Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Killer Inside" by Sandbox Theatre at Red Eye Theater

The "murder ballad" is a genre of music in which a deliciously tragic tale of murder is told through a sad and lovely song, often associated with Appalachian or traditional Scottish or Irish music. Sandbox Theatre, a company that performs new works created by the ensemble, has taken the idea of the murder ballad and turned it into a 90-minute musical called Killer Inside. Basically it's a series of new murder ballads acted out and sung by the ensemble, tied together in a prison setting. It's dark and disturbing, but really creative and inventive, and well-performed by the seven-person ensemble (Derek Lee Miller, Derek Meyer, Evie Digirolama, Kristina Fjellman, Megan Campbell Lagas, Sam Landman, and Theo Langason) and two-person band (Charlie Henrikson and Derek Trost).

The ensemble members, who collaborated to write all of the music and the story, play various characters on both sides of the law - prisoners and officers at Pittsville Penitentiary. There's not so much a throughline plot, but rather a series of vignettes in which we hear the various stories of these characters in the prison. The officers tell and sing about what it means to them to work with murderers. The prisoners also share their stories of murder. Some of the murderers are sympathetic - wronged people standing up for themselves or protecting their family, others are after revenge, still others are cold-blooded psychopaths. They all have a different reason for killing, but they all ended up in the same place.

Songs range in style from the Appalachian/bluegrass sound (my favorite) to a wild rock song, with a crazy tap dance thrown in. Some of the songs are funny, some poignant, some frightening, all pretty great. (You can hear some of the creators talk about the process of writing in an episode of Twin City Song Cycle.) The band accompanies the ensemble, some of whom also join in with the band, on fiddle, guitar, drums, and piano. All are dressed in matching gray and yellow color-blocked prison uniforms, on a starkly bare stage.

Killer Inside continues for one more weekend at Red Eye Theater. Check it out for some original, inventive, creative music-theater.

Monday, November 17, 2014

"Relics" at the Guthrie Theater

It's that time of year when the Guthrie Theater is full of families attending the annual production of A Christmas Carol, which opens this week. There is noticeably more congestion, with a plethora of little girls in their Christmas dresses. But that's not all that's happening at the Guthrie. Up in the 9th floor studio there is something strange and innovative and decidedly nontraditional going on. After making your way through the Christmas crowd in the 4th floor lobby to the elevators that go up to the 9th floor, you are greeted not just by the usual Guthrie ticket-takers, but also by uniformed personnel who scan your neck, and possibly by men with Johnny Depp Willy Wonka bobs who warn you not to go in. The experience continues in the elevator and after you step off on Floor 9, which has been transformed into a museum of 300 year old artifacts, in the year 2314. i.e., today seen through the eyes of future civilizations. This is not theater as we know it where you sit in your seat and watch something happening onstage, but rather an interactive experience of walking through a museum to witness exhibits, presentations, and reenactments. This is not A Christmas Carol.

Craig Fernholz and Luvern Seifert (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
This strange and fascinating concept came from the mind of creators Sarah Agnew, Nick Golfis, and Chantal Pavageaux. An ensemble of more than a dozen actors play museum workers, protesters, and other mysterious figures involved in the exhibit. We learn that in that long ago year of 2014, something called "The Great Wipe" occurred. Anarchyologists have recently discovered a family home and everything that's inside, and have created this museum with their theories about what things are used for. Which of course are completely wrong. But it makes you wonder, just what would future people think about our iPhones and Brita water filters and muffin tins? And not only that, but what if all of our assumptions about archaeological digs are wrong? Or maybe the ancient artifacts we ooh and ah over at museums are just everyday items that ancient people would think we're crazy for displaying?

Relics is a really cool idea, I just wanted a little more of it. I wanted to see more exhibits along with the crazy theories. There seemed to be a few too many moments of waiting around for the next exhibit to open or presentation to start, but maybe that was my own fault of not pacing correctly. The reenactment of ancient life is quite hilarious, narrated by the endlessly entertaining Luverne Seifert. But just as it's getting good, it's over. The chief anarchyologist who mysteriously disappeared returns, and is about to tell us what happened, when the show is abruptly over and we're told to leave. I felt a little cheated by that - I wanted to hear what happened, I wanted more Sarah Agnew! Overall I enjoyed the experience, but it left me wanting more.

If you're looking for something a little different this early holiday season, head up to the Guthrie's 9th floor to discover ancient secrets about the things we use today.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Inside the Beat" by Mu Daiko at Mixed Blood Theatre

I've seen Mu Daiko perform about a half dozen times, and it never ceases to be an absolutely thrilling experience. Minnesota's own taiko drumming ensemble, under the umbrella of Mu Performing Arts, always gives a passionate, spirited, emotional, and thoroughly entertaining performance. I was reminded of the lovely little folk music festival I attended this fall, where one of the musicians gave a profound campfire speech about how everything is made of vibrations, including and especially music. Those big drums create some big vibrations, that literally move the ground beneath your feet and the chair you're sitting on. Perhaps all music is like this, but it's more evident with drums that music is not something you just listen to with your ears, the vibrations of the music can be felt within and throughout the entire body. The insane rhythms created by Mu Daiko move right through you.

Now in their 18th season, Mu Daiko's fall concert was held at Mixed Blood this weekend. The concert includes about a dozen pieces, most composed and/or arranged by Mu Daiko founder Rick Shiomi, current director Jennifer Weir (who performs with a fierce joy), and ensemble member Heather Jeche. They call the show Inside the Beat, and create that experience for the audience with drums on all four sides of the seating in Mixed Blood's black box theater. You can hear and feel the rhythms literally surrounding you. In addition to the drums, some pieces include flute song, or traditional stringed instruments, or singing, including a lovely piece that harkens back to the songs of childhood. Another piece incorporates theater, as masked figures act out a sweet story. Jennifer worked with choreographer Joe Chvala, a natural fit with his percussive dance style, on a piece called "Stepping Up." Joe's foot-stomping hand-slapping choreography combines with the drumming to create something fun and playful.

I brought a friend with me who had never seen Mu Daiko before, and it was so fun to watch her reaction and remember the first time I saw them. It's really indescribable and must be experienced firsthand. Taiko is a beautiful and unique art form that combines athleticism, strength, musicality, spirituality, dance, theater, and grace. It's beautiful to watch the movement and thrilling to hear and feel the rhythms. There's something raw and primal about it.

Only one more performance of Inside the Beat remains, and it's sold out. Check out their website for information on upcoming concerts and taiko workshops and classes.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Disenchanted" by Casting Spells Productions at Illusion Theater

The princesses of Disenchanted will cast their spell on you in a whole different way than their Disney predecessors. While Disney portrays such fairy tale princesses and historical figures as Snow White, the Little Mermaid, and Pocahontas as sweet, mild-mannered, passive ladies waiting for a prince to come along and save them, the salty, sassy princess of Disenchanted are smart, strong, and unwilling to put up with crap from anyone! This new musical comedy by Dennis C. Giancino has had several productions around the country in the last few years and is currently playing Off-Broadway, but more importantly, it's currently in its second production here in the Twin Cities. Casting Spells Productions has brought back three of the princesses from last year's fantastic production at the Ritz Theater, added a few new and equally fabulous princesses, spiffed up the costumes, and included a few tweaks by the creator. It opened at the Illusion Theater on Halloween and continues through November 23; I finally saw it this week, and it's still a super fun show for anyone who loves and/or hates Disney princesses. It also makes for a perfect girls night out; I went with a bunch of friends and spotted several tiaras in the crowd (princess attire encouraged). These are the kind of princesses little (and not so little) girls should emulate!

Our host for the evening is Snow White (Jen Burleigh-Bentz is perfection, reprising the role from last year's show). She's smart, strong, and determined to convey her message about "the Princess Complex" to the audience (she's also not afraid of singing unnecessary runs, to hilarious effect). Her back-up singers are Cinderella (the delightfully daft Bonni Allen, also returning from last year) and a very sleepy Sleeping Beauty (Katherine Tieben-Holt, a welcome newcomer to the cast). They each introduce their story, which of course ends with getting married. But these princesses are here to tell us what happens next - and it's not as pretty and idyllic as Disney would have us believe. We also hear the stories of an insane Belle, a drunken Ariel, a very German Rapunzel (Kim Kivens as all three, a true musical comedy genius as she sings in three distinct styles, each hilarious with spot-on vocals), a possibly lesbian Mulan, a misrepresented Pocahontas, a second-place Jasmine (another excellent triple performance, by Stephanie Bertumen), and last but not least, the frog princess (an underused Joy Dolo, also returning from last year's show). The princesses sing about body image, dieting, and the crazy marketing of the princess image that little girls are rarely able to escape.

All of the princesses have fantastic voices, singing solo or in harmony. The night I attended they were accompanied by the "Understudy" Musical Director, Steven Hobert (filling in for Lori Dokken), who did a great job with the music, and occasionally interacting with the princesses. The structure of the show is casual and tongue-in-cheek, with direct address to the audience, sing-a-longs, and a bit of ad-libbing ("Garth Brooks took all the parking spots!"). Since the show was written, one new Disney princess has risen above all others, and you all know who I'm talking about. While she doesn't appear in the show, the creator has added a "Let It Go!" moment that makes fun of the craze. And of course, you can't talk about princesses without mentioning what they're wearing! Which is a modern spin on each princess' traditional attire (costume design by Barb Portinga).

I'm so glad I had the opportunity to see this show again, and I stand by what I wrote last year: "Featuring catchy and melodic tunes, clever and funny lyrics, and a stellar cast, it's a really fun and fantastic 90 minutes!" Disenchanted continues this weekend and next - don't miss this hilarious and well-sung princess satire! (Buy your tickets here, or get the few remaining discount tickets on Goldstar before they're gone.)

Mulan, Snow White, Cinderella, the Frog Princess, and the Little Mermaid
(Stephanie Bertumen, Jen Burleigh-Bentz, Bonni Allen, Joy Dolo, and Kim Kivens)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"On Golden Pond" at The Jungle Theater

This is Bain Boehlke's last full season as Artistic Director of The Jungle Theater, which he co-founded in 1991 (he will retire next summer). For the final production of the 2014 season, he has chosen the beloved American classic On Golden Pond, which was made into an equally beloved 1981 movie starring Katherine Hepburn and real life father/daughter team Henry and Jane Fonda. In a final trifecta, Bain has directed the show, designed the set, and stars as loveable curmudgeon Norman. It's a sweet, funny, beautiful triumph. Nothing showy or flashy or over-the-top, rather a lovely and quiet exploration of relationships and life.

On Golden Pond centers on Norman (Bain Boehlke) and Ethel (Wendy Lehr), who have summered together on Golden Pond in Maine for 48 years. It's a quiet and simple life, kept busy with picking strawberries, fishing, playing Parcheesi, and talking to the loons. Their only visitor is mailman Charlie (E.J. Subkoviak), who stops in for coffee when delivering their mail by lake. Their daughter Chelsea (Jennifer Blagen), who has always had a strained relationship with Norman, shows up with her fiance Bill (Michael Booth) and his son Billy (Peder Lindell). The boy ends up staying for a month, and he and Norman become fast friends. Chelsea suspects he's like the son that Norman always wanted her to be. We witness the course of the summer, from opening up the cabin and settling in, to packing up and heading back to city life. Having just turned 80 and suffering from heart palpitations, Norman talks as if he has one foot in the grave, which annoys and frightens Ethel. When the play ends, we're not sure if they'll return to Golden Pond next summer, or if we've just witnessed Norman and Ethel's last summer on their beloved lake. But all in all they've lived a good and happy life, if not perfect, and we can be certain that they'll enjoy whatever time they have left, whether it's 10 more days or 10 more years.

Norman and Ethel (Bain Boehlke and
Wendy Lehr, photo by Michal Daniel)
Everyone in the cast does a fine job, but On Golden Pond is all about Ethel and Norman, and Wendy and Bain are perfection. Their decades of friendship and collaboration are evident in the very real and natural relationship between Norman and Ethel. Bain physically inhabits the role of Norman with a slow and deliberate gait and labored breathing, but an internal fire as he verbally challenges everyone he comes up against, while still showing occasional glimpses of vulnerability. Wendy's Ethel has the busy energy of a retired woman with things to do, who loves her family wholly. She calls Norman a nitwit and "you old poop" with great affection. Watching these two local legends (both have Ivey Lifetime Achievement Awards) is a true pleasure. I had a smile on my face throughout the show and tears in my eyes at the end.

As always at the Jungle, the set is a perfect representation of the story. The cozy cabin is packed with books, photos, tchotchkes, games, blankets, and hats, like an actual cabin that has been lived in and loved for 50 years. It's a place I'd love to spend the summer, a place that feels familiar to anyone who has a summer retreat. The costumes (by Annie Cady) are vaguely '70s, especially with the younger set, but in an unobtrusive way. Ethel and Norman's clothes look comfortable and lived-in. The sideburns, bell bottoms, and phone operator are the only things that make this seem like a period piece; otherwise it could be happening on any lake in Minnesota or elsewhere.

On Golden Pond continues through December 21, so you really have no excuse not to head to this lovely little Uptown theater to see it. It's a great example of the quality theater that the Jungle has been producing for over 20 years under Bain Boehlke's leadership, that will hopefully continue after his tenure concludes next year. But for now, take this opportunity to watch a couple of legends in a beloved American play. You won't soon forget it.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"The Juniper Tree" at Open Eye Figure Theatre

Open Eye Figure Theater is in its 15th season, but surprisingly, I had not experienced their unique brand of theater until last night. I have been to their charming theater space on 24th Street just off 35W several times for other theater productions, but not to see one of their own shows. It's well past time that I remedy that glaring omission in my Twin Cities theater experience. With their adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale The Juniper Tree, I see what I've been missing at Open Eye, which "creates original figure theatre, animating the inanimate on an intimate scale." And that is delightful, whimsical, quirky, charming, engaging theater that combines multiple art forms including puppetry and original music to tell a story.

The Juniper Tree is not one of the Grimms' more well-known fairy tales; surprisingly, Disney has yet to make a movie about this stepmother who kills and cooks her stepson, feeds him to his father, and then is killed by a millstone dropped by the boy in bird form (Wikipedia offers a nice plot summary if you'd like to familiarize yourself with the story beforehand). Director/adapter/designer Michael Sommers and the team at Open Eye have taken this dark and disturbing tale (as most fairy tales are before being Disney-ized*) and turned it into something light and sweet and fun, although still with that undercurrent of darkness.

the epitome of
the evil stepmother
(Robert Rosen)
It seems like there are more than just six people on the tiny stage, playing all the characters and manipulating things behind the scenes. It's all perfectly timed and well choreographed, as puppets and humans interact almost like magic. Two of the onstage actors also play in the six-piece orchestra, playing delightfully whimsical original music by Michael Koerner. It's sort of all hands on deck as people smoothly transition from the orchestra to the stage to backstage puppeteering and back again.

the hauntingly lovely
Juniper Tree
I'm no expert on puppets, but these are really beautiful, or scary, or silly, depending on what is called for. There is a puppet of the titular tree, which moves like a living thing in the small stage space behind open doors, creating strikingly beautiful images as smaller versions of some of the characters dance among the branches. An almost lifesize boy and girl puppet interact with the human father (a jolly Julian McFaul) and stepmother (Robert Rosen, so loose and playful with the audience), who are just slightly too big for the charming cottage set with various opening doors and windows, creating an interesting juxtaposition. Puppeteers Liz Schachterle and Justin Spooner bring the girl and boy to life, and also pop up in human form, while Tara Loeper sings hauntingly as the boy's bird spirit.

If you've never experienced the unique wonder that is Open Eye Figure Theatre, The Juniper Tree is a great place to start. Innovative storytelling at its best, using multiple art forms that come together to create something truly unique.

*For another look at how Disney the fairy tales wrong, go see Disenchanted, in which Disney princess tell the real story to hilarious musical effect.

Friday, November 7, 2014

"Hauptmann" by Candid Theater Company at the People's Center Theater

The kidnapping of the son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1932 was headline news across the country and caused a media sensation. Eighty years later, the "crime of the century" is still a fascinating story and a bit of an unsolved mystery. Last year the History Theatre produced a fantastic musical Baby Case about the kidnapping, investigation, and media frenzy. Playwright and screenwriter John Logan (see also the multi-Tony-winner Red) wrote a play about it from the point of view of the man accused, convicted, and executed for the crime, Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Candid Theater Company's current production presents a fascinating and compelling drama with the barest of sets and costumes and a cast full of new young talent.

The focus of Hauptmann is not Mr. and Mrs. Lindbergh, whose child was stolen and murdered, but, as the title suggests, Hauptmann himself. He tells his story directly to the audience from his prison cell where he's awaiting execution. He narrates his story from his arrest two years after the crime, through the brutal interrogations, through the trial with resources and public opinion in the Lindberghs' favor, to his almost predetermined conviction. He never wavers in his insistence of his innocence, as the real Hauptmann never did. Someone needed to pay for the "crime of the century" to put the watchful nation at ease, and Hauptmann did. The possession of some of the ransom money, which he says he got from a friend, handwriting experts who testified to the similarity between his writing and the ransom notes, and wood experts who insisted that the wood from the ladder found at the scene of the crime matched wood in his attic was enough to convict him. History is undecided about whether or not Hauptmann was guilty of the crime, but this play leaves no doubt that he was the innocent victim of circumstance and the public and law enforcement's desperate need for a conviction.

Director Justin Kirkeberg tells the story efficiently with simple costumes, minimal sets (just a cot and a few chairs), and his seven-person cast, several of whom are new to the Twin Cities theater scene, with no a weak link among them. Aaron Henry plays the title character and rarely, if ever, leaves the stage as he guides the audience through the story. His Hauptmann is a sympathetic man, an average Joe caught up in a whirlwind, but who eventually shows his anger and frustration that no one believes him. The rest of the cast all play multiple characters, from nameless police and guards to the other personalities in the story. Jonathon Dull's Lindbergh is a strong and elegant man, desperate to find answers for his wife. As Mrs. Lindbergh, Kate Zehr is the picture of a grieving mother. Kevin Fanshaw plays four different witnesses, never getting up from the witness chair but managing to create four distinct personalities in a short period of time. Matt Saxe is the cruelly efficient prosecuting attorney, relentlessly badgering Hauptmann until he gets the answers he wants. Rounding out the cast is Elohim Peña as multiple characters including the judge, with a nice array of accents.

The American public has always been obsessed with true crime stories, and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping is one of its earliest obsessions. Hauptmann shows us the other side of the story, the possibly innocent man who was sacrificed to create a satisfying end to the story. Candid Theater Company's well done production of John Logan's compelling story continues through November 23 at the People's Center Theater on the U of M's West Bank campus (discount tickets available on Goldstar).