Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Art" by Theatre Coup d'Etat at Muse Event Centur

What inspires someone to spend $200,000 on a piece of art, especially one that to others looks like a plain white canvas with some marks in a slightly different shade of white? This question is at the crux of the play Art by French playwright Yasmina Reza, most famous for the play God of Carnage. Both plays won the Tony, and both plays are of the talky variety. Not much happens and the play is pretty much just people sitting around a room talking. But that talking is some pretty deep and intense conversation and confrontation, in this case ostensibly about the nature of art, but in reality more about the nature of friendship. This production by Theatre Coup d'Etat features great performances by the three-person cast in an intimate up-close-and-personal site-specific setting (something this theater company does well) that makes for an intellectually, if not so much emotionally, engaging evening.

Marc (Lucas James Vonesek), Yvan (Kevin Fanshaw),
and Serge (Elohim Peña)
We're told that the three characters in this play have been friends for 15 years, although I had a hard time understanding why; there isn't much love lost between any of them. Serge (Elohim Peña) is the one who bought the expensive work of art, and Marc (Lucas James Vonesek) is the friend who can't understand it. More than that, he's downright angry about it. The two argue repeatedly about it, and their friend Yvan (Kevin Fanshaw) is stuck in the middle trying to make peace, while dealing with the stress of planning a wedding. The 90-minute play consists of several scenes between various pairs, asides by one character while the other is frozen, and a final confrontation between all three when things get a bit heated. This piece of art is the catalyst for the three men to delve into issues in their friendship that were about to boil over long before this white painting came into their lives.

the "Club Room" at the Muse that doubles for Serge's apartment
The story plays out in a room that really looks like it could be in Serge's apartment - the "Club Room" at the newish Muse Event Center in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis. With wood floor and paneling, cushy leather furniture, and a fireplace, it fits the posh and pretentious nature of the characters. Director James Napolean Stone makes good use of the unconventional space. All three of these actors do a great job of creating these specific characters, none of which are very likeable, except perhaps for the tender-hearted Yvan. On the night I attended, the audience barely outnumbered the cast, but yet they were totally in character, speaking directly to us in the asides, interacting with the environment by going to the bar to get a drink and taking advantage of the empty seats to lounge on the furniture in a character-specific way - exasperated, reserved, wounded.

Spending $200,000 on a piece of art is not something most of us can relate to, and these guys for the most part are pretentious jerks. In other words, this is a first world problem kind of play (not unlike God of Carnage). But what is relatable is a long-time friendship that hits a pretty serious snag due to the changing nature of the relationship. And the play is definitely worth seeing because it's smartly written, well acted, and takes place in a cool setting (with perhaps the comfiest seats I've ever experienced at the theater). But hurry - it closes this weekend so only four performances remain.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"Violet" at North Hennepin Community College

I was given a tip that I should check out the theater department at North Hennepin Community College, a group I didn't even know about it despite working at an office just a few blocks away from their Brooklyn Park campus for five years. When I heard that their current production was the lovely and moving musical Violet, I was in! I fell in love with this piece when I saw Theater Latte Da's simply beautiful production five years ago. This is one of those productions that stands out very clearly in my memory, despite the fact that it was before I started blogging (I started Cherry and Spoon a few months later, and included Violet in my favorites list at the end of the year). This Jeanine Tesori/Brian Crawley musical premiered Off-Broadway in 1997 and just last year made it to Broadway starring Sutton Foster and Joshua Henry, with just a few changes*. I was lucky enough to see that production, coincidentally exactly one year ago. While there are a few bumps in the NHCC production, I enjoyed it very much, and the bottom line is it brought out all the feelings in me that this gorgeous score and poignant story always does.

Based on a short story, Violet is about a young woman on a journey across the South in 1964, from her home in the mountains of North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she hopes that a TV preacher can heal the scar she received in a childhood accident. Growing up with this disfiguring facial scar has made Violet tough and independent, and she's not afraid to look people in the eye and tell them what she thinks, even if they're unable to return her gaze. She befriends several people on the long bus trip, including a couple of soldiers named Monty and Flick. While journeying to what she hopes is a new beginning, she remembers her past journeys, and we see flashbacks of the young Violet. The two realities merge when Violet meets the preacher, doesn't find what she hoped she would, and is forced to face her past on her own. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she has to go an epic journey to learn that she had the power all along to heal herself.**

Jeanine Tesori's score combines sounds of the South and the '60s - gospel, bluegrass, country-western, Memphis, and Appalachian mountain music - sounds that I happen to love. The eight-piece onstage band, directed by Michael McDeid, sounds great, and the 11-person cast really shines in the beautiful harmonies of the group numbers. But the star of the show is Jenny Reierson as Violet, who brings out every emotion of Violet's journey with her lovely voice and natural onstage presence. I fully expect to see her on local stages after she graduates from NHCC. Other highlights in the cast include the charming 13-year-old Grace Annabella Anderson as young Violet; Zarah Nesser, who brings humor and poignancy to the role of the "old lady" on the bus; and Josh Groban look-alike John Naumann as Violet's tough and tender father.

Moral of the story - check out what's going on at the theater department of your local college. This is the training ground for our rich theater community, and you might just see some stars in the making. Just the fact that director Mike Ricci chose the little-known gem Violet, rather than yet another production of Guys and Dolls or Oklahoma, shows me that NHCC is taking risks and challenging themselves, which I applaud.

*You can read my thoughts about the changes from the Off-Broadway to Broadway versions (which is the version that NHCC is doing), including the one ill-advised song swap, here.
**This paragraph is borrowed from my review of the Broadway production of Violet last year.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Crime and Punishment" by Live Action Set, Dangerous Productions, and The Soap Factory

Friends, this one is out there. The interactive and immersive experience that is Crime and Punishment pushes the boundaries of what theater can be. Theater isn't always sitting safely in your seat in a dark room watching a story play out on stage before you. It can also be walking around an incredibly detailed environment, mingling with other audience members and actors as they create the story all around you. You're not just watching the show, you're in it, you're part of it. This experience may not be for everyone, and you do have to push yourself outside of the theater seat comfort zone, but if you're willing to don a mask and stumble around in the dark for an hour with an open mind, you will be rewarded with a totally unique and all-comsuming experience.

A remount of last year's Fringe hit, this co-production of Live Action Set, Dangerous Productions, and The Soap Factory is co-directed by Noah Bremer and Joanna Harmon of Live Action Set and Tyler Olsen of Dangerous Productions, who is also credited as writer. It's loosely centered around the 19th century Russian novel Crime and Punishment (which I've never read), which serves as more of an inspiration for characters, settings, and situations than a literal plotline. It's not so much of a cohesive story as small vignettes with various characters in various situations, that all combine to create a surreal world that you won't soon forget.

The experience begins in a Russian tea room in the basement of The Soap Factory, where you sip tea from real cups and saucers while lounging on the shabby chic furniture. At the appropriate time (7 and/or 8:30 pm) you're called forward to put on your mask and enter the performance space. If you saw the show last year at the Fringe, you'll have a slight advantage in that the landscape is much the same, so you might know your way around a bit better. But it's a completely different experience every time you see it, and doubtless is for every person at every show. There are infinite ways you could experience the show, based on where you go, who you follow, and just what you get dragged into. The masks are absolutely essential to this experience because they a) differentiate actors from audience members and b) create a feeling of anonymity and freedom to explore free from self-consciousness (tip: if you wear glasses, ask for a special mask with larger eye holes).

Various stories are happening simultaneously, and it's up to you which one you follow. There's a poor woman and her drunken husband being thrown out of their apartment, a police inspector interrogating a suspect in a small cell, women selling goods at the market, a red light district where men and women slowly move and dance behind glass, a woman rejecting a man who loves her, a bloody murder, and lots of people yelling at each other and getting beat up. All of these things take place in a labyrinth of a set, with narrow hallways, cramped and cluttered rooms, an area hung with sheets, and various nooks and crannies, all impeccably detailed (interior set design by Sarah Stone and Donna Meyer). One could spend the entire hour just looking at the set, but the stories draw you in, sometimes literally as a cast member might take you by the hand and lead you somewhere. The cast of over two dozen is completely committed to the performance, and convey extreme emotions of anger, passion, despair, greed, love, and grief through dialogue and movement.

The set, the creepy sounds and lighting, the always in character and totally in the moment cast, all create such a complete, surreal, all-encompassing world that it's a bit jarring when the hour is up and you're abruptly ushered out and back upstairs to the real world. This is a new kind of theater (see also NYC's hit Sleep No More), one that requires more from the audience than just sitting and paying attention. I go to the theater to be completely immersed in a story with its specific world and characters, which usually takes a bit of suspension of disbelief to imagine that you're not really sitting in a theater. Thanks to the commitment of the cast and design team, it takes very little effort to believe that the world of Crime and Punishment is real. It's a completely unique experience, unlike anything else that's going on in the Twin Cities right now, and must be seen to be believed. If you're up for the challenge, purchase your ticket here and begin to receive lovely/creepy emails from Nastya to prepare you for the event. Crime and Punishment continues in the basement of The Soap Factory through April 27 (find more information and a list of the full cast and creative team here).

a photo of my mask and secret egg in the tea room

Saturday, April 11, 2015

"The Other Place" at Park Square Theatre

The Other Place is the name of the play now playing in Park Square Theatre's "other place," the new Andy Boss thrust stage* that opened just last fall. Even though it still smells like new construction, it already feels like a solid and necessary part of Park Square's programming. It allows room for plays like this, a short, compact, and impactful story of a woman in crisis and the people that love her.

Juliana is a top neuroscientist who has discovered a breakthrough drug that she is promoting to doctors around the world. While lecturing at a conference in St. Thomas, she has what she calls an "episode." She assumes that it's brain cancer because of a family history, but perhaps it's something different and even more scary. She's convinced her husband is cheating on her and filing for a divorce, even though he appears nothing but supportive. Something isn't quite right about her relationship with her daughter, who ran away years ago. All of this unfolds almost in a stream of consciousness sort of way, as we move around in time, place, memory, and possible hallucinations. The plot is like a puzzle, with pieces falling into place until we finally get the whole picture of what's going on with Juliana and what happened to her daughter. It's almost like we're inside Juliana's head as she struggles to make sense of a life she no longer recognizes.

James A. Williams and Linda Kelsey
(photo by Petronella J Ytsma)
The story is brought to life on the sparse and breezy set through strong and believable performances by the four-person cast. Linda Kelsey inhabits the character of Juliana as someone who varies between flustered and in control, uncertain and confident, belligerent and loving. James A. Williams is her supportive but frustrated husband. Joy Dolo smoothly transitions between several women in Juliana's life - willful teenage daughter, exasperated adult daughter, concerned therapist, and annoyed woman she encounters. Matt Wall rounds out the cast as Juliana's estranged son-in-law and several other characters. Juliana's interactions with these minor characters reflect her declining state of mind.

At under 90 minutes, The Other Place is cleverly and smartly written by playwright Sharr White, with language and interactions efficiently used to convey emotion and tell the story of this once strong and now lost woman. The ending is achingly beautiful, as Juliana comes to a sort of peace with the state of her life, reflected in lovely video projections (by Kristin Ellert, who also designed the set). It's moving, poignant, funny, devastating, and hopeful. Playing now through April 19 on Park Square's Boss Stage.

*Click here to read about Shooting Star, now playing on Park Square's Proscenium Stage.

"And the World Goes 'Round" at Jungle Theater

Legendary musical theater composing duo John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote over a dozen musicals for the American stage, from their early success Cabaret in the 1960s, through their final collaboration Scottsboro Boys, premiering after Ebb's death (with a pre-Broadway engagement at our own Guthrie Theater). And the World Goes 'Round, now playing at the Jungle Theater, is a musical revue of their songs, taking its title from the movie New York, New York. Surprisingly, I've only see four of their shows (including their two most recent ones which are not in this collection), so many of the songs were new to me. It was a delight to hear the work of this talented composing team performed by a fantastic cast of seven.

There's very little dialogue or context for the songs, just one hit after another. Director John Command notes in the playbill that he learned from Liza Minnelli (Kander and Ebb's muse) "to perform every song as if it were 'a one-act play!'" He accomplishes that here, as each song tells a story, whether funny or tragic, and makes me want to see the full musicals from which they came.

the cast of And the World Goes 'Round
(photo by Michel Daniel)
Music director extraordinaire Raymond Berg leads an onstage six-piece band that sounds impossibly smooth. The whole show has a bit of a swanky, jazzy feel, including Bain Boehlke's rich set design and the choreography that's reminiscent of the original shows. The talented cast includes Bradley Greenwald (who memorably played the Emcee in Frank Theater's gloriously seedy production of Cabaret four years ago), Tiffany Seymour, Jon Whittier, Therese Walth, William Gilness, Emily Rose Skinner, and Betti Battocletti.

Highlights include:
  • The title song, which is nicely woven throughout the show and occasionally serves as transitions between songs.
  • A super high energy performance of the song "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup*," a song I love but didn't know it was Kander and Ebb!
  • All of the Chicago songs, including and especially "All That Jazz."
  • Mournful love songs were paired together and a bit overlapped, including Bradley and Bill singing "I Don't Remember You" and "Sometimes a Day Goes By," and Jon, Therese, and Emily singing "We Can Make It," "Maybe This Time," and "Isn't This Better!"
  • A rousing Act I ending number "Life Is" from Zorba, which continues "what you do when you're waiting to die, life is how the time goes by!"
  • Bradley's delicious performance of the title song from Kiss of the Spider Woman (calling local musical theater companies - please stage this show and cast Bradely as the lead!).
  • A very funny double duet of "The Grass is Always Greener" from Woman of the Year by Tiffany, Emily, Bill, and Bradley.
  • A super jazzy version of "Cabaret" featuring the entire company, unlike I've ever heard it sung before.
And the World Goes 'Round is a cleverly staged homage to two of our greatest musical theater composers, beautifully performed by cast and band - a perfectly pleasant evening of musical theater (continuing at the Jungle through May 24).

*You can get Dunn Brothers coffee in a cardboard cup at the concession stand for only a dollar - best coffee deal in town!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

"Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play" at the Guthrie Theater

I must confess: I've never seen a single episode of The Simpsons. Of course since I don't live under a rock, I'm vaguely aware of Marge, Homer, Bart and the gang. But this is one pop culture phenomenon that has passed me by. Even so, I can appreciate playwright Anne Washburn's play Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, which uses The Simpsons to explore how pop culture survives after an apocalyptic event. While knowledge of The Simpsons might make the play more enjoyable (as evidenced by the people guffawing at every line in the row in front of me), it's still a fascinating look at survival and finding joy even in devastation.

The play feels like it's made up of three very different short plays. The first act takes place shortly after the nuclear disasters happened, causing "the grid" to go down. We meet a group of survivors, who are entertaining themselves by reminiscing about their favorite episode of The Simpsons, "Cape Feare," even while brandishing guns to protect themselves from intruders. Think The Walking Dead, except that between killing zombies, Rick and company talk about TV (maybe they do, we just don't see those scenes). To continue with the TV references, the tone of the show is somewhere between The Walking Dead and The Last Man on Earth, because it's a bit silly, but with a real undercurrent of darkness as survivors ask newcomers if they have any news about their missing loved ones.

the theater troupe performs (photo by Kevin Berne)
In the second act, we jump forward seven years to a time when things are still pretty messed up, but there are traveling theater troupes that perform episodes from TV shows. And apparently theater too, but who wants to watch Shakespeare when you can watch The Simpsons? Our group has formed one such troupe, and is in competition with other troupes. The group has differing opinions about whether their job is strictly to provide a much needed escape in a bleak world, or to enlighten and engage on a deeper level. Before the matter is settled, we jump forward another 75 years, after an intermission during which the cast dons extreme and specific make-up to transform themselves into characters from The Simpsons. The last act is the finished product of what was begun 75 years ago - a musical that blends the story of the apocalypse with "Cape Feare."

Mr. Burns is a bit of a hodgepodge, with serious, poignant, and very real scenes interspersed with the absurd - a music video montage of pop songs, a commercial for... something... that goes on and on, and the entire third act musical sequence. It's truly bizarro, but mostly in a good way. The original songs are great (music by Michael Friedman and lyrics by the playwright), and cleverly tie in several pop culture themes. And kudos to costume designer Alex Jaeger for covering the whole scope from apocalypse gear, to makeshift theater production, to amazingly bright and detailed Simpsons costumes for the musical.

Because this is a co-production with San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, I was expecting a cast of unfamiliars. So I was pleasantly surprised to see local favorites Charity Jones (a traumatized survivor turned director), Andrea Wollenberg (who beautifully carries most of the singing weight in the third act), and Jim Lichtsheidl (I don't now about you, but if I'm ever in an apocalyptic situation, I'd like to be trapped with Jim Lichtsheidl singing Gilbert and Sullivan). Combined with the non-locals, they form a tight cast that willingly and enthusiastically jumps in with both feet, whatever the script calls for. In particular, Ryan Williams French gives a deliciously evil performance as the musical's villain.

Even though I'm not a fan of The Simpsons, and some of the references might have gone over my head, and some of the re-creations went on a bit long for my taste, Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is no doubt incredibly creative and inventive. I'm sure if my TV were taken away from me, I'd search out anyone I could to discuss the finer points of my favorite episodes of The Office ("Booze Cruise" anyone?) or Game of Thrones.

The apocalypse is a popular theme in pop culture, so it's quite fitting and fascinating to see an exploration of pop culture in an apocalypse. It's about how we tell our stories, whether that's through theater, or television, or around a campfire, or whatever medium is left when all the lights go out.  Mr. Burns continues through May 9 on the Guthrie's Proscenium Stage.

Monday, April 6, 2015

"Shooting Star" at Park Square Theatre

A chance meeting with an ex-lover at a snowed-in airport, the opportunity to say all the things you couldn't say when things ended 25 years ago. Such is the premise of Steven Dietz's play Shooting Star, a two-hander now playing on Park Square Theatre's Proscenium Stage. When the two hands are Sally Wingert and Mark Benninghofen*, with a premise as full of promise as this one is, you know you're in for a treat. And a treat this is - a funny, engaging, and bittersweet play that leaves you with a wistful feeling and a pleasant ache in the heart where long-ago memories are held.

It's 2006, and Elena and Reed meet at an airport in Canada in the middle of what could be the "blizzard of the century," never mind that the century is only a few years old. We learn from asides by both characters that they immediately recognize each other from a pretty serious relationship that ended 25 years ago, during the free-love '70s. Turns out love is not so free, as these two have definitely carry around some leftover baggage through the intervening years. Elena is still a bit of a free spirit, but could never find anyone better than Reed, who's now a conservative businessman with a difficult relationship with his wife and daughter. With both of their flights delayed and nowhere to go, the two are unable to avoid each other, and engage in some awkward small talk that leads to something deeper as the barriers of time come down. A trip to the airport bar means things get even more real, and Reed and Elena realize they still have a connection. But is it something worth pursing after fate has brought them together again, or is it something that's better left in the past?

Mark Benninghofen and Sally Wingert
(photo by Petronella J Ytsma)
Shooting Star is one of those real and messy love stories, perfectly encapsulating an intense and intimate experience between two people that may or may not result in "happily ever after," but is meaningful and true nonetheless (see also Once). Steven Dietz's clever choice to give both characters multiple asides in which they speak directly to the audience in a conversational way gives us insights into their thoughts, making us feel like confidantes and drawing us right into the story. Sally Wingert and Mark Benninghofen use the sharp writing to create two characters that feel very real; Elena and Reed are both flawed and very human. Mark and Sally are both incredibly natural on stage and have a beautiful chemistry that goes from prickly to familiar, bitter to loving. They're given a fantastic playground in Kit Mayer's set that is the perfect model of a cold, linear airport, familiar to travelers everywhere.

Shooting Star is a funny, tender, bittersweet gem of a play about closure, connection, and coming to terms with the past. It's a comedy with depth and heart (continuing through April 19).

*You can also see Mark Benninghofen (and James A. Williams, pictured on the bottom half of the playbill and currently appearing on Park Square's Boss Stage in The Other Place) on the big screen in the locally made movie The Public Domain, now playing at the Lagoon in Uptown.