Saturday, March 31, 2012

"Gruesome Playground Injuries" presented by The Peanut Butter Factory at Intermedia Arts

The Peanut Butter Factory is not a theater company.  It's a production company that basically provides the infrastructure for independent theater artists so that they can present their work, without being attached to a theater company (read more about it here).  Sounds pretty cool to me, and with some familiar names on the list of Producing Associates (like Bradley Greenwald), I knew I had stumbled onto a good thing.  I was invited to attend their current production, Gruesome Playground Injuries, by the director, Natalie Novacek.  I decided to check it out, expecting it to be a fun, light-hearted look at friendship and growing up.  But it was so much more than that.  It was unexpectedly poignant, heartfelt, moving, and really very sweet.

Kayleen and Doug meet in their school nurse's office at the age of 8, he having "broken his face," and she having thrown up due to a "sensitive stomach."  The play jumps forward and backward in time from there, visiting important moments in their relationship, which all seem to be marked by some injury or illness.  Doug is accident prone, or more accurately he's one of those daredevil kids that constantly gets himself into situations where he gets hurt.  Leeny (as only Doug calls her) has injuries and scars that are more internal.  She takes out her life's anguish by cutting herself, eventually ending up in a mental hospital.  Through it all, these two friends are there for each other, despite often going years without seeing each other.  To say they love each other unconditionally doesn't even scratch the surface.  They know each other as well as they know themselves, and love each other as an extension of themselves.  If Doug and Kayleen had a theme song, it would be this from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: "It's not blood, it's a metaphor for love.  These aren't veins just the beating of my heart.  This fever isn't real, it represents how I feel, my pain transformed into art."

Kayleen visits Doug after one of his more gruesome injuries
(photo by Justin D. Gallo Photography)

Unfortunately I've never had a 30-year friendship like this, but there is much in the story I can relate to.  I'm the same age as these characters, so the timeline feels familiar (marked with music of the day).  I also went to a Catholic grade school, and was traumatized when my best friend in first grade fell off the monkey bars during recess and smashed her face up.  I can still see it clearly; gruesome playground injuries stay with you.  And the scene in which Doug and Kayleen are 13 years old and at a school dance brought back that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach that only a 7th grade dance can give you.

Doug and Kayleen share their scars
(photo by Justin D. Gallo Photography)
The story moves between timepoints seamlessly, and even if it were not printed in the program, the audience would know approximately where these characters are in their lives, based on accessories (eye patch, bow in the hair) and the way the actors inhabit their characters.  Adam Whisner and Leigha Horton (whom I saw in Minnesota Middle Finger at the Fringe last summer) bare their souls (and their bodies) on stage, and you really can't ask much more of an actor.  They have a believable chemistry, and successfully portray the different ages from 8 to 38.  Between scenes they change costumes and injuries on the side of the stage, in full view of the audience.  They were chatting and laughing, sharing inside jokes, and I wasn't sure if it was in character or not.  Either way it added to the feeling of familiarity between these two people. 

This is why I do this, friends.  To go to an out of the way, under the radar theater with zero expectations, and be totally surprised and delighted and touched and moved.  It doesn't get much better than that.  That's why I love theater; it'll get you when and where you least expect it.  Only two performances remain of this hidden gem, catch it while you still can!  And at just $10 a ticket, you won't find a better theater deal in town.

*I received one free ticket to attend the show.  But because I enjoyed it so much and think that the whole structure of it is pretty cool, I donated to their Kickstarter campaign, as you can do too if you wish!

Friday, March 30, 2012

"American Family" at Park Square Theatre

American Family.  That's kind of a loaded title.  These days the definition of "American Family" is pretty broad; family is what you make of it.  But in 1964 that definition was much narrower.  A family that's made up of a divorced white woman and her daughter, a black man, and their mixed race child, had a hard time existing anywhere in 1964, much less in Alabama.  Such is the subject of the new play commissioned by Park Square Theatre and written by Carlyle Brown.  And the result is a heart-wrenching exploration of family, love, betrayal, pride, prejudice, and the long-lasting effects of childhood injuries.

The central character in this family and this story is Mary Ellen, a 9-year-old girl in 1964 (played by the delightful star-in-the-making Megan Fischer, aka Annie).  The story begins as the adult Mary Ellen (the very talented and appealing Tracey Maloney, a newcomer to Park Square but a veteran of the Twin Cities theater scene) returns to her childhood home on a mission.  She meets and interacts with her younger self, and watches from the sidelines as her young life is changed for good, but not for the better.  Tracey and Megan mirror each others movements and expressions so that they really do look like they could be two versions of the same person.  Except that the grown-up Mary Ellen has lost much of that spark, that confident feeling of youth that everything is ahead of you and nothing can hurt you.  She knows what a tough road young Mary Ellen has in front of her and tries to warn her, even though she knows she must live through it.

In the first act, we watch along with the adult Mary Ellen as her mother (the sympathetic Noël Raymond, who directed Tracey last year in The Pride at Pillsbury House Theatre) marries Jimmy (a likeable Gavin Lawrence, who will next play Langston Hughes in the next Carlyle Brown project) and they move in with Jimmy's parents on their farm.  Grandma Richardson (the great Greta Oglesby) quickly warms to her new white granddaughter, but grouchy old Grandpa Richardson (played by the playwright himself), who is opposed to the marriage because of the difficulties it brings, takes a little longer to be "charmed" by the spirited young girl.  Just when the family seems to have settled into a kind of happiness, Mary Ellen's biological father (John Middleton, playing an unlikeable jerk) shows up to take her away, which is where the heartache (and need for tissues) begins.

The second act shows us what happens when the adult Mary Ellen meets her 16-year-old brother (Michael Terrell Brown, a promising young talent), whom she only knows from her mother's letters.  Tommy grew up in the shadow of the memories of his older sister, even though he never met her.  Both have assumptions about the other that prove to be incorrect.  Tommy's life is not easy, despite living the life that Mary Ellen wished she had, and Mary Ellen doesn't conform to the image in Tommy's head of his missing and much-missed sister.  Maybe it's too late to undo the hurts that have been done, but you can't help but wish for healing in this American family as the play ends.

I found this play to be a really moving look at a family that tries to survive when the whole world seems to be against them.  It's playing at Park Square through April 7 (if you go, be sure to bring tissues!).  And I look forward to seeing Carlyle Brown's play Are You Now or Have You Ever Been..., about writer Langston Hughes, playing at the Guthrie Studio Theater in May.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"A Catered Affair" by Porchlight Music Theater at Stage 773 (Chicago)

I've been thinking about taking the train to Chicago for a theater weekend, since I hear it's almost as good a theater town as Minneapolis/St. Paul.  But I haven't managed to make it happened yet.  So when I had to go to Chicago for a meeting last weekend, I jumped at the chance to see some theater.  Unlike my last work trip to Southern California, where there was only one theater in town, I was faced with a plethora of plays and musicals to choose from, and only one night to see something.  I didn't know how to begin making the choice, so I used the website Theater in Chicago as a guide.  It lists all of the shows playing and summarizes the reviews, and even lists the top rated shows.  Unfortunately, by the time I started seriously looking (the day before), most of the top rated shows were sold out.  So I ended up seeing the musical A Catered Affair by Porchlight Music Theater, which also received pretty good reviews.  Not the most edgy or unique choice, perhaps, but I was happy to support a local Chicago musical theater company (as opposed to the several big Broadway productions in town).  And I could do worse than a musical by Harvey Fierstien (who also wrote the book for La Cage aux Folles), with music and lyrics by John Bucchino.  It turned out to be a fun evening and a great entry into the world of Chicago theater.

A Catered Affair opened on Broadway in 2008 to mixed reviews, and closed after a few months.  Based on the 1956 movie of the same name, it's set in the Bronx in the 1950s and features a young couple who want to get married in a hurry.  But not for the reason you think, they just want to skip all of the hoopla and get on with the honeymoon and the rest of their lives.  The bride's mother is upset when she hears this; she wants to give her daughter a big wedding to make up for the fact that she's lived her life in the shadow of her brother, who has recently been killed overseas (I'm assuming in the Korean War).  Kate reluctantly agrees to a big wedding for the sake of her mother, who herself regrets having to get married quickly (this time it is for the reason you think).  The wedding plans start to get out of hand, as they often do, and to make peace the bride and groom decide to go back to the simple wedding they had planned.  But it's not all a loss; the bride's parents grow closer while facing some long lingering issues in their relationship.  The wedding also inspire Kate's "confirmed bachelor uncle," to move out of his sister's home and move in with the man he loves.  Love is all around in A Catered Affair - young love, old love, unconventional (for the 1950s) love.

This is a capable and talented cast, and makes me wish I could see more of the Porchlight Music Theatre (their next show is Jonathan Larson's pre-RENT semi-autobiographical musical Tick, Tick... Boom!, and they're also currently doing a completely improvised musical which looks super fun and sadly wasn't playing the night I was in town).  Kelly Davis Wilson is delightfully earnest and spunky as the young bride.  Rebecca Finnegan as her mother brings a gravity to the mostly light-hearted musical.  She never lets us forget that this is a mother who just lost her son; it informs even the happy moments.  Jerry O'Boyle is entertaining and loveable as Uncle Winston, a role which Harvey Feirstein played on Broadway.  He also filled Harvey's (high-heeled) shoes in Hairspray for over 1000 performances on tour.  It turns out I saw him perform the role in Minneapolis in 2007 (I looked it up - yes, I keep all of my playbills).  The ensemble fills out the rest of the family and neighborhood with life and color.  The band sounds lovely, including the strings which were seated to the left of the stage, and the rest which were for some reason hidden backstage.

The show was at Stage 773, which houses several theaters and theater companies.  It was a happening place; the lobby was filled with people when I left the show.  I'm not familiar enough with Chicago to know where the "theater district" is, but I passed several other theaters on the way to Stage 773 (via the fabulous public transportation system).  This wasn't quite the full weekend of theater I'm still hoping to do sometime, but I had a very enjoyable evening in the city.  I hope to get back to Chicago sometime soon to continue to explore their huge theater scene.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Werther and Lotte" by the Moving Company at the Lab Theater

I first saw The Moving Company last year when they created an original work called Come Hell and High Water, based on a William Faulkner novella about the 1927 Mississippi River flood.  I found it to be unique and moving and unexpected.  Their new work, Werther and Lotte, reunites two of the actors as well as the director and co-creator of that piece, Dominique Serrand.  This one is again based on a novel, set in a specific time and place in history - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, set in late 18th century Germany.  And it's equally lovely.  What I appreciate most about The Moving Company is that they go beyond what we conventionally think of as theater, pushing the boundaries by combining music, images, movement, and ideas.  It's truly lovely and a breath of fresh air.

Werther is a man on a journey, who meets Lotte (short for Charlotte) and instantly falls in love with her, despite being warned against it.  She's engaged to another man, but they still develop a close friendship.  When Werther returns after an absence to discover that Lotte has married, he's devastated.  The whole play is an exploration of Werther's feelings of being blissfully in love, and finally realizing that it's a love that can never be returned.  Werther narrates much of the action as the play begins, with Lotte taking over and finishing the tale as Werther's madness overcomes him.

Christina Baldwin and Nathan Keepers are the only two actors in the play (other characters are represented by a chair, a jacket, or empty space), and both bring their unique talents to this creation.  Christina, as Lotte, makes it easy to see why Werther falls in love with her.  She radiates lightness and peace and joy, and her voice is, as always, gorgeous, whether she's sing a beautiful French song or a silly little made-up song in German (my name is Werther, poor me, my umbrella is small, I have no potatoes).  Nathan has a great physicality in his acting, which he uses here to express Werther's joy and frustrations - climbing on tables and chairs, swinging on a swing, scaling the wall.  Both actors have their own unique style and play together very well (I should note that both were involved in creating this piece along with Dominique Serrand).

Recorded music mixes with live music in a creative and interesting way, as Edde Hou (violin) and Matt Blake (upright bass) play along with an old phonograph.  The costumes (designed by Sonya Berlovitz) are simple but effective.  Lotte's clothing changes from light and airy in the beginning of the play, to a darker palette as the play continues and her life gets more difficult.  The set is very sparsely populated with a few tables and chairs and some odds and ends, in the beautiful cavernous space that is the Lab Theater.  Images are projected onto the brick wall of the theater, of snow, or the woods in the fall, or a babbling brook in spring, bringing nature into this sterile space.  The play ends with a beautiful image, after which there was a moment of silence from the audience as the actors came back onstage to take their bows.  I think we all knew it was the end, but didn't want it to be!

The Moving Company includes this note in the program:

Our work evolves on its feet as we explore how text, physicality, and music intertwine to tell our story.  The simple, necessary objects onstage are there, like toys in the sandbox, to spark our imagination and suggest the landscapes of our space.  By paring down to the fundamental theatricality of the story, we aim to land the production in a universe which can be in turn surreal, brutal, impassioned, and vulnerable.

To that I say - mission accomplished.  I highly recommend this show, if only to see an exploration of what theater can be.  The show officially opens tonight and runs through April 15.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Memphis" at the Ordway

I saw the first national tour of the musical Memphis last night, and I loved it more than I expected to.  It won the Tony Award for best musical in 2010, so I knew it would be good.  But I had several opportunities to see it on Broadway, and just never did.  Something else always ranked above it.  So it's not a show that I've been dying to see, but I'm grateful that this tour gave me the opportunity to catch this fantastic, new, original musical (something that's becoming quite rare on Broadway these days).  Memphis is still playing on Broadway, with Adam Pascal (who originated the role of Roger in RENT), taking over the lead.  If I didn't have a half dozen new shows I wanted to see, I might go see it again on Broadway!

Memphis is about the birth of Rock and Roll.  It's loosely based on the life of pioneering DJ Dewey Phillips, a precursor to the "father of Rock and Roll," Alan Freed.  Both men were instrumental in desegregating the airwaves, playing so-called "race music" by African American musicians on mainstream (aka white) radio stations.  In this fictionalized account, our DJ is Huey Calhoun - a poor "redneck" who lives with his mother and can't hold down a job.  Until he convinces a radio station to give him a temporary job spinning records.  People fall in love with the music he plays and he becomes the most popular DJ in Memphis, even hosting his own television show.  He becomes friendly with many of the African American musicians and helps to launch the career of the lovely and talented Felicia.  They fall in love, a dangerous prospect in Memphis in the 1950s.  Felicia eventually realizes that she has to get out of Memphis to have the life and career she wants; her color limits her chances and choices in the South.  But Huey can't leave Memphis, that's where his life and his soul will always be.  The world and Felicia move on without him, but they don't forget him.

This is a great ensemble show, but the stars of the show are its two leads, both of whom are spectacular. Felicia Boswell plays Felicia (appropriately enough), and was previously seen in the Twin Cities in the Guthrie's production of Caroline, or Change in 2009.  She's a true star, with an amazingly powerful voice over which she has incredible control.  She knows when to pull it back for a quiet moment, and when to let it go.  Bryan Fenkart as Huey is incredibly charismatic and energetic, and makes you feel every emotion along with Huey.  He's a loveable goofball whom the audience can't help rooting for.  The two of them have great chemistry and their voices blend beautifully.  Huey and Felicia are an unlikely couple, not just because of their race, but their love is real and obvious to everyone watching.  Other standouts in the cast include Will Mann as Bobby, who reluctantly moves out of his comfortable position as janitor at the radio station to shine in the spotlight on the TV show.  Last but not least, Julie Johnson is fabulous as Huey's mother, who transforms from a tired and worn out waitress to a fashionable lady, with a standout moment in the song "Change Don't Come Easy."

The choreography is fast and tight, reminiscent of the '50s but with a modern edge.  And the ensemble performs it with much energy and life.  The costumes are great, from Huey's slouchy mismatched outfits, to Felicia's gorgeous dresses (especially the strapless green number in the second act).  The set looks simple but has complicated pieces that move in and out, at times letting us catch a glimpse of the fabulous band at the back of the stage.

Memphis finishes out its two-week run in St. Paul this weekend and is definitely worth checking out.  I think it's one of the better touring shows to come to the Twin Cities this season, if not the best.  Next up at the Ordway is The Addams Family (I'm going to pass on that one), followed by the amazing musical FELA!, based on the life of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti.  I saw it on Broadway and can't wait to see it again; the choreography is like nothing I've ever seen on a Broadway stage.  Looking ahead, the show that I'm most excited about in the Ordway's recently announced upcoming season is the Broadway Songbook series.  Other than that there are a couple great shows that I've seen before (Chicago, Billy Elliot, Anything Goes - although this is the new Broadway revival production that I've been wanting to see).  And then there's Elf, which they call "an original musical."  Since it's based on a movie I don't consider it an original musical, unless they mean that it's an Ordway original production.  In which case I will see it; the Ordway always does a great job with their original productions and hires some amazing local talent.  But enough about next year, go see Memphis while you still can.  Hockadoo!

Monday, March 19, 2012

"Proof" at the Cabrillo Playhouse in San Clemente, California

I found myself in Southern California last week on a business trip.  What should I do in a strange town in the evening?  Go see some local theater, of course!  About 60 miles south of L.A., San Clemente is a little beach town known more for surfing than for theater.  The only theater in town is the Cabrillo Playhouse, which began in the 1950s as the San Clemente Community Theater.  Just my luck - they were doing a production of one of my favorite math plays, Proof (my other favorite math play being Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, of course).  And since it was the week of pi day, it couldn't have been more appropriate.

Proof premiered on Broadway in 2000 and won the Tony for Best Play.  I saw it on tour in 2002, which is proof (sorry) of it's popularity since Broadway plays don't go on tour as often as musicals.  It tells the story of a young woman named Catherine whose father, a renowned mathematician, has just died.  She took care of him in the final years of his life as his mental health deteriorated.  In that time he filled 100 notebooks with gibberish, or is it mathematical genius?  Similar to the movie A Beautiful Mind (based on the biography of mathematician Jon Nash), he sees patterns and codes everywhere, and it's difficult to decipher the difference between madness and genius.  One of his former students, Hal, comes over to the house to go through the journals to see if there's anything of value.  At the same time, Catherine's sister arrives from New York and tells her she's sold the house, and wants Catherine to move to New York with her.  When Hal discovers one beautiful, complicated, ground-breaking proof, Catherine says that she wrote it.  No one believes her since she's had little schooling; she dropped out of college to take care of her father.  It's obvious she has inherited her father's mathematical skill, but has she also inherited his mental illness?  Proof a beautifully written play about relationships, truth, and discovery, in addition to math.

The Cabrillo Playhouse is a tiny little theater, and I found it completely adorable.  The theater itself seats about 60, and this being California there's also a lovely outdoor patio where free drinks and snacks are served before the show.  It has a real warm community feel.  The cast does a pretty good job with the play.  Patrick Radoci effectively conveys the increasing craziness of Catherine's deceased father (appearing in dreams and flashbacks), despite being 20 years too young for the role.  Adam Reeves is appropriately adorkable as Hal, who plays in a band with a bunch of math geeks (they have a song called "i," where they stand on stage in silence for three minutes).  Emily Lappi is amusing as the seemingly shallow sister from the big city who swoops in to take care of everything.  And Jennifer Whitney is sympathetic as Catherine, a young woman struggling to figure out what to do with her life now that she's free to choose.

a vintage poster in the Cabrillo Playhouse

The moral of the story is that if you find yourself in a strange town with nothing to do, why not check out the local theater scene?  My next trip is Chicago, which has a few more theaters to choose from than San Clemente.  The hard part will be narrowing my choices down to one or two.  If anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

"Buzzer" at Pillsbury House Theatre

Pillsbury House Theatre's production of the new play Buzzer (by playwright Tracey Scott Wilson) is a very modern play about race, class, gender, relationships, and gentrification of neighborhoods.  Three characters, an interracial couple and their recovering addict friend, struggle to find their way in this seemingly "post-racial" world.

Jackson is a successful lawyer who grew up poor in a neighborhood filled with drugs and violence, and was able to get himself out and make a better life for himself.  He rents (to own) a newly remodeled apartment in his old neighborhood, which is transitioning from a "bad neighborhood" to one with coffee shops and lofts and restaurants.  He and his girlfriend Suzy, a teacher in the inner-city schools, move in.  Jackson convinces Suzy to let his down-on-his-luck best friend Don move in with them, despite her reluctance.  Don is from a privileged background, and despite constantly getting himself into trouble, has been able to get out of it thanks to his rich and powerful father.  Jackson was given nothing and worked hard to achieve the life he wanted, while Don squandered every opportunity he had.  But somehow the two men remained friends.  Their friendship is tested when Suzy tells Don that she's being harassed on the street, and they grow closer.  Each member of the trio has their own plan to end the harassment.  Suzy thinks that if she stays strong and ignores the bullies, they'll eventually stop.  Jackson wants to threaten them with violence, while Don thinks reasoning with them and being friendly will solve the problem.  The conflict grows inside the apartment and outside on the street.

The three-person cast is fantastic in bringing these characters to life, and making them all at times sympathetic and at times maddening.  Sara Richardson, who was fabulous as Fraulein Sally Bowles in Cabaret last year, is equally good here playing this completely different and much more real character.  Namir Smallwood (the exiled prince in Ten Thousand Things' Life's a Dream) plays her boyfriend Jackson with great intensity, and possesses a powerful angry stare (as was pointed out in the post-show discussion), which he wears as a weapon.  Hugh Kennedy (my favorite Hamlet) is the third wheel, Don, and plays him with a restless frenetic energy that's appropriate for an addict trying not to go back to his old ways (a little like David Arquette on a talk show, all fidgety nervousness).  The play is written in such a way that the scenes almost overlap.  One scene has barely ended when the next scene picks up immediately, which I found interesting and a great way to keep the momentum building.

In the audience the night I attended was a group of high school students.  It was really fun to watch them watch the play.  They were so present, so in the moment, so reactive to what was happening on stage.  I love theater, but perhaps a bit of the magic and wonder wears off when you see as much theater as I do.  But for these kids it was all still there.  It was refreshing to see.  They also had some interesting comments at the post-show discussion.  I love post-show discussions at Pillsbury because they always bring in someone from a community group that is working on some of the issues explored in the play.  With this piece it's the City of Lakes Community Land Trust, which "provides and fosters stewardship of perpetually affordable homeownership opportunities for low-income and moderate-income families and individuals."  It felt like a great community discussion, thoughtfully led by Artistic Associate and actor Kurt Kwan, rather than just a Q&A session with the actors.  There were comments from people who live in the neighborhood in which the theater resides (35th and Chicago), and someone who was a victim of gang violence, as well as the aforementioned students.  Theater is at it's best when it engages the audience in a conversation about very real issues facing people today, or at least gets you thinking about things in a different way.  That's something Pillsbury House Theatre does very well.

Buzzer is playing now through March 18, and all seats are "pay what you can," from $5 to $50, which is a pretty cool thing when theater tickets for the big touring productions go for $100.  You'll definitely get your money's worth and more, no matter what you pay!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

"The Birds" at the Guthrie Theater

My current favorite TV show is AMC's The Walking Dead, about a small group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse.  I'm not a fan of zombies or horror in general, but for me the show isn't about the zombies.  It's about this group of people who have to figure out a new way to live in a world where the old rules of civilization no longer serve.  The play The Birds* (based on the original short story by Daphne du Maurier, not the 1963 Hitchcock movie) is the same way.  It's not about the birds (which are never seen, although the sound of them is frightening enough), it's about these people who are trying to survive and have some kind of a life when the world has been taken over by killer birds (crazy idea, isn't it?).  The old rules of life no longer apply; as one character says, "all bets are off."

The play begins in an old farmhouse where Diane and Nat, who met a few days ago on the road as they were trying to get away, have taken shelter.  Nat is ill and Diane nurses him back to health.  They develop a sort of rhythm of going out and scavenging for supplies between bird attacks (every six hours, based on the tides).  An injured young woman named Julie shows up on their door and they take her in, and she becomes part of their group.  They enjoy a certain friendship, but it becomes apparent that they don't really know each other very well.  Can they trust each other?  They notice a reclusive farmer across the lake, but he doesn't seem friendly so they avoid him.  One day when Nat and Julie have gone to town, the farmer visits Diane and asks her to join him so he can "take care of her."  She rejects him and he leaves.  Meanwhile, Nat and Julie have grown closer, which upsets Diane.  She's a writer who is keeping a journal, and we occasionally hear bits of her journal in voiceover, which lets us see into her thoughts a little.  Diane goes to extreme lengths to ensure survival.  What bothers me most about The Walking Dead is that in the face of a zombie apocalypse, the survivors need to band together against the zombies if the human race has any hope of surviving.  Similarly, I wanted everyone in the play to work together; it's the only way they can survive.  But as Diane says, "what's so great about the human race anyway?"  The humans still have to deal with each other, which proves to be the more difficult task.

Diane and is really the core of the story; we experience the events through her eyes.  And Angela Timberman is a wonderful grounding force as she takes us through this journey.  She's so good at both comedy (see Annie, where she stole the show as Miss Hannigan) and drama (I still remember her in Third several years ago, which is one of those plays that has stuck with me); she definitely uses her drama chops here.  J.C. Cutler, last year's Scrooge, is her equal as Nat.  Summer Hagen also give a fine performance as the seemingly sweet but can-you-really-trust-her Julie.  Last but not least, Stephen Yoakam (magnificent in last summer's Burial at Thebes) makes a short but very memorable and creepy appearance as the farmer.

This was perhaps the most detailed set I've ever seen (designed by Guthrie newbie Wilson Chin).  When I walked into the Guthrie Studio Theater, I wanted to climb right up on the stage and explore the house.  Every corner was crammed with old photos and knick-knacks, children's artwork hung on the walls of the kitchen, and the walls were faded and dingy.  It not only looks lived in, it looks as if it's been lived in for a hundre years.  The play is performed with no intermission which I think was a smart choice.  With a story this intense and close, you don't want to let the audience out to walk around and breathe, but rather keep them feeling trapped along with the characters.

The Birds is playing now through April 8.  Check it out for a good old-fashioned thrill.  You might also come out of the show thinking about just what you would do to survive in a world where killer birds or zombies (or any number of natural disasters) have reduced the world to a dangerous, scary place.

*I received two complementary tickets to attend The Birds as part of the Guthrie's "Blogger Night."  And I owe them a big thanks this time because I forgot to RSVP, but when I called the day of the show they were able to get me in.  I love the Guthrie!

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Coco's Diary" at the History Theatre

Coco's Diary* is an adaptation of the recently discovered diary of a 13-year-old named Clotilde Irving who grew up in a mansion on Summit Avenue in the 1920s, the same mansion that now serves as the Governor's Mansion.  While her life in 1927 was probably pretty atypical, the daughter of a wealthy and privileged family, her experiences, thoughts, and manner of speaking are quite familiar to anyone who's ever been 13.  Coco reminds me of my 13-year-old cousin; everything is so dramatic, it's either the best thing that's ever happened, or the worst.  There is no in between when you're 13.  Coco was smart, precocious, charming, and a talented writer.  It's no surprise that the History Theatre chose to bring this story to life; it's a great story set in a specific time and place in Minnesota history, but it's also a universal story of the trials and tribulations of growing up.

The play begins in 1965 when Coco's mother dies, leaving her and her older brother Tom to sort through the house.  Coco discovers her diary and delights in reading it and remembering that time in her life, which mostly involved dancing, boys, and getting into and out of trouble.  Only after reading the diary is Coco able to say good-bye to the house.  Three actors bring this story to life through reading the diary and reenacting the scenes:

  • Kacie Riddle (herself 13 years old) plays the young Coco.  It's amazing to me that someone so young can so handily carry a two-hour play.  Yes she has help from two very talented adult actors, but she is Coco, in all of her moods - funny, charming, dramatic, hopeful, despondent, and lively.
  • Andrea Wollenberg (one of the hilariously evil stepsisters in Cinderella) is the adult Coco, as well as Coco's mother, Coco's younger sister, and several other characters.  Whether she's walking around on her knees and talking with a lisp, or sternly reprimanding Coco for her latest exploit, she brings great life to these different characters.  And she has a lovely voice!
  • Jake Endres plays Coco's brother Tom, both the 1965 and the 1927 versions.  He also portrays her father, teacher, and any other characters needed for the story.  Jake also acts as the music director and accompanies much of the action on piano, as well as singing songs of the day in his beautifully deep voice.  I love plays that add music to the story-telling.  It's not a full-blown musical, but the music adds to the story and helps set the scene, especially because Coco is so obsessed with dancing.
The diary was adapted for the stage by Bob Beverage and Artistic Director Ron Peluso (who also directs).  The dialogue sounds as if it comes directly from the diary; I'm curious to read it and compare (the diary has been published in the book Through No Fault of My Own).  I also want to know what happens next in her life, which makes me wonder, was 1927 the only year that Coco kept a diary?  Or just the only one that survived?  (Read this article in the StarTribune to find out what happened to Coco.  Warning: it's not quite the happy ending we might hope for, but such is life.)  The set (by Rick Polenek) looks like what the inside of a Summit Avenue Mansion should, and I'm tempted to take a tour of the real thing.

Coco's Diary plays at the History Theatre in St. Paul now through March 25.  It's a delightful look at what is was like to be 13 in 1927, which it turns out is not so different from today.

*I received two complementary tickets to attend the opening night of Coco's Diary.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Punch Brothers at the Varsity Theater

I don't often write about music on this theater-centric blog, unless it's someone I really love and want to tell everyone about.  Such is the case with Chris Thile and his Brothers of Punch.  I've been a fan of Chris Thile's for over ten years, since his days in the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek (with siblings Sean and Sara Watkins).  I distinctly remember seeing their video for "When You Come Back Down" and immediately buying Nickel Creek's self-titled debut album.  I was mesmerized by Chris' voice, and I'm still hooked.

The members of Nickel Creek have since gone their own way and have all made solo albums (Sara is performing at the Cedar next month).  Several years ago Chris formed the band Punch Brothers with Chris Eldridge (guitar), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Gabe Witcher (fiddle and sometimes lead vocals), and Paul Kowert (upright bass, possibly the coolest instrument in existence).  They've really gelled into a fantastic bluegrass band, appearing on The Tonight Show and opening for Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.  Each is a super talented musician in his own right, and together they create a thrilling musical experience.  But it's Chris that I have a hard time taking my eyes off of.  He's one of those artists where the music just flows through him from some unearthly place, and it's all he can do to bodily contain it.  Definitely one of my favorite musicians to see live, and I try to catch him every time he's in town (even if it means going to Dinkytown* when there's a Gopher game).  The Punch Brothers just released a new album last month entitled Who's Feeling Young Now, and it has taken up permanent residence in my car CD player.  It's not traditional bluegrass, it's forward-thinking bluegrass, moving bluegrass into the future and pushing the boundaries of what it can be while still respecting the tradition.  I love that.

I also love their retro/classy/cool fashion style, with their ties and jackets and vests.  I like that they dress up for the show, in their own unique way.

Here are the Punch Brothers performing one of their most popular songs, "Rye Whiskey," from their 2010 album Antifogmatic.

And from their brand new album Who's Feeling Young Now, "It's No Concern of Yours" (a few more videos from the concert avalable on the cherryandspoon youtube channel).

*The Varsity Theater is a really cool space (although I would have liked more seating; this is bluegrass, we can sit down), and has the most interesting bathroom I've ever seen.  Tucked in the back upstairs, it's like a cave.  All brick and plants and odd angles, with women's stalls on the right and men's on the left, and shared sinks in the middle with showerhead faucets that turn on with foot pedals.  There are even comfy couches and chairs in case you want to hang out.  Normally I can't see hanging out in a bathroom, unless it's as cool as this one.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Beautiful Thing" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

Make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song
Make your own kind of music
Even if nobody else sings along

This song by the 1960s group The Mamas & the Papas closes Theatre Latte Da's production of the play with music, Beautiful Thing.  It's a beautiful and hopeful ending to the show and really gets to the heart of what it's all about. 

Beautiful Thing tells the story of two teenage boys in a working-class neighborhood of London who fall in love.  Jamie lives with his single mother who works at a pub, and is struggling to fit in with his peers who think he's "weird;" even his own mother tells him that.  Ste lives next door with his abusive alcoholic father, and sometimes takes refuge at Jamie's place when things get too bad at home.  On the other side of Jamie lives Leah, who has been kicked out of school and spends all her time listening to and singing along with the music of Mama Cass.  She's a bit of a jerk, but it soon becomes apparent that she's lonely and struggling to find her place in the world, just like the boys are.  And when Jamie and Ste find their place in the world through each other, it truly is a beautiful thing.  Jamie's mother is upset when she finds out about the boys' relationship, but comes to accept it.  She may not be the best mother (at one point literally rolling around on the ground with her son as they fight), but she loves her son and does the best she can for him.  We never see Ste's family, but from the way they're talked about it's hard to believe they'd be very accepting.  I like to believe he somehow escaped from their orbit.

Beautiful Thing reminds me a little bit of the movie Billy Elliot (later turned into a stage musical): a young boy from a working class family in England finding himself in an unconventional way.  But while Billy falls in love with dancing and his own artistic expression, Jamie falls in love with Ste, and is able to figure out who he is through that love.

Because this is Theater Latte Da, there is music in this play, and the music conveys what mere words cannot.  Erin Schwab embodies Mama Cass and walks through the scenes, singing and bringing to life the songs in Leah's head, accompanied by the fabulous band hidden below the set.  Before seeing this show I was only marginally familiar with The Mamas & the Papas, and even less so with Mama Cass.  She is a fascinating character herself, and yet another incredible voice who left this earth way too early (she died at the age of 32).  I'm enamored of the sound and the look of the 1960s, so it's not too surprising that I just downloaded the soundtrack from the 1996 movie version of Beautiful Thing (plus a few additional songs that weren't included).  Here's a way that Theater Latte Da could improve (something I thought impossible) - offer downloads of songs from their shows.  I would definitely buy a soundtrack of this show featuring the songs of Mama Cass in Erin Schwab's fabulous voice (with Dennis Curley's lovely harmonies).

As with all Latte Da shows, this show is perfectly cast.  (And they all do such a great job with the working-class London accent that I really had to pay attention to catch what they were saying, not to mention learning new words such as slag and knackered.)  Steven Lee Johnson (a student with the esteemed U of M/Guthrie program) and David Darrow* (who recently moved here from NYC, where he won an Innovative Theatre Award) are perfect as the young lovers Jamie and Ste, believable and natural and sympathetic.  Anna Sundberg (one of my favorite artists of 2011) is, as usual, fully committed to creating a distinct and layered character.  Jennifer Blagen gives depth to Jamie's tough-talking mother, and Dan Hopman is charming as her boyfriend of the moment, who's also pretty nice to the kids.

This is the first Theater Latte Da production not directed by Artistic Director Peter Rothstein; he handed the reigns over to Jeremy B. Cohen.  I also don't remember a show without Denise Prosek as musical director (Dennis Curley takes the baton here).  And if I hadn't known it, I would never have guessed it was anyone other than Peter and Denise pulling the strings (I think that's the biggest compliment I can give).  The set (by Michael Hoover) is really cool (and smells of new construction).  It consists of the outside of three side-by-site flats, elevated to allow room for the band below, with some scenes occurring on the floor in front.  The Lab Theater is such a great space.  Big and open, allowing for any number of diverse worlds to be created within it (I'll next be seeing The Moving Company's new work Werther and Lotte there).

This play was written almost 20 years ago, but is still timely with the recent rash of gay bullying, and the impending vote on the Minnesota Marriage Amendment.  Jamie and Ste's relationship is like any other young love - unsure, passionate, hesitant, sweet, and true.  Maybe I'm dense, but I just don't see how that could be a threat to anyone.  Theater Latte Da has allowed students and their parents to see this show for free, as a way to facilitate conversations and healing.  That is most definitely a beautiful thing.

Check out this video trailer for the show.  And then order your tickets here (playing now through March 18).

Beautiful Thing trailer from Theater Latte Da on Vimeo.

*I have been looking forward to Theater Latte Da's final show of the season, Spring Awakening, since their season was announced last summer.  I think it's one of the best new musicals of the last decade, and I'm really excited to see what Peter Rothstein and Co. do with it.  David Darrow (Ste) will make an excellent Melchior, opposite Cat Brindisi (who sang "Mama, Mama, Mama" so beautifully in Spelling Bee last year that I can easily imagine her singing "Mama Who Bore Me") as Wendla, with the very talented Tyler Michaels (aka Snoopy in You're a Good Man Charlie Brown) as my favorite character Moritz.  Definitely a show not to be missed.

Celebrity Sighting
I believe that was Reid Harmsen working in the lobby of the Lab Theater.  Reid has appeared at the Lab as Brad in The Rocky Horror Show, and as my favorite character Mark in RENT.  Update: it was indeed Reid; I saw him again a few weeks later and introduced myself.  He said he reads my blog all the time and was very sweet.  It was so nice to talk to him and I look forward to seeing him onstage sometime soon!