Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Review - ben and trish - W.A.R. Theater - 4 stars - A Guy and His Sister’s Ghost (Maybe)


W.A.R. Theater has had shows in the Minnesota Fringe Festival the past two years and I’ve managed to miss them both, although I do remember being curious about them.  (2016, it was Letters; 2017, it was The Heartless, or De Hjertelose, which ended up nabbing the encore slot for an extra performance in its venue.)  So, when someone from the company reached out to see if I wanted to come see their latest production, outside the Fringe, I figured I’d give the group a try.  W.A.R. Theater’s current production is another original play, by the company’s artistic director Michael Johnson, called ben and trish. (yes, the lower case is deliberate, and the period is part of the title.)

“Like a song I knew before I was born.”

Ben (Jeff Groff) is a young man who’s having a rough time of it.  His thoughts turn to his younger sister Trish (Amber Morgan), mixing together moments from their childhood together, as well as their young adulthood.  The play and the production seem to indicate that Trish committed suicide by taking a lot of pills.  Ben’s mental quest seems to be trying to determine what drove Trish to take her life, and how exactly Ben failed her and wasn’t there in her hour of greatest need.

“The tree, the lights, the empty beer cans we left for Santa…”

Director Steve Soler gets strong performances out of both of the actors here.  Despite the dark framework of the story, there’s a lot of lightness and humor scattered among the more serious material.  Groff and Morgan are great at embodying the children Ben and Trish used to be, and equally good at shifting back and forth between child and adult on a moment’s notice.  There isn’t a set to speak of in the Springhouse Ministries’ sanctuary.  The actors are clad in black.  The lighting by Sami Dee is very simple but effective (with a lot more levels of light and shadow than I expected were possible in this space).  A lot of it comes down to just the two actors and the script creating the world, which they do quite impressively.  There is also the regular presence of live music, composed and performed by Zachary Briscoe on percussion, and Elliott Heerman on guitar.  The music is also cleverly used to provide a smattering of sound effects throughout the story.

“My classes are good, my roommate doesn’t sleep with my girlfriend, so - yay!”

The trick here is that there’s an abrupt and unexpected turn in the story about three-quarters of the way through the run time, which I won’t spoil here.  But it has the effect of throwing the whole play up to that point, as well as after that point, into question.  And I’m not entirely sure why the storytellers thought it was necessary.  It doesn’t seem like a great strategy to undercut all the good work of world and character building, not to mention audience connection, you’ve done up to this point, just for the sake of saying “Ha ha!  Twist!  Bet you didn’t see that coming!”  No, I didn’t.  But I’m not sure what you just gained by doing that.  Because now you have not one but two unreliable narrators, and I’m not inclined to believe anything they say, good or bad.  So how do you get to any kind of a satisfying ending at that point, light or dark?

“Is God in the thunder?  Is God in the rain?”

Then there’s the whole “manic pixie dream girl” problem.  Not that Trish is in any way meant to be an incestuous love interest for her brother.  But Trish serves a lot of the same functions as a manic pixie dream girl.  She really exists only in her brother’s imagination and memories of her.  She is not a fully autonomous character with her own needs, wants and agenda.  She exists to serve Ben.  She exists to set his mind at ease, let him off the hook for her death, and get him to embrace living his life again.  Which is all very well and good, but a little self-serving for both Ben and the playwright.  As compelling as Morgan is to watch in the role of Trish, she’s kind of been written into a corner, even before the twist but even more so after it.  The whole thing leans pretty hard on the idea of the audience never questioning white male privilege. Ben's problems are the real problems.  His suffering is the suffering that really counts.  His redemption is meant to be the play’s happy ending.  Given everything we learn about Ben, does the guy even deserve redemption?  I’m not saying a play can't still exist and be satisfying in that territory, but I think it should probably be a little more aware of how and why it’s doing it.  I’m not sure the production of ben and trish. is.

“The difference between who I am and who I could be is unbearable.”

ben and trish. might want to be a tribute and reclaiming by a brother of the memory of his sister, but right now it’s not quite doing it.  Mostly because we end up not being sure what’s real and what isn’t.  In its current form, the story doesn’t really need to be ninety minutes, because at about the one hour mark, the transition back and forth from child to young adult starts to lose some of its punch.  We’re not getting any new information at this point that helps us deepen our understanding of either of the characters or their relationship to one another.  The tactic itself also isn’t showing much in the way of variation.  And while innocence lost as a subject packs a lot of punch, we see a lot of their innocence, but not a lot of specifics about how exactly they lost it.  More of the latter would make better use of the extra running time.

“Is that you?  Let’s begin.”

All that said, ben and trish. is a well-executed production with two very intriguing performances that create an entire world with very little raw material other than words and the actors' own bodies.  It’s theater boiled down to its essential component parts, and when it’s this well done, that’s always worth watching.  Also, strangely enough, Christmas figures prominently in the narrative and thus this is technically an offbeat sort of holiday show.  So if, like me, you hadn’t given W.A.R. Theater a try yet, ben and trish. seems like a good introduction. (running through December 9, 2017 at Springhouse Ministries)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of W.A.R. Theater; Amber Morgan as Trish and Jeff Groff as Ben in ben and trish.)



Monday, December 04, 2017

Review - The Crown of the Holly Queen - Gadfly Theatre - 4 stars - Good Play In Need of a Better Venue


Playwright Eli Effinger-Weintraub writes some of the funniest, smartest, strangest, most human plays being created locally right now.  And I’m happy they've found artistic champions in Gadfly Theatre.  So I was very excited to see they were producing their play The Crown of the Holly Queen.  Despite some hurdles it needs to overcome (described below), it’s still well worth seeing.  Original queer theater is still all too rare a thing, strong writing like Eli’s even rarer, so you should catch it whenever possible.  Plus, you could argue it’s a holiday show, since it revolves around the winter solstice, but it’s a holiday show filled with rites of pagan magic, reincarnation of mythological figures in the present day, and, of course, lesbian sex.

“The good news is I’ve figured out what’s wrong with you.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“Everything else.”


Quirk (Piper Quinn) hasn’t been feeling so well as the summer passes through fall into winter, and it has her best friend Alex (Jada Pulley) concerned.  Consulting with their mentor Gwin (G. Zachariah White), they arrive at an unusual diagnosis.  Quirk is the reincarnation of the Oak King, and Alex is the latest personification of the Holly Queen.  As winter solstice arrives, the Oak is supposed to die with the Holly ascendent.  However, things immediately start turning around with the lengthening of days and the returning of the light, and so then the Holly must die so the Oak can rise.  Given that no one really wants to kill anyone else, the solution lies instead in the Little Death, aka orgasm, aka sex - which, just like murder, tends to complicate a friendship.

“Your smoke alarms are in working order?”
“That’s a terrifying question, but - yes?”


But Quirk and Alex aren’t the only ones dealing with unexpected new identities.  Quirk, Alex and Gwin are practicing pagans, and their sacred grove of trees is under threat from an energy company that wants to run a pipeline through that patch of undeveloped land.  Granted, it’s a pipeline for geothermal energy and thus a useful step against global warming.  But the pipeline has been cutting through a number of sacred groves and killing the spiritual energy in those spaces.  And it turns out that’s not an accident.

“By breath.  By blood.  By sweat.  By bone.  By heart.  By time.”

The other old lives making a new resurgence come from the Round Table of King Arthur’s Camelot.  The woman in charge of the pipeline project is Morgan (Kate Kunkel), aka Morgan le Fay, the powerful sorceress who was Arthur’s lover and greatest nemesis.  Morgan’s intern Gavin (Logan Gilbert-Guy) turns out to be the latest incarnation of the famous knight Gawain.  Oh, and Gwin used to be in charge of the Wild Hunt (look it up), and Gwin alone seems to have full recognition of the past lives lived by themself and others.

“Believe me, if you remembered our prior relationship, you’d stand as far away from me as possible.”

There is a whole lot going on in The Crown of the Holly Queen, and it’s an invigorating challenge to keep up with.  In fact, even though there’s only five characters onstage, each of them has so much story, not to mention an alternate identity with even more backstory, that the canvas almost seems a little overcrowded.  Quirk and Alex could be a play all by themselves.  Right now, the twists and turns of their evolving relationship whip by so fast, it’s hard to process them in a way I think the play wants us to.  There’s also the matter of their pagan faith and rituals which are central to so much of the plot.  We don’t get to spend a lot of time sitting in this world and getting to know it fully.  It’s a window into another way of life but we’re held at a remove from this window.  Similarly, the centuries old battle between Morgan and Gavin could also be its own play.  Gwin and the Wild Hunt, same note.  Cramming them all together, along with the story of the pipeline threatening the sacred grove, it sometimes feels like no plot thread or set of characters gets a chance to fully breathe.  But as I’ve said before in reviews of other shows, I’d much rather a play be too ambitious and take real risks than just play it safe.  I’d rather a play be about too much than too little.  The Crown of the Holly Queen goes all out in regard to complex character and story.

“Some people are bad with feelings, dear.”

In most circumstances, I could more easily note what shortcomings are due to the production or specific cast members but honestly, here the venue makes that kind of determination almost impossible.  I’m torn about even bringing it up but I can’t pretend the venue - Crane Theater’s new studio space - isn’t a major factor dragging the production down.  I’m not alone in being happy that the folks behind Nimbus Theater found a home in the new Crane Theater space that they’re in the ongoing process of renovating.  The Nimbus crew has always been very generous in helping to provide a home for any number of fledgeling and small theater companies, in and out of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, many of them focusing on new work like Nimbus itself. (I enjoyed Nimbus’ production of Redemption this spring, and was sorry to miss their most recent offering, Ludlow.)  But the opening of the new studio space in the old warehouse across the lobby from the larger Crane main stage has been, to be generous, a little rocky.  I saw the inaugural production in the studio, Sing To Me Now, which was running at the same time as The Minotaur over on the main stage.  There’s no sound buffering between the two spaces at all.  While The Minotaur was the louder of the two shows, the sound bleed wasn’t a chronic problem that threatened to detract from the other show.  Here, with The Crown of the Holly Queen, it’s a big problem. 

“That’s not how reality works.”
“Are you sure about that?”


And the killer is, the production across the hall on the main stage is another queer theater, 20% Theatre Company, doing another new work, The Terror Fantastic.  In an ideal world, these two productions would be peacefully co-existing.  Currently, it sounds more like a battle to the death.  The Terror Fantastic, as you might imagine from having the word Terror in the title, is built around elements of horror - mental illness and monsters to be exact.  And there is screaming.  A LOT of screaming.  What feels like nearly constant screaming.  The Crown of the Holly Queen, not so much with the screaming.  The Crown of the Holly Queen has a lot of peaceful, intelligent conversation and complex discussions going on.  And it has tender, emotional relationship moments going on.  And all of them are accompanied by a litany of screaming from the theater across the hall.  This is not the fault of The Terror Fantastic.  Both 20% and Gadfly paid to rent a theater space.  But right now, Gadfly is getting the shaft.  And so is The Crown of the Holly Queen.  The one saving grace is that Terror Fantastic is 90 minutes with no intermission and so they’re done about half an hour before Holly Queen.  So everyone does get that final thirty minutes of environmental silence around the play.  The Gadfly actors are to be commended for their near Herculean powers of concentration.  They stay in the moment, they stay in the play, they compel the audience to continue paying attention.  But they shouldn’t have to work this hard.  I sincerely hope Gadfly is getting a significant discount on their space rental because they might as well be out in the middle of the parking lot for all the control they have over the sound in their space.

“I’ve been waiting for this since college.  Or 700 years, depending on who you talk to.”

And this makes it almost impossible to know where any problems with the production might actually lie.  There are three really standout performances in the ensemble - Piper Quinn as Quirk, G. Zachariah White as Gwin, and Kate Kunkel as Morgan.  Despite all the distractions, they turn in very nuanced and intriguing spins on their characters.  Quinn gives the production its emotional depth.  White manages to make the metric ton of exposition and storytelling fun to listen to, and active in a way that surprised me.  Kunkel skillfully walks the tricky line of not knowing she’s the villain for most of the piece, and then turning on a dime and threatening to burn the whole thing down.  Between the three of them, they hold the narrative together despite the odds.  It’s hard to know whether the rest of the cast just isn’t up to their level, or was somehow let down by the director who didn’t push for anything much deeper than just learning all the lines, or was just undone by all the damn screaming from the production across the hall.  There are little moments, like an actor’s red fingernail polish being flourished in a story about red holly berries, or one character mimicking another character’s movements behind their back because they’ve just heard the same story so many times.  These moments make me think director Cassandra Snow was paying attention to the little things just as must as the larger story concerns.  So again, can’t tell clearly what might be problems inherent to the production itself, or what might just be the venue kneecapping the play before it has a chance to stand fully upright.

“Sex and death are the only things that work.”

You should see The Crown of the Holly Queen.  And the Crane should invest in some serious soundproofing upgrades before they rent out that space again to competing productions.  Because right now, they are competing rather than co-existing, and that’s a shame. A smart, fun, new play like The Crown of the Holly Queen deserves better. (running through December 10, 2017)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of Gadfly Theatre Productions - foreground: Quirk (Piper Quinn) and Alex (Jada Pulley) have a heart to heart as [background] Gwin (G. Zachariah White) looks on in The Crown of the Holly Queen)


Friday, December 01, 2017

November 2017 Writing Challenge - #30 - Illegal Theater

Looks like between 25-27 of you are still writing
CONGRATS!

For better or for worse, do something illegal on stage REALLY.
Like, break the law.
The performers perform an illegal act AND they really do it.

Let your Id go wild
or
Make a social justice point

Abuse the audience or your performers
or
Honor the common man and flaunt the law

Write TWO endings- one for getting away with it. 
One for being arrested.

Cause a riot.
Heal the masses
Which is more fun for you today?

Thank you everyone!
Little Red Cyrano opens tomorrow. If you're around Chicago, I'd be happy to see you there.

**********

OK, raw material for first draft achieved, so I'll try an actual challenge on the day assigned for a change...

**********

Three men walk out on stage dressed in comfortable bathrobes of various styles and colors.

They are WILL, RYAN, and ZAC.

They acknowledge the audience, since there's not going to be a fourth wall.

                          WILL
Good evening, everybody.  Thanks for joining us.

                          RYAN
We should probably get this out of the way.

                          ZAC
Yes, plenty of warning before you crossed the threshold into the theater.

WILL, RYAN and ZAC open their robes and let them drop to the floor.

                          WILL
You were promised male nudity.

                          RYAN
Male nudity achieved.

                          ZAC
I've been hitting the gym pretty hard in order to get ready for this so feel free to ogle as you feel compelled.

WILL gathers the robes and folds them carefully to set aside as he speaks.

RYAN retrieves a bottle of lubricant.

ZAC gets out a string of condoms, unfolding them with a flourish.

                          WILL
So, nudity on stage.

                          RYAN
Simple rule really.

                          WILL
Flaccid penis is art.

                          RYAN
Erect penis is pornography

                          WILL
Which could get us shut down by the authorities.

                          RYAN
Who have been notified.

                          WILL
We are not ashamed of the human body.

                          RYAN
Or the pleasure it can give.

ZAC has begun gently stroking himself to an erection.

                          WILL
To review.

RYAN makes reference to his own penis, for the moment resting, not at attention.

                          RYAN
Flaccid penis, art.

WILL refers to ZAC's penis, at full attention.

                          WILL
Erect penis, pornography.

                          ZAC
Not actual pornography, of course.

                          RYAN
Just theatrical pornography.

                          WILL
And since we've come this far -

                          ZAC
And since you've been warned -

                          RYAN
Might as well go all the way.

RYAN applies some lube to his own buttocks while -

ZAC gets one of the condoms out of its wrapper and puts it on his erect penis as -

WILL keeps the conversation with the audience going.

                          WILL
Now, in case you haven't read the program notes fully.

                          ZAC
We've all be tested, clean bill of health.

                          RYAN
No germs to be spreading around.

                          WILL
And no one here's being coerced.

                          ZAC
All consenting adults.

                          RYAN
Very consenting.

                          ZAC
We're exhibitionists, truth be told.

                          WILL
We didn't believe they were serious when they put out the call for this project.

                          RYAN
And yet, here we are.

                          WILL
It's not the first time any of us have done this.

                          ZAC
Sex, he means.

                          RYAN
Public sex, though, that's new -

                          ZAC
Speak for yourself.

                          RYAN
Really?

                          ZAC
Once or twice.  The danger of it is kind of its own turn on.

                          RYAN
I can understand that.

                          WILL
Yes, it seems you do.

                          RYAN
Oops.

                          WILL
Double the pornography on stage now.

                          ZAC
That's actually quite flattering.  I thought nerves would keep you down for most of it.

                          RYAN
It's kind of exciting to finally have an audience.

                          WILL
     (to audience)
In rehearsals, we all got quite used to each other.

                          ZAC
Very used to each other.

                          WILL
Strangers makes it all a little more -

                          RYAN
Transgressive.

                          ZAC
Ready?

                          RYAN
You know I am.

                          WILL
Does he?

                          RYAN
We might have warmed up a little bit in the dressing room.

                          WILL
I can't leave you two alone for a minute.

                          ZAC
Don't be jealous, Will.  You'll get yours.

                          WILL
     (to audience)
That's true.  We're supposed to keep switching off in rotation for the duration of the run of the performances.  Just to keep things interesting.

                          RYAN
I don't think the producers needed to worry quite so much about us getting complacent without the variety.
     (to ZAC)
Why aren't you inside me already?

                          ZAC
Sorry, pal.  Didn't mean to keep you waiting.

RYAN bends over a bit.

ZAC walks up behind RYAN and slowly inserts his penis into RYAN's anus, while WILL and the audience watch.

                          ZAC (cont'd)
Everything OK?

                          RYAN
Absolutely.  You?

                          ZAC
Oh yeah.

                          RYAN
Will, you might want to further explain to the audience why we're doing this.

                          ZAC
     (thoroughly enjoying himself)
Apart from the obvious.

WILL tears himself reluctantly away from watching in order to talk to the audience.  His attention may wander back to ZAC and RYAN fucking now and again during the following.

                          WILL
Right.  This isn't just porn without a plot.

                          RYAN
     (also thoroughly enjoying himself)
Though we understand that a number of people are annoyed by the artifice of storytelling just to get two human bodies in the same space for the purpose of screwing.

                          ZAC
You can say "fucking."  I mean, at this point -

                          RYAN
You're right, there's hardly any point in being demure about it now.

                          WILL
Some of you wish for a bit more story.

                          ZAC
Either to make it seem less clinical.

                          RYAN
Or because you enjoy bad acting - or convincing yourself that the actors involved are doing it for any other reason than the money.

                          WILL
When you think about it, some of them are extremely good actors.  They've got you fooled.

                          RYAN
Unless the money really is enough to make them happy.

                          ZAC
Or they really love sex and the money's just an added bonus.

                          WILL
The video will follow them around for the rest of their lives, of course.

                          RYAN
Potential downside.

                          ZAC
But some guys would like a record of what their bodies looked like in their prime.

                          RYAN
Or the kind of guys they got to screw in their prime.

                          ZAC
Honestly.  Fuck.

                          RYAN
Fuck.  Guys they got to fuck in their prime.

                          ZAC
Like you.  Damn.

                          RYAN
Like me.
How do I forget your girth?  You were just up in there an hour ago.

                          ZAC
Your ass springs back into shape in remarkably swift fashion.

                          RYAN
Why, thank you, kind sir.

                          ZAC
Just want to make sure I'm not ripping you open.

                          RYAN
I'll let you know.  For now, keep at it.

                          WILL
The producers just wanted to run counter to the puritan impulses of society and revel in the human body, and more specifically the thing that seems to make everyone even more squeamish.

                          ZAC
Guys fucking.

                          RYAN
Anal sex, in particular.

                          WILL
Don't get me wrong, there's all sorts of things you can do with another guy but this particular act really seems to horrify people.

ZAC and RYAN, still having sex, very much enjoying themselves.

                          ZAC
Fate worse than death.

                          RYAN
Central to countless horror and torture scenarios.

                          WILL
Don't get us started on prison movies.

                          RYAN
The human body is a beautiful thing.

                          ZAC
Sex is a beautiful thing.

                          WILL
And the more it's out there in the general consciousness, the less strange and foreign it'll be to people.

                          RYAN
And maybe we can all obsess about actual problems.

                          ZAC
Hunger.

                          WILL
World peace.

                          RYAN
Poverty.

                          ZAC
Disease

                          WILL
Global warming.

                          ZAC
Justice reform.

                          WILL
Voter supression.

                          RYAN
You know, the little things.
     (to ZAC)
Unlike you.

                          ZAC
Why, thank you, sir.

                          RYAN
No, thank *you*

                          WILL
Once the producers have explored this performance concept fully -

                          ZAC
The more fully the better -

                          RYAN
Amen -

                          WILL
The idea is to actually incorporate live sex acts on stage into stories as the play dictates.

                          ZAC
I'm getting really close.

                          ENDING ONE

A policeman appears onstage.

                          WILL
Oops.  Guys.  We have company.

                          RYAN
Please tell me he's a stripper.

                          POLICEMAN
I am not a stripper.

                          ZAC
I should stop now.

                          POLICEMAN
You should stop now.
And put on some clothes.
And come quietly.
I mean -
Come with me.
I mean -
You're under arrest for public indecency.

ZAC withdraws slowly from RYAN.

                          ZAC
Sorry, folks.

                          RYAN
No happy ending tonight.

                          WILL
For anyone.

                          ZAC
Thank you for supporting the experiment, as far as we got anyway.

                          POLICEMAN
Gentlemen.

ZAC takes off the condom and puts it in a nearby trashcan.

RYAN takes a small towel and wipes his butt, then hands it off to ZAC, who wipes his penis.

WILL, RYAN and ZAC put on their robes and leave with the police officer.

ENDING TWO

                          RYAN
You are amazing.

                          ZAC
Right back at ya.'

ZAC has an orgasm inside RYAN.

Their pace slows down.

ZAC catches his breath, lays against Ryan's back, perhaps gives him a little kiss on the shoulder.

                          RYAN
I'm still fully turned on at this point.

                          ZAC
I can take over narrating duties, Will, if you want Ryan to take a turning fucking your ass.

                          WILL
Sounds good to me.

                          RYAN
And me.

ZAC withdraws from RYAN.

RYAN puts on a condom.

WILL take the lube and prepares his ass.

ZAC removes his own condom and tosses it in the nearby trashcan, and takes a small towel to wipe off his penis, as he proceeds to take over narration.

                          ZAC
To review -

ZAC refers to his own now softening penis.

                          ZAC (cont'd)
Art.

ZAC refers to RYAN's, and perhaps also WILL's, much more erect penis.

                          ZAC (cont'd)
Theater pornography.

RYAN's penis slides slowly into WILL's anus.

                          ZAC (cont'd)
We keep switching off like this, we could go on for hours.

                          WILL
The exits are clearly marked.

                          ZAC
     (to WILL)
Relax and enjoy, buddy.  I got this.

                          RYAN
And I got this.

                          WILL
Oh God, I love you both.

                          RYAN
And we, you, buddy.

                          ZAC
You can feel free to leave at any time if you're uncomfortable, or if you've just seen enough for now.  We'll keep chatting and fucking until they need to turn the lights off.

ZAC takes the chance to catch his breath again -

while RYAN continues fucking WILL.

(I could actually keep writing this, but I need to stop and post it at some point.)



(to be continued)