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 -
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.