Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review - As You Like It - Classical Actors Ensemble - Always a Pleasant Time In the Forest of Arden - 4 stars

As You Like It is one of my top ten favorite plays of all time.  So I’m either your best audience (if you get it right) or your worst nightmare (if you screw it up). Thus I am happy to report Classical Actors Ensemble is currently doing a lovely job with Shakespeare’s popular romantic comedy over at the Crane Theater space.  It’s nice to be able to steer people to a production of a play I like so they can like it, too.

“They are in the very wrath of love and they will together.  Clubs cannot part them.”

As You Like It nails the idea of love in all its messy, varied glory. Along the way it also toys with notions of identity and gender in amusing and thought-provoking ways.  It has some of Shakespeare’s very best roles for women and all the women in this cast take full advantage of the opportunity.

“Hang there my verse, in witness of my love.”

Rosalind (Samantha V. Papke) is left behind at the royal court when her father Duke Frederick (Randall J. Funk) is sent into exile by his brother Duke Senior (also Funk).  Duke Senior’s daughter Celia (Käri Nielsen), is both Rosalind’s cousin and her best friend.  When Duke Senior later decides to banish Rosalind, Celia decides to run away with her friend, dragging the court jester Touchstone (Joseph Papke) along with them.  Venturing outside of court, Rosalind decides for their protection it’s best to put on the disguise of being a young man instead, calling herself Ganymede.

“Sweet are the uses of adversity.”

They venture out to the Forest of Arden in search of Rosalind’s father Duke Frederick.  Frederick has been accompanied to Arden by loyal attendants (Cody Carlson, James Coward) and a melancholy philosopher named Jacques (Arthur Moss).

“The worst fault you have is to be in love.”
“’Tis a fault I will not change for your best virtue.”

Rosalind and Celia purchase a farming homestead with the help of a local shepherd named Corin (Joe Wiener), and get swept up in the romantic shenanigans surrounding another local young shepherd Silvius (Tom Conry) and his love interest the shepherdess Phoebe (Megan Daoust), who takes a liking to Ganymede instead. 

“Praised be the gods for thy foulness.  Sluttishness may come hereafter.”

Touchstone also gets in on the action by catching the eye of another young shepherdess named Audrey (Emma VanVactor-Lee), who is followed around by yet another lovesick shepherd named William (Carlson again).

“An ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own.”

Also ending up in the Forest of Arden, for various other reasons, are Orlando (Jordon Johnson) and faithful family servant Adam (Alan Tilson), both put out of their home by Orlando’s troublesome older brother Oliver (Taras Wybaczynsky Jr.). 

“I am he that is so love-shaked. I pray you, tell me your remedy.”

Orlando and Rosalind had previously met and become smitten with one another at court.  Now Orlando meets young master Ganymede in the woods, who claims he can cure Orlando of his lovesickness if only Orlando will treat Ganymede as if he were his dream girlfriend Rosalind and try to woo him.  And off we go to the races...

“Chewing the food of sweet and bitter fancy.”

Love triangles, quadrangles, reunions, and transformations abound in the silliest and most delightful of ways, culminating in a four-couple wedding at the end.

“Your gentleness shall force, more than your force move us to gentleness.”

Director Joseph Papke (with assistance from Zach Curtis, Randall J. Funk, and Joe Wiener) and his design team of Dietrich Poppen (set and lights), Marco T. Magno (costumes), and Jordan Johnson (props), put a 1980s gloss on the whole thing, but don’t allow it to get in the way of the story.  It just gives them permission to use colors, music and fashion they might not otherwise have felt they could get away with. (For instance, Orlando's poems are stuck all over the forest on Post-It notes.) Occasionally the era also seeps into the performances - as when Tom Conroy plays the supporting role of Charles the Wrestler in full WWE mode (which is extremely amusing to a degree I was not expecting), or when Papke plays Touchstone as if channeling Christian Slater from the movie Heathers (though thankfully less homicidal).  This last is a schtick that could get old or overdone, but Papke skillfully walks the line that keeps it from tipping over the edge.

“I do not desire you to please me, I desire you to sing.”

The cast as a whole does a commendable job keeping things light and swiftly moving, but there are standouts.  The trio of Samantha Papke as Rosalind, Käri Nielsen as Celia, and Joseph Papke as Touchstone make a great combo of strangers in a strange land leaving the court for the forest.  Randall Funk does wonderfully subtle work distinguishing the two Dukes from one another without turning either one of them into a cartoon (which is trickier than it sounds). 

“Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history...”

Jacques is a role you can overdo or underdo, but Arthur Moss gets it just right.  Jacques seems essential to the story, and is always welcome when he appears.  The Seven Ages Of Man speech (“All the world’s a stage…”) is a heavy lift to make fresh and new after all these years, but Moss does a great job.  Tom Conry doing double duty as both Silvius and Charles is a lot of fun, and he has a couple of great foils in Megan Daoust as Phoebe, and Joe Wiener as Corin (who almost steals the show out from under everyone else with wry wit and offbeat comic timing).

“He that wants money, means and content is without three good friends.”

I have to admit the opening scene between Orlando, Oliver and Adam had me a little worried.  Both the comedy and the brotherly conflict was played so broadly that I thought for a minute “hoo boy, this might be a long night.”  Thankfully all three actors quickly settled into their roles after that, and Oliver’s transformation in the second half especially had me appreciating Wybaczynsky’s acting chops a lot more.  Overall, this As You Like It had a slightly bumpy start but ended up a very pleasant ride.

“Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

If you’ve never seen As You Like It before, this is a nice way to get introduced to the story.  And if, like me, you’ve seen a lot of As You Like Its, this one will feel like you’re getting reacquainted with an old friend. (Classical Actors Ensemble’s production of As You Like It plays at the Crane Theater through March 5, 2017.)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(Pictured (clockwise from left): Samantha Papke, Joseph Papke,
Taras Wybaczynsky Jr, Käri Nielsen, and Jordon Johnson; Photo credit: Lou Bedor III)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review - Anna In The Tropics - Jungle Theater - Yes, it IS Hot In Here - 5 stars

You know that question, “Is it hot in here or is it just me?”  In the case of the Jungle Theater’s production of Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Anna In The Tropics, it is both hot up on stage, and given the response of the audience, also hot for the people watching the show.  People in the audience were fanning themselves, sighing, whooping, and generally exhaling in a way that indicated they were very hot and bothered, in the best possible way, by the story unfolding in front of them.  When you put together Cruz’s script with the team of actors and designers recruited by director Larissa Kokernot, you can hardly blame anyone for being a little carried away.  If the winter weather’s getting you down, let Anna In The Tropics heat you up a little bit.

“I believe everything counts if you have faith.”

Nilo Cruz takes us back to Florida in the late 1920s, when cigars were still rolled by human hands, and to help them pass the time, the employees of the cigar factories would hire a lector, someone to read to them while they worked, helping their minds to escape the monotony of their task.  Santiago (Al Clemente Saks) and his wife Ofelia (Adlyn Carreras) own one such cigar factory.  They work there alongside their two daughters Conchita (Nora Montañez) - with her husband Palomo (Rich Remedios) - and Marela (Cristina Florencia Castro). Santiago’s half-brother Cheche (Dario Tangleson) also helps run the factory but is frustrated in his attempts to modernize it with machines.  He wants full ownership of the place, and Santiago’s gambling may give him an opportunity to take it. 

“We must look after the dead, so they feel a part of the world and they won’t forget us.”

The new lector they’ve brought in to read, Juan Julian (Juan Rivera Lebron), chooses Tolstoy’s classic novel of love and infidelity Anna Karenina.  The women are quite taken with the story, but the Cheche and Palomo have their own personal reasons for being less enthused.  Cheche’s wife ran off with another lector, and it looks like Conchita may be inclined to repeat history.  Much of the play is a slow burn, and an enticing one at that.  There were a couple of abrupt turns in the plot (don't worry, no spoilers) which jolted me, but given how worked up or swept away everyone in the story can get, emotions were bound to boil over in ways I couldn’t predict.  The final outcome, though, is very satisfying, and the very final image quite beautiful.

“Some coats keep winter inside them.”

This beauty is an equal product of Cruz’s words, the actors’ artisty under Kokernot’s guidance, and the design of the world around them.  Andrea Heilman’s set is simple but just gorgeous. The walls are made up of lines of translucent yellowed pages from a book.  At key moments in the action, the pages will rotate on the wires on which they hang, and the wall opens up to the blue sky, sun and hint of clouds behind them.  Barry Browning’s lighting interacts with Heilman’s set in these moments to seem almost magical.  Sarah Bahr’s costumes, Paul Bigot’s wigs, and C. Andrew Mayer’s sound design all reinforce both the time period, and also these heightened moments of romance and fantasy.  This production takes the sensuality of the words in the script and brings them to full life onstage in a way that easily swept the audience right along with it.  Anna In The Tropics is the kind of play you enjoy surrendering to.

“You changed.”
“It happens, when lovers do what they’re supposed to do.”

I could blather on, but I don’t want to risk giving too much away.  And honestly, there’s something going on at the Jungle Theater with Anna In The Tropics that you can’t nail down in a review.  You need to go see for yourself and just let the story take you.  So stop reading this review and go do that.  Trust me, you’ll be treating yourself. (runs through March 12, 2017)

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

(photo: l to r: Juan Rivera Lebron (Juan Julian), Al Clemente Saks (Santiago) and Adlyn Carreras (Ofelia) in Jungle Theater’s production of Anna In The Tropics; photographer: Dan Norman)

Review - Marie Antoinette - Walking Shadow - Sympathy for the Devil? - 4 stars

I have to hand it to Walking Shadow Theatre Company.  When it comes to the plays Walking Shadow produces, I never leave feeling neutral or unengaged.  I either love the play wholeheartedly, or am sitting there scratching my head thinking, “OK, I know you know what you’re doing, so that must have been deliberate.  But why are you screwing with my head in this particular way right now?” 

“I wasn’t raised.  I was built.  I was built to be this thing.”

Last year, their production of The Christians was one of the very best things I saw all year.  Their production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens just a few months before that was also fantastic.  From their Fringe Festival beginnings with The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, to live action puzzle boxes like 1926 Pleasant or Saboteur, to more recent high points like Gabriel, Walking Shadow always puts on a hell of a show.  Then they’ll do something where I feel jerked around as an audience member with things like The American Pilot or Lasso of Truth or Mojo or The Coward or The Sexual Life of Savages or, most recently, The River - and I’ll be thinking, "Hey, cut it out, that hurt, why’d you do that?"  To be clear, it’s not that I don’t want them to do that.  I just want to better understand why.  You can add their current production of Marie Antoinette to that latter category.

“We are great friends, you and I.  Let’s not trouble it with facts.”

Walking Shadow chose to produce David Adjmi’s script about the doomed French queen on the eve of the French Revolution well before the results of the most recent American presidential election.  This isn’t a response to the reality of a President Trump.  One wonders what lens we’d all be looking at this play through if we ended up with a second President Clinton instead.  The play was originally commissioned and produced back in 2012, the year we reelected President Obama for a second term.  But is anyone really asking me to sympathize with clueless rich people in power as my protagonists?  Or to think of the people protesting and rioting in the streets in order to change their way of life for the better as the bad guys?  Current events seem to be fighting this play pretty hard at the moment.

“It’s like dishes breaking and clattering everywhere you go.”

Cognitive dissonance is the order of the day, and this production of Marie Antoinette serves it up in fine style.  If you’ve seen any other Walking Shadow production, then it will come as no surprise when I tell you the show looks stunning.  Annie Henly’s set is spare, but populated in just the right way by Sarah Salisbury’s props that you get a feel for the opulent Versailles.  Katherine B. Kohl’s costumes (and of course all those wigs by Robert A. Dunn) do a lot of the heavy lifting for the show by being WAY over the top in a way that nails the excesses of the French monarchy perfectly.  With Michael Croswell’s sound and music compositions, it’s the little things that knocked my socks off.  Marie has a line (just before everything starts going down the crapper), saying at the end of a scene, “I still feel there’s something inside of me that’s trying to get out.  A little bird flapping its wings at the inside of its cage.”  As she moves to go and the lights begin to fade, we hear the sounds of a bird’s wings (which I know sounds obvious, but the clarity of the sound and volume at which it’s pitched made it the perfect ominous foreshadowing for me).

“They’re always angry.  That’s not a barometer of anything.”

The acting ensemble is stuffed with fine performances, led of course by Jane Froiland as the title character.  Her character embodies the tough to love/tough to hate aspects of the play perfectly.  She’s a smart choice around which to build a production.  Just as you start feeling bad for Marie Antoinette, she’ll do something off-putting, more likely say something off-putting.  She regularly swears like a sailor but that isn’t as offensive as some of the breathtakingly clueless things she says that have no grounding in everyday reality or empathy for common people.  You could try and feel sympathy for her as a parent who lost a child.  And you want to feel bad when she’s separated from her remaining young son (Hal Weilandgruber) late in the play, but you just saw her shove him away from her only minutes before.  Hardly mother of the year material. 

“Helen of Troy did that.  She’s my inspiration.”

Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI (Zach Garcia), like nearly all royal marriages at the time, was more international power-brokering between countries than a relationship grounded in any genuine bond of affection.  Louis seems just as clueless, if not more so (if that’s possible) than Marie about the real world their royal bubble of privilege exists in.  Teresa Mock and Derek “Duck” Washington help round out the “haves” in this society, with Julia Alvarez and Anna Sutheim filling in some of the “have nots.”  Meanwhile, David Beukema and Suzie Juul do double duty in multiple roles both high society and lower born.  Paul LaNave stands out for embodying the menace and danger of the French revolutionaries.  And just for good measure, we have Neal Beckman as a horny anthropomorphized Sheep, who also doubles as a harbinger of doom.

“I had the goats and sheep perfumed. I don’t like rustic smells.”

Adjmi’s script is both poetic and profane.  It manages to make these shallow people just human enough to sympathize with, then promptly reminds you why they don’t deserve our sympathy.  The production jerks you back and forth just like the script wants it to.  In fact, the only real stumble in presentation is the often unnecessarily long scene shifts.  It feels like the changing of elaborate costumes and wigs is often the culprit here.  But even the movement between scenes where that isn’t a factor seems to leave us in semi-darkness much longer than it needs to.  A brief window of time between scenes, for us to digest what’s going on, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But if it goes on too long, then we start to drift away from the story and you have to spend precious time in the next scene dragging us back and rebuilding the momentum of the tale. 

“Inequality is unnatural.”

Also, while there was gorgeous work done on a painted backdrop by Wendy Wazut-Barrett, a handful of the supertitles projected on that backdrop weren’t fully visible to anyone who wasn’t sitting right in the center section of the house.  They probably should have sat someone off to the side to watch while they were incorporating the projections to catch that.  And given the fact that it’s a fairly large backdrop, centering some of those longer titles in shorter bursts and using up more of the wall, top to bottom, to project them on might have solved that problem.

“Ten years from now, how will you remember me?”

Strong script, equally strong cast, strong design - director John Heimbuch and Walking Shadow once again have pulled together an impressive package of theatrical elements.  I’m just not sure why they’re poking me in the brain with this particular story right now.  Still, I have to admit, watching Marie Antoinette, I was never bored.  That’s what happens when you dangle an answer to a question tantalizingly just outside my grasp.  Check it out for yourself - then maybe you can explain it to me - or probably, we’ll just argue about it.  I imagine Walking Shadow’s fine with either outcome, as long as we’re talking. (runs through March 4, 2017 at Red Eye)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(photo: Jane Froiland as Marie Antoinette, costume by Kathy Kohl, photo by Walking Shadow)

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Review - The Whipping Man - Minnesota Jewish Theatre - They Don't Make 'Em Like This Anymore - 5 stars

The Whipping Man is a quiet little surprise of a theatrical production, and that is a most welcome thing.  I missed Penumbra Theatre’s regional premiere of Matthew Lopez’s play eight years ago but it’s easy to see how it became one of the most produced plays in regional theaters around the country in recent years.  And it’s not just because it’s a single set, three-person show that makes it logistically easier for a theater to produce.  They don’t really write plays like The Whipping Man much anymore, which makes me appreciate it even more fully. 

“You don’t get to be free.  You work to be free.”

The Whipping Man is a play that just allows three richly drawn characters to exist in the same space together in varying combinations, and over the course of the story, these three people just keep revealing new things about themselves, one layer at a time.  The revelations keep coming right up into the very closing minutes of the play.  And it’s not filled with a lot of melodrama or wailing and bombast.  These characters feel things very deeply, and have a lot of cause for grievance, but they don’t get what they want with a lot of yelling and screaming.  It’s the quiet moments in The Whipping Man that are the most telling, including that final, very loaded moment when the lights begin to the fade at the end of the play.  A moment filled with a strange kind of hope.  A hope we desperately need right now.  Put a story like this in the hands of a talented director - Sally Wingert - and three skilled actors - Warren C. Bowles, JuCoby Johnson, and Riley O’Toole - as the Minnesota Jewish Theatre does, and you’ve got a powerful piece of theater.

“Don’t question me about the history of this house.  I know the history of this house.”

The Whipping Man takes place at the end of the Civil War (I know, I know, I had the same knee-jerk “Oh man, I’m not sure I want to go there right now” response, but go there, you get an enormous payoff).  A young Jewish Confederate soldier (yes, apparently we had those, I feel slightly remiss in my education) Caleb DeLeon (O’Toole) returns to his family estate to find it looted and in ruins. But an old  faithful family servant, Simon (Bowles), now a free man rather than a slave thanks to President Lincoln, still stands guard over the house. A younger freed slave who is Caleb’s age named John (Johnson) also soon makes an appearance.  John has been helping himself to the contents of unguarded neighboring estates and now returns to the DeLeon place, which was also once his home.  Though absent, Caleb’s father, and Simon’s wife and daughter, all cast long shadows over the memory and relationships of the three men taking refuge in the ravaged homestead.  Caleb has been wounded in one of the Civll War’s final battles and it’s up to Simon and John, who can no longer be commanded, but only asked, to help keep Caleb alive.  All these men have something to fear, and all these men have something to hide.  But at the same time they all have something to hope for.  And that’s what ultimately makes The Whipping Man such a satisfying experience.

“War is not proof of God’s absence.  War is proof of God’s absence from men’s hearts.”

To say too much more would give away some of the many interesting surprises and turns in the plot and character revelations, and in the case of The Whipping Man, it’s really best to go in blind and go on the journey.  Honestly, I heard “beloved Twin Cities actress Sally Wingert makes her directorial debut” and I didn’t even care what the play was.  I wanted to see it.  The three actors involved just sweetened the deal.

“You did it because you could; simple as that.”

[Strange side note: the only other time I’d heard of The Whipping Man was in the context of the show Thatswhatshesaid, a performance art piece that touched down twice in Minneapolis before heading home to Seattle and causing no end of controversy. The premise was simple: take TCG’s list of new plays most produced by regional theaters around the US in a given season; thread together the lines and stage directions dealing with the female characters in those plays. First the plays written by women (the minority), then the plays written by men. Off to the side of the stage, someone performs the idea of turning the pages of the play, seeking out the next line for a female character. The Whipping Man was on the most produced list.  The Whipping Man has no female characters.  For the section having to do with The Whipping Man in Thatswhatshesaid, the audience got to sit and listen to the sound of 72 pages being turned.  On to the next play…]

“Like it or not, we are a family.”

The Whipping Man deals with the thorny topics of race, privilege, free will, and the human family large and small in ways that are so firmly rooted in these particular characters whom we care about, that you feel the impact, for better or worse, of the choices these people make and the society in which they make them.  We don’t get sidetracked so much by what they say, and are able to focus on what they do, and what it means.  The Whipping Man deals in hard truths in a surprisingly gentle but still powerful way.  It doesn’t spare the audience, but it also doesn’t attack them.  Nor does it leave the audience without hope.  These days, that’s a great and necessary thing for a piece of theater to do.  We could use more theater like Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s production of The Whipping Man. (running through February 26, 2017)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo: l to r: Warren C. Bowles as Simon, Riley O’Toole as Caleb, and JuCoby Johnson as John in Minnesota Jewish Theatre's production of The Whipping Man; photography by Sarah Whiting Photography)