Sunday, September 21, 2014

"If We Were Birds" by 20% Theatre Company at nimbus theatre

This is a tough one, friends. 20% Theatre Company's production of the new play If We Were Birds is not easy to watch, but it is so worth it if you can steel yourself to sit through what might be the most realistically brutal scenes I've ever seen on stage. There is a rape scene, actually more than one, that is so painful and difficult to watch that it almost seems gratuitous if it were not for the fact that too many women live this experience every day, on college campuses, in the military, at the hands of trusted friends, or in the spoils of war, which is the focus of this piece. Based on the Greek mythical characters, sisters and princesses of Athens Procne and Philomela, the play is, as director Lee Hannah Conrads notes in the program, "a classical interpretation of a contemporary tragedy."

Beloved daughters of King Pandion of Athens, Procne and Philomela live a happy and comfortable life. Younger daughter Philomela seems especially blissful and ignorant of the troubles that those who are not in her privileged position face. When celebrated soldier King Tereus of Thrace brings a gift of slaves to Pandion, Philomela is shocked at what they have to say and defensive of her father and way of life. To reward Tereus for his victories in battle, Pandion gives him his oldest daughter's hand in marriage. Procne must leave her sister and home to be a wife of the king. After a few years of a mostly happy life, Procne asks her husband to return to Athens and bring her sister for a visit. Tereus obliges, but on the return voyage he finds that he wants Philomela, so he sets her up in a cabin where he repeatedly rapes and tortures her. When Procne finds out, she vows revenge, and the sisters serve him up some black-eyed peas... or something. Something so dark and twisted only the Greeks could think it up.

Procne (Jill Iverson)
Philomela (Suzi Gard)
The talented cast includes six women playing the Greek Chorus, each of whom represents a victim of sexual violence in a 20th Century war (or so the program notes; I didn't get that from the play itself, perhaps due to my own ignorance of foreign affairs). Dann Peterson is the warm loving father who reluctantly gives his daughters over to this man he admires a bit too much, Ethan Bjelland is menacing and frightening in his portrayal of the utterly reprehensible Tereus, and Jill Iverson gives a fierce performance as the protective older sister. But the star of this show is Suzi Gard as Philomela. Hers is a fearless performance, full of vulnerability and strength, and incredibly brave. She is literally thrown and dragged across the stage, wearing next to nothing, exposing herself physically and emotionally. Suzi's Philomela makes a believable transition from a carefree happy young woman to something scarred and broken, yet resilient. Kudos to fight coordinator Jessica Smith for making it all look so painfully real.

Tereus is a soldier who is unable to turn off his violent side when away from the battle field. I couldn't help but think of the recent allegations of domestic abuse and violence against NFL players, men who are also trained to be violent and aggressive at their jobs, some of whom seem unable to turn it off when they get home. This is definitely not a play that resides only in the past.

If We Were Birds is beautifully written by playwright Erin Shields; it feels epic and mythical, but also fresh and modern. The subject is a difficult one but one that's important to witness and examine, something that this production and this cast do well. It's a short run and playing through this weekend only, so get their quickly to experience this challenging and rewarding piece (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Middle Brother" by Mu Performing Arts at the Southern Theater

I love Mu Performing Arts' unique take on classical musicals with Asian-American casts, most recently a gorgeous production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music. But what they do best is foster and produce new work about the Asian-American experience, which is of course part of the American experience. Middle Brother, written by frequent Mu actor and their Marketing Coordinator Eric Sharp, is one such piece. Eric draws on his own experience as a Korean adoptee who returns to Korea as an adult and tells a similar story about a character named Billy in a funny, poignant, fantastical, imaginative way.

Middle Brother is not so much a linear story as a series of vignettes, dreams, scenes, and fantasies. We meet Billy as he's about to leave his home state of Iowa to visit Korea for a few months, hoping to learn more about his heritage and blend into society. Of course it's not that easy, as he finds himself not quite fitting in, a feeling with which he's familiar. In addition to Billy (played by the playwright), five actors (Audrey Park, Michael Sung-Ho, Sara Ochs, Sherwin Resurreccion, and Su-Yoon Ko) portray a sort of Greek Chorus, or in this case Korean Chorus, as well as other characters in the story. The play starts out almost interactive, with the Chorus speaking directly to the audience and defining the two worlds in a clever way. We see scenes of Billy interacting with his younger brother, also adopted from Korea but with little interest it. In Korea, he learns that he also has a biological older brother (hence the title), who he meets and begins to learn about his family. Or does he? Interspersed with these scenes are fantasy sequences about Billy being born to the royal family and he and his prince brother playing (like when Annie sings "Maybe," imagining what her biological parents were like). My linear logical brain had a bit of a hard time understanding which parts were "real" and which were "fantasy." I wanted to know what really happened to Billy, his brother, and his parents, but maybe the point is that answers in transnational adoptions aren't so easy to come by.

the cast of Middle Brother (photo by Michal Daniel)
This piece features an inventive use of space, props, and storytelling. One large set piece dominates the space at the Southern theater, a raised platform with arches that the actors climb on and crawl under. A matching smaller piece on wheels functions as a literal bridge between the two worlds, a plane, and a hospital bed (set and props by John Francis Bueche). The recurring original song "Holy Crap, Here I Am*" sung in Korean Karaoke style expresses Billy's feelings more than mere words can.

I was surprised to read in the program that over 100,000 children have been adopted out of Korea since 1953. This play doesn't offer answers to the issues that adoptees face so much as share one person's experience. It's amusing, entertaining, and effective, if a bit difficult to understand at times for the literal minded. Playing now through September 18, with discount tickets available on Goldstar.


*Listen to Eric talk about writing the song "Holy Crap, Here I Am" on the new music-theater podcast Twin Cities Song Story.

Friday, September 19, 2014

"The Rainmaker" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Sometimes something or someone comes along in life that changes everything. Such is Starbuck, aka The Rainmaker, to the Curry family in Depression era middle America in N. Richard Nash's play 60-year-old play. Yellow Tree Theatre is mounting a lovely new production of this play with an all-star team of YTT regulars and newcomers. It's funny and sweet, hopeful and devastating, a prime example of the beautiful theater that Yellow Tree has been doing for going on seven years, made only richer by the influx of talent from the larger Twin Cities theater scene.

The Curry family consists of patriarch H.C., smart and capable daughter Lizzie, older son Noah who runs the ranch, and the youngest, the easygoing Jimmy. The boys are worried about Lizzie's future and try to marry her off, first by sending her to a nearby town to stay with a family with six sons, then by inviting the local deputy over for dinner. But Lizzie isn't like other the other girls in town, flighty and flirty and intent on "getting a man the way he needs to get got." She speaks her mind, and thinks that no man would want her because she's always been told that she's plain. One hot, dry night, a stranger shows up and offers them something they're all craving - rain. Gullible Nathan believes him, practical Lizzie and Noah do not, but H.C. wants to give it a chance just in the hopes of something happening.

Something does happen, maybe not what they expected, but something that changes all of their lives. Whether or not Starbuck is a rainmaker as he claims remains to be seen, but what he is is a dreamweaver, a catalyst for change to get them out of this rut they've fallen into. He's Professor Harold Hill, come to sell River City, or in this case, the Curry family, something more than a big band or rain, something much more vital - hope for the future, faith in something, and a belief in oneself. He teaches Lizzie to say "I'm pretty" and mean it, but it's not really about being "pretty," it's about believing she's a beautiful woman deserving of love and happiness and all that life has to offer. Even though the plotline about "marry her off before she becomes an old maid" could seem sexist and offensive, it's a product of its time and really represents any longed for and almost given up dream.

Lizzie and Starbuck (Dawn Brodey and
Peter Christian Hansen, photo by Keri Pickett)
Ivey Award winning director Craig Johnson brings out the best in this excellent cast. When Peter Christian Hansen's Starbuck says that he can bring the rain, I believe him, so perfectly does he portray this con man's confidence and determination, but also his uncertainty and insecurity that he only reveals to Lizzie in quiet moments. I've been a Dawn Brodey fan for a few years, but this may be the best I've ever seen her - so real and raw and natural; you can read Lizzie's every thought and emotion in her facial expressions and body language. Pat O'Brien brings a warm compassion to the role of H.C., who only wants the best for his three very different children. Nathan Cousins is adorable as the simple young Jimmy, and provides much of the humor, while James Rodriguez as the pragmatic Noah is the strong center of the family who may act like a jerk sometimes but has the best of intentions. Rounding out the cast are Tim Tengblad as the friendly town Sheriff who talks Jason Peterson's reluctantly charming Deputy File into letting go of past pain and his life of solitude for something more.

the Curry family at breakfast (photo by Keri Pickett)
Yellow Tree's intimate stage is crowded with furniture in the cozy Curry home, with an elevated part in the back as the Sheriff's office and, later, the tack room, allowing for easy and subtle transitions between scenes (scenic design by Eli Schlatter). It's so wonderful to be in that small intimate space, where you can see the expressions on the actors' faces up close and personal. There's nowhere to hide and no need to; each of them is so present in every moment, you could spend the entire show just focused on one of their faces and get a full experience of the story, although a slightly different one depending on who you chose.

This play marks the opening of Yellow Tree Theatre's 7th season in the little strip mall in Osseo. I've been with them since the 3rd season, and it's been a pleasure to watch them grow and succeed. They have a wonderful pool of talent that they regularly pull from, but to see them bring in the likes of Ivey Award winners Craig Johnson and Peter Hansen says a lot about how far they've come. I love to see the mixing and mingling of talent at theaters around town; I think it makes everyone better, as can be seen in this piece. The Rainmaker is a beautiful play and a beautiful experience at the theater. Head up to Osseo and spend some time with these warm, funny, stubborn, flawed, relatable people as someone comes into their lives and shakes things up so they'll never be the same.

"Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet" by Pillsbury House Theatre and The Mount Curve Company at the Guthrie Theater

With programming on three beautiful and very different stages, the Guthrie Theater provides a great opportunity to see multiple shows, even on the same day. And with free wifi, multiple dining options including a lovely little coffee/snack bar, and plenty of cozy places to sit, the Guthrie is an inviting place to spend the day. I took advantage of this opportunity this week and saw a matinee of The White Snake in the Proscenium Theater followed by an evening performance of Pillsbury House Theatre and The Mount Curve Company's Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet in the Dowling Studio (next week: The Heidi Chronicles on the Thrust Stage). Neither of these two shows are Guthrie original productions, but both are such beautiful and unique expressions of what this thing we call theater can be, from a Chinese legend of a snake that takes human form, to a new and very modern play that draws from Nigerian mythology. You can read my thoughts on The White Snake here, but now - Marcus.

I've been eagerly awaiting the conclusion of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Brother/Sister trilogy, having seen the first two installments presented by Pillsbury House in the Guthrie's Studio theater in the last few years. All three tell universal stories of love, loss, family, and relationships through a specific set of characters in Louisiana, who are named for gods in the Yoruba mythology of Nigeria. We first meet this interrelated cast of characters in the first play, In the Red and Brown Water, which focuses on a young track star named Oya and the choices she is forced to make. The Brothers Size is a smaller cast, focusing on Oya's ex-lover Ogun, his brother Oshoosi, and their friend Elegba. Marcus returns to the large cast format, with the title character being the son of Elegba, long deceased (a handy family tree in the program helps explain the characters and relationships). Many of the characters from the first play, or their offspring, return in this one. The three plays are each stand alone pieces, but seeing all three of them provides a richer understanding of this world that is so specifically created in McCraney's unique voice.

Marcus and the boys
(Nathan Barlow, Mikell Sapp, and Aimee K, Bryant)
This play is a coming of age story about 16-year-old Marcus, who is dealing with the death of a family friend, questions about the father he never knew, growing independence from his mother, an impending storm, and coming to terms with his homosexuality. Marcus' father Elegba, who may also have been "sweet," could dream the future, and Marcus might have inherited that skill. He dreams about a man in a rain storm and doesn't know what it means. This short 90 minute play feels epic and mythical, with Marcus' universal story told in specific detail. This play has a much more hopeful ending than the previous two plays, as if finally Marcus can realize the dreams of those that came before him. Dreams of happiness and love and a life fully realized.

This excellent ten-person cast shines under the direction of Marion McClinton (who has directed all three Brother/Sister plays for Pillsbury House). Rising young talent Nathan Barlow is excellent as Marcus, conveying all the uncertainty of a young man struggling with his identity and his family, as well as the determination to come out on top of that struggle (someone referred to this as his "breakout performance," they obviously didn't see Passing Strange). Lauren Davis and Joy Dolo give a couple of spirited and charming performances as Marcus' best friends, one of whom is more accepting of his truth than the other, and Thomasina Petrus is strong and powerful as Aunt Elegua, who knows more about Marcus than she shares. James A. Williams is the only cast member to appear in all three plays, and his presence is warm, welcome, and familiar as he provides a connecting link between the stories in Ogun Size.

Talented young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has such a unique vision and voice, and these three plays create such a specific world with people that are familiar and beloved. A unique feature of McCraney's writing is that the characters speak stage directions (Marcus smiles, Ogun exits), which may take a minute to get used to but really give more insight into the characters. When characters are not in a scene, the actors sit on the sidelines in lawn chairs observing, continuing to witness the story.

Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet continues through October 5. You needn't have seen either of the previous Brother/Sister plays to enjoy this beautifully written and acted play. But definitely if you did see either of the two previous plays, you'll want to see Marcus to see how the story ends and continues. The final moments are a beautiful payoff.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"The White Snake" at the Guthrie Theater

With programming on three beautiful and very different stages, the Guthrie Theater provides a great opportunity to see multiple shows, even on the same day. And with free wifi, multiple dining options including a lovely little coffee/snack bar, and plenty of cozy places to sit, the Guthrie is an inviting place to spend the day. I took advantage of this opportunity this week and saw a matinee of The White Snake in the Proscenium Theater followed by an evening performance of Pillsbury House Theatre and The Mount Curve Company's Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet in the Dowling Studio (next week: The Heidi Chronicles on the Thrust Stage). Neither of these two shows are Guthrie original productions, but both are such beautiful and unique expressions of what this thing we call theater can be, from a Chinese legend of a snake that takes human form, to a new and very modern play that draws from Nigerian mythology. First, The White Snake (read my thoughts about Marcus here).

The Chinese legend of The White Snake has taken many forms in literature and the arts. This new adaptation, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival two years ago and has made several stops around the country before landing in Minneapolis for a month or so. This wonderful legend is told with such creativity and innovation; it's truly unlike anything I've seen before. The result is fun, charming, moving, poignant, whimsical, and magical.

The titular snake lives high on a mountaintop and has studied for thousands of years to become immortal. But her friend the Green Snake, younger and not as advanced in her studies, longs to be among the human world and convinces the White Snake to join her down in the city, just for a day. They transform themselves into human form and pose as a lady and her servant. The White Snake falls in love with a pharmacist, marries him, and runs a successful business with her skills in the healing arts. But a monk from the monastery on the mountain knows of her true nature, and is jealous of her success. He goes to great lengths to end her human experiment, but doesn't know the force he is up against. In the end, the love between the snakes and the humans wins out.

the White and Green Snakes
(Amy Kim Waschke and Tanya Thai McBride, photo by Liz Lauren)
Much of this cast has been with the production since the beginning, and it shows. Amy Kim Waschke is commanding as the powerful and elegant White Snake, and Tanya Thai McBride is so energeticly charming as Greenie, and with deft manipulation of the green snake puppet, gives it life and a personality as charming as her own. As the White Snake's husband, Jake Manabat easily portrays the love he feels and the doubt he struggles with. The rest of the ensemble play all of the other roles, from animals to townspeople to gods. Adding greatly to the charm and poignancy of the piece is the three piece orchestra, creating timely sound effects and lovely music.

In addition to the snake puppets, effects are also created with an elegantly floating billowy white cloth (clouds), soft pale blue ribbons of fabric falling from the sky (rain), a pharmacist cabinet rising from the floor that doubles as a bed chamber, beautiful lighting and video projection, and wonderful colorful costumes from gods to animals (particularly a spectacular crane) to traditional Chinese dress (set by Daniel Ostling, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld).

The White Snake is such a beautiful story, so delightfully told, with an ending that brought tears to my eyes (don't be afraid, it's impossible to die alone). The central love story has a beautiful message: the White Snake's husband learns that he loves her as she is, she doesn't need to hide parts of herself, even those parts she thinks might be repulsive to him. I'm grateful to the Guthrie for bringing this truly delightful and unique production to Minneapolis for us to experience and enjoy (playing now through October 19).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Lake Untersee" by Workhaus Collective at Illusion Theater

Lake Untersee, a new play by local playwright Joe Waechter, is odd and beautiful, sharply realistic and wildly fantastical. It's a little bit difficult to reconcile those two sides and figure out what is actually happening, but it's probably best not to worry too much about it and just enjoy the lyricism of it all, and this well-done production by Workhaus Collective (which with I was previously unfamiliar).

Rocky (Michael Thurston)
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
On a bare stage hung with plastic tarps and one big sheet of ice, we meet Rocky (a compelling Michael Thurston, a student at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts). Rocky is a typical teenager who has trouble communicating with his divorced parents. Rocky's relationship with his parents, who are too busy with their own separate lives to pay much attention to him, is very realistically drawn. Most teens and parents of teens can probably relate to this family, even though Rocky takes it to the extreme and literally grunts at his parents when he doesn't know what else to say. Perhaps not so typical is that Rocky is in love with someone, or something, that he believes is trapped under the ice in Antarctica. The letters he writes to this being he calls Charlie are just beautiful, even if I didn't understand who or what they were directed to. Maybe that doesn't matter, maybe it's just Rocky expressing feelings he wishes he had for someone.

Jason, Gale, and Phyllis (Michael Booth,
Adelin Phelps, and Jennifer Blagen)
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Rocky's mother Phyllis (Jennifer Blagen), a writer with writer's block, can no longer handle him, so she allows him to move in with his father Jason (Michael Booth) and his new girlfriend, the artist Gale (Adelin Phelps). Gale seems to be the only adult who allows Rocky to be who he is, and doesn't put pressure on him to have a girlfriend or go to college. The adults are dealing with their own issues - career, relationships - and don't seem to notice that something is really wrong with Rocky, until he has a breakdown in a clothing store dressing room that will break your heart. It's at this point that the fantastical element of the play kicks in, as they all end up in Antarctica looking for Charlie. Or maybe it's all part of Rocky's hallucination. Either way, it's only in this world that Rocky's parents show him the unconditional love and support that he so desperately craves.

I'm not sure what this play means, or what actually happens. But the writing is beautiful, the characters and situations relatable and relevant, all well-performed by this four-person cast. Dive into Lake Untersee and see for yourself, continuing through September 29.

Monday, September 15, 2014

"The New Electric Ballroom" by Frank Theatre at the New Century Theatre

Enda Walsh seems to be a perfect match for Frank Theatre. Their mission is "to produce unique work that stretches the skill of the artists who create the work while simultaneously challenging the everyday perceptions of the audience." In other words, they do weird stuff, but weird in the best possible way, in the way that challenges the audience and encourages us to look at things in a new way, even if we don't quite understand it. Irish playwright Enda Walsh also writes weird and interesting and challenging and utterly unique plays. Hennepin Theatre Trust is marketing The New Electric Ballroom as "from the author of Once." Please don't go to this expecting to see OnceThe New Electric Ballroom is most definitely not Once. Enda Walsh did not create the world or the characters in Once, he adapted a film, putting his gritty Irish stamp on it. But the worlds he creates himself are much more dark and twisted and complex. As with last year's Ivey award-winning Misterman, Frank once again does beautiful work with this weird, challenging, disturbing, completely engrossing, crazy brilliant play.

Much like in Misterman, The New Electric Ballroom features characters that are trapped in the past. More specifically, in one pivotal day in the past. Sisters Clara and Breda, in their 60s, reenact a traumatic experience they had when they were teenagers, relating all of this to their younger sister Ada, who encourages them to keep telling the story even when it's almost too painful to continue. They put on make-up and the clothes they were wearing that day as they go through the story for what seems like the thousandth time, a story that involves a long bike ride, a handsome singer, a town dance, and an event so traumatic that Clara and Breda have not left the house since. It's difficult to understand Ada's place in the story, the one sister that leaves the house to go out in the world, and why she forces them to do this repeatedly. On this one particular day, they invite the fishmonger Patsy, their one contact with the outside world, to play a part in their story. Patsy has his own issues, and a surprising connection to the story. There's a glimmer of hope for a way out of this endless cycle, but it's quickly squashed, and the sisters' sad life continues as before.

sisters Breda (Melissa Hart), Ada (Virginia Burke), and
Clara (Katherine Ferrand) contemplate eating the cake
as Patsy (Patrick Bailey) looks on (photo by Tony Nelson)
This four-person cast could not be better, nor could Wendy Knox's direction. Each actor is so immersed in their character, and each character is more than she or he seems. Katherine Ferrand is a thing of fragile and disturbed beauty as the childlike Clara. Melissa Hart is also excellent as the somewhat stronger and more together sister Breda. Virginia Burke is the sane center of this family as Ada, until we learn that she has her issues too. Irishman Patrick Bailey with his authentic accent is a delight to listen to as he tells the sisters his stories, and later reveals a deeper and darker side to Patsy. These four characters don't so much converse with each other, as recite long monologues, repeating their part of the story or talking to themselves, often not hearing what the other has said. Several passages are repeated throughout the play, creating a harshly beautiful rhythm.

This is the second play I've seen at the New Century Theatre where the stage has been built out, and I've come to see that it's a must for most plays. Even though a few rows of seating are lost, the usual wide and shallow stage often just doesn't work. In this case, Andrea Heilman has designed a shabby but neat little home on the square stage, with vintage kitchen appliances and tape players.

The New Electric Ballroom continues for only two more weekends, so get there soon if you like complex, layered, disturbing, engrossing, tragic, beautifully performed theater.