Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Theater Review - Fearless 5: Music - Fearless Comedy Productions - 4.5 stars

These days, still waiting for the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic to fully subside, I need a really good reason to leave the house, even fully vaccinated, boosted and with a mask on.

Fearless 5: Music from Fearless Comedy Productions is a good reason to leave the house and experiment with attending live theater again.  I’m very glad I went.  Both logistically and artistically, it’s well worth your attention.

“I want to feel those apples, Sven!”

Each year Fearless Comedy Productions commissions five playwrights to write a short play on a common theme. (I saw their Dreams showcase of new work back in early 2020 - just before, you know… - and really enjoyed it).  Any theater willing to encourage new work into existence is OK in my book, before we even get into discussing the work itself.  This year’s theme is Music.  This year’s playwrights are Denzel Belin, Angela Fox, Kelvin Hatle, Kayla Sotebeer, and Tim Wick.  Nobody had to write a musical but three of them did.  The other two were, shall we say, “musical adjacent.”  All them are, each in their own way, a kind of love letter to the creative impulse, exploring why people make music, and theater.  

“They say the secret ingredient is love - which, like, barf.”

This “art about artists” genre normally isn’t my thing, but here it really hooked me.  This may be partly due to the fact that Fearless 5: Music is the first live theater I’ve chosen to see in almost two years - I may have been missing the live theater experience even more than I realized.  But I should also give credit where it’s due.  It’s not just circumstance.  Fearless 5: Music is also just really charming, sometimes even adorable.  These stories aren’t about just “art for art’s sake,” they’re all about humans pushing themselves to create something - and how that attempt changes them.  It’s hard not to like this show, even in its sometimes less successful moments, because all the stories are about people who are trying their best. So you end up rooting for these characters - and the artists creating them, on and off stage.

“Unless you’ve got a thing for vinegar and tears.”

All five plays utilize the same very hard-working set of seven actors: Michael Bloom, Caleb Cabiness, Mackenzie Diggins, Joy Ford, Blair Kott (who’s also the choreographer), Adrienne Reich, and Emma Tiede.  All of them are in at least three of the five plays, a couple are in four of them, and a couple are in all five (phew).  In several cases, they’re also playing multiple roles within the same short play so these actors get a real workout, and everyone gets their big moments in the spotlight over the course of the night.  It must have been tricky to balance the evening that way, for directors, writers, actors and producers alike, so an extra nod for degree of difficulty there, because it makes for a more satisfying audience experience, too.  (Don’t even ask me how they managed to arrange a rehearsal schedule for all five of these scripts at the same time to land on the same opening night - the mind boggles.)

“She’s not a very good actor because her evil is showing.”

The real standout here is “No Small Parts,” written by Angela Fox, and directed by Cara White, which the Fearless Comedy folks saved for the big closer of the evening.  It’s the one play of the five that I immediately want to see developed into a full play.  (If all five of the plays were at this level, the overall evening would be rated 5 stars, not just 4.5).   “No Small Parts” is about a group of people putting on a musical called “Hills of Love” but it’s told entirely from the point of view of the actors playing the supporting roles (sort of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Putting on a Production of the Sound of Music”).  Our lead/supporting characters are Bernice (Adrienne Reich) aka Crowd Member #3 and her friend Betty (Emma Tiede), who are both really excited that Betty has finally landed a role with an actual name, even if that name is just Mrs. Smith.  Bernice and Betty are our guides to the effort it takes, even when you’re not the person who’s ever in the spotlight.  In many ways, it’s the most human of the five plays because it’s not dealing with the stars, it’s dealing with the most ordinary of people, the ones you maybe don’t remember,  but who nonetheless help populate the world of any play and make it real.  

“Unlike ‘Pericles,’ the sonnets have a lot of subtext.”

The music in “No Small Parts” is also the most successful of the whole evening.  There’s a genuinely hilarious song about being an alto voice in a world where sopranos get all the attention, the melody line, and way more notes to sing.  There’s also a running gag about the music director character (Joy Ford) making “Sound of Music” jokes that none of the cast members understand or laugh at (but I did).  And the closing musical number, “No Small Parts,” really stuck the landing by doing something you wouldn’t think was all that revelatory, but it really gave me goosebumps.  Multi-part harmony, live, in front of me.  The rest of the cast is singing the theme song to “Hills of Love” while Bernice is singing the chorus to “No Small Parts” and the way all the voices and all the notes collide together and blend - it’s such a simple thing but it was really beautiful.  The whole ensemble of seven is involved in this one and it’s really nicely done, small parts and not so small parts alike.

“Something perfect for the mature 14-year-olds we are.”

The second half of the evening after intermission overall is a bit stronger than the first half.  The other play after the break is a close second for my favorite for the evening, Denzel Belin’s “Westbook Middle School is Proud to Present its Fall Musical which Opens Tomorrow for General Audiences,” directed by Duck Washington.  Belin has created the backstage world of a school production of “Mortgage, The Musical” - and music director Chad Dutton (always visible on stage throughout the evening playing keyboard accompaniment, and his own human version of a running gag serving each play as needed) had great fun playing background music for a bunch of songs that are very close to but not quite songs from the musical “Rent.”  This musical amusement continues throughout, while star player Aiden (Michael Bloom) and stage manager Conrad (Caleb Cabiness) flirt and moon over each other like the smitten, horny teenagers they are, and often forget there’s a performance that needs their attention on the other side of the curtain.  This is one of the sweetest, most human relationships we get to see all night, so it’s nice how unapologetically queer it is.  

“There are no small parts.  Be the lightning!”

Backstage at Westbook Middle School is also sadly the one place the audience is reminded that there’s a pandemic going on because, pre-2020, there would have been a couple of instances of kissing between Aiden and Conrad.  But, it’s post-2020, so these moments are artfully staged to conceal any actual physical contact of lips.  It’s the suggestion of kissing, rather than actual kissing.  They do what they can - it’s just a bit sad that this is where we are, probably for a while yet, in terms of human intimacy onstage.  Reich and Tiede are back in this short as well, as another sort of couple/non-couple.  The trajectory of their relationship, such as it is, is a bit more confusing and a bit less grounded, than the two guys, so it’s the less successful pairing.  The first couple gets more stage time, though, so it’s more of a shortcoming of limited time than anything the actors are doing with the characters.  If the piece in its next incarnation were longer, I think these young ladies backstage would also get their full due.

The first half of the evening consists of three shorts:

“The Bard” - written by Kayla Sotebeer; directed by Aiden Milligan
“The Second Annual Upper Midwest Vegan Ribfest” - written by Kelvin Hatle; directed by Jason Kruger
and “Macbeth: The Musical” - written by Tim Wick; directed by David Rand-McKay

“I know how to play augmented chords now, you wouldn’t understand.”

“The Bard” is an anachronistic mini-musical focused on a traveling troubadour of times gone by (Caleb Cabiness) surrounded by an assortment of past lovers (the other six members of the ensemble), trying to find his “true voice” and being led astray temporarily by a bartender with fuzzy ulterior motives (Joy Ford) who insists he needs to be sad and edgy to be a real artist.

“Vegans are not into irony.”
“If they were, they’d eat meat.”

“The Second Annual Upper Midwest Vegan Ribfest” is a deftly written tale of a trio of musicians coming back together one more time (one last time?) for a gig at the titular vegan ribfest.  The leader of the band (Cabiness again) is perpetually late but still sure their band Wild Sky is always one performance away from really catching on, even though their days of putting out an EP and being “the opening act for the opening act for Soungarden” are long behind them and they’re all stumbling through whatever day jobs they landed in (that they never thought they’d stick with all this time).  The bass guitarist (Bloom again) is an easy-going guy who’s just happy to be wherever he is and doesn’t really trouble himself with worrying about fame or success.  The drummer (Tiede again) questions what the hell they think they’re doing, and what they ever thought they were doing before.  It’s a funny, slightly melancholy character study of three people who’ll never be famous, and still don’t know when to quit, and maybe they never should.  Because there’s something about trying, and not giving up, that’s almost… noble?

“I like to call it ‘Murder Castle’”

“Macbeth: The Musical” is exactly what the title would lead you to expect - and then not at all what the title would lead you to expect.  A playwright (Tiede again) has created a musical adaptation which she calls “Scottish Play, the Musical” for which a director (Reich again), a stage manager (Mackenzie Diggins) and the two lead actors (Bloom again, and Blair Kott) all gather in someone’s living room for a first rehearsal.  They also refer repeatedly to the onstage musical director Chad, but always cut him off just before he’s allowed to speak.  There’s a lot of inside jokes about theater, Shakespeare, musicals, and even Vincent Price’s horror revenge flick “Theater of Blood” (which, as a theater critic, I should be wary of).  The opening number of the musical is an inspired bit of silliness in which, among other things, Kott is required to perform the roles of Lady Macbeth AND the Three Witches AND Banquo, all at the same time.  Reich gets three goofy costumes and three very weird character turns in the space of just a few minutes so she takes the material and runs with it.

“You know what bothers me?! ‘Coriolanus’ set in a bicycle shop!”

Members of the cast do introductions of each piece to help cover the necessary scene shifts between each play.  The set is often just an assortment of chairs, a table, occasionally a rolling clothes rack.  The logistics of making this thing run so smoothly are impressive, so hats off to the stage manager Jason Stone, light and sound designer Dan Ruby, and producer Jason Kruger - and of course the full ensemble of actors, the directors, and the music director - for keeping this thing rolling right along.

“I feel like a brought a lot of life to Whore #2.”

Even with three doses of Pfizer vaccine in my bloodstream and a ready supply of N95 masks, it takes a lot to get me out the door these days other than my job or grocery shopping.  I have missed theater terribly, but haven’t always been convinced it’s a good idea to gather (or encourage others to gather through writing reviews like this).  So I have to thank Fearless Comedy Productions for giving me the excuse I needed to end my theater drought.  There were many times throughout the evening I was just watching a play again, and not worried about the circumstances, or even aware I was doing this while wearing a mask.  Fearless 5: Music was a long overdue bit of escape.  And you can’t ask much more from theater than that.

Fearless 5: Music runs through February 26, 2022 at the Historic Mounds Theater, 1029 Hudson Road in St. Paul, MN.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Please note: The Mounds Theatre requires proof of a full course of COVID-19 vaccination. Patrons must have a completed COVID-19 vaccination card, with their final dose at least fourteen days prior to the event. Attendees must wear masks inside the venue while not eating or drinking.

Proof of vaccination may include a physical card or a photo of a complete vaccination card that matches the patron ID.

(Cast photo, clockwise from bottom left:  Emma Tiede, Blair Kott, Mackenzie Diggins,  Michael Bloom, Adrienne Reich, and Caleb Cabiness [not pictured, Joy Ford]; photo by Dan Norman; Fearless 5 logo by Chris Rodriguez)


Monday, February 14, 2022

Why I Haven’t Been Writing Theater Reviews


As I finally start to dip my toe back in the waters of reviewing theater again, I feel like I have to make some apologies.

Of course, when everything was shut down and there wasn’t live theater at all because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was pretty obvious why there weren’t reviews.  There wasn’t theater.

Some theater offerings moved online.  But a lot of it was archival replays or one-shot events - not exactly reviewing material either.

There was a fully online Minnesota Fringe Festival in 2020, and a largely online one in 2021.  I did a lot of reviews for the former, less for the latter (explanation below)

However, more recently there’s been some runs of both online and offline live, in-person theater; and now live theater seems determined to come back, pandemic be damned.

When the pandemic started I was laid off and later fired from my part-time, second job at the Guthrie Theater box office because, well, the Guthrie Theater was in mothballs for a year so… ninety percent of the staff got let go in all departments while a skeleton crew to maintain the building and the overall structure of the organization remained in place, mostly working remotely.  So I lost about a third of my income for over a year.

My full-time job, thankfully, remained active and was done remotely from my living for the last two years.  A much delayed return to office plan - pushed from August 2021 to October to January to March 2022 - seems to finally be on the verge of being executed, but it will still be a hybrid model, with everyone in the office on the same day of the week once a week, and then the individual departments deciding on another one to two days a week to be in as well. The rest of the time can be work from home.  (We have people with pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable, and families with small children who as yet cannot be vaccinated, so we’re trying to take all that into account).

In the middle of July 2021, the Guthrie box office called to see if I’d be willing to come in and do some temp work for them processing season ticket subscription orders because - pandemic be damned - they had planned a season and subscribers were also determined to attend some live theater after being cooped up for two years.  Now, the Guthrie has a lot of board members from major businesses and they all have access to handy prognosticating models weighing benefits vs. risks so the Guthrie wasn’t just blindly jumping in.  They were feeling pretty confident that things (pre-Delta, pre-Omicron) were slowly coming around.  A fall return with special events followed by a shortened season of five shows starting January 2022 seemed like as good a guess as anyone could make.  Someone had to process all the ticket orders, hence the call for temp workers from the previous workforce.  This was going to be a week of work, then stretched over two weeks, and finally it ended up morphing into a full month of work, overlapping with the Minnesota Fringe Festival - at the same time that my one steady job was executing and/or canceling large events and I couldn’t really take full days of work off there either.  So my capacity for Fringe Festival review coverage got hacked down to little more than running Twitter commentary during the few hours I was able to squeeze in some shows around work.

The Guthrie then decided to staff up for real, so I interviewed for my old job and got it back.  We have, however, been shorthanded for the entirety of the fall and winter.  Hiring almost from scratch and training takes time.  One consequence of that is, rather than being able to schedule us a full month in advance like they used to so we have a chance to plan our lives, they’ve only been able to manage to schedule what staff we have week to week.  Which doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility.  And given that my finances are still recovering from the pandemic, I’ve made myself a lot more available for hours in the box office (and thus away from other theater) than I have in the past.

(So I’ve managed to miss a lot of the online theater because, two jobs again, less time…)

Also, I think live, in-person theater right now is a really bad idea.

So, why are you at the Guthrie?  I need the paycheck.

Also, the Guthrie has the resources to have an in-house medical person on staff to advise them and do testing on the rest of the staff as needed.  All employees have to be fully vaxxed, and they encourage booster shots as well.  Everyone’s been siloed to their departments, there’s very little social crossover.  We wear masks for our entire shift.  Visitors to the building wear masks, including when they’re in the theater watching shows.  No one gets into plays anymore without providing proof of vaccination.  The restaurants and bars in the building didn’t survive the pandemic, it’ll be a while until there’s a new partner, so no food and drink service tempting people to remove masks.  Everyone in rehearsal is tested daily and everyone in the cast and production staff of each play gets a more thorough test once a week, just for extra safety.

And the audiences for the first two offerings - What The Constitution Means To Me, and A Christmas Carol - were SO HAPPY to be back in a theater again, out with family and friends, that they didn’t care about the masks and the ID and the vaccine cards.  Whatever they had to do, they were willing to do it.  (Were there exceptions, were their a**holes?  Sure.  But they were the teeny tiny minority.)

So I went from my pandemic bubble being me working from home and occasionally going out for groceries to me, everyone who comes to the Guthrie, and everyone they know.

This can make me feel like I’m more of a potential risk to others than they might be to me, after leaving my very populated work at the Guthrie for the day.

I spent my second Christmas without seeing my brother back east.  I haven’t visited my goddaughter and her family in a few years now.  I still haven’t been able to visit my mother’s grave since her headstone went in, January 2020.  My brother and his dog have seen it and sent pictures.

When I would review shows in the past, or work shows at the Guthrie, I would often get an extra comp ticket and invite a friend to come along with me, to see the show and talk about it after.

Now it feels like I’m asking, “Hey, you wanna risk your life and come see some theater with me?”

So reviewing shows feels like telling other people, “Everything’s fine!  Go see a show.  Sure, you’re kinda risking your life and the safety of others to do it but YOLO!”

I’m still really not sure live, in-person theater is a good idea.

I understand the instinct, both to create theater and to attend theater performances, believe me.

I’m a playwright.  I miss rehearsal rooms.  My writing group has been relegated to Jitsi for two years now.  Some people don’t come right now because they just can’t stand one more Zoom meeting outside of work hours, and I get that.

I’m trying to help launch a new queer theater company devoted to new plays (Threshold Theater, check ‘em out).  We’ve been doing an online series of play readings on our YouTube channel but are shifting in March to try having our first one live and in-person.  (The venue, of course, requires proof of vaccination and masks, so… that’s something.)

And yes, between the work for Guthrie and Threshold, the cognitive dissonance in my head is deafening.

When the pandemic started, a medical professional offered a useful benchmark for me to evaluate risk.  Back when we still didn’t have vaccines yet, and leaving the house was always a risk, this person said, “I’ve taped a picture of a nurse to my front door.  So every time I’m considering leaving the house, I look at the picture and ask myself, ‘is what I want to leave the house and do worth risking this other person’s life?’  If the answer’s no, I sit back down.”

Because it’s not just me, it’s not just the people I come into contact with, it’s the doctors and nurses and other hospital staff that have to deal, and have been dealing for over two years now, with being completely overwhelmed in terms of the capacity of their hospitals.  They’re exhausted, they’re burnt out, some of them quit, some of them died, some of them killed themselves because they couldn’t take the parade of horrors anymore.

And people who need regular hospital care can’t get it because the hospitals are full of COVID-19 patients instead.

The rolling seven day average of daily deaths right now is over 2,300.  That’s the average.  Sometimes it’s less but sometimes it’s a lot more (February 8th, over 3,4000 reported dead that day).

My mom died quite unexpectedly of a brain tumor in July 2019.  My dad died peacefully, of old age, in October 2019.  Thankfully pre-COVID, so we got to regularly visit each of them in the nursing home before they died, and we got to have a funeral for each of them after they died.  They were not isolated and alone, we were not isolated and alone.

So I don’t feel lucky.  I don’t feel like death can’t touch me and the people I care about.

My brother and I, the last remaining members of our immediate nuclear family, text one another every day and end each text with a smiley face emoji wearing a face mask and the words “Stay safe and be well, brother.” Because neither one of us can take the thought of the other one getting sick and dying right now.  We’re still recovering from the last two family deaths (and there have been more losses in the extended family since then).

American society’s blithe acceptance of the deaths of over 2,000 people every single day baffles me.  Other people knew and/or cared for every one of those 2,000-plus people.  The sheer volume of grief should have stopped this country in its tracks.  But nope, we just keep plugging away.  Collateral damage.

(Don’t get me started on the people that don’t believe it’s happening or don’t believe in vaccines or think a mask is a horrifying infringement on their freedoms.  I don’t have mental or emotional reserves for those morons anymore - which, as you might imagine, makes dealing with the general public in my customer service role a real acting challenge sometimes.)

And this is where I’m coming from with two years of grief therapy under my belt.  Imagine how much fun I’d be at parties and theater openings without therapy.

I can remember a time not long ago in discussions about theater, I would say “I’m really looking forward to the deaths getting down below a thousand a day.  Then maybe I can consider theater a worthwhile risk.”  And now instead it’s more than twice that number.  Honestly, I want it below a hundred a day.  I’d love it less than a dozen a day.  There were times at the beginning of the pandemic when those were the numbers.  Ancient history.  The deaths are coming down, week over week, a few hundred at a time.

But it’s still over 2,000 dead people a day, just in this country, forget the wider world where they don’t have ready access to vaccines yet.

There’s a voice regularly screaming in my head that theater right now is reckless and selfish and stupid, like a luxury we can ill afford.

And again, I get it.  Believe me.  What’s quality of life without art?

I love creating theater.  I love seeing theater.  I love talking and writing about theater.  I say all of the above and below with no joy in my heart.

Gathering groups of people indoors right now is a bad idea.

Encouraging people to gather indoors is a bad idea.

So yeah, I’ve had a hard time justifying seeing theater.  And I’ve had a hard time justifying reviewing theater and thus encouraging others to go gather indoors with friends and strangers.

That said, I did see a show on Friday.

And I’m gonna write about it.

And I didn’t want their review to get crushed under the weight of all this.  So I put it in a separate blog post instead.

Why this show and not any one of a dozen other shows I’ve been invited to in recent months?

Part of it is timing - I just happened to get the ask in a time frame where I could manage to carve out an evening off to do it from the schedule of the second job.  (The omicron variant breaking out among cast and crew caused the Guthrie to postpone the run of A Raisin In The Sun until later this spring, so we’ve had an unexpectedly long dark period since they had to also cancel the last three performances of A Christmas Carol back at the end of December, also due to the omicron variant breaking out among cast and crew.  They’re still doing trainings on weeknights and there’s also weekend hours in the box office, so my schedule hasn’t been totally free, for which my bank account balance is thankful.)

Part of it is the people involved.  Friends whose work I admire (though I feel that way about countless theater companies and artists in this town).

Part of it is that it’s a new play showcase put on by a small theater company.

Proof of vaccination and mask required.

Large venue, with smaller, easily socially distanced audience size.  (This may be the one period of live theater history in which we’re not upset to see fewer people in the audience, rather than preferring to pack them in shoulder to shoulder.)

So that’s my explanation and apology about the silence of this theater reviewing blog over the past two years.

Others have been more active - doing theater, seeing theater, and reviewing theater - and God bless them.  

These are the reasons I was not.

Not all of them rational.

Not all of them I’m happy about.

But it’s where I am right now as we start to try peeking out on the other side of all this.

Stay safe and be well, folks.