Monday, May 25, 2015

"The Language Archive" at Park Square Theatre

The language of Esperanto is a universal language that was invented in the late 19th Century as a way to heal the divides that speaking different languages can cause. A beautiful idea, isn't it? In a nutshell, this is what Julia Cho's lovely play The Language Archive is all about. It's about the different languages that we all speak, not just the actual language, but also the more intimate informal languages that we develop in relationships with the different people in our lives. Even though the characters in the play all speak English, they struggle to communicate with each other on a deeper level, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, as we all do. This play had me laughing through my tears as I contemplated life and relationships. Friends, it doesn't get much better than that.

George is a linguist who is obsessed with studying and recording endangered languages. Ironically, he is unable to communicate with his wife, Mary, who is unhappy and decides to leave him. So George goes to his work, at a place called The Language Archive, where he records rare languages before they disappear. Along with his assistant Emma (who is, of course, in love with him), his current task is to record the (fictional) language of Ellowa as spoken by a couple that he has flown in from a remote village somewhere in the world. But on this particular day, the couple is fighting and doesn't want to speak their precious language in anger. George struggles with how to accomplish this task while his world is falling apart, Emma struggles with how to tell George how she feels, and Mary struggles with finding a happier life. Watching them do so is a bittersweet joy.

Mary and George (Sara Ochs and Kurt Kwan,
photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)
Rick Shiomi, recently retired founder and Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts, directs this wonderful seven-person cast. As the wounded linguist, Kurt Kwan gives a sensitive, heart-breaking, funny, and very real performance. Sara Ochs is sympathetic as the wife who doesn't quite understand him and wants something of her own. Emily A. Grodzik plays the eager young assistant (like a Season 1 Peggy Olson) with a simple open spirit hiding deeper feelings. Claudia Wilkens and Richard Ooms are perfection as the Ellowa speakers, extremely believable as the bickering yet loving couple (perhaps because they are married in real life). Rounding out the cast are Melanie Wehrmacher and Robert Gardner, bringing depth and interest to several smaller roles.

Joseph Stanley's remarkable set fills the stage with huge shelves upon which books, typewriters, files, tapes, and other objects associated with words are stacked. Words in many different languages adorn the walls, and the center section rotates to reveal the recording room. Shrouded stage hands quietly move set pieces on and off stage during scene transitions, which are many but fluidly handled.

The Language Archive is one of those rare plays that satisfies on so many levels. It's smartly written, funny, a bit fantastical but very grounded in reality, superbly acted, features a huge and fascinating set, and most importantly, touches the heart as well as the mind and the funny bone. I'm catching this one near the end of its run, but if you can make it to one of the four remaining performances on Park Square Theatre's main stage, it will be well worth your time and effort.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Utopiacopia" by Frosty Bob and J's Summer Camp at Bryant Lake Bowl

Grab your boarding pass and your carry-on luggage and prepare to board the aircraft. But don't worry, our destination isn't somewhere boring like San Francisco or San Antonia, it's a newly discovered planet called Utopiacopia. A land over the rainbow, just to the right of space, where there isn't any trouble, the energy comes from Red Bull, and the only three animals are tabby cats, short-haired cats, and snuggly cats (sounds like my kind of place!). But the most super special thing about Utopiacopia is... well, you'll just have to go see the show to find out. Because sadly, Utopiacopia isn't a real place, but happily it is a super fun, sweet, and entertaining show by Frosty Bob and J's Summer Camp, aka Robert Frost and Justin Caron. The last show is tonight at Bryant Lake Bowl, so make plans quickly if you don't want to miss this fun flight. And keep an eye on their Facebook page for future journeys to Utopiacopia and elsewhere.

Justin Caron as Marcy (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Our host for this journey is intrepid flight attendant Marcy, played by Justin Caron (who also wrote the show) in full drag, red cat eye glasses, a beehive hairdo, and heels. She's at times enthusiastic, annoyed, excited, and exasperated as she leads us on this journey. As flight attendants do, she instructs us to buckle our seat belts, makes sure we've had enough to eat, relays messages from the pilot who calls her on the yellow corded phone, and encourages us to order from SkyMall. And of course, hands out the oxygen preservers, which will come in handy. At times she leaves us passengers by ourselves, which is coincidentally when a certain blue gingham attired young woman from Kansas mistakenly comes aboard with her stuffed white tiger dog Toto. Marcy spends a good deal of energy chasing this "intruder," and eventually catches her to hilarious effect. But do we eventually reach our destination? I won't spoil the ending, but perhaps our destination isn't some faraway planet, but something a little more close to home.

As Marcy and Dorothy, Justin is completely charming and disarming. And when the two characters meet in one body, it's something quite ridiculous (in a good way). There is quite a bit of audience participation and the house lights remain on throughout most of the show. As a Minnesotan, this sort of thing typically makes me uncomfortable, but it's done in a fun and non-threatening way. And it turns out one of the best parts of the show is watching Justin play with the audience, and vice versa. There were several kids in the audience the night I attended, and they seemed to be having as much fun as anyone with the playful nature of the show. But there are also some surprisingly poignant moments, like when Dorothy tells a story about a childhood ride on the freeway in a convertible jeep. And while I might not be a fan of audience participation in general, I am a fan of a sing-along, and this show includes a very sweet one.

The show (directed by the other half of Frosty Bob and J, Robert Frost) makes great use of the space at BLB. Before the show the stage is bare and the windows are open. We first see Marcy dragging a red trunk down Lake Street. Once inside she's in the audience as much as she's on the stage, running up and down the stairs and in and out various doors.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect of this show before I saw it, but I found it to be funny and silly and sweet. As usual at BLB, full bar and food service is available throughout the show, which is about 70 minutes long, so you can make a night of it (and even bring the kids). And a fun and entertaining night it is.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

"The Half Life" by Live Action Set at the Southern Theater

Have you heard of the new ARTshare program at the Southern Theater? For just $18 per month, you can see as many shows as you want (and are able to) by their almost 20 resident companies. It's like all-you-can-eat for theater! It's a great deal and a great way to experience much diverse art while providing consistent support to the Southern and their artists. One of their resident companies is Live Action Set, which just closed the deliciously creepy immersive experience Crime and Punishment. Going into this show, I had no idea what to expect, except that Live Action Set always provides an experience that's a bit weird and a bit wonderful. The Half Life is most certainly a bit weird (about an hour of mostly silent movement), and very wonderful.

In the post show discussion that follows every performance, creator/directors Noah Bremer and Joanna Harmon talked about the head vs. the heart, the push and pull of life, thinking vs. feeling. You may or may not get that from the performance; you may see and feel something entirely different. That's the beauty of this piece, and of art in general.

The show begins with a single performer slowly descending the stairs and walking across the empty stage of the gorgeous Southern Theater to place clothes on a pile at the back of the stage, and then take a place on the floor in an interesting position. Then another performer does the same, then another, then another, until the floor of the theater is filled with bodies (I'm an audience member who typically likes to sit close, but in this case being a bit further up might be an advantage). This sea of bodies begins to move, slowly and subtly at first, then more and more forcefully until the theater is alive with a cacophony of movement. It almost made me dizzy to watch it, each individual moving differently but somehow combining to form a whole, some kind of being.

The show continues for about an hour, with different groups of people performing different movements in different formations, at times being pulled back to the wall, at times struggling forward. Sometimes a movement is in one body part only, sometimes the whole body is consumed in herky-jerky movement, all accompanied by haunting original music by Linnea Mohn. It's quite fascinating to watch the many different ways the same idea resides in different bodies.

It's sometimes hard for me to turn off my brain, especially knowing I need to put words on paper the screen to somehow describe this. But that's the best way to experience this piece; try not to think about what it means or what they're trying to say, but just let go and see what it makes you feel. It's a truly beautiful and moving experience, one of those shows that's so engrossing that when it's over and the lights come up, it's a bit jarring facing harsh reality again.

Three more performances remain of The Half Life, and check out what else is on the ARTshare schedule.

"War with the Newts" by Sandbox Theatre at Park Square Theatre

When I was a kid, my sister and I would occasionally find a salamander in our backyard sandbox. They freaked me out, so gross and slimy and unexpected (we also sometimes found petrified cat poo, but that was decidedly less disturbing). To this day the thought of salamanders makes my skin crawl. But fortunately, the salamanders in Sandbox Theatre's War with the Newts are much less unpleasant, although the story they tell is still quite disturbing, albeit for different reasons. Based on the 1936 Czech novel of the same name, War with the Newts is a remount of Sandbox's successful 2007 production, and the first of Park Square Theatre's partnership with three smaller local theater companies* in their new theater in the basement of the Historic Hamm Building. It tells of a post-apocalyptic world in which a large and intelligent breed of newts (a kind of salamander) is discovered and abused by people (as sadly we're wont to do to "lesser creatures"), and then revolts to take over the world. Which as you can imagine has all kinds of allegories to the modern world. This fascinating story is brought to life in an incredibly inventive and unique way, with the ensemble beautifully personifying these strangely alien yet familiar creatures.

Before the show even starts, seven actors in newt costumes are creeping around the stage in a newt-like way, making what I assume are newt-like noises with their mouths, bodies, and little silver balls on their thumbs. At first it's difficult to tell the actors apart in their identical black catsuits with the gold tarnish, but soon you can detect slight differences in the face paint and body movement so that each newt takes on a somewhat distinct personality. Often speaking in unison, they begin to tell the story of the War, so that this history is not lost. The newts strive to be better than the humans that they defeated, declaring "newts should not kill newt!"

The newts don costumes as they tell the story, which begins with a sea captain who discovers them and puts them to work harvesting pearls from the deep. The humans teach the newts to work, keep them as pets, study them in zoos, eat them, all of the things that humans like to do to animals (or people who are seen as "other"). But in this case, the newts fight back after they're taught to be soldiers. And who can blame them? Human greed can only go so far before nature revolts.

The entire cast (which includes Derek Lee Miller, Evelyn Digirolamo, Gregory Parks, Heather Stone, Kristina Fjellman, Megan Campbell Lagas, and Wade A. Vaughn) is incredibly committed to the concept, remaining newts even through curtain call. It's pretty remarkable the way they crawl, crouch, swim, and creep around the stage, all while telling this very relevant and modern story. As they don a wig or mask to portray a human character, their spine straightens and somehow they're human again. They're aided in this transformation by costume designers Kathy Kohl and Mandi Johnson, who have created not just the newts' looks but also simple and clever accessories that help create the human characters (and one not so simple huge flouncy dress). The bleached wood set pieces simply set the scene and are used creatively throughout the show (designed by Derek Lee Miller). The cast takes turns creating music and sound effects on various percussive elements in a corner of the stage, which enriches the tone of the show. Video and sound distortion are also employed to create specific effects.

I'm so glad Sandbox Theatre (a company I only "discovered" last summer at the Fringe) is revisiting War with the Newts as they celebrate their 10th anniversary. It's a fascinating and unique creation, and really pushes the boundaries of what theater can do and be. And kudos to Park Square for providing a space for this kind of inventive theater to be seen, perhaps in front of audiences that wouldn't normally see it. Playing now through May 30, check it out for something a little different. Trust me, these are the kind of salamanders that you want to discover in your Sandbox.

*The other two productions in Park Square's partnership this summer are Theatre Pro Rata's The Illusion and Girl Friday Production's The Matchmaker. You can buy individual tickets to each show, or save money on a three-show package.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Hamlet" by Theatre Unbound at the JSB Tek Box at the Cowles Center

Shakespeare's not known for writing a lot of women's roles. Part of this is no doubt a practical choice - in Shakespeare's day women were not allowed to be actors so all of the roles were played by men. Theatre Unbound turns this idea on its head by casting women to play all the roles. They won an Ivey a few years ago for their all-female production of Julius Caesar, and since then I've been itching to see their work. For whatever reason, I haven't, until now. They are closing their 15th season with an all-female production of Hamlet, one of Shakespeare's most well-known plays, and perhaps one with the fewest roles for women (two). A talented ensemble of eight women play all of the roles in this epic and beloved play, bringing a new dynamic to the story while allowing the humor and tragedy of the original to take center stage.

This is an inventive ensemble-driven production of a familiar play. Director Leah Adcock-Starr efficiently moves her cast around the empty white space as they play multiple roles, sometimes in the same scene. Actors are rarely offstage; instead sitting in white chairs right in front of the audience when not participating in the action. Zoa Green provides a lovely and appropriate soundtrack to the story, making a full range of sounds with just a couple of guitars, sometimes played like a cello or a drum. Costume designer Lisa Conley has dressed the cast in soft layers of white and gray, with characters differentiated by a hat or jacket. The ghost of the dead king is represented in a beautifully creepy ghost-like way. Ensemble member Laura Mahler introduces each scene and reads stage directions in an expressive tone that matches the scene, which is an interesting choice (and a helpful one to keep all the characters straight). This, along with the actors' pre-show onstage warm-up, gives the show a more informal feel, almost as if we're watching a rehearsal (although a polished one).

Laura Mahler and Kathryn Fumie
No pronouns were changed to reflect the fact that the stage is populated with women, but at some point gender ceases to matter as you get caught up in the story of these complicated and damaged people. Hamlet's devastating grief and playful madness are brought to life with great energy by Kathryn Fumie. Bethany Ford Brinkley gives an emotional performance as poor mad Ophelia, and then becomes Rosencrantz (or is it Gildenstern?) with a slight wardrobe adjustment and a completely different way of being in her body. Muriel J. Bonertz is appropriately dark and devious as the fratricidal king, Gretchen Emo is the gullible queen, Kathleen Hardy offers some light moments as Ophelia's father, and Nicole Joy Frethern is her supportive and loving brother. And then some - part of the fun of this show is watching these women transform into multiple characters, most of whom happen to be men.

Theatre Unbound's Hamlet is a fresh take on one of the most well-known plays in all of theater. And not just because of the all-female cast, but also because of the small size of the cast and the playful, innovative, ensemble-driven style of the show (continuing through May 31, with discount tickets available on Goldstar)

Monday, May 11, 2015

"One Arm" by New Epic Theater at the Lab Theater

Thanks to playwright Moisés Kaufman (see also The Laramie Project), an unproduced screenplay written by one of my favorite playwrights, Tennessee Williams, was saved from oblivion and can now be seen on the stage. Williams published One Arm as a short story in 1942 and attempted a screenplay in 1967 that never went anywhere. Kaufman recently adapted it into a one-act play, and thanks to the new theater company New Epic Theater, Twin Cities theater-goers can now see this beautifully tragic piece of Tennessee Williams writing in a gorgeous production at the Lab Theater. A remount of one of my favorite Fringe shows last year, One Arm tells the story of a boxer who lost his arm, his identity, and his self-respect in an accident, and spent the rest of his short life trying to get it back. There are three levels of greatness going on in this show: Tennessee Williams' poignant and moving story, Moisés Kaufman's clever adaptation, and New Epic's inventive and thoughtful interpretation. All of it comes together for a completely engaging and engrossing 90 minutes of theater.

The man with the titular one arm is Ollie Olsen, a boxer who loses his arm in an accident that kills two of his friends. No longer able to box, he stumbles into hustling (a quaint and old-fashioned word for prostitution) as a way to survive. He finds that he's good at it, and travels around the country making an impression on many men, and a few women. But he's become dead inside, unable to feel anything for anyone, until he ends up in prison and is faced with the end of his life and the memories of past encounters. The story is told within the framework of a screenplay; a narrator begins the story carrying a script in his hands, and he and other characters read stage directions such as "exterior night," or "camera pans." It's almost as if you're watching a movie, or a movie acted out on stage, which adds another level of interest and originality to the storytelling.

Torsten Johnson and James Kunz (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
The tight six-person ensemble (only two of whom return from last year's production), fluidly and seamlessly tell the story that jumps around in time and place. Taking over the role of Ollie is Torsten Johnson in an incredibly physical performance, saying as much with the way he writhes on the floor or climbs over the furniture as he does with his sparse words. It's an apt interpretation of a character who's defined by his physicality - his prowess in the boxing ring, his "mutilation," his job as a hustler.

Most of the story is told through a series of perfect two-person scenes with Ollie and the people he meets, all of whom are portrayed by the five other cast members. H. Adam Harris is the narrator, bringing to life Williams' (and/or Kaufman's) elegantly descriptive words, and also plays a man who is perhaps Ollie's only true friend. The other four actors sit in chairs behind the stage with their various props and wardrobe pieces around them, watching the scene until they're called to join in the action. The two returning cast members are the radiant Aeysha Kinnunen playing all of the Tennessee Williamsesque women, and Adam Qualls in several diverse performances including the callous prison guard and a nervous divinity student who wants to help but isn't quite sure why or how. Craig Johnson makes an impression (as always) as a wealthy and lonely john, a sleazy porn producer, and the crazy landlady. Rounding out the cast is James Kunz, who also choreographed the movement. There is no "choreography" as you typically think of it, but the way the actors move around the space is really quite beautiful and expressive.

Craig Johnson and Torsten Johnson (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Director and scenographer Joseph Stodola makes great use of the space at the Lab Theater, an even more appropriate setting that the Southern Theater was last year at the Fringe. The raised square stage has seating on three sides, giving the feeling of watching a boxing match, especially when two characters are in the box sparring verbally or physically. Some of the action also takes place outside of this box, near the chairs at the back of the stage, with the narrator wandering in and out through the audience. The stage is empty except for a metal frame bed, one chair, and a cart with an old projector on it, hinting at the screenplay nature of the original work. It all speaks to a thoughtful attention to detail that elevates the work.

It's worth noting that when I attended the show last Saturday night, I was one of the oldest people in the audience. This is a rare occurrence; at 41 I'm often one of the youngest people in the audience (nothing makes me feel younger than a Sunday matinee at BCT!). Perhaps it was the 9 pm start time - we older people have a hard time leaving the house after 8, and if I wasn't already out at a birthday party I probably wouldn't have made it either. Whatever the reason, kudos to New Epic Theater for drawing in a younger audience. But they deserve to be drawing in a larger audience than the one I was part of. I know they're a new company in a community rife with theater companies young and old, but trust me when I say that this one is worth your time. The director, cast, and creative team have created a gorgeous piece of theater based on the work of two fine playwrights. I hope that they're not a one-hit wonder and will continue to produce thoughtful, relevant, inventive, gorgeous work like One Arm. Performances continue tonight through this weekend only, so you have six more chances to see it (a few 9 pm performances but also some 7:30 shows for those with an earlier bedtime).

Saturday, May 9, 2015

"Forget Me Not When Far Away" by Ten Thousand Things at Minnesota Opera Center

The village of Farmingtown has been devoid of men for so long that when one returns from the far away and long-lasting war, the first woman he meets rushes up to him and inhales him deeply. This hilarious and oddly touching moment at the beginning of Kira Obolensky's new play Forget Me Not When Far Away sets the tone for this playful and poignant fairy tale about a soldier returning to a home he once knew. Ten Thousand Things has been on the road with the show for a few weeks, performing at correctional facilities, community centers, and other unlikely venues. As director Michelle Hensley said in her introduction of the show (which has come to be one of my favorite parts of a TTT production), the fact that this play has resonated with such diverse audiences in different ways is a credit to the skills of the playwright, who has created a world outside of time and space that somehow feels familiar and relatable to everyone. This world is brought to life in the beautifully sparse way that only Ten Thousand Things can do, with a brilliant cast of six performing in a fully lit room in a space so small that they literally trip over the audience. The fanciful story is grounded in truth and made to feel very real by the universality of the story, the charming accessibility of the language, the up-close-and-personal performances by the actors in whom you can feel every nuance of every emotion through a look in the eyes, the twinge of a facial muscle, or a subtle movement of the body. Ten Thousand Things harnesses the magic of theater in its most basic form like no other company can.*

Farmingtown is a quaint village in which news is passed by the town crier, the main employment is farming and working in the morgue, and the men all go off to war while the women stay home. The women have adjusted well to this man-free life, taking charge of all systems and businesses in town. They're in for a shock when one John Ploughman returns from war, discharged due to an injury. The more than 20 women depicted in the play (portrayed by just five actors) all react to him in a different way, from the aforementioned inhaling, to surprise, to skepticism, to a determination to win him. Lacking the necessary paperwork to prove that he's not dead as was announced, John faces a tough road readjusting to life in Farmingtown. He's searching for a woman he knew before the war, a woman he now loves but scorned in the past, when he was a bit of a playboy. It turns out Flora Crisp has been pining after him all these long years, or at least the idea of him. But this isn't your typical love story; the people of Farmingtown find love and fulfillment in different ways, as the war ends and a new chapter of their lives begins.

John Ploughman at the bar (Ron Menzel with Shá Cage,
Photo by Paula Keller)
Ten Thousand Things often casts their show without much regard to gender, changing the gender of characters or casting women as men or vice versa. But in this play it's quite specific that there is only one man in town, surrounded by women (and one awkward and adorkable little boy). Ron Menzel is that man, his masculinity standing out in a soldier's uniform against the women in their cute but functional dresses and colorful Keds (costumes by Sonya Berlovitz). Ron is one of my long-time faves from the Guthrie (beginning with the memorable Intimate Apparel nearly ten years ago), and it's a thrill to see him in this setting as he fully inhabits this character in every moment of his journey, effortlessly portraying the frustration, hope, desperation, brokenness, determination, and above all humanity in this man in all his flaws and glory.

three of the bewigged women of Forget Me Not When Far Away
(Elise Langer, Shá Cage, Karen Wiese-Thompsonm
photo by Paula Keller)
I can't say enough about these five women who play over 20 characters, differentiated not only by the wigs on their heads but also by a unique voice and carriage of the body. All of them give sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, always specific performances, including:
  • Sun Mee Chomet as the wounded Flora, the tough landlady, and the steady barkeep
  • Annie Enneking as a prim and proper government worker, John's ex, and a singer at the bar (singing songs she wrote)
  • Elise Langer as a possibly drunken postal worker, a ditsy blond, the town crier, and perhaps my favorite character - a little boy who's slightly off but open and loving and wise
  • Karen Wiese-Thompson as a cigarette-smoking trench coat-wearing PI, a dentist, and Flora's concerned grandmother
  • Shá Cage as a fortune teller, a timid little girl, and a woman chasing after John who turns out to be a good friend
Ten Thousand Things travels light in terms of props and set pieces, which only seems to make them more creative. Irve Dell's clever and efficient set consists of four standing metal frames that hinge down to represent a door, window, or bar, with two metal boxes serving as all the other necessary furniture. Peter Vitale creates a delightful soundtrack for the story, subtly setting the tone. For some reason there's clog dancing, which provides a reason to show off Jim Lichtsheidl's charming choreography.

Forget Me Not When Far Away is a delightful story about returning home, reconnecting, and re-establishing your identity in a changed world. Like other TTT productions, the show feels like the neighborhood kids have gotten together to put on a play in someone's backyard, if your neighborhood were populated with some of the most talented theater artists in town. Paid public performances continue at the Minnesota Opera Center and Open Book through the end of May. Go see it, and then make plans for next season when TTT continues their pattern of Shakespeare-musical-new play with Henry IV Part IDear World, and Changelings by Kira Obolensky.

*To find out more about the magic of TTT, check out founder and Artistic Director Michelle Hensley' book All the Lights On.