Saturday, September 23, 2017

Review - The Abominables - Children’s Theatre Company - A Big (and Happy) Surprise - 5 stars

The Abominables at Children’s Theatre Company is a delightful surprise. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect, since normally if you said to me: theater for young audiences, musical, and hockey; I’d probably reply “I don’t think I’m the audience for this one.”  In this case, I’m very happy to be proven wrong.  CTC’s collaboration with fellow theater company The Civilians has paid off in a smart, funny script with clever songs and a great cast.  And yes, it’s a musical about hockey geared toward young audiences, and nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Because it’s not just kids who will recognize themselves up on the CTC stage, their parents will, too.

“You are part of something bigger.  Wait and see.”

The Abominables centers around two competing Minnesota youth hockey families. Young Mitch (Henry Constable) has been working hard all summer to be ready for tryouts so he can get himself a spot on the A Team with his more athletically gifted friends Zach (Zachary Hodgkins) and Ryan (Carter Bannwarth).  Mitch getting on the A Team means his parents Ellen and Charlie (Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund) also get the benefits of hanging out with the other A Team parents.  Meanwhile, Mitch’s two sisters get little to no attention, even though Tracy (Natalie Tran) is the star of the girl’s hockey team.  Youngest sister Lily (Valerie Wick) has zero interest in sports, so she’s practically invisible. Everything is poised to go Mitch’s way, but then a new family comes to town.

“Just do your best.”
“What kind of advice is that?!”

Judy and Hank (Elise Benson and Bradley Greenwald) are famous mountain climbers who have decided to live for a while with the little people in the decidedly un-mountainous state of Minnesota for the good of their eldest adopted son Harry (Ryan Colbert). Harry’s not your average kid.  He’s a yeti (aka abominable snowman). And he’s so good at hockey, that poor Mitch doesn’t stand a chance.  Mitch and his family are relegated to the B Team, and they don’t take it well.  Mitch’s sister Lily, however, makes a new friend in kindred spirit Freddy (Alejandro Vega), Harry’s human little brother, who also has zero interest in sports.

“The maple leaf is red because it drinks American blood.”

Writer/director Steve Cosson, and composer of music and lyrics Michael Friedman, do an extremely impressive job of juggling all these characters (and then some) along with all their interwoven plots and subplots into a story that’s fast-moving and yet easy to follow.  Even when the characters are doing stupid, selfish, or questionable things, they remain compelling to watch - even if you’re not entirely sure you like them all the time. Maybe it’s the singing.  Maybe it’s the fact that there’s a yeti right in the middle of all of it.  Mitch’s selfishness, and his mother Ellen’s competitive streak, makes them both occasionally unlikable characters. Mitch says and does particularly hateful things because, well, he’s a teenage boy who’s wrapped up his sense of self-worth a bit too much in a sport that - everyone needs to be honest - he’s not going to make a living in the pros playing.

“I think we’ve all learned that your imagination is kind of self-centered.”

The yeti in the midst of this allows the play to do some fairly savvy takes on racism without ever fully calling it out.  That’s kind of the genius of the play - it doesn’t bang anybody over the head with messages and morals, and yet they’re unmistakable and hard to miss.  It addresses subjects around parenting, sexism, and adoption, as well as racism, all in the context of the larger story.  The artists trust the audience to think for themselves - and continue thinking after they leave the theater.  Because unlike the vast majority of sports-related entertainment, this one isn’t dependent on our heroes winning the big game to be satisfying.  The whole notions of winning and losing and what it means to be part of a team are poked and prodded from several different angles, but again, not in a heavy-handed way, all of which I found really refreshing.

“Hey, Mitch, the yeti has the puck.”
“What the - ?!”

The Abominables is also an impressive logistical feat.  The “rink” on which our hockey players spend a lot of time rollerblading is central to Andrew Boyce’s set design - in the same way it’s central to the characters’ lives and the story as a whole.  But other home and hotel set pieces fly and roll in and out at various points in the story (we even get an igloo at one point).  The sleek yet unobtrusive work of Jake DeGroot’s lighting design and Sten Severson’s sound design make the look and noise of this world seem a lot less complex than it probably is.  Several actors spend time in the air.  The number of things that could and yet do not go screwy on this production are legion so for degree of difficulty alone stage manager Stacy McIntosh, her assistants Nate Stanger and Sonja Thorson, and interns Eva Chastain, and Coletrane T. Johnson all deserve a big shout-out for keeping the thing running so smoothly.

“And now here I am, a completely different announcer at another completely different game.”

The fact that I’m not pondering things like ALL those clothes means that costume designer Jessica Pabst’s work has just the ring of truth the story needs (in addition to everyone listed above, they need to outfit Stephanie Bertumen and Doug Neithercott who both take on multiple roles to great comedic effect, plus there’s an ensemble of young hockey players backing up the main characters - Logan Baker, Sage Brahmstedt, Hunter Conrad, Meredith “Mimi” Kol-Balfour, Evan Latta, Peder Lindell [also the hockey captain - the show has a fight captain and a dance captain as well], and Richard Norman.)  Joe Chvala’s dance choreography and Ryan Bourque’s fight and hockey choreography keep all those bodies moving effortlessly around each other in space, taking your mind off the fact that it’s a minor miracle that all these people aren’t constantly crashing into one another.  And of course, it ain’t a musical without the band (who, down in the pit, where a huge hit with the kids pre and post show as well as at intermission) - music director, conductor and keyboardist Andrew Fleser leads David Singley on guitar, Greg Angel on bass, and Steve Kimball on percussion.

“I’m sorry everybody hates you now.”

Even though Harry gets Ryan Colbert’s very human face, the yeti is still taller than almost everyone else onstage, so this misunderstood “monster” is a fairly imposing figure.  One little kid in the family next to me was a bit freaked out at first.  But then, so are the characters onstage.  The kid’s mom didn’t immediately whisk him away, but instead let him climb up on her lap and watch from the safety of his mother’s embrace. The usual kid moments of restlessness were few, and for the full two acts of the show, the kid’s attention was rapt.  The yeti’s equally tiny little brother of course went a long way to humanizing Harry.  But just spending time with someone who looked different, and maybe scary, also accomplished that.  The kid got to watch characters onstage adapting, and adapted himself.  That was almost more amazing that anything that happened onstage - but without what was happening onstage, it wouldn’t have taken place. So, wow.  Theater, huh? (Also, kudos to mom.)

“But things that you can lose are the most precious things of all.”

The only bad thing about The Abominables is a loss behind the scenes.  Composer Michael Friedman  died less than a week before The Abominables had its world-premiere opening night at CTC.  Friedman was only 41 years old.  He accomplished a lot as a regular collaborator with The Civilians, and elsewhere, garnering himself an Obie Award for his significant output.  Given the work on display in The Abominables, who knows what other songs he might have written with more time.  We’re grateful we got this one but damn, that’s a shame.

“No pressure, kids.  It’s just a game.”

If you’re a fan of hockey, musicals, or children’s theater, you’ll probably be an even more enthusiastic audience member than I was.  But even going in unsure of what I’d find, The Abominables made an audience convert out of me.  Sometimes it can be really nice when theater surprises you. (through October 15, 2017)

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

(top right - ensemble photo from The Abominables; lower down, left - Harry the yeti (Ryan Colbert, seated) gets interviewed by an eager reporter (Stephanie Bertumen) after he takes a spill on the ice while his teammates (Carter Bannwarth, Evan Latta) look on - photography by Dan Norman)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review - The Lady With A Lap Dog - Fortune’s Fool Theatre - Charming Chamber Musical About Infidelity - 4 stars

Fortune’s Fool Theatre has a peculiar but charming little chamber musical going on over at Open Eye Figure Theatre right now, an adaptation  of Anton Chekhov’s short story The Lady With A Lap Dog.  It’s charming because the music by Robert Elhai bounces right along with the often cheeky lyrics from book writer Daniel Pinkerton.  It’s peculiar because, if you know anything about the source material, it’s basically a romantic comedy/drama about a long-running extramarital affair.  So, depending on how you feel about extramarital affairs, you may play right along, or find yourself fighting not to find it charming, and occasionally failing and enjoying it anyway.  The latter would be the category into which I fell.

“Let me take just one last look at your face before I go.”

The Lady With A Lap Dog examines love from an unusual angle. Back in late 19th century Russia, Dimitri (Joel Liestman) is a married businessman who vacations by himself in Yalta while his wife Dasha (Laurel Armstrong) tends to their home and children back in Moscow.  Dimitri regularly cheats on his wife with the wives of other men, often right under their noses. However, it’s gotten so unchallenging that he doesn’t find it all that fun any more. And then he meets Anna (Andrea Leap). 

“Pensive.  Of course I am.  My whole world has changed.”

Anna is also vacationing by herself, well, in the company of her faithful dog (a puppet). Anna’s husband is a very busy man running the business back in Smolensk, no time for vacation - also, his health isn’t that great.  Dimitri charms Anna’s dog, then Anna herself, and they begin an affair.  Then the unexpected happens - they actually develop feelings for one another.  They each fear those feelings are one-sided, and are relieved to discover it’s mutual.  But they’re both still married to other people.  They live in cities hundreds of miles away from each other (and this is before the advent of air travel, or even the regular use of cars.  Phones were just barely getting started.)  What hope does their relationship have?

“Take this stranger away from here, and give me my husband back.”

Pinkerton and Elhai have taken pains to further flesh out the character of Anna, to make the story more balanced, as the source material was largely from the male perspective.  They’ve done an equally good job bringing to life the character of Dasha, Dimitri’s stoic, long-suffering wife.  In fact they  have done their job with these two key female players so well - and the two actresses do such a great job in their roles - that I ended up thinking both women deserved better.  (This is no reflection on Liestman as a leading man, he’s great, too.)  But I have to keep reminding myself, this is pre-20th century.  Women may deserve better but back then they rarely got it.  You found stability and happiness where you could - and if you could get both in the same place, you were very lucky indeed.

“The lines between moral and immoral can be indistinct.”

The Lady With A Lap Dog is about people making the most of what they can get.  Which, honestly, isn’t the worst thing a play could say to an audience.  The world is imperfect.  Life doesn’t always serve up a happy ending.  Happy-ish is a decent end point for most of us.  If we could all sing like Liestman and Leap and Armstrong, things might seem brighter and more beautiful still.  Director Nicole Wilder and her performers, plus the three-lady band of music director Jill Dawe on piano, Dee Langley on accordion, and Diane Tremaine on the cello, create a world full of music and wit that more than does justice in bringing Chekhov’s story to the stage.

“We open up our umbrellas, but the rain seeps into our hearts.”

And if you leave Fortune’s Fool’s production of The Lady With A Lap Dog wondering if you could make more of the circumstances of your own life (and how a little more music might help), that’s not a bad thing to take away from a night at the theater - whether people are behaving badly or not. (through September 24, 2017 at Open Eye)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

[left to right: wife Dasha (Laurel Armstrong) watches husband Dimitri (Joel Liestman) who only has eyes for Anna (Andrea Leap), The Lady With A Lap Dog - photography by Daniel Pinkerton]

Review - The Nether - Jungle Theater - A Thriller That Lives Up To The Label - 5 stars

Jennifer Haley’s script The Nether won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2012 for a female playwright doing work of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theater.  The Nether is so good I’m going to go buy myself a copy so I can study it.  At first I was a bit wary, despite the fact that the Jungle Theater is producing it (under Sarah Rasmussen’s leadership I haven’t been disappointed yet), Casey Stangl (of Eye of the Storm fame) is back visiting from LA to direct it, and the cast is stuffed with some of the best actors in the Twin Cities right now (Stephen Yoakam, Mo Perry, Craig Johnson, and Jucoby Johnson, along with the unsettlingly good child actor Ella Freeburg).

“I feel only as much pain as I wish.”
“How much pain is that?”
“That’s a very personal question.”

Why the reluctance?  Honestly, plays about the internet, with very few exceptions, suck.  Endless scenes of people sitting at computers, typing while they talk, half the time the playwright doesn’t even understand how computers or the internet work, or how best to exploit them.  Plus, theater is the opposite of the internet.  You have live people, right in front of you, on stage, breathing the same air as all the human beings in the audience, who surround you.  Doing a play about the internet makes even less sense than a play about television or a play about movies or a play about writing/reading a book.  There are, to all of this, exceptions.  The Nether is one hell of an exception.

“You think you’re going to shame me into helping you.  I’m past shame.”

So why, if I hate plays about the internet, do I love The Nether?  Because it’s not about gizmos.  It’s about people.  Deeply flawed and damaged people.  Why, if plays that deal in violence or horror generally leave me cold, do I love The Nether?  Because it’s not about shocking me with gore (there’s not a drop of blood spilled onstage), it’s about screwing with my sense of reality, identity, notions of consent, and right and wrong.  The Nether is a real mind-bender in all the best possible ways.  And just when you think it doesn’t have any more surprises up its sleeve, or new ways to knock you on your metaphorical ass as an audience member, it has one. more. scene.

“I am sick.  I have always been sick.  There is no cure.”

The Nether is a mystery in more ways than one, and the way this 90 minute thrill ride grabs and holds you is the puzzle it presents and slowly unravels, so I’m going to be very careful not to spoil the fun.  And, weirdly, for all the dark and rattling stuff The Nether deals with, it is a lot of fun to watch.  If you get a special thrill from watching live theater do all the things it does best, The Nether is a real treat.  Writing, directing, acting, design, The Nether nails it from the first scene to the very last.  It’s a crazy mix of hard-boiled, beautiful, frightening, and heartbreaking.

“What we are given.  What we are made of.  The materials of the earth.”

In what is probably our own not too distant future, Detective Morris (Mo Perry) has Mr. Sims (aka, Papa) under interrogation.  Sims runs an alternate reality online for a very particular kind of clientele, which includes himself, called The Hideaway.  It’s a period, Victorian sort of world, where everyone but Papa has a different face.  No one knows anyone else’s true identity, and people’s avatars in this reality can indulge in the kinds of pleasure, pain and violence that the corporeal world shuns and ostracizes.  Morris relies on the testimony of an undercover operative named Woodnut (Jucoby Johnson) as she questions Sims as well as one of his key clients, Mr. Doyle (Craig Johnson).  Doyle is a married teacher near retirement carrying around a lot of shame, and a desire to disappear entirely into his more satisfying online life.  Morris is determined to get either Sims or Doyle to crack.  The key to their secrets may lie in the mind and heart of an avatar in the form of a young girl named Iris (Ella Freeburg).  When all is said and done, there may not be any winners in this game.

“There is a line, even in our imaginations.”
“You’ll never be able to enforce that.”

The real world of The Nether is dark, mostly black and gray.  When The Hideaway appears onstage, it’s full of light and beauty.  Lee Savage’s set, Barry Browning’s lights, Mathew J. Lefebvre’s costumes, and C. Andrew Mayer’s sound create both worlds simply but perfectly.  I wasn’t sure at first about Kathy Maxwell’s incorporation of live video, projecting enormous close-ups of Morris, Sims and Doyle in the interrogation scenes, but I warmed up to it.  (Use of video in plays, like plays about the internet, can easily go very wrong.)  But Maxwell’s projection design is unexpected and well-executed, and when you have actors of this caliber squaring off against one another, it’s an added bonus to be able to really study their faces in a forum that’s larger than life.  Just another layer of identity, a bonding of human and technology.  Ultimately a really smart gamble that pays off.

“The urge, Detective.  The urge.  As long as we are sentient, you’ll never stomp that out.”

I want to say more but I really can’t.  Go see The Nether, and let’s talk about it.  Because there is a LOT to talk about.  The Nether is one of those plays that’s worth repeat viewings.  The Nether is a great piece of theater.  The Jungle Theater has done it again. (run extended through October 21, 2017)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Stephen Yoakam and Mo Perry in The Jungle Theater’s production of The Nether; photography by William Clark)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

On The Loss of Our Friend Sean Grathwol

The world, and the Twin Cities in particular, has lost another keen intellect.  Sean Grathwol was a lover of words, a crafter of words, and someone who enjoyed a good book or play as much as he did a fine meal. 

Sean’s own output of plays and prose was selective.  He chose his own words very carefully (a mutual friend said of his writing output - “Pages from Sean were always like a long-awaited candy.”)  But when Sean spoke or when he wrote, you were better for him having done so.  If he was commenting on your work, it was some of the smartest feedback you were likely to get.  It would be hard to find a person more supportive and encouraging of new plays staggering their way into being, making their sometimes imperfect way into early productions.

He was also one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve had the privilege to know. (Another friend recently said of his demeanor: “There was a reason he got cast in Roundtable readings as intellectuals, judges, bluesmen and kings.”) Sean was a large man, but not an intimidating presence once you got to know him - which (for Minnesota) was a surprisingly easy thing to do.   To his many nieces, nephews and younger cousins, Sean was the embodiment of what Santa Claus must be like, were he walking around among us (not quite as gregarious, but just as good).  And for an all too brief time he was walking among us, but now he’s gone.  And we are the poorer for his absence.

Sean Grathwol was one of the first writers I met when I moved to Minneapolis after grad school (egad, over 25 years ago now).  I responded to a notice for a playwriting group posted at the Playwrights’ Center.  The group met in each other’s homes.  It’s a group I still help run today (though it’s had many evolutions over the years and seen many people come and go). Huddled around a friend’s dining room table in those early days, we coaxed each other’s plays into being, reading the parts aloud, enjoying both the intentional and unintentional comedy of early drafts, making the work (and each other) better in the process.

Members of the group, Sean included, migrated over to a writer’s community at the Playwrights’ Center called the Roundtable.  Full drafts of scripts were read, chairs were circled up afterward and the play discussed, and then we adjourned to a coffeeshop or neighborhood bar down the block and continued talking about the play.  It was a vibrant community for a number of years.  Sean was a key part of that community.

Sean was infinitely patient and supportive, but he had his limits.  Even then, he knew the right words to say.  After a Roundtable reading, the writer is supposed to sit and take notes on the feedback, not responding until everyone’s had their say, led in discussion by a moderator to keep things civil and productive.  One evening, a writer couldn’t keep themselves from interjecting and rebutting each comment, till finally Sean wasn’t having it anymore. “Listen. We’ve all sat here very patiently and listened to you speak through your play at us for over two hours now. It’s time for you to extend the same courtesy to us, sit quietly and listen for a bit.”  I still try to hold to this today, thinking of it as the Sean Grathwol rule of feedback.  The writer speaks through the play.  The audience responds to the play.  Then, the writer can respond to the audience.  (If the writer isn’t getting their message out through the play effectively, the writer needs to know that.  It isn’t the audience’s problem.  It’s the storyteller’s problem.)

The writing group continued alongside the Roundtable.  When the Roundtable was disbanded by the Playwrights’ Center, the writing group continued on.  Every now and again, though, you invite a vampire into your home and they refuse to leave.  A toxic personality entered the group, and their disruptive presence drove a number of people away from the writing group for a little while, including myself.  Those who stayed wanted the group back as it was.  It was Sean (who had remained) who met me for lunch one day and urged me to return.  He felt the group wasn’t going to get better if the good people left and the bad person stayed, unchallenged.  He was, as always, right.  So I and others returned, and worked together with Sean and the others who’d kept the group going to try and force a better atmosphere back into the group.  Things eventually reached a breaking point, but the old guard like Sean stood firm, and the corrosive element was expelled.  After that, the group established some rules (for letting people in, and getting people out), under the philosophy of “drama on the page only, please.”  Without Sean, none of that would have happened.

Sean was there for all our firsts - from first scenes to full first drafts to first productions.  You’re unlikely to find a more loyal and supportive audience than Sean.  His own plays and productions were fewer but, like Sean, sought after and most welcome.  I found a play of his on my bookshelf the other night and sat and read it.  You can still hear his voice in the words of his characters.  The one I found was Playing Small - about three young musicians.  The young woman of the trio has lost touch with her music and is in an almost catatonic state in relation to the other two characters.  But she speaks to the audience in poetic monologues.  In one there is the refrain:

“It’s eating and it’s eating right.
It’s knowing what your hunger
Is a hunger for
And how to feed it.
Sister Michael called it
When you don’t know
And you settle for something less.”

Sean never settled.  He demanded the most from himself and others.  He was probably too unforgiving a critic of himself (but then most of us are).  Otherwise, he might have left more words behind him.

Sean and I saw the national touring company of Angels In America when it came through Minneapolis, back when the original production was still playing on Broadway stages in New York.  We saw part one in the afternoon, dined together over the dinner break, and went back for part two in the evening.  It was a wonderful all day event, a celebration of our love of words and theater.  (It’s still two of my favorite plays, the top of my top ten list.)  I still have the tickets, stuck to to a cork board on my wall - July 16, 1995 (dear Lord, over 22 years ago now, the time, the time…)

[It occurs to me that any photos I have of Sean are pre-cell phones.  What exist, there’s envelopes, albums and boxes where they probably live to be sorted through since the move to my new home two years ago.  Like that Avenue Q song, I wish I took more pictures…]

I’m told Sean died in his sleep. As horrible as it is to lose him so soon, I’m hopeful that means he went quickly without pain.  A gentle man deserves a gentle end.

Angels In America part one begins with a funeral for an old woman who lived a long life.  The rabbi says he did not know her:

“I cannot accurately describe her attributes, nor do justice to her dimensions.”

That sounds about right.

Try as I might with Sean, I cannot accurately describe his attributes, nor do justice to his dimensions.

I recently saw a filmed presentation of the National Theater of England’s revival of Angels In America, part two.

Part two begins with the world’s oldest living Bolshevik invoking the power of words to change the world:

“Change?  Yes, we must change, only show me the Theory, and I will be at the barricades, show me the book of the next Beautiful Theory, and I promise you these blind eyes will see again, just to read it, to devour that text. Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent.”

Sean was a fervent believer in the power of words, and a tireless champion for calling them into being, both his own and those of many, many others.

Angels In America part two ends with a benediction of sorts:

“The world only spins forward.
We will be citizens.
The time has come.
Bye now.
You are fabulous creatures,
each and every one.
And I bless you:
More Life.
The Great Work Begins.”

Bye now.

The Great Work continues…

Thank you, Sean.  For everything.  We shall miss you, my friend.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review - Aliens with Extraordinary Skills - Theatre Unbound - Maybe It’s Me - 3 stars

I’m honestly starting to wonder not “is it the play, or is it the production?” but “is it me?”  Theatre Unbound’s latest production is the dark comedy Aliens With Extraordinary Skills by award-winning, Romanian-born playwright Saviana Stanescu.  It’s labeled for mature audiences and they aren’t kidding around.  This play wrestles with the dark side of the immigrant’s dream of the United States of America and takes a skewer to the idea of your typical romantic comedy.  In fact, Stanescu’s play is so good at undercutting the notion of a happy ending that when we kind of get one, we really don’t buy it.

“He is afraid someone will come and cut his wings.”

Nadia (Anna Sutheim) and Borat (Adam Gauger) are clowns.  No, really, professional clowns - red-nose-wearing, balloon animal-making clowns.  From Moldova and Russia, respectively.  They’re currently in America, supposedly for a job that brought them here, but the job and their papers are, shall we say, a little dodgy.  So agents of the INS (Benjamin Heer and Stephen Houtz) are constantly on their trail, seeking to send them back where they came from.  The INS agents become more of a mental than literal boogeyman for much of the play, never far from Nadia’s thoughts when she’s starting to doubt herself. 

“Enough is enough.  Thicken your skin.”

Nadia rents couch space from Lupita (Stephanie Ruas), a recent immigrant who actually has a Green Card to work.  Currently, Lupita’s job is as a pole dancer in a local strip club.  It pays well, and Lupita has the self-esteem to keep the job from getting her down.  This is New York, so naturally Lupita wants to be an actress, but she also has to be realistic about paying the bills.  Lupita and Nadia befriend former musician and barely functional alcoholic Bob (Matt Wall), whose sense of humor helps lighten their days a little.

“You’re another horny immigrant with no papers.”

The whole cast does a great job of bringing all of Stanescu’s characters to life under Melissa Simmons’ direction.  Where it all kind of comes apart for me is the tone and the structure of the story.  What I’m still trying to wrap my head around is the “why” of it all.  What’s the point here?  The way it’s set up, Aliens With Extraordinary Skills could easily be an indictment of the ridiculous shallowness of most romantic comedies.  It seems poised to put the knife in, but then it doesn’t do it.  Instead, large sections of the play come off as a half-hearted attempt at a darker sort of romantic comedy, but without anything to really back it up at the end.

“You can’t imagine how hungry you get when you’re dressed like a cheeseburger.”

Aliens With Extraordinary Skills could be saying that love is a luxury that only people who are considered full citizens have the privilege to indulge in.  Those without proper paperwork, or even those considered to be foreign or different, aren’t allowed the breathing room to fall in love for less than mercenary reasons.  But again, if that’s the point, the play really doesn’t stick the landing on that thematic thread either.  The play dances around it, and even gets pretty near it sometimes, but like a number of characters in the play, the play itself can’t seem to commit.

“I want to disappear in that crack in the floor.”

Aliens With Extraordinary Skills could also just be about what a horror show it is to be a woman without means in America, where one of your only avenues of salvation, if you’re still young and attractive, is to monetize your body to separate men from their money.  And the men don’t respect you for it, even though they’re the ones who are setting the rules that leave you few other options.  But here yet again, while that’s clearly the world the play lives in, the way the plot plays out that seems to be beside the point rather than the actual point.

“This role is not for you.  You gotta star in something else.”

Honestly, the staggering amount of suspension of disbelief that’s involved in swallowing the story is the thing that kneecaps the play over and over again, just when it might be building up a little momentum and forward motion.  And now I’m going to have to employ some spoilers on events in the plot to explain this point.  For any given plot you’re allowed one head scratching thing, to get the story moving, as long as the rest of the plot makes sense according the logic of the world of the play.  You can make the rules of your world, you just can’t set them and then break them all, otherwise you don’t really have any rules and the whole thing’s a mess.

Minor Spoiler Alert

For Aliens With Extraordinary Skills, that one head scratching thing is the fact that Nadia and Borat came to the U.S. on a “clown visa.”  Now, I’m sure there are special exceptions made all the time for artists who are touring America from other countries.  This clown visa could be such a thing.  But then Borat immediately undercuts that by saying the papers weren’t really legit - so the reason they came over in the first place is, what exactly?  I realize for the purposes of the plot they need to be “free agent” hapless clowns, alone with no large organization (say, a touring company, circus, etc.) to back them up, so they’re at the mercy of society.  But then why not just make them both exceptional clowns, actual artists, with their own particular brand of clowning that’s significant enough to make me believe that they’d be let in the country in the first place?  Then, OK, they decide to overstay their visas to make a better life for themselves or their families back home or they (as the play seems to want them to do) fall in love and don’t wish to go?  Or perhaps they are part of a larger unit that goes bust and leaves them stranded with bad papers? (And maybe the play was trying to say that was their situation and it was fuzzy enough that I missed it.)  But the play doesn’t seem interested in the actual art of clowning.  It just wants people to be able to make balloon animals and wear a funny nose.  (Since I know a few clowns in real life, I was kind of offended by the laziness of the use of clowns here just for comic effect.)  The whole setup is based on a flimsy excuse that strains credulity, and then things just snowball from there.  And I’d be more inclined to say, “hey, it’s just a comedy, go easy on ‘em, don’t expect so much logic.”  But Aliens With Extraordinary Skills is dealing with some fairly weighty stuff, and with this as its foundation, I found it hard to take anything seriously, even the things they wanted me to.

Major Spoiler Alert

For instance, the relationships between people.  At the end of Act One, Borat visits Lupita on the job and watches her dance.  It’s the first time we see them together onstage.  He says some pretty horrible things to her, and is all but masturbating in front of her.  She storms out, end of act one.  Act Two, suddenly she’s in his cab and they’re in a relationship?  Because in a series of events that we never see, Borat’s been giving her free cab rides home every night for a few weeks.  Why would she even get into his cab the first time?  Why does any of this make him boyfriend material?  The Borat we see before the strip club and after the strip club, yeah, he seems like a nice guy, but I’m sorry, we saw him at the strip club.  That guy’s a hard No vote now.  (Now, my standards may be part of the reason I’m still single so consider the source.)  To really kill the so-called potential of this relationship in the play, Borat admits that the fact that marrying Lupita would get him citizenship isn’t a non-factor in his attraction to her.  Also, the best he can come up with for why he likes her is that she’s pretty.  When pressed, he also manages to say he thinks she’s smart.  But honestly, we have no evidence of any of this.  Nothing takes place on stage to actually build their relationship while we watch.  We’re just supposed to play along, believe what the play tells us.

“You have a problem.  You’re a clown with expensive tastes.”

This is where the episodic nature of the play really works against it.  We don’t get to see these people get to know each other, and we don’t get to know them either, so there’s nothing to root for.  They’re not people, they’re chess pieces being moved around the board when the writer wants to make a point.  There’s only four fully human characters in the show, and it still feels too crowded because the play is trying to buzzsaw through so much plot in so little time that any chance for the characters to actually live and breathe and develop some dimension is lost.  This isn’t the actors’ fault.  Everyone in the cast is doing the best they can to create full human beings on stage, and they do the very best with the material they’re given.  It just doesn’t allow them to make much progress before undercutting them with yet another time jump or plot twist. (Oh, now someone’s drinking, now they’re in prison and getting deported for drunk driving without a license, wait, what?)  There are some really good performances here, but they get lost in this script.

“We left everything for nothing.”

The script also does a poor job of presenting major events in the story.  Lupita allows Nadia to take on one of her exotic dancing gigs at a fancy party for rich people in order to make some extra money (offstage, of course, we don’t see it).  (Set aside for the moment how clearly clueless Nadia is about the expectations of this job, and how Lupita should know better than to send her out on her own into a situation like that.  The plot needs it to happen, so it’s gonna happen, even if people have to play dumb to get us there.) Something bad happens to Nadia at this party. The way Nadia describes it, it sounds harrowing, and a narrow escape from sexual assault.  Bob (again in events we never see) comes and gets her and gives her a ride home (set aside for the moment that Borat has a cab and a phone, he just doesn’t answer when Nadia calls and it’s never explained why). Nadia is traumatized, but she’s already told the audience why, so Bob gets her settled.  There’s vague talk of persevering, but the audience is thinking, Nadia’s had a real scare, but she’ll bounce back.  Next (TWO scenes after the events in question), Lupita is talking to Nadia as if she’s actually been raped and even taken the morning after pill.  Excuse me, what? If that was supposed to be implied by Nadia’s story, that’s kind of a big leap.  The things the script chooses to make explicit or leave fuzzy feel completely random.

OK - Spoilers Alert Over

But maybe it’s me.  Maybe I’m just not engaging this particular brand of storytelling in the way I’m intended to.  It may just be triggering certain things for me that make me resist it where another audience member wouldn’t.  We certainly need more honest stories about how present day immigrants come to this country - the why and the how.  We certainly need more honest stories about how this country treats the people it lets in, through the front or the back door.  We certainly need more stories about how women navigate the current world of sometimes thoughtless and cruel men, who are often thoughtless and cruel because they don’t understand how tilted the playing field is in their favor.  We certainly need more honest stories about how anyone can find anyone else to love in this world, and find a way to make it work.  Aliens With Extraordinary Skills tries to be one of those honest stories.  I’m just not sure - despite the best efforts of everyone at Theatre Unbound - how successful it is. (at Gremlin Theater space through September 24, 2017)

3 Stars - Recommended

(poster art courtesy of Theatre Unbound - graphic design by Greg Vanselow)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review - Einstein: A Stage Portrait - Matchbox Theater - What's On Your Mind, Mr. Relativity? - 3.5 stars

Once again, there’s a new little theater in town.  Matchbox Theater used to be in Alberquerque, New Mexico, but has now migrated to the Twin Cities.  Their inaugural production is Tom Schuch performing Willard Sims’ one man biographical play Einstein: A Stage Portrait, about the life and times of times of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein (whose name has become synonymous with the idea of genius). A German Jewish scientist who resettled in America during the rise of the Nazis in his home country, Einstein’s theory of relativity lead to the development of the atomic bomb.

“My terrible passion to know more.”

Einstein greets his audience and sets about recounting highlights from his colorful life.  It’s a selective portrait, but amiable enough.  Schuch does a good job embodying Einstein (not surprising, since he's been touring this show nationally and internationally since 2001 - Einstein's like an old friend to him at this point) and the script does an adequate job of trying to encompass a man’s life in about 90 minutes time.  This Einstein does what any good stage play about a real person should do, make you want to find out more for yourself.  Early on in the proceedings, this stage Einstein says he wants to set the record straight, but it’s never entirely clear what he’s trying to clear the record about.

“Moral progress has always been more important than scientific achievement.”

Yes, mention is made of the fact that he’s considered by some to be the Father of the Atomic Bomb because of his theories.  But he himself wasn’t anywhere near Los Alamos when the Manhattan Project was in process, because he was a pacifist and, since he was also a socialist, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI file on Einstein was quite thick.  Einstein did write a letter to President Roosevelt urging America to develop the bomb before the Nazis had the chance to finish their work on the same project.  But Einstein was just as horrified by the death and destruction when America dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 as he would have been if the Nazis got the capability first. In fact, two years later Einstein helped found the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists and did his part to discourage further use of nuclear weapons.

“As long as people believe in music, I will believe in the future of mankind.”

Though any time spent with Einstein is time well-spent, it’s hard to understand why this play takes the shape it does.  What is the urgency here?  Certainly a discussion of the uses of and need for science, and how governments both help and harm that quest for knowledge, is relevant to where we are today.  Discussions of fascism and the rise of the Nazis are also, unfortunately, not as removed from current events as we’d like.  But a lot of this is pretty free-floating and easygoing.  I kept getting drawn back to what one of my teachers once referred to as the Passover question as it applies to plays - why is tonight different from all other nights?  Why are we telling this story, in this time and place, in this way, now, to this audience?  In Einstein: A Stage Portrait, the answer to those questions are not easy to get a handle on.

“We sometimes come into conflict with our former ideas.”

Einstein tells us the year we’re meeting him is 1946.  But the play doesn’t do a very good job of putting that in context.  It’s ten years after the death of his second wife (though that doesn’t seem to be significant to the play).  It’s nine years before Einstein himself will die at the age of 76 (though again, same note).  It’s perhaps not even a year since the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, bringing an end to World War II.  Here, Einstein is troubled in his dreams by what his theories had a hand in creating, but the play doesn’t seem to focus much on that either.  It doesn’t really seem to focus on anything more than giving a general travelogue through various points in the life of Einstein from childhood to the day we meet him.

“Although the universe presents us with many riddles, they are not unsolvable ones.”

When you type Einstein and 1946 into a basic internet search, you find him on the cover of Time Magazine, his face painted next to a mushroom cloud with his famous E=mc2 formula inside it (which he must have “loved”).  You find mention of a lecture he gave when receiving an honorary degree from Lincoln University.  And you find an article he penned on racial bias in America (he was a member of the NAACP, and drew a lot of parallels between the treatment of the Jews in Germany and “negroes” in the U.S.  He looked at racism like a disease infecting a country, a disease that could hopefully be eradicated.)  Not much of that figures in the play.

“The search for truth is always more important than its possession.”

The play also doesn’t seem particularly preoccupied with Einstein’s personal life.  Passing reference is made to his two wives and his children (what must it be like to be Einstein’s children?)  No mention is made of his womanizing, or the fact that he was carrying on an affair with the woman who would become his second wife at the same time he was in the process of divorcing his first wife.  I’m not arguing for a lurid TV-movie version of his life by any means.  I’m more interested in the life of the mind this play is also more intent on pursuing.  But it’s interesting how this script skillfully avoids dwelling on the man’s family life for fear of being pulled down that particular rabbit hole of distractions.

“And the dead - can the same science that destroyed them bring them back to life?”

Einstein: A Stage Portrait is fairly successful at taking us inside the mind of a man with a passion for learning what makes the world tick.  I just wish it had more of a focus.  But even some Einstein, however meandering, is better than no Einstein.  Also, due to the play’s brevity, the theater is inviting in experts in history and science to take part in audience discussions after the show alongside Schuch in his Einstein outfit.  (Selfies with Einstein after the show are encouraged.)  Einstein is a pleasant and high-minded way for Matchbox Theater to launch this new phase of its life. (through October 1, 2017)

3.5 stars - Highly Recommended

Friday, September 08, 2017

Review - Interludes - HUGE improv theater - 4 stars

“Thank you for supporting live theater.”  That’s one of the things the host at HUGE improv theater said as part of his introduction to the last act of the night, a new improv comedy show called Interludes.  Reviewing improv is tricky, which is I suppose why most of the theater criticism outlets in town don’t do it.  But if you don’t talk about something, how do you know it’s there?  All live theater is different every single performance, improv is just more so.  You literally will not see the same thing from one performance to the next because there is no script common to all the performances in the run.  Improv artists make it all up on the spot in conjunction with their fellow improvisers on stage. (If you want to see how you run a theater where the content is constantly in flux, check out the overview of HUGE’s weekly schedule below*)  But because it seemed like a challenge, I figured I should give it a try. (Plus, honestly, someone contacted me and asked me to give it a try, so here goes…)

Closing out Saturday nights in the 10:30pm slot is Interludes.  The tagline for the concept is

“Explore x Minimalism x Improv”

Here’s how they describe the concept:

There’s a difference sometimes between what someone says and what someone truly thinks. In
this show, improvisers will be interpreting what's going on inside someone's brain through
abstract "interlude" segments where the players dive into the psyche and the world building of
the scene. When the “interlude” ends, you know more about what the characters are really
thinking and what their situation is. Interludes explores the tiny minutiae of the moments
between breaths with sound, movement, and interlogues.

Here’s how it works in practice:

Director/producer Denzel Belin developed the concept with his ensemble of improvisers (Sam Beeson, Max Beyer, Zoa Dru, Joseph Facente, Keren Gudeman, Josh Krauskopf, Shea Roberts, Mawrgyn Roper, Jeffrey Ross, Gurayn Sylte, Alicia Wheelock, and Cliff Zawasky; with tech Erik Ostrom mixing lights and sound live as the show happens).  A member of the ensemble steps forward and asks for a suggestion - in this performance, something you’d leave in the car that isn’t a car part, to which someone inexplicably called out “Marshmallows!”  OK… Then a member of the ensemble serves as conductor while the rest of the group pretends to be a choir, and they riff, musically and/or rhythmically, on the subject of marshmallows.  Each improvisor comes up with their own word/phrase/sounds for their marshmallow-related bit.  The conductor adds each member in turn until there’s a whole mixture of things going on, and raises and lowers the volume and speed of sections, the whole group or individuals to create a verbal symphony.  After a couple of minutes of this, when the group’s working well as a unit, the improv proper begins.

“There’s something bubbling in that little tiny brain of yours.”

One brave soul jumps in first, others observe and join to build the scene, its relationships and situation.  One of the challenges of improv is to keep the thing moving.  In scripted theater, you’ve got a script that you just need to keep moving through until it's done.  Once it starts, you can’t stop.  In improv, you don’t even have the structure and content of a script to fall back on.  So improvisers develop a scene until they feel collectively it’s run its course for now, and then another improviser tags in to start a new scene while the others shift off, and on you go.  If a group is working well together (as this one was), the transitions feel smooth, or amusingly/deliberately abrupt.  If you’re really on a roll, you’re still at it when your time is up and your tech has to bring up the lights and cue the audience to applaud (as with this show, the good techs always know a good final line when they hear one, even if it’s ultimately gonna be a cliffhanger - here, at the end, we had, “The year was 1704…” and we shall never know what would have come after.)

“I don’t want to overcook it, but I don’t want to go back in the house.”

Of course, you start with a word from the audience and by the end it’s pretty far afield from the opening suggestion, but that’s half the fun, seeing where the word and idea association goes.  This performance, a young man inept at toasting marshmallows over the campfire is joined by his judgmental father and more beloved sister (who’s of course a marshallow pro).  From there we got a pair of roommates who realize it doesn’t matter if they can’t find their car keys.  They can order anything they need to be delivered and never have to leave the house again.  That morphs into a guy man-splaining outdoor barbecue grilling to friends, and then to a mother/daughter confrontation in a different scenario, closing out with a pair of women (who might be immortal) getting really into the tactile sensations of the velvet walls and furniture of an ornate lobby/department store.

“I guess I never really thought about buttons that way before.”

The added wrinkle to this improv flow is the interior thoughts of the characters becoming exterior where we can see them at several points in each scene.  There are bells on either side of the stage.  At any point, the improvisers on the sidelines not actively involved in the scene can ring the bell.  The lights shift, the sideline improviser jumps in and starts vocalizing the thoughts of one of the characters.  Other sideline improvisors jump in and do the same until the whole ensemble is creating a wall of sound (akin to the opening symphony) that supports the scene that’s been going on.  The characters themselves can also provide an interior monologue of their characters’ thoughts - which may be very different from the things they’re saying in real life to the other characters.  Other improvisers can riff on the monologue insights, too.  After a minute or so of this, one of the improvisers rings the bell again, the others retreat to the sidelines and the scene continues.  The audience now watches the scene with new eyes, knowing things about the characters they didn’t know before.

“All day I restrain myself.  The customers wouldn’t understand.”

For instance, the inept marshmallow toasting son, envious of his perfect sister, wonders in his private thoughts if the sister might be adopted.  A sideline improviser jumps in and repeats “What if she’s adopted?” several times.  As this continues, the father’s interior monologue laments, “I don’t know how to tell my son he’s adopted.”  One of the sideline improvisers, channeling the son’s thoughts switches from thinking about his sister being adopted to chanting “What if I am?”  Another improviser struts around the sister, self-satisfied, chanting about her marshmallow toasting prowess.  Another improviser reinforces the father’s conundrum.  Another improviser is actually the inner thoughts of the campfire.  Another improviser is the inner thoughts of yet another marshmallow meeting its fiery end, etc.  This building, multi-layered interior monologue continues until someone rings the bell and pulls them back into the reality of the original scene.  They go in and out of this fugue state more than once in any given scene before moving on to the next scenario.

“When feelings collide on the velvet wall…”

It’s a fun conceit but it’s doubly challenging because it risks running afoul of one of the primary philosophies of improv comedy - “yes, and…”  Now, I’m not an improviser myself but from conversations I’ve had with improv artists, “yes, and…” is one of the things that they all find so great about doing improv.  A good improv performer never negates another improviser’s choices onstage.  So, for instance, if someone starts a scene by saying, “I’m a giraffe,” the next person to enter the scene doesn’t say “no, you’re not, you’re an elephant.”  If someone says, “we’re in a library,” someone else doesn’t say, “can’t you see we’re actually on a battleship?”  Yes, and… you affirm your scene partner’s choice and build on it, you don’t try to restart the scene.  No choice is a bad choice.  All decisions are reinforced, rather than undercut.  You share the stage and build the story together.

“You are from my body.”

If someone were writing in the style of Interludes, they might throw in random plot twists.  But in improv, something like that has the capacity to undercut or negate someone else’s choices onstage.  There are loopholes built into this, of course.  Interludes allows the characters themselves to rewrite their own history or share with the audience they’re actually lying, by offering up interior monologues before returning to the regular scene.  And I suppose over time, different pairings of partners in the ensemble, perhaps the ensemble as a whole, will build so much trust with one another that they can throw each other a curveball and not undermine another performer’s confidence.  Right now, though, you can sometimes see the improvisers straining in order not to go against the most fundamental rules of their own training.  Because no one wants to be a selfish or uncooperative improviser. 

“All my life I’ve looked for someone who could appreciate the beauty of the lobby.”

On the flip side, you can see the positive effects of this "yes, and..." philosophy in the way that all the improv artists on a sidelines of a given scene in Interludes are listening extremely carefully to every word the performers in the scene are saying.  They’re watching body language, personality, listening to them describe the situation and surroundings.  They’re watching for every possible angle into the underbelly of the scene the second somebody rings that bell.  But right now a lot of what’s going on is a repetition of what’s already been said or implied, rather than genuinely new information.  There are notable exceptions of course, in each and every scene - not surprisingly especially in the last one.  The trick here will be for everyone to be ready to leap off and follow other people over the cliff right off the bat at the very start of the set, rather than needing most of the set to give themselves permission to really cut loose inside the concept.

“You’re much funnier than my husband is.”

It’s hard enough to build a scene and play out its variations.  To literally build another layer of reality under the one that’s just be created, that’s a whole other level of difficulty.  It’s a fun concept but not an easy one so I applaud the ensemble for throwing themselves into it.  It’s clear they’ve been working on it a lot already because they’re all working together really well, and they’re coming up with some inventive scenarios - probably in no small measure because they’re listening to each other that much more intensely in this setup.  I’d be really curious to see them again later in the run and see how they’ve grown as a unit in taking chances in both scene making and the interludes that cut into them.  This is a concept that will only get better with time.

“This is it, Jess.  This is our life.”

The opening act the night I saw Interludes was not their regular opening act for the remainder of the run so I won’t dwell on that part of the set.  Their opener for all upcoming performances is BollyProv - Bollywood-inspired improv, which I’m kind of sorry I missed this time because that also sounds like fun.

Interludes plays the Saturday night 10:30pm slot at HUGE improv theater through October 28, 2017.

4 stars - Highly Recommended

*HUGE improv theater wisely gives potential audience members something consistent to hang on to by seeding the schedule with several different nights of showcases, and then arranging for one or two month runs of a slate of concept shows on Friday and Saturday nights.  They run Wednesday through Monday (Tuesdays are their dark nights).  Sundays have Improv-A-Go-Go, where multiple groups are scheduled in multi-week runs - these groups can be at any level of experience, so it’s great for new performers, newly formed groups, or artists wanting to just try out new techniques.  Mondays it’s the veteran improv artists putting on Show XHuge Wednesdays seem like another version of Improv-A-Go-Go, though these acts may be more curated than the IAGG sign-ups.  Thursdays it’s Space Jam, where any improv artist can show up that night, sign in early and warmup, then take the stage with fellow improvisers just wanting to play and keep things loose (an improv version of an open mic night). 

Friday and Saturday nights have three shows each, and you can buy a three-show pass and make a full evening of it at a special price if you like. Currently running on Fridays, there’s an early extra show (not part of the later three show combo) - Happy Hour With Nimblicity (6:30pm) - office based improv, for those coming down off a week at the day job.  Your ticket price includes an adult beverage.  The three show Friday night slate right now is Creature Feature (monster movie improv) (8pm), Attenborough: The Improvised Wildlife Documentary (9:30pm), and The Good, The Bad, and the Bearded (improv playing with the tropes of movie/TV/literary westerns) (10:30pm).  Saturday’s trio starts with Harold Turns 50 (3 casts tackle the classic improv form) (8pm), and Super Good (taking simple ideas to their furthest physical and emotional distance) (9:30pm), followed by Interludes (10:30pm).