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