Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review - Sons of the Prophet - Park Square - A Good, But Prickly, Comedy - 3.5 stars

It’s rare that I sit around after a play talking about that play for longer than the actual run time of the play itself, but that’s what happened with Park Square Theatre’s production of Stephen Karam’s comedy/drama Sons Of The Prophet.  The cast is stuffed with great actors whose work I’ve admired for years, as well as newcomers getting a prime showcase for their talents.  Joseph Stanley’s epic two story set with multiple sliding doorways allowing for a variety of locations to emerge is fun to watch in action.  Karam’s script is as funny as it is deep, and director Jef Hall-Flavin orchestrates the whole thing with a light touch (which is important, because with everything going on in this play, and there’s a lot going on both above and below the surface, it would be easy to get bogged down).

“That kind of healing only happens in Lifetime movies.”

Joseph (Sasha Andreev) needs to extricate himself from his eccentric and emotionally needy boss Gloria (Angela Timberman) in order to deal with the aftermath of a car accident involving a member of his family.  A high school prank with a hijacked football team mascot - a decoy deer - in the middle of the road to make cars swerve went a bit too far.  Joseph has to take on the responsibility for his teenage brother Charles (Maxwell Collyard) and elderly uncle Bill (Michael Tezla).  Meanwhile, Joseph’s own body starts to turn against him, but the doctors can’t figure out why.

“I’m in a bus station that smells like urine.  I’m not gonna have an emotional moment with you.”

When the high school prankster Vin (Ricardo Beaird) gets his sentence in juvenile detention postponed by the judge so that the young man can finish out the football season, the community is divided and Joseph’s family is put in the middle of the controversy.  The weird nature of both the crime and its punishment attract the media, including a reporter named Timothy (Dave Gangler) who takes more than a professional interest in Joseph.  (Patty Mathews and Sally Ann Wright round out the cast playing multiple supporting roles of colorful townspeople in this Eastern Pennsylvania community.)

“This shouldn’t be easy for you.”

The thing I liked best about Sons Of The Prophet was how inclusive it was when it came to addressing gay identity in the context of an extended family and the community at large.  Three characters in the play are gay and a fourth is certainly leaning that direction.  But being gay is not the issue.  No one’s gayness is a source of angst or struggle here, any more than their eye color or hair color is.  The best example of this is the scene where Joseph and the reporter Timothy meet.  In most other plays, movies or TV shows, one of them would be a man and the other a woman.  Here, it’s two guys.  But they flirt and dance around their attraction to each other while they talk about anything else but, just like any other couple meeting for the first time and encountering a spark between them would do.  It’s a charming piece of writing, well-directed and subtly acted, and sets the stage for everything that happens afterward between the two of them.

“It’s so nice coming in out of the cold.”

The thing about the script that left me befuddled, and the source of most of my post-show conversation, was the troubling intersection of both class and race.  The treatment of those subjects seems entirely deliberate on the part of the playwright, but it’s hard to know where he wants his audience to land when it’s all over.  Because people do some fairly gross or borderline insensitive things to one another from the beginning of the play right up to the end.  To the point where I end up not liking most of them.  So is the playwright saying, yes, you should be uncomfortable with all of this, and you are under no obligation to like any of these characters; you are also under no obligation to enjoy yourself watching this play - and if you do, I may have failed?  That seems like a strange and counterproductive mission for a play.

“You should be grateful that you have a central nervous system for your body to attack.”

For instance, this is 2007, pre-President Obama and Obamacare, so Joseph’s boss Gloria is not above using health insurance as a tool to blackmail him into writing a book about his family.  Joseph’s family name is Douaihy.  They are Lebanese-American and incredibly distant relatives of best-selling author of The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran.  Gloria sees a publishing goldmine here and is willing to back Joseph into a corner to take full advantage of the connection.  She is wealthy.  He is not.  She wants to use him, and his family, to make herself wealthier and put her lopsided career back on track.  Gloria thinks talking sympathetically to Joseph about the ongoing troubles in the Middle East counts as being his friend - even though Joseph and his parents were born and raised in the USA and Joseph’s never even visited Lebanon.

“I don’t want the fact that we’re estranged to keep us from seeing each other.”

Then there’s Vin and his relationship to Joseph’s family.  Vin is African-American and being raised in the foster care system.  Football is his only reliable route to college.  So the judge wasn’t just postponing Vin’s sentence to help the high school football team win a championship.  The judge was also trying to preserve Vin’s opportunity for a better life.  Since Joseph’s family is the one most harmed by Vin’s prank, Vin seeks them out to apologize.  They have the power to tip public opinion quite easily against Vin, and ruin his life.  Charles, Joseph’s more flamboyant gay brother (yes, both sons in the family are gay), is attracted to Vin.  Charles in addition to not hiding his gayness, also was born with only one ear.  He had a second ear fashioned out of skin the doctors carved out of his chest.  Charles flirts with Vin, offering up both his ear and his chest to be touched, and Vin obliges.  They then go upstairs to spend time together in Charles’ room.  Vin also ends up staying the night.  All of this seems innocent enough, and Charles doesn’t seem overtly manipulative. 

“Go.  Get on a plane.  What’s stopping you?”
“Their airport just blew up.”

Vin doesn’t seem an unwilling participant in all this either.  Yet, how much power does Vin really have in this situation? He needs something from these people.  So if they want something from him, whatever it is, how much freedom does he feel in being able to withhold it?  It feels predatory and exploitative in the same way that Gloria blackmailing Joseph over his health insurance does.  There a white woman is pressing her advantage over someone she sees as both lower in status because he’s below her on the economic scale, and ethnic (and thus different, even though Joseph and his family see themselves as just as white and American as she is).  In the latter situation, the middle class Lebanese-American family is holding sway over a young, lower-class, African-American man with no one to advocate for him.

“In medicine, when we hear hoofbeats, we think horses, not zebras.”

A side concern is that the play thinks nothing of showing us Joseph’s physical encounter with Timothy, but not Charles’ night with Vin.  You could argue, of course, that the play focuses on Joseph, not his brother.  (On one level, I know, I know, I should be grateful for even one gay love scene before a spinal tap - don’t worry, that makes sense in context - and shut up.) But it’s still another example of the greater visibility given to “straight-acting” “normal” gay men rather than more effeminate gay men.  Also Collyard does a good job in portraying Charles, and Hall-Flavin does a good job of setting the tone of the production, so that we’re not laughing at Charles but with him.  Still, when a script and a production embrace a stereotype this wholeheartedly that’s been used for cheap laughs before, it always makes me a little nervous.  Kudos for not playing into my worst fears there.  Charles’ sensitivity comes less from being gay and more from the fact he’s a teenage boy who lost both parents, has an uncle on a downhill slide into old age, and a brother with compounding medical conditions the doctors can’t seem to get a handle on.  You’d be a little on edge and emotional, too.

“Look at me, please.”

Speaking of emotional, Charles actually handles himself a lot better than his older brother.  Joseph wants to always seem like a good person, do what’s expected of him, not offend anyone.  But it turns him into a giant mass of neuroses, and he can only suppress his own feelings for so long.  Periodically Joseph has explosions of anger and petulance that are far more hurtful to those around him than if he’d just sucked it up and faced people and told them what was bothering him as it happened.  I’m not sure I see anything noble or self-sacrificing in that.  It’s not healthy for him or anyone else around him, and his body keeps trying to tell him that.  Having a tale revolve around a character this neurotic has its downsides.  Funny?  Sure.  But if you feel anything for any of the other characters in his orbit, then a lot of the time Joseph seems like a jerk, not someone you root for.  Andreev is to be commended for not holding back but giving us this potentially unsympathetic character with all his faults on full display.  The production wouldn’t work without him at the center of it.

“We’re not strangers.  We know each other well.”

Sons Of The Prophet was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a reason.  Loyal subscribers to Park Square lobbied hard to get the theater to do this play for a reason.  Karam’s writing is as smart and complex as it is funny.  Saying I enjoyed it seems weird.  Saying it fully engaged me from start to finish and then refused to get out of my head for hours until I talked it through seems more to the point.  Expect to laugh, but don’t expect the play to spoon feed you anything like an easy answer.  Audiences will have to figure that out for themselves.  (I still am.)  Should a storyteller give an audience more guidance than this?  There’s a range of options between simple clarity and beating an audience over the head.  Should a writer not want an audience to emotionally connect to their characters, or feel for them?  I may be overthinking it (I’d be surprised with this play if I weren’t), but Karam seems to be asking this of his audiences.  You should probably be among them.  You probably won’t see another play quite like it on this scale again this year.

3.5 stars - Highly Recommended

(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma - Charles (Maxwell Collyard, above) argues with his brother Joseph (Sasha Andreev, lower left), while Timothy (Dave Gangler, lower right) tries not to listen in)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review - The Glass Menagerie - Theatre Coup d’Etat - Fighting A Classic - 3.5 stars

I have to admit when I heard Theatre Coup d’Etat was producing The Glass Menagerie, my first thought was, “Really?  The Glass Menagerie?  Why?”  (The quick answer that leaps to mind is it has two large, meaty roles for women - which are still all too rare.  It takes place on a single set and only requires four people.  Logistically it’s an easier lift and also free from the sex and/or violence of other Williams plays like A Streetcar Named Desire, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer, or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.)

“Success and happiness for my precious children.  I wish for that whenever there’s a moon, and when there isn’t a moon, I wish for it, too.”

But then I remembered I had the same bewildered response to the announcement they were presenting Equus last year, and that turned out great.  And it’s not as if an older play doesn’t still have something to say to us in the present day. I tend to lean toward newer plays because there seem to be so many things going on that urgently need addressing in the here and now, and playwrights of yesterday perhaps didn’t even have those things on their minds.  Because theater is live, I expect it to address its time.  That said, some issues are timeless and always with us, and writers of any era can cross time and remind us of our common humanity in ways we didn’t expect. 

“Being disappointed is one thing, and being discouraged is something else.”

The minute the actors began speaking in Theatre Coup d’Etat’s production of The Glass Menagerie, I was reminded again of the biggest reason why it endures - Tennessee Williams has a beautiful way with words, both funny and poetic.  The Glass Menagerie is probably the prettiest excuse anyone ever committed to paper about why a man would abandon his family.  The situation isn’t pretty, but the play certainly is.  Even inept productions of The Glass Menagerie (and there are a lot of them, which is why people can be forgiven for rolling their eyes and thinking, oh no, not again) have the benefit of Williams’ script.  The script will not be denied.  It claws its way up and out from under any number of odd production concepts.  And I’m not gonna lie, it had to do a little fighting here. 

“I know what you’re dreaming of.  I’m not standing here blindfolded.”

The Glass Menagerie has two big advantages that carried over from Equus - Kevin Fanshaw and James Napoleon Stone.  Fanshaw played Alan in Equus, the troubled young man with the horse fetish - here he plays Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller.  Stone was the director of Equus, but for The Glass Menagerie, he takes his place onstage as our narrator, Tom Wingfield.

“You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura.  But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?”

Tom, now a merchant marine, tells the audience the story of his final days living with his mother Amanda (Cynthia Uhrich) and younger sister Laura (Kaylyn Forkey) in St. Louis.  Since the father abandoned the family, Tom has been supporting them with his job in a local warehouse, and Amanda is scraping together some extra cash selling magazine subscriptions.  It’s Depression Era America of the 1930s, pre-World War II, so times are even tougher for a broken family struggling to get by.  Laura, sadly, isn’t much help, since her nervous and shy personality sabotages her attempts to learn a useful trade, even something as simple as a typing course at a business school.  Her insecurities stem from a childhood illness that left her with a slight limp.  That small defect is magnified in Laura’s mind, making her want to hide from the world.

“The future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it.”

Amanda’s upbringing in the deep south has her convinced that, even though her own marriage was a disappointment, a husband might be just the solution for Laura to give her some security.  Despite the fact that Laura is much less of a social butterfly than her mother, Amanda gets Tom to bring home a friend from work, Jim, as a dinner companion for Laura.  Of course, things go unexpectedly right and horribly wrong from there.  The Glass Menagerie is full of the humorous and hair-raising family dynamics displaying why your family is the one group of people who can genuinely drive you crazy, and yet at the same time, you can’t stop loving them almost in spite of yourself.

“Unicorns - aren’t they extinct in the modern world?”

Theater can also drive me crazy, even though I can’t stop loving it - or maybe because I can’t stop loving it. The trick to The Glass Menagerie is the scene where Laura and her gentleman caller Jim are left alone after dinner to get to know one another and, against all odds, they do.  If that scene works, then you’re home free.  If it doesn’t, you’re toast.  Here, it works great.  Kaylyn Forkey as Laura and Fanshaw as Jim are a lovely mismatched pair of imperfect people fumbling toward a connection to one another.  After that scene, the play is barreling toward its conclusion so, as they say, if you end well, they’ll forgive you anything.

“Her not speaking - is that such a tragedy?”

Most of the other choices for the production made by director Lanny Langston are pretty baffling to me.  The Glass Menagerie is a memory play.  It’s not a literal depiction of reality in the “kitchen sink” realism school of theater.  The play even tells you this - in the dialogue.  Not stage directions or essays written by Williams or others that may preface the plays.  The characters, speaking directly to the audience, of which the director is one, tell you how to stage the play:

“The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music.”

That’s the narrator, in his opening speech.  For some reason, the production takes this as an indication that it should not be dimly lit, not be sentimental, not happen to music, and should be as realistic as possible.  The music issue is doubly strange because the director is also listed as the sound designer.  Laura keeps referring to the fact that she can’t get enough of using the Victrola to play the records her father left behind (though her mother references this as an annoying habit).  Plus, there’s a dance hall across the street in their neighborhood and the music keeps wafting in from there as well.  The production has a pre-show and intermission soundtrack but struggles to incorporate music into a play that constantly refers to it.  Maybe the sound levels were off the night I attended.  There was also a rumble of thunder that seemed to come out of nowhere at a key moment in the action that wasn’t supported by sounds of a storm that I could make out at any other time before or after.

“We won’t be brilliant but we will pass inspection.”

Meagan Kedrowski’s set and props transform the recessed corner of Savage Umbrella’s Space into a spare but nicely furnished apartment.  The illusion is so well-rendered that it then seems weird that there’s no portrait of the father on the wall, just an empty frame.  The cast mimes food and drink with empty plates and glasses.  And despite the fact that everything else is realistic though the play largely doesn’t require it to be, the one item in the apartment about which all kinds of business revolve is a door.  Which doesn’t exist.  So all the actors have to mime it.  Which happens inconsistently, and takes the air out of pretty much any moment that involves it.

“Someone ought to kiss you, Laura.”

Something else that impacts the momentum of the play are the repeated blackouts between scenes.  Again, it’s a memory play.  You don’t need blackouts.  Dim the lights if you must or change the color if you want, play some music (there’s an idea), but it’s not literal.  One scene can flow into the next, you don’t have to punctuate them with darkness.  Also, it’s theater.  We get that actors, props and set pieces have to move around.  You don’t have to shield us from it or pretend it isn’t happening.  Particularly in a memory play where the narrator - standing outside the action - says it’s both memory, and a play.  The script is constantly drawing attention to its own artifice.  It’s giving you permission.  So go with it.  During the first blackout, Laura just had to put on a sweater.  It couldn’t be on a hook on the wall with the rest of the coats, or the back of a chair?  She had to walk offstage to do that?  I know these sound like small things, but they add up.  It’s as if each of the scenes was rehearsed completely independently from one another, for a directing or acting class, and not a lot of thought was put into how they were all supposed to work together as a whole story.

“Now it is just like all the other horses.”

Nowhere is this piecemeal approach more glaring than in the production’s treatment of the mother Amanda.  Cynthia Uhrich tries valiantly to make the character work, but the director’s sympathies are clearly with the children, Tom in particular, even though the playwright tries to keep everything balanced.  Amanda is not a monster.  She has her moments, yes, but all mothers do.  Does she lean on Tom too hard to be the breadwinner of the family?  Sure, but this is a woman in the 1930s who married poorly and was left to raise two children by herself with no support system (what family she had was down south, not in St. Louis).  It’s a miracle she got them to the age where Tom could take a job.  When she’s wishing on the moon, she wants her children to be successful and happy.  If anything, she wants them to do better in life than she did.  Both Tom and Laura are long out of high school, and yet they’re forced by necessity and limited resources to live with their mother.  Amanda's main fear is that Laura, with even less advantages than her mother had starting out, will end up destitute.  Does she reminisce constantly about the past?  Sure, but if you were a single mom raising two children by yourself during the Depression, you’d probably try to think about happier times, too, just to keep your spirits up.  Amanda Wingfield is a complex character, full of contradictions.  But she didn’t get 17 gentlemen callers in a single day just by being pretty.  And she certainly didn’t attract them by being an annoying harpy.  The woman had charm.  It’s gotta still be in there somewhere.  Women do not exist merely as obstacles to, or helpless victims to be rescued by, men, even in 1930s America, especially not in the plays of Tennessee Williams.  They are fully formed human beings as well.  They should be allowed to exist as such.

“I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be.”

Theatre Coup d’Etat’s production of the The Glass Menagerie has its problems.  But underneath it all, there’s still the Tennessee Williams script that attracted them in the first place, and the audience gets to hear that, too.  In fact I heard some things for the first time, and heard some other things in a different way, that I hadn’t before.  And that’s a gift for which I’m grateful.  It makes me wonder what the production might have been like if it was working more closely with the script rather than fighting against it.

3.5 Stars - Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of Theatre Coup d'Etat - Beleaguered siblings Tom (James Napoleon Stone) and Laura (Kaylyn Forkey) in The Glass Menagerie)

Review - The Christians - Walking Shadow - Best Theater I’ve Seen All Year - 5 stars

So far this year I’ve seen 32 theater productions, plus five play readings, a dance show, a 24 hour play festival and a night of improv comedy.  Out of all that, Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s current production of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians is the best thing I’ve seen all year.  Fair warning: depending on your tolerance for information in advance of seeing a show, some may consider this review mildly spoilerish.  (But then why read a review in the first place, right?)  I will try my best to leave the bulk of the surprises for your seeing the show yourself because, wow, should you see this show yourself.  But I also imagine with a title like The Christians, you might need some convincing to go.  And those who hear the title and don’t need convincing might be going for the wrong reasons - either to have their faith mindlessly reinforced, or to see some good ol’ godless, liberal artist-style, Christian-bashing.  Neither of those is going on here.

“I have a powerful urge to communicate with you but I find the distance between us insurmountable.”

The synopsis on the Walking Shadow website is also incredibly vague: “Twenty years ago, this church was just a modest storefront. Now our congregation of thousands gathers together to share faith and hear a monumental announcement from Pastor Paul. This will be a day of celebration... But what Pastor Paul has to say changes everything, shaking the foundation of his church, community, and home.  Backed by a live choir, The Christians is both epic and unexpectedly intimate, an unflinching look at faith in America – and its power to unite or divide.”

“There is a crack in the foundation of this church.”

Based on that you could be forgiven for thinking - sex scandal.  Pastor Paul is cheating on his wife.  Pastor Paul is secretly gay.  Pastor Paul is a pedophile.  No.  No.  And, no.  (And just to be clear, I’m thinking of those as three distinct things, not different layers of the same revelation because, well, ew…)  So if it’s none of those things, then what is it?  Well, the phrase “unflinching look at faith” is pretty apt.  And since I can see your eyes beginning to glaze over, if I tell you the playwright’s other titles include: Red Speedo, The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith, and A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, does that cause you to breathe a sigh of relief that the guy has, you’ll pardon the expression, an irreverent sense of humor?  Not to mention the fact that Pillsbury House Theater did his play Death Tax just last year.

“You’re saying absolute tolerance requires intolerance of the intolerant?”

So: smart, yes.  Funny, yes.  Moving, surprisingly, and absolutely yes.  Pastor Paul (Andrew Erskine Wheeler - where the heck did he come from? he’s amazing) drops a faith bomb of sorts on the unsuspecting congregation of his megachurch.  It’s an announcement equally unexpected by the crew sharing the front of the sanctuary by the pulpit with him: his faithful wife Elizabeth (Bonni Allen), the assistant pastor Joshua (Kory LaQuess Pullam), church board representative Jay (Charles Numrich), and singer in the choir, Jenny (Brittany Parker) - who speaks up on behalf of those in the congregation who are beginning to doubt Pastor Paul after his announcement.

“Isn’t it a church that should make a thief feel welcome?”

There is an actual choir onstage, accompanied by keyboardist Rick Bernardo, led by choir mistress Sophia Bauer, and including Sue Gerver, Siri Hammond, Anika Kulander, Anita Mack, Lily Noonan, Jessica Thompson Passaro, and Alex Yang.  Eli Schlatter’s uncanny set is an eerily perfect presentation of many of the elements seen in suburban megachurches around the country and on TV, right down to the large flat screen TVs which broadcast the words to the hymns so everyone can sing along (don’t worry, you don’t have to - as the choir mistress reassures us at the top “The spirit moves each of us differently.”) 

“If there’s no punishment, why are we good?”

The video content from Megan Reilly is just generic and innocuous enough to fit the whole environment perfectly - that can’t have been easy.  It’s so hard to hold down our sense of irony in situations like this.  Sara Wilcox’s costumes are spot on, for the precise reason that they don’t seem like costumes at all - it’s just how these characters would dress.  The pastor’s wife doesn’t speak a word until the closing minutes of the play but you can tell so much about her just by looking at her.  The actress and the costume together are doing work so subtly that you don’t even really notice.  Given that director Amy Rummenie’s staging encompasses all four corners of the Mixed Blood space and not just the stage proper, Wm. P. Healey’s lights are key to throwing emphasis as needed and tying this whole world together around the audience.

“What good is a church that no one goes to?”

Huge kudos have to go to Eric Wigham working the sound system because a unique feature of this play is that everyone works with a microphone either in their hand, on a stand, or at the pulpit.  It begins with the pastor’s sermon but widens out to include all the scenes, even the most intimate ones.  It’s all part of a larger sermon style presentation.  Pastor Paul is subtly presenting these scenes to us as if they were further stories he was using to illuminate his message.  Long mic chords, possible feedback, volume issues - these are all challenges ably met in the production.  And when someone leaves their microphone behind, it can be just as violent a statement as any mic drop.

“It’s not your problem because you haven’t made it your problem.”

I was surprised by how uncomfortable I felt at the beginning of the play.  I wasn’t expecting that.  I didn’t grow up in a megachurch but I did grow up in a series of suburban churches, some of them led at times by my father or my mother in the pulpit.  Our hymns were more old school, traditional hymns than the kind of inoffensive synthesizer Christian pop ballads they have nowadays, but the choir robes look very familiar.  The reasons I felt uncomfortable were several.  I didn’t know what I was going to see, and felt it could go horribly wrong in any number of ways.  I wasn’t sure how much audience participation was going to be required of me (blessedly, none - though I guess closing my eyes and bowing my head at appropriate times for prayer counts).  I wasn’t, frankly, sure about the audience I was in.  Why were they here?  Though I feel as though I have a personal relationship with God, and we’ve made our peace with one another, there are a lot of well-meaning, good-hearted folks out there who still see me, as a gay man, as out of place in a church setting.  To say I felt unsafe is not an exaggeration.

“No matter what you’ve done, it can all be washed away.”

Thankfully once Pastor Paul makes his announcement I then realize, “oh, it’s gonna be THIS kind of play.  This play wants me here, wants all of us here.  This play NEEDS us here.  This is gonna be great.”  Sometimes after a long day at work, if the play doesn’t engage me, my attention can wander.  My body may even strongly encourage me to take a nap, an urge I have to actively resist giving into.  For The Christians, no such worries.  I was riveted from start to finish.  The performances are thrilling.  The mindf*ck this play works on the audience is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in a long time.  It’s both entertaining and thought-provoking.  It managed to put into words things I’ve been wrestling with, and things our country should be more consciously wrestling with, for a while now.

“All God asks of us is to just believe that He is there.”

I didn’t know I needed The Christians.  Thank God (pun intended) Walking Shadow knew.  I want to buy myself a copy of this play.  I want to read and see more things by this writer.  And all these performers and production artists either reinforced my high opinion of their craft, or just introduced themselves to me in one heck of a showcase.  Even if you don’t think you need to see The Christians, trust me when I say you need to see The Christians.  It tackles where we are as a country right now, and challenges us to find a more humane and inclusive way forward - warning us the entire time that, damn, it’s not gonna be easy.  But it’s necessary.  It’s a rollercoaster of a play, with a heart as big as its brain (and it’s got a pretty big brain).  It’s a perfect example of why we still do live theater.  This experience couldn’t happen any other way.

“And I said, please.  Please.  Please.”

See The Christians.  (It’s going to be hard to top this production, but the Twin Cities theater community still has seven months of 2016 left to try.)

[There.  Did it.  Relatively spoiler-free.]

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Photo courtesy Walking Shadow Theatre Company: Bonni Allen as Elizabeth and Andrew Erskine Wheeler as Pastor Paul in The Christians)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Review - Queens - Sandbox Theatre - Half a Great Play About Boxing - 4 stars

Here’s the weird and frustrating thing about Sandbox Theatre’s latest offering, the boxing drama Queens - it’s half a great play.  Act One is almost entirely fantastic, with the exception of the very last sequence that gets us to intermission.  The beginning sequence of Act Two is a thrilling and clever bit of theatrical storytelling.  Then the bulk of the second act after that kind of sputters out.  Granted, so does the lead character and his fortunes, but many a downfall over the years has been compelling to watch.

“Raymond Queens once hit a man so hard…”

The thing that makes it especially weird is that the three performers involved (Neal Hazard, Theo Langason, and Emily Madigan) are uniformly excellent throughout, beginning to end.  Their talent, energy and commitment to the story never flags.  It’s just that the play doesn’t give them much to work with in the second half, and there’s only so much even a great actor can do.  This is also partly because Queens is a story about boxing, and American popular culture has always been more than a little obsessed with boxing.  As my friend who attended the show with me observed afterward, “If you hadn’t read a book, watched TV or seen a movie in the last twenty years, some of that might have seemed more fresh and original.”

“It makes me wonder what happens when they get past the horizon.  Where do those tracks lead?”

Queens is the story of fictional boxer Raymond Queens, told as part biography, part legend.  Plagued by a ringing in his ears, and unable to hold down a job in the steel mills of Pennsylvania without getting himself into a fight, Raymond turns his hotheaded personality and unrelenting spirit into advantages in the boxing ring.  The three person cast all play multiple roles throughout and make it look so easy you can forget how hard that is to do well.

“I can hear it, the silence.”

At intermission, I marveled at how Sandbox does what they do, creating shows from scratch with an ensemble like this.  The dialogue in act one really sings - it’s both believable as everyday conversation and shot through at the same time with so many poetic turns of phrase that your ears just have a good time listening to these three actors talk.  In addition, there’s plentiful (and beautiful) music, courtesy of deVon Gray who performs live on the piano the music he composed for the show.  It’s a perfect soundtrack for the story, augmented by the original song “The Difference” written and performed to bookend the show by Theo Langason.

“It’s the falls you know are coming that are the worst.”

Langason also served as co-director of the piece alongside Matthew Glover.  The ways in which boxing becomes almost like dancing in Sandbox's physical approach to theater storytelling are really exciting to watch.  The design of lights (Heidi Eckwall), costumes (Samantha Rei Crossland), and set (Derek Lee Miller) all simply and beautifully create the world of Raymond’s story.  A basic square of canvas and the empty space surrounding it include the addition of a fourth bank of seats for the Park Square space, making it a show in the round.  These wooden bleachers also help complete the boxing world of Raymond Queens.  Every time the audience looks across the space at one another and sees those bleachers, they help to ground us in the past.

“With the sun in your eyes, and the wolves at your back…”

So if the story and production are so good for so long, what’s the problem?  I think it starts to go wrong when young Raymond’s coach and mentor gets approached by a shady character in order to get Raymond to throw a fight (so the gambling business can make a little more money).  Again, the actors do a great job here creating these characters, especially Emily Madigan who has to, and does, convincingly play a menacing man.  The performances aren’t the problem, it’s the story.  The coach never makes it explicit to the boxer that he’s supposed to throw the fight.  So the enthusiastic boxer doesn’t throw the fight but wins instead and the coach pays the price.  Before there can be any personal, especially emotional, repercussions for Raymond, we’re at intermission.

“A dream of what not to be.”

The first act up until this point is all about playing with boxing story cliches and subverting them by making them specific to Raymond’s character.  Here, at the end of the first act, and one could argue a crucial turning point for Raymond’s career, it stops doing that.  Even though the beginning of the second act is a great kickoff - swapping in older Raymond right at the start, and efficiently giving the audience a quick tour through the evolution of his career - it doesn’t adequately deal with what Raymond’s record means.

“They’ll come for the body, baby.  They’ll come for yours.  Don’t let ‘em have it.”

The implication of the end of the first act is that Raymond will now become someone who throws fights when he’s told to, for the convenience of others, for money, and under potential threat to his own health and well-being.  Raymond’s records of wins, losses and draws isn’t a true snapshot of what he can do as a boxer.  Not all those losses were fights he should have lost.  Not all of those draws were fights he shouldn’t have won, if he’d been allowed to.  A more detailed exploration of that could have been fascinating.  When does it turn from a career or a calling into something that’s just a job, where you do what you’re told but there’s no joy in it?  Why do you keep fighting - is it because sometimes you’re allowed to win?  Is it because you don’t feel like you were built to do anything else?  That people from a certain class, or a certain race, have limited opportunity and this is a way to buck society?

“Virginia’s got a funny way of reminding you of things.”

What we get instead is Raymond, and a prostitute named Elizabeth - for two-thirds of the second act.  Raymond loses a lot of his specificity as a character, and Elizabeth never really gains much of her own.  Again, not the actors’ doing really, it’s the text.  It seems to run out of steam, or run out of ideas, or both.  Think of a generic story that comes to mind when you hear the words “boxer” and/or “prostitute.”  That’s what’s going on here.  Complete with a potential escape to a happy life away from the madness of their current situation, and the one last fight that the boxer just can’t resist.  I understand that the story is trying to do something different in the second half and so the structure and approach of it change accordingly.  But if ain’t broke in act one, why fix it?

“Can’t change it, but you can make it right.”

If we’re going to spend that much stage time - the remainder of the play - with the actors playing just these two characters, then we should learn more about those characters.  We should learn why they live the way they live, why they want to change that (or why not), and what’s stopping them.  In Queens, we don’t.  What do they see in each other?  What convinces them that the other person is a vital part of their way out of a dead-end life?  Everything in the second half is pretty vague.  There’s promise in these characters, and very much in these actors, and Sandbox Theatre needs to do a better job of exploiting that.  Because Queens could be a powerful story, legend, morality tale - that’s the exciting promise of the first half.  It needs a second half that delivers more fully on that promise.  But man, that first act.  You should see that first act.

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo: Theo Langason, Emily Madigan and Neal Hazard in Sandbox Theatre's Queens - photographer: Dan Norman)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review - Q-Stage, Set B - 20% Theatre - Pull The Blinds and Hide Your Dolls - 3-1/2 stars

If you ever wondered what it’s like watching someone deep throat the head of a Ken doll while roller blading to the strains of Celine Dion belting out “My Heart With Go On” from the film Titanic, well, have I got a show for you!  The odd thing is that the whole Ken Doll/rollerblades/Celine interlude may be the least strange, most accessible thing about Set B of 20% Theatre Company’s third annual Q-Stage developmental showcase for new queer work in progress.  While the entries in Set A last weekend had a more traditional beginning/middle/end sort of structure to them, the two offerings in Set B were much more experimental, and much more works in progress.

Gender Tender (aka Will Courtney and Syniva Whitney) presented their dance/installation art piece Bent/Straight as the first half of the evening.  Directed and choreographed by Whitney, underscored with music by Ariskany Records with installation art by Madeleine Bailey, Whitney and Courtney danced through a landscape of window blinds (white on one side, yellow on the other) on rolling racks, a hodge podge of different table lamps, and dizzying assortment of flashcards with black and white photos of parts of the human body. 

There was an extended sequence where the performers would take turns falling down dead, as the other performer would talk out the unfortunate scenario which took their life.  Toward the end, the falling down dead and other person standing over them tableau would be repeated, but this time, the living seemed to cast some sort of resurrection spell on the dead.  The dead didn’t quite rise fully to their feet, but their limbs would rise again.  On more than one occasion, one person would use the other as their ventriloquist’s dummy.  They would start by speaking words or singing notes, moving the other’s mouth.  Then the “dummy” would continue to “speak” or “sing” with no sound coming out.  The audience having heard the words or the notes before, our minds filled in the missing element.

Sound provided markers, and shifts in mood and tone throughout.  Light, particularly the different table lamps snapping us in and out of the dark, provided the opportunity for the performers to be found in different configurations each time the light would shift.  Costume also proved key to the evolution of the piece.  The performers first emerged onstage, hidden inside large black and white striped sweaters, as a single big blob of humanity, crawling over and clinging to each other in a big large amorphous striped entity.  Out of the sweaters later, their T-shirts mimicked the look of a suit jacket and tie.  Later still, another T-shirt gave them each a set of painted on breasts, bursting out of their formal button down “shirts.”

I haven’t a clue what Bent/Straight was “about” in any specific sense I could put into words, or even what I was supposed to feel.  Maybe that’s a challenge for the next iteration of this work.  For now, though, it certainly offered a whole host of images and arresting visuals, and humor, so it feels like time well spent.

The second half of the evening was A.P. Looze’s The Grief Experiments, directed by Zoe Michael, with significant voiceover support from Lisa Marie Brimmer.  This would be the show with the previously mentioned Ken Doll extravaganza.  In fact, in an extended video sequence set to “My Heart Will Go On,” Ken hooks up on screen with a brunette doll acquaintance and the two end up having rather vigorous sex for two dolls without any anatomically correct genitalia.  Ken also ends up tossed into the middle of a stormy lake.

But The Grief Experiments isn’t about the dolls, it’s about Looze, and loss.  It’s also about alcoholism, and mental illness, and suicide.  Looze’s onstage persona has recently lost a loved one to suicide and is having an understandably hard time coping with it.  Anger is a response that surfaces regularly in a variety of ways.  Consumption of alcohol isn’t helping matters.  In order to bring a little order out of chaos, Looze’s character consults a lot of self-help resources (voiced by Brimmer) to guide them in the process of organizing and purging their belongings.  Admonished to fold, rather than hang things, the word “hang” takes on other meanings in the context of the loved one’s suicide.

In fact, language is something that Looze does a masterful and clever job of manipulating.  Many words end up carrying multiple meanings at once in the context of The Grief Experiments.  One great sequence has Looze embarking on a recipe for cookies, which gets tangled up in the 12 Steps for Alcoholics Anonymous, and the instructions for all that purging and organizing of belongings - and memories.  Another memorable scene finds Looze hiding behind a sparkling blue sheet repeating the same word or phrase, leaping about and animating its meaning: blah blah, academic language, poetry, slam poetry, non sequitur, fact.  It’s hard to convey on the page but the many different things that Looze does with their voice (and moving behind the sheet) are impressive and enormously entertaining.

Not everything works the way I think it’s intended.  A little often goes a long way.  Looze sometimes makes their point, and then keeps making it.  Looze is a compelling performer so there’s no doubt the audience is with them.  Trust that the audience gets it the first time.  For instance, there’s a sequence where Looze alternately breathes into a paper bag, then shouts angrily at the person who has died.  Unlike in all the other areas of the piece, Looze didn’t seem to have full control over their voice here.  It was either normal voice or shouting, no modulation, no levels, no nuance.  Now, that might have worked if they only did it once.  They did it repeatedly.  So not only did it start at such a high pitch of emotion it had nowhere to go, the repetition also had the effect of diluting the impact.  Done once, something like that would have hit me hard.  Repeated exposure desensitized me, and I fear the point was lost by overdoing it.

The lines also get fuzzy here in regard to subject matter.  One gets the feeling that Looze intends for the whole to end up being greater than the sum of all the disparate parts.  But it’s hard to tell just what Looze is driving at.  Because grief is not mental illness is not addiction is not suicide.  Often they collide, and they certainly can complicate one another.  But they’re all mixed up in the same stew together here.  The boundaries and definitions can get unhelpfully vague, and sometimes the exploration of one shoots off in the opposite direction from one of the others.  It feels at times like the different parts of the performance are fighting each other. 

Any or all of this may be intentional, of course, but it does make it hard for the audience to know where to land when it’s all done.  The mix of humor and the subject matter is a good one, though, and a bold one.  I don’t mean to discourage that at all.  Of the two parts of Set B, Looze’s The Grief Experiments, by virtue of the fact there was a person speaking to me trying to convey meaning, reached me in a way that Gender Tender’s Bent/Straight didn’t.  That said, they’re both intriguing experiments and I’m glad 20% Theatre gave them all a place to play.  I’ll be curious to see what’s next from these performers and these pieces.

3-1/2 stars - Highly Recommended

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Photos for 5/24 Writing Group Challenge

Our host Val says:

"Write a scene that ties these two pictures together in a coherent way. I took them in LA last month and thought they'd pair well."

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review - 3rd Annual Q-Stage, Set A - A Very Queer, Very Different Double Feature

It would be hard to find two shows more different that the two halves of Set A in 20% Theatre Company’s third annual Q-Stage.  Hector Chavarria’s The Big Gay Mexican Show! is a colorful, polished, flashy variety showcase where the central character isn’t struggling with the Gay part of his title, but the Big and Mexican parts.  JamieAnn Meyers’ First Person: A Life In Transition is a raw, intimate travelogue through JamieAnn’s personal journey toward understanding her fluid identity as a bi trans woman - the queer part of her identity and its affect on all other aspects of her life, and the lives of those around her, is the central struggle here.  Both productions are about self-acceptance but they take very different routes to getting there.  And the things that make them different are the things that make them work so well.

“Changing your story comes with a price, but it is SO worth it.”

Hector Chavarria is the author, central performer and title character of The Big Gay Mexican Show! He sings a number of songs, in both English and Spanish.  When he kicked off the opener, the old Fred Astaire standard “Cheek to Cheek,” I had to look closely because I thought, “Is he lip syncing? That voice can’t be real, can it?”  But it is.  Chavarria has a hell of a set of pipes on him and he knows how to use them.  And he may be a Big Gay Mexican, but he’s surprisingly graceful and nimble on his feet as a dancer as well.  The primary aim here is first to create a buoyant, entertaining confection in many shades of pink and sequins, which Chavarria, his director Stacy Schultz, and his fellow performers Jennifer Buckout and Donn Saylor most definitely do.  But there’s something else going on under the surface, and periodically it breaks through the shiny, happy exterior.  My theater-going companion likened it to being “emotionally flashed” by the performers.  Again, being gay and a dreamer wasn’t the issue.  If he was put in a quiet corner at school for not fitting in, the Big Gay Mexican simply daydreamed a funny and fabulous musical number in his head to pass the time.  Interacting with Buckout, first as Cinderella, then as childhood best friend Angie, Chevarria returned more than once to the theme of how family can hold you back.  Chevarria pleaded with Cinderella to save herself from the emotional abuse that kept her tied to her home,  unable to make a better life for herself.  And when Angie berates the Big Gay Mexican for losing touch with his roots back home, it becomes clear that the distance and silence are deliberate - that he must take the extreme step of cutting off the needs and demands of the people in his past if he’s to build a future of his own.

“How do you know I don’t love you?”
“Because I would never allow it.”

Neither of those struggles is uncomplicated, and the brief flashes we get of them are effective.  But one wonders if, given a broader canvas of more time (as this is a work in progress designed to be a one-act), how The Big Gay Mexican Show! might dig deeper.  Does it require the narrative of an actual play, or would the variety show format still allow the possibility of further exploration?  Similarly, when Saylor takes on the role of Dream Date and perfect boyfriend, Chevarria’s title character can only take so much love and support before he snaps.  The Big Gay Mexican says he accepts himself, but he won’t allow others to accept him.  The Dream Date is a fictional character he can’t let become something real.  Can a person be fabulous 24/7 and leave room for another person to enter their orbit, or at some point do you have to drop the act and get real?  Is dropping the act even possible when the act isn’t an act, but it’s who you are?  Again, these are flashes.  The comedy and satire, as well as music and dance, are the things that take center stage here, and Chevarria and company do them all extremely well.  (And I didn’t even touch on the hilarious old actual TV ads that appear in the “commercial breaks.”)  I’ll be very interested to see where this performer and these ideas go in the future.

“You were born a boy, but now you’re a girl?  I didn’t know you could do that.”

By contrast, JamieAnn Meyers’ First Person: A Life In Transition is the sort of “rough around the edges” work in progress that I expect to see at Q-Stage.  That unfinished feeling, though, is part of what allows First Person to be raw in a way that a more polished production might have lost in its developmental journey.  Meyers isn’t taking on a character here.  This is her story.  Like Meyer’s own life, the story is full of unexpected twists and turns simply in the way it’s constructed.  It doesn’t present itself in strictly linear fashion from childhood to the present, though there are stretches that seem to go “in order.”  First Person jumps back and forth in time, and also wisely takes the time to broaden the world beyond just Meyers’ singular experience.  Meyers has parents, a wife, children and grandchildren, all of whom are also effected by Meyers’ decision to embrace her gender identity and make the transition from her outer shell being that of a man, to becoming a woman both inside and out.  The perspectives of these other important people in Meyers’ life are taken into account.  They aren’t simply obstacles.  They are as much a part of Meyers’ understanding of herself as her own inner thoughts and struggles.

“You may always call me Jim, and I’ll always be your son.”

Meyers didn’t break away from her family.  She stayed married to the woman she loved and fathered children with.  But that doesn’t mean either one of them is a lesbian.  If that’s confusing for other people, imagine how they deal with it.  Meyers comes out to her 88-year-old mother, and though mom tries to both love and understand her child, there are still things she can’t quite wrap her head around.  Meyers’ father is far gone mentally by the time Meyer feels she can come out to him - but the father doesn’t recognize the woman before him, and instead he thinks his grandson (also come to visit) is his son, because that’s the man in the room.  The acceptance of Meyers’ own grandchildren is often much more uncomplicated than Meyers coming to terms with herself.

“But there’s a collective story, isn’t there?”

First Person is also as much declaration as it is explanation. Meyers is a vocal advocate in real life - examples of which are also peppered throughout the narrative (and this whole performance is its own advocacy).  Meyers is also joined on stage by five other trans performers (Erica Fields, Zealot Hamm, Suzi Love, Beckett Love, and Pearl Noonan).  Under Shalee Coleman’s direction, this ensemble takes on multiple roles from a sort of trans Greek chorus to individual people in Meyers’ life.  (Fields gets quite a workout playing Meyers’ mother, and father, and wife.)  All this vocal, positive trans energy onstage gives Meyers’ story that much more punch - and a healthy dose of the feeling that this isn’t just theater, it’s real life for some people.  Trans people aren’t quite the “other” after this show that they might have been for some audience members before the show.  One wishes all the people currently running around with their hair on fire over the thought of people using the “wrong” public restroom could sit down and be presented with a dose of Meyers’ reality.  It might calm people the heck down.

“I was trapped in binary thinking and gender stereotypes.”

That said, First Person is an adult piece of theater.  There’s a lot of frank discussion of sexuality, and some accompanying pictures projected on the back wall of the theater are not something you see every day.  Should we all be a little less uptight about the the human body? Sure.  Consider First Person an exercise in expanding your comfort zone.

“I’m the Big Gay Mexican. Tell your friends.”

Q-Stage’s Set A this year is a cleverly matched pair of very different, but both very positive, explorations of places on the queer spectrum that we don’t see presented to us on a regular basis.  It’s a good reminder that there are all kinds of diversity, and we’re all a little more human when we understand each other better.

4 stars - Highly Recommended

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Review - The Sparrow - Live Action Set - Seen, Heard, Understood(?) - 3 stars

It’s hard to know what to say about Live Action Set’s latest devised, company-created new work The Sparrow.  In a lot of ways the production defies description, and sense.  Neither of which in and of itself is a bad thing.  The Sparrow is two very different half hour blocks of performance, with an intermission between for a rather startling costume change, as well as a change in mood, tone and delivery.  You have the give the Live Action Set folks credit for just going for it.  They’re throwing a whole lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks.  I suppose how successful they are really depends on who you ask because the whole thing is massively open to interpretation.

The first half of The Sparrow is told almost completely through movement.  Any sound out of the enormous cast of almost two dozen performers is not words but breath, chanting or screaming.  Not a word is spoken in part one, unless you count the soundtrack in the second part of that section, which gives us Nina Simone singing “Wild Is The Wind,” then AronChupa’s foul-mouthed dance track “I’m An Albatraoz.”  There really isn’t anything in the printed program to ground you to what’s going on, and if you check their website as I did after the fact, you get:

“Sea-weary sailors regard the arrival of a sparrow as the harbinger of a journey's end. With it, momentum recycles, and a new journey begins. "The Sparrow" celebrates a world of infinite possibilities as it takes hold of joy by the jowls in this new portrait of explosive expression by genre-blurring Live Action Set.”

Um… ok… if you say so.  If you’d asked me to describe it to you without looking at the website, I wouldn’t have come up with sailors at all.  Bird?  Definitely.  And there’s a fair amount of time spent with people writhing around on the floor in ways that make you think of the tide rolling in, or people riding waves.  When I encounter dance, and the first half of The Sparrow is unquestionably a dance piece, I tend to worry less about things like a strict plot or narrative.  Honestly, to be told afterward that there was a story was a little bewildering.

Partway in, it starts to morph into a depiction of what seems like eggs being fertitlized, zygotes forming, and a baby bird breaking out of an embryonic sack.  That last is probably part one’s most stunning visual, so kudos to Sam Kruger for embodying that image so fully.  He was in that plastic bag so long I was starting to worry about him.  A lot of credit for the most evocative moments in the first half has to go to the women of the ensemble, though.  Unfortunately in the dim light, with no headshots and only a list of names to go by, even a search on the internet only leads to wild guesses on my part as to who is who.  The women drive most of the movement of the narrative in the first half, though, particularly a blue-outfitted dancer who becomes the titular bird in question (and I think the internet just helped me identify her as Eve Schulte).

When the audience comes back from intermission and the second half starts, we’re in more brightly lit, and brightly costumed, territory.  Also, everyone emerges on stage as exaggeratedly crass and grotesque individuals.  The speaking begins right away, and almost right away I found myself thinking, “Man, I wish they’d stop talking and go back to the movement and chanting again.”  (Which, after sitting through and concentrating on a half-hour of that already in the first half, was not a response I was expecting.)

We’re served a strange, disjointed stew of existential musings that I can only call “Non-Sequitur White Privilege Theater.”  Maybe I’ve just had too many people in my life kill themselves recently to have a lot of sympathy for characters onstage who bemoan the state of being alive, being healthy, having a job, a place to live, a car, someone to love, family. 

Calling them characters is charitable since we don’t really get much of a chance to spend time with any one of them or really get to know them.  Most members of the very large ensemble get a quick turn at engaging the audience with tales of loneliness, disconnectedness and isolation.  The forays into absurdity and improv that are present don’t seem to serve a purpose.  The women aren’t really driving the forward motion of the second half of the evening and that may also be part of the problem.

Here again, there’s a single moment that stood out for me, and tellingly it had two people interacting rather than just individually breaking the fourth wall to not quite, almost talk to the audience.  Two guys (I’m taking a wild stab at identifying them here - Benjamin Kolis and Kalen Keir) get right up in one another’s personal space, taking turns grasping the back of one another’s neck to use each other as ventriloquist’s dummies. The proximity of their faces to one another throughout this extended sequence ended up being pretty homoerotic, and because it was the rare example of two people actually interacting in the second half, it was very compelling to watch.

I’d be hard pressed to tell you how the first and second halves of the evening fit together thematically.  The program does a little riff on the title The Sparrow - also namechecking “espero” (which can be translated to “I hope”) and “despair-row.”

Also, the use of Nina Simone seems a little careless here.  A number of the artists involved may identify as artists of color but with only one exception I could catch, the group as a whole presents itself visually as almost blindingly white.  Just looking at the names doesn’t help - Mark Benzel, Todd Bruse, Torre Edahl, Deanna Gooding, Robert Haarman, Cate Jackson, Anna Johnson, Kalen Keir, Benjamin Kolis, Sam Kruger, Jennifer Mack, Eric Marinus, Vladimir Messing, Yvonne Mont Martin, Blake Nellis, Chelsie Newhart, Alys Ayumi Ogura, Rachel Petrie, Jennifer Pray, Peter Rusk, Tony Sarnicki, Eve Schulte, and Kathleen Willard - because, again, all but one seemed to be firmly rooted in European ancestry. As for the rest of the production team, we have co-directors Noah Bremer and Joanna Harmon, along with assistant director Schulte.  Keir and Petrie do double duty as music directors, Harmon doubles up with costume design and Megan Reilly designed the lights.

Given that Nina Simone means a lot of things to a lot of people, and given our uncomfortably highly charged racial atmosphere right now, also currently being manipulated by candidates for political points in an election year, you want to tread lightly.  I don’t think there’s anything overtly cynical or manipulative going on here with Live Action Set, but it could be misinterpreted as a move to get a contact high off a significant artist of color for the pleasure of considering yourself diverse.  I’m not saying white people shouldn’t have the pleasure of dancing to Nina Simone.  But she is not simply pretty background music for anyone, especially not for white folks.  Proceed with caution.  That music’s a lot more loaded than you think it is.  Give it the respect and deliberate use it deserves.

Live Action Set is right to lead with the movement first, since it’s the stronger and more successful of the two experiments going on here.  Both parts of the evening give audiences a lot to think about and discuss, but if you’re like me and my theatergoing companion on opening night, you may spend a lot of that time scratching your head in confusion.  The Sparrow may be one of those theater pieces that’s meant more to be experienced than understood in any literal sense.  And good on Live Action Set for giving it a try.  That's what the support of ARTshare at the Southern Theater is for, taking risks and trying new things.

3 stars - Recommended

(photos: Eve Schulte, and Sam Kruger, in Live Action Set's The Sparrow - photographer: Bill Cameron)

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Review - Kid Simple, a radio play in the flesh - Swandive Theatre - Dazzling, but Heartless? - 4-1/2 stars

It’s easy to see why Kid Simple, a radio play in the flesh was one of the plays that put Jordan Harrison on the map as a playwright over ten years ago.  Kid Simple is all the things that people who have to read dozens of scripts every week long to see - something different.  Kid Simple is funny and absurd.  Kid Simple has a female protagonist.  Kid Simple uses sound in a myriad of compelling and hilarious ways.  Kid Simple gives a small group of actors a host of crazy and challenging roles to play.  Kid Simple revels in words and language.  For all these reasons, it’s also easy to see why Swandive Theatre took to the play so readily.  It’s like Jordan Harrison wrote it for them.

“There are three speechless cellos in the whole wide world.”

Swandive Theatre’s production of Kid Simple is the kind of fully realized technical marvel that they last pulled off with their great presentation of An Outopia For Pigeons (which I know drove some people crazy, but which I loved). Anne Henly’s set and Jesse Cogswell’s lights create the framework in which this weird story exists, and Lucas Skjaret outfits everyone in distinctive and brightly colorful costumes which further enrich the palette that gives the production its “look.”  There is also a repeated use of video and projections (the work of Ian Knodel and Nathan Gebhard) that keeps everything just a little off-center.  But the real star here, naturally, is the sound and foley work of Derek Trost, the human manifestation of lead character Moll’s creation known as The Third Ear.

“If only she could murder her memory.”

In the lead-up to the start of the show, all the actors keep checking the variety of microphones placed around the set while a metronome ticks off the time in concert with an enormous projected clock face on the back wall of the Southern Theater.  Those microphones get quite a workout.  Debra Burger is the silken-voiced narrator for the evening (though don’t cross her, she has her limits).  In addition to playing Moll’s parents, Kevin McLaughlin and Sarah Broude take on the roles of villain and heroine, respectively, in an old-time radio show serial called “Death and The Music Teacher.”  And The Third Ear is all about the microphone for amplifying sounds both mundane and ridiculous.

“The loneliness most of all.”

High school student Moll (Boo Segersin) creates The Third Ear, which can hear sounds that can’t be heard by the human ear.  She wins the science fair but also catches the attention of two nefarious cave dwellers (also McLaughlin and Broude) who dispatch their henchman (Kip Dooley) to seduce Moll and steal The Third Ear to be used for their own destructive purposes.  Moll enlists the aid of the last virgin left in the 11th grade (Nathan Gebhard) in her quest to retrieve The Third Ear before it’s too late (because I guess if you’re going to have a mythic hero’s journey, you need a virgin).  Along the way, the henchman manifests himself in various forms to block their path.  Moll sacrificed a little piece of herself to bring The Third Ear to life, and she may have to sacrifice another part of herself to stop it.

“Sound of a great piece of wood straining.”

The whole cast is fantastic (though Broude’s radio play heroine, Dooley’s shapeshifting mercenary, and Berger’s omniscient and exasperated narrator are particularly wonderful).  Co-directors Meg DiSciorio and Damon Runnals have all their collaborators working in perfect sync at just the right pitch of lunacy for the whole crazy story to work.

“Sound of cogs turning in her head.”

So why didn’t I love it as much as I wanted to?  When the script is clever and the actors are great and the directors are rock solid and the design is stunning, what’s missing?  The script for Kid Simple might actually be just a little too clever for its own good.  As much as I love the dazzling word play of it all, there was often a feeling that the play was a bit cold, and holding me at arm’s length - “No, don’t get swept up in feeling things.  Stand back and look at what tricks I can do!”  The words often came before the needs of the characters, or of the audience to really bond with and care about the characters.

“A ship wrecked at sea.”
“All ships wreck at sea.”

And then there’s the, what I hope are, unintended messages embedded in the script.  In a weird way, Kid Simple seems to be saying, “No good can come of a young woman using her brain, or having sex.”  Also, “Sex is a dark and bad thing.”  It’s not enough to just a put a woman in the center of the story.  She has to drive it, not just be the victim of it.  And it doesn’t really do much to undo all the silly tropes about the over-inflated value society places on virginity if you swap a male in for a female virgin, but still reinforce all the cliches.

“You’re the mad scientist AND the monster.”

Does any of that undermine all the amazing things that are happening in Kid Simple, a radio play in the flesh?  Not really.  The production is very much worth seeing.  It’s exciting to watch all the things that theater can do, and Kid Simple really swings for the fences on all fronts.  There’s a little thrill in the way Swandive Theatre pulls off all the many tricks that Kid Simple asks of a company.  Everyone here deserves a big enthusiastic audience for the stunts they’re pulling off with such aplomb.  Kid Simple is something different, and for that reason alone it deserves to be seen.

4-1/2 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Photo: Kevin McLaughlin and Sarah Broude perform the radio play within a radio play "Death and The Music Teacher" in Swandive Theatre's production of Kid Simple, a radio play in the flesh; photographer: Dan Norman)