Sunday, April 22, 2018

Review - Twisted Deaths - Uprising Theatre - So, A Trans Man Gets Ovarian Cancer… - 5 stars

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 (, Compassion and Choices (, and Family Tree Clinic (  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.”
“Too soon?”
“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)