Monday, October 31, 2011

"Il Campiello" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

OK.  First I need to go through my usual spiel about how Ten Thousand Things makes theater unlike anything you've ever seen.  It's as raw, immediate, up-close-and-personal, and in-your-face as theater gets.  Without the usual tricks of lighting, fancy costumes, extravagant sets, or big production numbers that you often see in theater, there's nothing to distract you from the work of the actors and the emotions of the piece (which might be why they consistently attract the top talent in the area).  There's no separation between actors and audience; depending on where you sit you might get stepped on, flirted with, talked to in an aside, or fist-bumped.  Combine this bare-bones intimate style with their mission, to bring theater to audiences that don't normally have the chance to see theater (prisons, homeless shelters, community centers, etc.), and you have something truly special.  You simply cannot call yourself a Minnesota theater fan if you've never seen a TTT production.  You have two more weekends to see this show, and if that doesn't work out, they have two more shows this season.  Go see them.

Now on to the show.  TTT Artistic Director Michelle Hensley, who directed this piece, introduced it by saying that sometimes they like to do a show that's pure fun, and that for some of their audiences, just to laugh openly and whole-heartedly is a profound act.  Il Campiello is profoundly frivolous and fun.  The 18th century Italian comedy was adapted by the brilliant Steven Epp, who played the title role in TTT's Man of La Mancha earlier this year, and whose own company The Moving Company "does theatre."  He really modernized the language of the play to great comic effect.  The characters speak like today's kids obsessed with potty humor (I don't think I've ever heard the word poop uttered so many times in 90 minutes); the language is accessible and absurd and entertaining.  The play takes place in a little square in Venice, where neighbors bicker, gossip, play games, and plan marriages.  The plot is almost secondary to the characters and their interaction with each other.  Basically, a rich man from out of town shows up to enjoy the Carnivale celebration, three marriages are arranged after a few misunderstandings, and they feast.  And by the end of the show, when one character says good-bye to the little square which is the only home she's ever known, I could almost see it - the quaint little Italian square, the twinkling stars above, soft music playing in the background.  That's the magic of what Ten Thousand Things does.  They transform the ugliest of rooms* into something else entirely, purely through collective imagination.

This nine-person cast is so much fun to watch, and they're obviously having just as much fun as the audience and enjoy playing together.  Sarah Agnew (who also displayed her comedic chops in 39 Steps at the Guthrie last year) is almost unrecognizable as the homely old toothless woman trying to marry off her daughter so that she can find a husband for herself.  Karen Wiese-Thompson is the tough mama trying to give her daughter away and protect her at the same time.  Thomasina Petrus as the "fritter-fryer" completes the trifecta of the doting mothers.  The three future brides are all delightfully different.  Elise Langer (who was also in TTT's Life's A Dream last year) is the young woman who's almost an old maid (she's 18!) and in love with the peddler, even though she continually calls him poop-turd and other similar insults.  Her young, innocent "best friend" across the square is Kimberly Richardson, with a girlish voice and pigtails, who likes the neighbor boy (the charming Brian Curtis James) but isn't quite sure she wants to be married.  The third young woman is the subject of gossip because she lives with her strange "uncle" and has a healthy self-esteem.  It was fun to see Christiana Clark**, who was so good in the very serious In the Red and Brown Water earlier this year, get the chance to be silly and light.  Nathan Keeper (also from The Moving Company, whom I saw in their production of Come Hell and High Water earlier this year) plays dual roles - the brash young peddler/groom, and the strange uncle who is very stern and ... short.  Both allow him to use his great onstage physicality in different ways.  Last but not least, Randy Reyes (suddenly Seymour!) is the gentleman who comes to town, so suave and elegant except when he's doing the strange bow/greeting that is the custom of his land.

In typical TTT style, the sound, set, and costumes are minimal, but just enough.  In addition to being reluctantly pulled into the action of the play on several occasion, Music Director Peter Vitale provides the music (including some lovely accordian) and creates an atmosphere of sound in which the story takes place.  He's a one man traveling band and sound effects man.  The costumes by Amelia Cheever manage to look both charmingly homemade and professionally appropriate at the same time.  The set by Stephen Mohring consists of four adorable little "houses" around the square, which are really just ladders with a little platform/window on top from which the residents chat, spy on their neighbors, and wave.  All of this allows the action of the play to take center stage (or in this case floor), and doesn't distract from, but only enhances, the story.

Another fun thing about Ten Thousand Things is that in the program, instead of lengthy bios, each actor answers the question, "Why Do Theater?"  I enjoy reading their answers; they talk about connection, joy, play, being in the moment, problem-solving, spirituality, listening.  But I think my favorite statement about theater is this from Randy Reyes: "It's make believe about truth."  Ten Thousand Things represents the highest form of make believe, requiring their audience's participation and imagination, with the highest payoff of truth and entertainment and magic.

*The lovely space at Open Book is certainly not among the ugliest of rooms, I'm just imagining what some of their other locations must be like, in prisons and the like.

**Christiana is blogging about the show and the tour.  It's quite interesting to read about how the show goes over with other audiences - check it out.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Four Destinies" by Mu Performing Arts at Mixed Blood Theatre

Four Destinies is a play about the life of four adopted children in the same family - a sort of Sliding Doors alternate universe exploration of what would have happened if the parents had made different choices about adoption.  Local playwright Katie Leo has made herself a character in the play (played by Katie Bradley, who's a funny and natural host, with some more emotional moments towards the end), narrating, observing the action, and at times even interacting with the characters.  She loses control of her own creation as her characters' lives don't turn out as she expected.

The first act of the play is the same scene, celebrating the child's adoption day anniversary, enacted in four different scenarios.  The family repeats the same silly small talk, which becomes funny as by the fourth time the audience knows what's coming.  Shanan Custer as the neighbor and close family friend is particularly funny; I only wish she had more to do (she did a very funny skit at the Iveys last month).  In the four scenarios the child, whom the parents named Destiny, is adopted from Korea (Sara Ochs, aka Audrey in Little Shop), Guatemala (Nora Montanez), the US foster system (LeDawn James), and a local young woman who gives her baby to the Jones family at birth (Neil Schneider).  The four kids are at different ages (from 8 to college age) and different stages of accepting and embracing their past.  One little girl is afraid someone is going to come and take her away, despite her mother's assurances that she's "meant" to be with them, while another older Destiny takes back her heritage and her name.  The only white child is also the only male; he loves to play with dolls and wear dresses.  When his friends question the boy's behavior, the father (Nicholas Freeman) is sweetly defensive of his son, while in the other scenarios he's fairly distant, preferring to watch the football game rather than interact with his family.

In the second act, the playwright (who's also bought a DNA kit that promises to unlock her genetic history and solve all the mysteries of her life) plans to give her characters everything they wanted.  But that doesn't happen in life, or in this play either.  One Destiny travels to Korea and is unable to find her birth mother or any sense of connection.  One grows up to make movies like she always dreamed, but her family medical history catches up with her.  One has a successful career, only to end up unexpectedly pregnant and facing the same issues her birth mother faced.  The male Destiny calls his birth mother (Shanan Custer getting to flex her dramatic muscles) and finds "the story" not what he imagined.  Finally, the playwright doesn't find any answers in the DNA results.  Where does this leave us?  This is one of those open-ended plays where nothing is resolved.  But maybe that's the point.

At the beginning of the play, Katie the character jokingly claims to speak for all adoptees because they all feel and experience the same thing.  That's obviously not true; instead Katie the playwright presents four very different experiences, all in the same family.  She brings up interesting ideas about fate and what's "meant to be."  I'm not sure I believe in "meant to be;" I believe in what is.  That's really all we have to cling to.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"Beyond the Rainbow: Garland at Carnegie Hall" at the History Theatre

Who doesn't love Judy Garland?  Star of such movie classics as The Wizard of Oz and Easter Parade, and possessing one of the greatest voices to ever grace this planet.  She was a great example of the American Dream, born a child of vaudeville in Grand Rapids, MN (check out the Judy Garland Museum if you're ever in the area) and becoming one of the biggest stars of her day.  But her life was also an American Tragedy, used by the Hollywood studio system from a young age, struggling with drug addiction, and dead before the age of 50.  Beyond the Rainbow: Garland at Carnegie Hall does a wonderful job of presenting the highs and lows of her life.

The show begins at the beginning of Judy's biggest and most famous concert, Carnegie Hall in 1961, and as Judy moves through the songs she remembers her life story.  Actors come on stage to play out the events of her life, as she watches, reacts, and interacts with them.  Jody Briskey channels a 39-year-old Judy, and Norah Long portrays a young Judy from the age of 4 through her early 30s.  Both women have amazing voices that they've morphed into Judy's, as well as capturing her physical characteristics.  Norah looks like she just stepped out of Oz, and Jody's body can barely contain the music as Judy hits her heights.  The two Judys converse in an attempt to make sense of her life and come to peace with it, like an onstage musical therapy session.  We see Judy's relationship with her vaudevillian parents (played by Peter Moore and Cathleen Fuller), as well as two of her five husbands, Vincente Minnelli (Peter Moore again) and Sid Luft (Clark A. Cruikshank).  All of these relationships were troubled; her parents and her husbands were very involved in her career, which led to confusion in her personal life.  Through all of her tragedies Judy keeps singing, and the music pulls her through.

Beyond the Rainbow was written by William Randall Beard and first produced at the History Theatre in St. Paul in 2005, and has since toured around the country, all the while with Jody as Judy.  Her ease in Judy's skin after all those years is evident.  The fabulous four-piece band (directed by Jimmy Martin) is just visible on the side of the stage, which is mostly bare except for a stool and a mic for Judy.  The supporting actors portray several different characters each, transforming with just a minimal costume change.  When not onstage they sit in the shadows, always present like a memory.  Cathleen Fuller's Hollywood gossip columnist is the most fun character, at one point cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West.

If you love Judy Garland (and as I said, who doesn't?), check out this play to find out a little bit more about the woman behind the legend and immerse yourself in her wonderful music.  In an interesting coincidence, the Guthrie is also presenting a Judy Garland story this season: End of the Rainbow.  This show features another concert even later in Judy's life, and will stop in Minneapolis on its way from London to Broadway.  I'll be interested to compare the two.  I can't imagine anyone capturing Judy better than Jody Briskey and Norah Long.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Minnesota Original

My new favorite TV series is Minnesota Original on tpt (Twin Cities Public Television).  It's a half hour series that seems to be on every day (I have a season pass on my DVR that picks up every airing).  It features Minnesota artists of various types: musicians, fashion designers, painters, filmmakers, woodworkers, sculptors, artists who work in theater (my favorite kind of art, obviously), and much more.  Some of the art forms they feature I didn't even realize existed!  It's so inspirational and fascinating to see what amazing artistic talent exists in our state.  It makes me proud to be a Minnesotan.

Check your local listings (or DVR) to find out when and were you can see this amazing series (new shows premiere on Sunday evening).  You can also watch the features on their website:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"La Cage aux Folles" at the State Theatre

"The best of times is now.  What's left of summer but a faded rose?  The best of times is now.  As for tomorrow, well, who knows?  So hold this moment fast, and live and love as hard as you know how, and make this moment last, because the best of times is now."  This lyric from La Cage aux Folles is at the heart of the show, and a big heart it is.  Yes there are lots of feathers and glitter and make-up in this story that takes place in a nightclub featuring men in drag, but underneath it all is a beautiful, simple, family love story.  It may be an unconventional family by society's standards, but the love and support they share are universal.

If you've seen the 1996 movie The Birdcage starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams you're familiar with the story, which began as a 1973 French play called La Cage aux Folles.  The musical version of the play was written by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and premiered on Broadway in 1983.  It has been revived twice in the past decade, winning a Tony for best revival both times (the only musical do have done so).  La Cage tells the story of gay couple Georges and Albin.  Georges runs the nightclub where Albin is the star, performing as his alter ego ZaZa.  Georges' son Jean-Michel, whom Albin has helped raise, comes home to announce that he's engaged to Anne, the daughter of a conservative politician who wants to shut down all drag entertainment.  The in-laws are coming to town, and Jean-Michel asks Albin to leave for the evening, instead inviting his birth mother to pretend that they're a "normal" family.  Albin is understandably hurt that the man he considers his son is ashamed to introduce him to his fiance.  He can't stay away, and poses first as "Uncle Al," and then, in drag, as Jean-Michel's mother.  Of course the deception doesn't last, but they're able to convince Anne's father to give his consent with some good old-fashioned blackmail.  Jean-Michel realizes what a mistake he made and tells Albin he thinks of him as his mother.  And they live happily ever after, for "the best of times is now."

La Cage closed on Broadway in May after about a year's run (I thought about seeing it when I was in NYC last year, but never quite made it), and this first tour is spectacular and features several cast members from the Broadway run.  The role of Georges is played by TV and film veteran George Hamilton.  He's a perfectly adequate Georges, and considering his age (72), it's pretty remarkable that he's on the road doing this eight times a week (even if his spins are a little slower than the rest of the cast).  But the star of the show, and its heart and soul, is Christopher Sieber as Albin.  His performance is fearless, tender, funny, heart-breaking, and inspirational (and he's from Minnesota, which of course makes me love him more!).  Through him we feel Albin's insecurity that's forgotten only when he puts "A Little More Mascara" on.  Albin's transformation from utter devastation upon learning his son has rejected him to a fierce cry of self assurance in "I Am What I Am" is a show-stopper moment.  He brings such natural charm and humor and emotion to the role, it's a thing of beauty to watch.  Chris played Georges on Broadway opposite Harvey Fierstein, but it's hard to imagine him as anyone but Albin.  He's not a two-time Tony nominee for nothing, and I'm grateful he brought his considerable talent home to Minnesota if only for a short time.

The large supporting cast is great.  Jeigh Madjus as Albin's butler/maid Jacob is an irresistible little scene stealer, prancing around with attitude, just waiting for his shot on the nightclub stage.  And of course this post would not be complete without mentioning the Cagelles - the eight fabulous men who dance around the stage in heels, wigs, and hose.  They are all incredible performers, dancers, and athletes (although some make more attractive women than others ;).  It goes without saying that the costumes are fantastically over-the-top.

This show makes you fall in love with this family and forget that they don't meet the traditional definition of family.  More than 30 years after the original play was written, one would hope that some of these ideas of prejudice seem archaic and today's society would be more accepting of an atypical family.  Maybe that's why it's been revived twice in recent years, because we need to hear this message in a non-threatening musical comedy way.  After all, who could argue with the sweet and long-lasting love between Georges and Albin and their son?

La Cage is playing at the State Theatre (slightly smaller but no less beautiful than its sister theater up the street, the Orpheum) for only a week.  So get your tickets now if you want a fun, fabulous, entertaining evening with lots of heart.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"Much Ado About Nothing" at the Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie Theater's Much Ado About Nothing is another one of their big, beautiful productions of a Shakespeare play.  Like most Shakespeare plays I see, it took me a while to get into the story and figure out who was who in this big list of connected characters.  But once I did, it was quite enjoyable.  Judging from the costumes and props (a Victrola and streetlights), I'd say that the time period they're going for is about the turn of the century.  The cast is fabulous, full of many of my favorite actors.  And it's a credit to the depth of talent that the Guthrie pulls in that even the understudy list is populated with great actors!  I wish I could see the show again with the alternate cast.

For those of you unfamiliar with the plot (I had seen it about ten years ago, so I was mostly unfamiliar), Much Ado is a typical Shakespearean romantic comedy, full of misunderstandings that eventually lead to a happy ending.  The play contrasts the love stories of two couples: Hero and Claudio, simple young love, and Beatrice and Benedick, two smart and mature people who swear they'll never marry.  Much like the soap character who wishes someone dead, only to be suspected in their eventual murder, this much protesting against love ensures that they'll fall prey to Cupid's spell by the end of the story.  Beatrice and Benedick's friends conspire to get them together, telling one that the other is in love with them, causing each to see the other in a new light.

Highlights of the show include:
  • Dearbhla Molloy and Daniel Gerroll (last seen at the Guthrie as Scrooge) have a wonderful chemistry as the clever, sparring lovers, like the Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy of Shakespeare.
  • Beloved Guthrie veteran Peter Michael Goetz as the constable Dogberry is a total ham and steals every scene he's in.  From the delivery of his witty lines, to the silly way he moves around the stage, to barking like a dog, everything he does is wacky and hilarious.
  • The captain of the Pinafore Robert O. Berdahl makes a brief but memorable appearance singing and playing the guitar.
  • Another one of my faves, Ron Menzel (I first saw him in a beautiful play about immigrants in the Lower East Side called Intimate Apparel, years ago at the old Guthrie), gives a serious, weighty performance in an otherwise light-hearted play.  The depth of his performance made me want to know more about his character; I didn't quite understand why he wanted to sabotage the marriage of Hero and Claudio (it must be because he's the bastard brother, bastards always have a bad attitude in literature).
  • The first act features a costume party, which gives the Guthrie costume shop, led by designer Fabio Toblini, an excuse to go gloriously over the top in the creation of delightful masks and costumes for the characters and extras.
  • The set (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) is simple but beautiful.  Green and red marble tiles adorn the empty stage, over which a moving neutral-colored tarp hangs.
If you can only see one of the two shows playing on the Guthrie's main stages right now, I'd recommend The Burial at Thebes.  If only because it's something I've never seen before; the original music is amazing and really heightens the storytelling in the classic Greek tragedy of Oedipus' daughter Antigone.  But if you prefer something a little lighter, see Much Ado.  Both are entertaining in different ways.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Two Trains Running" at Penumbra Theatre

I saw my first August Wilson play earlier this year, Penumbra Theatre's production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the Guthrie.  I was so affected by it that I now have a goal to see all of the plays in Wilson's ten-play cycle, each one covering the African American experience in a different decade in the 20th century.  Lucky for me I live here, where the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul has produced more August Wilson plays than any other theater in the country.  So it's pretty likely that I'll meet my goal in the next ten years or so.

Ma Rainey is set in the 1920s, and Two Trains Running is set in the 1960s.  It has a little more of a happy ending that what I remember from Ma Rainey, which has a pretty bleak outlook.  This play takes place in a fading restaurant in Pittsburgh in 1969.  The city wants to buy it from the owner, Memphis, and he's determined to set his own price.  The play's characters are the locals who frequent the restaurant (played by many of the same actors I saw in Ma Rainey).  They play the numbers in hopes of a way out, drink coffee, argue with each other, and visit "Aunt Edna," a woman who claims she's over 300 years old and can predict the future.

James Craven (who still sounds like Tommy Lee Jones) is Memphis and has a couple of great moments, including a drunken celebratory scene.  Memphis' land was taken away from him in the South, so he moved north to make a better life for himself.  He has, but still thinks about going home.  Crystal Fox, the only woman in the cast, plays the unappreciated waitress Risa.  She drags her heels slowly around the stage, pouring coffee, wiping down tables, and refilling the sugar.  Her weariness with life is evident in every word, expression, and movement, until she finds something to hope for.  Namely, the newcomer Sterling (James T. Alfred), who's just been released from prison and is restlessly looking for a job or something to occupy his time and energy.  Wolf (Kevin D. West) uses the restaurant as an office for his business running numbers and tries to get Risa's attention, but she's not interested.  West (Dennis W. Spears) is the rich man in town who owns the funeral home as well as many businesses, and has been trying to buy Memphis out for years.  Abdul Salaam El Razzac is the regular Holloway, who seems like he's been coming in, sitting at the same table, and eating the same food for years.  And then there's the man called Hambone because every day for ten years he demands the ham that was promised him in payment, and never gets it.  Ahanti Young, who was so great as Ma Rainey's stuttering nephew, again plays someone who doesn't quite fit in with such tenderness and dignity.  All of these characters are so beautifully created and lived in by these actors.  The set looked real and lived in too; I wanted to pull up a chair and order some macaroni and cheese.  By the end of the play, Memphis gets his price, Sterling and Risa attend a rally for Malcolm X, and Hambone gets his ham.  Things are changing, the neighborhood is dying, but there's hope for the future.

Although I've seen a few Penumbra productions at the Guthrie, this was my first time at their theater near Selby and Dale in St. Paul.  It's a great space (it feels fresh and modern with great artwork on the walls) in a great location (close to the freeway with lots of nearby restaurants).  Here's an easy equation to remember: August Wilson + Penumbra Theatre = great theater not to be missed.  I look forward to the next one.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Steel Magnolias" at Yellow Tree Theatre

This is my second season attending theater at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo (it's their fourth season), and I have to say again how much I love the idea of great theater in a strip mall in the suburbs at an affordable price.  As a suburbanite, I sometimes grow weary of driving into the city and dealing with traffic and parking issues to see a show.  So it's refreshing to go to a nearby town to an unassuming strip mall and enter a warm inviting space "where good stories live."  I love Yellow Tree's mission - to bring theater into the community and make it a part of the community.  If you're on the North and/or West side of the cities, you should definitely check them out.  And when you go, don't go to a chain restaurant in Maple Grove.  Check out Nectar Wine Bar on the quaint main street of downtown Osseo, a town that looks like it could be anywhere in outstate Minnesota.  You don't have to go to the city to get great food, wine, and entertainment.

Most people have seen the 1989 move Steel Magnolias, but it began its life as a 1987 Off-Broadway play written by Robert Harling (starring recent Emmy winner Margo Martindale, and Rosemary Prinz who portrayed half of soap's first supercouple, As the World Turns' Penny and Jeff).  Unlike the movie, the play takes place solely in Truvy's beauty salon and the only characters seen are the six women - Truvy and her customers.  Everyone else in their lives (men, children, dogs) are talked about but never seen.  In fact there really isn't any action in the play; it's six women talking about their lives, which really puts the focus on the friendship between these women.  Through laughter and tears and insults, they're there to support each other through life.

The show takes place on four Saturday mornings over a couple of years, marked by events in young Shelby's life - the morning of her wedding; the following Christmas when she announces that she is pregnant, which poses a danger to her health; shortly before her mother donates a kidney to her; and (spoiler alert!) after her death.  Truvy (Jennifer Allton) presides over these events while washing and setting hair and doing nails.  Her new assistant Annelle (the appealing Amy Bouthilette) transforms from an insecure abandoned wife, to a party girl, to a born-again Christian, to a wife and mother.  Jennifer Kirkeby is the delightfully grumpy and matter-of-fact Ousier, and Mary Cutler is her adversary, the wealthy and recently widowed Clairee.  But the heart of the story is Shelby (Stephanie Cousins) and her mother M'Lynn (Doree Du Toit).  The two actors have a believably loving and antagonistic relationship as mother and daughter.  M'Lynn wants to protect her daughter from her own bad choices, and is frustrated that she can't.  The last scene is a killer as M'Lynn rails against the world for what happened to her daughter.  You might need tissues, but it won't last long.  As Truvy says, "laughter through tears is my favorite emotion."  Which is only one of many great quotes in this play.

Yellow Tree's small stage is transformed into a colorful, busy, and homey salon, chock full of beauty products and chotchkes.  The bad 80s fashions and hairdos complete the picture.  Southern accents are employed to varying degrees of success.  All in all, Steel Magnolias an entertaining evening of theater at the lovely Yellow Tree Theatre.  The rest of their season consists of a sequel to their wacky Christmas comedy, Miracle on Christmas Lake II, an "adventure fantasy drama" Still Life with Iris, and the classic Tennessee Williams play (and one of my favorites) The Glass Menagerie.  Another great season of theater in the 'burbs.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" by Theater Latte Da at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or in the case of Theater Latte Da's new production, The 25th Annual Seven County Metro Area Spelling Bee, is a delightful, hilarious, clever look at a middle school spelling bee and the characters that inhabit it.  (And if you think this show is an exaggeration, check out the marvelous documentary Spellbound - truth is stranger than fiction.)  I had seen the show twice before, once on tour and once on Broadway, so I already knew I loved it.  And as usual, Latte Da's production of it is practically perfect in every way.

One of the things I love about Latte Da is their impeccable casting, which is beautifully on display in this show.  With the exception of Tod Petersen (creator and star of the funny, sweet, and very Minnesotan A Christmas Carole Petersen), this is a cast of Latte Da newcomers.  And many of the actors who play the kids are kids themselves - college students or recent graduates.  Artistic Director Peter Rothstein is intentionally focusing on casting young actors this season (a season which ends with one of my favorite new musicals Spring Awakening).  And I think he may have discovered several stars of the future in this cast.

My favorite of the six Spelling Bee finalists is Leaf Coneybear, with an adorably spirited and loopy performance by Alan Bach.  Poor Leaf isn't your typical smart kid, he sort of ended up there by accident, and is having the time of his life.  Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre (Mary Fox, one of my Yellow Tree faves, who fully commits to creating a quirky character) is the lisping daughter of two dads, always trying to please them.  Derek Prestly as last year's champion Chip Tolentino gets his (slightly embarrassing) glory moment after Chip is eliminated from the competition.  Marcy Park (Sheena Janson, aka the sultry seductive man-eating plant Audrey II, in a totally opposite role here) is the stereotypical Asian student who's good at everything, but learns it's more fun not to be perfect.  William Barfee (convincingly played by Joseph R. Pyfferoen) has nasal congestion issues and a magic foot, and unexpectedly develops a sweet friendship with a competitor.  As the other half of that relationship, the slightly neglected Olive Ostrovsy, Cat Brindisi proves she has inherited her parents' many talents (her dad is Michael Brindisi, Artistic Director of the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, and her mom is actor Michelle Barber), but has a spark and a spirit all her own.  It's a pleasure to watch these six "kids" light up the stage with their talent.

The "adults" aren't too shabby either.  The hosts of the Bee are Vice Principal Panch (Tod Petersen) and former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Kim Kivens).  Tod and Kim are both spot-on in their characterizations of the tightly wound VP and the woman who looks back on her Spelling Bee win as the highlight of her life.  Brian Frutiger plays convict-turned-counselor Mitch Mahoney, who hands the losers a juice box and escorts them off stage.  He has a great voice; he's a member of the Metropolitan Opera in NYC "slumming" it in musical theater here in Minnesota.  Whether stage veteran or relative newcomer, this show is perfectly cast.

This show involves some audience participation; three audience members are called up to join the competition, which allows for some hilarious ad libbing by our hosts.  It's great fun to watch the people on stage being led around by the cast, to see their reactions to the show going on around them, as well as the always in-character reactions of the actors playing with them.  I'm not quite sure how it works, but I assume you can put your name in the hat before the show, so look for that in the lobby if you want to take your chances at the Bee.  The 25th Annual Seven County Metro Area Spelling Bee is playing through the end of the month - catch it while you can.  I'm going again at the end of the month, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the show has grown as well as the differences that new audience members onstage bring.

Celebrity Sighting
Yellow Tree Theatre co-founders Jason Peterson and Jessica Lind were in the audience to support their friend and frequent collaborator Mary Fox, who is also responsible for the sound design in Yellow Tree's current show Steel Magnolias.

"The Burial at Thebes" at the Guthrie Theater

The Burial at Thebes is a typical Greek tragedy - someone defies the will of the gods and their life falls apart as everyone they love dies.  But what's not so typical is the musical accompaniment that adds to the story.  This is a Greek chorus that actually sings!  Combined with powerful performances by the entire cast, it's a wonderful and jam-packed 90 minutes of theater.

The Burial at Thebes is a translation of Sophocles' Antigone by Irish poet Seamus Haeney.  In Greek mythology, Antigone is a daughter of Oedipus (you remember him - the one who killed his father and married his mother).  So it's fair to say her life was doomed from the start.  When her brother is killed as an enemy of the state, King Creon (her uncle) declares that his body cannot be buried in the traditional way.  Feeling that she must obey the laws of the underworld rather than the laws of the mortal world, Antigone defies the King and attempts to give her brother a proper burial, knowing that it means her own death.  Creon will not back down and insists that she be put to death.  He realizes too late that he chose wrong, and is unable to prevent the tragic events that befall everyone he loves.

This is a large and talented cast in a show with a relatively short running time, which means the audience is treated to little gems of performances throughout the play, from Brian Sostek's comic relief as the guard who delivers the news to Creon that someone has broken his decree, to Greta Oglesby as the prophet with creepy unseeing eyes and a powerful voice, to Sun Mee Chomet as the doomed heroine, to Regina Marie Williams' brief appearance as the grief-stricken mother Eurydice.  And through it all Stephen Yoakam gives a powerful leading performance as Creon, transforming from a strong, confident, unyielding ruler to a grieving and remorseful father and husband.

On top of the great acting performances, or rather intermeshed with them, is some amazing music (composed by J.D. Steele of the fabulous Steele family, with piano accompaniment by his brother Billy and percussion by Marc Anderson).  The incomparable Robert Robinson leads the Greek chorus that sings and speaks with equal melodious beauty.  Every time Robert opens his mouth it's a "lift up your hands" kind of moment; add to that the beautiful harmonies created by Lee Mark Nelson, Richard Ooms, T. Mychael Rambo, and Joe Nathan Thomas, and you have some powerful music that really heightens the emotion of the play.  An imposing set of towering walls and flowing dramatic costumes add to the overall effect.

What more can I say, it was another amazing evening of theater, music, emotion, and drama at the Guthrie Theater.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"reasons to be pretty" by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the Guthrie Studio

I'm not sure what's going on, but I've seen several plays recently about angry people yelling at and being violent with each other.  First was the story of battling brothers in True West, then the intersecting stories of gay men in the 1950s and today in The Pride, and now Neil LaBute's tale of two troubled couples - reasons to be pretty.  Don't get me wrong, they're all brilliant plays beautifully staged and acted, but it's a lot to take in in a short time!

The play opens with an argument between Steph and Greg.  Steph is offended and betrayed by something that Greg said about her - that she has a "regular" face in comparison to a pretty girl.  A small thing, but with huge consequences.  Steph can't stand to be with someone who she thinks doesn't like the way she looks, as much as Greg tries to convince her that it's not true.  So she leaves him, after four years of being together.  The other couple in the play are their friends and Greg's co-workers, Kent and Carly.  They seem to be happily married on the surface, but as the play goes on we begin to see just how much of a jerk Kent is.  Which makes Greg's slightly offensive comment seem entirely forgivable.

Thinking back, I don't think that the two women ever shared a scene together, which is interesting because their relationship is the strongest and most healthy.  But their conversations take place outside of the play, and we only see the alternately friendly and contentious relationships between the other pairs - Greg and Steph, Greg and Kent, Greg and Carly, Kent and Carly.  There's a lot of talking in this play, and it sounds the way real people talk, complete with swearing and talking over each other, inappropriate statements and humor.  But there's also some action, as Greg and Kent's relationship comes to a violent end after Kent says something unforgivable about Steph.

Ivey's "emerging artist" Anna Sundberg is believable and relatable as Steph, whose sense of hurt and betrayal is completely understandable (even if I wanted her to forgive Greg).  By the end of the play, Joseph Bombard's Greg turns out to be a sweet, smart, nice guy and a good friend, despite his flaws and the fact that it was his blunder that started the whole mess.  You really empathize with him through all the ugliness, and we're left with a little bit of hope that his life will get better.  Andrew Sass has a little bit too much fun as the creep Kent who's cheating on his pregnant wife and has absolutely no guilt about it.  As has happened a few times recently, I felt the urge to boo him at the curtain call because his character is so unlikeable!  Rachel Finch is sweet and strong and vulnerable as the wronged woman Carly, who knows there's something going on but doesn't want to admit it.  The cast plays and fights together very well in the various combinations of characters.

reasons to be pretty is an interesting reflection on appearance and beauty.  Something that we really can't get away from in this culture, as much as we might like to think we're above it.  This play seems to present more reasons NOT to be pretty, as being pretty causes all sorts of problems.  Or rather, people's reactions to and expectations of beauty.

I love the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater.  It introduces me to theater companies I never would have heard of otherwise.  Such as Walking Shadow Theatre Company, which I will now be keeping on my radar.  Once again I caught this show just as it was closing (sorry!).  But the rest of their season looks interesting - I do love an Oscar Wilde play!  And as much as I've enjoyed seeing these heavy plays in the last week or so, after all this drama, anger, and violence, I'm really ready for a light-hearted musical comedy.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"The Pride" by Pillsbury House Theatre

I didn't know much about The Pride before I saw it.  I had seen a Pillsbury House Theatre production at the Guthrie this summer (In the Red and Brown Water) and was impressed by the play and the theater's commitment to the community.  I wanted to see something in their theater (at Chicago and 35th Street in Minneapolis), and I'd watch Tracey Maloney in anything, so I went to see The Pride.  I was blown away.  It's a great play with an important message, at times painful to watch, uniquely constructed in two different time periods, with brilliant acting by all four cast members.

The two interconnected stories feature three characters in two time periods in London: 1958 and 2008.  They're sort of the same characters (they have the same names in both time periods), but they're fundamentally different, maybe because of the culture they're living in.  With each scene the action switches from one time period to the other.  Even though the set doesn't change (except for the opening and closing of doors on a bookcase), it's obvious which time period we're in by the clothing and the way the actors carry themselves.  It's amazing to watch these actors create two such distinct and fully realized characters (not to mention the super quick costume changes).  Even their accents and way of speaking are different between the two time periods.  There's a delightful array of British accents, like watching a great show on BBCA.

Our three main characters are two gay men and a woman, and the triangle takes different forms in the two time periods due to the social norms of the time.  In 1958, Sylvia (Tracey Maloney) is married to Philip (Matt Guidry), but something is off in their marriage.  They seem happy on the surface, but Sylvia is desperate to have a child because she's afraid of being alone with Philip for the rest of their lives.  She introduces her husband to her co-worker Oliver (Clarence Wethern), suspecting, but also dreading, that they might have something in common.  They feel an instant attraction to each other, which Philip unsuccessfully tries to ignore.  They have a brief but intense affair until Philip ends it, in what may be the most realistically and painfully violent scene I've ever seen on stage.  It's a tragic exploration of what happens when people aren't allowed to live their own truth.

Fast forward to 2008 when times are different.  Philip and Oliver have been together for a year and a half, but Oliver repeatedly cheats on Philip, and Philip has finally left him.  Sylvia is Oliver's best friend who introduced the two men.  Oliver is miserable without Philip and wants him back, and Sylvia reluctantly helps him as they all prepare for London's Pride parade (hence the title).  This story is more hopeful than the earlier one.  In the second act the apartment set changes from Syliva and Phillip's 1958 flat and Oliver's 2008 home to Syliva's 2008 flat.  On prominent display is one of those photo series that spell out a word with photos of things that resemble letters, and this one spells "HOPE."  The play ends with 1958 Sylvia repeating Oliver's earlier words, that one day "it will be all right."  We're not quite at the place of total equality and acceptance of all people, but as The Pride illustrates, 2008 is closer to it than 1958.

It's an interesting juxtaposition between the two sets of characters.  In 1958 Oliver is the one who is sure of and confident in who he is, while Philip is doing everything he can to deny it and live by the standards of the day.  In 2008 Philip seems to have it all together, even a career that he loves instead of the job that the 1958 Philip is stuck in.  Oliver is the one who doesn't know how to get what he wants, and is his own worst enemy.  As I said before all of the actors do an amazing job creating their different-yet-similar characters.  Clarence Wethern is particularly impressive in his portrayal of the strong but vulnerable 1958 Oliver, and the lovable rogue of 2008, whom you can't help but root for despite his frequent mistakes.  In addition to the three main characters, three completely different secondary characters are played by Paul de Cordova, two of which are scene stealers.

The Pride, directed by Co-Artistic Director Noël Raymond, runs through October 16 at the Pillsbury House Theatre.  It's not an easy play to watch, but well worth the effort.