Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review - Prometheus Bound - Uprising Theatre - A Fresh Take On An Ancient Struggle - 4.5 stars

It’s a challenge to make Greek tragedy feel current, but Uprising Theatre Company has cracked the code with their current production of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Of course, it helps to have an adaptation with a modern feel to it, here provided by translator Bryan Doerries, excerpted from his book All That You’ve Seen Here Is God: New Versions of Four Greek Tragedies.  It also helps to have a director with a modern vision of the story, and director Denzel Belin really delivers on that score. Uprising Theatre has also yoked the production to discussions and partnerships with local organizations dealing with the prison population, and the quest for criminal justice reform - particularly addressing the all too common use of solitary confinement as punishment. I thought any or all of these 21st century approaches might feel like a stretch, but surprisingly they all pay off.

“These things were all decided long ago.  I saw them coming around the bend.”

This is probably because story of Prometheus has always been one of a person doing the right thing even though it flies in the face of the current world order and those in power.  Doerries’ adaptation doesn’t change any of the names or relationships involved in the mythology, but stories of power and its misuse continue to resonate across the centuries.  Pick a leader, any current leader, with whom you have disagreements, and discussions of the god Zeus here sound awfully familiar.  The script doesn’t throw around the name Zeus so much as it does terms like leader, ruler, father, etc., so tying the play’s struggles to the present day isn’t hard to do.

“The words of an angry father must always be respected.”

Prometheus (Shahd Elkhier) has defied the rules of her fellow gods and given the secret of fire to humankind.  This will make humans a little harder for the gods to manage, and to say Zeus - leader of the gods - is displeased by this would be an understatement.  (I just have to stop for a second and applaud the brilliant choice to give the role of Prometheus to a woman of color. Having your hero constantly referred to with the pronoun “she” is very refreshing.  Elkhier is great in the title role and defiantly holds the show together, in the face of all her characters’ many tormentors. The cast as a whole is largely female with a number of actors of color and that, too, is a nice change of pace from the standard “theater for white guys” that classical plays often become.  This ensemble does fine work with both the physical and text aspects of the production.)

“At last we’ve reached the ends of the earth.”

Prometheus is taken to the ends of the earth by Kratos (Missy Watson) and Bia (Yvonne Freese), who task Hephaetus (Janay D. Henry) with chaining up, shackling, and driving spikes into Prometheus’ body so she is unable to escape (no stage blood, just convincing physical work by the actors, the squeamish like me in the audience can relax. The torment is no less real, however).  Prometheus is not completely alone, though, as a pair of sympathetic chorus members (Fernanda Badeo and Kendra Yarke) keep her company.  There are also visitors - Oceanus (Damon C Mentzer), Io (Emily Rose Duea), and Hermes (Ronald R Giroux) - who each in their own way plead with, cajole or threaten Prometheus to try and get her back in line, perhaps to even help lighten her prison sentence.  But Prometheus remains resolute, unshakeable in the feeling that she has made the right decision.

“Be careful who you groan for or you may end up groaning yourself.”

Director Belin’s choice for the look of the show mixes modern clothes in blacks, whites and beiges with eye masks that give a nod to Ancient Greek theater without obscuring too much of the actors’ faces.  The decision to open the production with an extended sequence of movement which is symbolic rather than literal, with its own visual refrains, helps lay the foundation for later physical work which will allow the actors to not be constrained by the imprisonment of the title character.  The simplicity and starkness of the setting - black boxes, coat racks - makes things like the white chains which bind the hero or abrupt lighting shifts to deep red really stand out. It also allows the actors and their story to hold the audience’s full attention without distraction.  Less here really is more.  (It would be easy for any of this, taken too far, to slip into parody, but the whole team works hard to keep the story grounded.)

“It is painful to speak, but also to remain silent.  Either way, I lose.”

In fact, the only place this high contrast shifting in both performance and visuals doesn’t quite work is the very end. There have been so many declarations and so many abrupt shifts in the light that when the final line hits and the lights go dark for the last time, it’s not entirely clear the show is over until the actors shuffle into place for curtain call.  The production only clocks in at about 70 minutes.  It could afford to take just a tiny bit more time with that final image so the audience is clear that this is the last exclamation point.  Really give Prometheus’ last words to us a moment to sink in before you yank us back to reality.  As I said before, up until that point the strategy of sudden shifts works.  The end just needs something a little different to set it apart.

“My heart rattles inside its tiny cage.”

The other useful thing about a short production is Uprising Theatre can directly engage its audience after the show in addressing the issues with which the production intersects.  Uprising company members talk to the audience immediately before and after the show to make them aware of the community partner organizations associated with the production.  The organizations all have tables in the lobby, and actual action items audience members can commit to that evening.  There are also audience discussions following each performance, addressing not the process of putting on the show, but rather the themes and subject matter that bubble up from it.  (Sadly, I needed to head out and get started on the review, so I missed the discussion this time around.  But even I could stop by the tables in the lobby, buy a couple of books, and then drop them off with the folks working for the Women’s Prison Book Project elsewhere in the lobby - you can also feel free to bring a book with you to donate, more details at www.wpbp.org.) Uprising’s other community partners for this production are the Minnesota Freedom Fund (a Minnesota community bail fund - www.facebook.com/mnfreedomfund/), and Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing For Change (www.mnnoc.org).  (Don’t worry, nobody strong-arms you here.  You’re free to do as much or as little as you want, no guilt trips.  But if you’re itching to take action, they’ll make it easy for you to do so.)

“You think your house is built from unbreakable boards.”

Uprising Theatre Company’s motto is “Stories To Change The World.”  A tall order, but they seem determined to make theater an active, relevant thing.  I can get behind that.  Productions like Prometheus Bound make it easy to see how they might do it. (I’m looking forward to whatever Uprising has on tap next, and getting a chance to stay for the discussion this time. And, honestly, how often do you find yourself thinking that about a post-show talkback?) (runs through April 29, 2017 at the Phoenix Theater)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of Uprising Theatre Company - the ensemble of Prometheus Bound)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review - The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence - Park Square Theatre - Head Over Heart, or Heart Over Head? - 4.5 stars

More than nearly any other script I’ve encountered in recent memory, Madeleine George’s play The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence puts on stage just how terrifying love can be. And no, not the “is he going to kill me?” kind of terrifying.

“The world is full of people who could just ruin me with love.”

It’s the terrifying feeling of free-fall that happens when you turn your heart over to another person for safekeeping, when your emotions rise and fall on how close or far away from them you physically are and how long it’s going to be until you can see them again, when spending every possible moment you can with them completely upends the carefully ordered schedule by which you regularly live your life - and you don’t care.

“It is not a weakness.  It is the first condition of human life.”

Some people are built for that kind of abandon. Some people aren’t, even though they wish they were. If you’re lucky enough to form that kind of connection, and then it’s ripped away from you - forget it, you’re a wreck, and will be for a long time. That’s, of course, if you’re doing it right.

“Nobody can answer the calls you make from hell.”

Park Square Theatre’s production of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence is doing it right.  Director Leah Cooper and her tireless trio of talented actors - Kathryn Fumie, H. Adam Harris, and Adam Whisner - careen through George’s multi-layered, time-traveling story with nary a hiccup. They are aided in this task by a great design team - Lance Brockman (Set Designer), Katharine Horowitz (Sound Designer), Michael P. Kittel (Lighting Designer), Kathy Kohl (Costume Designer) and Sadie Ward (Properties Designer). This team manages to house multiple timelines and locations in what could be described as a single brick warehouse space where every nook and cranny has different personalities and purposes. The whole thing has a steampunk sensibility to it - mixing past and present visually as well as narratively. Shout-out to the stage management team of Amanda K. Bowman and her assistants Samantha Diekman and Rachel Lantow for keeping the whole thing moving so smoothly from one place and time to the next that the audience could easily forget how challenging all this is.

“The longer I know you, the less I understand you.”

So what’s it about? H. Adam Harris plays Watson, Kathryn Fumie plays Eliza, and Adam Whisner plays Merrick. In each time period, their characters are different people, but they always have the same name. Watson is Alexander Graham Bell’s devoted assistant who helped him to create the first telephone. Watson is Sherlock Holmes’ trusty sidekick, who takes on a case of his own. Watson is a computer with artificial intelligence designed to do everything from win game shows to help humans better cope with life. Watson is a tech support nerd who inadvertently embarks on a passionate love affair with the ex-wife of a man who has hired him to spy on her. He returns the money and keeps seeing the woman.

“There isn’t a part of me that you haven’t touched.”

That woman is Eliza, who designed the computer with artificial intelligence, whose distress prompted Dr. Watson to take action, and who interviewed Bell’s assistant Watson about the invention and relationship that changed his life.

“I will have solved the world’s oldest problem.”

The ex-husband is Merrick, suddenly abandoned by his tech-savvy wife, unable to understand the reason why - and so sick of government incompetence that he decides to run for office himself in order to dismantle government from the inside.  Merrick is also the target of Dr. Watson’s investigation - plotting to replace his wife with something more compliant to his needs. Extra points for Whisner here because he is, once again, unafraid to be perceived as a couple of different styles of complete and utter self-involved jerk.

“This is the world we want to live in for now, apparently.”

You’d think this could get hopelessly confusing - especially when the actors begin morphing from one character to the next sometimes during the same extended speech, stepping from one costume/character/plotline directly into another without missing a beat. But thanks to the Park Square team hard at work supporting this story onstage and off, the play’s train of thought never jumps the track. (Or if it does, we easily jump right along with it). 

“We couldn’t have a nice erotic cage match in divorce court like normal people.”

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence is a dazzling dance of word, thought, feeling, light and sound.  It’s uniquely theatrical as well. You couldn’t feel the full impact of the roil of emotions these people are swimming in if it weren’t happening live in front of you. The subtle shifts between timelines and storylines wouldn’t work as well in any other context. This is the kind of story theater was designed to tell - to people sharing the experience together, breathing the same air as the actors out there in the dark.

“I don’t think I understand what you mean but I’d like to.  Can you give me a nudge in the right direction?”

The only stumble here is minor and, honestly, it’s hard to know whether the blame lies with the script itself or the production. Part of the story hinges (as a whole segment of pop culture does) on both characters and audience finding a neurotic intellectual person to be endlessly fascinating and endearing, rather than exhausting to be around. If, like me, you often feel like the latter option around those kinds of people, then parts of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence will be a heavy lift.  If the neuroses were as well-examined as so much of the rest of the emotional life of the play is, then I might have less of a problem with it. But huge decisions in this play pivot around an emotional core that feels underdeveloped rather than grounded in fully realized character, and thus the inevitable outcome doesn’t feel as inevitable as it could.

“It’s starting to look like Victorian England around here.”

Also early on, the characters all sound a little more robotic than maybe they need to - which can be a little confusing and off-putting in trying to get the story off the ground.  The affectation burns off later on, but I’d be hard pressed to explain why it was there in the first place or what exactly caused it to finally fade away.

“They all think they know who the story’s about.”

I want to commend this production for something, but in calling it out I feel like I’m feeding into the idea of making something a big deal that - when it’s as common as it should be - shouldn’t be a big deal at all. That’s the casting of H. Adam Harris. If you do a random search online of photos of the productions of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, one thing you’ll see a lot of is white actors. One thing is don’t see a lot of is actors of color. Uptight people might bemoan the fact that “traditionally” or “historically” Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories or Bell’s assistant Watson were not people of color, they were white. Is their whiteness essential to the story? Nope. Then if you’ve got an actor as good as H. Adam Harris, why shouldn’t you put him in any role you can, so we can see more of him in action? While watching the show, this didn’t even occur to me. It only crossed my mind afterward, and that made me happy. So I figured someone should commend the Park Square team for doing something that, honestly, should already be such common practice that giving someone an extra pat on the back for it seems silly. We’re getting closer to that day, but unfortunately it isn’t quite here yet.

What is here is a really lovely production of a funny, smart, sexy, and heartbreaking play, so you should to go see The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence at Park Square, and quickly (runs through April 30, 2017)

4-1/2 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(H. Adam Harris as Watson and Kathryn Fumie as Eliza in The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence - photography by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Review - Lone Star Spirits - Jungle Theater - Big Laughs In A Small Town - 5 stars

As the lights came up after curtain call at the end of the show, the guy next to me leaned over and asked, “Do you mind my asking why you were taking notes during the show?”
“I write theater reviews for an online blog. I can’t trust my memory to hang on to all the details sometimes.”
“What did you think?”
(Part of me was thinking, “Dude, we just sat through the same play, why do you need my instant review?” I also couldn’t believe I’d just said “online blog” - where else would a blog be?  But…)
“I don’t normally laugh out loud much, but I laughed at this quite a bit.  It’s a good show.”
That seemed to satisfy him.  I seemed to have reinforced his own opinion, so off he went.

“Am I happy? What the hell kind of question is that?”

Another good sign early on was that the guy on the other side of me started the evening as the lights went down with a nervous twitch in his leg so acute that it was jiggling the entire row of seats I was sharing with him, my seat most of all.  Probably also his wife’s seat on the other side of  him.  He’d clearly been brought to the theater against his will, and was waiting for the exposition to be over and the story to start.  He, too, quickly started to enjoy himself, and his twitchy leg relaxed and stopped trying to rearrange the furniture.

“This town is evaporating and you’re the last of the fish, flopping around in the mud.”

Such are the considerable charms of Josh Tobiessen’s one-act comedy Lone Star Spirits, currently in production over at the Jungle Theater under the direction of Sarah Rasmussen.  It’s theater even dudes can enjoy.  It probably doesn’t hurt that, in addition to being extremely funny, Lone Star Spirits is set in a liquor store of the same name.  Set designer Sarah Bahr’s small town Texas liquor store (with ample help from John Novak’s quirky properties work) is so realistic and homey-looking that the audience is invited during pre-show to come up on stage and order themselves a drink if they wish.  One uncertain audience member feared his friends were playing a trick on him, but was delighted to find he could indeed get a beer before the show.

“And that’s all you’re saying about the necktie?”
“If that’s all you’re saying about the hat.”

But hey, what’s the play about, you ask? Walter (Terry Hempleman) runs the liquor store Lone Star Spirits, and he, the store, and the town have all unfortunately seen better days.  Walter’s just been to see the doctor, so that’s never a good sign.  Walter hasn’t seen his adult daughter Marley (Thallis Santesteban) in quite some time.  Neither has her old high school boyfriend Drew (Nate Cheeseman), still living in the same town, trying to recapture a bit of his former glory on the football field.  Rumor has it, and rumor is correct, that Marley’s coming home for a visit.  When she appears, she has a brand new fiance in tow, Ben (John Catron).  Ben’s the sort of upwardly mobile modern man who has a Pavlovian response to every beep and vibration from his cell phone.  He’s launched an online business (because of course he has), and has cultivated the kind of carefully groomed stubble that inclines you to hate his pretty face on sight.  The only other regular customer Walter has is Jessica (Christian Bardin), someone else who went to school with Marley and Drew who never left town.  She’s a Gulf War widow raising a young son on her own, still managing to convince herself that booze, sex and drugs are fun.

“Are you alive or dead? Pick a side, I always say.”

That makes them all sound like a lot less fun than they are.  Sure, everyone is equally clueless in their own way about the lives everyone else around them leads.  But they mean well.  Lone Star Spirits as a realistic drama might be a bit depressing, but as a comedy, it’s hilarious.  The relationships are all still very grounded in reality, and that reality is often awkward - estranged father/daughter, old friends, new fiances.  But the awkward is mined for plentiful laughs.  The situations of the play are also grounded in our increasingly polarized times - big city vs. small town, the haves and have nots, the current cultural landscape of income inequality and lack of opportunity.  Again, rather than angst-ridden shouting matches, the results of delving into these schisms is a lot of generous humor.

“Things from a simpler time.”
“Before women could vote?”

Tobiessen’s script is built like a Swiss watch and Rasmussen directs the play at a steady clip, getting the whole ensemble playing off one another in rotating combinations that just keep ratcheting up the pace and the stakes.  They also pull off some delightful fake-outs on the audience that I won’t spoil here.  Suffice it to say that sentiment is never too far removed from a punch line, and even guns going off can provide amusement in the proper context.  The whole cast is having a hell of a good time playing around in this world, and the audience is right there with them.

“I just needed to play a game I could win.”

Lone Star Spirits is also partly a ghost story, since the liquor store was also once the home of the founder of the town, Henry.  Every drink is also a toast to Henry, to invoke his good will.  The ghost of Henry was a father/daughter bonding moment for Walter and Marley as well.  The play never quite abandons the possibility of old Henry’s spirit, and Barry Browning’s lighting and Sean Healy’s sound design help reinforce the occasional otherwordliness of it all.

“There’s no such thing as a haunted hammer.  Sit down!”

It always surprises me when I find myself thinking “Well, it’s a comedy.  It’s really good, but can I honestly give it five stars.  I mean, it’s a comedy.”  I write comedies, too.  What part of my brain is secretly anti-laughter?  Comedy is an important tool in a writer’s toolbox.  You can often communicate and connect more effectively by making someone laugh than by trying to lecture them.  Laughter is just as genuine an emotional response as crying.  And we’ve got enough to cry about and not nearly enough to laugh about in the world.  Comedians and comedy writers need to help balance the scales and cheer us the heck up a little.

“I was scared, and she had a plan.”

Too often after seeing a play lately I’ve been at a loss for the answer to the simple question, “Why is this theater telling this story in this way right now?”  Before I saw Lone Star Spirits, the same question nagged me about the Jungle.  Now that I’ve seen Lone Star Spirits, I could rattle off a dozen reasons, which makes me very happy, and is an enormous relief (don’t worry, I won’t enumerate all of them).  For starters, the play had me scribbling down more good lines of dialogue than I can squeeze between paragraphs of this review, which is always a good sign (it kills me to leave some of them out.)

“You swept the floors for the first time since Christmas.  You’ve got three air fresheners plugged into one outlet.”

Lone Star Spirits is a telling examination of the absurdity of the different sets of expectations placed on men in the 21st century, both by society at large and by the men themselves.  Lone Star Spirits evokes the tenaciousness of the continued existence of failing small towns, and the people that choose to live in them.  Lone Star Spirits is also about how love saves people, even in the most unromantic of ways.  Everybody in Lone Star Spirits repeatedly makes you want to shake them to knock some sense into them, then a minute later you want to give them a hug. They are ridiculous and wonderful people.  I wouldn’t have thought a liquor store would be a terribly uplifting place to put a play, but I thoroughly enjoyed hanging out at Lone Star Spirits in the Jungle Theater.  You will, too.  (runs through May 7, 2017)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo at top - l to r: Nate Cheeseman [Drew], Thallis Santesteban [Marley], John Catron [Ben], and Christian Bardin [Jessica] in Jungle Theater's production of Lone Star Spirits; photography by Dan Norman)

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Review - A Thousand Cranes - Green T Productions - Simple But Important Message - 4 stars

Green T Productions’ presentation of A Thousand Cranes is a simple but affecting piece of theater based on a true story whose message we probably always need to hear, but perhaps especially now.

“The bomb continues to fall.  It’s falling right now.”

A Thousand Cranes is adapted by Kathryn Schultz Miller from the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr about the all-too-brief life of a girl in Japan who continues to inspire the world in the cause of peace. Sadako Sasaki (Sarah Tan) was born in Hiroshima, Japan, two years before the United States military dropped the first atomic bomb on that city to force the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II.  (That’s not a spoiler alert, right?  That’s just history.) (Plus, nearly all of the following is in the program, so, no surprises.)

“I will take you to the mountains and the rivers of our ancestors.”

Sadako’s family (Catrina Huynh-Weiss and Ki Seung Rhee, both in multiple roles) lost her grandmother to the nuclear blast and had to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the war.  Ten years later, at age 12, Sadako developed leukemia from exposure to radiation from the atom bomb when she was a baby.  She struggled to fold a thousand origami paper cranes before she died.  If you fold a thousand cranes, you get your wish.  Sadako didn’t live to finish her project.  Her friends, however, did.  Her friends also raised money to erect a statue of Sadako in the Peace Park in Hiroshima, built at the site of the bomb blast.  Every year, children from around the world send or bring in person thousands of paper cranes to place them at the foot of Sadako’s statue.  The statue is engraved with the wish, “This is our cry, This is our prayer, Peace in the world.”  (Green T is also gathering cranes to send to Hiroshima, and the audience can help add to the collection by folding some cranes of their own - handy instructions are included in the program.)

“Suddenly there was a tremendous flash of light that cut across the sky.”

It’s a beautiful and sad story which Green T director Kathy Welch (also responsible for the choreography and production design) and her actors keep simple so that things don’t get too melodramatic or overly sentimental.  When a story is this real, it doesn’t need a lot of embellishment, so Green T wisely underplays things.  All three performers do a fine job.  Sarah Tan does nice work at Sadako, a girl who doesn’t full understand why these things are happening to her.  Catrina Huynh-Weiss and Ki Seung Rhee juggle their multiple roles well.  Rhee is particularly amusing as Sadako’s friend Kenji, who mocks Sadako by pretending to be first a turtle, then a frog.  Huynh-Weiss is most affecting as Sadako’s late grandmother, whose spirit visits and comforts the girl in her hospital bed.  Grandmother also guides Sadako to be with her ancestors when the time comes.

“We invite them to join us in the celebration of life.”

Death, particularly the death of a child, is tricky onstage.  It can feel manipulative if you’re not careful.  Here, Sadako’s journey starts out as just a fun trip with Grandmother, and transitions through ritual and dance to the revelation she is staying with her ancestors and not going back.  I heard a lot of sniffles in the audience toward the end.  It’s hard to be unmoved by a story with such simple, honest emotion.

“I have come to show you something.”

The intriguing thing about the play (and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it) is that the script doesn’t dwell (in fact, it might never even mention) who dropped the bomb or the reason it was done.  We see a girl’s life cut short, we ask ourselves why, and it’s a short hop to the answer: she died because of us.  The United States of America was at war with Japan.  Japan had drawn the U.S. into the war by bombing Pearl Harbor.  But the two year old baby who lived in Hiroshima had nothing to do with that.  She was dead by the time she was barely a teenager because of the long-term effects of nuclear radiation.  When Japan didn’t immediately surrender after the Hiroshima bombing, the U.S. dropped another bomb on Nagasaki just three days later (and orders had been given for the bombing of two other cities, which thankfully weren’t considered necessary.  The surrender of Japan came soon after the second bombing.) The United States of America is the only nation (so far) to ever use a nuclear bomb in wartime.  The world prays we all keep it that way.

“What did you wish for, Sadako?”

A Thousand Cranes is brief, just an hour, and its symbolism, ceremony, and use of puppets, music (by Miriam Gerberg), dance and shadow are a great (and gentle) entry for the children in the audience into discussions of larger issues like war and death.

“My home was called Hiroshima.”

Fold a crane, by all means, but then hold your government accountable for the people they’re killing in your name, for the humanitarian aid they don’t send, for the refugees they refuse to take in.

White House - https://www.whitehouse.gov/
U.S Congress:
House - http://www.house.gov/
Senate - https://www.senate.gov/
Minnesota Governor - https://mn.gov/governor/
Minnesota Legislature - https://www.leg.state.mn.us/

We killed Sadako.  And we get to sit and watch and be inspired by her story.  Which is, honestly, more than a little obscene.  But better to face the consequences of the things we do than pretend they didn’t happen.  War has human costs, and not always on the battlefield.  Sadako’s story is only one example of those costs.  Thanks to Green T for reminding us of that.  A Thousand Cranes performs at Dreamland Arts through April 14, 2017.

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of Green T Productions; l to r, Ki Seung Rhee, Catrina Huynh-Weiss, Sarah Tan)

Friday, April 07, 2017

Review - The Assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand - Sheep Theater - See This While You Can Still Laugh - 5 stars

Sheep Theater is premiering a comedy that sits right next to Citizen as one of the best and most important pieces of theater I’ve see so far this year.  And you’ve got exactly 48 hours left to see it for yourself (and you really, really should). The Assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand seems an unlikely title and subject matter for a comedy but a comedy it is - just as smart and urgent and funny as other Sheep Theater offerings I’ve seen, whether they’re about a completely different sort of political assassinations (Tamburlaine) or the potential end of the world (Deus Ex Machina). I can’t believe this is this last we’ve seen of Franz Ferdinand, but for now if you want to catch it, you need to get over to the Southern Theater either tonight (Friday 4/7) at 7:30pm, or one of two showings tomorrow (Saturday 4/8) at 2:30pm or 7:30pm.

“We need guns.”
“Don’t worry.  There are people who will give them to us.”

The Assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand is the political spark that set off World War One in Europe. The play begins and ends with that assassination, first seeing only the assassins, lastly seeing their targets as well.  In between, it’s a brisk comedic sprint of less than 90 minutes not just putting a human face on the complicated jumble of geopolitics which made up this powder keg, but humanizing all sides of the conflict - making us both laugh at and feel for all the people in this story who are on a collision course they can’t, or won’t, avoid.  Office politics are just as likely to plague the rich and powerful as they do the revolutionaries struggling to change their lives.  Everyone has problems both huge and ridiculous, everyone feels deeply, whether it’s anger or love.  We recognize the absurdity in the play because it’s the same kind of absurdity we deal with today - only the names of the players have changed.  Little things lead to world wars.

“Bing bang, ding dong, wink wink, click clack.”

Writer Joey Hamburger is starting to make the rest of the playwrights in this town look a little lazy.  The 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival served up his play Deus Ex Machina, only six months later Sheep Theater was doing his adaptation of Tamburlaine, here we are a little over a year later with Franz Ferdinand (and in between Sheep did a 2016 Fringe remount of their riff on The Most Dangerous Game, and did a holiday show) (phew). I’d be less impressed if any of these were half-assed or outright sucked but I have yet to see anything Hamburger’s written that I wasn’t dazzled by.  The guy takes serious things and makes them hilarious.  While I’m busy laughing, he’s sticking a spike in my brain that keeps me thinking and re-thinking the topics around which the play revolves for days afterward.  That’s a gift.  I was scribbling down one line of dialogue after another madly the whole show, even though I knew full well I’d never be able to use them all here.

“We kill him.  We die.  They just bring in replacements.”

That said, Hamburger’s not working alone.  Sheep Theater’s key partners in crime include director Michael Hugh Torsch and producer Iris Rose Page (both of whom also frequently end up acting onstage, as they do here), and musical composer John Hilsen (offering up both a lush score and sound effects played live in performance).  Familiar faces in the cast I’ve seen in more than one Sheep production recently include Robb Goetzke, Tara Lucchino, Jacob Mobley, and Michael Rogers.  The program also credits Mobely, Page, Rogers, and Torsch, along with Matt McGuire, Drew Janda, and Jenna Rose Graupmann (who also did the great costumes for this production) as advisors on the script.  It’s a group effort, and that collective talent and smarts shines through in every scene.  Hamburger has a great team backing up his voice and vision. (I have to admit I’m a bit envious.)

“Look around you.  The war has already started.”

Gatherings of secret revolutionaries keep accidentally saying each others’ real names or taking off their masks.  Assassins are lousy at target practice or throw their bomb under the wrong car in the motorcade.  Rebels get hung up on why one of them insisted on wearing a cape to the assassination.  Government officials mock one another while abusing or confusing their interns and assistants.  Soldiers bored at a garden party decide to start shooting the only birds they see nearby.  A newsboy/mailboy (Page) travels great distances through interpretive dance with the assistance of a guy clad in a black body suit.  The deadly serious business of revolution often devolves into silliness. 

“He’s not good at much.  They’re trying to get him involved in government.”

The thing that boggles my mind is the play has a multitude of scenes and over two dozen characters and yet I’m never confused.  Everyone’s identities and agendas are so clear - thanks to the writing, directing and performances - that I follow what’s actually a very convoluted story, very simply and easily.  There’s even a love story wedged into the middle of it all which takes up just enough room to help me care for ill-fated (and honestly, silly) Franz Ferdinand (Rogers) and his wife Sophie (Emily Wrolson), serving rather than hijacking the play’s main purpose.

“The next time we meet will be in the kingdom of heaven.”
“We’re all atheists.”
“I’ll put in a good word for you.”

It’s great seeing Tara Lucchino in the role of lead assassin Gavrilo Princip.  Her righteous fervor gives the rebel cause the fire and humanity it requires for us to see them as something other than criminals.  Sheep Theater regularly puts women in positions of power in the story, as they do here, even if that means they’re putting what would be a traditionally male role in an actress’ hands instead.  It’s a welcome strategy to keep a historical piece from turning into a play about a bunch of interchangeable white guys.  Lucchino is joined in the assassination plot by characters portrayed by Hamburger, Page, Nick Saxton, and Mike Merino, while Rogers as Franz Ferdinand has backup on his side of the conflict from Goetzke, Mobley, Torsch, Wrolson, Madeleine Rowe, Matthew Saxe, and Josiah Thompson.  You need to see these people in action.

“I agree.”
“Thank you.”
“Not with you.  I agree with them.”

The Assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand isn’t some dry, dull, confusing documentary on stage, nor is it history hijacked in the service of a bunch of fart jokes.  Sheep Theater and Joey Hamburger run the story right down the middle - both deadly serious and patently ridiculous.  The tragedy comes from the human reality behind world events, the comedy springs from meticulous research (and the fact that humans are absurd creatures who are often their own worst enemies). 

“You can just leave.  We’ll chant you out.”

See Sheep Theater's The Assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand, and quickly.  Your experience is already going to be a bit different than mine.  My phone was dutifully turned off during the show, but when I turned it back on it lit up with new alerts.  20 minutes before the end of the show, the U.S. military launched a missile strike on a Syrian air base.

So, there’s that.

“If we go to war, we will die.”
“Why do you have to always be so negative?”

There’s a conflation of a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat attributed to Lewis Carroll that sums it up by saying: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

“We  seem to have made a wrong turn.  We need to put it in reverse.”

The Assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand has just three more performances at the Southern Theater, tonight, Friday 4/7 at 7:30pm, and tomorrow, Saturday 4/8 at both 2:30pm and 7:30pm.  You should be there.

“You have to distance yourself from people you’ll be invading soon.”

If you miss this, they, of course, have more coming right up: Counting Sheep - annual sketch show - Friday, 5/26 8pm - Strike Theater; Jimmy the Kid - next full length production - it’s about wrestling - July - Red Eye Theater; and Pinocchio - the one about the nose - 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival.  Follow these artists.  I certainly will.

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Blink and You Miss It - 3 days only - April 6 to 8 - The Assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand

Bummed that the Minnesota Fringe Festival is still four months away?  Looking to get in that Fringe spirit? Well, there’s a few things going on over the coming weeks that might be able to help with that.

In the “Blink And You Miss It” category, there’s a super-short three day run of a new play from Sheep Theater - The Assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand (no, not that Franz Ferdinand, the original historical one).  Writer Joey Hamburger has a weird sense of humor that completely draws me in.  He’s made tales of assassination and double-crossing amusing as hell before with his adaptation of Tamburlaine.  Now he’s at it again with actual historical events.  Here it’s the assassination which was the tipping point leading Europe into World War One.  Not your standard comedic fare, more of a comedic tragedy, but that’s Sheep Theater for you.  I enjoyed their 2015 Fringe show Deus Ex Machina enormously, and their 2016 Fringe satirical reshuffling of horror movie The Most Dangerous Game was also giggle-inducing.

Here’s the basics:

Sarajevo, June 28th, 1914. Gavrilo Princip and five accomplices assassinated the Austrian-Hungarian heir apparent Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. Sheep Theater, creators of Tamburlaine, George, and The Most Dangerous Game, premiere their original comedic tragedy about the sequence of events that led to their deaths.

The Assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand is written by Joey Hamburger, directed by Michael Hugh Torsch, produced by Sheep Theater and features Robb Goetzke, Iris Rose Page, Jacob Mobley, Michael Rogers, Madeleine Rowe, Emily Wrolson, Nick Saxton, Tara Lucchino, Mike Merino, and Josiah Thompson. Music by John Hilsen.

If you need a change of pace, you should check out Sheep Theater at the Southern Theater tonight (April 6) and tomorrow (April 7) at 7:30pm, or one of their two Saturday shows (April 8), 2:30pm and 7:30pm.

Like I said, blink and you miss it.  Not much of a chance to catch this one, so if you can, you should.  The other theater will still be around next week.


Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Review - The Ghost Train - Mission Theatre/Wayward Theatre - A Big Slice of Ham With A Bit of Wry - 4 stars

The Ghost Train is apparently a hole in my theatrical knowledge.  The play, written by English playwright Arnold Ridley, has been around since the 1920s and been regularly produced on stage, and repeatedly adapted for film but I was unaware of it until Mission Theatre Company and Wayward Theatre Company teamed up to do their own production, staged in The Minnesota Transportation Museum.  An old train museum is the perfect place for a play like The Ghost Train.  The museum itself is the old Jackson Street Roundhouse.  It serves as the final resting place for multiple examples of old train cars, glimpses into the transportation of the past.  My grandparents would have loved this place.  My mom still would.  After hours, just before the sun goes down, the museum provides the right kind of creepy ambience to get you in the mood for an old potboiler like The Ghost Train.

“Just a sign falling down.  Nothing supernatural about it.”

So, points for location.  It’s also easy to see why the play endures.   It’s basically the template for the plot of every Scooby Doo episode ever written.  Something supernatural and scary, perhaps even dangerous is going on.  Our heroes get swept up in it.  The longer it goes on the more dangerous and supernatural the situation genuinely seems.  In the final moments, a series of revelations unmasks the very human cause of all the consternation (“And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids!”).  Mystery solved, everything’s perfectly normal after all - OR IS IT?!  That’s Ghost Train.

“There’s hardly a home in America where someone hasn’t died.”

You have to be willing to be in the spirit of things to enjoy The Ghost Train (no pun intended).  In many ways, it’s a creaky old play (it’s just 6 years shy of its 100th birthday at this point).  The script has “community theater” written all over it (I don’t mean that as an insult, just an assessment of its usual place in the current theater landscape).  Large cast, accessible plot, old school gender roles, just ambitious enough to be challenging from a production standpoint, but nothing that’s going to rock the boat content-wise, and because it’s British from the 1920s, super white. 

“I took the gypsy’s warning.”

So what are Mission Theatre and Wayward Theatre up to here?  Because they’re not doing a basic production of this play by any means.  I can see in my head any number of straightforward, by the numbers productions of this play being done.  They wouldn’t be exciting but they would be entertaining.  Mission Theatre and Wayward Theatre are swinging for the fences in a big way with The Ghost Train.  And that’s largely due to the skillful (and pointed) direction of Sarah Nargang and her pack of enormously overqualified (for this material) actors.  This Ghost Train is presented in a highly stylized way of acting that is so far over the top it almost brings you back down the other side again.  It feels like it must be absolutely exhausting for the performers, and at the same time kind of a treat to just let loose like that.  Because everyone is permitted to be very BIG at all times.  There are no low gears in this play, everyone’s in high gear right out of the gate.  It’s hard to maintain that level of energy for a full evening but this cast delivers and doesn’t flag.

“They should put poison down for you.”

Six strangers are stranded in a rundown train station off the beaten path when their train is unexpectedly interrupted on its journey: longtime bickering married couple, Elsie and Richard (Andrea Rose Tonsfeldt and Michael Kelley); a pair of newlyweds, Peggy and Charles (Nissa Nordland Morgan and Vincent Hannam); an old spinster (complete with birdcage), Miss Bourne (Jane Zilch); and an annoylingly chipper extrovert named Teddie (Tim McVean).  They are all informed by the station master (Edwin Strout) that the train station is haunted, so it’s probably not the best place to spend the night.  No trains run anymore at night because of a horrible accident back in the day.  The only train running after dark is the ghost train, and to look upon it means death.  It’s all downhill from there, really. The Ghost Train isn’t a play with a high body count, but it’s got a lot of shocks and surprises in store.  These are increased when another unhinged victim of the ghost train appears on the scene, the high-strung Julia (Samantha V. Papke) accompanied by her concerned father Herbert (William P. Studer) and doctor/boyfriend John (Leif Jurgensen).  Two other fellows named Smith (Jason Kornelis) and Jackson (Sam Worms) get in on the action but to go into too much detail about them would be a spoiler.

“Oh do keep up, people.  It’s sure to get worse.”

The high intensity of the cast turns everything up a notch.  This intensity is matched by the design team’s evocation of our title character the ghost train.  Technical director Dietrich Poppen, sound designer Peter Morrow, and electricians Kevin Opatz and Rachel Elliott worked together with stage manager Elle DeYoung to orchestrate a pretty impressive effect in this found space.  The actors and director also help sell the big moments in a big way.  A quick nod must also be given to costume designer Krista Weiss and hair/make-up designer Anneliese Stuht for giving everyone on stage that period piece look to let us know we are out of our own time.  The arch acting style also allows the production to wink every now and again at the 1920s worldview of the play (women can feel safe with men there to protect them, drunk old women are hilarious, oh that single young man certainly is “colorful”).

“I am the devil’s granddaughter.”

The Ghost Train is clearly a labor of love.  The combined efforts of the Mission Theatre and Wayward Theatre teams embrace the play in a big bear hug.  They aren’t the least bit embarrassed by any of it.  They want the audience to love the play just as much as they do.  They want the audience to have just as much fun watching the play as they have fun performing it.  They want to give you a few good laughs and a few good scares and send you on your way having been thoroughly entertained.  Is The Ghost Train going to change the world?  No, but it’s not trying to.  It’s an old yarn that’s still holding up pretty well at almost 100 years old, and after seeing this production, I can’t argue with these theater companies deciding to team up, dust it off, and take it out on the tracks one more time.  If you want some high energy, low stress fun, The Ghost Train is your ticket. (runs through April 15, 2017)

4 stars, Highly Recommended

(foreground: Edwin Strout (The Station Master) in the big opening number... er, the expository ghost story portion of our evening, listened to intently by (l to r): Vincent Hannam, Nissa Nordland Morgan, Jane Zilch, Michael Kelley, and Andrea Rose Tonsfeldt; photography by Lauren B Photography)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review - And Then They Fell - Gadfly Theatre - So Much Potential... - 3 stars

I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story can find its audience.  But I also don’t think every audience member is a fit for every story.  For that reason, I probably shouldn’t have attended Gadfly Theatre’s production of Tira Palmquist’s play And Then They Fell.  Unlike most of the people in the audience, I’d already read this new play.  So I knew what I was in for.  Part of me was just hoping that in the time since I’d read it, due to lessons learned from other productions, the playwright might have changed the ending.  Nope.

“Just you and me and the radio and the wind, and no one will be able to stop us.”

What kills me is that I’m a huge fan of Tira Palmquist and her work, and yet this is the first review of one of her plays I have to write.  I think she’s an enormously gifted playwright.  She writes about important things in beautiful and accessible ways.  She’s had some productions at major regional theaters around the country and seems like she’s one of those writers who’s poised to really break out - writing about the right things in the right ways at just the right time

“The terminal velocity of a bird without flight is…”

Because of her local ties, she submitted three plays to Workhouse Theatre Company when I was helping run their new play reading series, the Greenhouse Project.  We ended up doing readings of two of them, Two Degrees and Ten Mile Lake.  If you ever get a chance to see either play, you should.  I look forward to some local theater finally picking them up and running with them the same way theaters in other parts of the country already have.  Two Degrees blends grief and the concern over global warming into a compelling and personal play. Ten Mile Lake brings a headstrong adult daughter and her unforgiving father together at the old family cabin as his health begins to fail in a play that resists sentimentality in amusing ways.  The first play Tira Palmquist sent us was And Then They Fell.  Even though the play didn’t connect with us, the writing certainly did, so we asked for more and got the wonderful payoff of reading Two Degrees and Ten Mile Lake.  So when I learned Gadfly Theatre Productions was doing And Then They Fell, I felt strongly that I should go, not just because of Tira but also because of Gadfly.

“Is God trying to tell us something?”

Gadfly is a theater devoted not just to putting queer stories and queer artists on stage, but to developing and supporting new work, and living local playwrights (heck, they’ve even done a short play of mine).  Even though our aesthetics don’t always line up (which probably means I’m not as good a feminist as I’d like to be yet), I want to be supportive of Gadfly in return for all the important work I feel they’re doing.  Also, I hadn’t yet seen anything in their new home at the Fox Egg Gallery yet, so for that reason as well I was curious.

“I’m trying to help you.  I need to hear your side of the story.”

In her director’s note, Gadfly co-artistic director Cassandra Snow said she, too, had originally passed on And Then They Fell after reading it, partly because her number one rule for theater is - no dead girls, no dead queers.  I am fully behind such a rule.  Mostly because, let’s face it, you can count on popular culture as a whole to give you more than enough dead girls, more than enough dead queers - that is, when they portray girls or queers at all.  (Personally, if I can joke about a piece of art - even my own, using a variation on one of my favorite satirical movie quotes, "I love my dead gay son" - then something's wrong.)  So if you’re a theater like Gadfly, avoiding adding more to that particular pile is a great guiding principle.  For And Then They Fell, Gadfly decided to break that rule.  Though that’s unfortunate, I can understand the temptation on a couple of different levels.

“Trauma of an unknown origin.”

The first draw, of course, is Tira’s writing - her way with language, her humor, her compelling characters.  The second - and really the primary strength of And Then They Fell - is the central relationship of the play between two young outcasts just trying to survive high school - a teenage girl named Jordan (Mindy Vang) and a trans teenage boy (pre-everything) named Cal (formerly Calista) (Adele Bolier).

“Looking up at the sky that wouldn’t hold them.”

Cal has already been kicked out by their parents for asserting their identity as a boy rather than a girl.  Cal crosses paths with Jordan as her own home life begins to unravel.  Jordan’s mother Crystal (Starla Larson) hasn’t ever been on the wagon long enough to fall off, and has now gotten herself some mandatory time in both detox and jail due to the latest in a string of DUI arrests.  Crystal thinks the best thing for Jordan is to send over Crystal’s ex-boyfriend Dwayne (Troy Stolp) to look after her daughter.  Like so many of Crystal’s life decisions, this is another unbelievably bad idea.  Because Dwayne looks at 17 year old Jordan as a younger, fresher version of her mother, and that can’t end well for anybody (so, naturally, it doesn’t). 

“I don’t know who you are, but you’re not my child.”

When Jordan can’t take life with Dwayne anymore and hits the streets, Cal takes her under their wing and tries to help her avoid doing anything stupid or dangerous.  Given the “dead girl, dead queer” warning we’re given in the program, it’s not a spoiler alert to tell you that Cal is only partially successful.  Given that same warning, I was a little afraid I’d forgotten something or there’d been a rewrite and we might be subjected to both.  We are, blessedly, not.  But the human cost of this story is high enough, no worries.

“We don’t have to tell your mom about this, right?”

The third draw for the script is Jordan’s fascination with the sudden death of a whole flock of birds in a small town in Arkansas.  New Year’s Eve, a whole flock of birds just falls out of the sky.  Not shot, not poisoned, their bodies showing internal injuries more like they’d been beaten to death.  This happened two years in a row on New Year’s Eve 2011 and 2012.  Other mass bird death phenomena have occurred elsewhere in recent years around the world, for various reasons.  The metaphorical link to how society has seemingly abandoned its children, many of whom then fall victim to any number of unfortunate ends, is a powerful one.  The poetic turns of phrase associated with birds in the script, as well as sound effects, and the surprisingly simple but effective stage trick Gadfly pulls off of a single black feather dropping out of the sky at key moments, all work really well.  Getting the metaphor to stick the landing is a little trickier, because neither the source of the metaphor or the play itself really fully deliver on their promise in this regard.  But you can feel it just out of reach.  As an audience member, you keep trying to will the play to get across that particular finish line, but it falls short.

“When you’re eighteen you can jump off a cliff if that’s what you want.”

The cast, which also includes Kjertina Whiting taking the spotlight as a number of quite different supporting characters, all do really solid work.  Vang and Bolier as the duo of Jordan and Cal are especially winning.  The problem right now, and this isn’t really the production’s fault, is that the play doesn’t really give them enough room to grow.  They get a significant amount of stage time comparatively, but I’d argue that the play is currently too short and too crowded.  Right now, even with an intermission wedged in (which - other than for purposes of relieving people’s bladders - you don’t really need), the play is barely over 90 minutes.  So much happens so fast that the characters don’t get a lot of room to breathe. 

“And they keep falling,
and falling,
and falling.”

Also, Jordan and Cal are original creations, but all the adults around them are people we’ve seen before.  They’re almost stereotypes - the junkie mom, the lecherous boyfriend leering at the mom’s teenage daughter, the well-meaning school official with their hands tied, the friendly but feckless squatter anarchists, the abusive cop, the colorful waitress at the local diner, the TV preacher, the lovable school janitor.  In a telling moment, Cal recounts to Jordan the story of the day their father kicked them out of the house and disowned them as their child.  That adult character, too, is a trope, but in Cal’s storytelling, they came alive for us in the audience.  We didn’t need to meet them or see it happen.  It was more important to see how it affected Cal.  The actor delivers.  If I were a dramaturg on this script, I’d encourage the writer to take the play, scrap everyone else and just focus on Jordan and Cal, and make it a full length.  The characters and relationship are so rich, you can get a full play out of that.  Those supporting players can easily be sketched in as stories they tell one another.  Of course, that means a different ending (but let’s face it, I’m lobbying for that anyway).  Right now, it feels like these characters and their relationship are being squandered in material that doesn’t live up to their potential (I get the same feeling about the cast in this production as well).

“Being sober doesn’t really suit her.”

Two other things related more to the production than the script are getting in the way of the story right now.  One of them feels like sloppiness, the other one feels like a failure of nerve.  First, the sloppiness.  This has to do with scene shifts.  And Then They Fell takes place in a little over a dozen scenes and almost as many locations. The Fox Egg Gallery is limited in terms of usable space but even what they had probably could have been better utilized.  Since writers give an audience credit for an imagination and suspension of disbelief which can handle multiple locations sharing the same space, then directors (as a species, not just in this instance) need to start treating scene changes as connective tissue in their storytelling rather than something that happens while you’re waiting for the next scene to start.

“I like to hear you talk.”

Look at one scene, look at the scene that follows it.  Do they have a character in common?  Great, have that character walk out of the one scene into the next.  Have the lights follow them and let the other character fade into the dark and walk away.  If instead the set of characters in the next scene is completely different from the set of characters in the current scene, rather than stopping everything dead for scene shifts between every single scene, maybe leave the setting for both scenes on the stage at the same time and just shift the lights, new actors walking on talking while old actors walk off to get ready for the next scene.  Choose to move as few things as possible, as little as possible.  Keep the momentum going.  Don’t allow the audience to check out on you.

“Unless someone’s beating the sh*t out of you, it’s better than out here.”

Is a bench required for an upcoming scene?  Is there a reason it couldn’t already be there off to the side?  If it needs to be moved into place, could the character who has to sit on it move it into place, in character rather than neutrally (not because they’re responsible for setting up a bus stop in reality but because we’re watching the human face of a character, and not so much what they’re doing)?  If the bench isn’t necessary for the next scene but isn’t in the way, could you just leave it alone?  If there are multiple times people need to sit down in different locations, we don’t always need to have a completely different chair every time.  Let the characters, dialogue, light and sound set the scene rather than the specificity of the furniture.

“She just seems so sure.”

And I know scenes without dialogue are uncomfortable for an actor, but if there aren’t any lines, don’t allow them to pretend they’re saying something we just can’t hear.  Force them to act with their body, most importantly their hands, their face, and if necessary, their hips.  Body language.  Learn how to use it.  Don’t be embarrassed.  Don’t rush through it as quickly as possible.  Linger longer than you think you need to because the audience needs time to take it in and catch up with the visual impression you’re trying to make.  This isn’t TV or film, there are no quick cuts - particularly since most of the time there’s going to be a scene shift before and after.  Think about flow into and out of those scenes and take your time.

“You’re not exactly a different person but you’ve changed something important.”

Now for the failure of nerve.  One character forces another character to perform oral sex on them in this play.  Sexual assault, plain and simple.  Statutory rape, to boot.  (Again, there is a warning prior to the show, so this is hardly a spoiler.)  I don’t agree with sexual assault of a minor as a necessary storytelling device in this context, but it’s there in the script.  The theater chose to do the script.  I’m fairly certain the script doesn’t say, “The lights go down - even though it’s the middle of the day and the rest of the scene is clearly well lit.  We hear the man enjoying himself.  We hear the girl coughing, no, gagging.  In the dark.  Then suddenly the lights return and the girl is breaking away from the man and dry heaving all over the stage, disgusted with what she’s done.” 

“[This music’s] really angry.”
“Yeah, exactly.”

Here’s the thing.  The play doesn’t cut away from the fellatio so that it’s something that happens in between scenes off stage.  The theater chose to do the play.  This is part of the play.  I’m not saying someone actually needs to perform oral sex in front of us.  But the play requires a theater to simulate it.  We watch a man force a girl to her knees.  He should face upstage and block her from our view.  But she’s going to have to have her face at a level with his crotch.  There is going to need to be movement.  He is probably going to have place his hands on the side of her head.  She needs to get down on her knees, she needs to get up off her knees.  Because the play requires it.  The theater chose to do the play.  I don’t like it any more than the theater company does.  (Heck, I didn’t even want to type the last two paragraphs.)  But the theater needs to do what the play requires of it.  Is it awkward, uncomfortable, and even triggering for all parties involved?  Absolutely.  But the theater is telling a story.  The theater knew what it was getting into when it read this script and chose to do it.  And if the theater doesn’t want to tell that part of the story, then don’t. do. the. play.  Find another play.  The theater chose the play because it was taking an unflinching look at the way a society fails its children.  If the production flinches first, the audience won’t.  Chose plays the theater can commit to fully or don’t do them.

“Come July you’ll be praying for a night like this.”

The audience the night I attended was filled with teenage girls.  I’d wager a lot of them were there to support their friends in the cast.  Part of me was grateful that a lot of their parents seemed to be there with them, though some were there unaccompanied.  Good on everybody for supporting live theater, and complicated live theater at that.  But I wondered, “What must they be thinking when they watch this?”  Because I was also trying to figure that out for myself.

“You got me now.”

I have never seen the point of watching human suffering as a form of entertainment.  That just doesn’t seem to be enough of a point for indulging in it.  Without a message, I don’t find it cathartic.  I can’t watch most horror films, slasher films or torture porn.  (In the same vein, the value of most shooter video games escapes me.)  If someone is going to suffer and die onstage, I need there to be a reason.  And not just, life sucks, and in life people suffer and die.  Gee thanks, I know that.  Tell me something I don’t know.  Tell me something I didn’t bring into the theater with me.  Raise my awareness.  More importantly, point me toward a solution.  In the play, not before and after the play with talkbacks and representatives of community organizations doing good works.  In the play.  The other stuff is great, but if it’s the only thing justifying the existence of the play, if the play isn’t providing its own context, then the play has failed to fully create a world and explore the options available in it. 

“A heavy dark sky letting go a burden of birds.”

By contrast, even though Citizen deals with a thousand injustices and disappointments in a society burdened by institutional racism, Citizen opens your eyes and makes you think, makes you care.  That’s not suffering as entertainment, that’s an exploration of suffering that makes a point, that offers hope through knowledge, a way forward, a way out.  The specificity of it makes it universal.  And Then They Fell often feels generic and unspecific.  The things about it that really sing, noted above, chiefly Jordan and Cal, don’t get the room to grow that they need.  Partly because it feels too short, partly because it seems to be crowded right now with a lot of unnecessary noise around the edges of the central relationship.

No dead girls.  No dead queers.

After And Then They Fell runs its course, I think that rule needs to go back into effect.

Forewarned is forearmed.  All that said, I still recommend supporting Tira Palmquist and Gadfly by seeing this production of And Then They Fell(performing now through March 26, 2017)

3 stars - Recommended

(photo courtesy of Gadfly Theatre Productions; left to right, Mindy Vang (Jordan) and Adele Bolier (Cal)).

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Review - Citizen: An American Lyric - Frank Theatre - Just Go. See It - 5 stars

(I apologize in advance for this review, as I am doubtless saying somewhere below something stupid or insensitive about which I am still unforgivably clueless.  I labor under no delusions that anything I write is news to anyone.  We learn by doing…)

“The rules that everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you.”

Go see Frank Theatre’s stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric.  Just go.  See it.  Then go out into the lobby and buy yourself a copy of the book, and read it.  It’s one of the best pieces of theater I’ve seen so far in this still young-ish new year and easily the most important.  It’s the nicest thing you can do for yourself and your self-awareness.  Citizen: An American Lyric is smart and sharp and funny and painful and sad and heartbreaking and yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, hopeful.  Because we are all human, and thus sometimes insensitive or stupid.  We regularly need people willing to help get us up to speed with things of which we might otherwise not be aware.

“This unsmiling image of you makes him uncomfortable.”

A co-worker and I regularly have a conversation about representation in theater.  When I see something featuring actors of color as a majority of the cast, I get excited because I feel that signifies progress.  And, frankly, these days, such shows are just more interesting to me than blindingly white stories I’ve seen a million times before.  My co-worker, a person of color, also having seen these shows, invariably responds that, yes, it’s nice, but honestly the show isn’t telling people of color anything they don’t already know.  The show is essentially designed to make white people better acquainted with the racism and imbalance in society and art that already exists, but doesn’t (seem to) impact them directly (yet).  This makes writing reviews like this one, which I’ve been trying to formulate since I saw Citizen: An American Lyric last weekend, a seemingly impossible task.  Anything I say, lined up next to the insights and skill of Claudia Rankine, is just going to seem hopelessly naive or clueless.  But I want you to see it, so I have to say something.

“Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying.”

So is Citizen: An American Lyric telling audience members of color anything they don’t already know?  Probably not.  Is it telling me anything I don’t already know?  Yes and no, but here’s the thing - I don’t think anyone should be getting points for understanding how bad things are if they’re not also working to change them.  Pundits, politicians and community leaders frequently say we need to have a discussion about race, locally and nationally.  Citizen: An American Lyric does that.  And it needs to, because, frankly, anyone who’s white who has friends who are people of color most of the time has no idea what questions to ask.  Or how to avoid saying something stupid.  And, as Citizen points out time and again, people of color have a hard enough time just navigating through the daily injustices and micro-aggressions that are built into our society.  The last thing they want to do, or should be asked to do, is relive all that just for the benefit of explaining it to people who have never experienced it.

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

Frank Theatre’s production Citizen: An American Lyric in an odd way serves as a friend of color who is infinitely patient in explaining to their white friends all the things they don’t know (or don’t see). There’s a reason Rankine’s book was a New York Times bestseller (the only poetry book to do so in the nonfiction category), a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the 2015 T.S. Eliot Prize,

“As light as the rain seems, it is still raining down on you.”

and the winner of: the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry (also a finalist in the Criticism category - the first book in the award’s history to be nominated in both categories),

“This would be your fatal flaw - your memory.”

winner of the 2015 PEN Open Book Award, the 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry, the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Collection,

“Only then do you realize that you are among the others, not among friends.”

winner of the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry, the 2015 VIDA Award in Poetry, the 2015 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award in Poetry,

“The man knows more about the unoccupied seat than you do.”

winner of the 2015 PEN American Center USA Literary Award, and the 2015 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry. 

“You fall back into that which is reconstructed as metaphor.”

It was also named a Best Book of the Year by the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, New York, the New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, Slate, and Time Out New York

“Take your foot off your throat.”

The reason people couldn’t throw enough awards at this book is that Claudia Rankine has a unique gift for crystallizing these moments of clarity when people see the world, and the other people in it, for what it is, what they are.  Rankine has the gift of giving people better sight, and better understanding.  If you can’t see the problem, you can’t fix it.

“No amount of visibility can change the way one is perceived.”

So how do you stage a book of poetry?  Rankine gets Frank Theatre more than halfway there because Citizen: An American Lyric is a book that’s very conversational and down to earth in tone.  It’s like having a talk with someone you know really well, someone who believes that they can tell you anything - that you will hear it, and that you’ll understand.  Some locations are called out in the text - a car, a driveway, a subway, a Starbucks coffee shop, a tennis court, a soccer field.  Others need to be created through staging and design.  Director Wendy Knox has a mix of Frank regulars and newcomers in her cast, all of whom have a substantial list of credits ranging from the small stages of the Minnesota Fringe Festival all the way up to the Guthrie Theater.  Actors Heather Bunch, Hope Cervantes, Michael Hanna, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas and Dana Lee Thompson bring these words to life as few people can.

“Although no one is chasing you, the justice system has other plans.”

The cast is backed up by a stellar bunch of designers who give them a striking canvas of sound and light on which to work.  There isn’t a physical set, just six chairs.  The real setting of the scene happens thanks to Mike Wangen’s lighting design, Bill Cottman’s projection design (with a video assist from Maxwell Collyard), and Michael Croswell’s sound design. Whether the actors are dodging the sound of raindrops, sitting in their car staring at the garage door late at night, or watching/reenacting the tennis saga of Serena Williams, the design elements all reinforce their work and invite the audience into their world.  The most vivid examples include the Serena Williams section of the play (where we get to see the sports news coverage mixed with live action moments, and the sound of tennis balls being hit can sound like gunshots); a verbal and visual litany of just a fraction of the names of the people we’ve lost to gun violence, police violence and racism; and a sequence where the actors find themselves trapped against a wall of words.

“You think this is an experiment, and you are being tested.”

Where the play makes its strongest emotional marks, though, are the “smaller” moments illuminating much larger issues, and bringing us closer to the human heart of the work.  A white woman stands, rather than take an empty seat next to a black man on a train.  A woman of color chooses to sit with him.  A white man brushes past a small black child, knocking the child down.  The child’s mother pursues the man, wanting him to see her child, wanting him to apologize.  Men of color who the mother does not know move to stand behind her in solidarity.  Moments inside a person’s head where they wonder “do I say something? do I call this out? what is it going to cost me if I don’t? what is it going to cost me if I do?”

“It isn’t like this moment hasn’t happened before.”

You wouldn’t think a play could cover the ground from Trayvon Martin to Hurricane Katrina and a host of other challenges, tragedies and catastrophes is such a short time and leave its audience feeling invigorated rather than depressed or exhausted.  But that’s what Frank Theatre’s dance with Claudia Rankine’s words do in Citizen: An American Lyric.  The friend who attended with me was left speechless for a few minutes.  I was energized, but also well aware of the nearly impossible task of talking about Citizen: An American Lyric without sticking my foot in my mouth - repeatedly.  Forgive my blundering above and if you remember anything, just remember this:

Go see Frank Theatre’s stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.  Just go.  See it.  It’s easily the most important piece of theater I’ve seen so far this year.  It’s also the nicest thing you can do for yourself and your self-awareness.  (I'm going to go back to reading my copy of the book now.) (runs now through April 2, 2017 at Intermedia Arts)

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

(cast photo - front row, left to right: Dana Lee Thompson, Hope Cervantes, and Heather Bunch; back row: Michael Hanna, Joe Nathan Thomas and Theo Langason; photography by Tony Nelson)

Review - Thurgood - Illusion Theater - Great Actor Playing A Great Man - 4-1/2 stars

Honestly, if you have an opportunity to see James Craven act in anything, you should go see it.  The man is fantastic.  Right now at Illusion Theater, James Craven is taking on the mantle of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice on the United States Supreme Court, and before that a fierce advocate in the courts as a lawyer for one ground-breaking civil rights case after another.  Mostly famously he argued successfully in the Brown vs. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court on which he would one day himself serve.  The Brown case struck down the segregationist policy of “separate but equal” schools for children of different races as a fiction and made school integration the law of the land.  In fact, before joining the bench, Marshall argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them.  As judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, he made 112 rulings, all of which were later upheld by the Supreme Court.  And as U.S. Solicitor General, arguing cases for the government, he won 14 of the 19 cases he presented.  He then served on the Supreme Court for 24 years.

“Equal Justice Under Law - I hope so.”

Thurgood the script, written by George Stevens, Jr. and directed by Illusion’s Executive Producing Director Michael Robins, has all the intelligence and humor, and the amazing personal journey, of Thurgood Marshall himself.  This production is a home-based extension of a tour traveling the state of Minnesota this winter of the same play, with Ellen Fenster in the director’s chair and Neal R. Hazard in the title role.  It’s good of Illusion to give those of us in the Twin Cities a glimpse of the play as well, with Craven embodying Thurgood Marshall.

“If I die, you just prop me up and keep on voting.”

Thurgood Marshall led a remarkable and important life, from his birth as grandson of a former slave, to sitting on the highest court in the United States. James Craven is a remarkable actor, more than suited to a subject of this magnitude.  That’s why I wish Stevens’ script was just a little more adventurous and challenging.

“If Eisenhower had fought the Second World War the way he fought for civil rights, we’d all be speaking German right now.”

Thurgood is a fairly standard treatment of a person’s life on a one-person play format.  It marches through the chronology of Marshall’s life in an almost exclusively linear fashion.  It tries to give everything it covers pretty much equal weight, which has the unfortunate effect of making everything about Marshall seem a little less remarkable.  The play takes the form of Marshall in a lecture hall, and it’s good as far as it goes.  In this context, it just doesn’t have the room to go very far.  It’s hard for a single person and this script, even with audio visual aids, to fully populate the world that Thurgood Marshall grew up in, and then changed for the better.

“I am going to die someday.  At 110.  Shot by a jealous husband.”

Still, Thurgood Marshall the man is larger than life, whatever the format, and James Craven is just the man to bring him back to life for us.  If nothing else, it’s sure to inspire you to go learn more about the man, his life and times, for yourself.  So if you get a chance to see Illusion Theater's production of Thurgood, you should. (runs through March 19, 2017)

4-1/2 stars, Very Highly Recommended

(James Craven as Thurgood Marshall; photography by Lauren B Photography)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Review - Mere Trifles - Theatre Unbound - Nothing Mere or Trifling About It - 4 stars

Theatre Unbound has put together another intriguing assortment of short scripts by female playwrights, this one a gathering of established plays and newly commissioned work, under the collective title Mere Trifles.  But there’s nothing mere or trifling about it.  It’s another solid outing in Unbound’s tradition of past presentations of short works old and new - Girls Got Pluck, Aphra’s Attic, and Girl Shorts 2013, 2014 and 2015

“If there’d been years and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you…”

Mere Trifles is partly in celebration of the fact that the lead-off script of the evening, Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, is over 100 years old (1916).  Glaspell’s script is paired with Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s short play Poof! (from 1993) to bookend the evening.  In between are two brand new scripts commissioned by Unbound from Rhiana Yazzie (A Few Pearls) and Maxie Rockymore (Bang-Bang Check!).  The whole evening is directed by Kate Powers, guiding an ensemble of six actors playing in combination across all four scripts (Lynda Dahl, Pedro Juan Fonseca, Adam Gauger, Nicole Goeden, Brian Joyce and Delinda “Oogie” Pushetonequa).  A quick shout out has to go to Ursula Bowden’s scenic design, which thanks to an industrious stage crew transforms quickly into four different setttings, all the while a profusion of chairs stacked high on stage and floating in the air, surround the proceedings.

“Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while.  That was a crime.  That was a crime.  Who’s going to punish that?”

This isn’t the first time Unbound has tackled Trifles.  I remember seeing their first presentation of it in Girls Got Pluck back in 2005.  Trifles is a polished little gem of a play, well worth revisiting.  There’s a reason it’s held up so well over time.  Glaspell brought her journalist’s eye for detail to this reimagining of an actual court case she followed for the newspapers.  A farmer has been murdered. His wife is suspected.  Two women (Goeden and Pushetonequa), one of them the wife of the sheriff, accompany the sheriff (Gauger), the county attorney (Fonseca) and a neighboring farmer who found the body (Joyce), back to the crime scene.  The men are there looking for clues.  The women are there to gather some things to take to the dead man’s wife in her jail cell.  This is the early 20th century, so the men aren’t paying a lot of attention to the women.  But the women end up seeing key clues about the case around the house which the men completely miss.  This leaves the women needing to decide what they’re going to do about the knowledge they’ve acquired.

“The patron saint of battered wives.”

Nottage’s Poof! is a bit of a revenge fantasy.  It’s a most amusing dark comedy about a woman (Dahl) who tells her abusive husband to go to hell, whereupon he spontaneously combusts down into a pile of ash and a bad pair of eyeglasses.  The woman calls down her upstairs neighbor (Pushetonequa) for help with what to do next.

“Take that, genocide!”

The best of the new works is Yazzie’s A Few Pearls. An estranged mother (Dahl) and her adult daughter (Pushetonequa) accidentally cross paths at the airport, both of them headed home for the grandmother’s funeral.  Long buried family secrets and the source of old resentments of course come bubbling to the surface.  The mother is written as a delightfully cold fish.  She’s too smart and too strong to succumb to sentimentality and emotion - both of which her daughter loves to wallow in.  Yazzie’s motherly creation is a treat for an actor to play and Dahl takes full advantage of the opportunity.  At a few points, the script leans a bit too heavily on spelling out the symbolic significance of its title.  The rest of the script, and the two actresses, are all so good that the audience really doesn’t need the metaphor hammered home for them.  In fact, you could skip the explanation and callbacks to it altogether and the script would be just as satisfying.  Most audience members could come up with their own explanation of the title, given the scene they’ve witnessed done so well.

“The princess of miscarriages.”

The other new script, Rockymore’s Bang-Bang Check!, is less successful, mostly because it requires so much suspension of disbelief that it ceases to hold together as a story with any characters we care about.  The set-up is that there’s a TV crew filming a piece about an unemployed abusive drunk (Joyce) and the cop wife (Dahl) who lets him push her around.  The director for the TV show (Gauger) is verbally abusive in real-life to the stage hand (Goeden) as well as his own offstage wife on the phone, while in reality the actors playing the husband and wife caught in a cycle of abuse get along just fine.  Where the whole thing stretches credulity until it breaks revolves around two things - a prop gun/real gun switcheroo, and a TV script so bad that even soap operas don’t sink to its simplistic depths anymore (and I doubt they ever did).  If Bang-Bang Check! is meant to be a satire, then it’s pitching itself wrong both on the page and in production.  Everyone on stage commits to the premise, but sadly it’s a failed enterprise.

“Somehow we just don’t see how it is with other folks until - something comes up.”

That said, three out of four isn’t a bad average for a collection of shorts, and Trifles, Poof!, and A Few Pearls are all so good that they more than make up for the other script.  You can catch Theatre Unbound’s Mere Trifles at SteppingStone Theatre through March 12, 2018

4 stars - Highly Recommended