Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Thanks to those who remain anonymous, for helping us in our time of need

It's been a week since Mom's memorial service.

I've been back in Minneapolis since last Friday afternoon.

I'm getting back to the previous "To Do" list, alongside the new one since her death, checking off one item at at time.

Today, I wanted to reach out to all the Go Fund Me donors, who made my extended time with Mom in May and June possible.  As it turns out, those were our last days together, though none of us knew that at the time.

I had emails for nearly everyone, and could reach out via Facebook to a handful more that I didn't have current email addresses for.

That left just one group unreached: the eight anonymous donors.

Eight people gave and didn't desire any recognition.

But they deserve thanks all the same.  They made my time with Mom possible in her final days, just as much as those whose names I know.

A good rule of thumb would be to try to live my life in general as if everyone I encounter could be those eight anonymous supporters.

Treat everyone as if they were an anonymous donor to your Go Fund Me campaign, during the darkest time in your life, when the need was greatest.

So here's the email you would have gotten from me, if I knew who you were, and how to reach you:

"Thanks so much for your support of me and my family in this difficult time through the Go Fund Me campaign. 

Though we thought that the treatment was going to buy us more time, due to unexpected complications, my mother Beverlee died on July 1st.

I had only just been back at my jobs in Minneapolis for a week and a half, and had just started to send out thank you notes to the Go Fund Me donors, when the unfortunate news of her passing scrambled the schedule again.

Now, even more than before, I appreciate your gift in a whole new light.  Your gift gave me the ability to spend more time in Pennsylvania, supporting Mom during her time in the hospital and transition to rehab, radiation and chemotherapy.  Money literally bought me more time with her, which she greatly appreciated.  And now that extra time with her takes on even greater significance, as they were our last days together.

Your support also allowed me to share some of the burdens with my brother Mark, taking care of the financial and medical paperwork that needed doing (and which I will continue to assist with remotely now when I return again to Minnesota, as we will need to sell the house and settle Mom’s accounts).  Those weeks we had, due to your gift, made a big difference being able to advocate for Mom and her care, face-to-face with people on site.  Those contacts made this new phase of remote work more possible.

In addition to allowing me to stay longer in Pennsylvania with Mom and my brother, your contribution also helped pay for Lyft rides to and from the Parkhouse Nursing and Rehab facility on days when my brother Mark was at work and I was without a vehicle.  It allowed me to visit and support Mom on a daily basis.  Again, your money bought us precious time together.

Your support also enabled me to rent a moving truck, and pay for assistance in the loading and unloading of the vehicle.  It allowed me to load up the family piano that Mom and I had been working the last couple of years to figure out a way to transfer from her home to mine.  The truck also carried Mom’s files - so I can continue to do the work of managing her finances and medical paperwork back in Minneapolis.  The truck also preserved and transported Mom’s biblical reference library, and helped me finally clear out the last of a storage closet in the loft back at home (all the stuff that didn’t make the cut for the original trip out to Minneapolis to start my life there; and needed to be cleared out to help prepare for the sale of the house).

It means a great deal to me (and the family) that you helped make all this possible.  You helped lighten the load we carry in this dark time, and focus on the quality of the time we had left together.

Fair warning, the next time I see you, I’ll probably end up crying.  I hold it together pretty well until someone does something nice for us - whether that be a kind word, a card, a prayer, food, or, in this instance, financial support that made all of these logistics less daunting.  Then I’m a puddle in short order.  It’s hard to type this without crying, to be honest.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for making a terrible time for our family just a little bit easier to bear.

We’ll never be able to adequately express how much your support means to all three of us.

On behalf of Mom and my brother Mark, and of course myself, thank you again."

Monday, June 03, 2019

Family Update: One Way You Can Help...

UPDATE 6/3/2019: Here's what the Go Fund Me campaign is helping me to do:

Mom's settled at Parkhouse Nursing and Rehabilitation - in order to keep that going, I need to finish filing her taxes, so I have part of the pile of paperwork resources necessary to apply for Medicaid (project 1); the house needs to be sold, so the house needs to be cleared out sooner rather than later, so I'll be here another two weeks sorting and packing to load up a rental truck to road trip back to Minnesota with me - there'll be professional help needed to get certain items loaded and unloaded, plus the cost of the truck, gas, an overnight in a hotel, etc. (project 2).

Mom's doing OK in her new surroundings, and the radiation treatments start next week, so that's a blessing - took us the whole month of May and nearly half of June to get there.  Just a lot of work yet to do, to get from Pennsylvania back to Minnesota.  The support work long distance to the family will, of course, continue (managing the finances, processing the paperwork, advocating for Mom's care over the phone, the sale of the house), but at least I'll be back at the two jobs earning money again.

Anything you can do to help, either spreading word of the campaign below, or throwing in a couple of bucks yourself, is appreciated.

All my thanks and gratitude to those who have given and helped spread the word so far.  You've made me cry in a good way, for which I'm grateful.  When the dust settles, I'll reach out personally with thanks to each of you.  It means a lot.

Further details below:

ORIGINAL POST 5/21/2019: Feels a little weird to do this, to be honest, but this is the situation we're in.

I'm still in Pennsylvania helping my family deal with the fact that my mother has a brain tumor - which is inoperable, and even with treatment probably gives her at best 12 months.

Here's the Caring Bridge page on the situation: https://www.caringbridge.org/public/beverleeeverett

On top of mom's health, there's the finances, and the house, all of which need to be dealt with at once (oh, and yes, the grieving before, during and after, which most days I can't really allow myself to factor in or I couldn't function). 

I'm going to need another week or so here to wrap my arms around the whole thing and get some systems in place. Then I will also need to return, probably once a month, to continue dealing in person with things that can't be done remotely by phone or online from Minnesota. So plane or train tickets, moving trucks, plus the lost income from my second job during those times away, where I've already used up what PTO I had (and where it's not possible for anyone to donate me theirs, much as they might want to). 

So my friend Carolyn has set up this Go Fund Me campaign to help raise money to support me in getting these tasks accomplished.

Here's the link - https://www.gofundme.com/supporting-matthew-everett

I realize things are tough all over these days, so if you can't give, no worries. Just spreading the word of the campaign to others is helpful. Even words of support we've received have been enormously helpful. But if you can give, even a little, it's greatly appreciated. 

(Photo, my brother Mark taking advantage of a sunny day while Mom was still at Phoenixville Hospital to get her outside for a bit)

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Family Update: Good News, Bad News...

Dad, surprisingly, is still with us, doing his daily thing.  Unfortunately, now Mom took a quite unexpected hit in the health department last week, so I'm back home in Pennsylvania, trying to help sort things out.  There's a Caring Bridge site up for Mom - https://www.caringbridge.org/public/beverleeeverett.  Check there for details.  All good thoughts, wishes and prayers are welcome at this point.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Review - Marjorie Prime - Prime Productions - A Better Production Than The Sript Deserves - 3 stars

I should get this out of the way up front.  Prime Productions’ presentation of Jordan Harrison’s play Marjorie Prime is a better production than the script deserves.  Director Elena Giannetti and her cast of four (which now that I think about it, weirdly feels like a cast of six since a couple of people are doing a very convincing job portraying two different characters with the same name and face) all do great work.  Candace Barrett Birk, James Rodriguez, Laura Stearns and Andre Shoals all breathe more humanity and emotion into their characters than the script seems inclined to give them.  The design team of Amy B. Kaufman (costumes), Michael P. Kittel (lights), Katie Korpi (sound), and Joseph Stanley (set) all work well together at creating a time not all that far removed from our own - just a few decades in the future.  Everything looks just familiar enough and just different enough at the same time, that you buy the situation taking place.  After all, the technology already exists today - our bank accounts and imagination just need to catch up.  The future’s a lot closer than we think, which is part of Marjorie Prime’s point. 

“I just don’t know why we have to keep each other alive for so long”

Prime Productions always puts on an impressive show.  I was a big fan of their first outing, Little Wars (though after other theater critics pointed out the historical inaccuracies I was too ill-informed to catch myself, I was a bit chagrined).  Their second production, Tira Palmquist’s Two Degrees, was a show I didn’t need to be embarrassed about after the fact - great (accurate) script (both logically and emotionally), and equally great performances and design.  Unfortunately, a male playwright lets them down again here with Marjorie Prime - which is unexpected, because Marjorie Prime was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2015.  But the more I think about the script, the angrier it makes me.  So, if you don’t care about me wrestling with my response to a troublesome text, and all you care about is good acting and a convincing world onstage, skip the rest of the review and go see Marjorie Prime.  Prime Productions is a company worth supporting, and they always gather together a talented group of collaborators.  This production is no different.

“Does it bother you that she’s talking to a computer, or a computer that’s pretending to be your dad?”

It pains me to lay the troubles of a production at the feet of the playwright, but there’s nowhere else to put the blame with Marjorie Prime.  Fascinating idea, shoddy execution.  In fact, the first problem is that there’s way too many ideas crammed into less than 90 minutes.  Any single plot strand in this script could easily blossom into a full length play with two acts and an intermission.  But the playwright doesn’t seem interested in doing any of the emotional homework for his characters.  Marjorie Prime skims over the surface of topics like aging, memory, parenting, marriage, death, grieving, and suicide (you know, the little things) and doesn’t fully explore any of them.  Most of the time, it feels like the playwright is just jerking the audience around, poking emotional sensitive spots (sometimes hard) and then moving swiftly on with little explanation and no resolution.

“I guess it’s a good thing we don’t have that button.  We wouldn’t last very long.”

Marjorie (Candace Barrett Birk) has grown forgetful in her declining years and has moved in with her adult daughter Tess (Laura Stearns) and Tess’ husband Jon (Andre Shoals).  The futuristic twist here is that Marjorie’s late husband Walter (James Rodriguez) has been recreated via computer program as a holographic projection to keep her company, and also to help jog her memory.  Marjorie realizes that this version of Walter, known as Walter Prime, isn’t literally real.  He’s built only of the memories Marjorie, Tess and Jon have given him, and he’s also a much younger version of Walter than Marjorie last saw in his real life.  But he’s still comforting company to have around when Tess and Jon aren’t available.

“How much does she have to forget before she’s not your mom anymore?”

Widow Marjorie, a computer version of her late husband Walter, who is also Tess’ dead father.  That trio right there has tons of potential to sift through, even without Jon in the mix.  But we’ve barely established that scenario when the play is on to the next one.

“You were making a joke about the size of his penis, but also the ring.”

When Marjorie inevitably dies, and Tess needs some help coping with the transition, a Marjorie Prime is created, so Tess can try to work through some of her unresolved issues with her mother.  But Marjorie Prime is only as useful as the knowledge you give her.  If you’re selective in the memories you feed her, she can’t offer all the comfort you might need.

“You make us kill him all over again.”

I can tell you the exact moment Marjorie Prime lost me.  Jon and Tess are having a painful argument that involves a number of unresolved family issues.  And Jon up until this point has been just the type of supportive husband one might wish for in difficult times.  But he suddenly says to Tess, essentially, your mom’s been dead a year, you can’t grieve forever.

Excuse me?  A year?  You’re getting impatient with your wife mourning her dead mother at the one year mark?  Her father’s already dead.  Now her mother is, too.  The two people who knew her from before the moment she was born into her adulthood, her marriage, and the birth and raising of her own three children.  People mourn short ill-fated relationships longer than a year.  Some religious traditions don’t even put in a headstone on the gravesite until a year has passed.  Not because mourning is over at that point, but because the grieving process is moving into a new phase.

“You can’t keep sifting through her letters and polishing her tea sets.”  Uh, yeah she can, Jon.  Yeah, she can.  And it’s not even necessarily unhealthy if she does.

Either no one close to the playwright has ever died, or they’re not dealing honestly on the page with the human experience of grief.  Either way, the play falls down a hole at this point and never climbs out.

“We both know what ‘no dishes’ means.”

Then it compounds this offense with an attitude toward aging that is truly baffling.  It was already bad enough that thus far we only had poor Marjorie and her failing memory, sitting all alone in her room with only a computerized rewrite of her young husband for company, not seeing the point in eating anymore, as our sole representation of what getting older looks like.  Then, in the middle of this argument where Tess is being told to just get over her grief already, Tess fires back with the assessment that now, in her mid-fifties, life is essentially over.  Obviously, Tess is in pain, still feeling the loss of her mother.  Also, Tess is estranged from her own adult daughter, and that clearly hurts her a great deal.  But, up until just a few lines ago in the script, she appeared to be married to a caring spouse.  Now there's no point in living.  It's all downhill from middle age to death. 

“She’s made of things we say to her.”

Tess is also haunted by the thought that perhaps she'd been just selfishly trying to keep Marjorie alive long past the point where her mother wanted to go.  I get that.  If you're dealing with end of life care for a loved one, that doubt constantly nags at you.  Nurses regularly need to tell families, trust me, when they want to go, they'll go, there's nothing you can do to stop them.  (If you've had friends who committed suicide, you realize that's true at any age.)  But once you reach your fifties, your kids are grown and your parents are buried, you're just waiting to die?  Seriously?  That’s the message this play has for us?  Because it doesn’t do anything to debate that assertion - that seems to be part of its thesis.

“For a while it was always Julia Roberts.”

I don't mean to make light of the existential crisis poor Tess is suffering through.  But the playwright does.  There's no counterargument for Tess' declaration because the playwright has refused to give her a life.  We don't really get to see Tess' relationship with her mother, her father, her husband or her children.  A litany of exposition and things that have happened offstage are reported to us, but we don't really get to see Tess engage with anyone or live her life.  Same goes for any of the other characters, honestly.  They might as well all be holographic copies of humans.  There's no genuine human interaction here, despite the valiant efforts of the actors involved.  Everyone's just hostage to a conceit to which the playwright has committed himself.  They have no mind or heart or life of their own.  They're barely programmed with enough memories by the playwright for us to buy them as human.

“I can help you, if you let me.”

I'm not going to dwell on the subject of suicide because God knows the playwright doesn't bother to, but I have to say that using something like suicide as little more than a plot device, then doing it more than once, and tossing the death of an animal on the pile for good measure, is cheap, manipulative, and disgusting.

“I’ll be right here, Marjorie.  Whenever you need.  We have all the time in the world.”

The thing is, Jordan Harrison is not a bad playwright.  His biography is a well-earned exercise in name-dropping - pretty much every significant grant, fellowship, regional theater you could name, they're in there.  I've seen two other plays he's written which were produced locally by theater companies I respect and admire.  The guy knows how to create a theatrical premise.  The guy knows how to write a telling line of dialogue.  The guy knows the tricks that theater can do and he's adept at using them.  Bad playwriting doesn't offend me nearly as much as lazy, careless playwriting does.  

“Of course it helps that we want to believe.”

To top it all off, the final scene just made me realize that the rules of how the Primes work are never fully laid out.  The scenario of that last conversation is intriguing, but the way it plays out just leaves you with more questions than answers.  The more you try to figure out a way it would make sense, the less sense it makes.  And it's completely devoid of actual humans,  so in the end why should we care?  I've got a little bit of the sci fi nerd in me.  I want this premise  to work, I really do.  It's got so much potential.  I'm willing to meet it more than halfway.  But the writer can't be bothered.

“How nice that I could love somebody.”

Marjorie Prime is grappling with countless big, meaty issues related to life and death and the meaning of both.  But it feels like the writer can't sit still long enough with any one situation or relationship in the play in order to explore them adequately.  It's an intellectual exercise rather than a fully human, emotional one.  And that's frankly a waste of everyone's time.  You have live human beings on stage.  Let them be human.  Let us see ourselves in the characters and their struggles.  Let us feel.  Don't just tell us how to feel, or push us into feeling something not fully earned, just because you can.

“Now penguins are all that’s left of them.”

I'm sure there are people who would argue with me strenuously about this.  Certainly all the folks at Prime Productions found the play worthy of their time and investment, and they are using all the artistic muscle they have at their disposal to make the play work.  To reiterate what I mentioned in passing at the beginning, the work by Candace Barrett Birk and Laura Stearns as both the human and Prime versions of Marjorie and Tess in particular is really great stuff.  Subtle shadings of difference that, in conjunction with the way their castmates interact with the two different versions of them, are quite impressive.  My hat's off to them and Elena Giannetti in her direction of them.  They really get the most out of that dual character opportunity.  And overall, Marjorie Prime is an admirable effort from a production standpoint.  I just wish I could believe, as Prime does, that Marjorie Prime the script was worth the effort.  See it for yourself, maybe you'll wonder what I'm getting so worked up about.  As with all theater, your mileage may vary.  (Marjorie Prime runs through May 19, 2019, on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage at Park Square Theatre)

3 Stars - Good Job

[Marjorie (Candace Barrett Birk) and Walter Prime (James Rodriguez) in Prime Productions' Marjorie Prime, photo by Devon Cox]

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Review - The Golden Record Project - Sandbox Theatre - Got Hope? Need Hope? - 5 stars

In 1977, NASA launched the two Voyager spacecraft off toward the far reaches of outer space.  On board each Voyager was a record player and two golden records (one with visual instructions on how to the play the other, full of the sounds of the different peoples of Earth).  This was our “hello” to any alien race who might find it and perhaps, by extension, us.  Those two spacecraft are still out there, somewhere, today.  42 years later, in a little storefront space beyond uptown in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the United States of America on planet Earth, Sandbox Theatre called a group of visual, musical and performing artists together to ponder what it all means in The Golden Record Project.  That hopeful gesture by NASA has spawned an equally hopeful piece of theater, and you gotta be grateful for some hope wherever you find it.

You don’t need to know anything about the Golden Records in order to enjoy the project.  The Sandbox studio space provides all the context you need to play along.  It’s sort of part theater, part dance, part art exhibit, part audio visual trip down memory lane.  All the artists involved in The Golden Record Project unabashedly geek out on the subject while also making it clear they understand (a little sheepishly) just how much they’re geeking out about it.  Which just makes the whole thing seem that much more charming and sweet, and draws you in that much deeper.

Company members in white lab coats greet you at the door to what has been renamed the Standish-Ericsson Golden Record Preservation Society of the Twin Cities and Greater Metro Area (or S.E.G.R.P.S.T.C.G.M.A.) Museum.  You are provided a lanyard with numbered badge (which will become important later) and allowed to wander anywhere that isn’t curtained off as you await the start of the tour/show.  There’s a lot to see, and they give you time, but I’d urge you to budget yourself some extra time before and after the show to look around and interact with the exhibits.  There’s much fun to be had.  For example, there’s art on the walls inspired by the Golden Records.  There’s also an iPod playing the full contents of the Golden Records which you can listen to on a number of old school headphones hanging nearby - feel free to flip through the tracks to get a sense of the scope of the sounds shared.  Along one of the walls is a rendering of the solar system to give a sense of scale to the first part of the Voyagers’ journey.  Models of the spacecraft hang in various spots throughout the space.

In the spirit of celebrating 20th century technology, there’s lots of old school tech to play with as you ingest information about the NASA project.  A slide carousel and projection box, which you operate manually by pushing a button to advance the slides, provides a visual history of space travel, with accompanying music and narration on a cassette tape recorder with headphones sitting next to the projector.  A VCR plays a video cassette with a message (recorded over an old episode of Oprah’s talk show) from NASA interns making the case for different musical tastes in compiling the golden records - where was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors or Stevie Wonder’s Songs In the Key of Life?  Helpful instructions for operation are affixed to clipboards, for those who haven’t used a VCR or slide projector in a while.  More 21st century-style screens provide a video tribute to Carl Sagan - the noted astronomer who helped lead the project for NASA, and a primer to put both the vast stretches of distance and time involved in the Voyagers’ journey in a more understandable (and amusing) context.

Around the corner from the Carl Sagan Memorial Hallway, is a room that is outfitted more like an alien spaceship.  Inside are more exhibits, including an animated depiction of the Voyagers’ journey from Earth through the rest of our solar system and on out into deep space.  There’s also a Carl Sagan kit in the form of a briefcase which you are encouraged to root around in - peruse the items inside, and the contents of the folders and envelopes within.  Not wanting to provide too many spoilers, I’ll just say if you search, there’s a little green man hiding in that briefcase who is quite adorable and made me chuckle.

Since there’s an opening, you can walk around the curtain separating the alien spaceship area from the final space at the back, a 1970s style room (complete with lava lamp) with lots of spaces to sit and lounge around (and more unusual books and such to take a peek at).  During the pre-show time, you have the benefit of Theo Langason on guitar, singing his own compositions, and he can be heard throughout the “museum” so it makes for a nice atmosphere as people wander.  And this is all *before* the “show” part of the evening kicks in.

After everyone gets at least a little bit of time to wander, a tour guide (Elizabeth Horab) gathers everyone in the entryway for a quick overview (about which she’s very enthusiastic).  While this is going on, the rest of the team is preparing the studio behind us for the performance part of the evening.  The attendees are then split into two groups, based on their badges, and ushered to their assigned seats in either the alien or the 1970s area.  There are projections on the curtain between the two areas - of shadow, video and pictures - which both “rooms” can see.  The action trades back and forth between the two areas, but even if the 1970s crowd can’t see the action being performed for the alien crowd next door, they can hear it, and vice versa.  You might think such a setup would be frustrating or confusing, but the overall setting is so intimate, and everything is so clearly heard, that it works quite well.  If anything, it makes you pay closer attention, and appreciate the little details you might otherwise miss.

In the 1970s, the Golden Record project’s other leader, Ann Druyan (McKenna Kelly-Eiding) is pitching the idea to NASA scientists and seeing it through to its fruition.  In the alien environment, a cosmic junk collector named Kar-El (Ajuawak Kapashesit), who has his own interstellar YouTube-style video channel, comes into possession of the Golden Records but has no idea at first what they are or what to do with them.  Druyan’s planning of the project vs. Kar-El’s perception of the project’s end result make for some amusing moments of miscommunication.  Even when Kar-El discovers how to listen to the record, his interpretation of the contents don’t always match up with Druyan’s intent.  There are interludes where our tour guide returns, and also a lovely moment where the curtain between the spaces goes away, and there is a kind of contact across space and time.

Project lead Kristina Fjellman and director Peter Heeringa have assembled a team of collaborators who together create a delightfully immersive environment for The Golden Record Project.  The audience gets to spend just enough time taking in the full scope of the Voyager experiment that when the performance begins and takes it down to a more individual, human (alien) level, we don’t forget the larger universe in which it exists.  In addition to the musician and performers, there’s also a team of fabrication/installation people (Nicole DelPIzzo, Holly Streekstra), one on fabrication and costumes (Mandi Johnson - and if it’s the 1970s, there must be macrame involved), four more billed as creation assistants (Evelyn Digirolamo, Megan Lagas, Henry (Hal) Ellen Sansone, and Heather Stone), and one on audio/installation (Morgan Schoonover).  It’s easy to see the large team at work here, because every station throughout the museum is carefully crafted.  There’s so much detail, in fact, that you’d be hard-pressed to process it all in a single sitting.  Which is kind of the point.  Sandbox wants to incite your curiosity on the subject, since there’s so much more out there to learn, and ponder.

And part of the larger question is not just how our world has changed in those forty-plus years that the Voyagers have been hurtling through space but, if we did something like this again, what would we send?  What would be the representative sights and sounds we would use to sum up our lives and our world today?  Could we be as hopeful?  Could we find that common purpose, that unified voice?  What would it say? What would we want other planets to hear about Earth?  (If you’ve got an idea, the Standish-Ericsson Golden Record Preservation Society of the Twin Cities and Greater Metro Area  would love to hear it.  They have a number you can call (612-234-2402) and contribute to their new time capsule by recording your own message for the universe.)

Sandbox Theatre’s The Golden Record Project is a great way to get your head out of the day to day minutiae and small-minded concerns and really think bigger - like, “the entire universe and our place in it” bigger.  And it really does leave you strangely hopeful, that such things happened, and are still happening, and could happen again.  The Golden Record Project is an intimate, finely crafted, escape.  It has all the trappings of some strange hybrid, but it really does what theater does at its best, create a new world and put you right in the middle of it.

The intimacy means it may be hard to get a ticket - they only take in 12 audience members per show (and some are already sold out), but I’d strongly urge people to try and get one of those spots in the remaining performances.  If you need a little hope right now (and don’t we all?), The Golden Record Project really delivers.  You’ll feel a little better about being a human, and about our chances for surviving.  (Running now through May 4, 2019, at the Sandbox Theater studio space)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Fair Warning: Rant Ahead -

I learned the other day that someone I knew drank themselves to death. Slowly, steadily, over a period of years, consumed so much alcohol that they destroyed their own body from the inside out.

And I am angry. Because I blame their parents.

This person was queer, and their parents did not accept them. They did not cut their child out of their life, but they did something that is arguably worse. They poisoned their child’s own mind against themselves.

Their constant disappointment and disapproval, their withholding of unconditional love for their child, crippled that child emotionally. That child never stopped hoping, never stopped trying, to reach those cold and distant parents. But that child could not be straight and didn’t try to be.

I hope it gave this person comfort that their family was with them at the end.

But I hope it gave the family no comfort.

Because they are responsible.

There are days when I wonder if I really need to keep writing queer stories, if we still need to hear them. And then I get news of bullsh*t like this.

You know when I’m going to feel like I can stop writing queer stories?

When parents stop killing their children.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Review - The Cradle Will Rock - Frank Theatre - I Want To Believe, I Really Do - 4.5 stars

It’s hard to think of a more perfect match of theater and material than Frank Theatre and their remount of the 1930s pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock.  Musical theater as a genre isn’t the first thing that would spring to my mind as a good fit for Frank, but The Cradle Will Rock is pretty much tailor-made for Frank Theatre’s brand of brazen political theatricality.  Writer/composer Marc Blitzstein’s self-described “play with music,” born out of the Depression era WPA’s Federal Theater project, is more a product of the rhythm of words than catchy melodies.  It’s challenging material, but director Wendy Knox, musical director (and accompanist) Sonja Thompson, and their talented ensemble is more than up to the task.

“You have no idea how it felt thinking there was a nickel under my foot.”

Set in a down on its luck Steeltown USA on the night of a big union vote by the steelworkers and other factory employees, the police are rounding up anyone who looks like potential trouble.  Mr. Mister (John Cutler), the big businessman in town, is trying to keep the workers from combining their collective power into a union that would challenge his control over them.  So he’s used his influence over the cops to try and break up any gatherings of people.  The sweep misfires, however, and scoops up the newly formed Liberty Committee of influential citizens who are already very much under Mr. Mister’s sway.  They had gathered to disrupt the union organizer’s speech and ended up in jail instead. 

“I belong with those people.  I sold out, too.  I sold out my boy, and two others with him.”

The union organizer, Larry Foreman (Carl Schoenborn), is getting a very thorough interrogation himself.  Meanwhile, a part-time streetwalker Moll (Kate Beahen), who sells her body so she can eat on the days her regular part-time job isn’t earning her money for food, is also in a holding cell.  She finds herself sharing a bench with Harry Druggist (JP Fitzgibbons), a pharmacist who’s turned to the bottle after losing both his drug store and his son Stevie (David Wasserman) in the same horrible accident.

“Where is the man who made the speech?!”

Harry recounts for Moll all the many stories that prove each member of the supposedly upstanding Liberty Committee has prostituted themselves far more that Moll ever has.  The man they all sacrificed their virtues to was Mr. Mister, or a member of his extended wealthy family - wife Mrs. Mister (Molly Sue McDonald), and their children Junior Mister (Sasha Andreev) and Sister Mister (Chelsie Newhard).  The good Reverend Salvation (Joe Nathan Thomas) is persuaded by generous donations to preach either against or in favor of going to war, depending on what’s good for business.  Newspaper Editor Daily (Bob Beverage) provides favorable news coverage to the paper’s new owner Mr. Mister, as well as getting Junior out of town on assignment.  Dr. Specialist (also Sasha Andreev) doctors some medical reports as necessary for various cover-ups.  Artists in search of a patron, Dauber (Hector Chavarria) and Yasha (Scotty Reynolds), suffer the attentions (and artistic pretensions) of the rich in order to get their cash.  And college President Prexy (Gillian Constable) finds a suitable academic shill for Mr. Mister’s pet causes in order to secure funds for education.  (The ensemble of cops, reporters and other citizens is rounded out by Maria Asp, Thalia Kostman, Cameron Reeves and Allison Witham.)

“It seems that peace may be a little expensive.”

And, mind you, these flashbacks and present day unrest all take place through singing.  Which is nuts, and kind of dazzling to watch them all pull off in just 90 minutes.  The one real challenge of the piece is its allegorical nature.  You can tell by the names of characters above that everyone’s an archetype.  They’re not quite real people.  Blitzstein isn’t interested in exploring the depths of psychological realism.  He doesn’t care how these people got to be who they are, they just are.  This is the mess that Steeltown, USA is in - now what are we going to do to fix it?  That’s what matters.  So on some level you have to find a way to force yourself to care about these characters, because they’re not going to meet you halfway and try to invite your sympathy and attention.

“Junior, please don’t get arrested.”

This alien, not quite human quality is reinforced by the design.  Kathy Kohl’s costumes set the period, and allow for quick changes for those playing multiple roles, including the full ensemble in the rousing final number.  But nearly everyone in the cast, particularly the well-to-do “higher class” characters sport facial makeup that is severe and deliberately almost clownish in design.  The working class, down on their luck types are allowed a more human aspect.  While it’s a useful way to distinguish the two classes, I wonder if it undercuts part of the point of the play. 

“Union trouble ain’t no news in this burg.”

If your villains are so cartoonish they don’t seem real, doesn’t that let the rest of humanity off the hook a little too easily.  The monsters here are human.  Yes, the seduction of money turns them into something less than civilized, but it’s harder to put ourselves in their place, it’s harder to acknowledge the danger of being lured into apathy, compromise, or self-interest ourselves, if we can’t see ourselves in the full cast of characters.  It might be stacking the deck even more on one side of the argument than Blitzstein already does in the text/lyrics.  Certainly the actors all inject humanity into their characters as much as possible.  But on the one hand, the script is fighting them, and it’s hard not to play into stereotypes when you’re outfitted that way.  I have to hand it to the Frank creative team for going for it, fully embracing Blitzstein’s vision.  But part of me wonders if they should have fought him, just a little bit.

“They won’t pay us for our bodies so we’ll sell out in some other way.”

Frank Theater mounted Cradle once before, in 2003.  George W. Bush was in his first term.  The Afghanistan and Iraq Wars had just started.  Barack Obama hadn’t made that big speech at the Democratic National Convention yet.  The 2008 recession was still a few years off.  And we didn’t have our current president.  So, this production is definitely taking place in a radically different context, with a different resonance.  Corruption and wars have certainly always been with us in one form or another.  We’ve always needed people to band together for the greater good, pushing back against the negative actors of the world.  There’s a reason big business (and corrupt government officials) spend so much time and money trying to break workers’ unions.  Unions are the most powerful tool the working person has to take back power and fight for a better life, for all of us.  The fascinating thing about The Cradle Will Rock is that even though it’s very clear-eyed about the rot at the center of society’s ills, it still fervently believes that people with good intentions can beat back the darkness and build a better world, no matter how dark that darkness gets.  In 90 minutes of singing, they almost make me believe that, too.  I want to believe.  I really do.

“When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.”

If you need a jolt of righteous anger bound up with relentless optimism in its closing number, The Cradle Will Rock is just as perfect a piece of theater for you as it is for the folks at Frank.  You should treat yourself.  Frank Theatre presents The Cradle Will Rock at the Gremlin Theater space, now through April 7, 2019.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Photo: Junior Mister (Sasha Andreev) does his little happy dance as Editor Daily (Bob Beverage), Sister Mister (Chelsie Newhard) and Mr. Mister (John Cutler) look on, in Frank Theatre's production of The Cradle Will Rock; photography: Tony Nelson)

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Review - The Monica Meditations / Brandi Alexander - A Me, Too Double Feature - 4.5 stars

It’s honestly hard to know where to start in discussing the double bill of one-woman shows, The Monica Meditations, conceived and performed by Paige Collette, and Brandi Alexander, conceived and performed by Tatiana Pavela, with Maggie Rogers in the director’s chair.  I guess I should start by saying you should see them, though it’s a one weekend only run so depending on when you read this, it may already be too late (final performance is 10pm tonight, Saturday 3/2).  But as with previous Paige Collette outings I’ve seen - including a collaborative two-person show with Pavela, Buttercream and Scotch; as well as Bitter Victory, Sweet Defeat; and Food Blog - it’s always worth getting a marker down, to see where she is, and perhaps where she’s headed.

“What if, when I told him I had a crush on him, he just said ‘Thank you. I’m flattered. Have a good night’?”

Collette’s half of the evening is up first, excavating the late 1990s scandal of Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky - when he was President of the United States, and she was a White House intern.  Clinton was 49, married, the father of a 15 year old teenage daughter; Lewinsky was 22.  It was a wildly imbalanced power dynamic between the two, and though both parties claim the relationship was consensual, c’mon, the man knew better.  And everyone involved, including the country, deserved better.  These are The Monica Meditations, however, so Monica is front and center and Bill is only an offstage supporting player seen through Monica’s eyes, and a brief slide show that appears toward the end of Monica’s time on stage.

“And because my pre-frontal cortex wasn’t fully formed yet, I was very young, and I believed him.”

The main challenge here is the notion of shared history, or the lack of it, in the audience.  I imagine some people in the audience weren’t alive, or at best were barely toddlers, when it all happened twenty odd years ago.  Monica asks for a show of hands at the beginning to gauge audience knowledge of the story.  It was a mixed bag.  People who lived through it the first time probably come in with a pre-existing opinion of Monica.  Those that didn’t may be wondering what the significance of that cigar as a prop is all about.

“For this recipe, we need a wide mouthed jar.  Let’s face it, I’ve been called worse.”

The piece is operating on a couple of different levels - there’s Monica talking to the audience and walking us through the affair’s high and low points, and the timeline of how it all erupted into a national scandal; there’s Monica commenting on the existence of the show itself, and Paige the actress’ obsession with the story.  At the very start there are some Paige Collette moments with the audience, trying to set up a framework for the storytelling yet to come.  And there are moments when Collette breaks off, casually dons a blond wig on top of her brunette wig, on top of her already brunette hair, and does a schticky home shopping network routine involving items related to the affair, now for sale to the general public.

“Now I’m gonna make a Waldorf salad and talk about Linda Tripp.”

This being a Paige Collette creation, there is also, of course, the incorporation of food and drink, and the preparation of same.  It makes for some vivid images.  Collette pulls her ingredients throughout the night from the myriad of bright blue gift bags scattered around the stage topped off with red wrapping paper.  A handful of red roses appear, then acquire a vase and some water.  Monica clutches this vase close to her chest as she recounts her tale.  Later Diet Coke makes an appearance, and she pours that into the vase as well, and then *drinks the Diet Coke from the vase of roses*.  The color and creamy consistency of homemade mayonnaise is best not dwelt on too long.  Later it provides the dressing to a Waldorf salad which, mixed in a big plastic bin with a signature blue dress, provides a necessary stain to drive the ill-fated plot forward.

“[The dress] was from the GAP, because this was a true American love story.”

Non-food props, such as the blue dress, take their place in the narrative as well.  Some props are amusing - that blond wig dropped on the floor to represent her false friend Linda Tripp; some strangely apropos, with modern echoes - passages from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; and some vaguely unsettling - the casual use of an American flag in several configurations made me a bit uncomfortable (probably on purpose).  And then there’s the sentimental - dance numbers at the beginning and end involving Monica’s long flowing brunette wig on a foam head, and the quickly unraveling duet with a man’s shirt and tie, and the chair they sit on.  The skill of Collette as Lewinsky is that she’s so convincingly lost control physically as a character by the end, you almost think the actress may have lost control of her dance as well.  But it’s clear in the smaller details that the mess is a controlled and intentional mess.

“They say every rose has its thorn.  But will a rose record 20 hours of your phone conversations without telling you?”

Does the piece depend a little too much on some of the pop ballads from the time to do the heavy emotional lifting?  Maybe a little.  But in context, Sarah McLachlan’s Do What You Have To Do is always going to take up a lot of space in the room, no matter how you deploy it.  It’s almost impossible to invoke Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing unironically anymore.  And despite the fact that a young Monica sang it in a school talent competition, anything from Le Miz, especially On My Own, is going to feel used up and worn out in a theatrical context.  Though even here, particularly when she bellows a line or two away from the audience and directly into the wall of the Bryant Lake Bowl theater and we can still hear her perfectly, Collette almost wrings something new out of the use of that show tune.  I also understand that the music is trying to reinforce the core of the performance, which is the hardest thing to hang onto - even with everything that happened, there’s a part of Lewinsky that hurts because it really did mean something to her at the time.  And when Collette is getting some genuine emotion from Lewinsky’s dual betrayal, first by the man she was involved with, then by the supposed friend she confided in who recorded their phone calls and turned her over to the feds, it makes me want to spend more time with her, not less.  Maybe clearing out some of the filler could give that exploration more room to maneuver, and deepen.

“I’m sorry if I offended anyone with the use of the word feminist.”

Tatiana Pavela’s titular alter ego Brandi Alexander may be a fictional creation, but her presence is no less compelling onstage than Lewinsky.  She may almost be too compelling for some people to take - and believe it or not, that’s a compliment.  The insert in the program with a heart next to it warns that the second half of the evening “contains strong themes of sexual assault” and if folks are overwhelmed by this at any point, they can feel free to step out.  Sexual assault, of course, is a more genteel term for rape.  The word rape gets a real workout during this performance.  Good luck keeping track with the number of times Brandi says, or sings, the word.  And it never loses the power to shock or discomfit you because Pavela’s performances makes sure to inform the word with its full meaning whenever she uses it.

“It’s an idea that’s years ahead of its time, like the notion of equal pay, or consent.”

There are some confusing things about Brandi Alexander, and I think Pavela might get more of the responses she’s looking for if she cleared a few of them up.  For instance, by the time we’re well into the performance, we become certain that Brandi is a stand-up comic.  That’s not entirely clear right from the start, and as a result, the audience is a little unclear about the way they’re supposed to engage her.  Her entrance is almost dance like, and her introductory remarks could just as easily be the preface to the first song of a cabaret act.  Because song figured so prominently in the first half of the double bill, we’ve been primed for anything.  In isolation, Brandi being a stand-up comic might have been more of a given assumption.  A couple of straight up jokes (dark and uncomfortable in content would still work) might have made Brandi’s purpose and occupation more quickly understood.  Plus, Minnesota audiences are naturally reticent and shy.  We need a lot of permission to feel we can speak up, or even laugh.  More explicit cues, to go with the explicit content, might have helped at the start.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Because the whole point of Brandi’s act is to take the format stand-up comedy and make it something that you find yourself wondering if you should laugh at.  If you get us laughing at first, and then we start to wonder, that serves Brandi’s purpose more.  Wait, should I be laughing at that after all?  Is it OK?  Am I a horrible person to find this funny?  This is no laughing matter.  Yet Brandi begs and almost demands that you laugh at appalling things.  She’s laughing, sure it’s terrifying but lighten up already, join in the amusement at the horrible behavior of men.  And it’s not hatred of all men, just the ones who rape, and rape is a common right of passage for men and women in this world she’s invited us into - a world not divorced from our own reality.  She’s most interested in destroying the reputation of her own rapist - a fellow comedian who, well, what do you know, he’s the main act she’s opening up for this evening with her set.  In the midst of this, Brandi has a song - which is basically just the word rape repeatedly musically, then growled and screamed while she grinds around on the floor, evolving for a moment into (I kid you not) the melody line for the Star-Spangled Banner.  There is also an amazing sequence - sharp as a razor and very tightly written - where Brandi keeps answering the age-old joke set-up, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” with strategies women use to avoid being raped.  (Because there were streetlights on the other side, because there was a group of men approaching, because there was a bodega on the corner over there and they’d be more likely to hear her when she screamed, etc.). Great stuff.

“Why aren’t any of them in prison?”

Suspension of disbelief is sometimes difficult with Brandi because in her own words, she considers herself old and fat and ugly.  And the actress is none of those things.  Are Collette and Pavela skinny little stick figure fashion runway models?  No, but honestly how many of us are?  And they are not obese by any stretch of the imagination.  By most people’s objective standards they would be considered “regular,” attractive human beings.  “Normal,” if you will.  Now, given Monica and Brandi’s body issues, sense of shame and even self-loathing over what happened to them, and what their willing or unwilling part in it was, that very well may be coloring the way they present themselves to us.  And that disconnect may be something else we’re supposed to sit with and think over.  But that point is a little fuzzy, and in Brandi’s case the self hatred is so present in nearly every self-deprecating joke that you worry just a little bit about the line between performer and subject.  And again, that unsettling audience experience may be exactly what Alexander and her creator are aiming for.  So I may well be asking for relief she doesn’t plan to give me.

“The male equivalent of the little black dress.”

This being a one woman show, the audience also realizes that even though he waits just offstage in the reality of Brandi’s world, we will never meet her fellow comedian and rapist.  Since that’s the set-up, part of me really wanted those lights not to go out quite so quickly at the end.  Brandi has turned her set into a scathing indictment of the man waiting just offstage.  They have not tried to turn out the lights on her, to play her off with music or send out security to take her by force from the stage.  No one has stopped her.  So she clearly has the upper hand.  I sort of wanted Pavela to give it one last twist of the knife, to dare the man to take the stage away from her when she was done.  “Come on out, man.  They’re all waiting for you.  Take the stage, the spotlight is yours.  Enjoy.”  It’d be a small victory, but I think Brandi, and the audience, have earned it.

“Let it simmer - like a night of regret.  Soon it’ll be stinking up the whole place.”

The Monica Meditations and Brandi Alexander give an audience a lot of things to laugh and then think twice about.  Here’s to Collette and Pavela for bringing us these stories.  And here’s to them finding a way to hang around longer next time.  The final performance is tonight, Saturday, March 2nd at the Bryant Lake Bowl.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Review - The Skin of Our Teeth - Girl Friday Productions/Park Square Theatre - Comedy at the End of the World - 5 stars

The world ended twice at Park Square Theatre the other night.  And each time right after it happened, the audience got up, took a restroom break and got refreshments before returning for the next act.  I’m a little worried about those people.

“The end of this play isn’t written yet.”

Girl Friday Productions and Park Square have teamed up to stage Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy The Skin of Our Teeth, and 75-plus years after it was originally written, it still has a lot to say for the turbulent, absurd times we live in these days.  It’s almost as if the playwright read this morning’s newspaper, and whipped up a play in response.  Wilder fervently believes in the human race, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t going to get a little rocky from time to time.  Though war and natural disasters keep popping up, humans are surprisingly resilient little buggers.

“We’ve always had two children, but it hasn’t been the same two.”

Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (John Middleton, and Girl Friday Artistic Director Kirby Bennett), their two surviving children Gladys (Kathryn Fumie) and Henry (Neal Skoy), and their ambitious seductive housemaid Sabina (Alayne Hopkins) are the central characters in the troubled tale of the human race over thousands of years in New Jersey - a suburban New Jersey that nonetheless has a woolly mammoth and dinosaur as house pets, and is in imminent danger of being overrun by a glacier as part of an oncoming ice age in Act One; an Atlantic City full of partiers oblivious to a menacing wall of water in Act Two; and the remains of a family and their home after the ravages of war have swept over the country in Act Three.  And, again, this is a comedy.

“With the whole world to choose from, why did you come to this one place?”

Girl Friday is actually revisiting this script.  They first produced The Skin of Our Teeth back in 2009 (remember 2009?  Barack Obama was in his first term as president, we were living through the aftershocks of the 2008 economic recession, the Tea Party was making noise but hadn’t taken over Congress yet; wow, that all seems so quaint and placid now).  If there was ever a play that deserved dusting off again so it could hold up a funhouse mirror to bounce a reflection off our bewildering cycle of current events, it’s The Skin of Our TeethThe Skin of Our Teeth is both an escape and a reminder at the same time.  Teetering on the edge of the end of the world as a piece of entertainment isn’t an easy trick to pull off, but Wilder, Girl Friday, and Park Square make it look easy.

“If you’ve got any plans for improving this crazy old world, then I’m with you, I really am.”

Wilder’s script and Girl Friday are back again, as are Bennett, Hopkins, Middleton, and Girl Friday’s delightful character actor in residence Sam Landman, but a whole lot is different this time around.  Joel Sass is in the director’s chair, and also bringing his gifts as a set designer to create the look of this peculiar and funny world.  The cast before was, though also quite good, fairly monochromatic.  This time around we have a diverse cast with a number of actors of color.  The previous production was in the late lamented Theater Garage space (now you could stage act three in the hole in the ground where that brick building used to be). 

“The sight of you dries up all my plans and hopes.”

The expansive proscenium space at Park Square, plus the room for action to roam across the front and up and down the aisles of the house (which it does), make the world of this play - and the disasters which threaten it - that much bigger (and more impressive).  This partnership also has the resources to deliver funny and unsettling video openers to the first and last acts, and pretty imposing walls of ice and water to consume the world at the end of acts one and two.  The design team of Michael P. Kittel (lights), Kathy Maxwell (video), C. Andrew Mayer (sound, and also video), and Maxwell Collyard (cinematographer) create some pretty fun special effects for a live theater setting.

“Here are your whales, Maggie.”

And the very different times we live in now, and the nine years of living that we’ve all done since this play was last before us, make one see the play with completely new eyes, and see new things in it.  Wilder was also pushing the boundaries of theatrical storytelling way back then in ways that we’ve come to expect from our storytellers now.  Rather than seeming old-fashioned or ahead of his time, Wilder feels like he’s writing for all of us right now - which is weird, and great.

“The earth’s getting so silly, no wonder the sun turns cold.”

Also great is the motley assortment of characters surrounding the Antrobus family, populating their repeatedly doomed and resurrected world: they all get to play clueless, hedonistic convention-goers in Atlantic City in act two, and many of them also play refugees from the Ice Age in act one, and throughout they take turns breaking the fourth wall to address the audience and/or call out the conventions of the play.  They all put costume designer Kathy Kohl and her assistant Mary Farrell through their paces coming up with colorful vibrant distinctive looks for all their many alter egos across the centuries.

“Again, there will be a narrow escape.”

Girl Friday regular Landman gets a fun turn in as a long-suffering stage manager who tries in vain to corral Sabina when Hopkins breaks character to rail against the playwright.  Dana Lee Thompson is a standout as a humorously apocalyptic fortune teller.  Taj Ruler gets a lot of mileage out of her different characters and looks as a singing telegram delivery person, an ancient bearded conventioneer, and boom mic operator.  Wendy Freshman and Corey Fern get to team up with Ruler’s boom mic as interviewer and cameraman, respectively, for a deeply awkward interview and family meltdown.  James Ramlet and Victoria Pyan run Atlantic City as dueling announcers at the convention (Pyan also gets to be the woolly mammoth, which is probably a sweltering costume for her, but fun for us to watch).  Ernest Briggs is the voice of the news reel on the front end of the show, and fictional head of the ushers who gets drafted into service when half the cast for act three goes down with food poisoning.  Pedro Juan Fonseca gets to be both lifeguard and dinosaur, so he can check both of those off on his resume.  Also in the mix as part of the ensemble are Ellen DeYoung, Alice McGlave, and Mike Swan.

“All these things will be forgotten in a hundred years.”

Since The Skin of Our Teeth is both timely and timeless, and the times are very different now, returning leads Bennett, Hopkins and Middleton all breathe new life and nuance into roles they’ve played before.  And Skoy and Fumie may be new as the children this time around, but they fit in seamlessly with the returning vets of the central family household.  Fumie goes from being daddy’s little girl in act one, to the mother of a new postwar generation in act three.  Skoy travels a similar long distance, his boyish violence in the first two acts blossoming into a war that consumes a country for the final act.  Middleton’s father of invention finds the most difficult role being that of father to his own troubled children.  Hopkins crossing in and out of the play as Sabina could be confusing or unconvincing, but in her skillful hands, the character helps the audience navigate through the epic twists and turns of the comedy.  And as the homemaker at the center of it all, whose home and family keep getting torpedoed by time and other forces beyond her control, Bennett grounds the story, and pulls everyone back from going over the edge.  Mrs. Antrobus is always ready to rebuild, and never considers giving up.

“The whole world’s at sixes and sevens.”

I was, to be honest, a little leery of sitting through a three act play (it’s been a while), but each act hums right along, only about 45 minutes apiece - and you need a full intermission to rebuild the world (twice).  The whole thing only clocks in a little over two and a half hours.  Most plays that are only two acts (and only half as entertaining) take that long.  It was a full evening, but it never felt long to me.  So kudos to everyone involved for keeping the thing moving, but not so fast that I couldn’t keep up.  (That’s a shout-out to the actual real life stage manager Penny Laden Kissinger and her crew, too.  The Skin of Our Teeth has a lot of moving parts to it.  It’s hard to keep a production this size running this smoothly.)

“Fellow mammals, fellow vertebrates, fellow humans, I thank you.”

So if you want to get away for a couple of hours, and get a little useful perspective along with your laughs, I think you should check out The Skin of Our Teeth.  It’s playing over at Park Square through March 3, 2019.  Or the end of the world.  Whichever comes first.

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

[Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma - l to r; Henry (Neal Skoy) Woolly Mammoth (Victoria Pyan), Gladys (Kathryn Fumie), Mrs. Antrobus (Kirby Bennett), Sabina (Alayne Hopkins); Dinosaur (Pedro Juan Fonseca)]

Family Update - Dad Turns 91 Today :)

DAD UPDATE: (not a dire pronouncement, you can relax, good news)

Dad turns 91 today.  And he’s still with us.

The man who we thought might not make it to Christmas has instead made it all the way to the middle of February.

He’s had a little rebound in energy and appetite.  He remains comfortable and well cared for.

There’s a new, smaller, more focused activity group to engage some of his daytime hours.  Something where everyone is more on his conversational level, which is still remarkably keen and alert for a guy with some memory issues.

My stepmother’s email earlier this week summed it up: “I am realistic, but, nevertheless, pleased!”

She gets his daily company when she comes to help feed him his dinner.  She reminds him about his day just past, and the day just ahead of him.  She reminds him when she’s going to see him again.  She reads to him.  Often she’ll read a little note that they receive in the mail from me.

I’ve been writing him every day.  I got a set of multicolored little stationery cards originally to write little notes to my goddaughter.  The past several months, I’ve been writing both to her, and to Dad, every day.  Not much, just a little something.  I fill both sides of the card with details from my days.  What I’m working on, what I’ve seen, what’s been on my mind, what I’m reading, some random item from my general environment, painting a picture of what my day to day life is like here in Minnesota.  It’s become a ritual.  My stepmother gave me some feedback that recent notes detailing the ins and outs of how I’m rewriting a play have been a big hit with Dad, sort of pulling back the curtain on my theater work.  I was a little afraid that might be boring but it seems to be the opposite, so we’ll reference that as it arises.  Extra incentive to keep on those rewrites, which doesn’t hurt.

She’ll call, later today when I’m at work and she’s arrived for his dinner, and we’ll all speak, briefly - Dad can’t engage for long on the phone, but he likes it as long as it lasts, and it’s good to hear his voice.

All of which makes me wonder, how much longer have we got?

I try not to be morbid and borrow trouble, stay in the moment, just enjoy what we have.

But honestly, I worried I was jinxing things when I dropped his birthday card in the mail last week (because I know it takes a week for any mail to reach them and I wanted the card to get there on time).

Because I go through so many notes in a week, I try to sit down and address and return address a handful of the envelopes ahead of time, so I’m not wasting potential note writing time with the basics I could do with less focused brain power.  But every time I’m sitting and writing out Dad’s name and address, I feel like I’m tempting fate, expecting I’m going to have cause to use all of them.  That I’m going to get that many more days.

And there’ll come a day when I get a phone call.  And that’s going to be it.

And all the notes I’ve written in the previous days, that take a week to reach their destination, will be things he never hears her read to him at dinner time.

I’m working with a friend who runs a theater in Connecticut on a short piece for their 2019 Christmas show.  And the thought keeps creeping into my head, what the heck is Christmas going to look like this year?

Because Christmas and his birthday are still two very significant days for Dad, even as he forgets a lot of everything else.  He hung on for Christmas.  He’s hung on for his birthday.

Now what’s he going to hang on for?

The days with her, I guess.  His valentine.

We don’t trouble him with the bad news these days.  We don’t want him to worry.  About us, about anything.  He got us all started, it’s up to us now.  We just want to reinforce how much we appreciate whatever time we get with him, and everything he’s done.  But it’s OK now, he can rest.  (We don’t want you to go, but it’s OK.)

We all made the big 90th birthday celebration a year ago, when things seemed much less precarious.

I’m sorry I can’t be there today for 91.  The finances, such as they are, quite literally won’t allow it.  We used up the emergency funds right after Thanksgiving.

So we communicate from afar.  And we wait.

But today’s a good day.  Dad make another complete orbit around the sun.

And that will make him happy.

I’m going to write him a little note.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review - What Guys Really Want - Chain Reaction Theatre Project - Unfortunately What I Really Want Is A Different Play - 3.5 stars

Director/creator/editor Shelley Smith informs the audience in a pre-show announcement that everything we’re about to see (with the exception of some scenes submitted by playwrights) is true.  This is both the blessing and the challenge of Chain Reaction Theatre Project’s new work What Guys Really Want.  Subtitled as “heartfelt stories about masculinity,” the “true story” nature of the material does make a lot of it more compelling, but it also seems to have hamstrung the production team a bit in terms of the creative license to craft any kind of a through line for the evening. 

“I was all for the idea of you killing yourself, but I was outvoted.”

The play doesn’t end so much as it just… stops, first for intermission, and then at the end when the script is just… done.  There are a lot of good moments throughout the evening, with the acting and the design and the material all working well together.  There are also dramatic conceits that get set up early on and then returned to throughout the performance.  But they don’t really build on one another, accumulating any kind of emotional momentum that leads to a conclusion.  Frequently the whole thing just reboots: new section, new characters, new angle on the subject.  And despite the fact that there are multiple collaborators contributing in a variety of different styles (scenes, monologues, poetry, interviews, testimony), there is a sameness to the quality of the overall writing and performance that sort of flattens everything out and doesn’t allow much real emotion to break through.  There are notable exceptions, of course, but Smith is exerting a pretty heavy directorial hand on the material that I’m not sure is allowing it to live up to its full potential even in its current form.

“When you’re told that boys are supposed to look or act a certain way, you listen.”

All the above notwithstanding, the ensemble (Naved Baysudee, Emily Carlson, Justin Cervantes, Elizabeth Efteland, Nolan Henningson, Mai See Lee, Eric Marinus, and Jordan Mitchell) is doing some really solid acting work, both individually and as a group.  They’re taking their marching orders and doing their level best.  When Smith and her writing partners (Bret Bailey, Staylon Blackmon, Bruce Bonafede, Scott Carter Cooper, Traiveon Dunlap, Dr. James Garbarino, W.L. Newkirk, Timmy Rawerts, Chris Stanley, and Philip Sturm) give the cast a chance to shine, the actors make the most of it.  Designers Cindy Forsgren (costumes), Nathan Schilz (sound), and Amala Harrison (props) give a big assist to the actors in helping them differentiate all their various characters and situations throughout the performance.

“Son, why are you avoiding me?”

Also, huge kudos to Smith for pulling together a more diverse cast than we normally get a chance to see, particularly since a lot of the material here seems to be from a straight white American male perspective.  It’s not what all guys really want, just a certain group of guys.  But the casting opens up the possibilities of the range of audience who can see themselves in these stories.

“Buy the tiniest dog I can find, put it in a sparkly collar, and take it with me everywhere I go.”

What Guys Really Want can veer from vague to intriguingly specific depending on the moment.  For instance, a segment that isn’t even scripted sets a perfect tone for the evening when two of the ensemble (Carlson and Baysudee) come out dressed as children in the pre-show moments as the audience is settling in.  The two actors share a crate full of toys, playing with them in traditionally masculine and feminine ways at first - not mixing the tea party and Barbies with the toy soldiers and superhero action figures.  They act up, as children do, and are cleverly reminded by the stage manager (as mom) that we’re approaching curtain time for the main show so they can clean up their toys.  All of this has a background soundtrack of toy commercials for girls and boys - Easy Bake Ovens on the one side, G.I. Joes on the other.  Left behind on the periphery of the playing space in act one are a Hulk and Barbie doll sitting side by side, with a pink plastic tea set nearby.  The two children return at intermission, this time leaving behind only a foam toy football.  Act one is more of a mix of male and female, act two is almost exclusively male.  So the toy markers are a visual clue.

“They continue because they can get away with it.”

The specificity of things like that sit in contrast to a female interviewer returning again and again to get sound bites from a discussion group of men.  We are told at the very beginning of the evening that these men are participating in a program for men who have been arrested for soliciting prostitutes.  You could be forgiven for forgetting this as the night wears on because it’s never directly addressed.  The actors do a great job of maintaining their characters for these sequences separate from the other characters they portray throughout the night.  But the subject of what makes a man think he can (or should) buy the time and body of a woman for sex, regardless of her age, is never tackled.  Some of the sentiments about being a man expressed by these men could be viewed as laudable, but are they just telling their interviewer what she wants to hear?  Should we be taking any advice or insight from these men?

“I suffer from what I call ‘kitchen cupboard blindness.’”

Considering the source is something that undergirds a lot of the material.  In addition to the johns, we also have men in prison, and a whole host of men whose fathers were distant, absent, abusive, or reinforcing old standards like boys don’t cry or show emotion.  Well-grounded fatherly advice is so rare that the one or two times it finally appeared, the audience applauded.  Female characters frequently serve to either shoulder the responsibility men forsake, or endure their unwanted sexual advances and assaults (or both).

“Silence from bystanders is a form of consent.”

A sequence that brought the imbalance of the production into sharp relief for me was set at a frat party where a woman and a man were offering dueling intertwined monologues.  The woman was offering advice on how not to end up getting raped at a college party.  The guy was offering advice on how to get laid (mostly by getting a girl drunk or high first).  A lot of the time outside of this sequence, male characters at least professed to wanting to be better men than they were, better men than their fathers, better men than society expected them to be. 

“I really wish you’d stop having this memory.”

And while the attempt to include some queer content was certainly a welcome impulse, the two interconnected gay monologues at the top of act two were competing tales of closeted midwestern indignities that just piled onto the long litany of sad homo stories out there.  And the words of trans men being put the mouths of cisgendered men was just… awkward.  Honestly, a dose of genuine bisexuality or even gender-fluidity might have broken down a whole lot of barriers in this play but apparently they didn’t hear from anyone on that spectrum that were worth including.

“It’s amazing to me how brave young men can be.”

There’s also a kind of play within the play in the second act which is a not-quite detour from the subject of masculinity where it turns to focus a while on men who serve in the military, across time from World War II to Vietnam to the various present day wars in the Middle East.  And if men don’t know what to do with the conflicting and often harmful dictates from larger society about what their basic role is in the world, bringing the battle home with you, and bottling it up just adds to the pressure cooker of feeling you’ve failed to live up to expectations.

“You spend a lot of time apologizing as a veteran.  You apologize for it all.”

So, does anyone connected to this production know any well-adjusted straight men?  I’m assuming they exist.  (In fact, I know a few.  At least a few.). Yes, a fair cross-section of the male of the species living in our country is, has been, or will be horrifying to contemplate.  Absolutely.  Fair point.  Do we need two-plus hours of that being laid out for us?  Aren’t we all well aware at this point, from the White House on down, of the quicksand we’re swimming in?  The phrase “toxic masculinity” is currently redundant, and we’d like to make it less so.  To that end…

“Do you have someone you can talk to?”

Has anyone asked a well-adjusted male acquaintance, “How do you walk through your days and not become a monster?”  Has anyone asked that man’s mother or father or sister or girlfriend or boyfriend or wife or husband, “How did you raise your son/this man not to be a rapist?”  Because we need to figure out how to raise our boys not to be rapists.  We need to teach them somehow that women and girls aren’t objects to be grabbed and taken (or bought) and used and cast aside, any more than those boys themselves would want those things done to them.  Men as a sub-species aren’t a complete, irredeemable dumpster fire.  Shouldn’t we be talking to the good ones and the ones who made them? Because THAT is a really complex and unspoken conversation that we could use more of.  That’s still a battle.  That’s still got all the conflict you could ever want for a story.  Because that is fighting some pretty strong societal headwinds.

“All your liquor store buddies’ll be there in rehab, it’ll be like old home week.”

Those men already exist inside this play.  The son-in-law (Jordan Mitchell) who comes over to his father-in-law’s cabin to suicide-proof the place - post-alcoholism-intervention - so the man will still be alive in the morning when he comes to take him to breakfast and then rehab - that young man, sarcastic but not uncaring, is one of the good ones (scripted by playwright Newkirk).  What’s his story?  All the veterans in the play who are still alive and didn’t take their own lives - they found a way to cope.  How?  The shy nerd in the library (Nolan Henningson, scripted I think by playwright Cooper) who can’t take advantage of a girl who might be interested in taking advantage of him - he hasn’t crossed over to the dark side yet.  What’s his deal, where did he come from?  The boy (Naved Baysudee, later Eric Marinus) who went hunting with his father (Mitchell again) and killed a deer almost in spite of himself but couldn’t bring himself to gut the animal’s corpse - what would a conversation between a father and son about that look like if we didn’t skip over it (scripted by playwright Bonafede)?  Not all men resort to hiring prostitutes when they get lonely - what are their coping mechanisms?

“Inside of these big, scary and dangerous men are frightened little children.”

I realize this is asking the play to be the play I want it to be, rather than addressing the play where it is.  But I don’t think the play in its current form is as necessary or as useful as it wants itself to be.  Because most of the characters in the play (real though they be) are telling us a story, rather than living inside a story, it’s hard for an audience to fully engage emotionally.  It’s hard for the point of it all to land with the appropriate force.  And these actors are giving it all they have, believe me.  They are trying.  But the text is fighting them almost the entire way.

What does masculinity look like when it’s not toxic?  How do we get there?

That’s a play, or series of plays, that we really need right now.  Probably we’ve needed them for a long time.

I’m not saying they’d be easy to do.  They’d probably be hard as hell to write, maybe even harder to perform.

But isn’t that the kind of art worth doing?

Don’t tell me where we are.  Don’t let me wallow in the enormity of the problem.

Tell me where we should be.  Give me some suggestions on how to start the journey.  Then challenge me to get there.

Meanwhile, the Chain Reaction Theatre Project is tackling What Guys Really Want in church basements all around the Twin Cities metro area through March 3, 2019.  You can check out the full list of dates and locations on their website - chainreactiontp.com
3.5 Stars - Good Job Plus

(Photos used in poster art, by Bruce Silcox)

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Where’d All The Theater Reviews Go?

Those of you that visit this blog and read the theater reviews may have noticed a drop off in theater review postings right after the Minnesota Fringe Festival this fall.  In fact, there were no theater postings at all in December and January.

I still love theater, of course.  Things have just gotten more complicated in recent months.

I got into theater reviewing sort of sideways, through blogging about the Minnesota Fringe Festival.  When the Fringe blogs moved from their original home on the Fringe website to the Twin Cities Daily Planet, the arts editor at the time asked me if I’d like to do some reviewing the rest of the year, for pay, and so that’s how things sort of ramped up.

When the Planet came under new management, revamped their editorial direction and kicked their current crop of arts writers to the curb, I was among those set loose.

Thereafter, the reviews were just being written on my own accord, a couple of press comps to attend the show being the only form of payment.  (Which ain’t nothin’, I realize.  Theater tickets can be pricey, and reviewing was an easy way to sing for my supper.)

Last summer my finances took a bit of a turn, and in order to pay off some debt in a more aggressive fashion, I’ve needed to pick up a lot more hours at my second part time job, which schedules me about a month in advance.  It’s a box office job at the Guthrie Theater, on top of my regular full-time job at another nonprofit which keeps regular business hours.  So my box office work is nights and weekends, which is of course when everyone else is also doing their theater.  So I either work and earn money, or I see theater and don’t earn money. 

(There’s also the added wrinkle of the occasional dark weeks at the Guthrie, no shows, no box office - which can get a little scary, so I’m trying to bulk up the paycheck now while the hours exist to buy some breathing room for leaner times in future months.)

I’ve just gotten to the point where I quite literally can’t afford to see and write about all that much theater anymore, for the time being at least.  This austerity budget will be in effect for roughly the next four years.

There’s also the fact of my own playwriting, which I am continuing to do regardless of finances.  So the little free time I have is likely to be devoted mostly to that work.

I still want to see at least one thing a month (perhaps two) that isn’t a production at the Guthrie (where they actually do pay us in the box office to see the shows during previews, so we can talk about them with customers).  We’ll see how I do with that goal.

If I had my druthers I’d be seeing things by every scrappy little theater company I could find, plus pretty much everything at the Jungle, which has really been rejuvenated under Sarah Rasmussen’s leadership.

But for now, the bank account is dictating my schedule, and that’s going to mean seeing less and writing less about one of the things I love most.

The Fringe blogging will continue each summer, largely because it’s something Mom and I do together, and she keeps planning to come out to Minnesota and visit, and wants to binge on theater while she’s in town, so for that, the Fringe is perfect.  And if I’m taking the time off anyway to spend with her, I might as well write about theater while I’m at it.

There are a couple of things on the calendar for February.  Nothing in the offing for March yet, but I’m perusing the information people are sending me.  Every time I get an email or a press release, a marker goes on the calendar.  I just can’t take advantage of nearly as many of those potential nights out as I used to.

Seeing and writing about all kinds of theater really helps feed my head for my own writing - so I’ll miss the creative stimulation.

I’ll do what I can, where I can.  But the blog’s going to be a little sparse for now.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Family Update - Last Christmas?

Dad Update: Thanks to everyone for reaching out. As conflicted as I am about facebook sometimes, it’s meant a lot to feel a community out there from the various corners of my life, gathering around in these weird moments the family is living through right now.

Dad’s still with us. He not only made it to Christmas, he joined a phone call from my stepmom Debbie the other night to wish me a happy new year.

Will I get to see him again? No telling, really.

The current situation isn’t sustainable. He isn’t really eating, and thus he doesn’t have a lot of energy throughout the day. We’re lucky to get a few bites of this and that off his lunch and dinner trays into his mouth. Pam, the head nurse, says he’s malnourished. But she also says when Dad first moved in, and he still had more of his faculties about him, before his health started taking a turn in the fall, he was making his decisions about how this all was going to go. And that’s how it’s playing out now.
Some of us were worrying, “Are we just having the staff get him up and dressed and groomed and in his wheelchair and down to the Day Program for activities, just to make us feel better and hold onto feeling everything’s still OK? Is it selfish, on our part, or is it doing him some good, too?” Pam says they don’t want someone to be bedridden before they have to be. That brings its own set of problems. She’s been doing this for thirty years. It’s good to get him out of bed. It’s good to get him out of his room, interacting with other people, varying his routine. Of course he likes his bed. We all like our bed. And he still spends most of his day in bed. But for now, this is a good thing.

Will he make his birthday in mid-February? Heck, will he make Father’s Day? Unlikely. But we were a little scared he wasn’t going to make Christmas, so…

It was both great, and deeply strange. He was still very present, and also slipping away.

In previous visits to the nursing home, including the most recent “emergency” visit right after Thanksgiving, Dad would always notice whatever odd T-shirt I was wearing and comment on it, and that led to other discussions based on what the T-shirt was referencing or where I purchased it. And if I ended up needing to cycle through my clothing more than once in a visit, he’d notice if a T-shirt resurfaced. So I’d been purposely bringing the most strange or distinctive T-shirts to spark a conversation. And even last visit, he was still responding to this. This trip, nothing.

And he’s operating on two different planes of reality now. Some of it may be leftover dreaming, harvesting memories somewhere in the back of his mind. Some it is just coming out of left field. I arrived one morning and it was almost as if he was introducing me to “two lifelong friends of mine” who were not there in the room with us. Another morning I asked how he was doing and he responded that he was a little worn out because they’d had him on the bicycle all morning. (Needless to say, he hasn’t been in rehab or physical therapy for several months now, probably since before they moved to this new retirement community in the summer.). He also mentioned that he had a couple of appointments he needed to get to later in the afternoon that day (He did not). But if he’s not about to touch a hot stove, do himself or someone else harm, you just smile and don’t correct him and redirect the conversation to something else.

As for Christmas presents, Dad is suddenly the easiest man in the world to “shop” for. He just desired my presence. My time by his side was all that he needed. “If I can just be here to hold your hand, and get your hugs, that’s more than any dad could ask for. When people asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I couldn’t have told them something like this, all this time with you, because it just seems like such a big thing to ask you for.”

And of course it’s not. And it is. I’m just grateful I had the resources to do it.

I only really cried twice (which, considering the situation, really surprised me. Staying present helped a lot). The first time the tears appeared was in talking with Debbie after a visit with Dad that first day, and she responded, “I know. It’s hard to see him like that.” And I couldn’t get the words out, but it wasn’t that. It wasn’t hard to see him. I just didn’t want him to go.

And then the inevitable ritual of reviewing the latest draft of the obituary with Debbie, which has become kind of a macabre little in-joke. That wasn’t what made me cry. It’s good to be reminded of the details and the scope of his life. And how it’s hard to pin down the right words to encompass ninety years. What got me was the addition of the rough outline of the graveside service. The pastor Debbie has lined up is actually someone they’d met before, someone who now works for the Country Meadows network of retirement homes serving some of the functions that Dad once did. This pastor also has family and ties to the area where the little church is where the ashes will be interred.

Reading the closing prayer kind of snuck up on me:

O Lord, support us all the day long
Until the shadows lengthen
And the evening comes
And the busy world is hushed,
And the fever of life is over,
And our work is done.
Then, in your mercy,
Grant us safe lodging,
And a holy rest,
And peace at the last.


It’s the little things. There’s a tiny artificial tree that Debbie purchased when he went into the nursing home after the stroke five years ago and it became clear he wasn’t coming home for the holidays. And it’s become a little tradition for me to bring the tree down to his room, and make sure the battery pack is loaded, and the little lights work, and then I put tiny little ornaments that Debbie bought onto the little tree. And it sits where he can see it from his bed, whenever he opens his eyes.

This year, one of the stepchildren loaded up music on an iPod for him so he could put on a set of headphones and listen to relaxing music at the end of the day. But he didn’t have any Christmas music loaded yet. So I dug into Debbie’s music collection and loaded up the iPod through my computer, and we took it down to him along with the tree this year.

He put on the headphones, and looked at the tree, and smiled, and said, “Now I have Christmas.”
It’s SO easy to make him happy.

I’m just glad I get the chance to do it.

Because he deserves it.

And I may never see him again.

So Christmas was wonderful, and terrible, and better than any of us expected it to be. So we’re feeling pretty lucky that it happened.

(But I have to admit, the following week down in Pennsylvania with my mom, and brother, and MSNBC, and Aquaman, and Scrabble games where the cat kept trying to eat the letter tiles, and comfort food, and a full-size but slightly off-kilter Christmas tree, and bingeing episodes of the new lady Doctor Who, and the constant neediness of a rescue wiener dog named Radar, was all enormously comforting and familiar - even though I know there’s a clock ticking on that, too, just (hopefully) slower.)