Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review - Hamlet - Park Square Theatre - A New Spin On an Old Story - 5 stars

There are very few actors for whom I’d sit through another production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Kory LaQuess Pullam is one of them.  So when I learned Park Square Theatre had cast Pullam as their Hamlet, I was on board.  And that was before I learned that Joel Sass was in the director’s chair.  That also helped put my mind at ease that this was going to be a different, and enjoyable Hamlet to watch.  If you’ve never seen Hamlet (like the friend who attended the show with me), this is a great first exposure to the story.  If, like me, you’ve seen more than your fair share of Hamlets over the years, Park Square’s Hamlet, for many reasons, is a fresh new take on an old tale and well worth your evening.

“What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?”

Prince Hamlet (Kory LaQuess Pullam) gets a visit from the ghost of his dead father (Theo Langason). Turns out the dead king was done in by his own brother Claudius (Charles Hubbell), who then stole the throne and married the newly widowed queen Gertrude (Sandra Struthers), Hamlet’s mom.  Awkward. Aided in his quest for revenge by his best friend Horatio (Kathryn Fumie), Hamlet’s plan ends up accumulating quite a bit of collateral damage.  Hamlet’s potential love interest Ophelia (Maeve Coleen Moynihan), her brother Laertes (Wesley Mouri), and their mother Polonia (Tinne Rosenmeier) - an advisor to the new king and queen - all end up in the crossfire.  Playing multiple other characters around the edges of the story are Charles Numrich and Imani Vaughn-Jones.  My friend summed things up nicely - kids don’t like it when their parents die.

“Let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.”

The really good productions of Hamlet I’ve seen had one thing in common - they trusted the script to do most of the heavy lifting for themHamlet isn’t considered one of the greatest plays in the English language for nothing.  The misbegotten productions of Hamlet I’ve seen all had variations on the same problem - they were trying to “fix” Hamlet.  Sometimes they wanted to play with the structure of the story, sometimes they were really focused on scene changes, sometimes they wanted to inject current social media technology in the story.  And like a body rejecting a bad organ transplant, Hamlet had its revenge on the production, which unfortunately also meant the audience.

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.”

So when I saw that in addition to directing the play, Joel Sass was being credited with adapting the play, my first thought was, “It’s not that I don’t trust Joel Sass, but trying to rewrite Hamlet rarely ends well.”  I’m delightedly relieved to say this Hamlet is an exception to that rule.  This isn’t just a cutting of the script - nearly everyone does some trimming of the text, otherwise the play would need multiple intermissions and twice the running time.  Sass did some major cosmetic surgery on the story and the cast list.  Fans of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Fortinbras are in for a disappointment, their subplots are all lopped right out of the story - but if you’re coming to Hamlet to see those characters, you might not be attending for the right reasons.  Purists may howl at shifting the "To Be Or Not To Be" soliloquy into a different scene but, again, same note.  There’s also female actors in traditionally male roles, which is fine by me - after all, men played all the roles in these plays for years, time to shake things up. 

“For who would bear the whips and scorns of time…?”

Part of me wants to draw attention to the fact that it’s a multiracial cast, but another part of me wishes that wasn’t such a big deal.  After all, it’s not because the cast is led by actors of color that the production is so good.  That just makes it look different than all the lily-white theater I’ve seen in the past.  The production is good because the actors are good.  Period.  If, in addition, the play better reflects the times because of the diversity of the cast, that’s a welcome bonus.  Is it exciting to see Kory LaQuess Pullam as Hamlet for a whole host of reasons? Absolutely.  Is it way past time for things like this to be a more common occurrence?  Absolutely.

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

Sass’ rejiggering of the text is reinforced by his work on the set design.  The set has a chandelier off to the side as a little nod to palatial grandeur. But the focal point of the set is an enormous off-kilter cube, with a smattering of stones inside it, and a view through the back to a video screen behind it.  The cube serves as both location, passage way, and movie screen.  The impressive video design of Kathy Maxwell gets a real workout in the cube, as does the vivid and colorful lighting design of Michael P. Kittel.  By clearing out some of the subplots and not being enamored of big sweeping set changes, the production ends up more focused on the central characters, the acting and the script.  And that’s why it works as well as it does, which is very well indeed.

“Repent what’s past. Avoid what is to come.”

While the music of C. Andrew Mayer’s sound design was useful as connective tissue between the scenes, there were times inside the scenes where I could have done with a little less of it.  Rather than the music trying to tell me how to feel, I was more interested in how the actors and the words might make me feel.  And while we’re on the subject of feeling, there are sections of the play that feel a bit breathless in their pacing.  I’m all for encouraging a production of Hamlet not to indulge and caress every syllable of every word and bog things down, but there were times I felt like I could have done with a slightly slower pace just so I could get a read on how characters were feeling about the events taking place around them.  It wasn’t a chronic problem, but it happened enough that I thought I should mention they could take an extra breath or two now and then, let things settle before we moved on to the next plot point.

“I shall the effect of this good lesson keep, as watchman to my heart.”

The adaptation and direction also spread the spotlight around a bit, which allows characters like Ophelia and Claudius to become more fully fleshed-out human beings.  Of course it helps that those characters are played by actors as skilled as Maeve Coleen Moynihan and Charles Hubbell.  Each gets almost soliloquy-like moments of their own which they make the most of, and it helps ground the play in the few moments that Hamlet’s not onstage.  And it’s a great touch that the gravediggers late in the action are played by actors whose earlier characters are now dead.  There’s a lot of fun stuff like that in the way Sass has streamlined the play.

“It is not nor it cannot come to good.”

Another nice wrinkle in the casting is that Hamlet’s best friend Horatio is played by Kathryn Fumie, who herself played Hamlet in Theatre Unbound’s all-female production of the play.  She was the best thing in it (as all Hamlets, in productions good and bad, tend to be).  But if there’s anyone who understands the mountain of a role that Pullam is climbing here, it’s Fumie.  As the cast moved offstage after the bows, she was particularly effusive and supportive of her onstage buddy, which was really sweet to see.  I imagine you couldn’t ask for a nicer sidekick.

“Absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.”

If you’re looking for an accessible and entertaining Hamlet, Park Square has you covered. Kory LaQuess Pullam in the title role, and the ensemble as a group, are great. (runs through November 11, 2017)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended  

(photo - Kory LaQuess Pullam as Hamlet, photographer: Amy Anderson)

Review - The Weir - Wayward Theatre Company - Lost In Translation (Just a Bit) - 4.5 stars

The last two stories told in Conor McPherson’s The Weir will knock you on your ass.  In that closing stretch, the current production from Wayward Theatre is amazing.  The script, the performances, the direction, the design.  Mesmerizing stuff.  Absolutely worth going out to see.  But it took me a while to get there. 

“There’s not one morning I don’t wake up with her name in the room.”

I follow a bit of British television, I watch a fair number of foreign films.  I like to think I can keep up with speedy vocal delivery coupled with unfamiliar accents in a piece of entertainment.  But the Irish accents in The Weir are so thick that I have to admit I was lost for the first chunk of the play.  I strained to understand, I really did.  But I hadn’t a clue what they were saying half the time.

“If she’s out there, she still needs me.”

Now, on the one hand, that’s a credit to the actors, none of whom are actually imported from Ireland.  Those accents, courtesy of help from dialect coach Foster Johns, I’m assuming are impressively realistic.  The actors wrap the sound of that accent around McPherson’s words and it’s like they’re actually talking, not just saying lines.  They are completely comfortable in the sound and idiom of this storytelling play.  But I was baffled as an audience member.  I could make out the relationships between people fairly well from the way they behaved with each other.  But at first I was also frequently lost as to what they were saying and why.

“I regret the stories now.  Let’s not have any more of them.”

This could be just a “Shakespeare brain adjustment” kind of thing.  Most folks, sitting down to a Shakespeare play, even ones who’ve seen a few, it takes their brain a little while to adjust to that Elizabethan poetic English way of speaking.  Then about five or ten minutes in, the switch flips, the brain catches on, and you’re fine the rest of the way.  I experienced something similar in The Weir.  It just took a lot longer for some reason.  I honestly don’t think it’s the actors’ fault.  I’m just feeling a bit slow and bewildered in the aftermath of it all.  Because the bulk of the play that I did understand clearly, really knocked my socks off.

“And she wouldn’t come out of the living room.  Because she said there was a woman on the stairs.”

I’ve got Conor McPherson plays on the bookshelf at home, so I can double back and take my time picking over the words on the page, really appreciate those first couple of stories and the banter between the regulars at this Irish bar in detail.  But I don’t want the review to wait that long.  So…

“And he stood beside me, under the tree, looking at the grave.”

In an out of the way pub in an out of the way small town in Sligo County, Ireland in 1997, five people gather around the bar and regale each other with progressively spookier and more haunting tales.  The stories range from the supernatural to the all too human.  Brendan (Tim McVean) runs the bar.  Jack (Arthur Moss), a regular at the pub, runs an auto repair shop, assisted by Jim (Lucas Gerstner).  Self-proclaimed dealmaker-about-town Finbar (Edwin Strout) brings a young woman, Valerie (Sarah Nargang) to the bar to introduce her to some of the local color.  Valerie’s new to town, for reasons she’ll share later that I won’t spoil (it’s one of those great final stories - alongside the one from Jack, with Jim’s tale taking a spooky third place nod - Nargang, Moss and Gerstner are all great in their big moments).  The men tell tales to entertain Valerie, and one-up each other, not realizing how easily a competition like that might get out of control, leading to things they never imagined being said.  The Weir is a great piece of storytelling, and everyone in the cast under the guidance of director Michael Kelley takes full advantage of the opportunity to hold us in rapt attention, with humor, chills, and genuine pathos. 

“She was a chambermaid, you see.  She knew the couples who were being all illicit because she’d go in to do the room in the morning and the bed would be already made.”

The setting is delightfully meta - Wayward Theatre company has charged set designer Justin Hooper the task of building a bar inside a bar.  The production is being staged at the Urban Growler brewery in their newly renovated Barrel Room at the back of the establishment.  You pass through the real bar to enter a theater, and watch actors in an imaginary bar.  Hooper really put their credited carpenter Conor O’Brien through his paces because this pub is all dark wood and realistic doors, counters and shelves.  Terri Ristow has populated the space with what feel like all the right props (and a working tap).  We even get a peanut warning at the door.

“Having all your worst fears confirmed for you.  Ghosts and angels and all this?”

There’s not a lot of variety possible given the simple lighting options in the space but designer Ian Knodel still makes the most of it, focusing the light down when a character is deep within their story, only releasing us to regular lighting again when the storytelling releases us.  The actors all reinforce this focus, giving their fellow cast members each their full attention when it’s their turn to step to the center of the story.  They’re a unit that works well together.

“There’s no dark like a winter’s night.”

The Weir is a perfect play for Halloween season (which may explain why Matchbox Theatre is also doing a production in a different part of the Twin Cities right now).  There are no monsters or serial killers, but all the shocks and hauntings that a normal life has to offer on are full display.  Sometimes the worst things that can happen to us are things so common that none of us can really escape them.  Sometimes they are things that are done to us.  Sometimes they are things we do to ourselves.  Wayward Theatre's production of The Weir is the best kind of spooky, and it sticks with you.  You should check it out. (running through November 4, 2017 - Matchbox's other production of The Weir closes October 28, 2017)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(l to r: Arthur Moss as Jack, Tim McVean as Brendan, and Sarah Nargang as Valerie in The Weir;  photo by Lauren B. Photography)

Review - Church and State - Minnesota Jewish Theatre - God and Guns - 4.5 stars

It’s not often that a play can genuinely surprise me any more.  Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s production of Jason Odell Williams’ comedy/drama Church & State surprised me.  Looking back, I guess I should have seen some of those surprises coming, but Church & State snuck up on me.  (So I will endeavor to avoid spoiling the surprise for others.)  I guess the biggest surprise, which is not a spoiler, is that Church & State takes discussions of gun culture and religious faith and makes them really entertaining to watch.  Of course, it might not have worked as well if the cast weren’t as good, but director Michael Kissin has assembled a great group of actors, so Church & State gets the best it could ask for.

“Football’s like God.  I don’t need to see it to know it’s there.”

North Carolina Senator Charlie Whitmore (Matthew Rein) is in the closing days of his reelection bid when a mass shooting at an elementary school rattles his faith in God, guns, and government alike.  His wife Sara (Kim Kivens) is enough of a true believer for them both, however, and refuses to give in to the kind of doubt that has him questioning everything in their lives except his love for her.  Charlie’s campaign manager Alex Klein (Miriam Schwartz) is just trying to keep this close election battle from going completely off the rails.  So when Charlie tosses his well-worn stump speech aside for some extemporaneous remarks, it could spell the end of his career, or the start of a whole new unexpected chapter.  Actor Josh Zwick rounds out the ensemble playing multiple roles from reporter to security guard to eager young campaign worker.

“You can’t stop every single lunatic without taking away our rights!”

Jason Odell Williams’ script and MJTC’s production take some well-worn character tropes - the southern Senator, the churchgoing trophy wife, the east coast Jewish political operative - and try to dig beneath the surface.  They don’t get especially deep, but thanks to the actors involved, these are still fully rounded individual human beings on stage.  You believe in both their faith, and their crisis of faith.  The jokes mostly come from character, so the laughs are earned honestly, as are the darker moments.  The play exists largely to have an intelligent conversation about the role of guns and religion in American life and it’s a smart vehicle with which to do that.

“I always thought God was kind of like bottled water.”

At first I started to feel a bit cheated that we didn’t get to hear the full speech from Senator Whitmore which changed his political fortunes and the direction of the story, but it turns out the writer was just saving it up for a later moment when it packs more of a punch.  The speech is the the reason the play was written.  MJTC chose the play long before the recent events in Las Vegas, but the speech has a place to call out the names of pivotal shootings in our history.  Hearing those more recent names makes the play sadly relevant to the current moment in a way I’m sure the writer wishes didn’t keep happening.

“He may wear the pants in the family, but I’m the one who tells him which pants.”

It’s hard to address issues like guns and religion without descending into cliche, but Church & State does a nice job of avoiding a lot of those problems.  It filters the issues through the people in front of us, and that grounds the discussion in a way that general talking points wouldn’t. 

“I thought you were Jewish.”
“The Old Testament *is* Jewish.”

The script sometimes strains at being confined to a backstage room at a college auditorium, and also in its limited number of characters.  The weird thing is, in its closing sequence, the play breaks out of its single location, as well as breaking out of strict linear time.  The use of one young actor to pop up in multiple guises also hints that the play might have used a broader canvas of people and location.  It seems as though it was flirting with busting out, while not requiring any additional literal set pieces or increased cast size, but decided not to risk it.  Given the desire to get this story out there, I can understand the rationale with trying to keep the story contained and thus, more attractive and marketable to small theaters.  But it feels a little like a failure of imagination or nerve.  Looking at how much was accomplished with so little, I still can’t help wishing they’d pushed for more.

“I, for one, am tired of being afraid.”

All that said, even a play that seemed so basic on the surface managed to sucker punch me a couple of times before it was all over so - well played, Church & State, well played.  It’s a conversation about a couple of thorny subjects that manages to never give in to cynicism or despair, so that’s quite a trick. Minnesota Jewish Theatre's Church & State is a solid piece of theater.  You should see it. (running through November 12, 2017)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(l to r, Kim Kivens, Miriam Schwartz, Matthew Rein in Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s production of Church & State; photography by Sarah Whiting)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review - Sam’s Son - Bucket Brigade - Former Church Complete With Speakeasy - 4.5 stars

Sam’s Son, the new musical theater piece created by Bucket Brigade, has just about everything you could ask for.  Catchy musical numbers, great cast with killer voices, complex but fast moving and easy to follow story with just enough soap opera to keep things spicy, inventive staging, plus free pretzels, root beer and a trip to a speakeasy for the audience.  Sam’s Son may have found its original inspiration in the biblical story of Samson, but this early 20th century American story is a completely new invention.

“You can’t keep me from the fight, ‘cause the fight’s in me.”

The town of Good seems to have been spared the worst of the Great Depression in Prohibition-era America.  The widowed preacher Rev. Sam (Jeremiah Gamble) has raised his son Sam (Trevor Bunce) to be an upstanding young teenager, gifted with superior strength that he uses to help out around town.  Rev. Sam’s old friend Miriam (Vanessa Gamble) has returned to town, working as a field agent for Prohibition enforcement.  Back in the day, Rev. Sam and Miriam helped close the town saloon and drive alcohol out of town.  But just barely out of town - there’s still a shanty town down by the river with a speakeasy, so someone’s still making liquor.  Miriam’s not entirely convinced the problem is contained in the shanty town and enlists young Sam’s help on the case.  Down by the river, Sam meets fellow teenager Della (Kayla Peters), who helps broaden Sam’s small town horizons a bit.  Back in town, Miriam follows her instincts in regard to the local shopkeeper Alice (Bonni Allen), the washerwoman Gertrude (Gail Ottmar), and farmer Howard (Pete Colburn) with his young German farmhand Fritz (Seth Tychon).  Miriam warns part-time local law enforcer Charlie (Riley Parham) that he may want to clear out that one jail cell they have, which he’d been using for storage.  Miriam’s determined to crack the case and put someone behind bars.

“The 'E-N' Petersens live on the other side of town.”

As noted at the top of the review, the whole cast really delivers on the music, particularly the central couples played by the two Gambles, Bunce and Peters.  The score gives their voices a wide range of styles (and notes) to play with and they have a lot of stunning vocal moments throughout the evening. There’s an a cappella number for the quartet in act two that’s breathtaking. (Though it’s more ragtime than rock opera, I was getting a real Next To Normal vibe from a lot of the songs here - and I mean that as a compliment - though Sam’s Son owes just as much to the work Rogers and Hammerstein.  In many ways, it’s a very sturdy, old-school book musical.) Music director and arranger Michael Pearce Donley is also on the piano with the live band, accompanied by Chris Erickson on upright bass, and Brian Lenz on guitar, dobro, mandolin and drums.

“I don’t mind the criminals, Sam.  I do mind the hypocrites.”

Sam’s Son makes full use of the converted church that is the Art House North space.  All of act one and the second half of act two takes place upstairs in the sanctuary (pews for seats, with assigned seating no less).  Sean Byrd’s clever direction has the cast utilizing the center and side aisles just as much as the stage - the story surrounding the audience at times.  Intermission into the top of act two, the audience descends to the former church basement (where the box office was just an hour before) which has now been transformed into the speakeasy down in the shanty town by the river.  Free root beer and pretzels from local merchants for all in the crowd, plus some theatrical smoke/mist.  You’re warned ahead of time that someone’s actually going to be shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, but it’s all part of the show.  The smoke follows you back upstairs for the conclusion of the story. 

“A penny saved - “
“Is just a penny.”

Katie Phillips’ set design is inventive yet spare, often times just a lot of bare wooden planks - but there are also hidden compartments galore, all of which help transform the set for various locations quickly and simply.  There are a number of surprises in store which I won’t spoil here.  Courtney Schmitz’s lighting design helps track the story around the church building with evocative use of light, color and shadow.  Nadine Grant’s costume design sets the period against the bare stage and allows the cast to play multiple roles as needed to help flesh out the population of the town.  Nate Farley’s props help give the town some period detail and texture, and the logistics of this whole thing need careful managing so hats off to Farley’s duties as house manager (along with Casey Linstad), as well as stage manager Jay Carlson, his assistant Elizabeth Efteland, and technical director Trevor Muller-Hegel.

“I’m sixteen.  Life is complicated.”

The whole thing is such a well-run, finely calibrated piece of plotting, balancing the storytelling almost perfectly between dialogue and musical numbers that it took me a while to figure out what was nagging at me.  Because, honestly, if you’re looking for a solid piece of new musical theater, Sam’s Son is definitely your ticket. 

“Some things you’re better off not knowing.”

Really my only quibble with the piece is that the overwhelming hypocrisy of the town of Good sort of torpedoes any idea of the salvation of faith.  And this thing is literally being staged in a church, and one of the central characters is a minister.  Since almost everyone in town is harboring a secret that belies their Christian, church-going exterior, including the pastor, a more cynical audience member (or one with a less nuanced way of thinking) could easily conclude that all Christians are hypocrites.  And I don’t think that’s the intention of the play.  Sure young Sam is a true believer, but he’s a naive teenager, easily led astray because he hasn’t had a full picture of the world ever presented to him.  He’s just been told to stay away, not given any tools for how to deal with the vagaries of life in the larger world when he inevitably encounters them.

“There’s grace.”
“And jail time.”

Also, when that “fire” breaks out in the speakeasy, it quickly burns out of control and threatens the town of Good.  Though the town is ultimately saved, there’s no further mention of the shanty town.  So, did everyone on the wrong side of the river burn, but that’s OK because the good people and the real town were spared?  I can’t think that’s the message the play wants to send either.  The supply chain for the illegal booze is established, but the end users are unclear.  Is it all confined to the shanty town, or are there secret drinkers in the town of Good as well?  Is the alcohol only doing harm?  Is it being at all enjoyed in moderation, or is there no such thing in this fictional town?  Prohibition was seen by many, in the end, as a foolhardy quest.  Where exactly does the play fall on this question?  Leaving it all up to an audience nearly a hundred years removed from that history, who may or may not have any context of their own to bring to the period, seems like a missed opportunity.

“That’s a fine place to start.”
“It’s an uphill climb.”

And there’s a curious lack of faith in the story and its characters.  The Christianity of the supporting characters in town seems to exist just to contrast their less than savory pursuits.  It’s not really a part of their lives they appear to be struggling with.  Even the pastor and his son seem oddly secular in the way they confront their troubles in the play.  There’s no life of prayer, no turning to the Bible outside sermonizing the congregation, no calling out for help in dealing with grief or alcoholism or other dark impulses.  The people of the play seem entirely disconnected from God.  They’re on their own.  It’s not that they have faith and lose it.  It’s not really there.  It’s a role they play.  There’s no depth beyond the surface.

“People need to hear the truth, son.  You just got to get it to them.”

All of which is a shame.  Because that additional element could add a richness to the characters’ struggles, and those of the town.  When all is said and done, the Great Depression is still gripping the country, and with the elimination of booze as a cash crop, what is the town going to do?  Even here, the notion of faith isn’t invoked, even in passing.  So either the storytellers are taking it for granted that the audience assumes this is part of the healing process for the town, or they’re trying so hard not to lean on the original source material of the story that they overcorrected in a faith-free direction.

“I’ve got nothin’ to hide.  Same as you.”

That said, the music and singing in Sam's Son are so great that they almost completely make up for any small deficit of soul at the center of the story.  Like I said, the story itself is well-structured and fast-paced, with the songs frequently moving the action right along, so good that it took me a while to figure out what was bothering me.  The whole Bucket Brigade production is top notch.  Go and enjoy (and feel free to tell me I’m full of it.) (runs through October 28, 2017)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended.

(photo: Vanessa Gamble and Jeremiah Gamble in Sam’s Son; Bonni Allen Photography)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review - The Minotaur - Theatre Pro Rata - Lost (and Found Again) In The Maze - 4.5 stars

When a play loses me, it almost never gets me back.  But Theatre Pro Rata’s production of Anna Ziegler’s script The Minotaur reeled me back in after letting me disengage from the story for a bit, making me really care about the play’s closing sequence of scenes, so color me impressed.  This probably has just as much, if not more, to do with the work of director Amber Bjork and her team of actors and designers as it does with Ziegler’s script but however it happened, it was a little bit of theater magic for which I was very grateful.

“Do you know how alone I’ve been?  Do you know how long I’ve waited for something to change?”

The Minotaur is a modern reimagining of the ancient myth, but taking into account that the monster is half human as well as half bull.  So the Minotaur (Kip Dooley) is half brother to the princess Ariadne (Stanzi D. Schalter).  (Their mother and her husband the king ended up running afoul of the gods - and so a curse found mom developing a thing for one of the livestock, these things happen.) Ariadne tries to be a good sister, and the Minotaur tries to be a patient brother, but neither of them is entirely successful.  The Minotaur is housed in a maze beneath the palace. 

“There is always a monster.  There is always something or someone to destroy.”

In order to keep the monster in check, a neighboring kingdom is under obligation to send 7 young men and 7 young women each year as a sacrifice (aka, supper). To put a stop to this practice, one of the neighboring kingdom’s heroes, Theseus (Derek Meyer), offers to go along with the sacrificial group and do battle with the monster.  Ariadne falls in love with Theseus (as you do) and agrees to help him defeat the Minotaur.  There’s a chorus made up of a priest (Brian Columbus), a rabbi (Noe Tallen), and a lawyer (Mike Tober) who take care of a lot of the narrative and expositional duties.  The night I saw it, there was also a trio of sign language interpreters up front - and they were so well-integrated into the fun of the action that I almost feel bad for any performance that doesn’t have them.  It added a very welcome extra level of playfulness and camaraderie to the evening.

“Is he a hero?”
“Yes, and a hero leaves.”

Half of Julia Carlis’ imposing set design takes its cue from the sails of Theseus’ ship, the other half of the set consists of enormous macrame hangings that dwarf the human actors onstage (a cheeky nod to the ball of yarn that will allow Theseus to navigate the maze and then return). The stark lighting and ominous sound designs (from John Kirchofer and Jacob M. Davis, respectively) help to reinforce the sense of scale in the legend housed on such a set.  And Mandi Johnson’s costumes, particularly that of the Minotaur himself (clad all in white, with a wire cage of a horned headdress to go over his human head) complete the picture of an otherworldly tale that has hints of a modern feel to poke at the old story.

“Falling in love isn’t a skill.  It’s not something you can be good at.”

Ziegler’s a gifted and award-winning playwright with quite a resume, and it’s her skill in part that both loses me and brings me back as an audience member.  A lot of writers (myself included) are bewitched by old myths, legends and fairy tales.  We can’t resist reviving them and putting our own spin on them.  If we’re clever and have also done our research, we can really go down the rabbit hole (or get willingly lost in the maze, if you’ll pardon the metaphor) - and in such moments, we can forget and leave our audience behind.  And a lot of the time, we’re having so much fun, we don’t really care if we’ve lost them.  Word play, inventive twists, well-played metaphorical parallels - they’re ways writers can get stuck up their own a**, and unless they decide they want to return to speaking with the audience that they brought this far, the story and characters can get completely derailed.

“There is no happy ending.  This isn’t a fable, it’s a myth.  And myths end badly.”

Ariadne and Theseus are portrayed as self-involved and privileged, perhaps even a bit dim (certainly naive).  The chorus’ attitude of superiority and cleverness gets off-putting a lot sooner than the author might think they do.  The audience is more than ready for the story to mutiny against the storytellers and take things in a new direction.  The character of the Minotaur gets so much attention, and so much nuance, that an audience is also more than willing to continue watching the monster, grateful every time it returns to the stage.

“Name one thing you’ve done lately that feels like a surprise.”

The whole cast turns in solid performances.  That annoying chorus I spoke of, not the actors’ fault.  The trio of Columbus, Tallen and Tober are just enthusiastically going exactly where the playwright wants them to go.  Ditto for Meyer and Schalter as Theseus and Ariadne.  The saving grace of both the script and the performances is their conflicted feelings about the nature of their mission to vanquish the monster, and its consequences.  Their late in the action conversion, and the reappearance of the minotaur in the play’s closing sequence, is what pulled me back in.  Kip Dooley’s eyes, accented with makeup under his wire bull’s head, almost deserve their own review.  The Minotaur’s gaze was a hard one to shake, and never let you forget the human being inside the monster.

“Forgo all the adventures and the tragedies.”

The strength of The Minotaur is that it goes in with its own mission to undo some of the inequities of the ancient tale for a modern audience: the fact that the story is way too tilted in favor of the male hero, that the female lead always wrongfully ends up getting the shaft, and no one bothers to look at the minotaur as anything other than a monster. It starts out trying to correct these imbalances, and does its best work when it’s equally a story of three and not just one or the other (or the other).

“I do not punish myself for being hungry.  And we have the same hunger.”

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’m going to leave it here.  I should know by now that when Theatre Pro Rata chooses a script, even if it loses me for a little bit, there’s something that’s going to turn the whole thing around before the night is over.  In fact, I found myself sitting there in the audience, willing it to happen. “Come on, don’t let me down now.  Pull out of the dive and bring it in for a landing.”  And land The Minotaur does.  You should head into the maze and see for yourself. (runs through October 22, 2017 on the Crane Theater main stage)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo: Kip Dooley as The Minotaur; photographer: Charles Gorrill; graphic design: Max Lindorfer)

Review - In The Treetops - Sandbox Theatre - Meandering Through the Childhood of Wanda Gag - 4 stars

As we left the theater I said to my friend, half-jokingly, “Leave it to Sandbox Theatre to create a children’s show about poverty and death.”  Half-jokingly.  And art.  It’s also about art, and the artist, and creating, because that’s also frequently tucked in the back of things the Sandbox ensemble creates and performs. 

“We had to fashion this world out of games.”

Here the artist in question is celebrated Minnesota illustrator and author Wanda Gag, best known for her children’s book Millions of Cats - a story still out there in bookstores and libraries, going on 90 years now.  Sandbox Theatre’s new company-created work, In The Treetops, focuses on the seeds of Gag’s later career that were planted in the games and storytelling of her own peculiar childhood in New Ulm.  Project lead Megan Campbell Lagas, director Matthew Glover, and assistant directors/ensemble creators Peter Heeringa and Heather Stone have zeroed in on a subject rich in possibilities.

“We draw to dream a place between what is and what can be.”

Gag led such a varied and colorful life that no one play could encompass it all, so it’s a wise strategy to focus in on one particular period of her life.  In The Treetops tackles the time when the seven Gag children were forced to fend for themselves.  The father of the family died when Wanda was just 15 years old, their mother died just nine years later.  A refrain in the production is a variation on the father’s last words, “What papa couldn’t finish, Wanda must.”  As the eldest child, Wanda essentially parented her six younger siblings, but she flouted convention (something of a theme throughout her life) by refusing to give up her training at art school during that same time.  The family may have suffered during her absences, but it still held together.

“Survived by the leaves in the trees, and the feather tucked into my hair.”

Sandbox takes the games the children play together to reveal plot and character in ingenious ways.  Behind them, a screen alternates between projections of Wanda’s illustrations, and shadow play.  Mask work is also engaged, to create other human characters (such as the Gag family’s disapproving neighbors, as well as more friendly storytelling friends).  There are also inhuman characters, like Sweet Tooth - a cross between a prehistoric fish and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, who makes amusingly odd entrances and exits.

“The penny or the pencil?”

Wanda (Kristina Fjellman) looks back from the comfort of her adult artist studio on childhood with her siblings Flavia (Evelyn Digirolamo), Tussy (Ashawnti Sakina Ford), and Howard (Kalen Rainbow Keir), as well as her best friend Alma (Megan Burns).  The actors take on many roles in the story, and there are many songs and dances (accompanied by musician/music designer Theo Langason).  There isn’t really a set to speak of, so most of the work shifting time and place goes to Mitchell Frazier’s vivid lighting design, backed up by Rebecca Bernstein’s costume deisgn.

“Buried with music, she will shake the earth in which she sleeps.”

There are some great sequences here, like the comical mimicry of the children doing their own version of the daily news.  There is also the moving evocation of the parents in shadow, often larger than life, sometimes just reaching out a hand in shadow to support Wanda when she feels need of it.  All the music feels fresh and playful.  There’s a lot to like In The Treetops.

“She knew just where her heart was.”

There’s also a bit of a disconnect between the various parts and some kind of larger story.  There are times when it feels like the forward motion of the event kind of stalls, jumps the track for a while, then hops back on to move forward again.  And for all the calling out of Wanda Gag by name, if you didn’t know who she was before you got to the theater, this show wouldn’t really tell you much.  The program does say “inspired by the life of” so it’s not pretending to be any kind of detailed biography, nor does it need to be.  But just as a character, it’s not entirely clear who the adult Wanda is, what her work, reputation or status are, or why exactly she’s reflecting back now, in this particular moment with the audience to whom she’s speaking.  There’s no distinct connection between what takes place onstage in the past, and the play’s brief nod to the present in the adult Wanda’s life.  I’m all for Sandbox’s brand of storytelling taking us where it wants to go, but right now the directions are still a little fuzzy.  I’m not arguing for your standard issue biographical approach by any means.  But a little more context as to why this person, in this time period (which is - ?), telling this story, now, would be useful to give the piece some kind of foundation.  Otherwise it’s just a free-floating series of children’s games through an adult lens.

“Won’t you spill fresh paint?  Don’t you wash it from my grave.”

Wanda and her siblings are fun to spend time with, but ultimately I wonder why spend that time with them.  Which is kind of a shame because what Sandbox is doing with In The Treetops is really remarkable.  They’re addressing things like the loss of parents, death being a part of life (there are fanciful human and animal funerals for characters real and imaginary throughout), and even hints of the hardships endured when one is poor.  This is all in the framework of something not at all dour or downbeat, but optimistic and full of energy, music, light and color.  It makes scary things less scary.  In The Treetops could be an important piece of theater for children and their parents to share.  A  lot of the elements are already in place.  It’s just not quite there yet.

“On the edge of our town, there is a house with seven colors.”

Still, the version of Sandbox Theatre's In The Treetops we’ve got now is well worth checking out, particularly if you’re an adult looking for some theater that’s accessible and ready to share with the kids in your life.  You’ll both find something to enjoy here. (running through October 15, 2017 at Open Eye Figure Theatre)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

(poster art courtesy of Sandbox Theatre)

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Review - Sing To Me Now - Little Lifeboats - Best Script I’ve Read In Years, and a Production to Match - 5 Stars

Be honest, aren’t you a little curious about a play that includes a climax where a woman delivers an inspirational speech, and sings, to a urinal?  (You should be.)

“Citizens, supplicants, creatures of want…”

I have been waiting for this play to be produced since I first read it almost two years ago.  It’s an enormous relief when something turns out to be just as great as you hoped it was going to be.  Iris Dauterman’s script Sing To Me Now is easily the best new play I’ve read in the last ten years.  The works of Deborah Yarchun run a close second.  Everything else I like comes in a distant third.  I was afraid I might be getting my hopes up, that no actual production could be as good as the feeling I had when I read the script.  Fear not.  Everyone involved with the Little Lifeboats production of Sing To Me Now loves the script just as much as I do.  And they deliver that love through the script back to the audience.  This was the production I was most excited to see this year when I learned it was going to be on the fall calendar, and it was worth the wait.  (I’m going to go on about it for a while, but honestly, you should just go.  Trust me.  You’ll like it, too.)

“They’re kind of hard to miss.  Dreams are like fingerprints or the smell of someone’s skin.”

For a variety of reasons, a lot of my time is spent reading new plays.  I try to be an optimistic soul and give every new play the benefit of the doubt and an open mind on page 1.  This is not always a rewarding practice.  There are a lot of bad plays out there.  There are even more adequate to mediocre plays out there.  There are a handful of good ones.  Only very rarely do you read a great one.  Not all plays can be great plays, but I wish more plays failed valiantly trying to swing for the fences than settling for just stumbling along toward an average conclusion.  It can get you down.  It can lower your standards.  And then you get one of those great plays in your hands, and it reminds you why you love theater, and that fantastic writing exists - that words have real power in the hands of someone who knows how to use them.  Iris Dauterman’s Sing To Me Now is a great play.  It’s a funny play, full of love and heartache.

“Their brains are tiny, their subconsciouses are unreliable, and their memories are as durable as tissue paper.”

Calliope (Dana Lee Thompson), the last surviving Muse, puts out a call to the universe for an assistant to help with the workload.  Requests for ideas and inspiration come flooding in to her office every day via paper airplanes. (Said paper airplanes sail back and forth through the audience to the stage throughout the play so watch your head - I took one in the shoulder.)  She needs to go out with her basket every day and gather up random ideas from the river of human thought into jars which light up inside.  These jarred ideas get released back out into the world to those who need them.  Calliope once had eight sisters to help carry the load.  Now she’s on her own.

“This is where they come to see us.  What will they think if we just let it burn?”

A human in her dream state answers the call, but Calliope has her doubts about Yankee (Cate Jackson).  Calliope calls her Yankee because she’s from the USA, and bemoans that no help is often preferable to American help.  But Yankee wins her over.  Yankee also catches the eye of Calliope’s neighbor Morpheus, or Mo (Stephanie Johnson), the god of sleep and dreams.

“Have you ever knocked on a door when you’re not sure anyone’s there?  Have you ever knocked on that door for 3,000 years?”

In addition to catching up on the inspiration workload, Calliope needs to regularly check in with her mother Mnemosyne (Rachel Flynn), god of memory.  Only Mnemosyne’s memory has come a little unstuck in time.  (Losing eight of your nine children can do that to a person.)  She can be with Calliope in the present, or she might be mistaking her for one of her sisters.  Everything that’s happened before is either happening again or about to happen.  She’s living both the past and the present at the same time.  (This, of course, is a delightfully cagey way to serve up a metaphor for dementia.  It’s astonishing reading on the page, and Flynn really knocks it out of the park in performance.)

“You of all people should know how little a god can do.  We keep the lights on.”

Calliope also keeps running across her uncle Hades (Robb Kruegger), god of the underworld, who knows all the secrets of death and the afterlife but can’t reveal them.  So Calliope may believe that her sisters are on another plane of existence, but she has no way to reach them, or confirm this.  Hades could provide comfort, but it’s not really his job, and it might also screw up the laws of time and space.

“I miss her, and I hate her.  I don’t know which feeling is gonna win, and that scares me.”

Iris Dauterman, the playwright, is fascinated by trauma, how people deal with it, survive it, bury it or process it.  I didn’t fully understand the connection between the writer’s preoccupation with trauma and the script Sing To Me Now when I first read it, though I was entranced by the story on any number of other levels.  Then the 2016 presidential election happened.  And now I appreciate the play on a whole new level, and see Dauterman’s trauma fascination all over it.  One of the marks of a great play is the ways you can appreciate it differently over time.  Sing To Me Now feels even more immediate to me now in its meditations on the resilience, stupidity, and beauty of the human race than it did when I read it almost two years ago.

“She’s in the library.  Her hands are full of ashes.”

Also, I hate when storytellers use suicide casually, as just another plot device, and don’t reckon with the mindset of the person committing the act, or the impact on the people left behind.  Here, too, Dauterman defies my resistance as an audience member.  Now, the fact that there’s an established afterlife, and the person in question is on a mission in the underworld, kind of takes some sting out of it.  A suicide in real life, with no assurance of redemption, would be a lot messier, and perhaps more honest.  But it’s part of the play’s highwire act and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work for me anyway.

“How do you know if someone wants to kiss you back?”
“You don’t always.”
“That sounds terrifying.”

The whole cast is wonderful.  I mentioned Flynn earlier, but I have to call out Dana Lee Thompson’s brilliance specifically because the play would not work without her as Calliope.  She shoulders the task of being the center of this play from start to finish with great power and grace.  Her emotional range is a real roller coaster throughout, and she has the audience laughing and crying right along with her.  Sing To Me Now has a lot of heart across the whole story and cast of characters and everyone involved really digs in and delivers this, none more so than Thompson.

“He should really settle down.  There aren’t that many single gods anymore.”

Cate Jackson as Yankee takes your typical plucky underdog character and gives her real dimension.  She’s clearly a human out of her depth among the gods but she gamely tries to hold her own nonetheless.  Her budding romance with Morpheus is made all the more interesting by the production’s choice to cast the male role with a female actor - Stephanie Johnson.  Everyone addresses Morpheus as a man, nobody tries to pretend this is an intentional lesbian romance.  It’s just two people meeting and building a relationship.  How you see that is up to you.  It’s a nice touch, and adds a new dimension to a script I didn’t think had any more dimensions to add.  Robb Krueger’s Hades is a combination of mischievous and world-weary that makes for some great comedy - and without him, we’d get no happy ending.

“She knew they were all going to burn.  She just didn’t want them to die alone.”

Just as a side note, I don’t think we can call it a coincidence any more that the productions I’m most impressed with and engaged by right now are all directed and written by women, with women at the center of the action.  There’s Sing To Me Now from Little Lifeboats, written by Iris Dauterman and directed by Victoria Pyan; there’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. from Frank Theatre, written by Alice Birch and directed by Wendy Knox; there’s The Nether from Jungle Theater, written by Jennifer Haley and directed by Casey Stangl (and while we’re at it Lillian Hellman’s Watch On The Rhine under Lisa Peterson’s direction is kicking some serious ass at the Guthrie, too).

“Because you have so much potential.  You can create so much beauty, and then you just - don’t.”

The new Crane Studio space is still a work in progress.  It’s a great little space, and perfect for this story (thanks in no small part to Meagan Kedrowski’s whimsical set design).  There will be a light grid in the near future, but the lack of one now limits what Mitchell Fraisier can do with the lighting design. And the Crane’s hardly sound proof at the moment, and there is another show going on on the mainstage just across the hall at the same time.  (Thankfully, the other show’s a long one act, so it’s done before the big emotional material in act two kicks in.  Still, I admired the cast even more in those moments when they had to block out incoming noise from the other show and continue telling their own story.  The audience hangs in there with them.)  Like I say, a work in progress, as the run continues, the building no doubt evolves, too.  The only design not impacted by the Crane Studio’s embryonic state was Lisa Conley’s inventive costume design.  Conley gets some lively and colorful variations out of going along with the expectation of ancient Greek gods being outfitted in togas, and keep an eye out for Yankee’s amusing sleepy dragon slippers.

“Does goat cheese really make the world a better place?”

Best new play with a production to match.  If you like theater, treat yourself to Little Lifeboats’ presentation of Sing To Me Now.  It’s a delight.  (As mom frequently says to me at Fringe shows she really loves, “if I could have six stars to rate a show, I’d give it six.”) (runs through October 22, 2017 at the Crane Studio)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Review - mONSTER - Swandive Theatre - Unanswered Questions - 3 stars

It’s 1994, and there’s a monster on the internet.  That’s the premise of Swandive Theatre’s world premiere production of Sam Graber’s new play mONSTER.  Tech nerd Brill (Kelsey McMahon) has camped out in a dorm room on the far end of campus, where the internet signal is the strongest, to work in league with an unseen cadre of fellow computer enthusiasts to try and scrub the internet and keep it safe from this monster.  The uninitiated, should they see the monster online, will get drawn into some zombie-like trance.  So, metaphor.  (As much for Instagram as it is for porn - pick your internet poison, the monster will appear.)

“Did we invent the internet, or was it always there, waiting?”

The story is set in a time when the internet was just beginning to reach the wider public.  Back when a lot of people thought AOL actually was the whole internet, rather than just a portal to it.  Back when not everyone and their sister (or even colleges) had their own website (or even email).  Back when ordering something online to be delivered to your home seemed exotic.  Way back before smartphones were something everyone had in their pocket. 

“It was a little like looking over God’s shoulder.”

Brill’s efforts are confounded by the arrival of fellow student Nessa (Jamie Fields), who was actually assigned to live in the dorm room that Brill has commandeered with all her equipment.  Nessa tries to roll with the idea of an unexpected roommate.  She also tries to have a normal college experience of classes mixed with partying and slacking off.  The odd man out in the situation is the residential assistant for the dorm, Greg (Avi Aharoni).  He tries to broker peace, maybe get Nessa to a normal room, maybe even flirt with her a little in his enormously awkward way.  But everyone ends up colliding in unhelpful ways, despite their best efforts to keep the whole situation under control.

“If you see it in full, it brings out your true insides.”

mONSTER isn’t a bad idea for a play.  Graber’s a skillful playwright who knows his way around dialogue.  All the actors, under the direction of Meg DiSciorio and her assistant director Bryan Grosso, get multi-layered characters to dig into, and they do.  Kevin Springer delivers another kickass sound design.  Sean McArdle’s funky set, with a spider’s web of cables enveloping and defining the boundaries of the dorm room, is a great look for a creepy scenario like this.  Though the dorm room itself is claustrophobic, the staging, with a lot of help from Jesse Cogswell’s lighting design, takes full advantage of the width, height and depth of the Southern Theater space.  All the elements are there.

“People reading strange books in sunlit grass.”

The problem is the story doesn’t really hang together.  There are a lot of great details of the era that Graber nails in the script to great comic effect.  Beyond the jokes, though, he also really took me back to that pre- cell phone, pre-computer focused, way of campus living.  You know, when people actually still went to libraries because they had to, because that’s where the information was.  When people spent time together because if you wanted to spend time with someone, you had to physically be in their presence.  You didn’t have a device to connect to them across campus or across the country.  Phones were physically rooted in a location, you went to them, they didn’t travel with you.  It really was a different time.  mONSTER evokes that really well, both on the page and in production.

“Measuring the impact of engineering on morality.”

But there isn’t a monster on the internet.  We’re the monster on the internet.  We’ve always been the monster on the internet.  The technology just let loose and enabled people’s worst instincts and behavior, it didn’t create them.  There’s a whole video sequence on modern day internet use and misuse late in the action of the play between scenes (which is the only thing that seems wildly out of place in the production) which chronicles this internet-encouraged bad behavior.  It further undercuts the basic premise of the play.

“Blaming computers for human failure is such a human failure.”

And even if I granted you the notion that there’s a monster on the internet, 1994 isn’t the beginning of the internet.  1994 is the point at which the internet starts to really get its tentacles into larger society.  But the internet had been in development for thirty years prior to that.  I’m supposed to believe the monster just bided its time while the think tanks and the military developed the idea of the internet?  That it decided that the best way to take over society was NOT to take over the brain trust guiding human advancement, NOT to take over the military which could subjugate or destroy the world?  No, the monster decided to wait until unsuspecting college students started poking around.  THEN it would make its move.  I’m not saying I couldn’t buy this scenario if it was presented the right way.  I’m just saying right now I don’t buy it.

“When you get tired of standing in for God, come and find me.”

Swandive Theatre’s production of mONSTER is a great presentation of a new work.  There’s a lot of talent on display here.  The sense of dread and unease is often quite palpable.  But the idea undergirding the play feels a little half-baked and under-researched.  And it often strains against the bounds of the fact that there’s only three characters the story has to play with while it’s trying to invoke an entire college experience as its backdrop.  Another year in development, maybe a slightly larger ensemble to populate the world and expand the story?  They might be on to something.

Meantime, thanks to this review, I feel like the monster on the internet at the moment is probably me. (through October 7, 2017 at the Southern Theater)

3 stars - Recommended

(photo courtesy of Swandive Theatre - Kelsey McMahon as Brill, trying to keep her computer base of operations in order in mONSTER)

Review - Mean - Youth Performance Company - The Kids Are All Right (Eventually) - 4.5 stars

Bullying doesn’t seem like an ideal subject for musical theater, but Youth Performance Company makes it work with their original production, Mean, written by two YPC alumni - Rita Cannon on the script, Kymani Kahlil on the music.  Director Jacie Knight once again gets impressive performances out of her ensemble of almost exclusively young actors.  It’s a tough topic to handle well, and it takes its toll on the performers as well as the characters.  The actors who play the tormenters in this play are perhaps the ones most relieved when the curtain call arrives.  They sing the closing song and join hands with the actors they were bullying onstage, moved by the opportunity to finally drop the act and banish the demons again.

“They just don’t know what it’s like to be different, but you do.”

Rather than focus just on one type of bullying, the script for Mean spreads the pain around the full cast.  But unlike a lot of tales of bullying in high school lately, this one doesn’t just rehash the problem, it offers potential solutions.  The various strategies for survival fall into two larger categories - if you’re being bullied, ask for help or take help when it’s offered; if you see bullying happen to others, don’t be a bystander, step in and help.  Neither of those solutions are easy and they require strength by people on all sides.  But at least Mean is presenting some options for what can be done, and not just accepting the whole situation as hopeless.

“Look in the mirror and say you’re ugly.”

There are three primary stories interwoven around briefer interludes with other characters in isolation speaking about the reasons they get singled out for ill treatment by their peers.  There’s moments with the kid who reads slowly because of dyslexia, another who’s dealing with a realization they’re trans, yet another who gets unwanted scrutiny because they’re poor enough to be part of the free meal plans at school. 

“Momma, when will I be good enough?”

The stories getting the bulk of the stage time are: Inam (Eponine Diatta), a young Muslim girl wearing a hijab who gets taunted by cheerleaders Ashley (Brea Davis) and Liz (Adeline Wendt). Inam’s fortunes improve when she takes the help offered by her teacher Ms. Roth (Jill Bigelow-Rossing), who gets around in a wheelchair.  A second story focuses on Taylor (Katherine Fredrikson) who gets called out by Hannah (Rachael Wasson) for being fat.  Taylor’s supposed friend Samantha (Arianna Richardson) doesn’t have the guts to stand up for Taylor against Hannah at first.  But Samantha eventually grows a spine to go with her troubled conscience to help Taylor, while Taylor learns to trust Samantha again.  The audience also gets a window into a possible source of Hannah’s bad behavior when they meet her mother (Katenka Bollenbeck).  Also going on, the bullying of Nick (Tristan Brown) by star school athlete Danny (Connor Carlson).  Nick doesn’t fit Danny’s idea of how a real man is supposed to act, so an anti-gay campaign of slurs begins, including efforts to drive a wedge between Nick and his only friend Joey (Carl Hallberg).  Nick’s downward spiral only starts to turn around when his dad (Marc Brown) takes an interest and intervenes with school officials.  The ensemble also includes Casey Johnson, Chase Kozak, Ella Kozak, Flannery McGreevy, Paris Nash, Tess Nelson, and Samuel Osborne.

“I’m glad my school has free breakfast.  I wish they had free secret breakfast.”

There’s a LOT going on in this play.  It’s remarkable how much plot and how many characters they cram into less than 90 minutes of run time.  Maybe just a bit too much.  While this ensemble-style of story presentation allows the production to shine a light on a variety of troubles young people may face, as well as multiple solutions, it’s hard every now and then to know where to focus your attention.  Additionally, while this approach doesn’t allow the audience to get too far ahead of any one story, it also makes it a little hard sometimes to keep all the players straight.  The large cast does, however, make for a more realistic portrait of school life, with groups of people looking on or passing through.  So there are tradeoffs.  On the whole, Mean’s approach to the subject and the way the artists involved in the production present it, is largely a success.

“You’ve got to let people know there’s a line they can’t cross.”

The world outside the theater’s walls is more than happy to remind us how hard these kids have it just getting through the day sometimes.  So it’s nice inside the theater to get a dose of hope, and strategies for how we can help, all the while avoiding preachiness or sentimentality, opting instead for dealing with things the way they are. With Mean, YPC’s Mean uses good original theater to add something useful (and positive) to an important conversation. (through October 15, 2017 at the Howard Conn Performing Arts Center)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Review - Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. - Frank Theatre - A Bracing, Oversexed, Subversive Valentine - 5 stars

Frank Theatre’s production of Alice Birch’s play Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is fantastic.  It’s a bracing, oversexed, subversive valentine to language and the idea of turning an ordinary life inside out and making it extraordinary.  Director Wendy Knox’s six person ensemble of Charla Marie Bailey, Joy Dolo, Jane Froiland, Emily Grodzik, Grand Henderson and Gabriel Murphy are fearless in the way they display themselves and interact onstage. 

“This play should not be well-behaved.”

This isn’t a standard political play suggesting middle of the road solutions.  It’s a laughing, screaming, horny wake up call to stop letting your life dribble away minute by minute.  Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. wants you to reconsider pretty much everything society at large has been trying to sell you - standard gender roles, getting married, having kids, not making waves at your job, not admitting too freely that sex is a good and healthy thing to be shared between consenting adults.  Frank’s production doesn’t want you to waste another minute being ordinary or bored. (And this collection of scenes add up to a short play, so you can head out into the rest of your evening and get started.)  Frank also wants to remind you that theater isn’t here to anesthetize you with entertainment - it’s more interested in entertainment that’s going to wake you up.

“I grew it if that’s what you mean.  I killed it if that’s what you mean.”

A woman takes language and turns it back around on a man, the two of them consumed by a desire not just for sex but for dominance.  They also navigate around the notions of sex as something done to someone, versus with someone.  It’s not really sexy, but it’s hilarious. 

“I want to buy dogs and then bury those dogs in the garden we share.”

Also amusing is the incredibly awkward conversation that ensues when another woman must tell another man that his enthusiastic marriage proposal is not only ill-timed, but just generally a really bad idea. 

“Unruptured hymens for sale!”

Darker and most peculiar is the visit by a woman to her absentee mother, her own daughter in tow.  The woman grapples with her mother’s choices, and the unintended consequences that she herself may not have been the best candidate for parenting, but brought a now damaged child into the world anyway.

“I’m serious.  Stop smiling.”
“This is just my face.”
“While you’re in here, I own your face.”

A woman states flatly that her hours at work and way of working will need to change, and nothing her boss does to cajole her back into the status quo looks like it’s going to work.  Supermarket employees are confronted with the spectacle of a woman collapsed inside a shopping cart who then springs to life in a very hyper-sexualized fashion.

“There is a point at which the thoughts are not enough.”

Simple scenes that seem based in reality early on give way to later scenes in the play that fragment and play over one another, scenarios of child brides and porn and child molesters and the peddling of body parts get drawn in vivid brush strokes of just a few lines here and there. Ultimately, a scene of actual revolution is plotted.

“It’s just that everyone thinks that’s sex now.”

The fact that women drive the narrative here isn’t an accident, and is one of the things that allows the storytelling to feel so fresh and surprising.  Birch revels in language.  She knows its power, and gives it to her characters to wield in unexpected but very savvy ways.  Language nerds will love this play on a whole other level.  But really anyone who wants theater to be a vibrant, vital and important art form can find something to love here.  No actual sex ever takes place, but the ideas of sex and sexuality are used as signifiers of freedom and power in exhilarating ways. 

“It won’t work if you’re sad.  It won’t work if you aren’t.”

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is a great piece of theater.  It’s very different than Frank’s production of Citizen earlier this year, but in its own way it’s also a war cry against the evils of complacency and acceptance of injustice and inequity.  There’s a little part of my brain that always fears, “Oh, I hope it doesn’t get too ‘political’.” But then I see Frank Theatre’s production and I wonder where that worry comes from.  Frank always delivers smarter, more nuanced theater than the kind of clumsy sledgehammer approach I’ve been subjected to by other theaters in the past.  Trust Frank, and go see some theater that’s just as wonderfully crazy and dangerous as the shows you used to love. (through October 22, 2017, at the new Gremlin Theater space)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(photo - Joy Dolo comes out on top, over a bewildered Grant Henderson, in Frank Theatre's Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. - photography by Tony Nelson)