Sunday, August 10, 2014

Fringe Review - Persons Unknown - Rarig Proscenium - 5 stars

One of the many things for which I have to thank the late John Munger for is opening my eyes to all the many opportunities to see different kinds of dance at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.  If he hadn’t, I’d probably have missed all kinds of wonderful shows over the last several years. Persons Unknown from the Saint Paul Ballet would be one of them.  So, thanks, John, for not letting me miss this one.

Basically when I’m loading my schedule on the Fringe website, I just load in all the dance shows as a starting place, alongside the many other plays and performances.  If for some reason, there isn’t a play I’m interested in seeing at a particular time, chances are there’s more than one dance show being offered and I can check that out instead.  Makes the Fringe a lot more fun that way.  Plus I start learning about particular companies and if I like their show, I’m more likely to actively seek them out the next year they appear at the Fringe.  (One always hopes that I’ll catch more dance outside the Fringe during the rest of the year, but baby steps…) One of the companies I’ll be looking for in the future is Saint Paul Ballet.

Persons Unknown is a hopelessly generic title, but then I saw it was dance and went, OK, let’s poke around and see what else I can learn.  They wisely did a little video trailer filmed at their first performance and posted it on the Fringe site, so I got a quick sampler and thought, sure, that looks fun.

Better than fun.  Good dancers constantly amaze the heck out of me.  I often have trouble just walking from one end of the room to the other.  These people are actually graceful.  They have full control over their bodies.  They make humans look really good as a species.  So it makes it even more charming when you discover that they like flopping around wildly and having fun, too.  (They just do it so much more fluidly and precisely than the rest of us.) [And yes, in case you were wondering, the whole company is one big male and female Whitman Sampler of eye candy - enjoy.]

Persons Unknown mixes the techniques of ballet and modern dance throughout the evening and it’s a real kick to watch.  Their opening number “Hounds of Love” is set to the tune of Kate Bush’s song of the same name.  While two of the dancers perform a more standard ballet male-female dance pairing, four other female dancers in tutus are rocking out around them.  Dancer/choreographer Nina Joly also choreographed two comic dance interludes for Preston Stockert, one right after the opening number and one right before the closer.  Gives the other dancers time to change and means one less pause in the action where the lights come up for the audience to peruse their programs.  Plus, Stockert can be just as goofy there as he is serious in the other dances in which he performs.

Preston Stockert later takes the choreography reigns for “Attainability, Affirmation and Inquiry,” setting a trio of dancers in motion - Brittany Adams, Nicole Brown, and Artistic Director Zoe Emilie Henrot.  Decked out in white, they perform in alternating patterns of one dancer alone, the other two as a unit.  Watching the different combinations ebb and flow was quite lovely.

In “Hats Off,” dancer/choreographer Jarod Boltjes stages a tango with Amber Genetzky, she in a slinky black dress, him in a black vest and slacks, both with a fedora on their heads.  There’s some repeated non-verbal negotiation throughout as to who gets to wear a hat (perhaps analogous to the old “who wears the pants in the family” or in this case on the dance floor).

Genetzky later stages a ballet/modern combo to the acoustic warbling of Ed Sherran’s song “One” - a lot of amazing stretching and spinning (good Lord, the control these people have to stay perfectly in balance).  Genetzky, Boltjes and Stockert joined here by Joanna Lowry, Michelle Ludwig and Jacqueline McDaniel.  Everyone in grey tights, the women with a little splash of orange for their gauzy skirts.  The whole thing ends in a tableau that’s as striking as it is simple.  Beautiful.

Dancer/choreographer Amy Trayers tackles the subject of mental illness through movement in “Emotional Alchemy.”  Dark outfits, probably navy blue, with bright red bands around the head or abdomen of each of the dancers - Adams, Brown, Henrot and Trayers, with Boltjes or Stockert alternating performances as the lone male in the number.  Darker lighting, more dancers in isolation from one another, reaching out, trying to speak, ultimately freeing themselves from the red accent.  Symbolic but not overdone, a really interesting piece of thought-provoking movement.

Dancer/choreographer Micah Chermak danced in his own piece “Impetus: Red” but first put fellow dancers Shannon Corbett and Michelle Ludwig front and center for the opening section of the dance.  He stepped in later.  The stunning thing to watch about this dance, full of limbs, both arms and legs, taking abrupt right angles throughout, was the synchronization of the three performers.  Yes, that’s a hallmark of all good dance, but I couldn’t help being doubly impressed when one or more of the dancers broke off into their own routine and then would suddenly return to moving in unison with another dancer in the trio.  (Again, dancers regularly turn the human body into something that baffles and amazes me.)

The women of the company all took to the stage together for the final dance, “Nadine,” choreographed by Artistic Director Henrot.  One dancer moving to her own rhythm slowly manages to touch, directly or by proxy, every one of the other dancers moving in pairs in a more regimented routine.  Little flashes of shared independence break out all over and get incorporated into the main dance.  It was fun to track the progress of change.

After the whole company took its bows, they all starting bopping along to a modern tune on their retreat from the stage.  Even rocking out, they’re more graceful than you or I.  But it is fun watching their humanity break out from under all that professionalism and control.  The new order in the Saint Paul Ballet is that the artists have taken the reigns of leadership in running the group and creating new work, providing opportunity to a new generation of choreographers in training.  If their Fringe show Persons Unknown is an example of the result of that new way of doing business, they’re definitely a group I want to see more of outside of Fringe season.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Fringe Review - Connected - Rarig Xperimental - 5 stars

Had I known Connected involved audience participation, I might have stayed away.  As it is, I’m very glad I stumbled into it by accident.  (I’ll admit it, sneaking out wasn’t an option for a couple of reasons - one, Mom wanted to maximize her Ultra Pass so we weren’t going to miss a slot if we were already at a show; two - we were two of only six people in the audience - and one of the six was the artist’s dance partner from their two person dance show Duetted, plus mom moves kind of slow - and there were stairs - so it would have been pretty obvious.)  [I know some people have no problem walking out of shows but I honestly can’t bring myself to do it.  Part of me thinks I’m being disrespectful to the artist who (one assumes) put in a lot of work.  Professional courtesy.  The other part of me is an eternal optimist, hoping that the show will somehow get better, so I hang in there til the end.]

So, audience participation.  OK.  Now I understand Dan Schuchart introducing himself to each member of the audience and shaking hands.  It’s not just that he’s a friendly guy.  It’s not just that he was grateful to the six people who showed up.  He wanted to start establishing a relationship so when he called us out of our seats, we wouldn’t just be nameless strangers sitting in the dark.  Well, the lights pretty much stayed up the whole time so I guess we weren’t in the dark either.

Mom and I enjoyed Connected a whole lot.  It turned out to be a very fun and relaxing show.  A real change of pace.  Mom and one other audience member really couldn’t stand or physically participate for long, but that was OK.  They sat in the front row and Dan found multiple ways to include them in the action anyway.

Connected essentially was a deconstruction of the artist’s process when creating a dance - or, heck, creating anything really.  First we circled up and all clapped once together on cue to get into the same moment together (yes, I know that sounds a little new agey but even with our collective impaired sense of rhythm, it did seem to help.)  We then shook things out and moved into performing a group “happy dance” which consisted of simple arm and leg movements in different combinations - no choreography really, just bouncing around in time to the music, each in our own happy place. 

Then, circling up for a group shoulder massage.  Mom was seated so Dan took care of her shoulders.  All the while that was going on, Dan was talking through his process.  Then he showed how one simple movement would evolve into the next ultimately morphing into a little mini-dance.  His grace and control were something to watch.  Later on in the proceedings he did a full on dance routine that was quite mesmerizing.  Throughout the show, Dan encouraged us to feel free to move around the edges of the space and watch the action from a different angle.  Someone even took him up on it to the extent of climbing the stairs into the walkway that runs the perimeter above and around the stage space in the Rarig Xperimental theater.

Talking about patterns and where inspiration comes from, Dan unwound a skein of yellow yarn, running it from one person to another around the circle of people, sometimes shifting the whole circle right or left, sometimes asking people to switch positions but still hang onto their yarn while doing so, creating a different web each time we added to the complexity.  There was also a time to sit down and listen to him share a poem, and a final project building a screen that got hoisted in the air and then served as a place for a projection of ever changing colored concentric circles that we all laid down in the dark and watched for a while.  We also just let out some air and noise while doing so, the sound and energy ebbing and flowing as the calming environment continued to cycle through on the screen.

There were a number of other things the show consisted of, but since I was up and out of my seat, I don’t have the usual detailed notes on this one. 

I don’t give out five stars lightly.  And normally audience participation gives me hives.  But in Dan Schuchart’s capable hands, we all had a really nice time just hanging out, loosening up and moving a bit, listening to him talk about art and process, helping build things, and just generally break down the usual audience/performer dynamic.  It was fun, it was different, and I felt like I took a lot away from it.

If you’re looking to step out of the crazy swirl that is Fringe for just 50 minutes or so, this show’s a perfect antidote to Fringe fatigue.  And truly, the guy deserves more than a half dozen people in the house.  Not only would it change the dynamic of the show in interesting ways, what he’s doing with Connected is a treat, a gift.  You’d be silly to pass up receiving it.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Friday, August 08, 2014

Fringe Review - Fringe Orphans 3 - TRP - 3 stars

Mom and I attended on that rare night when the full roster of content was actually part of the show for Fringe Orphans 3.  One of the advantages of the Fringe Orphans format, lining up random short content from a variety of artists, is that if some artists aren’t available on a particular night because of other Fringe shows in which they might be involved, still others are available to pitch in.  Also, some artists that don’t have the time available to prepare a whole Fringe show can often be enticed into fitting a shorter sketch into their schedule.  And on some nights, like this one, the stars and schedules align and everyone can perform the full range of shorts.

I have to admit, much as I like the concept of giving a platform to shorter works that can’t quite fill a whole Fringe slot but can be combined with others to make a full hour of entertainment, it really does depend on the shorts involved.  This year’s grab bag is more of a mixed bag in terms of successful items versus those that work less well.

Mom and I both agreed the high point was Ariel Leaf’s solo storytelling turn, recounting the tale of the first time a man actually took the time to woo her, later in her romantic life than she’d hoped or expected, but better late than never.

We began and ended the evening with superhero-themed sketches.  Batman’s Bruce Wayne (Dave Gangler) on an internet-arranged date (Rachel Finch) was the closer, written and directed by Annie Scott Riley.  phillip andrew bennett low dreamed up a new career for Dr. Bruce Banner (Tim Uren), the Hulk as avante gard theater critic.  Just, you know, don’t make him angry.  Unfortunately, the performance artist (Kyler Chase) in the sketch within a sketch turned Mom off by actually ripping pages out of a real Bible.  She wouldn’t have been much more comfortable with a fake prop Bible (nor would I) and it was one of those ubiquitous Gideon Bibles straight out of a hotel room night stand, but nonetheless a Bible.  I’ll give director Cody Stewart points for balls, but Mom was not amused.

There were again a couple of running gags that were interspersed between the other scenes.  Though we got no crowd-pleaser like last year’s “The Sound of Food,” Amber Bjork’s offering “Fit In This” was again the more successful of the multipart storyline entries this year.  Bjork and Kristina Fjellman played identically dressed creepy little girls, with a manner almost right out of Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s The Shining.  Each time they encountered a man reading thick serious novels (Brian O’Neal), they implored him to play with them.  These incidents escalated in creepiness and comedy in a most satisfying way.

Jena Young’s running bit “What The Beep” - a woman driven mad by some beeping device that, try as she might she couldn’t locate and turn off - had the disadvantage of being a beep that I also wanted to turn off.

Scot Moore and Victoria Pyan had two winners - one on the subject of the difference between the sexes when it comes to reproductive healthcare in “Non-Breeders;” the other featuring “Great Moments In Metro Transit” among their fellow commuters.

Not sure exactly what Alissa Shellito’s “Gook In The Mist” was supposed to accomplish.  It might be an instance where things where a little too brief to make the desired point.  Duck Washington’s “Bizarro World” was an interesting conceit, but the ending left me unsatisfied.  Perhaps here, as in some other Fringe shows, things are still under development.

Fringe Orphans 3 was an uneven mix this time out, but still a good concept.

3 stars, Recommended

Fringe Review - The Sex (Ed) Show - Rarig Xperimental - 5 stars

Mom pronounced this one “Just raunchy enough” and had a thoroughly good time.  It’s no surprise The Sex (Ed) Show is selling out its venue.  As racy as The Dirty Curls can often be in their choice of subject matter, they also really love their audience.  They’re not there to shock or repulse anyone.  They’re out to sing the praises of sex and sexuality as a healthy and fun part of life.  Plus, as Mom quite rightly points out, Courtney McLean, Samantha Veldhouse. Anna Weggel and Lacey Ann Zeiler have gorgeous voices that sound even more gorgeous together.  Sort of an angelic choir of mischievous sprites.  Not only that, they play a mean guitar, banjo, mandolin and/or ukelele, and tambourine.  (They also got an assist from token dude friend Kevin Scott on upright bass).

This Fringe show is much like their last in terms of format - a combination of frank talk storytelling that leans heavily on the comedy (whether it’s Courtney’s adventures in lesbianism, Samantha’s letter to her younger self suffering through puberty, or everyone’s tales of lost virginity); sketches like Anna Weggel’s word play spurred on by the letters in the word Condom - or the last minute nudity offering Guess That Boob; and lots and lots of great songs - lilting tones accompanying discussion of safe words, STDs, negotiating sexual position, sexy life as a new mom, an incongruous longing to skip right from parenthood to grandchildren, and of course another sexy theme song.

Don’t worry, there’s even raunchier material available if you check out their local gigs in bars around town.  But for the Fringe, they thought they’d try and strike a slightly more general audience friendly balance in content, while still remaining true to the spirit of the band.  As usual, they succeed in a big and entertaining way with The Sex (Ed) Show.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - Happy Vagina Puppet Show - Rarig Thrust - 3-1/2 stars

I love the fact that, at Fringe time, there are things called Happy Vagina Puppet Show.  And that I have a mother who is game to accompany me to something called Happy Vagina Puppet Show.  As previously tweeted, Mom was willing to be quoted as saying, “I’ve never seen so many vibrators in one place before.”  And apparently they can also be used for eating pudding - just one of the many helpful hints you can take away from this show.

Let’s face it, Happy Vagina Puppet Show is odd.  But it’s supposed to be odd.  It’s also playful and full of energy and joy.  It lives up to its title.  No angst here.  It’s a celebration of, well, vaginas and the womanhood and mothering they represent.  The performers (Liz Carey-Linskey, Michelle Casall, Stephanie Dedieu, Megan Koester, Shannon Leach, Michelle Makie, Peter Rusk and Garrett Vollmer, led by director Tyler Olsen) are all clad in black and are just as happy slinking around on the stage floor as they are upright and comically dancing.  The “no big deal” attitude they take toward their subject goes a long way to normalizing something people normally respond to squeamishly in public forums. 

The primary stand-in for the titular vagina is a large silver shiny length of tubing, which Mom likened to a Slinky toy with skin on it but which might just as easily be familiar to people as duct work around laundry dryers and other ventilation systems. The Vagina Puppet is big enough for human performers to be inside of and manipulate in routines straight out of Mummenshanz.  It wanders and rolls around, pokes itself between women’s legs, produces useful props like ukeleles, and even gives birth later in the show.

There is also the clever use of deliberately crude cartoons and shadow projections, in addition to all those previously mentioned vibrators.  There is an enthusiastic dance celebration of pubic hair, I think, and a dance tribute to tampons, as well as the breaking of hymens in a ballet set to the tune of “Like A Virgin” (of course).

I know this all sounds quite random and weird, but it’s also all very much in good fun.  Dangerous Productions is taking a brief respite from freaking us out with horror theater to stop and say, “Hey, no need to be uncomfortable, vaginas are your friend, and they’re pretty great.  Enjoy!”

3.5 stars, Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - Shakespeare Apocalypse: A New Musical - TRP - 4.5 stars

Mom said I could quote her, so, “They had me right up until the virgin sacrifice and the song about the anti-Christ.  After that, they kind of lost me.”

When disgruntled actor Peter (Philip C. Matthews) unleashes a barn-burning diatribe against the unending parade of productions of the plays of Shakespeare that goes viral online worldwide, it somehow triggers the end of the world, aka Shakespeare Apocalypse: A New Musical.  This is brought about by Shakespeare himself (Adam Rousar), along with his famous sidekicks Jane Austen (Lisa Bol) and Ernest Hemingway (Scot Moore).  They sold their souls to the devil in order to achieve literary immortality.  When that immortality is threatened, they strike back.  Peter’s fellow actor - and inevitable love interest - Amy (Jill Iverson) has to kick some butt, and instill some courage in Peter to do the same, in order to try to prevent the apocalypse.  Arts video blogger Tracy (Peyton McCandless) keeps trying to post and tweet even as the world unravels around her and she gets caught up in the evil trio’s plot against humanity.

The cast is amazing.  Matthews has a voice that’ll blow you out of your seat, and Iverson and McCandless are ready to match him note for note, even if their characters don’t get as many chances to shine.  The villains of the piece, as always, threaten to steal the show from our heroes.  Rousar is hilariously fey as Shakespeare - and yes, normally something like that would tend to rub me the wrong way, but Shakespeare is so clearly in control at all times and so delightfully evil that I don’t mind.  This effeminate fellow is no one’s victim, and his habit of speaking his stage directions aloud always made me laugh.  Bol’s turn as Jane Austen is wonderfully butch and disdainful.  Moore’s Hemingway admits right up front that he doesn’t sing, which gets one of the bigger laughs in a show full of them.

So what’s wrong?  That’s harder to pin down.  Director and choreographer Ben Layne guides the whole thing along at a very high energy level, which is just what it needs.  Writer and music director Keith Hovis is ridiculously talented and his songs are all, you’ll pardon the expression, clever as hell.  And who among us hasn’t rolled his eyes at the preponderance of Shakespeare on Twin Cities stages, and parks, all year long (#downwiththebard)?  Shakespeare Apocalypse also can’t be accused of not following through on its dark premise right to the very end.

Weirdly enough, even though the script itself even calls out white male privilege a couple of times, it also falls victim to it - starting with our hero, and concluding with the final body count of who lives and who dies.  Also, there’s a fine line between homage and piggybacking on someone else’s work.  Shakespeare Apocalypse opens with a strategy (and song style) lifted right out of Little Shop of Horrors (though, to its credit, it’s not trying to make a secret of the fact).  It also riffs on the song stylings and lyrics of Jonathan Larson and Stephen Sondheim and does so with great skill.  I guess the production left me wondering, now that Hovis got his Shakespearean animus out of his system, and has thoroughly hopscotched all over the work of other great modern musical theater talents, what’s he going to do next (other than the sequel)?  Still, if you love musicals at Fringe time, and don’t mind a little disemboweling, Shakespeare Apocalypse is enormously entertaining and something you should see for yourself.

4.5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - The Miss Longview Texas Drag Pageant - TRP - 3-1/2 stars

As I said in a previous tweet after seeing this show, The Miss Longview Texas Drag Pageant is a whole lot of gay in one place, but I approve.  Brazen Theater’s Fringe offering, written and co-directed by Brazen founder Mark Hooker (with co-directing assistance from Janice Orlandi), is a streamlined version of a full-length piece, and given all the character and plot lines crammed into this Fringe-sized package, I can understand why they might all need a little more room to breathe.  As it stands, though, The Miss Longview Texas Drag Pageant still manages to make its own kind of wacky sense.  The extra time no doubt went to further character development and pacing to smooth out some of the rather abrupt twists and turns the plot makes in the current incarnation.  Right now, once it cranks up past the basic character introductions, the show moves along like more of a farce.  If there were doors, they’d be flying open and slamming shut quite a bit.

Some spoilers ahead - Dinky (Joel Thingvall) and Renny (Keith Pederson) are hosting their friends for an unconventional Thanksgiving dinner before the title’s big event.  Harlan (Jacob Thomas) is determined to win the pageant, being judged by Longview’s own small town boy made good, Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Nathan Cameron).  The prize is a ticket out to Los Angeles to participate in a reality TV competition.  Harlan wants to leave behind all the troubles of this town, including his own abduction by space aliens when he was younger (just go with it).  Harlan’s hunky redneck boyfriend Wylie (Ryan Prohaska) has, shall we say, a wandering eye (and hands, and lips), all of which he’s used on the local sheriff Lloyd (Andrew Rosdail) as well as the sheriff's over-the-top fundamentalist Christian ex-wife Tamera (Patience Fields).  The sheriff actually does have official business at the party as well.  There’s an escaped convict (Christopher DeVaan) on the loose, and a special agent (Erica Fields) has also been assigned to the case to assist.  And as such things do, it all culminates in a lot of drag (of both the Marilyn Monroe and Cher varieties) and those space aliens get in on the action as well.  You may think I have given away everything, but that isn’t the half of it, trust me.

While the production and the performances can sometimes be a little wobbly, overall the ensemble commits to their goofy tale fully and that makes all the difference.  If you’re looking for a play with gay content in which the gays are in the majority rather than the minority, and there are actual couples, and some onstage affection, which is all too rare, even in the Fringe (and especially this year for some reason), The Miss Longview Texas Drag Pageant may just be your show.

3.5 stars, Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - Failure: A Love Story - Illusion Theater - 5 stars

At the time I write this, I’ve seen 38 Fringe shows thus far.  When people ask me what shows I recommend, the two that float right to the top are Failure: A Love Story and One Arm.  Why Failure: A Love Story?  It’s the best script for a show I’ve seen this year.  I could sit here and just retype quote after quote from the dialogue that I furiously scribbled down as the show flew along.  The best thing to do, though, is to go and see it for yourself. 

Failure: A Love Story gets the spoilers out of the way right up front.  It’s 1928 and all three of the Fail sisters - flapper Nelly (Emily Madigan), swimmer Jenny June (Andrea San Miguel) and clock shop proprietor Gerty (Su Yoon Ko) - will all soon die.  Though their adopted brother John (Sean Dillon) is destined to survive, his animals and his veterinary practice won’t be enough to keep him from feeling lonely.  Oddly enough, one man enters their lives and ends up, in his own way, loving them all - Mortimer Mortimer (Nathan Barlow). 

All my assumptions about this script, including whether I’d end up disliking it, were completely wrong.  Local playwright Philip Dawkins has written a play with such heart and humor and whimsy and poetry that I’m completely jealous.  I’m also jealous of the great production treatment he’s received from director Joshua Campbell.  The actors in the ensemble, which also include Kim Kivens and Charles Frasier in multiple roles both human and animal, and ukelele playing Revay Henneman as the family gramophone (look it up, youngsters), are all pitch perfect, matching and enhancing the quirky tone of the script and its story. 

Ultimately Failure: A Love Story is a play about love in its many forms, family, and how surviving in life, or not surviving, has its own particular challenges.  From the opening lines to its closing moments, Failure: A Love Story had me under its spell.  Mom looked at me expectantly when it was done, waiting for my opinion.  I was still a little stunned, but I managed to get out, “I liked that a whole lot.”  She responded, “I’m so glad you liked it, too, because I loved it.”  If you haven’t seen Failure: A Love Story yet, you really really should.  Then save your program, because hopefully we’ll be hearing a lot from all the people involved in this one again, and soon.  It’s a group of artists worth following wherever they go.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - From Here To Maternity - Illusion Theater - 5 stars

It would be easy to take comedy offerings from either Joshua Scrimshaw or Shanan Custer for granted.  After all, in this Fringe alone, each of them is in multiple shows, and they are reliably hilarious is all of them (Our American Assassin, Kafka Nuts and Amateur Hour, to name the ones I can remember off the top of my head).  From Here To Maternity has also been mounted and remounted before (I can’t believe I just used the word “mount” in reference to this show.  Apologies).  But as anyone who has sat through unfunny Fringe shows in the past can tell you (and believe me, Mom and I have seen our share), an actually funny Fringe comedy is worth its weight in gold.  Scrimshaw and Custer, together or individually, are a comedy treasure, and we should all happily glut ourselves on that fact.

I had tagged this show in My Fringe 5 this year of a collection of artists and/or shows I was embarrassed to admit Mom and I hadn’t seen.  Fringe scheduling will do that to you.  But From Here To Maternity is well worth the trip into downtown to catch this year.  We actually sat with a couple that had seen it before, and they were trying to remember the exact timeline.  They either had just met through friends or had just begun dating.  Now they were married with children.  They were expecting to appreciate the show in a whole new way, and they did.

Scrimshaw and Custer play Charlie and Meg, a married couple who decide to have a baby.  This decision is not entered into lightly, in fact quite awkwardly.  One of many great things about the show is that even though it’s hilarious, the humor is all based in character and reality.  One way or another, we can all recognize ourselves up on that stage in those two characters.  All the nightmares and insecurities and uncertainties about making and raising a child are on full display and include everything from satirical side scenes about doctors vs. midwives, to comically overwrought interpretive dance, to big band style songs with naughty lyrics.  All these are interspersed through equally funny scenes of Charlie and Meg stumbling toward parenthood.  If you’ve seen From Here To Maternity before, you know you should see it again.  If like me, you missed it, don’t pass up the chance to see it this time.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - Fiddlestick Conundrum - New Century Theater - 5 stars

I may actually have run out of new words to use to explain why I enjoy Ben San Del’s comedy so much.  I’ve seen and reviewed all his Fringe shows, and given the competition that any Fringe show has to get on my radar, much less my schedule, that is saying something.  I’d have to sit and think about it but I could probably count the number of Fringe artists I can say that about on one hand and still have fingers left over.

Ben's new show Fiddlestick Conundrum was the reason Mom and I got our butts across town between shows and drove into downtown Minneapolis to find parking a couple of shows in advance, so we wouldn’t run afoul of the no late seating policy and miss Ben.  Mom’s seen nearly all Ben’s shows, too, beginning with his very first.  Now of course pretty much everyone knows who Ben is (his shows are so popular he landed the Fringe Encore Slot for best attended performance in his venues for three years running in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and he got mighty close in 2012 as well).  So he hardly needs my help to get more people to come to his show.

If you want to see all the many ways I tie myself in verbal knots trying to find new ways to say funny, smart, unconventional, whimsical, melancholy, quirky, adorable, awkward, absurd, tastefully obscene and the like when applying adjectives to Ben, you could peruse reviews of Mittens For Fat Kids, Strawberry Fields Temporarily, Animal Cracker Genocide, A Nice Guy’s Guide To Awkward Sex, Minnesota Middle Finger, or An Agony of Fools.

To take a phrase from one of his reliable standards, Ben is more than just “good enough.”  Ben San Del is reliable comedy in an unreliable laughter market, that’s all I’m saying.  He’s a favorite of Mom’s and mine for very good reasons.  Ben San Del is never safe comedy, but he’s always good comedy.  He may wade into the treacherous waters of discussing feminism and gender inequity.  He finds new and inventive ways of cursing - for instance, when you see the show and understand the context, the title Fiddlestick Conundrum is absolutely filthy.  And I’ll never look at, or use, a thumbs up sign in quite the same way again.  Go see Ben San Del, and then make his jokes your own personal inside jokes for future reference.

5 Stars, Very Highly Recommended

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Fringe Review - Yama and Kalindi: A Transdimensional Love Story - TRP - 4 stars

Alternate universes and romantic comedies have been crossbred before (not to mention time travel and doppelgangers), and it often makes for interesting viewing (The Double Life of Veronique, Sliding Doors, countless sci fi TV shows, etc.).  It’s all based on the big “what if” - what if I’d turned right instead of left, what if I hadn’t been late for the bus, what if the alarm clock never rang, what if I’d never met that person, or never let them go?  The latest entry in this sub-genre is Hey Rube’s Fringe 2014 production of Marcus Anthony’s new script Yama and Kalindi: A Transdimensional Love Story.

The story’s operating on (at least) three levels here.  The subplot threads include: the ancient tale of lovers Yama (Antonio Duke) and Kalindi (Jessie Scarborough-Ghent), and how death was brought to the living creatures of the earth; and in the movement of celestial objects, how two binary stars named Yama and Kalindi are in danger of being sucked into a black hole in space.  The movement of those stars around that black hole is the singular obsession of Alan (Clarence Wethern), an astrophysicist who wakes up in a hospital after a blow to the head not knowing how he got there.  To make things weirder, he was found in the ruins of an ancient temple in the mountains of Nepal and shipped back to the U.S. for his recovery.  His only visitor at the hospital is Margo (Alyson Westberg), which makes things a little awkward.  Because Alan broke up with Margo and just forgot to remove her as his emergency contact - something Margo remembers all too clearly, but Alan doesn’t at first.

Alan and his scientific sidekick Thomas (John Dahl) discovered the imperiled binary stars of Yama and Kalindi circling the black hole and figure it’s going to be their big break into the next level of the science biz.  But first they have to get their scientific mentor (also Duke), the man for whom they work as graduate assistants, to give them access to the high tech equipment they need to see and document the big celestial event.  Alan has trust issues with, well, pretty much everybody, and this is the personal failing that sends both his relationship with Margo and his scientific work with Thomas spiraling off in a variety of different directions, only a few of them good, all of them complicated.  (I should mention the cast also includes Ilana Kapra in multiple roles offering a number of amusing moments I won't spoil here.)

Yama and Kalindi hops not only back and forth in time, but hops off from familiar key plot points into alternate versions of reality and back again.  It’s an ambitious project and it almost works, thanks to the hard working cast and the tag-team directing by Marcus Anthony and Kirsten Stephens (who guided a lot of the physical theater work, since many elements are mimed rather than literally present - and then there’s the whole dance of the planets thing to be made manifest on stage).

The main obstacle to the storytelling right now isn’t the complexity, it’s the structure.  The movement of the stars and the glimpses of ancient myth all actually work very well.  The present day multiverse is the tricky part.  Right now the play seems to be straining to make the quick cuts that are more the province of film or television, rather than being crafted as transitions that take advantage of the kind of things one can do onstage.  Theater can do anything, and thanks to the audience’s imagination, it can do almost anything with almost nothing.  But the storytelling needs to make full use of that fact, and right now parts of the script seem to be trying to figure out precisely what those transitions are (and there are a lot of them). 

A sense of how much time has passed in the present, and even what timeline we’re specifically on in any given moment can be a little fuzzy (some which could be deliberate).  The actors always seem to know where they are, but as an audience member, I sometimes needed more clues.  The other issue I struggled with was, “Who am I rooting for, and why?”  Yama and Kalindi, both the ancient personages and the stars, seem to end up all right, so again it’s more an issue for the present day people.  Thomas is clearly a supporting player, though always a welcome one to see.  Alan seems to be our lead, but in most universes he’s a bit of a jerk.  Not that your protagonist can’t be a jerk, but it would be nice if the bonk on the head in the temple in Nepal actually knocked some sense into the guy. Margo, like Thomas, is the very definition of long-suffering, as I’m sure most people around Alan need to be.  I needed more of a reason to want them to get back together, instead of wanting Margo to kick Alan to the curb.  Or to understand it somehow as Margo’s story, if that’s the case, and then my hoped for outcomes all become slightly different (but the story of the play seems to be leaning more toward Alan than Margo right now, so that’s the way I had to process it).

I also found myself wanting to understand a little more about black holes, binary stars, and just how unusual this kind of event out in space was.  Everyone in the play seemed to think it was a big deal, and it sounded like a big deal to me as well.  But I don’t know enough about astronomy to know if such a thing has ever happened before, or is even likely, and if so if anyone has ever seen it happen and been able to document it - or if this moment in the play would be as groundbreaking as the play makes it out to be.  Also, how does such detailed observational work progress, and how do personal relationships complicate that, or vice versa?  (Coincidentally enough, another play in the very same Fringe venue of TRP - Fifth Planet by David Auburn - deals with some of these very issues.)  Conversations between Alan, Thomas and Margo, in any sort of combination, could easily solve that knowledge gap for me.  And I’m not talking exposition - it could be used as anything from first date conversation to pillow talk to a break-up argument to friends talking brutally honestly to one another.  In a play this complex, every line needs to serve at least a double if not triple purpose.  It’s something the writer seems capable of, given the current state of the script, which is a lot more literate and focused than some new plays out there.

Plus, if you’re going to have a plot line that explains how death came to humanity, much as I don’t like to see characters die randomly for no reason, it seems like a missed opportunity not to have somebody die in the present day plot line.  After all, with an assortment of universes to choose from, they could all take turns dying, for various reasons, and the play could resurrect them on another time line and not be cheating death at all.  Right now, Alan’s personal life and professional life all get multiple shots at crashing and burning or reaching the heavens.  Actual non-metaphorical life and death situations don’t seem like a big leap - particularly given the ancient plot line that forms part of the foundation of the play.

All that said, I always prefer plays that aim high and maybe still have some climbing to do instead of ones that aim for mediocre and nail it on the first try, so for that reason I’m very glad I went.  The Fringe is a perfect place for gestating a new play this ambitious.  Right now Yama and Kalindi is fun though some times befuddling.  I’d be interested to see how it turns out in its own alternate universe.

4 stars, Highly Recommended

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Fringe Review - Marie-Jeanne Valet Who Defeated La Bete du Gevaudan - Southern Theater - 5 stars

Sandbox Theatre has grown so adept at doing so much with very little that it’s easy to take something as accomplished as Marie-Jeanne Valet Who Defeated La Bete du Gevaudan for granted.  That would be a mistake.  Thankfully, the audiences of the Twin Cities don’t look likely to take the skillful storytelling of Sandbox for granted any time soon.  It’s probably because, all theater trappings aside, audiences enjoy a good adventure story, or a good monster yarn, well told.  Few tell them as well as Sandbox.

Marie-Jeanne Valet Who Defeated La Bete du Gevaudan is four actors (Megan Campbell Lagas, Theo Langason, Derek Lee Miller, and Heather Stone, directed by Amber Bjork), some bolts of cloth, some sticks, some cut-out puppets, a drum, a trunk, a rolling wooden box, and a handful of costumes (by Kristina Fjellman).  That plus the actors’ bodies and voices creates an entire world.  A comically grotesque world, a brutally realistic world, and a world where things aren’t easily explained - all wrapped up in one.  Sure the title may be largely in French, but the storytelling is instantly accessible - friendly and wry and silly. 

The destitute citizens of Gevaudan are beset by murderous attacks from a ravenous giant red wolf they name La Bete (The Beast).  Despite two different contingents of soldiers - one competent, the other less so - the meager help sent from the King of France does nothing to stop the wolf.  Ultimately, it is a young peasant girl Marie-Jeanne Valet, who lost her entire family to attacks by the wolf, who helps to track and mortally wound the beast.  But of course, she can’t be recognized for such a feat of daring and strength.  That wouldn’t fit the narrative the King wants to project to his people.

Sandbox has also gotten very good at tucking crafty political messages deep inside the tales it spins.  They don’t scream them loudly, so they’re not so easy to dismiss.  They’re in the meat of the story.  They’re the thing that follows you outside the theater.  Set it in the past.  Set  it in another country.  It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with us, right?

Marie-Jeanne Valet Who Defeated La Bete du Gevaudan takes place in France 25 years before the French Revolution.  By the time the story is over, the revolution is one year closer.  The story of Marie-Jeanne Valet is the story of a government that can’t or won’t provide for the safety and well-being of its people.  It’s the story of a people who ultimately have to fend for themselves.  When people are left to fend for themselves, realize they have their own power, and the government seems to serve no purpose, well… wouldn’t it be nice to think that’s a lesson we’ve already learned?

So if you want fun - go see Marie-Jeanne Valet Who Defeated La Bete du Gevaudan.  If you want sly political commentary that still doesn’t get in the way of your fun - go see Marie-Jeanne Valet Who Defeated La Bete du Gevaudan.  Heck, if you just want to see good theater - go see Marie-Jeanne Valet Who Defeated La Bete du Gevaudan

(And catch Sandbox’s new musical Killer Inside at Red Eye in November, and the remount of Sandbox’s wonderful War With The Newts at Park Square next May, and in the meantime, consider signing up for ArtShare at the Southern, where Sandbox (among many other great local theater groups) is going to be a resident company starting in January 2015 (I did).  In my opinion, you can never have enough Sandbox.  I keep thinking I have, and then they keep serving me a good time as an audience member, so I keep coming back for more.)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - After Life - Rarig Thrust - 4 stars

Theatre Cosmic’s After Life almost gives an atheist a decent platform on which to make his arguments.  Of course, it also undercuts that with the fact that it’s ostensibly taking place in an afterlife in which the atheist doesn’t believe, under the control of a deity in which the atheist doesn’t believe, attended by some form of spirit in which the atheist doesn’t believe.  Joke’s on you, silly atheist.

Which is a shame, because there’s some truly lovely exchanges - both of wit and emotion - threaded throughout After Life.  Brandon Taitt’s script has some of the most clear-headed discussions of the reasons both for and against organized religion that I’ve seen staged recently.  There’s a literal debate in the center of the play between our prickly lead character Izac Allen (George Michael Calger) and a priest, Father Malcom McAllister (Glen Stone) that I almost wish had been the framing device for the play instead of Izac’s otherworldly chats with spirit guide Lacy (Rebekah Kreger).  The script implies that there was a part of the debate before the part we see.  It was interrupted due to a flare up of a medical issue of Izac’s that later spirals out of control into his now very near death experience. 

We rejoin the debate backstage, as they prepare to resume.  The priest’s innocent question about the absence of Izac’s wife Sarah (Victoria Pyan) in the audience, leads to the news that Izac and Sarah have separated.  The priest’s genuine offer of comforting words is rebuffed by Izac.  You almost feel sorry for the good Father until he turns around and uses his knowledge of the estrangement later in the debate to throw Izac off his game.  Everyone in the play has this kind of complexity and that’s what makes it fun and engaging to watch.  All the actors make the most of these opportunities under director Kevin T. Houle’s guidance.

Glimpses of Sarah, with and without Izac - past, present and future - crop up throughout Izac’s sojourn in the waiting room of eternity between life and death.  A lot of the heart and soul (apologies to Izac) of the play rest in these moments.  Spoilers forbid me from giving away the ending, but the final moments between Izac and his spirit guide Lacy is one of the sweetest endings I’ve seen to a play this year (and sweet without being saccharine, which is a hard thing to do - kudos again to writer, director and actors on that one).  In fact one of the things I like best about the play is it can make things like that last moment clear, without coming right out and saying something in words.  Really lovely, and also something that gives the audience credit for having a brain that can figure things out without being spoon fed.

The play appears to believe in the After Life of the title, and that the stream of time is fluid, something you can dip into, skip ahead and behind in, all of which makes things interesting and emotionally affecting structurally, as an audience experience.  But strangely it does tip the scales a great deal away from the lead character’s stated point of view, toward a standard Christian belief model.  This, at the same time that the only representative of organized religion is being pilloried as a bit of an antagonist for our anti-hero.  It’s an oddly mixed message.  It would be interesting to see a play not stacking the deck one way or the other from the opening scene.  Though Izac makes excuses that the whole afterlife scenario with Lacy is some misfire in his malfunctioning brain and not a hereafter that actually exists, it is nonetheless the reality that the world of the play exists in, and nothing in the play ever seriously undoes its validity.  We come from a culture steeped in things like Scrooge arguing with the ghosts of Christmas and always losing the fight. Izac versus Lacy hits a lot of the same markers.

Still, I do like a Fringe play that gives me more to chew on both while it’s being performed, and when I leave the theater, and on that score After Life is very much a success.

4 stars - Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - Uptown Bank Heist - New Century Theatre - 3 stars

One doesn’t want to say too much about Uptown Bank Heist because then you give some of the fun surprises away.  But it’s called Uptown Bank Heist so this much a person can safely say:  There’s a bank.  There will be robbers.  It’s a comedy, so things will go hilariously wrong rather than tragically wrong.

It’s late on a Friday at the bank.  The branch manager Jill (Renee Werbowski) is anxious to shut the doors right away and start her weekend, and she’s stealing a few more office supplies than might seem normal.  The teller Beth (Pepper Branster) is waiting to hear about a possible promotion.  The guard Edgar (Marty Bloomquist) is disinterested in anything that’s not on the screen of his smart phone.  The owner of the jewelry store next door, Mrs. Van Allen (Laura-Ann Lewis) closed up even earlier so she could get her deposit in and head home.  The inevitable last minute customers arrive - a psychologist, Evelyn (Heather Jo Raiter) and her photographer boyfriend Cal (Josef Buchel), who teller Beth has a massive crush on.  Lucky for Beth, Evelyn has come to the bank to dump Cal and separate their assets in a single efficient visit.  Unlucky for everyone is that this means they don’t close early, and the three bank robbers show up right at closing time.  Moran (Farrah Buffington) is the demolitions expert.  Lowe (Charlie Coleman) could only find a pink ski mask, and forgets to put it down over his face - he normally stays in the car.  The third robber (uncredited, but possibly writer/director James Buffington) has a bit of a mishap that throws the plan into chaos.  It turns out nearly everyone has some secrets they’ve been reluctant to share - but they all come out in time, further complicating the caper.

Uptown Bank Heist is a goofy little play.  Swift, harmless fun that’s smart enough you won’t feel guilty laughing at it and enjoying yourself.  It’s also crisply and efficiently produced, well paced, and the script gives all the actors plenty of interesting things to do.  Nobody’s hanging out onstage unused for very long, everyone gets in on the action.  It’s a great break from the other musicals or high drama going on elsewhere in the festival.  If you just want to kick back and enjoy, Uptown Bank Heist is a nice way to go.

3 stars, Recommended

Fringe Review - A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant - New Century Theater

I’m genuinely torn over how I feel about A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant.  It’s comes to us with an established pedigree.  It’s not a musical that’s original to the Minnesota Fringe Festival, it’s over ten years old.  It’s an Obie Award-winner from off-Broadway in New York, it won awards for its Los Angeles production and gets done all over the country.  We used to have a big Scientology storefront for many years on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis though it’s long gone now.  That thought makes me feel like we’re kicking a religion when it’s down.

Now, there’s furious debate, of course, whether Scientology is a religion at all, or if it’s just a big money-making scam.  As the musical recounts, L. Ron Hubbard founded his own church in the 1950s based on his assessments of the human brain and how it might be cleansed to relieve people of bad memories that might be holding them back from achieving their full potential.  Followers’ unquestioning devotion to this self-help, motivational concept to the exclusion of their own family and friends and to the detriment of their bank accounts makes outsiders worry that it’s a cult, or a fraud, or both.

The concept of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant is to present the basics of the L. Ron Hubbard story through the eyes of children.  It aims to imply that people following Scientology blindly are like far too trusting little kids, easily led astray.  It also posits that maybe shutting off our emotions isn’t the best way of coping with or learning from our problems.  Perhaps you can’t buy your way to happiness or salvation.  Perhaps the people who are selling you this bill of goods don’t have your best interests at heart and you should be examining them a bit more critically, like an adult rather than a child.

The young performers here are great.  They’re completely devoted to the concept, and present the shiny happy cult story with unnerving sunshine and happiness at all times.  Ethan Davenport as L. Ron is a hoot, and Jillian Jacobson as his angelic guide is adorably unsettling.  The ensemble of Bella Blackshaw, Tatum Geving, Lillie Horton, Chase Kozak and Zel Weilandgruber do a great job all playing multiple roles - from John Travolta and Little Orphan Annie to L. Ron’s mom and dad to stereotypical representatives of cultures from Hawaii and New York to China.  Their slow motion reenactment of war time is both funny and really not funny, in all the right ways.  The cast still sometimes needs to remember to project, but other than some volume issues, the performances were exactly what this sort of pageant is supposed to be.  It’s not supposed to be too slick or too professional.  It’s just enough to be impressive, while still seeming like a kids show somebody threw together for church.

Here’s the thing - as weird and unnerving as this children’s pageant is, where does it leave us?  One could make a similar argument against the Catholic Church or Mormons or Christianity in general.  Every religion is based on some pretty wild leaps of faith, and there have always been people more than happy to profit off of other people’s belief.  So, okay, unquestioning devotion to a belief structure can be problematic.  It can lay you open to all kinds of abuse.  And your point is…?  So we should…?  It’s as if the show is leading us right up to the edge of a hard question, and then saying, “OK, good luck, thanks for spending time with me, see ya!”

Now, sure, it’s entertaining, and maybe that’s all it needs to be.  But because the people behind it are smarter than that, and the people producing it are more talented than that, I’m expecting there to be something underneath the sparkly surface.  As with many pieces of theater, perhaps I’m overthinking it.  I had a similar response to seeing producer Max Wojtanowicz’s own Shelly Bachberg Presents: How Helen Keller and Anne Frank Freed the Slaves: The Musical last year in the Fringe.  It was intelligent and hilarious and lavishly produced and neatly skewered the notion of politicians who screw up the facts of history (accidentally or on purpose) to suit the needs of their own careers and quests for more power. 

But just like the Scientology pageant, it’s a one joke premise.  It’s an extremely funny joke and one you can spin off into all kinds of different variations.  But if we just turn a problem into something that we laugh at, are we letting it (and ourselves) off the hook.  Does it inoculate us against actually doing something?  Or worse yet, lull us into a false sense of security that if someone or something is laughable, it can’t possibly do us harm?  Or as long as someone or something is making me feel good and providing me with entertainment, it seems trustworthy enough to put in charge of things that really matter to me?  Sticking a pin in the Scientology balloon or putting a banana peel under Michele Bachmann’s feet is certainly a first step.  Perhaps that’s all we can really ask of anything.  That it draw attention to a problem.  I don’t expect art to solve the problem.  That’s our job outside the theater.  I guess I’d just like art to motivate me a little more - appall me, anger me.  That may be more than one little musical should be asked to do.

The kids are great.  The show will make you laugh.  And if, like me, it also gets under your skin, that’s probably a good thing.

4 Stars, Highly Recommended

Monday, August 04, 2014

Fringe Review - Tourist Trap - Theatre In The Round

Though Tourist Trap is a wonderfully quick and creepy show (clocking in at under 40 minutes), Ghoulish Delights’ leader Tim Uren (who wrote, directed and has a supporting acting role in this Fringe production), may be a victim of his own success at freaking me out in the past.  With his entry in last year’s Twin Cities Horror Festival, Trust and Obey, Uren raised the bar almost impossibly high for me as an audience member.  That show was such a complex, multi-layered psychological terror machine that now I expect nothing less. 

And I am not an audience member that likes to be scared.  I normally stay as far away from the horror genre as I can get.  But it seems like horror in theater is something I can take in small doses that will otherwise give me sleepless or nightmare-filled evenings in the TV or film format.  Much as I don’t like to be scared, I will willingly put myself in Tim Uren’s hands time and again because the guy knows how to deliver an unsettling good time.  It’s not just gore, it’s a story that screws with your head.

Things are no less freaky in Tourist Trap.  It serves up a good number of shocking twists and turns.  The ominous build-up quickly gives way to outright bloodshed.  Mom admitted that Fringe fatigue might have set in for just a moment but, “then people started screaming and all that other stuff happened and I was thinking, Well, all that went downhill very fast!”  (Mom's other comment on the show, laughing, "He must really hate South Dakota.")

Can’t say too much without spoiling the fun here, of course.  But let’s just say that visiting the home that has now been turned into a museum for the man who led a serial killer cult  is never a smart idea.  With a cast consisting of Uren, Charlie Hubbell, Ariel Leaf, Amy Schweickhardt and Clarence Wethern, you’ve got a lot of acting power on your side.  They present this story with unrelenting fervor, which it needs, of course, otherwise you’d devolve into a fit of giggles rather than gasps.

With the extra time left on the clock and a cast this good, I have to admit I was hoping for something that would dig just a little deeper into my discomfort zone, but even so, this was plenty frightening (and fun).  As always, I look forward to what Ghoulish Delights is up to next (like the Twin Cities Horror Festival at the end of October) and the current show, Tourist Trap, still logs in at

4 stars - Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - An Honest Magic Show - Mixed Blood

In its own quiet, unassuming way, Nick Lande’s Fringe offering, An Honest Magic Show, is just as much a 5 star show as other larger more visually dazzling productions this year.  This is mostly because at its core, it’s just a good solid magic show.  A mix of sleight of hand, misdirection, psychology, and a handful of things for which I have no logical explanation make for a very fun hour.  Lande is an engaging and friendly presence onstage.  Even when he’s tricking someone while standing right next to them, he’s never condescending, smug or unkind.  He’s committed to keeping things as random as possible and never uses the same audience volunteer twice.  There were about two dozen of us in the house on his opening night (“It sounds like there are more than five of you out there so I’m very happy”), and I’d say about half of us ended up onstage before the night was over (myself included).

Even when Lande was explaining a trick to us, it still maintained the power to enchant us.  Sometimes he was even out-charmed by his volunteers.  One woman in particular was so honestly astonished by a simple “make the red sponge ball disappear” trick, that it was almost as much fun to watch her amazement as it was to watch Lande execute the trick in such a way that we in the audience could clearly see what his moves were all the while he was concealing them from her.

His two card tricks at the beginning and end of the show were the least successful (in terms of getting that card just right), but among the most amusing.  Often it was the act of reading people to tell if they were truthful or lying that was the greatest “trick” of all.  The simplest props, like crayons or rubber bands or crude hand drawings on crumpled up pieces of paper, could have the biggest payoffs.  (He drops the occasional four letter word - he’s a young guy, bordering on being a “dude” but that’s really the only adult content here.)

Mostly though, it’s Lande’s presence as a performer, his gentle good humor, his way of telling a story to give a trick context, and his genuine affection for an audience that’s willing to show up and watch magic tricks that makes An Honest Magic Show such a fun time.  It’s a great chance of pace.  You should check it out.

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - The Tiger In The Room - Illusion Theater

Mom and I both agreed that the charming and commanding presence of Natalie Rae Wass at the center of The Tiger In The Room is the thing that makes it work.  Any way you look at it, she’s the production’s main selling point.  In fact, Natalie was so effective for Mom that it caused her to give the rest of the elements in the production a pass.  Sadly, the rest of the production around Natalie bugged me too much to entirely overlook the things that left me scratching me head.

It’s not really an acting problem either.  The rest of the ensemble working with Wass are also all doing their best.  Particularly of note is William P. Studer in the dual role of Almond’s dad (yes, the lead character’s name is Almond) and her kindly older neighbor, a widower named Stan.  But everyone else in the cast - Krystal Kohler, Kevin McLaughlin, Alyssa Perau and Mike Postle - gives equally able support to Almond’s story.

It’s Almond’s story, penned my Sharon DeMark, that sometimes bewilders me.  Not wanting to give the ending away, I’ll just say that it seemed to undermine the framework of everything we’d just seen for the preceding 45 minutes.  I know it was supposed to put a twist on it or make us see it another light but I’m at a loss to say precisely what that gets us an audience.

Also the logic of it sometimes seemed off kilter.  Almond is an actress, who also writes, and appears to be making her way in New York in terms of building a career.  Then 9/11 happens, her father comes to spirit her away from the danger of New York City back to the comparative safety of their home back in the midwest.  And she goes - giving up an apartment in New York City (which frankly seems insane), a job in New York City (ditto) - and then she turns right around and goes back - with no job or place to live, and hires a therapist who costs over $200 an hour?  Even though it’s only her first session, where the hell is all this money coming from?  Leaps of logic like this repeatedly drew me out of the story.  Oh, but it’s clearly all in her head, you say.  OK, fine, but it still has to abide by some kind of internal logic of its own, and honestly, that escaped me, too, though I never stopped looking for it.  I wanted this story to work somehow.

Speaking of things that took me out of the story, one baffling production choice was the decision by director Nicole Wilder to have members of the cast swoop in and repeatedly move wooden boxes around the stage, placing them a variety of different configurations, almost none of which seemed necessary.  In fact when you have performers this good, you almost don’t need a set.  If you’re going to have one, it should at least make sense.  If this was actually a choice dictated by the script, the director and the actors should have resisted it (and as a writer myself, I don’t say that lightly).

One last thing and then I’ll stop - Almond is dealing with a lot psychologically and emotionally, but she nonetheless seems like a smart, strong and generally well-adjusted individual (even if she is pushing down some things she should probably be dealing with).  To be a woman alone in New York City (heck anywhere), you’d almost have to have that kind of self-reliance and resilience.  So why exactly does Almond need the blessing of a set of men - her father, her neighbor, her other neighbor, her therapist - in order to go forward?  I realize her mother is dead but… really, not a single woman in her present day life? (The two other actresses in the play don’t count because they’re figments of her imagination and/or memories from the 4th grade.) It seems a little backward and paternalistic to me.

Still if all you need for a good Fringe show is a big dose of Natalie Rae Wass (and honestly, that’ll do it for most anyone), then The Tiger In The Room is a nice way to pass an hour’s time in the Fringe.  The house was packed the night I attended, and the audience was thoroughly enjoying themselves, so my general attitude of nitpickiness was definitely in the minority.

3 Stars - Recommended

Fringe Review - Jumpin' Jack Kerouac - Rarig Proscenium

You know how when we put kids on stage, often, our critical faculties go right out the window? Because you see them up there, and they’re adorable, and honestly, who cares how perfect or imperfect it is?  They’re up there, on stage, doing something they almost never do, so you’re brimming with pride and appreciation, and you’re just amazed and happy it’s happening at all?  Oh, and if someone is actually, objectively, really good?  Well, damn, that’s a miracle.  That’s kind of what watching Jumpin’ Jack Kerouac feels like.

Jumpin’ Jack Kerouac’s mission statement could be summed up thusly - get writers onstage, and make them dance.  Producer/choreographer Windy Bowlsby does that in a series of nearly a dozen different dance pieces that highlight all of her dancers across a variety of styles of movement and music.  It’s great fun to watch - and not in the “oh my god, this is a train wreck” kind of way you might at first be fearing.  This is because everyone is very committed to the project.  No one is approaching their performance from an “oh my god, I can’t dance” standpoint.  They’re all giving it their absolute best, and that good-natured attitude comes through.  As I said about the preview of “Hi! Hello! Namaste?” and their Bollywood explosion on stage, what they may sometimes lack in precision, they more than make up for in enthusiasm.

Plus, it never hurts to have a couple of ringers in the bunch.  On the male side, John Heimbuch actually has modern dance training, while among the females, Katherine Glover has done some burlesque.  John has real grace, which he showcases in a two person dance with Tim Uren about fathers and sons, and hey, no fair playing the lost father card.  I was trying not to cry.  John and Tim do some really effecting work in that sequence (and Matt Nathanson’s “All We Are” as the music pushes all the right buttons on top of that).  On the goofier side of the scale, Katherine revived and refined an old routine with Windy’s assistance called “Stir Crazy” that is a very funny burlesque that starts off in multiple layers of winter clothing and goes from there.  Can a wool cap, scarf and mittens be sexy?  Well, she certainly tries.

Katherine teams up twice with fellow female writers Cole Sarar and Natalie Wass, first making orange caps and folding chairs sexier than they have a right to be, bopping around to Rhianna’s “Shut Up and Drive;” then later trying to reclaim a little personal space to the strains of St. Vincent’s “Rattlesnake” in a piece called #yesallwomen.

Katherine and Natalie kick the whole thing off by coaxing Ben San Del and Kelvin Hatlie out of their chairs and onto their feet until the guys get a “hey look at me I’m dancing!” attitude swinging around to the tune of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”  That’s the blueprint you think the whole show is going to follow, but thanks to Bowlsby and her dancer/writers, the thing keeps surprising you. 

Another nice touch is that Windy Bowlsby also acts as mistress of ceremonies, interspersing the different dance pieces with responses from the writers to discussions of dance and writing and theater and art and life in general.  They’re all chosen to give context to whatever dance and performers are up next and they’re perfectly crafted introductions.  Some of these come complete with Windy’s own imitations of the writers in question, which add to the fun.  Unsurprisingly, these running commentaries are thoughtful, pithy, and entertaining in their own right.

In addition to Phillip Low’s turn as Princess Leia in the slave dancing girl outfit from Return of the Jedi, alongside a bemused Ben San Del as Han Solo, Low also does a more serious bit of dancing paired up with Cole Sarar set to the crooning wail of Rufus Wainwright doing “Complainte de la Butte.”  Tim Uren, Kelvin Hatlie and Tim Wick channel their inner Gene Kelly wearing fedoras and doing a little soft shoe number while The Dregs sing “Wagon Wheel.”

We even get a couple of writing themed dances - Cole, John and Katherine try “Collaboration” alternately enthused and frustrated by elusive bits of inspiration; John joins the two Tims, Ben, and Kelvin to muddle through “Writer’s Block.”  And the whole ensemble gets to wear what they want and boogie down with Windy joining in for the big closing number set to the strains of Janelle Monae’s “Dance Apocalyptic.”

Is Jumpin' Jack Kerouac the best, most professional dance you’ll see at the Fringe?  No, probably not.  Is it the most fun?  Quite possibly.  It also has the side benefit of making me appreciate artfully trained dancers that much more (“Hmmm, maintaining exactly equal distance between more than two dancers in a piece is an acquired skill that’s much harder than it looks, apparently.”)  Whether you know any of these artists personally, just know them through their other Fringe shows, or haven’t laid eyes on them before now, Jumpin’ Jack Kerouac is both entertaining, and a nod to the concept that if you set your mind to it, you can do more than you think you can.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Fringe Review - Native Man The Musical - Rarig Xperimental

It’s a little strange to review something like Native Man The Musical, because it’s largely composed of the personal narratives of real people, in almost every case presented by the people themselves.  So it seems weird to assign a rating to someone else’s personal story.  It’s the reason I waffled between just giving Native Man The Musical a straight-up 5 star rating versus a 4.5.  Just the fact that something like Native Man The Musical exists is compelling enough a reason to go.  How often do we get actual stories of the Native American community, performed by Native actors?  Sadly, almost never.  New Native Theater is trying to change that.  And the Fringe is the perfect place to start pulling those narratives into shape, working them in front of an audience.  But this review isn’t saying “Go because you should.”  I can honestly say go because it’s compelling and entertaining theater.

The cast of six Native American male actors perform a series of scenes, confessionals, and songs, interspersed with video sequences - interviews with these six performers as well as other members of the Native community, across the age spectrum.  There are representatives here from the Cheyenne, Dakota, Kuna and Ojibwe nations. There’s frank talk of racism and substance abuse, but there’s also a lot of humor.  There’s also a subset of humor where I kept thinking, “Wait, am I allowed to laugh at that?”  But the performers clearly want to encourage dialogue and community, among themselves as well as the spectators.  They’re not here to berate an audience that wants to be part of the solution, but to get any progress, there also has to be honest discussion of how we all got here.  There are sports T-shirts with mascots for the Caucasians, folk songs and rap songs, tales of love, fatherhood, and recovery.  It’s a pretty wide-ranging discussion, and it’s only scratching the surface.  I’m looking forward to more.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - The Adventures of Tapman - Illusion Theater

It’s one thing for a guy to be an amazing tap dancer, and that Tristan Bruns most definitely is.  It’s another thing for him to be able to dance so well with a partner like Kate O’Hanlon, who is equally adept on her feet.  The thing that kind of blew my mind about The Adventures of Tapman was that there were several times where Bruns as Tapman was dancing with an invisible partner.  It’s the main reason of many you should go see The Adventures of Tapman.

It’s hard to describe the invisible dance partner thing but I’ll give it a go.  Part of the storyline premise of The Adventures of Tapman is that his arch nemesis is Invisible Tapman, a cloning project gone awry.  Part of the economics of touring Fringe shows is, keep your cast as small as possible.  Part of the way you keep from looking cheap is to make something really cool out of necessity.  So the sound effect of Invisible Tapman’s menacing voice isn’t just an unseen acting partner for Bruns to use as a pretense to pretend to beat himself up onstage (though he does that convincingly, too).  Just like any other kind of musical accompaniment, the sound of Invisible Tapman doing his own evil dance routine is something that Tapman times his own dance steps in opposition to, and in unison with.  There’s a little tap competition, there’s counterpoint moves, there’s moments when they sound like they’re kicking off one another’s feet, or slapping hands.  But of course, the second person in the routine ISN’T THERE.  Bruns interaction with sound and empty space is so convincing in these moments, it’s kind of mind-boggling.  They also sing together which is ridiculously charming, and again shouldn’t work, but the dance has so thoroughly convinced you that, hey, why not?

The structure of The Adventures of Tapman is largely episodic like those multi-part serials they used to show before the main feature film in old movie houses that got recycled on TV on Saturday mornings (Flash Gordon, Superman, etc.).  Simple stories of heroes and villains and people in peril.  The whisper thin excuse for a plot isn’t really the point here, though.  It’s just a framework on which to hang different dance routines.  Bruns' sand dance in one sequence is an interesting variation on regular tap.  O'Hanlon later in the show starts a more modern dance style routine which Bruns steps into, tap on his side with modern on hers, and then weaving the two together.

The transitions here are sometimes a little spotty, but that’s always a problem with dance shows.  How do you give the performers a chance to catch their breath?  The fewer the number of performers, the harder that is.  Part of me kept wishing they had a third dancer, a musician or even a comedian, someone to entertain the crowd while giving the other performers some necessary breathing space.  Also, while Invisible Tapman is great as a dance partner, he’s not so useful as an acting partner in a scene.  O’Hanlon as Modern Marvel on a date with Invisible Tapman has probably the hardest scene to pull off in this regard.

The costumes didn’t change, so that really wasn’t a problem.  Actually, the superhero set-up might just be an excuse to get the cast in spandex, but when you have bodies like Bruns and O’Hanlon, no complaints there.  Go with your strongest selling points, grace and athleticism.

The audience should just go for the dancing in The Adventures of Tapman, forgive some of the trappings around it.  The dancing is amazing.  In fact I was waffling back and forth between giving this 5 stars instead of just 4.5.  The dancing is so good, it could almost make me gloss over the rough spots.  The performers are so incredibly friendly and good-natured, I hope the Fringe community here embraces them in like fashion.  There’s a great little moment at the end of the show where anybody with tap experience at any level is invited up for a tap farewell number that we’re told is a tradition in the tap community wherever you go.  It was delightful to watch performers and audience merge a little, and in perfect keeping with the spirit of this lighthearted show.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Fringe Review - The Genealogy of Happenstance - Rarig Center Arena

There are going to be a lot of superlatives thrown around about Allegra Lingo’s latest Fringe show, The Genealogy of Happenstance, produced with The Peanut Butter Factory.  Her opening night crowd rose to their feet to give her a standing ovation.  All this praise is well-earned.  Saying things like “This is Allegra Lingo’s best Fringe show yet” sound like hyperbole.  And, well, an artist always hopes that the latest thing they’ve done is an improvement over the things that came before.  One would hope you could always say that.  That you learn from your successes and mistakes and push to improve yourself, make yourself the best artist you can be, never to settle for less than that.  But The Genealogy of Happenstance is another huge step forward for Allegra Lingo, as a writer and as a performer.  She is operating on another level now, and I think that has to do in large part with her subject matter.

The Genealogy of Happenstance is about Allegra and her wife Amy’s quest to have a child.  There was no book for the journey that Allegra and Amy were on.  So Allegra wrote one.  The Genealogy of Happenstance is a distillation of one thread of the narrative of that book, charting the steps in attempting to create a new life.  It’s an extremely personal story, one they kept to themselves for a long time, and a story that Allegra has spent a long time documenting and thinking about.  All of this makes The Genealogy of Happenstance an incredibly thoughtful and effective (and funny) piece of storytelling.

Allegra in the past has always had a little bit of narrative distance from her stories, even though almost all of them have been directly culled from her own life.  She has been an observer of her life, and has invited audiences along to be observers as well.  That distance made things safe.  No less funny, no less penetrating, but safe.  There is no such safety here.  Married life and impending parenthood have brought out the best in the Allegra Lingo we see on stage.  As Mom pointed out, she’s more vulnerable now.  She seems more open, that she’s sharing more fully of herself, that she’s holding less back.  She’s seems to be feeling more fully both the highs and lows of life and she has become more able to share those with her audience in her stories.

The Genealogy of Happenstance also shows that Allegra’s becoming a better actor.  In particular, her rendering of the aggressively perky nurse who performed the first insemination procedure on Amy was quite delightful.  Allegra was still there, she doesn’t disappear entirely into the character, but there is a performance aspect to it that’s fun to watch in action.

Naturally there’s a lot of absurdity to a lesbian couple trying to navigate a health care system that’s more accustomed to dealing with heterosexual couples, and Allegra mines that for all its worth.  But the discomforts particular to Allegra’s situation also get laid bare.  With Amy carrying the child as a biological mother, and the sperm donated from a third party, Allegra has no biological connection to this child who she will nonetheless love as her own.  The struggle to find a valid place in her own story is incredibly moving.  The strains it puts on Allegra and Amy’s marriage are heartbreaking.  The little victories mean that much more.  Moments that might have been strictly comic fodder in the past - like flight-phobic Allegra on a plane sitting next to an eight year old girl who loves plane rides full of turbulence, and then falls asleep on Allegra’s shoulder - become freighted with all kinds of heart to go along with the laughs.

Allegra Lingo is allowing herself to be more human onstage.  It makes for great theater.  You should see it for yourself.

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Fringe Review - Our American Assassin or You Can’t Handle The Booth - Theatre In The Round

I almost don’t know what to say about Josh Carson anymore.  Should you see Mainly Me’s latest comic freight train Our American Assassin, or You Can’t Handle The Booth?  Only if you want to laugh your ass off for a solid hour.  Sound good?  Then get your ticket because they’re packing the house full right from the first performance.

So Josh Carson and Andy Kraft came up with the thought that it’d be a great idea to do a comedy about the assassination of President Lincoln.  Too soon?  It’s been almost 150 years, get over it.  So Josh went off and wrote it.  And directed it.  And performs in it.  All of which, in other hands, would make something like this a cringe-inducing train wreck.  But Josh Carson is not your average Fringe artist.  What we get instead is damn near brilliant.

The premise is that the actors onstage performing the play when Lincoln was murdered are the real victims here.  The assassin John Wilkes Booth was himself an actor.  Acting and theater will be vilified for all time for their role in the killing of the President.  Unless the actors can somehow find a way to bring Booth to justice themselves and become heroes instead.  This is a mission for which they are completely unprepared, and a mission which they botch in about two or three dozen different ways.  The mistakes snowball in hilarious fashion as the cast of characters around the actors’ crusade grows increasingly odd and menacing.

The three vigilante actor detectives - Laura Keene (Shanan Custer), Jack Matthews (Andy Kraft) and Harry Hawk (Carson) - are all spectacularly self-absorbed, clueless buffoons, which gives the play all kinds of opportunities to make fun of theater in general and actors in particular.  Jim Robinson also delightfully chews the scenery as General Edwin R. Stanton, leading the hunt for Lincoln’s assassin, and Dr. Samuel Mudd, a doctor with a very hands on approach to medicine.  Lacey Zeiler is wonderfully threatening as both Dr. Mudd’s wife, and boarding house proprietor Mary Surratt, all Southern charm and deadly cunning.  John Zeiler is great as both melodramatically drunk theater owner Jeffrey Ford and crazed zealot soldier Boston Corbett.  Robinson and the Zeilers share comedic narrating duties with Dan Hetzel, whose appearance as assassin John Wilkes Booth late in the game provides the extra manic fuel to bring the story home.

And yes, because this is the overly enthusiastic Mainly Me Productions, they appear to be trying to break new bones in Andy Kraft’s body, as well as what little scenery and props they have.  And if you thought they might take a break from mocking the Executive Director of the Fringe Festival since Jeff Larson is only just starting and this is his first festival - think again.  Our American Assassin is the best kind of Fringe comedy - it’s tight and intelligently written, it’s directed at perfect pitch and pace, and it’s performed by a skilled and relentless ensemble of clowns that understand comic timing in a way that few others do.  It’s almost not fair throwing other comedies up against this one, but it’s always nice to have a really great show in the Fringe to help raise the bar for everyone else - and not just in August.  I rarely get to see things this funny the rest of the year.  If you’re in a need of a laugh, this one’s guaranteed.  Go.

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended