Saturday, February 23, 2008

Review - The Piano Lesson - Penumbra Theatre - 5 stars

“To understand that piano, you have to go back to the time of slavery...”

Having read and seen on stage several of the other plays in August Wilson’s cycle of scripts touching on each decade of the African-American experience in the 20th century, and knowing that “The Piano Lesson” netted Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize, I went to Penumbra Theatre’s production Thursday night expecting a powerful drama, but not entirely sure what else to expect. Not knowing anything other than the barest bones of the plot, I certainly didn’t expect it to be as funny as it was. Nor did I expect a ghost story. Oh there was drama, and lots of it. But I was reminded again by “The Piano Lesson” what a remarkable storyteller August Wilson was - and continues to be through the plays which outlive him. He uses all the storyteller’s tools - humor, music, romance, spirituality, the list goes on - and uses them all to great effect. Penumbra’s production of “The Piano Lesson” is a stellar showcase for a brilliant story.

In many ways, “The Piano Lesson” is the quintessential August Wilson play. It embodies nearly everything he was saying in all his other plays, all the key elements and subject matter - family and history both central among them. Here the story revolves around the conflict between a brother and sister who view the value of their family’s history very differently. In 1930s Pittsburgh, Berneice (Greta Oglesby) is raising her young daughter Maretha (Natalia Gaston) alone after the death of her husband, living under the same roof with her uncle Doaker (James Craven). Berneice’s brother Boy Willie (Ansa Akyea) returns home loudly at the crack of dawn one morning, after several years’ absence, with his friend Lymon (Thomas Ashford) in tow. Boy Willie has plans in motion to raise money so he can go back down south and buy land of his own to farm - land which used to belong to the family who held his ancestors as slaves. Central to these plans is selling off the family piano in the Pittsburgh house - a piano carved with faces and images from their family’s past. Long ago, the piano was first bought in exchange for two slaves, family members whose faces now adorn the front of the piano. Berneice has no intention of selling the piano, of which she owns half, and has no intention of allowing Boy Willie to sell his half either. The battle lines are drawn early, and brother and sister face off throughout the play. Guns, knives and even frying pans are raised on either side of the squabble. The fact that a gun never goes off is something of a miracle, and a source of constant tension.

But the piano is more than just a musical instrument, or a visual reminder of the family’s past as slaves. The piano is the focus of some potent supernatural energy, both positive and negative. A strange red light emanates from the piano, the regular lights flicker, and a low rumble shudders through the entire house in times of conflict centered around the instrument. It could just be the train going past on the tracks nearby, but nobody on or offstage fully believes that explanation. The silent prologue to the play, in which cast members take on the roles of a previous generation of the family, ends with the piano playing by itself. The mysterious death of one of the descendants of the slave owners, a death which paves the way for Boy Willie to buy their farm land, is blamed on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog - another tragedy tied to this family, and slavery, and this piano. The spirit of the recently dead landowner makes appearances to several different family members. Berneice refuses to play the piano, even for church, because she doesn’t want to rouse dark spirits. The climax of the play involves an attempt to exorcise those spirits. Ultimately, to drive out the dark spirits, someone has to take a seat at the keyboard and invoke the help of some better angels.

For all the conflict and dark undercurrents of the past, Penumbra’s production of “The Piano Lesson” - under Lou Bellamy’s assured direction - is also full of hearty good humor. The laughs are plentiful, and based largely on the network of family, friendly, and romantic relations which tie all the characters together. These people know how to push one another’s buttons, and they do, with loving and jovial frequency. In addition to the brother-sister-uncle-best friend shenanigans, also drawn into the fray are Doaker’s traveling musician brother Wining Boy (Dennis W. Spears); Berneice’s persistent suitor, the newly minted reverend Avery (T. Mychael Rambo); and Grace (Lerea Carter), a local young woman who has caught the eye of both Boy Willie and Lynton, and who gets off one of the bigger laugh lines of the evening walking into the middle of the exorcism action and proclaiming that “something is wrong with this house” before making a hasty exit.

The music, in all its forms and colors, which peppers the telling of this family tale is fantastic. It opens up these sometimes quiet characters and reveals new depths. It demonstrates the strength of their relationships to one another, and uncovers the pain they can’t bring themselves to speak directly. The music, like the poetry of the language of the script throughout, doesn’t slow down or derail the story. It drives it more surely and quickly toward its goal. The music allows the story to make leaps it would not otherwise be able to do. It is part of the blood and bone and muscle of this family, and is a large part of what helps them survive, and rise above their past.

The cast is excellent without exception. Special attention must be paid to Ansa Akyea as Boy Willie. From the moment he bursts onstage until the final moments of the play, Akyea raises both the energy and the decibel level of the entire production tenfold. He is a force of nature. One can understand how he has managed to charm and cajole, and sometimes forcefully push, his way through life. Only someone with the determination of Greta Oglesby as Berneice could stare this Boy Willie down, and she does. Her quiet reserves of strength are always evident. She raises her voice when necessary, but she doesn’t need to do so to make you realize you had better not mess with this woman. I am quickly coming to the conclusion that I could watch James Craven (Doaker) in anything. His no-nonsense style was one of the main joys of Penumbra’s production of “Red Shirts” earlier this season, and his turn here as Berneice and Boy Willie’s reluctant referee (and protector) is full of the same dry wit, intelligence, and world-weary charm. Dennis W. Spears makes Wining Boy an endearing old rascal. T. Mychael Rambo makes Avery’s newfound religion seem not only entirely believable but fully human, and quite moving. Thomas Ashford’s character Lymon may not be too bright, but in Ashford’s hands, you can’t help liking the poor guy. He also makes an unexpectedly suitable suitor for Berneice (nice to see the woman has options). And though the role of Maretha may be small, the reality Natalia Gaston brings to her is key to making the overall dynamic of the family work. There is another generation already in place that needs to be planned for, and protected, and all the characters are aware of that because of Maretha.

The design work is impeccable. Ken Evans scenic design has maximized the Penumbra stage space so that you truly feel the house extends beyond the limits we see - upstairs, down the hall, outside both front and back. It’s a great piece of design work, well-excuted by the Penumbra team of scenic artists. Steven Horstmann’s work as properties master fills in all the necessary details around the edges, making the world of this family’s home seem truly lived in. The lighting (Michelle Habeck), costume (Edward Summers), and sound (Malo Adams) designs all do their part as well to create the feeling of stepping completely into another world, another time.

The ensemble of “The Piano Lesson” received a well-deserved standing ovation on opening night. Their work is powerful, funny, and extremely moving. If this is the way Penumbra kicks off their five-year project staging all ten plays in Wilson’s “20th Century Cycle,” I can’t wait to see what’s next. (We won’t have long to wait - “The Gem of the Ocean” takes the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the new Guthrie Theater complex starting April 22nd this year). But whatever you do, do not miss “The Piano Lesson.” It’s one of the best marriages of script and theater company that I’ve seen in a very long time.

Very Highly Recommended

The Piano Lesson” runs through March 16, 2008 at Penumbra Theatre (270 North Kent Street in St. Paul). For tickets and more information, call 651-224-3180 or visit

Cross posted to and archived on my site

Review - The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window - Starting Gate Productions - 3 stars

“There are two kinds of loneliness in this world - with a man, and without one. I picked. And let’s face it, I can’t type.”

This is a tough one.

So, three sisters walk into a bar, er... a Greenwich Village apartment in 1960s New York - a housewife, an actress/waitress, and a whore. Guess which one has the best set of coping skills?

After seeing the Starting Gate production of Lorraine Hansberry’s play “The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window,” I don’t feel like I need to see this play again. I don’t believe I’m going to see it done better. Director Lynn Musgrave and her team take what could have been a very static, talky play and manage to keep the thing moving. Definitely an “A” for effort here. The problem is that the play itself is a trainwreck.

Sidney Brustein” is both a product and a victim of its times. It is a deeply, and unrelentingly, cynical play - often jaw-droppingly racist and sexist. At the time it was originally produced in 1965, Hansberry herself was dying (taken to and from many rehearsals in a wheelchair). Though many great upheavals and disappointments of the decade were yet to come, JFK’s recent assassination and the escalation of the war in Vietnam would probably have gotten even the most dogged optimists a little down. Still, the crushing of nearly every character’s dreams and spirit in this play seems a bit much.

That doesn’t mean that the play is without its bright spots and humor - far from it. Hansberry, even here, has a great love of and way with words. They tumble out of her characters’ mouths in torrents. In fact, there are so many clever people on display that it is often a lot of fun just to watch them spar with each other.

Trickiest of all is the title character, and Rob Frankel as Sidney anchors the play and production in a way they both very much need. Sidney is a bastard. A clever bastard, sometimes sweet, often charming, but still a bastard. He is mean to family, friends and neighbors alike, but most of all to his long-suffering young wife Iris (Bethany Ford). The fact that Frankel makes Sidney watchable over the entire three hour span of the play is something of a miracle, and he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for helping hold the whole thing together. The one satisfying comeuppance Sidney gets by the play’s end is that each and every thing he thought he knew, even about the people closest to him, turns out to be completely wrong.

The biggest applause, however, has to go to Jean Salo as Sidney’s sister-in-law, Mavis. Hansberry obviously loved this character because Mavis gets nearly all the best lines in the play. Salo takes full advantage of each and every one of them. Mavis at first appears to be an object of mockery, the safe little housewife in her suburban existence, trying to force her taste and standards on everyone around her. As the play goes on and Mavis’ life is revealed to be anything but what it seems, Salo’s performance takes on unexpected depth and even nobility. The chief joy of her appearances, however, is watching her lay out the hypocrisies of the supposedly caring and compassionate left wing nut jobs she’s inherited from her sister’s marriage. Mavis is also hypocritical, and outrageously racist about almost everything and everybody, but in Salo’s hands, she becomes a character we deeply miss when she vanishes from the play for the final act.

There’s a lot of vanishing and sudden resurgences going on, in fact. It’s one of the many things that makes the play so structurally baffling to watch. Iris’ other sister, Gloria, the much-whispered-about whore, doesn’t appear until the final act and never crosses paths with either of her sisters, or the man she supposedly loves and plans to marry. Rachel Finch as Gloria is wonderful. She has a lot to live up to after all that build up in the previous two acts, and Finch delivers. She also makes us regret the many missed dramatic and comic opportunities her character might have had, were the play different. As she made her final exit into the dark, I found myself thinking, “What a waste of a perfectly good whore.”

Oddly dominant in the play’s closing scenes was Wally O’Hara (Dale Pfeilsticker) as the dark horse candidate for election who Sidney backs to unexpected victory. More Trojan Horse than dark horse after all, Wally is supposed to become the embodiment of “the system” at the end. But the political windmills that Sidney is tilting at are always so vague in the script, and Wally has been so largely absent for the bulk of the play, that it’s hard to work up any sadness or indignance at “the man” stealing back the power from the people right under their noses. Pfeilsticker does his best to inject good-natured Wally with some menace at the end, but the play doesn’t give him a lot with which to work.

Just passing through for reasons unclear in the text - hippy artist Max (Tom Emmott), who Sidney’s wife rightly pegs as self-consciously arty; and gay playwright next door David (Clarence Wethern), a confused and confusing closeted character with his pre-Stonewall, pre-Boys In The Band love interest kept conspicuously offstage.

The person with the toughest mountain to climb is Bethany Ford as Iris, and she succeeds as much as the play will let her. Ford is saddled with so much contradictory exposition and so many wild mood swings, it almost makes you forget that Iris is not just the worst, but also the very best, actress Sidney has ever known. Onstage, Iris’ talents are meager, but in real life, she pulls off the biggest masquerade of any of the characters, fooling the smug Sidney completely. It is an irony that the play and production don’t get enough of a chance to explore and appreciate fully. The dated nature of the play is never more apparent than in Iris’ agonies over her sham of a career, as she has been forced to lower herself to doing commercials. Oh no! Paid work as an actor in commercials?! The horror! I know a dozen actor friends off the top of my head that would gladly take Iris’ work opportunities off her hands for her.

Another character you wish would return rather than vanish for the final act is Alton Scales - activist, journalist, and would-be Prince Charming for Gloria the whore. Alton is also African-American. Though light-skinned, he’s also pretty thin-skinned about racial issues. As portrayed with a lot of easy-going charm by Santino Craven, Alton is sometimes so laid back, the audience can forget how deeply he feels things. One of the biggest opportunities the play fails to capitalize on is the romance between Alton and Gloria. The courtship takes place completely offstage. We are told, rather than shown, everything. Alton discovers Gloria’s unsavory career offstage - from who, we never know, even though every other character in the play but Alton seems to be aware of it - including minor characters like the gay playwright next door. Both sides of the big break-up take place in isolation - Alton gives Sidney a letter which is then turned over to Gloria later. It is only because Santino Craven and Rachel Finch individually convey their anguish so heartbreakingly - to Sidney (?!) - that we understand how much the loss of the unseen relationship means to them both. A lot of credit needs to go to Craven and Finch for delivering what the play fails to - emotional investment in characters that makes you want to see more of them - you know, onstage, as a couple. Another head-scratcher of a missed opportunity. But again, the play’s fault, not the production’s.

The expansive set by Michael Hoover gives the characters a lot of room to roam, and Musgrave and company put it to good use. It’s a little rough around the edges, but I was never able to make up my mind whether or not that was a deliberate choice. Gregory Johnson’s props filled out the world of the play nicely without overwhelming it in random “stuff.” The costumes from Mandi Johnson were great. Mark Webb pulled off another lighting design challege in the Mounds Theatre quite handily. The sound design, by director Musgrave, was good, but had me more than a little confused at the one point in the play where fantasy and reality were at cross purposes. Under the circmstances, I’m willing to lay more of the blame at the play’s feet, however.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” was a bold choice by Starting Gate - the last major play from an important theatrical voice silenced too soon. It’s unfortunate that all the characters and multiple plot threads here didn’t add up to anything in the end, despite a lot of artists’ significant efforts on its behalf.

Starting Gate’s production of “The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window” runs through March 16, 2008 at the Mounds Theatre (1029 Hudson Road in St. Paul). For tickets and further information, call 651-645-3503 or visit

Cross posted to and archived on my site

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Review - The Underpants - Workhouse Theatre Co. - 3-1/2 stars

I’ve been having a hard time wrapping my brain around the Workhouse Theatre Co.’s production of “The Underpants.” (And no, I don’t think it’s because I have to keep constructing sentences with the word “underpants” in them due to the title. A play called “Moist Panties” maybe, but just underpants, not so much.)

Let’s start with the basics. It’s a comedy. Is it funny? Very much so.

The script is comedian/playwright Steve Martin’s adaptation of the 1910 social satire by German playwright Carl Sternheim. In the play, unhappily married wife Louise Maske (Lindsay Timmington) has just had the misfortune of having her underpants fall down about her ankles in public just as the King’s procession is parading by. Her boorish husband Theo (Dan Peltzman) is convinced his own reputation will be ruined.

Instead, the room the Maske’s have for rent in their home gets its own parade of would-be renters, most of whom just want to get a little closer to the infamous woman of the moment. There is Frank Versati, the poet (Dan Hylton); Benjamin Cohen, the closeted Jew (Jason Vogen); and Klinglehoff, the bewildered man who just wants a room and has no idea what the heck is going on. Even the King (Jeremy Motz) makes a last minute deus ex machina appearance. Louise’s upstairs neighbor and partner in crime Gertrude (Shana Eisenberg) is more than happy to encourage Louise in plotting an affair - or two.

So what’s my hesitation? Probably just one of expectation. While this is a script by Steve Martin, writer of such plays as “Wasp” and “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” (both of which I liked quite a lot), “The Underpants” isn’t the same kind of play. Rather than being a Martin original, this is instead Steve Martin’s interpretation of Carl Sternheim’s play. It’s clearly a good match of source material and adapter. It’s easy to see why Martin was drawn to it. One can see Martin’s style, intelligence, and signature brand of humor peaking through all over the place. But while the play takes swipes at things like objectification and oppression of women, and the overall hypocrisy of the system of gender roles, “The Underpants” is essentially a bedroom farce. Though a lot of the issues addressed are just as relevant today as in 1910 when it was first presented in Germany, it’s not the usual Steve Martin play of ideas masquerading as entertainment. It’s simply entertainment. Does it succeed on that level? Most definitely.

Workhouse Theatre Co. is settling nicely into their new home at The Warren. In a former garage bookended on either side by a photography studio and an art gallery, Workhouse’s small triangular stage tucked in the corner utilizes the space remarkably well. The set design by Sarah J. Leigh makes the most of a snug situation. A set with walls and three frequently used doors wedges into a space I wouldn’t have thought possible. The architectural logic of the set sometimes made me scratch my head a little, but the use of those three doors was consistent, and extremely funny. Suspension of disbelief applies to buildings, too. The props in such a tight space need to be well-chosen and not too numerous. Norma Peterson and Jane O’Brien’s work with prop design added just the right accents to help define but not overwhelm the space, or slow the action between scenes.

In a comedy as broad and bawdy as this, the supporting players wind up with a lot of the flashier scene-stealing moments. Shana Eisenberg as the naughty instigator Gertrude is a lot of fun to watch in action. Gertrude cares for her friend and wants Louise to stand up for herself, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have a good time living vicariously through her friend’s sudden glut of romantic options. Dan Hylton as Versati the poet is delightfully over-the-top with his persistent wooing of Louise. Benjamin Cohen is one of the worst liars ever, but Jason Vogen makes you believe that he somehow pulls off his masquerade in spite of himself through sheer determination. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the people he’s trying to fool aren’t all that bright themselves. Robert Larsen gets a wonderful supporting role in Klingelhoff. He gets to walk in and reap the benefits of all the lunacy that has gone before, and Larsen works it for all its worth, nearly stealing the show in its closing minutes.

It is sometimes a thankless task to be placed in the center of such a whirlwind of silliness. Every story needs a character to act as an anchor, but that role isn’t always quite as fun to perform. Lindsay Timmington does a good job of eliciting sympathy for the put-upon Louise. Timmington’s portrayal of a woman slowly coming to grips with her newfound status as the town’s unwitting sex symbol - and all the opportunities it presents - is amusing to see unfold. It is at the very end, however, when Louise is putting one over on the befuddled Klingelhoff, that Timmington really comes into her own. Using her assigned place in society - as the meek little woman - to throw a potentially troubling tenant off guard and take the upper hand in the situation, is a nice payoff to Louise’s journey. As Louise’s insufferable husband Theo, Dan Peltzman is unrelenting in his portrait of one of the most selfish husbands ever. The only good thing you can say about the man is that he doesn’t beat his wife - physically anyway. While he doesn’t get the full comeuppance one might like to see onstage, it is satisfying to know that his world is nothing like he actually believes it to be in his head.

Director Chris McGahan really puts his cast through their paces. A production like this succeeds or fails based on whether or not it can keep moving at a brisk clip. McGahan and his crew wisely keep the action going almost non-stop, with just the briefest of pauses between scenes. Having a small space to fill with a half dozen characters works to the production’s advantage. Everyone is always just moments away from being caught - well, with their pants down, sometimes quite literally. One wrong move and the whole thing could come undone. It is most entertaining watching them all walk the tightrope together and try not to fall off. The preshow music of the soundtrack from old cartoons is especially apt. “The Underpants” is a solid production of a very funny play.

Highly recommended.

The Underpants” and Workhouse Theatre are well worth the trip. And really, it’s not much of trip outside the usual downtown theatrical haunts. I tend to get lost at the drop of a hat, and I found The Warren with no trouble at all. A quick hop on and off 94W, and you’re practically there. The Warren is on the corner of 44th and Osseo (4400 Osseo, Minneapolis). The production continues through February 23, 2008. Evening shows Thursday through Saturday this week (2/14-16) and Friday and Saturday next week (2/22 & 23) at 7:30pm. For reservations and more information, call 612-386-5763, or visit

Cross posted to and archived on my site

Monday, February 11, 2008

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ridiculous Amounts of Theater This Weekend...

Man, my February is just not conducive to theatergoing at all. Which is a darn shame, because there's tons of it, particularly kicking off this weekend and stretching out for weeks beyond...

For instance, you ask?

Well, how about the first annual Chekhov Festival over at the Bryant Lake Bowl? If you want to see a whole bunch of great theater people doing a whole lot of different things with our favorite Russian playwright and short story writer - comedy, cartoons, drama, faithful productions and completely random adaptations - it's all here baby. Check out their website - and get all the lovely details for yourself. You could fill a month of weekends just with that - and they'd certainly like you to do so. (Plus, who doesn't like food and drink during the show? And bowling and a bar just outside when you're done? Ideal.)

There's also a well-regarded and popular Fringe show, Same Difference, being remounted at the Illusion for a two week run.

Fringe vets Walking Shadow offer up the regional premiere of Naomi Iizuka's 36 Views.

Scrappy new theater group Workhouse brings us the area premiere of Steve Martin's comedy The Underpants

And a bunch of familiar faces can be found involved in the production of Theater In The Round's Henry V - including beloved Fringe favorite Craig Johnson in the director's chair

And really, that's just for starters. If none of those strike your fancy, there's at least one more new production starting, five more productions heading into their final weekends, and nine or so continuing their runs.

Links for all those and more can be found about halfway down the front page of my website - - in the Theater Recommendations section.

I will likely be looking on longingly from afar for most of it. Next weekend I head out of town to join the family back east celebrating my father's 80th birthday. And last weekend of the month I'm back east again celebrating not only mom's 70th, but her well-deserved retirement party after thirty years on the job at a place she loves. Plus grandma's turning 95 next month, so we'll get in some celebrating for her as well. But it means I'm not going to be around much, and the time I am, well, I kind of need to work my two jobs so I can afford the trips home. Thus the Guthrie box office will be the lion's share of my theater-related contact for February.

So break a leg, everyone.

And those not in shows, by all means, see what everyone else is up to. It's the usual embarrassment of riches. Whatever your choice, you're bound to be happy.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Pong Pong Ball Party Time

Just got an email from the Fringe, and they've updated the front page of the website thusly...

"The applications are in.

The ping pong balls are in their cage.

Coco Fondue is readying her best fake eyelashes.

It's time for the Fringe lottery.

Reunite with your Fringe family for the first taste of the 2008 Minnesota Fringe

Witness the majesty of Coco Fondue and the Fringe staff as they randomly draw ping pong balls to determine the 2008 Minnesota Fringe lineup!


(Blogger's note - OK, I'm coming. No need to shout :)


7 p.m. at Mixed Blood Theatre

1501 South 4th Street, Minneapolis


9 p.m. at Bedlam Theatre

1501 South 6th Street, Minneapolis

Drink specials at Bedlam + free pizza for early birds from Pizza Lucé

And if that isn't reason enough to come hang out, we don't know what could be.

Monday, February 11 Lottery at 7, party at 9


(Blogger's note - Woot, indeed :)

And so, my obsessive-compulsive disorder reasserts itself - six months early.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Vote (er... Caucus, er... State Your Preference...)

Heck if I know, I never caucused before.

But for a change, the whole thing isn't decided long before they get around to asking us in Minnesota.

So I've found out where my polling place (er... caucusing place) is, and off I go tonight.

It's a tiny window of opportunity - 6:30pm or 7pm until 8pm, depending on which party you want to influence - but worthwhile.

So, Democrat, Republican, Independent, doesn't matter. Get out there and vote, my friends.

For the first time in a while, they actually care what we think. Might as well tell them, huh?

It always kind of blows my mind that people fought and bled and died so I'd have the right to stroll down the street to an elementary school and help decide who the next leader of the free world's going to be.

It's all so damn civilized.

You can get information here, here and here - plus all the major candidates seem to have caucus finders on their websites as well, so it's ridiculously easy to find the place you need to be.

Let 'em hear it.

Happy Super Tuesday, everyone.

See you next Super Monday for the Fringe Lottery

(The lottery will take place at Mixed Blood Theatre (just like last year) - 1501 South Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN - on Monday, Feb 11, 2008 at 7:00pm.)