Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Sunday in the Park with George" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

It was my second Sondheim musical in a row - that's what I call a good weekend! The day after attending the opening night of Theater Latte Da's beautiful production of Company, I headed out to Bloomington to spend my Sunday in the Park with George. Unlike Company, I'd never seen or heard Sunday in the Park before; all I knew about it was Sondheim, art, and original cast members Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. But that was enough to make me want to see it, and it was actually one of the reasons why I chose to buy a season pass to Bloomington Civic Theatre this year (the first show was the big dance musical 42nd Street, and the season continues next year with one of my faves, Cabaret, and On the Town). The inspiration for this musical was the 19th century painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat, one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement. Sondheim and frequent collaborate James Lapine imagined the story behind the painting, both the painter and his subjects. In doing so they explore the ideas of art and creativity and being obsessed with one's work to the point of ignoring everything else.

"A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat
Art Institute of Chicago
The first act recreates the above painting by introducing the figures as people George meets in the park where he goes to paint. The woman on the right with the parasol is his model/lover Dot (named after the dots or blobs of color George uses to create his pictures). She sings about how hot and uncomfortable it is to stand without moving in the sun, but she does it because she loves George, and he teaches her how to concentrate. Other figures we meet are the man standing next to Dot (Jules, a painter friend of George), the woman in the center with the orange parasol with the little girl in white (his wife and daughter), the man lounging on the left (a boatman), and several others. Unfortunately, the world is not as ordered as George wants it to be. Jules and his wife have an unhappy marriage, and Dot leaves George when he seems to care more about his painting than her. At the end of the first act, things descend into noisy chaos, until George moves everyone into place to match his vision, and the painting is alive before our eyes.

The second act takes place in a museum 100 years later, where the figures jump out of the painting, and we meet George's great-grandson, also named George, also an artist. The story delves into the nature of art, artists, and commercialism vs. staying true to one's art (similar themes as in the play Red about painter Mark Rothko). Act II has a very different tone than the Act I, and I found myself wanting to return to the world of the painting. In my research (i.e., Wikipedia), I ran across this quote the New York Times review (by Ben Brantley) of the 2008 Broadway revival, "Sunday remains a lopsided piece - pairing a near-perfect, self-contained first act with a lumpier, less assured second half." But fortunately, things take a satisfying turn at the end when young George returns to the island in the painting and is able to achieve some resolution for his great-grandfather, who died young.

Joey Clark as George and Jennifer Eckes as Dot
The show may be called Sunday in the Park with George, but for me the star of the show is Jennifer Eckes as Dot (and as young George's grandmother Marie in the second act). In addition to her beautiful voice on these challenging Sondheim songs, she gives Dot such heart and spirit, with such a longing for a better life, that I couldn't help rooting for her and thinking George was a bit of a jerk for letting her go! Joey Clark also gives a fine performance as George (completely unrecognizable under the wig and beard), and manages to make George likeable despite the fact that he makes some bad choices and pushes everything and everyone away for the sake of his art. It's nice to see the modern George learn some of the lessons his great-grandfather was not able to. Other standouts in the cast include Kelly Krebs and Beth King as the obnoxious and spoiled American couple, and Alan Sorenson and Megan Volkman-Wilson as Jules and his wife. They also play characters in the second act, but as I mentioned above, I found the first act much more memorable and moving. Finally, Anna Evans (one of the Cocos in Coco's Diary at the History Theatre earlier this year) is a little scene stealer as the mischievous girl in white.

The costumes and set are so important to this piece, because the audience has to believe that these characters came out of the painting, and BCT does a beautiful job creating the effect (set by Robin McIntyre and costumes by Ed Gleeman). The white set pieces we see at the beginning are removed to reveal a large-scale replica of the background of the painting, with trees dropping in from overheard. The costumes are exquisite and look very similar to the painting (including impressive bustles!). At the end of the first act a scrim is lowered at the front of the stage with the image of the painting on it, in front of the live action painting arranged on the set, and it's a spectacular effect. Last but not least, a highlight for me of any BCT show is the traditional pit orchestra led by Anita Ruth. The music sounds like George's painting, and he often paints to the music - short and staccato, in unexpected blobs.

It's a great time for Sondheim, and this show is a nice pair to Theater Latte Da's Company. With every additional Sondheim show I see, I feel like I'm "Putting It Together" a bit more and understanding his work a little bit more. I've seen several shows since I heard him speak two and half years ago, and it's been fun. Next on my Sondheim wishlist is Assassins, which I've never seen. But until then, go see these two wonderfully different but quintessentially Sondheim shows! Check out the BCT website for more info on Sunday in the Park with George, or take advantage of the half-price tickets available on Goldstar.com.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Company" by Theater Latte Da at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

I've been writing this blog for over two years, and I've found that some shows are easier to write about than others (which is not necessarily correlated to how much I like the show). But every once in a while, I'm so affected by a piece of theater that I go directly to the computer as soon as I get home, no matter the hour, because I immediately need to get my thoughts out of my head. Theater Latte Da's new production of the 1970 Sondheim musical Company* is one of those shows. I was so immersed and engaged in the world and characters created, that when the show was over, the lights came up, and the applause (reluctantly) died down, it was a jarring dose of reality. I feel like a broken record, but this is another brilliant production by Theater Latte Da. Friends, we are very very lucky to have Peter Rothstein and Denise Prosek and this company that they created 15 years ago in our community. They just keep getting better and better.

I really only heard of Company last year when a filmed concert version starring Neil Patrick Harris was released to movie theaters. I immediately fell in love with it, so this production is coming at a great time for me. Company began as a series of short plays about married couples written by George Furth. When Stephen Sondheim came on board, it was turned into a musical and the character of Bobby was added as a central character tying all of the couples together. There's not much of a plot to it; it's more of a character study and an exploration of the ideas of marriage, friendship, and connection. Bobby is single and turning 35 amidst a bunch of married couples (something I can relate to, although this fall is not my first 35th birthday ;), and he spends time with each of them in turn, trying to figure out what it's all about. In typical Sondheim fashion, the songs are clever and witty and fast, with unexpected and beautiful melodies.

As usual with Latte Da shows, this one is perfectly cast. When I first heard that Latte Da was doing this show, I immediately thought of Dieter Bierbrauer as Bobby, and I was thrilled when I heard he had indeed been cast. Dieter's voice is perfection; there's nothing he can't do vocally. He has such control and emotion in his voice; his singing sounds effortless on these challenging Sondheim songs. As Bobby, everyone's best friend, Dieter rarely leaves the stage. But he's not always the center of attention. In fact that's a crucial part of this role and one Dieter does well - being the observer, the listener, the sounding board, as his friends unload their feelings and crazy ideas to him. Always attentive and engaged as he sits there silently, you can see the wheels turning as he takes it all in and adds it to his growing knowledge base of what this marriage thing might mean. The final song after he puts it all together ("add 'em up, Bobby") is "Being Alive," one of the greatest songs ever written for musical theater. Dieter's performance is a thing of beauty. Angry and defensive, then soft and vulnerable, finally a demand for a richer and fuller life.

Jody Briskey as Joanne with
Dieter Bierbrauer as Bobby
The five couples surrounding Bobby are also well-cast. Each couple is different, and are given a scene or two with Bobby to let the audience in to their particular brand of marriage. It's difficult to pick just a few standouts to mention, but I must start with Jody Briskey as Joanne, the three-times married slightly more mature and cynical friend who gets the best song, "Ladies who Lunch." Jody performed the song at this summer's Latte Da in the Park concert, and it was obvious then that she would be the one playing this role. Jody recently won an Ivey Award for her performance as Judy Garland in Beyond the Rainbow at the History Theatre last fall, and you can still hear Judy in her voice. I like to think of Jody as the Patti LuPone of the local theater scene (I'm not sure Patti ever played this role, but I heard her sing the song at Orchestra Hall a few years ago and it's that kind of song). Jody's performance of this Sondheim masterpiece is boozy and brilliant. In short, it's a showstopper.

Bobby (Dieter Bierbrauer, center) with his
good and crazy married friends
Also worth mentioning are the adorable Kim Kivens (she may be the smallest of stature in the cast, but not the smallest of voice) as the reluctant pot-smoking mom; Heidi Bakke as one of Bobby's girlfriends, a flight attendant who describes herself as "dumb and boring" in the most charming way (her duet with Bobby, "Barcelona," may be the cutest "morning after" song ever); David Darrow as the groom Paul, despite the fact that we only get a brief taste of his beautiful voice as he sings "Today is for Amy" to his frantic bride (I'm still waiting for the soundtrack of Rip, the Fringe show for which he wrote a bunch of really great songs that could stand on their own); Suzy Kohane as said frantic bride, who wins the prize for singing the most and fastest words in any song in the show, all while pushing her fiance away and still remaining likeable; and Julie Madden, who's a hoot as the dieting ka-ra-TE expert wife who has to remind her husband when and why he gave up alcohol.

Another important character in the play is New York City, my favorite city in the world (outside of Minnesota). In addition to the song "Another Hundred People (Just Got Off of the Train)" which perfectly describes the "city of strangers," there are numerous references to New York and New Yorkers. The city is also incorporated into the clever lighting and set design. Images are projected onto a couple of basic white boxes, as well as the backdrop, to represent the inside of a crowded home, a high rise apartment building with terraces, a park in different seasons, and the streets of New York as Bobby walks and ponders. One of the white boxes opens up to a bed (for the "Barcelona" scene), and a set of stairs leads to a second level providing a place for characters to observe the action as they come and go. There's not much choreography in the piece (Company is not a big song-and-dance kind of musical), but there are a few nice moments. In the opening number of Act II, "Side by Side by Side," Bobby sings and dances around his friend with an umbrella, and a kickline is formed. When all the men are telling Bobby "Have I Got a Girl for You," they're sitting on office chairs with a keyboard on their laps, emailing him, with choreographed keystrokes (choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrel). Touches like that and cell phones bring this show from the 70s into the 21st century, and with the relevant and timeless themes of relationships, it doesn't feel dated at all.

Company is playing at the Ordway McKnight Theater now through November 18. If you've never seen a Theater Latte Da show, well, you've been wasting your local theater-going life. Go see this show. The rest of their season looks to be just as amazing as this show, so you'll probably want to check that out too.

Theater Latte Da chose to do this show this season "as Minnesota grapples with the definition of marriage," but the production does not speak directly to the idea of marriage equality. What it does do is showcase five couples who have five different definitions of marriage. It seems to me, looking from the outside, that there are as many different definitions of marriage as there are marriages. So why would we want to constitutionally limit it to one definition, when it's never been that way? That was my take-away from the show; go see it and decide for yourself.

"Being Alive!"

*I received one complementary ticket to Opening Night of Company. However, I had already bought tickets for myself and 14 friends to go next week. Most of them are good and crazy married people, so I look forward to seeing the show again with them and hearing what they think of it.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"King Lear" at Park Square Theatre

Park Square Theatre's new production of Shakespeare's King Lear* sets the classic story of an aging king going mad in Prohibition era America, complete with guns, gowns, and lots of drinking. The strong cast brings the characters to life, most of whom end up dead by the end of the play in typical Shakespearean style. Along the way, stories of betrayal, loyalty, disguised identities, power, manipulations, and eye gouging (gross) are told in intensely dramatic fashion. I have to admit, Shakespeare is not my favorite (I much prefer Park Square's last show, the new two-person play Red, more about ideas than action), but this play is worth seeing for the masterful performances of the cast in these meaty roles, directed by Peter Moore (a much different tone than his other show I saw this week, the sketch comedy 2 Sugars, Room for Cream).

I've seen King Lear once before, a Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Guthrie, starring Sir Ian McKellan. But since that was pre-blog and my memory is not as good as it used to be, I really didn't remember much about it (other than I saw way more of Gandalf than I ever wanted to!). So it was with a fresh eye that I saw this production, and was able to appreciate Raye Birk's performance without any baggage of past performances of this classic theater role. As King Lear, he convincingly transforms from powerful and genial, to irrationally angry, to pitifully lost, to compassionately loving, often in one scene. With such a range of emotions, it's no wonder this is such a coveted role, and Raye plays every one of those emotions to the hilt.

Another performance I particularly enjoyed is Jim Lichtsheidl as the bastard son of a lord who manipulates his father into believing that his brother is plotting against him, while playing with the affections of two of Lear's (married) daughters. Jim is so deliciously evil that you almost want to root for him in his schemes (and what is it about a mustache that instantly makes a man look more devilish?). Dan Hopman also impresses as the wronged brother, who hides out as a bum, and is thereby able to protect his father (the regal Stephen D'Ambrose) after the aforementioned eye gouging.

Other standouts in the cast include Jennifer Blagen and Stacia Rice as Lear's greedy daughters who flatter him until they get their inheritance, and then push him aside; Adelin Phelps (who played a version of Cinderella in my favorite Fringe show this summer) as the daughter who refuses to play his game and is disowned because of it, while still remaining loyal to the father that she loves; and Ansa Akyea as another loyal supporter of the king despite being banished and forced to assume a new identy (wouldn't it be awesome if banishment were still an available punishment today, and one could change one's hairstyle and accent and be completely unrecognizable to the people who know them best?).

Last but not least, Gary Briggle plays the fool as a former Vaudeville performer, who cheers his lord with songs and brings some much-needed levity to the show. One of my favorite parts of the play happens before the action of play actually begins. When I got to my seat about ten minutes prior to showtime, the cast was already on stage mingling at the King's party, as the fool (Gary) entertained them by singing songs ranging from opera to pop songs of the day ("You're the Top"). It's fun to observe the informal meetings and partings, not to mention the gorgeous dresses with full-length trains worn by Lear's daughters (costumes by Amy B. Kaufman).

Park Square Theatre's re-imagining of King Lear is playing now through November 11. It's worth checking out if you're a fan of Shakespeare or of great performances.

*I received one complementary ticket to the opening night of King Lear.

"Love & Marriage" at Illusion Theater

Love and marriage
Love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage!

Love and marriage are so much a part of our culture; "you can't have one without the other," says the song. But the reality is that marriage is an exclusive club in our country, one that not everyone can join, despite how valued it is in our society. The issue of marriage equality is in the forefront right now, and Illusion Theater's new musical review, appropriately titled Love & Marriage, brings the issue to light with warmth, humor, music, and stories of over a dozen diverse real life couples. It's a fun and heartwarming celebration of love.

Eight fabulous local actor/singers bring this music to life, accompanied by Roberta Carlson on piano, who created the show with Illusion's Artistic Director Michael Robins. The song list includes classic American love songs, musical theater standards, and current pop songs (or as I call them, Glee songs). Also included are a few original songs by Roberta that fit right into the lexicon of American love songs. Interspersed with the musical numbers are clips of interviews with real-life couples of all sorts - straight, gay, and lesbian. They tell their "meet cute" stories, and continue on as the show progresses to their stories of committing to each other, going through hard times, and making their relationship last. Featured couples include local celebrities such as Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak and his wife Megan, talented actor and singer Bradley Greenwald and his partner John, and recent Ivey Award winner Isabel Nelson and her husband (and Transatlantic Love Affair co-founder) Diogo (and now I finally understand where they got the name of their theater company). Their stories are touching, funny, and inspiring.

Highlights from the talented cast include:
  • Rising local talent Cat Brindisi sings a lovely rendition of the wistful "When I Fall in Love" and the bubbly ode to fairy tales "Happily Ever After" (Cat was last seen as Wendla in Spring Awakening, and will next be seen as Princess Amneris in Aida).
  • Adara Bryan was in the ensemble of one of my favorite shows of the year, Park Square's Ragtime, and it's nice to see her gorgeous voice featured here, including on the Beatles' classic "In My Life" and a duet of "Truly, Madly, Deeply" with Cat.
  • Reid Harmsen duets with Cat on one of the most charming numbers of the show, (I think I wanna) "Marry You," and with Dennis on "Wouldn't it Be Nice," as well as taking part in several other numbers (see below).
  • Unlike most of the other performers, I've ever seen Rachel Hurst before, but she impressed on a powerful duet of "Don't Know Much," among others.
  • Broadway vet Melissa Hart, who has made Minnesota her home, appropriately covers most of the musical theater selections, including Rodgers and Hammerstein's hopeful "It Might as Well be Spring," and the decidedly darker "Could I Leave You?" from Sondheim's Follies (which I was fortunate to see on Broadway last year).
  • The other cast member I'd never seen before is Charles Johnson, and I was instantly mesmerized by his effortlessly smooth voice on such songs as "All in Love is Fair" and the aforementioned duet of "Don't Know Much."
  • It's always fun to see one of my longtime faves, Randy Schmeling, here singing a couple of duets and taking the lead on "I Won't Give Up" (one of those Glee songs I mentioned).
  • The dynamic Dennis Spears played Nat King Cole last year in Penumbra Theater's I Wish You Love. But I don't think Nat had moves like Dennis' in "We'll Be Together," or played the tambourine so energetically and seriously as Dennis did in the final number!
My favorite group numbers include a Sondheim song I'd never heard, "Loving You," a typically amazing Sondheim song brought to life in the beautiful harmonies of Adara, Randy, Cat, and Reid, and another Sondheim song that is quite literally about marriage, "The Little Things You Do Together" (from Company, which I will see tonight!). The cast sings and performs beautifully as a group, in pairs, and individually.

Love & Marriage is a fun and entertaining evening of music that personalizes the topic of marriage equality by sharing the true stories of real people in our community. On November 6, my beloved home state of Minnesota will vote on a constitutional amendment that limits the definition of marriage to one man and one woman. I don't know how anyone can see this show and witness the love of all of these couples, and still vote yes on this amedment. Through music and real stories, we see the equality and validity of all kinds of love. I plan to VOTE NO on the marriage amendment (and the voter ID amendment, see my thoughts on Appomattox for more about that). Will you join me?

the live cast of Love & Marriage in front of the screen
showing taped interview pieces

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"2 Sugars, Room for Cream" at the New Century Theatre

Coffee. Ahhh, coffee. People who love coffee really love coffee. I count myself among them. There's just something about the aroma, the feel of the warm cup in your hand, the deep and dark taste of it, that's so satisfying. In many ways our culture is built around coffee shops. "Want to get coffee?" is a common way of getting together, whether it's getting to know a new friend or catching up with an old one. The two-woman show 2 Sugars, Room for Cream explores this idea in a series of short skits. It began as a Fringe Fest show a few years ago and has been expanded into a full-length show, currently running at the New Century Theatre (set up with cabaret tables for an informal coffee shop feel). It's funny, silly, poignant, and with such a wide range of stories that everyone is sure to find something to relate too.

The two women in question are Carolyn Pool and Shanan Custer, who co-wrote and co-star in the show (with direction by Peter Moore). Shanan was the hilarious host of this year's Ivey Awards, but the last time I saw Carolyn it was in a much darker show - the twisted family drama August: Osage County. Nevertheless, the two are quite charismatic and funny together, with a great chemistry whether they're playing sisters, friends who haven't seen each other in twenty years, or people who have just met. The show opens and closes with one of the two scenarios that are visited multiple times - two sisters at their Uncle Jimmy's funeral drinking bad church basement coffee. They discuss their family and their lives, as the celebration moves to one of the sisters' homes and the coffee makes way for 2 Gingers whiskey, and the next morning, more coffee is needed. The other scenario with multiple scenes is a high school reunion, where two women meet, with one of them clearly remembering their relationship while the other does not. Again, coffee turns into drinking in the car and flirting with former classmates, which turns into hanging out at an all-night Denny's. Other skits include two new friends discussing how Twilight is damaging to young women (thank you!), a frazzled new mom crying about her baby's tiny head, a period piece set in the '40s, a college professor introducing her class, bosses and their assistants (separately) on a coffee break at work, and a woman recording a touching video for her unborn daughter about how she's going to raise her to be confident and proud of herself. Carolyn and Shanan also sing a few songs for us in 1940s girl group style (original lyrics written by Shanan and Peter Moore, with music by Drew Jansen).

Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool attend a reunion
2 Sugars, Room for Cream is a thoroughly entertaining evening featuring two talented writers and performers. Together they create dozens of different characters, just by changing their sweater and shoes (some of them quite fabulous) over basic black dresses. Grab a cup of coffee and a friend or two, and head downtown to the New Century Theatre between now and November 11 (tip: half-price ticket deal on Goldstar.com). It's quite delightful (and it was the perfect antidote do the deliciously creepy Turn of the Screw I saw previously that day).

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"The Turn of the Screw" by Torch Theater Company at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

I'm sitting outside on a lovely fall day after just having seen Jeffrey Hatcher's stage adaptation of the 19th century novella The Turn of the Screw, and I'm still creeped out despite the sunlight and fresh air. Torch Theater Company's production is a deliciously dark and spooky ghost story that will stay with you after it ends. When the lights went down on the final scene, you could hear the audience squirming and trying to shake off the spell before breaking out into applause. I can't think of a better way to celebrate this Halloween season than seeing this excellent production of a classic ghost story!

In the original novella, a man tells a story told to him by his governess when he was a boy. The events in question unfold over seven days during the governess' first assignment. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, whose work has been seen on many local stages this year, has adapted the story into a two-person play. Lindsay Marcy plays the governess, and Craig Johnson plays all the other roles, including the master of the house, the housekeeper, the little boy, and various spooky sound effects. I don't want to say too much about the plot, because it unfolds in such perfect suspense and anticipation, that I don't want to ruin it for anyone. Suffice it to say it involves a governess with the best of hopes and intentions about her new position (which means things are sure to go wrong), a little girl who does not speak, a little boy who was kicked out of school because of "unspeakable" acts, a cowering yet dependable housekeeper, a Gothic tower, a stormy lake, ghostly apparitions in a stately home in the English countryside, rumors of lust and suicide, and an ambiguous ending. What more does a spooky story need?

Lindsay Marcy as the governess and
Craig Johnson as her charge
Everything about this production is top notch. The two actors give brilliant performances. Lindsay transforms before our eyes from an optimistic young woman with romantic ideas about her first appointment (the estate is perfectly picturesque, the adorable children will be her fast friends, the master will fall in love with her) into a desperate and haunted woman who doesn't know quite what is going on but is determined to prevail. Even her physical appearance goes from neat and proper (in a gorgeous period dress) to frantic and bedraggled. As I mentioned, Craig plays several different roles, and each is a specific and spectacular creation. The master is powerful and confident, the housekeeper is fluttery and frightened (I especially love the way he brings his trembling hands up to his mouth), the little boy is charming and naughty. And when he's not playing a character, he silently walks across the stage and adds sound effects in the creepiest performance of all!

The Theatre Garage stage is bare and open, with a spiral staircase hinting at the majesty of the manor, a barren tree representing the garden, and a miniature house hanging from the ceiling (set by frequent Jungle Theater contributor Joel Sass). The lighting (by Paul Epton) and sound (by Katharine Horowitz) do much to create the sense of foreboding that's so much a part of the piece. Whether it's music or a sound like a heartbeat, or anything in between, the sound keeps you on the edge of your seat. Similarly, the lights go up or down depending on what's going on in the moment, and the darker it gets, the bigger the delightful chill you feel. Directed by David Mann, the pace is pitch-perfect and all of the elements come together very satisfactorally.

There are only three performances left of this show. Get your tickets now if you want to experience a classic spooky thrill this Halloween. As a bonus, you can stay for more late night ghost stories after the Friday and Saturday night performances (see Torch Theater's website for more information and to reserve your tickets, and check out the half-price ticket deal on Goldstar.com).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Bye Bye Birdie" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

"We love you Conrad, oh yes we do,
We love you Conrad, and we'll be true,
When you're not with us, we're blue,
Oh Conrad we love you!"

That little ditty has been stuck in my head since seeing Bye Bye Birdie at the Chanhassen* last night. This is the first time this classical musical from the 1960s has played on the Chanhassen stage, and the first time I've seen it. In fact, I really only knew of it from that episode of Mad Men where Peggy imitates Ann-Margaret singing the title song of the movie, trying to live up to the early 60s ideal of womanhood (in that brilliant way Mad Men has of breaking down the social mores of the time, that aren't as different as we think from today). So the show was all new to me, and I really enjoyed it. It's a big, old-fashioned, fun musical with a huge cast and fantastic dance numbers. There's nothing deep about it, but it's highly entertaining.

the happy couple, Rose and Albert
(Ann Michels and Michael Gruber)
For those of you who, like me, are unfamiliar with the story, Bye Bye Birdie is about an Elvis-like singer named Conrad Birdie (Frank Moran with a brilliantly high pompadour and a suitable charismatic nonchalance) who is drafted into the Army. His agent, Albert (a charming Michael Gruber), and secretary/ girlfriend, Rose (Ann Michels in a feisty performance that includes a pretty spectacular dance number), come up with a publicity stunt in which Conrad kisses one lucky fan chosen at random to promote the release of the song "One Last Kiss," before shipping out overseas. That lucky fan is Kim (the sweet-voiced Jessica Fredrickson) of Sweet Apple Ohio, who was recently "pinned" by her boyfriend Hugo (my new fave Tyler Michaels, who gets to show off his unique physical style of acting in a drunken scene). Conrad and company arrive in the small town and cause a hubbub. Turns out Conrad's not the innocent all-American boy he seems to be, preferring to drink, dance, and party. Hugo is jealous of Conrad, and Rose is jealous of Albert's new secretary (Xanadu's Jodi Carmeli in a small but memorable role), so they both scheme to prevent the kiss. Which, by the way, was to take place live on The Ed Sullivan Show! Both of our couples are on the outs as the second act begins, and there's a wild night of partying at the Ice House ("what's there?"  "I don't know, ice?"). But of course, since this is a traditional musical, both couples find their way back to each other by the final curtain.

The Telephone Hour
This is a huge cast full of many Chanhassen faves and a few newcomers, all of whom are entertaining and fun to watch. Standouts, in addition to the ones mentioned above, are Seri Johnson as Albert's long-suffering martyr of a mother (or at least that's how she sees herself), Keith Rice and Michelle Barber as Kim's strict but loving parents, and Tod Petersen as the fawning mayor. The teen girl chorus is particularly fabulous (Hairspray's Therese Walth, Emily Madigan, Caroline Innerbichler, Ruthanne Heyward, and Larissa Gritti) as they swoon over Conrad, dance, and sing the aforementioned little ditty. The group dance numbers are energetic and bouncy in that 50s style, especially "The Telephone Hour," "Honestly Sincere" (in which the entire town, including the mayor's wife, ends up at Conrad's feet), and "A Lot of Livin' to Do." The score also includes a couple of familiar songs "Put on a Happy Face" and "Kids" (I don't know what's wrong with these kids today).

It's no secret that I loved the Chanhassen's summer musical Xanadu, which was a bit of a departure for them in that it's a new musical with a smaller cast and a little bit of a wicked, sarcastic tone (which is probably why I loved it). But with Bye Bye Birdie they return to their standard (which is not a bad thing) - a classic musical with a huge cast and fun musical numbers. Playing now through March 30, it'll make your winter a little warmer and brighter.

the town of Sweet Apple Ohio swoons over Conrad Birdie

*I received two complementary tickets to the Opening Night of Bye Bye Birdie.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Tales from Hollywood" at the Guthrie Theater

To complete the Christopher Hampton trilogy that is the beginning of the Guthrie's 50th anniversary season, I saw Tales from Hollywood last night. And it is perhaps my favorite of the three plays, which also include the historical drama Appomattox and the small but intense relationship drama Embers. It's funny and clever, yet sad and moving, with staging that turns the Thrust stage into a Hollywood studio.

Like AppomattoxTales from Hollywood is based on true events in American history. The time is the 1930s and 1940s, the place is Hollywood. The narrator and main character is real-life Austro-Hungarian writeÖdön von Horváth. The play begins by telling us that Ödön died when a tree branch fell on his head in 1938, and then goes on to re-imagine his life if he had lived and followed many of his fellow European writers to Hollywood to make a living writing for the movies. German writers Bertolt Brecht and brothers Heinrich and Thomas Mann are among those writers who were forced to leave their native country at a time when the Nazis were burning books (and, of course, committing many more awful crimes). Ödön leads us through the experience of writing "scenarios" for movie studios when he could barely speak English, adjusting to life in a different culture, and dealing with being German (or Communist?) in post-WWII America.

The fabulous cast is mostly led by Guthrie newcomers, with many Guthrie favorites in the ensemble. Lee Sellers as Ödön is wonderfully sympathetic and a great guide throughout the story. He has no accent while narrating or talking to other Europeans, but speaks in accented and fragmented English while speaking to Americans. A nice touch, it always annoys me when, in American made movies, people in other countries are seen speaking English with an accent to each other when they should be speaking their native tongue. This works well to differentiate the fluency and comfort of speaking with one another from the awkwardness of trying to communicate in a second language. Another couple of Guthrie newcomers are standouts in the cast. Keir Dullea, as Ödön's mentor Heinrich Mann, conveys that lost feeling of an emigre who's not comfortable in this new life. Allison Daugherty is excellent as his tragic wife Nelly. Guthrie veteran Stephen Yoakam once again gives a dynamic performance as the slightly crazy Bertolt Brecht. And I had fun spotting some of my faves (Summer Hagen, Charity Jones, Bill McCallum, John Skelley, Anna Sundberg) in the background of the scenes, and wishing they had more to do.

The staging of this play is really unique, with lots of little movie tricks. The stage looks like a movie studio, with ensemble members directing huge spotlights. Some scenes are filmed by an old camera off the stage, with the image projected onto the backdrop of the stage, so you feel as if you're watching an old black and white movie. There's even someone doing sound effects just off-stage. Newsreel footage is also displayed on the backdrop, depicting the events being discussed. It's a pretty high-tech show, but in an inventive way that suits the Hollywood theme of the play.

Now that I've seen all three of the plays in the "Christopher Hampton Celebration," I was thinking about what they all have in common. The obvious answer is history. In Tales from Hollywood, it's the history of German emigres in the early days of Hollywood. In Appomattox, it's several centuries of history of the Civil Rights movement. In Embers, it's the personal history of one man who can't let go of the past. I may have some more ideas on that as I sit with it a bit, but for now I will just say that any of these three diverse plays is worth checking out, depending on what you're in the mood for.

"Embers" at the Guthrie Studio Theater

Embers* is the second of the three Christopher Hampton plays currently running at the Guthrie that I've seen, following the historical drama Appomattox a few weeks ago. An adaptation of the 1942 novel by Hungarian author Sándor Márai, Embers revolves around an intense but fractured friendship between two men. Something happened 41 years ago that caused Konrad to abruptly leave the Hungarian town where they lived and served in the military, and Henrik is now, at the end of his life, determined to get the truth.

I don't want to say too much about the plot because it's fascinating and suspenseful to watch it all unfold, but the event that caused these two friends to separate involves a woman (naturally). Henrik and Konrad grew up together, and loved each other as brothers, but it seems there was always a bit of tension in their friendship. Henrik was born to a wealthy family, while Konrad's parents struggled to give him any advantage they could. Henrik married Krisztina, but Konrad loved her too, and perhaps she loved him (in many ways it's very similar to the Rick/Shane/Lori story on Walking Dead, yes I just compared a 20th century Hungarian novel to a TV show about zombies). All of these complicated feelings boiled over on one day 41 years ago. Konrad left town without a word to anyone, and Henrik and Krisztina's relationship was irreparably damaged. Henrik invites Konrad to dinner at his castle in an attempt to settle things once and for all.

James A. Stephens as Henrik
This is a three-person cast, but at times it feels like a one-man show. James A. Stephens gives an utterly captivating performance as Henrik. It's a thrill to listen to the words come out of his mouth in these long philosophical monologues, as he elegantly paces around the room in a tux with his after dinner drink in his hand. Nathaniel Fuller's Konrad mostly listens and evades the questions, giving a sense that the past is still too painful to talk about or even acknowledge. Guthrie stalwart Barbara Bryne makes a brief appearance at the beginning and end of the play as Henrik's devoted servant. There's very little action in this play, it's mostly just one or two people sitting in a room talking. But in this case that's a good thing. And it's a beautiful room - the Dowling Studio (whose namesake, Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling, directs) is set up in the round, which I've never seen here before. A few pieces of imposing furniture are in the space, with a fireplace on one end and large portraits on the other.

Embers is the smallest and quietest of the three Christopher Hampton plays - Appomattox and Tales of Hollywood have large casts, fancy sets and costumes, and plots that cover long time spans. This is basically a story about the relationship between two people, with the events of the play taking place on one long evening. It's a nice complement to the other two, playing now through October 27.

*I received two complementary tickets to Embers as part of the Guthrie's Blogger Night.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Peter and the Starcatcher" at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway

Usually when I go to NYC, I see as many Broadway shows as I can fit in, sometimes as many as four or five in a long weekend. On this most recent trip, I spent most of the time visiting friends in and out of the city, but I couldn't possibly go to NYC and not see a Broadway show! Most of what is currently playing I've either seen already (Once, Book of Mormon), was not available at the half-price TKTS line (ditto), or I had no interest in seeing (Rock of Ages, Annie, Mary Poppins and the like). The two exceptions are the revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, and the five-time Tony-winning Peter and the Starcatcher, which falls in the slightly odd category of "play with music." We chose the latter, and I found it to be delightful, innovative, creative, and totally different from what you usually see on Broadway (which is a good thing in my book). Incorporating music (a few songs accompanied by keyboard and percussion, which also provide a soundtrack to the action), elements of physical theater (similar to Minnesota's Live Action Set and Transatlantic Love Affair), low-tech stage illusions, and good old-fashioned storytelling, it's a delightfully successful theatrical experiment.

Peter and the Starcatcher is based on the 2004 novel Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, a prequel to the Peter Pan story we're all familiar with. The play was written by Rick Elice and is directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers (who, along with several members of the creative team, was also responsible for the wacky and fun satire Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). The title character is an unnamed and unloved orphan who's sold into slavery along with two other boys. They're being transported on the ship Neverland, captained by Slank and his rough and rowdy crew. Also on board are 13-year-old Molly and her nurse. Molly's father, the well-to-do and important Lord Aster, has entrusted her to the captain while he travels on a more dangerous route aboard the Wasp, on a mission for the queen.  He's transporting a trunk that unbeknownst to him has been swapped with a similar trunk of worthless sand by the devious Captain Slank. This set-up is explained to us largely in narration by various characters.

Aster's ship is overtaken by pirates, namely the dastardly Black Stache (Matthew Saldivar in a delightfully over-the-top hammy performance). He gets the key for the treasure-filled trunk from Aster, only to find sand and deduce that the trunk with the queen's treasure is on the other ship. He orders the crew to turn around and attack the Neverland. Meanwhile, back on that same ship, Molly has befriended the orphans and told them that her father is really transporting "star stuff," that must be destroyed because of its great power to turn anyone who comes in contact with it into whatever they want to be, whether good or evil. She has a secret means of communicating with her father (they're "starcatchers!"), so she and the boys help the Neverland get caught. The ship splits in two and Peter and some of the others are cast overboard!

So ends the first act. The second act takes place on an island, whose unfriendly native people speak a foreign tongue that seems to be mostly comprised of the names of Italian foods. Other dangers include crocodiles and sweet talking mermaids. Everyone is eventually reunited and must make some difficult decisions about what and whom to save. Molly and the orphan, now named Peter, save the day, but Peter realizes that he must stay on the island and remain a boy. He comes in contact with the star stuff and since what he wants most in the world is to be a normal boy, a boy he must be forever. The plot is wrapped up a little too neatly to make it fit into the Peter Pan story (Molly grows up to have children named Wendy and Michael, Black Stache loses his hand and becomes Captain Hook in a hilarious prolonged bit). But it's a sweet and engaging story with a heroine and a hero to root for.

the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher
Each member of the twelve-person cast has many roles to play and is fully committed to the story-telling. This is the fourth time I've seen the actor playing Peter - Adam Chanler-Berat (twice in the original cast of Next to Normal and in the Off-Broadway production of RENT last year). He's such an expressive and present actor, he makes Peter someone to believe in and root for. Celia Keenan-Bolger as Molly (the lone woman in the cast) is also wonderful, believably and joyfully playing a precocious British teenager despite being a grown up American woman. Other standouts, besides the aforementioned Matthew Saldivar as Black Stache, are Arnie Burton as Molly's ever-supportive Nurse and Rick Holmes as her father.

While the whole show is delightful, I enjoyed the first act more than the second. Most of the 12 actors are on stage for the entire act, playing many different roles or providing the backdrop for the scene. The ship set is nice and close in, providing an appropriate sense of claustrophobia and darkness of a sea voyage. In contrast, the island is all openness and light, and the characters are more scattered in separate groups.

What I appreciate most about Peter and the Starcatcher is that it's a really creative and fresh form of storytelling. It was easy to get tickets to this show, as opposed to the blockbuster Newsies, which is more accessible and familiar, and therefore, sold out. I wish more people would give this show a try, it's delightful for kids and adults alike. When children's entertainment is done well, and doesn't talk down to them and spoon feed them easily digestible morsels, but rather engages their brains and imaginations as participants in the storytelling experience, it's something that children of all ages, including the hated grown ups, can appreciate.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Billy Elliot" at the Ordway Center

Despite being an adaptation of a movie, Billy Elliot is a fun and moving musical with spectacular choreography. I saw this same production on tour at the Orpheum two years ago and wrote a fairly extensive review of it at the time, so I'm not going to go into that much detail here. It's pretty much the same production with a different cast, and I agree with what I said last time. You can read that review here. Below are a few highlights of the tour that's currently at the Ordway through this weekend.
  • In a nutshell, Billy Elliot is an adaptation of the 2000 movie of the same name about a young boy in working class England who finds himself through dance, while his family and tight-knit community is going through the coal miner's strike of 1984.
  • The best part of this show is the choreography. It's edgy and unique, unlike anything I've seen elsewhere. You have the ballet that the kids are learning with varying degrees of skills, mixed with the rough movement of the miners and cops. It's really something to see.
  • The stars of this show are the children. Four Billys are on tour with the show, and I saw a young lad named Noah Parets, who was incredible. He carries this show and has some difficult and energetic choreography. I particularly love what I like to call "the angry dance," where Billy is so angry he can only express it through dance, as he bounces off walls and taps around the stage. Later he dances with an older version of himself in a beautiful ballet, and literally flies through the air.
  • I think my favorite scenes of this musical are those involving the little girls in the ballet class. Who can resist little girls in tutus and pigtails with foul mouths?!  Not me. They perform with the awkward grace of your average children's dance class, but I suspect that they're actually a lot better than they pretend to be.
  • The adults are good too, particularly Minnesota native Janet Dickinson as Billy's ballet teacher, Patti Perkins as his Grandma, and Rich Hebert as his tough love father.
  • The set is quite effective in creating the spaces where the story takes place. The main set is the community center/gym where the town meetings and classes are held, with walls opening up or moving in and out to expand the space when needed.
Billy Elliot is a great big musical, and a successful adaptation of a small cult hit English movie (although I still think Next to Normal should have won the Tony that year!). For more details you can read my past review. And if you're interested, act fast, this one's only here for one week!

Monday, October 8, 2012

"Next to Normal" at Mixed Blood Theatre

Next to Normal is not a light and happy feel-good musical. It's a gut-wrenching, emotionally exhausting musical, but in the best, most satisfying way. In what is arguably the best-written musical of this century, themes of loss, grief, mental illness, family dynamics, drug abuse, codependent relationships, and suicide are explored. Heavy stuff for a musical, but that's what I love about it. Next to Normal shows us just how deep, real, relevant, and meaningful musical theater can be. I've seen the Broadway production three times (including once on tour at the Ordway last year), but I'm always curious to see what a local theater company does with a familiar musical. Mixed Blood Theatre does an amazing job with this brilliant piece. They put their own spin on it, including a racially diverse cast, completely different sets and costumes, and recasting one of the male characters as a female, while retaining the moving story and driving rock score of the show.

Next to Normal is about your typical American family - mother, father, sister, brother. But this family is not as happy and "normal" as it appears. The mother has been suffering from mental illness (bipolar, depression, schizophrenia) for years, and the father is desperately trying to hold everything together for the family. The children are dealing with family issues on top of normal teenage issues like school pressure, drugs, and dating. All of this is told boldly and beautifully through music, with little spoken dialogue. The Tony-winning score is driving and edgy with some incredibly harmonies among the small cast. This is not an easy musical, but the actors and musicians (led by Music Director Jason Hansen) sound terrific (with some band members doubling as actors when needed).

This is a really well-cast show. Aditi Kapil is fierce, vulnerable, and raw as Diana as she goes through the ups and downs of her illness (a role that won Alice Ripley a Tony). Thomas W. Jones II is strong and sympathetic as her husband, trying to make everything all right. As the favorite son Gabe, Ricardo Vazquez is a dynamic presence with a strong voice. The final member of this family is tough but fragile daughter Natalie, played by Brittany Bradford. The more I see of Brittany, the more I like her. She's played such diverse roles as Gary Coleman and Sarah Brown Eyes, and again nails this role with her gorgeous voice and expressive face. The multi-talented Tom Reed is Natalie's sweet and supportive boyfriend Henry. The Natalie/Henry relationship is the one bright spot in this drama, a hope for the future that their lives can turn out better than Natalie's parents. Rounding out the cast is Regina Marie Williams as Diana's doctor, a role typically played by a man. It's not a huge change and doesn't really affect the story, perhaps making the doctor seem more sympathetic to Diana. But if you have the chance to cast Regina in any role, take it!

The set of the Broadway production of Next to Normal is so much a part of the show that I was curious to see how Mixed Blood would do it in their smaller space. In Broadway the set was comprised of three levels with the actors running up and down stairs to the different levels, almost representing different levels of consciousness or thought. Mixed Blood has turned their black box theater 90 degrees, so it's long and shallow. There's only one story to the set (designed by Joseph Stanley), but with some stairs and platforms so we still get some sense of different levels. And I was fascinated by the set pieces, moving blocks of gray that open up to reveal bathroom cabinets or lamps or a bookshelf. The costumes are also much different than the Broadway production, and successfully so. The Broadway costumes were sleek and business-like, but these costumes (designed by Mallory Kay Nelson) are more homey and colorful. The color and pattern are an interesting contrast to the darkness of the piece. And it makes more sense that a woman struggling with depression would put on a comfy sweater and house slippers rather than heels and a pencil skirt.

It's so interesting how this musical plays with ideas of "normal" - what is a normal family, what is a normal reaction to tragedy. And the conclusion is there's no such thing as normal. As Natalie tells her mother, "I don't need a life that's normal, that's way too far away, but something next to normal would be OK." That's really the human struggle, to make a life that's next to normal despite the sadness and setbacks we all have to live through. "The price of love is loss, but still we pay, we love anyway." In other words, you might want to bring a few tissues when you go to see the show. If you've never seen Next to Normal, now's your chance to see one of the best musicals of the last few years. And if you have seen it, you'll want to check out this production and see it in a different way. Playing now through November 11 at Mixed Blood Theatre.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

"The Diary of Anne Frank" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Anne Frank's story is a remarkable one, unbelievably tragic, but sadly not unique. What makes Anne Frank unique is that she wrote her story down on paper, and her writings survived when she did not. She has become a symbol for the Holocaust, providing a face for the unfathomable tragedy that is the murder of six million people. Through Anne's very human writings, filled with not just the atrocities of persecution but also very relatable issues of growing up, we get a glimpse into what it was really like to be a Jew living in Europe during the Nazi era, trying to survive and make some sort of a life for oneself. Anne and her family, along with four other people, lived in a few small rooms above her father's business in Amsterdam for two years, until they were finally discovered and sent to various concentration camps. Anne's father was the only one to survive, and was given Anne's writings from the friends who helped to hide them, who had found the papers after the family was taken away. Otto Frank succeeded in his daughter's wish to publish the diary (she rewrote her original entries after hearing a radio broadcast about collecting diaries and letters as eyewitness accounts of the war). The Diary of a Young Girl was first published in English in 1952, and was adapted into a play in 1955. Yellow Tree Theatre is presenting the revised version of the play from the 1997 revival, and they do a wonderful job with this story. It's a powerful piece of theater.

Yellow Tree has gathered a strong cast of favorites and newcomers to the theater, under the direction of Jon Cranney who directed Yellow Tree's last show, The Glass Menagerie. He brings a similar style, raw and natural, to this much larger cast. In fact, it's one of the largest casts I've seen at Yellow Tree. Eight people living in a few small attic rooms is crowded, and ten people on the cozy Yellow Tree stage is too. But it never seems overwhelmingly crowded, everyone moves around the space smoothly and efficiently, even in the quick scene changes. The star of the show is Ali Daniels as Anne Frank. As my friend The Playbill Collector noted, for a college graduate she's a very believable teenager (and she looks a little like a young Judy Garland in braids). Spirited and wide-eyed, but with the wisdom of a child, she successfully conveys Anne's essence, both in conversation with others and in reciting passages from Anne's diary. I was reminded of the History Theater's Coco's Diary this spring, although obviously Anne had a much more difficult life than Coco. But both are insightful observations of the world around them.

the cast of The Diary of Anne Frank on the set
(Anne and her family had to remove their
shoes during the day to reduce noise)
Real teenager Gabi Jones (she's in 8th grade!) is lovely as Anne's quieter, more obedient older sister. Nathan Surprenant, last seen as Mozart in the whimsical Still Life with Iris, is strong and sympathetic as Anne's father, doing the best he can to protect his family but falling short. He closes the play with a moving soliloquy after the war is over. Also noteworthy are Melanie Wehrmacher as Anne's mother, with whom she has a strained relationship typical of teenage girls and their mother; Ryan Nelson as the dentist who moves in with the two families, providing entertainment and frustration; and Janet Hanson as Mrs. Van Daan, clinging to her fur coat as the last remnant of her old life.

As usual, Yellow Tree makes the most of their small stage, transforming it into the cramped but cozy quarters of the families. In a set designed by Rick Polenek, this place that they called home for two years comes to life. Photos from the real location and clever staging help us to imagine what the real hiding place looked and felt like.

Anne Frank's story is a powerful one, an important one to remember as it gives us an entry into the wider tragedy of the Holocaust. Yellow Tree does it beautifully; it's an entertaining and moving evening of theater (playing now through October 21). It has inspired me to read the book (I can't remember if I ever did), and the next time I'm passing through Amsterdam, I'll be sure to visit the museum that is now in the location of her hiding place. The one bright spot in Anne's story is that this wish came true: “I don't want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met. I want to go on living even after my death!” 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

"Appomattox" at the Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie Theater is opening their 50th anniversary season with three plays by British playwright Christopher Hampton (author of the play and movie version of Dangerous Liaisons). Tales from Hollywood, a dark comedy about exiled Germans in Hollywood in the 1930s, is playing on the Thrust stage. Embers, "a fascinating study of passion (love and hate), truth, friendship, the urge to be the stronger and the need to survive," is playing in the nine floor Studio Theater. I'll see both of these plays in a few weeks, but I began Hampton-fest with the new drama Appomattox, playing on the Proscenium stage. It's an epic historical drama that tells about two important moments in our nation's history - the surrender of the Confederacy in 1865 at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act a century later. With a running time of three hours (including one intermission), it's a long play and a heavy one. At times it feels long, but it's also a fascinating look at our history with impeccable staging, sets, and costumes.

The play is structured in two acts that are almost like two separate plays, but with related themes and the same cast of actors playing a character (or two) in each act. It's a little like the repertoire days of old at the Guthrie. The first act centers on battles of the Civil War, while the second act centers on legal and political battles for Civil Rights. The play draws parallels between the two periods, aided by the fact that often the same actor plays related characters in each act. Harry Groener plays President Lincoln and President Johnson, two very different men but both effective proponents of Civil Rights. Harry really provides a center to the play. His portrayal of LBJ is incredibly engaging and charismatic - he is quite a colorful character, speaking with frank language and funny and folksy metaphors. Mark Benninghofen is a grounding force playing both presidents' right-hand man - General Grant and attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach. The divine Sally Wingert plays both first ladies, who are about as different as the two presidents. One a bit crazy and dramatic, the other more sane and strong, but both sharing their opinions with their husbands about how the country should be run. The cast is huge and features many fine performances, some quite brief, including Joe Nathan Thomas as Frederick Douglass and Shawn Hamilton as Martin Luther King, Jr. The play ends with a short scene in the present, showing us that the past isn't that far behind us.

The Guthrie does period pieces like no other. Scenes and set pieces move in and out on sliding panels, with actors freezing at the end of scenes, like moving historical tableaus. The costumes are perfection, especially in the first act - military uniforms and hoop skirted concoctions that look good enough to eat! Photos are projected on the back wall of the stage, showing scenes of war or riots, or providing a backdrop for the action.

I remember my high school history teacher saying that when the authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote "all men are created equal," what they really meant was that all white property-owning men aged 21 and over are created equal. The last 240 years has been about expanding that narrow category until all people truly are equal under the law, and we're not quite there yet. On the night I attended Appomattox, there was a post-show discussion featuring experts on human rights. Much of the discussion centered on the Voter ID Amendment that will be voted on here in Minnesota in just a few short weeks, threatening to take away some of those rights that were fought for and won. Consider this exchange from The Daily Show between host Jon Stewart and "Senior Black Correspondent" Larry Wilmore:

Larry: How old is this country?
Jon: About 240
Larry: How long have black people been allowed to vote?
Jon: About 150
Larry: In Alabama?
Jon: About 48

48 years is a relatively short time in the history of this country. There are African American people alive today who can remember when they weren't able to vote. I can't imagine how that must feel as things start to move the other way again, towards exclusion rather than inclusion. Despite being a historical drama, the themes of this play are very timely. I'm not sure how a British man capture American history so well. The three plays in the Christopher Hampton celebration seem quite diverse. This American drama is pretty intense and thought-provoking; I look forward to seeing the other two plays.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"Measure for Measure" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

Ten Thousand Things brings their totally unique, stripped-down, bare-bones, get-right-to-the-core-of-it style to another Shakespeare play (one I've never seen or read), Measure for Measure. And they do it in a way that's fulfilling for everyone, from Shakespeare experts (like the people sitting behind me who noticed which lines were cut), to avid theater goes who still sometimes have a hard time getting into Shakespeare's world (like me), to the homeless people and prisoners that comprise TTT's non-traditional theater audience. It's in the way the actors clearly and slowly say the words, with emphasis in the right places to make it more understandable; the humor and lightness they bring to certain moments in the play; the interaction and eye contact with the audience; the playful sounds (from Peter Vitale) that set the tone and highlight certain actions; and the simple but entirely appropriate set pieces and costumes. All of it adds up to really great storytelling, which is what theater is all about, no matter who the audience is.

I did not know that Measure for Measure was a comedy until I read the Wikipedia page. It definitely has comedic moments and the trademark disguises and mistaken identities, but it doesn't have that light-hearted slapstick feel of many of Shakespeare's comedies (it's known as a "problem play" because it doesn't easily fit into one category). The undertone is a bit darker, as it deals with issues of justice, judgement, and mercy. The plot concerns a man named Claudio who is sentenced to death for "fornication" with a woman whom he considers his wife, although the law doesn't. Claudio's sister Isabella, who's about to become a nun, pleads with Angelo, the man who sentenced Claudio, for her brother's life. Angelo agrees to spare Claudio if Isabella sleeps with him, the very act for which Claudio is condemned. Fortunately there is someone observing this mess and plotting to make it right - the absent Duke, who is in disguise as a Friar. Things eventually work out in the end, which is I guess how you know it's a comedy (in Shakespeare's tragedies half the characters end up dead). To summarize, it's like the TV show Undercover Boss, as observed by a homeless man who was in the audience at one of the shelters where TTT performed. The Duke, the boss of Vienna, is observing her subjects in disguise and righting their wrongs.

As usual, TTT found some of the best actors in the Twin Cities for this play. Suzanne Warmanen is wonderful as the Duke, bringing an interesting perspective re-imagining the all-powerful ruler as a woman. Luverne Siefert is his usual clownish self (I mean that as a complement) as Pompey, but there's nothing funny about his portrayal of the deadly serious Angelo. Sonja Parks brings dignity and power to her role as Isabella, despite her tiny frame. A couple of students from the U of M/Guthrie BFA program really shine - India Gurley in a variety of roles, and the utterly charming Nathan Barlow as the accused Claudio and the goofy cop Elbow. Karen Wiese-Thompson is funny as the town prostitute, and sympathetic as Angelo's rejected betrothed. Kurt Kwan is solid as a soldier, a friar, and the exasperated prison provost who helplessly watches the events play out, and Zach Curtis is a range of funny as simple-minded Froth, the well-meaning Lucio who puts his foot in his mouth, and the prisoner who's too drunk to be executed.

Ten Thousand Thing's Artistic Director Michelle Hensley, who directs this piece, also directed Measure for Measure for The Public Theater in NYC a few years ago, and they are continuing the idea of performing for free to atypical theater audiences in the community. I've said this before and I'll say it again - if you've never seen a Ten Thousand Things production, you must go. It's truly unlike any other theater you'll see anywhere, and once you get a taste, you'll be hooked like I am.