Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review - Fly By Night - Jungle Theater - One of the Good Ones - 4.5 Stars

If you like your musicals old-fashioned and uncomplicated, with catchy tunes and amusing characters, with plenty of love to go around and just a dash of reality thrown in, then the Jungle Theater’s regional premiere of the new musical Fly By Night is the show for you.  The show’s non-linear storytelling or the killer house band backing up the performers might trick you into thinking the whole thing is a lot less traditional than it actually is.  The story is set in the ever-more distant past of the early 1960s, specifically the year between November 9, 1964 and November 9, 1965 - which is a weird thing for me to type because I realize I was a toddler at the time.

“Believe it or not, this is not the worst part of Miriam’s night.”

(Sure the African-American civil rights movement was in full swing, the Vietnam War was entering into its second and much bloodier decade, the women’s rights movement was beginning its next big phase, and the gay rights movement was just a few years off, but don’t trouble yourself with any of that.  This is New York City, so “white people involved in theater” is still a fairly important and homogeneous thing - and that’s the world around which this story revolves. An old-fashioned musical sensibility fits right in. To its credit, the Jungle has cast two actors of color in roles where other theaters would (and have) put a white face, and it’s a non-issue. In fact, it’s a relief and most welcome.  It’s not a spoiler to say “Google November 9, 1965” and you’ll know the bit of history this musical does want to play off of - but that happens late in the action.)

“I’m a mess, and so is ‘The Human Condition,’ especially the fourth act.”

[Fair warning, the length of this review got away from me - if “well-produced new romantic musical comedy” is all you need to hear, by all means go, you won’t regret it.  Skip the next four paragraphs if you don’t care about plot/characters; skip the next six after that if you don’t need to know the many and various reasons I enjoy each member of the cast (because I do, all of ‘em); and if you’re not likely to be troubled by the lopsided gender politics of the storytelling that drove me a bit crazy and kept this from being an outright five star lovefest, then you can skip the rest of the review below that as well.  Jungle Theater Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen has chosen a sweet, clever, heartfelt, funny script full of catchy tunes (one of which is still stuck in my head) performed by endearing characters.  She’s built an ensemble of ridiculously talented actors whose different skill sets all mesh perfectly, and backed them up with a creative team who give them all a dream sandbox in which to play. A random stranger sitting next to me who dreaded that he’d accidentally walked into a musical, which he normally avoids, was a total convert by intermission. Fly By Night is nearly impossible to resist - I was almost completely seduced myself.  If that’s all the convincing you need, get a ticket.  If you want to know more, I’ve got plenty of that below…]

“In order to reach the guitar, we must first attend a funeral.”

Fly By Night trades focus among three primary characters - rewinding and then moving in on key moments from different angles until we know the full context of how each of them got to the place they are, what they want, what (or who) stands in the way of their getting it, and then the twists and turns that keep spinning the story forward (and back) in new directions. There’s Daphne (Royer Bockus), a young woman who’s had all the lead roles in the community theater productions in her South Dakota hometown, so it’s time to head off and seek her fortune as an actress in New York City.  Accompanying Daphne for moral (and financial) support is her sister Miriam (Leah Anderson), who, to be honest, is perfectly happy being a waitress in a small town, but mom wants her to finally get out of the house.  While Daphne toils in a coat and shoe store to make ends meet as she also hits the audition circuit, looking for her big break, Miriam is deliriously happy working in a New York greasy spoon diner. 

“Last night I got a sign from the universe through your hair dryer.”

The third point of this love triangle (because, it’s a musical, of course there’s a love triangle) is Harold (Chris Koza). Discovering his mom’s old guitar in a closet after her funeral, Harold’s love of music and songwriting is ignited. It’s easier than dealing with his grief-stricken father Mr. McClam (James Detmar) who retreats into memories of his first date with his late wife at the opera La Traviata, to the point where he can’t leave the house without taking his portable phonograph with him. Harold also has to juggle a day job of his own, making sandwiches for the ceaselessly cross (and hilarious) owner of the joint, Crabble (Joy Dolo).

“Imagine you’re singing this song to a pony.”

Just as Harold and Daphne’s relationship starts to pick up steam, she catches the eye of a playwright named Joey Storms (Joshua James Campbell). Joey values Daphne’s honesty and claims her as his muse, hiring her for a new play he’s writing just for her - which of course tends to cut into her time for Harold.

“I’m full of surprises.”

Overseeing the many threads of this story is the Narrator (Jim Lichtscheidl), who also plays a variety of supporting roles both large and small, including a fortune teller, who sets Miriam on the path to find her true love - which turns out to be Harold.  Awkward.  The fortune teller also has some less than promising things to say about Miriam’s prospects for a long, happy life.  (I should be in the bag for this musical.  I really should.)

“When that star died, it didn’t disappear - it reappeared.”

Jim Lichtscheidl is a delight as the Narrator - as well as his rogues gallery of supporting characters.  The show wouldn’t work half as well without him pulling the strings and populating the world in which the other characters live with his own particular gift of comic timing. (Jim played a key role in the very first script of mine that ever got produced in Minneapolis, some twenty-odd years ago now - before he became a Guthrie regular, started performing in London’s West End, and turned into, well, “Jim Lichtscheidl.” It’s been great watching his career blossom, the guy’s amazing.)

“I wasn’t sure you’d get the metaphor.”
“Of course I did.  It was really obvious.”

I also have a soft spot for Joy Dolo, creating yet another larger than life character here in Crabble, longing for the days in World War II when she was an air traffic controller, now stuck making sandwiches without a plane in sight.  (Joy performed in the most recent script of mine produced in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, playing seven wildly different over the top characters so indelibly that even people who forgot or weren’t fans of the play LOVED Joy in it and remembered her.  She’s since done one cool project after another and is now, well, “Joy Dolo.”  One takes a weird kind of pride in seeing actors’ careers take off like that.  And it’s just lovely to see them both again, even if I’m just another guy in the audience this time.)

“Mayonnaise, meat, cheese, and lettuce.”

Wonderful seeing James Detmar on stage again, too.  (His chameleon-like, multi-character performance in Spring Awakening for Theater Latte Da still sticks in my head.)  Detmar takes a character in Fly By Night that has a danger of seeming repetitive and makes him compelling and sweet.  Given his acting and singing chops, I knew there must be a big moment coming for the character of Mr. McClam at some point, and I wasn’t disappointed.  It was a great showcase late in the game, and he really delivered.  Joshua James Campbell is someone else whose work I’ve really liked as both director (Failure: A Love Story) and actor (Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike).  He’s great here as Joey, a guy who wants to be more substantial than he’s probably capable of as both an artist and a person.  He’s an enjoyable fourth point in the romantic entanglements, turning a triangle into a bit of a rhombus or a trapezoid (they’re too odd to be a rectangle or a square).

“For worse… for poorer… in sickness… till death.”

Turns out the only people in the cast I’m not already familiar with are the three leads.  A love triangle only works if you’re rooting for all three of the characters involved, and between the script, songs and actors here, there’s a lot to root for. Leah Anderson and Royer Bockus playing the two sisters are two very different kinds of perfect.  Bockus’ Daphne is always belting for the rafters of the theater like any good wannabe actress should.  Anderson’s quieter but no less enthusiastic turn as Miriam finds the joy in everyday work. 

“I can’t feel awful by serving a waffle.”

Heck, even Daphne has a day job.  Sure, she isn’t stuck in it long but she’s not whining and moaning like most “artist” characters onstage (“why does no one recognize my genius? why do I have to do ‘normal person’ things?”) It’s why I can’t stand most plays about theater people.  But in this musical, Daphne does her job to pay the bills, and she stands up for herself when suffering the indignities of a life of auditions.  In fact, it’s only when she insults the play (after the director insults her “incorrect” body type) that playwright Joey becomes enamored of her.

“Apparently I was distracting the audience with my groans of despair.”

I’m a little ashamed to admit I wasn’t aware of local singer-songwriter Chris Koza before seeing him as Harold, especially since I have now developed a serious nerd crush on the man.  Apparently, cute guys who know how to sing and play the guitar are my kryptonite.  Plus, the guy can act.  He more than holds his own alongside all his powerhouse castmates.  (I’ll probably have to purchase and download a bunch of Koza’s original music just to get that damn turtle song from the show out of my head - not that there’s anything wrong with the turtle song, it’s just stuck on repeat in my brain.)

“Scientifically speaking, you’re connected to everything.”

And I haven’t even mentioned how great the band is - Music director Mark Christine out of New York also serving as conductor and playing the keyboards; Music consultant John Munson (of Semisonic) on bass; Dan Schwartz on guitar, and Richard Medek on percussion.  Pile onto that the crack design team embracing the period at the same time they’re supporting the time-skipping, multi-location storyline: Trevor Bowen (costumes), Barry Browning (lights), Sean Healey (sound), John Novak (props, plus stage manager keeping all these plates spinning), and Joseph Stanley (set).  There isn’t choreography per se, but Lichtscheidl is also listed as movement consultant (and I can still see in my mind’s eye, for instance, the whole cast suddenly becoming airplanes around a daydreaming Crabble.)

“Do you have any idea how many wonderful roles there are for women in theater?”

So with ALL that in its favor, why am I not just slapping five stars on Fly By Night and calling it a day?  The aforementioned lopsided gender politics of the storytelling. Fly By Night is the brainchild of Kim Rosenstock, who then collaborated with Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick in bringing it fully to life.  It’s not that the sisters’ roles aren’t good or substantial.  They’ve each got a lot of great material, both scripted and songs.  The multiple plot strands doubling back on each other make sure everyone gets equal time.  And the women have agency - up to a point.  Then the script keeps having the men in the story tell the women how they should feel, and how they should live their lives.  And the women agree.  And the script seems to have zero problems with that.  For that reason, a song of Daphne’s that would otherwise be my favorite, “I Need More,” instead kind of creeps me out, because Joey’s offering of it to Daphne in rehearsal is incredibly manipulative.  Even if she is realizing something important because of it, I also want her to hit him.  And don’t get me started on Harold convincing Miriam he knows how she feels better than she does, even as they’re both deciding to betray her sister.

“Honey, please, I know the sound of a man pretending to be a woman.”

Equally strange, one key female supporting role doesn’t exist, and three other female supporting characters are male roles.  Kudos to the Jungle production for having the vision to think, “Hey, Crabble doesn’t *need* to be a white dude. Doesn’t even need to be a dude. Joy Dolo’s great, let’s make the role for her.”  But the roles of Daphne and Miriam’s mother, and the pivotal scene stealer that is the fortune teller, are both played by the Narrator.  Hard as it is to set my love for Jim Lichtscheidl aside, why is the Narrator positioned in the script as a man?  There’s really only one joke (and it’s a doozy) that would potentially get lost if you allowed the Narrator to be a woman.  The Narrator also plays Daphne and Miriam’s late father, who both haunts and guides Miriam throughout the play, including at her pivotal moment of need at the play’s end.  But honestly, why dad, who's dead, rather than mom, who’s still alive?  And since the Narrator is some supernatural omniscient Our Town-ish Stage Manager figure anyway, why is it necessarily a male figure rather than say, a female one - like Harold’s late mother, and late wife to Mr. McClam, who casts such a long shadow over their half of the story? Why Miriam’s father but not Harold’s mother - dead but present, vs. dead but absent?  And yes, we don’t see it as much in theater, but there’s no prohibition against women pretending to be men onstage.  Why always men doubling as women instead?  None of this would bug me as much if the male love interests weren’t being allowed to tell the women how to feel.  I mean, I know it’s the early 1960s but really?  It’s 2017, so why are we telling this kind of story, in this way, now?

“Sometimes a busted broken clock is just a busted broken clock.”

Does any of that make the songs less catchy, or the play less funny or heart-tugging?  Does it make the production values less impressive?  Does it make the cast any less mind-bogglingly good?  No, no, and no.  It’s a beguiling package presented in an enchanting way.  I completely understand why people are drawn to Fly By Night.  There’s just a little nugget at the center of it all that still bugs me, much as I try to shrug it off and just enjoy. 

“Is that, like, with goats?”

Still, there’s also a part of me that just says “screw that reviewer guy’s qualms” and just go see Fly By Night.  There are so many half-baked, ill-conceived musicals out there, the better ones should get an audience, so we keep demanding the good stuff.  People this talented, doing work this good, really shouldn’t be missed.  You should go see and hear Fly By Night at the Jungle Theater for yourself.  (runs through July 23, 2017)

4.5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

[L-R: Mr. McClam (James Detmar), Crabbie (Joy Dolo), Narrator (Jim Lichtscheidl), Daphne (Royer Bockus) and Joey Storms (Joshua James Campbell) - Background: Harold McClam (Chris Koza) - Photographer: Dan Norman]

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Review - The Baltimore Waltz - Theatre Coup d’Etat - Dancing In The Dark - 5 stars

I will admit that Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz makes me nervous.  I keep expecting that eventually I will encounter it and it will seem dated or unsatisfying in some way, and that would make me sad.  But it’s Paula Vogel.  I should know better.  Theatre Coup d’Etat’s fantastic, funny and heartbreaking production of The Baltimore Waltz may have finally put my fears to rest.  The play is, if possible, even more bracing and lovely than when I’d previously experienced it (third time’s the charm, I guess).  Anyone encountering this play for the first time with Theatre Coup d’Etat, like the friend who came to the show with me last weekend, is getting the best of all possible worlds.  If you’ve never seen it, go.  If you’ve seen it before, go.  Just go.

“Elisabeth Kubler-Ross can sit on my face.”

Paula Vogel wrote the play as a love letter to her late brother, Carl.  His delightfully inappropriate letter to her about his own funeral arrangements is included in the program (with the blessing and encouragement of the playwright). In 1986, Carl asked Paula to go with him on a joint trip to Europe.  The pressures of life kept her from saying yes.  At the time, she didn’t know he was HIV+.  They never went.  By the early days of January 1988, he was gone.

“Some things are the same in every country.”

So The Baltimore Waltz is Vogel’s fanciful imagination of a journey never taken by a brother and sister.  In the play, it is the sister who is sick, infected with the virus for ATD - Acquired Toilet Disease - which, as an elementary school teacher, she picked up from a kindergarten classroom toilet seat. So it’s off on a whirlwind tour of Europe for Anna (Kari Nielsen) and Carl (Nicholas Kaspari). Anna, feeling shortchanged by living the life of a good girl, has decided to throw caution to the winds and screw her brains out, accosting pretty much anything in pants.

“He never betrayed you.  He taught you to trust in contact.”

(She doesn’t say screw - [he types, blushing].  I have rarely been more aware of the salty language in this script than I have been seeing it at Springhouse Ministries in one of their sanctuaries.  There is an enormous artful metallic cross suspended above the center of the room (and the set).  And whenever there’s a blackout, long summer days being what they are, high above in the dark, the waning sunlight shines through a stained glass window of a praying Jesus.  Vogel’s often poetic, sometimes profane, use of language is on a different kind of display in this context.  Kudos to Springhouse for giving this play a home anyway, and for Coup d’Etat for not sanding off the play’s rough edges to “fit” the venue.)

“Only the Germans have a word for that.”

While Anna is focused on her erotic European itinerary, Carl is on the hunt for a possible cure for his sister.  The American medical system may be too slow to approve treatments in time for Anna, but the rest of the world operates by different rules.  Carl’s best hope is his old school chum Harry Lime (references to the classic noir film The Third Man won’t confuse the uninitiated, but are an added bonus to those familiar with the movie.  The homage to the iconic ferris wheel scene, with the play’s addition of stuffed animal rabbits, is especially fun). Portraying Harry, a handful of doctors, various airport and hotel employees, the Little Dutch Boy (who stuck his finger in the dyke - no that’s not a lesbian reference) at age 50, and other horny and willing European locals, is Kip Dooley.

“It’s the language that terrifies me.”

Dooley may have flashiest of the three roles, since he gets to rip through one wacky character after another, but Kaspari and Nielsen ground his zaniness with the truth of their fractious but loving brother/sister bond, and the reality of facing Anna’s illness with their own agendas.  Director Lauren Diesch embraces not only the comedy and the sorrow that buffet the play (often both in the same moments), but also expands on the dance that concludes the story to incorporate movement at key moments throughout, to match the poetry of the script.  She not only gets great performances from her actors, she’s assembled a design team that really delivers on the concept of the play.

“If you want to be a billionaire, you sell hope.”

Megan Kedrowski’s set centers around an enormous curtained hospital area (complete with red plastic hazardous waste bags to anchor the framework to the floor) which is revealed and obscured in a variety of ways throughout.  The only piece of furniture - a hospital gurney.  We are never far from the medical impetus of the European odyssey, but the set-up is used in so many different ways, you can almost forget what it is, until you can’t anymore.  The curtains memorably partner up with lights (by Mark Kieffer) in a shadow play series of sexual positions for Anna and her various partners, and also for vacation slides that take on the look and feel of the X-rays with which they are interspersed.  Lights and sound (by Phillip Uttech) partner up to make the multiple changes in time and place, not to mention reality, distinct and easy to follow.  The Baltimore Waltz takes you on a journey, even though you never leave the simple square space of hardwood floor in the sanctuary.  One tiny detail that just knocked me out in Katie Martin’s costume design was her pairing of the pink triangle that the script features in Carl’s introduction, with a striped button down shirt in muted colors that, if you looked at it sideways, was just this side of a concentration camp uniform for gay men in Nazi Germany.  Carl with that look, on a European trip, a subtle but scary nod to the holocaust that came forty years before the AIDS crisis. (Given what’s going on in Chechnya right now, plus our Vice President who as governor of Indiana wanted to redirect AIDS treatment and prevention funding to gay conversion therapy… there’s still work to do.)

“He’s flashing his rabbit at you.”

And here’s where I’m especially glad Theatre Coup d’Etat gave me a chance to experience this play again now.  The first time I saw The Baltimore Waltz, the play was fairly new, the AIDS crisis in full bloom, and honestly, everyone who saw it was probably a little stunned and numb to it all.  The sister and not the gay brother being sick was a “nice” thought, but reality was always ready to reassert itself in our minds.  (The friend who attended this latest production with me - heck, most of the people involved in the production this time, probably weren’t even born - or were just toddlers -  when I first saw The Baltimore Waltz.  That’s an odd thing to consider. I'm grateful these folks will probably never see first hand the human body ravaged by the illness unchecked. It's not something that leaves you.)

“I just wish you wouldn’t go.”

The second time I saw The Baltimore Waltz, about seven years ago, it was like encountering an old friend.  HIV/AIDS was no longer an automatic death sentence but a chronic, manageable illness - still not a walk in the park, but not the horror show it used to be. Still, I was conscious of all the things that had changed, and the people we’d lost, since the last time I saw the play.  This time in 2017, The Baltimore Waltz is just a play, and a timeless one.  Because there will always be loss, there will always be grief.  We will always need a laugh, we will always need an escape.  There will always be regret, but there will also always be hope.  People die, but people live.  So we carry on, and we remember.

“Cut down in the prime of youth by a toilet seat.”

Only the end of the world is the end of the world.  Everything else, we can manage.  Hold your loved ones close.  Spend time with them.  Go on that trip.  No time is the right time.  But at some point, it’s too late.  Don’t miss your chance.  That’s the gift of Paula Vogel in The Baltimore Waltz.  And that’s the gift Theatre Coup d’Etat offers in resurrecting this script in this moment.

Just go.

(runs through June 19, 2017 at Springhouse Ministries)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Poster photography by Craig James Hostetler; actors (from left to right) Nicholas Kaspari [Carl], Käri Nielsen [Anna], and Kip Dooley [Third Man])

Review - Arcadia - Chameleon Theatre Circle - One Last Waltz - 4.5 stars

Tom Stoppard makes me feel stupid.  Very, very stupid.  But he’s funny.  Very, very funny.  So I forgive him, and go and see his plays anyway.  Chameleon Theatre Circle is presenting Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and it accidentally ends up being the perfect way to say goodbye to what has been their home in the black box theater at the Ames Center in Burnsville for the past nine years. So, for both those reasons, you should go see Arcadia for yourself.

“And everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly… till there’s no time left.  That’s what time means.”

Arcadia is about a great many things (a ridiculous number of things, really), but primarily it’s about time.  How bits and pieces of the past insist on continuing to exist in the present, and how people in the present can never full understand the past, anymore than the people in the past can dream of the future that will exist long after they’re dead.

“As her tutor, you have a duty to keep her in ignorance.”

Two different timelines exist in the same place in Arcadia.  Back in 1809, on the English country estate of Sidley Park in Derbyshire, an incredibly precocious 13-year-old girl named Thomasina Coverly (Mackenzie Diggins) is being tutored by a 20-something young man named Septimus Hodge (Philip D. Henry). (Those are the sorts of names you get in a Stoppard play, there are more…) Septimus gets himself into all kinds of trouble on many fronts, so it’s a good thing he’s so adept at juggling people.  He has a tendency to bed down with the adult women passing through the estate, whether they’re married or not. Thomasina being exceptionally smart means he has to keep handing her more difficult math conundrums to puzzle over in order to distract her from the fact that he’s at the center of most of the servants’ gossip.  The misdirection is harder to keep going when jealous husbands like Ezra Chater (Matthew Stoffel) keep storming into the room.  Thankfully Chater is a wannabe poet and easy to distract with flattery about his writing. 

“It’s a Gothic novel expressed in landscape - everything but vampires.”

Less easily bamboozled is Thomasina’s mother Lady Croom (Dawn Krowsnowski), who runs the estate with a no-nonsense attitude.  The thing vexing her at the moment is the estate’s landscaping makeover at the hands of Richard Noakes (Matt Saxe) - who’s also one of the main people spreading the word about Chater’s wife and Septimus.  Chater’s wife is pretty friendly. She’s also keeping company with Lady Croom’s brother Captain Brice (Dan Britt), as well as their unseen houseguest Lord Byron.  Chater’s wife leads a pretty well-rounded life for an offstage character.  The only person not causing trouble would appear to be the long-suffering head housemaid, Jellaby (Danielle Krivinchuk).

“What do you want to bet?”
“Everything you have to lose.”

In 2017 Sidley Park, the descendants of Thomasina and Lady Croom - Chloe Coverly (Nicole Laurenne), older brother Valentine Coverly (Nick Menzhuber) and younger brother Gus Coverly (Cody Madison) - are visited by two guests with competing agendas to uncover the secrets of the past.  Researcher and author Hannah Jarvis (Ariel Leaf) is there to learn the identity of the mysterious hermit who lived on the estate (after its makeover by Noakes, which is to include a hermitage).  Researcher and author Bernard Nightingale (Andy Browers) is there to prove his theory that Lord Byron killed Ezra Chater in a duel over the reputation of Chater’s cheating wife, and had to flee England because of it. 

“She’s feeding the solution back into the equation and solving it again.”

Gus Coverly in the present is mute by choice, instead playing the piano in the next room to express himself.  The same actor also plays Augustus Coverly, Thomasina’s very chatty and troublesome brother.  Also crossing the line between present and past is a (live) tortoise - stage tortoise Sloth plays the character of Lightning in 2017, and Plautus in 1809.  Like all live animals on stage, Sloth has a mind of his own, and is in danger of bewitching all audience attention if his fellow human castmates aren’t careful. Slow though he be, he is mesmerizing to watch.

“You have a way about you, Bernard.  I’m not sure I like it.”

One of the pleasures of Arcadia for the audience is that they see everything that takes place in the past, so they know the degree to which everyone in the present is off track.  They also learn from the people in the present the fates that await the characters in the past, which they don’t yet see coming. Surprisingly, all the different relationships aren’t hard to follow, though the whole play is a little bit of a puzzle box to wrap your head around.  CJ Mantel’s costumes and Terri Ristow’s props help delineate the two timelines that co-exist on Sadie Ward’s set.  Mark Halvorson’s lights and Forest Godfrey’s sound help to reinforce this. (I have to give a shout-out for attention to detail: if the light catches the tops of the low walls that border the set just right, you’ll see that there are a profusion of numbers layered into the black paint - a nod to several characters’ obsession with math and formulas.)

“You have no secrets left, Mr. Hodge.”

Director Duck Washington has assembled a great team here and they’ve breathed life into a story that’s often a lot of fun.  My main struggle is the struggle I have with most of Tom Stoppard’s plays - a lot of the time they seem just a little less than human.  They’re brilliant and they’re funny.  And in this case you’ve also got the British accents on top of it, which can add to the amusement.  But the characters are all dealing with such complex and abstract notions touching on math, philosophy, science, art, and historical research that, as thrilling as it is to have your brain constantly challenged and pinballing all over the place, the humanity underneath starts to get lost.  I will freely admit to my eyes starting to glaze over in spots.  I expect it’s partly due to the audience’s brains being overloaded with all that Stoppard’s script is hurling at them to process.  And it can’t be easy for an actor to learn these lines, as wonderful as they are, wrap their own heads fully around all the concepts, and become so comfortable with all the jargon that it feels like normal dialogue, spoken by a person.  That, plus the British accents (a double-edged sword of entertainment and distancing) can make it all seem a bit cold.

“A lesson in folly is worth two in wisdom.”

Just a month ago at the William Inge Theater Festival down in Kansas, I saw a staged reading of Lauren Gunderson’s play Ada And The Engine, about Lord Byron’s brilliant daughter Ada (on whom it’s said Thomasina in Stoppard’s play is partially based). Ada was a woman ahead of her time, transfixed by the idea of what would become the 19th century forerunner of modern day computers.  She also was entranced by the machine’s creator, Charles Babbage, a kindred spirit who talked the common language of science and the mind with her - a great but unconsummated affair on both sides.  Gunderson’s script was quite literally bursting with emotion and intellect at the same time, and the performances reflected that.  It was amazing to watch.  Gunderson doesn’t attempt to hit nearly as many targets as Stoppard does in Arcadia.  But I think she’s able to dig deeper and find the human guts underneath because of it.

“I do not know when I’ve received a more unusual compliment.”

Stoppard doesn’t seem as interested in people, or relationships, as Gunderson.  The passion for ideas doesn’t reach the heart.  So his plays don’t grab me the same way hers do.  On some level, this is a failure of intellect on my part as an audience member.  I have Stoppard’s script on my shelf.  I’m feeling compelled to re-read it now and catch all the things I missed.  Having seen actors perform it, I’ll probably get the words on the page now in a way I didn’t before.  But the thrill I got watching Gunderson’s play?  That doesn’t happen very often.  And I think it should.

“It’s the wanting to know that makes the difference.  Otherwise, we’re going out the way we came in.”

Over and above Stoppard, the cast and creative team, there’s another reason to go see Arcadia in this place at this time.  Arcadia is the last time Chameleon Theatre Circle will be producing a play at the Ames Center.  A number of factors were involved, but the break happened when the Center objected to one of the selections in Chameleon’s next season lineup.  That play happens to be one I saw and quite liked in last year’s Minnesota Fringe FestivalThe objections were based on a word in the title and not the content of the show itself, which it seems the Center representatives never saw or read.  Rather than change the title, or not do the show, Chameleon decided to find another home for their work. 

“Every time I turned around she was up a library ladder.  I finally gave in.”

That show happens to be written by the director of Arcadia, Duck Washington.  It’s Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales, and it will be presented in June 2018 at the Bloomington Center for the Arts as the final production in Chameleon’s 20th Anniversary season.  In addition to Pandas, Chameleon will present Lee Blessing’s Independence also at the Bloomington Center in the fall of 2017 to kick off the new season.  There will also be the latest iteration of their new play festival in the fall (details TBA).  The rest of the season will revisit some of Chameleon’s greatest hits from past seasons, including the musical Chess, and Steve Martin’s comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile (both at the new Gremlin Theater in December 2017 and February 2018, respectively), and the musical Little Shop of Horrors at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in April 2018.

“The girl who died in the fire.”

Why am I telling you all this in a review of Arcadia?  Because I think in addition to seeing Arcadia, you should make it a point to stand with a theater that stands by their artists and new work, now and all next season as well.  If you haven’t seen Chameleon’s work before, this is all the excuse you need to try something new.  A lot of theaters aren’t tested like this; and a lot of those that are, cave under pressure.  If a theater company stands against ill-informed attempts at censorship, that stand should be rewarded.  See Arcadia, see the new play festival, see Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas, heck, see everything.  Check their website, mark your calendar.

“This is the very best time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”

One unintended by-product of presenting Arcadia as their last play in this venue after nine years is the feeling of history, not just in the play but of Chameleon itself.  As past and present mingle onstage throughout Arcadia, but particularly in the play’s moving closing moments, one is reminded of all the entrances and exits, all the actors, all the characters, all the different worlds that have been built and then disappeared, all the technicians and designers and directors, all the audience members that have passed through these doors and for a brief time made this space a part of their lives.  If those associations need to end, it is fitting that a play like Arcadia, blending the past and the present, is the melancholy valentine on which we turn out the lights after one last waltz around the stage. (running through June 11, 2017 at the Ames Center)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(L-R: Mackenzie Diggins as Thomasina, Ariel Leaf [with Sloth the tortoise] as Hannah, Andy Browers as Bernard, and Philip D. Henry as Septimus in "Arcadia." Photo by Kari Elizabeth Godfrey.)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Review - 365 Days/365 Plays: A 2017 Remix - Full Circle Theater - It’ll Renew Your Faith In Theater - 5 stars

I’ll just get this out of the way up front.  Go.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this production.  It will renew your faith in the power and purpose of theater.  It is a delight.  You should go see Full Circle Theater’s 2017 Remix of Suzan-Lori Park’s 365 Days/365 Plays over at the Penumbra space.  You just should.  Treat yourself.

“We keep going in darkness, toward darkness.  Believe me.  It’s the only way.”

This is, of course, not all 365 plays.  They manage to serve up 46 of the plays in a little over two hours, but Parks’ work has 319 more for you to peruse on your own time.  That’s why, back in 2007 when the project first premiered, it took over 700 theaters across America (30 of them in Minnesota) to present all the plays over the course of a year.  Each individual piece of this project carries a lot of emotional weight - whether serious or whimsical.  Just the 46 Full Circle has in play for their 2017 remix feel like an embarrassment of riches.  If you weren’t a fan of Suzan-Lori Parks before, this production will turn you into one.

Two Examples of the Interconnectedness of All Things, part 1

Parks’ way with language, and humor, and history is kind of mind-boggling. No mystery why she has a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “Genius” Award on her resume. Depending on the short play in question, she’s either the heart, the conscience or the court jester of America.  Regardless, she’s always the brain.  Whether an actor is performing a miniature history of the human race, strapping on wings to fly, or pretending to be a fish, your mind is always fully engaged when watching 365 Days/365 Plays.  To write each one of these little gems, every day, for a year - that’s a wonderful challenge for a playwright like Parks to set themselves.  We should all be so lucky to have such results.

“You see that road, the wide one?  I came down that road once.”

You’d think something written in 2002, premiered in 2007 (both pre-Obama, let that sink in) would easily be in danger of being dated.  Part of Parks’ genius is she nails the universal and the timeless so perfectly, and leaves room to interpret her stories in any number of ways.  The opener must have had some instruction to “insert the most maddening recent headlines here” because right out of the gate we are placed squarely in our current reality.  There is a Trump-ian figure who reappears throughout the evening, but in a way that doesn’t seem forced, and which reinforces the notion that men like that have always been with us.  They’re an unfortunate by-product of the evolution of the American idea.

Sugar for Nina Simone and Celia Cruz

But that oafish caricature isn’t the focus of the evening (thankfully).  Parks and Full Circle have more important things to think about.  Life in America is bigger than any one political misfortune.  Parks’ is meditating on war, race, history, police brutality, family, politics, and most importantly, hope.  Sometimes it’s direct, sometimes it’s metaphorical. 

“The window of opportunity is now open.”

It took five directors (co-artistic directors Rick Shiomi and Martha B. Johnson, and Stephanie Lein Walseth, Lara Trujillo and Harry Waters, Jr.) and an ensemble of ten extremely versatile actors to pull this off (Ricardo Beaird, Elizabeth Cates, Shana Eisenberg, Ashawnti Sakina Ford, Gaosong V. Heu, Marcos Lopez,  Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel, Siddeeqah Shabazz, and Matthew Thompson, with James A. Williams [1st weekend] and Daniel Coleman [last two weekends] splitting the run).  Nothing ever feels rushed onstage in front of us, but the pace for the actors on any given night must be staggering.  That’s a lot of psychological territory and characters to cover, but they all handle it with grace and endless inventiveness.  They are aided in this endeavor by Dan Keyser’s multilevel set with all sorts of places to pop out of, plus Karin Olson’s lights and Quinci Bachman and Michele.Be’s sound to help set time and place, and Trevor Bowen’s costumes to give each of the people in this array of characters their own particular look (Bowen’s skill is what helps us know we’ve come - excuse the phrase - full circle to the end of our journey).

This Probably Isn’t a Play

A brief and tiny sampling of some of what’s in the remix: a family of runaway slaves is aided in their escape by the ghosts of both the past and the future; we’re treated to the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and later his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and her African American dressmaker Mrs. Keckley on what is revealed to be the last night of Lincoln’s life; a butcher’s daughter chooses a family blade to take out into the world with her and seek her fortune, but still returns to her father at the end of his life; a man has spent so many years at war that he comes home to find all his family has grown up and moved on; a traditional artist and an innovative artist both manage to run afoul of the powers that be; black people marvel at white people’s boundless capacity to always manage to make everything about themselves; a random musical number suddenly invades the middle of a completely different kind of scene; a group of people hold hands to find their way through the dark.

“You don’t even know how to speak the language of wherever it is you’re headed.”

You really need to experience Full Circle Theater’s 365 Days/365 Plays: a 2017 Remix for yourself.  I could talk about it all day and night and not encompass the breadth and depth of it.  It’s the kind of thing that live theater was made for.  It makes me very excited for whatever Full Circle has planned next.  If you wonder why we need yet another theater company in a town full of them, a production like this is your answer. (playing now through June 11, 2007 at Penumbra Theatre)

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

(l to r: Shana Eisenberg, Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel, Ashawnti Ford, Gaosong Heu, Matthew Thompson, James A. Williams [first weekend only], Marcos Lopez, Ricardo Beaird, Siddeeqah Shabazz, Elizabeth Cates, and not pictured: Daniel Coleman [last two weekends] - photography by Linda Bachman)

Review - The Boy and Robin Hood - Trademark Theater - Frat Boys of the Forest - 3.5 stars

Off the top of my head, the things about Robin Hood that have been placed in my brain by popular culture are: he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor; his trusty sidekicks were a Band of Merry Men, the only two of whom I recall were Friar Tuck and Little John (who was always a big guy); his love interest was Maid Marian; his nemesis was the Sheriff of Notthingham; he hung out in Sherwood Forest.  That’s about it.  There were movies, of course, with Robins of every hue from Errol Flynn to Kevin Costner to Sean Connery to Cary Elwes to an animated fox, but nothing to dislodge the basics.

“Now I see you are a child who brings death to everyone he touches.”

Of course none of that’s the original Robin Hood from the English ballads of old (really old, like 12th century old), and that more violent creature is the figure that Trademark Theater is on the hunt for in their new adaptation of the Robin Hood legend, entitled The Boy and Robin Hood.  This is Trademark’s inaugural production and it’s a doozy.  It’s exciting to see this much talent helping to launch an enterprise like this. 

“Think of someone you love, someone you love more than you can stand.”

The whole thing just wouldn’t work at all without Annie Enneking’s fight choreography - there is a LOT of fighting (and - spoiler alert - dying), and it never gets repetitive or boring.  The whole look of the production is fantastic - costume (Sarah Bahr) and lighting design (Mary Shabatura) in particular stand out, although sets (Sarah Brandner), props (Abbee Warmboe) and sound (Nicholas Tranby) aren’t far behind.  It might be easy to forget the musicians, since they’re tucked out of sight backstage but they add a significant punch to the overall atmosphere (like the show has its own movie soundtrack going) - Kris Anderson (guitar), Matt Barber (percussion), Jack Barrett (bass), and Nic Delcambre (music director, piano).  And something with this many moving parts doesn’t run this smoothly or look this professional without a good stage management team (Lisa M. Smith, and assistant Haley Walsh) and technical director (Bethany Reinfeld).  The cast is stuffed with talented performers, who I’ll get to in a moment.

“When I appear again, I will have Robin in my teeth.”

The whole operation is the brainchild of Tyler Michaels and Tyler Mills (TM, Trademark, I am apparently slow, I just got that).  Michaels conceived and directed the show as well as guiding the non-fight choreography and movement (yes, even in a show as dark as this one there’s still dancing and general merriment for a while).  Mills wrote the script.  They also have David Darrow on board with music and lyrics. 

“And the boy, like a ghost, disappeared…”

The Boy and Robin Hood isn’t a traditional piece of American musical theater.  There’s no song list in the program because there really aren’t that many songs.  Although, if someone gave me a dollar for every time I thought someone was gonna burst into song throughout the play, I’d make a fair amount of money.  That was a weird bit of psychological tension watching the play that may be a holdover from when it was potentially more musically driven in earlier drafts, or it may just be my spectator’s mind playing tricks on me.  Now the music is largely narrative around the edges, sung by the ensemble (Anna Beth Baker, Tim Beeckman Davis, Benjamin Dutcher, Elizabeth Hawkinson, Lars Lee as… tree sprites, actual trees, spirits of the dead humans that linger in the forest? - hard to tell) - more in the spirit of the original ballads of Robin Hood, no doubt.  The one standout exception to that would be the song Alan-a-Dale (Nathan Barlow) sings about the origin of Robin Hood, and it’s lovely.

“Someone stares at you, from some dark window pane…”

Here’s the thing, I watched the whole play, and they executed the heck out of this story - but I’m still not sure precisely what story they were trying to tell, or why they were trying to tell it.  There’s a lot going on here but two of the central threads of story seem to be after the idea of rehabilitating the reputation of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Jason A. Rojas) while at the same time taking the shine off of the reputation of Robin Hood (Riley McNutt). I’ve got no objection to either storytelling strategy but I’m not entirely sure why the story is unfolding this way.

“Someone must care for the weak.”

The Sheriff doesn’t seem to want anyone to get hurt. Now, bodies are dropping all around him in his quest to find Robin, but a lot of them end up being accidental or unintentional, and he himself never kills anyone (until the very end, and then we have a pretty clear idea why, and as an audience, we’re behind the move). Thanks to Rojas’ performance, the Sheriff still always seems dangerous, mostly because he’s desperate.  But he genuinely seems to want to find Robin and bring him in peacefully, partly because Robin’s mother was also a second mother to him. The Sheriff keeps getting pushed to extremes because the King (Tim Beeckman Davis) is neither sentimental nor patient (though the Sheriff seems to get multiple “one last chances”). Backed into a corner, the Sheriff hires mercenary assassin Guy of Gisborne (Dan Hopman), who REALLY enjoys killing people, and finds the prospect of ending the life of a legend like Robin Hood very appealing. Finding a tracker who was less homicidal would have been the Sheriff’s preference, but…

“I come to you to stop more blood from being spilled.”

Meanwhile, an orphaned boy (Peder Lindell), sent on the run when the Sheriff was beating down doors looking for Robin in the opening scene, is rescued from pursuit by the king’s guards through the intervention of Alan-A-Dale (Barlow), Robin Hood’s minstrel sidekick who’s also pretty good in a fight.  In a move that makes the rest of the play possible, but seems like an inexplicably bad call, Alan takes the kid back to meet Robin (McNutt), and the others in the Band of Merry Men - John (Paul Rutledge), Friar Tuck (Theo Langason) and Will Scarlet (Ryan London Levin). (“Well, since you have no family, sure, come join our band of outlaws, what have you got to lose, and who would miss you if we accidentally get you killed?” - that’s not a spoiler alert, the boy is apparently super lucky.)  Inevitably, the kid also meets up with Marian (Kendall Anne Thompson), who left Robin and the Merry Men to return to the local village for reasons to be revealed later on.  They all adopt the kid, and mean well, but they’re really the worst possible people to be foster parents.

“You must dance with him a little.  Find his rhythm.”

The idea, I get it, is to show Robin through the Boy’s eyes - at first a hero, then slowly revealing Robin’s less than heroic traits.  Ah yes, stealing and living on the run occasionally means killing people.  Also, Robin has a temper with a pretty short fuse, and a strategic brain that’s slow to catch up.  He swings a sword or fires an arrow first, asks questions later.  All his good friends know this about him and put up with it, even though they all have leveler heads in a fight.  Why, exactly?  The script does such a good job at enumerating Robin’s many character flaws that the whole “why we love him and look to him as our leader” side of things seems pretty flimsy by comparison.  And Robin doesn’t demonstrate a lot of positive qualities that would engender good will (that’s not the actor’s fault, McNutt is as talented, charismatic and good-looking as the rest of the very talented, charismatic, good-looking ensemble - he’s just working with the script he’s been given).  The script also casts doubt on just where all that money he steals from the king goes.  The question is brought up but never really answered.  Does he help other people with that money, does he keep it all for himself?  That bit gets lost in the shuffle.

“We are very close in those moments.”

Also, the seemingly endless orgy of violence and death that starts in the first scene and only escalates, with very little respite, for the entirety of the show, is a little exhausting.  After a while, I start wondering, why am I still watching all these people suffer so much?  The climactic end of act one death is also problematic for other reasons.  Kudos to the production for being a place that showcases actors of color in major roles, but - when you’re hoisting one of your African American actors into the air, over a tree stump, and snapping his neck while a lot of white people stand around watching - not to mention your largely white audience - I get a really uncomfortable lynching vibe, whether there’s a rope involved or not.  I may be in the minority on that one, and the actors involved may be fine with it, but, yikes.  You want to deploy that kind of imagery extremely carefully.  And I’m honestly not sure this story warrants using an incident that loaded.

“Here was a man I would always want at my side.”

I can understand the impulse of wanting to return Robin Hood to his original story roots, and not the romanticized Robin of recent generations.  That’s why there’s a handy timeline in the program of the evolution of the Robin Hood story.  They’re not reimagining it so much as they’re removing all the layers of paint slathered on over the hardwood and getting back down to the foundation of things.  Also, questioning vigilante justice - I’m all for a nuanced exploration of that.  But a lot of the time, The Boy and Robin Hood feels like an unexamined display of guys who decided not to grow up.  It’s not much of stretch to substitute Wendy and the Lost Boys for Marian and the Merry Men.  Life not sitting well with you?  Take your white privilege, return to the woods, and feel free to just beat up anything that gets in your way.  Create a narrative of your own nobility of purpose and sell it to anyone who’s buying.  There’s enough death going around at the end to make sure most people pay for their selfishness.  But does anyone really learn anything?  No one who survives changes - at all.  So is the play saying no one learns anything, or that we can’t stop ourselves from making the same mistakes over and over again and change?

“I’d like to be remembered differently.”

Everyone involved at Trademark Theater clearly loves these characters and the story of The Boy and Robin Hood.  I’m just kind of at a loss as to why.  Doesn’t mean it’s not impressive.  Just a bit confusing.  Give it a look yourself and tell me what I missed. (playing now through June 11, 2017 at the Ritz Theater)

3.5 stars - Highly Recommended

(The Boy and Robin Hood [and the Band of Merry Men] - l to r: foreground - Nathan Barlow,
Peder Lindell, behind: Paul Rutledge, Theo Langason, Riley McNutt, Ryan London Levin - photography by Rick Spaulding)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review - Night of New Works - Savage Umbrella - Squids, Falstaff, and a Hidden Room of Secrets - 3 stars

If you want to get in on the ground floor of the creation of three brand new plays and perhaps help shape their future direction, Savage Umbrella is offering up a showcase of theater in development in their Night of New Works at the Southern Theater this week. You can just be a spectator, you can offer your written feedback, or you can stay and talk directly to the artists after the show in a post-play discussion. Your level of involvement is up to you, but the artists really do want to know what you think and watch how you respond to the pieces on display. Savage Umbrella has mini-surveys in the program with simple but useful questions you can answer quickly such as “What was the most striking thing in the play?” “What are you excited to see more of?” “What could you stand to see less of, or see differently?” “Did anything surprise you?” “Describe the show in three words”  It’s an interesting exercise to digest a work while it’s still so fresh in your mind.  And Savage Umbrella has three very different offerings in this batch of new works, though most of them are largely script based.

The first half of the evening contains two new works-in-progress:

We Had A Second Bathroom, by Eva Adderley and Jordan Lee Thompson
(collaborators - Nayley Becerra, Kit Bix, Joni Griffith, Meagan Kedrowski, and Helena Mueller)

“She stares at the door as if she’s seeing a ghost. The door begins to glow.”

“Lea returns to her childhood home for the first time in over a decade, where she finds the long forgotten second bathroom that her mother moved a cabinet in front of when she was six. Rediscovering the second bathroom leads Lea to think about the existence of the alternate reality she and her family had lived in for years— a reality in which they had only one bathroom. The unraveling of this reality leads Lea down a rabbit hole of memories that force her to confront the construction of not only her past, but her present reality.”

A Squid Has Three Hearts, by Mark Sweeney
(collaborators - Amber Davis, Elana Gravitz, Keith Hovis, Claire Morrison, and Anna Pladson)

“Two hearts to pump oxygen, one to pump blood.”

“An exploration of environmental, personal, and political themes around the mystery of the Giant Squid, as well as the growth in squid populations that has occurred because of the rise of temperature in the oceans waters. Biology, mythology, and music act as connective tissue for a series of vignettes about the human experience.”

There’s a brief break for changeover between the two so you can stretch and scribble down your thoughts.  Then after those two there’s an intermission, and the second half is a presentation of the work-in-progress:

Dr. Falstaff and the Working Wives of Lake County, by Scotty Reynolds
(collaborators Jim Ahrens, Adam Baus, Naomi Karstad, Adrienne Kleinmann, Maggie Lofboom, Laura Mason, Natalie McComas, Gary Ruschman, Patrick Webster, and Nick Wolf)

“Reserve Mining is going to pay him to plow everything.”

“Using Otto Nicolai’s 1849 opera--The Merry Wives of Windsor—and the songs of Bruce Springsteen as a springboard, Dr. Falstaff and the Working Wives of Lake County explores the closing of the Reserve Mining Corporation in Silver Bay, the landmark legal battles to stop the dumping of waste rock in Lake Superior, and the layoffs that reduced population of Silver Bay more than 70% in two decades.”

This isn’t a traditional review, of course, because all three of these shows are still under construction. They all used this workshop experience to do different things, and all had script in hand (or on a music stand).  Dr. Falstaff chose to use the opportunity to fast forward past a lot of the music in the piece (though there was still plenty to be had even in the workshop) in order to get the entire plot - beginning, middle and end - laid out for the audience to see, to get a feel for whether it was working.  Second Bathroom kicked off at the beginning of the story and brought it to the end of a sequence that was a good breaking point for now.  Squid was a series of physical performance work (actors as undersea creatures), songs, and scenes - all interrelated, but not necessarily part of the same story.  The performers all threw themselves into the three works, treating them like they were a finished product whether they were acting, singing or squidding (or some combination of the three).

“It killed 87 people and four perfectly good horses.”

Second Bathroom was an absolutely fascinating premise for me.  We’ve all had things that we’ve hidden away, by accident or on purpose, in our homes, and sometimes coming upon them later can open up all sorts of insights into our lives.  The forgotten room, bursting with people and fantasies of the past, seems to be a super-rich environment to explore, and they seem to be just getting started tapping into all its possibilities.

“Will you come?
Will you stand
By the shore,
Into the water?”

Squid was delightfully odd. The actors really had a good time with all the different manifestations of the squid and other sea creatures. The songs were fun, sweet and a bit melancholy. I have to say it was nice having a pregnant lesbian couple at the center of the narrative (people, not lesbian squids, though who knows what the rewrites may turn up). If I had any suggestion for the Squid team it would be to set themselves completely free from the possible restrictions of a single linear narrative and just let loose with as many different manifestations of your central idea as possible.  You can sort it all out later.  Bonus points if you can find a way to make the environmentalist seem like the actual hero of the piece and not just a killjoy trying to spoil everyone’s fun by trying to save the planet. (Maybe if it’s a woman and not a man, for starters? White dudes don’t have all the answers, even if we think we do.) Maybe there’s a talking squid in your future as a central protagonist of one of the storylines?  Don’t let reality get you down.  Finding more ways to make the planetary stakes real in the present moment - in either literal or fantastical ways - would also be cool.  You’re more than halfway there with what you’ve got in hand.

“I can’t wait for the nudist camp ads in the Beaver Bay Bulletin.”

Dr. Falstaff isn’t really my thing but I appreciate the talents of everyone involved.  The combination of the operatic/Shakespearean source material with a real-life slice of Minnesota history is extremely clever. Minnesota humor is often lost on me, being a transplant. Local audiences, including this one, just eat it up, though, and there was plenty of it. The use of Springsteen songs right now just seems to be a placeholder for the play actually presenting a worker’s reality - they could probably ditch it.  The idea of opera music juxtaposed over performers doing manual labor has a lot of potential. Having the full time to show the details of that physical actor research will help, they were understandably under a time constraint here. 

“How much life can this city support?”

Both Falstaff and Squid had this weird undercurrent of “environmentalists are ruining everything!” - spoiling our fun, taking our jobs, etc.  Again, more run-time outside of workshop constraints probably provides more time for nuance.  Dr. Falstaff’s horny subplot may be getting in the way of exploring the real villain, the company that’s been doing all the trashing of the environment, and then blaming lost jobs on the fact that they have to stop destroying the planet.  I realize horny Dr. Falstaff is sort of the central reason for the whole project, however, so that suggestion doesn’t have much of any place to go.  I find the idea of the Minnesota community crushed under the wheels of progress really compelling - but that may not be the sober place this playful piece really wants to go.  Any reason Falstaff couldn’t be the face of the company, who they then bring down, rather than an interloper from the Twin Cities trying to make a fast buck off the yokels of Greater Minnesota?  Really put him in the center of things, and really take him down?  Just a thought.

“Do you want Alice In Wonderland, or spaceships?”

As you can see, there’s a lot of talent on display in Savage Umbrella’s Night of New Works and a lot of very different ideas bubbling up for an audience to mull oer.  They’re playing tonight (Tuesday 5/23) and tomorrow (Wednesday 5/24) over at the Southern Theater if you want to check them out and put in your own two cents worth of feedback.  I’m sure they’d love to see you.  And there are few things more exciting than new work taking shape right before your very eyes.  Have fun everyone.

3 Stars - Recommended

(photo courtesy of Savage Umbrella - ensemble of A Squid Has Three Hearts, in action)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review - Red Velvet - Walking Shadow - A Play For Theater Nerds - 3 stars

If you’re a hardcore theater nerd, Walking Shadow’s production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet is for you.  I thought I was a theater nerd, but there’s apparently a level beyond my devotion which involves a different knowledge of theater history - and figures therein - which I lack.  The upside is that a play like Red Velvet could teach me a lot if it wanted to.  The downside is that Red Velvet wasn’t really interested in doing that.  As far as the script is concerned, I could catch up or sit confused until it was over, then do a little research to put the whole thing in context (which is pretty much how things went for me).

“Everything looks bad from a certain angle.”

Really, the only person I was nominally familiar with prior to seeing Red Velvet was Edmund Kean, a celebrated British Shakespearean actor, perhaps most commonly known for having his last words reported as “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” But Mr. Kean is only name-checked in Red Velvet.  It is his unfortunate state of health, collapsing onstage during a production of Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in London, that creates the space for another actor’s big break, which is the real subject of Red Velvet. Kean’s collapse has pushed him offstage before the play even begins.

“So I should play what I feel? How avant garde!”

So what are we left with? The theater producer, Pierre Laporte (Andy Schnabel), takes the setback of losing his famous leading man to make a radical change. This is 1833 England.  The role of Othello is traditionally played by a white man in blackface.  Laporte decides to hire an actual black man to do the job.  That new actor is Ira Aldridge (JuCoby Johnson).  Aldridge is now widely considered to be the first African-American star of the English-speaking theater world.  Red Velvet here is digging into Aldridge’s origin story.  It’s a bumpy ride.  For context, though the story is set in Europe, 1833 isn’t just pre-U.S. civil rights movement by almost a century, it’s also pre-U.S. Civil War.  Not the most enlightened time for race relations anywhere.

“I’m just saying, people see what they look for.”

Half the previously all-white cast of Kean’s Othello is scandalized, half is intrigued.  Edmund Kean’s son Charles (Ty Hudson), in the role of Iago, learned Shakespeare directly from his famous father and is none too pleased about a young black man stepping into his father’s role in the play and the company.  Their famous lead actor would also serve as a director, offering suggestions to the other actors on their portrayals. Aldridge tries to do the same and gets a lot of pushback. Charles’ mood isn’t helped by the fact that their leading lady and Desdemona, Ellen Tree (Elizabeth Efteland), is also dating Charles.  Seeing a black man acting opposite a white woman, pretending to be her husband would be bad enough. To take her hand and kiss it? Scandalous.

“If we don’t take responsibility for our work then what are we doing here?”

[I had to be reminded, after the show, that Ellen Tree was also a very big deal in the history of theater at that time. She even played Romeo (which the script makes a nod to, but that’s pretty much all the hint I got that she might be something more than just the standard company ingenue). Ellen and Charles would later marry and take their husband and wife classical theater act on the road, making themselves even more famous in the process.  The writer of Red Velvet knows this, everyone producing Red Velvet knows this, but honestly, the audience could probably use more help than the script seems willing to give.]

“I think in order to act spontaneity, one must always know what’s coming.”

Because Tree is willing to give Aldridge a chance, the supporting players in the company (Sulia Rose Altenberg and Bear Brummel) are also willing to go along.  Another supporting player, Bernard Ward (Michael Lee), at first sides with Charles, but when Charles storms off and Bernard realizes that means that he finally gets to play the lead role of Iago, he’s also more willing to play along with Laporte’s theatrical social experiment.  The only other person of color in the place is the theater’s housemaid Connie (Kiara Jackson), and she’s more comfortable keeping herself out of the middle of this.

“Unfortunately money doesn’t guarantee character.”

Now, the play Red Velvet is originally out of London, and I’m sure everyone in the theater community there is much more steeped in the history and tradition of that theater than a guy living in the Midwest U.S. is. They probably need less handholding in that regard than I apparently require.  Red Velvet is Chakrabarti’s first play, and it premiered at London’s famed Tricycle Theatre, then moved on to a run in New York. Chakrabarti won three awards for it and was nominated for three more, so honestly, who the heck am I to question the thing?  Consider the pedigree of the play, consider the source of the review.  Your mileage may vary.

“Are we doing the right thing?”
“We’ll find out soon enough.”

The weirdest thing about the structure of the play is that it is bookended by Aldridge at the end of his life, on tour doing Shakespeare’s leading men, the final stop being in Lodz, Poland. (Aldridge doesn’t know this is the final stop, that his health problems are finally going to catch up with him in Poland.  But honestly, neither does the audience. The script uses this pivotal moment, but doesn’t give it much context. Again, I learned this after by doing some digging,) Aldridge has his own personal assistant (Lee, again), and is pursued by a scrappy young Polish newspaper reporter (Alternberg again) with the help of a local stage hand who doesn’t speak English (Brummel again). These all seem to be the trappings of success (and spotchecking history after the show, they indeed were). But the friend who attended with me was just as convinced it could be that the Poland stop on the tour was an indication that he now only plays out in the hinterlands, a has-been who never was, undone by the prejudice at the beginning of his career which the flashback making up the bulk of the middle of the show recounts for us.

“You give everything, and you can’t tell if it worked, can you?”

Part of the reason we were confused is that the reality of Aldridge’s actual career means that, really, there’s no suspense in the play. There he is, right in front of us, at the end of a long successful career. Yes, it’s unsettling (as it should be) to see him running into one metaphorical brick wall after another due to racist attitudes - which, honestly, still linger today in all corners of society (even among supposedly liberal, progressive theater people). We know he overcomes this. We don’t get to see how. What we do get to see is people rehearsing Othello, people performing Othello, people reading the reviews of Othello.  The “teapot” style of acting (as Ellen Tree calls it) is jarring to watch, and pretty funny. 19th century theater performing Shakespeare did a lot of proclaiming, facing out and trying to project up into the cheap seats in the far balconies. Not a lot of subtlety, actor interaction onstage or psychological realism going on at the time.  And again, all of this will make a lot more sense if you’ve read or seen a production of Othello before.  I can’t imagine how someone out of that context might be processing large chunks of Red Velvet.

“We sit through lifeless plays that say nothing about who we are.”

Also, weirdly, Red Velvet seems to be more about white people’s racism than it is about the person who is the recipient of it.  Ira Aldridge is the most interesting character here, but there’s a whole lot of white people crowding him out of his own story.  The play keeps indicating it wants to be about him, but the end result finds him too often absent.  Plays create their own world, whether they’re based on true stories or not.  If you have to do research or read extensive program notes prior to a play just to understand on even a basic level what the relationships are and what’s going on, I feel like the play’s not fully doing its job.

“That’s the beauty of being an actor.  You just play your part and go home.”

If you want a peek backstage into the process of putting together a show, Red Velvet definitely gets the details right. The whole ensemble does a great job of working together to create their own particular environment.  JuCoby Johnson is a great actor to build a show around - he’s the right choice to embody an important figure like Aldridge.  But despite having watched the whole thing, I’m at a loss to say what exactly the point was for my watching it.  I’m happy to know Ira Aldridge existed now.  I guess I just wish there was more of him in Walking Shadow's production of Red Velvet. (playing now through May 28, 2017 at the Southern Theater)

3 Stars - Recommended

(photo of JuCoby Johnson as Ira Aldrich in Red Velvet; photography by John Heimbuch)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review - Q-Stage - Set B - 20% Theater - Abuse and Release - 4.5 stars

At first glance, the titles of the two pieces in Set B of Q-Stage from 20% Theatre Company aren’t a lot of help.  The first one is called "___________" and the second one is called “e”.  But, actually, once you see them, the titles are kinda perfect.  It’s that kind of show.  Both deal with queer and trans bodies, the first piece through scripted performance, the second piece through dance and spoken word.  Both works in progress are still finding their final form, but each of them contains a lot of powerful material.

“An easy but effective measure to dispel unwanted spirits.”

Of course that doesn’t mean they’re always easy to sit through. The first half of the evening, “___________”, is the most challenging on that score.  Written by Sami Pfeffer, who also co-directed with Kai Greiner, both developing the piece with their performers, real-life spouses Beckett Love and Suzi Love, "___________" is about being haunted by and not entirely able to escape an emotionally abusive relationship. The piece inspired trigger warnings in the lobby, in the program, as well as in the welcome speech by Beckett.  Audience members were advised to do whatever they felt they needed to in order to look after themselves, including leaving the theater for the lobby if necessary. Someone next to me did just that partway into the piece.  They admitted upon their return for the second half of the program that they just couldn’t make themselves watch it anymore.  "___________" doesn’t abuse the audience, but it’s definitely hard to watch.

“I’m not open to engaging you right now.  Please respect that.”

One of “___________”’s primary goals seems to be to get the audience to recognize that abuse occurs in queer couples just as it does in straight couples, and that psychological abuse can be just as damaging and long-lasting as sexual abuse, or the kind of abuse that leaves a bruise you can see.  It’s been a battle just to get the larger society to see queer people of any sort on the most basic existential level.  Seeing other problems queers face on top of that is yet another challenge of perception. "___________" tries to meet that challenge and bridge that gap. This draft of the piece may be a little too good at what it does. It’s so convincing as a story of abuse that it’s almost unwatchable.  That’s actually a badge of honor for writer, directors and performers alike.  The trick for the next go-round of "___________" in its development is to find a way to get people to walk into the theater in the first place, and then to find a way to keep them from giving up on the story because it’s too painful.

“You tied all my clothes into knots.”

It’s good that venues like Q-Stage exist, in which challenging stories like "___________" can be incubated.  I’m not sure how it would survive its infant stages of development if it didn’t have 20% Theatre lifting it up and giving it a platform from which to speak.  It’s been difficult for me to write about this, not because I’ve had this sort of abuse in my own life, thankfully, but because I’m struggling with the whole notion of how you tell a difficult story but still reach an audience with your intended message.

“Some people have suffered real abuse and you’re just undermining their pain.”

Because the message of "___________" is still a little fuzzy. The basics are clear. Suzi Love’s character has survived an emotionally abusive relationship, but is so haunted by it still that their memories have the impact for the audience of being the character’s present reality. Beckett Love’s character is nice every now and again, but largely their behavior is a string of micro- and not so micro-aggressions that chips away at nearly all the self-worth that Suzi’s character has. (I honestly don’t know how these two can do this to each other repeatedly and then go home together and be OK. It must take a lot of self-care both individually and as a pair.  They’re that convincing onstage.)

“We’ll need another’s support as we delve deeper into the darkness.”

In the present, post-breakup, Suzi’s character works for a cheesy tourist attraction that purports to take groups in search of spirits in a haunted house.  The idea of being possessed and haunted is a good match for the character’s real life.  Right now it might be a little too on-the-nose.  If the script leaned on it a little less, let the audience come to it, rather than having it handed to them, the impact of the revelation might feel a bit more genuine and earned.  It’s a tricky balance and "___________" is almost there.

“That memory is so cold now.”

The main challenge is structural. Beckett’s character is in control of the story at the beginning and the end and for much of the middle as well. In some ways it’s a miracle that Suzi’s character registers at all (again, a credit to writing, directing and acting). The play ends as it begins, creating a loop of time with Beckett’s character as the ringmaster. I don’t think the play intends this to be the message but with Beckett at the reins, the play could be construed as saying that Suzi will never escape, never be all right, never be in control. The abuse has no end point. Ever. Now, there are, of course, situations like that in real life.  Is that hopelessness something you want the audience to walk out with?  If so, what are you expecting them to do with that heavy weight you’re asking them to carry?  Here again "___________" is perhaps more of a cypher than it means to be.  (But that’s what second drafts are for…)

“Launch literacy into my bones, I dare you.”

“e” by contrast is a bit of a manifesto. I’ll let the artists’ words speak for a moment with their own summary:

"e" seeks to explore the intersections of race and gender identity in an interdisciplinary artistic format. two queer trans people of color articulate through movement, poetry, music, storytelling and performance art their experiences in the complex and beautiful bodies they live within. "e" touches on the stereotyping of trans-femme bodies, the exploitation of queerness and eating disorders' attachment to dysphoria. we will create our own trans queer narrative. when our voices have often been rendered silent, we will speak our truth. so often the conditioning of our bodies by mainstream media is cis and heteronormative, our racial identities are merely supporting characters or punchlines. "e" stands for exposure. stands for empathy. stands for estrogen. for elevation, enigma, evil.

What does that look like in practice? Creator/performers Simone Bernadette Williams and Holo Lue Choy fill the stage alternately with movement and words.  Williams does nearly all the talking, Choy does more than their share of the movement.  Choy is one of the best arguments I’ve seen for the notion that dancers are most definitely athletes.  The things they can do with their body are mesmerizing.  I can only imagine the degree of difficulty involved.  It’s great seeing Williams and Choy dance together, too, but whenever Choy solos, they’re a marvel.  Williams key strength is putting trans struggles into words - a poetry at once defiant and beautiful.  They are the show’s voice, and it is a powerful one.  Both artists make it clear, you do not want to mess with them.  They will fight back.

“I must have forgotten to warn your blood that it was about to boil.”

Here in “e” we again have an issue of what the ultimate message is.  The pieces of the puzzle don’t appear to be arranged in any particular order.  Each in their own way are very effective.  But collectively they aren’t currently adding up to anything larger.  The audience isn’t brought to any particular end point.  The piece just - stops.  Real life, of course, is not all one thing, headed resolutely in a certain direction with no turning or doubling back.  But art has the advantage of being able to take life and arrange it in a way that life can almost make a kind of sense.  In “e” one thing happens after another, but one thing doesn’t necessarily lead to another.

“I hope you don’t make the mistake I did - take yourself for granted.”

There is a sweet, indeed lovely, ending to “e” with the two performers sitting down together on the floor and playfully eating from pints of ice cream. (It’s the one time we actually hear Choy speak! There’s an example of building something. The entire evening we’ve seen Choy let their body do the talking, and it spoke loudly, just as if sound were coming from their mouth. It’s only when Choy finally does speak that we are reminded, oh yeah, they haven’t uttered a word all night. That tension, broken. It makes the moment of camaraderie that much more meaningful, between the two artists, and between artists and audience.)

“How can I touch somebody who won’t even touch themselves?”

Immediately before the ice cream moment, there’s a solo moment where Williams has been overwhelmed with emotions not entirely positive while painting on their naked body. This, like many juxtapositions across the evening, is striking but I’m not entirely sure the artists have decided what they want to get out of putting these two moments side by side. It doesn’t feel so much like a choice as it does just something that happened. Earlier there are several instances of dead air and silence on an empty stage which, if the components of the evening where arranged differently and the gaps eliminated, would have given the piece a better shot at building momentum from the beginning through to the end. Less stops and starts means more collective impact. How do you get one piece to feed into the next, to get something to build on what came before it? That seems to be the business of the next draft of this performance.  But in the meantime, dang, the words and the movement here are powerful.

“God forbid this is a love poem.”

20% Theatre’s Q-Stage series as a whole feels like it’s reached another level of maturity this year.  The artists all seem more self-assured and in command of their craft, and the presentations - even when still rough and unfinished - have a real polish to them this time.  It’ll be exciting to see what all these artists do next, and who Q-Stage extends its hand to next.  The next time Q-Stage comes around, you should go and see for yourself.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photos courtesy of 20% Theatre: Beckett Love and Suzi Love in “___________”; Holo Lue Choy and Simone Bernadette Williams in “e”)

Monday, May 08, 2017

Review - Little Wars - Prime Productions - A Dinner Party You Can’t Say No To - 5 stars

(Blogger's note: After posting this review, I was made aware of the review of the same production on Talkin' Broadway. And, a simple internet search with the phrase "Gertrude Stein nazis" quickly brought up an illuminating article in the New Yorker. So I'm a bit torn. I still admire the production itself - the design, the acting - even the cleverness of the script. I'd still recommend it on those grounds. However, I agree with the other reviewer's thought that taking this as even a piece of fancy using history as a jumping off point is a bit of a slippery slope, given that the facts fly in the face of a fair chunk of the premise of the fictional story, making the epilogue in particular feel a bit odd. I also feel a bit like I need to do more homework in situations like this - and it makes me wonder why that same homework on some level eluded the writer and the production. Sigh. Art is complicated. Gertrude Stein, case in point. And then today, this interview drops today from Paula Vogel on theater and history...)

Gertrude Stein (Candace Barrett-Birk) and Alice B. Toklas (Sue Scott) invite Agatha Christie (Alison Edwards) to a dinner party.  Agatha invites her friends Dorothy Parker (Elizabeth Desotelle) and Lillian Hellman (Vanessa Gamble). Gertrude and Lillian can’t stand each other. But that’s not the thorniest problem with the dinner arrangements.

“She’ll come out eventually.”
“That would be a good thing to cut on my tombstone.”

Gertrude and Alice are living in the French Alps in June 1940, and Hitler’s soldiers are invading France. France hasn’t surrendered - yet. Gertrude and Alice’s friend Muriel Gardiner (Laura B. Adams), who has unexpectedly arrived a day early, is an operative with the resistance, smuggling passports to Jews so they can get out of Europe before it’s too late. Gertrude and Alice’s housemaid Bernadette (Miriam Schwartz) is German, and a Jew.  In fact, nearly everyone at the dinner party is Jewish, not to mention that Gertrude and Alice are longtime lesbian companions.  What could possibly go wrong?

“For every story worth telling, there’s a dozen secrets worth keeping.”

That’s the premise of Little Wars - a hilarious yet deadly serious play from Steven Carl McCasland. Did this dinner party really happen? Probably not, but the premise fits so tidily in the cracks of history that it’s a tantalizing “what if?” Though McCasland is a very 21st century playwright, Little Wars is fashioned as a very old-school sort of play.  Basically it’s a great excuse to get these towering female figures (and the wonderful actresses who play them) all in the same room together to lob insults and witticisms at one another.  But that’s not the only thing that’s going on here.

“Is that scotch mine?”

It’s easy to see why new theater company Prime Productions chose Little Wars as their inaugural production.  Their mission is to “explore, illuminate, and support women over fifty and their stories through the creative voice of performance.”  These women “of a certain age,” women in their prime, dominate the story and the stage in Little Wars.  Only women with this much brass, and experience, can push back against the darkness encroaching on Europe - if they can stop warring with each other for a minute first, that is.  Little Wars explores that notion from many angles - what are human beings, women, artists, expected to do in the face of evil?  If they can’t save everyone, what’s the point in saving anyone?  Is there such a thing as too late in a situation like this?  When you have a powerful voice at your disposal, how do you speak out or fight back, especially when speaking out or fighting back could get you killed?

“As long as people are dying, it is never too late.”

That might make Little Wars sound pretty bleak, but rest assured, McCasland’s script is reminiscent of plays like Claire Boothe Luce’s The Women, or take your pick of any Noel Coward title.  One joke barely lands before the next one arrives on its heels.  And yet these women are all so smart and self-assured that when they turn to weightier topics, it also makes complete sense.  Director Shelli Place and her fine ensemble keep the story moving fluidly back and forth between comedy and drama without skipping a beat.  It’s great fun to watch.

“What can one woman do?”
“A lot.”

If you don’t know the women this play is about, you should.  And if you haven’t seen actresses like these work on material like this, you should.  Heck, you’ll want to applaud Meagan Kedrowski’s set, too.  The thing has so much personality - so vivid and cluttered, with enough entrances and exits for a French farce - it’s practically another character in the play.  Little Wars is a great launching pad for Prime Productions, and a great showcase for all these engaging performers.  Treat yourself.  Even though it’s ridiculously funny, it also has enough of a brain that it doesn’t even qualify as a guilty pleasure.  Just a pleasure.  Enjoy.  (runs through May 21, 2017 at Mixed Blood Theater)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(l to r: Lillian Helman (Vanessa Gamble) and Alice B. Toklas (Sue Scott) share a drink while Gertrude Stein (Candace Barrett Birk) tunes the radio to an update on World War II outside in Prime Productions’ Little Wars; photography by Joseph Giannetti)