Monday, July 30, 2012

"A Night in Olympus" at Illusion Theater

It was a last minute decision to see A Night in Olympus, the final show of Illusion Theater's Fresh Ink series ("showcasing the developing work of new and established artists in Minnesota"). The deciding factor? The cast. Norah Long, Tyler Michaels, Jessica Fredrickson, Randy Schmeling, and Aleks Knezevich - I couldn't possibly miss that! And I was not disappointed. A Night in Olympus is a new original musical (my three favorite words) with an unoriginal story (unpopular and insecure high school girl dreams of being beautiful and winning the favor of the popular boy, only to realize that the guy she really wants is her best friend who's been there all along - see any Molly Ringwald movie from the '80s) told in an original way (gods and goddesses disguised as high school teachers work their magic to make the change come about). The music is great, the jokes are clever, and the cast is indeed fantastic. With a lesser cast the piece might not have worked as well, but each member of the cast reveled in their role(s) and really sold it. An impressive feat considering the limited time they had to prepare and the fact that the script was constantly changing throughout the four-show run. In fact they had scripts in their hands for most of the show, which was no distraction at all, and the show ran smoothly (at least from the audience perspective). The creators Chan Poling (music and lyrics) and Jeffrey Hatcher and Bill Corbett (book) will continue to work on the piece and hope to find another home for it. I'd love to see a full production of the show with the original cast intact!

Maggie (Jessica Fredrickson) and Harry (Tyler Michaels)
The setting of our story is a high school in Olympus, Indiana, a nowhere town that the kids can't wait to escape from. The lovely-voiced Jessica Fredrickson  plays Maggie, the Cinderella-like main character (after playing Cinderella herself at the Ordway last year) who gets her wish of becoming beautiful and popular, only to learn that it's not exactly what she hoped. Her best friend Harry (the incredibly talented Tyler Michaels) can never get up the nerve to tell Maggie that his feelings for her go beyond friendship. When she's transformed into the beautiful girl and no one recognizes her as Maggie, everyone flocks to her except for Harry, who's not impressed by her physical beauty but keeps looking for the real Maggie. He leaves a series of messages on her voice mail, and finally pours his heart out to her in the sweetest zombie-themed awkward love song I've ever heard. Tyler is definitely the one to watch on the local music/theater/dance scene. He's got charisma and stage presence to spare, a great voice, and a really unique physicality about his acting that informs whatever character he's playing and that is captivating to watch (and was on display here in a zombie walk).

The remaining six cast members play multiple roles of students, teachers, and gods, with minor costume changes (hoody = student, no hoody = teacher). Norah Long  has a lot of fun with her three distinct characters - the shallow popular girl, the stereotypical gym teacher (slash goddess Diana), and our heroine's sympathetic mother - and manages to bring depth and interest to all of them. Mark Rosenwinkel comes alive when his coach character is revealed to be the god Mars ("Thank God I'm a God Again"). Austene Van is truly divine as the beautiful teacher all the boys have a crush on, who is actually Venus, the goddess of love. Matt Rein is the outrageous bully as well as the nice guy teacher who wants to live a normal mortal life. Randy Schmeling is the poor picked on kid who finally gets revenge on his nemesis (ironically named Randy) as well as the nerdy A/V teacher who is actually (spoiler alert) Zeus! Finally, Aleks Knezevich truly hams it up as the stupid jock, the creepy janitor with changing accents, and especially as the evil Hades, god of the underworld. I've only seen Aleks in more serious singing roles so it was fun to see him let loose with something a little lighter. In addition to being great individually, the ensemble works and plays wonderfully together. There are some fun group numbers, including "The Most Beautiful Parking Lot." I know, it sounds strange, but it's so fun and infectious you can't help but smile.

I'm a little bummed that I only caught the tail end of Illusion Theater's Fresh Ink series. I'll pay more attention next year; I love seeing and supporting new original works of theater. I imagine in a program like this, the cast is there to showcase the work. But in this case, the cast was the star of the show. And the show was a great vehicle to showcase some incredible talent.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" by Theatre Coup D'Etat at the Lowry Lab

I had never seen Tony Kushner's masterpiece two-part play Angels in America live on stage before last week (in fact the only time I've seen Kushner plays is at "KushnerFest" at the Guthrie three years ago). But I fell in love with Angels in America through the 2003 HBO mini-series and have since been eager to see it on stage. So when I heard that local theater company Theatre Coup D'Etat (which I'd never heard of before) was performing the first part, Millenium Approaches, I jumped at the chance to see it. It was as I remember the TV adaptation to be - powerful, compelling, perplexing, and moving. After it ended, I found myself wondering when Theatre Coup D'Etat will present the second part, subtitled Perestroika, so that I can spend more time with these sympathetic and/or infuriating characters.

The play centers around two couples. Joe and Harper are a married Mormon couple that is str
uggling: Joe because he's gay but, like a good Mormon, has learned to "Turn it Off," and Hannah because of her addiction to pills in attempt to cope with that unspoken fact. As a result, she's clingy, terrified, and suffers from hallucinations. Joe has been offered a job in DC but doesn't want to take it because of how it will affect Harper. Joe's co-worker, Louis, is the first to confront Joe with the fact that he's gay. Louis himself is having a hard time because his partner, Prior, has AIDS and is in declining health (Louis is the infuriating character I referred to earlier). He turns his partner's illness into his problem; Prior is lying on the floor in pain, and Louis cries, why is this happening to me! He ends up leaving Prior, unable to handle his illness. It's easy to label Louis as a jerk because of this, but who really knows how they'd react to that situation unless they're in it? We'd all like to think we'd stand by someone we loved going through a terminal illness, but Louis is the embodiment of that tiny part of us that questions if we'd have what it takes. But Prior isn't left totally alone, he has his fiercely supportive friend, the drag queen/nurse Belize. And he has his hallucinations - of his ancestors who also died young, and an angel who comes to visit him in his sickbed. This is where the play ends, with much more to be explored.

Prior (James N. Stone) and Harper (Megan Dowd),
who only meet in a dream
The staging of the play is very simple, with black boxes serving as chairs, beds, bars, coffins. That and the intimate space at the Lowry Lab puts the focus on the actors and the emotions of the piece. At the heart of the piece is James N. Stone as the ailing Prior. He takes the character from healthy and making light of his illness, to writhing on the floor in pain, to dressing in drag as a comfort, and he carries the audience on the journey with him. Veteran actor Steven Flamm (he's been acting in the Twin Cities for over 40 years) is the gay lawyer who also has AIDS, but denies both facts to maintain his reputation as a high-powered attorney. Despite this, Steven manages to make him a likeable and compelling character. Michael Brown (that promising young actor from American Family at Park Square) shows more of his talents as Prior's friend Belize (think True Blood's Lafayette). Megan Down manages to make Harper crazy and sympathetic (in a much different role that her recent appearance in the farce Absolute Turkey at the Gremlin). Also good are Peter Beard as the closeted Joe who slowly comes unhinged, Brandon Caviness as Louis, and Katherine Preble as the wise rabbi who later transforms into a nurse and an angel.

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches continues through August 4 at the Lowry Lab in downtown St. Paul, and will then move across town to In the Heart of the Beast for a few weeks in late August. Definitely worth checking out to see this American classic. But it's not a short play - with three acts, two intermissions, and a total running time of 3+ hours, you'll want to go in fully rested and/or get some caffeine (advice that I unfortunately did not take). And with any luck, we'll have a chance to see Part 2 sometime in the not too distant future. (Goldstar half price tickets available for the Lowry and In the Heart of the Beast).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"Autumn Song" by George Maurer at St. Joan of Arc Church

As I've said before, I'm not really into poetry. I have a hard time getting anything out it when I try to read it. But when it's set to music, it's a whole different story. Accomplished local composer and pianist George Maurer has set several poems of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke to music, interspersed with a few poems by Tennessee Williams. This initially seemed like an odd couple to me, until I learned that Williams was a poet in addition to being a playwright (one of my favorites), and he was inspired in his writing by the writing of Rilke. George and director Jef Hall-Flavin have imagined a dream-like conversation between the two, consisting entirely of music and poetry. A cross between a concert and a theater piece, Autumn Song doesn't have much in the way of plot or story, but instead it brings the poetry of Rilke to life. It's a beautiful creation.

The evening begins with Jared Oxborough as Tennessee Williams entering like a character from one of his plays, like Brick or Stanley (and it was hot enough in the gym of St. Joan of Arc church to believe we were in Williams' Southern home). He begins reading a book of Rilke poetry, when the poet himself (played by Dieter Bierbrauer) appears as if in a dream. The two men interact and sing alternately or together, mostly Rilke poems and a few Williams poems as well. A few visions wander through, representing the objects of the two men's affection – Rilke's played by Dieter's real-life wife Anna, and Williams' played by Caleb Carlson, a promising young actor I've seen recently in Julius Caesar and Our Class. Despite the lack of dialogue or exposition, it's obvious that Williams takes inspiration from Rilke, so that by the time that Rilke leaves at the end of the piece, Williams is able to write again.

Tennessee Williams (Jared Oxborough) and
Rainer Maria Rilke (Dieter Bierbrauer) converse
There is much talent and collaboration present in Autumn Song. This is George's passion project, his Sistine Chapel (read a nice interview with George about the project here). He has done a beautiful job of setting these poems to music of varying styles in a way that makes them most clear and alive. George (on piano) and his band (cello, bass, drums, sax) sound fantastic, and he could not have chosen two better singers than Jared and Dieter, who both appeared on their day of from their current regular gig (Jared is in the lush old-fashioned musical Roman Holiday at the Guthrie, while Dieter is starring in the super-fun spoof Xanadu at the Chan  my two must-see musicals of the summer!). Individually, each of their voices are gorgeous, and matched by their acting skills. Blend these two voices together and you have some incredible harmonies (there's not much I like better in music than a good harmony). And their combined acting skill makes you feel the emotions of the characters, which is more important than the literal interpretation of what's happening. They don't just sing the songs, they portray the emotions behind the words and music. George's bass player Jeff Engholm takes the lead for the final song, "Autumn Days," (in what I like to call a "Purple Summer" moment), as Dieter and Jared add their harmonies. It's the first Rilke poem George set to music, and it's a glorious celebration:

Lord, it's time. The summer has gone by.
Darken the sundials with your shadows,
On the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruit to swell on tree and vine;
Grant them a few more transparent days,
Urge them on to fulfillment, and press
The final sweetness to the heavy wine.

As I've also said before, I'm a geek for the German language (see Werther und Lotte and Ich bin meine eigene Frau), having studied German at St. Ben's/St. John's like George did, where he was introduced to Rilke in his German classes. While Rilke's poems are translated into English for this piece, there's still that inherent German-ness in it that makes me want to attempt to read a few poems in the original language. I'm only marginally familiar with Rilke, and with Williams only as a playwright not a poet. So I appreciate getting to know both of these artists and their work a little better.

George and company will next take Autumn Song to the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Massachusetts. They have a Kickstarter campaign to help to fund this effort (click here to view video and back the project). I wish them much luck in this endeavor and am grateful to have gotten a sneak peek.

I'll leave you with a few poems my Rainer Maria Rilke, as sung in Autumn Song (you can read the entire libretto here).

I Love the Dark Hours
I love the dark hours of my being
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
The days of my life, already lived,
And held like a legend and understood.
I Live my Life in Widening Circles
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across both earth and sky
I may not ever complete the last one,
but I give myself to
circling 'round God, that primordial tower
I've been circling ten thousand years long;
yet still I don't know:
am I a falcon,
am I a storm, or an unfinished song?

To the Beloved
Extinguish my eyes,
I'll go on hearing you.
And without a mouth, I can swear your name.
And without feet, I can make my way back to you.
Break off my arms,
I will take hold of you
with my heart as with a hand.
Stop my heart
and my brain will start to beat.
And if you consume my brain with fire,
I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.

Sonnet 29
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If your drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
Be in this night of a thousand excesses,
The magic at the crossroads of your senses.
In this night of a thousand excesses
Be what their strange encounter means
And when the world no longer knows your name?
Say to the earth: I'm flowing
Speak to the rushing water, and say:
I am.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Cabaret" at the Lyric Arts Main Street Stage

One of my favorite shows last year was Frank Theatre's Cabaret, starring Bradley Greenwald and Melissa Hart (from the original Broadway production of the show). So when I attended a production at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage* in Anoka, I tried to put that out of mind, knowing that it was unfair to compare the two. But I was really impressed by the production. All of the leads are great in their roles, the Kit Kat girls are fantastic, the set is interesting and effective, and Cabaret is in my opinion one of the best musicals ever written. I love that it's wildly entertaining and fun and sexy, but also has an undercurrent of desperation just below the frivolity on the surface. Lyric Arts does a great job with both parts in their production running now through August 5.

Cabaret takes place in pre-WWII Berlin, just before the rise of the Nazis. It's the end of the relatively calm period in Germany between the World Wars, just before everything falls apart. And that's the desperation you can feel throughout the piece, that sense that something awful is coming, which the characters in Cabaret choose to deal with by living life as fully and as presently as they can, epitomized by Sally Bowles. She's the star of the Kit Kat Klub, living from day-to-day, man-to-man, painting her fingernails green because "I think it's pretty." She meets Cliff, an American writer, and they live happily together for a short time before the darkness that's brewing in Berlin starts to become apparent. He wants them to return to America, but Sally isn't a housewife in the suburbs kind of girl. She chooses to remain in her beloved Berlin, for better or worse.

Highlights of this production include:

  • A fearless and animated performance by Max Malanaphy as the Emcee.
  • Eric Brandhorst as the earnest Cliff, who sounds beautiful (and sings a lovely song I've never heard before "Don't Go").
  • Katie Hahn as Sally Bowles is fierce and funny, and her final number "Cabaret" is the sad, desperate, determined cry of life that it should be.
  • Debbie Swanson and Kristo Sween are just charming as the late in life couple who bond over "a pineapple."
  • The set (by Brian Proball) features two levels (with the band upstairs), a fireman's pole put to good use by the actors, and cabaret tables both upstairs and down.
  • The choreography (by Jon Michael Stiff) is inventive and interesting and fun, ably performed by the Kit Kat girls.
  • The costumes (by Lisa Mangone) are really cool and make everyone look fabulous.

As a resident of the Northeast suburbs, I've been wanting to check out this Anoka theater for a while now. It's a nice little theater (and they sell popcorn in the lobby!), and this was a great first show for me. A few of the shows on their 2012-2013 season appeal to me so I'm sure I'll be making the trip again. Cabaret is definitely worth it, especially if you live on the Northern side of the Cities. I love the idea of a true community theater in the suburbs, so you don't always have to drive into the city to see great theater, and Lyric Arts definitely fits the bill.

the Emcee surrounded by the Kit Kat girls

*I received one complementary ticket to see Cabaret.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

My 2012 Fringe Must-See List

2011 was my first year attending the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and I'm hooked. I was a little unprepared about how to pick shows and how everything works, but I found out that it's really well-run and organized. They make it quite easy to see a lot of great theater in a short time. I also learned that there's no secret to picking shows, just choose a few that look interesting and go for it, and try not to worry to much about the many that you'll miss. Here are a few shows I know I have to see in this year's Festival, beginning August 2 and running through August 12. (For a full list of performances see the Fringe website, where you can search by cast, company, or performance type.)

Answered Prayers 

A sequel to last year's Twisted Apples, one of my favorites of the festival, this piece by Nautilus Music-Theater is a musical adaptation of Sherwood Anderson's 1919 short-story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (which I've just begun reading).

Fruit Fly: The Musical

Sheena Janson (aka Audrey II, a spelling bee contestantetc.), Max Wojtanowicz (aka Cliff, the Tin Manetc.), and this: "Can a gay guy and a straight girl - a fruit fly - 'quit each other' to find true love? Find out in this brand-new musical filled with laughter, Sondheim references, and enough boxed wine to kill us all!" Need I say more?

The Hungry Games: Mocking the Mockingjay

I haven't seen or read The Hunger Games (yet), but I adore Tom Reed's solo-comedy-musical-spoof show (see last year's Disney Dethroned: Snowcahontas and the Tangled FrogBeast).

Joe Dowling's William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet on the Moon, Featuring Kate Mulgrew as Juliet 

Come on, how can you resist that title? Plus, I really loved The Peanut Butter Factory's production of Gruesome Playground Injuries earlier this year, so I'm excited to see what else they can do.


I want to see this musical adaption of the story of Rip Van Winkle for one reason: to find out what else talented young actor David Darrow (see Theater Latte Da's Beautiful Thing and Spring Awakening) has up his sleeve.

What else should I see? Please tell me, either in comments below or email, I hate the thought of missing something good! Now I just need to figure out the most efficient way to see all of the above, and any additional that catch my eye between now and August 2. I'll try to see several in the same location (the Cedar-Riverside area is great for that with seven theaters within easy walking distance), and fill in the holes in the schedule with whatever looks interesting in the area. Or maybe just plant myself at one location and see several shows in a row. 

If you've never attended the Fringe Festival before, here are a few tips. And if you have attended and you have some tips of your own - please share!
  • Buy a button and make sure you have it with you, it's required for entry to all shows.
  • If you're going to multiple shows, buy a punch pass, available in quantities of 5 or 10, or unlimited if you plan on seeing more than 20 shows (I wish!). It saves you $2 per show. Once you buy a pass, you can reserve a seat at any show for $1, or just show up and present your pass (see below).
  • If a show is particularly popular, or you really really want to see it, consider buying (or reserving a seat) in advance. You can also take your chances and just show up.
  • All shows are general admission, so get there early for best choice of seating.
  • Shows typically run just under an hour, with a half hour between shows.
  • Bring snacks, water, reading material, and sunscreen (you will be waiting in line, probably outside).
  • Keep an open mind - some of what you'll see is really weird. But that can be a good thing!

Happy Fringe-ing!

"Confessions of a Prairie Bitch" by Alison Arngrim (aka Nellie Oleson) at Camp Bar

As a little girl growing up in Minnesota, I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved the Little House on the Prairie books and especially the TV show; it was my favorite show as a kid and I've seen every episode multiple times. Laura was my hero - I wanted her life, I wished my parents were more like Ma and Pa, and I thought Almanzo was dreamy. And of course, I hated Laura's nemesis, that mean old Nellie Oleson. But it was very much a "love to hate" feeling. What would Little House be without Nellie? Boring. Alison Arngrim, Nellie's portrayer, has made a career out of being the mean girl (aka "prairie bitch"), and what choice did she have? She will forever be known as Nellie, so why not embrace it and have fun with it? It's quite obvious from her show at the Camp Bar in St. Paul this week that she does, and so does the audience.

Alison has long been a stand-up comedian, and decided a few years ago to include her Little House experiences in her act, to much success. She published the book version of Confessions of a Prairie Bitch in 2010 (which I haven't read yet but will soon), and has been touring with her stand-up act for a few years. She told many great stories about her years working on the show and dealing with the fame that came with it, as well as her crazy life growing up in Hollywood. As the daughter of Liberace's manager and the voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost, she grew up among lots of famous and interesting people. Alison also answered questions from the audience, and did a hilarious bit listing the 10 most commonly asked questions (Was the hair real? Are you and Melissa Gilbert friends? What was Michael Landon really like? Is Albert gay?) and later answered them in rapid-fire succession (It was a wig, Yes, Awesome, How should I know what Albert's into?). Along with the stories were video clips, including a hilarious montage of baby Carrie's incoherent rambling, and Alison's favorite scene - rolling down the hill in the wheelchair.

A few interesting tidbits:

  • Michael Landon was always in control of the Little House set (he was a producer, director, and star of the show).  He worked everybody hard and demanded professionalism from everyone, even the child actors, and they all loved him for it. Alison noted that anytime Charles was injured, it was always his ribs that were broken so he would have to take his shirt off. Michael knew who was watching the show and what they wanted to see. It sounds like he was an interesting mix between a man who liked fast cars and drinking and was married three times, and a talented and driven man who created one of the best loved family shows in the history of TV. Alison said he was always very good to the fans, and often reminded her that she was working for them. Not him, not the network, the fans. I think that's a key to his success and I wish more TV executives today had that attitude! It was obvious that Alison has a great deal of admiration for him. As do I. I had the opportunity to meet his youngest daughter, three-time Emmy-winner Jen Landon, a few years ago, and I'm afraid I gushed a bit about how much I love her father. I felt like I was in the presence of TV royalty. (You can currently see Jen on the best soap on TV - The Young and the Restless.)
  • Someone asked Alison about Little House the Musical (which premiered at the Guthrie in 2008 before embarking on a nationwide tour, and which I loved so much I saw it three times), and she said she would have loved to have played Mrs. Oleson opposite Melissa Gilbert's Mrs. Ingalls, except that there was no Mrs. Oleson in the play. She also noted that the Laura/Nellie song was just like Elphaba/Glinda in Wicked, which I also observed at the time. It's the one that that bugged me about the musical, that Nellie was a copy of Glinda. But come to think of it, maybe Glinda was a copy of Nellie. Isn't Nellie Oleson the prototype for every "bitch" role in TV/movies/theater?
  • Alison and Melissa Gilbert (Laura) are good friends to this day, and didn't get along with Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary) at the time. She complained about her character going blind, and Alison thought - have you read the books? Alison visited Melissa at Dancing with the Stars to support her, and when asked if she'd consider doing the show, responded that at the age of 50, she wasn't so sure she wanted to stand on her head and let everyone see her panties. Alison said most of the cast is still in contact and supports one another in their various endeavors.
  • Alison recently appeared at "Laurapalooza" in Mankato, which was fun and a little scary. Some people she met romanticize the time period depicted in the show and books, and asked her "wouldn't you love to live in the 1800s?" Alison's response is a hearty NO - they didn't have antibiotics in the 1800s, or appletinis or botox! But she was very excited about the "What would Nellie do?" shirts and other memorabilia available at Laurapalooza.
I'm so glad I went to see Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. To see an actor from a show that I've loved virtually all my life is a rare treat. That she's so funny and real about it is even better. And it was even a bit inspirational. Alison shared that by being labeled a "bitch" at an early age, she was freed from the expectations of being "likable," and she could just be herself. It's not always a bad thing to be a bitch, it's often a label that society gives to strong and independent women. As they say in the movie Doloris Claibourne, sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman has to hold on to. Alison Arngrim is doing a great job of holding on to being a bitch, and entertaining and inspiring audiences along the way.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"The Sunshine Boys" at the Guthrie Theater

I've been looking forward to seeing The Sunshine Boys at the Guthrie since I heard it would star Peter Michael Goetz and Raye Birk, two of my (and I think everyone's) favorite Guthrie actors. Both of them have been in countless Guthrie productions since the 1960s, as well as many movies and TV shows. These two experienced actors are excellent at both comedy and drama (Peter recently starred in Long Day's Journey Into Night in DC and will reprise his role at the Guthrie early next year, Raye will tackle King Lear at Park Square Theatre this fall). This play gives them a chance to show off their comedy chops, and they do. Written by Neil Simon, The Sunshine Boys is about a pair of old Vaudeville performers who have had a falling out, but come back together in 1972 to perform on a TV show about the history of comedy. As you can imagine, it does not go smoothly, much to the delight of everyone watching.

Peter Michael Goetz as Willie Clark
and Robert Berdahl as his nephew Ben
Peter Michael Goetz is Willie Clark, who lives in a once glamorous but now run-down hotel in New York City. He's still working as an actor, doing the occasional commercial, but jobs are becoming fewer and farther between. He refuses to retire, and chides his agent nephew Ben (played by the wonderful Robert Berdahl, who serves as the straight man grounding these two crazies, dressed in a series of fabulous 70s era suits) about finding him a gig. It turns out Ben has found a gig for Willie, but it involves reuniting with his old partner Al Lewis (Lewis and Clark, get it?). Lewis unexpectedly retired 11 years ago, and the pair hasn't seen or talked to each other since. Willie reluctantly agrees to a rehearsal with Al to see how things go, chaperoned initially by Ben. It falls apart, but somehow they advance to an in-studio dress rehearsal. Act Two begins with the busy TV studio and we get to see the infamous "doctor sketch," in which Dudley Riggs (himself a real-life veteran of the Vaudeville stage and founder of the Brave New Workshop improv comedy troupe) appears. Until that, too, falls apart. The play ends with these two lifelong friends reminiscing about old times and facing the rest of their lives together. It's a true love-hate relationship, beautifully portrayed by Peter and Raye. The banter, the awkward silences, the way they play off of each other, the distinct way they walk around the stage, the broad New York accents, Willie's schlubby style in contrast to Al's fastidiousness, all of it is so precise and so much fun to watch.

Peter Michael Goetz's Willie Clark and Raye Birk's Al Lewis
As you can see from the sticker on the playbill above, I happened to attend on a night when they were holding a post-show discussion, an opportunity I never pass up (and you shouldn't either, if you're at all interested in listening to artists talk about their work). It was really fascinating to hear about all the work that goes into this seemingly effortless performance, and it made me want to watch it again. Peter said that rehearsing a comedy is torture, because there's no audience there to laugh so they don't know if they're funny or not. It's not until the previews that they figure out what works and what doesn't, and they have to adjust a little to allow for laughter. The opening was just last Friday, so he said they're still settling into it. Jennifer Maren (who plays the requisite blond bombshell in the sketch) talked about how a comedy like this is similar to a musical in that it has a certain rhythm and cadence. It's intricately choreographed, such as the scene in which Lewis and Clark spend several minutes moving furniture around to set up for their rehearsal and don't say a word. 

I'm pretty sure I could listen to Peter Michael Goetz tell stories about his life in the theater for hours and hours. His experience in the early days of the Guthrie, on Broadway, and in Hollywood I'm sure provide many amusing anecdotes, like the time he walked onstage during a performance of a classical Shakespeare play dressed as Lennie in Of Mice and Men, back in the days when the Guthrie was a repertory theater (which he says he misses). This is why I love the Guthrie, for bringing actors of this caliber to my town and keeping them here, even after they venture to the East and West coasts.

The Guthrie may no longer be a repertory theater, but you can still see three excellent and very different shows at the Guthrie right now, each wonderful in its own way. Starting at the top, the lovely dance piece Swimming with My Mother is playing in the Guthrie Studio through this weekend. If you're looking for a good old-fashioned musical, go see Roman Holiday. And for a hilarious and intricate comedy, there's The Sunshine Boys. Or go see all three - sounds like a perfect weekend to me!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Swimming with My Mother" by CoisCéim Dance Theatre at the Guthrie Studio Theater

I need to start going to more dance productions. My schedule is pretty busy with plays and musicals, and I don't know as much about the world of dance, but whenever I do go to a dance performance I always enjoy it. Such as the show currently playing at the Guthrie Theater's 9th floor Dowling Studio -  Swimming with My Mother. Dancer and choreographer David Bolger (who so brilliantly choreographed last summer's blockbuster musical H.M.S. Pinafore at the Guthrie that he won an Ivey Award for it) choreographed this piece and performs it with his 78-year-old mother Madge. It's completely lovely and enchanting, a beautiful, sweet, and touching exploration of the parent-child relationship.

David, co-founder of the dance company CoisCéim Dance Theatre (from the Irish word for footstep), originally created this piece for the Dublin Dance Festival in 2010. He was asked to create a solo piece for himself, but instead he chose to bring his "Ma" along. Featuring voiceovers of Madge telling stories about her life - her father teaching her to swim in the Irish sea, and then teaching her children to swim on that same beach - Madge and David express their relationship and their love of swimming and dance (respectively) through movement. At times they appear to be swimming, or underwater; later David convinces his reluctant mother to dance with him to Nat King Cole's "It's Only a Paper Moon:"

It's only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me.

There is something magical about swimming, particularly in a natural body of water. I recently spent a week at a small, private lake near Brainerd and spent hours in the water every day. There's something very comforting about swimming in a lake, like you're a part of nature. And swimming is a little like dancing; it's impossible not to be graceful in the water - it slows down your movements and smooths them out. Swimming with My Mother beautifully illustrates this. As someone said on the elevator after the show, "It makes you want to go swimming, doesn't it?" Madge is a lifelong swimmer and swimming teacher, and still swims five days a week. That love of swimming is apparent in the piece, intermingled with her love for her children, and theirs for her.

Madge and David Bolger "swimming"

If you're a fan of dance, or swimming, or even if you're not, Swimming with My Mother is worth checking out. The hour-long performance concludes with a screening of David and Madge's 6-minute film Deep End Dance, in which they dance underwater in the very pool where Madge taught David to swim. It's a lovely and beautiful thing to witness.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"Basic North" by Live Action Set at the Southern Theater

The bare, cavernous, gorgeous stage at the Southern Theater. That's about as exciting as it gets in the world of theater - you never know what magic is going to happen in that big open space in front of you. Currently, it's Live Action Set's new creation Basic North: a performance in three directions. But I didn't see three directions, I saw one cohesive piece, where one "chapter" flows into another and back again. I don't want to say too much about the show, firstly because it's difficult to describe, but mostly because it's the surprise factor that makes it so delightful. I really had no idea what to expect, and I was entertained, moved, amused, and yes, delighted by what I saw.

The three chapters consist of:

  • Without Wax: a six-person ensemble (Crane Adams, Artistic Director Noah Bremer, Joanna Harmon, Skyler Nowinski, Tyler Olsen, and Katelyn Skelley) dressed in party clothes and sharing seemingly mundane details about their daily life. Using a technique developed by director Dario Tangelson based on the "neutral mask," each actor looks directly at the audience and speaks with no expression, while the rest of the ensemble shuffles around to stare at them blankly. It's strange and fascinating.
  • Start Select: a dance piece featuring Emily King, Dustin Maxwell, and Stephanie Shirik. I'm not a dance expert so I'm not sure how to describe this, other than it's inventive, expressive, and seamlessly woven into the other parts of the piece (and the bright costumes and wigs are adorable!).
  • Quiet Heart: a solo piece by Noah Bremer, using clown techniques. He opens the show with just a spotlight and a microphone (that he never actually speaks into), which sets the stage for the rest of the show to come. He's so expressive without saying a word, conveying emotions with just the expression on his face or the movement of his body.

I'll end this with a quote from one of the performers, Joanna Harmon, who's also the Executive Director of Live Action Set: "It takes guts to say, 'Surprise me! Show me what ya got! Throw me a curve ball,' and with joy, choose to experience a show in which you have never before been immersed." If that sounds at all intriguing to you, then you should definitely catch one of the remaining five performances. And if you missed last year's brilliant and Ivey Award-winning 7-Shot Symphony, you might also want to check out the one-night-only performance of the show, along with a CD-release party (from the bluegrass band Tree Party) on Monday July 2, also at the Southern.

no, these are not the costumes seen in the show,
but I'm sure they symbolize something...