Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The 2012 Ivey Awards at the State Theatre

The Ivey Awards is always my favorite theater night of the year, and this year's awards ceremony was my favorite of the six I've attended. Why? I saw seven of the ten awarded productions, the host was perhaps the best I've seen, I completely agree with the choices for this year's Emerging Artist and Lifetime Achievement awards, the featured performances included some of my favorite shows of the year, and I had a fabulous time at the after party with my blogger buddy The Playbill Collector talking to many of my favorite theater artists. That all adds up to perhaps the best local theater night I have ever experienced! Once again, I'm blown away by the level and diversity of talent in the Twin Cities theater community, and I'm truly honored to be a part of it in my own small way.

The hilarious Shanan Custer was a perfect choice to host this year's awards (as we have learned from TV awards shows, it's always better to ask a comedian). I didn't know who she was when she did a skit at last year's Iveys, but I have since seen her in several things, including one of my favorite shows at the Fringe this year. She was funny and charming and natural, a great guide to the evening's activities. Many of her funny words were written by Joseph Scrimshaw and Zach Curtis, but she ad libbed a bit too. After a particularly moving acceptance speech, she came on stage and said, "I'm crying already, I just want to make art!"

The show opened with a slideshow of the over 70 local theater companies, and then sadly, a rather lengthy "In Memoriam" segment (including the co-host of my favorite radio show, Tom Keith aka Jim Ed Poole). And then, the opening number. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was Places!" (Reminding me of one of my favorite sounds in the world - "The call is places!" announcement at the Guthrie.) Beth Gilleland and Dane Stauffer gave a history of sound and light in the theater, with actors Brian Sostek, Katie Bradley, Madde Gibba, Taj Ruler, and Neal Skoy interpreting their words to amusing effect. As they've have done in the past few years, the Ivey people managed to turn what could be the most boring segment (thanking the sponsors) into one of the most entertaining. Shanan introduced a scene from that great American play, Angry People in a Living Room, starring the comedy team of Scrimshaw and Middleton as very dramatic brothers who just happen to name sponsors in their argument about whom their father loves most.

Ten Ivey Awards were given out this year. Many of last year's winners returned to present awards to this year's winners (for the shows that I saw, click on show name to read my thoughts at the time).
  1. Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Walking Shadow Theatre Company (Overall Excellence)
    I didn't really know what to expect from this play when I saw it, but I ended up loving it. A play about theater, gender roles, and figuring out your place in a changing world, with a great cast, costumes, and music - much deserving!
  2. Spring Awakening by Theater Latte Da (Overall Excellence)
    This was the least surprising award of the night. As the mythical and mysterious Ivey said, "this is the reason the Iveys were created." Such a gripping, energetic, and powerful production with amazing choreography and a fantastic young cast, it was a sure thing.

    Group hug!
    Peter Rothstein and the cast of Spring Awakening

  3. Miriam Monasch, director of Our Class by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
    This was a really powerful play about a group of friends, Catholic and Jewish, growing up in Poland at the time of the Soviet and Nazi invasions. I don't usually notice the direction (which I think probably means it's good), but when I think about the ten-person cast and everything that's going on in this play, and how smoothly and effectively it ran, it makes perfect sense that the director would be awarded for it.
  4. Barry Browning, lighting designer for Dial M for Murder by the Jungle Theater
    This was a deliciously tense murder mystery. Like direction, I tend not to notice lighting (again, that means it's effective), but thinking back, there were some creepy lighting situatious that added to the overall tone of the piece.
  5. Tracie Bennett, Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow by the Guthrie Theater
    Tracie so completely inhabited the legend that is Judy Garland, as well as the very human woman behind the legend, that I was sure that she was going to win a Tony (the show went on to a six-month run on Broadway after closing at the Guthrie). She did not. Instead, the British actress returned to Minnesota to pick up an Ivey. Who needs a Tony when the land of Judy's birth loves you!
  6. Ballad of the Pale Fisherman by Illusion Theater (Emotional Impact)
    I am so bummed I missed this one, but in my defense I didn't really know who Transatlantic Love Affair were at the time. After seeing their amazing Fringe show Ash Land, I now know that they're a truly inventive and lovely and heart-breaking physical theater company, and I will not miss another one of their shows.
  7. Hugh Kennedy, Don in Buzzer by Pillsbury House Theatre
    I would have given Hugh an Ivey for playing Hamlet at the Jungle last year, so I'm happy he got one for this intense little play. He played a privileged but underachieving recovering drug addict whose best friend is an underprivileged but now successful lawyer. He ranges from sympathetic to maddening throughout the play. And the great thing about this one is that if you missed it, you can see it at the Guthrie Studio Theater early next year (hopefully with the same cast).
  8. Julius Caesar by Theater Unbound (Inventive Reinterpretation)
    The idea of an all female production of Julius Caesar sounds completely amazing, how did I not hear about this? I just liked Theater Unbound's Facebook page so hopefully I won't miss any other good stuff.
  9. Joe Vass, Music Director of The Soul of Gerswhin by Park Square Theatre
    Another one I missed, sadly. If it comes back around I won't make that mistake again.
  10. Jody Briskey, Judy Garland in Beyond the Rainbow by the History Theatre
    I'm so thrilled that Jody's portrayal of Judy was not overshadowed by that other fabulous Judy this year. She plays a different Judy, younger and more in control of her life, so it's really not fair to compare the two performances. But she is definitely equally as deserving of this award.
This year's Emerging Artist is Isabel Nelson, co-Founder and co-Artistic Director of Transatlantic Love Affair. She directed the Ivey-winning production Ballad of the Pale Fisherman. As I said above, I was so moved by TLA's Ash Land at the Fringe this year that I plan to see everything this woman creates with this completely unique company, including a remount of their 2011 Fringe show Red Resurrected at the Illusion early next year.

The final Ivey awarded was the Lifetime Achievement Award, which went to Rick Shiomi, the founder and (soon-to-be-retiring) Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts, one of the most influential Asian-American theater companies in the country. The interview/film package they showed was fascinating, as it told how Rick created this theater company and built the talent pool around it. I have enjoyed many productions by Mu over the last several years, including the incredible taiko drumming ensemble Mu Daiko, and I can't think of a more deserving recipient of this award this year.

Interspersed with the award presentations were six varied performances from shows this year. Musical numbers were accompanied by the fabulous Ivey band, led by Denise Prosek. The performances included:
  • A short scene from the Ivey-winning production Ballad of the Pale Fisherman that left me wanting more.
  • "The Bitch of Living" from Theater Latte Da's Ivey-winning production of Spring Awakening. Perhaps my favorite scene of anything I've seen on stage this year, I could watch it every day for the rest of my life and never tire of it. The choreography is amazing, the cast is energetic (as Shanan said, "I like those boys!"), it's fan-freaking-tastic.
  •  A truly bizarre and wonderful little scene from Psst! by Off Leash Area, a strange little workplace romance in which the actors wear not just masks, but full animal heads.
  • Regina Marie Williams and Austene Van in a number from Penumbra's Dinah Was. Another one I'm sorry I missed. When the magnificent Penumbra Theatre gets up and running again, I will not miss another one of their shows (please consider donating to help them get back on their feet!).
  • An appropriate closing number to the evening was a medley of songs from the Chanhassen's super-fun summer musical, Xanadu (closing this weekend!). I was a little concerned that Sonny Malone (aka Dieter Bierbrauer) would not make it home from the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, where he was performing in George Maurer's Autumn Song, in time for the show. But gladly, he was there, along with Jodi Carmeli's they-call-me-Kira-because-that's-my-name and the rest of the fabulous cast. A great end to a wonderful show - this night was my Xanadu!
So ended an awesome celebration of Twin Cities theater. It truly was a wonderful evening that highlighted many theater artists and companies for the great work they did this year. If you're a local theater-goer and you've never attended the awards, you should go next year. It'll inspire you to go to even more local theater!

Celebrity Sighting
Too many to recount here!! On the red carpet, inside the theater, at the after party, it felt like every other person I saw was someone I've seen in a show. My blogger buddy The Playbill Collector and I made the rounds at the after party and talked to many of our favorites. Everyone was so gracious and sweet, and many said lovely things about my blog, which I very much appreciate. It was truly a pleasure to meet and chat with each and every one of you, and I look forward to seeing you again soon!

with Ivey winner Tracie Bennett

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Deer Camp: The Musical" at New Century Theatre

Deer Camp: The Musical is exactly what you think it is. Full of bad jokes and lame puns that frequently make you groan before you laugh, it's almost "so bad it's good." But the good news is it doesn't take itself seriously or try to be anything more than it is, with lots of winks and nods to the audience. It's meant to appeal to a certain segment of the theater-going (or non-theater-going) audience, to which I don't think I belong (I'm an animal lover, a vegetarian, and I've never touched a gun in my life). Still, as a child of 80's TV sitcoms, I couldn't resist the opportunity to see the Brothers Darryl from Newhart. While the lone speaking brother Larry (William Sanderson) has gone on to create memorable characters in HBO shows Deadwood and True Blood, first brother Darryl, Minnesota native Tony Papenfuss, has returned to his Minnesota theater roots (including The Birthday Party at the Jungle this spring). Other brother Darryl, John Voldstad, joins him for this show about four deer hunting buddies whose wives have threatened that this will be their last year unless they bring home a deer. This sets them off on a desperate quest to somehow get a deer, despite the fact that none of them has brought a functioning gun. Most deer hunters I know are able to actually hunt successfully in addition to sitting around the cabin drinking beer and telling stories, but not these guys.

A few other things to note about Deer Camp: The Musical, playing now through the end of September at Hennepin Theatre Trust's newest addition, the New Century Theatre.
  • The set is so realistic I wouldn't want to set foot in that cabin.
  • The music is kind of catchy and clever, with more success on the country-tinged numbers which feature occasional nice harmonies.
  • Transitions in and out of the musical numbers are less than seamless, and sadly they use canned music instead of live musicians to accompany the singers.
  • Local actors Anthony Zadra and Ross Young join the Darryls in the cast. All four actors throw themselves completely into the material, which makes it more entertaining. They are all very enjoyable to watch.
  • I do love Minnesota humor, and there is lots of it in this show.
If you are a deer hunter, or know someone who is, you will probably relate to and enjoy this show, like the guy behind me who guffawed at every one-liner. If you're not a deer hunter (or a fan of 80s sitcoms), I can give you a few other recommendations of shows to see around town this weekend.

John Voldstad and Tony Pappenfuss are the brothers Darryl,
with William Sanderson as Larry on Newhart

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Broadway Songbook: Rodgers & Hammerstein & Hart" at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

I love the Broadway Songbook series at the Ordway. It's like a college seminar on musical theater history (perhaps like something Rachel would attend at NYADA). The Ordway's Artistic Director James Rocco plays the role of professor, lecturing on the topic and introducing songs (and even singing a little himself). The topic of the first of this season's three sessions is a big one - the popular and prolific musical theater composing teams of Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Rodgers and Hart wrote 28 musicals together, and such memorable songs as "My Funny Valentine," "Blue Moon," and "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered." After Lorenz Hart's struggle with alcoholism and depression tragically got the better of him, Richard Rodgers found a new partner in Oscar Hammerstein. Rodgers (music) and Hammerstein (book and lyrics) went on to write some of the most influential and popular shows in musical theater history, including:

  • Oklahoma - who doesn't love this show? I've seen it several times, including once at the Ordway with my favorite Duke, John Schneider, as Curly.
  • The King and I - I've never seen it on stage, and only bits and pieces of the movie.
  • Carousel - another one I've never seen and would love to - calling all local musical theater companies!
  • South Pacific - I saw the 2008 Broadway revival starring Kelli O'Hara, Paulo Szot, Matthew Morrison, and Danny Burstein, and it was one of the most amazing musical theater experiences of my life, an all-around luscious production with a 30-piece orchestra and a huge and energetic cast singing this amazing and diverse collection of songs.
  • The Sound of Music - this one is so familiar to me I almost forget it's Rodgers and Hammerstein. I've loved it since I was a kid, and that love only increased when I was in the pit orchestra for my high school production, and later lived in Salzburg for a semester while studying abroad.
Now that the self-indulgent personal reflections are over (I'm sure everyone has their own personal experiences with these musicals, which is what makes them great), on with the show. In addition to James, five talented local musical theater actors lend their voices to this amazing collection of songs, accompanied by the hardest working musical director in town, Denise Prosek. Joel Liestman has performed in every Broadway Songbook I've seen, and is joined this time by Joshua James Campbell (The Glass Menagerie), Jennifer Eckes (On the Town), Connie Kunkle (who appeared at the Ordway in last year's Japan benefit), and Kirby Trymucha-Duresky (several shows at BCT). The five singers take turns singing alone or together, highlighting many of the composers' biggest hits, as well as lesser known numbers. My favorites include:
  • Rodgers and Hart's first big hit, a love song to New York City, "Manhattan," performed by Joel and Jennifer.
  • Two songs from my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein score, South Pacific, Josh's lovely rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening" and Joel's emotional "This Nearly Was Mine."
  • Two gorgeous Rodgers and Hart songs that have become classics, sung beautifully by Connie ("My Funny Valentine") and Josh ("Blue Moon").
  • A couple of entertaining and funny songs by Kirby - "Johnny One Note" from Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms and "I Cain't Say No" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma.
  • Jennifer's sad and lovely rendition of "He was Too Good to Me."
  • A trio by the three women, "Sing for Your Supper" from Rodgers and Hart's The Boys from Syracuse. I was fascinated to learn that "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" from Company (playing at the Ordway next month) is an homage to this song.
  • One of the greatest musical theater songs ever written, "Soliloquy" from Carousel. It's such an ambitious (and long!) song with a wide range of emotions and tempos, and Josh sings it beautifully.
  • A fabulous montage of favorites from Rodgers and Hammerstein's immense catalog of fabulous songs, including "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" (the first song they wrote), "Edelweiss" (the last song they wrote), "There is Nothin' Like a Dame," "Younger than Springtime," "Lonely Goatherd" (inserted for comedic effect), "Bali Ha'i," "Oklahoma," "Surry with the Fringe on Top," and "Sound of Music" (which gets me every time). Kudos to James and Denise and whoever else had a hand in arranging this medley; it very cleverly weaves together many diverse songs.
My only complaint about this show is that it's too short! It's truly astonishing to contemplate the hundreds of amazing songs that came from the collaboration between these three men. The show could go on for days! But since that's not very practical, this is a nice representative sample of their work. Broadway Songbook: Rodgers & Hammerstein & Hart plays at the Ordway's McKnight Theatre through the end of the month. Check it out if you're interested in a fun and entertaining lesson on three musical theater legends. If you don't already have tickets, call the box office. It's virtually sold out, but they might be able to squeeze you in somewhere. Get your tickets early for the January session, which features the music of Steven Sondheim.

"Red" at Park Square Theatre

Red is my kind of play. More about character and ideas than plot or action, it's a feast for the ears and the mind. And the eye, with replicas of the main character's (Russian-American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko) murals on display on the stage. It's the kind of play that makes me want to run home and research the subject to learn more about it, and hopefully one day visit a museum where Rothko's work is displayed. I must admit, I've never heard of him before; I don't know much about art. Which is another thing this play makes me wish - that I had taken more than just that one art class in college. This play is about art, expression, and creation, but it's also about the more global themes of loss, death, and relationships. It's just a fantastic play (written by John Logan, who's written screenplays for several movies including Gladiator and Hugo). The Tony voters agree with me; Red won six Tonys in 2010, including best play. But I have a hard time imagining that it was any better than the production currently playing at Park Square Theatre. It's a definite must-see.

Red takes place in the late 1950s, when Rothko was painting a series of murals on commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York's brand new Seagram Building (where people like Don Draper would dine). In this fictionalized account, Rothko hires an assistant named Ken. Ken is also an artist, although Rothko never treats him as such. He's an employee, there to do what he's told and not offer an opinion. Their relationship develops over time as they work together from nine to five, five days a week. Ken begins to challenge Rothko about his work, his ideas, and his lifestyle. Rothko eventually decides to turn down the commission, return the cash advance, and keep the paintings (they now hang in the Tate Modern in London, the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Japan, and the National Gallery in DC). He releases Ken do his own work and live his own life, while Rothko continues his solitary pursuit of art.

I can't say enough about this cast. These are two intense, deep, layered characters, and J.C. Cutler (Rothko) and Steven Lee Johnson (Ken) bring out all of those layers. They also have a great chemistry together as teacher/student, employer/employee, friends, and adversaries. I've seen J.C. several times and he's always great, but this is truly a standout performance. Steven is a still a student in the U of M/Guthrie BFA program, but he's already a fantastic actor. He was wonderful in Theater Latte Da's Beautiful Thing this spring, and very much holds his own against the veteran actor in this production.

The Park Square Theatre stage has been converted into a well lived-in and worked-in artist's studio, with paints and canvases tucked in every corner (the set was designed by Lance Brockman, with scenic assistant Anne Henly painting the Rothko replicas and instructing the actors in the act of painting). The characters spend the first two scenes in this one-act play talking about painting and mixing paint, building the tension so that you're just itching to see that paint hit the canvas. And when it does, it's a beautiful release. Classical music (and a bit of "modern" jazz) provide the soundtrack, seemingly coming from a record player in the corner, and act as another character in the play. Directed by Park Square's Artistic Director Richard Cook, this play is an almost visceral experience, with art, music, ideas, words, appealing to all of the senses.

I don't often tell you what to see, preferring to share my thoughts and let you decide if it interests you. But I'm telling you, go see this play. One of the best new plays, two amazing performances, lofty ideas, intense emotions, an interesting set filled with huge canvases, what more can you ask for? At a relatively brief 90 minutes with no intermission, it's well worth your time. Here are a few of the paintings you'll see on stage. Photos do not do them justice. Nor, I assume, do the replicas. Hopefully one day I'll see them in person, yet another example of something I first experienced at the theater.

from Rothko's Seagram Murals

from Rothko's Seagram Murals

Monday, September 17, 2012

"The Way of Water" by Frank Theatre at the Playwrights' Center

"An explosion on April 20, 2010, aboard the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig working on a well for the oil company BP one mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, led to the largest 'accidental' oil spill disaster in history. Residents who live along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, all the way from Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, to well into western Florida, continue to suffer acute symptoms attributed to ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals being released from BP's crude oil and the toxic Corexit dispersants used to sink it. Thousands of deaths along the Gulf Coast region have been linked to this toxic damage. This devastation is being deemed by many in the health and science filed as the equivalent of Agent Orange in Vietnam."

Such is the backdrop of Frank Theatre's new production, The Way of Water, playing at The Playwrights' Center now through the end of the month. This is a tragedy that's so huge in scope, it's difficult to think about in a real sort of way, as we watch it play out on the TV news. But this play personalizes it, telling the story of four people whose lives are drastically and devastatingly changed because of what happened.

Jimmy and Yuki are friends and fishermen, making their living catching and selling fish on the gulf. They know nothing else; Jimmy's family has been in the fishing business for generations. After the oil spill they continue to do what they know, even though much of the water and fish have been contaminated. Their wives help out however they can, selling homemade flowers and found vases at flea markets. But the spill has taken a toll on their spirits and their livelihoods, and on their bodies. Jimmy experiences dizzy spells and "fits," but refuses to go to the doctor until it's too late. Jimmy and his wife are forced to leave their home, live with family, and try to make a life somewhere else.

This solid four-person cast is led by H. Adam Harris as Jimmy. He's strong and sympathetic as a man trying to hold on to a lifestyle that no longer works, and Jimmy's "fits" are so real it's painful to watch. Hope Cervantes is an equal partner as his supportive wife Rosalie, trying to hold the family together with grace. Also good are Eric Sharp as Jimmy's fishing buddy Yuki and Emily Zimmer as Yuki's wife\Rosalie's best friend\Jimmy's ex. The writing, by Caridad Svich, is sparse and powerful. There are no wasted words; characters often speak in one-word sentences. The simple but effective set (by Joseph Stanley) is dominated by an unkempt and lived-in backyard, with the fishing pier overlooking it on the left.

Surprisingly, this is my first Frank Theatre show since last year's fabulous, gritty, and moving production of Cabaret. I'm not sure what took me so long, but I'm glad I didn't miss this one. They do good work, important work, such as in this play (directed by Artistic Director Wendy Knox) - reducing the scope of an immense tragedy to something manageable, understandable, relatable, and human.

H. Adam Harris, Hope Cervantes, Emily Zimmer, and Eric Sharp

Monday, September 10, 2012

"The Brothers Size" by Pillsbury House Theatre at the Guthrie Studio

The "Brother/Sister Plays" by young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney are a complex and intense "series of stories" that tell universal stories of love, loss, family, and relationships through a specific set of characters in Louisiana, who happen to be named for gods in the Yoruba mythology of Nigeria. Pretty heavy stuff, and pretty rich material too, with which Pillsbury House Theatre is doing a pretty amazing job. Last summer they presented the first play in the trilogy, In the Red and Brown Water, at the Guthrie Studio Theater. This fall they're doing the second play, The Brothers Size*, which includes two of the same characters but a different focus. I can only hope they'll complete the trilogy next year with Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. I'd really love to see all three done in repertoire, which would be a huge undertaking, but also hugely rewarding to see all the stories and characters within a short time period. It takes a moment to get into the language and the structure of the plays, in which characters speak their own stage directions ("Oshoosi sleeps," "Ogun exits"). But once you do you really come to know and love (or hate) these characters.

In the Red and Brown Water tells the story of a young track star named Oya whose dreams are put on hold when she stays home to tend to her dying mother. It ends pretty tragically for Oya, and The Brothers Size picks up where it left off, although not with Oya**. The focus of this play is her ex-boyfriend Ogun Size and his brother Oshoosi, along with her little friend Elegba who is now grown and has befriended Oshoosi in prison. They're both out now, and Ogun is trying to get his brother back on track, giving him a job in his "carshack." Unfortunately, Elegba is there to drag him back in. This one ends pretty tragically too. Oshoosi and Elegba are best friends and share a lot in prison (just how much is only hinted at), but the truest relationship in this piece is between the brothers. Their parents died when they were young, so they've only had each other their whole lives. Elegba tells Ogun how Oshoosi cried for him when he was first imprisoned, and it's just heartbreaking. Ogun feels responsible for his brother; when Oshoosi went to prison he felt like he let him down somehow, and is determined not to let that happen again.

This play features a three-person cast, much smaller than the last one, and they're all spectacular. Gavin Lawrence is a captivating actor (including a dynamic portrayal of the poet Langston Hughes earlier this year). This version of Elegba is less likeable than what I remember from the last play, but just as compelling. James A. Williams also reprises his role from In the Red and Brown Water, and is convincing as the loving but frustrated brother. Namir Smallwood is new to the trilogy but not to Pillsbury House; he appeared in Buzzer earlier this year (which will be reprised at the Guthrie Studio next year). His Oshoosi is young and playful, but with a dark undercurrent from his years in prison. You can definitely feel the strong bond of family between the brothers Size.

Music is woven into this play in a really lovely way. There's a bit of singing, including a very entertaining version of "Try a Little Tenderness" by the brothers. In addition to the singing, Ahanti Young (who I've known previously as an actor, but who it turns out is also a very talented drummer) plays percussion throughout the piece, adding a soundtrack to accentuate what's happening on stage. He's playing as the audience files in before the show, which makes the pre-show waiting much more pleasant.

The Brothers Size is playing at the Guthrie Studio through the end of the month. If you saw In the Red and Brown Water last summer, you'll want to see this one too. But even if you didn't see it, it's certainly not necessary to appreciate this well-acted, well-written, moving, intense, and unexpectedly musical piece.

*I received two complementary tickets to The Brothers Size as part of the Guthrie's "Blogger Night."

**Oya was not a character in this play, but her portrayer, the lovely and talented Christiana Clark, was in the audience. I wonder if she was as upset about poor Oya's fate as I was!

Friday, September 7, 2012

"Waiting for Godot" at the Jungle Theater

Samuel Beckett's classic Waiting for Godot is an amusing, perplexing, delightful, profound, absurd little play (literally, "absurdist" is the genre to which the play belongs). I've heard of it of course, but only in vague terms, so I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I saw it at the Jungle Theater earlier this week. But I knew that in the hands of Director Bain Boehlke and two of my favorite local actors, Nathan Keepers and Jim Lichtsheidl, I was in for a treat. And I was not wrong.

It seems appropriate to structure this blog post as a serious of random bullet points rather than a cohesive summary, so that's what I'm going to do.
  • Nathan Keepers and Jim Lichtsheidl star as Estragon and Vladimir, aka Gogo and Didi, two old friends who are standing by a tree, waiting for the owner of the land to appear and pass judgement on them. As they wait they converse about silly and profound things. Both Nathan and Jim are very physical actors, and not a single movement (or non-movement) is wasted. To watch them together is a joy. I've seen them individually many times and always enjoyed their performances, which are always so different and specific. But I don't believe I've ever seen them together. It's twice as wonderful. They are endlessly entertaining; I could watch them blather about nothing for hours. Which is kind of what this play is. But it's a meaningful nothing, if you choose to see it.
  • "We are all born mad. Some remain so."
  • When this play was first produced in the mid-20th century, audience members walked out of the theater in the middle of the play. Even at the Jungle, I noticed a few more empty seats in the second act than there were in the first act. I think it's the kind of thing that you either get and love, or you don't get it and it's interminable. I fall in the former category.
  • "Nothing to be done."
  • Gogi and Didi are visited by a man named Pozzo, who is leading another man, his servant, on a rope. And that's when things get really weird. The servant speaks only in grunts and pants, until he is told to think, at which point he begins to speak endlessly and articulately about nothing. Allen Hamilton as Pozzo and Charles Schuminski as the grunting servant both give excellent performances, but I found myself waiting for them to leave the stage so we could get back to Didi and Gogo's explorations of nothingness.
  • "Don't let's do anything. It's safer."
  • In addition to directing (read a really interesting article about his process here), Bain Boehlke also designed the set. I've never seen the Jungle stage like this: completely bare and open so that you can see into the wings, with just a few pieces representing a tree, some grass, and a bench. The director frequently is also the set designer at the Jungle, which makes for a set that is perfectly in tune with the direction of the play. In this case - both are brilliant.
  • "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps."
  • If you've never seen the play before, or even if you have, spend a few moments reading the program before the play starts. There are several short pieces about the play, the playwright, and audience reaction which may enlighten your experience with this odd little gem.
  • From the playwright: "The end is to give artistic expression to something hitherto almost ignored - the irrational state of unknowingness wherein we exist, this mental weightlessness which is beyond reason."
What else is there to say? A classic piece of theater, with impeccable acting, set design, and directing. If you're a fan of the theater (and really, if you're not, what are you doing here?), go see it.  Playing at the Jungle Theater now through the end of September.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Storyhill Fest 2012

It should come as no surprise to anyone who's read this blog that musical theater is my favorite art form. But what you may not know is that my favorite genre of music to listen to (other than musical theater soundtracks) is folk music. On the surface those two things might look quite different - folk music is acoustic and often pretty mellow, while musical theater can tend towards over-the-top melodrama (although that's not the kind of musical theater I'm typically drawn to). But when you get right down to it, folk music and musical theater have a lot in common. Folk music is people telling stories and speaking their truth through music. That's exactly what musical theater is at its core. So it's really no mystery why I love both of them.

For the third year in a row, I spent Labor Day weekend immersed in the world of folk music at Storyhill Fest, aka folk music heaven on earth. Located on a large beautiful wooded property on a lake in the Brainerd area, the festival drew a record 400 people in its 4th year of existence (I missed the first one, but I have a good excuse - I was out of the country!). Featuring two full days of music by a dozen folk musicians from all over the country, plus the magical nightly campfires, it really is (as emcee J-Matt likes to remind us) the best kept musical secret in Minnesota. Plenty of outdoor activities on land and water, a family-friendly atmosphere, workshops for aspiring musicians, comfortable accommodations ranging from campsites to cabins to private rooms in a lodge, small enough to give you that up-close-and-personal feel with the artists, large enough to draw acclaimed talent from the folk music world, what more could you ask for in a music festival?

In chronological order of their appearance on stage, here are a few words about the artists that made up this year's festival (click on each artist's name to be taken to their website, where you can find information about purchasing their music or seeing them perform live):

Beth Wood
Beth Wood: Beth was the perfect artist to open the festival, and she chose the perfect song to begin the weekend of music. She told us it's her mission statement, but it could be used as the theme song for Storyhill Fest: "I'm gonna open my mouth, and sing my joy." A really strong voice, an engaging personality, and a gift for sharing stories make Beth one of my favorites of the festival. And I was pleasantly surprised to recognize the voice of one of my old faves on her newest CD The Weather Inside - Drew Womack from Sons of the Desert!

Sarah Sample
Sarah Sample: A fresh face and a fresh voice, one that's wispy and ethereal but with a power behind it. She has a great range of songs, from the fun ukulele number "Holiday," to a lovely song about her grandparents' love story that brought a tear to my eye, to a cover of Lyle Lovett's "If I had a Boat." But I think I most enjoyed listening to her simply sing around the campfire.

Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin
Danny Schmidt: As I said when I first saw him at Storyhill Fest two years ago, Danny's a true poet. He again sang the song I find so mesmerizing and epic, "Stained Glass," what he calls a humanist Easter story. Fortunately he gives a little intro before each song, because like all good poetry, his songs can be a little hard to understand, but once you have the key to unlock it, you find in them nothing less than truth. His better half Carrie Elkin accompanied him with her lovely voice on several of the songs.

Laurie McClain
Laurie McClain: A self-described "hippie chick," I can just picture Laurie singing and playing guitar on the college campuses and city streets of the hippie movement in the 60s and 70s. She was born too late for that, but she's helping to keep the tradition alive, "maybe the hippie/peace/love thing will come around again, and this time it'll stick!" She's charming and quirky (handing out prizes to audience members who admitted they've seen a UFO), entertaining with a large catalog of songs ranging from silly to poignant.

Carrie Elkin: What can I say about Carrie that I haven't already said (here and here)? She has performed and/or emcee-ed at every Storyhill Fest I've attended, and I can't imagine the festival without her. Her voice is a force of nature, and I'm beginning to think there's nothing she can't do. She shared a set with the next two artists so we didn't get to see as long of a solo show as in the past, but she made up for it by singing backup for many of the artists - because who doesn't sound better with Carrie Elkin standing next to with them?

in the round with
Shannon Wurst, Steve Parry, and Carrie Elkin
Steve Parry: I've heard Steve sing around the campfire for the last year or two, but this time he made it up on stage (in a round with the previous and following artists). With a great country-sounding voice and songs that tell a specific story, he was one of the few (perhaps the only) Minnesotans on the Storyhill Fest stage this year, proving that we grow 'em good here too.

Shannon Wurst: Sharing a set with the previous two artists, I don't feel like I saw enough of Shannon. But I heard enough to know I'd like to hear more. There's something very appealing about her voice - pure and honest. Fortunately she sang a few more songs at the campfire both nights, and maybe she'll get a full set at next year's fest!

Rebecca Loebe
Rebecca Loebe: Rebecca played the role of "homeless musician" on NBC's singing competition The Voice last year. She was picked by both Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine, and chose to work with Adam. She was eliminated in the first round (which is probably a good thing because those shows have a tendency to suck the soul out of people, or at least give it a good try!). Hollywood's loss is Deerwood's gain! She's funny and spirited, with playful quality to her voice and interesting vocal styling that seems effortless but is a result of impeccable control. I first heard her at the campfire on the first night of the festival, where she sang a song about how "you can't knit socks for a married man," and was instantly smitten with her music.

Nels Andrews
Nels Andrews: I also first heard Nels sing at the campfire (quite a nice way to be introduced to an artist). He sang a haunting and lovely song called "Wisteria." More goodness continued during his set on day two. With really interesting and deep story songs and great melodies, he's equally good on stage and around the campfire. He worked as a chauffeur for an eccentric woman in NYC for a while, from which came several songs, including one about the "Duchess of Carnegie Hall." I've been listening to his newest recording Scrimshaw this week, and the more I listen to it, the more I like it.

Doug and Telisha Williams
Doug & Telisha Williams: It is my opinion that the coolest instrument one can play is the upright base. You very rarely see a woman play it, so I was thrilled and intrigued to see an upright bass in the hands of Telisha, one half of this married couple duo, whom I already loved from hearing them sing around the campfire the night before (without the bass). And she can really play. Like any good bass player, she plays the instrument with a grace that's almost like dancing. Accompanied by Doug on acoustic and electric guitar, swapping solos and harmonies, this duo has a fantastic unique sound. If I were forced to pick a new favorite from Storyhill Fest 2012, I might pick Doug & Telisha. Being from Virginia "in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains," they've got that country/mountain sound that I love. And they're also quite the comedy team! A very entertaining set; watch the below video of their song "Graveyard Train" and judge for yourself.

Sam Baker and Carrie Elkin
create magic
Sam Baker: I don't think I've ever seen anyone like Sam Baker. I'm not sure there is anyone like Sam Baker. Watching his performance is a trippy experience - he's in his own world, but somehow manages to carry the audience along with him even if we're not quite sure where we're going. Many of his songs are partly spoken, as he lays his lyrics on the audience and watches them intently, waiting for the words to sink in. He can even turn "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" into some sort of existential tale. If you ever get the opportunity to see him perform live, take it. I guarantee it'll be a one-of-a-kind unforgettable experience.

Chris and Johnny, aka Storyhill
Storyhill: I'm a relatively new Storyhill fan, considering they've been playing and recording together off and on for over 20 years. I came on board during their Red House Records days, with whom they've released two CDs in the last five years. Something about their music, whether it's the songs that they write or their incredibly beautiful harmonies, really gets to me. I could listen to them play the same songs every night and never get tired of it! Their long history together is evident in the ease they have on stage with each other, trading solos and harmonies back and forth effortlessly. They're the last act of both nights, and they're able to gather some really talented and diverse musicians around them, all of whom seem to enjoy making music together and being at this festival. I get the feeling they'd do this even if there were no audience there to watch them. The bad news about Storyhill is that they're taking 2013 off from touring. But the good news is that they're making an exception to play and host Storyhill Fest on Labor Day weekend, and they'll be releasing a new record in 2014. I'm willing to make that trade!

Check out this of Storyhill singing their song "White Roses," which morphs into the Beatles' "I'm Looking through You." (More Storyhill Fest videos available at the Cherry and Spoon youtube channel, including two versions of my favorite Danny Schmidt song "Company of Friends.")

If all of the above wonderfulness isn't enough to convince you that Storyhill Fest is the place to be on Labor Day weekend, there's one more bit of wonder. The highlight of the festival is the nightly campfire sing. The artists come down to the biggest campfire I've ever seen and pass songs around, while we festival-goers get to watch and listen. It's a truly magical experience. Everyone sounds better by a campfire. Not that they don't sound amazing on stage and on their recordings, but when some of your favorite musicians are singing and playing guitar just a few feet away from you in the still night air of the Minnesota woods, there's nothing quite like it. There's something about the acoustics of a campfire that brings out the truth in a song. The hardest thing in the world is leaving that campfire while the music is still going on, but there comes a point when I just can no longer stay upright, and must stumble through the dark to bed, to go to sleep with the music softly ringing in my ears, dreaming of next year.

Tickets for Storyhill Fest 2013 will likely go on sale later this year so keep checking the website, or sign up for the newsletter to be the first to know.

p.s. If you haven't had enough, you can read about my experiences at Storyhill Fest 2010 and 2011.