Sunday, February 28, 2016

Review - Everyman - Open Window Theatre - Ready for Death? - 4 stars

(Fair warning: I go down a theological rabbit hole toward the end of the review, so if you just want to know, up front, whether you should go or not, the answer is yes.)

The friend who attended Open Window Theatre’s production of Everyman with me was kind of surprised by the choice of script.  “Who does Everyman?  What’s the audience for Everyman?”  The answer, of course, is Open Window, and Open Window’s audience.  It’s also for the dramaturgically curious, since Everyman is a seminal work in the Western theatrical canon, the best example of the old-school morality play, straight out of the fifteenth century.  It’s an allegorical play, so people get to take on characters with names like Beauty and Strength and Knowledge, also Death and Discretion and Angel.

The most striking (and welcome) element of Open Window’s production of Everyman is its diversity.  This is easily the most inclusive cast I’ve seen on the Open Window stage.  Actors and characters of color have appeared before (and will again in their intriguing spring show Best Of Enemies - about the relationship between a leader of the Klu Klux Klan and an African American civil rights activist).  Here, though, in Everyman, race both is and isn’t the point.  To further drive that home, five different actors in the cast take on the role of Everyman in the various stages of his/her journey.  So Everyman is male and female; white, black, brown and yellow.  This is presented without comment, so I almost feel wrong on some level calling it out.  But this bold choice not only works, it makes Everyman more meaningful, and is one of the key reasons why the production is so worth seeing.  (Yes, Everyman starts out white and male and returns to being white and male at the end, and of course we live for the kind of art in which this is finally a non-issue, but we’re not there yet.  Let’s applaud the big steps on the journey when they’re put in front of us.)

This approach was reinforced by a sparse modern look for the production - the pipes, ramps, stairs and platforms of Justin Barisonek’s set design, and the mix of ancient and present day in Josette Elstad’s costume design, both shown off to great effect by Courtney Schmitz’s lighting design.

Everyman (beginning and ending as Corey Mills - in between Nicole Goeden, then Kiara Jackson, then Elohim Pena, then Joann Oudekirk) is out partying and boozing and screwing around when he gets an unwelcome visitor - Death (Sharayah Bunce).  Death has been sent by God (the singing voice of composer/musician Kurt Larson) to start Everyman on his final journey, and give him the advice to change his ways while there’s still the tiniest bit of time left to redeem himself.  Everyman’s friend Fellowship (Pena again) is understandably reluctant to join him on a one-way trip to the afterlife.  Everyman’s cousin (Nate Gebhard) and kindred (Oudekerk again) are similarly not up to the challenge.  All the possessions and worldly Goods (Gebhard again) Everyman has acquired won’t really help him here in the home stretch.  Everyman’s Good Deeds (Bunce again) would like to help out, but Everyman has done so few good deeds in life that it’s hard for old Good Deeds to have the strength even to stand up, much less tag along on the journey.

Everyman works to balance those scales along the way, racking up the spiritual brownie points needed to get Good Deeds back on her feet, and also to gather around him Beauty (Goeden again), Knowledge (Siddeqah Shabazz), Strength (Jackson again), Discretion (Gebhard again), and his Five-Wits (Pena again).  Naturally, the closer he gets to his life’s end, the more that things like strength, beauty, discretion and his five wits all must abandon him.  Will this last minute change of heart and behavior be enough to get him into heaven?

One of the nice things about Everyman is its brevity.  One act, 90 minutes, no intermission.  You’re out in time to find a local restaurant and sit with your friend and chew over what it is you just saw.  And Everyman’s the kind of play you want to talk about afterward.  My friend had two issues with Everyman, both of which I understand but for both of which I also have an explanation.  First, he didn’t think there was any suspense involved.  The basic premise is that the guy is going to die, and he dies.  There’s no last minute reprieve.  I’d counter with the notion that Everyman is more about what happens to the guy after he dies than whether he’s going to live or not.  The final disposition of someone’s immortal soul is a tough sell these days as stakes to hang your play on - as Classical Actors Ensemble’s recent production of Doctor Faustus also made clear.  But it’s also just the kind of thing that Open Window’s audience base, looking for theatrical entertainment with a Christian foundation, can get invested in.

Second, my friend felt Everyman didn’t have very far to go for redemption, since he didn’t appear to be misbehaving all that badly in the beginning.  Corey and Betsy Mills of SPARK theater + dance did the movement choreography of the production, which helps the audience get into that allegorical journey frame of mind.  The opening sequence does imply a lot of drinking, and also multiple female partners for Everyman, but I can see my friend’s point, in that the presentation is so stylized, it doesn’t pack the same punch that a more gritty realistic approach would get you.  That latter approach would definitely provide for more contrast. 

But here again, with Open Window, they’re very deliberately not doing that, as part of their mission. Family friendly is their thing, number three on their list of seven key things is “We believe that we don’t have to be vulgar in order to produce good theater and that some things are better left to the imagination.”  Elsewhere they say, “We want to produce theater you can believe in, so you don’t have to worry about what you might experience when you walk through our doors and so you leave wanting to come back for more.”  Some people would argue that’s not challenging your audience, that’s not showing them the reality of the world we live in.  But then number two on their top seven list states: “We believe that good art should challenge people to be better.”  And number four further decrees “We believe that good art – in exploring the problems of the human condition – should possess a redemptive value and should always respect the dignity of the human person.”  So you’re only going to get so much of the human body, and you’re only going to get so much of the human condition.  Everyman at the start and finish is naked from the waist up, and the knees down - but in between there are boxer briefs.  He’s the only human showing off that much skin.  That’s just Open Window.  Like many a church, Open Window is a refuge from the world (and standard entertainment), while not entirely abandoning discussions of the hard issues that get dealt with in the world.

(Aforementioned theological rabbit hole…)

It’s the strong Catholic roots that run through Everyman which I had more of a problem processing.  It had been so long since I read the play back in college or grad school that I’d forgotten some of these specifics. Again, completely appropriate for Open Window, that’s their tradition, it’s where their people come from.  My religious upbringing was different.  So the sequence late in the play where there’s an extended discussion of how the priests intercede between the affairs of God and human beings, how they are considered even above the angels, was a bit much for my taste.  On the Protestant side of the fence, where my parents are ordained ministers, and where I grew up, the pastor was important and the leader of the church, but everyone had their own direct line to God.  There also wasn’t the whole tradition, again important here in Everyman, of confession and absolution.

The thing that really nagged at me was the discussion of Good Deeds.  Everyman’s Good Deeds are the thing that accompany him into the afterlife.  They are the thing that appears to ensure his entry into heaven rather than hell.  It’s kind of a fuzzy point in the play and the production, and on a certain level it’s splitting hairs.  There’s talk of grace in the program, as well as the belief that faith cannot just be something you say you believe, it has to be something you do.  You have to back up your words with action.  Christians are supposed to live by example.  They’re not supposed to be going to church on Sunday just to get forgiveness for all the bad things they did the rest of the week. 

But the idea of grace isn’t really referenced all that much in the play.  And grace is kind of the whole point.  Everyman the play makes a lot of all the things humans can do - going to priests, doing good things - to improve their chances at a decent afterlife.  But you can’t have a Christian without Christ.  If you go with the Old Testament of the Bible, humankind screwed things up, there was no unringing that bell, so they needed to be forgiven.  So in the New Testament, God offered up his son Jesus as a sacrifice so that all people could be forgiven.  Believe in Jesus, receive grace.  Your own human good behavior is irrelevant. 

The program for the production name-checked James and Galatians but I’m going to thrown a little Ephesians on the pile: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2: 8-9).  So while “do good things” is certainly a laudable and necessary message to broadcast in as many ways possible, let’s not get too pleased with ourselves.  You can do all the good you want, but without faith and grace (forgiveness), that happy ending with the Angel probably isn’t happening.

To an audience not the least bit invested in this sort of thing, this is really a side argument to whether the production works or doesn’t work.  To the standard Open Window audience, and random outside audience members of faith like myself and my friend, it’s something in which it’s way to easy to get wrapped up.  We talked about this a lot after the production finished.

(Digression over.)

Even though the text is hundreds of years old, Open Window Theatre puts a fresh new spin on and a lot of energy into the story of Everyman.  It’s definitely more religious than your average play, but it’s got a simple message of redemption that’s well worth hearing. (runs through March 20th)

4 stars, Highly Recommended

(Photo by Matt Berdahl Photography for Open Window Theatre: (l,r) Death (Sharayah Bunce) comes for Everyman (Corey Mills) 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Review - The Aliens - Walking Shadow - Quiet Time - 5 stars

Time on stage exists very differently for performers than it does for the audience.  It’s like people in a social situation who get nervous if there’s a silence and feel like something’s wrong if someone doesn’t fill it up immediately with talking.  It’s hard to just let yourself “be” - in real life or on stage.  The people you can be comfortably quiet with are rare and precious. 

“The state of having just lost something is like the most enlightened state in the world.”

One of the many reasons after catching the theater bug that my actor phase quickly passed instead into writing and stage management is I had no reliable sense of time on stage.  I was always acutely aware that I was being watched.  I had a heck of a time ever disappearing into character and story and just living there.  Part of me was always worried I was wasting precious time out of people’s lives that they would never get back, and consequently rehearsals for me were always about slowing the hell down.  Not talking at a lightning fast pace.  A pause that seemed endless to me was next to nothing for the people watching. 

“Killer Jamball and the Jolly Kangaroo.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker loves just giving actors permission to breathe and just be together onstage.  It’s one of a host of ways in which she’s a brilliant storyteller.  The ability to command the stage, and the audience’s attention, so often without saying a word, is what makes the cast of Baker’s play The Aliens so remarkable.  It’s what makes Walking Shadow’s production of The Aliens such great theater.

“…the way she would sleep with her head pressed so hard against his chest that he’d wake up with bruises in the morning.”

Director John Heimbuch seems to have found the perfect trio to bring Baker’s misfit characters to life.  In her fictional New England town of Shirley, Vermont, two slacker musician friends Jasper Kopatch (Paul Rutledge) and Kevin Jano (KJ) (Paul LaNave) regularly trespass into the backyard trash and recycling area of the local Green Sheep coffeehouse and while away their days together in companionable unhurried conversation.  Jasper never went to college, and KJ dropped out.  Jasper’s working on a novel, while KJ conjures up song lyrics for Jasper to set to music on his guitar.  Jasper’s trying not to succumb to the despair or anger that comes with his recently broken heart.  KJ is largely childlike, sometimes manic, in his wonder and delight at the smallest ripples in the details of their daily existence.  Other friends are mentioned but never seen.  One gets the feeling the two of them are the only ones who enjoy each other’s company.

“Don’t forget to come back from band camp, Shelmerdine.”

Into Jasper and KJ’s laid back energy field wanders high schooler and coffeehouse employee Evan Shelmerdine (Spencer H. Levin).  Evan’s nervous uncertainty is slowly eroded away by repeated contact with Jasper and KJ.  Evan remains easily bewildered or shocked by the two friends throughout the play, but the fact that these older, more worldly guys want to befriend him has a strangely positive effect on Evan.  Evan needs to give himself more permission for the little transgressions in life, and Jasper and KJ push him by their unconcerned example.  You wouldn’t exactly call them good influences or role models in a conventional sense.  But at the start of the story, Evan doesn’t even know how to stand still properly.  He’s constantly making adjustments in his posture, as if he wasn’t entirely comfortable in his soon to be adult body yet.  Evan’s still Evan at play’s end, but he’s learned a lot.  You can tell by the way he carries himself.  (The physical work by Levin here is pretty amazing to watch.)

“She’s dating a guy named Sprocket.”

In contrast, the stillness of both Rutledge as Jasper, and LaNave as KJ is mesmerizing to watch.  Whether silent or speaking, the emotions crossing their faces tell a very specific story.  The things they can’t say get expressed nonetheless.  You can see them thinking.  And this isn’t the kind of bad, pretentious acting that happens when performers are acting between the lines rather than on the lines, creating unnecessary pauses so we can watch them “feel” what their characters are going through, not trusting the dialogue alone to do the trick.  No, this is the playwright and the director specifically giving these characters room to just be present, and the actors the chance to fill that time with a well-rounded and detailed sense of humanity.

“There’s nothing.  There’s a f**king war memorial and a soda fountain and that’s it.”

Should I be this captivated by a story like this?  In some ways it’s strangely unlike Annie Baker to lavish her attention on characters like these.  On one level, it’s just three straight white dudes bumbling their way through life.  There’s plenty of hetero white male privilege stories littering the entertainment landscape.  As a friend said to me the other day regarding The Aliens, “I know the guy who’s obsessed with Bukowski.  I dated that guy.  I broke up with that guy for a reason.  Do I really need to see him on stage?  Do I really need to give him any more of my time?”  Fair point.  And a decent reason why a play like The Aliens might not be for everybody.

“You can say it for as long as as loud as you want, and I’ll hold your hand the whole time.”

But I’d like to offer a counterargument.  Because when I first read the play, partway in I had that reaction.  Really, these guys?  I’m going to be spending time with these guys?  Why, Annie Baker, why?  But the further I read, the more I think I got it.  Or got something, anyway.  A lot of those hetero white male privilege stories, they’re about how incapable they are with coping with a changing world.  In many the implication is that the world shouldn’t have to change so much.  But honestly, it does.  The Aliens isn’t wishing we could all go back to a “simpler” time when white dudes just got whatever they wanted and life wasn’t so darn hard (for white dudes).  Annie Baker regularly embraces the misfits, the outcasts, the square pegs in a world of round holes.  She tries to get her audiences to understand the basic humanity of her characters, no matter how strange or different from us they may seem to be on the surface.  She gives the everyday struggles, obstacles and indignities we all face their appropriate weight.  She doesn’t gloss over them or wish them away, she confronts them.  She may not have a solution, but she sees them. And she wants us to see them.

“I don’t know why I have this cookie.  I have to go home.”

For a host of reasons spoken and unspoken, known and unknown, Jasper and KJ are ill-equipped to deal with the pressures of modern life.  Their one saving grace is their connection to each other.  They revel in their peculiar but strong bond.  They protect each other fiercely, sometimes whether the other person wants it or not.  They quickly go from manipulating Evan, because they can easily mess with the high school kid, to genuinely reaching out for a connection to him.  They could honestly use another friend.  For Evan, it’s an invitation into the mysterious world of adulthood.  All three of them are almost heartbreakingly gleeful and disbelieving when one of the others opens up just a bit more and lets them in.  Maybe Annie Baker’s just saying that, even though they’ve caused a lot of problems over the years, are easy to demonize, and still with all their new hurdles don’t have it all that hard, straight white dudes are human, too.  We’ve all still got to share the planet.  We might as well try and understand one another better.

“I won’t waste away wondering why…”

I’ve got a weakness for damaged, fumbling people - as long as they don’t inflict similar damage on those around them.  Annie Baker is the poet of damaged, fumbling people.  The Aliens is a great, funny, sad little play.  The whole Walking Shadow team does top notch work here, but it you want to see three really amazing nuanced performances, you owe it to yourself to see LaNave, Levin, and Rutledge in action.  I don’t always love or understand the plays that Walking Shadow chooses to do, but with The Aliens, they got me.

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended 

(Photo by Dan Norman for Walking Shadow Theater Company - (l,r) Jasper (Paul Rutledge), KJ (Paul LaNave) and Evan (Spencer H. Levin) in The Aliens)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review - June - Savage Umbrella - The Pre-Stonewall Lesbian Blues (and Resistance) - 4.5 stars

Even though I’m a gay man who likes to see the history of “my people” displayed on stage and screen, when you say “pre-Stonewall” anything I start to recoil a little, thinking I’m in for another dose of “the agonies of the long-suffering homosexual.”  But Savage Umbrella’s latest company created work June reminded me of a key fact, there is no post-Stonewall without pre-Stonewall.  And the lesbians and gay men who appeared safely on the other side of that cultural divide and built the foundation of the better world we live in today, they were formed and strengthened in the crucible of those pre-Stonewall days of shame, police raids, arrest, blackmail, firings (and the list goes on). 

“I didn’t have any choice.”
“That’s rarely true.”

Though society constantly tried to erase them, these women and men created their own refuges and hidden communities.  They gave each other strength and hope.  Savage Umbrella’s June is about one of those refuges, one of those hidden communities.  June is a lovingly rendered period piece, telling stories the history books tend to forget. (Speaking of history books, June is well-researched.  The friend who attended the play with me unleashed his inner history nerd at intermission and was delighted to double-check his phone and find that references to Sputnik, McCarthy and Jailhouse Rock were all spot-on for 1957.) (And of course, June is also a month with a lot of gay history.)

“There was fear behind their eyes.”

The company, guided by director/creator Hannah K. Holman and her writing partner Laura Leffler-McCabe, present the audience with a wide-ranging cast of characters that is also an all too rare occurrence - an all-female ensemble.  Men never appear, though the oppression of society which they represent and enforce is ever present. 

“My heart is suspended above me.”

Perhaps the most ingenious (and strangely delightful) invention in this regard is the manifestation of a police raid.  The violence of men is created vividly by Alana Horton on her drum kit.  Unleashing the noise and full power of percussion to assault our ears, Horton’s skill on the drums works in tandem with the physical work of the ensemble so you almost feel like you’re seeing the women being grabbed, frisked, and in some cases beaten and dragged away - even though no one else is there.  Horton, with KT Thompson on piano, offer up both harmony and tension throughout the evening, giving the play its own lush soundscape that at times makes it feel like a period movie as much as a play.

“You think we’d get used to it.”

The title character (and frequent narrator), college student June (Leslie Vincent), finds her way to a well-hidden lesbian bar in 1957.  New faces are a little less welcome than usual because the ladies are on guard against spies who might be working with the police to set up the next raid on their establishment.  June is constantly writing in her notebook, which some people take for a red flag.  Another newcomer is suburban housewife Dottie (Leffler-McCabe with her acting hat on), a woman with an unexpected arrangement back home. 

“Sometimes when you’re having nightmares, I want to crawl inside and tell you everything’s all right.”

Just as male and female roles were more rigidly codified in the 1950s, the dichotomy of butch and femme in the lesbian community was also often just as mercilessly enforced.  Crossing from one side to the other was frowned upon.  But that didn’t necessarily mean that the butch in the relationship was in charge the way a man would be out in the “real” world.  Within the confines of their secret world, everyone was supposed to be liberated, and if a femme didn’t feel like being tied down to just one person, then they pushed back on the notion of monogamy.  So butch B (Allison Witham) finds herself waiting, sometimes impatiently, for Viv (Marika Proctor), her femme with the wandering eye, to wander on back her way.

“Crying has always been a sign that you’re alive.”

It’s hard to single out any one performer because all the actors are equally good.  June is a real ensemble effort.  Against her better judgment, butch bartender MJ (Meagan Kedrowski) engages in a flirtation with Dottie.   Meanwhile, June catches the eye of torch singer Mae (Emily Dussault).  The well-traveled and well-educated Jo (Hope Nordquist) seems to always be trying to make peace and help expand their community.  Holding herself a little apart, the troubled Lil (Kathryn Fumie) struggles to deal with the grief brought on by the death of her girlfriend George -  a butch woman who met a suspiciously untimely and violent end not long before the story of the play begins.  Society comes down especially hard on the butch women, since they refuse to present themselves in the soft, frilly, and deferential way a woman was expected to act.  When society pushes back against progress, the butch women take the hardest hits first, because they’re the ones who step forward.

“We are mysteries to ourselves.”

The look of the women in June is especially striking.  Hair and makeup, along with the costume design by (what I’m assuming is a very tired) Laura Leffler-McCabe, assisted by Ilana Kapra, with construction by Jerry McMurray and Holly Walter, vividly evokes a bygone era.  I’m sure on many levels it was a pain in the butt for these women to put together this look, but many of the femmes end up with the glamorous sheen of old-school movie stars of the period. 

“There are so many people in the world.  Why does it have to be so lonely?”

This is especially true of Emily Dussault as Mae, who also lends her vocal and musical composition talents to help set the moment in  history.  Dussault’s music creation with fellow composer Ted Moore gives the audience the treat of several songs that sound so right for the time that you could swear they were standards - that they’re songs you should actually know, even though they didn’t exist before.  Dussault’s performance of these songs (with Thompson and Horton on piano and drums) is perfect.  Her sound, as much as anything, keeps us grounded in the period, and gives it an almost swooningly romantic feel.  (June’s a lucky young lady, landing Mae right out of the gate.)

“We keep each other scared.  We keep each other alive.”

Since June is young, and largely impervious to the mishaps of fortune that befall nearly every other character in the play, sometimes her narration seems a bit much.  Most of the time, though, she and the play can get away with it.  The reality of the other characters’ lives often will make the case much better than anything June herself could say to us.  But this is a small, and good, problem to have.  Fair warning: this is a very sex positive show (kudos for that), and though very little skin gets shown, still very little is left to the imagination.  These ladies are pretty frank about how ready they are for a good time, and when they get a little hard-won alone time, they make the most of it.

“Someday we’re all going to just be people.”

June the play is a richly textured look at another time that allows us to see how far we’ve come, and marvel at how we ever got here.  It also shows us the resilience of the human spirit, and the human heart, in the face of things that even now seem reluctant to change.  Pull up a stool at the bar.  We’re all lesbians tonight. (runs through February 26th)

4.5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

(Photo by Carl Atiya Swanson for Savage Umbrella; (l,r) Emily Dussault as Mae, Leslie Vincent as the title character, June)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Review - Tamburlaine - Sheep Theater - When You Like Your Politics Brutally Funny... - 5 stars

Well, that’s gotta be the easiest that a reboot of a Christopher Marlowe play’s gone down in a long time.  Normally, if you’d told me someone was doing their own version of Tamburlaine, I would have been ambivalent.  But the collaborators on this project have never let me down before, so I figured I’d give it a go.  And I’m very glad I did.  Add Sheep Theater (the cheeky brainchild of Joey Hamburger, Iris Rose Page, and Michael Hugh Torsch) to the list of young theater companies I want to follow very closely over the coming years.  If the energy and creativity behind Tamburlaine is any indication, Sheep Theater is liable to take off like a rocket.

“Wait.  That’s muffins.  I’m on the wrong page.”

Do you need to know anything about the original Christopher Marlowe version of the story of Tamburlaine to follow along or enjoy Sheep Theater’s version, penned by Joey Hamburger?  Nope.  At least I didn’t.  I will freely admit that, though I have a collection of Marlowe’s plays on my bookshelf, and I’ve read a few, Tamburlaine is not one of them.  Will extreme theater nerds with a Marlowe fixation probably get a few of the jokes that sailed right over my head?  Knowing Hamburger as a writer, I’m sure they’re in there.  Might this reimagining also give those Marlowe devotees fits?  While I think that’s also likely, Sheep Theater’s version is so obviously created from a place of love and admiration for the story that I don’t think many people could take offense.

“I’m a shepherd, I’m a thief, I’m a murderer.”
“You’ll make a wonderful king.”

Tamburlaine (writer/actor Joey Hamburger), a hapless young sheep herder, is arrested in a security sweep done in advance of the impending wedding of the King (Grant Hooyer).  Tamburlaine may be innocent, but his compatriots in the prison cell have more checkered histories.  Surge (Jay Kistler) is a strongman with little need for an excuse to start a fight, and a conscience just flexible enough to allow him to be hired as a mercenary to do others’ dirty work for them.  Leon (Michael Rogers) abandoned life as a singer on the stage to try and inspire people to revolution against the corrupt ruling powers.  Ana (Iris Rose Page), well, she just really enjoys blowing things up.

“You’d never lie to me, because if you did I would explode you.”

This motley crew of misfits can barely keep up with the political machinations of the palace.  It seems everyone wants to hire them to give themselves an upper hand in trying to take control of the kingdom.  The king’s brother Henri (Nick Wolf) thinks he would make a better king.  King Gamma (Jacob Morley) from the country next door just needs someone, anyone, appropriate with whom he can form an alliance by marrying off his daughter Sophia (Tara Lucchino).  Needless to say, Sophia isn’t very happy about playing along with this wedding scenario.  Naturally there’s also an Oracle (Madeleine Rowe) involved - who may not be as useless or wrong as she at first seems, as well as servants like Allistaire (director/actor Michael Hugh Torsch) who are just trying to keep their heads down as the bullets, swords and bombs start flying.  There’s a lot to be said in this play for being among the last ones standing.  The ensemble is rounded out by Aidan Jhane Gallivan, Robb Goetzke, and Mike Merino.

“It’s called a loophole.  Suck it!  I’m free now!”

Under Torsch’s director, the actors careen through Hamburger’s script from one scene to the next like they’re trapped in some kind of manic pinball machine - and I mean that as a compliment.  The high energy and wacky humor of the production is one of its chief charms.  Even though the whole thing clocks in at just about 90 minutes, it never seems rushed or confusing (which, given the convoluted plot, is really saying something).  There are running gags - like decoy royals who take the assassin’s bullets - that shouldn’t be nearly as funny as they are.  I found myself laughing at all sorts of inappropriate things because the production just made them so damn entertaining.  Don’t get me wrong, the humor’s dark, but it’s still humor.  When a character gets killed in an orgy of gunfire (no blood, just sound effects and great physical work by the actor), it’s making fun of all those operatic over the top character deaths we see in film, but at the same time it’s also the death of a character we know.  There are human consequences to all the violence here.  It’s not just mindless entertainment.

“Look at all the toothbrushes!”

And the writer in me appreciates the tightness of the script, and the fact that no beat is wasted along the way.  The prologue with the character we will come to know as the Oracle isn’t just a prologue, it’s a scene with a point that’s key to the plot.  We just don’t know that until later.  There’s a hooded figure who has come to consult the Oracle in the prologue.  We won’t learn who that hooded figure is until the end of the play.  By then, most audience members could be forgiven for forgetting that plot point.  But it’s all there, and nicely paid off.  Because it’s the explanation for how Tamburlaine gets sucked up into all the craziness in the first place.

“You remember that?”
“This morning?”
“Like it was yesterday.”

A quick individual shout-out to the musicians - John Hilsen and Joni Griffith.  The original music that accompanies the action, most especially the way Griffith uses her voice to accent moments, is alternately hilarious and moving.  Tamburlaine wouldn’t be as effective a production without them.

“I killed King Harold accidentally.  I don’t know if I know how to kill someone… dentally.”

I’m not a Game of Thrones devotee, but I can see how that audience might enjoy this play a lot.  I can also speak personally to the fact that you don’t have to give a crap about palace intrigues as entertainment to still enjoy the heck out of Tamburlaine.  It’s fitting that they’re staging this at the Bedlam Theatre space in St. Paul.  Sheep Theater feels like they’re carrying on the Bedlam tradition, Bedlam 2.0, if you will - though Sheep Theater is very much its own thing.  If you like your theater scrappy and smart, Tamburlaine’s your ticket. (runs February 18th to 20th - closing this weekend)

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

(Photo above: The King (Grant Hooyer, seated) is surrounded by (l-r) Tamburlaine (Joey Hamburger), Ana (Iris Rose Page), Surge (Jay Kistler), Leon (Michael Rogers), and the king's brother Henri (Nick Wolf) - photo courtesy of Sheep Theater)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Review - You Bring The Party - Small Art - 5 stars - A Perfect Little Party

If somebody asked you how to stage a party, Small Art’s You Bring The Party would be a perfect little gem of an example.  Small Art - the wife/husband team of artists Laura Holway and Ben McGinley - gathered some like-minded performer friends - Taylor Baldry, Charles Campbell, Emily Gastineau, Erika Hansen, Rachel Jendrzejewski, Billy Mullaney and Blake Nellis - to create something at the Fresh Oysters Performance Research space that was part showcase, part actual party, and all fun.  My only regret was that I really needed to make myself leave at the end (the party continuing) because I needed to head home and start putting my thoughts together to write this blog post.  Most parties I feel a bit awkward.  This party, I could have comfortably stayed until they kicked me out.

“Talk to us about a small but persistent grief.”

I’m still a quiet, withdrawn sort of partygoer, don’t get me wrong.  But You Bring The Party was designed to engage me.  Not in the usual terrifying audience participation sort of way, where you feel like suddenly you’re on display or you have to perform.  Nope, we’re all in this together.  Everyone is so gentle and good-natured about it, you’re reminded that on some level, every party is a performance.  And the best parties are the kind where everyone around you is committed to the idea of everyone having a good time, in whatever form that might take.

“Are you easily frightened?  Once frightened, are you easily calmed?”

It wasn’t until after I’d left and started doing some research that I learned that the party was specifically for the lonely, the disappointed, and the brokenhearted.  That was the pitch in the publicity anyway.  Strangely, it wasn’t the least bit morose.  Oh, there was the “Wall of Loss” - a long stretch of white paper on which you could use markers to draw pictures or write about something that you’d lost.  They were very specific about that.  Not people you’d lost.  Things you’d lost.  The funny thing was I was gamely trying to play along but for a while I drew a blank.  People sprung to mind in a continual wave in my mind.  But things?  First, I acquired my grandmother’s pack rat gene, so things get buried or misplaced, never lost.  Since my move, all manner of things have been resurfacing as I sort through box after box.  So I had to dig back to junior high, but I finally did think of something.

“It happened exactly like this…”

That’s something you can do until the party gets started.  Of course, the trick is that the minute you walk in the door, the party has already started.  The entertainment portion of the evening may not kick in for 15 or 20 minutes, but the party atmosphere is on from the moment they invite you in.  There are cookies you can decorate to either eat yourself, offer to others, or just leave for someone to eat later (no cookie is left behind).  There’s a wine bar, and tiny bags of popcorn. 

“This is the story of my pet rabbit, Ashes.”

The coat check isn’t really a coat check so much as coat day care.  There’s a brief form you fill out, as you would for a child being dropped off for the day.  You need to give your coat a name.  They also ask how old your coat is and if it has any allergies.  They want to know your coat’s favorite outdoor activity, favorite place in your home, favorite toy or stuffed animal, favorite type of music or band.  There’s a place for emergency contact, of course, and a question if there’s “anything you’d like to share about your coat to help it feel more comfortable while you’re gone.”  They then take a small paper heart with the same number in each half and rip it in two, giving you one of the numbered halves.  So it’s as if your heart is not whole until you are reunited with your coat again at the end of the evening.  At which point they give you back the form with the staff notes on your coat’s stay.  My coat was very excited to be around other coats his own age, according to the staff.  That bit of whimsy is a common denominator as part of the overall feel of the evening.  The more you play along, the more you get out of it.

“I love the future that we have together.”

Everyone gets a pointy colored party hat.  I tend to resist these things but thought, oh what the heck, why not?  The thing all the people who didn’t have party hats had in common?  They were all performers in the show.  The pre-performance mingling period I spoke to not one, not two, but three of the performers.  They seek out the people in the party hats and engage you in conversation.  It’s oddly comforting.  They’re all very good at setting you at ease.

“Tell us about the muscle that is your heart.”

Everyone also gets a copy of a two page script when they arrive.  Two audience members are recruited to be the main readers, and then the audience has their own collective response written in as well.  This group read at the start for the formal performance segment of the evening again has a great sense of humor and also sets the boundaries for what kind of party we’re all attending.  Then Charles Campbell, Erika Hansen and Blake Nellis do some dancing, first to music, then to some spoken word, some of which had an improvisational feel to it.

“I want a little sugar in my bowl.”

Fire Drill’s Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney presented a variation on their current research into the body’s response to art, Consequences Have Consequences (v 0.2.1).  (Having participated in a session of CHC v 0.1.1, I had some idea of what to expect, but watching from the outside someone else go through it was fascinating).  While an assistant monitors the audience volunteer’s blood pressure and pulse and maps them on a chart, he also marks the beginning of the next segment for Emily and Billy to change tactics.  For instance, is it more unsettling to the volunteer to be growled at, to watch someone upset, to watch a couple of people making out, to watch interpretive dance, or mime, or cheerleading moves; or to have someone go down on one knee, smile at them and say quite sincerely, “I love you”?

“Twin babies in a shopping cart.”

At one point the audience gets split in half and each half blindly helps a cast member fill in the blanks Mad Lib style with nouns, verbs and adjectives.  I will freely admit to drawing a complete blank when they needed an adjective from me (they moved on and came back when my brain unfroze).  The results resurface in alternating letters to “Dear Person I Hardly Remember” and “Dear Thing I’d Like To Forget” spoken into a microphone while Charles, Erika and Blake filled the space again with dance.  There’s also an homage to a lost family pet and some wailing thrown in for good measure.

“Today we laid on the bed.”

The thing I appreciate most about the evening is that it wasn’t cynical or depressing.  The artists all have hearts, bruised but still beating.  They’re too clear-eyed and smart to be sentimental, but they’re also too human not to still feel things deeply.  Humor is a mighty weapon against despair.  And sharing of a sort of communal happiness - which the best theater often does - is the strongest antidote to the kind of nervousness I feel when the fourth wall between me and the performers completely vanishes.

“Hold On.  Let It Go.”

Neither Small Art nor The Twin Cities Producers Circle which is supporting You Bring The Party have been around all that long, but it’s great to see small groups gathering independent artists together under umbrella events like this, so we have a better shot at finding them.  There’s so much interesting work going on in this town, all at the same time, it’s too easy to miss good stuff.

You Bring The Party is definitely good stuff.  And you do bring the party.  It wouldn’t be a party without you. Follow the links and check it out.  It’s a great way to warm up a cold weekend. (2/11 to 2/14/2016, 7:30pm)

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended