought some kind of tongue-in-cheek commentary was required on the whole affair, and so I launched my Ping Pong Ball Awards as a bit of whimsy.

The First Fringe Lottery

The 2005 Ping Pong Ball Awards - The "Thick Hide" Award, The "Wow, Maybe Working Two Jobs Isn't So Bad After All" Award, The "Oops, Sorry About That" Award, The "Defense of Marriage Award" Award, The "I've A Feeling We're Not In Kansas Anymore" Award, Parts 1 and 2, The "Lives of Not So Quiet Desperation" Award, The "Forget the Pizza, Is there Any of that Beer Left?" Award, The "Somebody Up There Likes Them" Award, The "Well, that was easy. Where's the pizza and beer?" Award, The "Winter of Our Discontent" Award, The "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" Award

And how'd this whole random lottery process work out, as opposed to some other random process? Should we reconsider the whole non-juried thing? In my opinion, respectively, great, and hell no.

Who Needs A Curator?

Fringe Archive - 2005 - Life of a Blogger (and Mom)

Background and behind-the-scenes stuff leading up to the 2005 Minnesota Fringe Festival experience for me and Mom...

The Wedding of Jeremy and Miriam - The Couple

Theater of the Evil P vs. Theater of the Happy V

Mandates and Man Dates

A Tribute To A War Hero

It's a Smaller Word After All

Brush Up Your Shakespeare Redux

The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

Fringe In Waiting - some shows that didn't make the cut

Fear of a Lily-White Fringe

Showcases - A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

This Time Last Year

How Not To Produce A Fringe Show

What If They Gave An Audition and Nobody Came?

Celebrity Traffic Jam

True Tales of Tech Terror

What? You Think I Don't Have A Day Job?

Fringe Numerology

Here Comes Mom

Lovin' The Complete Venue Schedule Option

First Show Of The Fringe

Hail Fringe, Full of Grace

Fringe Blog Short-Circuit

Winnowing Time

I Just

Too Much - I guess I'm a little more wrung out than I thought...

E-mail, I get e-mail...

What Are The Odds? - I'm noticing the strangest details lately

A Fringe-mobile! - Just like Batman, some Fringe shows have their own set of wheels...

My Windows on the World - ode to a pair of eyeglasses which need to be replace, and some of the things I've seen with them over the past six years...

Mom and Post-Mom Fringe Scheduling

Corner Pieces in Place - Three must-sees for opening weekend with Mom - Glorious Noise, Chicks In Space, Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban...

Mom's Thursday Short List - 5:30pm - Angels of Warfare and Victory, Dance In The Dark, Henry Arms Left His Arms On The Bus, Sea Peach, and more...

Mom's Thursday Short List - 7pm - No Name Jugglers, and more...

Mom's Thursday Short List - 8:30pm - American Blue Jeans, Camelot Is Crumbling, Dancing Dirty with Lee and Mr. Bo, The Sound of Muzak, Soundtrack for the Common Man, Speechless

Mom's Thursday Short List - 10pm & 11:30pm - Blue Collar Kingpins, Georgia Out of My Mind, Meditations on Arion, Spare Parts; Tantrums, Testicles and Trojans, and more...

Mom's Thursday Fringe - Boob Tube, and more...

Running Commentary - I'm a Fringe addict. I may have a higher pain threshold than most people...

Mom's Friday Short List - 5:30pm - Edna St. Vincent Millay, The President Once Removed, Serendipity (et al.) and more...

Mom's Friday Short List - 7pm - Electropolis, For The Rest of My Life, Quantum Odyssey and more...

Mom's Friday Short List - 8/8:30pm - Color Me Naked Vol. 2: Big Black and Sassy, Grass and Concrete, Looking At You (Revived) Again and more...

Mom's Friday Short List - 10/11:30pm - 9/11 Tranny, Oedipus Wrecks: Shakespeare and Sophocles Excellent Adventure, Phyllis: This Side Up, and more...

Mom's Friday Fringe - Never Surrender's Greatest Adventures, Thirst and more...

Mom's Saturday Short List - 1:00pm - At Least One Shoe, The Labyrinth, Round and Sound and Pretty, and more...

Mom's Saturday Short List - 2/2:30pm - Inspector Rex, London After Midnight, A Tempest for Two, and more...

Mom's Saturday Short List - 4:00pm - This Is Our Youth, Three Guys On A Roof Swearing A Lot, and more...

Mom's Saturday Short List - 5:30/6pm - The Burrow of Does, Darleen Dances, I Voted for Gummi Bears, Tin Pan Alley Revue, and more...

Mom's Saturday Short List - 7pm - Michigan Disasters, and more...

Mom's Saturday Short List - 8/8:30pm - Bourbon and Butter, and more...

Mom's Saturday Short List - 10/11:30pm - At The End of the Day, Charlie Bethel's Gilgamesh, Company We Keep, The Princeton Seventh, and more...

Mom's Saturday Fringe - I'm Sorry and I'm Sorry, Going to Second Base with God: A Stormy Romance, and more...

Mom's Sunday Short List - 12/1pm - Eat Drink Marry, and more...

Mom's Sunday Short Lists - 2:30 & 4pm - Everyman, LICK!, and more...

Mom's Sunday Short Lists - 5:30 / 6 / 7 / 8:30 / 10 / 11:30pm - Jaws: The Musical! The Directors Cut, Cliff Notes for Dummies, and more...

Cast of Characters, part 1

Farewell, Mom

What I'm Seeing - Wednesday 8/10

What I'm Seeing - Thursday 8/11

Audience Reviews

What I'm Seeing - Friday 8/12

What I'm Seeing - Saturday 8/13