Sunday, March 1, 2015

"The Drawer Boy" at Theatre in the Round

The 1999 play The Drawer Boy by Canadian playwright Michael Healey is apparently one of the most produced plays in Canada and the US, but I had never heard of it. I admit I was confused by the title; is this about a boy who draws, or a boy who lives in a drawer? It's of course the former, but this boy is much more interesting than just being a drawer. He grows up to fight in WWII with his best friend, where a brain injury destroys his short-term memory. After returning home to rural Canada, the two men settle into their lives as bachelor farmers. Not much changes until an actor arrives to write a play about them, and it forces them to reexamine the story they've been living and telling for 30 years. This production by Theatre in the Round (now in their 63rd season, the oldest theater in Minneapolis) tells this story well and sweetly.

We meet lifelong friends Angus (he of the brain injury) and Morgan at the same time city slicker Miles does. It soon becomes obvious to Miles and the audience that Angus is... special. Although he remembers Morgan from the pre-war days, and after years of repetition and practice he knows how to do things like make sandwiches (lots of sandwiches) and drive a tractor, he can't remember new things or people. Miles has to reintroduce himself every day as he follows the farmers around with his notebook, gathering material for the play he's working on (interestingly based on a true event in Canadian theater in 1972 called The Farm Show). Morgan has a good time with the gullible actor, asking him to perform tasks like washing rocks and rotating the crops at 3 am. Every night Angus asks Morgan to tell him a story, the story of their life. Miles overhears this touching story of love, friendship, and loss, and puts it into the play. When Angus and Morgan go to the rehearsal and hear Miles' rendition of their story, Morgan is angered, but Angus is delighted. And more importantly, it triggers something in his injured brain and he begins to remember. It changes the delicate balance in Angus and Morgan's life, of which Morgan has always had control. But as painful as it is to hear, perhaps it's better for both of them to know and speak their true story.

Bob Malos, Keith Shelbourne, and Mike Swan
(photo by Richard Fleischman)
The three-person cast does a wonderful job of bringing this story to life, under the direction of Jamil Jude who makes great use of the in-the-round space. It really is an interesting and unique way to see theater; it provides a three-dimensional, 360-degree, more realistic view of the story. Keith Shelbourne is sweet and sympathetic as the addled Angus, and believably portrays his reawakening and longing for something more. Bob Malos is the epitome of the bachelor farmer (something we Minnesotans are also familiar with), a no-nonsense hard worker with little time for frivolities, but hiding a depth of feeling for his friend and deep pain at their shared past and the loss he carries for both of them. Mike Swan is also great as the eager actor who teaches the other two men a bit about storytelling.

The play is set in 1972, which you wouldn't know from the farmers' timeless uniform of Levis and plaid shirts, but the city kid actor displays a fun array of '70s fashion. The farm set fills up the in-the-round space, with short walls between the indoor kitchen and living room and the great outdoors, and open spaces hinting at doors and windows. The lighting nicely highlights the time of day, from nighttime star-watching to the morning sun glowing warmly through the imaginary windows (costumes by Amy B. Kaufman, set by Laura Tracy, lighting by Andrew C. Kedl). I also quite enjoyed the pre-show, intermission, and between-scenes soundtrack - a mix of '70s and acoustic folk and country.

Theatre in the Round's poignant production of The Drawer Boy continues through next weekend only.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Hir" at Mixed Blood Theatre

The English language is in need of a gender-neutral pronoun. Firstly to eliminate the awkward "he or she" and "his or her," but also to refer to people who don't identify with either, or in cases where gender really doesn't matter (which is most cases). I recall reading the suggestion "per" in a Marge Piercy novel years ago. The title of the new play Hir (pronounced here) is playwright Taylor Mac's suggestion for an alternative to her and him, with ze replacing he and she. But to say that Hir is about transgender and gender issues is to simplify it too much. In fact, it's difficult to put into words just what it's about, but I'll do my best. It's epic and brutal and funny and heart-breaking as it explores ideas of not just gender, but also class, domestic violence, the changing order of things, and the effects of war on soldiers and those left behind. It's one of those plays that will rip you open, lay your emotions bare, and perhaps leave you with a bit of a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. But this beautifully done, perfectly cast production at Mixed Blood Theatre, known for its challenging and rewarding work, is well worth it.

Hir is about a typical American family - mother, father, son, daughter. But as soon as the curtain opens on the cluttered and messy house, revealing barely-there dad Arnold (John Paul Gamoke) in clown make-up, loony mom Paige (Sally Wingert), daughter Max (Jay Eisenberg) who identifies as a boy, and son Isaac (Dustin Bronson) returning from three years at war serving in the Mortuary Affairs department, it's obvious this family is anything but typical. Dysfunctional doesn't even begin to cover it; this is a family steeped in violence, cruelty, and destruction. But they're still here, together, trying to make sense of the new order of things in the "starter home" they never left. Isaac returns from war to find things have changed greatly in the last three years - Arnold has had a stroke, Max is a he, or ze, and Paige has discovered a newfound freedom after being released from years of violence and oppression at the hand of her husband, and being inspired by her child's determination to move beyond confined gender roles. She has freed herself from all conventions of traditional society, even the conventions of folding laundry and putting dishes away in cupboards, because in her mind, it's all part of the oppressive life she left behind. Isaac is shocked and disturbed by this new non-order, and by the humiliating way his mother treats his stroke-addled father. He cleans up the house and tries to help his father remember who he is. Paige is incensed by the cleanliness and the "normative kitchen table in the kitchen," seeing it as a move back to Arnold's controlling way. She tells Isaac that because of the violence and cruelty of his pre-stroke life, he does not deserve compassion. But is that true? Doesn't everyone deserve compassion? Perhaps, but perhaps it's too much to ask for from the person he hurt most.

Isaac, Paige, Arnold, and Max (Dustin Bronson, Sally Wingert,
John Paul Gamoke, and Jay Eisenberg, photo by Rich Ryan)
Each one of these characters is flawed, courageous, and despicable at times, and at all times real. I found myself changing allegiances many times during the play; I'd empathize with someone in one moment, and intensely dislike them in the next. The person Arnold used to be, and his small movements back there, are truly horrifying, but he's also a lost, sick, damaged man. Max is an infuriatingly bratty teenager, yet hir determination to be who ze really is, despite the conventions of society, is truly inspirational. Isaac, like many returning vets, is forever affected by what he's experienced in the war, and more than anything wants to return to the home he knew, but when he starts to take the place of his father by controlling his mother and her house, it's unacceptable. Lastly, Paige is a fascinating, wacky, and compelling character. It's difficult to watch the way that she treats Arnold, but it's understandable considering their history. And it's obvious that she loves and supports her children, and has done the best for them in a difficult situation. Inspired by Max, she says some really lovely things about moving beyond a world of two distinct strictly defined genders to a world where we can all just be who we are.

These complex characters are brought to vivid life by this beautiful cast, all of whom give such raw, vulnerable, truthful, and at times painful performances. NYC director Niegel Smith brings out the best in each of them and somehow makes sense out of this mess of a family and home. And speaking of mess, kudos to Properties Designer Abbee Warmboe for filling Joseph Stanley's dingy house set with so much clutter in the form of clothes, garbage, dishes, and who knows what else, that I wanted to jump on stage and start cleaning it myself!

One other thing to note: I find it interesting that in a play named after a new pronoun, Isaac is often called I, the first person pronoun. I don't know what that means, but it can't be a coincidence, can it?

Mixed Blood Theatre never fails to challenge, inspire, entertain, and make you think. Hir is no exception. It's not an easy play to watch at times, but it's well worth the effort. If you like your theater risky, challenging, and thought-provoking, head to Mixed Blood between now and March 22. Take advantage of their Radical Hospitality program - just show up and get tickets for free if they're available - or reserve tickets in advance for $20 online or by phone.

Friday, February 27, 2015

"Pop Up Musical" at Plymouth Playhouse

Musical theater is just the best thing, isn't it? If you agree, head west to the Plymouth Playhouse for the latest incarnation of the delightfully irreverent tribute to the love of all things musical theater, aka Pop Up Musical. Four friends, who just happen to be super talented local music-theater artists, created this show for the Fringe Festival a few years ago. It was so successful that they've expanded it and continue to bring it to various venues in the area (including the Jerome Hill Theater, where I saw it in 2013). The talented cast sings 24 songs from 24 different musicals, 23 of which I've seen on stage. Wow, am I a nerd the target audience for this show! While belting out showtunes, the cast also shares fun bits of trivia in the VH1 Pop Up Video style, using signs and video projections. It's truly a must see for anyone for whom the great American musical theater cannon holds a special place in their heart (and their iTunes).

You may have seen these four performers on stages around town. Jennifer Eckes, Judi Gronseth, Kevin Werner Hohlstein, and Timm Holmly have known each other and worked together for years (we get to learn how they all met through the pop ups during the song "Friendship"). Video screens on either side of the stage display pop ups, as well as images of things related to the song (famous magicians and clowns during "Magic To Do" and "Send in the Clowns," a photo of an actual "Edelweiss"). The cast also holds up signs with pop ups, harkening back to the show's low budget Fringe origins, and these are perhaps the most fun. While someone is pouring their heart out in song, one of their cast members picks up a sign from the big stack on one of the four podiums, and parades it around the stage like Vanna White, facial expression telling all. Signs can also be props - the blue fans of "Sisters," animals for "Circle of Life," and Annie's hair (which gets multiple uses throughout the show).

The pop ups take three forms: fun and interesting trivia about the shows and songs themselves (when it opened, Tonys, stars, backstage gossip), tangential info about a word or idea in the song (we learn that Kleenex is a proprietary eponym during "Suddenly Seymour," and about the invention and cost of champagne during "Hey Big Spender"), and personal info about the cast (Judi was born the year that Sound of Music premiered, Kevin slept on the sidewalk to get tickets to RENT). We learn how many times the words "Tomorrow," "Popular," and "Tonight" are sung in the respective songs (16, 14, and 38!), and some common malapropisms for the opening line of "Circle of Life" ("ingonyama nengw' enamabala," or "penguin mama, penguin has a mama?").

Timm Holmly, Jennifer Eckes,
Judi Gronseth, and Kevin Werner Hohlstein
All of these shenanigans almost distract you from the fact that these four can really sing. They all have powerful, gorgeous voices, and perform with great enthusiasm and delightful camp. Songs come from such beloved and diverse musicals as Avenue Q and Fiddler on the Roof, Xanadu (featuring some impressive roller skating tricks by Kevin) and Les Miserables. The cast fights over who gets to sing one of the most beloved musical theater songs, "What I Did For Love" from A Chorus Line. Who wins? The audience, because they all end up singing it. Unfortunately they sing to a recorded karaoke-like track, but they acknowledge and poke a bit of fun at that. And they sound better than any karaoke singers I've ever heard! Still, I would love to see how the dynamic would change with a piano accompanist replacing the recorded track; it could lead to some fun interplay with a 5th person onstage, as well as greatly improving the quality of the music.

If you, like me, obsessively listen to musical theater cast recordings, define your life in terms of musical theater milestones, and constantly quote showtunes, this is a show for you. Because Jennifer, Judi, Kevin, and Timm love musical theater as much as you and I do. But unlike you and me (well, me anyway), they have the talent to sing and perform these songs and entertain an audience with their non-verbal written-on-signs banter. Pop Up Musical plays in the cozy theater in the basement of a Best Western for just three more weekends, don't miss it! See the Plymouth Playhouse website for more info, and visit Goldstar for discount ticket deals.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"In the Age of Paint and Bone" at nimbus theatre

nimbus theatre's newest original theatrical creation, In the Age of Paint and Bone, deals with the very oldest of recorded history. Tens of thousands of years ago, the earliest humans painted on the walls of caves, many of which have been rediscovered in the last century or two. Co-Artistic Director Liz Neerland directs and wrote this piece, along with the ensemble in their unique workshop process. It's a fascinating subject, and one of those plays that makes me want to know more (fortunately the playbill includes a reading list, gotta love that!). I've long been fascinated by the pre-historical era, and used to be a bit obsessed with the Earth's Children series (aka The Clan of the Cave Bear books), which are part cheesy romance novel and part historically accurate description of a time long past. In the Age of Paint and Bone brings this era to life, but subtly and not in sharp focus, as we don't really know what these pre-historic people were like. The play also looks at the people who first rediscovered the paintings, and what they mean to us today.

In the Age of Paint and Bone takes place in three time periods, the present, the ancient past, and the recent past when the caves were rediscovered. The nimbus stage has been transformed into a cave, with paintings either drawn on the wall or projected. Before the show the audience is invited to explore the area, while actors, in the form of museum tour guides, answer questions. The play begins as a presentation in a museum, and we flash back to the discovery of the cave paintings in Altamira, Spain in 1879. An amateur explorer and his daughter find the paintings, but his belief that the paintings are ancient are disbelieved, until he's finally proven right after his death. We also witness the accidental discovery of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France in 1940 by a couple of teenage boys. But the most fascinating scenes of the play are the flash-way-backs to the people who created this art. The light is dim, music is playing, and we never hear them speak (perhaps they didn't speak in the way we currently do). But we see them painting (including a cool trick of projection that shows the lines of one of the drawings appearing as the artist moves his brush), performing rituals, and communicating with each other.

a painting of a bison in Altamira
The seven members of the ensemble (Timothy Daly, Erin Denman, Jeffery Goodson, Shira Levenson, Derek Meyer, Brian O'Neal, and Alyssa Perau) play multiple characters in all time periods, and change in and out of the varied costumes so quickly it feels like there are more than just seven actors. Brian Hesser's multi-level cave-like set, Mary C. Woll's ancient, period, and modern costumes, and Caitlin Hammel's inventive video design all combine to define these specific worlds.

This piece doesn't answer any questions about why the paintings were created (probably for the same reason anyone creates art, which are many and varied), but rather it plants a seed of interest in the audience, or at least it did in me. What a different life our long ago ancestors lived, but maybe they're not that different from us than we think. Minnesota has its own version of cave paintings in the Jeffers Petroglyphs, which are carvings rather than paintings, that I hope to visit someday. What fun this piece must have been to explore and create. I wish I could take a leave of absence from my day job to re-read the Clan of the Cave Bear books and some of those suggested in the playbill. But if you don't have time for that either, you can spend 70 minutes in nimbus theatre's exploration of the Age of Paint and Bone (playing now through March 1).

a progression of light in the three time periods
(photo by Mathieu Lindquist)

"Duets" by Alive & Kickin' at the Varsity Theater

Alive & Kickin' is billed as "the Twin Cities' premiere rockin' senior ensemble group." I'm not sure there's a whole lot of competition in that category, but the women and men of Alive & Kickin' are most definitely awesome. For the past five years, Michael Matthew Ferrell (Theater Latte Da's resident choreographer) has led this talented group of singers ranging in age from 60s to 90s, with music direction by Jason Hansen. With talent like that behind them, this group is no joke. They sing a variety of classic rock and pop songs, or as this musical theater geek likes to call them, Glee songs. In fact, Michael Matthew Ferrell is a little like the Mr. Schuester of senior citizens. I imagine them gathered in their choir room every week, learning a life lesson through the music of Queen or Katie Perry or Lady Gaga. Except in this case, it's the seniors who are the teachers with their years of life experience. One of Alive & Kickin's goals is to give voice to senior citizens, an important but often ignored segment of our society. This week they performed at the Varsity Theater with some of the Twin Cities' top talent from the world of music and theater, sponsored and emceed by myTalk 107.1, to raise money for a permanent choir room, er... rehearsal space.

Highlights of the show include:
  • The rock songs like "Stayin' Alive" and "I Love Rock and Roll" are fun, but the quieter "Blowin' in the Wind" really showcased the talent of these singers, joined in beautiful harmony. The epic song "Bohemian Rhapsody" was also a treat!
  • In addition to singing, two of the senior shared their inspirational stories that remind us just how much we still have to learn from our elders, including one man's experiences in Vietnam in 1969, and a woman growing up in the segregated South.
  • It's a near impossible task to upstage the hilarious powerhouse Erin Schwab, but 90-year-old Katherine did just that in their duet of "Rehab." Later, Erin took the stage alone in a very funny "dirty song" about a dentist.
  • Damn that Ben Bakken can sing! I almost forget, until I see him again, what a powerful rock voice he has, in this case on the Glee songs "Dream On" and "Somebody to Love." I wonder if he's ever played Roger in RENT? I bet his "One Song Glory" is quite something.
  • A couple of music/theater crossovers in Lisa Pallen (of Belladiva) and Michelle Carter wowed with such songs as "I Wanna Know What Love Is" and "A Change is Gonna Come."
  • Two greats from the local music scene, neither of which I've seen live before but both of whom I've heard of, loaned their considerable music talent to the event. Brian Leighton (aka GB Leighton) is kind of like Minnesota's Springsteen, singing an original song and a cover of "Lean on Me" with the ensemble. Allison Scott has a gorgeously soulful and sultry voice, singing "Waterfalls" and "Piece of My Heart," back by the Alive & Kickin' women.
  • The band, led by Jason Hansen, is pretty awesome too. Sax, electric guitar, tambourine, so much enthusiasm and great support of the singers!
  • A big part of the fun of watching Alive & Kickin' is Michael Matthew Ferrell's unique direction style. Part interpretive dance, part cheerleader, part expressive conductor, and all energy. It's obvious he cares a lot about his seniors and making them look and sound the best they can.
If you're interested in supporting this wonderful ensemble, visit their website for more info. You can also find details about their next performance, Winds of Change at Bloomington Civic Theatre this June.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"The Woman in Black" at Yellow Tree Theatre

The Woman in Black, a two-person play that's another perfect choice for Yellow Tree Theatre's intimate space, is a story-within-a-story. It takes a minute to figure out what's going on and really get into it, but once you do, it doesn't let you go. The story that's being told is a spooky ghost story, beautifully told through the structure of the play, the two marvelous actors, and the extremely effective lighting and sound effects. It's a deliciously chilling experience that had me squirming in my seat!

The play begins when Nathaniel Fuller, one of the aforementioned marvelous actors, both of whom have been acting on stages around town for decades, enters the crowded dusty stage that looks like a cluttered attic, full of old furniture, crates, and boxes. He sits there in awkward silence for several minutes while the audience waits for the action to start. It was in this moment of silence that J.C. Cutler popped up behind me and spoke the first words of the play, scaring the bejeebers out of me (a feeling that was only just beginning). It soon became clear that Nathaniel is playing a man called Arthur Kipps who has decided to work through a traumatic event in his past by writing it down as a play. J.C. is the actor who helps him tell his story. Eventually we get to the meat of the story, with the actor portraying Kipps as he journeys to a remote part of England to close the estate of a recently deceased client. Kipps himself plays all of the other roles in the story, and as the play-within-a-play goes on he gets more and more comfortable in the telling. The two occasionally break out of character to discuss things, or if Kipps is too upset with the subject matter, hinting at the terror to come. It's a clever way to tell the story, on the one hand the characters are sort of outside of it, but on the other hand they're totally immersed in it.

Nathaniel Fuller (photo by Keri Pickett)
And the story they're telling is a spooky one. I won't go into details because the unfolding of it all is too much fun. But suffice it to say it involves an unwed mother, a remote location, a horrible accident, thick mist, and a not very nice ghost. All of it is told in such vivid detail that you can almost see the deserted old house on the island. The lighting and sound design are crucial to the telling of the story. The play goes from full lights to complete blackness, and everything in between, with lights occasionally illuminating areas behind curtains onstage, including a cemetery and a child's bedroom, or flashing to reveal the woman in black herself appearing as if out of nowhere. Sounds seem to come from all directions, whether it's the sound of a horse trotting, or the house creaking, or a woman screaming. Suddenly you're on high alert, starting at every sound in the theater, even if it's just someone rustling in the seat next to you. Add to this two actors who can so easily slip into the skin (and specific accent) of these characters and take you along on their journey, and a director (Jon Cranney) who knows how to put all the pieces together, and you have a thoroughly chilling effect (lighting design by Sue Ellen Berger, sound design by Montana Johnson, and set design by Robin McIntyre).

J.C. Cutler (photo by Keri Pickett)
The Woman in Black is a fine example of the power of storytelling to transport you to another place and time. And scare the crap out of you. I haven't been this scared at the theater since this other spooky ghost story a few years ago. It's kind of fun to be terrified in that good old-fashioned ghost story kind of way, as opposed to the real and scary things in the world today. Head to Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo for some spooky storytelling at it's finest (playing now through March 8).

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Pippin" at the Orpheum Theatre

The revival of the 1972 Stephen Schwartz/Bob Fosse musical Pippin ran on Broadway for almost two years, closing just a month ago, and won four Tonys and had audiences and critics raving. I saw it last spring and fell in love with the score and the spectacular circus energy of the revival. The circus has since hit the road and I was thrilled to have the chance to see it again, as it stops in Minneapolis for one short week. There's nothing small or subtle about Pippin, it's truly spectacular in the best possible way. Many different artforms are combined - circus, Fosse-style dance, a great score, even a sing-along! And the result is a fantastically creative and entertainingly unique evening of entertainment.

Pippin is very very loosely based on the historical figures Charlemagne, a King in the Middle Ages, and his first-born son Pepin, a "hunchback" who was passed over for his father's thrown. But in this version, Pippin is a lost young man who's dissatisfied with life and searching for something to make his life meaningful. He tries war, the pleasures of the flesh, and an ordinary life, flitting from one thing to the other, but still feeling empty and unfulfilled. In the original production, the story was told through a performance troupe, but in this version it's a circus, complete with contortionists, trapeze, balancing acts, and acrobatics. It's hugely fun and light-hearted, like a musical/comedy/circus version of Game of Thrones with a touch of Monty Python's Spamalot, where dead men talk and come back to life, and battles are a beautiful dance. But the ending takes a dark turn, and we find out that this circus isn't all fun and games; Pippin was being manipulated into playing a part that was already laid out for him. He rejects this role along with the bright lights and magic of the circus life and instead turns to a simpler life defined by him. But there's always someone else waiting to fill the role, and the circus continues without Pippin. I'm not certain if this is an allegory for the allure of show business, or perhaps more generally, the roles that are laid out for us by society that we're expected to play, but that sometimes need to be rejected to find something that's more individually fulfilling.

Sorry for getting serious for a moment there, for the most part Pippin is just a whole lot of fun. The large ensemble cast is a mixture of singers, actors, dancers, gymnasts, and circus professionals, most of whom are some combination thereof. The stage looks like the inside of the Big Top, with poles and ladders that the performers constantly climb on and jump off of in thrilling feats of daring. Magic tricks, fires, trapeze, hoop-jumping, knife-throwing, amazing one-handed handstands, and so much more delight the audience. Revival choreographer Chet Walker has choreographed some brilliantly cool Fosse numbers to the fun and poppy '70s score.

The role of the Leading Player, a sort of ringmaster, is the only role that has earned a Tony for a man (Ben Vereen in the original) and a woman (Patina Miller in the revival). Those are some big shoes, or rather, knee high black boots, to step into, and Sasha Allen does so brilliantly. She owns the stage, as this character must as she directs the plot and manipulates the players to do her bidding. She also has a big gorgeous voice and looks cool doing the Fosse dances. As the title character, Sam Lips is charmingly awkward, sweetly confused, and extremely likable. A couple of Broadway vets shine in supporting roles, including the original Pippin, John Rubenstein, who 40 years later is playing the role of Pippin's father. He obviously has such a level of comfort with the show, and has so much fun with the role. Priscilla Lopez was also seen on Broadway 40 years ago, in the original cast of a little show called A Chorus Line. In what has got to be a dream role for a woman of a certain age, she gets to hang upside down on a trapeze and lead the audience in a sing-along as Pippin's grandmother, and she looks and sounds fabulous while doing so. Also great are Sabrina Harper as Pippin's step-mother, a not so typical housewife (unless you consider Cersei Lannister and Norma Bates typical housewives), and Callan Bergmann as Pippin's spoiled and favored half-brother. Last but not least, the cast features a Minnesota native in Kristine Reese, who is delightfully loopy as the woman who eventually steals Pippin's heart.

The first national tour of the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Pippin plays at Minneapolis' Orpheum Theatre through this weekend only, so get your tickets now if you don't want this circus to pass you by.