Sunday, October 4, 2015

"Glensheen" at the History Theatre

Americans love a good true crime story. And truth doesn't come any stranger than the story of the elderly heiress and her nurse who were murdered in Duluth's most famous mansion. The murder weapons: a silk pillow and a candlestick. The murder location: the old woman's bed and the grand staircase, where a violent struggle occurred. The prime suspect: the heiress' son-in-law, allegedly acting out the wishes of her daughter who was desperate for money to feed her insane spending habits. The key evidence: an envelope mailed to the son-in-law from Duluth containing a valuable stolen coin. The result of two of the most sensational criminal trials in Minnesota history: both suspects go free, one to later commit suicide, the other to leave a string of suspicious deaths and fires in her wake. I mean really, you cannot make this stuff up. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. What better subject for a new musical at the History Theatre, known for developing new work that explores important events in Minnesota history? This bizarrely fascinating story practically writes itself, so when talented and prolific Minnesota playwright Jeffrey Hatcher applies his biting and clever wit to the story, along with songs from the famed Minnesota musician Chan Poling of The Suburbs1 and The New Standards, what you get is dark comedy-musical gold. The potential was there at the reading of the new musical last year as part of History Theatre's annual "Raw Stages" festival,2 and it's a pleasure to see how that potential has blossomed into a fully formed piece of music-theater. It's dark and delicious, hilarious and musically entertaining, poignant and tragic.

If you're not familiar with the story of Chester Congden, the East Coast lawyer who very wisely invested in iron ore in late 19th Century Duluth, you should visit the grand estate on Lake Superior that he built for his family (wife Clara and seven children) and left to the University of Minnesota - Duluth upon the death of his last child. Which happened to be his youngest daughter Elisabeth, who never married and lived at Glensheen her entire life, adopting two daughters with whom to share her life, love, and fortune. It's her daughter Marjorie (named for Elisabeth's beloved older sister) upon whom this little tale hinges. Diagnosed a sociopath as a teenager, Marjorie had an insatiable spending habit that put her in constant debt and eventually, allegedly, led her to convince her second husband Roger Caldwell to kill her mother in order to receive her inheritance. The details of the story are too strange to be believed, except, of course, that it's true.

Marjorie Congden sings her story
(Jennifer Maren and cast, photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
The musical begins on a modern-day tour of the historic Glensheen mansion. The people on the tour become a little too curious about the famous staircase and the tour guide tries to steer them towards the architecture of the house, but to no avail. This fabulous cast of seven then leads us on a tour of bizarre and tragic life of Marjorie and those around her. The musical stays fairly close to the facts of the case, although of course some is conjecture or rearranging to make a compelling story. But don't worry, at the end of the show they tell us exactly what was made up and what wasn't.3 It's all very tongue-in-cheek and darkly comedic, done in the heightened reality style of musicals, but with some grounded and poignant moments that remind us these were real people who suffered great tragedy. The tone walks the fine line of being campy, funny, and outrageous, while not disrespectful to the lives that were lost. The show engenders sympathy not just for the two women who died that night, but also Marjorie's husband Roger, who certainly didn't know what he was getting into when he married her, and perhaps even Marjorie herself. Perhaps.

Highlights of the show are many, including:
  • Rick Polenek's rich set looks like a mini-Glensheen, a reproduction of the famous staircase leading up to the stained glass window on the second floor, with stately furnishing and lush carpeting that extends into the audience.
  • Director Ron Peluso and his cast make great use of the multi-level stage and the aisles in the audience, drawing us into the story, even at one point using us as potential jurors.
  • Musical Director Andrew Fleser (whose piano is dressed out as a bar) leads the just barely visible band through a really great score with big ensemble numbers, soaring ballads, quiet plaintive songs, and some fun and rousing songs, accompanied by Tinia Moulder's choreography.
  • Most of the fantastic seven-person cast play multiple roles - maids, cops, detectives, lawyers, reporters, etc. - except for Jennifer Maren, who brings Marjorie to life in all her murderous, arsonous, seductive, sad little girl glory. She's an endlessly fascinating villain, the kind that you love to hate.
  • Dane Stauffer is great as the drunken patsy Roger, without making him a caricature. We also see Roger's human side in his confession and death - just another one of Marj's victims.
  • Stealing scenes in a multitude of roles, including Elisabeth, her nurse (with a sad and lovely song), and, briefly, Agatha Christie, Wendy Lehr is a delight to watch, most especially in her gleeful turn as a rock and roll defense attorney who may or may not be known "Beshmesher," shimmying her way through a rollicking defense of Marjorie.
  • Ruthie Baker, Gary Briggle, Adam Qualls, and Sandra Struthers Clerc gamely jump into whatever role is asked of them, and the seven-person cast seems much larger with all the characters in the story.
  • The costumes (designed by E. Amy Hill) help define the various characters and place it in that '70s/'80s timeframe. Marj's wardrobe is particularly fabulous (I'm not sure the real Marj is this fashionable), always in red, reminding us of the blood and fire she leaves in her wake. Barry Browning's lighting design bathes the stage in a red glow when appropriate, as well as creating some startling lighting strikes.
Glensheen is a fantastic new original musical, based on one of the most fascinating true crime stories in Minnesota history. It's a sordid and epic tale just ripe for some kind of theatrical treatment, and Jeffrey Hatcher and Chan Poling have given it just the right kind. A dark and campy musical about a stranger than fiction true crime story? Yes, please! (Playing through October 25.)

  1. For more about The Suburbs and other bands of early '80s Minneapolis, go see Complicated Fun next spring, another new piece developed through the "Raw Stages" festival.
  2. The History Theatre's "Raw Stages" Festival takes place in mid-January. So when the weather is cold, go see what's hot in new historical theater (including a reading of my favorite new musical Sweet Land).
  3. If this story fascinates you as much as it does me, I highly recommend the book Will to Murder, written by former Duluth crime reporter Gail Feichtinger with input from the lead investigator and prosecutor, so it's chock full of details and evidence.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Prep" at Pillsbury House Theatre

It's been quite a week. Both in the real world, with yet another tragic mass shooting at a school, and in my theater world (which sometimes feels more real to me than the real world does). I started my week in theater with the Guthrie's beautiful production of the American classic To Kill A Mockingbird, about the wrongful conviction of a black man in 1930s Alabama. I followed that up with Roger Guenveur Smith's virtuoso performance in the one-man-show he created about Rodney King, whose brutal beating by LAPD officers in the early '90s led to one of the most deadly riots in our nation's history. While both of these events take place in the past, and one is fictional, there are striking parallels to the events of today that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. So it was with a heavy heart at the state of the world that I showed up at Pillsbury House Theatre last night. Having seen Tracey Scott Wilson's Buzzer twice, I knew that her new play Prep, commissioned by Pillsbury House and written after "extensive interviews with students, parents, and residents regarding racial tension in Minneapolis," would not be easy. But I was pleased that after this week of violence and injustice in the real and theater world, this one left me with a bit of hope. Yes there's plenty of work to do, but maybe, through the kindness and attention of individual to individual, we can all get along.

Prep actually reminds me more of The Gospel of Lovingkindness, seen at Pillsbury House earlier this year, than Buzzer, in that the three characters mostly speak to the audience in monologues (often responding to recorded voices), rather than speak to each other. Even when two of them are in a scene together, they often speak to the audience about each other. This device really lets us get inside each character's head to know what they're thinking and feeling. The first character we meet is "Miss" (Jodi Kellogg), the principal of an underprivileged school in an unnamed city, who sends her children to Ivy-league-like school a few miles away. But she genuinely cares for her students and wants them to succeed. She's taken a special interest in Chris (Kory LaQuess Pullam), a good student who is struggling after the recent death of his friend in a drive-by shooting. He has some disturbing ideas about how to make a statement and spur change in the community. He tells his friend Oliver (Ryan Colbert) about it, which angers him and causes a fight, leading to events that change the three and the school for good. But not in the way that you think.

Ryan Colbert, Kory LaQuess Pullam, and Jodi Kellogg
Tracey Scott Wilson has written the play with a rhythm and rhyming scheme that makes one think of Shakespeare. These three actors are all wonderful at speaking her words lyrically, yet still making them sound like natural speech. Joseph Stanley's sparse set with chain-link fence on the back wall and two raised platforms creates a simple and colorless backdrop for the story. Director Noël Raymond guides her actors well through the rhythm of the words and the story, and lets each establish their character in their own space on the stage, until they start intermingling in space as their storylines connect.

In just over an hour, Pillsbury House Theatre's Prep tackles some heavy themes of racism and violence in a realistic yet poetic way. It doesn't offer solutions so much as a ray of hope and a way to think and talk about the issues. Playing now through October 18.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"Rodney King" at Penumbra Theatre

"Can we all get along?" This famous plea uttered by Rodney King during the 1992 L.A. Riots, a reaction to the acquittal of the four LAPD officers who severely beat him a year earlier, is often what he's most remembered for. I admit that after more than 20 years, I had forgotten many of the details, and didn't even realize that he died three years ago. But in this one-man show written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith, Rodney King's story comes alive again - the good, the bad, and the ugly. It's a virtuoso performance that is poetic and lyrical, harsh and disturbing. Roger has performed this piece around the world and has brought it to St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre for just two weeks. It's definitely something to see.

Roger doesn't tell Rodney's story in a linear fashion, but rather in an impressionistic sort of way. Standing barefoot on a bare stage in the middle of a square of light, speaking into a hand-held microphone with a long cord, and using a combination of poetry, spoken word, rhythm and rhyme, repeated phrases, singing, rapping, and an intensely felt physicality, he makes this a visceral experience for the audience. In just over an hour, we travel with him to that fateful night when police officers struck Rodney 56 times with a baton, that just happened to be caught on videotape by someone in a nearby apartment. Then we're right in the middle of the riots as Roger tells the brutal and heart-breaking stories of just a few of the 53 people who were killed. He ends the show with Rodney's famous "can we all get along speech," beautifully delivered. This show is completely engaging and you feel like you're right there in the midst of the violence, which is not a comfortable place to be.

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King
Rodney King is one of those pieces that transcends theater and becomes a vital part of the world we live in. It will challenge you, it will make you rethink your opinions, it will anger you that 20 years later this is still happening and we're still struggling to find a way to get along. In an ironic bit of theater scheduling, this week I watched the fictional story of the conviction of a black man in 1930s Alabama for a crime he didn't commit, and the true story of the acquittal of police officers for severely beating a black man in 1990s L.A. It's been a sobering week.

If you can get to Penumbra in the next two weeks, I highly recommend you spend an hour remembering Rodney King. Partly for the importance and relevance of the story, and also to witness Roger Guenveur Smith's masterful performance of this artfully constructed and utterly captivating piece of theater. I think the super-talented Dennis Spears, who happened to be sitting behind me, said it best. As the theater went dark and Roger left the stage, he uttered a simple two-syllable "damn." That pretty much says it all.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"To Kill A Mockingbird" at the Guthrie Theater

I don't ever want to read the recently published Go Set A Watchman, which reportedly paints a much less flattering, more complex, and perhaps more realistic portrait of the small-town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch. The Atticus Finch of Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird and the 1990 stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel, now playing on the Guthrie's thrust stage, is just the best man. This is the Atticus I want to know, remember, and celebrate. The lawyer who believes in justice, equality, and fairness for every person, who is a loving yet strict father who raises his children to be smart and independent thinkers who use their own judgement to decide what's right and wrong, that's the Atticus that I, however naively, believe in. And that's the Atticus that it's a bittersweet joy to watch as his story comes to life on the Guthrie stage. Except of course that it's not really Atticus' story, it's his daughter Scout's story as she comes to see that her father and the town she lives in are not exactly what she thought they were. With the clear-eyed innocence and straight-forwardness of a child, she guides us through this story that is representative of a difficult and ugly time in our history, a time that isn't as long ago as we like to think. To Kill A Mockingbird is an American classic and this beautiful production does justice to it.

Even though it's been many years since I read the book or saw the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck (so long that I had forgotten the ending), the story is familiar to anyone growing up in this country where it's required reading at most schools. In 1935 Alabama, a black man is accused of raping a white woman, and Atticus Finch defends him in court despite the bad will of most of the town against him and his family for defending a black man. All of this is reflected through the eyes of his daughter Scout who, along with older brother Jem and friend Dill, watch the proceedings with curiosity, fascination, confusion, and dismay.

Atticus with Jem, Scout, and Dill (Baylen Thomas,
Noah Deets, Mary Blair, and Issac Leer, photo by Joan Marcus)
I'm not sure I've ever seen three children command the Guthrie stage before like these three kids. There are two sets of the Scout/Jem/ Dill trio, and the ones I happened to see (Mary Bair, Noah Deets, and Isaac Leer) are a charming, precocious, and talented bunch. When they're not on stage alone for long scenes, they're going toe-to-toe with a cast full of beloved Guthrie veterans (of note, only one of the adults has never appeared at the Guthrie before). I am in awe of all three of them and what they're able to do at such a young age! I especially adore Mary Bair as Scout. If I had a daughter I'd want her to be just like Scout - smart, stubborn, curious, independent, brave, sensitive, open-hearted, unafraid to speak her mind and ask questions, and quick to defend herself and her family.

the trial of Tom Robinson (Baylen Thomas, J.C. Cutler,
Ansa Akyea, and Peter Thomson, photo by Joan Marcus)
While these kids own this stage and this story, the adults aren't bad either. That one Guthrie newcomer I mentioned? That would be Baylen Thomas as Atticus, who perfectly embodies all of the wonderful characteristics that I described above, while still portraying the humanity of Atticus behind the icon. There are too many wonderfully strong performances in this cast to mention, but to name a few: Stacia Rice with a warm presence as the neighbor Miss Maudie who serves as a narrator, a clever device by the playwright that allows him to set the scene and include some of Harper Lee's language; Regina Marie Williams as the Finch's beloved housekeeper Calpurnia; Ansa Akya bringing depth and humanity to the accused man; Peter Thomson as the judge, in Mark Twain hair leaning back in his chair chomping on a cigar; T. Mychael Rambo leading a choir as Reverend Sykes; Ashley Rose Montondo, both sympathetic and infuriating as the accuser; and Bruce Bohne as her utterly despicable father.

As per usual at the Guthrie, the set, costume, lighting, and sound design make it easy to suspend disbelief and feel like we're in a small Southern town a century ago. The thrust stage is covered with a worn wooden floor, surrounded by three front porches and one rope swing. The jailhouse is lowered from the ceiling, and the inside of the courtroom comes up from below for that crucial scene that spans the intermission. Lived-in period costumes complete the look (set and costumes by James Youmans and Matthew J. LeFebvre).

I found this to be a really lovely evening at the theater, one that left me with tears in my eyes, a warmth in my heart, and a feeling of injustice, not so much at Tom Robinson's fate (because really, what other ending could there be in the deep South of the 1930s), but that Tom Robinson's story continues to be repeated today. To Kill A Mockingbird is a classic piece of American literature, one that's timely and relevant despite being set 80 years in the past, and this beautiful production and excellent cast of young and old alike bring it to life in an entirely satisfying way. (Continuing through October 18.)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Sweeney Todd" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

Friends, Theater Latte Da has done it again. They've created a music-theater production that is so stirring and chilling, it's nothing short of brilliant. After the delightfully innovative and stripped-down Into the Woods this spring, they return to Sondheim with a similarly innovative and stripped-down Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. But where Into the Woods was a fun and slightly sinister mish-mash of classic fairy tales, Sweeney is all darkness and death, albeit with a bit of dark humor. Director Peter Rothstein again cast just ten actors in the show, many playing multiple roles and all perfect for the parts, and Denise Prosek leads a pared down orchestra of just four, that still somehow sounds musically full on this gorgeous and disturbing score. With a couple of actors not known for their singing leading this talented cast, and a cohesive look to the set, costumes, and theater space that is well used, this Sweeney is completely engaging and all-consuming, and brilliantly shows what Latte Da can do with not musical theater, but theater musically.

Sweeney Todd is a tale of vengeance and murder, as Sweeney returns to London after 15 years imprisonment for a crime he didn't commit, only to find his wife and daughter gone thanks to the very judge who put him away. His barber business turns deadly as he becomes intent on exacting revenge on those who wronged him. His partner in crime Mrs. Lovett finds a creative way to dispose of the bodies at her pie shop and the two take in the boy Toby, who's just happy to have a home, until he discovers what's really going on. Meanwhile, the young sailor Anthony has fallen in love with Sweeney's daughter Johanna and he and Sweeney team up to get her away from the evil judge. This isn't a happily ever after kind of story so don't expect things to end well, but it's deliciously chilling to watch it all play out.

In Theater Latte Da's production, this sordid story takes place in what looks like a dilapidated carnival. The theme continues from the stage to the lobby of the theater, with slightly off-kilter carnival music playing and donuts sold at the concession stand. Scenic Designer Kate Sutton-Johnson (who also designed the German beer garden fairy tale world of Into the Woods) has built the most terrifying jungle gym you've ever seen on the Ritz Theater stage, complete with ladders, bridges, swings, and a very sinister (yet very cool) slide. The performance space moves beyond the stage as the cast makes great use of the space, wandering through the audience and hanging out with people sitting at the bars on either side. I was afraid they were going to start offering us meat pies (no thank you!). Along with Alice Fredrickson's faded and tattered costumes, and Paul Whitaker's effective lighting design, the whole think has a dark and creepy atmosphere that'll give you chills.

Mark Benninghofen and Sally Wingert
as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett
(photo by George Byron Griffiths)
Music-theater (as Nautilus and I like to call it) is about character and story first, and music second (even Sondheim himself agrees). With that in mind it makes sense that Mark Benninghofen and Sally Wingert, two of the Twin Cities' best actors but not known for their singing, play the lead roles. Sally already showed us in Cabaret last year that singing is yet another tool in her vast acting toolbox, and her Mrs. Lovett is so funny, cunning, needy, and dangerously motherly. But this is Mark's first performance in a musical, and all I can say is - welcome to the wonderful world of music-theater Mr. Benninghofen, please stay a while! It's almost incomprehensible that someone would decide to do their first musical 30 years into their career, jump right into one of the most challenging and iconic roles, and do so with such aplomb that it seems like he's been performing in music-theater all his life. The entire cast is wonderful, but the show is called Sweeney Todd and it doesn't work without a strong Sweeney, and Mark is that and more. Fierce, ominous, darkly brooding, murderous yet sympathetic, and with a lovely voice too! Mark and Sally together are, as always, a delight to watch and sound like they've been singing Sondheim all their lives, not an easy trick.

Sally Wingert and Tyler Michaels
as Mrs. Lovett and Toby
(photo by George Byron Griffiths)
And now for the rest of the cast, who are known for their singing but are wonderful actors as well. I thought nothing could top Tyler Michaels singing "On the Street Where You Live," but Tyler Michaels as Toby singing "Not While I'm Around" does just that, so soaring and beautiful and moving. And he brings his trademark physicality to the role of this eager limping young lad, and also climbs, jumps, and hangs on the set as a member of the ensemble. The lovely-voiced Sara Ochs is almost unrecognizable and terrifying as the beggar woman with a secret, and also portrays her humanity beneath the madness. James Ramlet makes the Judge a villain you love to hate, and the "Pretty Women" duet is a highlight featuring James' yummy low rumbling timbre on the "bum bum bum bum." Elizabeth Hawkinson's Johanna is delicately lovely, and she sings like a nightingale. Also wonderful are Matthew Rubbelke as Anthony, Dominique Wooten as Beadle (with a bit of humorous pounding on the piano), Evan Tyler Wilson as the pompous barber Pirelli, and Benjamin Dutcher in a number of roles.

If you're a fan of Sondheim, music-theater, or just a really well-told story, Theater Latte Da's gleefully maniacal Sweeney Todd is not to be missed. Everything is perfection, top to bottom. An incredible and fully committed cast, spot-on direction, gorgeous music, and attention paid to every detail (watch for Sweeney's entrance, repeated at the end) to create an all-around stunning production. Playing through October 25, get your tickets now before it sells out.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

"The Realish Housewives of Edina" at New Century Theatre

I have not watched a single minute of a single episode of any of Bravo's popular Real Housewives TV series (Wikipedia tells me there are seven series, five of which still in production). Don't get me wrong, I love my reality TV, but more of the competition variety (Survivor, The Amazing Race, Top Chef, American Idol). I don't quite understand the fascination of watching "celebrities" in their daily lives, but there's no doubt it's a hugely popular phenomenon, and one that's ripe for parody. So it's a perfect time for this outrageous comedy by playwrights Kate James and Tim Sniffen of The Second City comedy machine. Their intention is for The Realish Housewives of X to play at regional theaters around the country, with slight tweaking for each location. Their first location - Edina. With a fabulous local cast, this show is a hilarious parody of the reality TV phenomenon.

New Century's wide and shallow stage (which can sometimes feel awkward) is a perfect fit for the preview show of the newest series of the Real Housewives-esque show, with cabaret tables in the audience adding to the fun and informal atmosphere. Host and creator Randy (Adan Varela, who also plays multiple other characters) introduces us to each of the housewives (curiously, only two of them have husbands). Ravonka (Kim Kivens) is the vaguely European royalty who carries her tiny dog around in her purse, demands that everyone "pay attention to me right now," and never sees her Baron husband. Claudia-Louise, aka CL (Quinn Shadko), has the perfect family and isn't afraid to tell everyone so. Gwen (Katherine Kupiecki) is an incarcerated politician trying to redeem her image with the public. Ditzy Desiree (Karissa Lade) is a fro yo addict and neck model. Brooke (Anna Hickey) is the newest member of the group, a self-made business woman who has made a fortune selling clothing with writing on the butt. Some of the other members of the group don't accept her "new money" so easily, causing the necessary tension for a show like this.

Anna Hickey, Karissa Lade, Kim Kivens, Quinn Shadko,
and Katherine Kupiecki (photo by Bridget Bennett)
Randy prompts the women to talk about their feelings as he shows them clips from the season, which are acted out in front of us. We see the women visit each others' work places, attend various charity events, and gossip with and about each other. There's a bit of audience participation as CL's husband and Ravonka's daughter are picked out of the crowd and played off of. Everyone in this cast is so loose and playful, yet precise in the characterization of their stereotypical housewife type, I imagine it will only become more fun to watch them play with the audience as the 8-week run continues. Each of these women (and Adan) is a hoot, but Kim Kivens as Ravonka is hysterical. Anyone who's seen her Michelle Bachmann impersonation knows how great she is at these over-the-top caricatures, completely committed with every look and gesture, but here she is absolutely Ravonkulous (meaning ridiculous and fabulous and any other -ulous word that might apply).

the housewives and Randy (photo by Bridget Bennett)
The creators have worked with locals to throw in plenty of Minnesota references, and we love that! From Zumbrota to Spalon Montage to the Galleria, these housewives hit all the local hot spots. Not to judge a book by its fashionable cover, but the opening night crowd seemed to include many "real housewives" types, leaving their husbands and kids at home for a night on the town. In fact, the show could be a brisk 90 minutes if they cut out the intermission, but then they wouldn't sell as many drinks to this crowd that seems intent on having a good time.

The Real Housewives franchise is an easy one to parody. OK I've never seen it, but it seems like there is plenty of fodder for comedy. It's pretty much a slam dunk, especially when played to a crowd that is obviously hungry for it, and this play delivers on that expectation. Funny, ridiculous, over-the-top, and with a cast that gleefully milks every moment. Playing through November 15 at the New Century Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, grab your best girl and guy friends, a few drinks, and settle in for some easy laughs.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Dancing at Lughnasa" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Irish playwright Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa is a perfectly lovely play, and a wonderful choice for the perfectly lovely Yellow Tree Theatre. The eight-person cast is actually on the large side for their cozy and intimate space nestled inside an Osseo strip mall, but the warm, humorous, and melancholic tone is a perfect fit. It's a beautiful play and a beautiful cast, and will leave you with a warm and wistful feeling.

Despite being a fan of all things Irish, I don't believe I'd ever seen a Brian Friel play, other than his adaptation of Checkhov's Uncle Vanya at the Guthrie a few years ago. In his story of the five Mundy sisters living together in a small farmhouse in County Donegal in 1936, he has captured the mix of joy, sadness, music, and family that is uniquely Irish. The sisters are a loyal and devoted family, yet are all individuals searching for something, something they never quite find. It's a bittersweet joy to watch their struggles towards a better life.

the sisters dancing
Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play in the spirit of The Glass Menagerie. Michael, the son of youngest sister Christina, narrates the story as his adult self, while his 7-year-old 1936 self is never seen but is often talked to and about by the Mundy women, who obviously dote on the fatherless child. Or rather, the child of a father who's never around except for occasional visits, including during the events of the play. Gerry stirs up all of the women, especially Chris, with a hope that can never be fulfilled. Also throwing their world into disarray is the return of their older brother, the "leper priest" Jack, from 25 years of serving in Uganda, where he became a bit too enamored of the native ways for the Church's liking. These two events, along with developmentally disabled sister Rose's possible romance, the closing of the knitting factory where she and Agnes work, and the family's new wireless, create a moment in time that Michael remembers as one of the last happy times in the family, soon to be followed by work, sadness, and tragedy. The play is a lovely and bittersweet exploration of this family and their relationships in a changing world.

the cast of Dancing at Lughnasa
Under the direction of Jon Cranney, this wonderful cast feels like a family, with all the love, connection, and annoyance that goes along with it. Katherine Ferrand, Jessica Lind Peterson, Carolyn Trapskin, Rachel Weber, and Melanie Wehrmacher play these five very different sisters, and throughout the course of the play we get to know and love each of them, despite their shortcomings. Jason Ballweber's Michael is a warm and likeable guide through the story, Michael Lee is the charming absent father, and Patrick O'Brien is appropriately befuddled as the newly returned Father Jack. The ninth character in this play is Jeffrey Petersen's set, which somehow transforms the small thrust stage at Yellow Tree into the Mundy's entire world - the warm and rustic farmhouse and the rich green of the Irish countryside.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a great beginning for Yellow Tree Theatre's 8th season, which continues with a remount of last year's holiday hit A Hunting Shack Christmas, the smart and funny Raisin in the Sun follow-up Clybourne Park (last seen at the Guthrie), and one of my favorite musicals - Violet. It's a good time to go to Osseo!