Saturday, October 23, 2010

"String" at Yellow Tree Theatre

I've had a busy week. I saw three shows in four days: a touring production of the 80s rock musical Rock of Ages, Theater Latte Da's sublime Evita, and last night I saw what may be my favorite of the week: an original play called String at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo. It's definitely the one that made me laugh the most, and touched my heart the most. What more can you ask for from theater?

If you've never been to Osseo it's worth a visit. Only a few miles from the consumer mecca that is Maple Grove, when you're in downtown Osseo you could be in any small town in Minnesota. There's the butcher shop, the barber shop, the mom and pop diner, a great Thai restaurant, and a lovely wine bar and bistro (OK it's not like every small town). So when I heard about this theater, now in its third season, I was curious to check it out. It's in a strip mall not far from downtown, and doesn't look like much from the outside. But once you get inside, it's a warm and inviting space with a cozy lobby (with a tree in it, of course) and an intimate little theater. Yellow Tree was founded by husband and wife team and native Minnesotans Jason Peterson (Artistic Director and actor) and Jessica Lind (playwright and actor). They moved to New York for a few years after college, but soon realized Minnesota might be a better fit for what they wanted to do. "We were living in New York and were sitting on this gorgeous play," said Jason in an article in the local press. "It became a pipe dream to start our own company and produce String ourselves. That dream morphed into wanting a permanent home for our work, and that's how Yellow Tree was born."

String was written by Jessica and is a romantic comedy. But not in the bad Katherine Heigl movie kind of way, more in the quirky indie movie kind of way. Raina, played by Jessica, is the epitome of the "English major" that Garrison Keillor always jokes about. She wants to be paid for writing poems despite everyone telling her that she should get a job teaching high school English. But she wants more out of life. Ryan, played by Jason, is the pizza delivery guy whose car breaks down outside her house, so he has to come in to use the phone. She continues to run into him, and despite the fact that she's dating a man who seems perfect for her on paper, she can't seem to get Ryan out of her head (or her dreams). Meanwhile, her sister, the delightful Jessie Rae Rayle, is struggling with a new marriage and trying to start a family. When Raina receives flowers and a poem, she assumes it's from her medieval literature professor boyfriend. But she soon finds out that the pizza delivery guy is the one who wrote her the beautiful poem (which inspired the name of the theater):

If I am not the right one, there has never been an ocean.
A yellow tree never grew where it grew.
The sun never exchanged places with the moon.

At one point Raina describes a poem she's writing as something like, "it's about breaking free of the strings that hold us down, while coming to terms with them." That's a great way to describe this play, too. Jessica and Jason have great chemistry, and Jason's Ryan is an utterly charming goofball. I don't understand why it took Raina as long as it did to fall for him! I guess it's those strings and expectations she had to break loose of first.

I was really taken by the set design, it's an innovative use of the small space. The apartment setting has a chalkboard wall behind it that opens up to reveal a second floor bedroom, or a sign for the cafe. By the end of the play it had transformed into a train station with a single bench. I also really loved the music they played between scenes. If it were a movie, I would have bought the soundtrack. Instead I came home and listened to the Garden State soundtrack, which has a similar feel and even one song in common - Simon and Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy in New York."

It's obvious this theater and this play are a labor of love. It's a great find (thanks Vicki!) and I'm excited to go back. They've got a great season ahead of them which includes the classic American play Our Town (which I've never seen) and the musical [title of show].

I'll leave you with this quote from their website:

"We at Yellow Tree Theatre have this dream. We see the people of this community gathering together and getting excited about theatre. We see our theatre as a meeting place where everyone feels welcome, an artistic venue where people of all ages and walks of life can mingle together. Maybe we’re a little romantic, maybe this sounds like a crazy convoluted idea, but we’re okay with that. We like crazy."

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go order a pizza.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Evita" by Theater Latte Da at the Ordway McKnight Theater

As is quite obvious from reading this blog, I attend a lot of theater. Most of it is by myself, but once a year I get a group of friends together for something we like to call "Girls' Night Out at the Theater." For some of my friends, this is their once a year trip to the theater, so I take my responsibility seriously and try to choose a good show, preferably by a local theater. This is the second year in a row I've chosen a Theater Latte Da production. Last year we saw The Full Monty, which was was a huge success. Everyone loved it (which might have had something to do with the naked men ;), and it was one of my favorites of last year. So I was confident in choosing Latte Da's Evita this year, knowing they'd do a great job again, and I wasn't wrong!

As everyone probably knows, Evita is an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about Eva Peron, the Princess Diana of Argentina. It chronicles her rise from a poor family in a small town, to actress in Buenes Aires, to wife of the president and "spiritual leader of the nation." I've never seen the stage show but I have seen the movie and have the soundtrack, so I was very familiar with the music (unlike the previous night's show, Rock of Ages). But what I had forgotten is that there's very little spoken dialogue; it's pretty much two and a half hours of singing.

This was a pretty large production for Latte Da; they usually do more intimate shows with smaller casts. It was beautifully directed by Artistic Director Peter Rothstein. There was a lot going on - costume changes, set changes, people constantly moving in and out. All done to music, and all accomplished very smoothly. The four-person band led by Musical Director Denise Prosek was off-stage, but sounded beautiful. The choreography was amazing and made me want to take tango lessons!

Like all Latte Da shows I've seen, this show was perfectly cast. I don't know how they do it, but they seem to always find the perfect actor in the Twin Cities (or elsewhere) to play each role. The strong ensemble includes Erin Capello and Kahlil Queen, whom I saw in Latte Da's concert at Lake Harriet this summer. The title role is played by Zoe Pappas who has worked frequently with Latte Da, the Chanhassen, the Ordway, and other local theaters. She has an amazing voice (which is good because she pretty much sings for two and a half hours straight), and also beautifully embodies Eva's passion, drive, and ultimate physical collapse. Kevin Leines is a suave, elegant Juan Peron (and the only man in the cast who's taller than Zoe!). The character of Che, who functions as a narrator, is played by Jared Oxborough. I first saw Jared in Footloose at the Chanhassen earlier this year (in which he co-starred with Zoe), and was immediately struck by his voice and presence, and wanted to see more of him. I also saw him perform a song from Urinetown (a smart, funny musical that's at the top of my wish list for Theater Latte Da) at a cabaret performance called Where's My Tony? Che is a perfect role for him; he really carries the show and drives the narrative. Eva and Che are the main characters and are both onstage for most of the night, but they rarely interact. Che is mostly observing and commenting to the audience, rather than taking part in the action. But they do have one waltz together, which really illustrates their opposing viewpoints in the way they dance and sing together. Was Evita a selfless hero to her people? Or a ruthless politician? My guess is a little of both.

Evita is the first production in Latte Da's four-show season. Their annual Christmas concert with vocal ensemble Cantus, All is Calm, will be followed by a new play with music, Song of Extinction, at the Guthrie Studio early next year. Their final show is Steerage Song at the Fitzgerald Theater next summer, a collaboration with my favorite pianist Dan Choinard (OK I don't know many pianists, but he's very talented and entertaining!). If you're looking for a fun night at the theater with great music and great performances, you really can't go wrong with any of these shows.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Rock of Ages" at the Orpheum

Rock of Ages is an 80s rock jukebox musical and the first show of the Broadway Across America season at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis (which also includes Billy Elliot, Shrek, my recent obsession Hair, Jersey Boys, and West Side Story).  Friends, I have a confession to make: I don't know 80s music.  And what I do know, I'm not a big fan of.  Yes, I was a teenager in the (late) 80s, but I didn't listen to music; I spent most of my time watching TV and doing homework.  ;)  So I didn't know much of the music in this show, except when they would get to the chorus of a really popular song, or anything that's been covered on my favorite TV show Glee (or as I like to call it, a theater geek's TV dream come true).  Of course knowing the music isn't a prerequisite to enjoying a musical, but in this case I think it might have helped.

Like most jukebox musicals, the story was pretty thin.  Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.  Girl wants to be an actress but instead becomes a stripper.  Boy wants to be a rock star but instead joins a boy band.  The usual stuff.  But what I like about the show is that it doesn't take itself too seriously.  The character of Lonny, an energetic and entertaining Patrick Lewallen, also serves as narrator.  He often breaks the fourth wall to talk about the show, at one point reading from a book called "Musical Theater for Dummies" about how to end the first act (the answer - jazz hands).  It's a cute little wink to the fact that they're not trying to do high theater here, they're just trying to entertain.

The strong cast is led by Constantine Maroulis, who originated the role of Drew on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony.  I was a fan of Constantine when he was on season four of American Idol, and had seen him as Roger in a touring production of RENT before his Idol days.  I can see why he was the first Americal Idol contestant to be nominated for a Tony.  His Drew is sweet, vulnerable, awkward, and completely adorable, and his voice is perfectly suited to the screaming rock anthems and bombastic ballads of the 80s.  And he still knows how to work the crowd.  His leading lady, Rebecca Faulkenberry, has an equally strong voice, and their duets are powerful.  The characters are pretty broadly drawn stereotypes which the cast fills out gamely.  MiG Ayesa plays rock star Stacee Jaxx with a powerful voice and some freaky muscle definition, and Casey Tuma gives hippie protestor Regina energy and spunk.  There were a few too many scenes in a strip club for my taste, but for the most part it was an entertaining evening, which had me on my feet and singing along (to the Glee theme song "Don't Stop Believing") by the end of the evening.

Someone behind me said "It's like Mama Mia but with rock."  I thought that was a very astute observation.  If you long for the 80s, or are looking for a fun, silly, entertaining evening, this show's for you.  Personally, I prefer ABBA to 80s music, but it's the same general idea.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Minnesotans on Broadway

When I was in New York City last weekend I was thrilled to see Minnesota so well represented on (and off) Broadway.  Unfortunately I didn't get to see any of them (too many shows, too little time), but I did walk by the theaters and smile at seeing their names "in lights."

Guthrie favorite Sally Wingert is making her Broadway debut in the comedy La Bete, which also stars David Hyde Pierce and Mark Rylance (who recently played the title role in Peer Gynt at the Guthrie).  Whether she's playing a leading role in such shows as Third or Faith Healer, or stealing scenes in a small role in Private Lives,  she's always amazing.  She's appearing in Ten Thousand Things Doubt next February, so if you (or I) want to see her on Broadway, you better act fast!

I was tickled to see that directly across 45th street from Sally's show at the Music Box Theater was another Guthrie alum, TR Knight.  He's performing with Patrick Stewart in the David Mamet play A Life in the Theatre at the Schoenfeld Theatre.  You may know TR from his role as George in Grey's Anatomy, but before that he was an actor at the Guthrie and other local theaters, beginning with his first role as Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol at the age of five.  Unfortunately I began my Guthrie subscription a year or two after TR left to find his fortune in NYC and LA, but I did get to see him in a reading of The Laramie Project a few years ago.  Since leaving Grey's he's returned to his theater roots, so I know it's only a matter of time before he returns home to do a show.

Last but not least, my favorite local actor Dieter Bierbrauer (Violet, Parade, and Floyd Collins with Theater Latte Da; Oklahoma and West Side Story at the Chan) is performing in the off-Broadway musical Power Balladz.  The show was created by local artists Mike Todaro, Dan Nycklemoe, and Peter Rothstein (Artistic Director of Theater Latte Da) and was performed at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis last summer.  Dieter is the only member of the three-person cast that made the move to NYC.  Unfortunately I missed it while it was here so I was hoping to see it in NYC, and actually had tickets for the Sunday night show.  But they cancelled Sunday night performances so I wasn't able to see it.  Maybe next time!

I wish all three of these Minnesota actors much luck and success in the Big Apple, but I hope that they continue to return home to the "Minnie Apple" and grace us with their talent!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"The Master Butchers Singing Club" at the Guthrie

The Master Butchers Singing Club is a stage adaptation of the novel by local author Louise Erdrich.  I've read one or two of her books, so when I heard the Guthrie Theater was opening their 2010-2011 season with this play I decided to read the book.  I loved it.  It's beautifully written and full of rich characters and intersecting storylines, and deals with the epic themes of life, love, and death.  It takes place in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, where several of Erdrich's novels are set.  Fidelis Waldvogel has immigrated from Germany where he was a sniper in WWI, bringing along his wife Eva and their sons.  Fidelis and Eva run a butcher shop in town, and one day Delphine wanders in, changing the course of her life forever.  The daughter of the town drunk, she has spent several years touring the Midwest with an Ojibwe man named Cyprian in a balancing act.  All her life she's been searching for her mother and a sense of home, and comes to find it at the butcher shop.

Whenever a book you love is turned into a movie or a play, it's easy to get caught up in the things that were cut out or changed.  So I felt a little of that when I watched the play, but I tried to just let it go and let the play be its own entity.  And I came to like the slight changes they made, I think it's stronger piece because of it.  There's a lot of narration in the play, mostly from a woman whom the townspeople calls "Step and a Half."  She walks restlessly through the town, collecting things that people have thrown out and selling them.  She narrates the action of the play, as do many of the characters, often describing what they or other characters are doing.  It's an effective way to get Erdrich's beautiful prose into the play.

The strong cast is full of Guthrie favorites, as well as a few newcomers.  Lee Mark Nelson, who plays Fidelis, has been one of my favorites since he charmed me in She Loves Me a few years ago.  Not only does he sing in this play, but he sings in German!  Recent Ivey award-winner Katie Guentzel plays Eva, and Emily Gunyou Halaas is Delphine.  All three fully embody their characters' passion for life and love for one another.  That's one of the things that struck me about the book; Delphine and Cyprian truly love each other despite the fact that he's gay so they can never have a true marriage.  Fidelis and Eva truly love each other even though he married her as a favor to his friend who died in the war.  But the love between Delphine and Eva may be the strongest of all.  Eva is friend, mentor, and mother to Delphine, and Delphine helps Eva through some difficult times and takes care of her family.  At several points during the play I was wishing I had a tissue!

I love that the Guthrie commissioned this play because it's so specific to this region, in the same way the musical Little House on the Prairie was a few years ago.  Being a descendant of German immigrants to the Midwest, it's a story that feels very familiar to me, as if I could be watching my own history on stage.  I speak a little German, so it was fun to hear some German words thrown in here and there.  There are also several Native American characters in the play, and their culture blends with the German culture beautifully through music.  It's an interesting coincidence that I've seen two shows this week that deal with the history of Native Americans, although in very different ways.  The brilliant new Broadway musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson deals with the "Indian removal" of the early 19th century and the Trail of Tears, while in this show Step and a Half is a survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre in the late 19th century. It's an important part of our history, especially here in the Midwest, so it's nice to see it being explored in theater.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" on Broadway

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a bloody brilliant musical! It’s everything I want musical theater to be: original, challenging, engaging, thrilling, thought-provoking, hilarious, and with a rocking score. This is not your grandmother’s musical, nor is it for kids. But if, like me, you love the art form that is musical theater and believe it can and should make a strong statement about the world we live in, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

Walking into the Jacobs Theater, we knew we were in for an awesome experience. I’ve never seen a theater decked out like this. It was red. Everywhere, everything, red. There were strings of red lights covering the ceiling and walls, which made everything a bloody glow. Portraits of President Andrew Jackson adorned the walls, as did (hopefully faux) animal heads. And in the middle of the theater, hanging upside down, was a dead horse! (I’m glad I didn’t have a seat directly below that.) It set the tone for the evening, and when the actors walked on stage, the lights went down and the show began.

the bloody red Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
the dead horse hanging in the middle of the theater

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson tells the story of the seventh president of the United States of America, from his humble beginnings on the frontier of Tennessee, to “hero” of wars against the Spanish, English, and Indians, to the White House. It’s a “period piece,” but with many modern conventions, language, and anachronisms, including microphones, phones, video games, and even a Cosmo magazine. It’s a wonderful mishmash of current popular culture and history, which makes it easy to draw parallels between the story that’s being told about the early 19th century, and our own time.  The show is a political satire that illustrates just how much things haven't changed.  Even though the musical has gone through several years of development, the subject is very timely and some of the jokes refer to events in recent weeks.  I have a feeling they'll continue to add and tweak jokes to reflect the political scandal du jour.

Andrew Jackson has dreams of overthrowing the Washington “elite” and becoming “the people’s president,” but he soon discovers that a president has to make the hard decisions, and is never going to please everyone. “The president doesn’t have the luxury of having friends.” One of the things Jackson is most known for is “Indian removal,” having convinced many Native American tribes to sign treaties and move west, resulting in the infamous Trail of Tears. As the narrator (a hilarious woman in an ugly sweater and glasses, riding a scooter) said, historians are still debating whether Jackson was a hero or a genocidal murderer.

The cast is gorgeous and talented, dressed in a sort of pioneer/modern/hip wardrobe. The action is largely over the top and campy, and a heck of a lot of fun. The score is what they call “emo-rock” and is great to listen to; I’ve been singing “Populism, Yea, Yea,” and “Life sucks, and my life sucks in particular” all day! The band consists of a drummer and two guitar/keyboard players, who also at times function as characters in the action. The choreography was cool and edgy. The show reminded me a little of the equally brilliant Spring Awakening (which I’m going to see in November at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, go see it if you’re interested in a great modern rock musical). Both are set in a specific time in the past, but the themes easily translate to today. The rock score and use of hand held mics is also similar, but Spring Awakening has a more somber tone, where BBAJ is pure campy fun and dark humor. I hope this show receives the acclaim and success that Spring Awakening did.

After the show we waited at the stage door to talk to the actors. You can tell it’s a new show (it officially opens on October 13 after a few weeks in previews and a successful run at the Public Theater downtown earlier this year).  There wasn’t any organization to the stage door and the actors seemed quite pleased to sign our playbills and chat with us. For many of them, this is their Broadway debut. The entire cast is marvelous; it really is an ensemble piece with everyone playing several parts. I especially enjoyed Bryce Pinkham (who appeared recently at the Guthrie in A View from the Bridge) who plays both Indian chief Black Fox and Henry Clay, a creepy ferret-holding politician. Jeff Hiller (who's appeared on such NY based TV shows as 30 Rock, Guiding Light, and Ugly Betty) is a scene stealer in all of his many roles, including the mentally challenged John Quincy Adams and the White House tour guide. The title role is played by Benjamin Walker with strength, vulnerability, humor, a little wackiness, and a whole lot of charisma. He truly is a rock star president in tight jeans! He was very pleasant and friendly at the stage door and happily posed for a picture with us. Unfortunately he’s engaged – to Meryl Streep’s daughter Mamie Gummer!

me and Kendra with Ben Walker who plays Andrew Jackson

with members of the cast of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
If you’re in NYC or planning to be there anytime soon, go see this show. It’ll blow you away, make you laugh, and make you want to cry at the messed up state of politics 200 years ago and today. And maybe it’ll even get us thinking about a better way to do things. It’s encouraging to me that this show is on Broadway at the same time as Scottsboro Boys. Both shows deal with unpleasant periods in the history of our country and the horrible way we’ve treated people, and still are. Original musical theater as social commentary? I’ll take that over Spiderman the Musical any day!

Update: watch a video about opening night here.

"Brief Encounter" on Broadway

Brief Encounter is a production of the Kneehigh Theatre Company out of Cornwall, England. It made three US stops, including at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, before landing on Broadway at Studio 54. I saw it in March of this year and absolutely loved it, one of my favorites of the year so far. It’s innovative, fresh, and perfectly lovely. I didn’t notice any differences between the show I saw at the Guthrie and the one I saw on Broadway, except for a few casting changes. It’s a nine-person cast, some of whom function primarily as musicians and some primarily as actors, but almost all of them do some of both. Brief Encounter is technically a play (it was listed as such on the TKTS board), even though it contains just as much music as a musical. But it’s more like a play with musical interludes, rather than a traditional musical with characters breaking into song. It’s based on the Noel Coward play Still Life as well as his movie adaptation, Brief Encounter. It uses film and music to help tell the story of two people who meet at a train station and fall in love, despite the fact that they’re married. Their romance is doomed from the start, but that doesn’t stop it from being beautiful, life-changing, and buoyant.

There are frequent little vignettes in the show that interrupt the main action of the play, which makes it feel almost vaudevillian. Here is where the ensemble cast shines. Before the show starts they walk around the theater, dressed as 1930s movie theater ushers, and singing and playing songs of the period. They all play multiple characters and multiple instruments. The sweet and funny “new love” story between Stanley and Beryl and the “love again” story of Myrtle and Albert serve as a nice contrast to the doomed love story of the main characters.

Brief Encounter is innovative in the way that it uses media to depict the inner and outer action of the story. There’s a screen at the back of the stage where images such as sky or water are projected. At times scenes are projected onto a smaller screen made of vertical strips at the front of the stage, allowing the actors to step in and out of the picture. The train is depicted as a little toy train pulled across the stage, and also by a projection onto yet another screen pulled across the front of the stage. At one point the lovers literally swing from chandeliers. There was a Q&A after the show, and one of the actors commented that what is normally felt internally is expressed externally in this show.

Every movement is so specific, so full of meaning, that not a moment is wasted on any corner of the stage at any time during the show. From the way someone holds a teacup, to a gentle touch between lovers. It’s a delightful show that will break your heart, make you laugh, and give you hope. It feels like something that should be done at some little experimental theater, which I think it was, and I’m thrilled that it ended up on Broadway.

Update: watch a video about opening night here.

"A Little Night Music" on Broadway

When you go to a Stephen Sondheim show starring Broadway legends Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, you know you’re in for a treat. I have recently decided that I need to see more Sondheim. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak earlier this year, and the life he’s lived and the things he’s experienced in the world of musical theater is amazing. His friend and mentor was Oscar Hammerstein of the great Rogers and Hammerstein, so he learned from the best, but he has a style all his own. A Little Night Music is only the second Sondheim musical I’ve seen (not counting West Side Story and Gypsy, for which he wrote the lyrics), the other being Sweeney Todd. It was first produced in 1973, and the current revival opened late last year starring Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Although I would have loved to have seen the divine Ms. Lansbury, I’m quite happy with the replacement cast. I saw Bernadette in Gypsy a few years ago, and with the Minnesota Orchestra earlier this year. She’s amazing in everything she does (and is my hair role model ;). I must confess, I mostly know Elaine as Jack Donaghy’s mother on 30 Rock, but she’s also had an extensive career in the theater, so it was a privilege to see her on stage. I don’t believe she’s known for her singing voice, so she sort of spoke her solo song. But I found that interesting and moving, because you could really hear the lyrics, and she spoke them with such meaning and passion.

I didn’t know much about A Little Night Music before seeing the show. For some reason I thought it was a serious piece, maybe because the most famous song is the mournful “Send in the Clowns.” But it’s actually a light-hearted comedy for the most part. Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, it’s set in Sweden in the early 20th century. Bernadette plays an actress named Desiree who travels a lot and has left her daughter Fredrika to be raised by her mother (Elaine). Desiree’s ex-lover Fredrik, who is Fredrika's father, is recently married to a beautiful, flighty young woman. They have yet to consummate their marriage, which may have something to do with the fact that she’s in love with her stepson! Fredrik surprises his wife with a night at the theater, where Desiree is performing. Fredrik later visits Desiree and they re-ignite their old flame, only to be interrupted by Desiree’s married lover! She decides to invite them all to a weekend in the country at her mother’s estate, where hijinks ensue, and everyone eventually ends up happily ever after.

One of the features of the musical is a Greek chorus of five actors, who come out and sing commentary on the action and ease the transitions between scenes.  The set is simple and elegant, and the period costumes grand.  It’s a wonderful classic musical with beautiful, poignant, and funny lyrics, and an extremely talented cast. It was a lovely afternoon at the theater and an appropriate choice for my first New York City blog post!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"The Oldest Story in the World" by Theatre Novi Most at the Southern Theater

I just got home from my first show of the season at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, where I have a four-show season package. The Southern Theater presents unique and innovative works of theater, dance, music, and film (or some combination thereof) from many diverse companies, both local and national. It's a beautiful theater that celebrated it's 100th anniversary earlier this year. The theater itself has brick walls and a magnificent arch at the back of the stage, which is often used to advantage in the productions. I've only been there once, for Theater Latte Da's lovely and innovative triptych of musicals The Passage of Dreams. I decided to get a season pass at the Southern to increase my exposure to other theaters around the cities. And my first experience was wonderful. Or, to quote a fellow theater-goer I overheard when leaving the theater, "It was weird. But it was good."

Theatre Novi Most, which means Theatre of a New Bridge, was founded by Lisa Channer, the director of this piece, and Vladimir Rovinsky, an actor in the piece. According to their website, Novi Most "combines the artistic traditions of Russia and America to create dynamic physical theatre performances in which seemingly disparate ideas, languages and cultures can clash, commingle and cross-pollinate." They definitely succeeded with this production, The Oldest Story in the World, based on the epic of Gilgamesh. If you're like me, you've heard of Gilgamesh and vaguely recall reading it in college, but don't remember much about it other than there's some kind of beast. Let me summarize: Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk (an ancient city near modern-day Iraq) and is two thirds god and one third man. He's arrogant, and to teach him a lesson, the gods create a foe/friend for him, Enkidu, who is two thirds animal and one third man. They fight a monster, Enkidu is killed, and Gilgamesh is cursed to mourn for the rest of his days. He fears death and so seeks out the one immortal, Utnapishtim, to ask him the secret of beating death. The first translator of the story, George Smith, is also a character in the play.

This production felt so epic that I was surprised when I left the theater to see that only 90 minutes had passed. It felt like I was in there for a hundred years, but in a good way! It really felt out of time, with the ancient story mixed with modern set pieces, including flickering TVs, file boxes, and pool cues. I'm not sure if this would be classified as a play, a musical, or a dance piece, but it was really partly all three. There was a chorus of three singers who would sing parts of the epic of Gilgamesh, in a haunting way that evoked a sense of the ancient, while still seeming modern at times. And the movement and choreography was beautiful. The part-animal Enkidu, played by U of M student Billy Mullaney, really did move like an animal. He and Erik Hoover, who played Gilgamesh, danced and fought beautifully together. The five gods were dressed in modern yet classic clothing, and watched the mortals, laughing or crying. Utnapishtim and his wife were like an old married couple, blessed (or cursed?) to live together for eternity. According to the epic, the gods created humans and gave them life, but also death, so that they would appreciate their life. Because it's the knowing that it's temporary, that it will end one day, that gives life meaning.

I was touched by this quote that was sung by the chorus and also printed in the program:

"Enjoy your life, spend it in happiness.
Savor your food, make each day a festival.
Let music and dancing fill your rooms.
Love the child that holds your hand.
Give your love pleasure.
That is the only way for us to live."

It struck me as so amazing that words written over 3000 years ago are still so true today. Something so simple, but something humanity has struggled with since its existence. And if this was known 3000 years ago, why are we still so messed up today? Life is a constant struggle to re-learn this lesson. And theater is a powerful way to do it. As Lisa wrote in the director's note: "Myths are personal things. They are the breadcrumbs our smart ancestors left us to find our way back to them and thus to ourselves... we are all really the same quivering human souls regardless of time or place."