Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kevin Cathcart - part 1 - 40 Years Since Stonewall and 7 Weeks Since Iowa

Though the actual decision was still two days off when Kevin Cathcart spoke at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio black box space as one of the events in the Guthrie’s celebration of Tony Kushner, his prediction was correct. He predicted that the California Supreme Court would uphold the vote on Proposition 8, amending the state’s constitution to bar gay marriage. But he also correctly predicted that the court would uphold the validity of the marriages that took place in the window of time that gay marriage was considered legal prior to the election where Prop. 8 passed.

Kevin Cathcart, the executive director of Lambda Legal, is “a leading strategist and spokesperson in the movement to achieve full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, and people with HIV.” Lambda Legal was lead counsel in the 2003 Supreme Court case that struck down Texas’ “Homosexual Conduct” law and every law like it in the nation. The plaintiffs in the case had been arrested while having consensual sex in their own home. The title of his overview of the state of the LGBT civil rights movement when he spoke at the Guthrie was entitled “40 Years Since Stonewall and 7 Weeks Since Iowa.” Throughout the evening, Cathcart was just as passionate as he was articulate about his subject. His healthy sense of humor also helped keep things lively.

“The Guthrie has a certain mythological status in New York, but I’d never been here before,” Cathcart remarked in opening. He was glad to be here because “Tony Kushner is a strong, progressive, out, political gay voice and there are far too few of those.” He said he’d be keeping his overview short so we’d have more time for what he called “questions and discussion” (rather than answers, since definitive answers these days are hard to come by). Last Friday marked the seven week anniversary of the Iowa court decision legalizing gay marriage. Cathcart said that the Iowa decision “came as a surprise to those of us on the coasts.” He imagined it might have surprised the people of Minnesota as well, that Iowa “pulled so far ahead of you. Work hard, you could still catch up,” he jokingly chided. Then the Vermont legislature overrode the veto of their governor to legalize gay marriage in their state. Then the Maine legislature also legalized same-sex marriage.

The next states in line for a breakthrough on gay marriage may be New Hampshire and New York. New Hampshire’s most recent attempt in the legislature failed by only two votes, so the bill goes back to committee. It might come back in two weeks, it might not be back until the next legislative session. New York is next most likely, but probably not this legislative session. On the national level, Washington, D.C. efforts focus on passing Hate Crimes legislation, as well as eliminating the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy barring gays & lesbians from serving openly in the military, passing the long-awaited (still languishing) Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and attempts to undo the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

It’s hard to conceive just how invisible gays and lesbians were in 1969, and how few rights they had. There was no real community in the sense we know it today. The gay civil rights movement owes much to the lessons learned in the African-American civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the anti-war movement which all came before. The gay civil rights movement went from grassroots beginnings at the Stonewall riots to “quickly establishing its own institutions. Lambda Legal is 36 years old this year,” Cathcart noted. The surprise and anger that greeted the passage of Proposition 8 in the last election, amending the state constitution to bar gay marriage, has spawned a new grassroots movement which some have dubbed “Stonewall 2.0.” How the California fight continues and evolves will doubtless be a combination of institutional and grassroots work going forward.

People sometimes ask if federal protections will really make that big a difference. Cathcart says “it depends on where you live. Places like New York, Minnesota and California have statewide civil rights protections in place. For those who live in bubbles like that, federal protection won’t make much of a difference.” But Cathcart pointed out that you could drive a car along the southern coast of the country “from Florida, all the way to California,” even zig-zagging up to catch a few more of the southern states along the way, and you won’t pass through a single state that has any civil rights protections for their LGBT citizens. For all those states, and all those people, federal protections will make all the difference in giving them the most basic equal rights.

The California Supreme Court just upheld the vote on Proposition 8. But they also left the 18,000 marriages, which took place during the window that gay marriage was legal, standing as well. This leaves an island of 18,000 gay couples in limbo. Their marriages are still valid, but no one else can join them, until the constitution is rewritten to allow for gay marriage again. In the meantime, how do the state and employers deal with these special couples? Cathcart sees “an ugly, long, expensive and insulting referendum battle ahead” which might “presage the end of civil rights under the California state constitution. Because if 50 percent plus one can take away the rights of a whole group of people…” It’s been said that if you have a million dollars to collect signatures, you can get anything on the California ballot. Ballots are coming up again in 2010 and 2012. They could be flipping the constitution and laws of the state every two years, depending on who has the most money or the best voter turnout for their side of the cause.

The progress on gay marriage in Iowa, Vermont and Maine since Prop. 8 has been wonderful, but they’re not looked on as leadership in the same way California was. Cathcart doesn’t think we’re at the tipping point yet, but we’re near it. “Just not as near as we dared hope.” Looking at the poll and voters, young people are in favor of LGBT civil rights, particularly marriage rights. There’s been a lot of finger-pointing at various groups in the aftermath of California’s vote on Proposition 8, but the truth is that “if only people under 60 had voted, we would have had a landslide victory. If only people under 40 had voted, the margin of victory would have been even bigger.”

Cathcart thought the Twin Cities was a good place to celebrate Kushner, and have him come and speak, because Minnesota has “a rich history” of progress on gay civil rights issues.

Baker v. Nelson was the first gay marriage court case back in 1971, and it made it from its start in Minnesota all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The case being turned back at the federal level established the precedent that made gay marriage a state issue. Jack Baker also founded the first gay student group in America (pre-Stonewall) and was the first openly gay person elected the student body president of a major university. In addition to being the first gay couple to apply for a marriage license, Baker and his partner were the first to establish a legal relationship to one another via adult adoption. Their gay marriage case came twenty years before the case in Hawaii that kicked off this recent phase of the fight.

In 1984, Sharon Kowalski was critically injured in car accident. Sharon’s family shut out her partner of four years, Karen Thompson, from all medical decisions, denying her even the right to visit. Karen fought for seven years to win guardianship of the woman she loved and finally succeeded when the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in her favor.

Minnesota also has a history of out gay elected officials, including the late Allan Spear – one of the first – and Karen Clark – currently the longest serving out gay state official in the country. A strong, statewide legal organization is also important, and Minnesota has that in the political group Outfront Minnesota ( They just had their big lobbying day last month, and as Cathcart said, “there’s a great deal of work to be done.”

It’s sometimes hard to imagine what gay life was like forty years ago. Cathcart noted that a lot of people in the current gay community weren’t even born yet, and those that were, either their memories are getting fuzzy, or it may be too painful to remember. There were no civil rights, no civil unions or domestic partnerships. Sodomy laws were still on the books in most states. “Culturally, there was no space to be openly gay or lesbian,” Cathcart said. “It was a career killer.” Without the changes over the last forty years, Cathcart said, “I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you speaking like this. There probably would not be a Tony Kushner Celebration at the Guthrie.” Now we have Gay/Straight Alliances in high schools, second parent adoptions, along with civil unions and the possibility of gay marriage. “There’s legal change, and there’s cultural change,” said Cathcart. “It’s hard to know sometimes which leads and which follows, and what’s more important. Right now, cultural change is further along, and legal change is struggling to catch up. But there are glass ceilings on both ends of the spectrum, and a great deal of space between.” For example, Cathcart noted that despite some potential Supreme Court nominees being lesbian, he didn’t expect to hear their names called, not for this opening. And despite all the excitement, the country apparently isn’t yet ready for an extremely (but not out) gay American Idol.

Cathcart offered up five examples of areas where there is work yet to be done:

1. Marriage

Gay marriage is only currently legal in three stages – Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa. Vermont joins the list September 1, 2009. Maine joins the list January 1, 2010, but there’s a referendum on the ballot before that, so it’s not guaranteed to happen. That leaves 45 states to go, 30 of which have amendments barring gay marriage added to their state constitutions. That’s a lot of work to undo, particularly with many hostile legislatures, and voter education having a long way to go in garnering enough support. Cathcart noted, “The Supreme Court’s not big on change. They’re not going to save us. They’re more comfortable with clean-up actions.” When 37 states had struck down their sodomy laws and only 13 states still had them on the books, the Supreme Court felt they could weigh in to eliminate the remaining holdouts. With gay marriage at 5 states vs. 45 states, the Supreme Court’s not likely to step in. A lot more work needs to be done on the state level first. Some cases are working their way up the line toward the Supreme Court, but we don’t want the wrong case to go up, or the right one to go up too soon. The Supreme Court doesn’t like revisiting issues frequently. We can’t lose big too early.

2. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

150 gay and lesbian members of the military have been discharged under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy since President Obama took office. That’s more than one a day. And the White House remains silent. Iraq war veterans, top graduates of the academies, much-needed Arabic translators are all being booted out. A reporter recently asked if this was part of the administration’s national security strategy, or working against it. Voices as varied as Frank Rich in the New York Times and Jon Stewart on the Daily Show are speaking out in recent weeks, but we need leadership from the President on the issue, and soon.


HIV and AIDS are spreading again, especially in the African-American and gay male communities, but the problem is largely unseen by the general public. The gay civil rights movement and the HIV movement aren’t as closely tied together as they once were, and this also exacerbates the problem.

4. Gay youth

Student activism used to be most pronounced at the college level. Now it’s in the high schools. Litigation to allow Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs) in high schools is the new front in this regard. GSAs impact all the students, not just the gay students who join (or might be afraid to join). GSAs being part of the general background noise of high school life, like the French Club or the Chess Club, is helping turn out young voters with a more relaxed attitude about gay rights. (“Why are we fighting about this?”) But as kids come out at younger and younger ages, the problem of teenage suicide increases as well. This spring, in Massachusetts and Georgia, two 11-year-old boys committed suicide because of anti-gay bullying and harassment. Whether they were actually gay or just perceived to be gay, the boys couldn’t see any way out. The thought of continuing through junior high and high school like this was unbearable to them.

5. Partner’s rights

Just last year, a lawsuit was filed against Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, FL. As a woman lay dying of an aneurysm, her lesbian partner of 18 years and their children were denied the right to visit her. They were kept waiting for eight hours, with no information. When the dying woman’s sister arrived, she was ushered right in to see her. But the woman’s family was denied the right to even say goodbye. All this, despite the fact that the women had done everything they’d been advised to do to protect their rights – living wills, health care proxies naming the other partner as the one with the right to make medical decisions on their behalf in case of emergency. But the relationship was still not recognized. They were even denied the death certificate. This, 18 years after the decision in the Kowalski case.

In his introduction to “Caroline, or Change,” Tony Kushner says that “Sorrow, anger and grief, our tragedies, shouldn’t blind us to our victories.” Cathcart argued that, reversing that sentiment for a moment, “we often let our victories blind us to our tragedies. Forty years is a long time to only be as far along as we are today.” A lot of people already think that gays have the right to marry all over the country, that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as already been struck down, that the HIV epidemic is under control. If all those things were really true, “it’d be a much better world than the one we live in.” That kind of thinking may “ease the pain or guilt about the work yet undone.” California and Prop. 8 were a wake-up call. “We probably won’t realize what the actual tipping point was until years later, but it’s coming. Gay men and lesbians are leading lives unimaginable forty years ago, even five years ago. Six months ago, if you’d told me there would be hundreds of gay couples getting married in Iowa, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.”

Cathcart turned again to the words of Tony Kushner’s introduction to “Caroline, or Change” – “If that epic struggle did not accomplish everything it intended, it breached the wall of oppression, and through that breach, the future is pouring in.” Concluding his comments before the discussion part of the evening kicked in, Cathcart said, “Stay tuned, but stay, or get, involved. It will happen much sooner, do far more good for far more people. It’s better if more people are involved in the conversation. There is so much opportunity – in D.C., the business community, state capitols – we need more people in the game. We could speed it up a great deal.”

Kevin Cathcart - part 2 - Q and D

Since the Democrats have 57 seats in the Senate (and might soon have more), the question was raised whether we could expect better progress now on LGBT civil rights issues because of that.

Cathcart pointed out that in the Senate, to really get things done, 60 votes is ideal. That’s the point at which you have the votes to cut off discussion, and prevent amendments from being tacked onto bills. You can’t count on every Democratic vote, or discount every Republican. The thing to keep in mind is how best to move them all in the direction of the things we want for gay civil rights. “The Hate Crimes bill may pass yet this year, and be signed into law. While it’s not the biggest thing on the agenda, the Hate Crimes bill is a good thing to lead with, because it’s less controversial,” said Cathcart. Then we can look at ENDA, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and DOMA. As more states allow gay marriage, more lawmakers may come around. After all, why uphold a federal law barring gay marriage when back home in the state you represent they’re allowing couples to marry?

Cathcart was asked about the significance of Prop. 8 passing in California, normally a leader in the fight for equal rights.

Cathcart said that “people will make of California what they make of it. It’s a convenient vote to hide behind.” (“Look, even California struck down gay marriage.”) But Cathcart also said, “It’s not the barrier we thought it would be.” Since Prop. 8, Iowa’s courts and Vermont and Maine’s legislatures opened up the way for gay marriage in their states. “I can’t overstate how important it was that those rights were gained in two different ways, the courts the legislatures.” Also, Prop. 8 was “a fairly narrow loss,” numbers that people could imagine turning around in two to four years.

Proposition 8 came up again when someone wondered what lessons were learned in the unsuccessful campaign to stop the ballot initiative from passing. What things could be done better next time?

Cathcart thinks that there are at least three things that might help.

First, there wasn’t enough grassroots outreach this time. While there always needs to be a media component, that’s not the only way to go. You can lose people with the wrong ads on TV, but you very rarely win people over with a commercial. There needs to be more face to face conversation. There need to be more endorsements from leaders in the communities where people live.

Second, there wasn’t targeted enough outreach to communities of color. The campaign was grounded in the mainstream media, and California is now a state where the minorities are the majority.

Third, those who supported gay marriage weren’t prepared for how the other side would use children against them. The supporters of Prop. 8 got ads on TV that made parents nervous, and once they started airing, there was an immediate drop in the polls. (For instance, a little girl comes home to say she learned in school today that she could grow up and marry a princess.) Civil rights are fine if it’s an issue that has to do with other people. If you have to start having awkward conversations at home with your child that you’re not prepared for, that’s something else again. The LGBT community had shied away from dealing with the issue of children head on. They had nothing with which to respond to those TV ads. In Iowa and Maine, things were already different. Kids with gay parents hit the airwaves in Maine, while ads about Iowa values, and “This is how we treat people” appeared in the midwest.

As for next time in California, Cathcart thinks “enough mistakes were made that are fixable. We only have to move the dial five points to get a nice comfortable win. If we can crack those three things - grassroots, communities of color, and the issue of how it affects children,” he thinks things stand a better chance of turning out differently.

And now that Proposition 8 has been upheld in California as expected, what are the prospects it might go on to the United States Supreme Court?

“Zero,” said Cathcart. “That was deliberate. There are no federal claims. The people who brought the challenge focused only on the California state constitution, so the decision of the California court would be the last word.” The Supreme Court would have to find federal, constitutional grounds to intervene. For that, they’d need to find LGBT rights somewhere inherent in the Constitution and the current Justices don’t seem conversant or comfortable with the issue. Baker v. Nelson turned back the case as a state, rather than a federal issue. No Justice wants to take on an argument they can’t win. An apocryphal story has someone asking a Supreme Court Justice what their most important skill is on the job. The response, “The ability to count to five.” If you can’t build an argument that brings four other Justices along with you, you can’t win. It’s often preferable to be known even for a mediocre victory, rather than writing a really brilliant dissenting opinion for the losing side.

Someone asked if the source of homosexuality was found, scientifically proven, located in a gene somewhere, if that might force the Supreme Court to recognize LGBT civil rights. If being gay, like race, were immutable, wouldn’t that help speed things along?

Cathcart’s response was that he didn’t think we needed to wait that long. There will always be some dissent in the scientific and psychological community over the nature and basis of homosexuality. “They’re still arguing about lie detectors and fingerprints after all these years,” he added. “It shouldn’t matter. Our legal system is flexible enough to provide protections now. Even gender and race are fuzzier than the law thinks they are. A person can switch from one religion to another and they don’t lose their protections of religious freedom.” It’s better, in Cathcart’s opinion, to stay out of what he called, “the morass of scientific fact.” Besides, the minute someone locates a gene for homosexuality, “someone’s going to start looking for a ‘cure.’”

The question of who decides on strategy in the pursuit of LGBT civil rights and how it’s decided came up.

Cathcart admitted that there is no one central deciding body. There are many overlapping strategies. On the legal side, Lambda Legal (, the American Civil Liberties Union (, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights ( all work together to coordinate their strategies, but they don’t do the legislative work. Sometimes the strategies of federal and state organizations over legislative matters conflict. The grassroots movement is another wild card in the mix. For instance, nobody really controls where the reaction to the passage of Proposition 8 in California (“Stonewall 2.0”) is going.

Now that the California Supreme Court has upheld Prop. 8, some people are worried about the reaction in the streets. “People have a right to be angry,” Cathcart conceded. “People should demonstrate. But if it could be peaceful, I’d be happy.” Given the proliferation of technology, there’ll be far more video footage of whatever response takes place. “That footage can and will be around forever.” Video of a violent response would surely be fodder for any ballot initiatives in the future. Many people were relieved when word of a decision didn’t take place this past Thursday, as it was the 30th anniversary of the White Night Riots in San Francisco, when Dan White got off with a light sentence after being convicted of killing gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, and mayor George Moscone.

Cathcart said that the strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the general populace is key to winning court cases. When constructing the case for gay marriage in Iowa, the six couples were carefully selected in order to cover the widest area of the state, and thus garner the widest media coverage in the most markets. Meeting with the editorial boards of newspapers all over the state helped get the message out. Editorial pages are the kind of thing that trickles up to judges and legislators when they’re looking for a barometer of public opinion. The legal organizations also made sure to have a local voice argue their case, getting the former Solicitor General of Iowa on board as a cooperating attorney. He was born and raised in Iowa, studied there, was elected there. He knew the judges. Opponents couldn’t argue that some big city lawyer from New York or Chicago was coming into their state and telling them what to do. Choosing the best messenger is important. “You need to win in a way that makes it easy to defend your victory,” Cathcart said. Bringing the legislature along at the same time you’re preparing your case for court is important. Otherwise you run the risk of having the legislature come out and immediately want to overturn any progress the courts have made. The key players need to be prepared before they get dragged out in front of TV cameras and asked to comment. For instance, in the wake of the court decision in Iowa, the leaders of both the House and Senate came out with a statement of support concluding, “We believe that when people look back on this years from now, the only question they’re going to ask is ‘Why did it take so long?’” The longer the legislature can hold the line, the easier it gets to continue to hold the line. “You can’t get stampeded over later the same way you can right at the beginning.” Because the longer the law is in place, the more people get married, the more people know people who’ve gotten married, the more weddings they might attended themselves. “And they realize,” said Cathcart, “’Hey, the world hasn’t ended. My marriage is just the same as it was before.’”

One key argument that still hasn’t taken hold is the distinction between civil marriage vs. religious marriage. The fight for gay marriage is for a civil ceremony, a contract entered into with the government issuing the license. It’s completely different from a religious ceremony, in the same way that a civil divorce is different from a religious divorce. Nobody gets those two confused. But Cathcart feels the movement for LBGT civil rights needs to work harder to get more religious leaders out there spreading the word - talking to their congregations, talking to the press. “Because if a local minister says, ‘Gay marriage is not a problem for me. It doesn’t force our church to do anything we don’t want to do.’ That makes a difference to people in the community. But they two types of marriage have been conflated for so long it’s hard to unthread this. It doesn’t help,” Cathcart said, “that the legislative leaders, up to and including the President, mix it up. The President knows the answers. Politically, he doesn’t want to talk about them.”

The notion of militancy and flamboyant tactics came up for discussion. When civil tactics don’t make enough noise to get any news coverage, how do we shape the message and get the word out in a way that helps the cause rather than harms it?

Defining what’s “militant” is a tricky discussion. “Everyone draws the line in a different place,” said Cathcart. “But in the fight for civil rights, you very rarely get everything you ask for. In a good year, you get maybe 60 percent. Don’t censor yourself first. If you start by only asking for 80 percent of what you want, you’ll only get 40 percent. Militant voices open up a space for discussion.” If we were only proposing civil unions or domestic partnerships, the other side would be attacking those with the same arguments they’re currently hurling at gay marriage. “The only reason civil unions and domestic partnerships are being considered ‘the middle ground’ is because the end point being discussed is marriage.” If we err on the side of caution, and not asking strongly enough for what we want, the middle ground just gets smaller and smaller. You can’t control the media. “Everybody can have a blog, everybody can cross-post things.” Rather than try to shut hate speech down, respond to hate speech with more speech. “We’ve got more allies today than we used to, in all areas - business, military, and religious leaders. Find these spokespeople, get them out there talking. Get a chorus of voices out there, not just civil rights people. The more people who are talking, the more likely we are to be heard.”

Someone in the crowd asked about the role of Executive Orders, actions taken by the President that don’t need the approval of Congress. What items on the gay civil rights wish list might be taken care of in such a manner?

Cathcart said that “military law is a curious animal.” He’s heard both sides of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” debate weigh in and say, “Yes, the President can strike down Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” and “No, he can’t.” Every action has political consequences. “I’m of the opinion that Presidents have a lot of power and if there’s something they want done, they can find a way to make it happen,” Cathcart continued. The danger in angering Congress by going around them is that nothing else might get done. Payback might stall out other advances (passing ENDA, repealing DOMA, a host of other issues). “But, there are a lot of things that happen in the federal government that no one sees. Questions on the census, health department surveys, funding for gay-specific programs,” he said. “Even in a time of decreased funding, a lot of money flows out of Washington. There are more openly gay people, and their allies, up for positions in the government right now than in the previous eight years combined. Some of them are stalled in confirmation. Some of them are still putting together their staff. The new administration is committed to making changes. It’ll be interesting to see in the next three to six months what change starts to trickle down from the government.”

The final questioner wondered if the worries about the economy made gay rights less of a “big deal” for the general population - why are we fighting about this when we have bigger problems to deal with?

Cathcart feels the downturn in the economy has only hurt the cause of civil rights for the GLBT community. Real opportunity for change, perhaps the best opportunity ever, has arrived. But all the key organizations and institutions that are best suited to do the work that needs to be done to capitalize on this opportunity are shrinking. National and state groups, lobbying groups, are all smaller than they were six months ago, and they’ll likely be still smaller six months from now. “You can only work smarter with fewer resources up to a point,” Cathcart said. Then the work slows down, and drags out. “We’re not sure how long this window of opportunity lasts.” It would be a shame if the economic hit these organizations are taking, along with the rest of the country, causes us to miss taking advantage of the opportunities now before us. “So give generously,” Cathcart said. “And get out there and be a part of it yourself.”

Friday, May 22, 2009

Review - He Woke Up In A Strange Placed Called Home And Although Looking For Bed He Kept Finding Death Instead - Skewed Visions - 4 stars

“And I think it’s gonna be all right.
Yes, the worst is over now.
The morning sun is shining
Like a red rubber ball.”

First up, Skewed Visions wins the battle for Longest Title of a Recent Production, beating out genocide at Park Square (“I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda”) by three words, and besting the latest from Tony Kushner (“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures”) by five, with their current site-specific/promenading production of “He Woke Up In A Strange Placed Called Home And Although Looking For Bed He Kept Finding Death Instead.”

But what does the enormous title portend, you ask? Skewed Visions’ Co-Artistic/Managing Director Charles Campbell and his collaborators have concocted another meditation on violence, paranoia, societal responsibility, and nostalgia. It’s big on images, sound, and exaggerated physical movement work, and short on narrative - but that’s deliberate. It’s odd, bittersweet, ambiguous, funny and more than a little unsettling. In short, vintage Skewed Visions.

The audience follows the wandering story of “He Woke Up...” from the living room of one house, through several other spaces, outside and down the block, around to the back deck of another house, past a bed lodged in a tree in the middle of the sidewalk, and finally into yet another house, this one empty, with several other rooms full of unusual images and sounds to stoke the imagination. (And yes, I realize that’s a run-on sentence. What can I say? - it’s catching.)

He Woke Up...” rides that fine line between ambiguous and vague - and rides it hard. So much so that even though many sounds and images are lodged in my brain days later, I’m still having a hard time trying to parse out what it all means. It’s the sort of production from which everyone takes away something very different. We could all voice our own interpretation of the piece, and we’d all be a little bit right, and a little bit wrong. The program tries to provide a bit of guidance...

“Tales of the displaced life of a soldier returning from war have been told for centuries - maybe as long as people have had others do their killing. The displacement of Homer’s Odysseus and Buchner’s Woyzeck are two. Rather than retell these stories, I want to create an experience in which our world meets these imaginary worlds head on. Our history does not disappear when we close the door behind us. The past is part of the landscape; it shapes the space in which we now live.

The prison at Abu Ghraib recently got a new coat of paint and some flowers.”

But lest we think it’s all a bit too serious to enjoy ourselves, the bios offer another guidepost...

“Charles Campbell is interested in creating performances in response to the larger world that encourage intellectual and emotional engagement, and stimulate open-ended experience. And every one is a comedy!”

Horace Walpole said, “Life is a comedy for those who think... and a tragedy for those who feel.” We’re definitely meant to keep our thinking caps on here, but it’s not a traditional theatrical experience, so the audience is always just a little off balance. Entering someone else’s home, we’re encouraged to slip covers over our shoes, then cautioned not to wake the disheveled man sleeping by the piano bench in the living room. Awkward silence yields to spirited conversation from three women in the group, dressed for a fancy party, and bandying about thoughts about news stories of the day. Thoughts of “how rude” and “well, they’re a bit overdressed for this” are shoved aside when I realize the talkers are the trio who make up the dance troupe Mad King Thomas (Theresa Madaus, Tara King, and Monica Thomas). The man sleeping on the floor (Campbell) wakes and becomes our guide for the evening as we frequently re-encounter the party women, and are introduced to several other actresses dressed in military uniforms as well (Blake Bolan, Katie Kaufmann, Cherri Macht, Megan Mayer, and Laurie Van Wieren).

As we headed down the sidewalk at one point, menaced by a passing car slowing and shining a light on us before speeding away, the friend attending the show with me leaned over and whispered, “Is this about schizophrenia? Because that’s what it feels like.” The sense of others watching and judging, alternately friendly and damning, is a recurring theme. The sound of the trigger being pulled on an unloaded gun also resurfaces frequently. Plaintive piano playing, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, form the foundation of an increasingly complex soundscape (from Elliott Durko Lynch) incorporating everything from old pop music to snippets of speeches by Barack Obama. (Since I like Obama, if a sound design like this one can start me thinking things like, "For some reason, the cadences in Obama's voice remind me of Hitler," it's definitely screwing with my head.) Video (from Kevin Obsatz) is also part of the mix, projected on things as varied as hanging laundry outdoors and venetian blinds indoors.

Campbell’s words are mixed with those of Beckett, Buchner, and even James M. Cain, to name but a few. The delivery of monologue and dialogue falls into opposing categories of genial and detached. Campbell’s traveling narrator urges us on, while the female soldiers frequently use words as objects devoid of emotional meaning, more notes in a piece of music, indicators of rhythm, than conversation or presentation. Both styles are deliberately at odds with the visuals - which indicate conflict, violence and death, but always in the abstract. There is no blood. There are no sudden loud noises. Everything simply builds on what came before it. It is theater by accumulation.

Where I think it loses me, just a little, is point of view, and perhaps intent. We are a society currently fighting (at least) two wars, but we’d rather not be reminded. In fact, it’s hard to keep in mind. When the newscaster on the radio today remarked that the death toll in the US from swine flu had reached a whopping ten, my first thought was, “Gee, great. And how many people died in Iraq today?” Not only do we often not bother to keep track of blood being shed on our behalf, when the soldiers come home, we fail them yet again. They shouldn’t be easily ignored as they try to integrate back into “normal” life, but they are. They shouldn’t be easy to forget in a hospital, but they are. We ship them off to fight, and forget about them. We bring them home, thank them briefly, and forget about them. This should be enormously compelling, and disturbing, subject matter.

One of the points of “He Woke Up...” seems to be that the soldiers bring the war back with them, even when their part in the fight is over, and that we ignore this at our peril. But it’s often so abstracted in sound and picture, or so offhand in delivery, that it runs the risk of not making its point. The denial of civilians is a powerful thing, and hard to break through, even with a theater audience of civilians primed to think potentially uncomfortable thoughts about their own culpability. In not wanting to push too hard, I think Skewed Visions might not be pushing hard enough.

Also, we’re never entirely clear what standpoint our wandering narrator and guide is taking. Since he’s not in military garb, I assume he’s a civilian like us in many ways unless I’m told different. If our leader is suffering from the after-effects of war, I didn’t catch it. And if he’s not, then I’d argue the impact isn’t close enough to the surface. I’m not asking to be preached at, but there’s a whole spectrum of nudging and prodding before we get to that level. Turn it up a notch. The fact that the narrator/guide does step fully into and become part of the images that appear in the final of the three houses might indicate something, but days later, I'm still not entirely sure what.

I know on some level it’s wrong (probably sexist) to say that I don’t feel threatened by the women in this production, even in uniform carrying guns, but if I’m honest, I wasn’t. Another opportunity lost. Seeing men in uniform might be a fetish, but it’s a mighty potent one, and for some reason, scarier. I couldn’t tell you precisely why I believe when watching a man that I think, even fear, he would use a gun, while a woman doesn’t prompt the same unease. It’s probably my own hang-up. Fear of guns shouldn’t be confined to one gender. For me, one holds menace, while the other here just seems like play-acting. But perhaps if I got the fear I say I'm looking for, I might be so scared I'd just shut down and the message wouldn't get through anyway. Maybe an all-female military is the only way to go here. Again, days later, still puzzling it out.

However outside the norm the presentation might be, if I’m allowed to watch, and watch only, and am never confronted with anything directly but only at a great remove, it’s too easy to detach from the subject matter and not be effected at all. It’s all very well to think and ponder. But if “He Woke Up...” wants to inspire re-evaluation and action, undo a little of my complacency, it’s going to need to poke me with a sharper stick. If you’re going to get under my skin, and Skewed Visions always does, then while you’re under there with the opportunity, scratch me a little.

For all my noodling over what it is and isn’t, “He Woke Up...” is still compelling and unusual theater, not easily forgotten. It’s performed by clever people tackling an important topic in an offbeat way, so for all that, it still comes...

Highly Recommended.

Skewed Vision’s production of “He Woke Up In A Strange Placed Called Home And Although Looking For Bed He Kept Finding Death Instead” runs through May 31, 2009 - Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings starting at 8:30pm. Limited capacity (10 per performance - yeah, only 120 spaces for the whole run), and no late seating, since the production is on the move. Both indoor and outdoor locales in the performance, so dress for the weather. All performances begin at 142 Cambridge Street in St. Paul, near the Macalester College campus. Tickets are your choice of $10, $14 or $18, available at 1-800-838-3006 or More information at with a video spotlight on the show at

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Review - Angels In America - People Sittin' Around Doin' Theater - 4 stars

“But love is very hard. And it goes bad for you if you violate the hard law of love.”

Reasons you should see “Angels In America (again, or for the first time)

First and foremost, it’s one of my all-time top 10 favorite scripts. Reading, just reading “Angels In America, part 1: Millennium Approaches” renewed my faith in the power of language, and the power of theater. That’s a couple of years before I ever saw a production. Now I go anytime I hear of a production, just to be reminded. Like good Shakespeare, “Angels” is practically indestructible. You put these words in the hands of good actors and it is incredibly hard to screw up. So, just on principle, go see it just to see what modern theater can do.

The other reason to see it is for some really fine performances - primary among them Joshua Boertje as Joseph Pitt, Robert Gardner as Roy M. Cohn, Jack C. Kloppenborg as Prior Walter, Mason Mahoney as Belize, and Matthew Vire as Louis Ironson. The rest of the ensemble also does good work but the five listed above are doing most of the heavy lifting for the production. Get any of them, in any combination, together in a scene, as both characters and actors, and the world comes into focus and the show takes off.

Those two things are enough to make it worth the ticket price so if you don’t need to know anything else to make up your mind, just skip to the end and get the info on how to order your tickets.

Angels In America” is subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” and deals with the later years of the Reagan era in American political and social life, which were also the horror years of the AIDS epidemic we now take for granted. The script explores this time by focusing on the disintegration of two couples - two married Mormons, and two gay men - living in New York City. Joe Pitt (Boertje), chief clerk at the Federal Court of Appeals, is losing control of his marriage due to his wife Harper (Marie Williams)’s addiction to pills, and Joe’s own secret desires. Prior Walter (Kloppenborg)’s recent AIDS diagnosis, at a time there wasn’t any effective treatment, much less a cure, has his skittish partner Louis Ironson (Vire) looking for the nearest exit. Meanwhile, the world’s most famous homophobic gay anti-Semitic Jew, master lawyer and manipulator Roy Cohn (Gardner) has had unfortunate medical news of his own. Roy plots to get Joe a job in the Justice Department in D.C. so his young protégé can act as his protector in the halls of power, where the vultures are circling. Throw in Prior’s flamboyant ex-lover Belize (Mahoney), Joe’s steely Mormon mother Hannah (Miriam Monasch), and an Angel (Lindsey Johnson), and shake. The chance meetings and head-on collisions of this collection of characters have far-reaching consequences.

Reasons I Was Scratching My Head

The friend who attended the production with me was an “Angels” virgin - never read it, never seen it on stage, never saw the movie. So he became a very useful test subject for whether the production was making its points or not. After all, I’m familiar with the script, the story and the characters. I knew where it was going. Due to also having seen and read Part 2 multiple times, I even knew places all the characters and story were headed that my friend still doesn’t. My friend could approach the play and production with truly fresh eyes.

He loved it. He was captivated. He laughed a lot. But he also said something which I thought I was telling. He found himself listening intently to the words and connecting intellectually, but not as much emotionally. The individual performances were good, but the relationships between some of the characters, the chemistry, seemed off. So it was hard to plug in his heart as easily as he did his head. While I didn’t have the same issue much of the time, my familiarity with the text and characters may be filling in a lot of the blanks my friend found it easier to see. It didn’t spoil the experience for him, but the disconnect was there.

My first red flag was the cast size. I was sitting there telling my friend what a brilliant example of double-casting Kushner’s script was, and then realized that instead of eight actors, we had ten. Kushner’s choice of who to double-cast as what wasn’t strictly a nod to economics. The doubling is thematic, and thus incredibly important. The things the characters say, the stands they take, are either reinforced by the doubling, or shown off by the characters’ opposing views. Also, there is the issue of playing across gender. Gender and expectations around gender roles and sexuality are a huge beast this play is hunting. So you don’t screw with that. You screw with that, you screw with the play. You screw with the play, you undermine its impact. It was built a certain way for a reason. The best thing you can do is just set it up, as designed, set it loose, and get out of its way. The play will do most of your work for you. The play will tell you what it needs. That’s a large part of why it’s such a great script.

This is not to take anything away from the two actors who had a place on the cast list essentially created for them out of thin air - Amber Appel as Prior’s nurse Emily; and Larry Evans as Roy Cohn’s doctor Henry, Roy’s political compatriot Martin Heller, and the ghost of a 17th century ancestor of Prior’s also named Prior Walter, who shows up to help herald the coming of the Angel. Both these actors added to the ensemble do a fine job, in particular Evans, who has been handed three roles meant to be played by three other very different members of the cast. So let’s use that as an example.

Roy’s doctor Henry is actually supposed to be played by the actress playing Hannah, Joe’s mother. Hannah serves as a sharp slap across the face for anyone in this two part epic needing a reality check. This is the same function Roy’s doctor serves when, despite all manner of threats from Roy, he delivers the news that Roy has AIDS. The actress playing Hannah also plays the role of the Rabbi who is supposed to open the play, presiding over the funeral of Louis’ grandmother, someone else Louis abandoned, presaging his coming abandonment of Prior. When Louis goes to the Rabbi for absolution, the Rabbi instead offers him the hard truth of his situation. As doctor and Rabbi, the actress playing Hannah is also book-ending the first act by playing cross-gender roles. Again at the end of the play, the actress playing Hannah takes on another role, that of the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, sent again to Roy to hammer home the reality of his deteriorating health.

Martin Heller, Roy’s well-connected friend inside the Justice Department in Washington, is also supposed to be played cross-gender, this time by the actress playing Joe’s wife, Harper. So in the scene where Martin meets with Roy to help pressure Joe into accepting a job in D.C., the actress playing Joe’s wife is urging Joe to leave his wife. Just as Joe’s wife will also later turn around and tell Joe he should leave her and go to D.C. Roy’s doctor and political contact are thus both men being played by women - both of whom elsewhere have strong connections to Joe as mother and wife. And Roy’s young protégé Joe has desires similar to many women, for other men.

The doubling left intact by this production just reinforces how smart and thematic those decisions are. When Harper escapes in her fantasies to Antarctica, the Eskimo who appears is played by the same actor playing Joe. Even in her fantasies, she can’t escape her bond to her husband. When Louis goes out to the park, cruising for sex, the man he meets is played by the same actor playing Prior. So even in betraying his lover, his lover is always present. The actor playing Belize also plays Mr. Lies, the fantasy travel agent through whom Harper plots her imaginary escape from reality. Just as Mr. Lies serves as Harper’s guide to an alternate reality, Belize serves as Prior’s grounding influence and support when angels and strange voices begin appearing to Prior. And who meets up in the world of fantasy and dreams? Harper and Prior - both charges of the same actor playing two different caretakers. The actress playing the Angel also plays a real estate agent and friend of Hannah’s who urges her to stay put in the holy land of Utah, home of the Mormon faith. The same actress also plays a homeless woman Hannah meets right after arriving in New York, who then points Hannah to the Mormon Visitors Center, another reminder of the faith and home she left behind. That same actress should also be playing the Nurse, telling Prior to stay put, the way Hannah’s friend told her, and the way the Angel wants to freeze things the way they are, or used to be, rather than move forward. Just as the Nurse works to heal Prior in Part 1, the Angel ultimately blesses and heals Prior in Part 2.

If you stare at the play long enough, it all folds in on itself. That’s deliberate. The trick in producing the play is to take the time to stare at it long enough - to unlock its secrets rather than impose some additional structure of your own on top of it which doesn’t serve the story. The decisions made for this production which I find most baffling are always the ones which seem to fly directly in the face of the script as it was written, the production doing its own thing in spite of the script.

The most egregious bit of gerrymandering after the issue of doubling characters is the inexplicable presence of “extras” in so many of the scenes. And not just the background of scenes. In several instances, these additional people were right on top of the characters who were actually supposed to be the real focus of the scene. If you’re not onstage reinforcing the action, directing attention toward the intended central characters, then you’re just distracting from them. This happened with maddening frequency. The “extras” were never intentionally upstaging their fellow cast members. But unintentionally they couldn’t help it. BECAUSE THEY WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE THERE. (Sorry to “shout.” But that bugged me.) Roy and Joe are alone in their corner of the bar. That’s why they can speak so openly to one another. The script does not say, “Roy and Joe are surrounded by people reading newspapers. Ignoring them.” Louis and Joe are alone on their own bench, in their own little world, eating hot dogs. That’s why they can begin to flirt. The script does not say, “Louis and Joe are sitting six inches away from the actress playing Joe’s wife and the actor playing Louis’ friend Belize, both reading newspapers. Ignoring them.” This happens again and again and again. I get the newspaper fixation. Really, I do. The entire set is covered in newspaper. Replicas of signature bits of America’s skyline - the Twin Towers, the Golden Gate bridge, Minneapolis’ AT&T tower, the Space Needle - are all built out of and covered in newspaper. It’s cute when a newspaper is turned inside out and becomes the shimmering holy book in Prior’s vision. It’s clever when the rustling of newspapers at the end heralds the coming of the Angel because it sounds like wings flapping. I get it. But a couple of clever bits don’t justify knee-capping the rest of the text.

Plus, the notion of extras is muddied because of the way the costumes are used. The signifier for someone being part of the nameless ensemble is, they’re wearing their black trench coat over their other costume. The problem with this is that multiple characters wear their coats at different times as if they were their characters, wearing trench coats. So the production sets up its own convention, and then breaks it. Repeatedly. To the point that the trench coats don’t mean anything anymore.

I’m going to give tech a pass, particularly lighting design and stage management, because they were apparently having massive technical problems the night I attended which caused them to hold the opening of the house until close to curtain time. Weird transitions, malfunctioning lighting instruments, with all that going on I can’t be sure what was intentional and what was accidental. The fact that the actors kept it all moving despite the unpredictable illumination is to be commended. That’s when you know you’ve got a good ensemble with “the show must go on” attitude about them.

Finally, could I please implore director Cherie Anderson to trust that the playwright, who developed this play over the course of many years, and won a Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards for it, might just know what he was doing when he decided to start the play the way he did. Yes, I understand that it may seem weird that we begin an epic with a speech by a minor character, portrayed cross-gender by an actress playing an old Jewish Rabbi, instead of one of the many major players in the story. However, that doesn’t mean you should orchestrate an alternative opening image of Prior, standing high atop a platform staring out at the audience as they enter, then surrounded by the trench coat clad ensemble before the play begins. Because the play isn’t about Prior. It’s about all of them. It’s about the larger society, made up of all these smaller representative individual stories. Which is what the Rabbi is saying. Just as Part 2 answers the challenge put forth in that play’s opening speech, Part 1 is a response to the Rabbi stating that “You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist.”

Roy makes the journey from being powerful to being powerless, kicking and screaming the whole way to oblivion. Harper makes the journey from reality to fantasy and ultimately back again, to freedom. Prior journeys into his illness, to heaven and back, and out the other side as a survivor of the 20th century’s great plague. Joe’s nightly walks in the park help him break the bonds of duty and expectation and remake himself as a new man. Louis runs away from things and people he can’t handle, but ends up not really leaving them after all. And Hannah, like the grandmother the Rabbi is eulogizing in the beginning, makes a journey across great distance for the sake of her child – to help her son and daughter-in-law as their marriage comes undone and their worlds come apart. There are many other examples, but this is a play about great voyages. It is a play about all of them, and all of us. But this is supposed to be a review, not a doctoral dissertation, so I’ll stop.

Despite its flaws, any production of “Angels In America” is like pizza or sex. Even when it’s not the best pizza you’ve ever had, or the best sex you ever had, it’s still pizza, it’s still sex. This is still a production of “Angels In America,” and that’s always a good thing. It’s still a great play with really good performances, so it remains...

Highly Recommended.

People Sittin’ Around Doin’ Theater’s production of “Angels In America, part 1: Millennium Approaches” runs through May 24, 2009 at the Lowry Lab (not the other Lowry theater with “Tony & Tina’s Wedding,” though it’s just around the corner in the same block, so be careful) - 350 St. Peter Street in St. Paul. Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $14, $12 for students/seniors/Fringe button, $10 each for groups of 10 or more. Pay what you can performance on May 24 ($7 recommended donation). Tickets at 1-800-838-3006 or More information at

Monday, May 18, 2009

Shameless Plug of the Day - Murderess (one night only)

Lizzie Borden would like your company this evening (Monday, May 18, 2009). So would Laura Fair, and Belle Gunness. Just watch your back.

Details - (tonight) Monday, May 18, 2009, at 7:30 pm

Performance Location
Brackett Park Recreation Center
2728 39th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55406

Anne Bertram, local playwright and Managing Director of Theatre Unbound, has crafted a new one woman show for actress Kristen Shea - who used to be local, but now is based in New York City. Stacey Poirier, Artistic Director of Theatre Unbound, is the director of the piece.

The play, "Murderess," is, in the words of the playwright...

"a suite of three monologues by killers from American history: Laura Fair (whose case Mark Twain fictionalized in "The Gilded Age"), Belle Gunness (an Indiana serial killer from the early part of the 20th century), and, of course, Lizzie Borden, who famously took up an axe. It has been fun, and a huge challenge, to dig into their stories and shape these monologues. This is the only performance of 'Murderess' that we have planned in the Twin Cities this year, so come if you can; I'd love to know what you think."

They applied to the Minnesota Fringe Festival, but sadly languish way down on the second half of the list, so chances for an August run here don't look good.

But thanks to this performance, we get a chance to see it anyway, and help support the New York premiere, which is still on track for this year.

I'm a huge fan of Anne's writing. So much so that I touted her as one of five local writers that would be part of my dream season of plays for a theater, were I allowed to program such a thing, in a recent article for I admire her economy with language, her intelligence, and her sly sense of humor. We've also crafted a few short plays together stemming from work on the 24 Hour Play Projects for Theatre Unbound - including Dog Tag, which was not only part of last year's Minnesota Fringe Festival, but also got picked up by a college down south in Baton Rouge, and a scrappy little theater company down (not quite as south) in Chicago, all in 2008. A busy year for the Dog. Other oddities we've composed are Hunt For The Bus Monkey, Touched By A Handbag, and Feather Duster.

All this goes by way of saying, I'm totally there tonight, and would gladly pay more than $25 for the privilege to see and support Anne's work (and I may yet, as I hear there's a tiny silent auction taking place as well this evening).

It's a great way to spend your Monday night and kick off your theater-going week.

Join us, won't you?

Once more...

Written by Anne Bertram
Directed by Stacey Poirier

May 18, 2009

Theatre Unbound hosts a benefit performance of Kristen Shea in Murderess, a new play by Anne Bertram. In this one-woman show, three famous killers from American history - Laura Fair, Belle Gunness, and Lizzie Borden - defend their crimes. One night only!

Performance Date and Time:

Monday, May 18, 2009
7:30 pm

Performance Location:

Brackett Park Recreation Center
2728 39th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55406

Ticket Information:

Tickets are $25 and are available at the door.

Proceeds to benefit Kristen's New York production of the piece.


Tea and cookies will be served!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Review - How I Learned To Drive - Workhouse Theatre - 5 stars

“Why is there always blood?”

Objectively, I know that no theater production is ever perfect. But if something is wrong with Workhouse Theatre’s current presentation of “How I Learned To Drive,” I sure as hell couldn’t tell you what it is. I think I just became a fan of everyone involved in this production, on or off stage. I see a lot of theater, and even though I love theater, I dig inside the guts of it all the time. It’s very hard for me to get lost inside a story. It’s very hard to thrill me. This production sent that little chill down my spine. It’s that good.

“Never order anything with ‘voodoo’ or ‘vixen’ in the title.”

Clearly a big portion of the credit has to start with Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning script. It’s been well over ten years since I last saw a production of this play, but I still had good memories of it. Hearing the words of the script again reminded me why. It’s hilarious. It’s about a deeply unfunny subject, but it’s brimming with humor. It’s also tremendously full of heart, and pain. (All of this made me wish I’d managed to also see Theatre Unbound’s recent production of “How I Learned To Drive.” The script’s so good, I could stand to see it once a year easily.)

“Domesticity can be a balm for men when they’re lost.”

This is also the kind of script, however, that is incredibly easy to screw up. In a lot of places, it's highly stylized, particularly in the transitions where it moves back through time. Actors play multiple roles. At the same time, the story is grounded in a hard, truthful reality that doesn't flinch. Play the comedy too broad, or the drama too over the top, and you're lost. It's a complicated juggling act. But this crew not only pulls it off, they make it look effortless. Director Steve Bucko guided his actors and his design team gracefully through the minefield and out the other side, so well that you could almost forget how much trouble one could get in with just a step too far to the right or the left in any direction.

“Peck is so good for them when they get to this age.”

This is because "How I Learned To Drive" is a young woman's recollection of how, under the guise of driving lessons, her uncle, over 25 years her senior, struck up a romantic and sexual relationship with her, starting when she was 11 years old. With an outline like that, it might be very tempting to immediately start pegging characters as villains and victims. The genius of the script, and this production of it, is that no one is completely guilty, and no one is completely innocent. No one is irredeemably hateful, no one is guilelessly sweet. You feel for everyone in this scenario. You feel for some more than others, depending on your point of view on the story, but you do feel for them all. Because they are all recognizably human, even underneath some inhuman behaviors and personalities. There is sympathy, if not forgiveness, doled out to everyone. And that's a small, but potent, miracle.

“Girls turn into women long before boys turn into men.”

Jaime Kleiman, as the young woman, nicknamed Li'l Bit, takes the stage in the opening moments and holds it until the final fadeout. It's quite a feat to sometimes be outside the story, presenting it, even watching it from a distance, and then a moment later to be living fully in a moment of that same story. As if you had no idea where the future was going to lead you, and all there was was the possibility tucked inside this one instant of time. The more I think about how tricky that movement back and forth is, from presenter to participant, the more impressed I become with her performance.

“There is no moon tonight.”

Equally central to the heart of this tale is the damaged Uncle Peck, portrayed by Michael Jurenek. There are all sorts of explanations for why Uncle Peck is the way he is - explanations, not excuses. He is one of those quiet veterans of World War II who never talked about his experiences, just kept them locked up inside. This was probably a large part of what fed his alcoholism. But in Jurenek's hands, I also started to understand not just how sad this man was, but how charismatic, and charming, and dangerous. It's hard not to like the guy. He seems to be the only one who really understands Li'l Bit, and her desire to rise above her backward upbringing and make something of herself.

“How is Shakespeare gonna help her lie on her back in the dark?”

But Uncle Peck uses his alcoholism as a ploy. If she spends time with him, he won't drink. However, Li'l Bit uses same strategy. She'll spend time with him, if he doesn't drink. The difference is, Uncle Peck's old enough to know better. Li'l Bit isn't. That doesn't mean they're both not using each other. That doesn't mean they both aren't, in some measure, each other's salvation as much as they are each other's undoing. It's an incredibly complex, more than a little sick, relationship. But it's also damn compelling to watch unfold. Like a car wreck, it's often repulsive but you can't look away.

“I’m a patient woman. But I’d like my husband back.”

The other human relations in this tangled story are just as freighted with conflicting motivation and levels of culpability. Linda Sue Anderson plays, among other characters, Li'l Bit's mother, and Li'l Bit's aunt, who is Uncle Peck's wife. Both women, in their own way, know that something's wrong. Both women, in their own way, rail against the damage done, and have their own targets on which to heap the blame. Both women still let it happen. Kristen Bucko plays, among others, Li'l Bit's crafty grandmother - delighting in sex and the power it brings, even as she warns everyone else against it. In the final minutes of the play, Bucko also steps in to augment the role of Li'l Bit in that first fateful driving lesson - showing the innocence of the girl right before it becomes irretrievably lost. Josh Vogen plays, among others, Li'l Bit's misogynist grandfather, a teenage conquest of Li'l Bit's college years, and a waiter who's seen way too many older men taking younger women to dinner on his job.

“Boy Scouts are always horny. What do you think the first merit badge is for?”

The whole design team really outdid themselves - Mark Webb on Lighting Design, Becky Flanders on Costume Design, Norma Peterson and Jane O'Brien on Props, and Sarah J. Leigh on Scenic Design. The combination of set and props in particular was simple, but elegant. They completely opened up that little corner stage space at The Warren and painted it all black, opening it up visually still further. Both the stage and audience space where populated with various road signs, and road construction markers (saw horses, barrels, etc.). A winding stretch of road in forced perspective cut across the floor of the stage and receded back into one of the walls. At key moments, the set would transform - a stop sign taken from where it hung on the wall to perch atop a barrel construction marker and serve as the table in a restaurant where Uncle Peck takes Li'l Bit to celebrate passing her driver's test. The stretch of road on the back wall folds down to become the bed in a hotel room where the final confrontation between the two central characters takes place.

“A girl with her skirt up can outrun a man with his pants down.”

Though I was worried the inclusion of slide projections would be intrusive, they proved to be a coherent part of the rest of the production in ways I couldn't have imagined. The images - designed by Kyle Truss, with photography by Daune Atter, Jr. and graphic design by Travis Olson - helped open the story up in ways a simple black void alone might not have done. The sense of environment, of the wide open spaces and freedom of the road, was helped immeasurably. But the projections never felt overdone, restraint which I appreciated.

Ultimately, in a piece like this, it's how the actors fill the silences between the words, and even underneath them, that spell success or failure. The things not being said, either because they can't be spoken aloud, or there simply are no words. Some things defy explanation. They have to be seen and felt. The emotion that lives at the heart of this story, both the humor and the heartache, is so fully realized, one really couldn't ask for more. For fear you might get it.

I’d been wondering when Workhouse would present another production that would bowl me over with the same power as their production of “‘Night, Mother” last season. I now have my answer. Catch “How I Learned To Drive” while you still can. It’s not to be missed.

Very Highly Recommended.

How I Learned To Drive” runs through May, 16, 2009 at Workhouse Theatre Co.’s home at The Warren, 4400 Osseo Road in Minneapolis. 7:30pm curtain. Run time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $12 ($10 seniors & students) at the door, $10 in advance ($8 seniors & students). Reservations and further information can be found at, or by calling 612-386-5763

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Shameless Plug of the Day - Five Fifths of the Brothers Grimm

This is the sort of thing that puts the Fringe Geek in my Single White Fringe Geek title...

The Minnesota Fringe Festival season inches ever closer, as heralded by one of the major milestones of recent Fringe years - the Five Fifths fundraiser.

A well-known story (The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and A Streetcar Named Desire have all been past victims) is chopped up in five sections. The sections are handed off to five theater companies/artists. Each of them puts their own stylistic spin on the material. And then the five sections are all thrown back together for one night only, proceeds of the event going to the Fringe to keep the festival humming along into yet another summer.

This year, there wasn't hacking apart involved, as the subject is The Brothers Grimm. Each of the participants took a Grimm tale, twisted it to their liking, and are bringing the results back to the table Monday night, May 4.

The artists this year are:

3 Sticks (a physical theater company that collaborates on company created work, and who took a whack at the Wizard of Oz a couple of years back for Five Fifths)

Ari Hoptman (a Fringe favorite for his wry sense of humor and way with words, plus he has a posse of great theater friends always ready to pitch in - which they also did on Oz two years ago)

Ferrari McSpeedy (together, or solo, as Mike Fotis and Joe Bozic, or as part of the Brave New Workshop ensemble, these guys are wickedly funny improv comedy artists. With BNW last year at Five Fifths, they took on Romeo & Juliet)

Mad King Thomas (an irreverent and inventive comedic dance trio who are no strangers to the Fringe)

and the snarky bloggers of (finally putting that open secret of who the hell they are to rest once and for all - and after Monday they'll maybe even start putting their real names on their blog entries. We know they're theater people. We know they're funny, and occasionally vicious. The Brothers Grimm seems like a good fit.)

One night only, at the Ritz Theatre - 345 NE 13th Avenue in Minneapolis - Monday, May 4, 2009, doors at 7pm, curtain at 7:30pm. $35 in advance, $40 at the door. All for a very good cause. Hopefully I'll see you there.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Review - The Miss Firecracker Contest - Starting Gate - 3 stars

“It’s a stupid meaningless contest! You’ll do fine!”

Beth Henley’s tough.

Don’t get me wrong. The woman has one more Pulitzer Prize and one more Academy Award nomination for her writing than I do. “Crimes of the Heart,” the play which got all the award love and for which she’s best known, is a fine piece of work which I quite like. As I was saying just the other day, Beth Henley’s sort of like Tennessee Williams without all the tragedy. Her plays are peopled by Southern eccentrics with dreams as big as their hearts. These characters just lack most of the essential skills to accomplish those dreams. But rather than descend into madness or kill themselves or be killed by others, Henley’s creations just keep on going. Like characters in a lot of Chekhov plays, it’s their determination to keep living, and keep striving, to one day make a better life for those who come after them if not themselves, that makes them noble. These are characters you can’t help rooting for, and caring about, often in spite of yourself, even as you’re laughing at the comedy which is their lives.

The problematic thing about Henley’s work, and the script for “The Miss Firecracker Contest” is a good example, is that it comes from a school of playwriting in the late 1970s/early 1980s that doesn’t hold up particularly well. The characters are frequently given peculiar names, like a woman named Popeye, and strange backstories to go along with them. Not for any good reason. Just because the playwright can, they do. This style of playwriting, while throwing off a lot of the musty conventions of plays that came before, nevertheless seems curiously straitjacketed by old ideas of how theater needs to be presented. For instance, you only have one set, with three walls surrounding it. If it must be changed, it happens at the act break, because wholesale environmental scene shifts are just too cumbersome. If something needs to happen outside this box, then someone’s just going to have to come in from offstage and report on it. It’s as if, for the space of about ten to twenty years, playwrights forgot that only TV and film need to be bound by literal reality. Theater has the imagination of the audience at its disposal. You are bound by nothing. You can do anything.

Another thing about a lot of plays written at this time is that they don’t really seem to be “about” anything. As if there aren’t any larger societal issues at play that put these characters in any context. As if their problems are just their problems and not symptomatic of anything beyond them. So, if you’re a straight white person in the world of these plays, the worst thing that can happen to you is a broken heart, a boring marriage, a bad reputation in a small town, a case of syphilis. But not tragic, Ibsen’s “Ghosts” syphilis. This is funny syphilis.

Starting Gate Productions’ current presentation of “The Miss Firecracker Contest” is a good production. There is good acting by the whole cast, good direction by David Coral, and some interesting design choices involved. But it strikes me the same way the Guthrie’s recent production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” did. It was a good production. But it was still a production of “The Two Gentleman of Verona,” which isn’t one of Shakespeare’s better, or even more coherent, plays. There’s a reason it’s not done very often. Other plays are better. If you choose to do a script like “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” the script is only going to allow you to be so good. All the good actors, directors and designers in the world can only do so much if the basics of the story aren’t giving them much raw material with which to work.

Carnelle (Bethany Ford) is determined to overcome her bad girl reputation and win respect via the unlikely avenue of a beauty pageant, specifically the 4th of July event, The Miss Firecracker Contest. She has enlisted the aid of Popeye (Heidi Jedlicka), her seamstress friend, and Elaine (Jean Salo), her cousin and a former Miss Firecracker herself, to help give her a competitive edge. Carnelle’s other cousin Delmount (Grant Henderson), recently released from a mental institution (as a plea bargain to avoid jail time after a bar fight), gets swept up in the whole thing as a source of moral support. Later on, two well-meaning stalkers and former love interests - one for Carnelle (Mac Sam, played by Dale Pfeilsticker), one for Delmount (Terry, played by Melissa Rutman) - appear to liven things up as the pageant gets underway. Elaine is using the pageant as an excuse to make a break from her husband, who apparently just loves her too much. We never meet Elaine’s husband - he just calls to check that she made it to her cousin’s home safely, and sends her flowers (gee, file a restraining order, honey, or better yet, send him to me instead.) Popeye decides she’s in love with Delmount, and pursues him in her own awkward way as aggressively as Carnelle courts that winner’s tiara.

There are hints of darker currents here and there underneath all the comedy - Delmount’s disturbing dreams, the fact that Carnelle has spent her life losing people she loves to early deaths, selling off the family home and possessions, racism, sexism, childhood trauma - but nothing really sticks, or cuts very deep. The script itself seems determined to adopt the relentless optimism of the characters - “Everything will be OK. Somehow. There are no other options.” Consequently, the director and his actors, all of whom have dug much deeper into darker territory in the past, aren’t allowed to unleash most of the weapons they have at their disposal. There are moments you can actually see them resisting the urge to go for it - mostly because there’s no “it” to go for. They’d merely end up going over the top, and they’re all too smart to fall into that trap. So laughs, not drama or melodrama, are the order of the day.

The set design by Todd Edwards makes more sense in reverse - once you’ve seen the look for Act Two, you understand the look for Act One. The reason is that the three large scenic elements - right, left and center - all rotate at the intermission. The three carnival tents for the pageant in Act Two were hidden on the back side of the home interior pieces of Carnelle’s house in Act One. The carnival setting comes off a little better. The house side of the set, because it’s doing double duty, ends up in a collection of odd shapes, particularly around the front door up center. The dark edges of the wall pieces seem to want to indicate that we’re getting a random cross section of the fuller wall - something that exists but which we don’t see completely. For me, it had the unfortunate effect of making me think the house had burned down around poor beleaguered Carnelle, and these chunks were all that remained. So the poor dear was putting on a brave face living in a home without walls. Not totally out of the question in a play of this period, but not what the production intended, I think.

One more nod has to go to the costume design by Emily Heaney. Her use of red, white, and/or blue across all the characters who shared the stage at any given moment was very clever. So clever that it only occurred to me as I thought back on the evening afterward. I appreciated the subtlety. It was there without banging you over the head visually the whole time. The pageant costumes were deliberately loud but the other clothing had the feeling of “just things the characters were wearing,” and that’s often hard to do well. Here, it’s done well.

The Miss Firecracker Contest” is a funny play about a bunch of genial, well-meaning misfits who refuse to be beaten down by reality, or often even to live in it. It’s a pleasant way to pass an evening, by people who know what they’re doing. So, for that reason, despite the sometimes creaky script, the production is still...


The Miss Firecracker Contest” runs through May 24, 2009 at Starting Gate’s home on the Mounds Theater stage - 1029 Hudson Road in St. Paul. Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $18, or $16 for Students & Seniors. For tickets and more information, call 651-645-3503 or visit

Friday, May 01, 2009

Shameless Plug(s) of the Day - 2 Female Pulitzer Prize-Winners

Woke up this morning with my unconscious zipping around like a pinball machine. Sat there for a minute trying to get a handle on it and figure out what the heck I did, or ate, or was thinking about, that had my brain working overtime while I was asleep. Then I remembered.

I'd been trying to wrap my head around all the theater going on right now, seeing as I'd been out of the loop for a couple of weeks due to my play down in Iowa, and an unexpected jaunt out to Los Angeles in the middle of the run.

I know this isn't news but damn there's a lot of theater going on right now. Everyone and their sister has a production running, opening this weekend, or just about to open. The mind quite literally boggles.

Example for the day - a cage match between Paula Vogel and Beth Henley, two winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Vogel's play How I Learned To Drive is hitting the stage at Workhouse Theatre

Henley's play The Miss Firecracker Contest is bowing over at Starting Gate

Both open tonight

I remember seeing the production of How I Learned To Drive done by Eye of the Storm over at the Loring Playhouse a number of years ago. Wow. I miss Eye of the Storm. And the Loring Playhouse. And if you don't know what either of those things are, I'm obviously way too old to be on the internet. ...Drive just had a production over in St. Paul courtesy of Theatre Unbound. Now, thanks to Workhouse, northeast Minneapolis gets a shot. More royalties for Paula. All to the good.

The thing I remember most vividly about ...Drive is how full-on theatrical it is, playing with space and time, and the audience's preconceived notions, with abandon. And humor. And forgiveness. All of which seems pretty peculiar considering the play is about the inappropriate sexual relationship between an uncle and his teenage niece. But that, in a nutshell, is Paula Vogel - taking subject matter most people wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole (ew, pardon the expression), and making even the most unforgivable people seem human, and someone we recognize. If you haven't seen the play, you should. It's funny, and heartwarming, and unsettling, sometimes all at once. It's the kind of thing I point to as the reason I still do theater.

I've read The Miss Firecracker Contest, but never seen a production. Beth Henley's work is sort of Tennessee Williams without all the tragedy. Quirky (sometimes sleazy) Southerners, most of them losers and misfits of one stripe or another, often related, just trying one more time for that brass ring. Actually reaching the dream isn't nearly as important as giving it your best shot. Characters you can't help rooting for, and feeling a bit close to.

I'm still kicking myself for being so caught up in rewrites on the Iowa production that I completely missed Starting Gate's Hot L Baltimore, because I love me some Lanford Wilson. And you just don't see large ensemble productions like that all that often anymore. Plus the cast of Firecracker has a lot of my favorites in it - Jean Salo (who came close to walking off with Starting Gate's production of The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window), Bethany Ford (so great in Starting Gate's Anton In Show Business), Dale Pfeilsticker (good in pretty much anything he does), and Grant Henderson (who, in the interests of full disclosure, has acted in productions of two of my plays, and I would happily write roles for as long as he'll do them). And that's just the people I know going in. David Coral, the director, always does good work, too, so I'm looking forward to this one. Curious to see how the script holds up over time. And that's something Starting Gate does best, theatrical excavation. Even when the production or the script doesn't work, it's not for lack of trying.

Either way you go here, you can't go wrong. Just depends on what you're in the mood for.

How I Learned To Drive runs through May 16th at Workhouse's home in The Warren, 4400 Osseo Road in Minneapolis (no, it's not *in* Osseo) - for more information, visit

The Miss Firecracker Contest runs through May 24th at Starting Gate's home on the Mounds Theatre stage, 1029 Hudson Road in St. Paul - for more information, visit

I'm sure they'd love to see you. And perhaps you'll see me there as well.