Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review - Sam’s Son - Bucket Brigade - Former Church Complete With Speakeasy - 4.5 stars

Sam’s Son, the new musical theater piece created by Bucket Brigade, has just about everything you could ask for.  Catchy musical numbers, great cast with killer voices, complex but fast moving and easy to follow story with just enough soap opera to keep things spicy, inventive staging, plus free pretzels, root beer and a trip to a speakeasy for the audience.  Sam’s Son may have found its original inspiration in the biblical story of Samson, but this early 20th century American story is a completely new invention.

“You can’t keep me from the fight, ‘cause the fight’s in me.”

The town of Good seems to have been spared the worst of the Great Depression in Prohibition-era America.  The widowed preacher Rev. Sam (Jeremiah Gamble) has raised his son Sam (Trevor Bunce) to be an upstanding young teenager, gifted with superior strength that he uses to help out around town.  Rev. Sam’s old friend Miriam (Vanessa Gamble) has returned to town, working as a field agent for Prohibition enforcement.  Back in the day, Rev. Sam and Miriam helped close the town saloon and drive alcohol out of town.  But just barely out of town - there’s still a shanty town down by the river with a speakeasy, so someone’s still making liquor.  Miriam’s not entirely convinced the problem is contained in the shanty town and enlists young Sam’s help on the case.  Down by the river, Sam meets fellow teenager Della (Kayla Peters), who helps broaden Sam’s small town horizons a bit.  Back in town, Miriam follows her instincts in regard to the local shopkeeper Alice (Bonni Allen), the washerwoman Gertrude (Gail Ottmar), and farmer Howard (Pete Colburn) with his young German farmhand Fritz (Seth Tychon).  Miriam warns part-time local law enforcer Charlie (Riley Parham) that he may want to clear out that one jail cell they have, which he’d been using for storage.  Miriam’s determined to crack the case and put someone behind bars.

“The 'E-N' Petersens live on the other side of town.”

As noted at the top of the review, the whole cast really delivers on the music, particularly the central couples played by the two Gambles, Bunce and Peters.  The score gives their voices a wide range of styles (and notes) to play with and they have a lot of stunning vocal moments throughout the evening. There’s an a cappella number for the quartet in act two that’s breathtaking. (Though it’s more ragtime than rock opera, I was getting a real Next To Normal vibe from a lot of the songs here - and I mean that as a compliment - though Sam’s Son owes just as much to the work Rogers and Hammerstein.  In many ways, it’s a very sturdy, old-school book musical.) Music director and arranger Michael Pearce Donley is also on the piano with the live band, accompanied by Chris Erickson on upright bass, and Brian Lenz on guitar, dobro, mandolin and drums.

“I don’t mind the criminals, Sam.  I do mind the hypocrites.”

Sam’s Son makes full use of the converted church that is the Art House North space.  All of act one and the second half of act two takes place upstairs in the sanctuary (pews for seats, with assigned seating no less).  Sean Byrd’s clever direction has the cast utilizing the center and side aisles just as much as the stage - the story surrounding the audience at times.  Intermission into the top of act two, the audience descends to the former church basement (where the box office was just an hour before) which has now been transformed into the speakeasy down in the shanty town by the river.  Free root beer and pretzels from local merchants for all in the crowd, plus some theatrical smoke/mist.  You’re warned ahead of time that someone’s actually going to be shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, but it’s all part of the show.  The smoke follows you back upstairs for the conclusion of the story. 

“A penny saved - “
“Is just a penny.”

Katie Phillips’ set design is inventive yet spare, often times just a lot of bare wooden planks - but there are also hidden compartments galore, all of which help transform the set for various locations quickly and simply.  There are a number of surprises in store which I won’t spoil here.  Courtney Schmitz’s lighting design helps track the story around the church building with evocative use of light, color and shadow.  Nadine Grant’s costume design sets the period against the bare stage and allows the cast to play multiple roles as needed to help flesh out the population of the town.  Nate Farley’s props help give the town some period detail and texture, and the logistics of this whole thing need careful managing so hats off to Farley’s duties as house manager (along with Casey Linstad), as well as stage manager Jay Carlson, his assistant Elizabeth Efteland, and technical director Trevor Muller-Hegel.

“I’m sixteen.  Life is complicated.”

The whole thing is such a well-run, finely calibrated piece of plotting, balancing the storytelling almost perfectly between dialogue and musical numbers that it took me a while to figure out what was nagging at me.  Because, honestly, if you’re looking for a solid piece of new musical theater, Sam’s Son is definitely your ticket. 

“Some things you’re better off not knowing.”

Really my only quibble with the piece is that the overwhelming hypocrisy of the town of Good sort of torpedoes any idea of the salvation of faith.  And this thing is literally being staged in a church, and one of the central characters is a minister.  Since almost everyone in town is harboring a secret that belies their Christian, church-going exterior, including the pastor, a more cynical audience member (or one with a less nuanced way of thinking) could easily conclude that all Christians are hypocrites.  And I don’t think that’s the intention of the play.  Sure young Sam is a true believer, but he’s a naive teenager, easily led astray because he hasn’t had a full picture of the world ever presented to him.  He’s just been told to stay away, not given any tools for how to deal with the vagaries of life in the larger world when he inevitably encounters them.

“There’s grace.”
“And jail time.”

Also, when that “fire” breaks out in the speakeasy, it quickly burns out of control and threatens the town of Good.  Though the town is ultimately saved, there’s no further mention of the shanty town.  So, did everyone on the wrong side of the river burn, but that’s OK because the good people and the real town were spared?  I can’t think that’s the message the play wants to send either.  The supply chain for the illegal booze is established, but the end users are unclear.  Is it all confined to the shanty town, or are there secret drinkers in the town of Good as well?  Is the alcohol only doing harm?  Is it being at all enjoyed in moderation, or is there no such thing in this fictional town?  Prohibition was seen by many, in the end, as a foolhardy quest.  Where exactly does the play fall on this question?  Leaving it all up to an audience nearly a hundred years removed from that history, who may or may not have any context of their own to bring to the period, seems like a missed opportunity.

“That’s a fine place to start.”
“It’s an uphill climb.”

And there’s a curious lack of faith in the story and its characters.  The Christianity of the supporting characters in town seems to exist just to contrast their less than savory pursuits.  It’s not really a part of their lives they appear to be struggling with.  Even the pastor and his son seem oddly secular in the way they confront their troubles in the play.  There’s no life of prayer, no turning to the Bible outside sermonizing the congregation, no calling out for help in dealing with grief or alcoholism or other dark impulses.  The people of the play seem entirely disconnected from God.  They’re on their own.  It’s not that they have faith and lose it.  It’s not really there.  It’s a role they play.  There’s no depth beyond the surface.

“People need to hear the truth, son.  You just got to get it to them.”

All of which is a shame.  Because that additional element could add a richness to the characters’ struggles, and those of the town.  When all is said and done, the Great Depression is still gripping the country, and with the elimination of booze as a cash crop, what is the town going to do?  Even here, the notion of faith isn’t invoked, even in passing.  So either the storytellers are taking it for granted that the audience assumes this is part of the healing process for the town, or they’re trying so hard not to lean on the original source material of the story that they overcorrected in a faith-free direction.

“I’ve got nothin’ to hide.  Same as you.”

That said, the music and singing in Sam's Son are so great that they almost completely make up for any small deficit of soul at the center of the story.  Like I said, the story itself is well-structured and fast-paced, with the songs frequently moving the action right along, so good that it took me a while to figure out what was bothering me.  The whole Bucket Brigade production is top notch.  Go and enjoy (and feel free to tell me I’m full of it.)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended.

(photo: Vanessa Gamble and Jeremiah Gamble in Sam’s Son; Bonni Allen Photography)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review - The Minotaur - Theatre Pro Rata - Lost (and Found Again) In The Maze - 4.5 stars

When a play loses me, it almost never gets me back.  But Theatre Pro Rata’s production of Anna Ziegler’s script The Minotaur reeled me back in after letting me disengage from the story for a bit, making me really care about the play’s closing sequence of scenes, so color me impressed.  This probably has just as much, if not more, to do with the work of director Amber Bjork and her team of actors and designers as it does with Ziegler’s script but however it happened, it was a little bit of theater magic for which I was very grateful.

“Do you know how alone I’ve been?  Do you know how long I’ve waited for something to change?”

The Minotaur is a modern reimagining of the ancient myth, but taking into account that the monster is half human as well as half bull.  So the Minotaur (Kip Dooley) is half brother to the princess Ariadne (Stanzi D. Schalter).  (Their mother and her husband the king ended up running afoul of the gods - and so a curse found mom developing a thing for one of the livestock, these things happen.) Ariadne tries to be a good sister, and the Minotaur tries to be a patient brother, but neither of them is entirely successful.  The Minotaur is housed in a maze beneath the palace. 

“There is always a monster.  There is always something or someone to destroy.”

In order to keep the monster in check, a neighboring kingdom is under obligation to send 7 young men and 7 young women each year as a sacrifice (aka, supper). To put a stop to this practice, one of the neighboring kingdom’s heroes, Theseus (Derek Meyer), offers to go along with the sacrificial group and do battle with the monster.  Ariadne falls in love with Theseus (as you do) and agrees to help him defeat the Minotaur.  There’s a chorus made up of a priest (Brian Columbus), a rabbi (Noe Tallen), and a lawyer (Mike Tober) who take care of a lot of the narrative and expositional duties.  The night I saw it, there was also a trio of sign language interpreters up front - and they were so well-integrated into the fun of the action that I almost feel bad for any performance that doesn’t have them.  It added a very welcome extra level of playfulness and camaraderie to the evening.

“Is he a hero?”
“Yes, and a hero leaves.”

Half of Julia Carlis’ imposing set design takes its cue from the sails of Theseus’ ship, the other half of the set consists of enormous macrame hangings that dwarf the human actors onstage (a cheeky nod to the ball of yarn that will allow Theseus to navigate the maze and then return). The stark lighting and ominous sound designs (from John Kirchofer and Jacob M. Davis, respectively) help to reinforce the sense of scale in the legend housed on such a set.  And Mandi Johnson’s costumes, particularly that of the Minotaur himself (clad all in white, with a wire cage of a horned headdress to go over his human head) complete the picture of an otherworldly tale that has hints of a modern feel to poke at the old story.

“Falling in love isn’t a skill.  It’s not something you can be good at.”

Ziegler’s a gifted and award-winning playwright with quite a resume, and it’s her skill in part that both loses me and brings me back as an audience member.  A lot of writers (myself included) are bewitched by old myths, legends and fairy tales.  We can’t resist reviving them and putting our own spin on them.  If we’re clever and have also done our research, we can really go down the rabbit hole (or get willingly lost in the maze, if you’ll pardon the metaphor) - and in such moments, we can forget and leave our audience behind.  And a lot of the time, we’re having so much fun, we don’t really care if we’ve lost them.  Word play, inventive twists, well-played metaphorical parallels - they’re ways writers can get stuck up their own a**, and unless they decide they want to return to speaking with the audience that they brought this far, the story and characters can get completely derailed.

“There is no happy ending.  This isn’t a fable, it’s a myth.  And myths end badly.”

Ariadne and Theseus are portrayed as self-involved and privileged, perhaps even a bit dim (certainly naive).  The chorus’ attitude of superiority and cleverness gets off-putting a lot sooner than the author might think they do.  The audience is more than ready for the story to mutiny against the storytellers and take things in a new direction.  The character of the Minotaur gets so much attention, and so much nuance, that an audience is also more than willing to continue watching the monster, grateful every time it returns to the stage.

“Name one thing you’ve done lately that feels like a surprise.”

The whole cast turns in solid performances.  That annoying chorus I spoke of, not the actors’ fault.  The trio of Columbus, Tallen and Tober are just enthusiastically going exactly where the playwright wants them to go.  Ditto for Meyer and Schalter as Theseus and Ariadne.  The saving grace of both the script and the performances is their conflicted feelings about the nature of their mission to vanquish the monster, and its consequences.  Their late in the action conversion, and the reappearance of the minotaur in the play’s closing sequence, is what pulled me back in.  Kip Dooley’s eyes, accented with makeup under his wire bull’s head, almost deserve their own review.  The Minotaur’s gaze was a hard one to shake, and never let you forget the human being inside the monster.

“Forgo all the adventures and the tragedies.”

The strength of The Minotaur is that it goes in with its own mission to undo some of the inequities of the ancient tale for a modern audience: the fact that the story is way too tilted in favor of the male hero, that the female lead always wrongfully ends up getting the shaft, and no one bothers to look at the minotaur as anything other than a monster. It starts out trying to correct these imbalances, and does its best work when it’s equally a story of three and not just one or the other (or the other).

“I do not punish myself for being hungry.  And we have the same hunger.”

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’m going to leave it here.  I should know by now that when Theatre Pro Rata chooses a script, even if it loses me for a little bit, there’s something that’s going to turn the whole thing around before the night is over.  In fact, I found myself sitting there in the audience, willing it to happen. “Come on, don’t let me down now.  Pull out of the dive and bring it in for a landing.”  And land The Minotaur does.  You should head into the maze and see for yourself. (runs through October 22, 2017 on the Crane Theater main stage)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo: Kip Dooley as The Minotaur; photographer: Charles Gorrill; graphic design: Max Lindorfer)

Review - In The Treetops - Sandbox Theatre - Meandering Through the Childhood of Wanda Gag - 4 stars

As we left the theater I said to my friend, half-jokingly, “Leave it to Sandbox Theatre to create a children’s show about poverty and death.”  Half-jokingly.  And art.  It’s also about art, and the artist, and creating, because that’s also frequently tucked in the back of things the Sandbox ensemble creates and performs. 

“We had to fashion this world out of games.”

Here the artist in question is celebrated Minnesota illustrator and author Wanda Gag, best known for her children’s book Millions of Cats - a story still out there in bookstores and libraries, going on 90 years now.  Sandbox Theatre’s new company-created work, In The Treetops, focuses on the seeds of Gag’s later career that were planted in the games and storytelling of her own peculiar childhood in New Ulm.  Project lead Megan Campbell Lagas, director Matthew Glover, and assistant directors/ensemble creators Peter Heeringa and Heather Stone have zeroed in on a subject rich in possibilities.

“We draw to dream a place between what is and what can be.”

Gag led such a varied and colorful life that no one play could encompass it all, so it’s a wise strategy to focus in on one particular period of her life.  In The Treetops tackles the time when the seven Gag children were forced to fend for themselves.  The father of the family died when Wanda was just 15 years old, their mother died just nine years later.  A refrain in the production is a variation on the father’s last words, “What papa couldn’t finish, Wanda must.”  As the eldest child, Wanda essentially parented her six younger siblings, but she flouted convention (something of a theme throughout her life) by refusing to give up her training at art school during that same time.  The family may have suffered during her absences, but it still held together.

“Survived by the leaves in the trees, and the feather tucked into my hair.”

Sandbox takes the games the children play together to reveal plot and character in ingenious ways.  Behind them, a screen alternates between projections of Wanda’s illustrations, and shadow play.  Mask work is also engaged, to create other human characters (such as the Gag family’s disapproving neighbors, as well as more friendly storytelling friends).  There are also inhuman characters, like Sweet Tooth - a cross between a prehistoric fish and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, who makes amusingly odd entrances and exits.

“The penny or the pencil?”

Wanda (Kristina Fjellman) looks back from the comfort of her adult artist studio on childhood with her siblings Flavia (Evelyn Digirolamo), Tussy (Ashawnti Sakina Ford), and Howard (Kalen Rainbow Keir), as well as her best friend Alma (Megan Burns).  The actors take on many roles in the story, and there are many songs and dances (accompanied by musician/music designer Theo Langason).  There isn’t really a set to speak of, so most of the work shifting time and place goes to Mitchell Frazier’s vivid lighting design, backed up by Rebecca Bernstein’s costume deisgn.

“Buried with music, she will shake the earth in which she sleeps.”

There are some great sequences here, like the comical mimicry of the children doing their own version of the daily news.  There is also the moving evocation of the parents in shadow, often larger than life, sometimes just reaching out a hand in shadow to support Wanda when she feels need of it.  All the music feels fresh and playful.  There’s a lot to like In The Treetops.

“She knew just where her heart was.”

There’s also a bit of a disconnect between the various parts and some kind of larger story.  There are times when it feels like the forward motion of the event kind of stalls, jumps the track for a while, then hops back on to move forward again.  And for all the calling out of Wanda Gag by name, if you didn’t know who she was before you got to the theater, this show wouldn’t really tell you much.  The program does say “inspired by the life of” so it’s not pretending to be any kind of detailed biography, nor does it need to be.  But just as a character, it’s not entirely clear who the adult Wanda is, what her work, reputation or status are, or why exactly she’s reflecting back now, in this particular moment with the audience to whom she’s speaking.  There’s no distinct connection between what takes place onstage in the past, and the play’s brief nod to the present in the adult Wanda’s life.  I’m all for Sandbox’s brand of storytelling taking us where it wants to go, but right now the directions are still a little fuzzy.  I’m not arguing for your standard issue biographical approach by any means.  But a little more context as to why this person, in this time period (which is - ?), telling this story, now, would be useful to give the piece some kind of foundation.  Otherwise it’s just a free-floating series of children’s games through an adult lens.

“Won’t you spill fresh paint?  Don’t you wash it from my grave.”

Wanda and her siblings are fun to spend time with, but ultimately I wonder why spend that time with them.  Which is kind of a shame because what Sandbox is doing with In The Treetops is really remarkable.  They’re addressing things like the loss of parents, death being a part of life (there are fanciful human and animal funerals for characters real and imaginary throughout), and even hints of the hardships endured when one is poor.  This is all in the framework of something not at all dour or downbeat, but optimistic and full of energy, music, light and color.  It makes scary things less scary.  In The Treetops could be an important piece of theater for children and their parents to share.  A  lot of the elements are already in place.  It’s just not quite there yet.

“On the edge of our town, there is a house with seven colors.”

Still, the version of Sandbox Theatre's In The Treetops we’ve got now is well worth checking out, particularly if you’re an adult looking for some theater that’s accessible and ready to share with the kids in your life.  You’ll both find something to enjoy here. (running through October 15, 2017 at Open Eye Figure Theatre)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(poster art courtesy of Sandbox Theatre)

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Review - Sing To Me Now - Little Lifeboats - Best Script I’ve Read In Years, and a Production to Match - 5 Stars

Be honest, aren’t you a little curious about a play that includes a climax where a woman delivers an inspirational speech, and sings, to a urinal?  (You should be.)

“Citizens, supplicants, creatures of want…”

I have been waiting for this play to be produced since I first read it almost two years ago.  It’s an enormous relief when something turns out to be just as great as you hoped it was going to be.  Iris Dauterman’s script Sing To Me Now is easily the best new play I’ve read in the last ten years.  The works of Deborah Yarchun run a close second.  Everything else I like comes in a distant third.  I was afraid I might be getting my hopes up, that no actual production could be as good as the feeling I had when I read the script.  Fear not.  Everyone involved with the Little Lifeboats production of Sing To Me Now loves the script just as much as I do.  And they deliver that love through the script back to the audience.  This was the production I was most excited to see this year when I learned it was going to be on the fall calendar, and it was worth the wait.  (I’m going to go on about it for a while, but honestly, you should just go.  Trust me.  You’ll like it, too.)

“They’re kind of hard to miss.  Dreams are like fingerprints or the smell of someone’s skin.”

For a variety of reasons, a lot of my time is spent reading new plays.  I try to be an optimistic soul and give every new play the benefit of the doubt and an open mind on page 1.  This is not always a rewarding practice.  There are a lot of bad plays out there.  There are even more adequate to mediocre plays out there.  There are a handful of good ones.  Only very rarely do you read a great one.  Not all plays can be great plays, but I wish more plays failed valiantly trying to swing for the fences than settling for just stumbling along toward an average conclusion.  It can get you down.  It can lower your standards.  And then you get one of those great plays in your hands, and it reminds you why you love theater, and that fantastic writing exists - that words have real power in the hands of someone who knows how to use them.  Iris Dauterman’s Sing To Me Now is a great play.  It’s a funny play, full of love and heartache.

“Their brains are tiny, their subconsciouses are unreliable, and their memories are as durable as tissue paper.”

Calliope (Dana Lee Thompson), the last surviving Muse, puts out a call to the universe for an assistant to help with the workload.  Requests for ideas and inspiration come flooding in to her office every day via paper airplanes. (Said paper airplanes sail back and forth through the audience to the stage throughout the play so watch your head - I took one in the shoulder.)  She needs to go out with her basket every day and gather up random ideas from the river of human thought into jars which light up inside.  These jarred ideas get released back out into the world to those who need them.  Calliope once had eight sisters to help carry the load.  Now she’s on her own.

“This is where they come to see us.  What will they think if we just let it burn?”

A human in her dream state answers the call, but Calliope has her doubts about Yankee (Cate Jackson).  Calliope calls her Yankee because she’s from the USA, and bemoans that no help is often preferable to American help.  But Yankee wins her over.  Yankee also catches the eye of Calliope’s neighbor Morpheus, or Mo (Stephanie Johnson), the god of sleep and dreams.

“Have you ever knocked on a door when you’re not sure anyone’s there?  Have you ever knocked on that door for 3,000 years?”

In addition to catching up on the inspiration workload, Calliope needs to regularly check in with her mother Mnemosyne (Rachel Flynn), god of memory.  Only Mnemosyne’s memory has come a little unstuck in time.  (Losing eight of your nine children can do that to a person.)  She can be with Calliope in the present, or she might be mistaking her for one of her sisters.  Everything that’s happened before is either happening again or about to happen.  She’s living both the past and the present at the same time.  (This, of course, is a delightfully cagey way to serve up a metaphor for dementia.  It’s astonishing reading on the page, and Flynn really knocks it out of the park in performance.)

“You of all people should know how little a god can do.  We keep the lights on.”

Calliope also keeps running across her uncle Hades (Robb Kruegger), god of the underworld, who knows all the secrets of death and the afterlife but can’t reveal them.  So Calliope may believe that her sisters are on another plane of existence, but she has no way to reach them, or confirm this.  Hades could provide comfort, but it’s not really his job, and it might also screw up the laws of time and space.

“I miss her, and I hate her.  I don’t know which feeling is gonna win, and that scares me.”

Iris Dauterman, the playwright, is fascinated by trauma, how people deal with it, survive it, bury it or process it.  I didn’t fully understand the connection between the writer’s preoccupation with trauma and the script Sing To Me Now when I first read it, though I was entranced by the story on any number of other levels.  Then the 2016 presidential election happened.  And now I appreciate the play on a whole new level, and see Dauterman’s trauma fascination all over it.  One of the marks of a great play is the ways you can appreciate it differently over time.  Sing To Me Now feels even more immediate to me now in its meditations on the resilience, stupidity, and beauty of the human race than it did when I read it almost two years ago.

“She’s in the library.  Her hands are full of ashes.”

Also, I hate when storytellers use suicide casually, as just another plot device, and don’t reckon with the mindset of the person committing the act, or the impact on the people left behind.  Here, too, Dauterman defies my resistance as an audience member.  Now, the fact that there’s an established afterlife, and the person in question is on a mission in the underworld, kind of takes some sting out of it.  A suicide in real life, with no assurance of redemption, would be a lot messier, and perhaps more honest.  But it’s part of the play’s highwire act and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work for me anyway.

“How do you know if someone wants to kiss you back?”
“You don’t always.”
“That sounds terrifying.”

The whole cast is wonderful.  I mentioned Flynn earlier, but I have to call out Dana Lee Thompson’s brilliance specifically because the play would not work without her as Calliope.  She shoulders the task of being the center of this play from start to finish with great power and grace.  Her emotional range is a real roller coaster throughout, and she has the audience laughing and crying right along with her.  Sing To Me Now has a lot of heart across the whole story and cast of characters and everyone involved really digs in and delivers this, none more so than Thompson.

“He should really settle down.  There aren’t that many single gods anymore.”

Cate Jackson as Yankee takes your typical plucky underdog character and gives her real dimension.  She’s clearly a human out of her depth among the gods but she gamely tries to hold her own nonetheless.  Her budding romance with Morpheus is made all the more interesting by the production’s choice to cast the male role with a female actor - Stephanie Johnson.  Everyone addresses Morpheus as a man, nobody tries to pretend this is an intentional lesbian romance.  It’s just two people meeting and building a relationship.  How you see that is up to you.  It’s a nice touch, and adds a new dimension to a script I didn’t think had any more dimensions to add.  Robb Krueger’s Hades is a combination of mischievous and world-weary that makes for some great comedy - and without him, we’d get no happy ending.

“She knew they were all going to burn.  She just didn’t want them to die alone.”

Just as a side note, I don’t think we can call it a coincidence any more that the productions I’m most impressed with and engaged by right now are all directed and written by women, with women at the center of the action.  There’s Sing To Me Now from Little Lifeboats, written by Iris Dauterman and directed by Victoria Pyan; there’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. from Frank Theatre, written by Alice Birch and directed by Wendy Knox; there’s The Nether from Jungle Theater, written by Jennifer Haley and directed by Casey Stangl (and while we’re at it Lillian Hellman’s Watch On The Rhine under Lisa Peterson’s direction is kicking some serious ass at the Guthrie, too).

“Because you have so much potential.  You can create so much beauty, and then you just - don’t.”

The new Crane Studio space is still a work in progress.  It’s a great little space, and perfect for this story (thanks in no small part to Meagan Kedrowski’s whimsical set design).  There will be a light grid in the near future, but the lack of one now limits what Mitchell Fraisier can do with the lighting design. And the Crane’s hardly sound proof at the moment, and there is another show going on on the mainstage just across the hall at the same time.  (Thankfully, the other show’s a long one act, so it’s done before the big emotional material in act two kicks in.  Still, I admired the cast even more in those moments when they had to block out incoming noise from the other show and continue telling their own story.  The audience hangs in there with them.)  Like I say, a work in progress, as the run continues, the building no doubt evolves, too.  The only design not impacted by the Crane Studio’s embryonic state was Lisa Conley’s inventive costume design.  Conley gets some lively and colorful variations out of going along with the expectation of ancient Greek gods being outfitted in togas, and keep an eye out for Yankee’s amusing sleepy dragon slippers.

“Does goat cheese really make the world a better place?”

Best new play with a production to match.  If you like theater, treat yourself to Little Lifeboats’ presentation of Sing To Me Now.  It’s a delight.  (As mom frequently says to me at Fringe shows she really loves, “if I could have six stars to rate a show, I’d give it six.”) (runs through October 22, 2017 at the Crane Studio)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Review - mONSTER - Swandive Theatre - Unanswered Questions - 3 stars

It’s 1994, and there’s a monster on the internet.  That’s the premise of Swandive Theatre’s world premiere production of Sam Graber’s new play mONSTER.  Tech nerd Brill (Kelsey McMahon) has camped out in a dorm room on the far end of campus, where the internet signal is the strongest, to work in league with an unseen cadre of fellow computer enthusiasts to try and scrub the internet and keep it safe from this monster.  The uninitiated, should they see the monster online, will get drawn into some zombie-like trance.  So, metaphor.  (As much for Instagram as it is for porn - pick your internet poison, the monster will appear.)

“Did we invent the internet, or was it always there, waiting?”

The story is set in a time when the internet was just beginning to reach the wider public.  Back when a lot of people thought AOL actually was the whole internet, rather than just a portal to it.  Back when not everyone and their sister (or even colleges) had their own website (or even email).  Back when ordering something online to be delivered to your home seemed exotic.  Way back before smartphones were something everyone had in their pocket. 

“It was a little like looking over God’s shoulder.”

Brill’s efforts are confounded by the arrival of fellow student Nessa (Jamie Fields), who was actually assigned to live in the dorm room that Brill has commandeered with all her equipment.  Nessa tries to roll with the idea of an unexpected roommate.  She also tries to have a normal college experience of classes mixed with partying and slacking off.  The odd man out in the situation is the residential assistant for the dorm, Greg (Avi Aharoni).  He tries to broker peace, maybe get Nessa to a normal room, maybe even flirt with her a little in his enormously awkward way.  But everyone ends up colliding in unhelpful ways, despite their best efforts to keep the whole situation under control.

“If you see it in full, it brings out your true insides.”

mONSTER isn’t a bad idea for a play.  Graber’s a skillful playwright who knows his way around dialogue.  All the actors, under the direction of Meg DiSciorio and her assistant director Bryan Grosso, get multi-layered characters to dig into, and they do.  Kevin Springer delivers another kickass sound design.  Sean McArdle’s funky set, with a spider’s web of cables enveloping and defining the boundaries of the dorm room, is a great look for a creepy scenario like this.  Though the dorm room itself is claustrophobic, the staging, with a lot of help from Jesse Cogswell’s lighting design, takes full advantage of the width, height and depth of the Southern Theater space.  All the elements are there.

“People reading strange books in sunlit grass.”

The problem is the story doesn’t really hang together.  There are a lot of great details of the era that Graber nails in the script to great comic effect.  Beyond the jokes, though, he also really took me back to that pre- cell phone, pre-computer focused, way of campus living.  You know, when people actually still went to libraries because they had to, because that’s where the information was.  When people spent time together because if you wanted to spend time with someone, you had to physically be in their presence.  You didn’t have a device to connect to them across campus or across the country.  Phones were physically rooted in a location, you went to them, they didn’t travel with you.  It really was a different time.  mONSTER evokes that really well, both on the page and in production.

“Measuring the impact of engineering on morality.”

But there isn’t a monster on the internet.  We’re the monster on the internet.  We’ve always been the monster on the internet.  The technology just let loose and enabled people’s worst instincts and behavior, it didn’t create them.  There’s a whole video sequence on modern day internet use and misuse late in the action of the play between scenes (which is the only thing that seems wildly out of place in the production) which chronicles this internet-encouraged bad behavior.  It further undercuts the basic premise of the play.

“Blaming computers for human failure is such a human failure.”

And even if I granted you the notion that there’s a monster on the internet, 1994 isn’t the beginning of the internet.  1994 is the point at which the internet starts to really get its tentacles into larger society.  But the internet had been in development for thirty years prior to that.  I’m supposed to believe the monster just bided its time while the think tanks and the military developed the idea of the internet?  That it decided that the best way to take over society was NOT to take over the brain trust guiding human advancement, NOT to take over the military which could subjugate or destroy the world?  No, the monster decided to wait until unsuspecting college students started poking around.  THEN it would make its move.  I’m not saying I couldn’t buy this scenario if it was presented the right way.  I’m just saying right now I don’t buy it.

“When you get tired of standing in for God, come and find me.”

Swandive Theatre’s production of mONSTER is a great presentation of a new work.  There’s a lot of talent on display here.  The sense of dread and unease is often quite palpable.  But the idea undergirding the play feels a little half-baked and under-researched.  And it often strains against the bounds of the fact that there’s only three characters the story has to play with while it’s trying to invoke an entire college experience as its backdrop.  Another year in development, maybe a slightly larger ensemble to populate the world and expand the story?  They might be on to something.

Meantime, thanks to this review, I feel like the monster on the internet at the moment is probably me. (through October 7, 2017 at the Southern Theater)

3 stars - Recommended

(photo courtesy of Swandive Theatre - Kelsey McMahon as Brill, trying to keep her computer base of operations in order in mONSTER)

Review - Mean - Youth Performance Company - The Kids Are All Right (Eventually) - 4.5 stars

Bullying doesn’t seem like an ideal subject for musical theater, but Youth Performance Company makes it work with their original production, Mean, written by two YPC alumni - Rita Cannon on the script, Kymani Kahlil on the music.  Director Jacie Knight once again gets impressive performances out of her ensemble of almost exclusively young actors.  It’s a tough topic to handle well, and it takes its toll on the performers as well as the characters.  The actors who play the tormenters in this play are perhaps the ones most relieved when the curtain call arrives.  They sing the closing song and join hands with the actors they were bullying onstage, moved by the opportunity to finally drop the act and banish the demons again.

“They just don’t know what it’s like to be different, but you do.”

Rather than focus just on one type of bullying, the script for Mean spreads the pain around the full cast.  But unlike a lot of tales of bullying in high school lately, this one doesn’t just rehash the problem, it offers potential solutions.  The various strategies for survival fall into two larger categories - if you’re being bullied, ask for help or take help when it’s offered; if you see bullying happen to others, don’t be a bystander, step in and help.  Neither of those solutions are easy and they require strength by people on all sides.  But at least Mean is presenting some options for what can be done, and not just accepting the whole situation as hopeless.

“Look in the mirror and say you’re ugly.”

There are three primary stories interwoven around briefer interludes with other characters in isolation speaking about the reasons they get singled out for ill treatment by their peers.  There’s moments with the kid who reads slowly because of dyslexia, another who’s dealing with a realization they’re trans, yet another who gets unwanted scrutiny because they’re poor enough to be part of the free meal plans at school. 

“Momma, when will I be good enough?”

The stories getting the bulk of the stage time are: Inam (Eponine Diatta), a young Muslim girl wearing a hijab who gets taunted by cheerleaders Ashley (Brea Davis) and Liz (Adeline Wendt). Inam’s fortunes improve when she takes the help offered by her teacher Ms. Roth (Jill Bigelow-Rossing), who gets around in a wheelchair.  A second story focuses on Taylor (Katherine Fredrikson) who gets called out by Hannah (Rachael Wasson) for being fat.  Taylor’s supposed friend Samantha (Arianna Richardson) doesn’t have the guts to stand up for Taylor against Hannah at first.  But Samantha eventually grows a spine to go with her troubled conscience to help Taylor, while Taylor learns to trust Samantha again.  The audience also gets a window into a possible source of Hannah’s bad behavior when they meet her mother (Katenka Bollenbeck).  Also going on, the bullying of Nick (Tristan Brown) by star school athlete Danny (Connor Carlson).  Nick doesn’t fit Danny’s idea of how a real man is supposed to act, so an anti-gay campaign of slurs begins, including efforts to drive a wedge between Nick and his only friend Joey (Carl Hallberg).  Nick’s downward spiral only starts to turn around when his dad (Marc Brown) takes an interest and intervenes with school officials.  The ensemble also includes Casey Johnson, Chase Kozak, Ella Kozak, Flannery McGreevy, Paris Nash, Tess Nelson, and Samuel Osborne.

“I’m glad my school has free breakfast.  I wish they had free secret breakfast.”

There’s a LOT going on in this play.  It’s remarkable how much plot and how many characters they cram into less than 90 minutes of run time.  Maybe just a bit too much.  While this ensemble-style of story presentation allows the production to shine a light on a variety of troubles young people may face, as well as multiple solutions, it’s hard every now and then to know where to focus your attention.  Additionally, while this approach doesn’t allow the audience to get too far ahead of any one story, it also makes it a little hard sometimes to keep all the players straight.  The large cast does, however, make for a more realistic portrait of school life, with groups of people looking on or passing through.  So there are tradeoffs.  On the whole, Mean’s approach to the subject and the way the artists involved in the production present it, is largely a success.

“You’ve got to let people know there’s a line they can’t cross.”

The world outside the theater’s walls is more than happy to remind us how hard these kids have it just getting through the day sometimes.  So it’s nice inside the theater to get a dose of hope, and strategies for how we can help, all the while avoiding preachiness or sentimentality, opting instead for dealing with things the way they are. With Mean, YPC’s Mean uses good original theater to add something useful (and positive) to an important conversation. (through October 15, 2017 at the Howard Conn Performing Arts Center)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Review - Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. - Frank Theatre - A Bracing, Oversexed, Subversive Valentine - 5 stars

Frank Theatre’s production of Alice Birch’s play Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is fantastic.  It’s a bracing, oversexed, subversive valentine to language and the idea of turning an ordinary life inside out and making it extraordinary.  Director Wendy Knox’s six person ensemble of Charla Marie Bailey, Joy Dolo, Jane Froiland, Emily Grodzik, Grand Henderson and Gabriel Murphy are fearless in the way they display themselves and interact onstage. 

“This play should not be well-behaved.”

This isn’t a standard political play suggesting middle of the road solutions.  It’s a laughing, screaming, horny wake up call to stop letting your life dribble away minute by minute.  Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. wants you to reconsider pretty much everything society at large has been trying to sell you - standard gender roles, getting married, having kids, not making waves at your job, not admitting too freely that sex is a good and healthy thing to be shared between consenting adults.  Frank’s production doesn’t want you to waste another minute being ordinary or bored. (And this collection of scenes add up to a short play, so you can head out into the rest of your evening and get started.)  Frank also wants to remind you that theater isn’t here to anesthetize you with entertainment - it’s more interested in entertainment that’s going to wake you up.

“I grew it if that’s what you mean.  I killed it if that’s what you mean.”

A woman takes language and turns it back around on a man, the two of them consumed by a desire not just for sex but for dominance.  They also navigate around the notions of sex as something done to someone, versus with someone.  It’s not really sexy, but it’s hilarious. 

“I want to buy dogs and then bury those dogs in the garden we share.”

Also amusing is the incredibly awkward conversation that ensues when another woman must tell another man that his enthusiastic marriage proposal is not only ill-timed, but just generally a really bad idea. 

“Unruptured hymens for sale!”

Darker and most peculiar is the visit by a woman to her absentee mother, her own daughter in tow.  The woman grapples with her mother’s choices, and the unintended consequences that she herself may not have been the best candidate for parenting, but brought a now damaged child into the world anyway.

“I’m serious.  Stop smiling.”
“This is just my face.”
“While you’re in here, I own your face.”

A woman states flatly that her hours at work and way of working will need to change, and nothing her boss does to cajole her back into the status quo looks like it’s going to work.  Supermarket employees are confronted with the spectacle of a woman collapsed inside a shopping cart who then springs to life in a very hyper-sexualized fashion.

“There is a point at which the thoughts are not enough.”

Simple scenes that seem based in reality early on give way to later scenes in the play that fragment and play over one another, scenarios of child brides and porn and child molesters and the peddling of body parts get drawn in vivid brush strokes of just a few lines here and there. Ultimately, a scene of actual revolution is plotted.

“It’s just that everyone thinks that’s sex now.”

The fact that women drive the narrative here isn’t an accident, and is one of the things that allows the storytelling to feel so fresh and surprising.  Birch revels in language.  She knows its power, and gives it to her characters to wield in unexpected but very savvy ways.  Language nerds will love this play on a whole other level.  But really anyone who wants theater to be a vibrant, vital and important art form can find something to love here.  No actual sex ever takes place, but the ideas of sex and sexuality are used as signifiers of freedom and power in exhilarating ways. 

“It won’t work if you’re sad.  It won’t work if you aren’t.”

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is a great piece of theater.  It’s very different than Frank’s production of Citizen earlier this year, but in its own way it’s also a war cry against the evils of complacency and acceptance of injustice and inequity.  There’s a little part of my brain that always fears, “Oh, I hope it doesn’t get too ‘political’.” But then I see Frank Theatre’s production and I wonder where that worry comes from.  Frank always delivers smarter, more nuanced theater than the kind of clumsy sledgehammer approach I’ve been subjected to by other theaters in the past.  Trust Frank, and go see some theater that’s just as wonderfully crazy and dangerous as the shows you used to love. (through October 22, 2017, at the new Gremlin Theater space)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo - Joy Dolo comes out on top, over a bewildered Grant Henderson, in Frank Theatre's Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. - photography by Tony Nelson)

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Review - The Abominables - Children’s Theatre Company - A Big (and Happy) Surprise - 5 stars

The Abominables at Children’s Theatre Company is a delightful surprise. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect, since normally if you said to me: theater for young audiences, musical, and hockey; I’d probably reply “I don’t think I’m the audience for this one.”  In this case, I’m very happy to be proven wrong.  CTC’s collaboration with fellow theater company The Civilians has paid off in a smart, funny script with clever songs and a great cast.  And yes, it’s a musical about hockey geared toward young audiences, and nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Because it’s not just kids who will recognize themselves up on the CTC stage, their parents will, too.

“You are part of something bigger.  Wait and see.”

The Abominables centers around two competing Minnesota youth hockey families. Young Mitch (Henry Constable) has been working hard all summer to be ready for tryouts so he can get himself a spot on the A Team with his more athletically gifted friends Zach (Zachary Hodgkins) and Ryan (Carter Bannwarth).  Mitch getting on the A Team means his parents Ellen and Charlie (Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund) also get the benefits of hanging out with the other A Team parents.  Meanwhile, Mitch’s two sisters get little to no attention, even though Tracy (Natalie Tran) is the star of the girl’s hockey team.  Youngest sister Lily (Valerie Wick) has zero interest in sports, so she’s practically invisible. Everything is poised to go Mitch’s way, but then a new family comes to town.

“Just do your best.”
“What kind of advice is that?!”

Judy and Hank (Elise Benson and Bradley Greenwald) are famous mountain climbers who have decided to live for a while with the little people in the decidedly un-mountainous state of Minnesota for the good of their eldest adopted son Harry (Ryan Colbert). Harry’s not your average kid.  He’s a yeti (aka abominable snowman). And he’s so good at hockey, that poor Mitch doesn’t stand a chance.  Mitch and his family are relegated to the B Team, and they don’t take it well.  Mitch’s sister Lily, however, makes a new friend in kindred spirit Freddy (Alejandro Vega), Harry’s human little brother, who also has zero interest in sports.

“The maple leaf is red because it drinks American blood.”

Writer/director Steve Cosson, and composer of music and lyrics Michael Friedman, do an extremely impressive job of juggling all these characters (and then some) along with all their interwoven plots and subplots into a story that’s fast-moving and yet easy to follow.  Even when the characters are doing stupid, selfish, or questionable things, they remain compelling to watch - even if you’re not entirely sure you like them all the time. Maybe it’s the singing.  Maybe it’s the fact that there’s a yeti right in the middle of all of it.  Mitch’s selfishness, and his mother Ellen’s competitive streak, makes them both occasionally unlikable characters. Mitch says and does particularly hateful things because, well, he’s a teenage boy who’s wrapped up his sense of self-worth a bit too much in a sport that - everyone needs to be honest - he’s not going to make a living in the pros playing.

“I think we’ve all learned that your imagination is kind of self-centered.”

The yeti in the midst of this allows the play to do some fairly savvy takes on racism without ever fully calling it out.  That’s kind of the genius of the play - it doesn’t bang anybody over the head with messages and morals, and yet they’re unmistakable and hard to miss.  It addresses subjects around parenting, sexism, and adoption, as well as racism, all in the context of the larger story.  The artists trust the audience to think for themselves - and continue thinking after they leave the theater.  Because unlike the vast majority of sports-related entertainment, this one isn’t dependent on our heroes winning the big game to be satisfying.  The whole notions of winning and losing and what it means to be part of a team are poked and prodded from several different angles, but again, not in a heavy-handed way, all of which I found really refreshing.

“Hey, Mitch, the yeti has the puck.”
“What the - ?!”

The Abominables is also an impressive logistical feat.  The “rink” on which our hockey players spend a lot of time rollerblading is central to Andrew Boyce’s set design - in the same way it’s central to the characters’ lives and the story as a whole.  But other home and hotel set pieces fly and roll in and out at various points in the story (we even get an igloo at one point).  The sleek yet unobtrusive work of Jake DeGroot’s lighting design and Sten Severson’s sound design make the look and noise of this world seem a lot less complex than it probably is.  Several actors spend time in the air.  The number of things that could and yet do not go screwy on this production are legion so for degree of difficulty alone stage manager Stacy McIntosh, her assistants Nate Stanger and Sonja Thorson, and interns Eva Chastain, and Coletrane T. Johnson all deserve a big shout-out for keeping the thing running so smoothly.

“And now here I am, a completely different announcer at another completely different game.”

The fact that I’m not pondering things like ALL those clothes means that costume designer Jessica Pabst’s work has just the ring of truth the story needs (in addition to everyone listed above, they need to outfit Stephanie Bertumen and Doug Neithercott who both take on multiple roles to great comedic effect, plus there’s an ensemble of young hockey players backing up the main characters - Logan Baker, Sage Brahmstedt, Hunter Conrad, Meredith “Mimi” Kol-Balfour, Evan Latta, Peder Lindell [also the hockey captain - the show has a fight captain and a dance captain as well], and Richard Norman.)  Joe Chvala’s dance choreography and Ryan Bourque’s fight and hockey choreography keep all those bodies moving effortlessly around each other in space, taking your mind off the fact that it’s a minor miracle that all these people aren’t constantly crashing into one another.  And of course, it ain’t a musical without the band (who, down in the pit, where a huge hit with the kids pre and post show as well as at intermission) - music director, conductor and keyboardist Andrew Fleser leads David Singley on guitar, Greg Angel on bass, and Steve Kimball on percussion.

“I’m sorry everybody hates you now.”

Even though Harry gets Ryan Colbert’s very human face, the yeti is still taller than almost everyone else onstage, so this misunderstood “monster” is a fairly imposing figure.  One little kid in the family next to me was a bit freaked out at first.  But then, so are the characters onstage.  The kid’s mom didn’t immediately whisk him away, but instead let him climb up on her lap and watch from the safety of his mother’s embrace. The usual kid moments of restlessness were few, and for the full two acts of the show, the kid’s attention was rapt.  The yeti’s equally tiny little brother of course went a long way to humanizing Harry.  But just spending time with someone who looked different, and maybe scary, also accomplished that.  The kid got to watch characters onstage adapting, and adapted himself.  That was almost more amazing that anything that happened onstage - but without what was happening onstage, it wouldn’t have taken place. So, wow.  Theater, huh? (Also, kudos to mom.)

“But things that you can lose are the most precious things of all.”

The only bad thing about The Abominables is a loss behind the scenes.  Composer Michael Friedman  died less than a week before The Abominables had its world-premiere opening night at CTC.  Friedman was only 41 years old.  He accomplished a lot as a regular collaborator with The Civilians, and elsewhere, garnering himself an Obie Award for his significant output.  Given the work on display in The Abominables, who knows what other songs he might have written with more time.  We’re grateful we got this one but damn, that’s a shame.

“No pressure, kids.  It’s just a game.”

If you’re a fan of hockey, musicals, or children’s theater, you’ll probably be an even more enthusiastic audience member than I was.  But even going in unsure of what I’d find, The Abominables made an audience convert out of me.  Sometimes it can be really nice when theater surprises you. (through October 15, 2017)

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

(top right - ensemble photo from The Abominables; lower down, left - Harry the yeti (Ryan Colbert, seated) gets interviewed by an eager reporter (Stephanie Bertumen) after he takes a spill on the ice while his teammates (Carter Bannwarth, Evan Latta) look on - photography by Dan Norman)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review - The Lady With A Lap Dog - Fortune’s Fool Theatre - Charming Chamber Musical About Infidelity - 4 stars

Fortune’s Fool Theatre has a peculiar but charming little chamber musical going on over at Open Eye Figure Theatre right now, an adaptation  of Anton Chekhov’s short story The Lady With A Lap Dog.  It’s charming because the music by Robert Elhai bounces right along with the often cheeky lyrics from book writer Daniel Pinkerton.  It’s peculiar because, if you know anything about the source material, it’s basically a romantic comedy/drama about a long-running extramarital affair.  So, depending on how you feel about extramarital affairs, you may play right along, or find yourself fighting not to find it charming, and occasionally failing and enjoying it anyway.  The latter would be the category into which I fell.

“Let me take just one last look at your face before I go.”

The Lady With A Lap Dog examines love from an unusual angle. Back in late 19th century Russia, Dimitri (Joel Liestman) is a married businessman who vacations by himself in Yalta while his wife Dasha (Laurel Armstrong) tends to their home and children back in Moscow.  Dimitri regularly cheats on his wife with the wives of other men, often right under their noses. However, it’s gotten so unchallenging that he doesn’t find it all that fun any more. And then he meets Anna (Andrea Leap). 

“Pensive.  Of course I am.  My whole world has changed.”

Anna is also vacationing by herself, well, in the company of her faithful dog (a puppet). Anna’s husband is a very busy man running the business back in Smolensk, no time for vacation - also, his health isn’t that great.  Dimitri charms Anna’s dog, then Anna herself, and they begin an affair.  Then the unexpected happens - they actually develop feelings for one another.  They each fear those feelings are one-sided, and are relieved to discover it’s mutual.  But they’re both still married to other people.  They live in cities hundreds of miles away from each other (and this is before the advent of air travel, or even the regular use of cars.  Phones were just barely getting started.)  What hope does their relationship have?

“Take this stranger away from here, and give me my husband back.”

Pinkerton and Elhai have taken pains to further flesh out the character of Anna, to make the story more balanced, as the source material was largely from the male perspective.  They’ve done an equally good job bringing to life the character of Dasha, Dimitri’s stoic, long-suffering wife.  In fact they  have done their job with these two key female players so well - and the two actresses do such a great job in their roles - that I ended up thinking both women deserved better.  (This is no reflection on Liestman as a leading man, he’s great, too.)  But I have to keep reminding myself, this is pre-20th century.  Women may deserve better but back then they rarely got it.  You found stability and happiness where you could - and if you could get both in the same place, you were very lucky indeed.

“The lines between moral and immoral can be indistinct.”

The Lady With A Lap Dog is about people making the most of what they can get.  Which, honestly, isn’t the worst thing a play could say to an audience.  The world is imperfect.  Life doesn’t always serve up a happy ending.  Happy-ish is a decent end point for most of us.  If we could all sing like Liestman and Leap and Armstrong, things might seem brighter and more beautiful still.  Director Nicole Wilder and her performers, plus the three-lady band of music director Jill Dawe on piano, Dee Langley on accordion, and Diane Tremaine on the cello, create a world full of music and wit that more than does justice in bringing Chekhov’s story to the stage.

“We open up our umbrellas, but the rain seeps into our hearts.”

And if you leave Fortune’s Fool’s production of The Lady With A Lap Dog wondering if you could make more of the circumstances of your own life (and how a little more music might help), that’s not a bad thing to take away from a night at the theater - whether people are behaving badly or not. (through September 24, 2017 at Open Eye)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

[left to right: wife Dasha (Laurel Armstrong) watches husband Dimitri (Joel Liestman) who only has eyes for Anna (Andrea Leap), The Lady With A Lap Dog - photography by Daniel Pinkerton]

Review - The Nether - Jungle Theater - A Thriller That Lives Up To The Label - 5 stars

Jennifer Haley’s script The Nether won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2012 for a female playwright doing work of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theater.  The Nether is so good I’m going to go buy myself a copy so I can study it.  At first I was a bit wary, despite the fact that the Jungle Theater is producing it (under Sarah Rasmussen’s leadership I haven’t been disappointed yet), Casey Stangl (of Eye of the Storm fame) is back visiting from LA to direct it, and the cast is stuffed with some of the best actors in the Twin Cities right now (Stephen Yoakam, Mo Perry, Craig Johnson, and Jucoby Johnson, along with the unsettlingly good child actor Ella Freeburg).

“I feel only as much pain as I wish.”
“How much pain is that?”
“That’s a very personal question.”

Why the reluctance?  Honestly, plays about the internet, with very few exceptions, suck.  Endless scenes of people sitting at computers, typing while they talk, half the time the playwright doesn’t even understand how computers or the internet work, or how best to exploit them.  Plus, theater is the opposite of the internet.  You have live people, right in front of you, on stage, breathing the same air as all the human beings in the audience, who surround you.  Doing a play about the internet makes even less sense than a play about television or a play about movies or a play about writing/reading a book.  There are, to all of this, exceptions.  The Nether is one hell of an exception.

“You think you’re going to shame me into helping you.  I’m past shame.”

So why, if I hate plays about the internet, do I love The Nether?  Because it’s not about gizmos.  It’s about people.  Deeply flawed and damaged people.  Why, if plays that deal in violence or horror generally leave me cold, do I love The Nether?  Because it’s not about shocking me with gore (there’s not a drop of blood spilled onstage), it’s about screwing with my sense of reality, identity, notions of consent, and right and wrong.  The Nether is a real mind-bender in all the best possible ways.  And just when you think it doesn’t have any more surprises up its sleeve, or new ways to knock you on your metaphorical ass as an audience member, it has one. more. scene.

“I am sick.  I have always been sick.  There is no cure.”

The Nether is a mystery in more ways than one, and the way this 90 minute thrill ride grabs and holds you is the puzzle it presents and slowly unravels, so I’m going to be very careful not to spoil the fun.  And, weirdly, for all the dark and rattling stuff The Nether deals with, it is a lot of fun to watch.  If you get a special thrill from watching live theater do all the things it does best, The Nether is a real treat.  Writing, directing, acting, design, The Nether nails it from the first scene to the very last.  It’s a crazy mix of hard-boiled, beautiful, frightening, and heartbreaking.

“What we are given.  What we are made of.  The materials of the earth.”

In what is probably our own not too distant future, Detective Morris (Mo Perry) has Mr. Sims (aka, Papa) under interrogation.  Sims runs an alternate reality online for a very particular kind of clientele, which includes himself, called The Hideaway.  It’s a period, Victorian sort of world, where everyone but Papa has a different face.  No one knows anyone else’s true identity, and people’s avatars in this reality can indulge in the kinds of pleasure, pain and violence that the corporeal world shuns and ostracizes.  Morris relies on the testimony of an undercover operative named Woodnut (Jucoby Johnson) as she questions Sims as well as one of his key clients, Mr. Doyle (Craig Johnson).  Doyle is a married teacher near retirement carrying around a lot of shame, and a desire to disappear entirely into his more satisfying online life.  Morris is determined to get either Sims or Doyle to crack.  The key to their secrets may lie in the mind and heart of an avatar in the form of a young girl named Iris (Ella Freeburg).  When all is said and done, there may not be any winners in this game.

“There is a line, even in our imaginations.”
“You’ll never be able to enforce that.”

The real world of The Nether is dark, mostly black and gray.  When The Hideaway appears onstage, it’s full of light and beauty.  Lee Savage’s set, Barry Browning’s lights, Mathew J. Lefebvre’s costumes, and C. Andrew Mayer’s sound create both worlds simply but perfectly.  I wasn’t sure at first about Kathy Maxwell’s incorporation of live video, projecting enormous close-ups of Morris, Sims and Doyle in the interrogation scenes, but I warmed up to it.  (Use of video in plays, like plays about the internet, can easily go very wrong.)  But Maxwell’s projection design is unexpected and well-executed, and when you have actors of this caliber squaring off against one another, it’s an added bonus to be able to really study their faces in a forum that’s larger than life.  Just another layer of identity, a bonding of human and technology.  Ultimately a really smart gamble that pays off.

“The urge, Detective.  The urge.  As long as we are sentient, you’ll never stomp that out.”

I want to say more but I really can’t.  Go see The Nether, and let’s talk about it.  Because there is a LOT to talk about.  The Nether is one of those plays that’s worth repeat viewings.  The Nether is a great piece of theater.  The Jungle Theater has done it again. (run extended through October 21, 2017)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Stephen Yoakam and Mo Perry in The Jungle Theater’s production of The Nether; photography by William Clark)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

On The Loss of Our Friend Sean Grathwol

The world, and the Twin Cities in particular, has lost another keen intellect.  Sean Grathwol was a lover of words, a crafter of words, and someone who enjoyed a good book or play as much as he did a fine meal. 

Sean’s own output of plays and prose was selective.  He chose his own words very carefully (a mutual friend said of his writing output - “Pages from Sean were always like a long-awaited candy.”)  But when Sean spoke or when he wrote, you were better for him having done so.  If he was commenting on your work, it was some of the smartest feedback you were likely to get.  It would be hard to find a person more supportive and encouraging of new plays staggering their way into being, making their sometimes imperfect way into early productions.

He was also one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve had the privilege to know. (Another friend recently said of his demeanor: “There was a reason he got cast in Roundtable readings as intellectuals, judges, bluesmen and kings.”) Sean was a large man, but not an intimidating presence once you got to know him - which (for Minnesota) was a surprisingly easy thing to do.   To his many nieces, nephews and younger cousins, Sean was the embodiment of what Santa Claus must be like, were he walking around among us (not quite as gregarious, but just as good).  And for an all too brief time he was walking among us, but now he’s gone.  And we are the poorer for his absence.

Sean Grathwol was one of the first writers I met when I moved to Minneapolis after grad school (egad, over 25 years ago now).  I responded to a notice for a playwriting group posted at the Playwrights’ Center.  The group met in each other’s homes.  It’s a group I still help run today (though it’s had many evolutions over the years and seen many people come and go). Huddled around a friend’s dining room table in those early days, we coaxed each other’s plays into being, reading the parts aloud, enjoying both the intentional and unintentional comedy of early drafts, making the work (and each other) better in the process.

Members of the group, Sean included, migrated over to a writer’s community at the Playwrights’ Center called the Roundtable.  Full drafts of scripts were read, chairs were circled up afterward and the play discussed, and then we adjourned to a coffeeshop or neighborhood bar down the block and continued talking about the play.  It was a vibrant community for a number of years.  Sean was a key part of that community.

Sean was infinitely patient and supportive, but he had his limits.  Even then, he knew the right words to say.  After a Roundtable reading, the writer is supposed to sit and take notes on the feedback, not responding until everyone’s had their say, led in discussion by a moderator to keep things civil and productive.  One evening, a writer couldn’t keep themselves from interjecting and rebutting each comment, till finally Sean wasn’t having it anymore. “Listen. We’ve all sat here very patiently and listened to you speak through your play at us for over two hours now. It’s time for you to extend the same courtesy to us, sit quietly and listen for a bit.”  I still try to hold to this today, thinking of it as the Sean Grathwol rule of feedback.  The writer speaks through the play.  The audience responds to the play.  Then, the writer can respond to the audience.  (If the writer isn’t getting their message out through the play effectively, the writer needs to know that.  It isn’t the audience’s problem.  It’s the storyteller’s problem.)

The writing group continued alongside the Roundtable.  When the Roundtable was disbanded by the Playwrights’ Center, the writing group continued on.  Every now and again, though, you invite a vampire into your home and they refuse to leave.  A toxic personality entered the group, and their disruptive presence drove a number of people away from the writing group for a little while, including myself.  Those who stayed wanted the group back as it was.  It was Sean (who had remained) who met me for lunch one day and urged me to return.  He felt the group wasn’t going to get better if the good people left and the bad person stayed, unchallenged.  He was, as always, right.  So I and others returned, and worked together with Sean and the others who’d kept the group going to try and force a better atmosphere back into the group.  Things eventually reached a breaking point, but the old guard like Sean stood firm, and the corrosive element was expelled.  After that, the group established some rules (for letting people in, and getting people out), under the philosophy of “drama on the page only, please.”  Without Sean, none of that would have happened.

Sean was there for all our firsts - from first scenes to full first drafts to first productions.  You’re unlikely to find a more loyal and supportive audience than Sean.  His own plays and productions were fewer but, like Sean, sought after and most welcome.  I found a play of his on my bookshelf the other night and sat and read it.  You can still hear his voice in the words of his characters.  The one I found was Playing Small - about three young musicians.  The young woman of the trio has lost touch with her music and is in an almost catatonic state in relation to the other two characters.  But she speaks to the audience in poetic monologues.  In one there is the refrain:

“It’s eating and it’s eating right.
It’s knowing what your hunger
Is a hunger for
And how to feed it.
Sister Michael called it
When you don’t know
And you settle for something less.”

Sean never settled.  He demanded the most from himself and others.  He was probably too unforgiving a critic of himself (but then most of us are).  Otherwise, he might have left more words behind him.

Sean and I saw the national touring company of Angels In America when it came through Minneapolis, back when the original production was still playing on Broadway stages in New York.  We saw part one in the afternoon, dined together over the dinner break, and went back for part two in the evening.  It was a wonderful all day event, a celebration of our love of words and theater.  (It’s still two of my favorite plays, the top of my top ten list.)  I still have the tickets, stuck to to a cork board on my wall - July 16, 1995 (dear Lord, over 22 years ago now, the time, the time…)

[It occurs to me that any photos I have of Sean are pre-cell phones.  What exist, there’s envelopes, albums and boxes where they probably live to be sorted through since the move to my new home two years ago.  Like that Avenue Q song, I wish I took more pictures…]

I’m told Sean died in his sleep. As horrible as it is to lose him so soon, I’m hopeful that means he went quickly without pain.  A gentle man deserves a gentle end.

Angels In America part one begins with a funeral for an old woman who lived a long life.  The rabbi says he did not know her:

“I cannot accurately describe her attributes, nor do justice to her dimensions.”

That sounds about right.

Try as I might with Sean, I cannot accurately describe his attributes, nor do justice to his dimensions.

I recently saw a filmed presentation of the National Theater of England’s revival of Angels In America, part two.

Part two begins with the world’s oldest living Bolshevik invoking the power of words to change the world:

“Change?  Yes, we must change, only show me the Theory, and I will be at the barricades, show me the book of the next Beautiful Theory, and I promise you these blind eyes will see again, just to read it, to devour that text. Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent.”

Sean was a fervent believer in the power of words, and a tireless champion for calling them into being, both his own and those of many, many others.

Angels In America part two ends with a benediction of sorts:

“The world only spins forward.
We will be citizens.
The time has come.
Bye now.
You are fabulous creatures,
each and every one.
And I bless you:
More Life.
The Great Work Begins.”

Bye now.

The Great Work continues…

Thank you, Sean.  For everything.  We shall miss you, my friend.