Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review - Fly By Night - Jungle Theater - One of the Good Ones - 4.5 Stars

If you like your musicals old-fashioned and uncomplicated, with catchy tunes and amusing characters, with plenty of love to go around and just a dash of reality thrown in, then the Jungle Theater’s regional premiere of the new musical Fly By Night is the show for you.  The show’s non-linear storytelling or the killer house band backing up the performers might trick you into thinking the whole thing is a lot less traditional than it actually is.  The story is set in the ever-more distant past of the early 1960s, specifically the year between November 9, 1964 and November 9, 1965 - which is a weird thing for me to type because I realize I was a toddler at the time.

“Believe it or not, this is not the worst part of Miriam’s night.”

(Sure the African-American civil rights movement was in full swing, the Vietnam War was entering into its second and much bloodier decade, the women’s rights movement was beginning its next big phase, and the gay rights movement was just a few years off, but don’t trouble yourself with any of that.  This is New York City, so “white people involved in theater” is still a fairly important and homogeneous thing - and that’s the world around which this story revolves. An old-fashioned musical sensibility fits right in. To its credit, the Jungle has cast two actors of color in roles where other theaters would (and have) put a white face, and it’s a non-issue. In fact, it’s a relief and most welcome.  It’s not a spoiler to say “Google November 9, 1965” and you’ll know the bit of history this musical does want to play off of - but that happens late in the action.)

“I’m a mess, and so is ‘The Human Condition,’ especially the fourth act.”

[Fair warning, the length of this review got away from me - if “well-produced new romantic musical comedy” is all you need to hear, by all means go, you won’t regret it.  Skip the next four paragraphs if you don’t care about plot/characters; skip the next six after that if you don’t need to know the many and various reasons I enjoy each member of the cast (because I do, all of ‘em); and if you’re not likely to be troubled by the lopsided gender politics of the storytelling that drove me a bit crazy and kept this from being an outright five star lovefest, then you can skip the rest of the review below that as well.  Jungle Theater Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen has chosen a sweet, clever, heartfelt, funny script full of catchy tunes (one of which is still stuck in my head) performed by endearing characters.  She’s built an ensemble of ridiculously talented actors whose different skill sets all mesh perfectly, and backed them up with a creative team who give them all a dream sandbox in which to play. A random stranger sitting next to me who dreaded that he’d accidentally walked into a musical, which he normally avoids, was a total convert by intermission. Fly By Night is nearly impossible to resist - I was almost completely seduced myself.  If that’s all the convincing you need, get a ticket.  If you want to know more, I’ve got plenty of that below…]

“In order to reach the guitar, we must first attend a funeral.”

Fly By Night trades focus among three primary characters - rewinding and then moving in on key moments from different angles until we know the full context of how each of them got to the place they are, what they want, what (or who) stands in the way of their getting it, and then the twists and turns that keep spinning the story forward (and back) in new directions. There’s Daphne (Royer Bockus), a young woman who’s had all the lead roles in the community theater productions in her South Dakota hometown, so it’s time to head off and seek her fortune as an actress in New York City.  Accompanying Daphne for moral (and financial) support is her sister Miriam (Leah Anderson), who, to be honest, is perfectly happy being a waitress in a small town, but mom wants her to finally get out of the house.  While Daphne toils in a coat and shoe store to make ends meet as she also hits the audition circuit, looking for her big break, Miriam is deliriously happy working in a New York greasy spoon diner. 

“Last night I got a sign from the universe through your hair dryer.”

The third point of this love triangle (because, it’s a musical, of course there’s a love triangle) is Harold (Chris Koza). Discovering his mom’s old guitar in a closet after her funeral, Harold’s love of music and songwriting is ignited. It’s easier than dealing with his grief-stricken father Mr. McClam (James Detmar) who retreats into memories of his first date with his late wife at the opera La Traviata, to the point where he can’t leave the house without taking his portable phonograph with him. Harold also has to juggle a day job of his own, making sandwiches for the ceaselessly cross (and hilarious) owner of the joint, Crabble (Joy Dolo).

“Imagine you’re singing this song to a pony.”

Just as Harold and Daphne’s relationship starts to pick up steam, she catches the eye of a playwright named Joey Storms (Joshua James Campbell). Joey values Daphne’s honesty and claims her as his muse, hiring her for a new play he’s writing just for her - which of course tends to cut into her time for Harold.

“I’m full of surprises.”

Overseeing the many threads of this story is the Narrator (Jim Lichtscheidl), who also plays a variety of supporting roles both large and small, including a fortune teller, who sets Miriam on the path to find her true love - which turns out to be Harold.  Awkward.  The fortune teller also has some less than promising things to say about Miriam’s prospects for a long, happy life.  (I should be in the bag for this musical.  I really should.)

“When that star died, it didn’t disappear - it reappeared.”

Jim Lichtscheidl is a delight as the Narrator - as well as his rogues gallery of supporting characters.  The show wouldn’t work half as well without him pulling the strings and populating the world in which the other characters live with his own particular gift of comic timing. (Jim played a key role in the very first script of mine that ever got produced in Minneapolis, some twenty-odd years ago now - before he became a Guthrie regular, started performing in London’s West End, and turned into, well, “Jim Lichtscheidl.” It’s been great watching his career blossom, the guy’s amazing.)

“I wasn’t sure you’d get the metaphor.”
“Of course I did.  It was really obvious.”

I also have a soft spot for Joy Dolo, creating yet another larger than life character here in Crabble, longing for the days in World War II when she was an air traffic controller, now stuck making sandwiches without a plane in sight.  (Joy performed in the most recent script of mine produced in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, playing seven wildly different over the top characters so indelibly that even people who forgot or weren’t fans of the play LOVED Joy in it and remembered her.  She’s since done one cool project after another and is now, well, “Joy Dolo.”  One takes a weird kind of pride in seeing actors’ careers take off like that.  And it’s just lovely to see them both again, even if I’m just another guy in the audience this time.)

“Mayonnaise, meat, cheese, and lettuce.”

Wonderful seeing James Detmar on stage again, too.  (His chameleon-like, multi-character performance in Spring Awakening for Theater Latte Da still sticks in my head.)  Detmar takes a character in Fly By Night that has a danger of seeming repetitive and makes him compelling and sweet.  Given his acting and singing chops, I knew there must be a big moment coming for the character of Mr. McClam at some point, and I wasn’t disappointed.  It was a great showcase late in the game, and he really delivered.  Joshua James Campbell is someone else whose work I’ve really liked as both director (Failure: A Love Story) and actor (Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike).  He’s great here as Joey, a guy who wants to be more substantial than he’s probably capable of as both an artist and a person.  He’s an enjoyable fourth point in the romantic entanglements, turning a triangle into a bit of a rhombus or a trapezoid (they’re too odd to be a rectangle or a square).

“For worse… for poorer… in sickness… till death.”

Turns out the only people in the cast I’m not already familiar with are the three leads.  A love triangle only works if you’re rooting for all three of the characters involved, and between the script, songs and actors here, there’s a lot to root for. Leah Anderson and Royer Bockus playing the two sisters are two very different kinds of perfect.  Bockus’ Daphne is always belting for the rafters of the theater like any good wannabe actress should.  Anderson’s quieter but no less enthusiastic turn as Miriam finds the joy in everyday work. 

“I can’t feel awful by serving a waffle.”

Heck, even Daphne has a day job.  Sure, she isn’t stuck in it long but she’s not whining and moaning like most “artist” characters onstage (“why does no one recognize my genius? why do I have to do ‘normal person’ things?”) It’s why I can’t stand most plays about theater people.  But in this musical, Daphne does her job to pay the bills, and she stands up for herself when suffering the indignities of a life of auditions.  In fact, it’s only when she insults the play (after the director insults her “incorrect” body type) that playwright Joey becomes enamored of her.

“Apparently I was distracting the audience with my groans of despair.”

I’m a little ashamed to admit I wasn’t aware of local singer-songwriter Chris Koza before seeing him as Harold, especially since I have now developed a serious nerd crush on the man.  Apparently, cute guys who know how to sing and play the guitar are my kryptonite.  Plus, the guy can act.  He more than holds his own alongside all his powerhouse castmates.  (I’ll probably have to purchase and download a bunch of Koza’s original music just to get that damn turtle song from the show out of my head - not that there’s anything wrong with the turtle song, it’s just stuck on repeat in my brain.)

“Scientifically speaking, you’re connected to everything.”

And I haven’t even mentioned how great the band is - Music director Mark Christine out of New York also serving as conductor and playing the keyboards; Music consultant John Munson (of Semisonic) on bass; Dan Schwartz on guitar, and Richard Medek on percussion.  Pile onto that the crack design team embracing the period at the same time they’re supporting the time-skipping, multi-location storyline: Trevor Bowen (costumes), Barry Browning (lights), Sean Healey (sound), John Novak (props, plus stage manager keeping all these plates spinning), and Joseph Stanley (set).  There isn’t choreography per se, but Lichtscheidl is also listed as movement consultant (and I can still see in my mind’s eye, for instance, the whole cast suddenly becoming airplanes around a daydreaming Crabble.)

“Do you have any idea how many wonderful roles there are for women in theater?”

So with ALL that in its favor, why am I not just slapping five stars on Fly By Night and calling it a day?  The aforementioned lopsided gender politics of the storytelling. Fly By Night is the brainchild of Kim Rosenstock, who then collaborated with Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick in bringing it fully to life.  It’s not that the sisters’ roles aren’t good or substantial.  They’ve each got a lot of great material, both scripted and songs.  The multiple plot strands doubling back on each other make sure everyone gets equal time.  And the women have agency - up to a point.  Then the script keeps having the men in the story tell the women how they should feel, and how they should live their lives.  And the women agree.  And the script seems to have zero problems with that.  For that reason, a song of Daphne’s that would otherwise be my favorite, “I Need More,” instead kind of creeps me out, because Joey’s offering of it to Daphne in rehearsal is incredibly manipulative.  Even if she is realizing something important because of it, I also want her to hit him.  And don’t get me started on Harold convincing Miriam he knows how she feels better than she does, even as they’re both deciding to betray her sister.

“Honey, please, I know the sound of a man pretending to be a woman.”

Equally strange, one key female supporting role doesn’t exist, and three other female supporting characters are male roles.  Kudos to the Jungle production for having the vision to think, “Hey, Crabble doesn’t *need* to be a white dude. Doesn’t even need to be a dude. Joy Dolo’s great, let’s make the role for her.”  But the roles of Daphne and Miriam’s mother, and the pivotal scene stealer that is the fortune teller, are both played by the Narrator.  Hard as it is to set my love for Jim Lichtscheidl aside, why is the Narrator positioned in the script as a man?  There’s really only one joke (and it’s a doozy) that would potentially get lost if you allowed the Narrator to be a woman.  The Narrator also plays Daphne and Miriam’s late father, who both haunts and guides Miriam throughout the play, including at her pivotal moment of need at the play’s end.  But honestly, why dad, who's dead, rather than mom, who’s still alive?  And since the Narrator is some supernatural omniscient Our Town-ish Stage Manager figure anyway, why is it necessarily a male figure rather than say, a female one - like Harold’s late mother, and late wife to Mr. McClam, who casts such a long shadow over their half of the story? Why Miriam’s father but not Harold’s mother - dead but present, vs. dead but absent?  And yes, we don’t see it as much in theater, but there’s no prohibition against women pretending to be men onstage.  Why always men doubling as women instead?  None of this would bug me as much if the male love interests weren’t being allowed to tell the women how to feel.  I mean, I know it’s the early 1960s but really?  It’s 2017, so why are we telling this kind of story, in this way, now?

“Sometimes a busted broken clock is just a busted broken clock.”

Does any of that make the songs less catchy, or the play less funny or heart-tugging?  Does it make the production values less impressive?  Does it make the cast any less mind-bogglingly good?  No, no, and no.  It’s a beguiling package presented in an enchanting way.  I completely understand why people are drawn to Fly By Night.  There’s just a little nugget at the center of it all that still bugs me, much as I try to shrug it off and just enjoy. 

“Is that, like, with goats?”

Still, there’s also a part of me that just says “screw that reviewer guy’s qualms” and just go see Fly By Night.  There are so many half-baked, ill-conceived musicals out there, the better ones should get an audience, so we keep demanding the good stuff.  People this talented, doing work this good, really shouldn’t be missed.  You should go see and hear Fly By Night at the Jungle Theater for yourself.  (runs through July 23, 2017)

4.5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

[L-R: Mr. McClam (James Detmar), Crabbie (Joy Dolo), Narrator (Jim Lichtscheidl), Daphne (Royer Bockus) and Joey Storms (Joshua James Campbell) - Background: Harold McClam (Chris Koza) - Photographer: Dan Norman]

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Review - The Baltimore Waltz - Theatre Coup d’Etat - Dancing In The Dark - 5 stars

I will admit that Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz makes me nervous.  I keep expecting that eventually I will encounter it and it will seem dated or unsatisfying in some way, and that would make me sad.  But it’s Paula Vogel.  I should know better.  Theatre Coup d’Etat’s fantastic, funny and heartbreaking production of The Baltimore Waltz may have finally put my fears to rest.  The play is, if possible, even more bracing and lovely than when I’d previously experienced it (third time’s the charm, I guess).  Anyone encountering this play for the first time with Theatre Coup d’Etat, like the friend who came to the show with me last weekend, is getting the best of all possible worlds.  If you’ve never seen it, go.  If you’ve seen it before, go.  Just go.

“Elisabeth Kubler-Ross can sit on my face.”

Paula Vogel wrote the play as a love letter to her late brother, Carl.  His delightfully inappropriate letter to her about his own funeral arrangements is included in the program (with the blessing and encouragement of the playwright). In 1986, Carl asked Paula to go with him on a joint trip to Europe.  The pressures of life kept her from saying yes.  At the time, she didn’t know he was HIV+.  They never went.  By the early days of January 1988, he was gone.

“Some things are the same in every country.”

So The Baltimore Waltz is Vogel’s fanciful imagination of a journey never taken by a brother and sister.  In the play, it is the sister who is sick, infected with the virus for ATD - Acquired Toilet Disease - which, as an elementary school teacher, she picked up from a kindergarten classroom toilet seat. So it’s off on a whirlwind tour of Europe for Anna (Kari Nielsen) and Carl (Nicholas Kaspari). Anna, feeling shortchanged by living the life of a good girl, has decided to throw caution to the winds and screw her brains out, accosting pretty much anything in pants.

“He never betrayed you.  He taught you to trust in contact.”

(She doesn’t say screw - [he types, blushing].  I have rarely been more aware of the salty language in this script than I have been seeing it at Springhouse Ministries in one of their sanctuaries.  There is an enormous artful metallic cross suspended above the center of the room (and the set).  And whenever there’s a blackout, long summer days being what they are, high above in the dark, the waning sunlight shines through a stained glass window of a praying Jesus.  Vogel’s often poetic, sometimes profane, use of language is on a different kind of display in this context.  Kudos to Springhouse for giving this play a home anyway, and for Coup d’Etat for not sanding off the play’s rough edges to “fit” the venue.)

“Only the Germans have a word for that.”

While Anna is focused on her erotic European itinerary, Carl is on the hunt for a possible cure for his sister.  The American medical system may be too slow to approve treatments in time for Anna, but the rest of the world operates by different rules.  Carl’s best hope is his old school chum Harry Lime (references to the classic noir film The Third Man won’t confuse the uninitiated, but are an added bonus to those familiar with the movie.  The homage to the iconic ferris wheel scene, with the play’s addition of stuffed animal rabbits, is especially fun). Portraying Harry, a handful of doctors, various airport and hotel employees, the Little Dutch Boy (who stuck his finger in the dyke - no that’s not a lesbian reference) at age 50, and other horny and willing European locals, is Kip Dooley.

“It’s the language that terrifies me.”

Dooley may have flashiest of the three roles, since he gets to rip through one wacky character after another, but Kaspari and Nielsen ground his zaniness with the truth of their fractious but loving brother/sister bond, and the reality of facing Anna’s illness with their own agendas.  Director Lauren Diesch embraces not only the comedy and the sorrow that buffet the play (often both in the same moments), but also expands on the dance that concludes the story to incorporate movement at key moments throughout, to match the poetry of the script.  She not only gets great performances from her actors, she’s assembled a design team that really delivers on the concept of the play.

“If you want to be a billionaire, you sell hope.”

Megan Kedrowski’s set centers around an enormous curtained hospital area (complete with red plastic hazardous waste bags to anchor the framework to the floor) which is revealed and obscured in a variety of ways throughout.  The only piece of furniture - a hospital gurney.  We are never far from the medical impetus of the European odyssey, but the set-up is used in so many different ways, you can almost forget what it is, until you can’t anymore.  The curtains memorably partner up with lights (by Mark Kieffer) in a shadow play series of sexual positions for Anna and her various partners, and also for vacation slides that take on the look and feel of the X-rays with which they are interspersed.  Lights and sound (by Phillip Uttech) partner up to make the multiple changes in time and place, not to mention reality, distinct and easy to follow.  The Baltimore Waltz takes you on a journey, even though you never leave the simple square space of hardwood floor in the sanctuary.  One tiny detail that just knocked me out in Katie Martin’s costume design was her pairing of the pink triangle that the script features in Carl’s introduction, with a striped button down shirt in muted colors that, if you looked at it sideways, was just this side of a concentration camp uniform for gay men in Nazi Germany.  Carl with that look, on a European trip, a subtle but scary nod to the holocaust that came forty years before the AIDS crisis. (Given what’s going on in Chechnya right now, plus our Vice President who as governor of Indiana wanted to redirect AIDS treatment and prevention funding to gay conversion therapy… there’s still work to do.)

“He’s flashing his rabbit at you.”

And here’s where I’m especially glad Theatre Coup d’Etat gave me a chance to experience this play again now.  The first time I saw The Baltimore Waltz, the play was fairly new, the AIDS crisis in full bloom, and honestly, everyone who saw it was probably a little stunned and numb to it all.  The sister and not the gay brother being sick was a “nice” thought, but reality was always ready to reassert itself in our minds.  (The friend who attended this latest production with me - heck, most of the people involved in the production this time, probably weren’t even born - or were just toddlers -  when I first saw The Baltimore Waltz.  That’s an odd thing to consider. I'm grateful these folks will probably never see first hand the human body ravaged by the illness unchecked. It's not something that leaves you.)

“I just wish you wouldn’t go.”

The second time I saw The Baltimore Waltz, about seven years ago, it was like encountering an old friend.  HIV/AIDS was no longer an automatic death sentence but a chronic, manageable illness - still not a walk in the park, but not the horror show it used to be. Still, I was conscious of all the things that had changed, and the people we’d lost, since the last time I saw the play.  This time in 2017, The Baltimore Waltz is just a play, and a timeless one.  Because there will always be loss, there will always be grief.  We will always need a laugh, we will always need an escape.  There will always be regret, but there will also always be hope.  People die, but people live.  So we carry on, and we remember.

“Cut down in the prime of youth by a toilet seat.”

Only the end of the world is the end of the world.  Everything else, we can manage.  Hold your loved ones close.  Spend time with them.  Go on that trip.  No time is the right time.  But at some point, it’s too late.  Don’t miss your chance.  That’s the gift of Paula Vogel in The Baltimore Waltz.  And that’s the gift Theatre Coup d’Etat offers in resurrecting this script in this moment.

Just go.

(runs through June 19, 2017 at Springhouse Ministries)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Poster photography by Craig James Hostetler; actors (from left to right) Nicholas Kaspari [Carl], Käri Nielsen [Anna], and Kip Dooley [Third Man])

Review - Arcadia - Chameleon Theatre Circle - One Last Waltz - 4.5 stars

Tom Stoppard makes me feel stupid.  Very, very stupid.  But he’s funny.  Very, very funny.  So I forgive him, and go and see his plays anyway.  Chameleon Theatre Circle is presenting Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and it accidentally ends up being the perfect way to say goodbye to what has been their home in the black box theater at the Ames Center in Burnsville for the past nine years. So, for both those reasons, you should go see Arcadia for yourself.

“And everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly… till there’s no time left.  That’s what time means.”

Arcadia is about a great many things (a ridiculous number of things, really), but primarily it’s about time.  How bits and pieces of the past insist on continuing to exist in the present, and how people in the present can never full understand the past, anymore than the people in the past can dream of the future that will exist long after they’re dead.

“As her tutor, you have a duty to keep her in ignorance.”

Two different timelines exist in the same place in Arcadia.  Back in 1809, on the English country estate of Sidley Park in Derbyshire, an incredibly precocious 13-year-old girl named Thomasina Coverly (Mackenzie Diggins) is being tutored by a 20-something young man named Septimus Hodge (Philip D. Henry). (Those are the sorts of names you get in a Stoppard play, there are more…) Septimus gets himself into all kinds of trouble on many fronts, so it’s a good thing he’s so adept at juggling people.  He has a tendency to bed down with the adult women passing through the estate, whether they’re married or not. Thomasina being exceptionally smart means he has to keep handing her more difficult math conundrums to puzzle over in order to distract her from the fact that he’s at the center of most of the servants’ gossip.  The misdirection is harder to keep going when jealous husbands like Ezra Chater (Matthew Stoffel) keep storming into the room.  Thankfully Chater is a wannabe poet and easy to distract with flattery about his writing. 

“It’s a Gothic novel expressed in landscape - everything but vampires.”

Less easily bamboozled is Thomasina’s mother Lady Croom (Dawn Krowsnowski), who runs the estate with a no-nonsense attitude.  The thing vexing her at the moment is the estate’s landscaping makeover at the hands of Richard Noakes (Matt Saxe) - who’s also one of the main people spreading the word about Chater’s wife and Septimus.  Chater’s wife is pretty friendly. She’s also keeping company with Lady Croom’s brother Captain Brice (Dan Britt), as well as their unseen houseguest Lord Byron.  Chater’s wife leads a pretty well-rounded life for an offstage character.  The only person not causing trouble would appear to be the long-suffering head housemaid, Jellaby (Danielle Krivinchuk).

“What do you want to bet?”
“Everything you have to lose.”

In 2017 Sidley Park, the descendants of Thomasina and Lady Croom - Chloe Coverly (Nicole Laurenne), older brother Valentine Coverly (Nick Menzhuber) and younger brother Gus Coverly (Cody Madison) - are visited by two guests with competing agendas to uncover the secrets of the past.  Researcher and author Hannah Jarvis (Ariel Leaf) is there to learn the identity of the mysterious hermit who lived on the estate (after its makeover by Noakes, which is to include a hermitage).  Researcher and author Bernard Nightingale (Andy Browers) is there to prove his theory that Lord Byron killed Ezra Chater in a duel over the reputation of Chater’s cheating wife, and had to flee England because of it. 

“She’s feeding the solution back into the equation and solving it again.”

Gus Coverly in the present is mute by choice, instead playing the piano in the next room to express himself.  The same actor also plays Augustus Coverly, Thomasina’s very chatty and troublesome brother.  Also crossing the line between present and past is a (live) tortoise - stage tortoise Sloth plays the character of Lightning in 2017, and Plautus in 1809.  Like all live animals on stage, Sloth has a mind of his own, and is in danger of bewitching all audience attention if his fellow human castmates aren’t careful. Slow though he be, he is mesmerizing to watch.

“You have a way about you, Bernard.  I’m not sure I like it.”

One of the pleasures of Arcadia for the audience is that they see everything that takes place in the past, so they know the degree to which everyone in the present is off track.  They also learn from the people in the present the fates that await the characters in the past, which they don’t yet see coming. Surprisingly, all the different relationships aren’t hard to follow, though the whole play is a little bit of a puzzle box to wrap your head around.  CJ Mantel’s costumes and Terri Ristow’s props help delineate the two timelines that co-exist on Sadie Ward’s set.  Mark Halvorson’s lights and Forest Godfrey’s sound help to reinforce this. (I have to give a shout-out for attention to detail: if the light catches the tops of the low walls that border the set just right, you’ll see that there are a profusion of numbers layered into the black paint - a nod to several characters’ obsession with math and formulas.)

“You have no secrets left, Mr. Hodge.”

Director Duck Washington has assembled a great team here and they’ve breathed life into a story that’s often a lot of fun.  My main struggle is the struggle I have with most of Tom Stoppard’s plays - a lot of the time they seem just a little less than human.  They’re brilliant and they’re funny.  And in this case you’ve also got the British accents on top of it, which can add to the amusement.  But the characters are all dealing with such complex and abstract notions touching on math, philosophy, science, art, and historical research that, as thrilling as it is to have your brain constantly challenged and pinballing all over the place, the humanity underneath starts to get lost.  I will freely admit to my eyes starting to glaze over in spots.  I expect it’s partly due to the audience’s brains being overloaded with all that Stoppard’s script is hurling at them to process.  And it can’t be easy for an actor to learn these lines, as wonderful as they are, wrap their own heads fully around all the concepts, and become so comfortable with all the jargon that it feels like normal dialogue, spoken by a person.  That, plus the British accents (a double-edged sword of entertainment and distancing) can make it all seem a bit cold.

“A lesson in folly is worth two in wisdom.”

Just a month ago at the William Inge Theater Festival down in Kansas, I saw a staged reading of Lauren Gunderson’s play Ada And The Engine, about Lord Byron’s brilliant daughter Ada (on whom it’s said Thomasina in Stoppard’s play is partially based). Ada was a woman ahead of her time, transfixed by the idea of what would become the 19th century forerunner of modern day computers.  She also was entranced by the machine’s creator, Charles Babbage, a kindred spirit who talked the common language of science and the mind with her - a great but unconsummated affair on both sides.  Gunderson’s script was quite literally bursting with emotion and intellect at the same time, and the performances reflected that.  It was amazing to watch.  Gunderson doesn’t attempt to hit nearly as many targets as Stoppard does in Arcadia.  But I think she’s able to dig deeper and find the human guts underneath because of it.

“I do not know when I’ve received a more unusual compliment.”

Stoppard doesn’t seem as interested in people, or relationships, as Gunderson.  The passion for ideas doesn’t reach the heart.  So his plays don’t grab me the same way hers do.  On some level, this is a failure of intellect on my part as an audience member.  I have Stoppard’s script on my shelf.  I’m feeling compelled to re-read it now and catch all the things I missed.  Having seen actors perform it, I’ll probably get the words on the page now in a way I didn’t before.  But the thrill I got watching Gunderson’s play?  That doesn’t happen very often.  And I think it should.

“It’s the wanting to know that makes the difference.  Otherwise, we’re going out the way we came in.”

Over and above Stoppard, the cast and creative team, there’s another reason to go see Arcadia in this place at this time.  Arcadia is the last time Chameleon Theatre Circle will be producing a play at the Ames Center.  A number of factors were involved, but the break happened when the Center objected to one of the selections in Chameleon’s next season lineup.  That play happens to be one I saw and quite liked in last year’s Minnesota Fringe FestivalThe objections were based on a word in the title and not the content of the show itself, which it seems the Center representatives never saw or read.  Rather than change the title, or not do the show, Chameleon decided to find another home for their work. 

“Every time I turned around she was up a library ladder.  I finally gave in.”

That show happens to be written by the director of Arcadia, Duck Washington.  It’s Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales, and it will be presented in June 2018 at the Bloomington Center for the Arts as the final production in Chameleon’s 20th Anniversary season.  In addition to Pandas, Chameleon will present Lee Blessing’s Independence also at the Bloomington Center in the fall of 2017 to kick off the new season.  There will also be the latest iteration of their new play festival in the fall (details TBA).  The rest of the season will revisit some of Chameleon’s greatest hits from past seasons, including the musical Chess, and Steve Martin’s comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile (both at the new Gremlin Theater in December 2017 and February 2018, respectively), and the musical Little Shop of Horrors at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in April 2018.

“The girl who died in the fire.”

Why am I telling you all this in a review of Arcadia?  Because I think in addition to seeing Arcadia, you should make it a point to stand with a theater that stands by their artists and new work, now and all next season as well.  If you haven’t seen Chameleon’s work before, this is all the excuse you need to try something new.  A lot of theaters aren’t tested like this; and a lot of those that are, cave under pressure.  If a theater company stands against ill-informed attempts at censorship, that stand should be rewarded.  See Arcadia, see the new play festival, see Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas, heck, see everything.  Check their website, mark your calendar.

“This is the very best time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”

One unintended by-product of presenting Arcadia as their last play in this venue after nine years is the feeling of history, not just in the play but of Chameleon itself.  As past and present mingle onstage throughout Arcadia, but particularly in the play’s moving closing moments, one is reminded of all the entrances and exits, all the actors, all the characters, all the different worlds that have been built and then disappeared, all the technicians and designers and directors, all the audience members that have passed through these doors and for a brief time made this space a part of their lives.  If those associations need to end, it is fitting that a play like Arcadia, blending the past and the present, is the melancholy valentine on which we turn out the lights after one last waltz around the stage. (running through June 11, 2017 at the Ames Center)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(L-R: Mackenzie Diggins as Thomasina, Ariel Leaf [with Sloth the tortoise] as Hannah, Andy Browers as Bernard, and Philip D. Henry as Septimus in "Arcadia." Photo by Kari Elizabeth Godfrey.)