Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Romeo and Juliet" by The Acting Company at the Guthrie

The Acting Company, a touring company out of NYC that travels around the country presenting classical works of theater, has spent the month of January at the Guthrie Theater.  I saw them a few weeks ago doing Shakespeare's slapstick comedy The Comedy of Errors.  I enjoyed the talented young cast so much that I had to go back to see the other show they were doing in repertory - Romeo and Juliet.  It was fun to see familiar faces in totally new roles, and although this play had a completely different tone, they again did a wonderful job and worked well together.

Our Romeo (Alejandro Rodriguez) and Juliet (Kaliswa Brewster) had pretty minor roles in The Comedy of Errors so I wasn't sure what to expect from them.  I was impressed by both of them.  They look the part of the young lovers and were believable falling in love, which quickly turned to despair.  Alejandro went from the carefree and blissful youth to the man in anguish at losing his love, literally writhing on the ground and sobbing.  The plum part of Juliet's nurse was played by Elizabeth Stahlman with great humor and energy.  Sid Solomon played Romeo's kinsman Mercutio with much of the same mannerisms as he had in Comedy, which I probably would have enjoyed more had I not been reminded of his previous character.  But he also played the Prince, a role in which he was almost recognizable.  Elizabeth Grullon played the boy Peter, a fun change from her vampy role in Comedy.  The delightful Comedy clowns Stephen Pilkington and John Skelley played the smaller but still entertaining roles of Romeo's pals.

Whenever I see Romeo and Juliet I get frustrated by all the near misses and how differently things could have turned out.  Like maybe this time, the Friar's message will get through to Romeo so he'll know Juliet is not really dead.  Or Juliet will wake up just a few minutes sooner, before Romeo has a chance to drink the poison.  Or better yet, the Friar will suggest that Juliet sneak out of her house and run away with Romeo instead of the preposterous plot of faking her death.  But it never happens; everything goes wrong and the love story ends in tragedy.  That's what makes it so deliciously heartbreaking.

After this week the company moves on around the country with their two plays, until they end the season in NYC in April.  Check out their tour itinerary to see if they'll be at a location near you.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

My Experience as an Extra in the Coen Brothers' Movie "A Serious Man"

In addition to theater, I’m also a big fan of movies (although I probably go live theater more often than I go to the movie theater). I’ve never had any desire to be an actor on stage or screen. But I’ve had a few opportunities to be an extra in movies, which was great fun for me because it gave me a behind-the-scenes look at how movies are made. It destroys a little of the movie magic, knowing what goes into them, but it’s worth it to watch great artists at work.

I have Garrison Keillor to thank for my career as a movie extra. I’m a big fan of his radio program A Prairie Home Companion, so when I heard they needed bodies to fill the seats at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul where they were filming a movie version of the show, I signed myself up! I got called in for a double shift, twelve hours that mostly consisted of reading The DaVinci Code in the waiting area across the street (it was 2005, everyone was reading it). An unpaid position except for a few bags of pretzels, and wearing my own clothes, it wasn’t very glamorous. But I did get to spend several hours sitting in the Fitz listening to Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin sing together while Robert Altman called out directions from the back of the theater, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson goofed around on their guitars off-stage, and Kevin Kline wandered up and down the aisles. It was a good day’s (unpaid) work and well worth the time, even though I didn’t make it into the movie.

The extras casting company for APHC, and for many local movies, is called “Three Crazy Ladies.” I got on their mailing list, which led to my next job as an extra a few months later. It was a small local movie that pretty much went directly to DVD. Which I bought, only to find out that my brief scene as the hostess of a bar/restaurant was cut.

A few years went by and nothing interesting came up from the casting company. But then news broke that Joel and Ethan Coen were returning to their native Minnesota to film a movie, the first since Fargo in 1996. A Serious Man is period piece set in 1967 and many of the characters are based on people the brothers knew while growing up in Minnesota. I was desperate to be in it, and luckily Three Crazy Ladies again got the job and sent out an email calling for extras. I drove to a non-descript office building in Minneapolis and filled out a one-page application that included the question “are you willing to wear a bullet bra and girdle?” Since that was at the beginning of my obsession with the 1960s-set TV show Mad Men, my answer was an enthusiastic yes! (Trust me, it’s not as cool as it sounds.) Weeks went by and I heard nothing. Then one day I got a call and was asked, “Can you show up for a wardrobe fitting tomorrow?” Sure!

I went back to the office building on a Friday morning and spent about two hours there with the wardrobe and hair departments. They had asked me to straighten my naturally curly hair, and when I got there they asked if they could cut it and do a shoulder length flip-do. I was reluctant, so I went with the other option: “We can give you an up-do and make you look older.” Sure, I’d love to look older. ;) Anything for the Coens. I tried on about four different outfits, all vintage clothes from the 60s. The wardrobe staff settled on a green suit – skirt and jacket – with a patterned blouse with a tie underneath. I was to be a “lady who lunched.” Once the outfit was chosen, they had to pick just the right accessories. It was like my grandmother’s attic – bins of earrings, shoes, and purses, all organized by color. They found the perfect little brown heels (which actually show up in the movie, more about that later), a brown purse, gold and pearl clip-on earrings, and a pin to complete the look. I was so impressed with the level of detail that went into clothing an extra who would appear on screen for just a few seconds. That’s dedication and professionalism, my friends. I was given an updo and a few Polaroids were snapped of the look, and then I was on my way.

My scene was filmed on a Monday morning in October of 2008 in a furniture warehouse off 7th Street in St. Paul near the airport. It was a 6:30 am call time, and again I had to straighten my hair (so of course it was raining on and off and on all day). I showed up on set (which consisted of several trailers parked outside the warehouse) and partook of the free breakfast. There were six extras on the set that morning, and we were lead through the warehouse to the filming area. One room was set up as wardrobe, and our outfits were neatly tagged and ready for us. After wardrobe was make-up. I’ve never had my make-up professionally done, so it was a fun experience. I was given a mod 60s look – black eyeliner with a minty green shadow and pink frosty lip stick. Next stop (and the longest) – hair. While wardrobe and make-up were inside the warehouse, hair was a separate trailer outside. I spent at least an hour, if not two, in the hair trailer. First one set of rollers and then another, much teasing and backcombing, and more hairspray than I’ve used since I was a teenager, and I was transformed into a 1960s woman. The other female extra was there too and was transformed into a perfect 1960s dental receptionist. The men didn’t take nearly as long.

We were all ready to go and led to the waiting room, which also held snacks for the cast and crew. I think that was where I caught my first glimpse of Joel and Ethan. They would occasionally wander in to get a snack or read the paper, but as extras we’re told not to bother the stars or directors. Bad form to ask for an autograph on a movie set. ;) I didn’t know much about the scene we were shooting, just that it took place in a dentist’s office. Finally, we were needed. Only four of the six extras ended up being used in the scene: myself, my 12-year-old “son” (whose uncle had gone to Hebrew School with one of the Coens), the receptionist, and another waiting patient (who, in real life, was a state representative that somehow helped with getting the movie made in Minnesota). The two “real” actors played the dentist and his patient. I recognized the patient as Wayne A. Evanson from several productions at the Guthrie; Dr. Sussman was played by Michael Tezla. The action of the scene consisted of the dentist walking out into the waiting area and greeting the patient, exchanging a few pleasantries. The specific dialogue didn’t seem to be important, just the tone of the exchange. It wasn’t until I saw the movie that I knew why – there was a voiceover during the scene so the dialogue couldn’t be heard.

The scene was shot from four different angles, and I was involved in three of them. A close-up of each actor, and two from farther away with both of them in the shot. Not all the extras were needed for all shots, depending on the angle and who would show up in the shot. From each angle they did probably about ten takes. At times Joel or Ethan or both would come out to give direction, and it was seamless, like they were one person. They obviously have a great working relationship and shorthand between them. I don’t know of any other directors that work in a pair and have been so successful. One direction I remember specifically is that they wanted the patient to laugh with a big open mouth that they seemed to focus on. Their laughter indicated that they finally got what they wanted. We spent probably two hours filming what would be about a 10-second scene. Again, incredible attention to detail.

Lunch break was called at about 1 pm and we went back outside to the food truck which had a great variety of fresh and tasty food. We ate with the crew under a big tent (it was still raining, so I had to be careful to protect my bouffant from the rain). I ate as much as my girdle would allow, which unfortunately was not a whole lot. We went back inside and got touch-ups on our hair and make-up. I felt like such a star as I was getting my hair sprayed and lipstick re-applied at the same time. As soon as we were ready to go, they came in and said, “We don’t need you anymore, you can go now.” Well, thanks for lunch! It was a fun and fascinating day on the movie set, and I got paid! But I had a long 6+ months to wait until I found out if I made it to the big screen.

The movie came out in June of 2009 and was only playing at the Uptown Theater the first weekend, which is a great old theater that seemed to fit the vintage feel of the movie.  I watched with bated breath, waiting for the dentist office to appear.  Larry Gopnik, the main character, went to see the rabbi, who began telling a story about a dentist - this was it!  At about 56 minutes into the movie I saw this:

In the lower right-hand corner of the screen you can see my vintage brown heels, and my "son," who is reading a Look magazine from the 60s.  I believe the article was something about the Kennedys.

In the next scene you see the patient, and there's my head floating in the lower left-hand corner!

During the filming of the scene someone (maybe an assistant director?) told my "son" what to do (pretend to read the magazine), which he took very seriously.  But no one told me what I was supposed to be doing, so I just looked at the magazine over his shoulder and tried not to gawk at the main action of the scene.

And that's it!  My 15 minutes, OK 15 seconds, OK maybe 1/15 of a second, were over.  It was such a fun experience to be even marginally involved in the making of a movie.  And in my completely unbiased opinion, it's one of the Coen Brothers' best films.  Definitely the most personal.  It has that quirky sense of humor that is uniquely Coen, but with a deeper meaning about faith and family and life.  I'm proud to be a part of it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Into the Woods" at the Bloomington Civic Theatre

Into the Woods at the Bloomington Civic Theatre was the first show on my list of productions I wanted to see this year.  There are two reasons I wanted to see it: 1) my New Years' resolution to see more Sondheim; and 2) I've been hearing good things about BCT lately, particularly in the bios of some of my favorite new actors, so I was curious to check it out.  I was not disappointed on either count.  As music director Anita Ruth pointed out before the show, Into the Woods is one of Sondheim's happier musicals, and this company of actors, musicians, and designers did a wonderful job with it.  There was a "talk back" after the show (love that!) where Anita and most of the actors came out on stage to discuss this show and the theatre in general.  BCT program director Bonnie Erickson was also available to answer questions.  Most of the actors have "day jobs," which makes their fine work with this challenging piece all the more impressive.  I hope to see some of them again, either on the BCT stage or on professional stages in the area.  Anita and Bonnie talked a little about the challenges of programming a season of musicals, balancing classic, familiar pieces that a portion of the audience wants, with more innovative and original pieces that appeal to another part of the audience (like me!).  It was interesting to hear about the life of this theatre and the work that they do.

Into the Woods, featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, was first produced in 1986.  The plot is a mash-up of several well-known fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel, as well as an original story about a baker and his wife who want to have children but are cursed by a witch.  In the first act, the baker and his wife go on a quest to have the spell reversed and intersect with the tales of the other characters, all of whom go "Into the Woods" to begin their journey.  By intermission, everyone seems to have gotten what they wanted, but the second acts delves into what happens after the "happily ever after."  Sometimes the consequences of getting what you wanted are not all good.  As Glinda says in Wicked, "Getting your dreams, as strange as it seems, is a little, well, complicated."  The music is typical Sondheim: unusual and beautiful melodies with clever and fast-paced lyrics.

Highlights in the cast include Karen Weber as the witch, who later has her youth and beauty restored but her power taken away (you can't have everything).  She gets to sing the most well-known song, "No One is Alone," and does so beautifully.  Adam Qualls as the baker duets with the witch on that song, and is quite charismatic and natural on stage.  Colleen Somerville is his equal partner and wife, until she's charmed by the prince in the woods.  Laurel Armstrong is the Cinderella who comes to realize the fairy tale prince may not be the answer to her dreams after all.  Aleks Knezevich and Eric Heimsoth are the charming princes in "Agony" who, once they find their princesses, are not entirely satisfied.  Courtney Miner is a spitfire of a Red Riding Hood, and Joshua Hinck sings beautifully as the addle-brained Jack whose best friend is a cow, and who sets off a chain of events he didn't see coming.  The set was colorful and whimsical with moving pieces that functioned as beds, rocks, or trees depending on the scene.

Now that I've discovered BCT I'll definitely be keeping on eye on their schedule.  Their next show is the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate this spring, which might also be worth checking out.  I was very impressed with the all-around quality of the show and am glad to add BCT to my rotation of theaters.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"The Comedy of Errors" by The Acting Company at the Guthrie

I didn't know Shakespeare wrote slapstick comedies.  But The Comedy of Errors certainly is that, at least as performed by The Acting Company at the Guthrie Theater.  Complete with pratfalls, silly noises, sight gags, bawdy jokes, and plenty of actual slaps, it's way more fun than Shakespeare should be.  The Acting Company is a touring company out of New York City that tours the country with classic theater, "offering opportunities to young performers to play classical roles in major productions."  Many of the cast members are graduates of the U of M/Guthrie training program.  They're spending the month of January at the Guthrie doing The Comedy of Errors and Romeo and Juliet in repertory.  I wasn't planning to see Romeo and Juliet, thinking one show would be enough, but I really enjoyed the bright, young, charismatic cast.  I'm curious to see them in different roles in a more serious play, so I just ordered my ticket for Romeo and Juliet.  They've got an unusual number of weekday matinees on the schedule, which I imagine means a lot of school groups are coming in - always a great thing.  Next destinations on the tour are Brainerd and Madison, followed by a few more Midwest stops before a return to the East Coast.

The Acting Company cast
The Comedy of Errors features typical Shakespearean mistaken identity confusion, times two.  Two sets of twins are separated at birth, one set the "master" and the other set hired (bought?) by their parents to be the "servants."  One of each ends up with each parent, who are separated, never to meet again.  Until 25 years later.  Somehow the twins ended up with the same name, so when Antipholus and Dromio arrive in Ephesus, they're instantly mistaken for the Antipholus and Dromio who live there, and can't understand why everyone knows them but they don't know anyone.  Even Antipholus' wife is fooled, and is not happy when her husband doesn't want to come home for dinner.  Meanwhile, the "real" Antipholus and Dromio are locked out of their own home (because they're already inside) and are exasperated when people start accusing them of things they haven't done.  At times the wrong servant approaches the wrong master with something entirely other than what he asked for.  Much hijinks and confusion ensue, until after 90 minutes the two pairs meet in a hilarious scene where, after a moment of confusion, all is set right.

The four actors playing the twins are all wonderful.  John Skelley, one of my new faves (The Importance of Being Earnest and The Two Gentleman of Verona at the Guthrie), plays one of the Dromeos along with Stephen Pilkington.  Both are very funny and good at taking a punch.  Our proud and put-upon Antipholuses are Jonathan C. Kaplan and Jason McDowell-Green.  The four have great chemistry with each other, and are obviously having a good time with this show.  An interesting thing is that a few of the actors speak with British accents, while most of them do not.  I assume it was each actors' choice, and somehow it works.  Other highlights in the cast include Sid Solomon as the smarmy jewelry salesman, Whitney Hudson as Atipholus' wife who can't understand why her husband is acting so strangely, and Elizabeth Stahlman as her loyal sister, who can't understand why her brother-in-law is confessing his love for her! 

This is my first time seeing The Acting Company, and I like them.  I like what they're doing.  I look forward to Romeo and Juliet in a few weeks, as well as seeing what they'll do next year.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Shows I’m Looking Forward to in 2011

Happy 2011 friends! A new year brings new plays and musicals to go see. Here are a few I’m excited to see in the first part of this year.  (Click on the title for more info and to purchase tickets, although not all of them are available yet.)

Into the Woods, Bloomington Civic Theater, January 14 – February 13
I’ve been hearing good things about the Bloomington Civic Theater and seen it listed in the bios of some of my favorite new actors, so I’ve been itching to check it out. This show fits nicely into my goal to see more Sondheim, so it’s worth the drive across town.
Update: read my review of the show.

Doubt, Ten Thousand Things, February 11 – March 6
There are five reasons to see this show: 1) Ten Thousand Things’ stripped-to-the-core style of theater; 2) A Tony-award winning play about “A fiery battle between a nun and a priest over suspicions of the sexual abuse of a child. Can you get at the truth, when the truth is so colored by our lenses of experience?” 3) Peter Rothstein, my favorite director and Artistic Director of Theater Latte Da; 4) Sally Wingert, who, like Meryl Streep who played the role in the movie, can play anything from comedy to drama and everything in between, and elevates everything she’s in; and 5) Kris Nelson, another of my favorite actors who never disappoints. Any one of those five reasons would be enough to get me to this show, but with all five of them? I’m counting the days!
Update: read my review of the show.

Song of Extinction, Theater Latte Da, February 25 – March 20
Peter Rothstein is a busy man! He’s also directing this Theater Latte Da “play about the science of life and loss, the relationships between fathers and sons, Cambodian fields, Bolivian rainforests and redemption.” I don’t know anything about this play and don’t recognize any of the names on the cast list, but I’ve never met a Latte Da show I didn’t love. And they do a great job casting their shows, so I might discover a few new favorite actors too.
Update: read my review of the show.

HAIR, Orpheum Theater, March 16
You can read more about my obsession with the 1968 musical HAIR near the bottom of my 2010 Top Ten list, but suffice it to say I saw it twice on Broadway last year, including making a special trip to NYC just to see the original cast before they moved to London. So yeah, I’m a fan. There’s not much of a plot, but with great music, incredible heartfelt performances, a message of love and peace and togetherness, and a chance to be harassed by hippies, who needs a plot? Since both the Broadway and London shows have closed, I look forward to seeing some familiar hippies, including original tribe members Paris Remillard and Steel Burkhardt as Claude and Berger.  It's only here for a week so get your tickets now!
Update: read my review of the show.

Little Shop of Horrors, Mu Performing Arts, March 19 – April 3
This musical about the plant that eats people is one of my favorites, and “Suddenly Seymour” is one of the best musical love songs ever. Mu usually does Asian-American themed pieces, but this is their chance to cast Asian-Americans in roles they wouldn’t normally be cast in. Randy Reyes is playing Seymour, and I’m sure he’ll be completely charming and funny and touching, as is required in Seymour.
Update: read my review of the show.

Avenue Q, Mixed Blood Theatre, March 25 – May 29
Avenue Q is a refreshingly original and funny musical featuring puppets, like an R-rated Sesame Street. I’ve seen it once on Broadway and once on tour, and I’m very curious to see how Mixed Blood stages this show in their intimate space.
Update: read my review of the show.

[title of show], Yellow Tree Theatre, April 22 – May 15
My favorite little theater in Osseo is doing a musical, and I can’t wait to see how they do it! Wikipedia says “The musical documents its own creation by two Broadway fans, who want to enter the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It follows the team's struggle to complete the show in three and a half weeks with the help of their two actress friends.” It sounds like it’s right up Yellow Tree’s alley, and I think I’m going to love this "musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical."
Update: read my review of the show (hint: I did love it).

Next to Normal, Ordway Center, May 10–22
I saw Next to Normal on Broadway shortly after it premiered in 2009, and saw it again last year. I walked into the theater the first time knowing almost nothing about the show, other than it had gotten good buzz and it was about a family struggling with mental illness. Sometimes that’s the best way to see a show; I was blown away. It won a Tony for the brilliant rock score, but lost the best musical Tony to Billy Elliot. The six-person cast was amazing, and Alice Ripley won the Tony for her role. Lucky for us she’s reprising her role in this tour. If you want to see a Tony-winning actress in a bold, brilliant, truly original musical, go see Next to Normal. Expect to be emotionally drained by the end of the evening (in a good way ;).
Update: read my review of the show.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Jungle Theater, June 10 – July 31
Again, more Sondheim. I’ve only seen one musical at the Jungle, the completely fabulous Hedwig and the Angry Inch. So I have high expectations for this show. I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.
Update: read my review of the show.

HMS Pinafore, Guthrie Theater, June 18 – August 28
My favorite show that I’ve ever seen at the Guthrie is the Gilbert and Sullivan musical The Pirates of Penzance. It was the final production of my first season as a subscriber in 2004, and I loved it so much I saw it twice. With pirates climbing down from the balconies and flying in on ropes, costumes that were to die for, a fantastic cast, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s clever use of language and rhythm, not to mention a song about the Pythagorean Theorem, this is one of those shows I wish I could travel back in time to revisit. If this production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore is even half as good as The Pirates of Penzance was, I know I’ll love it. I’m also hoping that some of my local musical theater faves will be in it.
Update: read my review of the show.

2011 is shaping up to be another great year for theater in Minneapolis/St. Paul.  I hope you get to one or two of these shows, and let me know if there are others you're looking forward to.  FYI you can always see what shows I've got coming up in my schedule in the "Upcoming Shows" section on the right-hand side of this page.  Click on the show name for more information and to order tickets.

I hope your 2011 is filled with health, happiness, and great theater.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tonic Sol-Fa at Orchestra Hall and the Paramount Theater

Tonic Sol-Fa is my favorite a capella group.  Actually, they're my only a capella group.  I've been a fan of theirs for almost 15 years, having first heard of them at my and their alma mater, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University.  I first heard them sing at the Minnesota State Fair, where they still appear every year at the bandshell.  I've seen them perform 30+ times over the years, and I never tire of it.  They continually come out with new original songs and new arrangements of old songs, not to mention their silly jokes and other ways to entertain the crowd.  I attended their New Year's Eve concert at the Paramount Theatre in St. Cloud for the 11th straight year; at this point, it wouldn't be New Years without Tonic Sol-Fa!  I also usually attend their holiday show at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis; even though it's the same show both nights, I just can't resist seeing them in this beautiful venue.

Tonic Sol-Fa consists of four members, each of whom has their distinct role, both vocally and in terms of the chemistry of the group.  Jared, the bass with the super-low voice, provides the steady rythm and dry one-liners, as well as an easy target for the other guys' jokes.  Greg is the goofy one and never fails to make me crack up with whatever silliness he's come up with, especially his annual donning of the Christmas tights.  He's a great beat-boxer and also provides much of the arrangment for the group.  Shaun sings lead most of the time, and along with Greg, is responsbile for most of the entertainment portion of the show.  He has a beautiful voice and is one of those people in whom the music just flows through him in a way he's barely able to contain.  Mark is the straight man in the group that allows the rest of them to be crazy around him.  With his great harmonies and dance skills (he joined Greg in the "Single Ladies" dance this year), he's a consistant and steady presence on the left side of the stage.

Here's a clip of the guys singing "The 12 Days of Christmas" at the Paramount that showcases of each of their skills, as well as their brilliance at coming together and entertaining the crowd.  One of the things I love best about Tonic Sol-Fa is their ability to take a familiar song and turn it on its head to make something new and fresh.  I usually end up liking the TSF version better than the original. 

I'm listening to their new CD "Something Beautiful" as I write this; it's a collection of their best ballads from the past 5-10 years and includes the beautiful new song, "We All Need Saving."  Here's a clip of it from Orchestra Hall.  Take note of my favorite moment, when they drop their mics near the end of the song and their unamplified voices fill the space in Orchestra Hall.

The bottom line and the reason I keep returning to show after show, is that in addition to great music, the members of Tonic Sol-Fa are obviously having so much fun performing and entertaining the audience, that it's impossible for the audience not to have fun too.  Whether you're young, old, or anywhere in between, you're sure to have a good time with these guys.  I know I always do!

One more clip: a cover of Michael Buble's "I Just Haven't Met You Yet," with crowd participation (I dare you not to sing along!).