Saturday, November 17, 2012

"A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie Theater

You can always count on the Guthrie's annual production of A Christmas Carol* for perfectly satisfactory holiday entertainment. Charles Dickens' 1843 novella is such a classic story of gratitude, forgiveness, and appreciation for one's life and the people in it, that no matter how many times I see it, it never gets old. This is my ninth year in a row attending A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie, and while the core story is always the same, there are enough changes from year to year to keep me interested. Whether it's a new adaptation (by Crispin Whittel, which the Guthrie began using in 2010), new direction (this year by Joe Chvala of Flying Foot Forum, bringing his signature style of motion to the dance numbers and the way characters move around the stage), or new actors playing familiar roles (more on that later), every year brings a slight twist to a familiar and beloved story.

I spent some time this morning looking through my nine (and counting) scrapbooks full of ticket stubs and playbills, remembering past versions of A Christmas Carol. It was fun to see the revolving cast, with many constants returning year after year along with a few newbies every year. About two-thirds of last year's cast returns, with notable newcomers including Chanhassen fave Jay Albright (applying his entertainingly expressive face to the diverse roles of the jolly Mr. Fezziwig and the somber priest at the graveyard), the newly crowned Ivey Award-winner Hugh Kennedy (charming and natural as usual in the role of nephew Fred), and yet another graduate of the U of M/Guthrie program Paris Hunter Paul as young Scrooge. J.C. Cutler returns as Scrooge after his magnificent performance as artist Mark Rothko in Red at Park Square, his performance even more poignant and delightful than last year. Kris L. Nelson returns for the third year as Scrooge's hard-working clerk Cratchit, a likeable fellow who is eventually rewarded for his loyalty to the old Mr. Scrooge. Also returning for the third year is Angela Timbermann as Scrooge's housekeeper Merriweather, once again stealing scenes with her singing, drinking, and general disdain for everything. Returning ghosts include Tracey Maloney as the lovely but sad past, and Robert Berdahl as the merry present that turns much darker (also appearing as the boy Scrooge's literary friend Ali Baba and old Scrooge's fellow stingy businessman). But the award for longest tenure with the show has to go to Suzanne Warmanen as Mrs. Fezziwig. She has played the role in all but one of the nine productions I've see (I guess she was busy in 2009?), and who knows how many years before that. She's got the role down pat, but continues to make it fresh and funny. Rounding out the cast are countless children and adults playing "rich men, poor men, carolers, Fezziwig guests, villagers, Londoners, and Morris dancers." The children are especially impressive as always, including the little darling playing the all important role of Tiny Tim, singing a beautifully clear and high carol so slowly and patiently while standing all alone on stage. Judging by these kids, the future of Twin Cities theater continues to look bright.

My favorite scene in A Christmas Carol is always the Fezziwig party, or rather parties, as we see young Scrooge change over several years at the annual event held by his generous employer. Filled with music, dancing, food, and lots and lots of people, it always looks like the most wonderful party you've never been to. The dancing (choreographed by director Joe Chvala) is delightful, and everyone joins in. But this show is not all fun and games; the special effects involving the forlorn future shown to Scrooge are pretty creepy. Which makes the final transformation all the more satisfying. And it goes without saying that the sets and costumes are a feast for the eyes.

If you've never seen the Guthrie's production of A Christmas Carol, it really is something you must experience at least once. And if the last time you saw it was prior to 2010 when they started using the darker, sharper, funnier adaptation with completely new sets, you'll probably want to see it again to see how much it's changed. Finally, if you're like me and you see it every year, rest assured that this year's production does not disappoint. Playing now through December 29.

*I received two complementary tickets to A Christmas Carol as part of Blogger Night at the Guthrie.

"Romeo and Juliet" by Theatre Coup d'Etat at the Southern Theater

In Theatre Coup d'Etat's production of Shakespeare's classic tragic love story Romeo and Juliet, there's a big twist: Romeo is a woman. But the surprising thing is that it doesn't change the story one bit. It's the same beautifully tragic, frustratingly doomed love story we all know and love. The only language that's been changed are the pronouns referring to the lady Romeo. The problem everyone has with Romeo and Juliet being together is not because of their gender, but because they belong to warring families in Verona. It's a very quick and easy transition to get used to a female Romeo, and from there, the power and drama of the classic story take over.

But before we get to the play, there was a strange but fascinating pre-show show. First, the cast gathered onstage for a yoga and vocal warm-up, which was kind of fun to watch. Then all of the actors transformed into animals, crawling around the stage sniffing and growling at each other. I had a brief moment of fear - they're not going to do Romeo and Juliet as animals, are they? Fortunately that was not the case, and the exercise ended as quickly as it began. The actors/animals left the stage, and after a moment, the Prince entered, and the story began. I still have no idea what that was about; it was a strange preamble that seemed to have nothing to do with the play, but it certainly was interesting!

the Friar (Paul Schoenack)
with the (momentarily) happy couple
(Christina Castro and Briana Patnode)
On to the main event. Strong performances by the entire cast are led by our Romeo and Juliet. Christina Castro is a strong and likeable presence as Romeo, believably falling in the love with the girl across the room at a party, who just happens to be the daughter of her family's enemy. Briana Patnode's Juliet is all sweet wide-eyed innocence, until her new love kills her cousin and is banished from Verona, and her innocence turns to despair. Meri Golden provides some comic relief as Juliet's story-telling nurse. Also notable are Alec Barniskis as the Prince, with appropriately imposing height and commanding voice; James Napolean Stone as Mercutio, especially his entertaining fight and death scene ("a curse on both your houses!"); and Paul Schoenack as the friar who tries to do right by the young lovers.

The Southern Theater contains the most beautiful stage in the Twin Cities. With the cavernous space in front of the original arch, the possibilities are endless, and it's perfectly suited to a classic story like Shakespeare's. Theatre Coup d'Etat makes good use of the space with just a few necessary and basic set pieces. The costumes (by Tyler Stamm) are simple but beautiful, classic with a modern twist. I appreciate that the Capulets wear a bit of red, while the Montagues wear a shade of blue, because sometimes I have a hard time remember who's on which side. Romeo's look - boots, leggings, and jacket - is not overly feminine, but not that different from what women wear today. Juliet's wardrobe is as lovely and sweet as she is.

This is a great production of a classic piece of theater. Romeo and Juliet is a show that's done so often, you almost need a new take on it to justify doing it again. Or rather, I need something different and interesting to make me want to see it again. Re-imagining Romeo as a woman is just that twist that makes you see and appreciate the story in a new way, without significantly changing it.

the gorgeous wide open stage at the Southern Theater

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"In the Next Room" at the Jungle Theater

In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. It's an unexpected title. And while, yes, the play features the vibrator (more specifically the time in history when "electric massage" was a serious medical treatment for a particular ailment of women diagnosed as "hysteria"), the play is really about relationships, medical practice, the dawn of electricity, connections, and life "when the power dynamic between man and woman began to stir, but most men's hearts belonged first to invention" (from a note in the playbill). This Tony-nominated new play by Sarah Ruhl is making its regional debut, and as usual, it's perfectly executed by The Jungle Theater. Funny, smart, and sweet, with impeccable set and costume design, it's a highly entertaining night at the theater, even if it might make you squirm in your seat a little (which is not a bad thing in theater).

The titular "next room" refers to Dr. Givings' medical office, which, awkwardly, is just off the parlor of his beautiful Victorian home in "a prosperous spa town outside of New York City." Women visit Dr. Givings when they're feeling a little off, and he very calmly and clinically administers the therapy, as their husbands chat with Mrs. Givings or take a brisk walk around the grounds. Catherine is very curious about her husband's practice, despite his attempts to keep her away from it. The ironic thing is that the doctor who is helping many women, strangers, to feel better, is completely oblivious to his own wife's needs. She has recently given birth to a beautiful baby girl but is unable to produce enough milk to feed her, so a wet nurse is hired to feed the baby. This leaves Catherine feeling inadequate as a mother and as a woman, something her husband has little sympathy for. He just pats her on the head and says "there there." Her restlessness and dissatisfaction manifest themselves as falling in love with a male patient (it is rare, but men apparently can also suffer from "hysteria"). Eventually the Givings are able to talk to each other about how they feel and what they want and need, in their own sort of way, and begin the road to healing and connection (without the aid of electricity).

the patient and the doctor's wife "in the next room"
(Emily Gunyou Halaas and Christina Baldwin)
This is a dream cast. The capable John Middleton brings the doctor to life and hints that perhaps there is something behind his cold exterior. As I've said before, there's nothing Christina Baldwin can't do - comedy or drama, musical or straight play, or all of it combined. She's completely delightful as doctor's wife, her bubbly exterior masking the pain underneath (and she even sings a little!). Also great are Emily Gunyou Halaas as the reluctant patient who comes to depend on the therapy, and the always entertaining Bradley Greenwald as her insensitive (to say the least) husband. My new fave Austene Van (I'm super excited about her upcoming role) brings much compassion and humanity to the role of the wet nurse, who has recently lost her own baby and is now giving milk and love to a stranger's baby. Ryan Underbakke is quite charming as the artist suffering from hysteria, and Annie Enneking brings a softness to the outwardly brusque and efficient midwife assisting the doctor.

I feel I must devote an entire paragraph to the sets at the Jungle, and to this set in particular. I've come to believe that the Jungle has the best sets of any theater in town, not because they're the most fancy and elaborate (that would be the Guthrie and whatever touring Broadway production is currently in town), but because they serve the story best, and create the most distinct and specific world in which that story exists, from the sparse and barren world of Waiting for Godot, to the shabby rooming house of The Birthday Party, to the gorgeous home of the Givens juxtaposed with the cold and efficient operating theater "in the next room." Often the director also serves as set designer at the Jungle, giving a cohesive focus to the story and its environment. Although that's not the case here, the result is the same. Sarah Rasmussen beautifully directs this piece, and Bain Boehlke has created a beautiful world in which it comes to life. And the effect at the end, when the Givens go out into their winter garden, is something quite magical. In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, really is a beautiful and touching holiday show!

And then there are the costumes, gorgeously designed by Moria Sine Clinton. Not only do they look luscious, but they're also functional, as most characters strip down to their underthings. It's quite fascinating to watch the layers come off and go back on again in a complicated but orderly manner. And yes, the underthings are just as beautiful (and yes, they use the word underthings).

In the Next Room is the final show in The Jungle Theater's 2012 season, which also included the Ivey Award-winning (for lighting) and deliciously thrilling Dial M for Murder, the bizarre Pinter play The Birthday Party, the hilarious and fast moving farce Noises Off, and the delightfully absurd Waiting for Godot. It's truly been a remarkable season. Is it possible the 2013 season could be better? With recent Broadway hit Venus in Fur (starring Anna Sundberg and Peter Christian Hansen), Deathtrap, Urinetown (a musical I love and have been dying to see again), Fool for Love, and Driving Miss Daisy starring the incomparable Wendy Lehr, the answer could be yes. Stay tuned. In the meantime, go see the perfectly delightful In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, playing now through December 16.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Trail of Two Cities with Dan Chouinard and Friends" at the Minnesota History Center

I love history (especially Minnesota history), and I love music. So the recent event at the Minnesota History Center*, Trail of Two Cities with Dan Chouinard and Friends, was just my kind of thing. I became familiar with talented pianist/accordionist/storyteller Dan Chouinard years ago through the dear, departed, MPR Morning Show, and have seen him in many concerts since, including his Cafe Europa show (about his adventures bicycling around Europe with an accordion) and Steerage Song (last summer's collaboration with Theater Latte Da). In Trail of Two Cities, Dan brings his music/storytelling format to these two beautiful cities we call home, and more specifically, to how we travel between them. Dan travels by bicycle as much as possible, which I hugely admire and envy. He encouraged the audience to bring the mindfulness necessary when traveling through the city by bike to however we travel. There's a reason the roads we travel on are where they are. The show reminded me a little of The History Channel's series How the States Got their Shapes, only with local landmarks like the crosstown (a way for livestock trucks to bypass the city) and University Avenue (an old Native American trail from the falls of St. Anthony to the bend in the river).

In addition to learning lots of fascinating tidbits about local history, complete with period photos and paintings, Dan and Friends also provided music to accompany the stories. Dan's talented Friends include several members of the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band, "old-time musicians" husband and wife duo Kim and Quillan Roe, and talented vocalist Prudence Johnson. Train songs, truck songs, river songs, the music covered every mode of transportation used in the history of these Twin Cities. Modes of transportation and related songs include:
  • Horse and buggy - a sing-along to "Surry with the Fringe On Top"
  • Trains (a 30-45 minute trip in the late 19th century) - "The Wabash Cannonball"
  • Steamboat - a song about the Lake Pepin Steamboat by the adorable Chouinard Family Barbershop Quartet (Quintet?), consisting of Dan, his dad, and three brothers
  • Streetcars (which took over the train business in the early 20th century until their demise in 1956) - "Clang Clang Clang went the Trolley"
  • Highways (first built in the '50s and '60s, 94 was built straight through the African American neighborhood of Rhondo) - "Drive the USA in Your Chevrolet"
It was a fascinating trip through local history that made me want to learn more. It also made me want to move from the suburbs into the city so I could make use of the growing public transportation (the streetcars return!). The show reminded me of my desire to take the train to Chicago for a theater weekend, and float down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a riverboat. I'm not sure if the latter even exists, but the former definitely does, and especially now that the Amtrak is moving back to the newly renovated historic Union Depot in St. Paul, I'll be sure to do that soon. Thanks to Dan and Friends for exploring the ideas of local travel in such an entertaining and musical way!

The Falls of St. Anthony by Albert Bierstadt

*The Minnesota History Center's auditorium is a nice venue (I'd previously seen a History Theatre production 1968 there), and it's a great museum. I've been wanting to see their current exhibit on the US-Dakota War of 1862 and was hoping to go that afternoon and make a day of it, but unfortunately they closed the center between museum time and event time. I'll have to go back another time, perhaps in conjunction with another event.

Monday, November 5, 2012

"Summer and Smoke" at Theatre in the Round

Tennessee Williams is one of my favorite playwrights. He has created several memorable women (or perhaps versions of the same woman), among them Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois, and Maggie the Cat. I have recently become acquainted with Alma Winemiller in Theatre in the Round's sublime production of Summer and Smoke, and I am utterly charmed by her complexities and heart-broken by her plight. Like all of Tennessee Williams' women, Alma is a genteel Southern woman with clear ideas of the way life should be, whose story turns tragic when reality doesn't live up to her expectations. 

I love a good unrequited love story, and this is one of the best I've seen. The kind that makes you think maybe things can work out for these two crazy kids, and then dashes your hopes to the ground as reality sets back in and it all falls apart. The prim and proper minister's daughter Alma is in love with the boy next door, the playboy doctor's son John, who grew up to be a doctor himself. Alma is not the type of woman John usually keeps company with, but he's drawn to her. Alas, theirs is a love that can never be. She wants him physically, but she can't admit that even to herself because it doesn't fit into the world she's created for herself. He wants her soul, but he doesn't even know what that means because in his clinical, earthly world the soul doesn't even exist. This creates an attraction and tension between them that can never be relieved, and it's unbearably tragic to watch it all unfold. There are some light and funny moments in the play as well, especially in the first act. But Tennessee Williams did not write comedies (one misguided Broadway production of Streetcar notwithstanding), so we know there's no chance for a happy ending for our couple.

John and Alma
(Casey Hoekstra and Joanna Harmon)
The show is all about Alma and John. Yes there are other people onstage and several of them have nice moments (including Karen Bix as Alma's childlike mother, Ty Hudson as Alma's sweet but boring suitor, and Tara Lucchino who almost succeeds in making me like Alma's rival for John's affection), but the success of the play hinges on the performances of Joanna Harmon and Casey Hoekstra as Alma and John. And boy do they deliver. Joanna, a member of the inventive physical theater company Live Action Set, plays Alma with a nervous fluttery energy that never subsides. She puts her training to good use in this very physical performance; you can see the tension in Alma's body as she interacts with various characters. Casey, a graduate of the U of M/Guthrie program making his Twin Cities stage debut (to which I say welcome and please come back soon!), plays John with a relaxed intensity, all slow knowing smiles as he lounges and watches Alma. Whenever either was off stage I waited for their return, and the best scenes are the ones with the two of them together. Their relationship is so intense and complex, perplexing and familiar. One particularly intense love scene took place literally a few feet in front of me on the intimate Theatre in the Round stage, which made me wish I had one of those fans from the Winemiller's sitting room!

The busy and multi-talented Randy Reyes directed the play and did a beautiful job with the intricate dialogue and intense scenes. With a set design by Rob Jensen, the small stage is packed with set pieces that manage to create three distinct settings, two of which interact with each other as John and Alma stare out their windows across the yard at each other. The details are impeccable as the audience gets a close-up view due to the unique in-the-round stage (the usher led me right through the Winemiller's living room to my seat on the opposite side, and I was close enough to peek over an actor's shoulder at an authentic-looking photo album). The costumes (by Carolann Winther) are evocative of the time, place, and character, from John's white suit to Alma's conservative clothes to Rosa's vibrant red dress.

I've been to Theatre in the Round several times in the past few years for Fringe shows, but it's been a while since I've seen a Theatre in the Round production. Currently celebrating their 61st season, they are the longest running theater in Twin Cities. Even the Guthrie has only been around a mere 50 years! They were recently featured on one of my favorite shows MN Original (a weekly series on tpt that showcases local artists of all types of media). You can watch that feature online to learn about the interesting challenges presented by the in-the-round design. I will definitely be back to Theatre in the Round before next year's Fringe; they have several interesting shows coming up this season, including the Pulitzer Prize winning play Rabbit Hole in January. Unfortunately Summer and Smoke has already closed, so if you missed it, I apologize, because you missed a good one.