Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Theater review - Orlando - Theatre Pro Rata - A Whimsical Journey Across Time and Gender - 4.5 stars

I haven’t been getting out to see and review theater much over the past two years.  But deciding to go see this production was easy.

It’s Theatre Pro Rata
producing Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation
of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando.

Those are the only three reasons I need.

If you need any more convincing than that, read on.

It is the fanciful story of a person named Orlando (Courtney Stirn) who starts life as a young man in the late 1500s in England.  Queen Elizabeth is taken by his youth and beauty and takes him back to the royal court with her, conferring power, wealth and privilege on him.  He attempts to write poetry, and catches the eye of many eligible women younger than the Queen.  He breaks his share of hearts while also having his own heart broken.  Then at the age of 30 (right before intermission), Orlando transforms into a woman.  And then lives a few hundred more years into the 1920s.  Needless to say, this is an adjustment, being unbound by time, while being bound to ideas and expectations of different genders across time.

“And the flower bloomed and faded, and the sun rose and set.”

There was a film adaptation of this story back in 1992, directed by Sally Potter and introducing me to lead actress Tilda Swinton for the first time. (Yes, this was 30 years ago, and as I am not unbound by time… you can do the math.  Tilda Swinton, uncannily, looks the same today as she did then).  I mention the film because this was the thing that first made me fall in love with this story, because I had a most unusual experience as an audience member.  When I realized the movie was drawing to a close, I was genuinely sad, because I was having such a good time, I wanted the story to just keep going.  

“He felt the need of something to attach his heart to.”

Audiences will have a similar experience with Sarah Ruhl’s version of Orlando and the way Theatre Pro Rata brings it to life.  I’m a huge fan of Ruhl’s writing and she’s a perfect match to retell Woolf’s tale for the stage.  Orlando is lyrical, sexy, sad, whimsical, funny, and always thought-provoking.  You will want to spend more time in their company.

“The great wings of silence beat up and down the empty house.”

I keep having the urge to say Orlando is a simple production, but not only is that kind of insulting but it’s also not true.  It just looks like a simple production but in fact there’s a ton of work going on here from all involved.  They just make it look easy as it glides elegantly along.

“In all the time she was writing, the world continued.”

For instance, the setting designed by MJ Leffler.  It looks like the production creates a myriad of locations across almost four hundred years of history with nothing more than a tree, a table, two chairs, and a long, cushioned bench that can double as a bed.  But the tree is enormous.  While it’s clearly flat and not a three-dimensional fully formed tree, the thing towers over the stage, looking vaguely like a hooded figure when you catch it out of the corner of your eye.  How it remains solidly upright is quite an impressive feat of engineering.

“Frozen roses fell in showers.”

And those four other items of furniture are accessorized by a whole panoply of props and other whimsical elements designed by Rachel Krieger.  These additional touches as much as anything help set time and place in the sprawling story.  When Orlando and the Russian princess Sasha mime skating down a frozen river through a winter landscape, two members of the ensemble hold up small cut-outs of evergreen trees of various sizes, passing them back and forth to one another, handing them off behind their backs, to indicate movement.  When Sasha later abandons Orlando to sail back to her home country, a cutout of a boat is carried by one cast member through a sea of icebergs large and small, held by other ensemble members, bobbing in the imaginary waves.

“Clothes change our view of the world, and the world’s view of us.”

The other thing doing a lot of heavy lifting carrying us through time and space are the colorful costumes designed by Mandi Johnson.  They set the period while also giving the visual canvas regular splashes of color, and offering visual signifiers of characters as the actors swiftly transition from one role to the next across Orlando’s life – Sasha’s fur coat and cap, Queen Elizabeth’s high collar, a sea captain’s jacket, the way Orlando goes from being very much a man of one time to being a woman of another.

“Death?  Oh, that’s nothing really.  Just a prick in the sides.”

Emmet Kowler’s lighting design and Jake Davis’ sound design are both subtle and evocative, opening up the audience’s eyes and ears and then focusing them down in key moments in ways it can be easy to overlook, but the whole production wouldn’t be nearly as good without them.  And given the number of balls in the air that need to be juggled, in setting up, running and then re-setting the show at night’s end, stage manager Clara Costello must feel like she, too, lives over 300 years for every performance.

“Don’t go!  I’ve much to tell you, and much to ask.”

Director Carin Bratlie Wethern has once again gathered and guided a great ensemble of actors to create this endearingly peculiar story – company members, regular collaborators and brand new faces alike.  She is ably assisted in this task by dialect coach Keely Wolter, dramaturg Gina Musto, and gender consultant Shira Gitlin, who all are responsible for key pieces of the puzzle.

“I was left the only survivor, on a raft, holding a biscuit.”

And of course, the cast, playing dozens of characters over the centuries of Orlando’s life, sometimes only getting a couple of lines to create a whole person. Trickier still is the balance between presenting the narrative voice of Ruhl channeling Woolf always reminding the audience they’re watching a story, and then turning on a dime and living fully within the life of a human character and taking the audience along for the emotional ride.  It’s a thrilling trick to watch them pull off again and again.

“Orland turned hot, turned cold, longed to crush acorns beneath his feet.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t specially call out Courtney Stirn’s work in the title role of Orlando.  I’m surprised I’ve missed their work up until now, they’re not brand new to the Twin Cities theater scene.  But I’m so happy I got to seem them in this role and very much look forward to seeing them in whatever they do next.  The production wouldn’t work without a great Orlando, and Stirn is great.  The core of who Orlando is as a human being carries over from their time on earth as a man, into the latter phase of their life as a woman, even as they play the differing roles society demands of them in the two sets of skin (and wardrobe of clothes) they wear.  It’s a real kick to watch them work this transformative magic.

“Love has two faces and two bodies.”

Equally impressive is the work of the ensemble backing up Orlando and populating the many worlds they live in - Ankita Ashrit, Amber Bjork, Rachel Flynn, Ninchai Nok-Chiclana, Nissa Nordland Morgan, Michael Quadrozzi, Emily Rosenberg, and Andrew Troth. Everyone gets their turn in the spotlight, often several, in key roles across Orlando’s story.  There’s Bjork’s previously mentioned Russian princess; Flynn as a relentless suitor Orlando can’t seem to shake whether they’re a man or a woman; Ashrit as one of the many female hearts Orlando breaks as a young swain; Troth’s kindly but bewildered sea captain; Nok-Chiclana and Rosenberg doing the whole “play within a play thing” as Othello and Desdemona; Nordland Morgan’s formidable and hilarious Queen Elizabeth; and Quadrozzi as the man who wins Orlando’s female heart, marries her, and is the last person she thinks of before death.

“I am about to understand.”

Sometimes it’s more difficult to write about a good show than a bad one.  If nothing’s wrong, do you end up talking about everything?  I could go on.

But to keep it simple, and not to go on any longer: It’s a great production of a great stage adaptation of a great story.  You should go.

Theatre Pro Rata’s production of Orlando runs through March 27, 2022 at the Crane Theater (2303 Kennedy Street NE,

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Theatre Pro Rata requires photo ID and Proof of Full Vaccination or a negative Covid test within 72 hours for all audience members, staff, and artists. Proof of Full Vaccination can be your vaccination card, a photo of your vaccination card, or a digital record of your vaccination on a smart phone app. More information about Theatre Pro Rata’s COVID safety protocols is posted online

[Photos: top - Courtney Stirn as Orlando and Amber Bjork as Sasha; lower down - Courtney Stirn as Orlando (center) with chorus (l to r) Andrew Troth, Nissa Nordland Morgan, Amber Bjork, and Ankita Ashrit – photography by Alex Wohlhueter]

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Theater Review - The Big Blue River - Mariah Theatre - Shockingly Hopeful - 4.5 stars

Not only am I grateful I went to see Patrick Coyle’s new play The Big Blue River, the inaugural offering of his new Mariah Theatre Company, I’m also very glad I stayed for the audience talkback afterward (which is not a sentiment often expressed about audience talkbacks after a show).  

“I think writing’s kept me alive.”

One of the audience members said they found it “shockingly hopeful,” which is a very apt description of this unusual script.  They further elaborated that, given the subject matter, they were prepared for it to end up being very dark, “and I don’t mind dark, I’m Irish.”  (Knowing laughter rippled through several segments of the audience.) “But by intermission, I knew all the characters were going to be all right.  They all seemed to be doing the right things to come out on the other side of what they were going through - they were talking, they were writing, they were expressing themselves through art.”  And I found that fascinating because I had the exact opposite experience.  

“I blamed myself. It’s what we do, the people that are left behind.”

I went into intermission for The Big Blue River having no idea where the plot was going or how it was going to end (and that’s not a bad thing, I love that, it happens so rarely anymore), and I was not sure that anyone was going to be all right.  It turns out I needn’t have been as worried as I was, and that other audience member had the correct instinct to suspect that things were somehow going to be OK, as improbable as it might seem.  And that’s not a spoiler.  Because everyone in this play is at least two or three different people, and any one of them could take a wrong turn and one of their other personas could still pull things together.

“Freud said that the Irish are impervious to therapy.”

Our main character is Laura Grace (Gini Adams), a therapist who probably shouldn’t be a therapist.  We learn later that she probably went into the profession for the wrong reasons.  Though she may have had a good run for a couple of decades in this job, she’s not feeling like she’s doing herself or her patients much good lately.  Also, her impending 50th birthday is weighing on her like a ton of bricks. (Again, as we’ll discover later, that birthday has additional significance in her personal history. Laura is a woman of many secrets.)  

“I say the same thing over and over, like a zombie therapist.”

Just that little bit there about the birthday is an example of the craftsmanship going on in Coyle’s script.  There are no wasted details.  Everything pays off, either in the moment or later when you aren’t expecting it, often both.  Even the opening lines of the play, where Laura is recording flippant case notes about family therapy with a mother and daughter, has echoes in the closing moments.  The Big Blue River is a meaty play with a lot of humor and heartache that it seems the actors all had a great time digging into.  The audience is also along for the ride.

“I’m unfinished.  So are you.”
“We all are.”

Laura doesn’t have much of a life.  We only see her in her office, and at a local wine bar where she drinks (a lot) while typing a screenplay of her own within the play we’re watching.  Laura has become more than a bit obsessed with a client, Frank Dolan (Jim Cunningham), who just walked off his job one day and jumped in the big blue river of the title to finally see what was around the bend which he’d never thought to explore before.  After losing his job, he then pretended to go to work for three months rather than tell his wife.  Frank’s therapy is reluctant and legally required so the push and pull between him and Laura isn’t your usual therapist/client relationship.  Laura starts imagining scenarios in her screenplay in which she is Frank’s wife.  She also imagines the daughter they have together, named Teagan (Sulia Rose Altenberg).  We see scenes of this life she creates on her laptop come to life onstage in an imaginary kitchen. The sympathetic waiter Donald (Derek Long) at the wine bar becomes her often enthusiastic audience, reading the pages she shares with him.

“So you prefer the company of women.  That just means you have taste.”
“I like women.  I loved Phillip.”

All of this is wildly unprofessional and a violation of patient privacy but Laura just can’t help herself.  She doesn’t have a life so she’s creating one - and she’s starting to get the two very messed up in her head.  In the imaginary life, Laura’s character starts having an affair with a younger man named Tanner (Matt Wall), inspired by the most mundane of encounters with one of Donald’s fellow waiters at the bar.  The alcohol isn’t helping.  Neither are her own unresolved personal issues.  It’s quite a stew, and of course inevitably the stew boils over.

“People crack.  Life’s hard.”

Patrick Coyle, directing his own script, has assembled a solid cast who all deliver on a tricky, and unexpectedly very funny, bit of storytelling.  The lines between fantasy and reality in The Big Blue River are really murky.  That’s not a bad thing, and it appears to be a very deliberate strategy on the part of the production.  The reality of Laura’s imagined life with Frank isn’t undercut by the design.  The set designed by Vanessa Miles for the kitchen isn’t any less real than Laura’s therapy office.  The costumes designed by Lin Mathison are just as everyday normal on the bodies of the Dolan family in Laura’s screenplay as they are when Frank visits Laura’s office for a therapy appointment.  The lighting designed by Jeff Sherman, and the props he’s assembled for all the locations in the play, are just as grounded in reality both in and out of Laura’s head.  

“There were no mistakes made in the creation of you.”

The only signifiers that we’re moving from reality to fantasy and back again are some changes in the landscape of Katherine Horowitz’s sound design, Russel Holsapple’s music, and the change in projections on a screen that fills the space between the office in the real world and the kitchen in the fake one.  Projections reinforce the photographic reality of our world, and then dissolve into surreal black and white paintings approximately reality when we dip into Laura’s screenplay.  But again, I think we’re supposed to be a little disoriented and confused - because Laura is.  

“She says she wants it to just be us - monotonous.”
“That, too.”

A few times we go completely off the deep-end, into a sitcom reality complete with laugh track, or a Pirandello style discussion between the characters of Laura’s screenplay outside of their plot, or a moody black and white film (shot by cinematographer Greg Stiever), even an onstage parody of arthouse films full of long silences and meaningful looks.  But most of the time, Laura’s imagined world is unnervingly real.  

“No one ever seems to get better.”

And it only gets weirder when you sit and think about it later.  For instance, almost none of what we learn about Frank in the play, outside of his therapy sessions, is real - he spends the bulk of the play being presented to us in the context of Laura’s imagined life with him.  And the daughter Teagan?  Doesn’t exist at all.  We never see her in real life.  She is mentioned but never realized.  How’s that for an acting challenge?  Yes, you’re a character, Sulia, but you’re not a real person in this play.

“Your secrets are safe with me.  I have many.”

The script’s relationship to queerness is a strange one, in both levels of reality.  While I’m happy to see the inclusion of characters that allow the play to escape being completely heteronormative, the way the play utilizes them is odd.  There’s even a scene in the play that calls Donald out for a being a cliche, the sassy gay friend, who moonlights as a drag queen with an act inspired by Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” (from, gulp, almost 40 years ago now - I grew up with that song).  There’s also a lot of real estate in the play, both in the real world and the unreal one, devoted to justifying how Frank was spotted in a drag bar wearing an earring but we swear, really and truly, he’s not gay.  The imaginary daughter Teagan has an also imaginary but unseen transgender male partner who remains completely offstage even in the fake reality.  And Frank tells Teagan a (completely imaginary?) story about a childhood friend who was gay and hung himself.   Don’t get me wrong, the heterosexuals in this play are pretty messed up and have suicidal tendencies (and histories), too.  But it’s hard to know what to do with that assortment of representation.  It’s a bit too “self-loathing Tennessee Williams” for my taste.  However, it’s also not the point or the main focus of the play, so it’s a side issue, even though it’s one to which the play keeps returning.

“Please tell me you haven’t blamed yourself for this all these years.”
“Not all the years.”

The Big Blue River is about the power and the danger of imagination, the salvation and the treacherousness of storytelling, and the seductive strategy of solving other people’s problems rather than facing your own.  It’s alternately hilarious and serious, and often quite moving (even if some of the things tugging at your heart strings are a couple of extra levels removed from reality than a play would normally be).  

“I get so lost in my project it scares me.”

Does Laura deserve a happy ending?  Maybe not.  But that’s probably why her last name is Grace.  If anyone needs a little unearned forgiveness, it’s Laura. (Probably best not to get me started on the level of forgiveness I think the rest of us could use right now.)

“Why are we here?”
“To thank her, for existing.”

Mariah Theatre Company’s world premiere production of The Big Blue River runs through March 27, 2022 at the North Garden Theater (929 Seventh Street West in St. Paul, MN).  Be aware, all showtimes are at 7pm (not 7:30 or 8).  

The venue’s policy is that all attendees are vaccinated against COVID-19, but they don’t have anyone checking that - they just ask for cooperation in the online ticketing process and leave it at that.  Half the audience I attended with wasn’t masked (I still do mask up, but that’s partly because one of my jobs is working at a theater that was shut down for a year and has had to cancel performances and whole productions since because of the virus so, I’m trying to mitigate risk to myself and others - while dealing with hundreds of strangers every day.  Your mileage may vary.)

That’s another way of saying, I don’t leave the house to see a lot of theater right now.  I chose to go see The Big Blue River.  You should, too.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

[Photo: Derek Long as Donald and Gini Adams as Laura in Patrick Coyle's "The Big Blue River." Photography by Keith Bridges]