Monday, August 20, 2018

"What I Thought I Knew" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Center Theatre

NYC-based theater artist Alice Eve Cohen had a surprise late-in-life pregnancy filled with traumatic
experiences and decisions. So she wrote a play about it, because that's what artists do. The result is a frank, funny, and almost unbelievable story that touches on many common and relatable issues. For their production of What I Though I Knew, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company enlisted Kim Kivens to perform the solo piece, a wise choice indeed. As much as anything else, the play is about storytelling. About our need to tell stories, our need to listen to each other's stories. Alice's story is a remarkable one, and listening to it, as told by the team at MJTC, is a joyful, heart-breaking, moving experience.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

"Dear Lenny: Bernstein's Life in Songs and Letters" by Chronofon Productions at Open Eye Figure Theatre

Leonard Bernstein. I know him mostly as the composer of one of my all-time favorite musical theater scores, West Side Story (now playing at the Guthrie for one more week), as well as other works ranging from classical to popular. But I never really knew much about the man behind the music or what his life was like. Thanks to Open Eye Figure Theatre and the team from Chronofon Productions (Bradley Greenwald, Dan Chouinard, Diana Grasselli, and Prudence Johnson), I now feel like I have an even greater appreciation for the music as well as the person who created it. Dear Lenny: Bernstein's Life in Songs and Letters is a well constructed and entertaining deep dive into the life and work of one of the best American composers of the 20th Century.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

"Houdini" by Sandbox Theatre's Swingset

Sandbox Theatre is known for their ensemble-created original plays. Judging by their inaugural production, their new offshoot The Swingset does the same thing, only with aerial work. Like all of Sandbox's work, Houdini is a thoughtful and playful exploration of a subject (in this case the famed escape artist) that uses physical theater. But in this case the physical theater extends into the air on aerial silks hung from a contraption that does indeed look like a very large swingset. Performed outdoors in a couple of locations (I saw it at Pioneer Park in Roseville, where it continues tonight), it's a fun and magical experience.

Friday, August 17, 2018

"'Night, Mother" by Dark and Stormy Productions at Grain Belt Warehouse

Friends, this is a tough one to watch. And I don't necessarily recommend it for everyone, especially people who might be triggered by the events of the play. Proceed with caution, because Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning play is 90 minutes of the most frank discussion of suicide I've ever seen. Dark and Stormy's production, featuring the two-person dream team of Artistic Director Sara Marsh and #TCTheater favorite Sally Wingert, is beautifully done and powerfully affecting, almost painfully so. And they're doing all the right things - partnering with the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) - so that hopefully this play brings more awareness of and discussion about suicide. And it's also some really intense, intimate, engaging theater. I expect nothing less from Dark and Stormy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: Wrap-Up and Favorites

Well #TCTheater friends, we made it through another Minnesota Fringe Festival - 11 whirlwind days of theater, dance, comedy, clowning, storytelling, and so much more. I saw a total of 36 shows this year, which is actually my lowest total in the last 5 years, but I'm OK with that. At this point I'm getting better at choosing shows, so I feel like I saw 36 really good shows. And yes, there are many good or great shows I missed, but such is the nature of Fringe. I also noticed a very exciting trend this year, which is more shows by and about women. Of the 36 shows I saw, 20 were written (or co-written) by women, 19 were directed by women, 21 featured all or mostly female casts, and many dealt specifically with women's issues. This trend of more than half of shows being written and directed by women is one I would love to see continue throughout the theater season.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Blood Nocturne"

Day: 10

Show: 36

Category: Drama / Horror / Musical Theater

By: The Winding Sheet Outfit

Written by: The Winding Sheet Outfit

Location: Southern Theater

Summary: A retelling of the history/legend of Erzsébet Báthory, a Hungarian countess accused of murdering dozens (or even hundreds) of young women and girls in the early 17th Century.

Highlights: I had never heard of Erzsébet, but a quick read of her Wikepedia page reveals a horrifying tale of torture, mutilation, and murder. The Winding Sheet Outfit tells us Erzsébet's story from her point of view, as a powerful woman manipulated and falsely accused, although perhaps not totally innocent. The ensemble tells the story in a non-linear fashion, with charming and creepy original music. They often break the fourth wall, calling each other by their actual name when someone goes too far or suggests something not in line with the story they're telling. This device puts the audience at ease and reminds us it's just one interpretation of a story that can never fully be known. But it's a story that has much to tell us about gender, power, justice, and violence. Emily Dussault gives a strong and empathetic performance as Erzsébet, while the rest of the talented ensemble (Amber Bjork, Boo Segersin, Derek Lee Miller, and Joshua Swantz, Kayla Dvorak) play her helpers, friends, enemies, and alleged victims. Dressed in period clothing and playing period instruments, they work well together as an ensemble, using movement, music, and physical theater to create the world of Erzsébet against the perfect background of the Southern Theater. After seeing the play I'm not sure what to think about Erzsébet, but I know the situation is a little more nuanced and complex than what history usually describes.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Summers in Prague"

Day: 10

Show: 35

Category: Comedy / Drama

By: Sidecar Theatre

Directed by: Kimberly Miller

Location: Rarig Center Arena

Summary: An American woman living in Berlin travels to Prague once a year to hire a prostitute.

Highlights: I attended the final sold-out performance of this top-selling show in the Arena, and I can see why it was such a hit. Sweet, funny, awkward, sexy, and a premise we don't usually see - a woman hiring a male prostitute instead of the other way around. But really it's a character study of these two people who find themselves together under unusual circumstances, and the unique relationship they form over five summers in Prague. Mara is nervous and awkward at their first meeting, and can't stop apologizing. But we see her grow more comfortable and more confident over time. Vaclav is smooth and suave from the start, but you get the sense he's playing a role. Eventually he begins to reveal more of his true self as their relationship becomes deeper. Samantha V. Papke and Avi Aharoni have great chemistry and both give vulnerable and assured performances (and kudos to Avi for mastering the Czech accent) as they navigate the awkwardness of the situation and all the stages of the relationship (and here's hoping they had an Intimacy Choreographer). Beautifully written by Milwaukee-based playwright Deanna Strasse and well directed by Kimberly Miller, this play is an unexpected delight.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Rejection"

Day: 10

Show: 34

Title: Rejection

Category: Comedy / Drama / LGBTQ+ Content

By: Theatre Corrobora

Written by: Hailey Colwell

Location: Augsburg Mainstage

Summary: A relationship dramedy about a group of friends whose relationships change when they take part in a study about relationships.

Highlights: Based on the title of the play you know someone's going to get rejected. But it's a story well told by the strong cast in this entertaining , if not particularly revelatory play. After discussing her relationship with the researcher, Sadie begins to doubt it, and confesses her fears to girlfriend Jade, who doesn't share her same fears. Their (seemingly) happily married friends Penny and Steven also talk to the researcher, revealing some cracks in their relationship as well. Single friend Margo is happy being solo (especially observing her friends' relationship troubles) but tries dating anyway. In the end everyone's life is changed by the study, which really just made clear the issues that were already festering (moral of the story: talk about your feelings). Perhaps a little predictable, but still enjoyable, and bonus points for the thoughtfully chosen instrumental soundtrack of love songs.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Book of Shadows"

Day: 10

Show: 33

Title: Book of Shadows

Category: Comedy / Dance / Drama

By: Erin Sheppard Presents

Directed by: Erin Sheppard

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A series of dances pieces about witches, more specifically about a 13-year-old girl's experience and thoughts about witchcraft.

Highlights: This show is both creepy cool in the choreography (by Erin Sheppard, Regan K. Saunders, and Jessica Chad) and endearlingly sweet in Taj Ruler's confessions of a 13-year-old. Her stories of middle school life are very relatable, even if you didn't practice witchcraft. But Taj did, and kept a spell book from which she recites along with tales of teenage torment and joy. After each story/spell, we see it come to life in dance, performed by an eight-person ensemble (the choreographers along with Caroline Sable, Coralee Kaivo, Derek Meyer, Paige Siegrist, and Rhett Romsaas). There's a spell for your enemies, a love spell, and even a brief reenactment of the Salem witch trials. It's an interesting concept to explore the idea of witches both in history and legend, and through the mind of a young girl who uses witchcraft as a way to feel like she has power in a powerless time. The dances are beautiful, powerful, affecting, and funny. Watch for a follow-up at this year's Twin Cities Horror Fest.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Couple Fight: The Musical!"

Day: 10

Show: 32

Category: Comedy / Dance - Modern / Musical Theater

By: Weggel-Reed Productions

Created by: Anna Weggel-Reed and Tom Reed

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: The fourth installment in the ingenious series in which real life couples reenact their real life fight, only this time it's a musical!

Highlights: This concept is so brilliant it really should have life outside Fringe. I would love for them to bring it back for a 3-4 week run as a 90-minute show, or maybe a recurring cabaret series. This cast is so full of talent that listening to them fight is sheer joy, and adding music and dance only makes it better, especially when uber talented local composer Keith Hovis writes the songs. Whether the fight is about high expectations around a vacation (soon to be married couple Max Wojtanowicz and Allen Sommerfield), overflowing toilets (newly married couple Lizzie and Bobby Gardner), doing a risky dance lift (long married couple Divya Maiya and Madhu Bangalore - they do the lift!), which 1980s Jim Hensen movie is the best (long married couple Lacey and John Zeiler), a disagreement about a broken glass (roomies Michael Rogers and Alex Van Loh), what to watch on TV (best married couple ever Shanan Custer and Eric Webster), or whether or not someone is mad (girlfiends Allison Witham and Emily Dussault), these fights are so real and relatable but at the same time overly dramatic (as fights can sometimes get) and hilarious. As a bonus we also get three women friends (Colleen Sommerville Leeman, Mandi Verstegen, and Anna Weggel-Reed) vowing to support each other 'til death do them part. Each cast member brings their own unique talent, and the songs and sketches really bring out the best of each of them in a well constructed show that flies by. I love this series and this is my favorite installment yet, and just leaves me wanting more! More Couple Fight!!

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Minneosta Fringe Festival 2018 - Family Fringe: "Fruit Flies Like a Banana"

Day: 9

Show: 31

Category: Comedy / Dance / Original Music

By: The Fourth Wall

Written by: The Fourth Wall

Location: Celtic Junction

Summary: Three classically trained musicians (flute, trombone, and percussion) perform a series of short pieces accompanied by movement, dance, acrobatics, theater, and poetry.

Highlights: This is the fourth year in a row that I've seen The Fourth Wall perform at the Fringe, and I never tire of watching their unique and delightful music/theater/dance/comedy/acrobatic performance! This year they're part of Family Fringe, a curated festival of six shows held at Celtic Junction in St. Paul, so the show is slightly tweaked for the younger set, but it's fun for all ages. C. Neil Parsons on bass trombone, Greg Jukes on percussion (mostly vibraphone), and Hilary Abigana on flute combine their talents both musical and otherwise to create a show that is unlike anything I've seen before. They perform short pieces both classical and contemporary, some composed specifically for them. But they don't just play the music. They play the music while on hover-boards, or dancing the tango, or chasing each other around, or hanging upside down. They're creativity and innovation are as amazing as their musicianship, and they really engage the kids by letting them pick the order of the shows and occasionally inviting them up on stage to help out. They have just one performance left - today at 1:30. Whether you're fringing or not it's more than worth a visit to St. Paul's Midway neighborhood and the $10 ticket. Time flies like an arrow, and fruit flies like a banana!

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "The Screaming Skull"

Day: 8

Show: 30

Category: Drama / Horror / Literary Adaptation

By: Ghoulish Delights

Directed by: Tim Uren

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: An adaptation of the 1908 short story "The Screaming Skull" by Francis Mario Crawford, in which a sailor is haunted by, well, a skull that screams.

Highlights: Directed and adapted by Tim Uren, Eric Webster plays the role of the sailor, having a conversation with a friend (whom we don't see). He begins by very calmly and matter of factly telling the story of the previous owners of the house where he now lives, a doctor and his wife, both now deceased. The doctor was found dead on the beach holding a skull, which the sailor suspects is the skull of his wife whom he possibly killed. The skull occasionally screams, as such things do, but the sailor seems to have it under control, no longer sleeping in the bedroom where the skull resides. But he becomes more and more unhinged as the night wears on and he continues to drink. This play is super creepy and will send chills down your spine, thanks to the most horrifying scream you've ever heard, provided by Katharine Glover, part of the live sound effects team including Tim Uren and Shanan Custer (filling in for Joshau English Scrimshaw) who also create other creepy sounds of an old house by the sea at night during a storm. Eric gives a very convincing and terrifying performance, which combined with the sound and lighting effects (see trigger warning below), create some deliciously spine-chilling storytelling.

Trigger warning: the flashing lights to simulate a fire are similar to strobe lights, especially when all other lights are turned out. I spent the last 20 minutes with my hands over my eyes peaking through my fingers. If you're a person prone to migraines or sensitive to flashing lights, you should think twice about seeing this play.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.