Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review - And Then They Fell - Gadfly Theatre - So Much Potential... - 3 stars

I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story can find its audience.  But I also don’t think every audience member is a fit for every story.  For that reason, I probably shouldn’t have attended Gadfly Theatre’s production of Tira Palmquist’s play And Then They Fell.  Unlike most of the people in the audience, I’d already read this new play.  So I knew what I was in for.  Part of me was just hoping that in the time since I’d read it, due to lessons learned from other productions, the playwright might have changed the ending.  Nope.

“Just you and me and the radio and the wind, and no one will be able to stop us.”

What kills me is that I’m a huge fan of Tira Palmquist and her work, and yet this is the first review of one of her plays I have to write.  I think she’s an enormously gifted playwright.  She writes about important things in beautiful and accessible ways.  She’s had some productions at major regional theaters around the country and seems like she’s one of those writers who’s poised to really break out - writing about the right things in the right ways at just the right time

“The terminal velocity of a bird without flight is…”

Because of her local ties, she submitted three plays to Workhouse Theatre Company when I was helping run their new play reading series, the Greenhouse Project.  We ended up doing readings of two of them, Two Degrees and Ten Mile Lake.  If you ever get a chance to see either play, you should.  I look forward to some local theater finally picking them up and running with them the same way theaters in other parts of the country already have.  Two Degrees blends grief and the concern over global warming into a compelling and personal play. Ten Mile Lake brings a headstrong adult daughter and her unforgiving father together at the old family cabin as his health begins to fail in a play that resists sentimentality in amusing ways.  The first play Tira Palmquist sent us was And Then They Fell.  Even though the play didn’t connect with us, the writing certainly did, so we asked for more and got the wonderful payoff of reading Two Degrees and Ten Mile Lake.  So when I learned Gadfly Theatre Productions was doing And Then They Fell, I felt strongly that I should go, not just because of Tira but also because of Gadfly.

“Is God trying to tell us something?”

Gadfly is a theater devoted not just to putting queer stories and queer artists on stage, but to developing and supporting new work, and living local playwrights (heck, they’ve even done a short play of mine).  Even though our aesthetics don’t always line up (which probably means I’m not as good a feminist as I’d like to be yet), I want to be supportive of Gadfly in return for all the important work I feel they’re doing.  Also, I hadn’t yet seen anything in their new home at the Fox Egg Gallery yet, so for that reason as well I was curious.

“I’m trying to help you.  I need to hear your side of the story.”

In her director’s note, Gadfly co-artistic director Cassandra Snow said she, too, had originally passed on And Then They Fell after reading it, partly because her number one rule for theater is - no dead girls, no dead queers.  I am fully behind such a rule.  Mostly because, let’s face it, you can count on popular culture as a whole to give you more than enough dead girls, more than enough dead queers - that is, when they portray girls or queers at all.  (Personally, if I can joke about a piece of art - even my own, using a variation on one of my favorite satirical movie quotes, "I love my dead gay son" - then something's wrong.)  So if you’re a theater like Gadfly, avoiding adding more to that particular pile is a great guiding principle.  For And Then They Fell, Gadfly decided to break that rule.  Though that’s unfortunate, I can understand the temptation on a couple of different levels.

“Trauma of an unknown origin.”

The first draw, of course, is Tira’s writing - her way with language, her humor, her compelling characters.  The second - and really the primary strength of And Then They Fell - is the central relationship of the play between two young outcasts just trying to survive high school - a teenage girl named Jordan (Mindy Vang) and a trans teenage boy (pre-everything) named Cal (formerly Calista) (Adele Bolier).

“Looking up at the sky that wouldn’t hold them.”

Cal has already been kicked out by their parents for asserting their identity as a boy rather than a girl.  Cal crosses paths with Jordan as her own home life begins to unravel.  Jordan’s mother Crystal (Starla Larson) hasn’t ever been on the wagon long enough to fall off, and has now gotten herself some mandatory time in both detox and jail due to the latest in a string of DUI arrests.  Crystal thinks the best thing for Jordan is to send over Crystal’s ex-boyfriend Dwayne (Troy Stolp) to look after her daughter.  Like so many of Crystal’s life decisions, this is another unbelievably bad idea.  Because Dwayne looks at 17 year old Jordan as a younger, fresher version of her mother, and that can’t end well for anybody (so, naturally, it doesn’t). 

“I don’t know who you are, but you’re not my child.”

When Jordan can’t take life with Dwayne anymore and hits the streets, Cal takes her under their wing and tries to help her avoid doing anything stupid or dangerous.  Given the “dead girl, dead queer” warning we’re given in the program, it’s not a spoiler alert to tell you that Cal is only partially successful.  Given that same warning, I was a little afraid I’d forgotten something or there’d been a rewrite and we might be subjected to both.  We are, blessedly, not.  But the human cost of this story is high enough, no worries.

“We don’t have to tell your mom about this, right?”

The third draw for the script is Jordan’s fascination with the sudden death of a whole flock of birds in a small town in Arkansas.  New Year’s Eve, a whole flock of birds just falls out of the sky.  Not shot, not poisoned, their bodies showing internal injuries more like they’d been beaten to death.  This happened two years in a row on New Year’s Eve 2011 and 2012.  Other mass bird death phenomena have occurred elsewhere in recent years around the world, for various reasons.  The metaphorical link to how society has seemingly abandoned its children, many of whom then fall victim to any number of unfortunate ends, is a powerful one.  The poetic turns of phrase associated with birds in the script, as well as sound effects, and the surprisingly simple but effective stage trick Gadfly pulls off of a single black feather dropping out of the sky at key moments, all work really well.  Getting the metaphor to stick the landing is a little trickier, because neither the source of the metaphor or the play itself really fully deliver on their promise in this regard.  But you can feel it just out of reach.  As an audience member, you keep trying to will the play to get across that particular finish line, but it falls short.

“When you’re eighteen you can jump off a cliff if that’s what you want.”

The cast, which also includes Kjertina Whiting taking the spotlight as a number of quite different supporting characters, all do really solid work.  Vang and Bolier as the duo of Jordan and Cal are especially winning.  The problem right now, and this isn’t really the production’s fault, is that the play doesn’t really give them enough room to grow.  They get a significant amount of stage time comparatively, but I’d argue that the play is currently too short and too crowded.  Right now, even with an intermission wedged in (which - other than for purposes of relieving people’s bladders - you don’t really need), the play is barely over 90 minutes.  So much happens so fast that the characters don’t get a lot of room to breathe. 

“And they keep falling,
and falling,
and falling.”

Also, Jordan and Cal are original creations, but all the adults around them are people we’ve seen before.  They’re almost stereotypes - the junkie mom, the lecherous boyfriend leering at the mom’s teenage daughter, the well-meaning school official with their hands tied, the friendly but feckless squatter anarchists, the abusive cop, the colorful waitress at the local diner, the TV preacher, the lovable school janitor.  In a telling moment, Cal recounts to Jordan the story of the day their father kicked them out of the house and disowned them as their child.  That adult character, too, is a trope, but in Cal’s storytelling, they came alive for us in the audience.  We didn’t need to meet them or see it happen.  It was more important to see how it affected Cal.  The actor delivers.  If I were a dramaturg on this script, I’d encourage the writer to take the play, scrap everyone else and just focus on Jordan and Cal, and make it a full length.  The characters and relationship are so rich, you can get a full play out of that.  Those supporting players can easily be sketched in as stories they tell one another.  Of course, that means a different ending (but let’s face it, I’m lobbying for that anyway).  Right now, it feels like these characters and their relationship are being squandered in material that doesn’t live up to their potential (I get the same feeling about the cast in this production as well).

“Being sober doesn’t really suit her.”

Two other things related more to the production than the script are getting in the way of the story right now.  One of them feels like sloppiness, the other one feels like a failure of nerve.  First, the sloppiness.  This has to do with scene shifts.  And Then They Fell takes place in a little over a dozen scenes and almost as many locations. The Fox Egg Gallery is limited in terms of usable space but even what they had probably could have been better utilized.  Since writers give an audience credit for an imagination and suspension of disbelief which can handle multiple locations sharing the same space, then directors (as a species, not just in this instance) need to start treating scene changes as connective tissue in their storytelling rather than something that happens while you’re waiting for the next scene to start.

“I like to hear you talk.”

Look at one scene, look at the scene that follows it.  Do they have a character in common?  Great, have that character walk out of the one scene into the next.  Have the lights follow them and let the other character fade into the dark and walk away.  If instead the set of characters in the next scene is completely different from the set of characters in the current scene, rather than stopping everything dead for scene shifts between every single scene, maybe leave the setting for both scenes on the stage at the same time and just shift the lights, new actors walking on talking while old actors walk off to get ready for the next scene.  Choose to move as few things as possible, as little as possible.  Keep the momentum going.  Don’t allow the audience to check out on you.

“Unless someone’s beating the sh*t out of you, it’s better than out here.”

Is a bench required for an upcoming scene?  Is there a reason it couldn’t already be there off to the side?  If it needs to be moved into place, could the character who has to sit on it move it into place, in character rather than neutrally (not because they’re responsible for setting up a bus stop in reality but because we’re watching the human face of a character, and not so much what they’re doing)?  If the bench isn’t necessary for the next scene but isn’t in the way, could you just leave it alone?  If there are multiple times people need to sit down in different locations, we don’t always need to have a completely different chair every time.  Let the characters, dialogue, light and sound set the scene rather than the specificity of the furniture.

“She just seems so sure.”

And I know scenes without dialogue are uncomfortable for an actor, but if there aren’t any lines, don’t allow them to pretend they’re saying something we just can’t hear.  Force them to act with their body, most importantly their hands, their face, and if necessary, their hips.  Body language.  Learn how to use it.  Don’t be embarrassed.  Don’t rush through it as quickly as possible.  Linger longer than you think you need to because the audience needs time to take it in and catch up with the visual impression you’re trying to make.  This isn’t TV or film, there are no quick cuts - particularly since most of the time there’s going to be a scene shift before and after.  Think about flow into and out of those scenes and take your time.

“You’re not exactly a different person but you’ve changed something important.”

Now for the failure of nerve.  One character forces another character to perform oral sex on them in this play.  Sexual assault, plain and simple.  Statutory rape, to boot.  (Again, there is a warning prior to the show, so this is hardly a spoiler.)  I don’t agree with sexual assault of a minor as a necessary storytelling device in this context, but it’s there in the script.  The theater chose to do the script.  I’m fairly certain the script doesn’t say, “The lights go down - even though it’s the middle of the day and the rest of the scene is clearly well lit.  We hear the man enjoying himself.  We hear the girl coughing, no, gagging.  In the dark.  Then suddenly the lights return and the girl is breaking away from the man and dry heaving all over the stage, disgusted with what she’s done.” 

“[This music’s] really angry.”
“Yeah, exactly.”

Here’s the thing.  The play doesn’t cut away from the fellatio so that it’s something that happens in between scenes off stage.  The theater chose to do the play.  This is part of the play.  I’m not saying someone actually needs to perform oral sex in front of us.  But the play requires a theater to simulate it.  We watch a man force a girl to her knees.  He should face upstage and block her from our view.  But she’s going to have to have her face at a level with his crotch.  There is going to need to be movement.  He is probably going to have place his hands on the side of her head.  She needs to get down on her knees, she needs to get up off her knees.  Because the play requires it.  The theater chose to do the play.  I don’t like it any more than the theater company does.  (Heck, I didn’t even want to type the last two paragraphs.)  But the theater needs to do what the play requires of it.  Is it awkward, uncomfortable, and even triggering for all parties involved?  Absolutely.  But the theater is telling a story.  The theater knew what it was getting into when it read this script and chose to do it.  And if the theater doesn’t want to tell that part of the story, then don’t. do. the. play.  Find another play.  The theater chose the play because it was taking an unflinching look at the way a society fails its children.  If the production flinches first, the audience won’t.  Chose plays the theater can commit to fully or don’t do them.

“Come July you’ll be praying for a night like this.”

The audience the night I attended was filled with teenage girls.  I’d wager a lot of them were there to support their friends in the cast.  Part of me was grateful that a lot of their parents seemed to be there with them, though some were there unaccompanied.  Good on everybody for supporting live theater, and complicated live theater at that.  But I wondered, “What must they be thinking when they watch this?”  Because I was also trying to figure that out for myself.

“You got me now.”

I have never seen the point of watching human suffering as a form of entertainment.  That just doesn’t seem to be enough of a point for indulging in it.  Without a message, I don’t find it cathartic.  I can’t watch most horror films, slasher films or torture porn.  (In the same vein, the value of most shooter video games escapes me.)  If someone is going to suffer and die onstage, I need there to be a reason.  And not just, life sucks, and in life people suffer and die.  Gee thanks, I know that.  Tell me something I don’t know.  Tell me something I didn’t bring into the theater with me.  Raise my awareness.  More importantly, point me toward a solution.  In the play, not before and after the play with talkbacks and representatives of community organizations doing good works.  In the play.  The other stuff is great, but if it’s the only thing justifying the existence of the play, if the play isn’t providing its own context, then the play has failed to fully create a world and explore the options available in it. 

“A heavy dark sky letting go a burden of birds.”

By contrast, even though Citizen deals with a thousand injustices and disappointments in a society burdened by institutional racism, Citizen opens your eyes and makes you think, makes you care.  That’s not suffering as entertainment, that’s an exploration of suffering that makes a point, that offers hope through knowledge, a way forward, a way out.  The specificity of it makes it universal.  And Then They Fell often feels generic and unspecific.  The things about it that really sing, noted above, chiefly Jordan and Cal, don’t get the room to grow that they need.  Partly because it feels too short, partly because it seems to be crowded right now with a lot of unnecessary noise around the edges of the central relationship.

No dead girls.  No dead queers.

After And Then They Fell runs its course, I think that rule needs to go back into effect.

Forewarned is forearmed.  All that said, I still recommend supporting Tira Palmquist and Gadfly by seeing this production of And Then They Fell(performing now through March 26, 2017)

3 stars - Recommended

(photo courtesy of Gadfly Theatre Productions; left to right, Mindy Vang (Jordan) and Adele Bolier (Cal)).

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Review - Citizen: An American Lyric - Frank Theatre - Just Go. See It - 5 stars

(I apologize in advance for this review, as I am doubtless saying somewhere below something stupid or insensitive about which I am still unforgivably clueless.  I labor under no delusions that anything I write is news to anyone.  We learn by doing…)

“The rules that everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you.”

Go see Frank Theatre’s stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric.  Just go.  See it.  Then go out into the lobby and buy yourself a copy of the book, and read it.  It’s one of the best pieces of theater I’ve seen so far in this still young-ish new year and easily the most important.  It’s the nicest thing you can do for yourself and your self-awareness.  Citizen: An American Lyric is smart and sharp and funny and painful and sad and heartbreaking and yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, hopeful.  Because we are all human, and thus sometimes insensitive or stupid.  We regularly need people willing to help get us up to speed with things of which we might otherwise not be aware.

“This unsmiling image of you makes him uncomfortable.”

A co-worker and I regularly have a conversation about representation in theater.  When I see something featuring actors of color as a majority of the cast, I get excited because I feel that signifies progress.  And, frankly, these days, such shows are just more interesting to me than blindingly white stories I’ve seen a million times before.  My co-worker, a person of color, also having seen these shows, invariably responds that, yes, it’s nice, but honestly the show isn’t telling people of color anything they don’t already know.  The show is essentially designed to make white people better acquainted with the racism and imbalance in society and art that already exists, but doesn’t (seem to) impact them directly (yet).  This makes writing reviews like this one, which I’ve been trying to formulate since I saw Citizen: An American Lyric last weekend, a seemingly impossible task.  Anything I say, lined up next to the insights and skill of Claudia Rankine, is just going to seem hopelessly naive or clueless.  But I want you to see it, so I have to say something.

“Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying.”

So is Citizen: An American Lyric telling audience members of color anything they don’t already know?  Probably not.  Is it telling me anything I don’t already know?  Yes and no, but here’s the thing - I don’t think anyone should be getting points for understanding how bad things are if they’re not also working to change them.  Pundits, politicians and community leaders frequently say we need to have a discussion about race, locally and nationally.  Citizen: An American Lyric does that.  And it needs to, because, frankly, anyone who’s white who has friends who are people of color most of the time has no idea what questions to ask.  Or how to avoid saying something stupid.  And, as Citizen points out time and again, people of color have a hard enough time just navigating through the daily injustices and micro-aggressions that are built into our society.  The last thing they want to do, or should be asked to do, is relive all that just for the benefit of explaining it to people who have never experienced it.

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

Frank Theatre’s production Citizen: An American Lyric in an odd way serves as a friend of color who is infinitely patient in explaining to their white friends all the things they don’t know (or don’t see). There’s a reason Rankine’s book was a New York Times bestseller (the only poetry book to do so in the nonfiction category), a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the 2015 T.S. Eliot Prize,

“As light as the rain seems, it is still raining down on you.”

and the winner of: the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry (also a finalist in the Criticism category - the first book in the award’s history to be nominated in both categories),

“This would be your fatal flaw - your memory.”

winner of the 2015 PEN Open Book Award, the 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry, the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Collection,

“Only then do you realize that you are among the others, not among friends.”

winner of the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry, the 2015 VIDA Award in Poetry, the 2015 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award in Poetry,

“The man knows more about the unoccupied seat than you do.”

winner of the 2015 PEN American Center USA Literary Award, and the 2015 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry. 

“You fall back into that which is reconstructed as metaphor.”

It was also named a Best Book of the Year by the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, New York, the New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, Slate, and Time Out New York

“Take your foot off your throat.”

The reason people couldn’t throw enough awards at this book is that Claudia Rankine has a unique gift for crystallizing these moments of clarity when people see the world, and the other people in it, for what it is, what they are.  Rankine has the gift of giving people better sight, and better understanding.  If you can’t see the problem, you can’t fix it.

“No amount of visibility can change the way one is perceived.”

So how do you stage a book of poetry?  Rankine gets Frank Theatre more than halfway there because Citizen: An American Lyric is a book that’s very conversational and down to earth in tone.  It’s like having a talk with someone you know really well, someone who believes that they can tell you anything - that you will hear it, and that you’ll understand.  Some locations are called out in the text - a car, a driveway, a subway, a Starbucks coffee shop, a tennis court, a soccer field.  Others need to be created through staging and design.  Director Wendy Knox has a mix of Frank regulars and newcomers in her cast, all of whom have a substantial list of credits ranging from the small stages of the Minnesota Fringe Festival all the way up to the Guthrie Theater.  Actors Heather Bunch, Hope Cervantes, Michael Hanna, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas and Dana Lee Thompson bring these words to life as few people can.

“Although no one is chasing you, the justice system has other plans.”

The cast is backed up by a stellar bunch of designers who give them a striking canvas of sound and light on which to work.  There isn’t a physical set, just six chairs.  The real setting of the scene happens thanks to Mike Wangen’s lighting design, Bill Cottman’s projection design (with a video assist from Maxwell Collyard), and Michael Croswell’s sound design. Whether the actors are dodging the sound of raindrops, sitting in their car staring at the garage door late at night, or watching/reenacting the tennis saga of Serena Williams, the design elements all reinforce their work and invite the audience into their world.  The most vivid examples include the Serena Williams section of the play (where we get to see the sports news coverage mixed with live action moments, and the sound of tennis balls being hit can sound like gunshots); a verbal and visual litany of just a fraction of the names of the people we’ve lost to gun violence, police violence and racism; and a sequence where the actors find themselves trapped against a wall of words.

“You think this is an experiment, and you are being tested.”

Where the play makes its strongest emotional marks, though, are the “smaller” moments illuminating much larger issues, and bringing us closer to the human heart of the work.  A white woman stands, rather than take an empty seat next to a black man on a train.  A woman of color chooses to sit with him.  A white man brushes past a small black child, knocking the child down.  The child’s mother pursues the man, wanting him to see her child, wanting him to apologize.  Men of color who the mother does not know move to stand behind her in solidarity.  Moments inside a person’s head where they wonder “do I say something? do I call this out? what is it going to cost me if I don’t? what is it going to cost me if I do?”

“It isn’t like this moment hasn’t happened before.”

You wouldn’t think a play could cover the ground from Trayvon Martin to Hurricane Katrina and a host of other challenges, tragedies and catastrophes is such a short time and leave its audience feeling invigorated rather than depressed or exhausted.  But that’s what Frank Theatre’s dance with Claudia Rankine’s words do in Citizen: An American Lyric.  The friend who attended with me was left speechless for a few minutes.  I was energized, but also well aware of the nearly impossible task of talking about Citizen: An American Lyric without sticking my foot in my mouth - repeatedly.  Forgive my blundering above and if you remember anything, just remember this:

Go see Frank Theatre’s stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.  Just go.  See it.  It’s easily the most important piece of theater I’ve seen so far this year.  It’s also the nicest thing you can do for yourself and your self-awareness.  (I'm going to go back to reading my copy of the book now.) (runs now through April 2, 2017 at Intermedia Arts)

5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

(cast photo - front row, left to right: Dana Lee Thompson, Hope Cervantes, and Heather Bunch; back row: Michael Hanna, Joe Nathan Thomas and Theo Langason; photography by Tony Nelson)

Review - Thurgood - Illusion Theater - Great Actor Playing A Great Man - 4-1/2 stars

Honestly, if you have an opportunity to see James Craven act in anything, you should go see it.  The man is fantastic.  Right now at Illusion Theater, James Craven is taking on the mantle of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice on the United States Supreme Court, and before that a fierce advocate in the courts as a lawyer for one ground-breaking civil rights case after another.  Mostly famously he argued successfully in the Brown vs. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court on which he would one day himself serve.  The Brown case struck down the segregationist policy of “separate but equal” schools for children of different races as a fiction and made school integration the law of the land.  In fact, before joining the bench, Marshall argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 29 of them.  As judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, he made 112 rulings, all of which were later upheld by the Supreme Court.  And as U.S. Solicitor General, arguing cases for the government, he won 14 of the 19 cases he presented.  He then served on the Supreme Court for 24 years.

“Equal Justice Under Law - I hope so.”

Thurgood the script, written by George Stevens, Jr. and directed by Illusion’s Executive Producing Director Michael Robins, has all the intelligence and humor, and the amazing personal journey, of Thurgood Marshall himself.  This production is a home-based extension of a tour traveling the state of Minnesota this winter of the same play, with Ellen Fenster in the director’s chair and Neal R. Hazard in the title role.  It’s good of Illusion to give those of us in the Twin Cities a glimpse of the play as well, with Craven embodying Thurgood Marshall.

“If I die, you just prop me up and keep on voting.”

Thurgood Marshall led a remarkable and important life, from his birth as grandson of a former slave, to sitting on the highest court in the United States. James Craven is a remarkable actor, more than suited to a subject of this magnitude.  That’s why I wish Stevens’ script was just a little more adventurous and challenging.

“If Eisenhower had fought the Second World War the way he fought for civil rights, we’d all be speaking German right now.”

Thurgood is a fairly standard treatment of a person’s life on a one-person play format.  It marches through the chronology of Marshall’s life in an almost exclusively linear fashion.  It tries to give everything it covers pretty much equal weight, which has the unfortunate effect of making everything about Marshall seem a little less remarkable.  The play takes the form of Marshall in a lecture hall, and it’s good as far as it goes.  In this context, it just doesn’t have the room to go very far.  It’s hard for a single person and this script, even with audio visual aids, to fully populate the world that Thurgood Marshall grew up in, and then changed for the better.

“I am going to die someday.  At 110.  Shot by a jealous husband.”

Still, Thurgood Marshall the man is larger than life, whatever the format, and James Craven is just the man to bring him back to life for us.  If nothing else, it’s sure to inspire you to go learn more about the man, his life and times, for yourself.  So if you get a chance to see Illusion Theater's production of Thurgood, you should. (runs through March 19, 2017)

4-1/2 stars, Very Highly Recommended

(James Craven as Thurgood Marshall; photography by Lauren B Photography)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Review - Mere Trifles - Theatre Unbound - Nothing Mere or Trifling About It - 4 stars

Theatre Unbound has put together another intriguing assortment of short scripts by female playwrights, this one a gathering of established plays and newly commissioned work, under the collective title Mere Trifles.  But there’s nothing mere or trifling about it.  It’s another solid outing in Unbound’s tradition of past presentations of short works old and new - Girls Got Pluck, Aphra’s Attic, and Girl Shorts 2013, 2014 and 2015

“If there’d been years and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you…”

Mere Trifles is partly in celebration of the fact that the lead-off script of the evening, Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, is over 100 years old (1916).  Glaspell’s script is paired with Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s short play Poof! (from 1993) to bookend the evening.  In between are two brand new scripts commissioned by Unbound from Rhiana Yazzie (A Few Pearls) and Maxie Rockymore (Bang-Bang Check!).  The whole evening is directed by Kate Powers, guiding an ensemble of six actors playing in combination across all four scripts (Lynda Dahl, Pedro Juan Fonseca, Adam Gauger, Nicole Goeden, Brian Joyce and Delinda “Oogie” Pushetonequa).  A quick shout out has to go to Ursula Bowden’s scenic design, which thanks to an industrious stage crew transforms quickly into four different setttings, all the while a profusion of chairs stacked high on stage and floating in the air, surround the proceedings.

“Oh, I wish I’d come over here once in a while.  That was a crime.  That was a crime.  Who’s going to punish that?”

This isn’t the first time Unbound has tackled Trifles.  I remember seeing their first presentation of it in Girls Got Pluck back in 2005.  Trifles is a polished little gem of a play, well worth revisiting.  There’s a reason it’s held up so well over time.  Glaspell brought her journalist’s eye for detail to this reimagining of an actual court case she followed for the newspapers.  A farmer has been murdered. His wife is suspected.  Two women (Goeden and Pushetonequa), one of them the wife of the sheriff, accompany the sheriff (Gauger), the county attorney (Fonseca) and a neighboring farmer who found the body (Joyce), back to the crime scene.  The men are there looking for clues.  The women are there to gather some things to take to the dead man’s wife in her jail cell.  This is the early 20th century, so the men aren’t paying a lot of attention to the women.  But the women end up seeing key clues about the case around the house which the men completely miss.  This leaves the women needing to decide what they’re going to do about the knowledge they’ve acquired.

“The patron saint of battered wives.”

Nottage’s Poof! is a bit of a revenge fantasy.  It’s a most amusing dark comedy about a woman (Dahl) who tells her abusive husband to go to hell, whereupon he spontaneously combusts down into a pile of ash and a bad pair of eyeglasses.  The woman calls down her upstairs neighbor (Pushetonequa) for help with what to do next.

“Take that, genocide!”

The best of the new works is Yazzie’s A Few Pearls. An estranged mother (Dahl) and her adult daughter (Pushetonequa) accidentally cross paths at the airport, both of them headed home for the grandmother’s funeral.  Long buried family secrets and the source of old resentments of course come bubbling to the surface.  The mother is written as a delightfully cold fish.  She’s too smart and too strong to succumb to sentimentality and emotion - both of which her daughter loves to wallow in.  Yazzie’s motherly creation is a treat for an actor to play and Dahl takes full advantage of the opportunity.  At a few points, the script leans a bit too heavily on spelling out the symbolic significance of its title.  The rest of the script, and the two actresses, are all so good that the audience really doesn’t need the metaphor hammered home for them.  In fact, you could skip the explanation and callbacks to it altogether and the script would be just as satisfying.  Most audience members could come up with their own explanation of the title, given the scene they’ve witnessed done so well.

“The princess of miscarriages.”

The other new script, Rockymore’s Bang-Bang Check!, is less successful, mostly because it requires so much suspension of disbelief that it ceases to hold together as a story with any characters we care about.  The set-up is that there’s a TV crew filming a piece about an unemployed abusive drunk (Joyce) and the cop wife (Dahl) who lets him push her around.  The director for the TV show (Gauger) is verbally abusive in real-life to the stage hand (Goeden) as well as his own offstage wife on the phone, while in reality the actors playing the husband and wife caught in a cycle of abuse get along just fine.  Where the whole thing stretches credulity until it breaks revolves around two things - a prop gun/real gun switcheroo, and a TV script so bad that even soap operas don’t sink to its simplistic depths anymore (and I doubt they ever did).  If Bang-Bang Check! is meant to be a satire, then it’s pitching itself wrong both on the page and in production.  Everyone on stage commits to the premise, but sadly it’s a failed enterprise.

“Somehow we just don’t see how it is with other folks until - something comes up.”

That said, three out of four isn’t a bad average for a collection of shorts, and Trifles, Poof!, and A Few Pearls are all so good that they more than make up for the other script.  You can catch Theatre Unbound’s Mere Trifles at SteppingStone Theatre through March 12, 2018

4 stars - Highly Recommended

Review - The Awakening - Savage Umbrella - Why, Exactly? - 4 stars

I’ve been struggling with Savage Umbrella’s remounting of their adaptation of Kate Chopin’s 19th century feminist novel The Awakening ever since I saw it last Friday.  I wasn’t familiar with the source material and I missed the original production, so what I saw that night is all I have to go on.  I’d be interested to see if people who know the book or saw the play in its first incarnation experience the story any differently.  Because I keep encountering more and more theater lately where my brain keeps insisting that I answer a set of pesky questions: Why tell this story, in this way, at this particular time, for this audience?

“I cannot permit you to stay outside at night.”
“Don’t speak to me that way again.  I won’t answer you.”

Edna (Emily Dussault) has the kind of problems you wish you had.  The woman is drenched in privilege.  If she has a fit and throws a chair across the room, a servant will come in and pick it up for her.  She has such a great nanny that we have to constantly be reminded Edna has two children.  They don’t impact her life in the slightest, and remain offstage for the entirety of the evening.  On top of this not one, not two, not three, but four people are living in various states of infatuation and love with her - male and female. 

“I want to feel your wings.  I want to see if your wings are strong.”

There’s Edna’s husband Leonce (Seth K. Hale), who makes sure the whole family can afford to live a very comfortable life, and looks after appearances for society’s sake when Edna can’t be bothered.  There’s the local womanizer Alcee (Mike Swan), who finds Edna fascinating and well worth seducing.  There’s lesbian musician Mademoiselle Reisz (Alexis Clarksean), who’s overtly homoerotic with Edna, but never in a way that crosses a line without permission.  Most of all there’s Robert (Nick Wolf), one of the adult sons of the family that runs a vacation resort where Edna’s family spends an eventful summer.  Edna and Robert’s summer flirtation opens her eyes to a world of possibilities, even if Robert himself is too mindful of society’s rules to allow himself to fully surrender to an affair with a married woman.

“Things like this seem small but we have to take them seriously.”

To provide a counter-example for Edna, there’s her friend Adele (Amber Davis), Adele’s very affectionate and loving husband Alphonse (Russ Dugger), and their son Ari (Thomas Ferguson, Daniel Rovinsky).  Not only does the child actually make a cameo appearance on stage, Adele’s pregnancy introduces motherhood to Edna in ways with which Edna apparently is unfamiliar.  Just talking about pregnancy makes Edna squeamish.  Edna was apparently unconscious on the best of drugs when she gave birth (twice) because when Adele later calls for Edna to be present at the birth of Adele’s latest offspring, seeing the miracle of life firsthand really throws Edna for a loop.  All these folks are surrounded by host of other people representing a largely disapproving society (Nayely Becerra, Lauren Diesch, Nathan Gebhard, Aaron Henry, Rachel Kuhnle, Eric Marinus, and Tinne Rosenmeier), countering Edna at every turn in her experiments with liberty and free will.

“I thought I might die out there all by myself.”

This is a tragedy in the old-fashioned sense - a person of privilege in society falls from a height much greater than the rest of us would have to fall.  This is the 1890s, in Louisiana of the old South.  Edna is a woman.  She is stepping out of line - worst of all in a puritan nation, sexually - so, one way or another, she will be punished.

“When I’m near you, how can I help it?”

The thing I have the greatest problem is, naturally, the one thing I can’t speak about - the ending.  It would be a spoiler of the first order.  Depending on how optimistic you’re feeling, you could argue that the ending could be interpreted a couple of different ways.  But if you’re too optimistic, then any potential escape for Edna means it wasn’t really a tragedy after all, right?  And if your worst fears are confirmed, well, I’m not sure a shower of rose petals falling from the sky makes anything better (no, really, that happens).

“Of whom, of what, are you thinking?”

Much as I wrestle with the story, Savage Umbrella’s production is fantastic.  It looks gorgeous.  The costumes in particular (by Sarah French with assistance from Alexandra Gould) not only set the period beautifully but the change in palette from the brightness of summer to the dark, rich colors when vacation time is over and the family returns home for the second act visually reinforces the flow and mood of the story.  Lights and setting (Adam Raine and Meagan Kedrowski, respectively) also play a huge role here - from open, expansive and light in the first half, to focused down, constricted and dark in the second half.  It’s not the sledgehammer approach I probably make it sound like.  Something as simple as billowing fabric, lit from inside, hanging in the air, later released to hang down straight, opaque and casting shadows has enormous impact on the tone of the piece.

“I hope you have some suitable excuse.”

And the acting here really is something.  Director/adaptor Laura Leffler-McCabe has assembled a cast here that knows how to do a slow burn on Edna’s simmering emotions, with Dussault of course, leading the pack.  The whole thing would not work without her, and her cadre of suitors (Clarksean, Hale, Swan, and Wolf).  I also nearly left out the music, which is almost another character in the play, composed by Candace Emberley, performed by a trio of piano (Nic Delcambre, also music director), clarinet (Carley Olson) and violin (Alissa Ona Jacobsen).

“I am thinking I would like to be alone there with you, in the sun.”

My struggle with the story may in part be due to the balance of the three parts of it.  There’s the awakening of Edna to the fact that she probably has more choices in life than she’s been allowing herself.  That’s all of act one.  The other two parts of the story are her waking life, if you will, and the unraveling that follows.  You could argue that the first half of the second act, that waking life, is another phase of her awakening, in which case the unraveling seems even more abrupt and rushed.  I might be more accepting and less troubled by the outcome, as a spectator, if I felt I understood it better.  The awakening itself is a really slow burn, and that sexual tension and gradual teasing out of Edna’s new consciousness works, because the production as a whole makes it work.  The unraveling needs the same kind of grounding and attention, because right now it feels like it comes out of nowhere and then we’re in a headlong rush to the finish line.  Edna seems to be managing things just fine, and then all of a sudden she’s just not anymore.  Let’s face it, when someone walks out in a nurse’s uniform at the end of a play, that’s Tennessee Williams’ shorthand for “someone’s lost their marbles.”  And I’m not sure the setup feels like it’s leading to that payoff right now.

“The years that are gone seem like dreams.”

Also, the novel’s vestigial tail (no pun intended) of the author’s narrative voice brought to life at random points by the ensemble becomes a bit of a distraction.  The regular character-based acting here works so well, and makes the story so clear, that the additional flourishes of language feel like an unnecessary gilding of the lily.  The ensemble voice is largely a function of Edna’s inner voice anyway.  Finding a way to hand those duties off to an actress of Dussault’s caliber - or maybe a single  additional voice rather than a multitude - might be a more effective way to get those thoughts out.

“I wonder if any night on earth will ever again be like this one.”

All that said, the look, the mood, and the atmosphere of The Awakening, as well as the central performances, make it well worth seeing.  I’m just still struggling personally with the “Why?” of it all. (performs at the Southern Theater through March 18, 2017)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(Nick Wolf and Emily Dussault as Robert and Edna in Savage Umbrella's adaptation of The Awakening; photographer: Carl Atiya Swanson)