Monday, March 28, 2011

"The 7-Shot Symphony" by Live Action Set at Loring Theater

I first heard of Live Action Set at the Ivey Awards last year when they performed the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in nine minutes (scroll to the bottom of this post to watch the video).  It was hilarious and brilliant, and I've had it in the back of my mind to check them out ever since.  So when I received an email from Artistic Director Noah Bremer telling me about their new show The 7-Shot Symphony, I decided it was a good time to finally check them out.  Live Action Set performs what they call "physical theater."  They don't have much in the way of props or set pieces; they act out everything with their bodies, from guns to trees to canyons to swinging saloon doors.  It almost reminded me of old silent films, except that there was of course sound (provided by the actors and members of local band Tree Party).  A note in the playbill says, "The creativity of non-literal depiction is what awakens the imagination.  And, this is what our theater does best - awaken the imagination."  They definitely succeeded in that with this piece!

The 7-Shot Symphony, an original piece written by Matt Spring and Ryan Underbakke (who also directs), is a re-imagining of several classic myths as a Western.  It's performed in seven "movements," like a piece of music, and each part tells a different story.  From the Epic of Gilgamesh (which was also the subject of a play I saw last fall called The Oldest Story in the World), to the Norse god Odin, to the Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice (which I was vaguely familiar with through Anias Mitchell's folk opera Hadestown), they all fit together in the end to complete the puzzle that is Deus county.  The seven actors take turns narrating the movements and playing the different parts, often changing characters in a matter of seconds with only a hat or a skirt or an accent or the carriage of their body to aid in the transformation.  It's really amazing how they create such specific characters; for the first half of the show I didn't realize that the actor playing Hades (Matt Riggs) was the same actor playing a few other roles, and it wasn't just the coat and top hat, it was the whole physicality of the character.  And that's just one example of the magic they create.

My favorite story was Orpheus and Eurydice.  In this incarnation, Orpheus is a frontiersman who borrows money from the evil Hades, owner of the Underworld saloon, to bring Eurydice to America from the "Old Country" to be his wife (similar to the plot of one of my favorite Minnesota-made movies, Sweet Land).  Eurydice can speak no English, so Orpheus (Joey Ford, a member of the band Tree Party) wins her heart by singing to her with the saddest and most beautiful yodeling I've ever heard.  It's a yodel that will break your heart.  Hades kidnaps Eurydice as payment on the loan, so Orpheus travels across the desert to find her.  When the lovers are reunited, Orpheus sings his song for her, and Jenna Wyse (also a member of Tree Party) as Eurydice adds her lovely voice to his.  It's a moment so beautiful that even evil Hades is moved.  He lets her go, but with a condition that tragically is not met.

There's not a weak link in this ensemble, which also includes Mark Benzel, Damian Johnson, Emily King, and Dustin Suggs.  They work and play together very well, and are all experts at creating not just characters but the whole environment in which the story takes place.  The Tree Party band provided a really cool country/rockabilly sound that makes me want to hear more from them.

I've seen several new (to me) theater companies in the last few weeks, and have been impressed with all of them.  The more theater I see, the more blown away I am by the talent in this town.  It's a beautiful thing.

And now, if you're a LOTR fan like me, enjoy this interpretation of the epic tale:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Little Shop of Horrors" by Mu Performing Arts at the Ritz Theater

It's been a great week for musical theater here at Cherry and Spoon.  I saw two of my favorite musicals; both productions are fresh, interesting takes on a classic by a local theater company, featuring a great cast led by one of my local faves, at a charming historic venue.  Earlier this week I saw Frank Theatre's brilliant Cabaret at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat, and last night I saw the quirky, funny, heart-breaking, bloody little musical Little Shop of Horrors by Mu Performing Arts at The Ritz Theater.  The fact that this version of Little Shop features an all Asian-American cast is not what makes it unique and in-ter-esting (like that plant in the window).  It's a production full of new and innovative choices, the biggest one being that the man-eating plant, Audrey II, is played by a woman.  This offers a whole new dimension to the plant, giving it more character, and to the play as a whole.  In other versions I've seen, Audrey II is played by a black man with a deep, booming voice who never appears onstage in bodily form.  This Audrey II appears onstage along with the puppet version of the plant, so you're watching the actor and the puppet simultaneously (similar to Avenue Q, which I'm looking forward to seeing at Mixed Blood in a few weeks).  Sheena Janson plays the plant as a sultry, seductive devil on Seymour's shoulder.  She doesn't often speak, but she's always there in the back of the flower shop, letting us know exactly what she's thinking by the expressions flitting across her face.  The audience can more clearly see how Audrey II is driving the action in Seymour's life.  Audrey II gives Seymour everything he ever wanted, but like most deals with the devil, there's a price and it doesn't end well.

Who else would play Seymour besides the multi-talented Randy Reyes?  I can't think of anyone better for the role, regardless of race.  The role suits him very well, both vocally (I've never heard him sound better) and as an actor.  He gives Seymour that sweet, nerdy, charm that makes the audience root for him even as he's killing people.  It's not his fault, the plant made him do it!  And his love for the original Audrey, Sara Ochs, is unconditional and beautiful.  Seymour and Audrey are two broken people who find each other.  He treats her the way that she deserves to be treated, and she sees the potential in him.  "Suddenly Seymour" is one of my favorite musical theater duets of all time, and Randy and Sara do it beautifully.  Sara also does a beautiful job with my other favorite song, the sad longing lament wrapped up in '50s idealized domesticity, "Somewhere that's Green."

This is an all-around great cast, from Eric "Pogi" Sumangil as Audrey's sadistic dentist boyfriend with the demented laugh, to the girl group Greek chorus of Katie Bradley, Molly Pan, and Suzie Juul, and everyone in between.  The orchestra sounds great, which is no surprise since it's directed by Denise Prosek of Theater Latte Da.  The plant puppetry and costumes are really well done (I particularly liked Audrey II's crazy plant hair and eyelashes), and the set is interesting and well-utilized by the cast.

Little Shop of Horrors is just a typical boy-meets-girl story.  Boy meets girl, boy wins girl, (spoiler alert!) girl gets eaten by boy's plant.  Mu does a wonderful job with it.  It's playing through next weekend so go check it out if you love a good man-eating plant story as much as I do.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Favorite New CDs of 2011

As a self-proclaimed theater geek, it's no surprise that I listen to a lot of musical theater soundtracks.  I also love all of the music from Glee, or as I like to call it, a musical theater geek's TV dream come true.  (Glee has become my window into the world of popular music; I love to annoy my friends by saying "hey, it's a Glee song!" when I hear some classic song from the past or present.)  But if I'm not listening to musical theater or Glee music, my taste tends toward the folk/country/bluegrass/acoustic/singer-songwriter end of the spectrum.  Here are a few new CDs I can't get enough of.  Some are newly released, and some are just new to me.  Each artist has their own unique sound, but one thing they have in common is that they all write most, if not all, of their songs.  Anyone can sing, but to write a song that's meaningful and lasting and true, that's real talent.

This CD was released in 2008 but I only recently became aware of local musician Blake Thomas through Yellow Tree Theatre's production of Our Town, in which he played the Stage Manager and provided the music.  I bought the Our Town soundtrack, featuring Blake and Mary Fox singing traditional American folk songs, and was intrigued by what I heard.  Blake's most recent CD Flatlands is a gem; it's everything I want country music to be that it isn't, at least not on the popular national scene.  With intelligent, thoughtful, poetic lyrics, a great country voice, a unique but familiar view of the world, it's just plain good.  "I Don't Want Your Heart, I Want Your Liver" is such a great title for a country song, I'm surprised it hasn't been written already.  "Please Cash This Check" might be the saddest song I've ever heard.  Every one of the 11 songs is a good one, mournful or funny or upbeat or clever, or all of the above.  If you're one of those people who "doesn't like country," don't let that label scare you; he really fits into the folk/singer-songwriter genre, but with a more country sound.  Check out this video of "World of War," which includes one of my favorite lyrics of many great ones, "The kind of rest that I receive in your arms, is so strange and pocket watch rare, if I couldn't put it down in song, I'd gladly cut off all of my hair."

From the oldest CD to the newest - local singer/songwriter and amazing guitar player Justin Roth's latest is not actually released yet.  I pre-ordered it last year after seeing Justin at the folk music festival Storyhillfest, so I got an advance (autographed) copy and have been listening to it for a few months now.  The unique thing about this CD is that in addition to writing or co-writing all but one of the songs, Justin played and sang all of the parts himself, as well as producing and engineering the CD, so as to have total artistic control of the process.  I think that's a pretty cool idea, and the result is beautiful.  The opening track "This Winter" feels like it was written about this cold, snowy, long winter that I think has finally almost broken.  My favorite song is the final track, "Love's Not Through With Me Yet" (the only one he didn't write).  To get a taste of what the record is like before it's released in May, you can get a free download of the song "Trembling Like a Train".  Justin is one of the best guitar players I've ever seen live, and he's included a couple of instrumental tracks on the CD, including "There and Back Again" (I love a Tolkien reference!).   He does really cool and interesting things with a guitar.  If you want to know what I mean by that, check out this video:

Carrie Elkin, Call It My Garden
Another musical find from last year's Storyhillfest, Carrie Elkin has a new release on the St. Paul record label Red House Records (which features many great artists).  When I saw Carrie last year at Storyhillfest, I was blown away by her gorgeously clear and piercing voice.  Many of the songs she sang are on this newly released album, which is almost as good as hearing her voice live and in person.  I remember listening to her sing "Berlin" by the campfire one night and loving it.  Some of the songs have a little more of a country feel, some are hauntingly beautiful, like "Landeth by Sea."  This song and others also feature gorgeous harmonies courtesy of, among others, her beau Danny Schmidt (also a talented singer/songwriter, and photographer).  This video is of song that's not on her CD, but it's a gorgeous song written by Danny Schmidt, and I really love the way her voice sounds with Chris and Johnny of Storyhill.

Mary Chapin Carpenter, Age of Miracles
These next two musicians probably need a little less introduction, as you may have heard them on the radio a time or two.  I've long been a fan of Mary Chapin and have everything she's ever recorded.  She has this uncanny ability to write songs that sound like I could have written them myself, if only I had the talent.  I can listen to a song I've heard a hundred times before, and some lyric will jump out at me in a way it never has before.  That's good songwriting, friends.  If you only know Mary Chapin from country radio in the '90s, you need to check out what she's been doing since.  She releases a new album every couple of years, and they're always full of thoughtful, interesting, clever, great songs.  Age of Miracles came out last summer, but since I wasn't able to attend her concert, I sort of forgot to look for the new CD until recently.  I'm glad I finally remembered; this CD is another collection of great songs.  From the long, slow, gorgeous "Mrs. Hemingway" to the more up-tempo "Last Night I Put My Ring Back On" (I'm certain that's the golden-voiced Vince Gill singing back-up).  One lyric that jumps out at me is from the title track: "You think you're just standing still, but one day you'll get up that hill.  In the age of miracles, there's one on the way."  But my favorite changes daily; I feel like I could listen to this CD for the next two years and continue to find new things in it.  Here's "I Have A Need For Solitude" (another song I relate to):

Amos is one of those singers whose voice just soothes me.  I often listen to him if I'm having trouble falling asleep.  That's not to say that his music is boring, it just calms me down and puts me in a place of peace.  The title of his fourth CD comes from the song "El Camino," a beautiful song either solo or as a duet with Willie Nelson (both versions are on the CD).  Lucinda Williams also duets with Amos on "Clear Blue Eyes."  The song "Windows Are Rolled Down" sounds like what it feels like to go driving on a warm spring day with the top down (something I'm anxiously awaiting).  He's performing tomorrow night at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, and I'm regretting not getting tickets!  Ellen likes Amos too, in fact I think this is how I heard about the new CD:

I should give honorable mention to the group whose magical little music festival led me to some of these and other favorite new artists and CDs, and whose 2010 CD Shade of the Trees has literally not left my car CD player in almost a year.  Storyhill features the beautiful harmonies of Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson, and they've written some pretty good songs themselves.  Check them out.  And to go back even further, I probably wouldn't know Storyhill if it weren't for the dear departed MPR morning show with Dale Connelly and Jim Ed Poole (aka A Prairie Home Companion sound man Tom Keith).  You can get some of the same eclectic selection of music on Radio Heartland, but sadly without the witty and clever commentary.

Here's Storyhill singing my favorite song from the new CD, "Better Angels," at last year's Storyhillfest.  (Tickets for this year's Storyhillfest over Labor Day weekend are now on sale.)

*All of the above music is available on itunes.  You can also visit each artist's website by clicking on their name, where you can find more info about them and how to order a physical CD, in case anyone still does that anymore.  ;)  Happy listening!

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Cabaret" by Frank Theatre at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat

I went to see Cabaret by a theater company I'd never heard of, in a location I didn't know housed theater.  And it was one of those times when I felt so lucky to be in that room, experiencing such an amazing performance of a classic piece of musical theater, with wonderful guests for a post-show discussion.  I found out about the show from one of the many theater emails that I get, and since Cabaret is one of my favorites I looked into it.  I saw that Bradley Greenwald was playing the emcee, and that was enough to get me there.  "There" was a (permanently docked) boat on the Mississippi River in St. Paul, just across from downtown on Harriet Island.  A perfectly lovely location and theater, the original Centennial Showboat opened in celebration of Minnesota's Centennial, which as every Minnesota school child knows was in 1958.  The current showboat was built new after the original burned in a fire during reconstruction, and houses productions by the University of Minnesota and other local theaters like this one.  Frank Theatre has been around for over twenty years, and is "committed to producing unique work that stretches the skills of the artists who create the work while simultaneously challenging the everyday perceptions of the audience through the exploration of ideas and issues of social, political and/or cultural concern."  So far I like what I see, and I'll be keeping an eye out for future productions.

In typical Kander and Ebb style, Cabaret is such a layered, complex piece while still being hugely entertaining.  This production focuses more on the story rather than big splashy musical numbers, although with Bradley Greenwald in the cast the music is amazing too.  He has an unbelievable voice and can sing anything, and brings a lot of humor and depth to the role of the emcee, our guide through the story.  My favorite part of his performance is the opening number in which he sings lines in German, French, and then English.  He sings the English lines in a crass, over-exaggerated American accent that's completely fabulous.  The other star of the show is Melissa Hart, who plays Fraulein Schneider in this production but played Sally Bowles in the original 1966 Broadway and national touring production.  (Lucky for us Melissa moved to Minnesota a few years ago, so I look forward to seeing her on local stages again!)  Her history and connection to the show add a lot to the production, in addition to her amazing performance as the landlady who found love late in life, only to lose it.  Patrick Bailey is her sweet, funny suitor who doesn't want to face what's happening in Germany.

The Kit Kat Klub is filled with great performers, yet they're not too polished as one would expect in a seedy Berlin nightclub.  Fraulein Sally Bowles, "the toast of Mayfair" and star of the Klub, is played by Sara Richardson.  Not only does she have the look (cute short dark hair, smokey eyes and red cupie doll lips) and the voice, but she also has the vulnerability and strength of Sally.  Max Wojtanowicz (who has a lovely voice that I wish we got to hear more of) is the sensible, stable American writer trying to find himself in Berlin, while Sally is flighty and fluttery and scattered.  At first I thought Sally was naive, always happy and pretending not to notice what was happening around her.  But really, Sally is the realist.  She knows how hard life is, she's lived it, and she's just doing what she can to get through the day.  Max is the naive idealist who sees everything in black and white, and thinks all of their problems can be solved by taking a train to Paris.  When Sally sings the final number, "Cabaret," it's a gut-wrenching performance.

The finale of the show features a jumbled sound and look, as everything falls apart in Germany and the Kit Kat Klub.  Each of the characters sings a line or two of their song, reminding us of their journey.  The stage empties except for the emcee, who sings, "Auf Wiedersehen, A Bientot," followed by a shot and silence.  It's so sad, knowing what comes next.  Berlin has such a fascinating and tortured history.

As if all of that wasn't wonderful enough, the day wasn't over yet.  There was a post-show discussion which included director and Frank Artistic Director Wendy Knox, Melissa Hart, choregrapher Bonnie Bottoms, and her mother, Holocaust survivor Sabina Zimering.  She wrote a book about how she survived, assuming a false identity and working in Germany.  It was so humbling and such an honor to be in her presence, knowing she lived through the reality of the world that Cabaret gave us a glimpse into.  And I always love to listen to artists talk about their work, so it was a great ending to a lovely day of theater.

What I love most about Kander and Ebb is that they don't shy away from the tough stuff.  Starting with Cabaret in 1966, all the way through to their final show Scottsboro Boys which came out just last year, they deal with serious issues such as anti-Semitism in Germany and racism in America.  Issues that we like to believe are further in the past than they really are.  Kander and Ebb use the art form of musical theater to ask the difficult questions, not necessarily providing answers but encouraging the audience to wrestle with them.  It seems Frank Theatre has a similar viewpoint, which is perhaps why they chose this piece and why they do it so well.  It's only playing for one more weekend, "good lord willing and the creek don't rise" (literally!), so go see it if you can!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"The Age of Wordsworth" by Four Humors Theater at the Southern Theater

Four Humors Theater's original new rock musical The Age of Wordsworth is bizarre and super cool.  Even though rock music isn't really my thing, I'm a huge fan of the genre of the rock musical, which began with HAIR in 1967 and continued through my favorite musical RENT in 1996, on through to some of my favorite recent musicals such as Spring Awakening and Next to Normal.  But the show that The Age of Wordsworth most brought to mind is last year's fabulous new Broadway musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  Both shows reimagine a historical figure, mixing fact and legend with great rock music and a spirited young cast.  And like when I saw BBAJ last October, I was intrigued by the title character and had to go home and google him to find out more about his life, and find out how much of what I saw is true.

The spacious and gorgeous space at The Southern Theater is set up with a square of artificial grass on the right-hand side of the stage, filled with instruments and musical equipment.  That's where the cast performs the musical numbers, interspersed with stories about Wordsworth which are acted out on the rest of the stage.  The actors take turns playing the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth and other historical characters, such as his friends Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (author of Frankenstein) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (inventor of the concept of suspension of disbelief).  From being haunted by one of his own creations, to waiting for 20 years on the French border to see his wife and child, to being lost at sea, to his wedding, the stories are funny, touching, and a little bit crazy.  The wedding story takes the form of a drunken best man's speech, and the actor giving the speech is so convincing as a drunk that for a moment I was afraid he really was ill!

Most of the musical numbers are based on poems by Wordsworth or his contemporaries, with additional lyrics by Nicholas Jacobson-Larson, who also composed the music with help from the ensemble.  According to the creator and director of the show, Jason Ballweber, the show is centered around Wordsworth's poem "We Are Seven," which is one of the songs.  Some of the songs are sad and haunting, others are loud and rockin.  Just before the doors opened for seating (I was there early because, annoyingly, my ticket said 7:30 when the show really started at 8), Jason spoke a few words about the show, which ended with "please take ear plugs if you wish."  I didn't, and I survived just fine.

I'd like to point out my favorites in the cast, but since the playbill does not include photos or a cast of characters, I don't know who is who.  So I'll just list them all and say they're all talented and energetic young actors and musicians, many of whom graduated from the Univeristy of Minnesota's theater program or are currently students there: Ben Desbois, Ryan Lear, Alisa Mattson, Brant Miller, Tyler Olsen, Rachel Petrie, Mark Rehani, Toby Rust, and Matt Spring.

Most of the theater that I see is fairly conventional, but I'm trying to branch out, which is why I purchased a season package at the Southern Theater.  In addition to dance, music, and film, the Southern hosts smaller theater companies doing new, original, avant-garde work.  So far, I like what I see, and I love the creativity and outside-the-box thinking that continues to advance theater in a forward direction.  (And since I really love the image on the playbill, but the effect is somewhat lost in black and white, I'm repeating it here.  The imagery of flowers plays an important and lovely role at the end of the show.)

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Song of Extinction" by Theater Latte Da at the Guthrie Theater

I went to Theater Latte Da's production of Song of Extinction at the Guthrie' Dowling Studio, expecting to see great drama.  But what I didn't expect is that for a few moments, the drama in the audience overshadowed the drama on stage!  About ten minutes into the show I could hear people talking behind me.  My first thought was, "how rude, to talk out loud at the theater!"  But then I realized they were saying "we need medical attention," and, as you usually only hear on TV, "is there a doctor in the house?"  Within seconds the house lights came up, the action on stage stopped, and the ushers and numerous other important looking people rushed in, while we were told to "remain calm and in your seats."  A woman had passed out in her seat, but regained concsiousness before the paramedics arrived.  After a few minutes the actors went backstage, and the stunned silence in the audience turned to chatter as we waited for the paramedics.  The woman was taken out in a wheelchair and is hopefully OK.  The scene was reset, the lights went out, and we rewound to the beginning of the scene that was interrupted.  On with the show.  I have to admit, the excitement totally took me out of the play.  But fortunately it was near the beginning and I was soon able to get back into the world that was just beginning to be created in front of us.

Theater Latte Da usually does musicals, but they occasionally do what they call "a play with music."  This is one of those times.  Song of Extinction, directed by Artistic Director Peter Rothstein, is a new play by EM Lewis about science and life and death and relationships and music.  Max is a 15-year-old boy (played by high school junior Dan Piering, an impressive actor and musician) whose mother (Carla Noack) is dying of cancer and trying to protect her son as best she can.  Max's biologist father (John Middleton) seems to care more about a species of bug he discovered in Bolivia than what's happening with his family.  Faced with losing his wife and his life's work, he chooses to focus on the one that he might have some control over.  Max has no one to turn to, other than his music (he carries his cello in its battered case like a security blanket) and his science teacher, a Cambodian refugee who was the only member of his family to survive the Khmer Rouge.  Mr. Phan (David Mura) understands death and loss and is reluctantly drawn into being there for Max and his family when no one else can.

The theme of extinction runs through the play on several levels.  Max's father's species of bug only exists in a Bolivian rain forest that's about to be destroyed.  He desperately pleads his case to the businessman in charge, telling him that we don't know what the effects of the loss of one species are.  Mr. Phan's whole family became extinct, and as a science teacher he also teaches his students about extinction.  He assigns them a twenty page paper, and when Max is too frightened to be either at the hospital with his mother or at home with his father, he goes to Mr. Phan for help on the paper.  An angry Max asks, "why shouldn't I blow up the school if we're all going to die anyway?"  Mr. Phan calmly gets him to explore the idea in terms of the paper, but he sees that there's more going on, and gets Max to confide in him.  When Max finally turns in his paper after his mother's death, it's a story about his dad the biologist, and his mom's death, and ends with a song he wrote for the cello (an original piece composed by Latte Da Musical Director Denise Prosek).  The play ends with Max playing his "song of extinction" and pouring all of his feeling into the music.

The set design by Michael Hoover is really interesting and effective.  The main focus is a hospital bed surrounded by see-through walls with panels in them that also function as screens.  Old fashioned slide projectors are lined up at the front of the stage and project different designs and colors, as well as pictures of bugs, around the stage.

Song of Extinction is another great piece by Theater Latte Da that, while not a traditional musical, explores the place that music has in our lives.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"The Winter's Tale" at the Guthrie Theater

I love it when the Guthrie sets a Shakespeare play in a specific time period of the last century, whether it's the psychedelic '60s version of As You Like It, or Two Gentleman of Verona reimagined as a televised play in the 1950s.  I sometimes have a hard time with Shakespeare and really have to concentrate on the words, and somehow setting it in a different time period makes it more enjoyable and understandable.  With The Winter's Tale, you get two for the price of one!  There are two distinct worlds in this production of one of Shakespeare's later plays: the elegant, refined Sicilia and the rustic, rural Bohemia.  It almost felt like two separate plays, and there was one I liked better.

The play begins with a party scene in Sicilia.  I walked into the theater a few minutes before the show started to find the dancing in full swing, accompanied by the lovely voice of Christina Baldwin, the women in gorgeous dresses and the men in tuxes.  The dancing ended and the action of the play began.  I had a little bit of a hard time following, but basically it's the case of a jealous husband seeing things that aren't there.  Leontes, the king of Sicilia, suspects that his wife Hermione and his best friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia, are having an affair.  Leontes asks one of his men, Camillo, to kill Polixenes.  Seeing that his king is crazy, Camillo instead warns Polixenes and flees with him to Bohemia.  Leontes imprisons his wife, who gives birth to a baby and dies from the stress of the trial.  Leontes banishes the baby, who is found and brought up by a shepherd in Bohemia.  The action of the play then shifts from the icy blue formality of Sicilia to the flower-filled hippie hoedown that is Bohemia.

The second act takes place sixteen years later, when the "shepherd's daughter" Perdita, who's really a princess, is all grown up and has fallen in love with King Polixenes' son Florizel.  The king dons a disguise (I love how in Shakespeare's play, all it takes is a wig and a costume for someone not to recognize someone they've known their whole lives) to spy on his son as he cavorts with the peasants.  Once he sees what's going on, he forbids his son to marry a mere shepherd's daughter.  At the urging of Camillo, Floizel brings his betrothed to Sicilia to visit his father's old friend.  It's soon discovered that Perdita is the king's daughter, and the king, having recovered his sanity and mourned his mistake for the past sixteen years, makes amends with his daughter and best friend.  They go to visit a statue of the deceased Hermione, only to find that the lifelike statue really is the woman herself, alive and in hiding all these years.  And they all live happily ever after.

As usual at the Guthrie, this is a stellar cast.  Relative newcomer Michael Hayden as the jealous king transforms from complete lunacy to quiet remorse.  Guthrie faves Bill McCallum and Michele O'Neill complete the love triangle as Polixenes and Hermione.  Michael Thomas Holmes steals every scene he's in as the singer/thief/traveling salesman Autolycus, as does John Catron as the shepherd's son (they also share a pair of hippie jeans in a sort of sisterhood of the traveling pants situation).  Christine Weber and Juan Rivera Lebron are sweet and sincere as the young couple in love.  The rest of the cast includes too many Guthrie faves to mention.

I enjoyed the hippie bluegrass hoedown Bohemia part of the play more than the icy elegant "winter" Sicilia, but they came together at the end in a satisfying way.  This is a long play (three hours including intermission), but entertaining and well done in the Guthrie tradition of big expansive "period" Shakespeare productions.

Monday, March 7, 2011

"Doubt, A Parable" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

Ten Thousand Thing's Doubt was number two on my list of shows to see this year.  After seeing my first show last year (My Fair Lady, one of my 2010 top 10), I was hooked on TTT's bare-bones style of theater that cuts right to the core of the matter, without interference from the elaborate sets or luscious costumes or dramatic lighting you so often see in the theater these days.  The short but intense four-person play Doubt, A Parable was the perfect choice for this kind of theater.  I had never seen the play on stage before but I did see the 2008 movie starring Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman so I was familiar with the plot and themes.  The plot is fairly straight-forward: a nun and principal of a Catholic School in 1964 accuses a priest of molesting a student.  But everything that happens around that is anything but straight-forward.  I was left at the end of the play not knowing who to believe.  And that's really what the play is about.  In a note from playwright John Patrick Shanley, he says, "You may come out of my play uncertain.  You may want to be sure.  Look down on that feeling.  We've got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty.  There is no last word."

Ten Thousand Things always attracts top-notch talent, and Doubt is no exception.  The play is directed by Peter Rothstein of Theater Latte Da and stars Sally Wingert (the Meryl Streep of the Minneapolis/St. Paul theater scene) as the stern and traditional Sister Aloysius, Kris Nelson as the charismatic and progressive Father Flynn, Jane Froiland as the young naive Sister James, and Regina Marie Williams in the short but pivotal role of Mrs. Muller, the boy's mother.  They were all brilliant in their roles, and it's a truly remarkable thing to be that close to them in a bright room and watch these masters of their craft.

So much happens in the short 75 minute run time that it leaves your head spinning.  What I found most fascinating was the strict hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the power struggles between the men and women in the institution. Sister Aloysius is limited in what she can do about the situation she believes is occurring and has to follow a strict order of reporting her suspicions, which often leads to a dead end.  I think she truly does believe Father Flynn is guilty, but she's also using the accusation as a power play.  Sister James wants to believe the best about people, and because Father Flynn is kind to her, she believes he's telling the truth.  This is likely not the first time Father Flynn has been accused, and although he's devastated to leave his parishoners, he knows how to work the male-dominated system so that he moves on to another parish in what amounts to a promotion.

Another issue that the play deals with is racism.  The boy who is the (alleged?) victim is the only African American in an all-white school in the early 1960s.  We find out from his mother that he needs to make it through June and complete the 8th grade so that he can get into a good high school and make something of his life.  In the absence of any concrete evidence, Mrs. Muller is willing to let things continue as is for just a few more months, believing in the end it's the best opportunity she can give her son.

The full title of the play is Doubt, A Parable, which I found to be an interesting choice.  At one point Sister James asks Father Flynn about a story he told in his homily.  He told her that it was something he made up to illustrate a point - a parable.  She asked him if it wouldn't be better to talk about a true story.  He said no, the truth is too complicated and messy.  And it certainly is in this story.

If you're interested in learning more about Ten Thousand Things and their mission to "bring lively, intelligent theater to people with little access to the wealth of the arts," watch this short piece from Minnesota Originals.  You'll get to go with TTT into a prison, hear from some of their non-traditional audience members, and learn about the origins of the theater from Artistic Director and Founder Michelle Hensley.  Or you can attend their next show - the musical Man of La Mancha.  I guarantee you've never seen theater like this.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

"Our Town" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Our Town is a classic American play written in 1937 and set in the early 20th century in a small town in New Hampshire.  It deals with the simple to profound events of every day life, from making breakfast and doing homework, to getting married and burying a loved one.  I've never seen this play before, but I can't think of a better place to see it than the small intimate stage of Yellow Tree Theatre, my favorite theater in the suburbs.

The play is performed in three acts, with the "Stage Manager" acting as narrator, played by local musician Blake Thomas with a comforting and steady voice that guides us through the action of the play.  We meet many people in the town, from the milkman to the constable to the town drunk, but the focus is on the Gibbs and Webb families.  George Gibbs and Emily Webb (played by co-directors Jason Peterson and Mary Fox) are teenagers and best friends in the first act, and the second act features their wedding at a young age.  The third act takes place in the cemetery, with the deceased observing and commenting on the living.  Emily has died in childbirth, and wants to relive one mundane day in her life, against the advice of the other residents of the cemetery.  She chooses her 12th birthday, but finds that it's too painful to watch the careless way her family goes about the day, not realizing how precious each moment is.

The set is minimal and props are nonexistent.  There's a black curtain across the back of the stage, and the only items onstage are two tables with chairs, representing the Webb and Gibbs family homes.  The actors mime the action, whether it's frying bacon or snapping beans.  The author, Thornton Wilder, wanted it produced that way in response to what he thought was wrong with theater at the time (what would he think of the overproduced shows on Broadway today?!).  He said, "Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind – not in things, not in 'scenery.'"  The only scene that comes alive with real props and colors and smells is Emily's flashback scene to her 12th birthday.  The Stage Manager pulls back the curtain to reveal a bright and cheerful kitchen where Emily's mother, in period garb, fries real bacon on the stove.  It's only in Emily's memory after she's died that the colors and beauty of life come alive.

Another great feature of this production, which I'm coming to believe is the usual at Yellow Tree, is the music.  The other two plays I've seen at Yellow Tree (String and Miracle on Christmas Lake) both had wonderful soundtracks of eclectic music that really helped to set the tone for the shows.  This time we were treated to live music, thanks to narrator Blake Thomas, who would occasionally play guitar during the action of the play, and other members of the talented cast.  Blake and Mary Fox (Emily) form a duo called Thomas Fox and have released a soundtrack of Our Town.  It's mostly traditional folk/country music with a few originals.  The cast performed in the theatre lobby before the show, and Thomas Fox are doing a concert this Thursday at Yellow Tree.

I continue to be impressed with Yellow Tree Theatre.  I'd tell you to go see this show, but it closes this weekend.  Their next show is the musical [title of show], which is on my list of shows to see in 2011.  So check them out sometime, it's worth the trip to the suburbs.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"HAIR" at the Orpheum Theatre

We starve, look
at one another, short of breath
walking proudly in our winter coats
wearing smells from laboratories
facing a dying nation
of moving paper fantasy
listening to the new told lies
with supreme visions of lonely tunes.

I don't entirely know what that means, but it's one of my favorite lyrics from the musical HAIR, from the song "Flesh Failures."  It's so wonderfully trippy and profound, somehow.  Which is how I feel about the musical.  It's rare that a show has such a powerful and meaningful and relevant message, and is so fun and entertaining at the same time.  My obsession with HAIR began several years ago when I saw a local production at the Pantages in Minneapolis (directed by Michael Brindisi of the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres).  Looking back on it now, the cast list reads like a Who's Who of the local musical theater scene.  I loved the show so much I saw it twice and bought the original Broadway soundtrack (from 1968), which I've been listening to ever since.  The Broadway revival opened in 2009 and won several Tonys, including best musical.  I saw it twice in 2010, when, not surprisingly, it was among my favorite shows of the year

The night before HAIR opened at the Orpheum this week, I attended a talk sponsored by the Hennepin Theatre Trust as part of their Broadway Confidential series.  Dr. Richard Kagan, a history professor from Hamline University, and Dr. Megan Lewis, a theater professor from the U of M, spoke about the significance of HAIR in the history of musical theater and this country.  HAIR was written by two actors, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, along with music by Galt MacDermot, and was first produced off-Broadway in 1967 before moving to Broadway in 1968.  It was groundbreaking in many ways.  It was the first rock musical and paved the way for such shows as RENT.  It featured an interracial cast and interracial relationships, just a few months after the Supreme Court decision Loving vs. Virginia that declared unconstitutional laws preventing interracial marriage.  It broke the fourth wall and invited the audience into the experience.  It featured nudity and sexuality.  It was one of the first shows that was absolutely current and reflected what was going on just outside the theater doors.  At the height of the draft and the Vietnam War, they burned draft cards on stage.  It's truly amazing to think about what it would have been like to see this show at the time.  And sadly, even though it is a period piece, many of the themes are still relevant today.  Wouldn't it be nice to live in a time when fighting for racial and gender equality, peace and freedom for all, was an antiquated idea?

Since both the Broadway and London productions of HAIR closed last year (the original Broadway cast moved with the show to London in March of last year and the entire show was re-cast in NYC), many of the cast members from both tribes joined the tour.  Two actors from the original tribe reprised their roles: the magnificent deep-voiced Darius Nichols as Hud and Kacie Sheik as the sweet pregnant Jeannie.  The two leads, Claude and Berger, are also played by two original tribe members: Paris Remillard and Steel Burkhardt, who were the understudies on Broadway (Steel also took over as Berger midway through the London run).  The relationship between Claude and Berger is the heart of the show, so getting the chemistry of these two actors right is absolutely key.  And they struck gold with Paris and Steel.  They have such a comfort and friendship and chemistry between them, it's quite obvious they've been working together for years.  Similar to Gavin Creel and Will Swenson in the original tribe, you believe that these two are best friends.  Berger/Sheila/Claude is a true love triangle; the love goes in all directions.  Sheila loves Berger, and Berger loves Sheila, although he's a bit of a jerk to her.  And Sheila loves Claude because everyone loves Claude, and he loves her too.  But the greatest love exists between Claude and Berger.  When Claude decides to go to war, against all of his friends' advice, and is gone from their world, Berger is devastated.  Even right through the final song, Berger looks lost and confused without his best friend.  All throughout the show, Claude says that all he wants is to be invisible and make magic, and in the end, that's what happens.  He returns as a ghost and none of his friends can see him.  They walk off the stage, singing "Let the Sun Shine In" until their voices disappear into the lobby, and Claude is laying motionless on stage in his uniform.  "The rest is silence."  It's a powerful and somber ending to the show.

But then the cast comes back, the lights come up, and the audience is invited on stage to dance and sing with the tribe.  It's such a joyous show, and so heart-breaking at the same time.  Maybe that's part of why I love it so much.

If you'd like to learn more about "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical," check out the Wikipedia page which discusses its themes and history at length.  And if you have a free night sometime in the next week, go see it!  But buy your tickets now as the show closes on Sunday March 6 and there are only a few seats left.  I'm so tempted to go again, but since I've got two other shows coming up in the next few days, I really shouldn't.  We'll see if I'm able to resist temptation.