Friday, August 1, 2014

Fringe Festival: "11:11"

Day: 1

Show: 3

Title: 11:11

Category: Drama

By: SaMi Productions

Created by: Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha

Location: Rarig Center Arena

Summary: A series of vignettes about the big and little moments in life that can change everything, framed around the creator's life-changing experience of a car accident.

Highlights: Sara's moving story about how her car accident changed her life begins and ends this piece. The accident reignites her grief at the loss of her grandfather, whose car she was driving (does everyone's grandpa know how to catch flies, or just Sara's and mine?), and ultimately the loss of the feeling of safety and security in life. Each of the other three performers (Yvonne Ingrid Freese, Jason Garton, and Jill Damaske Iverson) wrote a scene, along with a few other authors. Some of the scenes are more effective than others, some funny and some tragic, but all are open and honest and real. Other than the main story, I was most affected by Jill's moving performance in a piece she wrote about the loss of an almost-friend. As a whole, 11:11 is perhaps a big disjointed, but it's moving, poignant, thought-provoking, and brought tears to my eyes. I call that a Fringe success.

Fringe Festival: "Kitty Kitty Kitty"

Day: 1

Show: 2

Category: Comedy

Written by: Noah Haidle

Location: Rarig Center Arena

Summary: Life from a cat’s perspective doesn't look so good. Kitty falls in love with his clone, is rejected by him, makes more clones, loses them, and learns about love.

Highlights: Have you ever wondered what your cat is thinking? According to this play, he's thinking some pretty deep and existential thoughts. A mad scientist (Leif Jurgenson) clones a suicidal house cat (Sam Landman), who then falls in love with his clone (Matt Rein) and teaches him everything he knows. When Kitty Kitty is adopted by a couple of humans, Kitty is devastated and tries again with another clone, except that each successive clone is a little, well, less. In typically Loudmouth fashion, this is a smart and funny play with a great cast. And it's not a bad idea - I recently lost the best cat that ever lived, and if I could clone him I totally would. Whether you love cats like I do, or you're one of those soulless human beings who doesn't like cats, it's great fun to see that majestic and mysterious animal personified on stage and get a glimpse into what they might be thinking.

Fringe Festival: "One Arm"

Day: 1

Show: 1

Title: One Arm

Category: Drama

By: Perestroika Theater Project

Written by: Tennessee Williams

Location: Southern Theater

Summary: An adaptation of a Tennessee Williams unproduced screenplay, in which a young boxer loses his arm and his identity, and turns to prostitution to survive.

Highlights: Like most Tennessee Williams plays, this one is a heart-breaker, full of tragic characters leading lives of despair. Ollie's (a compelling Bryan Porter) life is full of promise as a champion boxer until he loses an arm in an accident that kills two of his friends. Suffering from survivor's guilt and loss of identity, he falls into a life of hustling, traveling around the country to get by, not feeling anything. Until he ends up on death row, when the feelings come flooding back. The excellent supporting cast plays many well-defined characters in a series of perfect two-person scenes, including two of the tragic women that Williams writes so well (Aeysha Kinnunen), a well-to-do John (David Coral), and a seminary student visiting Ollie in prison (Adam Qualls). This is a fairly elaborate set for a Fringe show; it's clever and effective with a square made of pipes defining the small rooms, that can be lifted up and moved around to create a boxing ring or terrace or ship. One Arm is beautifully written, directed (by Joseph Stodola), and acted, and feels like a full and complete story despite it's under 60-minute run time. This moving portrait of a beautifully tragic character and the equally tragic people he meets is completely absorbing, an extremely professional and well done Fringe show, and a must-see for anyone who likes good quality drama in their Fringe.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at the Guthrie Theater

In a lovely bit of symmetry, the Guthrie is closing a season that began with Chekhov's Uncle Vanya with a new play by Christopher Durang that uses Chekhovian characters and themes in a decidedly modern way - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Since I'm no Chekhov expert (in fact Uncle Vanya was the first and only Chekhov play I've seen), I'll direct you to the Guthrie's informative playbill (or online play guide) for more explanation on how the two plays are related. Whatever Durang's inspiration was, the result is a hilarious comedy about a dysfunctional trio of siblings and the wacky people that surround them. Even though I'm sure I missed many of the Chekhov and other references, I thoroughly enjoyed the play. It's great fun, with fantastic performances by everyone in the six-person cast.

The titular Vanya and Sonia and Masha are middle-aged siblings, named by their professor and community theater actor parents after characters in Chekhov's plays. Masha is a successful actor living in New York City, and owns the family home in rural Pennsylvania where Vanya and Sonia took care of their aging parents until their death, and where they are now stuck. Masha returns home with her new boy toy Spike to attend a rich neighbor's costume party and to inform her siblings that she's selling the house and they'll have to move out. Aspiring actor Nina, the neighbors' niece, comes over to express her admiration for Masha and gets entangled in the family drama, which includes not only the costume party but a reading of Vanya's absurd semi-autobiographical play. Rounding out this group of oddballs is housekeeper Cassandra, who, like her namesake, is destined to foretell the future and not be believed. The family yells, argues, throws things, and ultimately comes to some sort of comfortable peace with each other and the fact that "their lives are over."

Sonia, Masha, Spike, and Vanya
(Suzanne Warmanen, Candy Buckley, Joshua James Campbell,
and Charles Janasz, photo by Joan Marcus)
Each one of these characters is an extreme, and beautifully portrayed by the actors to broad comedic effect, while still offering glimpses of the humanity beneath the craziness. Charles Janesz is so natural as the poor schlub Vanya, who seems like the calm normal one until he explodes in an exasperated second act rant about the good old days, perfectly delivered so that it seems like he's saying these words for the very first time. The ever hilarious Suzanne Warmanen brings much humor to the role of the long-suffering and melodramatic Sonia, and also makes you sympathize with Sonia as she experiences rare hope (and she does a great Maggie Smith impression). Candy Buckley parades around the stage with all the bravado and self-centeredness of a "movie star." She has this guttural way of emphasizing words that's almost over the top, except that it works and it's hilarious. Boy toy Spike is just what you'd expect, a perfect exterior with not much going on underneath, and Joshua James Campbell (a familiar face from other local stages making his Guthrie debut) plays this vain character with absolutely no vanity, strutting around the stage in various stages of undress. Watching the other characters' reactions to Spike is almost as much fun as watching him (this is not the first time Josh has stripped, or reverse stripped, onstage, anyone remember Theater Latte Da's The Full Monty?). Ali Rose Dachis is all sweet innocence as Nina, a ray of sunlight in this grumpy family. Last but not least, Isabell Monk O'Connor brings great and gleeful energy to Cassandra, snapping into and out of her prophetic statements as if in a trance.

Unlike his gigs at the Jungle where he also designs the set, Joel Sass merely directs here, keeping the hilarity moving but not getting out of control. Todd Rosenthal gets the credit for designing the lived-in, comfortable country home, with community theater posters on the wall and tchotchkes on the tables.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a play that doesn't take itself or its characters too seriously, even poking gentle fun at theater itself. Spending an evening with these crazy characters is great fun, and a pleasant end to another wonderful season at the Guthrie (playing through August 31).

Sunday, July 27, 2014

"A Little Night Music" by Mu Performing Arts at Park Square Theatre

A few weeks ago I wrote that the Guthrie's My Fair Lady is the must-see summer musical. Correction: it's one of two. Mu Performing Arts' production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music should also be on your must-see list; it's every bit as good as My Fair Lady. The songs might not be as "hummable and quotable," but they're clever and beautifully complex in a way that only a Sondheim score can be. The music sounds gorgeous, the costumes are luscious, the show is funny but a little sad too, and the cast is fantastic (and by the way, they also happen to be Asian-American). It's another gorgeous production of a classic.

Set in Sweden at the turn of the last century, the 1973 multi-Tony-winning musical A Little Night Music is a story about love, loss, regret, and second chances. Desiree is a glamorous actress who has left her teenage daughter to be raised by her mother in the country. Her former lover Fredrik walks back into her life after seeing her in a performance and wants to rekindle their relationship. But there's a complication. Well, several complications. Fredrik has a new young wife Anne, who has so far refused to consummate the marriage. And his son Henrik is in love with her. Desiree has a married lover, who's very jealous and possessive of both his wife and mistress. When the entire group is invited out to Desiree's mother's house in the country, much hijinks ensue, as you can imagine. Lovers meet and break up, hearts are broken and repaired, and everyone has a lovely, if bittersweet, time. This is a comedy, almost a farce, but one with an undercurrent of sadness, longing, regret, and weariness of life.

Desiree and Fredrik
(Sheena Janson and Randy Reyes, photo by Michal Daniel)
The show is so beautiful and elegant, beginning with the onstage six-piece orchestra, which sounds gorgeous playing this gloriously complex and stunning music. Sondheim is not easy to pull off, but under the direction of Jason Hansen, these musicians and singers do so flawlessly. Musical highlights include the first act closer "A Weekend in the Country," the solos "Now," "Later," and "Soon" which combine to become an intricately layered trio, and of course, the sad and beautiful ballad "Send in the Clowns." The music is accompanied by subtle and lovely choreography by Penelope Freeh.

Anne and her stepson Henrik
(Suzie Juul and Wes Mouri,
photo by Michal Daniel)
The cast is just perfection, under the direction of Rick Shiomi (and they look gorgeous in the gowns and tails designed by Lynn Farrington). There's Randy Reyes (Mu's Artistic Director) with his usual charm and humor as Fredrik, the always delightful Suzie Juul as the bubbly innocent Anne, Wes Mouri as the tortured and in love Henrik, Alex Galick as Desiree's pompous lover, and Lara Trujillo as the wise grandmother who has lived long and learned much, and isn't afraid to share it. And then there's Sheena Janson, who so perfectly conveys Desiree's wry humor and realism, but also shows her vulnerability and longing for something deeper. Sheena's rendition of "Send in the Clowns," a song that has been covered by everyone from Bing Crosby to Olivia Newton-John, is a thing of heartbreaking beauty. The leads are backed by a wonderful ensemble, especially the sort of Greek chorus of five singers that wander through the show, sometimes commenting on the action, sometimes singing the characters' songs back at them. They even move set pieces gracefully.

It's become a bit of a summer tradition with Mu to cast a classic American musical with Asian-Americans (see also: Little Shop of Horrors and Into the Woods). It gives these wonderful actors a chance to play roles that they otherwise might never be cast as, and they absolutely flourish in the opportunity. It's a beautiful thing to see. Head to downtown St. Paul between now and August 10 to see a beautiful production of a classic Sondheim musical (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Cinderella" by Mounds View Community Theatre at Irondale High School

There are dozens of community theaters in the Twin Cities metro area performing at high schools and community centers. In this relatively quite summer theater season, I decided to check out my local community theater, which is Mounds View Community Theatre, now in their 31st season. I heard great things about their production of Les Miserables last year (which I missed, in part, because I knew I was going to see a spectacular production at BCT in the fall), so I was curious to check out their production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella this summer. Unfortunately the stormy weather interfered with my plan to bike to nearby Irondale High School, but it was still a fun thing to do on a summer afternoon. The show is quite charming and adorable with several standouts in the cast. Moral of the story: get out and support your local community theater!

The musical Cinderella is unique in that it was written for TV (originally airing live in 1957, starring Julie Andrews), and only arrived on the Broadway stage last year with a rewritten book (and starring Minnesota native Laura Osnes). It tells the familiar story of the poor, hard-working, good-hearted young woman who wins the love of the prince and escapes her unhappy home to live happily ever after. I'm too old and jaded to believe in fairy tales, but even I couldn't help but be caught up in the magic of the show. The set and costumes are bright and colorful, with two-dimensional pieces designed to look like Warner Brothers cartoons, which creates an appropriate fantasy-like world. The Cinderella dress transformation is done simply and effectively and creates a moment of awe and wonder. (Set design by Robin McIntyre and costume design by Cindy Forsgreen.)

Cinderella and her Prince
(Mari Holst and Mason Henderson)
As Cinderella, Mari Holst is truly the star of the show. She just shines onstage, with her beautiful voice and natural, charismatic stage presence (plus, I love a princess with short brown hair - take that Disney!). She's well-matched by Mason Henderson as Prince Christopher (really? Christopher?); they sound beautiful together. Other standouts in the cast include Haley Garland as the Fairy Godmother and Anissa Lubbers and Erika Sawyer as the very funny stepsisters. The ensemble does a fine job, and the littlest members of the cast are the most enthusiastic and fun to watch. And, as always, I was thrilled to see and hear a large live pit orchestra (ah, if only I hadn't given up the clarinet!).

It was fun to see so many kids in the audience. Community theater is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to expose children to theater at a young age, both as audience members and performers. If you're in the Mounds View area, go check out Cinderella, playing through July 27. If not, go see your local community theater. A couple of examples: Minnetonka Theatre is doing Mame and Spelling Bee (and they're also hosting Tony winner Karen Olivo, who now lives in Wisconsin, in an auditioning workshop), and Chaska Valley Family Theatre is doing the comedy Laughing Stock. Theater is everywhere - check your local paper or community bulletin board to find it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat

The University of Minnesota produces summer shows at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat, a permanently docked historic boat on Harriet Island across from downtown St. Paul. This is my first year attending, and it's great fun. Stepping onto the Showboat is like stepping back in time, as student actors in costume greet you and show you to your seats in the charming on-board theater. The show is usually a melodrama, and they encourage audience reaction in the form of cheers and boos. This year's show is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, played to deliciously campy effect by the young, talented, and enthusiastic cast. It's truly a delightful and fun evening of theater on the river.

In this version of the well-known tale of the man with two very different sides, the handsome and sophisticated Dr. Jekyll is engaged to the lovely Agnes Carew when her mother is murdered by a stooped and scary man named Mr. Hyde. An inspector investigates the murder, with all signs pointing him towards Dr. Jekyll's residence. Agnes thinks that her betrothed is protecting the man that killed her mother, but only Jekyll knows the truth, that he and Hyde are one in the same, and he can only control the transformation with a drug that he cannot find. He has withdrawn from Agnes to protect her from his evil side, but the truth eventually and tragically comes to light.

Christian Boomgaarden as Dr. Jekyll
and Katherine Fried as Agnes
The cast, under the direction of Peter Moore, plays the melodrama to the hilt and appears to be having as much fun as the audience. Katherine Fried is a delight as Agnes, with her wide eyes and expressive face. Christian Boomgaarden is so convincing as the suave Jekyll and demonic Hyde that it's hard to believe it's the same person, with transitions happening ever more quickly as the (melo)drama increases. Bear Brummel is charismatic as Jekyll's friend and confident, who also happens to be in love with Agnes.

Dramatic scenes are interspersed with musical olios, directed by Vern Sutton and accompanied by "master of the piano" Anton Melnichenko, who also provides a constant soundtrack to the action. The olios are all silly and fun and well performed; highlights include Tori Smith's gift-giving dilemma "I Dunno" and the gentleman singing about a beauty for each month, with the ladies parading in ridiculously elaborate costumes and headdresses. Speaking of, the costumes (by Matthew J. LeFebvre) are quite beautiful and add much to the show, especially impressive when some only appear onstage for a few minutes. The sets (by Rick Polenek) consist mostly of two-dimensional backdrops on the tiny stage, which look quaintly old-fashioned, and provide a bit of humor when the cast pretends they're three-dimensional.

The summer theater season can be a little quiet, but the Showboat is a great option for some fun, light, summery entertainment in a lovely spot on the river. Assuming the flooding season is over, shows continue through August 22 (Goldstar discount tickets are currently sold out, but check back in case more are added).