Monday, May 26, 2008

Writing Group - Playwrights and Actors Wanted

On a completely different kind of recruiting note...

I'm part of a writing group that's been ongoing now for a number of years. And we've gotten to a place where we need some new blood. We also can always use actors who like new plays who would like to come in and help us read. So I thought this might be a place to put the word out.

It's pretty informal. We meet every other Tuesday night, 7pm in one another's homes. There are snacks involved, but nothing elaborate.

We meet to read whatever anyone's working on at the moment. Could be scenes, could be an act, could be an entire draft. We also have the host of the week throw out a writing challenge, just in case people want to sharpen their teeth (or pencils, or keyboards?) on something random, or use it to help jumpstart them past writer's block. We invite actor friends in to help us read (hence the call for actors as well as writers). All are welcome to offer constructive feedback - it's neither supposed to be a lovefest nor a feeding frenzy. We're here to get better, but also to support one another. The idea is to get better collectively, rather than at one another's expense. It's not a place for fragile egos or manufactured personal drama (drama on the page only, please). We've been through those phases and would like to avoid them in the future.

Things are going pretty well with the group, but a number of members are involved in their own major projects right now (everything from freelancing to self-producing to running their own theater companies) and so the ranks of regular attendees have been getting a bit thin. It's always best if we have a regular core of six or seven to keep the material flowing and the feedback varied.

When we last went hunting for new members, we codified some rules of the road we thought were important that could help us communicate who we were to potential joiners. That'd be the following...

Tuesday Group Manifesto

Six Things We Consider Important About The Group and How It Runs

-Tuesday Group will invite actors to attend meetings and read most roles. Matthew will be the point dude for inviting actors, but all members should feel free to invite actors if they want someone specific to read.

-Tuesday Group is and will remain a group of playwrights. While the focus is on writing plays, members may bring any work that can be performed. Long pieces of prose are not appropriate.

-Tuesday Group members will aim to bring work to every meeting they can attend. Group members who are not pursuing individual projects will do a homework exercise, designed by the host of the next meeting. Group members are, however, not to waste any time beating themselves up if they cannot always meet this goal.

-Tuesday Group will hold to the Roundtable guidelines for feedback, by beginning the discussion with positive remarks and moving on to offer constructive, specific criticism.

-Tuesday Group will recruit new members on a mentor system. If you have a candidate for a new group member, after ascertaining the candidate's interest, check in with the group about the person. If the group agrees, bring the new person to a meeting and be willing to serve as their guide.

-Tuesday Group is about supporting each other in our growth as writers. We want to be, and recruit, writers who can learn from each other's work, and who do work that is inspiring.

Discussed and Adopted September 2005
(up for review and revision as needed)

We break for the summer because most of us are involved in the Fringe Festival in one manner or another. We do have one last meeting this Tuesday 5/27 before the break, so if you're reading this prior to that and would be curious to sit in, let me know.

My spam filter's kind of wonky, so it might be a good idea to send to

and copy to

just to be safe.

After the summer break, we start right up again in September, so if you're interested, I can keep you posted on how that calendar shapes up. Just gives us a bit of a breather to recover from the Fringe, but then we're back at it.

Like I said, interested writers and actors alike are welcome to respond.

The idea is to get regular attendees cranking out new work and being willing to take and offer feedback.

Needed - 3 Male Actors for Fringe double bill

So, I just recently put on my Fringe producer hat, taking on the heavy lifting for the Fringe slot for my friend Marc Halsey's Magicword Theater for this year's Minnesota Fringe Festival, as of Friday a week ago.

We'll be doing a double bill of short plays

The Bronze Bitch Flies At Noon, written by me


Dog Tag, written by me with my friend Anne Bertram (Theatre Unbound's Managing Director)

William Leaf, who's collaborated with me on a number of projects before as actor or director, is going to be director on the project.

We're looking for 3 male actors to play all the roles in both plays.

In Bronze Bitch, two of the actors need to be college age, or be able to reasonably pass for guys on the eve of their college graduation. Other than that, age doesn't matter much, but that part's key.

Both plays have GLBT content, if that's an issue for anyone.

Also, in Bronze Bitch, the two college guys have to take off their shirts and there's some touching and kissing involved so... you know, be forewarned. It's a romantic comedy, they get romantic as well as funny.

The third character in Bronze Bitch is a security guard passing through at inopportune times.

In the second piece, two of the actors will play estranged lovers, the third will play their dog (the dog speaks English, but only the audience can understand what he's saying)

The two lovers in the first piece may not necessarily also be the lovers in the second. We're looking to get a trio of actors we can mix and match between the two plays.

Jonathan's parents gave him a hundred dollar bill to go get something he wants as a graduation present. What he wants is to lose his virginity before he graduates. And he wants to lose it with David, the frat boy he shares a lab station with in chemistry class. On the night before graduation, alone in the chemistry lab, the young men strike a bargain. Following through may be more complicated than either of them imagined.

Ed is out walking his dog Percy, when he runs into ex-lover Paul. Percy may prove an effective go-between for a reconciliation, or the two men may still end up going home alone. A play of second chances, some taken, some not.

"Six condoms. You're an optimist." If a $100 bill can bring a nerd and a frat boy together, can it last longer than the sex? If a dog can talk, can he reunite two estranged lovers?

The first two parts of Bronze Bitch can be viewed on line here...

and here

The first part of Dog Tag is here...

If you want to read the whole script, I can make that happen, just drop me a note. Since my spam filter is selectively wonky, you might want to send a message to both

and copy to

Since we're getting started later than most shows, we wanted to just beat the bushes and see if we could find people who aren't already otherwise engaged and interested in doing Fringe, and these scripts. The director will have the final say, I'm just on a scouting mission. We will likely arrange some kind of audition situation where he can meet with and read people if need be, but we're still conferring on that. If we find people whose work we know and like, that may not be necessary. In any case, we'll be fair to all involved. We want to have as pleasant a process as possible - drama onstage only, not off.

If you want to send resume and headshot and the like electronically, feel free, the emails are there.

Our Fringe slot performs in the Arena space at the Rarig Center

Friday 8/1 at 7pm, Saturday 8/2 at 10pm, Wednesday 8/6 at 10pm, Thursday 8/7 at 5:30pm, Saturday 8/9 at 8:30pm

Thanks to George Bush (I know, I know, weird, huh?) my economic stimulation will be used as a stipend to make sure everyone gets paid, whether the production makes a cent or not. Obviously, we'd like profits to share among the group as well, so we'll work on marketing the heck out of the thing.

But first, we need something to market. Hence the call for actors.

Drop me an email and we'll take it from there.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fringe Archive - 2003 - Life of a Blogger (and Mom)...

I didn't even know what a blog was when then Executive Director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival Leah Cooper and her trusty web guru Matthew Foster asked if I would do one. The enticement was, of course, to see as many Fringe shows as I wanted to for free, as long as I wrote about them, and the festival. Having been an increasingly addicted Fringe junkie in the early years of the 21st century, this seemed like a dream job.

And then I learned that Mom's annual summer visit was going to coincide with the end of the 2003 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and I knew Mom loved theater as much as I. Why not introduce her to the Fringe?

And so our unofficial blog team and family Fringing tradition began...

Theater of the Evil Penis vs. Theater of the Happy Vagina

Theater of Me

Fringe Tips 1

Fringe Tips 2

Fringe Tips 3

Fringing With Mom

Opening Night - Oh, The Publicity!

Heard Offstage

Racial and Gender Confusion

Tip The Fringe


The Must Avoid List

The Mad Dash

Best of the Fest - an overview of the highlights of the 32 shows I saw

Top 3 From Mom and Me

Fringe Achive - 2003 - My (very first) pre-Fringe Top 10

As a first time online babbler about all things Fringe, I needed to figure out a way to get my arms around the more than 150 shows that made up the 2003 Minnesota Fringe Festival. This was such an attempt, and it turned into a bit of a tradition, that grew over time.

If You Put A Gun To My Head...

...or if I was only allowed to see 10 Fringe shows, what would they be, and why?

(and so my pre-Fringe Top 10 was born...)

The full rundown on all that first 10, including...

1. Baseball, Dogs and Motorcycles - Kevin Kling

2. Staggering Toward America - Rip Rekke

3. Voice In Head - The Theatrical Music Company

4. Gilgamesh Iowa - The Ethereal Mutt, Limited

5. The Hobbit - Rhino Productions

6. I Hate This - Bad Epitaph Theater Company

7. Sock Puppet Serenade - Hunter Marionettes

8. Beauty and the Beast - Ballet of the Dolls

9. One Man Hamlet - Theater Inconnu

10. Industrials - Ministry of Cultural Warfare

In addition, I tried out a little series called Friendly Persuasion, in which I talked about other shows who people I knew where participating in, including...

Six Steps - Brent Doyle

Tell Me On A Sunday - Patty Nieman

Buy Me A Mockingbird - Tod Petersen

If You Don't Really Want To Know - Then Don't Ask Me - Kim Hines

Mrs. Cowbeach's Profession - Stuart Holland

3 Way - Filthy Whore Productions

Five Women On A Hill In Spain - Outward Spiral Theatre Company

Cafe Delphi - Nimbus

The Sugardaddy Project - 2 Desperate Chicks

Spring Awakening - Virginia L. Anderson

Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf: The Kamikaze and the Chameleon - Kirsten Frantzich and Josette Antomarchi

Fringe Archive - 2003 - 5 Stars - Life-Altering Experience

Productions in the 2003 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

5 Stars - Life-Altering Experience

Baseball, Dogs & Motorcycles - Kevin Kling

Beauty and the Beast - Ballet of the Dolls

Exposure - (the group that became) Live Action Set

Gilgamesh, Iowa - The Ethereal Mutt, Limited - I loved this show so much I went back and saw it a total of three times, resulting in posts like the review (previous link) and Bowling For Gilgamesh, and Nighttime in Gilgamesh - Far and away my very favorite of the festival, and one of Mom's, too

Industrials - Ministry of Cultural Warfare

Look Ma, No Pants - The Scrimshaw Brothers

One Man Hamlet - Theater Inconnu

Sock Puppet Serenade - Kurt Hunter Marionettes

Staggering Toward America - Rik Reppe

War Golems - Fifty Foot Penguin

Fringe Archive - 2003 - 4-1/2 Stars - Damn Near Perfect

Productions in the 2003 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

4-1/2 Stars - Damn Near Perfect

Book of Names

I Hate This - Bad Epitaph Theater

Fringe Archive - 2003 - 4 Stars - Excellent

Productions in the 2003 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

4 Stars - Excellent

The Art of Ruth Draper - Kathleen Douglass

Emily Dickinson: My Letter to the World - Elizabeth Dickinson

The Hobbit - Rhino Productions

The Love Talker - Theatre Unbound

Marlene Dietrich & Edith Paif - The Kamikaze and The Chameleon - Kirsten Frantzich and Josette Antomarchi

Medea - Eyewitness Theatre Company

Oil On Canvas - 15 Head

Selling Blood - Eyewitness Theatre Company

Teechers - Shortened Coffin Productions

Fringe Archive - 2003 - 3-1/2 Stars - Good Job Plus

Productions in the 2003 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

3-1/2 Stars - Good Job Plus

James Berry, The Reluctant Hangman - Topsy-Turvy Theater

Fringe Archive - 2003 - 3 Stars - Good Job

Productions in the 2003 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

3 Stars - Good Job

Apologetic Killer

Buy Me A Mockingbird - Tod Petersen

Captain and the Dog-Faced Boy - John Middleton

Five Women On A Hill In Spain - Outward Spiral

Six Steps - Illusion Theater

Spring Awakening - Virginia L. Anderson

Tell Me On A Sunday - Patty Nieman

3 Way - Filthy Whore Productions

Voice In Head - The Theatrical Music Company

Wind-up Toys - Threepenny Productions

Fringe Archive - 2003 - 0 Stars to 2-1/2 Stars - Run For It to Not Bad, Still Needs Some Work

Productions in the 2003 Minnesota Fringe Festival that I rated...

0 stars - Run For It

1 Star - Life's Too Short

1-1/2 Stars - Life's Still Too Short

2 Stars - Not Bad, Needs Some Work

2-1/2 Stars - Not Bad, Still Needs Some Work

uh... none...


Monday, May 12, 2008

Review - Romeo and Juliet - Four Humors - 4-1/2 stars

“Death is my son-in-law”

Early last week a friend asked me, “What’s the deal with Shakespeare? Why do theater people love Shakespeare? With all the plays, old and new, that are floating around out there, why Shakespeare?”

Only half-kidding, I replied, “Because he’s been dead so long, you can do whatever you want to his plays, and you don’t have to pay him.”

That is, of course, only half of it. The guy wrote, or rewrote, good stories, with meaty characters, and some amazing poetry, some of the best in the English language. Directors want to tackle those stories, designers want to recreate those worlds, and actors want to inhabit those roles and get them on their resumes. I’m just as guilty as anyone of being a Shakespeare junkie sometimes. It’s canon. It’s familiar.

Sometimes too familiar. That’s why early last week, my friend and I sat and watched five theater companies knock the stuffing out of “Romeo and Juliet” for a fundraiser for the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Each company took an act and turned it inside out, and the audience lapped it up - a combination of getting the inside jokes and a good old-fashioned burning in effigy. All this, right on the heels of yet another production of “Romeo and Juliet” which 3am Productions staged.

And now, Four Humors.

Much has been made of the concept - “forget that they die at the end, we all know they die at the end.” Honestly, I didn’t get it, until I saw the Four Humors production of “Romeo and Juliet” directed by Jason Ballweber. They mean, “Don’t take it all so damn seriously.” Rather than do what was done earlier in the week, laughing *at* Romeo and Juliet, Four Humors is doing the harder thing, laughing *with* them. Four Humors is striking at the heart of why most productions of the play “Romeo and Juliet” drive me crazy, and it was something I wasn’t entirely clear on until now. Though I love the poetry of the script, the characters and the story drove me nuts because everyone seemed like a gibbering moron to me. Siskel and Ebert used to describe “Romeo and Juliet” as the quintessential “idiot plot” - the kind of plot where the whole thing would fall apart like a house of cards if everyone involved wasn’t a complete and utter idiot. It’s classic “Plot Convenience Playhouse,” full of simple mistakes and stunningly boneheaded moves. But the reason most productions of “Romeo and Juliet” don’t work - actors are playing the poetry, rather than just being the characters. Theaters are staging a sweeping, epic tragedy - playing the end at the beginning. It’s only a tragedy if we first get to see what’s being lost - something sweet and funny and beautiful. Someone lifting up their boot to show they’ve crushed a butterfly isn’t half as affecting as having seen the butterfly take flight before its untimely end. Four Humors’ production of “Romeo and Juliet” wisely allows the lovers to take flight before the boot comes down. Heartache is only heartache because something so good is ripped away from you.

The other smart thing Four Humors does is invite the audience in on the action. No, not the dreaded audience participation. More like audience engagement. Lines are not just directed between the characters. Often the actors turn to the audience and address them. Occasionally, the actors move into the seats, or even try to hide in the crowd. We are all the citizens of fair Verona. It’s not “Watch us do ‘Romeo and Juliet’” but rather “Join us in this story we’re telling.” The only place the production stumbles for me is in the second half, when the story retreats from the audience in this regard. Maybe the production feels it has the audience fully reeled in already, or maybe it doesn’t want to throw the unraveling fortunes of the characters in the spectators’ face. Either way, I missed that connection so present in the early going.

This feeling of community in the first half is reinforced by the Irish folky style of the band. Brant Miller, one of the Four Humors founders, jams with some singularly good musicians (one wasn’t present the night I saw it so I’ll name them all for safety’s sake - Scott Lund, Andrew Lynch, and Andy Spansler). Lively, loud, boisterous, often incomprehensible to my non-Irish ears, I didn’t mind. They were a hell of a lot of fun. They acted as de facto ushers, guiding the crowd from the lobby into the theater at the start and after intermission, and kept the spirit of the parties of the play alive both on and offstage. (Side note - More unlikely than three doses of “Romeo and Juliet” in less than a month, the use of Snoop Dogg’s song “Gin and Juice” in two productions running across town from one another at the same time. See Walking Shadows’ “The American Pilot.” No, seriously, see that show, too.)

Another big plus, no sword fights. Most of the scrapping onstage is physical in nature, with the occasional dagger thrown in for deadly measure. The opening clash of Montague and Capulet servants, friends and relatives is hilariously hurried off, out into the lobby where the audience just gets to hear metal clanking against metal beyond the curtain while the cast ohs and ahs about it. The refreshing lack of fight choreography - capital F, capital C - is an enormous relief.

Set? No worries, designer Sam Johns ingeniously paints suburban house silhouettes in bright childish colors on plastic sheeting and then hoists them into the air on strings at either end of the playing space - one side Capulet, one side Montague. Every now and again, roll on a screen door frame, or lower a flower box from the rafters for Friar Laurence. At the end, the houses themselves are lowered, falling into misshapen blobs and making a suitably creepy graveyard setting. Great, scrappy solution to multiple locations without getting bogged down in scene change hell.

So, as it should, stripped of all the usual distractions, it all comes down to the words and performances. Any “Romeo and Juliet” rises and falls on its title characters, and Four Humors has a great pair of actors. Jason Bohon as Romeo and Elise Langer as Juliet are just... well, real people. You believe they’re feeling the things they’re talking about. There is no better example than the balcony scene (I know, the dreaded balcony scene). Rather than reverently caressing each and every syllable of the text, Langer and Bohon say the words the way two people giddy with love would. The words tumble out of their mouths. The competing trains of thought ricochet back and forth, and their conversation - both talking to themselves and each other - reflects this dizzying swirl of emotion. They respect us enough to figure we can keep up and parse out the meaning, since they so clearly know it, rather than spoon-feeding us each phrase and idea. Bohon’s Romeo goes from being a guy drunk on the drama of unrequited love to actually reveling in the real thing when Langer’s Juliet returns his affection. They’re not just cute (in a good way) with each other, they’re a lot of fun to watch engaging the other actors in the ensemble as well.

If there’s another big “oh no, here it comes” moment in “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s that friggin’ “Queen Mab” speech. Here again, the production pulls it off by engaging the audience rather than just showing off for it. In fact, Colin Waitt’s Mercutio, normally a character that grabs much of act one and walks off with it, I actually found myself wanting more, not less, of. Always a good thing.

Speaking of scene stealers, Kimberly Richardson and her exaggerated costume of sagging breasts as the Nurse adds another colorful character to her expanding rogues gallery of loons.

Women abound in this “Romeo and Juliet.” There’s a nice streak of cross-gender casting going on - from larger key roles like the hot-headed Tybalt (Katie Jorgenson) and wingman (er, wing person) Benvolio (Sara Richardson), to supporting roles like the Apothecary (Kate Dorrough), Assistant to the Prince (Haley Honeman), and the theater world’s worst message courier Friar John (Maria Effertz).

After three years of large ensemble productions, the Four Humors crew has a pretty deep bench as far as the acting company is concerned. In addition to strong first-time Humorists like Dan Peltzman as Friar Laurence, Jeff Broitman as Lord Capulet, Jean Salo as Lady Capulet, Ryan Lear as Paris, Craig Anderson as Lord Montague, and Mark Rehani as the Nurse’s right hand Peter, this production boasts repeat Four Humors performers in supporting roles like Lady Montague (Rachel Petrie), the Prince (Jim McDoniel), and no less than three of the Artistic Directors of the company (Brant Miller, Nick Ryan, and Matt Spring) joining Mike Rylander as dueling servants of the warring houses of Capulet and Montague. It’s fun to go to a production like this and see that every role, regardless of size, has a solid performer taking it on and giving it real dimension.

Honestly, before I went, much as I admire Four Humors, I was afraid this was going to be one “Romeo and Juliet” too many for me. Now, I’m exceedingly glad I went anyway. It was so good, it’s probably the last “Romeo and Juliet” I’ll ever need to see (that is, until some other talented group of artists proves me wrong. After Four Humors’ “Romeo and Juliet,” for a change, I’m actually looking forward to that.)

Very Highly Recommended.

Four Humors’ production of “Romeo and Juliet” has one week of performances left at Bedlam Theater (1501 South 6th Street on the West Bank in Minneapolis). There’s a special Monday night Pay What You Can performance on 5/12 at 8pm. Then they wrap up the run with four weekend performances - Thursday and Friday at 8pm, 5/15 and 5/16, and 2pm and 8pm performances to close things off on Saturday 5/17. Tickets are $15, or $10 for students, seniors and Fringe button holders. For reservations and further information (and a video trailer) visit or

Friday, May 09, 2008

Review - Long Day's Journey Into Night - TRP - 5 stars

“In a real home, no one is ever lonely.”

You think you know a play, and then you see a really good production of it and realize that you didn’t know the play as well as you thought you did. That pleasant surprise was at the center of my experience watching Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Theatre In The Round Players.

Because O’Neill is one of the fathers of modern American drama, and a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s tempting to think that people just tackle “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” for the same reason people climb a mountain, because it’s there. But there’s a reason it’s so seductive. It’s still a damn fine piece of theater over fifty years after it was originally written. Director Lynn Musgrave and her cast reminded me just how fine.

First up, I’d forgotten how funny the thing was. One doesn’t think of O’Neill as having much of a sense of humor. It’s been so long since I’d read the play or seen a production of it that I’d completely forgotten about the character of the family maid, Cathleen (the only one of several discussed servants we ever get to see). Cathleen provides very welcome comic relief throughout, and Rachel Finch takes full advantage of her limited stage time, making quite an amusing impression. You’d be tempted to call her a scene-stealer, but the other four characters and actors on display are too formidable to permit such theft.

I’d also forgotten that it’s not a tragedy about a family that hates each other. It’s a tragedy because they love each other, and still can’t save each other. Mother and wife Mary Tyrone (Maggie Bearmon Pistner) is spiraling back down into the morphine addiction her husband and grown sons hoped she’d beaten. But there’s a time in the opening act when we see the woman she once was, and is struggling to hang onto, however tenuously. Pistner helps the audience see the playful, if nervous, woman she longs to be – the place in the family structure she holds, and the damage it does to the family when she unravels. It is because we get to see how deeply the men in Mary’s life love her that we realize how painful it is to watch the drugs take her slowly away from them.

Mary’s woes are tied to the fate of her youngest son Edmund (Wade A. Vaughan). Edmund’s birth was the catalyst for Mary’s addiction – a doctor ill-advisedly prescribed morphine for her after a difficult pregnancy. Now a young man, Edmund’s health is failing, and watching her child suffer is more than Mary can bear. Like his mother, Edmund pretends that everything is fine. But the impending prognosis from the doctor hangs over this long day for the Tyrones. Their worst fear whispered amongst themselves, consumption, is confirmed. (I had to look it up – consumption is tuberculosis. Edmund had TB in 1912, over 30 years before any cure had come along. The best you could do was send someone to a sanitorium for rest and hope their health improved. Sometimes it did. Often, it didn’t.) Vaughan plays the contradictions in Edmund well. He’s not a weakling. His health just won’t support the life to which he’d become accustomed. He’s as addicted to adventure as his mother is to drugs. He’s closest to Mary, and tries mightily to reach her before she’s too far gone.

The family patriarch James Tyrone (Rob Frankel) has his own, more socially accepted, addictions. He’s obsessed with status, and stability. Unfortunately, the way he’s chosen to pursue them, he’s liable to end up with neither. He abandoned a possible career of note as a Shakespearean actor for the easier road of landing a key role and playing it over and over again, year after year. The crowd-pleaser keeps his family fed, and allows him to indulge in land speculation, but there’s a hint of sadness at the other acting life he left behind. And the obsession with buying land, not always wisely, has shoved other things like a real family homestead, and reliable health care, aside. These off-kilter priorities have the whole family paying the price. Frankel plays Tyrone as a believable combination of defensiveness and contrition. He understands his responsibility for some of the mess they’re in, but he also refuses to shoulder the whole load. Good intentions on his part, and the need for other family members to have personal responsibility for themselves, is the combination Tyrone hopes in vain will balance the scales and reverse their declining fortunes.

With less stage time than the other Tyrones, but no less impressive, Tom Sonnek brings a depth I’ve rarely seen to the role of Jamie. Older brother and bad influence for Edmund, a disappointment and embarrassment to his parents, Jamie could come off as the sort of annoying young man who never bothered to grow up. But in Sonnek’s hands, Jamie is something more. Just like any of the other Tyrones, even when he’s offstage, you feel his presence in the family dynamic, and how it affects the way the others interact. Here, Jamie is fully aware of his own faults, and owns up to them, which is why he’s more than willing to point out his father’s. Jamie never got out from under his father’s shadow, and family safety net means he never has to take full responsibility for his own life. But the reason Sonnek’s Jamie fights so vigorously with his father is because he loves the family, and wants them all to find a way to save it. Often Sonnek is most powerful when he doesn’t have any lines at all. He never draws focus away from the central player in any scene, but if you catch him out of the corner of your eye, the play of emotions across his face, particularly when he’s watching someone he loves in pain, is heartbreaking. Like those around him with more lines, Sonnek creates a full human being that leaves an indelible mark.

Director Musgrave (with dramaturgical assistance from cast member Pistner, stage manager Harold Edwards and costume designer Dwight Larsen) has created a lean and effective version of the script. Even with an hour shaved off the potential running time, the production still clocks in at three and a half hours, with two intermissions for you to re-caffeinate (I did). But the length of time we spend with the Tyron family feels right – not rushed, but also not overly long. There is no repetition here. Even when the family revisits the same grievances they have with one another, the ground has shifted beneath them in the intervening time. The clashes have more depth, more urgency, both for them and for the audience, for we’ve gotten to know the characters, and their patterns, better. You never feel like anyone’s marking time, or repeating themselves. Even the quiet moments are charged because no one ever forgets what’s at stake – the family’s survival.

Though the production is primarily a vehicle for words and performance, a special nod must be made to the lighting design by A. Camille Holthaus. Unassuming much of the time, the lighting delivers when it really counts. Light and darkness become characters themselves as the day wears on and the family pulls in different directions. The moments just before the end of each act are quite lovely – amber light catching a character in solitary reflection – a snapshot of what’s gone before and what’s to come.

If you’ve never spent that long day with the Tyrones, Theater In The Round Players’ production is a first-rate introduction. If it’s been a while since you’ve visited them, this is a perfect excuse to get reacquainted.

Very Highly Recommended.

Due to an illness in the cast, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” had to push back their opening a week, so there’s a shorter run than the usual for Theater In The Round Players. “Long Day’s Journey…” only has two more weekends, this one and next, closing on May 18, 2008. Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Theater In The Round is located at 245 Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis. Tickets are $20 (discounts are available for students and seniors on Fridays and Sundays). For reservations, call 612-333-3010. For further information, visit

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Review - The American Pilot - Walking Shadow - 4 stars

“He brings in money, this one. Almost as good as having a cow.”

Worst. Deus Ex Machina. Ever.

I’ve been rolling Walking Shadow’s production of “The American Pilot” around in my head for days now. That’s a good thing.

I hate the last thirty seconds of the production. But I’m supposed to.

Do I agree with the strategy of collectively slapping the audience across the face and then shoving them out the door? Not entirely.

The American Pilot” by Scottish playwright David Greig is a really fine play, until it ends. Given all that had gone before, and the solid production Walking Shadow gives this play, I expected more. At the end. Up until then, I haven’t a quarrel with it. Grieg’s play, as directed by Amy Rummenie, is full of engaging characters, both likeable and unlikable, and brimming with colorful dialogue, by turns comic and poetic.

It’s not as if the ending comes as an enormous surprise. When a play begins with an injured Air Force officer being held captive in a barn somewhere in the hinterlands of a vaguely eastern European country, an audience member would be correct in assuming, “Well, this is all going to end in tears.”

The genius of the play, and this production, is for whom you end up shedding those tears. One would naturally assume that all our sympathies would be with the downed pilot, injured and far from home. He’s one of us. As portrayed by Joseph Bombard, the Pilot is a genial sort. He’s aware of the danger of his situation, particularly since he doesn’t speak the language of the locals and thus finds it very difficult to communicate. But it doesn’t keep him from enjoying the music on his iPod, or relishing and being thankful for the food which is brought to him. He’s not above asking for help, and he’s not above using threats. But you can tell most of his instincts are basically benign. He doesn’t mean anyone any harm, he just wants to go home.

But the pilot isn’t the main character here. He’s a catalyst through which the audience comes to know a small cross-section of the community in which he finds himself an unwilling and unwelcome guest. The Farmer (Peter Ooley), his practical wife Sarah (Amanda Wisner), and headstrong daughter Evie (Liana Simonds) are all drawn to the pilot. Ooley’s Farmer is the most conflicted of the three. Mostly he just wants the pilot off of his land and out of his life. He knows the presence of the pilot will bring them nothing but unwanted attention. Still, he can’t help wanting to protect the foreigner. Wisner’s depiction of the farmer’s wife is the most grounded of the characters. She loves her family and her life, and looks on dreams of something bigger and better as dangerous distractions. Simonds gives Evie an exuberance and sense of importance that her later actions bear out. Evie turns into a possible solution that no one was expecting.

Looking on the American pilot as more of a commodity or bargaining chip are the Trader (Sam Landman), the Captain (Robert Gardner), and his Translator (Matthew Vire).

The Trader knows people in high and low places and is always working those connections to make the maximum profit from a situation. The American pilot presents a host of opportunities. Even though Landman’s performance makes it clear you can’t trust the guy, you also can’t help liking him. He’s not all bad. Violence isn’t his preferred method of winning the game, though he’s not above using it.

The Captain is the leader of a local rebel group engaging the current government in civil war. He and his translator are the enforcers and de facto rulers of the territory, as far as the local inhabitants are concerned. People have good reason to fear the Captain, and Gardner’s combination of charm and menace in the role are well-balanced. This is a man who is weary of fighting, or even being in charge, and yet he sees no other way.

Vire’s translator has more of a young man’s fire and cynicism. When an American missile years ago landed on a wedding celebration, the Captain’s daughter was killed – a young woman who meant a great deal to the Captain and his translator alike. A young woman who also bears more than a passing resemblance to Evie.

The trick here is an oldie but a goodie. Everyone speaks English, fully understood by the audience, but the locals can’t understand the pilot, and he can’t understand them. What this does is not only spare us outrageous accents or subtitles, it also cannily allows the audience to get to know and like these characters in a way that a language barrier wouldn’t have allowed. These people living in a foreign land are just like us, the play is saying. The trick works. Watching this group of people and their predicament, as they struggle to figure out what the best thing to do is for all involved, you can’t help but be drawn in – and laugh, and be moved.

So when three soldiers arrive (J.F. Dauer, Brian Hesser, and Mark Benzel), brace yourself.

This play isn’t a simple indictment of the military or the use of force. The pilot isn’t simply a person. He’s the personification of a country, our country. The way we see our country, the way others see it, it’s all focused on this one man. But here’s where Grieg’s play isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. America the beautiful, the clumsy, the giant, the well-meaning, the rash. We get it. I’d be willing to wager that the vast majority of people who step inside a theater to see a play like “The American Pilot” will have no trouble embracing its characters or its politics. If you’re preaching to the choir, then preach, for God’s sake, and everybody else’s. If you have our hearts, our full attention and our sympathy, do something with it. The play tantalizingly dangles several possible ways out of the mess. I’m not arguing for a happy ending. I’m not arguing for a play that does my thinking for me. I’m arguing for a play that doesn’t just reiterate an unpleasant truth for me, but instead goes one step further. Because a play that just leaves me in despair isn’t catalyzing the change I think it wants to see in the world. This production is made by people who are capable of delivering the message. This playwright is capable of stating the message. He just didn’t.

The final destination may not be what I’d hoped for, but the journey getting there, right down to that bitter end, is a really enjoyable ride. Though the ending breaks my heart and leaves me more than a little angry, the production is still…

Highly Recommended.

Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s production of “The American Pilot” performs through May 24, 2008 at the Theatre Garage (711 West Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, at the intersection of Lyndale and Franklin Avenues). Performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm, with a special pay what you can night on Monday, May 12th at 7:30pm. Reservations and more information can be found at, or by calling 612-375-0300.