Friday, April 24, 2015

"Detroit '67" at Penumbra Theatre

1967 Detroit was one of the high points in American music with the boom of the Motown sound, including such greats as The Temptations, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and little Stevie Wonder. But it was also one of the low points in American racial tension, as manifested in one of the largest riots in history that ended with over 40 people killed and over 1000 injured. The new play Detroit '67 by Dominique Morisseau nicely juxtaposes these two worlds as they come together in a clash of music and violence, as seen through the lives of one family. Featuring a super cool soundtrack and a strong five-person cast, Detroit '67 is as much fun and entertaining as it is sobering and thought-provoking.

Sister and brother Chelle and Lank have inherited their deceased parents' home and a little money. With the help of their friends Bunny and Sly, they've turned the basement into an occasional dance club, to enjoy music with their friends and make a little money to help with Chelle's son's education. The widowed Chelle is happy with the simple life, keeping a nice home and making some extra money to send to her son, but Lank longs for something more. When Sly asks him to go in with him to invest in a local bar, Lank jumps at the chance despite his sister's objections. While out one night, Sly and Lank come across a mysterious and injured young white woman and bring her back to the house to recover. Chelle is not happy with this, knowing the trouble it could bring in segregated Detroit, but reluctantly agrees to let the girl stay if she helps around the house. She has a past that, when she reveals it to Lank, bonds the two of them. When the riots start, Lank and Sly are right in the middle of it, trying to protect their new business. It doesn't end well, but no matter what happens, the music lives on. And so do these people, as best they can.

Chelle and Sly (Austene Van and James T. Alfred) dance as
Caroline (Elizabeth Efteland) looks on (photo by Bridget Bennett)
As Chelle and Lank, Austene Van and Darius Dotch are believable as siblings who love each other even when they're annoyed with each other, and also create strong individual characters. Austene's Chelle is guarded but seemingly content with her life, not wanting to change or take a chance, until she begins to open up culminating in a beautiful final moment. Darius' Lank is ambitious and bristles at the unfairness of life. James T. Alfred as Sly is as smooth as his suit, and easily charms both siblings. Jamecia Bennett is a hoot as the flamboyant Bunny, and Elizabeth Efteland is appropriately enigmatic as the mysterious stranger who's obviously had a tough life and is looking for more. Under Shirley Jo Finney's direction the five play, argue, and dance well together.

another dancing couple: Bunny and Lank (Jamecia Bennett
and Darius Dotch, photo by Bridget Bennett)
I'm a sucker for period costumes and sets, and the late '60s is one of my favorite eras. This Detroit basement may be about as far away as you can get from the Madison Avenue of Mad Men, but it's super fabulous in its own way. Firstly, Mathew LeFebvre's set is incredibly detailed and lived in, like it was transported in a time capsule from 1967. And while I missed the '60s by a few years, I still reveled in the nostalgic familiarity of the shag carpet, wood paneling, 8-track player, knitted afghan on the couch, and bright clashing colors, not dissimilar to my own basement as a kid. I only wish mine were this cool! Aaron Chvatal's costumes are also super fabulous, from Sly's smooth suits, to Chelle's casual wear and flats, to the dressed-to-the-nines Bunny, bedecked in bright and colorful dresses, with matching fab shoes that I covet, and plenty of bangles. And while part of me wanted to see that basement dance party in all its style, it's nicely hinted at by dancing shadows on the wall (video and sound design by Martin Gwinup, whom I assume is also to be thanked for that fabulous '60s soundtrack).

Penumbra always does top quality work, and often educates me about parts of our history of which I am unaware, like the 1967 Detroit riots. It's one of my favorite things about theater - a chance to be entertained while also learning something new, empathizing with characters, and pondering what it all means and how it relates to the world (black men being killed by cops is sadly not a relic of the past). Detroit '67 continues at St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre through May 17.

Monday, April 20, 2015

"Broadway Songbook: Rock & Roll on Broadway" at the Ordway Center

In case the Ordway was not sufficiently rocked in the recent month-long "Rock the Ordway" celebration, the rockification continued with the most recent installment of the Broadway Songbook series, in which Artistic Director James Rocco hosts an evening of musical theater education and entertainment. The theme of this Songbook, which ran for only three performances last weekend (why so short?) is "Rock & Roll on Broadway," not "Rock Musicals," an important distinction. The songlist was comprised of songs not just from rock musicals written for the stage, but also jukebox musicals or concept albums that made it to the stage. A continuation of last fall's "First 100 Years on Broadway," the show focused on rock and pop songs being heard on the Broadway stage in various formats. And as per usual with this series, the result was a marvelously entertaining, informative, fun, informal evening featuring great songs performed by a fantastic cast.

This was my first time in the Ordway's new Concert Hall (a brief detour on the way to see Bernadette Peters notwithstanding), and I found it to be a lovely space. Despite seating 1100 people, it doesn't feel huge, in fact it has a similar intimacy to the old McKnight Theatre, which was demolished to make room for the Concert Hall. In the interim, Broadway Songbooks were presented on the huge stage of the Ordway's main theater, with the audience sitting right on the stage along with the performers on a small stage at the very back of the space. It was fun to be on that stage, but it was a bit of an awkward experience to watch a show there, so I'm happy it's now moved into the Concert Hall. The new space has its own new bathrooms, which is handy, but it would be nice if it also had its own bar and especially box office, to ease the flow of people entering the theater.

But enough about that - on to the show! Host James (who happily can't resist singing a bit) and musical director Raymond Berg (taking the weekend off from his current gig music directing And the World Goes 'Round at the Jungle) are joined by a rockin' band consisting of percussion and two guitars. They have also assembled a dream cast of local favorites. Any day that I can sit in a dark room and listen to Dieter Bierbrauer sing is a good day in my book. So this was a good day, and then some! Dieter was only one of seven amazingly talented performers, including frequent stage partner Randy Schmeling (whom I've seen perform together numerous times over the years including Hair and Power Balladz, more on those a bit later). And then we have Eric Schwab, who is pretty much the best thing ever to happen to musical theater cabarets. She is genius at a very specific and difficult skill - singing comedically. She's absolutely hilarious, singing almost in a campy way sometimes, but yet her voice is never less than perfect, and she does it all in an easy, effortless, fun way that makes it impossible for the audience not to have fun with her. This cast also features Caroline Innerbichler with her lovely voice, infectious spirit, and toned torso (see also The Little Mermaid); the Ursula to Caroline's Ariel - Kersten Rodau of the huge and powerful voice in the tiny body; the adorable and talented Reid Harmsen (who will always be Mark to me); and Yolande Bruce, who is new to me but fits in well with the group and brings her own unique talents.

For this very special Songbook, the cast traded in their usual evening gowns and tuxes for leather, denim, and bare midriffs. They were all in for the rock and roll theme! But the best part is they really performed each song with conviction and emotion, as if it was excerpted from a full production. Many of the songs were so fantastic that I wanted them to continue and do the entire musical! But instead, we got lots of little gems, including:
  • A glorious medley from the Hair, the American tribal love-rock musical, started the show. Which pleased me not just because I'm obsessed with a big fan of the show, but because it featured Randy and Dieter from the first production of Hair I ever saw (at the Pantages Theatre 11 years ago), and Caroline, from the most recent production I've seen (by 7th House two years ago).
  • Another glorious medley, from my favorite musical RENT, which James rightly called "the heir to Hair," ended the first act. It included "La Vie Boheme" (with Reid reprising his role as Mark from a local production five years ago), the poignant "No Day But Today," and of course, "Seasons of Love."
  • As usual, Professor Rocco enlightened me about a few musicals I had never heard of - Chess (music by Abba) and Purlie. And "Muddy Water" from Roger Miller's Big River makes me want to see that show!
  • Kersten makes an excellent Eva Peron, singing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from Evita.
  • The second act opened with the boys singing "The Bitch of Living" from Spring Awakening, and although I wondered how some of the typical Songbook audience (which skews a bit older) reacted, I was thrilled!
  • And I was even more thrilled to hear a few songs from another one of my favorites, the brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. With Kersten and Dieter as the parents and Caroline and Randy as the kids in this beautifully dysfunctional family, I wanted this one to continue. But lucky for me, and any of you with a N2N craving, Yellow Tree Theatre is currently producing the show in their intimate space.
  • Power Balladz is not a Broadway musical, but rather a locally grown '80s rock jukebox musical that made it all the way to Off-Broadway. But since this show reunites the original cast-members, they had to do a number from the show. And they picked a good one - Dieter, Randy, and Erin singing Dream On was a highlight of the night.
  • In general, I'm not a fan of jukebox musicals. I don't think their presence on Broadway is something to be celebrated, I think it's the death of Broadway! But I guess it's important to acknowledge the ugly parts of our history so we can learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. ;) As James said about Mamma Mia, "If you didn't know the songs already existed you'd think they were written for the story ... not!" But still, it was fun to hear the girls sing "Dancing Queen."
  • Jersey Boys* is the exception that proves the jukebox musical rule (a cleverly written book that illuminates the real life story of The Four Seasons), and Randy nicely channeled Frankie Valli's sweet falsetto backed up by Dieter and Reid, with some snappy choreography.
  • "I'm A Woman" is another song not written for the stage, but included in Smokey Joe's Cafe. But who cares when these four fantastic W-O-M-E-N brought the house down with their version!
  • You can't cover everything in two hours, but one obvious omission was American Idiot, based on Green Day's concept album, another heir to Hair and RENT. And as long as we're including music not written for the stage, how about Once**, featuring music that one could call folk-rock by my favorite musician Glen Hansard?
The Broadway Songbook series is a must for musical theater nerds fans like me, and "Rock & Roll on Broadway" was another great installment! While I would have preferred fewer jukebox musicals and more original rock musicals, I loved every song as performed by this cast and band. The entertaining musical theater education continues this fall with "The 70s Songbook." But before then you can catch not one but two Ordway original productions featuring local talent, hopefully including this cast! Damn Yankees plays in June, and Pirates of Penzance in August. Hooray for "Broadway-style/quality" (whatever that's supposed to mean) musicals produced right here in the Twin Cities!

*You can see Jersey Boys next week, on tour at the Orpheum Theatre.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Pussy Valley" at Mixed Blood Theatre

You know a play titled Pussy Valley is going to be on the edge, not your typical evening at the theater. And boy does it deliver! Mixed Blood Theatre's world premiere of the new play by Katori Hall (whose work was last seen last year on the Guthrie Proscenium Stage - the beautiful and imaginative The Mountaintop) is a raw and edgy look at the life of pole dancers in the Deep South. The playwright digs deep into this very specific world to find universal human truths. The result is funny, sexy, heart-breaking, and devastating, and yes, features some pretty awesome pole-dancing.

At the Pink Pony, we meet four very different women, whose life experiences have brought them to the pole for different reasons. There's tough Mercedes (an amazingly fit and fierce Jasmine Hughes), who uses her earnings to support her preacher father's church; fourth-generation pole dancer Get 'Em Gidget (the graceful Megan Rippey), who longs for somewhere that's green; mother of three Miss Mississippi (a vulnerable Joetta Wright), who hopes to escape her abusive boyfriend for the bright lights of L.A.; and mysterious newcomer Autumn Night (an enigmatic Tatiana Williams). Autumn's story is never fully revealed; she says that she's "all of the above," but maybe she represents anyone who's one step away from doing something desperate, daring, and dangerous, for a multitude of reasons. Presiding over the club like a cross between a mother hen and a warden is the cross-dressing Uncle Clifford, with an outstanding performance by Nicco Annan that is both hilariously entertaining and heart-breakingly vulnerable. They're supported by a wonderful cast of men (including James Craven as the preacher, Dustin Bronson in a Jekyll/Hyde performance as both Gidget's sweet boyfriend and Mississippi's horribly abusive boyfriend, and Ansa Akyea as the club bouncer and Mississippi's wealthy suitor), but this is really the women's story.

Get 'Em Gidget, Mercedes, and Miss Mississippi
(Megan Rippey, Jasmine Hughes,
and Joetta Wright, photo by Rich Ryan)
Each of the four women goes through her own personal journey over the course of the show, some for the better, some not so much. They each have a sort of dreamlike moment on the pole in which they express its deeper meaning in their life, in a weird way sort of like A Chorus Line (which just celebrated its 40th anniversary), only with pole dancers instead of chorus dancers. What it comes down to is that they're working towards a better life, for themselves, their children, their family, and pole dancing is the way that they've found to do that. Only they're never quite able to break out of it. On the one hand they're exploited and abused by the men around them, but on the other they own their power and take great pride in the artistry of the pole.

Speaking of artistry, the actors trained for a year to get in pole dancing shape,* and it's quite amazing what they've accomplished in that time. They're as strong, athletic, and graceful as professional pole dancers. OK I've never actually seen professional pole dancers, but I'm certain these women measure up! They physically and emotionally bring these complex and varied women to life.

Set designer Joseph Stanley has created the Pink Pony onstage with poles, a bar, and red velvet curtains. Although I'm surprised that the black box theater is set up as a traditional proscenium, especially after Colossal's brilliantly recreated football stadium. It would have been interesting to see a thrust set-up or something more intimate and club-like. Trevor Bowen's costume design brings authenticity to this world, and manages to create a specific personality for each of the women out of costumes that are in some cases just a swatch of spandex. Those of you sensitive to strobe lights, take note that there is ample use of them in this show, which creates some cool effects, but was a bit too much for my system to handle. I also had a hard time understanding some of the characters' accents, it's a very specific dialect, but fortunately Mixed Blood always has surtitles in their shows as yet another manifestation of their commitment to diversity of all kinds, including hearing ability.

Despite the salacious title and the presence of mostly naked women dancing on poles, Pussy Valley is a complex, deep, emotional story. I'm not sure it needs to be three hours long (I'm not sure any entertainment needs to be three hours long, other than Shakespeare and Sondheim and Lord of the Rings movies). There are a few scenes that could be trimmed or cut to make the story more compact, but it's an epic story. One that's difficult to watch at times because of the emotional and physical violence portrayed, but one that is compelling and engaging and hits you right in the gut. Playing now through May 20 - reserve tickets online for $20, or take your chances and show up within two hours before the show for free tickets as part of Mixed Blood's "Radical Hospitality" program.

*I predict a surge in pole dance classes in the next few weeks, check out Knockout Bodies in NE Minneapolis as an example.

"The Crucible" at the Guthrie Theater

Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible is a classic of the American theater, and dramatizes one of the greatest failings of the American, or rather pre-American, judicial system. During the infamous Salem witch trials of the late 17th Century, twenty people were put to death for the crime of witchcraft, following a long history of the execution of "witches" in Europe. Arthur Miller explores the larger themes of this horrible incident through a very personal story of one affected family, making the play at once intimate and epic. Despite being over 60 years old, the themes of religious fanaticism, mob mentality, and persecution of people who are different are sadly as current as they were during the McCarthy era when the play was written. The Guthrie's grand production of this classic with a cast chock-full of talent is truly something to behold. It's long and intense, but somehow the nearly three hours didn't feel long to me; I was engaged every minute by this compelling story and these beautifully flawed and human characters.

The story begins when the Reverend Parris discovers several young women, including his daughter Betty and niece Abigail, dancing in the woods. Yes, dancing! Betty is afflicted by a strange illness that is blamed on the family's Barbadian slave who is accused of conjuring spirits. In what amounts to a harmless prank gone horribly wrong (never underestimate the power of teenage girls), the girls continue to accuse more and more people of witchcraft, who are given the option of confessing or hanging. The whole thing spirals out of control and Abigail soon accuses her former employer/lover John Proctor's wife, an honest and well-respected woman. John attempts to defend his wife but is powerless against the mass hysteria that has overtaken the community. But somehow in the midst this devastating event, he's able to face the truth and become the best version of himself.

the deputy-governor and John Proctor (Stephen Yoakam and
Erik Heger) with the accusers (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
This is a huge play with many characters but just four long scenes, each of which is like a mini play in itself with several different segments and lots of people entering and exiting. All of it is beautifully orchestrated by the Guthrie's departing Artistic Director Joe Dowling. Joe has directed several Arthur Miller* plays at the Guthrie in his 20-year tenure, but this is his first time doing The Crucible here, and it's a beautiful swan song. The 20+ person cast truly is an embarrassment of riches. There are so many wonderful, experienced, beloved actors who pass through the story for just a moment or two. I'm wondering if some of them took the role just to be part of one of Joe Dowling's last productions at the Guthrie.**

Michelle O'Neill and Erik Heger as
Elizabeth and John Proctor
(photo by T. Charles Erickson)
This production reunites Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth from the 2010 production at the Guthrie (one of my favorites that year) as Mr. and Mrs. Proctor. Michelle O'Neill gives a quietly powerful and emotional performance, and Erik Heger is, as he was five years ago, just magnificent. John Proctor is the kind of role that covers the full range of emotions, from angry to devastated, proud to broken, and Erik hits every note. So raw, so emotional, he has the audience in the palm of his hand in the final climactic scene.

Other highlights in this huge and talented cast include: Stephen Yoakam, always a strong and formidable presence onstage and therefore a perfect choice to play the deputy-governor in charge of the legal proceedings; beloved Guthrie vet Peter Michael Goetz, bringing welcome comic relief through the role of Giles Corey, who was tried along with his wife; the great Wendy Lehr, who could bring comfort to any bewitched person, as noble accused Goody Nurse; and several graduates and students of the U of M/Guthrie BFA program (aka the Guthrie's rich farm system), including Chloe Armao as instigator Abigail Williams, and Ashley Rose Montondo, going from sane and sympathetic friend of the Proctors to full out crazy as Mary Warren.

For the opening dancing-in-the-woods scene, a dozen or so large heavy trees hang just above the stage, their roots not quite touching. They are then raised to the ceiling and hang over the rest of the proceedings like a dark cloud. Ominous sounds and lighting add to the somber and heavy mood (set, lighting, and sound by Richard Hoover, Mark McCullough, and Scott W. Edwards). Jane Greenwood's prim and proper period costumes look so authentic you feel like you're right back there in 1692.

As a theater geek I should have seen this play before now, but I have not, and only have vague memories of the 1996 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. Now I get why it's such a classic - an important and frightening incident in our history that still has echos in today's world, a personal story of one man's struggle with honor, faith, and redemption, an intense and compelling three hours of theater. It's also a powerful argument for why the separation of church and state is absolutely essential and one of the best things about this country, so that no one person's religious belief is allowed to take away the rights, or in this case the life, of another person who's seen to be in some way evil under that belief.

The two shows on the Guthrie's main stages right now are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play on the Proscenium Stage is a new, modern, creative, and innovative play. Across the lobby on the Thrust Stage, The Crucible is a fine and faithful production of a beloved and acclaimed classic. For traditional theater excellently executed with a huge cast full of mostly local talent and top-notch production values, it's a play not to be missed (playing now through May 24).

*Read more about Joe Dowling and the Guthrie Theater's relationship with Arthur Miller here.
**The Guthrie will celebrate Joe Dowling in a gala performance on June 6 - limited seats still available.

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