Sunday, June 17, 2018

Review - Fellow Travelers - Minnesota Opera - Some Light In a Dark Time - 5 stars

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] 

Review - Room Enough - Flannel Mafia Theatre Group - Mom Vs. Gay Love? - 4 stars

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?”
“The bathroom?”

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]