Saturday, March 14, 2020

Quarantine Playwriting Bake Off - Monday through Wednesday 3/16 to 3/18 - calling all writers :)


COVID-19 has left us college students in theatre programs across the country without in person classes and valuable training. So, with this time off, JOIN US, three students from the UMN/Guthrie BFA Acting program, for a playwriting challenge loosely based on Paula Vogel’s Bake-Offs.

We will send you a few “ingredients” to include in an original short play (10-30 pages) and you will have 32 hours to write.

Here’s how it will work:

1) 10 AM CST- Monday March 16th: We’ll email you with the 5 ingredients that need to be in your play (these will be five elements that have to be included in the short play, otherwise you have full creative license, anything goes!).

2) Then, you have until 6 PM CST on Tuesday March 17th to submit your short play (10-30 pages) to with your name and a little bit about you.

3) We will then read all the plays sent to us and choose 10 plays to be read live virtually on YoutubeLive featuring some UMN/Guthrie BFA Students on Wednesday March 18th at 6pm CST.

(Even if you don't write, JOIN US!) Ideally this part would be done live, but we adapt!

To say these are “trying times,” would be a massive understatement. With a lot of artists/freelancers not working, this is a great way to keep our artistic muscles active and to find a supportive community of artists. I hope these plays will be a response to the times in REAL time.

Never written before? Published playwright? Somewhere in between? 5 to 95! ALL VOICES WELCOME! No experience required, but RISKS are required! There are no critiques, just some time to enjoy each other's work.

If you're interested in participated, email before Monday!


We want as many voices as possible!

Non-Review - Lipstick: A Queer Farce - Gadfly Productions (just inches away)

Thought I might actually see some theater tonight but, sadly, COVID-19 strikes again.

The production, the latest from Gadfly:

"Lipstick is a silly, sweet farce with a heart of gold and a drawer full of sex toys.

Anna has invited Kelly over for dinner, but is it a date? Or just hanging out? How could Anna know?! Is Kelly even gay?! Kelly wears earrings AND boots! Just in case that wasn’t confusing enough, a cavalcade of visitors crashes their evening – an ex-girlfriend, a best friend, a handyman, a mom, and a parade of potential suitors. Hijinks, of course, ensue, in this play-shaped love letter to the queer community."

I was actually listening to some news discussion of flattening the curve, social distancing, etc. and wondering about the wisdom of going - but I had a friend in the cast, and another friend I hadn't seen in a while who was attending with me and they were willing to hazard the potential virus gauntlet.

Got in the car, opened the garage door, flipped open my phone to turn on some music for the journey and found a facebook notification

"Lipstick: A Queer Farce is canceled."

Used the phone to call my friend and let him know, so he didn't leave for the theater.

Also used the phone to text my friend in the cast some condolences.

They had their opening night last night, at least, but they're robbed of the rest of the run, which is sad.

Guess I'll have to wait a little longer to see that friend on stage again.

It may be a while before I see anyone on stage again, come to think of it.

In a theater town where there's so much art that I frequently feel overwhelmed with too much to choose from, it is extremely weird to suddenly have no live theater to see.

That's how I'm going to know things are finally normal again - when theater comes back and we're all not to scared to go see it.

Say a little prayer, folks.  Given the current competence of our federal government, it may be a while...

Non-Review - Through The Narrows - Z Puppets Rosenschnoz - (online video solution)

Back at the beginning of February, I got an intriguing press release from a company of puppeteers:
An intimate puppetry experience intertwining stories of the
Jews crossing the Red Sea and the Cherokee Trail of Tears
A Watch it, Make it, Take it Event
Z Puppets welcomes people to take a place at the table for a uniquely intimate puppetry experience intertwining stories of the Jews Crossing the Red Sea and the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Sliding across centuries and continents with the live global music fusion of Greg Herriges, these stories travel the rich emotional landscape from struggle to triumph. Directed by noted arts activist Laurie Witzkowski.

WATCH IT: Award-winning puppetry artists Shari Aronson and Chris Griffith, a Cherokee Tribal member, share stories inspired by their own ancestry. A 3500 year-old Jewish woman and a 6-yr old Cherokee boy fill in parts of history that often go missing.

MAKE IT: After the 1-hour performance, Z Puppets leads the audience step by step to make "power figures" — small puppets to represent someone to call on for strength when facing hardship.

TAKE IT: People take their power figures out into the world to find the next steps through life's narrow passages!

Each event is limited to 25 seats and advance tickets are encouraged. Last year's performances sold out quickly. Tickets and a Before You Go Guide available at

Audience members who attended Through the Narrows in 2019 commented: "It felt like a spell was over the whole place; like it was alive with all the ancestors of that place and all of us who were there," and "Very glad that this story about how to get through narrow passages in life is being told in such a thoughtful way."

Z Puppets Rosenschnoz is a Minneapolis company that brings people into the power of playfulness for feats of imagination, through performances, workshops and interactive environments. 
Led by Shari Aronson and Chris Griffith, their performances combine hand-crafted puppetry, quirky humor and live music. Their work has won honors from the Ivey Awards, Ordway Center for Performing Arts, Jim Henson Foundation and Puppeteers of America.
Shari Aronson has written plays and developed exhibits for the MN History Center, Science Museum of MN, Mill City Museum, MN Children’s Museum and the City of Maplewood. Shari’s stage adaptation of Eric Kimmel’s beloved children’s book Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins has been produced by professional and youth theaters across the country, including the MN Jewish Theatre Company.
Chris Griffith began as a solo juggler/street performer before falling into a life of a puppetry and arts education with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre, Galumph Interactive Theatre, and Children’s Theater Company. In 2009, Chris won an Ivey Award for his puppetry design. Through the Narrows is the first in a series of work Chris is developing based in the family stories, research, and personal experience of being an enrolled Cherokee tribal member.
Greg Herriges is an internationally recognized virtuoso performer and composer with musical expertise that spans international and improvisational traditions (Middle East, Asia, India). A Bush and McKnight Foundation grantee, Greg has composed and performed music for In the Heart of the Beast  Puppet and Mask Theatre, performer Zaraawar Mistry, Twin Cities Public Television, and independent film soundtracks. 

Through the Narrows is directed by Laurie Witzkowski, a theater maker and community activist whose work has been featured locally (In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre, Theater Mu, Mixed Precipitation, TigerLion Arts, Bedlam) and internationally, in venues from Lincoln Center to war zones, prisons and sacred sites.
Got all set up with press tickets for their opening next Saturday, and then, Friday evening, another email:

"Due to COVID19, we are canceling our live performances of Through the Narrows.

On March 21, to Celebrate World Puppetry Day, we will be releasing a high quality online audio performance, featuring photos of scenes by Bruce Silcox.

Click here to see our short video message about this audio webcast:

As a ticket holder, you will automatically receive the password for this webcast on March 21st.

Like many other artists, we are facing a significant loss of income due to COVID19.

If you would like to offer your purchase as a contribution to Z Puppets, we truly appreciate your support, and no further action is needed.

The Through the Narrows audio webcast will be available for free to all Native American tribal members and by pay-what-you-will donation at this link:

As people who are around elderly and those with compromised immune systems, we take the mission of flattening the curve of COVID19 very seriously. We also believe that now more than ever the arts are a vital way for us to keep our spirits and community alive. 

Let's find the next step through life's narrow passages together!

Thank you and be well!

Shari & Chris 

Creative Directors, Z Puppets Rosenschnoz"
So, they've already come up with a creative solution for still getting the art to people.  I'm really looking forward to seeing/hearing it, even if I can't be in the same room with the puppets, or make a puppet of my own (nothing stopping me from making a puppet by myself, I guess - but should I be trusted to make a puppet alone without professionals to oversee the project)


Non-Review - Redwood - Jungle Theater - (hurry back)

The first play on my reviewing schedule to fall was Jungle Theater's Redwood

"An unforgettable new play by a thought-provoking and witty playwright.

Meg and Drew, an interracial couple, are thrown into crisis when Meg’s uncle discovers Drew belongs to the family that owned Meg’s relatives in an antebellum Kentucky. What are the ways love can and cannot transcend both modern social barriers and historical power structures? Meg and Drew must learn if it is possible to forgive, champion, or fully understand a person who is beloved but fundamentally other."

Shortly after the Minnesota governor declared a state of emergency, I got the following email from the Jungle Theater.

"These are unprecedented times, and the Jungle, like every other theater in the country, is trying to make the best decisions in swirling waters, ensuring the health and safety of everyone who engages with the theater.

REDWOOD’s director, actors, designers and crew have invested untold hours of skill, talent and heart to bring to life this beautiful play by Brittany K. Allen. Following orders by governor Tim Walz to cancel or postpone all community events while honoring our team’s hard work, we have made the decision to indefinitely postpone REDWOOD performances, with the intention of getting the play back up on stage as soon as conditions improve.

Our box office will be reaching out to all REDWOOD ticket holders with updates and options on their tickets. Updates will be available via social media and the Jungle's website.

We thank all of our patrons, subscribers, and supporters for their patience and understanding in this time of uncertainty."

I feel very badly for everyone involved.  They got through a couple of previews, were about to have their media night on Friday, and officially open on Saturday.  To put in all that work and get so close...

Hang in there, my artists friends.  Rough waters ahead for all of us, it seems.

Review - Sueno - Pangea World Theater - An Alternate Fairy Tale Reality Worth Escaping To - 4.5 stars

It’s a shame that current events are, quite understandably, making people skittish about going out to the theater - assuming of course that whatever theater you were planning on attending hasn’t already canceled their performances.  Because there is, or has been, a lot of really good theater going on lately.  One example, Sueno from Pangea World Theater that was, perhaps still is, playing at the Lab Theater in the Warehouse district of Minneapolis.

“Isn’t it interesting that the prophets of doom are never wrong?”

Sueno is the translation/adaptation by award-winning playwright Jose Rivera (Marisol) of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s classic 17th Spanish play Life Is A Dream (of which I vaguely recall seeing in a production of the original back in grad school - the only things I remember being the title and the fact that the set designer went crazy in a good way with multiple vividly colored doors in frames rolling around on wheels - coincidentally enough, a lot of things rolling around on wheels in this production as well).

“You speak well.  That’s a dangerous quality for a man of action.”

The king of Spain, Basillio, (Pedro Bayon) gets a lot of bad news all at once.  His wife dies in childbirth and the horoscope for his son predicts nothing good for the king is on the way.  So he ships the infant off to a prison hidden in the side of a rocky cliff face to grow up far away from the royal court where he can hopefully do less harm.  A hard life doesn’t do wonders for the people skills of the young prince, Segismundo (Fernando Collado).  The king’s right hand man, and the prince’s jailer, Clotaldo (Ernest Briggs), keeps an eye on things.  But of course the guy is destined to get out of prison at some point.  Just as Segismundo emerges, he crosses paths with Rosaura (Ankita Ashrit) - disguised as a man for safety in her travels (she’s on a mission) - and her trusty sidekick Clarin (Adlyn Carreras, in a clever bit of gender-blind casting).

“Life is borrowed, and it must be returned.”

The king decides to give the prince a test drive at court, see if his son can behave himself after all.  And if it doesn’t work out, they can always just ship him back to his prison and lock him up again, gaslighting him into thinking it was all a dream and he was never really a prince after all.  Elsewhere in the royal court, the visiting Duke of Warsaw, Astolfo (Nicholas Sullivan) is playing politics for both power, and with luck, a mutually beneficial union in marriage with the princess Estrella (Katia Cardenas).  Rounding out the ensemble are Amarkirat Singh and Keila Anali Saucedo, playing supporting roles in skirmishes both political and literal, out on the field of battle.  Before we’re done, no one’s entirely sure what reality they’re living in, and quite a few battles large and small are settled in unexpected ways.

“Strange new constellations pollute the night sky.”

Rivera’s poetic and sexy way with words is the big draw here and the actors who fare the best make the most of this juicy playing material.  Director Leslie Ishii (along with assistant director Sir Curtis Kirby III) get sometimes mixed results from the ensemble.  Three key performers - Fernando Collado as Segismundo, Ankita Ashrit as Rosaura, and Ernest Briggs as Clotaldo - all fully engage with the reality of this fantasy world/dark fairy tale and even though the situations are outrageous, they’re always three-dimensionally human within it, so we believe.  We have anchors we can follow.  Collado’s Segismundo is a deeply flawed leading man to have at the center of a story, but over time even he gets that.  He may not be redeemed or forgiven, but by the end he is not the man he was and that’s a good thing.  Ahrit’s Rosaura is the rare woman in the world of this play who is not just an object or a victim, and her portrayal takes things one step further, making her an active participant, driving the action, even though her society is designed to rein her in.  Briggs’ Clotaldo, because of his stage presence as an actor, always seems more important than the plot sometimes makes him appear.  There’s always something going on under the surface of his lines and behind his eyes that’s compelling you as an audience member to pay attention.  In the end, he turns out to be just as pivotal as you suspect, just in a manner you had no way of guessing. 

“I know my pain would be a joy to you and you’d wear it gladly.”

And as much as the clowns of these old stories sometimes grate on my nerves, I have to admit that Adlyn Carreras as Clarin avoids most of the pitfalls that kind of character can fall into, and becomes another key figure worth watching and caring about.  Some of the other cast members fall victim to playing just the fairy tale surface of things, more caricature than human being.  The story and the script make this an easy mistake to fall prey to, so I can understand how it happened.  Others in the ensemble sometimes think volume equals intensity or feeling - we could do with a little less shouting and a little more connecting.  But Sueno is such a fast-moving tale, particularly in the action-packed second half with full-scale/full-cast battles consuming the full stage of the vast Lab Theater, that temporary hiccups like that can be forgiven in the evening as a whole.

“God’s actual fingerprints are there.”

Speaking of action, Joel Sass’ set is fantastic, a combination of wooden platforms (and a wooden moon) and numerous moving metal panels on wheels serving as walls and doors and anything else that’s needed, plus an imposing rolling ladder with a platform high above our heads.  The whole thing moves and reshapes itself in a variety of configurations, sometimes moving just as gracefully or speedily as the actors themselves.  Mike Grogan’s lighting design helps to focus audience attention so the story doesn’t get lost in the big Lab Theater space - and that’s a huge help to the story.  It could easily fall apart without that guiding light, helping to set not just location but mood - and again, that wooden moon - a combination of set and lighting work, just lovely. 

“I read once, in one of the many theological treatises I ate…”

The costumes from designer Mary Anne Kelling (with assistance from Laura Jones) really nailed the difference between characters of high and low estate - the prince in prison, and the various underling characters had clothes to fit their fortunes, while the characters in the royal court really stood out with color and even sparkled.  The visual extremes helped set up the boundaries of this otherworldly story.  Since I can’t pinpoint any elements of Eric Gonzalez’s sound design, it has to be one of those that fit the world of Sueno so perfectly that it didn’t stand out by being too flashy and calling attention to itself, or so out of place that it seemed wrong.  It rode the middle line and bolstered the tale as needed. 

“Liars and promise-breakers hold a special place in the inferno of my heart.”

If ever a show needed both a violence and intimacy choreographer (sometimes disturbingly mixed together), it’s Sueno, so they’re lucky to have had David P. Schneider on the case.  Both just realistic enough to make you uncomfortable but not enough to drive anyone onstage or off over the edge.  And with such a large stage and cast, using big design elements and moving through a story of many locations and subplots at a brisk pace, including some full-on war taking place, kudos to stage manager Suzanne Victoria Cross and ASM Johanna Keller Flores for keeping the whole thing on course from start to finish.  That fact that your work was completely invisible and the show ran smoothly means you were probably working your tails off the whole night.

“Dear God, please don’t wake me up.  And if I’m awake, please don’t let me sleep too soon.”

Pangea World Theater’s sprawling, epic production of Sueno posits that if we considered our life, both the good things and the bad things, as a dream we might easily wake up from at any moment, maybe we’d pay closer attention and appreciate the good things, not take them for granted as lasting forever. We might also bear the bad things with more grace, since they, too, are transitory.  It’s because we think we have all the time in the world that we can waste a lot of our time without meaning to.  And we can get run down by thinking during the bad times that things are never going to change, or that events are out of our control to influence, when that’s very likely not true at all.  Perhaps especially now, it’s good to be awakened to the positive moments in the midst of trying times.  Hopefully we’ll still appreciate the good times when they are - with luck and perseverance - more plentiful in the future.

“Whatever God writes in the book of destiny cannot be rewritten, just mistranslated.”

Take care and be well, everyone - whatever reality you’re choosing to live in.  (Viruses permitting, Sueno performs through March 22, 2020 at the Lab Theater)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

[Photo: Fernando Collado as Segismundo in Pangea World Theater’s production of Sueno; photography by Bruce Silcox]

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Review - Saint Joan - Orchard Theater Collective - Fantastic Theater from True Believers - 5 Stars

The Orchard Theater Collective’s production of Saint Joan is fantastic.  (And I don’t say that lightly.). Honestly, just skip the rest of this review and just go.  If you love theater half as much as this crew obviously loves theater, you’ll all get along fine and be happy you got a chance to hang out for a couple of hours.

“Her heart would not burn.  It would not drown.”

What’s it about?  Joan of Arc, a young woman in the 15th century who claimed to hear voices from God instructing her to lead an army to drive the invading British out of France, and see French prince Charles crowned a king.  (Historical spoilers) Shortly after completing her mission, Joan was captured by the British, who tried her for witchcraft and heresy and burned her at the stake.  20 years later, King Charles VII ordered a new trial to clear Joan’s name and restore her reputation.  Many people in France considered her to be a saint, long before the Catholic Church got around to making it official in the early 20th century.

So, not a musical comedy.  But not without a lot of laughs all the same (that’s Shaw’s thing, whip-smart humor), and incredibly compelling theater to watch.

“The cathedral is empty, and the streets are full.”

The past year from a personal/family standpoint has been pretty traumatic.  I used to be able to just go see any theater production and find something to enjoy because, hey, it’s theater and there’s something just inherently fun and exciting about live performance.  It’s been hard to connect with theater again, as a writer or an audience member, since the deaths in my family, because, well, the foundations of your world get knocked out of alignment, it’s hard to give a crap about telling stories.  It’s still important, of course. It’s just hard to claw your way back to some kind of normalcy where you feel you can allow yourself to expend emotional energy on something imaginary.  It’s an ongoing process.  I’m nowhere near the end of it.  But I realized that it was a good sign at the start of 2020 when I actually found myself getting a little intrigued about the idea of seeing this or that play or theater company, or feel regret when I knew I was going to have to miss something because of scheduling and realize that meant I was genuinely interested in seeing it in the first place.  There are certain things I’m still just not up for.  No rhyme or reason to it, I just feel it in my gut and I’ve learned not to fight it for now.  Every day I open up a little more.  Every day it gets a little better.  Theater actually is helping.  One production pries open a little extra space for some other kind of theater to get in.

“She is the last card left in our hand.  Better play her than give up the game.”

So why a George Bernard Shaw play, tucked away in small, traditional chapel off to the side of the Plymouth Congregational Church’s more sprawling, modern community space?  Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’m familiar with some Shaw but not Saint Joan specifically.  More than anything I was curious about the Orchard Theater Collective because they’ve been producing shows for a couple of years but I’d only just tripped over a mention of them in a couple of artists’ bios in the program at another production (weirdly enough also in a converted church space).   Did some internet homework, had that little nudge in my brain that said, oh go on, you’re curious, that has to count for something.

“Put courage into the others but leave me alone.”

Saint Joan is the kind of production that takes a logistical challenge and uses it as a springboard to create better art than they might have come up with if they had it easy.  The chapel is intimate, but at the same time it has one of those high vaulted ceilings that makes the space seem vast, if you just think to look up now and again.  Characters can be both enormous, and very small, depending on the perspective that the production and the actors bring to any given moment.  The choir loft isn’t just a place to sequester the stage manager, there are times when voices or sound effects emanate from it, again drawing our eyes upward.  The space just outside the chapel doors is alive with sound and activity throughout the production, and the hint of light from beyond the narthex continues that sense of the larger world outside the story in front of us.  The audience seating is reconfigured at intermission to open up the space even as the world is closing in on Joan - making her seem smaller, and the forces raised against her larger.  Director Benjamin Robert Shaw has staged the hell out of this thing.  And not in a flashy way that says, hey audience, look what we’re doing, aren’t we clever?  It’s only after the whole production washes over you and you’re thinking about it later that you realize, damn, that was a subtle but absolutely brilliant move.

“The pit is open at her feet. We cannot keep her from it.”

And the cast, oh the cast!  Again, the word fantastic more than applies to everyone across the board, starting with Annie Shiferl as Joan.  Shiferl is electrifying in the way she embodies Joan, you can’t take your eyes off of her.  She makes Joan fully human, which it tricky when you’re dealing with someone who hears voices and claims divine intervention drives her actions.  It’s not just the other characters telling you that Joan is mesmerizing, when you’re in Shiferl’s presence in this role, you believe it, too.

“The devil has betrayed you.  The church holds out its arms for you.”

The other four actors in this ensemble all play multiple roles - three, four, sometimes five characters.  Jorie Kosel’s costume design is deceptively simple, and perfect.  The looks for all the characters are vivid, sometimes grotesque, but always in keeping with the period and Shaw’s larger than life canvas.  For those who need a little help telling people apart with visual cues, Kosel’s costumes do the trick.  But honestly, these actors almost don’t need any help. 

“Your little hour of miracles is over.”

The acting work here by Meg Bradley, Craig Johnson, Damian Leverett, and Tim Sailer is so good, you always know exactly who they are.  Everything they do is incredibly precise.  It’s stunning stuff. GB Shaw’s script and BR Shaw’s direction give the whole cast rich material and countless opportunities and they make the most of every bit of it.  Bradley goes from being a corrupt church official in the French royal court to another church leader at Joan’s trial striving mightily to help Joan save herself to a bewildered executioner.  Sailer is equally at home as a soldier in waiting, a petulant prince or an incensed self-important church leader calling for Joan’s damnation.  Leverett is also quite an impressive chameleon throughout.  And there is a sequence in the final scene of the play where all he does is take off a hat, stand up and change his voice and suddenly he’s not a comical low-ranking military grunt, he’s a leading man in one of those black and white heroic period films they don’t make anymore.  He does something so small and suddenly he’s a completely different person.  Even simple moments like that can be thrilling to watch.

“Some of them would steal the Pope’s horse if they had the chance.”

Johnson works some real magic here, whether he’s a befuddled French lord swept up in Joan’s mission, a lowly born enlisted man willing to follow her into battle, a calculating British man plotting the politics of Joan’s downfall, or an Inquisitor shipped in from France to seal Joan’s fate.  The Inquisitor in particular is a genius piece of character work, backed up by a wonderfully unsettling costume choice.  The man never raises his voice, never seems unreasonable, is often quite amusing, and is at all times ready to sentence you to death.  It is freaky, and wonderful to see happen right in front of you.

“If you could bring her back to life, they would burn her again within six months.”

At its base, theater is just words and people.  People on stage and people in the seats watching them. The Orchard Theater Collective gets that.  They put the fundamentals front and center and it is bracing to be in the same room with it while it’s happening.  This production of Saint Joan reminds me why I love theater, and boy do I need that right now.

“God is no man’s daily drudge, and no maid’s either.”

Of course, you need to be able to see those people for it to work, so let’s not forget Alex Clark’s lighting design.  Lighting a show in a church, with no standard grid built into the space from which to hang and position lighting instruments is a challenge that Clark clearly enjoyed tackling.  The stark lighting of Joan’s trial scene is chilling, but always reinforcing rather than overpowering the scene at hand.  The extended dream sequence that is the final scene makes full use of the entire space from chapel to outer lobby and here again, Clark knows how to play with light and shadow and support rather than wreck the otherworldly quality that the scene needs to maintain.  But I think my favorite scene is when it feels (deceptively so) like there’s very little light at all, between Joan and that fellow soldier leading man character of Leverett’s.  The two are getting ready to go into battle, and having a disagreement on how best to do it.  But it’s also an intimate scene about who they both are, and what they feel called to do.  The semi-darkness surrounds all of us, making the audience part of their secret meeting.  And the light from outside (I can’t think it’s an accident, it must be deliberate) provides just enough illumination to make the colors pop in the stained glass windows all around us.  Gorgeous.

“Thirty thousand thunders, fifty thousand devils!”

And as adept as this ensemble of actors is at creating a whole world with just a handful of people, it really helps complete that illusion by having the sound effects of crowds and battle to augment key moments both within and between scenes.  Director Shaw does double duty himself on sound design.  And stage manager Sarah Perron helps everyone keep all these balls in the air and making it look easy.

“I hear voices telling me what to do.  They come from God.”

In what can often feel like a dark time these days, a time I really need to believe in something better, it’s uplifting to watch people who do believe, and fervently.  That’s both Joan and company within the play Saint Joan itself, and the Orchard Theater Collective as a whole presenting the play, almost as if theater might be the cure for what ails us, body and soul.

(I know, I know.  Shaw.  History.  Religion.  Ugh.  Forget all that.)

Trust me.  Go.  See Saint Joan.  Just go.

(The Orchard Theater Collective’s production of Saint Joan runs through March 21, 2020 in the chapel at Plymouth Congregational Church.  Heads up, early start time, 7pm)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

[Photo: Joan (Annie Shiferl) on trial, Brother Martin (Damian Leverett) at her side in the Orchard Theater Collective’s production of Saint Joan; photography by Alex Clark]

Monday, February 24, 2020

Review - Silent Sky - Theatre Pro Rata - Life, the Universe, and Everything - 5 stars

I know it’s only February, but I think it’s going to be hard for theater the rest of the year to top the experience I just had at Theatre Pro Rata’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky.  They’ve staged a play about astronomers inside an actual planetarium and the result is, well - the words glorious, enchanting and transcendent come to mind, for starters.  Gunderson’s words in the mouths of these performers just swept me away.  Giddy, is another apt way to describe my response.  This is the kind of thing live theater is made for.  It’s why it survives.  A script this good, in the hands of a director, cast and creative team this inventive, isn’t something you see every day.  If you enjoy theater, you really owe it to yourself to see Silent Sky.  (And if you haven’t set foot in a planetarium in a while, that immersive experience is something you should treat your brain to as well.  Words will fail me, but I’ll give it a shot.)

“You asked God a question.  And He *answered*.”

Silent Sky is based on the life and work of early 20th century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (Victoria Pyan).  A woman ahead of her time, she put the calling of her career first, supporting the work of Harvard College Observatory, often causing friction when other duties of family or romance threatened to pull her off course.  The result?  Before women in America had the right to vote, her discoveries (including what would come to be known as Leavitt’s law) laid the foundation for science to measure the distance between Earth and the stars, to measure the size of the universe.

“It’s just space.”
“And time.”
“Afar, but not apart.”

Gunderson has a poet’s gift for making something as potentially dry as science exciting, accessible and beautiful.  We understand Henrietta’s obsession with her work, and the struggle to find the key to unlocking the mysteries of the stars.  We understand the respect of her fellow female “computers” Annie Cannon (Amber Bjork) and Williamina Fleming (Sarah Broude), and why her mind dazzles her male Harvard colleague Peter Shaw (Carl Swanson) to the point he is so smitten he wants to take her on a European cruise.  Meanwhile, contact with her sister Margaret (Danielle Krivinchuk) keeps Henrietta grounded in the world outside of academic life, and sometimes even provides the inspiration she needs to crack things open and take her research to the next level.

“You have been the brightest object in my days since we met - and we work with stars.”

Partnering with the Bell Museum and their Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium was an inspired bit of site specific thinking.  Just being under the dome is one thing.  The size of the universe, a hint of the scale of the wider world beyond the story being told, is always present in the corner of your eye as you sit in the audience.  Also, because of the configuration of the space, the cast is always entering and exiting by the rounded sides of the planetarium space.  The story wraps around the audience from behind and pulls them in.

“To write a whole symphony I thought you had to be - “
“European, and angry.”

And then the projections on the dome kick in.  We get a cosmic opening monologue from Henrietta.  But she’s down to earth again pretty quickly, with wrap-around photo landscapes first setting the scene of the church or family home in Henrietta’s hometown.  Later we hit the campus of Harvard, or the deck of a cruise ship.  But when the stars return again, and the planets, and the galaxies, rather than overwhelm the actors or the words, they reinforce the size, the scope, the importance of the things Henrietta is studying.  They also give us just a hint of our own place in the universe, which I was surprised to find oddly comforting, and also kind of thrilling.  Because we’re not just an afterthought, we’re part of it all.  And human beings like Henrietta wrestled the universe into comprehensible form, even as the size of it expanded beyond all imagining.  So look what we can do, when we set our minds to it.  (Thanks to Dome 3D Immersive Media Solutions for the earthly locations, and to the Bell Museum Planetarium producers Sally Brummel, Sarah Komperud, and Thaddeus LaCoursiere for setting loose the universe above our heads.)

“I am out of time, but light has never let me down.”

Director Carin Bratlie Wethern has gathered a great ensemble of actors here, led by the fantastic Victoria Pyan as Henrietta.  You could not ask for a smarter, more passionate performer to anchor a story this big.  It would be easy for the display of the universe over our heads to overwhelm a play, but not when you put the words of a Lauren Gunderson closing monologue in Victoria Pyan’s hands.  And everyone around her is equally wonderful, whether its Danielle Krivinchuk as the sister who loves but struggles to understand Henrietta, because Margaret appreciates earthly life in a way that never quite satisfies her brilliant sister.  Or Carl Swanson, as the man who loves Henrietta but can’t quite find the will to wait for her, or keep up with her.  Or Amber Bjork as the wryly confident supervisor (and part time suffragette) who keeps Henrietta on track without getting all sentimental about it.  Or Sarah Broude as Henrietta’s other co-worker, and one-woman cheering section.  The complexity and challenge of the society and expectations of Henrietta’s day are made clear in the subtleties of basic human interactions.  No relationship exists without context, and the cast makes us aware of the nuances and unspoken consequences that lurk underneath every decision.  These five people are the whole world.  The actors deliver on playwright Gunderson’s magic.

“Hearts and stars can be blinding.”

It can’t have been easy to make a theater experience fit so neatly inside the environment of the planetarium so kudos all around to the Pro Rata production team.  Samantha Kuhn Staneart’s costumes do a lot of the heavy lifting of setting time and place.  Jacob M. Davis’ work on sound, Julia Carlis’ lights and the prop work of Jenny Moeller (assisted by Ursula K. Bowden), all stage managed by Clara Costello, help fill in the rest of the blanks we need for the performance in front of, rather than above, us.  It’s a useful reminder of how little theater really needs to tell a story (planetarium aside, of course).

“What you do outlasts you - sometimes.”

It is crazy to contemplate how much Henrietta accomplished, how much of the universe she brought down to earth, in a life cut tragically short by cancer.  (To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, it is a sobering thought to consider that by the time Henrietta Leavitt was my age, she had already been dead two years.)  Her work continues to live on, of course, and provided the foundation for countless other scientists to build upon. 

“Nothing is ever really lost.  It just shifts.”

One of the many great things playwright Lauren Gunderson does with her continued focus on bringing female figures in the scientific world to life on stage, is it makes someone like me realize that my education barely scratched the surface of all the human stories to be told, and that a lot of people, for various reasons, can get left out of the narrative of this country’s history if you don’t go looking for them.  More to learn, more to explore, more to be done.   Thanks to plays like Silent Sky, that call to action feels less like a chore and more like an adventure.  We make mistakes, but what amazing things humans can do when we put our mind to it.  Theatre Pro Rata has done an amazing thing here.  You should see it. (Silent Sky runs through March 8, 2020 at the Bell Museum in the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Photo: Victoria Pyan as Henrietta Leavitt in Theatre Pro Rata’s production of Silent Sky; photo by Charles Gorrill)

Review - Fearless Five: Dreams - Fearless Comedy Productions - Five Funny Scripts About Our Minds Playing Tricks On Us - 5 Stars

I’m a little embarrassed to admit I hadn’t heard before about Fearless Comedy Productions’ annual new play festival, Fearless FiveThis is the fourth year they’ve been at it, and it’s a great concept.  They get five writers (sometimes theater artists new to playwriting) to create short plays around a common theme, and then put them in the hands of new directors, with access to more seasoned writers and directors to offer mentorship and advice.  The scripts all share a common cast of six actors, many of them multitasking across four of the five stories.  So everyone involved gets to stretch their talents and try something new.  Previous years have had the theme of Harbingers, Conspiracies, and Noir.  This year, it’s Dreams.  Producer Tim Wick has gathered a game group of artists who really dive into the material, creating an evening that builds from one play to the next, providing an impressively solid overall evening of theater.  Fearless Five: Dreams is a lot of fun to watch. (But be careful, as the cast frequently reminds the audience throughout the evening, the actors are watching you, too.)

“Something other than fighting fires with living fish.”

The night kicks off with “Dream Job” by James Lyndon Fairbairn, directed by Salsa Sterling.  It’s a brief amusing curtain-raiser on the concept of the evening.  Ashley (Maretta Zilic) is called in for a cryptic job interview with Paris (Adrienne Lee), soon learning that she will be on a team that builds dreams for other people, a team that includes an elementary school teacher who was her first crush,
Mr. Bradley (Jason Kruger), and a guy named Adrian (Kaz Loren), who she made eye contact with on the bus the other day.  Hey, you have to put the random ingredients of your conscious mind to use somehow, right?

“I’m reasonably certain there isn’t a Hell Mouth in St. Paul.”

Next up, Lana Rosario’s short play “Canoe” (directed by Becci Schmidt) really dives down the rabbit hole of constantly shifting reality.  Soon after it begins, the audiences realizes that Nic (Maretta Zilic) isn’t really waking up from a dream at all, but keeps waking up inside a dream.  Nobody seems particularly disturbed by the concept, even as Nic’s boyfriend Mac (Kaz Loren), sister Sam (Adrienne Lee), and co-worker Chris (Ari Newman) keep altering their roles within her workday life.  One minute someone’s bringing their pet alligator to work, the next moment one of the cast members is actually becoming an alligator themselves.  Shared costumes among the supporting players in Nic’s dream make things even more amusing as the absurdity builds.

“You’re not a goddamn rake, you’re a living being.”
“I am neither.”

To round out the first half before intermission, it’s time to visit the convention of many a sci-fi tale in which a robot is treated so well by its human owners that it starts to act like, wish, even dream that it was human, too.  Writer Jacob Gulliver is teamed up with director Tom S. Tea on  “Apple Picker.”
Robin (Breanna Cecile) isn’t fond of the way technician Devon (Adrienne Lee) is handling Robin’s robot farm hand (Ari Newman), treating it more like a machine than one of the family.  So it’s time to call in the robo-pyschologist, Bobby (Kaz Loren).

“And then the Roanoke colonists decided to follow their new masters and build a new home underground.”

Kicking off the second half is “A Sheep In The Hand Is Worth Two In the Barn” (written by Garrick Dietze, directed by Aiden Dustin Milligan).  Here the full cast of characters in the story is supposedly presenting a dream in the collective mind of the audience.  “Sheep” is the densest script of the evening, with so much going on and so many layers, that it probably bears more than one look and more than a little bit of study on the page.  Though still quite funny, it’s riffing off the classic sibling rivalry tale of Cain (Ari Newman) and Abel (Jason Kruger) from the Old Testament of the Bible, so the threat of violence, however comic, is constant.  Plus there’s a wacky murderous puppet show and role-playing bit of a dream within the dream, employing support from Cain and Abel’s wives - Aban (Adrienne Lee) and Azura (Breanna Cecile) (who, to be honest, I didn’t recall, but they seem to appear in religious traditions other than the one I grew up in).  There’s a lot of “wait a minute, are they talking about what I think they’re talking about?” and “whoa, did I miss something?” that don’t seem to be mistakes so much as misdirection.  And there’s a zig-zagging series of shifting fortunes, alliances and power that always keeps the story one step ahead of where the audience thinks it might be going.  Darker comedy, but comedy nonetheless.

“It’s a bisexual joke.  I guess you only got half of it.”

Capping off this year’s collection of shorts is writer Denzel Belin’s smart, hilarious and heartwarming “Oz,” directed by Dave Rand-McKay.  Even though it’s set in a gay bar, our narrator, the lesbian bartender Dorothy (Maretta Zilic) assures us that “unlike a lot of gay media, this is a happy story.”  There’s plenty of pointed cultural commentary lurking just under the surface of the wickedly fast-moving one-liners that are busting out of this script in all directions.  I couldn’t keep up with all the memorable lines I wanted to write down as the story just zipped merrily along in front of me.  But these jokes have the added benefit of being grounded in the reality of the characters, which makes them much funnier than a bunch of random gags would be.  Dorothy’s got a couple of regulars on Wednesday afternoons - Remy (Kaz Loren) and Ian (Jason Kruger) - who just come in, order drinks, and stare shyly across the bar at one another without speaking.  Of course the bartender hears both sides of their unconsummated fantasies, so Dorothy decides to take matters into her own hands to try and make their daydreaming into reality.  Every one of the pieces in Dreams had its selling points, but I’d be willing to give the whole night five stars just on the strength of the writing, direction and performances in “Oz” alone.  It’s a great way to end the show.  More from all of the artists involved in this one, please.  We could use more queer positivity these days.

“I remember that I am in a dream and I don’t need permission to touch myself.”

Compliments as well to the four people helping manage the complete Fearless Comedy experience of the full production - stage manager Megan Slawson guiding each performance from start to finish, with Steffen Moeller on Technical Direction and Design, Oversight Director Jena Young, and previously mentioned producer Tom Wick.  It’s not easy to put together an evening of brand new plays where there’s not at least one dud in the bunch, but every peculiar little dreamscape here has its charms.  And with “Oz” the evening ends on a real winner.  I wish every production sent me home with a smile like Fearless Five: Dreams does.  Treat yourself, go have a laugh.  (runs through March 7, 2020 at the Mounds Theatre).

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(poster art for Fearless Five: Dreams, courtesy of Fearless Comedy Productions)

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Review - Significant Other - Minnesota Jewish Theatre – An Amusing Cautionary Tale - 4 stars

Just a quick note of appreciation as we start: As it continues to celebrate its 25th anniversary season, I’m grateful that Minnesota Jewish Theatre includes queer stories in its seasonal offerings.  It’s not a given with every theater in town, but whether it’s the thought-provoking Twilight of the Golds back in 2006 or the more recent charming musical My Mother’s LesbianJewish Wiccan Wedding in 2012, it’s nice to have it reinforced that LGBTQ people are part of the human (and Jewish) experience MJT chooses to depict on its stage.  And now we have Significant Other from playwright Joshua Harmon (whose play Bad Jews MJT produced back in 2016).  Jordan, the central character in Significant Other, isn’t so much a bad Jew as he is bad with interpersonal skills.  And therein lies the comedy of it all.

“When was the last time you had sex?”
“I don’t know. The Pleistocene Era?”

Jordan (Bradley Hildebrandt) is unintentionally watching life pass him by.  In the opening scene of the play, he’s attending his friend Kiki (Olivia Wilusz)’s bachelorette party, followed closely by her wedding, and by the end of the play he’s watched his friends Vanessa (Audrey Park) and Laura (Chloe Armao) get paired off as well. All this coupling, and friends creating new lives that aren’t as centered around hanging out with him, puts Jordan’s own anemic dating life in sharp relief. 

“Have you ever been to a wedding?  They’re not fun.  They’re disturbing.”

Jordan is great at obsessing, not so great with following through using things like, oh, you know, face-to-face conversation. Jordan’s only meaningful relationship outside of his girlfriends is his grandmother Helene (Nancy Marvy), who keeps joking about suicide in unsettling ways.  (Don’t’ worry, it’s a comedy, even if, in these moments, it can get a bit dark.)  Paul LaNave and Tony Larkin round out the cast doing some seriously chameleon-like transformations, portraying everything from Jordan’s co-worker crushes to all the various husbands of his friends, in a way that makes you stop and go, “Wait? Is that the same guy?  Wow.”  Director Hayley Finn gets uniformly great performances out of the whole cast.

“Everyone hooks up in that store.”
“Not in the luggage department.” 

There’s certainly love, affection and romance to go along with all the laughs in Significant Other, but it’s not a romantic comedy.  Playwright Harmon isn’t so much interested in pairing Jordan off with another guy as he is in trying to figure out what’s wrong with his leading man – what’s keeping Jordan from growing up and connecting with people beyond his circle of close-knit college friends as they move into full adulthood.  Body image, social media, faulty gaydar, people with their own personal baggage, lack of financial resources - all the usual suspects are present.

“Try to recognize when moments are about you, and when they aren’t about you!”

A special shout-out has to go to Bradley Hildebrandt as Jordan, who spends nearly the entire two-act play onstage without a break, unless it’s to quickly duck out and change his costume between scenes.  Jordan is an uncomfortable fellow, so it can’t be easy to inhabit his skin with no respite for the whole of the evening.  It’s a challenging role to keep from devolving into a sort of one-note pity party, but Hildebrandt finds the nuance, especially in his interactions with Chloe Armao as Jordan’s best friend Laura.  Armao and Hildebrandt in act two have the kind of bruising emotional fight that only the closest of friends can have, because they know all the places to do the most damage.  That scene is more heartbreaking than any romantic letdown that Jordan suffers at the hands of a man.

“I feel happy.  It’s freaking me out.  I’m not a happy person.  I like foreign films.”

Michael Hoover’s set design with its many compartments, hidden doors and windows, and emerging bookshelf and bed attachments, partners with Todd Reemtsma’s lighting and Lisa Imbryk’s props to speedily move us around from scene to scene and location to location.  In a show where cheesy love songs are key, C. Andrew Mayer’s sound design delivers.  And Rubble & Ash’s costume design keeps everyone realistically costumed for a story stretching across a wide swath of time while also allowing the women in the cast to have some fun whether dressing up or down (as it should be). Also, I’m sure the many opposing gears of this production would grind to a halt without Samson Perry stage managing, so kudos to them for keeping things moving along at a spritely pace.

“Hearing you say I have obsessive tendencies makes me think I need to go to the veterinarian to be put down.”

Jordan isn’t always the best friend he could be, and he’s not an easy guy to love sometimes, but he’s never less than compelling to watch.  It’s frustrating but fascinating to see him get stuck in place as all three of his friends evolve in surprising ways, transformed by the effort of making space in their lives for someone new. Audrey Park and Olivia Wilusz are equally impressive as Chloe Armao, as all the women in Jordan’s life subtly become something more than the girls he met in college.  The friend who attended the show with me wanted Jordan to finally get over himself and dance at his friend’s wedding, even if he had to dance alone.  But I guess Jordan’s got some more growing up to do after the lights fade to black.

“It’s a long book, Jordan.  You’re in a tough chapter right now.  But it’s a long book.”

Thanks to Minnesota Jewish Theatre for staging something more than another story of impossibly pretty boys serially dating one another until they find a match (not that there’s anything wrong with that – I still need those stories every now and then, more than I’d probably care to admit).  Significant Other might not be a feel-good romantic comedy, but it might do us all some good to take a break from those for a minute and enter the life of someone whose mistakes we don’t want to make ourselves.  Significant Other is a funny cautionary tale, for the more complicated romantic landscape of 2020. (Significant Other runs through March 8, 2020 on the stage at the Highland Park CommunityCenter)

4 Stars – Highly Recommended

(Photo (left to right): Bradley Hildebrandt, Olivia Wilusz, Audrey Park, Chloe Armao in Significant Other - photo courtesy of Minnesota Jewish Theatre