Monday, January 30, 2017

Review - Miranda - Illusion Theater - White People Adrift in the Middle East - 4 stars

Miranda has the makings of a great play, so I’m glad Illusion Theater commissioned the script.  Playwright James Still is a multiple nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and you can see evidence of why in Miranda (and also why Illusion Theater has produced five very different plays of his over the years). The script is smart and funny, and it couldn’t ask for a better set of actors to perform it than the ensemble that director Michael Robins has gathered here.  A story of CIA operatives based in the middle eastern country of Yemen in 2014-2015, Miranda keeps revealing different layers in a series of tangled interrelationships between the CIA agents and the local population, both struggling with the threat of civil war in a country overrun by terrorists.

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”

Miranda (Carolyn Pool) rarely uses her real name unless she’s around her CIA supervisor Reed (Steve Hendrickson). Miranda had been working in Jordan until she was caught in the middle of a terrorist bombing there.  Now she's undercover in Yemen.  The physical shock of the bombing has left an occasional ringing in her ears, an injury she uses as a way to cross the path of Dr. Al-Agbhari (Delta Rae Giordano), a Yemeni woman running a health clinic exclusively to serve women in her country.  Since the doctor needs supplies for the clinic, and Miranda needs information, which the doctor can get from her patients, they develop a mutually beneficial working relationship.  Meanwhile, Reed and Miranda’s cover is running a program called Building Bridges, which provides art and learning opportunities for local children.  Their current project involves Shahid (Ricky Morrisseau) and a production of Shakespeare’s Othello.  When things go sideways for the mission, as they have a tendency to do in Yemen, the higher ups at the CIA send in another supervisor, Lauren (Beth Gilleland), to help get things back on track.

“It’s easy to get lost inside a war that’s lost inside a war that’s lost inside a war that’s lost inside a war.”

By the end of act one, things are so up in the air between all the parties that it’s hard to know who to trust, or if there’s any way this is going to end well.  And then a funny thing happens in act two - all the tension gets sucked right out of the play.  All the potentially explosive crosscurrents between people get quickly defused and everything gets tied up in a neat little bow at the end.  And while the relationships between people only get richer and more interesting, and the acting keeps buzzing along at the high quality it had from the very start, you could be forgiven for wondering what the point of it all is.  The heat gets turned down quickly on any life or death stakes.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not lobbying for a nihilistic world view or a conclusion where everyone is lying in a pool of their own blood.  But no actions seem to have any consequences here.  Which is weird, because it’s Yemen.  Things aren’t exactly calm and friendly.  In real life, just like in the play, the escalating terrorist occupation of the country meant that the CIA had to dismantle its operations and pull its people out pretty much altogether in 2015.

“Yemen is a country of many secrets, and no mysteries.”

But the play seems to posit that, hey, as long as our white American intelligence agents emerge unscathed, all is right with the world.  They continue on their personal journeys of discovery and sure, Yemen’s still a mess but hey, what can ya do? It’s the Middle East.

“You have my word.”
“How does that help me?”

Two moments in the second act that happen almost in passing crystallized this odd feeling for me. Sahid walks with a limp, and we finally learn why in act two (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler of any major plot points). He makes a joke that the state bird of Yemen is the drone. That causes Miranda to ask if Sahid was injured in a drone strike. No, it turns out he was a child soldier guarding a checkpoint when a suicide bomber came along. So the play mentions drones, but the bad thing that happens to a character we like isn’t America’s fault, it’s those evil terrorists. Phew, Miranda doesn’t have to feel bad - other than, you know, she’s lying to this kid about who she is and why she’s really in Yemen, and America is still launching drone strikes into the country which usually end up with civilian collateral damage as well as taking out their terrorist target.

“Bin Laden still shows up in my dreams, makes himself right at home, like he lives there.”

Later on, Miranda worries to Lauren about the fate of one of her informants and she is reassured that the informant and their whole family has been safely relocated (offstage, unseen). Good thing the play takes place over a  year ago, because now any Muslim informants helping American intelligence agents would find themselves out of luck - no America for you to escape to and start a new life, but hey, thanks for the help turning against your people.

“Remembering the past, that’s easy.  Imagining a future, that’s work.”

It’s a very white American take on the situation in the Middle East, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But when someone else’s country is coming apart at the seams, I have difficulty caring about whether Miranda is having a hard time sleeping, or wondering what really happened to her brother on 9/11, etc. At one point, a character opines about, “Paranoia, the great American privilege.”  The agents here have the privilege of not thinking much in terms of life or death in this play because it’s not their home that’s being ripped to shreds.  They still have a place they can go to when it’s all over.  Not when the war is over, mind you, just when their mission is considered done.  They’ll leave the cleanup in the aftermath for the locals to do.  If the characters were more troubled by this, I might not have to be.  Or at least I'd think the play cared about someone other than its white protagonists.

“You cannot wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.”

All that said, the characters are so interesting, the dialogue so sharp and the acting so good, I can almost forgive the world view of the play being mildly out of whack and devoid of genuine consequences.  I want Miranda to continue to grow, and I’m glad Illusion Theater has helped get it this far.  Miranda is still worth seeing.  (now through February 18, 2017 at Illusion Theater)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(photo: Steve Hendrickson as Reed, Carolyn Pool as Miranda in Illusion Theater’s production of Miranda; photography by Lauren B Photography)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Review - Rhinoceros - 7th House Theater - Who’s The Rhinoceros and Who’s Really Human? - 4 stars

As experiments go, 7th House Theater’s presentation of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is a pretty successful one. 7th House wanted to get Ionesco’s anti-fascism absurdist comedy/drama up in front of audiences on the night of the inaugural for new President Donald Trump (though I can’t imagine why, can you?), so they made it happen.   Barebones production values by designers Amber Brown and Paul Bigot, just 10 days of rehearsal with director Lauren Keating, scripts in hand and off they go. The cast is so good (and has clearly memorized so much of the text) that the scripts quickly fall away from your conscious vision. There’s a person on the sidelines with a script to call out a line if someone gets lost or off track but I only saw that happen once and the actors didn’t even break stride, they just kept moving on with the scene. Rhinoceros feels like a full production, even though some of the seams are showing, and that’s a deliberate part of its charm.

“How do you know where normality stops and abnormality begins?”

The evocation of the rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?) who invade the world of the play is quite clever. There are musicians posted at the corners of the house surrounding the audience, and a gathering of various noise-making devices around the edges behind the crowd. Singing, music (composed by Kendall Anne Thompson) and noise combine with human bodies thundering around the periphery of the audience to give the feeling of a large noisy animal (or several) thundering by. Musical cues and building noise in the background herald the coming transformations or invasions and help ratchet up the tension for the audience watching, particularly since most of the time the rhinoceros is heard and felt but never seen.

“They just carry on and stand aside as if nothing had happened.”

I went in not having read the script recently, ready to let the story hit me however it would, and I have to say I came away a little perplexed. Rhinoceros is supposed to be a simple, if absurd, allegory (at the time it was written, to understand the rise of fascism and the Nazis in Europe, the better to never let it happen again). People turning into rhinoceroses was a way of symbolizing people falling under the sway of fascist ideology - losing their humanity, and any care for their fellow humans, becoming part of a large and destructive force crashing through society and undoing its norms.  I did some reading afterward, which always has the potential to be dangerous, but I think the thing that really threw my brain out of whack was the remnants of the outside world that I brought into the space with me when I sat down to see the show. Ironically, the situation outside that prompted the play inside in the first place. Watching coverage of President Trump’s inaugural day colored the way I viewed the central character in the play.

“How can this happen in such an intelligent country?”

Because the rhinoceroses are supposed to be the bad guys here.  I’m supposed to be siding with the humans, not the monsters they become.  Berenger (Ashley Rose Montondo) is ultimately supposed to be our hero.  The one human resisting transformation.  But I don’t like the guy, er gal.  Pardon the gender vacillation there, but one of the many great things about the production is they take the male role of Berenger and give it to an actress. Nobody in the world of the play blinks. Is this a woman playing a man (which was where I came down most of the time while watching), or a lesbian on the butch side?  Doesn’t matter.  Daisy (Cat Brindisi) is Berenger’s love interest either way.  Everyone treats that as a non-issue, which I understand, given that the larger concern at hand is that all the humans in society are slowly turning into rhinos, and wreaking havoc as a rhinoceros set loose in typically human surroundings will do.

“That seems clear enough but it doesn’t answer the question.”

The stumbling block is that as an audience member I see the bad behavior of the human beings right in front of me, but I only sense, don’t see the destructive work of the rhinoceros.  And many characters in the play speak longingly of the beauty and freedom of the rhinoceros. And let’s face it, the rhinoceros is a dangerous but noble beast.  If I had to turn into an animal, I could do worse than a rhinoceros.  (Make it clear that the rhinoceros means I’d be a Nazi and then I’ll have another opinion, of course.) But right in front of me I see a guy so bored with his job he’s become an alcoholic who is perpetually late to meetings with friends.  I see a guy who shoves a woman (in the script it indicates he slaps her) - either version accomplishes the same thing: I’m kind of done with the guy and don’t blame the woman for walking out. 

“I didn’t see it personally but a lot of really reliable people did.”

Also, there are some eery stretches, particularly in the second half when Berenger and Daisy are alone together, when I wondered, “Would this be how Donald and Melania spoke to one another if they were in the bunker together, hiding from an outside world they no longer considered safe?” Suddenly the fascist isn’t an animal presence outside the scene, but a human being inside the scene. And at times that human being is almost sympathetic. What am I supposed to do with that kind of cognitive dissonance? (Not that cognitive dissonance is a bad thing.) Berenger is dressed in orange, doesn’t really want to do their job, and has people say things about them like, “You can only predict things after they’ve happened.” Can you blame me for getting a Trump vibe?

“We mustn’t start feeling remorse.”

But I'm honestly not sure if that’s what 7th House is aiming for here. Their intent seems to be to present Ionesco’s allegory of fascism in which the humans are the good guys, and the humans that morph into rhinos are the bad guys. But it’s all just a little fuzzy, for the reasons stated above. The final image, of Berenger railing “I will not capitulate!” while being confronted by a rhino, who then removes its horn also confused me. I couldn’t be sure if it was a prelude to Berenger recovering a human from the rhinoceros side, or Berenger was about to be co-opted into being a rhinoceros as well.

“It frightened the poor pussy!”

Maybe the strategy resulting in my confusion is deliberate.  Everything else about this production of Rhinoceros is polished and professional - the performances, the direction, the use of live sound and music, the multiracial casting (Montondo and Brindisi are joined on stage by AJ Friday, Anna Hashizume, Kiara Jackson, Grant Sorenson, and composer/musician Thompson), the spare design (the use of children’s chairs for one sequence is delightful). Maybe my losing track of who I’m supposed to be rooting for in this particular production isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Maybe me being unsure is not a bad way to leave the theater after Rhinoceros. And, honestly, that’s Ionesco for you. Funny, but strange. (runs through 1/29/17 at A Mill Artist Lofts, just follow the signs that say Rhinoceros)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(artwork courtesy 7th House Theater)

Fresh Oysters Performance Research Presents "Piece By Piece: Lux String Quartet & Tom Comitta" - 1/22/17

Here's the first example for 2017 of why Fresh Oysters Performance Research is a place I am never bored:

I saw the Lux String Quartet as the musical guest during Billy Mullaney's remounting of an episode of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, and I got a sampling of Tom Comitta's work in Mullaney's Uncreativity Festival.  Now I get more of both, back to back - that's a win-win kind of evening in my book, at the same time that it's an experiment in being an audience for two very different kinds of art.  If you're looking to finish off your weekend with some artistic input, Lux is at 5:30pm tonight and Comitta is at 7pm.  Details below:

Fresh Oysters Performance Research Presents PIECE BY PIECE: LUX STRING QUARTET & TOM COMITTA


Lux String Quartet (MN), Tom Comitta (CA)


Fresh Oysters Performance Research 512 East 24th Street Minneapolis, MN 55404


5:30pm (Lux String Quartet) and 7:00pm (Tom Comitta) on Sunday January 22nd, 2017


$10 suggested donation at the door

“Lux must be pretty well practiced at collaboration because they do play beautifully.” —Classical MPR

“[Tom Comitta] strikes the rare chord of being cleverly comedic, visually intriguing, and conceptually challenging all at once.” —East Bay Express, Oakland, CA

On Sunday January 22nd at 5:30pm, Lux String Quartet will be playing a recital featuring works by Mozart and Dvorak. At 7:00pm, LA-based poet Tom Comitta will be reading selections from his forthcoming novel, The City of Nature.

Fresh Oysters Performance Research presents these two events side-by-side as modes of listening united by subject matter while radically separated by medium, structure, and centuries of history.

Minneapolis-based Lux String Quartet will kick off their Minneapolis leg of their 2017 season at Fresh Oysters with Dvořák’s American Quartet and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Dvořák composed this quartet during his residency in Spillville, Iowa; Lux performs Dvořák’s quartet in their visits to schools around the state, describing the music as illustrating the Czech-born composer’s experience of the rural Midwest landscape. The 1st violin’s soaring melody as "little leaf floating down a river”, the pulsating rhythm in the 2nd violin represents "waves on the water," and the the viola and cello’s arpeggios are the "river rolling slow and steady like the Mississippi”.

Comitta will be performing an excerpt of his forthcoming book The City of Nature, which exhaustively collects sentence-long nature descriptions from canonical novels—ranging from Ulysses to Their Eyes Were Watching God to Watership Down—and collages them together into a single, unbroken nature novel. All characters from source texts are removed apart from chirping birds, trotting horses and the whale from Moby-Dick.

Doubling as a kind of data analysis, the book documents how novelists drag nature through the peaks and troughs of human drama. Clouds and rain bring gloom (“the ground sobs”) and thunder brings rage, but when the sun returns it’s all smiles. The book is the result of three years’ worth of collecting, cataloguing, and compiling nature excerpts from countless books.

Audience members are welcome to come and go for either or both performances. Clearly, one should not expect a conventional listening experience: Both feature attempts to sonically describe the indescribable beauty and complexity of nature. Both evoke a listening experience of timelessness and reverie. Their methods, however, are radically different, as Lux’s classically-structured quartet pieces illustrate musical countrysides which stand in stark contrast with Tom’s overflowing description of nature, rendering a continuous landscape panorama through language.

Cocoa will be served.


Established in 2013, Lux String Quartet was named Classical MPR’s 2015-2016 Class Notes Artists, spending the season visiting schools around the state, performing and interacting with students. Continually exploring the boundaries of possibility for the string quartet form, they have been found unexpectedly performing in local coffee shops for “Lattes With Lux” as a way to insert the string quartet into everyday life, alongside classical venues for recitals ranging from standard repertoire to new music. Their members consist of Erika Blanco (violin), Sam Rudy (violin), Benjamin Davis (viola), and Lars Krogstad Ortiz (cello).

Tom Comitta is a Los Angeles-based poet and artist, whose language-based work has exhibited nationally and internationally. From 2011-12 Comitta composed and conducted nine operas with The San Francisco Guerrilla Opera Company. He has exhibited at LUMA Foundation, Zürich; swissnex, San Francisco; Reed College, Portland; Robert Berman/E6 Gallery, San Francisco and The Kala Art Institute, Berkeley. Comitta has two poems in The New Concrete (Hayward Publishing, UK), an anthology surveying the “rise of concrete poetry in the digital age.” Comitta has held residencies at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Bay Area Video Coalition, Minnesota Street Project/Little Paper Planes and San Francisco Arts Education Project.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Why I Read My Last Think Piece On The Death of Democracy on December 1st

December 1, 2016 - it’d been just a few weeks since the election, not even a month. I’d read yet another think piece on the death of American democracy. Then I was reminded that December 1st is World AIDS Day, and I was suddenly back in grad school again - the first World AIDS Day, December 1, 1988.

It was before the magical cocktail of drugs began turning AIDS from a fatal diagnosis into a chronic but manageable illness. It wasn’t the beginning of the horror show, but it wasn’t anywhere near the end either. It was my first year in the three year program at the Yale School of Drama.  We were all still sort of strangers to each other.  A random assortment of people gathered in advance of December 1st, figuring that we should do something. We knew people, a lot of people, the arts community was getting hit hard. So we came up with some ideas about raising visibility.

One of them was to assemble a display on the subject in the downstairs lobby at the Yale Repertory Theater - that was the place with all the space, where the audience gathered, where refreshments and restrooms were (where we held the opening night parties). A display there meant that everyone seeing the current production would be sharing a room with information on AIDS during intermission, nowhere else for them to be.

I volunteered to put the display together. I don’t recall anything about it being especially incendiary, other than the fact that it was about AIDS, and we were just starting to talk about AIDS in the same way we finally got over whispering about cancer. I remember spending an evening on my hands and knees in the lobby, affixing images and text to poster board and sturdier display frameworks - all to go on a long table with pamphlets and the like. Almost painfully earnest, handmade, and well-intentioned, but hey, none of us had ever done this before.  It was the first World AIDS Day.  It was something.  It was a start.

One of our professors, Dennis Scott, appeared. Nice to see a friendly face. Also nice to see an instructor’s face, since other than our faculty advisor on this event, it was pretty much an all student driven affair.  Dennis told me he had a poem he’d written that he’d like to have included in the display, if that was all right.  I eagerly took it from him, happy to have something artistic, something from one of us, in the mix. I wasn’t entirely sure why he felt compelled to offer something for the display - he was married, with children. But I figured he must know somebody, too.  Maybe several somebodies.  So up the poem went.

Returning for the fall of my second year, I noticed Dennis had lost a lot of weight, and was sometimes walking with a cane.  There were whispers.  Returning for the fall of my third year, Dennis was in a wheelchair.   There were whispers.  Then he was in the hospital.  There was certainty.  Then he was gone.

There was going to be a memorial service for the school community.  I turned his poem into the office, with a note that he had offered it up as part of that first World AIDS Day display just a couple of years before.  A few days later the Dean of the school called me into his office and said the family would like me to read the poem at his memorial service.  So I did.

We’ve been here before, people.

I remember a time when the government didn’t give a crap whether some of us lived or died.

So gay people finally came kicking and screaming out of their closets because their lives depended on it.  We organized, our friends by our side.  We fought back.  We kept speaking out until things got done.

As Tony Kushner wrote in Angels In America: ““We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come…You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

One of the things I didn’t realize the Obama administration had taught me until recently was this:

The President works for me.
The Vice President works for me.
Every member of the Cabinet works for me.
The Speaker of the House works for me.
The Minority Leader in the House works for me.
The Majority Leader in the Senate works for me.
The Minority Leader in the Senate works for me.
Certainly my two Senators and one Representative work for me.

So we talk to them, however we can.  We let them know when we’re pleased and when we’re not.  We let them know what we expect of them and we hold them to account.

This guide is useful.

It’s 655 days to the mid-term elections.

Let’s get moving, my friends.

Welcome to 1988.

Some of us have been here before.  And we survived.

The nice thing about it this time around is it feels like all of us, not just some of us, are in the fight now.

So, all things considered, we should be able to make the load a little easier for one another to bear.

Here’s that poem Dennis put in my hands over 28 years ago.

He’s gone.  It remains…


for the blessed
it comes
in the act of loving -
a cry of birds hoping South
a perfect sentence
sudden as candlelight's leap
at my wife's mouth -
comes at any moment
that will reassert the permanence of dreams
the possibility of dancing

since there is no armour
but the festivals we make
hand over hand
(the heart's drum louder
than any sound of soldiers falling)

till the war is over
let us celebrate
ourselves, all that is kind
and carnival, living
without goodbyes
without the acquiescences of grief
of ending

That small victory, only.

Dennis C. Scott
July 1987

Welcome to 1988, everybody.

Act up.  Fight back.  Make some art.

The Great Work begins.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 16 of 20

16. Learn from others in other countries. 

Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. 

The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. 

And no country is going to find a solution by itself. 

Make sure you and your family have passports.

Yale historian and Holocaust expert Timothy Snyder wrote: "Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so." 
Snyder's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (which includes former Secretaries of State), and consults on political situations around the globe. He says: 

Above, #16 of twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 15 of 20

15. Establish a private life. 

Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. 

Scrub your computer of malware. 

Remember that email is skywriting. 

Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. 

Have personal exchanges in person. 

For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. 

Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. 

Try not to have too many hooks.

Yale historian and Holocaust expert Timothy Snyder wrote: "Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so." 
Snyder's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (which includes former Secretaries of State), and consults on political situations around the globe. He says: 

Above, #15 of twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Review - Big Money - Sandbox Theatre - Yet Another All-American Con Artist - 3.5 stars

People sometimes wonder why writers write the things they write.  Or why theaters put on the plays they do.  That goes double in the case of Sandbox Theatre because they create all their own work.  So it’s not just a theater company reading a bunch of plays someone else has already written and deciding, “We’ll present this story.”  They consider a bunch of ideas collectively as a company and if someone is lobbying hard for a particular idea, and brings other company members around, eventually that idea’s time will come. 

“You make a blueprint.  You build a house.  You drop it on the witch.”

With Big Money, that idea is the story of real-life 1980s game show celebrity turned huckster Michael Larson - a little guy from Ohio who wins it big in Los Angeles on the game show Press Your Luck, then tries for the rest of his life to recreate that “luck” gaming any system that crosses his path. Sadly for Larson (perhaps luckily for the rest of us), he came along before the internet and reality TV permanently invaded all our lives. Otherwise he might have had an easier time spinning his one day of glory into a lifetime of lucrative fame-whoring. Instead he lived in a world of few TV channels where TV could just as easily ignore you and make you disappear as catapult you into the spotlight. That frustration makes Larson dangerous - to himself and others.

“You have lived almost a complete life.”

As usual, the Sandbox ensemble has meticulously researched their subject.  The next day, the friend who attended the show with me actually looked up online the episode of the game show Press Your Luck where Larson earned his fortune, and he reported back that Sandbox had recreated the whole show in impressive detail.  Project lead Derek Lee Miller and director Theo Langason clearly know their subject well and delight in bringing audiences into that world.  They’ve gathered an ensemble of performers that includes fellow Sandbox vets Peter Heeringa (as our anti-hero Michael Larson), and Derek Meyer (in a multitude of roles but primarily harried Press Your Luck game show host Peter Tomarken), along with new Sandbox collaborators Emma Larson, Cameron Mielicke, Cortez Owens, Sarah Parker, and Eric Weiman. 

“What are you gonna do with all that money?”

The design team here is also key, since they’re conjuring up the 1980s (which I have to admit, even as someone who lived through that decade, feels further and further away in the past all the time).  Tim Donahue’s music and sound design and Heidi Eckwall’s lights open up Leazah Behrens’ scenic design which serves primarily as the game show TV studio but takes us to many different places before the evening is over.  And of course, Mandi Johnson’s costume design gives us a constant visual reminder that we are in that awkward decade of fashion, 1980s America.

“I am the smartest man I have ever met.”

So Sandbox has their subject down, and have provided it with enviable packaging.  The struggle for me as an audience member was that I think I was supposed to, at least initially, take a liking to Michael Larson, even to root for him as the underdog trying to win against the odds.  Later, when his actions clearly cross the line to land him on the wrong side of the law, my initial good feeling toward him should have unknowingly dragged me over that line with him.  But I found myself disliking, even repulsed by, Larson from the very start. 

“You think you’re a shark.  There are bigger sharks.”

This may be partly my own fault.  I wish now that I hadn’t read the timeline provided in the program.  (I can’t resist handy dramaturgical information.)  Knowing the kind of shady things Larson would end up doing probably colored my response to his formative years and game show antics.  It’s not the actor’s fault.  Heeringa is a charismatic lead to build a show around.  He carries the show on his shoulders with an ease that makes you forget how hard it can be to have to hold the stage from beginning to end as the central focus of a story.  The rest of the ensemble creates the world he inhabits, so he has the best of support.  But it’s still Michael Larson’s world we’re living in here.

“The magic only works when you want to be lied to.”

Larson’s cutthroat schoolboy years cornering the candy market among his fellow students has its charm.  But his other two pre-game show scams lost me.  Apparently back in the 1980s in Ohio, if you opened a new account at a bank, they would put hundreds of dollars in your account as an incentive.  So Larson would open an account, immediately withdraw the bank’s gift money, and close the account; then head over to another bank and do the same thing - repeatedly.  Yes, it’s hard to feel sorry for banks; they should be easy to root against - “go, Larson! stick it to The Man!”  But banks are made up of people who work there.  So I didn’t see him going up against a heartless institution, I saw him swindling people (which he does later in life a lot more directly).

“I’m not evil.  I’m an educated person.”

The next system Larson plays fast and loose with is unemployment insurance. He registers a business under his brother (Eric Weiman)’s name, then hires and fires himself from a non-existent job, and files for unemployment payments.  So not only is he taking money he isn’t really entitled to, he’s dragging his brother’s name into the mess.  By the time Larson is figuring out the trick to the system to make a killing on Press Your Luck, and hogging the spotlight from his long-suffering fellow contestants and the host, I’m already done with the guy.

“She must have chosen him for some reason.”

There’s a missed opportunity sitting right in the middle of Big Money.  The Sandbox crew comes close to exploiting it but fails to take full advantage.  Michael Larson has a wife and daughter (Sarah Parker, Emma Larson - no [actual] relation).  We meet them, and we even get some of the framework of that set of relationships, but we never live inside of them long enough to really understand them.  Larson’s wife Teresa McGlynn Dinwitty (Parker) actually gets a lot of stage time, but I don’t think it’s used well.  Teresa married Larson not once, not twice but three times.  What makes a person do that?  They married, and divorced, and married, and divorced, and then once more entered a common law marriage arrangement and have a child together before everything finally comes undone for good. 

“The more they charge, the more their advice is worth.”

What is it about Larson that keeps Teresa coming back?  It’s not money.  The first two marriages he didn’t have much.  Even Larson admits he’s not the best looking guy on the block so what is it?  If we could understand why Teresa fell in love with Larson in the first place -  If we could understand why, after divorcing him, she’d marry him again -  If we could understand why, after divorcing him a second time, she’d agree to live with him and raise a family yet again -  If we could understand that, if we could fall in love with him against our better instincts, just like Teresa did, maybe even more than once, Big Money might work the way Sandbox seems to want it to work

“Joan is here and she has her mimosa, she’s ready to go.”

There’s even a moment in the play after his Press Your Luck win, when Larson is referencing another game show, one where couples play as a team.  Playing off of that premise - even just in an imaginary scenario as the play does later - might have been a clearer window into that marriage - and Larson as a person.  Because if we like and understand Larson better as a person, we might be more willing to follow him to places that we shouldn’t, and more readily question ourselves as an audience and a culture.  The imaginary game show we do get toward the end of the production is a delightful little slice of surreal payback, and almost the comeuppance Larson deserves.

“That brings us to the end of the game show, as well as the end of your life.”

Even as it is, Big Money is often a fascinating examination of narcissism and entitlement - and hey, that might come in handy in the near future.  You never can tell.  (Big Money is playing on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage on the lower level at Park Square Theater through 1/28/2017.)

3.5 Stars - Highly Recommended

(photography by Matthew Glover; Peter Heeringa as Michael Larson in Sandbox Theatre's Big Money)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review - Almost, Maine - Mosaic Productions - So Many People, So Little Time - 4 stars

It’s easy to see why people like John Cariani’s play Almost, Maine - why actors like it, why theaters keep producing it, and why people keep going to see it.  It’s an unapologetic romantic comedy that’s in love with the idea of love.  Actually, it’s nine mini-romantic comedies. In the fictitious town of Almost, Maine, nine loosely interrelated stories of couples play themselves out.  Common town locations and familiar names of other characters keep cropping up throughout all nine, but otherwise the stories all take place in their own wintry isolation under the Northern Lights.  But the sprawling population of the town can all be played by just six actors - three men, three women.  They’re almost all two person, male/female scenes - just begging to be done in acting class.  They’re sweet, sometimes bittersweet, one could safely say quirky, often almost adorable.  Which turns out to be both Almost, Maine’s blessing and its curse.

“You gotta love something that makes sense to you, makes you feel good, or what’s the point?”

The brevity of each of the scenes sometimes makes it feel like the script is trying to cram a whole play’s worth of story into just a couple of minutes.  A woman (Amy Vickroy) travels to Maine to see the Northern Lights, invading a stranger’s (Henry Southwick) backyard, in order to make peace with her former husband.  Two ex-lovers (Taylor Evans, Emma McKenzie) unexpectedly bump into one another at a local diner.  A woman in a bad relationship (Tori Ruckle) and a man who can’t feel pain (Mike Hentges) meet in the laundry room of a boarding house.  A long-married couple who’ve drifted apart from one another (McKenzie and Southwick again) are frustrated in trying to rekindle their connection on a date night out skating at the local pond.  A woman (Vickroy again) years too late travels across the country to knock on the door of the man she once left hanging after a marriage proposal - only to be confronted on the front stoop by a man she doesn’t recognize (Evans again).  And that’s only a little over half the play’s running time.  Phew.

“That’s sort of like giving someone a little less air to breathe, every day.”

Some of the other scenes feel more at home and unrushed in this shorter format.  There’s a three part story that bookends the play where a young couple (Hentges and McKenzie again) test the theory that when you’re closest to someone, if you measure all the way around the world in the other direction, you’re actually also the furthest away from that person at the same time.  There’s a whimsical sort of magic realism to a scene where two ex-lovers (Vickroy and Southwick again) meet to return all the love they gave to one another - that love being represented by loads of enormous red bags.  There’s also a tomboy-ish woman (Ruckle again) and her devoted male snowmobiling sidekick (Southwick again) discovering there’s more to men and women together than just riding a snowmobile.  And in a scene punctuated by multiple pratfalls, two male best buds (Evans and Hentges again) come to realize there may be an unexpected reason that all their dates with women turn out so disastrously.  Although now that I say these are the more sketch comedy-esque entries in the evening, I could also make a case that a playwright like Sara Ruhl would make a whole meal of a play out of any of them - red bags of love returned, prat-falling in love, literally traversing the distance of the globe between you and the one you love.

“That’s a planet.  You’re wishing on a planet.”

Director Justin DeLong has assembled a great ensemble here for Mosaic Productions.  Playing multiple characters everyone gets several chances to shine.  The women in particular become quite chameleon-like, disappearing into wildly different characters with costume and hair changes (kudos to costume designer Maggie Myre) that often had me checking the program to make sure I was seeing the same person.  The trouble with a cast this good is that sometimes they’re better than their material.  Just as we in the audience were finally getting to know a character, time’s up.  Just when a story reached a “what the heck is going to happen now?” moment, the script moves on to another set of characters.  No one’s moment of truth really gets to play out.  Cariani has created a host of characters all of whom have history, who seem to have lived before we meet them.  That’s hard to do.  So it’s kind of a shame we don’t get to stick with any of these people for too long.  Of course, it’s always good to leave an audience wanting more, but to constantly frustrate them by never letting anything play out to its conclusion, I’m not sure that’s an equally good thing.

“Drink free, if you’re sad.  If you’re sad, let me know.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but you can also tell that this script was written by a (probably straight) man.  An argument could be made that all the women characters are emotionally unstable or even mentally ill, while the men are meant to come off as noble, long-suffering, decent fellows.  Yes, some men in Almost, Maine aren’t that nice, but these men are all spoken of, never seen, kept offstage.  The women’s shortcomings are all right out in plain sight.  One hopes it’s just an unintentional side effect of episodic storytelling, but when I started to wonder why the play bothered me, that pattern was a big part of it.  Also, there’s a whole lot of uninvited kissing going on, and with so little time to get to know these people, that constant invasion of each other’s personal space feels doubly transgressive in a way that doesn’t really translate to “romantic.”  Points for tossing a little homoeroticism, however brief, into a largely heterosexual lovefest, though (and to the actors, for really committing to it) (for those of you wondering, for better or worse, no, they don’t kiss - they're too busy falling down).

“Oh, so it’s kind of like the opposite of God.”

One other thing that felt like a production choice rather than something required by the script was the flow of the piece constantly being interrupted by blackouts and scene shifts.  The stage in the James Sewell Ballet Tek Box at the Cowles Center is spacious enough, and the scenes themselves small enough, you could set up two at a time on stage and be able to flow directly from one scene into the next.  We can see the actors moving furniture around, we’re already suspending our disbelief.  We could suspend it a little further and ignore a couple of set pieces, then jump right into another story on the heels of the one that came before on the other side of the stage.  We don’t need that much downtime to shift gears and process what we just saw.  And the many stories and people of the town of Almost, Maine might seem a bit more interconnected if we weren’t segregating  them so deliberately from one another.

“Here I am at the end of the world; there’s nowhere to go.”

Still, the script is clever, and almost unbearably sweet.  The actors have a great time creating all these different people and genuinely seem to get a kick out of sharing the stage with one another in varying combinations.  There’s not really a couple that misfires here, and that’s rare, even if sometimes you wish for their sake that they didn’t have such a strong connection to each other.  Lack of chemistry is not a problem any of this ensemble has.  So if you’re looking for something to warm your heart on a chilly night, the kind of show that makes an audience audibly sigh and applaud between every scene, Almost, Maine is weird little town you should definitely visit. (closes this weekend, Sunday 1/15/17)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo courtesy of Mosaic Productions, photographer Kati Hesley; Henry Southwick and Amy Vickroy)

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Revenge - by poet Elisa Chavez

(This was so good, I needed to repost it here as a reminder...)

Since you mention it, I think I will start that race war.

I could’ve swung either way? But now I’m definitely spending
the next 4 years converting your daughters to lesbianism;
I’m gonna eat all your guns. Swallow them lock stock and barrel
and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table;

I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies.
With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars,
my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck
and your swastikas will not be enough to save you,

because real talk, you didn’t stop the future from coming.
You just delayed our coronation.
We have the same deviant haircuts we had yesterday;
we are still getting gay-married like nobody’s business
because it’s still nobody’s business;
there’s a Muslim kid in Kansas who has already written the schematic
for the robot that will steal your job in manufacturing,
and that robot? Will also be gay, so get used to it:

we didn’t manifest the mountain by speaking its name,
the buildings here are not on your side just because
you make them spray-painted accomplices.
These walls do not have genders and they all think you suck.
Even the earth found common cause with us
the way you trample us both,

oh yeah: there will be signs, and rainbow-colored drum circles,
and folks arguing ideology until even I want to punch them
but I won’t, because they’re my family,
in that blood-of-the-covenant sense.
If you’ve never loved someone like that
you cannot outwaltz us, we have all the good dancers anyway.

I’ll confess I don’t know if I’m alive right now;
I haven’t heard my heart beat in days,
I keep holding my breath for the moment the plane goes down
and I have to save enough oxygen to get my friends through.

But I finally found the argument against suicide and it’s us.
We’re the effigies that haunt America’s nights harder
the longer they spend burning us,
we are scaring the shit out of people by spreading,
by refusing to die: what are we but a fire?
We know everything we do is so the kids after us
will be able to follow something towards safety;
what can I call us but lighthouse,

of course I’m terrified. Of course I’m a shroud.
And of course it’s not fair but rest assured,
anxious America, you brought your fists to a glitter fight.
This is a taco truck rally and all you have is cole slaw.
You cannot deport our minds; we won’t
hold funerals for our potential. We have always been
what makes America great.

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 14 of 20

--> 14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. 
Pick a charity and set up autopay. 

Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

Yale historian and Holocaust expert Timothy Snyder wrote: "Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so." 
Snyder's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (which includes former Secretaries of State), and consults on political situations around the globe. He says: 

Above, #14 of twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 13 of 20

13. Hinder the one-party state. 

The parties that took over states were once something else. 

They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. 

Vote in local and state elections while you can.

Yale historian and Holocaust expert Timothy Snyder wrote: "Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so." 
Snyder's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (which includes former Secretaries of State), and consults on political situations around the globe. He says: 

Above, #13 of twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 12 of 20

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. 

Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. 

Do not look away and do not get used to them. 

Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

Yale historian and Holocaust expert Timothy Snyder wrote: "Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so." 
Snyder's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (which includes former Secretaries of State), and consults on political situations around the globe. He says: 

Above, #12 of twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 11 of 20

11. Make eye contact and small talk.

This is not just polite.

It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust.

If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

Yale historian and Holocaust expert Timothy Snyder wrote: "Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so." 
Snyder's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (which includes former Secretaries of State), and consults on political situations around the globe. He says: 

Above, #11 of twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Things To Keep In Mind For The New Year - 10 of 20

(holidays... time goes by... back again...)

--> 10. Practice corporeal politics. 
Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. 

Get outside. 

Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. 

Make new friends and march with them.

Yale historian and Holocaust expert Timothy Snyder wrote: "Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so." 
Snyder's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (which includes former Secretaries of State), and consults on political situations around the globe. He says: 

Above, #10 of twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.