Monday, October 27, 2014

"New Jerusalem" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at Hillcrest Center Theater

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has introduced me to a fascinating man in New Jerusalem. I'd never heard of 17th century Portuguese-Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch De Spinoza before, but his thoughts on God, Nature, religion, science, and society, as expressed through one historical incident in his life, feel so familiar it's as if I did already know him. This play by David Ives focuses on Spinoza's expulsion from the Jewish community, called cherem, in 1656. The interrogation plays out before the audience, who plays the part of the congregation. Spinoza tries to explain his beliefs to his friends, family, and rabbi, but is unsuccessful in convincing them he is not a heretic. It's a dense play, with much to digest and contemplate, brought to vivid life by the cast.

The mid-17th century was a time of persecution of Jews (not unlike most times in European history). Amsterdam was relevantly tolerant, but as is stated in the play, there are limits to this tolerance. Meaning no public worship and no talking about religious matters with Christians, sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Which is a problem for Spinoza, because there's nothing he likes better than discussing religion, God, nature, science, and philosophy with anyone who will listen, including his friend Simon and the (Christian) woman he loves, Clara. This lands him in hot water with the city as well as Rabbi Mortera, his beloved teacher and father figure. He is called to the synagogue to answer for his crimes, where he is interrogated by Jewish and Christian officials, and his opinionated sister. The house lights come up, as we the audience are meant to play the role of the congregation, listening to Spinoza's arguments and eventually passing judgement on him. As history tells us, he is expelled, and that's where the play leaves us. But I wasn't quite able to let him go, so I went to Wikipedia to find out the rest of the story. He continued to philosophize for another 20 years but never joined another religion, becoming "the first secular Jew of modern Europe."

Spinoza was an early advocate of the separation of church and state, the idea upon which this country was founded (although some people like to forget that if it suits their particular religion or belief). In the play, he is quoted as saying, "a state without religion is the only state in which religion can flourish." He also speaks of the unity of God, nature, and all things, "nothing is not God," which sounds like a Unitarian to me (no wonder I found myself agreeing with much of what he says). He often talks of the French philosopher and mathematician Descartes and the interrelatedness of science and religion, which seems to coincide with my personal belief that science and religion are flip sides of the same coin, and the laws of science and math can help inform and explain our understanding of the spiritual world. Or as Galileo said, much more elegantly that me, "mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe." Sorry for the digression, but this is the kind of thinking and discussion and philosophizing that this play engenders.

James Ramlet, George Muellner, Michael Torsch, and Rachel Weber
(photo by Sarah Whiting)
Under able the direction of Kurt Schweickhardt, the cast does a great job with this heavy material, injecting life and humor into it. Michael Torsch plays Spinoza as a wide-eyed idealist and a dreamer, and makes Spinoza's words and ideas make sense in an appealing way. As his friends, Briana Patnode and Alex Brightwell showcase the human side of Spinoza. Rachel Weber is a spitfire as his sister Rebekah, barging into the proceedings and letting her opinion be known. James Ramlet and Skyler Nowinski play Spinoza's interrogators, at times frustrated, angered, bewildered, and silenced by his answers to their questions. Last but not least, George Muellner gives a sympathetic performance as the rabbi torn between this young man he thinks of as a son and his lifelong beliefs.

New Jerusalem continues through November 9 at St. Paul's Hillcrest Center Theater (construction appears to be nearly complete and the parking lot on Ford is open again). I highly recommend it if you enjoy thought-provoking discussions about God, Nature, science, religion, philosophy, and everything in between. I will warn you that it's long, nearly three hours, so take a nap or have some coffee before the show, especially if you go to an 8 pm performance. As fascinating as it is, it's a challenge to stay engaged in a philosophical discussion for that long, but it's well worth the effort.

"Ring of Fire" at Plymouth Playhouse

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." This is how the country legend began all of his concerts, and it's also how the jukebox musical based on his life begins, as all eight members of the ensemble repeat this line. Ring of Fire loosely tells the story of his life, with the ensemble taking turns as the voice of Johnny, interspersed with over two dozen of his songs and other country classics. I grew up listening to country music (my dad is the biggest Johnny Cash fan I know); other families went to Disneyland on vacation, we went to Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry, and Dollywood. I'm not such a fan of current country music (preferring the folk/Americana genre), but I still love that old time country sound. Ring of Fire taps into that nostalgic love of old time country and features a fantastic cast of talented vocalists and multi-instrumentalists. I'm not sure I learned anything new about Johnny (except for his Scottish heritage), but it's a wonderful celebration of the Man in Black and his music.

Ring of Fire played briefly on Broadway in 2006 but it didn't last long. That's not too surprising; it feels like a show that's more suited to smaller theaters across the country than a big Broadway stage. It's been playing at Plymouth Playhouse all summer, returning after a successful run last year. This was my first trip to the Playhouse, and despite the somewhat odd entrance through a hotel, once you get into the basement theater it's a cozy and intimate little space, perfect for this show. Half of the cast were in the National Tour, and the experience and familiarity with the music and the subject are evident. In this show there is no differentiation between band, singers, and actors. All eight cast members play at least one instrument, most of them several. And they all sing and take turns playing Johnny, June, and members of their family. It's well constructed into four sections, with Johnny's songs appropriately chosen to match the mood of the story. We don't really get a lot of details, his first marriage and children and are glossed over, and how he made the transition from farm boy to country music star to drug addict to religious devotion is never really explained. But through the music and a few key points in his life, we get a picture of the man. Johnny's "Boyhood Years" are marked by hard work on the farm, a close-knit family, and the death of his brother. During "Opry and Fame," Johnny meets June and performs on the Opry stage, "Dark Years" touches on his drug use and prison records, which somehow morphs into "Redemption and Celebration." Along the way we hear many of Johnny's hits, including "Flesh and Blood," "Daddy Sang Bass," " Cry, Cry, Cry," "Get Rhythm," "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line," and "A Boy Named Sue."

I was impressed with the terrific musicality displayed by this cast, as they smoothly make the transition between instruments, and from lead to back-up vocals, trading the spotlight fairly equally among the eight. They play over a dozen instruments: drumset, washboard, acoustic and electric guitar, upright bass, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, ukelele, accordion, dobro, autoharp, piano, and spoons. The entertaining ensemble currently includes Andy Carroll (bass), Dorian Chalmers (with a fantastic full-throated voice), Jacob Aaron Cullum (a charming young Johnny, with a pretty voice), Tim Drake (on drums, washboard, and more), Candice Lively (a lovely voice), Charlotte Matis (a mean fiddler), Chad Willow (the piano man with a deep voice), and Chet Wollan (with a great smile and an appealing tenor voice).

The Plymouth Playhouse stage is fairly wide and shallow, with about a half-dozen or so long rows (with ample leg room) in a soft curve around it. At the center of the stage is a rotating sloped circle which is not overused, but adds interest to the staging. At the edges of the seat are placed some barrels and crates to lend that authentic country feel. The costumes also do that, with Western shirts, fringed skirts, cowboy hats, and of course - plenty of black (set by Susan Holgersson and costumes by Katrina Benedict).

Johnny Cash and classic country fans are sure to enjoy this show. Ring of Fire continues through November 23 so you have about another month to catch it. Up next at the Playhouse is the holiday show The Alley Cats in A Doo-Wop Christmas, followed next year year by Pop-Up Musical, which I saw last summer and is a must-see for musical theater fans.

I'm so glad I finally made it out to the Plymouth Playhouse. They put on some great entertainment, and I look forward to seeing more there in the future.

the touring cast of Ring of Fire, half of whom are currently in the Plymouth production

Saturday, October 25, 2014

"33 Variations" at Park Square Theatre

33 Variations is part fascinating music history, part poignant family drama, and part classical music concert, which adds up to an entertaining evening of theater. Park Square's production of the Moisés Kaufman play satisfies on several levels - intellectual, emotional, musical - and features a great seven-person cast (plus one talented pianist) who bring the past and present together in an intriguing way. This is just one of two shows currently playing at Park Square (I'm looking forward to seeing the first production on their new stage, The House on Mango Street, next week). St. Paul is the place to be.

From 1819 through 1823, Ludwig van Beethoven composed 33 variations on a 50 second waltz by music publisher Anton Diabelli. It is one of the last works he wrote before his death in 1827, written at a time when he was almost completely deaf. In one of the world's greatest ironies, this brilliant composer who created some of the most beautiful music in existence eventually could not hear his or anyone else's music, except in his head. Playwright Moisés Kaufman uses this particular moment in music history as a jumping off point for his play, in which a modern-day music scholar, Dr. Katherine Brandt, becomes obsessed with this work and researches it as one of the final works of her own career. The lives of these two geniuses, Beethoven and Katherine, play out in parallel as both feel the time running out and become increasingly desperate to finish their work, to leave something behind that matters.

In the play we see scenes from the 19th century with Beethoven, his trusty assistant and biographer Anton Shindler, and Diabelli, interspersed with scenes from today with Katherine, her daughter Clara, Clara's boyfriend and Katherine's nurse Mike, and Katherine's German colleague Gertrude. Recently diagnosed with ALS, Katherine decides to spend her remaining healthy days in Bonn, Beethoven's birthplace and location of many of his papers, conversation books (used to talk to friends after his hearing deteriorated), and musical sketches. Katherine and Clara have a tenuous relationship; Katherine is one of the most respected and successful people in her field, while Clara flits from job to job, causing her mother to worry that she's living a "mediocre" life. Despite the prickliness of their relationship, Clara loves her mother and is concerned that she is doing too much and not taking care of her health. She and Mike eventually join Katherine in Bonn as her health declines. In her final days, Katherine is forced to let go of some of her assumptions about about Beethoven, music, her daughter, and the idea of success. Katherine's fate is tragic, yet it's a beautiful journey that this family experiences together.

Kaufman beautifully weaves together the two narratives, highlighted at the end of Act I when the three realities - 19th century Vienna, Katherine and Gertrude in Bonn, and Clara and Mike in NYC - collide and all keep repeating, "time is scarce," "this is my last opportunity, "I must be allowed to finish the work," each meaning something slightly different, yet the same. At the end of the play, Katherine finally meets the object of her obsession as she dreams of Beethoven and the two have a conversation. Katherine realizes that what Beethoven has done with his variations is slow down time - turn a 50 second waltz into a 50 minute composition so that the listener can hear every beat, phrase, and moment in the music. A fine example for life, but so difficult to do in today's busy modern age.

Edwin Strout as Beethoven and Karen Landry as Katherine
The Ordway's Artistic Director James Rocco has ventured across Rice Park to direct this play with music, and juggles all of the many pieces well. It all plays out on a mostly bare stage with various levels and boxy tables and chairs, with three video screens displaying the backdrop of the scene or the musical sketch being discussed. Every time a specific variation is commented upon, we hear it played by pianist Irina Elkina, on a piano that almost disappears into the background when not being played. The music adds so much to our understanding of the discussion and really brings it alive. I know next to nothing about classical music, but I found it beautiful and fascinating, and now I want to hear all 33 variations.

On the non-musical front, Karen Landry gives a brave and fully committed performance as Katherine, taking her from a stubborn, determined, independent woman to that same spirit trapped in a failing body, forced to accept help. Her physicality and speech slow down as Katherine's ALS takes hold of her. Karen has great chemistry with Jennifer Maren as Katherine's daughter Clara, with Jennifer portraying Clara's frustration with her mother and reluctance to accept that she's failing (and we also get to hear her beautiful voice). Also great are Michelle Myers as Gertrude, with a lovely German accent, and Nate Cheesman as the charming and steady Mike. Back in the 19th century, Edwin Strout plays Beethoven as a larger-than-life character, just how we imagine those creative geniuses to be - temperamental, loud, selfish, demanding, but somehow tolerated because of the greatness he achieves. Robert-Bruce Blake plays the enigmatic Anton Schindler in a such way that we don't really know if he's telling the truth, or what his motives may be. Rounding out the cast is Peter Simmons as the vain Diabelli, providing some comic relief.

33 Variations continues on Park Square's proscenium stage (i.e., the "old" one) through November 9. If you like smart, funny, historical, relevant, poignant, moving, well-written and -acted theater, with beautiful music as an integral part of the story, you'll want to add this one to your list. Stay tuned to Cherry and Spoon for a report on the new stage.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"A Steady Rain" by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble at the Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie is currently hosting L.A.'s Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in the Dowling Studio Theater for their production of A Steady Rain. It's an engrossing 90 minutes of theater in which two buddy cops tell their story, at times directly to the audience, or in conversation with each other. The stories they tell are harrowing, and sadly not all that different from what you hear on the news: cops shooting an unarmed teenager, taking bribes, planting evidence, leaving a boy to die at the hands of a serial killer. This is a heavy play, relentless and brutal, but well written and acted and extremely relevant.

The action takes place on a stage that's completely bare except for two wooden office chairs on wheels, like you see in TV police offices, and three screens projecting abstract and fuzzy images to set the scene. Although perhaps "action" is the wrong word. There's really not much action; it's two guys talking. Writer Keith Huff calls it a duologue, in which the two characters give alternating and interrelated monologues, sometimes talking to each other, sometimes talking about each other to the audience. I found it to be a unique and interesting means of storytelling.

Joey (Thomas Vincent Kelly) and Denny (Sal Viscuso) have been best friends since they were kids growing up in Chicago, and are now partners in the Chicago PD, frustrated in their hope to make detective. Denny is a classic bully, repeatedly beating on and belittling Joey, and pretty much everyone else, but somehow they remain friends. Denny has it all - a beautiful wife, two kids, and a home with several TVs. He's even been selected as a Nielson family! But of course it's not as perfect as it appears; Denny cheats on his wife and lies to her about where he's getting the extra money from bribes. Joey is a recovering alcoholic who's become like a member of Denny's family, until after a tragedy Denny's wife comes to rely on him a little too much, which is understandable because Joey is sensible and stable while Denny is a hothead. A series of incidents land the partners on suspension with their relationship strained. Will they stick together to weather the crisis, or turn on each other?

Since the playwright is a TV writer, and director Jeff Perry and both actors are all veteran TV actors in that I-know-I've-seen-them-in-something kind of way, I'll mention two TV shows that this play brings to mind. The first is HBO's True Detective, in the sense that these guys are partners and best friends who love each other, but you get the sense that they hate and envy each other at times. One is married with children, a seemingly happy family, and the other is a bachelor living in a poorly furnished apartment. The cases that they work on tie them together inextricably, for better or worse. The other TV show brought to mind is the new Showtime series The Affair, in which two people remember the same events but in slightly but significantly different ways. There's a little of that here, as Joey and Denny sometimes tell slightly different versions of the same events. A Steady Rain feels a little bit like an episode of a TV cop drama, but a really good one.

The Guthrie's black box studio theater is an intimate place to see theater, which in this case means there's no where to hide from the violence and ugliness of the story, as well as the deep emotion felt by the characters, fully and painfully brought to life by the actors. In some of the more tense scenes, the audience was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. It's not an easy play to watch, but it's compelling and well-done (playing now through November 2).

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Next to Normal" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

Diverging from the usual feel-good classic musicals, Bloomington Civic Theatre is currently presenting Next to Normal, one of the few musicals to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama and perhaps the most brilliantly written musical of this century. Unlike shows like Guys and Dolls or Singin' in the Rain, you won't leave the theater feeling happy and carefree. You'll leave feeling emotionally exhausted and perhaps continuing to think heavy thoughts for several days. Next to Normal is not an easy show to watch, but it's such a rich and rewarding experience. I couldn't be happier that there are not one but two local productions if it this season, at BCT now through November 15, and at Yellow Tree Theatre next spring (which is sure to be a much different show with their small intimate stage). This was my fifth time seeing Next to Normal, and BCT's production is as beautiful and heartbreaking as ever.

Next to Normal tells the story of what at first appears to be a normal American family, until the cracks begin to show. Diana and her husband Dan married young and started a family. They suffered a great tragedy that triggered Diana's bipolar disorder, which she's been dealing with for years. Everyone in the family suffers in their own way. Dan has to be the strong one as Diana falls apart, and therefore never gets the chance to deal with his own feelings about what happened. Their children, Gabe and Natalie, live in the shadow of the tragedy and are trying to deal with it on top of the normal problems that come with adolescence. Natalie's afraid that she'll follow in her mother's footsteps, and Diana's unable to be the mother that she wants to be. Diana hits rock bottom and undergoes ECT, aka shock therapy. It erases her memories, both the good and the bad, and she struggles to get her life and family back. One of the things that this show does is play with the idea of "normal." There is no such thing as a "normal" family; all families look different and are dealing with their own unique issues, both big and small. As Natalie sings, "I don't need a life that's normal, that's way too far away, but something next to normal, would be OK."

Karen Weber gives a raw and fearless performance as Diana, taking her to all her highs and lows, a voice full of emotion. Sean Dooley broke my heart as Dan, the caregiver in the family who sacrifices himself to take care of everyone else. Like he did in RENT, Blake Rhiner gives a passionate and powerful performance as their son Gabe. Aly O'Keeffe (née Westberg) brings her effortlessly beautiful voice to the role of daughter Natalie, imbuing her with all the angst, despair, and hopefulness of a teenager. Rounding out the six-person cast are Erin Patrick Miller, sweet and funny as Natalie's "perfect for you" boyfriend, and the powerful-voiced Dominique Wooten as the doctors.

Music director Anita Ruth usually helms a big traditional pit orchestra, but in this show she directs a six-piece onstage rock band, which is fantastic. Director Joel Sass also designed the set (as he does at the Jungle), and it's really cool. The use of levels, representing different rooms in the house, is continued from the original Broadway set but on a more manageable scale. The sharp clean lines of a modern and orderly home contrast with the chaotic inner life of this family. Barry Browning's bold lighting highlights the changing tones of the songs.

Next to Normal is a truly brilliant musical, but a heavy one, dealing with issues of mental illness, codependency, drug abuse, suicide, and grief, albeit with moments of humor (a great relief to the audience). It's a perfect example of what musical theater can do; it can be so much more than just light frothy entertainment (although there's a place for that too). Next to Normal is real, relevant, poignant, smart, funny, deeply emotional, and yes, profound. Check it out at Bloomington Civic Theatre through November 15, just don't expect big colorful dance numbers (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"1984" by Theatre Pro Rata at Intermedia Arts

"Big Brother is watching." We're now 30 years beyond the dystopian world imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984, and its themes have become eerily familiar and not too far outside of our current reality. Written over 60 years ago, 1984 predicts a world where the government controls what information the public receives, and knows our every thought and action. This adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan focuses on the interrogation of "thought criminal" Winston Smith, and this well-done production by Theatre Pro Rata makes for a gripping and squirm-inducing evening.

Entering the theater at Intermedia Arts, the audience is immediately thrown into the world of 1984. On a bare stage, a man is handcuffed and curled up inside a square on the floor. A recording warns us, "system observers are prohibited from interacting with the subject." The play begins when the interrogators come on stage and jarringly shut off the house lights. The main interrogator is at first only heard, as he instructs the man known as 6709 Smith to confess his crimes. The four "party members" act out scenes from his life as he recounts them. Smith works for the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to change past documents to match the current party line. He's secretly disgruntled with the party, led by someone called Big Brother who may or may not be real, and longs to join the resistance, known as the brotherhood. He meets a woman who feels the same way and they embark on a clandestine affair, trying to hide from the telescreens that are in every home and workplace, observing and recording everything that happens. He is eventually captured, along with his incriminating diary and a book about the brotherhood. The goal of the interrogation is to break him of his "thought crimes" and restore in him a believe that Big Brother is right and good. When the torture moves past electrical shocks into making real his worst nightmare (involving rats, the most squirm-inducing moment), Smith is broken. Big Brother wins again.

6709 Smith (Grant Henderson)
The story plays out in reenactments, as Smith is forced to watch the highs and lows of his recent life as he recounts them. At times he participates in the scenes (although never leaving his square on the floor), at other times his role is taken over by one of the party members, some of whom seem to get caught up in the story they're telling, others of whom are increasingly angry at having to take part. It's a clever and effective storytelling device that not only conveys the facts of the story (or at least as Smith remembers them), but also gives us more insight into the main character and the nameless characters who play the roles.

Impressively, Grant Henderson as Smith never leaves the stage, or his shackles, from before the show, through intermission, to curtain call. He takes Smith from a man who's upset but strong enough to fight back, through the devastation of betrayal, to something so broken it's difficult to watch. As the voice of the interrogator, John Middleton is eerily calm and insistent, and later shows up in person to give an even greater presence to this cold and relentless embodiment of evil. As the unnamed party members, Brian Columbus, Emily Dussault, William Goblirsch, and Kory LaQuess Pullam all create personalities for these characters and the characters they play. Director Carin Bratlie keeps the action moving along and the tension ever increasing.

Theatre Pro Rata's 1984 is thought-provoking, compelling, creepy, disturbing, and a little too real. Check it out at Intermedia Arts in Uptown through next weekend.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Romeo and Juliet" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

No one does Shakespeare like Ten Thousand Things. They manage to boil the text down to its bare essentials, and convey the heart of the story in a way that feels fresh and modern. This season they bring their unique Shakespeare style to perhaps his most well-know play, the story of star-crossed lovers that inspired all others, Romeo and Juliet. In the typically minimalist production (since TTT performs on location at prisons, homeless shelters, and community centers, the paid public performances are also in a small, fully lit room with little in the way of sets and costumes), director Peter Rothstein and his fantastic cast of eight playing multiple characters bring this familiar story to life in a unique way.

You all know the story so I won't recount it here. Several scenes stand out in this production. The party scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet is nicely done in the small space, with the cast dancing around the audience. The balcony scene is sweet and charming (how do you create a small and easily portable balcony? with a chair on top of a table). The fight scenes are dynamic (choreographed by Annie Enneking), made all the more real because of the close proximity and the perceived danger of an injured party falling into the front row of the audience. The final death scene is beautiful and heartbreaking.

the famous balcony scene
(Anna Sundberg and Namir Smallwood)
As the titular lovers, Namir Smallwood and Anna Sundberg are a compelling pair. Namir gives Romeo a passion and single-mindedness in being with his love, and Anna portrays Juliet as a modern young woman, speaking the Shakespearean language naturally. Six other actors portray all of the characters necessary in this stripped down version. Regina Marie Williams is Juliet's somewhat flighty mother, in contrast to her portrayal of the stern-faced Prince. Bob Davis expresses Juliet's father's love for her, and frustration when she doesn't do his bidding. Karen Wiese-Thompson is entertaining as always as the comic relief nurse, the apothecary, and a mustachioed servant. Dennis Spears is always interesting to watch, and here plays the helpful Friar and Juliet's slain kinsman. David Darrow makes his TTT debut, nicely differentiating the young rebel Mercutio from the nerdy Paris (both with great death scenes). Kurt Kwan is Romeo's sturdy friend Benvolio and a blustering servant.

As always, Peter Vitale has created a soundtrack that sets the mood for the story, whether a party scene or a fight, with help from Jason Hansen on multiple instruments. Boxy black and metal stools and tables are the only set pieces, cleverly arranged as mentioned above to create the balcony, as well as Juliet's bed and tomb (designed by Erica Zaffarano). Trevor Bowen's costumes are modern yet classic, with touches of red for the Capulets and purple for the Montagues, with lovely youthful dresses over leggings for Juliet.

Every time I see Romeo and Juliet I think, why doesn't Juliet just run away with Romeo when he's banished? Why doesn't the stupid Friar get the message to Romeo? Why doesn't Romeo wait a moment longer before taking the poison? But to great frustration, it never changes. Another thing that never changes is Ten Thousand Things' high quality budget productions. The absence of the usual bells and whistles of theater allows the acting and the story to shine.

Romeo and Juliet plays through November 2 at Open Book and the MN Opera Center. With a loyal audience and small performance spaces, shows have a tendency to sell out, so you'll want to order tickets in advance.