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.