Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Love's Labour's Lost" by the Moving Company at the Lab Theater

The Moving Company's new adaptation of one of Shakespeare's earliest romantic comedies, Love's Labour's Lost, includes at least one line from each of his 37 other plays. Not being a Shakespeare expert, I only recognized a few, mostly from Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, the two plays with which I (and probably most people) am most familiar. If I didn't know that they had removed sections of the original play and replaced them with lines from other plays, I would never have known; it feels very much like one cohesive story, not at all the mash-up that it is. Which is a credit to creators Steve Epp, Nathan Keepers (both of whom also star in the play), and Dominique Serrand (who directs), who have so seamlessly woven in lines and plot points from other plays to create something entirely new and original. In typical Moving Company style, it's at times wacky, or funny, or moving, or just plain entertaining.

The original plot of Love's Labour's Lost follows a king who convinces his three companions to join him in three years of intense study, fasting, and avoiding the company of women. This only lasts until the daughter of the King of France arrives with her three comely companions, and the men forget their vows to woo the women. We follow these four love stories through the ending, which is not your typical happy ever after, but allows room for the possibility.

Other than Steve Epp and Nathan Keepers (Co-Artistic Director and Artistic Associate), the rest of the 13 person cast are all new to The Moving Company, but it doesn't feel that way. They all mesh very well in the MoCo aesthetic and bring their own skills to the table. As one of the four pairs of lovers, Emily King and Lucas Melsha have created several stunningly beautiful dances, in a sort of animalistic modern dance style. These two characters speak no words but say everything with their bodies. Jim Lichtsheidl is such a unique and gifted physical comedian, a skill that's on great display here. There's music too, with a couple of songs sung by the ensemble in gorgeous harmony (not surprising with voices like Ricardo Vazquez and Jennifer Baldwin Peden). Steve and Nathan are a couple of goofballs and work so well together after years of collaboration. Heidi Bakke as the object of their affection completes this silly trio.

Director Dominique Serrand has created an exceedingly simple set that is so lovely and evocative - just an AstroTurf-like carpet unrolled on the floor, and sheer fabric creating the green of the field and the blue of the sky, that ripple with the slightest motion. I absolutely loved the costumes (by Sonya Berlovitz), so unique and creative and perfectly suited to each character. In the first act everyone is dressed in military garb - traditional camouflaged soldiers and warrior women looks; the second act civilian costumes are beautiful but whimsical, with each pair a perfect matched set. Of particular note is the king's daughter, who goes from an armored breastplate to a lusciously full-skirted gown.

This is my 6th Moving Company show, and they never cease to surprise and delight me with their innovative and unique style of creation. Love's Labour's Lost, billed as "a fresh new riff on a very old play," covers all the bases - it's sweet and poignant, with some lovely dancing and music, and silly entertaining antics. Watch the video below to get a taste of the show, and then order your tickets here.

"A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie Theater and Lyric Arts

Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol has become a staple of holiday traditions. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that this classic story can currently be seen on multiple stages* in the Twin Cities. The biggest of these is the Guthrie Theater; this is the 40th year that the Guthrie has produced A Christmas Carol (I have seen one quarter of those productions). I think it's safe to say this is one of their most popular shows every year, with many families incorporating it into their annual traditions. Lyric Arts is also producing the show on their Main Street Stage in Anoka. I was lucky enough to see these two different interpretations of this classic story on back-to-back nights. And while I do have a clear favorite between the two, it's really unfair to compare them too closely. Both are entertaining and creative interpretations of Charles Dickens' heartwarming story about the rich-in-money poor-in-friends businessman who learns through the visitation of four ghosts that it's better to be kind than rich.

The Guthrie Theater

If you've seen the Guthrie's A Christmas Carol in the last few years, it's pretty much the same show. But that's not a bad thing. It's familiar, warm, and comforting, like your favorite holiday dish shared with your family. Joe Chvala returns as director and choreographer, which means there are many fun dance scenes, including one of my favorites - the Fezziwig party scene. Also returning are Mathew J. LeVebre's gorgeous Victorian costumes, Walt Spangler's elaborate moving set, and lovely renditions of traditional Christmas carols. It all looks and feels like a traditional Victorian Christmas card come to life before your very eyes.

Even though it's basically the same show every year, there are a few tweaks and cast changes to keep it interesting. One of my friends asked me what's new with the show this year, and I responded: Tyler Michaels. The My Fair Lady scene stealer makes his Christmas Carol debut in a few small but fun roles. Joel Liestman is also a newcomer to the show as the Ghost of Christmas Present, with a big booming voice both laughing and singing. Making their welcome Guthrie debuts are the charismatic Bear Brummel as Scrooge's nephew and an appealing Zach Keenan as young Scrooge. Peggy O'Connell returns to the show after a long absence as Mrs. Fezziwig, with an impish grin and sprightly spirit. Most of the rest of the cast will be familiar to those of us who've seen the show recently, which is actually a very good thing. I love seeing this beloved stage filled with so many familiar and beloved faces. There's J.C Cutler as Scrooge, making a delightful and believable transformation from grumpy to giddy; Kris L. Nelson as his beleaguered clerk Bob Cratchit, who still manages to find interesting and surprising moments after many years of playing the role; Virginia S. Burke as his devoted wife and mother to a passel of children; Angela Timberman, hilarious as ever as the drunken Merriweather; Jay Albright hamming it up in the best possible way as Mr. Fezziwig; and Tracey Maloney floating across the stage in a swirl of skirts as the Ghost of Christmas Past. This is the first time I recall young Marley and ghost Marley being played by the same actor, which is kind of genius, especially when you have a versatile actor like Robert O. Berdahl who can play the creepy ghost version as well as the living but still disagreeable version. The rest of the big Guthrie stage is filled with children and adults in all kinds of roles, over 40 people passing through that stage - so much going on and so much fun to watch.

After 40 years, the Guthrie has A Christmas Carol down to a science, with many intricate pieces - sets, costumes, music, dance, and story - all working together flawlessly. In short, if this doesn't warm the cockles of your heart, then you really are a Scrooge. It's truly the feel-goodiest of feel-good shows, and who doesn't need that at this busy and stressful time of year? Head to the big blue building on the Mississippi between now and December 28 to experience this holiday goodness.

Lyric Arts

Unlike the Guthrie, Lyric Arts does not have a 40-year tradition of producing A Christmas Carol, but this year is producing a steampunk version of the classic. What is steampunk you might ask? It seems to involve a lot of gears and machinery and clockwork. And it makes for a darker, grittier, more sinister Dickensian world (although with some silly humorous moments that don't quite match the overall tone). Working from an adaptation by Michael Wilson that focuses more on the ghost aspect of the story, director Daniel Ellis and his team have created a version of A Christmas Carol that's spooky, wacky, and fun to look at, but not as warm-hearted as other versions.

There are some familiar things about this version, including a crotchety Ebeneezer Scrooge (an effective Richard Brandt) and a chorus of children, although they're a little dirtier and more ragged in this version. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are played by the same actors as play people Scrooge encounters in his waking life, people who owe him money, which makes the ghostly visitations seem more like a dream (like Dorothy dreaming that the farmhands are the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion). The ghosts all have elements of steampunk, particularly the Ghost of Christmas Past - a life-size windup mechanical doll (Christy Nix does a great job with the mechanical movements). The steampunk element is also brought in with the silent chorus of three women and a man in top hat who dance across the stage in a mechanical robot sort of way (choreography by Hannah Weinberg). The set and costumes are really quite cool and pull off the steampunk look in a way that's fun and interesting to look at (set by Sadie Ward and costumes by Stephanie Mueller).

Lyric Arts' A Christmas Carol is a little bizarre and unexpected, especially seen right after the Guthrie's familiar version. It feels a little like that nightmare you might have from a bit of undigested beef or uncooked potato. But the steampunk ghost angle is an interesting one, and this story is so rich there's room for many versions (playing weekends through December 21).

So there you have it - two very different versions of this beloved classic story. One traditional and heart-warming, the other new and steampunk. Take your pick.

*In addition to the above two productions, versions of A Christmas Carol can also be seen at East Ridge High School in Woodbury and Chaska High School. If you know of any other local productions, please comment below.

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.