Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Soul of the Drum" by Mu Daiko at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

I've seen Mu Daiko, the taiko drumming ensemble of Mu Performing Arts, perform at various events (including the recent benefit concert TC Theatre Artists Support Japan), but I'd never seen a full concert performance.  Until last night, that is.  I attended Soul of the Drum, a joint performance with the Kaoru Watanabe ensemble from New York, at the Ordway McKnight Theatre.

Mu Daiko, led by Artistic Director Iris Shiraishi, performs with such power and energy and joy (I particularly like the expression of sheer joy on Jennifer Weir's face).  It's truly thrilling to watch them.  There's something about drums that's more than just rhythm and music, it gets into your body to the point where it feels like your heart is beating in time with the drums.  It's a visceral experience.

The first act consists of six pieces, all composed by Mu Daiko members.  Some include singing or flute music, and all include great rhythms.  The drums range in size from small to massive, as do the drumsticks.  In my favorite piece, eight drums are arranged in two concentric circles, and the drummers dance among them and travel around each other and the drums with intricate choreography.  (I wonder how many injuries were incurred in learning this piece!)  Mu Daiko members (I counted ten onstage in some of the pieces) aren't just drummers and musicians, they're dancers.

The Kaoru Watanabe ensemble performed in the second act of the show.  Kaoru is an amazing and powerful drummer and flute player.  I have to admit, I didn't get some of what they did.  But I recognize it as the work of artists, and I appreciate that.  A dancer named Tamango performed in some of the pieces, including the most amazing solo tap dance I've ever seen.  I've never seen feet move that fast.

If you ever get the chance to see Mu Daiko perform, take it.  And if you're really adventurous, you can even take taiko classes from them!  They make it look effortless (which I'm sure it's not) and fun (which I'm sure it is).

"H.M.S. Pinafore" at the Guthrie Theater

My favorite production that I've seen at the Guthrie in the past eight seasons of being a subscriber is the Gilbert and Sullivan musical (or opera) Pirates of Penzance, in the spring of 2004.  It was the final show of my first season as a subscriber, and I loved it so much I immediately bought a ticket to see it again.  It exemplified everything that's good about the Guthrie - a huge cast comprised of local and national talent, beautiful choregraphy and direction, gorgeous sets and costumes, all-around high quality entertainment.  So when I saw another Gilbert and Sullivan show on the schedule for this season, my expectations were high.  I attended the opening night* of the show, and I was not disappointed.  I'm not sure it eclipses my memory of Pirates, but it came close and was reminiscent of that show that I loved so much.

I saw a production of H.M.S. Pinafore about five years ago at Theatre in the Round, so I was somewhat familiar with it, although since that was before my days of blogging I don't remember a whole lot about it.  I know that the music has been changed and "modernized" for this production, but I'm no expert on Gilbert and Sullivan so I can't really speak to that, other than I enjoyed what I heard.  The fantastic orchestra is onstage (Andrew Cooke is the musical director and arranger), which is fun to see because the orchestra is usually not visible in the thrust theater.  The set is the deck of a beautiful ship.  And the costumes, like in Pirates, made me drool.  The women wear gorgeous dresses that are all bright colors and flounces and bustles and ruffles.  And the hats!  Of course costumes mean little when the substance isn't there, but that's not a problem in this case.

The plot of Pinafore is similar to Pirates: star-crossed lovers who come from different classes, singing and dancing seamen (in this case sailors in the Queen's navy), a woman with a secret about our hero's birth, and an appearance by the venerable Barbara Bryne as Queen Victoria.  The earnest lovers Ralph (a lowly sailor) and Josephine (the captain's daughter) are played by Aleks Knezevich and Heather Lindell, both of whom have gorgeous voices that are a pleasure to listen to.  The woman with the secret is called "Little Buttercup," and comes on the boat to sell trinkets to the sailors.  The versatile Christina Baldwin, most recently seen in The Moving Company's original piece Come Hell and High Water, is quite amusing in this role.  Equally amusing is Robert O. Berdahl as the buffoonish captain who's never sick at sea and never swears.  Well, hardly ever.  His crew salutes him while snickering behind his back, for which he abuses them.  Josephine is betrothed to the ruler of the Queen's navy - Sir Joseph (Peter Thomson, also hilarious), who is accompanied by "his sisters and his cousins and his aunts" (the wearers of the aforementioned gorgeous dresses).  There are a dozen sailors on deck who perform many wonderful dances (choreographed by David Bolger).  The most impressive is a show-stopping tap dance in the second act.  I love a good tap dance, especially when performed by dancing sailors!

I had never been to an opening night at the Guthrie before (my season tickets are usually later in the show's run), so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  At the end of the performance, director Joe Dowling (Artistic Director of the Guthrie) came onstage to talk a little about the show as well as the 5th anniversary of the new Guthrie building.  There was much applause for the show as well as for the Guthrie, and what it means to this community.  After the performance there was a champagne reception in the lobby, although I didn't see too many actors in attendance (it is a little hard to recognize them out of wardrobe).  All in all it was a wonderful evening at the theater, one of many I've had in this beautiful building.  H.M.S. Pinafore is playing all summer, and it's great summer blockbuster entertainment.

*I received two complimentary tickets from the Guthrie to attend the opening night of this show.  Since I have season tickets I would have seen it anyway, but this gave me the opportunity to see it earlier in its run and tell you all about it earlier.  I'm looking forward to seeing it again with my season ticket next month, and seeing how the show has grown (as well as possibly catching some of those one-liners I might have missed).

Update: it was even better the second time around!  Everyone seemed more comfortable in their roles, and therefore they were able to have even more fun with the material.  This is such a fun, high-energy show, I don't think I would ever tire of watching it.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Guys and Dolls" at the Ordway

I've seen several musical theater classics this month that I've never seen before, on stage or screen.  Leonard Bernstein's On the Town, Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and now Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls.  I've loved them all (great music, great choreography, great performances), but I think this one is my favorite so far.  An all-around spectacular production.

Guys and Dolls is a joint production of the Ordway Center in St. Paul and 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.  The cast is mostly from Seattle (along with a few Broadway vets), although the director is local - Peter Rothstein of Theater Latte Da.  This is a big old-fashioned musical: huge cast, lush-sounding 20-piece orchestra, fantastic dance numbers, to die for costumes, and a beautifully smart set.  I loved every minute of it.

Guys and Dolls tells the story of several gangsters and the women who love them in 1950s New York City.  It's one of those shows where even if you've never seen it, you know many of the songs because they've become a part of popular culture ("A Bushel and a Peck," "If I Were a Bell," "Luck Be a Lady"), from the good old days when there was much crossover between musical theater and popular music.  A trio of friendly and charming gangsters in bright beautiful suits begin the show: Nicely-Nicely (Todd Buonopane, aka 30 Rock's Jeffrey Weinerslav), Benny (Greg McCormick Allen, reminiscent of Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson), and Rusty (Allen Galli).  They're looking for the traveling craps game hosted by Nathan Detroit (Daniel C. Levine), who's struggling to find a location for the game.  To make the money he needs to secure a place, Nathan bets big time gambler Sky Masterson (Matt Farnsworth) that he can't get the stern Sergeant Sarah Brown from the "Save A Soul" mission (Katherine Strohmaier) to go to Havana with him.  Sky bribes her into going (in a fun and fabulous Cuban dance scene that makes me want to take salsa lessons), and surprise surprise, they fall charmingly in love!  This guy will never be the same now that he has met his doll.

Meanwhile, Nathan's fiance of 14 years is getting impatient waiting for a wedding ("a person could develop a cold"), and unhappy with her guy's gambling ways.  Billie Wildrick is just perfect in the role of Miss Adelaide, not to mention her fabulous wardrobe and shoes!  Despite his fiance's disapproval and the fact that he lost the bet, Nathan manages to hold the game in one location and another.  Sky bets everyone there that if he wins, they'll accompany him to Sarah's mission.  He wins, the "sinners" show up at the meeting, and Sarah is able to continue her work.  The gamblers confess their sins, leading to a highlight of the show when Nicely-Nicely leads the company in the rousing "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat."  In the end, everyone ends up with whom they're supposed to, and life goes on for these guys and their dolls.

As usual on Wednesday nights at the Ordway, there was a post-show discussion.  Much of the large ensemble came out to answer questions.  As always, it's interesting to hear what goes on behind the scenes.  What struck me the most was something that Billie (Adelaide) said in response to one audience member suggesting that the show should keep touring instead of ending this Sunday.  She said that there's something beautiful about the ephemeral nature of theater.  Unlike movie or TV where you can buy the DVDs and repeatedly watch them to your heart's content, theater only exists in the moment.  Every show, every night, is a one-of-a-kind experience that lives on only in your memory.  I completely agree with that sentiment.  That's a big part of why I started this blog, as a way to capture those moments in some small way so that I can go back to them and recall the experience.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at the Jungle Theater

Since hearing Stephen Sondheim talk about his life in musical theater last year, I've been on a mission to see more of his shows.  And I've done pretty well so far: A Little Night Music on Broadway last year, Into the Woods at Bloomington Civic Theatre earlier this year, and the filmed concert version of Company at my local movie theater last week.  A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is definitely the lightest of these pieces.  Nothing serious or thoughtful about it, just a ridiculously good time.

As usual, the Jungle puts on a wonderful production.  I wasn't sure how they would fit a big musical onto their tiny stage, but it works!  As Jungle Artistic Director Bain Boehlke said to director John Command when he asked about the space limitations, "well, Rome is crowded."  But the show doesn't feel crowded, it feels intimate and immediate, as if we were all gathered in some ancient Roman theater, watching the spectacle unfold before us.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is based on Roman farces, but also includes a few jokes about the current state of affairs.  Featuring slaves, whores, soldiers, long-lost children, and mistaken identities, the plot is completely silly, and really less important than the songs and performances.  The most familiar song is "Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight," the lyrics of which very accurately sum up the show:

Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

The cast of 20 features real life married couple Richard Ooms and Claudia Wilkens as married couple Senex and Domina.  Richard is hilarious and slightly creepy as "That Dirty Old Man," and Claudia is a commanding presence as his wife.  Senex has two slaves, the dedicated Hysterium (Jon Whittier), who only wants things to return to normal, and our narrator Pseudolus (Christopher Teipner), who dreams of being "Free!"  It's this dream that spurs on the action of the play, as Pseudolus finagles and manipulates to bring together Senex's sweet and earnest son Hero (Eric Heimsoth, who also appeared in Into the Woods) with his love Philia (Amanda Schnabel).  If he succeeds, Hero promises to give Pseudolus his freedom. 

One big obstacle keeping the lovebirds apart is the soldier Miles Gloriosus, who has already "bought" the lady in question.  Bradley Greenwald (one of my favorite local actors) plays Miles in all his pompous splendor.  What first drew me to Bradley was his incredible voice, but he's also a very fine actor.  He brought such depth to his performance as the emcee in Frank Theatre's Cabaret earlier this year.  But there's nothing deep about Miles Gloriosus, he's all bravado.  And Bradley steals every scene he's in, with just the look on his face or the way he walks across the stage in his full and glorious armor.  My favorite comedy moment is when he imitates a Glockenspiel.  If you get the joke, it's hilarious.  Bradley and the Jungle are reprising the show I Am My Own Wife, for which he received an Ivey Award, later this season, which I'm very much looking forward to.

The rest of the cast is entertaining as well.  I particularly enjoyed "The Proteans" - five men who play various roles and also perform some impressive and inventive choreography.  Josiah Gulden is the smarmy, overly tan, mustachioed owner of the whorehouse, in which half a dozen lovely and diverse "courtesans" reside (reminding me of another Sondheim show, Gypsy - “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”).  The whole cast plays together beautifully and hilariously.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is playing through the end of July.  It's a fun, light, entertaining, ridiculous, great summer show.


P.S. Topping my Stephen Sondheim wishlist are Sunday in the Park with George and Assassins, in case any local theaters are looking for Sondheim shows to fill their schedule next season.  :)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"On the Town" by Skylark Opera at the E.M. Pearson Theatre

As much as I love new, edgy, innovative musical theater, I also love a good classic musical.  On the Town, about three sailors on leave in New York City for 24 hours in 1944, is a classic.  I'd never seen it before on stage (the playbill notes that this is probably the first time it's been professionally produced in the Twin Cities) or screen (for a musical theater fan, I haven't seen many classic old movie musicals).  With my love for musical theater and NYC, it's about time I saw this one!

Skylark Opera is presenting On the Town in repertoire with The Vagabond King in their summer festival at the E.M. Pearson Theatre.  The two shows have overlapping, but not identical, casts and musicians, and different directors and choreographers.  Leonard Bernstein wrote the music for On the Town based on an idea of Jerome Robbins, who also choreographed the original Broadway production (the two most famously collaborated on West Side Story, coming to the Orpheum this summer).  Comden and Green wrote the book and lyrics (and now I understand one more reference in the musical about musicals, [title of show]).

The plot follows three sailors in NYC for one short day: the organized and determined sightseer Chip (Paul R. Coate, who appeared in one of my favorite shows of 2009, Theater Latte Da's The Full Monty), the playboy Ozzie (Jon Andrew Hegge, a constant in the Guthrie's annual production of A Christmas Carol), and the naive farm boy Gabey (Dieter Bierbrauer, a favorite from the Chan, Latte Da, and several other theaters).  While riding the subway, Gabey falls in love with a girl on a poster and is determined to find her.  The boys split up in their search for "Miss Turnstiles," and each meet a girl of their own.  Chip runs into taxi driver Hildy and the two sing a charming duet in which he asks her to drive him to see various sights in NYC, and she slams on the brakes of the cab and tells him it's no longer there, so "Come Up To My Place."  Sarah Gibson as Hildy really looks the part of a tough, tall, 1940s broad, and can really belt out a tune (including the fabulous "I Can Cook Too").  Ozzie meets Claire (Jennifer Eckes), an anthropologist who's studying men in an effort to get them out of her system and settle down with her fiance.  I like that Hildy and Claire aren't your typical movie/musical girlfriends; they're both career women who go after what they want.  Maybe this is a reflection of the times, when women filled the employment vacancies left by men off fighting in WWII.

Back to the main love story.  Despairing of ever finding his "Miss Turnstiles," Gabey laments how lonely the city can be, and the audience is treated to Dieter's beautiful voice in the sad and lovely "Lonely Town."  But since this is a musical, he does find Ivy (Sarah Lawrence), at her singing lessons with the hilarious and boozy Madam Dilly (Kinsey Diment).  They make a date for that evening, but what Gabey doesn't know is that Ivy has a job "dancing" at Coney Island, and she stands him up because she can't afford to miss work.  Gabey is reunited with his friends and their dates, and they take him out on the town and try to cheer him up with the fun friendship song "You Got Me."  It doesn't work, and when he finds out where Ivy is, he takes the train to Coney Island to see her.  The other two couples follow, and on the long train ride they realize how short-lived their romances must be in the poignant "Some Other Time."  Gabey and Ivy reunite and the three couples enjoy the rest of their short time together, in and out of jail.  The sailors say their goodbyes to the girls and the city, as a fresh batch of sailors arrives on shore.  And the story begins anew.

This production features a large and capable ensemble, including Laurel Armstrong and Jake Endres (who opens the show with the low and lovely "I Fell Like I'm Not Out Of Bed Yet"), both of whom recently appeared in Flying Foot Forum's beautiful and moving original musical Heaven.  The ensemble scenes celebrate NYC nightlife and the activities and people of Coney Island.  (They remind me a bit of Annie, which also features ensemble scenes celebrating NYC life.)  There are also a few beautifully choreographed and performed "dream ballet" sequences, one during "Lonely Town" and one when Gabey's riding the subway to Coney Island to confront Ivy.  The traditional orchestra in the traditional pit was great; I love entering a theater and hearing the cacophonous sounds of the orchestra warming up and tuning.  I also loved the 40s era costumes and hats!

This is a perfectly delightful show.  Leonard Bernstein's gorgeous score, Comden and Green's witty lyrics, great performances by all of the leads and a strong ensemble backing them up, and fun choreography.  You can't ask for more from a classic piece of musical theater.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"God of Carnage" at the Guthrie

God of Carnage is a tightly wound, intense, darkly hilarious four-person play about what happens when our baser natures come to the surface.  Written by French playwright Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, it won the Tony award for best play in 2009.  It starts out as a very civilized conversation between two sets of parents.  Annette and Alan's son hit Veronica and Michael's son with a stick, so they decide to meet and discuss the issue.  The polished surface very quickly wears away as the situation devolves into tears (and other bodily fluids) and violence (mostly verbal but some physical as well).  Sitting in the front row, I was afraid that someone or something would end up in my lap!  In fact I believe a tulip did fly over my head at one point.  So beware.

I can't imagine the Broadway cast being any better than this cast of fabulous local actors assembled by the Guthrie.  Tracey Maloney and Bill McCallum play Annette and Alan; Jennifer Blagen and Chris Carlson play Veronica and Michael.  (Three of the four actors - Tracey, Bill, and Chris - were in Circle Mirror Transformation at the Guthrie Studio last year, one of my favorite shows of the year.)  All four of them have their moments when they really get to break loose and go crazy.  Alan's a jerk from the beginning, continually answering his cell phone in the middle of the conversation to have loud business discussions, implying that he's better and more important than everyone else.  His wife Annette holds it all in, until she no longer can.  A little rum helps loosen everyone up to speak freely about their marriages and children.  Michael admits he's a "Neanderthal" (and hamster killer), while Veronica clings to the idea that there's still civilization and order in the world.  But even she breaks down by the end.

I kept wondering how this short one-act play was going to end, how they were going to resolve the situation.  But there is no resolution, no ending.  Everyone just collapses on the furniture in Veronica and Michael's once neat and precise living room, exhausted and defeated.  It no longer seems shocking that one 11-year-old boy hit another one in the face with a stick, considering the world they come from, the world we all come from.  The audience is left exhausted from laughter, and wondering what lies beneath the civilized surface of our own lives.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Annie" at the Children's Theatre

You don't have to bring a child when you go to the Children's Theatre (especially when the show is the classic Annie directed by the prolific and talented local director Peter Rothstein), but it helps.  So I recruited my 12-year-old cousin (and her mom) to go with me.  I had never seen Annie on stage, just the movie version.  It's a truly joyous event, fun for kids and adults alike.

Of course the star of the show is Annie, and newcomer Megan Fischer (cast through an open audition at the Mall of America) does an amazing job with the role.  She's tough and tender, and has a beautiful strong voice.  But Annie is also a really wonderful ensemble show, and this strong ensemble (made up of CTC regulars and faves from other local theaters) sings and plays together beautifully. Standouts among the cast include Lee Mark Nelson (so heart-breakingly good in Master Butchers Singing Club at the Guthrie last fall) as Daddy Warbucks, transforming from the gruff and serious businessman to a father in love with his new daughter.  The comic relief is provided by the hilarious Angela Timberman as Miss Hannigan, Reed Sigmund as her brother Rooster, and Autumn Ness as his girlfriend Lily St. Regis (there's some really gross gum-exchanging going on between the two of them!).  Reed is almost over the top in his portrayal of Rooster, but it works.  "Easy Street" is one of the highlights, and Miss Hannigan cracked me up every time she called Ms. St. Regis, "you dumb ho ... tel."

In addition to Annie, there are a half dozen young girls playing orphans, and they're all adorable and funny and talented (I particularly enjoyed the "Oh my goodness!" girl).  I've said this before about child actors - I'm always so surprised at their talent, but really, kids are much more in tune with their creative, imaginative side than most adults are, so it shouldn't be surprising that they're good actors.  Still, it's impressive what they do at such a young age (and while still in school!).  The orphans also do a lot of the work of moving set pieces around, which seems natural to the story since mean Miss Hannigan makes them work all day.

In addition to the beautiful ballads "Tomorrow" and "Maybe," and anything the orphans sing (is there anything cuter than a bunch of little girls singing and dancing their hearts out?), I really enjoyed the ensemble songs "N.Y.C" and "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here."  A lot of people moving around the stage in organized chaos (delightful choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell).  Another highlight is the Annie/Warbucks duet "I Don't Need Anything But You," showcasing the great chemistry between Megan and Mark.

The show has been extended another two weeks through June 19, so you still have time to see it.  Bring a child if you have one.  Or go by yourself if you don't; there's no shame in an adult going to a children's theater when it's this good!



Celebrity Sighting
Sitting right in front of me was the director of the show (and Artistic Director of my favorite theater, Theater Latte Da), Peter Rothstein!  I spoke to him for a few moments before the show and told him how much I enjoy his work (I had just seen Latte Da's Steerage Song the night before).  He said he hadn't seen the show since the first week because he was in Seattle directing the 5th Avenue Theatre/Ordway production of Guys and Dolls (playing June 16-26 at the Ordway).  It was a pleasure to talk to someone whose career I so much admire and enjoy!

"Steerage Song" by Theater Latte Da at the Fitzgerald Theater

Steerage Song is a new concert/theater piece created by Theater Latte Da's Artistic Director Peter Rothstein and local pianist/accordionist extraordinaire Dan Chouinard.  I'm familiar with Peter through his work with Latte Da and many other theaters in town, and I was introduced to Dan by the late, great MPR Morning Show (the spirit of which lives on in MPR's Radio Heartland).  When I heard those two names attached to this piece, I knew it would be good, and I wasn't wrong.

Steerage Song is about the immigrant experience, focusing on immigration from Europe between 1840 and 1924 (when laws were passed significantly limiting immigration to this country).  The structure of the piece is similar to Latte Da's annual Christmas show All is Calm about the WWI Christmas Truce: a series of songs about the experience connected by historical text describing the events as well as the feelings of those involved.  Dan and Peter have collected over 40 songs relating to the immigrant experience.  The songs come from 20 countries and are sung in 18 languages.  They're arranged into six parts, covering the decision to leave home, through arrival in Ellis Island, to making a new life in the Lower East Side (next time you visit NYC, make sure to visit Ellis Island as well as the Tenement Museum to see how immigrants lived 100+ years ago).  The first half of the show features mostly mournful songs of leaving (I was particularly moved by the Irish "Emigrant's Letter").  As Dan said in the post-show discussion, it's slim pickings trying to find happy songs about leaving your home forever.  ;)  The second half of the show focuses on one of the most famous musician immigrants of this time - songwriter Irving Berlin (aka Israel Beilin from Russia).

In addition to assembling interesting, funny, touching songs, Dan and Peter have also assembled a talented group of singers and musicians.  The 11 singer/actors include several who have appeared on this blog before: Sasha Andreev, Erin Capello, Dennis Curley, and Natalie Nowytski (click on the tags at the bottom of this post to find out where).  All of the singer/actors were wonderful in their own way, singing and speaking in accented English or foreign languages.  I was particularly impressed by the two young boys Braxton Baker and Jake Ingbar, who held their own with all the "professionals."  The four talented musicians were led by Dan Chouinard (on piano, accordion, and tuba!) and included the great fiddle/mandolin player and composer Peter Ostroushko (another frequent guest on the Morning Show).  All of this adds up to a wonderful evening of music!

As a collector of playbills/programs (you may have noticed that every post on this blog includes a scan of the playbill), I have to note that the program for Steerage Song is itself is a work of art.  It looks like an old photo album.  The text is printed in old fashioned font against a background of sepia-toned photographs of immigrants.  It's really quite beautiful.  The show also featured projections of these photographs onto the brick wall at the back of the stage at the Fitz, as well as text describing the songs being sung or quotes being spoken.

Even though this is a period piece, the themes are quite relevant today.  The struggles facing immigrants and the reaction of those observing and legislating immigration are similar to what they were 150 years ago.  Perhaps remembering our own immigrant history (except for those of Native American descent, all Americans are descended from immigrants) will inspire us to be a have a little more compassion for those immigrating today.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"In the Red and Brown Water" by Pillsbury House Theatre at the Guthrie Studio

When I go to the Ivey Awards this fall, I'm going to recognize many more theater companies and productions than I usually do.  In the last year I've attended many shows by theater companies that I was previously unfamiliar with, and last night I crossed another one off the list: Pillsbury House Theatre (thanks to the Guthrie Studio Theater for bringing many of them into a space I'm familiar and comfortable with).

How can I describe In the Red and Brown Water?  Fortunately there was a post-show discussion that helped me understand it a little better.  On the surface the story's pretty simple.  A young woman loses her mother and her dream of becoming a track star, and wanders through her life looking for something to cling to.  The staging is very simple too; there's nothing on stage but a dozen lawn chairs on an upward sloping reddish brown floor.  But the themes are more complex; it feels like a piece I need to see a few times to fully comprehend.  Lucky for me, Pillsbury House Theatre is producing the play again in 2012, along with the other two plays in the Brother/Sister trilogy by emerging playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.  I really grew to know and love these characters over the course of the play, so I'm curious to find out what happens to them next.  Stay tuned.

The characters in In the Red and Brown Water are named after gods in the Yoruba mythology of Nigeria; the child/prophet Elegba, the attractive bad boy Shango, the good and stable man Ogun, and our heroine Oya.  A unique feature of this play is that the characters speak their own stage directions aloud.  "Shango enters," "Elegba exits," "Oya weeps."  It was a little jarring at first, but once I got used to it I really liked it.  As was discussed in the talkback, it's another opportunity to more deeply understand the characters.  The way the actors say the stage directions gives the audience insight into their feelings: sad, angry, confident, joyful.  Towards the end of the play Oya begins to say everyone's stage directions, perhaps because she's starting to take control of her own life.

Oya is a high school track star from the projects in San Pere, Louisiana.  She turns down an opportunity to run for the state college so she can stay with her dying mother.  Oya is devastated by the loss, but is comforted by the love of Shango.  She's devastated again when that relationship ends, and her sweet friend Ogun helps pick up the pieces.  Having missed her chance at her dream of running, she clings to a new dream - starting a family with Ogun.  But that never happens either, and Oya goes to drastic lengths to give something of herself to someone.  She is completely depleted.  And then she gets up and starts running.  As director Marion McClinton said in the talkback, sometimes it's the running of the race that matters, not the outcome.  There's glory in the running.  (I'll be thinking about that as I run my fourth half marathon in four weeks on Sunday in Minneapolis, in a race I like to call the Run to the Guthrie. :)

This is a top-notch production and the cast is amazing; I will definitely be checking out other productions at Pillsbury.  Christiana Clark plays Oya.  Not only does she look like an athlete, but she also beautifully embodies Oya's spirit - her confusion, desperation, and determination.  Gavin Lawrence plays the delightfully devilish Elegba, who grows from a boy to a young man.  Elegba is one of those characters who seems simple, but is actually quite wise and profound (the title of the play comes from a dream he has about Oya's future).  Gavin is very convincing in that transition, and has a lovely voice when he sings for Oya.  From Sonja Parks as Oya's mother, to Ansa Akyea and James A. Williams as her suitors, to the great Greta Oglesby as her aunt, to every last member of the ensemble, the cast is just beautiful.

I can't say it better than this, from the Guthrie's publicity postcard about the show: "Lusciously theatrical and boldly original, this play weaves together elements of urban contemporary realism with West African mysticism for a lyrical experience that is at once joyous and challenging, raucous and raw, and brazenly beautiful."