Sunday, June 17, 2018
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but this may be the first time I’ve seen an opera since I was in college. (And we won’t get into how long ago that was - suffice it to say, a while.) I didn’t get the opera gene as a gay man for some reason, even though my Grandma and Granddad loved the opera. Seeing the new opera Fellow Travelers at the Minnesota Opera, though, I can understand a little of what kept drawing them back again and again.
“How many earthquakes? How many kisses?”
Even though it’s a modern rather than a classical story, the scale and sweep of the production here is still huge and impressive. The music from composer Gregory Spears is gorgeous. The voices of everyone in the ensemble are powerful. Mary Shabatura’s lighting constantly casts Sara Brown’s scenic design and Trevor Bowen’s costume designs into sharp relief with evocative light and shadow, either making colors pop or lines and angles seem more ominous. The outsized passions of these people really need the scale of the world on stage and the strong voices of opera to do them full justice. Bonus points - even though the love affair, of course, is doomed (this is opera, after all - and they give you a full synopsis of every scene ahead of time so you can more easily follow along), nobody’s a prostitute and nobody dies. As someone who went in not entirely sure he had the capacity to fully appreciate an opera, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
“I don’t have a telephone.”
“Are you Amish?”
Fellow Travelers is set in Washington D.C. of the mid to late 1950s when Joseph McCarthy (Andrew Wilkowske)’s crusade against communist sympathizers in the government sought to root out homosexuals (“sexual deviants”) as well, fearing they could be too easily blackmailed into betraying their country. This subplot of McCarthy’s Red Scare was known as the Lavender Scare. This is also pre-Stonewall Riots by more than a decade, so life in general for members of the LGBTQ community was already fairly clandestine and bleak. All the same, people still found one another, and a way to live their lives. This story, adapted by librettist Greg Pierce from Thomas Mallon’s novel, centers on young Timothy Laughlin (Andres Acosta), a reporter who longs instead to work on Capitol Hill. A chance meeting on a park bench with State Department employee Hawkins Fuller (Hadleigh Adams) completely alters the course of his life.
“What would you rather be doing?”
Tim and Hawk’s conversation remains innocent enough, but is definitely flirtatious. Hawk puts in a good word at the offices of Senator Potter (Nicholas Davis), and Tim quickly finds himself hired as the senator’s speechwriter. A thank you gift of a book from Tim, with his address written inside it, launches Tim and Hawk’s passionate affair. After their first night together, Tim goes to church but finds it impossible to regret the encounter. In fact, this new chapter in his life propels him into singing the production’s one big aria in act one, and it’s a stunner.
“The insane asylum where Ezra Pound is writing poetry.”
Hawk’s assistant (and long-time friend) Mary (Adriana Zabala) also becomes Tim’s confidante as the secret relationship continues. Hawk is a bit too cavalier about keeping that secret and briefly runs afoul of McCarthy’s investigators, but presents himself as “normal” enough to escape punishment. Meanwhile, all around them are whispers and bad news, of government people run out of their jobs or driven to suicide.
“Stay, just stay.”
Hawk can’t quite bring himself to settle down with Tim exclusively, even though it’s clear Hawk’s emotions are real and their connection is strong. They try to live separate lives - Tim enlists in the army, and Hawk gets married to a nice woman named Lucy (Jasmine Habersham) - but the pull between them remains, so their affair resumes. Hawk’s aria in act two is just as intense as Tim’s which came before it, but more subdued - since Hawk has realized that, as much as he loves Tim, Hawk is bad for him. Even without a government purge hanging over their heads, the society Tim and Hawk live in doesn’t make room easily for couples like them.
“I know him well. There are times I wish I didn’t know him so well.”
Recently I’ve been taking issue with the idea of homosexual suffering as entertainment, but Fellow Travelers surprised me by not falling into this trap. Tim and Hawk suffer their share of heartache, sure, but they don’t live in constant misery, and they’re not helpless victims of the society around them. They live their lives fully and intentionally, and they have great moments of happiness. Oddly, the events and decisions that finally drive them apart for good are also the crucible that turns them into the kind of men who could finally be a decent partner to one another - if only they didn’t already have all this history between them. It hurts, but it hurts because it meant something. And again, nobody’s a prostitute, and nobody dies, so you can call it a win. There’s sex and there’s skin on display, but it’s the genuine intensity of the emotion between the two central characters that makes Fellow Travelers more than just another story about an ill-fated gay love affair. If you feel that deeply, why wouldn’t you sing? And who wouldn’t fall for a guy who could sing to you like that?
“I’m off to shoot a few ducks, then Monday we can straighten out this damn country.”
The scenic design is a great combination of grandeur and standard government office practicality. The stage is bracketed by powerful columns that reach to the heavens, and can dwarf the human beings who move beneath them. Yet within those columns, tables and chairs and desks of steel and green roll around into different configurations. Fluorescent office lights are just as likely to descend from the heavens as a crucifix or a tree branch. Just as director Peter Rothstein gets beautiful performances out of the entire ensemble here (which includes Hye Jung Le, Sidney Outlaw, and Calvin Griffin as well), he also choreographs the dance of the various locations in the characters lives elegantly and simply. In addition, there’s a fair amount of whimsy going on around the edges. For instance, occasionally a cast member will be holding up what appears to be a bathroom mirror for another character, and they’ll extend a hand, as a convenient place to hang their hat.
“Did you hear the one about Roy Cohn in church? Ah - men.”
One of the things that helps keep Fellow Travelers so engaging is that it never loses sight of the human characters in the larger sweep of history. The story gives us just enough facts for context but doesn’t get bogged down in exposition. However, the passing of time does continue to add new wrinkles. When this opera first premiered in New York in 2016, the U.S. government still hadn’t apologized for the Lavender Scare which drove 5,000 men and women out of their jobs during the Eisenhower administration. In early January 2017, Secretary of State John Kerry issued an official apology on behalf of the State Department. Shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, that statement mysteriously, or perhaps not so mysteriously, disappeared from the government’s website. While we’re not living in the 1950s any more, it seems we all still have to watch our backs. (Given all that, I have to give a quick shout-out to the diversity visible both onstage and in the creative team offstage. More and more I’m finding that it’s much more interesting to me if it isn’t exclusively just a whole bunch of white people making the theater. That’s on ample display in the artists of Fellow Travelers.)
“Let me hold you for an hour. That’s what we get.”
Whether you’re a hardcore opera aficionado, or a neophyte like myself, there’s a lot anyone can find to like to Fellow Travelers at the Minnesota Opera. (Side note: I saw it from up in the balcony and it looks great from up there.) Fellow Travelers turns out to be a fitting offering for Pride Month in ways I never expected. (runs through June 26, 2018 at the Cowles Center)
5 stars - Very Highly Recommended
[Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Hadleigh Adams as Hawkins Fuller in the Minnesota Opera production of Fellow Travelers; Photo by Dan Norman]
If you’re wondering about the general impact of Robb Krueger’s new play Room Enough, being presented at the Phoenix by Flannel Mafia Theatre Group, I can report the following: everyone around me was laughing a lot through act one, then laughing and crying a lot through act two, and pretty much all on their feet for curtain call. So Room Enough is an enormously affecting play, full of humor, and also full of genuine sentiment (which keeps it from being sentimental in a bad way). It also looks death and loss squarely in the face without being maudlin.
“It’s weird hearing you swear.”
“I’ve been practicing.”
The year is 1988. Recently widowed Laura (Jean Wolff) decides to reconnect with her estranged gay son Michael (Colton Moyer), who is living in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis with his boyfriend of four years David (Charliey Libra). Michael is also living with HIV/AIDS and seems to be managing OK so far. But this is 1988. They hadn’t found the miracle drug cocktail yet that turned AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable chronic disease (assuming, of course, you could afford the drugs). Also, Michael lost his job when his employers found out about his illness. Luckily, David’s job is enough to help them stay afloat.
“I look like a Dalmatian.”
Laura has a lot to make up for on her visit, since she and her late husband Russ (Scott Gilbert) didn’t take Michael’s coming out well. Mother and son only started to reconnect at the father’s funeral. Laura’s church friends are still lobbying over the phone to get her to see if she can bring Michael back to the church, and away from gay life in the big city. But that’s not really the conflict here. Laura’s heart is never really fully invested in any kind of conversion strategy.
“And that’s how a pity f**k prevented me from jumping out of the plane.”
The friction results from Laura and David butting heads. David is very protective of Michael, and he knows from personal experience how much parents can hurt their child. Any interaction between David and his own distant mother Lydia (Jane Burke) just reopens festering wounds. Perhaps in reaction to this, David frequently bristles at any admonishment to “tone it down” or “be less gay around mom.” Michael’s continuing attempts to keep the peace eventually take a toll on his health. Everyone then bands together to help Michael through his crisis.
“Of course he’s still gay. I’ve only been here a week and a half.”
Playwright Robb Krueger has written a witty and honest play. Director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha has assembled a committed cast who don’t hold anything back, whether they’re loving or fighting (and there’s a lot of both). Probably the most refreshing thing about the production is the way it portrays the relationship between Michael and David. They’re dealing with a lot, between their personal family baggage, and the health and employment issues. But they’re a real team, being strong for each other when one of them stumbles. And four years on, they still can’t seem to keep their hands off one another. But it’s sex as an example of the depth of their feeling for one another, rather than gratuitous coupling just to spice up the play. In fact, they seem to be even more attracted to each other in what would seem to be inappropriate times when things seem the most dire - yet it never seems “wrong” and its end up telling the audience a lot about who they are as a couple.
“Mom, Dad, I’m gay.”
“I made pie.”
Room Enough will affect the people who watch it in different ways, depending on their own lived experience (I guess you could say that about pretty much any play, but it seems especially true here). I was surprised by how distant I remained from it, unlike the rest of the audience. I enjoyed the performances and the characters, but I could feel myself resisting being drawn in. That’s probably because I knew where it was going and I didn’t want to go there. Despite the occasional flashback or reappearance of a character who was already dead by the time the events of the play begin in 1988, Room Enough is a resolutely linear play. It begins not long after the death of one character and will see us through the deaths of two more before it’s done. Both recently and not so recently, I’ve been through enough of that in real life. So if a piece of entertainment is going to make me watch somebody die, there better be a damn good reason for putting me through that. Hence, my resistance. Also, for far too many years, the only way you could find any story with a gay person in it, they had to be dying. So I’ve seen my share of fictional characters suffer, too. I may just be all cried out at this point. If I’m thinking of that line from the movie Heathers, “I love my dead gay son!” then I’m probably not having the reaction the artists intended.
“You need an open mind.”
“If I open my mind that far, my brain’s gonna fall out.”
None of that is meant to take anything away from the efforts of the folks at Flannel Mafia producing Room Enough. As I noted before, everyone is tackling this story with full intensity and commitment. The play just seemed determined to forgive characters I wasn’t ready to forgive, and kill characters I wasn’t ready to see die. That’s not the story’s problem. Room Enough isn’t about forgiveness that’s easy. It’s about unearned forgiveness, or grace, which is harder. It’s also about learning to cope when you’re dealt a bad hand. And that’s hard, too. I guess if we’re going to get grace, I need the story to give me a little more honest give and take about religion and faith, and right now Room Enough is just kind of skipping across the surface and around the edges of that. And if someone’s going to die, and you want me to really feel it, then I need to see more time with them getting to live first.
“I bought marijuana from a drag queen.”
Room Enough is an expansion of a previous one-act version of the same story, and in watching it you can feel it pushing at the boundaries of standard structure with the flashbacks and isolated monologues and the reappearance of characters who are already dead. Part of me wishes that the play allowed itself to flop around in time a little more. Of course, you need to get to know a person first, so that their loss means something and impacts the audience. That’s why the current more linear structure works so well emotionally. But there’s some wiggle room between an absolutely linear plot and one where the order of time means nothing at all. We could see more things with our own eyes rather than have them served up to us in more expository ways. Maybe trust the audience to follow along and resist the need to provide an on or off-ramp for a trip into the past or future.
“Hello, Lottie? Yup, still gay. Bye bye now.”
But again, that’s me, tinkering with someone else’s story. Quite literally everyone else around me was fully engaged and following the characters every step of the way, just the way it was - and that’s as much the script as it is the really fine performances of all the actors involved. So if you want a window into what it used to be like - when acceptance and love were hard to come by, and survival was harder, but people still managed - you should check out Room Enough. Whether you want to be grateful those particular times are behind us, or want to remind yourself so we don’t let things slip back, Room Enough is a good way to do that, and get your laugh on (and your cry on) while you’re at it. (runs through June 23, 2018 at the Phoenix Theater)
4 stars - Highly Recommended
[left to right - Michael (Colton Moyer) gets close to David (Charliey Libra) while Laura (Jean Wolff) offers up some bars - photo courtesy Flannel Mafia Theatre Group]
Review - The Minotaur or: Amelia Earhart Is Alive And Traveling Through the Underworld - Sheep Theater - Just As Delightfully Weird As It Sounds - 5 stars
Lately, when I need to be reminded why I still like theater, I’ll go to a Sheep Theater production. I honestly don’t even need to know or understand what they’re doing before I attend. If they’re doing it, it’s a fairly safe bet I’m going to end up amused and inspired. So I’m in luck, and so are you, because they’ve got a show going on right now (and another gearing up as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival in August). The current production, making inventive use of the full space at In The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, is The Minotaur or: Amelia Earhart Is Alive And Traveling Through the Underworld.
“I can’t swim.”
“You’re a pilot!”
“Flying and swimming are two very different things.”
Famous (and famously missing) pilot Amelia Earhart (Iris Rose Page) has flown into a storm and crashed her plane. To be fair, her navigator Snook (Madeleine Rowe) did warn her not to do that. Also to be fair, the storm was actually there for a reason, put there by Poseidon (Joey Hamburger) in fact - to warn people off. But instead they’ve crashed, and the plane landed on the cage imprisoning the Minotaur (Trevor Simmons) - a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. So now the cage is busted and the Minotaur is free.
“Where would you go if you’d been boxed up most of your life?”
While Poseidon heads off to try and recapture the Minotaur, he tasks Amelia and Snook with going to the Underworld to inform Hades (Michael Rogers) of the Minotaur escape situation. He assures them that once they deliver the news, Hades can assist them in getting back home. The first obstacle is getting across the river Styx, because Charon (Madhu Bangalore) requires them to give him a coin if they want a ride in his boat - and they don’t have a coin.
“What did the kid do to deserve that?”
“Nothing. That’s why it’s a mean thing to do.”
Not to worry, Icarus (Tara Lucchino) shows up and helps Amelia and Snook steal the backup spare boat and head off down the river anyway. It seems that Minos (Robb Goetzke) has taken Icarus’ father Daedalus (Jacob Mobley) hostage - and naturally, Icarus would like to fix that situation. Meanwhile, around the edges of things, the Seauthsayer (Meg Bradley) keeps saying vague, ominous, but potentially helpful things, led about on a long leash by Phemus (Tom Schultz).
“We’re not looking for anything.”
“You won’t find it here.”
And there’s the occasional run-in with ravenous hordes of Lost Souls, who are thankfully quite easily distracted by a half-eaten jar of salsa.
“You can’t always believe proof.”
“Yes. You can. That’s why they call it proof.”
Accompanying all this strangeness are comedically earnest meditations on the meaning of life, death, the afterlife, exploration, and the allure of the unknown. Nearly all the costumes are unexpected, such as Poseidon scurrying around in a T-shirt, pants and a bathrobe, or an ancient guard of the Underworld in denim overalls. Cheesy special effects make an appearance when someone runs in with an electric fan to give someone windblown hair, or they flip on a strobe light to give a moment some slow motion action. The set is deceptively simple, the company using two large orange A-frame ladders, and a shorter wooden ladder in varying configurations to conjure up Amelia’s crashed plane, or a boat for the river Styx, or a place to chain up a prisoner, or a particular passage through the mountains of the Underworld. Other areas at higher levels on the sides of the stage make for unusual places for characters to appear or pass through on their journeys.
“This isn’t hell. It’s death. It’s not the end. It’s just the beginning.”
The audience actually begins viewing the play up on the stage itself behind a curtain which will later be removed. The actors in the opening scene maneuver well through the audience that encircles them. It’s as if we aren’t even there. Each audience member is given a coin when they get their program, which they all later must pass on to Charon in order to be allowed to pass down off the stage and “take a seat in the Underworld” to watch the rest of the show. There’s also a great sight gag during Icarus’ journey with Amelia and Snook where they run into Sisyphus and… (on second thought, I won’t spoil it for you).
“We’re in so much trouble.”
“No, you’re in trouble. We’re just lost.”
Joey Hamburger, Iris Rose Page, and Michael Rogers have written the kind of smart, funny, endearingly oddball script that Sheep Theater is known for, and Michael Torsch directs the large, talented ensemble with his usual skill and aplomb. Page’s performance as Amelia is particularly winning. It’s a great character to build a show around, and it makes me wish that the title were reversed (partly because there’s another show called The Minotaur, and Sheep’s version is better, so I don’t want them getting confused; partly because, though the beast is pivotal to the show, it’s really Amelia’s story - so, Amelia Earhart Is Alive And Traveling Through the Underworld, or: The Minotaur) (or perhaps Amelia Earhart and The Minotaur’s Excellent Adventure). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful original music from company regular John Hilsen (assisted at times by the Minotaur on drums) and the great work Phil Uttech did with the lighting design in a large and incredibly variable playing space (cool backlighting every now and then, too, again for the Minotaur).
“Nothing has changed. Nothing hasn’t changed. Whoa.”
Sheep Theater just makes me feel better about theater - seeing theater, creating theater, just theater in general. The Minotaur or: Amelia Earhart Is Alive And Traveling Through the Underworld is yet another great example of that. It’s just a heck of lot of fun to watch. Go see it. Treat yourself. (runs through June 23, 2018 at In The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater)
5 stars - Very Highly Recommended
[left to right: Snook (Madeleine Rowe), Amelia (Iris Rose Page) and Icarus (Tara Lucchino) try to figure out their next move on a journey through the Underworld; photographer: Scott Pakudaitis]
Sunday, April 22, 2018
The thing that excites me most about Uprising Theatre Company is they’re telling stories I’ve never heard before. Artistic Director Shannon TL Kearns is also a prolific playwright (Uprising just staged another new play of his, The Resistance of My Skin, earlier this year). His work is a compelling window into the experience of trans people as part of the larger fabric of our society.
“The least they could do is give the dying decent coffee. It’s like they’re trying to kill us faster.”
In Uprising’s current production of Kearns’ new play Twisted Deaths, directed by Ashley Hovell, we find characters both trans and cisgendered, queer and straight, grappling with the failings of the health care system serving trans people in general, and in assisting patients of all stripes with end of life care, and what it means to truly live with a terminal diagnosis. All of that sounds like a laugh riot, I know, but despite its weighty subject matter (and title) Twisted Deaths has a lot of very welcome humor throughout, and not all of it gallows humor either. It’s a play everyone should see. It’ll make you feel more alive, and more appreciative for your life and the people in it.
“There is no cure for this. You’ll die. It’s just a matter of when.”
Ryan (Anthony Neuman) and Melissa (Jamila Joiner) are only a couple of years into their married life together, and starting to plan for children, when Ryan gets an unexpected and unwelcome diagnosis. Ryan, a trans man, has developed ovarian cancer. (I have to admit, the situation had never occurred to me as a hazard before, but of course if you still have the body parts, cancer can still lay claim to them.)
“Suddenly they’re looking at you differently. They’re searching for your history, in your hands, or your face, or your hips.”
The prognosis is unfortunately terminal. There is treatment which could possibly extend life, but there is no cure. And the additional months gained might be spent in a lot of pain. Melissa is naturally reluctant to give up the idea of any additional time together. But Ryan wants to live, and die, on his own terms and so is resisting treatment - or sharing their news with any friends that could help. The only exception to this is their mutual friend Jason (Jeff A. Miller), another trans man who runs a trans support group - something else Ryan in which resists participating. Ryan wants to live as a man, not being reminded of his difference (or his new illness).
“You’d rather hang out with an old lady who talks about God than go to trans group?”
Of course, it was the healthcare system’s issues with Ryan’s trans status that complicated his health in the first place. There is a shortage of doctors trained to deal with trans health issues. Faced with either distant treatment centers or a local unsympathetic doctor, Ryan let symptoms go untreated, which allowed the cancer to spread. The insurance company’s binary gender choices on standard forms add still more complications to the process.
“I’m dying. I get to decide. You both stay.”
“I’m dying, too.”
“Not as fast as I am.”
Finally convinced to try a cancer support group, Ryan finds a kindred spirit in Pam (Holly Windle), a widow battling liver cancer. Neither Ryan nor Pam have any patience for the complaining in the rest of the group, so they take to meeting on their own for coffee. Pam is struggling with treatment on her own since she and her adult daughter are estranged. Pam’s reliance on her religious faith is tested both by Ryan’s indifference, and the fact that the hospital chaplain is unexpectedly a woman - Heather (Kendra Alaura). Heather has issues of her own, given that she’s married to a doctor on staff at the hospital - Jen (Julia Alvarez) - but they have to keep their relationship a secret, for fear of undermining Heather’s career in the church.
“I built this body even when everyone told me not to.”
If you’re thinking, “That’s a heck of a lot to cram into one play” (even a two-act play), you’d be right. But Kearns does it. The play is not just funny and human, but also remarkably smart about the way people deal with potentially thorny issues in their relationships with one another, and in battling outside forces and systems seemingly beyond their control. Because both medicine and religion are represented onstage by people in those professions, they aren’t easily dismissed as one-dimensional villains. In addition, both Ryan and Jason represent very different sides of the trans experience. Nothing here is simple, but it’s that very complexity that makes the story, and all the characters in it, so compelling to watch.
“People are different than pets.”
“Yes. People can tell us exactly what they want.”
So many plays are about small things, it’s great to see a play about so many big things, bringing them down to a human level and characters you care about - so you’re feeling as well as thinking. It’s the best kind of theater. The design of the production is fairly simple - basic, black-painted furniture pieces and floating window frames against reflective curtains, housed inside a world of evocative sound and light created by Jake Otto. This puts the emphasis squarely on the people and the words, which serves the play well. All the performers do a great job. It’s a wonderful ensemble of actors digging into a meaty script guided by a skilled director.
“Second puberty was no joke.”
The thing about Twisted Deaths that I appreciate the most is that it doesn’t dumb anything down or sand off the rough edges of a situation to make the audience feel better. Twisted Deaths gives the audience the courtesy of telling it the truth. Sometimes medicine can’t save you, but you can find a way to save yourself, even if it means embracing death rather than fighting it. Sometimes you’ve done too much damage to those you love, and they don’t come back, even if you’re dying. Twisted Deaths is real life, rather than a soap opera version of real life. That said, I did sometimes wonder what everyone other than the minister and the doctor did for a living, where their money and resources were coming from, since they weren’t exactly dealing with minor expenses or scheduling issues.
“You don’t get to Lone Ranger this one.”
My only other quibble with Twisted Deaths is that it feels like it ends three times in the last ten minutes or so. That’s not surprising. It has a lot of points it wants to make. And that final ending is the most satisfying. But in the script’s next incarnation, it might want to try connecting the three endings, so it’s not two false starts and a finale, but one point leading into the next. So much of the play is staged, and so many of the scenes written, to just flow one into another, that this final bit of unexpected choppiness had me - and I think the rest of the audience as well - hesitant to clap until we were absolutely sure it was really and truly over (which has got to be a little unsettling for the actors waiting for a response).
“Illegal doesn’t always mean wrong.”
In addition to the play, Uprising Theatre Company also partners up on each production with community organizations working in the real world on the issues found in the play. This time around it’s Open Arms Minnesota (www.openarmsmn.org), Compassion and Choices (www.compassionandchoices.org), and Family Tree Clinic (www.familytree.org). They all have tables in the theater lobby with information and simple, actionable items which audience members can undertake for a good cause. So be sure to check in with them before and after the show, as well as at intermission.
“You’re gonna regret saying that when I’m dead.”
“Way too soon.”
Though I’m sure the story of Twisted Deaths sounds like a lot to sit through, I can assure you it’s neither overwhelming nor incredibly depressing. Instead, Twisted Deaths is a powerful (and often funny) affirmation of life, and the peace that comes from making sometimes hard decisions about the way you live the life you’re given. (runs through April 28, 2018 at the Phoenix Theater)
5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended
(Twisted Death poster art, courtesy of Uprising Theatre Company)
Review - My Barking Dog - Market Garden Theatre - A Coyote Takes Over Two People’s Lives, and Then A City - 5 stars
The “why” of a play can often elude me. There are thousands of plays out there - old and new, from any number of countries or periods of history. Why a theater company chooses to do a particular play right now, that can be a useful thing to know. Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes it’s a complete mystery. Sometimes, you have to think for a minute.
“Maybe this disemboweled squirrel is your engagement ring.”
With Market Garden Theatre’s production of Eric Coble’s play My Barking Dog, it took me a minute. Because I had to remember, “Oh, right. We haven’t always lived like this. It won’t always be like this.” We used to live in a country where serious people were trying to address large, systemic problems like criminal justice reform, and climate change, and voter suppression, and community policing. Now every day we either start off with the thought, “what crazy, corrupt thing did they do overnight while I was asleep?” or “you know, just wake me again when this nonsense is over.” Because the world doesn’t revolve around Washington, DC. It keeps moving and changing whether we’re keeping an eye on it or not, whether we’re doing anything about it or not. So the intriguing issues at the heart of the play My Barking Dog will still need addressing, when the current political storms have passed. My Barking Dog is actually a great reminder that there’s a wider world out there, if we’re paying attention.
“I don’t even know what I’m saying. I don’t speak coyote.”
Eric Coble’s 90-minute play starts off as two dueling monologues. The characters actually don’t speak to each other and share a scene until 30 minutes in. After that, they still have their moments alone, but My Barking Dog then becomes a shared story. The whole thing wouldn’t work nearly as well if director Lucas Skjaret hadn’t chosen the two actors he did to tell the story. Victoria Pyan portrays Melinda, who works for a printing company, loading the paper into the machines, more than happy to take night shifts and holidays and have the factory all to herself. Mike Swan portrays Toby, who is currently unemployed and searching for work - except it’s the “white privilege” version of unemployed where he still has the resources somehow to continue to rent an apartment and feed himself while he hijacks his neighbors’ wi-fi signals for internet access. Just as I’m starting to wonder how much longer I’m going to remain interested in these isolated people, no matter how clever the script or compelling the performances, a coyote appears.
“The Wild Needs A Home, Too.”
We never see the coyote, but the unseen animal is always clearly visible to the human characters on stage. They follow it with their eyes. They communicate with it. They leave food out for it. Then things get weird. Seriously weird. Spoiler alert weird, so I won’t go into too much detail except to say that the coyote brings Melinda and Toby together (no, not that way) and gives them each a new mission in life. Neither of these missions are expected - or even in the mainstream of human thought. In fact, they’re both in their own way kind of nuts, and yet they’re also both interesting as hell to watch unfold. Essentially, My Barking Dog is asking the question, are the coyotes, and nature in general, encroaching on human cities - or are humans the interlopers, and the animals are just taking back what’s theirs? If it’s the latter, how much should humans be fighting the animals? And should they instead be helping them?
“Nothing prepares the earth for new life like a layer of ash.”
My Barking Dog is a surprisingly simple production. It’s just the two actors, and for Leazah Behrens’ scene design, a couple of silver chairs, and a painting of a cityscape on the wall of the space. Lighting designer Jacob Lee Hofer does some of the heavy lifting of defining areas and setting time and place. There are no props to speak of, just a lot of convincing miming of items and tasks. That puts the focus on things like costumes, as layers start to come off, and the use of colored chalk on the floor in the final thirty minutes. The blue chalk lines not only cover the floor, and scrawl graffiti across the cityscape, the chalk dust quickly starts to cover the clothing and skin of the characters. The production is in the studio space at the Crane Theater which, six months on, still has a lot of the same sound bleed problems it did back when I saw Sing To Me Now last fall. Their opening weekend has competition from another show across the hall on the main stage; the next week, they have the theater to themselves. Until then, it’s hard to really hear and appreciate the full sound design created by Kassia Lisinski. What I could hear was helpful to the story.
“It might not all be accurate but it’s all true.”
Market Garden Theatre is doing a bit of public service with My Barking Dog. As surreal as the story is, they manage to tell the story in a way that gets the audience to plug back into the concerns of what the world was once like, and fortunes willing, will be again. Wonder what it’s like surrendering to or collaborating with nature? My Barking Dog will have you thinking about it in ways you never expected. (plays through April 29, 2018)
5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended
(Victoria Pyan and Mike Swan in My Barking Dog, photo courtesy of Market Garden Theatre)
Friday, March 23, 2018
If you haven’t seen a play written by Patrick Coyle (and since he’s been doing most of his writing work in independent film in recent years - Detective Fiction, Into Temptation, and Public Domain - his plays have been harder to find), the new theater company Life-Sized Meme has a treat for you. Coyle’s latest play, Year of Bad Men, described as a femme noir, is playing this weekend at the Phoenix Theater. I’ll be honest, Patrick Coyle is a friend of mine, and I’ve been a fan of his work as both a writer and an actor for a long time, so consider the source. But there’s a reason I’m such a fan - the work is great. And that talent is on full display in Year of Bad Men.
“You owe me a life.”
Life-Sized Meme put out a call for scripts and got over 300 of them from quite literally all over the world. The reason they chose Coyle’s play isn’t because he’s local, it’s because the play’s so good. And Life-Sized Meme has put the play front and center in the production. I know that sounds like a weird thing to say (don’t all productions put the script front and center?) - but sometimes a theater company will get so involved in its vision for the production that the play can get lost. Not so here. Director Stephanie Alexander and her delightful team of actors really dig into Coyle’s script and enjoy themselves. The plot is twisty and funny and deeply weird, but it’s not just a jigsaw puzzle. There are human beings bumping into one another here that have major issues and conflicted emotions that make the ideas of justice and escape and forgiveness and revenge seem very dangerous. Year of Bad Men is the kind of play where it’s fun just to strap in and hang on for the ride.
“You’re not wanted by the law, are you?”
“I’m a middle school history teacher.”
That ride centers on Tommy Gallagher (Adam Harfield) and the two women who suddenly appear in his life with very different agendas - Mary Sullivan (Stephanie Coffield) and Kim Porter (Haley Hubbard). Mary is a middle school history teacher with a doozy of a secret who sublets an apartment from touring musician Jason Grant (William Bridger Adkison), right across the street from Tommy so she can watch him, and he can see her as well. Mary’s aggressive (and successful) campaign to pull Tommy into a torrid physical relationship gets him to set his moving plans aside and stay put for a while. Which is handy for Kim, because she’s also trying to track Tommy down - turns out he’s her biological father. Kim enlists the aid of a friendly gay barista named Henry Shier (Adri Mehra), who gives her a couch to sleep on, and tips on how to also land a job at the coffee shop working for Bobby Clayton (Al Fiene). All the activity in her buildings makes manager Samantha Rose (Ellen Apel) curious enough to call in her private investigator friend Shelly Wasserman (Heidi Ricks) to learn more about Tommy and Mary. This results in one of the more hilarious info dumps of exposition in recent memory at the top of act two.
“Do you believe people can change?”
“I haven’t seen much evidence of that in my life.”
The danger of these kind of plot-twist-heavy sorts of stories, full of secrets and lies, is that the plot can sometimes overwhelm the characters. Thanks to the script, a great group of actors, and sure-handed direction, Year of Bad Men manages to avoid this pitfall nearly all the time. They also all manage the tricky balancing act of keeping the sense of dread alive at the same time hanging out with these characters is also a lot of fun. And the story isn’t satisfied with just serving up surprises at the end - it wants you to feel for the characters as well.
“The next day I cleaned my car, and forgot about her.”
That said, the character of Kim can get a little lost in the weeds sometimes - this seems to be a script rather than an acting issue. While I appreciate the inclusion of the gay character of Henry, his boyfriend is conveniently off stage and out of the country, so it’s the heterosexuals that get all the sex, and the headaches that come with it. Much of the time Henry and coffee shop owner Bobby serve a lot of the same functions in Kim’s story, so I wonder about the necessity for both of them. One or the other, but not both, might give Kim’s character a little more room to breathe. And a lot of Kim’s subterfuge seems disconnected from her mission, unlike Mary’s. Again, less stuff layered on top of Kim’s story might have given the emotional center of her mission more space to take on the weight it deserves.
“I will never ever lie to you, on one condition. You never ask me any questions.”
Also, as a new company that clearly values new plays and living (even local) writers, just a tip for Life-Sized Meme: the playwright gets listed before the director. Take a look at the websites and programs of nearly any theater in town - large or small. Playwrights - female or male, living or dead - get listed after the title, then the director. Because, as Life-Sized Meme knows, without a writer, you don’t have a script (unless it’s a company-created work, and that’s a whole other can of worms). It’s both a little thing, and not a little thing. (Also, inviting the writer to a couple of rehearsals, particularly at the beginning, can help in unexpected ways - like getting that marijuana/potpourri joke to land better and sound deliberate rather than like a mispronunciation.)
“I used to work for the carnival.”
Shout-out to the lighting designer Mary “Poff” Southern and sound designer Taylor Jedlinski, who along with the tireless and speedy work from the stage management/run crew team of Jason Paul Gaarder, Matthew Pitts, and Kya Fischer, keep the action moving smoothly among the play’s many locations (which is no small miracle). The light through Mary’s window is particularly evocative, and director Alexander’s staging makes what could possibly be a confusing set-up physically instead very easy to follow and understand. (The magic of theater.)
“You’re very kind.”
Year of Bad Men is an entertaining play done very, very well. I’m already looking forward to more from Patrick Coyle, and Life-Sized Meme. Catch this one while you can, one weekend only. Final three performances are tonight, Friday, March 23 at 7:30pm, and two shows on Saturday, March 24th, 2:30pm and 7:30pm, at the Phoenix Theater. (Oh, and if you walk in a little late and there’s some Bollywood-inspired improv comedy going on, don’t worry, you’re in the right place. Life-Sized Meme called in Bollyprov to be an opening act.)
4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended