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

Review - The World Over - Open Window Theatre – An Epic Adventure Onstage - 4 stars

First of all, welcome back to Open Window Theatre!  A comeback story always makes me feel a bit better about the state of the world.  Open Window lost its previous home space quite unexpectedly in 2016.  It took them almost four years, but they’ve clawed their way back and seem the stronger for it (though I’m sure on some level they’re quite exhausted and just grateful to have finally made it to another opening night at long last).  Their famously loyal and supportive audience really came through with donations to help the theater relaunch in a new space – which is actually bigger, brighter and more inviting than their last (complete with their own restroom facilities – which, if you remember the old space, is a big leap forward).  And they’re opening what they’re calling their Redemption Season with the regional premiere of a new-ish (2002) play, Keith Bunin’s The World Over, an epic adventure story that’s part Homer’s Odyssey, part Shakespeare’s Pericles, part Old Testament trials of Job.  Theater companies don’t often get resurrection narratives of their own, offstage as well as on, so, hats off to the Open Window crew.  You made it.

“Once there was a country called Adamus that existed only for a single day.”

A geographer (Grant Hooyer) and his obsession with ancient maps provide the framing device for The World Over, and a useful functionary to helpfully give the audience a sense of place as the characters range over many countries and many years in the course of the story.  The mystery which launches the tale is a sequence of three recently excavated maps found in a cave, created over the space of just three days.  The first map and the last map show two different countries, one in the north, one in the south. But the map in the middle shows those two countries merged into one, under a completely different name.  So a country existed, just for a day, and then ceased to exist.  Why?  How?  The answer is tied up in the hero’s journey of Adam (no, not Garden of Eden’s Adam, a different Adam – though again, in the larger context of Open Window – Genesis, let there be stage lights, and our first leading character is named Adam – I could understand if that was part of the attraction).

“How is it that you haven’t died of heartbreak?”

A young man named Adam (Andrew Hey) is discovered living alone on a deserted island by a passing ship.  He doesn’t know where he came from or why he’s been left to himself all these years, far from any other human beings.  The ship’s troubadour spots a ring on Adam’s finger with a unique design that recalls a tale of the now mythical kingdom of Gildoray, a country lost to the modern world, now the subject of children’s stories before bedtime.  But the story seems real enough as he recounts it.  In fact, it’s pretty real for the audience as they see it all acted out before them.  Adam is similarly convinced that he must be the lost prince of Gildoray.  This doesn’t just mean he’s destined for great things - it also means his mother (Abby Day) has been living in danger all these years he’s been growing up, banished to the wilderness, waiting for him to come and rescue her.  It means his uncle killed his father and stole the throne (if that reminds you of another Shakespeare play, good for you) and the people of Gildoray are living under the harsh rule of a tyrant.  So they also need rescuing.  He needs to find his home and set things right.

“A riddle no man can solve,
A task no man can perform,
A vow no man can take.”

But suddenly the ship is boarded by pirates who toss Adam overboard at his request, which leads to him being washed up on the shores of the kingdom of Peregrine, where he immediately runs into a princess named Isobel (Erika Kuhn) out for a night stroll on the beach. She’s the first woman he’s ever seen, so naturally she’s beautiful and he wants to help her out.  Which is handy, because the princess has a dark secret, which has to do with her evil father (Randy Schmeling) who keeps killing off all her potential suitors when they can’t manage to navigate through his multi-part challenge to win his daughter’s hand in marriage.  Would you be surprised if I told you, without entirely spoiling it, that Adam survives and he and Isobel run off together to try and save his mother and his supposedly mythical kingdom of Gildoray?  Good, on we go then.

“What do you see?”
“You do not wish to know.”

Adam and Isobel next become embroiled in the travails of the kingdom of Dvolnek, where everyone’s newborn babies are nothing more than tasty snacks for the monstrous Gryphon (Tucker Brewster Schuster) who lives up on the mountain.  So Adam, of course, heads off to do battle with the Gryphon, who also can see your future by staring into your eyes.  The Gryphon has a cryptic warning for Adam, and the audience.  The people of Dvolnek are all set to make Adam their new leader, which would be fine with Isobel, too, since she’s discovered she’s pregnant.  But Adam still feels the call to save his mom, and their kingdom.  So the two of them board a ship and head off into stormy waters.  To say that everything goes spectacularly to crap right before intermission would be an understatement.

“I try to talk to men all the time.  Generally, only the crazy ones understand.”

Here’s the thing about The World Over at Open Window Theatre - that first act is a knockout, just fantastic theater.  The script has a driving action to it.  Director (and artistic director) Jeremy Stanbary has assembled a crack design time and winning cast (which also includes Elizabeth Efteland and Dawson D. Ehlke – whose many characters I can’t summarize without making this review even longer than it already is, suffice it to say they are equally as important to the story as everyone else I’ve already name-checked). They all present the fast-moving story in fine style.  The entire ensemble around Adam, all skillfully playing multiple roles, are dressed to the nines by costume designer Nate Farley who helps distinguish everyone’s various characters and kingdoms in vivid, visual ways.

“What a marvelous thing it is to abandon the ground!”

Not sure if it falls under costumes or props (Farley does both), but the multi-performer creations that are the Gryphon and a red-winged hawk (in act 2), are both theater magic – you can see all the strings, you know it’s a gimmick, and you’re still swept away by them, they’re great.  Set designer (and master carpenter) Sarah D. Pierucki has transformed Open Window’s black box warehouse space into something that’s part sailing ship (complete with crow’s nest) and part multi-level platform that takes on just as many locations as some of the actors have characters. 

“You’re a stranger. Why have you sacrificed so much to save me?”
“You were in my path.”

Stanbary also had to step in as lighting and projection designer late in the game when they lost their original designer and seems to have done a darn good job on short notice.  The first act in particular works really well lighting-wise, and the projections from start to finish go a long way to helping establish location after location, as well as the passing of time (which picks up speed in act two).  Shout-out to the movement and fight choreographers (Corey Mills and Michael J. Anderson, respectively) because there’s a whole of both going on.  And the whole thing wouldn’t work at all without stage manager Ashley E. Stock and her crew keeping all the many plates spinning at the same time on this one.  They all put on a heck of a show.

“I won’t let you squander your days in search of a shadow.”

Honestly, you could leave at intermission after act one, and even with all the cliffhangers, and you’d still feel like you got your money’s worth.  Act one alone of The World Over is that entertaining.  Then act two happens and the whole thing comes unglued.  It’s not the production’s fault.  They’re still swinging for the fences and doing a fine job.  It’s the script that just starts unraveling.

“We don’t often entertain envoys from imaginary nations.”

In talking to friends about it afterward, I think I see where it lost me.  Because Adam’s origin story in Gildoray is acted out in front of us, we believe it.  Sure, everyone else around Adam says Gildorary doesn’t exist, but the audience believes it because Adam believes it – and we saw it.  If you wanted us to genuinely doubt it, you shouldn’t be presenting it so convincingly.  When Adam feels he must continue his quest at the end of act one, I don’t think he’s doing it for selfish reasons.  He’s not saying, “I need to be king!”  His mom’s in danger, his country’s in danger, his uncle needs to pay for the murder of his father.  These all seem like pretty heroic imperatives.  Sure, even Isobel has doubts, but she goes with Adam.  We have no good reason to doubt that, though dangerous, this is the right thing to do and Adam’s doing it for the right reasons.  Everything’s been building to this.  And then the playwright seems to say, “Screw it, let’s do something completely different.”  Now, that something completely different does ultimately lead to an explanation of the maps and the mysterious disappearing country that only exists for a day (and the creation of that country and the reason for it, are actually quite moving and lovely).  However, act two just seems to put Adam through a random, unconnected series of trials that don’t really add up to anything.  It’s just a series of disappointments, for him and for us.

“I know there are terrible things in the dark.”

Oh wait, is that a reunion with - ?  Never mind.  Moving on.  Wow, here’s an obstacle or some perilous situation.  Never mind.  Moving on.  Bunin’s script engages these two strategies repeatedly in act two, and it kind of makes you wonder why you invested so fully in act one.  I understand the writer wants us to invest in these new characters, but they weren’t the ones we spent the previous hour with.  We met them literally five minutes ago.  I need a little more wind-up in order to care about them the way the script and the production want me to.  It all seems very random in a way that act one did not.  It doesn’t seem like the story has a clear idea where it’s going, and why any given scene in act two is important for getting us there.  Again, not the actors’ faults.  They’re still going all out with the material the writer has given them. 

“Nature cares nothing for your heartbreak, why should you?”

Side note: There were also some baffling, out of left field, mincing gay stereotypes right at the top of act two that kind of pulled me out of the story (yanked me out, to be honest).  And it wasn’t the foppishness of a later character in act two, it wasn’t a royal court affectation kind of thing.  In my notes, I scribbled, “Are they drunk or high?  Are they gay?  Are we supposed to think they’re men playing women?”  But like so much in act two, never mind, moving on, characters removed by convenient plague so we never have to deal with them again.  Also, fair warning for the squeamish: there are a lot of throats getting slit (though no rivers of stage blood involved), and no less than three women give birth onstage in the first act (one of them by involuntary caesarean section) with newborns get tossed around like so much trash (again, no blood and guts involved, but the actors are pretty convincing in their labor and delivery pains).

“You must not curse the earth for turning.”

But even though the script for The World Over doesn’t quite stick the landing, OpenWindow Theatre’s production tries with all its might to get it there.  Open Window Theatre has a penchant for choosing challenging scripts and trying to make up for any shortcomings with first-rate stagecraft.  I can’t fault them for a noble effort.  Even though the second half is a little bit of a letdown, the first act of The World Over is well worth the price of admission.  So, see The World Over.  Enjoy the adventure.  And help welcome back Open Window Theatre.  Here’s hoping they’re making theater in their new home for a long, long time.  (The World Over runs through March 15, 2020 at Open Window Theatre’s new location in Inver Grove Heights.)

4 Stars – Highly Recommended

(photo: Andrew Hey as Adam in Open Window Theatre's production of The World Over; photographer - Matt Berdahl)

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Review - ’Til Death: A Marriage Musical - Bucket Brigade - Some Warmth In The Middle of Winter, Some Light In A Very Dark Time - 4.5 stars

The unseen but well-meaning parents of Olivia (Vanessa Gamble) are trying to orchestrate a reunion.  They have arranged for the separate travel of both Olivia and her estranged husband Ethan (Jeremiah Gamble) to the family’s remote (but fully stocked) cabin in the mountains of Colorado.  It’s Olivia and Ethan’s anniversary weekend and Olivia’s parents think that time away from the job and the kids might be just the thing to get the two of them back together.  Ethan’s all for the surprise possibility of a reconciliation, but Olivia isn’t as keen on the idea of this romantic ambush.

“The person that you marry
Isn’t the person you stay married to.”

Also in the category of the unexpected, a freshly minted newlywed couple, Leslie (Damian Leverett) and Freddie (Anna Leverett) arrive at the cabin door, with car trouble, and a snowstorm moving in.  Olivia’s more than happy to extend some hospitality and use Leslie and Freddie as her human shields to deflect Ethan’s unwelcome attempts to bridge the distance between them.  But as secrets both couples have been keeping start to be revealed, things get more complicated than any of them were bargaining for.  Did I mention this is a musical romantic comedy and not strange re-imagining of Who’s Afraid of Virigina Woolf? 

“The little things add up and up and up.”

It’s ’Til Death: A Marriage Musical, from the folks at Bucket Brigade Theater.  Some companies have an annual Christmas show.  Bucket Brigade has a traditional Valentine’s season show.  The Gambles (who founded and run Bucket Brigade, and wrote ’Til Death) have been performing this fictional estrangement in their original musical annually since 2012, the last six years at Art House North, where it is being produced again this year.  Also back again, for their third year, are married actors the Leveretts as the newlyweds.  They’ve clearly got the material down by this point and it shows in the smooth delivery and easygoing execution of the whole production.  There’s even a cast album for sale (Potential spoiler alert for the review: I picked up a copy). Arranger Michael Pearce Donley is back at the piano for accompaniment - and he even plays through intermission, requests from the audience submitted when they stop at the box office to pick up their tickets.  There are also delicious, free cupcakes from a local neighborhood bakery (with a gluten free option available).

“When I met you, I suddenly wanted to undo all the stupid stuff I’ve ever done, just to be good enough to be with you.”

As has been true of all the previous Bucket Brigade productions I’ve born witness to (including one before they officially became the Bucket Brigade), the musical performances are great.  The songs are infectious.  And unlike all the other Bucket Brigade shows I’ve seen, ’Til Death isn’t a drama.  It’s a very funny comedy.  Sure it’s about serious things, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Which is both its blessing and its only flaw.  Even in all the previous dramas, there was a healthy dose of comedy lurking somewhere around the edges.  ’Til Death might want to consider letting the drama in a bit more. 

“I’m in advertising.  You’re an elf king.  We can do this.”

Now, I realize I’m coming to this party very late (nine years in, actually), so I don’t actually expect anything to change at this point.  ’Til Death has become a tradition for couples, who then bring their friends, who then bring their friends, and so on.  Why mess with success?  And honestly, as is, ’Til Death is a treat.  You can feel free to skip the rest of the review and just go buy your tickets.  ’Til Death is a fun show, some warmth in the middle of winter, and some light in the middle of a very dark time, go treat yourself to a little escapist fare.  We all deserve it.  The paragraphs below are just me noodling over dramaturgical stuff, and there might be some mild spoilers.  None of this should detract from what I’ve stated above already, it all still holds.  If it sounds like a show you’d enjoy, you should go.

“Guys, you’re an inspiration.”
“And somewhat of a cautionary tale.”

The only thing keeping this from being a five star show for me is I think one of the couples is getting short shrift.  And weirdly it’s the couple being portrayed by the Gambles, who wrote these roles for themselves.  Leslie and Freddie, played by Damian and Anna Leverett, are scripted and performed perfectly, but in part I think that’s because they’re the easier pair of the two couples.  Sure they’re keeping a couple of secrets from each other, but they’re young, and they’re new to this, and they haven’t accumulated so many years together between them that things have gotten all that complicated yet.  It’s simple enough for them to resolve their problems, because their problems aren’t all that big.  These two young oddballs may have their ups and downs, but they can manage them, with a little help.  They’re so perfect together they’re just this side of insufferable, but they’re so funny, and sing so beautifully, that you can forgive them all their quirks.  They’re just two crazy misfits in love who were lucky to find one another.

“Happy ever after, that’s where the story really starts.”

Olivia and Ethan, on the other hand, are complicated.  The script papers over a lot of their conflicts with each other, and because it’s a musical, and the songs are so wonderfully sung by both the Gambles, individually, together, and in combination with the Leveretts, ’Til Death almost convinces me.  Almost.  Olivia and Ethan need more space to genuinely, fully deal with the issues between them before I’m willing to buy that they’re on the road to reconciliation.  They’re either fooling themselves, or the script’s trying to fool me. 

“I can’t be in two places at once.”
“Then choose the right one.”

The reason they appear to be separated, based on the information we get onstage, is Ethan’s been so focused on his all-consuming job in advertising that he’s been MIA at home to help Olivia with raising their two kids, one of whom isn’t fully autistic but is on the spectrum.  Is Ethan distracted by his job, or is he happy to have the excuse?  Based on his reaction to her being at the cabin, Ethan seems to like Olivia just fine, apart from the kids.  But I can understand Olivia thinking, if she’s essentially a single mom anyway, why bother with a guy who’s just going to add to her list of things someone wants from her when he’s not putting anything into the relationship himself, just taking.  Also, how do the financial logistics of this work?  I don’t recall a mention of a job that Olivia has, so does that mean she’s a stay at home mom and Ethan’s job is supporting both households?  It’s not clear.  Also, it’s not entirely clear how old the kids are.  I’m assuming they’re somewhere between kindergarten and 12th grade but I have no idea for sure.  Depending on how old the kids are, and how long the separation’s been - again, unclear - that’s a whole different set of variables that determine how I feel about a reconciliation of these two.  The play is clearly rooting for marriage to win and is willing to force the issue.  But some people are better off apart, and better parents for it - my parents were. I’m not lobbying for these characters to get divorced, I just need more convincing that it’s actually a better idea for them to stay together.

“I remember when we used to dream together.”

There are also three different rather abrupt revelations concerning Olivia in the second act that come quite literally out of nowhere, two of them being received as negatives that further complicate their situation which was already pretty fuzzy in terms of details.  And the play feels like it’s rushing to quickly clean them up, too, so we can have a happy ending.  The play isn’t that long, 90 minutes not including the intermission.  I think the story could spare Ethan and Olivia a little more time to genuinely deal with their problems - or maybe just come to a place where they’re willing to work on them, somehow, together.  Right now I don’t buy it.  I want to, but I feel like they’re not really facing the problems, so how can they solve them?

“And you wonder has he changed
Or is this the person he’s always been?”

The play is also wildly tilted in favor of the men.  There’s a false equivalency being promoted in the play between the secrets the women are keeping vs. the secrets the men are withholding.  As if the transgressions are equal and the women are just as in need of forgiveness as the men are.  The play, again, is even adding to Olivia’s side of the scale late in the game so she and Ethan don’t seem as uneven in things that need sorting out as the rest of the play would lead you to believe.  So when there’s a big song of forgiveness toward the end that I know is supposed to be winning me over, I’m sitting there thinking - "uh, she doesn’t need your forgiveness as much as you need hers, buddy. " It feels very patronizing in a way I’m sure the play is not intending.  I’m not rooting against Ethan and Olivia working it out.  The play just needs to give me more to hang it on than chemistry between the performers and some great singing voices. 

“If I don’t kill you first,
I’ll be by your side til death.”

But the fact that I’m spending all this time gaming out the interpersonal relationships between these characters means that I’m invested in them.  I wouldn’t still be chewing it over, days later, if there was nothing there, if there wasn’t good work worth prodding to the next level.  Despite my misgivings, they got me.  That’s ’Til Death - it wins you over, sometimes in spite of yourself.  The music is great, the performers are great, and the whole thing moves along at such a fun clip that it’s hard to find any fault with it (though I know it appears I’ve really tried). ’Til Death is a solid piece of work, deftly executed, and that’s two places where a lot of new plays can fall short, particularly new musical theater.  Bucket Brigade delivers the smart, engaging entertainment once again.  We should encourage that, because it’s rare, even in a town full of theater like ours.

Bucket Brigade’s production of ’Til Death: A Marriage Musical runs through February 22, 2020 at Art House North (793 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul).

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Foreground, in the frame: Ethan (Jeremiah Gamble) and Olivia (Vanessa Gamble); background, kissing: Leslie (Damian Leverett) and Freddie (Anna Leverett), the couples stranded in a remote mountain cabin together in Bucket Brigade’s ’Til Death: A Marriage Musical; photography by Bonni Allen)