Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review - Charm - Mixed Blood - Lives In Need of a Happy Ending - 4 stars

Any play that conjures Emily Post up from the afterlife in the body of a trans person can’t be all bad.

“Have pity on the straight people, baby.  They get confused.”

Talking with my friend after the production of Charm at Mixed Blood, I found myself in the unusual position of holding the happy ending of the play against it.  As a fan of happy endings, you’d think I’d cut a play some slack if it had a happy ending.  My problem was that Charm did not in any way, shape or form seem like it was setting us up for a happy ending.  Then my friend reminded me of something she’d once heard in a similar discussion of art - we don’t always apply a happy ending because it makes sense or because it’s warranted; we create a happy ending because we need more of them.  Fair point.  The characters in Charm could use a happy ending, so who am I to begrudge them one?

“Don’t you just feel like a whole new you, instead of a ho you knew?”

I also didn’t realize until after the show that the playwright for Charm, Philip Dawkins, was also the playwright on Failure: A Love Story, a 2014 Fringe show that I loved quite a lot.  Charm is a very different play from a number of angles but the same talent is at play in this script as well.  The ensemble of Charm is a big noisy cast of nine characters - all individuals unrelated to one another introduced in a classroom setting.  It’s a credit to the cast that they all quickly present their characters to the audience as fully formed people cobbled together out of snippets as the play furiously juggles all the characters to give their subplots something akin to equal time.  It’s a tough task in this “teacher and student” context and the cast, under the direction of Addie Gorlin, often succeeds at this task more effectively than the play itself does.

“You make the transition from the painful realization that everyone’s looking at you to the uncomfortable truth that no one sees you anymore.”

Mama Darleena Andrews (Julienne “Mizz June” Brown) has volunteered her time to teach at a local community center that serves at-risk and gender non-conforming youth of all sexualities, many of them also homeless.  The center is run by the beleaguered D (Meighan Gerachis), a bit worn down by the day to day realities of the community they are serving with limited resources. Mama wants to teach the young people etiquette, following the rules of the late Emily Post.  Now, the gender norms Miss Post was enforcing in her day are a lot more fluid in 2016.  That fluidity running up against such rigid rules can make for some confusion, and some friction.  Also, of course, a lot of comedy.  When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, or your next kind word, charm school can seem like a luxury on which you can ill afford to waste your time.  And getting the kids to behave in the classroom is a far cry from getting them to treat each other, and themselves, better out in the real world beyond the community center’s walls.

“I’m just an old dog and you’re teaching me new pronouns.”

But the young people are intrigued by Mama, a trans woman of color who’s made it to the other side of 50 in a world that doesn’t have good odds for that happening.  Fabulous streetwalker Ariela (Rehema Mertinez) is especially drawn to Mama, lobbying hard for the role of teacher’s favorite - and a little jealous and spiteful to anyone who gets in her way.  Ariela’s opposite is Beta (Jay Simmons), a sullen and quiet gang member who sits in the corner wearing clothes so non-descript it’s hard to tell who they are.  Victoria (Jennifer Waweru) and Donnie (Ryan Colbert) move as a unit, a couple bound by the children and history they share together, but always on the verge of being pulled apart.  Lady (Jay Owen Eisenberg) is a nervous, spastic soul who has a hard time connecting with others.  Logan (Nathan Barlow), a gay college student, drops in just to get a taste of how the other side lives, but ends up staying to pursue a relationship with Jonelle (Alyssandra Taylor), who fills out their paperwork as a boy but presents as a girl.

“I just wish there was someone I was enough for.”

Though the play could sidestep the rough edges of its characters and their lives, to its credit, it doesn’t.  However, the characters nearly all headed down some dark paths of their own does make that happy ending seem a bit more jarring.  Is it nice to see them all together at the end?  Sure.  Does that mean their lives are magically fixed?  Of course not.  Does the fact they have to go back to those lives of struggle negate the loveliness and warmth of this one moment in time on which the play chooses to close?  No. But it doesn’t feel like the play or the production is necessarily presenting that happy ending with the tenuousness that surely accompanies it.  It’s almost as if we in the audience, like Logan the college student, have the privilege to go slumming for a little while on the wrong side of town, and then get to quickly return to our safe and sheltered lives - and think no more about it.  Are we better for the visit?  Yes.  Are we also using other people’s misfortune and hardship as our entertainment, secure in the knowledge it isn’t really going to touch us?  Maybe.

“To expect perfection is rude.”

It’s good that Charm has me asking these questions.  It’s good that Charm is making me uncomfortable.  It’s good that Charm is presenting these characters to audiences, giving them a platform and a voice.  I just worry that because there is so much getting crammed into a single play, no single element of the play is getting a fair hearing.  Any one or two of these characters in any combination could easily be their own play.  Charm draws them all quickly and deftly, but I wonder about the depth.  For instance, one character presents themselves and their life in a certain way for the first two-thirds of the play, and then suddenly tells us that it was all a lie.  OK, then what’s the truth?  The play lets that slide.  So the character we thought we knew just turns into a cypher that is never fully explained by the play’s end.  We know them less well after spending two hours with than we did when we started.  That seems like a poor use of a character, an actor, and stage time.  Charm does this, to a lesser extent, with every one of the characters who are all fighting for their moment in the spotlight so the audience can see them better.  Charm often seems like a lot of set-up with little ultimate delivery on its introductions.

“Thank you for correcting me.  Names have power.”

Still, just to get a cast of this many gender-fluid and sexuality-fluid characters (and actors) of color on the same stage together is notable all by itself, and well worth seeing.  Charm is not like anything else you’re likely to see on stage this year.  And you can see it at Mixed Blood for free (because of their Radical Hospitality program).  So what are you waiting for?  (You already know you’re going to get laughs and a happy ending)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo: From left to right: Rehema Mertinez, Jay Owen Eisenberg, Jennifer Waweru, Alyssandra Taylor, Nathan Barlow, Ryan Colbert (on floor), Mizz June; photography by Rich Ryan)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Review - Everything’s Free - Mission Theatre Company - When The Bill Comes Due… - 4 stars

What if someone offered you a credit card with an unlimited balance that you never had to pay?  What would you do with that purchasing power?  What if one of the only conditions of receiving this card was that you could never let anyone else know you had it or were using it?  Could you keep your mouth shut?  Could you live in a a way that wouldn’t arose suspicion?  When our capacity to do good runs up against our capacity for selfishness, which side wins?

“The human dream only lasts nine seconds. That doesn’t leave us much time.”

These tantalizing questions, and many more, are floating around inside local playwright Sam Graber’s new play Everything’s Free, commissioned for a world premiere by Mission Theatre Company.  Being familiar with a lot of Sam Graber’s work, I have to say this is one of the strongest scripts I’ve seen from him.  Clocking in at only about 90 minutes, using only a handful of characters, Graber manages to cover a lot of ground and offer up a lot of food for thought to the Mission Theatre audience. 

“You accepted responsibility.  With responsibilities come conditions.”

Opening night was unfortunately also the day we all learned that Prince had died, so a lot of people were naturally preoccupied elsewhere.  The audience that showed up for Everything’s Free just barely outnumbered the cast of five.  To their credit, the actors went full out, as if the nearly empty room was instead a packed house.  The small crowd responded in kind, all very much keyed into the concept and story of the play.  I hear audiences since then have been quite full, which is good news.  This script and this production deserve to be seen by a lot more people.

“There have to be jobs.  Just walk to the tall buildings and ask.”

I have to be careful here not to spoil too much of the plot.  What I can safely say is that Tyler (Jake Rivet) and Mackenzie (Tynelle Marschall) are a young couple, fresh out of college, and fresh out of small town America, come to the big city of Minneapolis to make their mark and see what the larger world has to offer.  They think that people in their 30s are old, and that going back home would be a fate worse than death, but they also aren’t too adept at living hand to mouth.  Mackenzie calls herself an internet artist, and is somehow actually generating income - both of which struck me as being more fantastical that a lot of the genuinely weird things that happen in the play.  You could be forgiven for perhaps wanting something bad to happen to these two.

“Never let tomorrow stop tonight.”

Introduced alongside Tyler and Mackenzie are Clutch (Corey DiNardo), inexplicably wearing a bowler hat, and his companion Eula (Anna Sutheim), swathed in the multiple layers that make surviving a Minnesota winter possible.  Eula also seems a bit fixated on Tyler, which unnerves him, even as Clutch throws his money around to keep the good times flowing for his newfound friends.

“I can almost taste the smiles of people.”

In short order, Tyler also comes into some money.  What he chooses to do with it is surprisingly altruistic.  But as Tyler and everyone around him soon discovers, if something’s too good to be true, then it probably is.  The way things unravel and how the nightmare is resolved make for an unusual journey for characters and audience alike.

“Blood, bones, fingers, eyes.  Breathe and let the spirits rise.”

There’s a twist I won’t spoil near the end that almost seems like a cheap writer’s trick, but then turns around again to leave things a bit more open-ended and potentially ominous (you know, the kind of ending that would feel at home at the end of most typical episodes of The X-Files).

“There’s no due date.  There’s just us.  All of us.”

Outside the central foursome, Eric Balcerzak moves around the borders of the action of the story, only really having a chance to insert himself as a character when he takes on the role of a doctor doing charitable work with homeless people.  Since we have plenty of avarice among the main quartet, it might be nice to see some more of this, or similar, characters to add some balance and contrast as the script develops.  Just a single appearance by the doctor opened up the world of the play and grounded the strangeness of the premise in our everyday reality - which just ended up making it all that much more unsettling.

“There’s no advertising in homeless people freezing to death.”

Director Anneliese Stuht trusts Graber’s script and the performances of her actors to be enough the carry the story.  Everything’s Free is a fairly barebones production.  Obviously as you can see from the above, Krista Weiss’ costumes made an impression on me.  A nod must also be given to the lighting, sound and projection designs of Ben Harvey.  There’s one particularly evocative image in Graber’s script near the end, of dispossessed people each hanging by a thread in the moonlit nighttime sky, which Harvey actually delivers.  It’s as unsettling as it is beautiful, and for all that also remarkably simple in its execution.

“Everyone’s living on the street these days.  They just don’t know it.”

For some reason, I found myself wondering about why the production was so white. Nothing in Graber’s script seems to preclude actors of color.  In fact, mixing it up a bit might allow the story to seem less like a cautionary tale just for self-involved, entitled white folk.  Right now, the homogenous population of Everything’s Free makes it just a little easier to dismiss than I think it should be.  The performances here were all fine, however.  Sometimes it seemed like there were only two volume settings, though - reserved or shouty.  Some extra levels in between might have been useful.  The one cast member who skirts this problem rather nimbly, and had me wishing for a little more nuance across the whole story, was Sutheim as Eula.  She always seemed to have just the right mix of allure and menace. She takes the strong material in the text and really runs with it.  Is she more than human or less than human?  See and decide for yourself.

“You should reconsider your tone.”

We don’t get a lot of original storytelling along the lines of Everything’s Free all that often.  While we all work to change that, catch this new play while you can.  If you’re like me, you’ll probably find it unnerving and inspiring in equal measure.  Congratulations to Mission Theatre on given this new script a proper birth.

4 stars - Highly recommended

Friday, April 22, 2016

Review - Fight Night - Theatre Coup d’Etat - Fighting, Drinking, and Fun - 5 stars

Fight Night is Theatre Coup d’Etat’s monthly excuse to gather people together in order to drink and engage in stage combat.  What could possibly go wrong?  (I’m kidding, of course.  It’s all perfectly, relatively, safe, especially the audience participation.) (Don’t worry.  It’s self-selecting audience participation.  And with the crowd this show attracts, there’s always plenty of willing volunteers.  If, like me, you just want to stay in your seat and watch, you totally can.)

Have you every watched a play and just wanted to skip straight to the fight sequences?  That’s what Fight Night does.

First, they tag the audience as they arrive, handing out either red or blue strips of fabric for audience members to tie around some part of their body (this gets very creative for some people).  Then the two female referees explain that everyone wearing blue in the audience is on one team, all the folks with red are on the other.  Throughout the evening, there are competitions in which both teams can accumulate points.  When one team gets a point, the other team drinks (everyone wins).  At the end of the night, the team with the fewest points “loses” and needs to down the number of drinks that is the difference between the winning and losing scores.

But first, the classics.  Kevin Fanshaw and Elohim Pena join one of the referees in a rapid fire, very irreverent, summary of the plot of Hamlet.  Then Fanshaw takes up Hamlet’s foil, and Pena that of Laertes, and they stage the climactic sword fight from that play.  Later in the evening we get the Romeo/Mercutio/Tybalt knife and sword fight from Romeo and Juliet.  In both there’s a really sense of humor, even in the swordplay itself.  Playfulness with weapons is just another method of taunting your opponent.

Another part of the evening is fantasy fight matchups.  Each team in the audience picks a side and whoever’s champion wins the fight gets a point for their team (once more, losers drink).  First fantasy fight - Macbeth vs. Darth Vader (smart money was on the Dark Lord of the Sith).  The other fantasy fight matchup featured the ladies - homicidal Harley Quinn of comic book fame vs. Disney princess Snow White. (I was not aware before that evening that Snow White is surprisingly good in a knife fight.)  They are soliciting suggestions for future fantasy fight matchups - my brain for some reason wants Emily Dickinson to fight Sylvia Plath, and W.H. Auden to fight e.e. cummings, complete with a poetry smackdown.  (Clearly, I need help.)

Audience members can also rack up fight points themselves.  No actual knives and broad swords here, though.  The sword fight is fought using styrofoam pool noodles.  For added protection, each swordsman gets a literal human shield: either Theatre Coup d’Etat’s artistic director James Napoleon Stone or company fight choreographer Adam Scarpello.  The volunteer swordsmen from the audience loop their arms through the arms of the human shield in front of them and wield the sword from there.  The human shields can also talk strategy with their fighters. (Fair warning: Scarpello is willing to take a bite out of a pool noodle if he has a chance.)  More hits, more points, more drinking.

There are also fisticuffs to be had.  Those audience volunteers get enormous inflatable red or blue boxing gloves, and are basically just aiming for a chest hit.  They get baseball catcher’s masks for a little extra protection (though when one fighter’s mask came off, the other fighter graciously removed his as well to keep it a fair fight).  More hits, more points, more drinking.

For the less combative though no less competitive, there’s Pictionary.  The words and phrases are ones here from either Shakespeare or Star Wars.  More points, more drinking - plus bad art and wild guessing.

Something additionally impressive here is that - other than Stone and Scarpello - everyone else on stage in the classic duels and fantasy matchups is relatively new to stage combat.  Scarpello specializes in training actors to bring the fights out from a place of character first.  So it’s an extension of character rather than something tacked on because the play says so - not just an actor turning attention away from the play and instead focusing on getting the moves right, like it was a dance or something.  The method works well here.  Everything’s safe, but the fights still seem real and even a little reckless and unexpected.

Fight Night is a heck of a lot of fun.  I was a little worried about the 10pm start time, but it’s such a brisk lively hour of fun with the audience games mixed among the fantasy fights and classic duels that you never have a chance to get sleepy.  And if you’re someone for who the night’s just getting started at 10pm, Fight Night’s a great way to kick things off (and start drinking).

They’re back again on the Bryant Lake Bowl stage on June 24 and July 29, so mark your calendars and enjoy a boisterous late night out.  (Meanwhile, for something completely different, they're doing The Glass Menagerie May 20th to June 6th, so check that out.  I'm fairly certain there are no weapons involved.)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review - Lasso of Truth - Workhaus Collective/Walking Shadow - 3 stars

It’s not often the run crew gets called out on stage to take a bow with the cast at the end of the play, but with Lasso of Truth, it’s warranted.  And I don’t say that lightly.  The cast of Lasso of Truth is first rate - Annie Enneking, McKenna Kelly-Eiding, Meghan Kreidler, John Riedlinger, and Stephen Yoakam.  The cast is so good, and so stuffed with recognizable names from the Twin Cities theater community, it’s almost not fair to the other plays being produced right now.  I’m gonna have to make a guess here, but it looks like the two man stage crew was Isaac Arreguin and the assistant stage manager Mitch Swanson.  Why did they get a curtain call?  Well, Erica Zaffarano’s lively set for Lasso of Truth is almost another character in the play.  There are two rolling wall pieces (you couldn’t really call them screens) that might actually have more blocking than a lot of the actors.  Scenes are obscured then revealed from behind these walls as the two threads of the plot barrel along. If the crew wasn’t timing things just right and hitting their marks just so, the production wouldn’t work.  And the actors clearly know that.  You can see in the way the cast and crew look at each other, they’ve been through the wars, they’ve bonded.

“How can you tell when someone is lying to you?”

The set with a life of its own isn’t the only thing which sets Lasso of Truth apart from your average stage play.  Since Carson Kreitzer’s play explores the origins of the comic book superhero Wonder Woman and the life of her peculiar male creator, the play in its structure and this co-production of Workhaus Collective and Walking Shadow Theatre Company both embrace that comic book style.  There are some truly wonderful illustrations by Jacob Stoltz woven generously throughout the evening projected on three screens behind and above the action.  These comic book panels add detail, information, and punctuation (often comedic) to the story, making it seem a bit larger and more vibrant than life. 

“Let’s play ‘Leukemia.’  Now there’s one less of us.”

There is also a humorous side plot commenting on the action featuring Gloria Steinem writing a forward to a collection of Wonder Woman comic book covers.  The snippets that make up this side story are filmed and then given a comic book style coloring overlay making them that much more fun to watch.  The filming and editing was done by Daniel Benoit and the projections designer for the production was Davey T. Steinman.  There was also a cheeky but informative preshow video done by Kwame Brown running in a loop as the audience filed in and took their seats which helped give the show some helpful context.  Given the style of this production, under the direction of Leah Cooper, it’s hard to imagine the show working as well, or at all, without all the different varieties of visuals helping to prop it up and flesh it out.  Abetting all this visual and physical trickery, of course, are the added design elements of light and sound, designed by Michael P. Kittel and Dan Dukich respectively.  And though there were a couple of minor glitches opening night, one can hardly fault the board operators Jason Hanson and Damon Mentzer.  Like stage manager Mawrgyn Roper, the stage crew, and all the designers here, they have their work cut out for them to keep Lasso of Truth clipping along smoothly with all its many moving parts.

“The tickle at the edge of your brain.  Do you ignore it because you don’t want to know?”

Let me say this up front: I love Carson Kreitzer’s writing.  I love her style.  I love her way with words.  I love that even here, where the story is ostensibly focused on the man behind Wonder Woman, she finds a way to make it even more about the women in this man’s life, and how they inspired him as well as his creation.  I also love that in Lasso of Truth, unlike a lot of her other plays, there isn’t some incredibly dark turn that then paints the world as such a bleak place you wonder how the playwright gets out of bed in the morning.  All that said, Lasso of Truth is kind of a disappointment.  While I applaud, and even at times thrill to, the play imitating the visual style of a comic book in its structure - brief scenes centered on a single visual picture, like panels in a graphic novel - the content inside those panels is missing something.  They are often as flat as a two dimensional image.  The depth and human emotion is missing.  This, despite compelling performances by all involved.  The whole cast works hard to imbue the skimpy story with meaning, to put some meat on the play’s bones, but there’s only so much they can do. 

“Don’t struggle.  Just stay.”

Kreitzer is blatantly trying to have it both ways, and says as much in the author’s note in the program.  Lasso of Truth both is, and isn’t, about William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, and the creator of the polygraph (or lie detector) machine.  But the characters in the play are “fictional characters inspired by real people.”  Kreitzer, as any good writer does, takes the details she finds useful (not being bound by the rest), creates her own emotional truth around them, and makes her own world on the page.  The tension here is that even though the characters are listed as - in the past - The Inventor (Yoakam), The Wife (Enneking), The Amazon (Kreidler), and - in the present - The Girl (Kelly-Eiding) and The Guy (Riedlinger) - there are very specific non-generic references to the source material invading the play from a couple of directions.  The modern day Girl is obsessed with the particulars of the different iterations of Wonder Woman in popular culture (such as the successful Lynda Carter TV show).  Gloria Steinem on film (also Enneking, delightful) digs into both the sometimes troubling evolution of Wonder Woman on the comic book page and the unconventional sexual proclivities of Marston in real life, wondering aloud how the creator’s behavior influenced or reflected on his creation.  All the specifics in those two threads of the story seem to undercut, and make unnecessary, the coyness in other areas of the script just so perhaps the author still feels they have the room to take whatever dramatic license they wish with the characters and their lives.

“You may be used to being the smartest guy in the room, but that’s over.  I’m here.”

The main trouble I kept having as I watched was that nothing hung around long enough to have any impact.  In the present, our modern day Girl alternates between talking about Wonder Woman, telling stories from her past involving people we’ll never meet, and badgering a modern day Guy who runs a comic book store until he shares with her his vintage comic which contains the first appearance of the character of Wonder Woman.  This last quest results in - nothing, as far as I can tell.  After all the build up, we don’t get to see the comic.  Neither do we learn what, if anything, in this Wonder Woman debut has an impact thematically or personally for the Girl and Guy.  Yes, it’s a turning point in their relationship, but it sidelines the comic book (and Wonder Woman) into being more of a  maguffin.  No payoff. 

“I mean, how long do we expect this to last?”

That story as a whole is rendered in miniature time and time again in the scenes from the past where the Inventor, the Wife and the Amazon (the third in their polyamorous relationship) are repeatedly launching themselves into scenes that end abruptly without achieving anything.  Most of them start something like “Hello darling, let me share with you this little piece of exposition which will establish where we are in the timeline of our story and the history of America.  And now… oh, I’m sorry, we seem to have run out of time before we could really speak to one another.  Look at that shiny thing over there!  On to the next scene we go!” No one is allowed to exist in one place and engage another character for more than just one or two minutes at a time.  The actors all do their best to imbue these scenes with a sense of character and gravity and consequence but they don’t really seem to have enough to work with.  Comic books have more sustained explorations of their characters than this.  Lasso of Truth is more like a set of snapshots with captions than pictures that are conveying a narrative.  What’s the story and why are we watching it?

“No one else has to understand.  It’s enough that we do.”

Even saying all that, there is a certain amount of fun in just watching the artistic team band together in service of the script and just go for it.  It’s certainly not boring.  It never sits still long enough.  I’m not sure what all the component parts of Lasso of Truth add up to in the end, but it’s a wild ride getting there if you just give over to it and hang on tight.  In a way, Lasso of Truth is a fitting send off for Workaus Collective, which is shuttering operations after this production.  Workhaus was always about serving the script, giving the writers an opportunity to take chances and get new work out in front of audiences.  The work itself may have been a mixed bag, but no one ever played it safe.  Workhaus’ producing partner Walking Shadow continues on after this, of course.  Walking Shadow’s love of new plays should help fill a little of the void Workhaus is leaving behind.  Lasso of Truth is a good way to say goodbye.

3 stars - Recommended

(Photo: The Wife (Annie Enneking) restrained by The Amazon (Meghan Kreidler); photographer - Alana Horton)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review - The Fantasticks - Nautilus Music Theater - A Big Dose of Old School - 4 stars

I find myself torn when I think about Nautilus Music Theater’s production of The Fantasticks.  The show is chock full of incredibly talented, seasoned performers (but then, that’s not at all unusual for Nautilus).  The show is also brimming over with one beautiful, memorable song after another.  Since it had been about, oh, thirty years since I’d seen a production of this piece, I’d forgotten just how many songs I knew from The Fantasticks.  I repeatedly found myself thinking, “Oh, that’s where this song comes from.  And this song.  And this song.  And this song.”  There’s a reason the thing is so durable.  Not only does it have a wealth of great material in it, it’s one of the original black box musicals.  It’s incredibly simple to stage because it blatantly engages the audience’s imagination by having the characters ask for it directly.  Fourth wall?  What fourth wall?  Every self aware piece of musical theater that’s come along in the last 55 years owes a debt to The Fantasticks.  If you think you’ve seen the tactics used before, it’s because you have.  This is where everybody else learned them.

“What at night seemed oh so scenic, may be cynic in the light.”

Nautilus has also put their own particular spin on the play by making it less a meditation on the way youth loses its innocence, and more about what love looks like from the opposite end of the age spectrum.  The “young” lovers are played by real-life married couple Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr, two stalwarts of the Twin Cities theater scene over many decades.  The term “mature performer” is a fair one to apply here.  And perform they do.  Briggle is especially impressive because the man still has the lung capacity many a twenty-year old (who would normally get cast in the role of young lover Matt) would envy.  He can hold a note so long you start to wonder whether he’s human.  Most mere mortals don’t have pipes like that.

“Soon it’s gonna rain.  I can feel it.”

Speaking of amazing pipes, Nautilus’ Artistic Director Ben Krywosz had another little bit of fun with casting and put the Baldwin sisters (Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden) in the role of the fathers to the young lovers - Christina being Bellomy, Wendy Lehr’s father, and Jennifer being Hucklebee, Gary Briggle’s father.  Not only were women playing male roles, they were decidedly younger than their characters and the actors who were supposed to be their children.  But oh those beautiful Baldwin voices.  Rounding out the cast was William Gilness in the narrator role of El Gallo, and Brian Sostek was the wacky ham actor who is central to the elaborate plot to get the young lovers together.  (Sostek also serves as choreographer and fight choreographer.)  The mini-orchestra consisted of music director Jerry Rubino on piano, and Andrea Stern on the harp.

“I say they’re only young once.  Let’s get us a first class abduction.”

The plot of The Fantasticks is pretty simple.  Matt and Luisa fall in love.  Matt and Luisa are pulled apart by circumstance.  Matt and Luisa find their way back to each other, just a little bit older and wiser.  Their fathers, who Matt and Luisa thought were trying to keep them apart, were actually only putting up obstacles so that the children would work that much harder to fall in love just to defy their parents.  The final flourish to this fatherly plot is enlisting El Gallo and his sidekick to stage a fake abduction of Luisa from which Matt can rescue her.  It’s only because happily ever after doesn’t seem as exciting that everyone drifts apart and then must find a way to reunite.

“Try to remember when life was so tender that no one wept except the willow.”

The concept behind the production was to put older artists in traditionally younger roles to add a different perspective to the story.  The same with the decision to go with women in traditionally male roles.  Having seen The Fantasticks through this lens, I’m not entirely sure it works.  The play seems to resist reinterpretation and commentary placed on it.  It seems to be resolutely a product of its time, and that time was over 50 years ago.  The music largely transcends time - the songs, and the talent of the performers here, make for an absolutely gorgeous piece of musical entertainment.  The script is another story altogether.  The fact that the abduction used to be referred to as a rape (which, in the classical sense, isn’t incorrect usage) was so problematic that over time the script was altered to not run afoul of more cultural sensitivity around the word.

“Just once before I’m old.”

The fact remains that it’s a fairly immovable story of white male privilege.  Written by two men, it makes much of the fact that the girl is 16 and the boy is 20.  So the entire time I’m sitting there thinking “statutory rape” in the back of my head.  Then there’s the whole notion that the boy must strike out and see the world, while the girl is simply waiting for some man, any man, to make her life complete.  He will be her adventure.  Add to that the ethnic stereotypes flying around El Gallo and his sidekick as they stage the abduction, then later take the lovers on a whirlwind tour of how American culture sees everyone else, and well… I got uncomfortable pretty quickly and stayed that way.  I was surprised as anyone that this was my response coming back to a musical I remembered so fondly from my teenage years.  Some scripts just don’t age well.  You can say it’s all just meant in fun, but fun at whose expense?

“Their moon was cardboard.  Fragile.”

With all the talent onstage, and all the beautiful songs, you can’t really be mad at the production.  When the music is front and center, for the most part, the production is on solid ground.  Is The Fantasticks lovely and entertaining and enjoyable?  Absolutely.  Is it necessary?  Probably not. 

“Are we happy?”
“Yes.  Aren’t we?”

You can argue that all art doesn’t need to have a purpose.  But I’d argue that it needs a compelling reason for being.  Just looking at the random sampling of things I’ve seen in the last four months, the ones that are most successful are the ones that are tapping into something in the zietgeist.  Given the political upheavals going on right now, productions as different as Tamburlaine and Julius Caesar can’t help but feel a bit more urgent.  Given the bewildering battles over bathrooms, marriage and civil rights for the LGBT community, a production like June is a timely reminder of a former era we’re always in danger of slipping back toward.  On the flip side, a production like Everyman provides a window into the belief system of people who feel compelled to insert themselves into other people’s personal lives.  Given the general feeling of personal unrest and displacement in so many quarters, disparate tales such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Aliens illuminate the sometimes desperate struggles of people who feel trapped in lives that are too small for them.  Productions like You Bring The Party and Semester, Lecture 1 look to unpack the very structure and purpose of the performer and audience relationship, questioning the validity of live theater itself.

“There’s usually an audience somewhere.”

So what exactly is The Fantasticks bringing to the table?  Escape, I guess, if that’s what you’re looking for.  Most of the songs still hold up remarkably well, and here they are performed better than you’re likely to see anywhere else.  For that reason, I can’t give the production any less than 4 stars.  As a piece of musical theater, Nautilus, as usual, executes the show flawlessly.  But the script is a relic.  If it were the songs alone, it would be a 5.  The framework that the songs live in is looking a little the worse for age.  The performers are aging far better than their material.  (Tickets are, quite rightly, rapidly selling out, so I shall do them no harm in saying this.)  Go for the singing, and when the book kicks in just trust that the next beautiful song is always right around the corner. 

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review - Julius Caesar/Macbeth - Classical Actors Ensemble - A Bloodier Brand of Political Fighting - 5 stars/3 stars

If the seemingly endless American presidential selection season is getting you down, Classical Actors Ensemble is here to remind you, through a double dose of Shakespeare in rep - Julius Caesar and Macbeth - that things could be a lot worse.  Choosing one’s leaders through assassination and civil war is a whole lot messier than anything we have going on right now.

“He’s a tried and valiant soldier.”
“So is my horse.”

After seeing CAE’s Julius Caesar, I want to see director Randall J. Funk’s take on a whole lot more Shakespeare plays.  This is the first telling of Julius Caesar, and I’ve seen a few, that actually resonated with me as a human story, with human consequences, and characters I understood and cared about.  You’d think that’d be the first hurdle you’d clear with a play, but with Shakespeare it all too often gets forgotten.  The promise and challenge of all that beautiful language is regularly where a lot of average Shakespeare productions stop.  Funk’s creative collaborators on Julius Caesar dig a whole lot deeper, and effort like that starts at the top.  These are some of the best performances I’ve seen these actors give. 

“Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius?”

CAE’s Julius Caesar actually makes me care about a group of assassins.  Sure, their methods are all wrong, but I understand their cause and concerns.  Plus, the characters who stand arrayed against them regularly show themselves to be no great prize.  When “order” is restored at the end, nobody’s happy, and it’s a legitimate question whether the country is any better off.  This is a production that keeps you on your toes.  Your sympathies keep shifting among the cast of characters.

“Will you dine with me tomorrow?”
“Ay, if I be alive, and your mind hold, and your dinner worth the eating.”

For the uninitiated: Julius Caesar (Arthur Moss) has the support of the masses (among them, Travis Bedard, Kris Snow, Alice Tibbetts, Mason Tyer, and Daniel Kristian Vopava) but he’s clearly been reading a little too much of his own publicity, and his view of his own importance and invincibility has increased accordingly.  Caesar ignores the warnings of his wife Calpurnia (Marci Lucht), and a random street person they call the Soothsayer (Lucas Gerstner) who tells him to “Beware the ides of March” (March 15th, which in the play is fast approaching).  [The soothsayer doesn’t appear to be played as the town drunk here, rather a homeless person who is perhaps mentally ill, an intriguing modern touch that makes you wonder what kind of dire warnings we might be ignoring every day as we, like Caesar, walk on by.]

“Three parts of him is ours already; and the man entire, upon the next encounter, yields him ours.”

Those worried about Caesar’s growing influence over Rome, led by Cassius (Peter Simmons) and Casca (Samantha Veldhouse - in a delicious and sardonic bit of cross-gender casting), settle on Brutus (Neal Beckman) as the ideal spokesman and poster boy for the opposition.  Assembling a willing cast of co-conspirators - Trebonius (Michael Kelley), Metellus Cimber (Michael Ooms), and Cinna (Dakotah Brown) - they decide assassination is the only way to stop Caesar’s rapid and dangerous rise to power.  Though Brutus has serious doubts, and willing sounding boards in the form of his wife Portia (Marika Proctor) and loyal servant Lucius (Morgan LeClaire), he nonetheless moves forward with the bloody plan.

“Set honour in one eye and death i’the other, and I will look on both indifferently.”

But Caesar has his own ardent supporters - most notably his right hand man Marc Antony (Daniel Ian Joeck).  Along with Lepidus (Andy Schnabel) and the next Caesar in line, Octavius (Rick Miller), Marc Antony leads a counter-revolt to revenge their fallen leader.

“Poor man!  I know he would not be a wolf, but that he sees the Romans are but sheep.”

Seeing this production of Julius Caesar in rep with Macbeth (directed by CAE’s artistic director Joseph Papke) finally made clear to me why Macbeth has always been a harder sell for me as an audience member.  In Caesar, some of the characters have strong feelings about Caesar not being the best choice for leader of the country.  It seems to genuinely be a concern for the greater good.  Ambition enters into the decision, too, but it doesn’t feel like the driving force.  In Macbeth, it’s all about ambition.  The fact that Macbeth’s decisions will undoubtedly throw his country into turmoil is a secondary concern and doesn’t deter him from acting.  He starts out as a good man, but his motivations as he moves through the story are entirely selfish.  So ultimately, it’s hard for me to care.

“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Macbeth (Michael Kelley) is a valiant warrior who helps turn the tide of war in his country’s favor, alongside his fellow soldier and friend, Banquo (Daniel Ian Joeck).  Macbeth and Banquo stumble upon three witches in the woods (Marci Lucht, Samantha Veldhouse, Morgan LeClaire).  Those witches serve up a number of enticing prophecies about future greatness for both men that quickly seem to start coming true.  After sharing the news with his wife Lady Macbeth (Hannah Steblay), Macbeth is spurred on by her to eliminate all obstacles between himself and the throne of Scotland.  A lot of these unfortunate obstacles are human, including the current king Duncan (Arthur Moss), and his sons Malcolm (Neal Beckman) and Donalbain (Rick Miller).  In order to hang on to power, Macbeth may need to eliminate his friend Banquo, Banquo’s son Fleance (Morgan LeClaire) as well as the family of Macduff (Michael Ooms, Samantha Veldhouse and Alice Tibbetts).

“And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg, which, hatch’d, would as his kind grow mischievous; and kill him in the shell.”

The main stumbling block to the Macbeths’ plan is themselves.  They are reluctant murderers at best, and their well-developed consciences give them no end of emotional pain and nightmares.  The witches’ half-truths provide just enough incentive to keep on killing, but also just enough doubt and uncertainty that the Macbeths can never rest easy in their newfound good fortune.  (Other unfortunate residents of Scotland caught in the crossfire include Travis Bedard, Dakotah Brown, Randall J. Funk, Lucas Gerstner, Zachary Morgan, Marika Proctor, Andy Schnabel, Peter Simmons, Mason Tyer, and Daniel Kristian Vopava.)

“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”

Since most of the cast and almost all the creative team is involved with both plays, the difference in results are sometimes puzzling. Take the costumes designed by Marco T. Magno, with assistance from Genevieve Kafka.  Their fantastic design for Julius Caesar, suggestive of 1920s/1930s, gives everyone involved a sharp distinctive look that invokes a feeling of nostalgia.  Everyone looks great and the costumes seem to help the actors do their job onstage.  In contrast, Macbeth just kind of looks random and thrown together.  There’s also some serious fake beard and wig action going on for poor King Duncan.  And in a baffling move, Hannah Steblay as Lady Macbeth is outfitted in something that looks vaguely nun-ish, with the added impediment of a drape billowing off of her headgear that repeatedly ends up falling into and covering her face.  When you’ve got a acting powerhouse like Steblay, you don’t take away half her acting tools by covering her entire body and then hiding her face besides.  Unsurprisingly, Steblay still overcomes this outfit to be the best thing in Macbeth, but I wish she didn’t have to fight so hard.

“Pray to the gods to intermit the plague that needs must light on this ingratitude.”

Then there’s the running bit in most CAE productions, present in both these offerings as well, of adlibbing as well as incorporating silent additional moments for characters.  As if Shakespeare somehow missed a dick joke or just needed a little extra help outside the dialogue to really make a character’s intentions clear.  In Macbeth, these things continued to misfire.  But in Julius Caesar, for the most part they really worked and that’s about the last thing I thought I’d be saying in regard to that approach.  The adlibs are still unnecessary, and there’s a prop gag with a wine bottle that just refuses to be funny no matter how many times they to try to insert it into the action.  But the moments where the audience just gets to live with the women in this story turn out to be really powerful.  Marika Proctor’s Portia and Marci Lucht’s Calpurnia, watching their husbands head off down dangerous paths and being unable to stop them, make the human consequences of this story very clear.  And when Casca is captured in war and the enemy sentences her to be taken off and shot, Samantha Veldhouse doesn’t say a word in that sequence, but her defiance, even with the realization of her impending death, adds a lot to the play.  It doesn’t feel like something that was slapped on, it feels like it’s part of the script. I certainly don’t want to encourage the habit, but I have to admit when it works.

“O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers!”

I really didn’t expect to come out of this double feature saying I enjoyed Julius Caesar more than Macbeth, and yet that’s the case.  It goes beyond whether I’m rooting for the characters or not, though.  Everyone in Julius Caesar is delivering the lines as if they were real words they might actually say.  They understand what they’re saying and it emerges from their mouths in a natural cadence.   That applies across the whole ensemble.  The previously mentioned work by Proctor and Lucht is impressive, as well as Peter Simmons’ task as Cassisus of constantly driving the plot forward.  (This is the first time I’ve seen the argument scene on the battlefield between Cassius and Brutus really work.  It was a treat to watch, and that’s as much Cassius as it is Brutus.)  Morgan LeClaire’s supporting work as servant Lucius really sneaks up on you.  And this is some of the very best work I’ve seen from CAE regulars like Neal Beckman (Brutus), Daniel Ian Joeck (Antony), and Samantha Veldhouse (Casca) - they really take the stage and give inspiring performances.

“If I do live, I will be good to thee.”

By contrast, most of the performers in Macbeth feel like they’re reciting the script rather than people speaking to one another.  The weird thing is it’s the same actors.  Notable exceptions to this are the Macbeths themselves.  Michael Kelley might not seem to some like a traditional choice for a leading man but the actor grabs hold of the part with both hands and really makes it his own.  You quickly find yourself thinking, “Yup, that’s Macbeth.”  He and Hannan Steblay as Lady Macbeth make a great married couple - albeit one that makes terrible life choices.  Their relationship is so strong it blinds them to the fact that other people around them might have to live with the decisions the Macbeths make.  I was excited to see Hannah Steblay’s take on Lady Macbeth and she didn’t disappoint.  The script often seems to call for some radical shifts from one scene to the next for Lady M, but Steblay makes it all flow together naturally.  The big mad scene at the end (you know, “out damned spot”) had so many different levels it was a delight to watch.  The variety of things Steblay does with her voice in just that one scene is quite breathtaking.

“The evil that men do lives after them;
the good is oft interred with their bones.”

Even the CAE house band’s musical interludes before the show and between acts seem to work better for Julius Caesar than for Macbeth.  Though Macbeth’s musical bits seem jarring, I have to admit that watching Steblay gleefully sing the Romantics' “(I Hear The Secrets That You Keep, When You’re) Talking In Your Sleep” makes me wish Lady Macbeth had a cabaret act.

“Do not presume too much upon my love: I may do that I shall be sorry for.”
“You have done that you should be sorry for!”

The whole “let’s really punch up the comedy in Macbeth” approach for this production is an odd one, and it doesn’t really hang together very well.  Horror comedy, even when the comedy is pitch black, is a hard thing to pull off successfully.  Kelley and Steblay give it their best shot, and in the places it almost works, it’s down to them.  Maybe that’s part of what’s throwing everyone else off.  How do you reconcile yourself to being the “straight man” in the sketch comedy world of the Macbeths, how do you take yourself seriously?  The strange viewing experience here is that Julius Caesar is the more complex and difficult of the two scripts to wrap your head around, and yet that production was crystal clear and felt like it clipped right along.  Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shorter and more straightforward plays from a plotting standpoint, and yet this production felt longer and more confusing than Caesar.

“Coward die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

Classical Actors Ensemble’s pairing of Julius Caesar and Macbeth thematically is a good move.  Macbeth is worth seeing for the two lead performances, but Julius Caesar is the overall standout in the double bill this time.  It’s the Julius Caesar that Shakespeare fans have been waiting for, and that everyone else didn’t know they needed, but will be very happy they saw. Go, see for yourself.

Julius Caesar - 5 stars - Very Highly Recommended
Macbeth - 3 stars - Recommended

(Photos: Left - Casca (Samantha Veldhouse) threatens Cassius (Peter Simmons) in Julius Caesar; Right - Lady Macbeth (Hannah Steblay) descends into madness; photography by Kory Koehnen)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Review - Semester, Lecture 1 - Billy Mullaney - Knowledge As Performance - 5 stars

If I told you that you would consider the delivery of a lecture on relativistic quantum field theory to be entertainment, you’d think I was strange, right?  Well, thirty people turned up to see Billy Mullaney do just that, so he must be doing something right.  He ran out of chairs, so people took to standing at the back or seating themselves on the nearby flight of steps in the Fresh Oysters Performance Research space.  Mullaney seemed genuinely surprised that so many people showed up to watch him do this.  I wasn’t.

“Now we can define creation and annihilation.”

As with any Billy Mullaney project, Semester is a strange beast.  Mullaney isn’t really presenting the lecture himself, in a strict “instructor imparting knowledge to a student” sense, because he has no idea what he’s saying.  He’s not performing, per se, either, because he’s not pretending to be a professor who is educating a class.  It’s sort of like watching someone present something to you in a language that isn’t your own, and on top of it, the language isn’t the performer’s own either.  Neither of you understand, in a literal sense, what is being said.  Someone who did understand the subject could probably translate it for you, but that person is not present here.  When I first saw Mullaney present an excerpt from this as part of his Uncreativity Festival last year, I said it had “its own little dance of language and symbols that had its own sort of beauty out of context.”  That still holds.

“Having done this we can now proceed with the continuum theory directly.”

Because it’s not just Mullaney reciting the verbatim text of a lecture on “quantization of the free scalar field.”  He’s also writing out all the equations involved on a white board as he speaks.  The challenge of not being in a lecture hall with a multitude of white board space is partially solved by the fact that, part way through the lecture, when his first white board is full, Mullaney simply swaps that white board out for a fresh one, keeping the other nearby for reference.  (No doubt the money audience members put into the fish bowl by the door will go in part to obtain still more white board space and more erasable markers.) (In the brief talkback afterward, one audience member - who might have understood the subject matter a bit better than I - tweaked Mullaney just a little for the cramped quarters of some of the equations, and his handwriting.  More white board space would help both those complaints, I think.)

“The only possible equation in the curly brackets vanishes.”

It’s an odd kind of exercise your brain gets when watching Semester because the mind can’t help but try to assemble some kind of meaning even out of something it has no hope of fully understanding in this context.  You start to see and hear patterns in the things Mullaney is writing and saying.  You also start to appreciate the flow of his hand, and by extension his body, across the white board space, in the space that traditionally a professor would inhabit.  Then the thought suddenly occurs to you “there are people much smarter than me who actually do understand this - they understand this language, it means something to them.  They derive knowledge from this and build to further knowledge.”  We all have our languages specific to the worlds we live in, and this is one of them.  I’m sure some theater terms are equally impenetrable to non-theater people.

“I think the whole thing is the fabric of space time but I’m not sure.”

One of Mullaney’s non-artistic occupations is that of tutor for high-level math and standardized test prep.  So he’s a lot closer to the understanding of equations in, say, algebra or calculus than I am anymore, since I left my elementary and middle school days behind me long ago.  He knows the construction of the language, and the cadence of how you present it.  He’s also understandably cynical about how children these days are required to “perform” knowledge, with little regard for whether a student actually understands or incorporates that knowledge into their life.

“phi twiddle… Hamiltonian H… position vector… dagger…”

None of that cynicism is on display here, though.  It might have been the genesis of the piece, but Semester is sort of a strange little valentine to the human mind.  Space and time and the building blocks of the universe are all bound up in these multi-level equations.  Humanity has wrestled what once seemed mystical and unknowable into lines of symbols allowing us to bend and twist that knowledge into something on which we can build.  Build what, for what purpose?  I don’t know.  But the scientists and mathematicians who do know, they need a foundation to step on to reach the next level.  This lecture is one of those foundations.  And while I still don’t understand it, it’s fascinating to watch that knowledge dance in front of me for a while, just outside the grasp of my comprehension, and feel my mind reaching for it - because that’s what minds do, when they’re invited.

“It’s just another way of knowing.”

Billy Mullaney recently started memorizing lecture number two for this course.  His plan is to have a whole semester’s worth, hence the project title.  The next time one of these Semester lecture performances rolls around, you should see it.  I can’t adequately describe it, and it’s like nothing you’re imagining.  It’s worth the time spent out of your everyday knowledge zone.

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended