Saturday, May 23, 2020

Strange Wor(l)ds: A Maximum Verbosity Restrospective and Minnesota Fringe Festival fundraising event

This is not so much a review as a reunion, a celebration, and a plea.

And you can join in the fun yet this evening, Saturday 5/23.  Read on.

If you’re wondering if we really need a Minnesota Fringe Festival, let Maximum Verbosity’s phillip andrew bennett low convince you.

Tonight is part 2 of his Fringe retrospective/fundraiser for the Minnesota Fringe, Strange Wor(l)ds, and damn, it reminded me quite vividly how much I miss theater and the Fringe brand of theater specifically.

You can watch it streaming live at: (9pm EST, 8pm CST, etc), tonight, Saturday, 5/23.

You can donate to the Fringe at - he’s asking $15, since that’s the price of a Fringe ticket - but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.  If you can give, please do, and if you can give more, definitely please do.

“I tend to chafe at genre restrictions.”

And the thing is, phillip personally doesn’t even need the Fringe anymore as an artist.  But that’s because, and he freely admits this throughout the evening, the Fringe taught him everything he needed to know - about telling a story, about collaboration, about how to advertise yourself, about a million different little details that make a theater producer successful in gaining and building an audience, about mixing genres, about making friends you might not otherwise meet because the Fringe gathers such a large cross-section of artists from all over the Twin Cities, the state, and the country, sometimes even the world.  So, as he says, “Not for my sake, but for every other artist in this community” - we need to keep the Minnesota Fringe going.

“I’m pretty sure I performed this in a brothel.”

Phillip understands that the next generation of artists needs a Fringe, too.  (And a Strike Theater, and a HUGE Theater, and a Crane Theater, and a Bryant Lake Bowl, and a Southern Theater - support all these places - the venues for smaller companies and artists year round as well as at Fringe time need to be here on the other side of the pandemic.)  Phillip made the point that, yes, theater will survive, in some form or other, because it always has.  But if the only thing that survives are the big companies, then the theater we have will be poorer.  It will be harder for developing artists to create new work and find an audience.  (Phillip is right when he says there aren’t a lot of places that teach you how to “usher a production from concept to curtain” like the Fringe does)  It will be harder for audiences to see themselves on stage.  We will be missing something if we don’t have the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

“Somehow his arrogance is so intense it bends reality to his will.”

And if you want proof of that, just watch Maximum Verbosity’s Fringe journey through time.  Last night (Friday 5/22), phillip took his online audience on a tour of his Fringe offerings starting back in 2004, and bringing us up through 2011 to conclude part 1.  He put each show and its year in context, both for his career and the Fringe in general.  And it was fascinating, and amusing, and brought back a lot of very fond memories.  All the things he learned, the mistakes he made, the people he met.  The man knows how to spin a tale, and also stay on message.  Once he’d teed up a show, he’d perform an excerpt.  He even sang a song (which, of course was based in the Norse mythology of Loki and Thor, but, it’s phillip, not Rodgers and Hammerstein, what were you expecting?)

“My partner he is thicker
than a copy of Jane Eyre.”

And it reminded me of all the shows I saw, all the shows of my own that had gone up on a Fringe stage, all the people I’d met, all the time with my Mom bingeing as many shows as she could cram into a week’s visit.  In her honor, I pitched in enough to get a ticket for each of us.  Messaging with Phillip after the show, he said, “I remember your mother fondly and flatter myself by thinking she'd get a kick out of this.”  Oh she would have, I assured him.  Particularly seeing bits from shows that for scheduling reasons, she didn’t get to see the first time around.  Phillip was always a priority with her, but the timing didn’t always work out.  I’d like to think she’s still watching, wherever she is now.

“In a room full of Chinese, I’m not half-Chinese anymore, I’m half-white.”

As each year and each show passed, he returned to his theme, none of this happens, if there isn’t a Fringe.  And if any of these names which arose in his narrative mean something to you, you should definitely be giving to the Fringe if you’re able because the Fringe brought them into my life as well, and I’m grateful: Matthew Foster, Walking Shadow Theater, Les Kurkendaal, Scott Pakudaitis, Alison Broeren, Allegra Lingo, the Rockstar Storytellers, Wobbles, Mike Fotis, Ben Sandell, John Munger, Sara Stevenson Scrimshaw, Danielle Robinson Prater, Tim Mooney, Zoe Benston, and more.

Part 1 (Growin’) of the Maximum Verbosity retrospective known as Strange Wor(l)ds included:
2004 - Lokasenna
2005 - Camelot Is Crumbling (Mordred and the Death of Merlin version)
2006 - no show of his own but the beginning of his blogging career and other Fringe insights
2007 - Descendant of Dragons
2008 - All Rights Reserved: A Libertarian Rage
2009 - The Rise of General Arthur
2010 - My Mother Told Me
2011 - Camelot is Crumbling (Mordred and Lancelot version)

Part 2 (Showin’ - because there’s always a dick joke) this evening will take us from 2012 to 2020.

And yes, theater on video isn’t really theater, but in the right hands, it’s still performance.  And that’s what we have here.  I knew I’d enjoy it on the basic level of “hey, I get to hang out with some friends, kinda - and see another human face for a while.”  But phillip isn’t doing this halfway, when he’s performing the excerpts, he’s all in.  It’s compelling viewing, just like it all was on stage when first performed at the Fringe.  And he’s not just rambling his way through a random set of recollections in between performance segments (and if he is, he’s a very cogent rambler). The visual elements are well plotted out, and each year brings to mind the next stage of his development as an artist, and a person, and how the supportive environment of the Fringe helped make that possible.

“No one is gonna catch that beast but me.  Me, or my children.”

Honestly, if every artist helped by the Fringe instigated some sort of fundraising event (and I know a number of them already have), we’d be a lot further along in shoring up the financial base of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.  I know there’s a FringeMiss event coming on Friday, July 31 (which would have been opening weekend of the Fringe) and I’m sure that’s going to help a lot, but I don’t think we can afford to wait that long.  If we could find a way to keep up a string of other events, however small between now and then, I think we should.  No one fundraising event can probably save the day on its own, but a multitude of them working together, that might do it and then some.  If I could get through the recording of a video without crying and being unable to continue, I’d turn in something for the FringeMiss/Adventurous Artists Friday video series they’re presenting (there’s two up already).

“Do you honestly believe that one of these monsters is gonna save you from the other one?”

Maximum Verbosity shows the power of this particular concept - it's a love letter to the idea of the Fringe.  In addition to the encore performances or screening of documentary production videos that have already taken place, if there are other artists able to gather together a sampler of all the things the Fringe helped them bring into being - and make the case not just in the subtext of presentation, but make it explicit in the text - “here is a sample of many things that would not exist, here is a why my life would be fundamentally different, if the Minnesota Fringe did not exist.”  If all of us who have those stories told those stories, that’s exactly the kind of material fundraisers dream of (I can say this because one of my day jobs is in fundraising). And not only do we have all this great material, many of the people who have these stories are themselves performers, so they know how to tell good stories.  That’s what we get here with Maximum Verbosity, and I hope a lot of other artists follow suit.

“Anything they don’t tell me is gonna be lost, forever.”

And I certainly don’t mean for anyone to bankrupt themselves by giving money they can’t afford, or if they don’t have the resources to stage something.  (I just got laid off from my second day job, and we’re not sure when exactly it’s coming back.  We’re hopeful, but no one can say, so, I get it.  Things are tough, and some people can’t give.). But you don’t have to do it alone.  We all know somebody, probably several somebodies, in this Fringe community who could continue to band together, both in this FringeMiss event but also in advance of it.  There’s two months between now and the end of July.  And assuming that most of us are still alive, of course, what would we normally be doing during those two months?  We’d be preparing for Fringe.  So let’s conjure up the ghosts of Fringes past, let’s keep entertaining and inspiring each other.  And let’s keep giving however we’re able.

“I know that this is sin but it is the only time I feel pure.”

(A quick caveat: I’m not willfully forgetting things that other people have already done.  Very likely the reason we’re already over halfway to the goal of $100,000 by June 30 is that everyone has been pitching in so zealously so far.  To be perfectly honest, I’ve been operating on about half a brain and half a heart since my Mom died from a brain tumor last July.  So I am VERY out of the loop.  Thank you to everyone whose efforts I have missed these last several weeks, or only noticed in passing.  I’m grateful for your efforts.  I’m just saying we need to keep doing it.  Because losing Mom, AND the Minnesota Fringe Festival, AND over 100,000 people (so far) that didn’t need to die if we had competent people in government who gave a sh*t about someone other than themselves, well, that might be too heavy a lift to ask my grief therapist to help me handle.  So that’s why I’m asking.  Let’s at least save what we can.)

“I am baptized again in her tears.”

Just like I don’t want the election to go the wrong way and wish I’d done something more, I also don’t want us to lose the Minnesota Fringe Festival - look up one day and find it gone - and miss it, and really wish we’d done more to save it while we had the chance.  They may well be over halfway to their goal, but that still means there’s about half left to do.  And we shouldn’t settle for that.  We should meet the goal and blow past it.  We need this foundation for creating the next generation of theater artists, and performance.  We need a place that’s worth gathering again, when we can gather again.  We need the Minnesota Fringe Festival.  But we’re going to have to fight for it.

“There’s no better place to try and reinvent yourself than the Fringe.”

One of the many nice things about the first part of Maximum Verbosity’s two-part retrospective was actually feeling like I was at the Minnesota Fringe again, just for an hour and a half or so.  And it made me feel hopeful - which I haven’t felt a lot lately.  Both were very welcome feelings.

So treat yourself, and help the Fringe, however you can.

Thanks, everybody.

Maybe I’ll see you online tonight.

Stay safe and be well, everyone.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Give to the Minnesota Fringe Festival

When we come out on the other side of all this, the Minnesota Fringe Festival still needs to exist.  It can’t be one of the many things we lose, just one more thing that slips beneath the waves of this storm.  It needs to be waiting for us to embrace it again in the summer of 2021.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival is one of the primary forces that drives theater in the Twin Cities to be better.  It’s where new artists find their footing.  It’s where established artists try something different.  It’s where new theater companies are born, and other theater companies grow and establish their mission.  It’s where audiences can see themselves onstage, no matter who they are.  It makes for better writers, better musicians, better actors, better dancers, better storytellers, better puppeteers, better clowns, and better spectators.  It provides an incubator for new forms of live performance.  It breaks down conventions in the art form, and breaks down walls between people.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival has made me a better playwright.  It also taught me how to be a producer.  It also turned me into a theater critic. 

In the very early years of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, I’d see a show here and there, depending on how good my artist friends were at promoting their work. It soon dawned on me that there were a ton of other performances going on all over the city at the same time, a whole buffet of strange and wonderful things from which to choose.  I quickly became addicted to that week and a half of theater in August, and started plotting the best way to cram in as many shows as possible each year. 

Then one day back in 2003, a couple of the Fringe staff asked me, “Hey, do you want to write a blog for us about the Fringe?  We’ll give you a festival pass so you can see anything you want, you just have to write about it after.”  “Sure, sounds great! What’s a blog?” 

A few years later when the Fringe shifted the blogs off their website, they got the Twin Cities Daily Planet to pick them up, and then the Planet asked, “Hey, do you want to maybe review theater the rest of the year, too?”  That crazy ride lasted another seven years, and now I’m still plugging along as a freelancer on the Fringe blog that started it all.

The same year I started blogging, my mother happened to visit from her home in Pennsylvania at just the right time that summer to overlap with a few days of the Fringe, and she was hooked.  For the next 15 years, Mom scheduled her summer around her visit to the Minnesota Fringe Festival.  She was just as enthusiastic a consumer of theater as I was.  Over the years Mom made a great many friends, both among the artists and fellow audience members.  And she’d pace herself so she could cram 30 shows into the seven days of her visit (which is easier at 65 than it is when you reach 80, but she was determined). 

Mom accumulated an impressive collection of Fringe buttons that she wore on a lanyard around her neck. She’d use it as a conversation starter. Everyone wanted to know what she’d seen that she liked (or she hated), and she wanted to know the same from them.  Audiences don’t really do this any other time of year, mingle with strangers, share their opinions, make new friends.  The festival atmosphere isn’t just for the artists, it’s for the spectators, too. 

It’s these conversations between shows that I’ve grown to enjoy the most.  When the show was great, it was fun to talk excitedly about it with Mom, and spread the word to everyone whose path we’d cross.  And when the show was awful (rarer, but every now and then it happens), we often had just as lively a conversation about what went wrong and how it might be salvaged.

If it weren’t for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the late John Munger would never have introduced me to the joy of watching dance.  And then in struggling to put my reaction to dance into words for a blog, I would never have had the powerful connection with a young dancer/choreographer who tracked me down to say, “What you wrote made me so happy because you got exactly what I was going for! How did you put yourself in my head at the time of creation like that?”  Artists and audience members alike can feel seen at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

If it weren’t for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, as a queer person I wouldn’t get to see myself on stage in such variety or such joy.  There are queer theater companies plugging away in the trenches year round, but if you’re lucky, you get a show maybe once a month.  At Fringe time every year, there’s so much opportunity, so many different stories going on all at once, it’s a challenge to see them all.  That’s what theater is like for straight people 12 months a year.  I get that feeling only once a year, at Fringe time. 

If it weren’t for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, I wouldn’t have had access to visiting artists and their work - the new plays of the Shelby Company, the stories of Les Kurkendaal Barrett, the absurdity of Cody Rivers, the music of the Irish poets from Scream Blue Murmur, the stand-up comedy of Gerard Harris or Tristan Miller, the self-aware comedy and dance of Casebolt & Smith - I could (and do) go on. 

If it weren’t for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, I wouldn’t have been introduced to a lot of my favorite local artists and theater companies who have grown to produce work the rest of the year (Sheep Theater, Walking Shadow, the multi-hyphenate creators of the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society, Transatlantic Love Affair, and whatever Josh Carson or Tom Reed or Ben Sandel or Neal Skoy are calling their theater companies this year, just to name a few). 

If it weren’t for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and both HUGE and Strike Theaters that grew up around it and served as venues for shows year-round, I would never have learned how amazing things like improv comedy, spoken word or storytelling could be.

Even when my Mom was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor last spring, she was constantly trying to negotiate with doctors to see if she could still somehow travel to Minnesota for the Fringe in August 2019.  She died unexpectedly from complications of her treatment on July 1.  A month later the Fringe community of artists and audience closed ranks around me and got me through my first Fringe without her.  We mourned her loss together, while still pushing on and presenting another dazzling variety of theater offerings (there’s a “show must go on” lesson in there somewhere). In a weird bit of audience participation, I walked up on stage and danced with a space alien while Louis Armstrong sang and an asteroid plummeted toward the earth, which seemed like an oddly fitting benediction. 

The Fringe staff created a new award for the end of the festival last year, to honor adventurous audience members the same way their other awards honor the artists.  They named the audience member award The Beverlee, after my Mom.  On a completely selfish note, I would like them to continue giving out The Beverlee until I myself am 80.  But don’t worry, that just means the Minnesota Fringe Festival needs to last at least another 25 years.

Right now, we just need to get the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and ourselves, through this one year.  Artists need the Fringe, audiences need the Fringe, theater needs the Fringe.  It’s made me a better writer, a better son, a better spectator, and a better person.  Things that make us better are rare.  We need to nurture and preserve them, so other people can benefit from them, too.

You can give to the Fringe here, here, or here (with a match from the Fringe board of directors).

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)