Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Chess" by Second Fiddle Productions at Camp Bar

If you're a fan of musical theater, you need to be aware of Second Fiddle Productions. Now in their third season, Second Fiddle does one-night-only staged readings of rarely produced musicals. Musicals that may be difficult to produce for whatever reason, or maybe the book is problematic. Musicals that musical theater nerds love, with beautiful scores that often aren't heard live, but should be.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"DAI (enough)" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at Highland Park Center Theater

When I returned from this afternoon's performance of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's DAI (enough), I sat down at my computer, opened up the internet, and saw the headline "Palestinian rocket strikes Israel, drawing Israeli reprisal." When will this decades-long conflict be over? When is enough enough? I'm not going to pretend to know enough about this issue to speak intelligently about it, but this new production by MJTC certainly does. Or rather, it tells the very specific stories of ten people gathered in a cafe in Tel Aviv in 2006, as portrayed by one actor. It's a devastating look at the impact of the never-ending violence on human lives, in addition to being a completely engaging and entertaining play.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Paint Your Wagon" at the Ordway Center

I had never even heard of the 1951 Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon when the Ordway announced it as part of their season. I guess that's not too surprising; it ran for less than a year on Broadway and has never been revived. The story was significantly rewritten for the 1969 movie adaptation starring Clint Eastwood, which also included a few new songs. Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre (director David Armstrong and book writer Jon Marans) scrapped both the original and revised book (they're a little bit racist, and sexist) to write a new story set in the Gold Rush era of California, making it more reflective of the many diverse cultures that came together to build the great American West. This production has moved to the Ordway for two weeks, with a few local additions to the cast. This thrilling story of the beginnings of the American West (think Deadwood the musical, only with significantly less cursing) with a beautifully diverse cast has rescued this gorgeous Western and Mexican influenced score from the place where problematic old musicals go to die.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Fringe Festival 2016: "Twice"

Day: 11

Show: 54 (encore)

Title: Twice

Category: Drama

By: Its Time Productions

Written by: Chris Andersen and Lee Lawing

Location: The Playwrights' Center

Summary: Three pairs of plays by two playwrights explore the same situations and themes in different but complementary ways.

Highlights: My 54th and final show of the Minnesota Fringe Festival was the encore performance of Twice, which sold out its entire run at The Playwrights' Center. I can see why. These six short plays, each of which could stand on its own as a fully defined situation and characters, together form a more complete picture around the themes of family, relationships, endings, beginnings, death, and hope. "A customer walks into a record store" becomes two young men (Reid Emmons and Jacob Mierva) flirting, or two older men (Peter Vitale and Dennis Spears) flirting. "People gather in a church during a downpour" becomes three church ladies (Janet Hanson, Annette Cummings, and Jane Zilch) planning a party and gossiping,* or a stranger comforting a grieving mother. "A son sits with his dying father" becomes an imagined last conversation, or an urgent flight home. It's a fascinating idea for a playwriting experiment that turned into one really well-written, -directed (Audrey Stottler), and -acted piece of theater. And an excellent conclusion to an excellent 2016 Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Fringe Festival 2016: "When She Became Me: a pro-choice play about abortion"

Day: 11

Show: 53

Category: Drama

By: Constructed Theatre

Created by: Elizabeth Horab

Location: U of M Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: The daughter of a woman who worked at the only abortion clinic in North Dakota tells stories about abortions from her mom, her friends, and herself.

Highlights: This is one of two pieces about abortion featuring real-life stories in this year's Fringe Festival (see also The Abortion Chronicles). Rather than compete against each other, they compliment each other well as both give voice to women's stories about their experiences with abortion. Elizabeth Horab has written the documentary play as herself (played by Tayce Pearson) speaking to the audience about her process of collecting stories. We hear from her mom (Megan E. Primus), who first volunteered at the clinic when she was pregnant with her first child. We also hear from women served by the clinic, women who answered a questionnaire on Facebook, Elizabeth's friends, and Elizabeth herself. It's incredibly moving to hear these very different yet similar stories. As Elizabeth says at the end of the piece, women want to tell their stories and be heard. When She Became Me gives them a space in which to do so.

Fringe Festival 2016: "Fruit Flies Like a Banana: Alphabetical Disorder"

Day: 11

Show: 52

Category: Something Different

Created by: The Fourth Wall

Location: U of M Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: Three classically trained musicians perform short pieces corresponding to the letters of the alphabet, incorporating dance and movement. 

Highlights: The Fringe festival is a great place to see something you've never seen before. And I've never seen anyone do what Boston's Hilary Abigana, C. Neil Parsons, and Greg Jukes, aka The Fourth Wall, do. Other than last year, when I first saw their show Fruit Flies Like a Banana. They're back this year with some new pieces and a new order - audience members randomly shout out letters corresponding to the different pieces. But no matter how many times I see them do what they do, I'm still amazed and delighted by it and wonder - how did they ever think of doing this? Not only do they play classical and popular music selections on flute, bass trombone, and percussion (a unique combination of instruments), but they also incorporate movement (and other weird instruments like a toy piano and boomwhackers). Hanging upside down, twirling around, lifting each other up in the air, or pulling each other around on chairs or the wheeled vibraphone, they entertain the crowd young and old with their unique antics. This trio is fun and playful with the crowd, and as traveling artists it's wonderful to see them be so involved in and supportive of other artists, encouraging every artist in the audience to plug their show as one of the acts in the show, not just tacked on at the end. If they're back next year (and I hope they are) go see people do something you've never seen anyone do before.

Fringe Festival 2016: "In the Time of Spies"

Day: 11

Show: 51

Category: Comedy

By: Ferrari McSpeedy Theatrical Productions

Created by: Joe Bozic and Mike Fotis

Location: U of M Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: A loving spoof of '50s and '60s spy TV shows, complete with opening credits!

Highlights: In this really funny broad sketch comedy, chock full of physical humor (crazy exaggerated fight scenes) and sight gags (one of those grabber things as a hand), we meet a team of spies working for the CIA. Typical TV show spy tropes like a mole in their midst, long lost mothers, Russian bad guys, and love triangles unfold, as described and introduced by chanteuse narrator (Anna Hickey). The hilarious cast (also including Joe Bozic, Mike Fotis, James Rone, Rita Boersma, and Jason Ballweber, most of whom come from the improv/sketch comedy world) plays every moment to the hilt. Two "episodes" of In the Time of Spies are presented, and as a TV junkie I loved the "previously on" recap and the silly opening credits that they repeat at the beginning of each episode. It's ridiculously good fun.

Fringe Festival 2016: "Becoming Inga"

Day: 11

Show: 50

Title: Becoming Inga

Category: Something Different

By: David Mann

Created by: Colleen Kruse and David Mann

Location: U of M Rarig Center Arena

Summary: A woman takes a job at a "health spa" and through putting on the persona of Inga, discovers her true self.

Highlights: Colleen Kruse begins her solo storytelling show by telling us she's just like us. She looks like a typical Minnesotan in boots, parka, and furry hat. But Colleen's job is a little different than what most of us experience in our 9-to-5 lives. As an unemployed alcoholic empty nester in her '40s, she needed a job, and unable to find anything else, she answered an ad on Craig's list. Her job at this "health spa" or "massage parlor" as it's euphemistically called involves catering to men's fantasies, but in an environment where she makes the rules and has the power. She tells stories about some of her clients, from the young marine, to the busy wealthy man who barely looks up from his phone, to Richard who feels the freedom and support to become Renee in their sessions. Although some of the stories are uncomfortably graphic, Colleen is a wonderful storyteller, and it soon becomes apparent that these sessions are like therapy, not only for her clients but also for her. She stops drinking as she finds a confidence and sense of self-worth in "becoming Inga." This is a show I didn't want to end, and I wanted to know more about how her work life affected her non-work life, if she was ever able to share her work with her friends and family (well I guess they know now!), or bring the newfound confidence and self-worth of Inga into her life as Colleen. Perhaps we'll get a chance to see that sometime.

Fringe Festival 2016: "Itch"

Day: 11

Show: 49

Title: Itch

Category: Something Different

By: Three Knives

Written by: Tyler Olsen

Location: U of M Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: An outbreak of a mysterious illness in a an experimental science facility turns deadly and super creepy,

Highlights: When the floor of the Rarig Cente thrust stage is covered with a blood-stained tarp, you know you're in for something weird and creepy. And when Raw Red Meat does the effects, you know there will be blood, and lots of it. The tension and creep factor slowly build as a scientist coldly reports on the events of the outbreak. The residents are having a party to celebrate a divorce, when one of the researchers realizes there was a tear in his suit. Whether real or only imagined, this virus soon infects everyone on stage (and in the audience). Compulsively scratching, writhing on the floor in agony, spouting blood from various places on the body, even chewing their own flesh, the researchers' illness seems almost too real, especially when they start lumbering into the audience and the lights go out. We eventually find out what (or who) caused the outbreak, but the bottom line is that Itch most definitely gets under your skin. The nine-person cast is incredibly convincing, and I can't help wondering what their post-show laundry routine is like, and if they have a place to shower before going on with their day. Gross in the best possible way.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Fringe Festival 2016: "Game of Thrones: The Musical"

Day: 10

Show: 48

Category: Musical

By: Really Spicy Opera

Created by: Basil Considine

Location: Ritz Theater Proscenium

Summary: The epic HBO show Game of Thrones told in a campy musical style, with puppets.

Highlights: If Game of Thrones: The Musical doesn't scream Minnesota Fringe Festival, I don't know what does. It's a completely ridiculous, totally fringetastic spoof of the beloved series and the people who love it to the point of obsession (it seems to be based more on the TV show than the novels by George R. R. Martin, continuing up through last season's finale). Because it's only an hour and the series is 60 hours (and counting), some characters, places, and storylines are understandably left out, like Daenerys, Tyrion, Theon, Ramsay Bolton, Dorne, the Iron Islands, and there wasn't nearly enough Jaime for my taste (but there never is). But still, writer, music director, and accompanist Basil Considine managed to fit in a lot of stuff in a short time. The songs are funny and clever (including ones set to the tune of "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas and "On My Own" from Les Miserables). And the cast completely commits to the over-the-top, campy, Avenue Q-like tone. It's great fringey fun, especially if you love Westeros.

Fringe Festival 2016: "Lazy Eyed Geek"

Day: 10

Show: 47

Category: Drama

By: The Theatre Cosmic

Created by: Brandon Taitt

Location: Strike Theater

Summary: A solo storytelling show by a man born with one blind and "lazy" eye and a love of Star Trek.

Highlights: Perhaps what the Fringe does best is give artists a platform on which to tell their story. In this case the artist is Brandon Taitt, who tells his story with honesty and without artifice. From being born to a teenage mother, his multiple surgeries that failed to correct the strabismus he was born with (a word that reminds me of that line from Spelling Bee, another example of popular culture's unfairly comic portrayal of people with a lazy eye), his many problems with bullies in school, the comfort he found in the world of Star Trek and Spock in particular, the death of his grandmother, and through adulthood and the birth of his own perfectly healthy child. Lazy Eyed Geek is funny, relatable to anyone who's ever felt like an outsider, with a full circle ending of healing.

Fringe Festival 2016: "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King"

Day: 10

Show: 46

Category: Drama

By: Jeremy Terry Productions

Written by: Brendan Jones

Location: Ritz Theater Proscenium

Summary: The familiar Nutcracker tale, but told as a dramatic play.

Highlights: I'm not that familiar with The Nutcracker, either the ballet or the original story, so the story of the girl who dreamed her Nutcracker to life is new to me. Young Marie is frustrated with her life, her parents, and the party they have planned. Her beloved Godfather givers her a Nutcracker along with his story. We then move to the imaginary land of princesses, two young men who are rivals for her affection, and mice that fight and talk. I wish that the creators could have found a different twist on the story than the tired old cliche of two men fighting for the fair princess' hand, and I actually found the "bad guy" to be the more interesting of the two (partly because of Jonathon Dull's compelling performance), he was just given a bad lot in life and made a bad choice. But it's an interesting turn on an old tale, the ensemble cast does a great job playing multiple roles (another standout - Kaitlin Noble as Marie), and there's a nice sprinkling of music and dance that ties it to the original.