Friday, December 19, 2014

"4000 Miles" at Park Square Theatre

Is there a sweeter word in the English language than "Grandma?" Maybe it's because I don't have one anymore, but there's something about the grandchild/grandparent relationship that strikes me as so unique and special. Your grandparents are sort of like your parents, only much cooler and wiser. Park Square Theatre's production of playwright Amy Herzog's 2011 play 4000 Miles explores this relationship in a really beautiful way. With a small cast and a simple and profound story, it's perfectly suited to their new thrust stage* in the basement of the historic Hamm Building.

The title refers to Leo's cross country journey by bicycle, starting from his current home in Seattle, through his childhood home in St. Paul, and ending at his grandmother's Greenwich Village apartment. The journey took some unexpected turns, and Leo is suffering from more than just the usual angst of youth. He and his grandma Vera don't know each other well, but he has nowhere else to go. He needs to heal and figure out where to go from here, and Vera helps him do that, just by being there, listening (when she has her hearing aid in), and providing that no-nonsense sage advice of those older and wiser than us. Vera comes to rely on Leo as well and enjoy having him around. They develop a comfortable rapport, but alas, by definition of the relationship the situation can't continue as it is, and once Leo has healed, he's ready to leave the nest again.

Leo and Vera (Gabriel Murphy and Linda Kelsey,
photo by Petronella Ytsma)
Under director Gary Gisselman, this four-person cast really shines. Brief appearances by Becca Hart as the estranged girlfriend and Joann Oudekerk as his date shed more light on Leo's character, but the show belongs to Linda Kelsey and Gabriel Murphy. Linda's performance as Vera is so lived in and real, it's easy to imagine sitting down at her table for coffee and frozen pastry. She gives Vera a vital spirit that's struggling to get through her aging body and mind. Gabriel hits all right the notes as this cocky youngster who thinks he has it all together, slowly peeling back the layers as Leo lets his grandmother (and the audience) see the trauma he's experienced and the pain that he's feeling. The two of them together are just so charming as they portray a really beautiful multi-generational relationship.

This is only the second play in the new Andy Boss Stage, so it's fun to continue to explore what it can look like and be. In this case, scenic designer Rick Polenek has transformed it into a very detailed and realistic NYC apartment. The back of the stage is lined with shelves filled with books and tchotchkes, while dated grandmotherly furniture extends into the thrust part of the stage.

4000 Miles is one of those wonderful plays that's not big on action, but that really digs into relationships and characters, through sharp, funny, poignant dialogue, as well as through things left unsaid. Unfortunately I'm catching this one towards the end of its short run; it closes this weekend. But if you have some free time in your holiday schedule this weekend, it's definitely worth a visit.

*I was not able to see 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, now playing on Park Square's main stage, due to scheduling issues, but I saw it two years ago and found it to be quite delightful! Read more of my thoughts here, and buy your tickets for this year's show here.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"A Hunting Shack Christmas" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Christmas at Yellow Tree is always a wonderfully wild and ridiculous affair. Now in their seventh season, the little theater that could is continuing in their tradition of hilarious, heart-felt, and very Minnesotan Christmas plays. But this year they're taking a break from their popular Miracle on Christmas Lake series (two installments so far) to venture to a new location - the hunting shack. Yellow Tree co-founders Jessica Lind and Jason Peterson have combined to write and direct, respectively, this funny and charming new play, and have assembled a fantastic cast to bring these quirky and familiar characters to life. I'd tell you to go see it, but it's sold out for the rest of the run, despite the fact that they've added a bunch of shows. So make your plans early for next Christmas, because Yellow Tree Theatre is a wonderful place to be at this time of the year.

Like the Christmas Lake plays, A Hunting Shack Christmas centers on a relatively normal couple facing a possibly life-changing event who encounters some ridiculously Minnesotan characters. Charlie and Jennifer live a perfectly comfortable life in "The Cities," but perhaps one that's lacking a bit of adventure. On the eve of their 10th anniversary vow renewal, Charlie skips town to head to his grandfather's hunting shack to contemplate his life and the changes he's being forced to make. Jennifer is upset that he left, and follows him to the rustic shack. Much to their surprise, Charlie's eccentric uncle Paul and (sort of) aunt June and cousin Ham are squatting in the cabin, and are none too happy to have their lives interrupted by this "citiot." Charlie and Ham bicker like boys, and even engage in some hilarious slow-mo childish fighting. But at the insistence of Aunt June, everyone makes peace with each other, and Charlie and Jen decide to make a change for the better. This oddball family lives happily ever after in their cozy hunting shack (at least until the sequel).

John Haynes, Greta Grosch, and
Sasha Andreev (photo by Keri Pickett)
A Hunting Shack Christmas is told in informal narration, with narrator Charlie often speaking directly to the audience and fully acknowledging that we're in the theater, directing the sound and lighting and calling for memories. This structure allows a charming and likeable Sasha Andreev to play with the audience and draw us into the story. Daisy Macklin Skarning (in a role that's the complete opposite of the one she played in Gremlin Theatre's Rocket to the Moon this spring) also brings great charm and enthusiasm to the role of Jennifer, making Charlie and Jen a couple to root for. The character of Ham tells the audience he's the comic relief, and understudy Joseph Pyfferoen is just that, committing fully and hilariously to the role of this oddball young man who lives with his parents, wants to start a jerky company, and is engaged to marry a woman from Norway who rides a reindeer. Greta Grosch and John Haynes both have a strong comedy/improv background, which they bring to the roles of Aunt June and Uncle Paul. Greta especially is a hoot as this stereotypical hotdish-making kombucha-growing Minnesota woman. The entire cast works and plays well together with a great energy, showing no signs of the exhaustion one would think might set in when doing so many added shows.

I've never been to a hunting shack, but Katie Phillips' set design looks pretty authentic to me, in fact it looks quite appealing (minus the alleged smell, anyway). Walking into the theater you go through the entry way of a typical cabin (or Minnesota home), with various coats, jackets, snowsuits, and other warm weather gear. The stage is populated with an ugly couch with mismatched afghans, a wood-burning stove, and kitchen appliances that looks rustic and barely functional. And oh yes, there are the deer heads and mounted fish one would expect at a hunting establishment. Lori Schwartz's costumes are entirely appropriate to this world, from the citiots' puffy vests to the comfy nightwear to the warm but not so stylish outerwear.

Yellow Tree Theatre has done it again - created an original holiday show, written by someone* who obviously has familiarity with and affection for Minnesota, that delights and entertains its loyal audience. Their last play featured a couple of Ivey winners, and their next play stars a brilliant actor currently playing Scrooge at the Guthrie, but Yellow Tree hasn't forgotten who their audience is and what they want to see at the holidays. With A Hunting Shack Christmas, they've delivered a thoroughly enjoyable play worthy of its popularity.

Sasha Andreev and Daisy Macklin Skarning (photo by Keri Pickett)

*For more of Jessica's funny and folksy Minnesota writing, check out her blog
Unfamous Minnesota Girl.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"The Longest Night" at Open Eye Figure Theatre

There's one holiday that no one can escape at this time of the year, at least not those who live as far from the equator as we do here in Minnesota. And that is the solstice, the longest night of the year. It is a holiday that predates Christianity by millennia, a time when our ancient ancestors wondered if the sun would return from it's long sleep, and celebrated when it did. These solstice celebrations form the basis of modern holiday celebrations in many diverse cultures; they all begin with this simple fact of nature. Right now, here in Minnesota, we have less than nine hours of daylight, and it's decreasing every day. But soon, after December 21, that will turn around and the days will begin to lengthen to their summer height. What better reason to celebrate is there than that? The wonderfully talented local music-theater artist Bradley Greenwald has created a one-man show around this idea, and it's completely delightful. Accompanied by Sonja Thompson on the piano (and himself on the baritone), he regales the audience with songs, stories, and poems of the solstice, this winter season that we're right in the middle of. Part science lesson (complete with visual aids), part history, part mystical spirituality, The Longest Night is the loveliest of celebrations of the season.

Don't expect to hear the usual holiday songs, the ones repeated on endless repeat on radio stations and in the mall. I did not recognize more than a few songs, but they are all perfectly appropriate to the theme. From Carole King's "So Far Away" (the sun is so far away at this time of the year!), to "The Cold Song" from the opera King Arthur, to Dar Williams' "The Christians and the Pagans," to "Let the Sunshine In" from HAIR, along with the writing of Margaret Atwood, William Blake, and Ogden Nash, each selection is a celebration or a lament of this cold dark winter season.

Bradley has a gorgeous opera-trained voice and elevates every song he sings, and turns poetry and prose into music. He closes the show with a song by one of my favorite local musicians, Peter Mayer's "My Soul." Bradley turns this poignant and simple folk song into a glorious anthem that will send chills down your spine. It's always a thrill to listen to this "baritone with a baritone," never more so than in this hand-picked collection of songs and stories around a very relevant theme.

When you're doing a show about darkness and light, the lighting must be paid attention to. And it is here. From total darkness to soft candlelight to the bright light of the returning sun, Darren Hensel's lighting design highlights every point in the show. And Sean Healey's sound design allows Bradley to sing harmony with himself - if there's anything better than one Bradley Greenwald singing it's multiple Bradley Greenwalds singing!

Open Eye Figure Theatre is a lovely space but one with not a large audience, and the return of this popular show is almost sold out. But if you can beg, borrow, or steal to get yourself in that room, do so. It's a truly heart-warming experience that will help get you through the long, dark, cold nights to come. Like the cycle of the sun, we can let go of the past and begin again. (Playing through Monday, December 22 - a newly added show that has the best availability.)

Monday, December 15, 2014

"The Hothouse" by Dark and Stormy Productions at the Artspace Grain Belt Bottling House

I admit it - I don't get Pinter. Dark and Stormy's production of The Hothouse is the third play I've seen by English playwright Harold Pinter, and the third time I've left the theater (or in this case the bottling house) with a feeling of "what just happened?" Pinter plays are absurd, don't spell things out clearly, and are open to interpretation. But that's not a bad thing. In fact in this case it's a good thing. Dark and Stormy's production of this bizarre and funny little play is entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking. And like all of their work (this is just the 5th play they've done over the past few years), it's brilliantly cast with some of the Twin Cities' top talent, and presented in a unique nontraditional location.

The title refers to an institution where the play takes place. It's called a "rest home," in contrast to a "convalescent home," but the details of how patients come to be in the institution and what kind of treatment (or punishment) they receive is unclear. What we do know is that there's a clueless boss (an absolutely delightful Robert Dorfman, making the most of every moment), a seemingly sycophantic but secretly ambitious second-in-command (Mark Benninghofen), another employee who seems to be his rival for the boss' attention (Bill McCallum), a new and eager employee (John Catron), the lone woman on the staff who seems to be in a relationship with several of the men (Artistic Director Sara Marsh), and a lower level employee who walks around turning off lights and moving furniture (Bruce Bohne). The play takes place on Christmas Day, which is neither here nor there, but what is noteworthy is that one patient has recently died and another has given birth. The staff tries to get to the bottom of this, but seems to be more concerned with their own place in the institution. The newbie becomes the scapegoat, which makes me wonder if he's actually a patient and just thinks he's an employee.

the cast in rehearsal in the Grain Belt Bottling House
The location of this play is truly unique - a large open atrium in the Arthouse Grain Belt Bottling House. It very much feels like a cold institution - cement floor and gray walls, with doors around the perimeter on both levels. Sparse office furniture populates the set, with four rows of chairs on one side for the small audience. Sound escapes and echos in this sort of a space, so the solution Dark and Stormy came up with is mics on the actors and headphones for the audience. It's a very odd and cool way to experience theater, one completely new to me, with the sound right in your ears even though the actors may be whispering in a far corner of the space. This allows for subtlety in delivery that can be heard in full detail, while the echos in the larger space can still be heard through the headphones. It all makes for an innovative and fascinating theatrical experience (sound design by C. Andrew Mayer).

The Hothouse continues through January 4. Check it out for a truly unique experience of this bizarrely funny and inexplicable Pinter play.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"A Christmas Story" at the Ordway Center

St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is returning to its tradition of an original and (mostly) locally cast production during holidays, rather than the touring productions that often come through.  In fact, the last Ordway Original holiday production was 2011's Cinderella. This year's production of the new musical based on the cult holiday movie A Christmas Story is worth the wait. I am usually skeptical of movies turned into musicals, because often it doesn't work or it just simply isn't necessary. But I saw a preview of A Christmas Story (which officially opens on Friday and runs through December 28) last night and was pleasantly surprised; I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. In fact I loved pretty much every minute of it. The creators (book by Joseph Robinette, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) did a wonderful job of retaining the movie's unique tone of humor, silliness, and nostalgia while creating something new that stands on its own merits, whether you're a fan of the movie or not. And best of all, director James Rocco and his team have created a wonderful production that showcases some of the Twin Cities' finest talent, as well as giving a chance for talented local youngsters to play and shine on stage. The Ordway's A Christmas Story is a wonderful, fun, extravagant, poignant, top-notch production of a new musical based on a beloved classic.

In the musical, the familiar story of the 1983 movie is narrated by the author on whose writing the movie was based, Jean Shepherd (played with much warmth and humor by Gary Briggle). He takes us back to that time in his (or anyone's) youth when the most important thing is getting that gift you desperately want. In this case, young Ralphie wants a BB gun. Specifically, a Red Ryder carbine-action BB gun. His every moment revolves around convincing his parents, his teacher, Santa Claus, anyone, to give him this gun. His quest seems hopeless as he is constantly told, "You'll shoot your eye out!" But he perseveres, as we see several little vignettes of 1940s childhood play out - dealing with bullies, changing a flat tire with your dad, getting your mouth washed out with soap, Christmas shopping and visiting Santa at the mall, writing an essay for school, getting in a fight, daring a kid to lick a flag pole, a family dinner. All told with the seriousness of a child living through these seeming calamities, but with plenty of humor and nostalgia as the narrator (and we adults) know that those really were the good days. In the end, it's really a touching look at family, youth, and fading memories of days long gone.

Ralphie (Jake Goodman) and pals
This mostly local cast of over 40 adults, children, and dogs is a joy to watch. In fact there are so many familiar faces among the ensemble that I barely caught a glimpse of some of them. There is a huge amount of talent on that stage, much more than we're able to see in a mere two hours or so. The Ordway held an open casting call, from which many of the kids were cast, and they're all so stinkin' cute. Is there anything cuter than a bunch of kids in PJ's singing and dancing? Not that I've seen in a while. Our hero, Ralphie, is played by Jake Goodman, who is not a local kid but one who has tremendous talent - stage presence and a fantastic voice - and a bright future. His mother is played by Seattle's Billie Wildrick (last seen at the Ordway as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls), an embodiment of idealized 1940s motherhood, singing the show's most poignant song, "Just Like That." As Ralphie's "old man," local fave Dieter Bierbrauer is quite funny as this hapless dad and sings as gorgeously as always, even when singing about winning a "major award" that everyone else sees as a tacky leg lamp (yes, the leg makes an appearance and even gets its own song and dance number!). And I must mention the always hilarious Erin Schwab, stealing scenes as Ralphie's teacher Miss Shields who sings and dances in his fantasies.

The sets are really fun and fantastical, with an idyllic suburban house that splits in half to move in and out, complete with a bunk bed bedroom above and Santa on the roof. Other set highlights include the family's vintage car, and a huge slide for the mall Santa. It's all very Christmassy and very retro, right down to the gift tags surrounding the stage that look exactly like the ones we had as a kid. The period costumes are great and fun, especially when the kids get to dress up in zoot suits and flapper dresses (sets by J Branson, costumes by Lynda L. Salsbury).

The Ordway's A Christmas Story has everything you want in a Christmas musical - humor, nostalgia, warmth, singing and dancing children, dogs, catchy songs (that are still running through my head), big dance numbers, and plenty of the holiday spirit without being too schmaltzy. Bring your kids or your parents, your favorite aunt or your best friend, or go by yourself and revel in the awkwardness and wonder of youth, and those memories we hold especially dear at this time of the year. (More info here, or check out the discount deals on Goldstar here.)

the lovely and talented cast of A Christmas Story

Monday, December 1, 2014

"Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story" at the History Theatre

"That'll Be the Day." "Peggy Sue." "Oh, Boy." "Maybe Baby." These iconic songs by '50s rocker Buddy Holly are so much a part of our culture that everyone knows them, even those of us born long after his tragic death in a plane crash in 1959. Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story, a jukebox musical that uses Buddy Holly's music to tell his story, premiered in London in 1989 before crossing the pond to be seen on stages around the country. It's a fitting choice for the History Theatre, which brings varied and sometimes obscure pieces of Minnesota history to life on stage. What does Buddy Holly have to do with Minnesota? His doomed plane was on its way from Clear Lake, Iowa to Moorhead, Minnesota when it crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. This production, which premiered at the History Theatre a few years ago, is back this year with much of the original cast of actor/musicians and director Ron Peluso. It's a fun celebration of the all too short life and career of this pioneering rock-and-roller, enjoyed equally by those who remember first-hand his life and death, and those who only know the legend (although the audience skews much more towards the former).

The show follows Buddy's life from his early days in Lubbock, Texas, breaking out of the country-western genre and creating something entirely new, through a failed recording contract, his unprecedented string of hit songs, a whirlwind romance and marriage, and finally, to that fateful last concert in Clear Lake, Iowa. Along the way we hear many of his best hits, along with other songs of the era, including Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper's biggest hits, "La Bamba" and "Chantilly Lace," respectively. Despite the fun music, there's a slight sense of foreboding as the audience knows how the story ends, even as Buddy and friends move towards it unaware of their fate. But we're not down for long, a brief moment of silence with a single spotlight illuminating a frozen Buddy in his final concert, and we're back to the party, with several songs continuing through and after the curtain call to leave the audience in a good mood.

Nicholas Freeman as Buddy, and the ensemble
Nicholas Freeman returns as Buddy, and fully embodies the rocker's spirit, voice, and trademark glasses (even if he does look a little more like Stephen Colbert than Buddy Holly). His experience with and dedication to this show are evident, as he brings this long ago legend to life and makes him seem like a real person. He's supported by a large and talented ensemble, many of whom are current or former students at the McNally Smith College of Music, with which the History Theatre shares a building. The students dancing on stage before the show and in the aisles during some of the numbers bring an authentic youthful energy to the show. Buddy's drummer and bass player are played with great musicianship and personality by Zac Spicer and Ryan Janssen. Lynnea Monique Doublette and Munyaradzi Tirivep embody the spirit of the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem and rouse the crowd with "Shout!" The excellent ensemble includes Charles Fraser as several music industry people; Andrea San Miguel, charming as Buddy's sudden wife; Four Humors' Brant Miller as the Big Bopper et al.; Bryan Porter, making the most of several small roles; and Mariah Trimm, with a hilariously Midwestern version of The Star-Spangled Banner.

Refreshingly for a musical, the actors are not miked, but use retro style microphones for the big numbers. This also allows for a few lovely unplugged moments, including Buddy singing to his new wife. The stage is set up to look like a '50s stage, and the period costumes include poodle skirts, crinolines, and bow ties galore (sound by C. Andrew Mayer, set by Justin Hooper, and costumes by Lynn Farrington).

If you remember where you were on "the day the music died" and long to reminisce about the days before that loss of innocence, you'll want to catch this show before it closes on December 21 (or later, I hear it's going to be extended). If you only know of it from the song (or, for you other children of the '80s, the 1987 movie La Bamba about Ritchie Valens), this is a chance to learn a little bit more about the legend and imagine what it was like to be a bobby soxer. Either way - a good time was had by all.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"The Cocktail Hour" at the Guthrie Theater

If the Guthrie's annual production of A Christmas Carol is too schmaltzy and feel-good for you (a show I called the feel-goodiest of feel-good shows), then head across the hall to the McGuire Proscenium Theater. Playwright A.R. Gurney's "most personal" play The Cocktail Hour is perhaps a bit more like what most of our family gatherings are like. This look at the WASP culture of the Northeast and what happens when a son tries to break out of it is sharp, funny, poignant, and well-acted by the four-person cast.

Playwright John returns to his parents' upstate New York home to share with them his newest play. While his other plays may have included a reference or two to his family, this one is very closely based on his family life, and he wants his father's approval. Which of course, he doesn't get. Bradley and Ann live a perfectly distinguished and structured life. A lifestyle that, by the mid '70s, is fading thanks to "the war" and "your friend Roosevelt." Ann jokes that people think WASPs are all Republicans, superficial, and alcoholics - only the last one is true. Every evening before dinner the family gathers for cocktail hour, a chance to unwind, converse, and smooth things out ("we're never too busy for the cocktail hour"). John can't understand why his parents still cling to these old customs and ideals in the changing world. He uses his plays to work through his feelings about his parents and the fact that he's never felt love from his father, who dotes on youngest son Jigger (if you have a son named Jigger, you might be a WASP). His father doesn't want the family embarrassed by the play, which is also titled The Cocktail Hour, and his mother thinks he should put it in a book instead, because it's less public. Only daughter Nina arrives for cocktails and dinner, and is disappointed that she doesn't play a bigger role in play, expressing discontent with her seemingly perfect life of husband, home, and family.

This all leads to some heated and intense discussions over cocktails as dinner is delayed, some of which is quite hilarious to watch from the comfort of the theater seats. But they also dig into some very real and relatable issues, especially for families of this era. In addition, it's a bit of love letter (to use the title of one of Gurney's other plays, a running joke in the show) to the theater. Ann and Bradley lament the great plots of plays of old, while John feels cursed that the only thing he feels compelled to write is plays, a dying and archaic artform (insert audience chuckle). Theater is changing, as is the life Bradley has lived for over 70 years, and he makes sure everyone knows how unhappy he is with it (although he does have a good point that "no one likes a long play, they want to get it over with and go home to bed").

Bradley and Ann with son John (Peter Thomson,
Kandis Chappell, Rod Brogan, photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Director Maria Aitken (making her Guthrie debut) strikes just the right tone with her excellent four-person cast (an equal mix of Guthrie vets and newbies) - biting and funny with real moments of poignancy as the family digs deep into their issues. Peter Thomson and Kandis Chappell are just perfection in their roles as Bradley and Ann, both so comfortable with their characters and each other, creating real people that are somehow endearing despite their faults. As John, Rod Brogan plays the right mix of exasperation at his parents and hidden desire for their approval, and Charity Jones is the typical Daddy's girl who's less warm with her mother.

James Youmans has designed a beautiful set (with a few surprises), a meticulously arranged upper class living room that's clinging to the past and shows no sign of the '70s. Robert Morgan has attired Bradley and Ann in a perfectly WASPish wardrobe, featuring Bradley's neat bow-tie and Ann's elegantly draped cardigan, while their children are allowed more relaxed and modern apparel.

The Cocktail Hour is a perfect complement or antidote to A Christmas Carol, and shows the other side of family love - the real life side. Grab a cocktail and settle in for a funny and not too long play, with not much of a plot but plenty of character (playing now through January 4).

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go make myself a cocktail.