Monday, February 27, 2012

"Crashing the Party" at Mixed Blood Theatre

Mixed Blood Theatre's world premiere of Crashing the Party is a ridiculous farce of a play, in the style of the big broad comedies of the 1930s, but dealing with very modern themes.  The plot is a bit convoluted, but that's forgivable when the cast is this great and the laughs are this outrageous.

The party in question is a surprise birthday party (or more accurately, a surprise family dinner) for the hard-working self-made successful businessman who's the head of this wacky family (an appropriately exasperated Joe Minjares).  His wife (the divine Sally Wingert, who's equally good at drama and comedy) has become bored in her role of housewife and fondly remembers the struggling family business in which she worked alongside her husband.  They have two spoiled sons who have never had to work or struggle for anything in their lives.  The youngest son (the earnest Ricardo Vazquez) is fresh out of college and really wants to do something important with his life, even if he has no idea what that is.  The elder son (Rolando Martinez, very funny and adorable in a Josh Gad sort of way) is 30, has several graduate degrees, owns a t-shirt business, and still lives at home with his parents.  He seems to spend most of his time sitting around in his pajamas watching Jeopardy and yelling at the TV.  In addition to the family unit, we also have a new girlfriend trying to impress the parents (Rose Le Tran from last year's Avenue Q), an employee who's discovered a secret (Laura Esposito), a friendly neighborhood police officer who turns out to be not quite what he seems (Ansa Akyea, who isn't afraid to bare it all), and a serious FBI agent (Mo Perry, who was so good as the victim of love in Dangerous Liaisons and is almost recognizable here).  Phew, that's a mixed bag of characters that, along with corporate embezzlement, a surprise stripper, and a false arrest, adds up to some wacky fun.

Crashing the Party is a new play by the husband/wife playwrighting/directing team of Josh Tobiessen and Sarah Rasmussen.  It definitely accomplishes the goal of laughter and escapism, but also has some sweet moments of a family trying to connect.  These are parents who gave their children everything, but in doing so deprived them of that feeling of accomplishment that comes from earning something on your own.

The stage at the Mixed Blood is transformed into a beautifully decorated living and dining room of a home, in a rich color scheme of tan and red.  A packed house (they had to bring in extra chairs to seat everyone) on a Saturday night towards the end of the run suggests good word of mouth.  Audiences seem to be enjoying themselves (as did I), and the cast seemed to be having a pretty good time too.  You only have one more week to crash this party.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Blind Date" at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

I attended the (mostly) one-woman improv show Blind Date last night, which I realized later was the first performance of the six-week run (I got my ticket months ago as part of my Ordway season package).  I didn't really know what to expect and was pleasantly surprised at the fresh and funny show.  I don't think I've ever seen an improvisational comedy show (which is inexcusable since we have one of the best companies here in Minneapolis).  But it really is a thing of beauty to see an entirely new piece created before your eyes.  The concept is this:  Mimi (played by Rebecca Northan who also created the show) is stood up on a blind date, and picks a man from the audience to be her date for the evening.  The audience gets to watch the date unfold, full of all the typical moments of a first date - the awkward pauses, the uncertainty, the sweetness, someone saying the wrong thing, truths coming out, and even real moments of connection.  It's great fun to watch it all play out from the safety of the audience.

Mimi mingles with the crowd before the show and vets the candidates for her prospective date, speaking in a charming French accent.  I imagine after doing this for several years she knows how to spot someone who will make a good "date."  She spoke to me as well and complimented me on my retro sweater clip, which fits the theme of her own fabulously retro look (check out this website where she gets her wardrobe - super cute retro dresses).  So get there early if you want a chance to be on stage, or avoid her if you don't.  You'll know her when you see her - she's the one wearing the red clown nose.

Once chosen, Mimi invites her date onstage and takes him aside to a stool in the spotlight to explain how the evening works.  She gives him the option of calling time-out at any point during the play if he needs some guidance, and tells him to just be himself and not try to act or play a role.  The date begins with a few glasses of wine in a cafe, and where it continues on from there depends on the date and in some cases, the audience's choice (it's like Choose-Your-Own-Adventure theater).  In the unique one-of-a-kind play that I witnessed, the date continued to Mimi's car and to her apartment, and then flashed forward to five years in the future.

Art student Andy was a great choice for Mimi's first blind date in St. Paul.  He gamely followed wherever Mimi led him (albeit understandably reluctantly at times).  She asked him some pretty personal questions, which he answered truthfully (one assumes), and also asked him to do things one doesn't normally do in front of a few hundred people.  As Mimi told him at the end of the show, he did things with a smile on his face while most people sit in the dark and think, "thank God it's not me!"  (I know I did; I had empathetic sweaty palms!)  Rebecca as Mimi is an expert improv comedian, having worked at the famed Second City among other places.  And she also does a wonderful job working with a non-professional.  She knows when to fill the silence with a wacky story (grandmas on ecstasy or lazy impressionist painters), and when to let it hang there awkwardly until her date is forced to say (or do) something.  Never breaking character (Mimi is visiting St. Paul from France), but occasionally sharing winks and knowing looks with the audience.

Blind Date is a family affair.  Rebecca's brother, Jamie Northan, is the snooty waiter at the cafe.  He also provides "guy advice" and a pep talk for Mimi's date when it becomes necessary, as it did during that crucial and particularly awkward moment of the date.  (And he reminds me a bit of Eddie Izzard, which is a good thing.)  Rebecca's ex-husband Bruce Horak fills in other necessary roles, such as the cop that pulled Mimi over for erratic driving ("we were listening to some great music!").

You have six weeks to check out this show, and maybe get a chance to have a date with Mimi yourself!  She's charming, funny, wacky, smart, quick-witted, and a great person to spend an evening with.  More than that - this is the kind of theater I want to support.  Artists doing something new and different and a little bit risky, creating work that's innovative and unique.  To quote Mimi, it's amazing.  I might go back again in a few weeks, just to see how different the show can be each night.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"American Idiot" at the Orpheum Theatre

I'm a theater geek.  I don't listen to rock music, I listen to musical theater soundtracks and folk music.  I was unfamiliar with the music of Green Day, and as a general rule I'm not a fan of the jukebox musical.  But I've only heard good things about the 2010 musical American Idiot, based on Green Day's 2004 album of the same name.  And I do love the rock musical (starting with this, continuing through this, and more recently this and this and this).  So I went to see American Idiot on tour at the Orpheum Theatre, and I loved it.  What HAIR is to the late 1960s and RENT is to the mid 1990s, American Idiot is to the early 21st century - a musical that deals with the very real issues facing the young people of the day.  And even though I'm of the RENT generation, I think everyone can remember that time in their lives, dealing with love, friendship, parents, war, starting a career, sex, drugs, rock and roll, and just trying to figure out what life is and where you fit into it.

Unlike most jukebox musicals that take a random collection of songs and make up some silly contrived story to tie them all together, American Idiot is constructed of one entire album (with a few additional songs added), more or less sung through in order.  And since most albums (good ones anyway) have a cohesive theme and a narrative, not much additional made-up story needs to be added.  What book writers Billie Joe Armstrong (lead singer of Green Day, who also wrote the lyrics) and Michael Mayer (the Tony-winning director of Spring Awakening) have done is let the songs tell the story, adding just a few bits of spoken dialogue to fill in the gaps.  There isn't much of a plot, but we really get to know these characters and experience their lives through the music. While these songs were not written for the stage (although they always intended it to be staged or filmed), they lend themselves very well to the stage.  They're story-songs, with a nice mix of loud and fast rock songs and quieter, more poignant moments of just a guitar and a voice (my favorite musical sound).

This first national tour features a talented, young, energetic, compelling cast, several of whom come from the Broadway production which closed last year.  Van Hughes leads the cast as Johnny, a role he played on Broadway, taking over from John Gallagher Jr.   (who won a Tony for playing my favorite character Moritz in Spring Awakening).  Van is fantastic as the young man who leaves home for the big city to find his life.  He has a great voice both for the loud rock songs and the softer ones, and is passionate and sympathetic and real in his portrayal (and he's a soap actor, so I have to love him for that too). Johnny's friend Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) accompanies him on his journey, but then decides to join the army and go to war, where he's injured and meets a nurse (Nicci Claspell).  What follows is a really lovely aerial/dream sequence, in which both Scott and Nicci continue to sing beautifully as they fly and twirl through the air. Johnny's friend Will (Jake Epstein) decides to stay home with his pregnant girlfriend (Leslie McDonel, who at one point sports a Joe Mauer t-shirt!), and spends most of the show sitting on the couch and drinking (and occasionally splashing the audience). The   entire ensemble is strong, and I was happy to recognize Matt DeAngelis, who played Woof in last year's touring production of HAIR.

During the show, I was frequently reminded of two of my favorite musicals HAIR and RENT.  This is not to say that American Idiot is unoriginal or copycat, but that it's carrying on the tradition of the rock musical into the 21st century.  Like Roger in RENT can only find his song through Mimi, Johnny writes a song for the woman he loves (the fierce Gabrielle McClinton) and sings it to her while she's sleeping (unconscious).  And I'm sure I heard the word "Glory" (Roger's song) several times.  St. Jimmy (an effectively evil Joshua Kobak) is like the drug dealer in RENT ("got any C man, got any D man...").  Tunny contemplates going off to war like Claude does in HAIR (Afghanistan instead of Vietnam), and comes home a changed man.  Even the set reminds me a little of RENT with it's stairs and levels, and the fabulous on-stage band (with musical direction by a very enthusiastic and entertaining Jared Stein).  One thing that's totally new is the awesome choreography - it's fresh and cool and edgy and urgent.

I've already added the American Idiot soundtrack to my collection of soundtracks.  So I guess I do listen to rock music, or at least rock music through musical theater.  The show is playing only through this Sunday, and even though I rarely pay $100+ for a theater ticket, even on Broadway, I'm really glad I had the chance to experience American Idiot.  This was a much different crowd than I usually see at the theater, younger and more casually dressed, and several families with teenagers. Whatever gets young people to the theater is OK with me.  If you go, make sure to stay for the curtain call.  It's something unpredictable, but in the end it's right.  (This is a song that I recognized that I didn't even realize was a Green Day song!  Proving once again that everything I know I learned from theater.)

Monday, February 20, 2012

"As You Like It" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

I know I gush a lot on this blog, but there's a lot to gush about when you're talking about theater in Minneapolis/St. Paul.  No more so than when you're talking about Ten Thousand Things, the theater company that takes their work out into the community, to people who don't normally have the opportunity to see theater (prisons, homeless shelters, community centers, libraries, etc.).  If you're a theater fan who lives in the Twin Cities and you've never seen a TTT show, you really must go as soon as possible.  I guarantee you're in for a theater experience unlike any you've ever known.  With full lights, minimal sets and costumes, a small intimate space, and nothing but a few feet of air between you and the actors, it's as raw, immediate, authentic, and thrilling as I've ever known theater to be.  It's a strange thing; you're more aware that this is make-believe because you can see everything that's going on with no illusions, so you know it's not real.  But in a way, that makes it even more magical when you're completely transported into a new world purely through the power of collective imagination.  Mere words cannot adequately describe it - you have to experience it yourself.

Ten Thousand Things' current show is the Shakespeare comedy As You Like It (paid performances continue weekends at Open Book through March 11, as well as a number of free performances throughout the area).  I saw this play several years ago at the Guthrie, but I don't remember a whole lot about it other than the trippy 60s vibe of that production and the inclusion of music (always a plus in my book).  But it wasn't hard to get into the story and the language in the hands of TTT.   As You Like It is your typical Shakespearean romantic comedy, full of disguises and mistaken identities and banishments and declarations of love and hate, with everyone appropriately coupled off and happy at the end.  But the journey to get there is pure delight.

Ten Thousand Things always attracts the best theater artists in the deep pool of talent that is the Twin Cities theater community, and this six-person cast is no exception:
  • Maggie Chestovich is the slacker in the group - she only plays one character.  ;)  But in her defense Rosalind is more or less the main character, and she also dons the clothes of a man through much of the play so as to travel more safely in the forest after her banishment from the court.  I've seen Maggie several times in TTT productions, and she's always fully present and real in her portrayal.  
  • The busy and talented Randy Reyes is Orlando, hopelessly in love with Rosalind and also banished from court by his greedy jealous brother.  Randy also plays an old shepherd, which gives him the opportunity to ham it up in funny glasses and a hat.  He's always entertaining in everything he does, and he's particularly good at engaging the audience here.
  • Aimee Bryant (who just recently left the role of Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray at the Chan) is Rosalind's cousin/friend, and lucky for us, she also takes on the role of Amiens, which means she gets to sing and play a ukulele (with only two strings!).  It's a joy to sit around the pretend campfire and listen to her sing, along with this guy...
  • As I've said before, I don't think there's anything Bradley Greenwald can't do - comedy, drama, and that voice!  Whether singing or speaking, silly or serious, I love to listen to him.  He plays a pompous wrestler, the cruel duke who banished his brother as well as the kinder banished duke, a lowly shepherd, and a "country wench" who hilariously delivers a calf.
  • Pearce Bunting (the only member of the cast I hadn't seen before) does a wonderful job creating three vastly different characters who bear little resemblance to each other.  He's the entitled elder brother of Orlando, a smart-talking clown who falls for the aforementioned country wench, and a friend of the banished duke mired in thoughtful and hopeless melancholy.  Each one is a distinct character.
  • Kimberly Richardson's roles are pretty diverse too.  She's a frail old man who is loyal to his master until death, a stuffy and formal court messenger, and a silly country girl, each with a specific physicality that would tell us who she is even without the costume changes (which in some cases are very quick!).
  • The sound by Peter Vitale is almost like a seventh actor in the cast.  It's like a soundtrack for a silent movie, accentuating every emotion and movement without distracting from it.
Some TTT plays are more serious, like last year's exquisite Doubt, A Parable.  But with a comedy like this, they can be more relaxed and play a little more.  If unexpected things happen, the audience is in on the joke and goes along for the ride.  Artistic Director Michelle Hensley always introduces the show and tells a little bit about their experiences so far (for more information on that you can read the TTT blog, with commentary by Bradley Greenwald).  She talked about how their audiences have been hungry.  For laughter, for love, and for language.  As You Like It is definitely just what the doctor ordered.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"My Antonia" by Illusion Theater at the Cowles Center

This is one of those rare opportunities to see an Ivey Award winning production that I missed.  Illusion Theater adapted the classic pioneer novel My Antonia for the stage a few years ago.  They've recently remounted the production with a mostly new cast and taken it on tour around the Midwest, with a short stop at the shiny new Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis this weekend.  Since I missed it the first time around I was eager to see it this time.  I read the book in high school or college, which is to say so long ago that I remember next to nothing about it, other than that I liked it.  This is a beautiful production, one of my favorite plays of this new year so far.  Willa Cather's story and language are beautifully adapted by playwright Allison Moore, the characters are brought to life by a talented company of actors, many of whom play several different roles, and beautiful music (just a piano, cello, and violin) accompanies the action and helps to define the setting and emotions of the piece.

My Antonia tells the story of a young immigrant girl in late 19th century Nebraska, through the eyes of her childhood friend Jim.  The adult Jim narrates the story as he's returning home to visit, and his memories of his time on the frontier and the girl that he loves come to life on stage.  Joel Liestman is a wonderful narrator who seamlessly steps into the action to play various characters, from Antonia's father, to Jim's teacher, to Jim himself at the end of the play.  Dustin Bronson portrays the young Jim from the age of ten through his college years, hopelessly in love with the older girl but meant for a life that's bigger than the small town they live in.  There's a continuity between Joel and Dustin's performances; it's easy to believe they're the same person at different stages in their life.  Emily Gunyou Halaas (who starred in another story of pioneer life, The Master Butchers Singing Club) beautifully portrays Antonia in her journey from young immigrant girl, enthusiastic about everything, to a hard-working pioneer woman who still retains that love of life, but in a quieter way.  Jim and Antonia are two people who love each other deeply and have a great effect on each other's lives, even though they end up on vastly different paths.  The Nebraska prairie will always join them together.  (To quote one of my favorite musicals Wicked, "So much of me is made from what I learned from you, you'll be with me, like a handprint on my heart.")  The rest of the cast fills in the story playing various roles, changing from one to another just by donning a different hat or accent.  The accents, by the way, are excellent - Czech, German, Norwegian, a cacophony of voices from the past.

I found myself (unsuccessfully) fighting back tears through much of the play, and I'm not even sure why.  Mostly I blame the music (composed by Roberta Carlson with musical direction by Eli Bender), which so specifically brings you to that time and place, tinged with memory.  The language of the play (which I assume was largely taken from the book) paints such a picture I that almost wanted to close my eyes to better see it, but then I would have missed the simple but effective images of waving grass or a plow against the sunset projected onto the backdrop.  All of the pieces added together create an experience that is so nostalgic and wistful.  It makes me feel nostalgic for a past I never knew, but that is in me somehow.  My ancestors immigrated to Minnesota from Germany and Poland in the 19th century, so I felt like I was watching my own history.  I have that same feeling of connection to Little House on the PrairieLaura Ingalls Wilder's experience was probably no different, no more important or exciting, than anyone else's who was living on the frontier in those times.  But she wrote it down, which my ancestors did not, so it's all many of us have to remember that time in our collective history.  Willa Cather also wrote about those times, and I think it's wonderful to bring this work to the places where it happened, to people who have a connection to it.  One of his friends tells Jimmy that he has a romantic view of country life, because he only lived on the farm for a short time and didn't have to work, and lived most of his life in town.  Maybe that's why the story has such a nostalgic, romantic feeling, but it also portrays the hardships and struggle that frontier people went through.

I've been told I need to check out Illusion Theater, but this is my first time seeing one of their productions.  Judging by this beautiful piece I will be seeing them again.  There are only two more performances on this stop of the tour - tonight (Saturday) and Sunday.  There were plenty of empty seats in the Goodale Theater at the Cowles Center last night, so if you're looking for something to do this weekend, I would highly recommend this.  Click here to find more information on this weekend's performances, as well as future stops on their tour around the Minnesota.  It's a show that will make your heart ache, in the best possibly way.

Friday, February 17, 2012

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at the Guthrie

In keeping with the theme for Valentine's Day, I followed the delicious Dial M for Murder at the Jungle with the Guthrie's production of  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a tale of not just one, but two dysfunctional marriages.  Also delicious, but in a much different and darker way.  Like Dial M for MurderI hadn't seen this play before, or the 1958 movie, so I had no expectations. Except that I love Tennessee Williams; his plays are always so intense and really dig deep into human relationships.  That definitely holds true of this play as well.

For the one or two of you who, like me, have never seen the movie, here's a brief plot summary.  Big Daddy is the wealthy owner of a plantation in the Mississippi delta.  His two sons and their wives return home to celebrate his birthday.  Big Daddy dying of cancer, and everyone knows it but him and his wife Big Mama.  Gooper is the elder son, but Brick is his father's favorite, maybe because they're more alike.  Gooper and his wife Mae want to take over the plantation, but Brick's wife Maggie is determined not to let that happen.  Brick himself doesn't seem to care much about anything, except drinking, since the death of his friend Skipper, which he calls the one true thing he ever had in his life.  He's completely shut out his wife, and she's desperately trying to get back in.

I'm trying to decide who the star of the show is, but I don't think there really is one. Each character has their moment, and every actor in this cast is up to the challenge (even Gooper and Mae's five adorable children, who continually run across the stage hootin' and hollerin').  Peter Christian Hansen (Brick) always brings a wonderful intensity to his roles, but this one is much more subdued.  Brick mostly listens in apathetic silence as others go off around him.  He's constantly drinking, and moves around the stage on crutches with an awkward grace, his glass always in his hand.  But when he's provoked, he explodes.  Until he drinks enough that nothing matters anymore (click). Emily Swallow is wonderful as Maggie the cat, about to jump out of her own skin, desperate to make her marriage work so she doesn't have to return to the life of poverty.  Melissa Hart (Fraulein Schneider in Frank Theatre's Cabaret) is amusing and sympathetic as the loveable busybody Big Mama, who just wants her children to be happy, especially her favorite Brick.  And David Anthony Brinkley is marvelous as Big Daddy. Such a different role than the last time I saw him, as Big Mama Turnblad in Hairspray at the Chan.  It's no mystery why he left that show to do this one - it's such a rich, meaty role, and he inhabits it fully.  Chris Carlson and Michelle O'Neill as Gooper and Mae, whose only concern seems to be their inheritance, complete the dysfunctional family.  None of these characters are very likeable, but they're all fully realized people.

Once again, the Guthrie beautifully brings to life the complicated, messed up world of Tennessee Williams - mortality, mendacity, families, relationships.  You can almost feel the sweltering heat through the southern drawls, the set with the towering blue doors and windows, the 50s costumes.  It's not a world I would like to live in, but it's awfully engrossing to observe.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Dial M for Murder" at the Jungle Theater

I can't think of anything better to do on Valentine's Day than go to the Jungle Theater and see a play about a horribly dysfunctional, but highly entertaining, married couple.  I'd never seen the play or the 1954 Hitchcock movie version of the classic thriller Dial M for Murder, but I did recently see the 1998 remake The Perfect Murder (thanks to the Viggo Mortensen auto-record on my DVR).  So I vaguely knew what the storyline was, but I didn't realize just how delightfully it would play out on the Jungle stage. There's an undercurrent of tension and suspense throughout the whole play that's just delicious. Murder shouldn't be this fun.

The entire cast just sparkles, speaking in British accents for this London-set story.  Starting with Michael Booth as our hero/villain, Tony, a professional tennis player who married for money and develops an elaborate plot to kill his wife so he'll inherit her money.  He's smart and smooth, and thinks he has every detail worked out.  As things go wrong he continues to plot and scheme, and almost pulls it off. Cheryl Willis (aka Shirley Valentine) is the neglected wife and target of the plan, Margot.  She's so naive and trusting of her husband, even though he did a complete 180 a year ago and suddenly became the perfect husband.  Around that time she ended her affair with an American crime writer, Max (Terry Hempleman), who has just come back to town and is obviously the one who truly cares for Margot.  She thinks the three of them can be chums, and Tony decides to use that to his advantage and work Max into his plan.  He blackmails an old school friend (Peter Moore), who's already a bit of a con man and a gigolo, into doing the deed.  Fortunately Margot is tougher than she appears and is able to fight off her attacker, but is not so lucky when her husband subtly schemes to have her charged with the crime.  Gary Briggle, who says so much with just a grunt or an mmm-hmmm, is the Columbo-esque detective who can smell something's not quite right with this story, and doesn't give up until he's figured it out.  I love moments of silence in a play, when there's such expectation and anticipation of what's going to happen next, and there are several such delightfully tense moments in this production.

The play is directed by Jungle Artistic Director, Bain Boehlke, who also designed the set.  I don't know of too many directors who design their own set, but who better than the director to know just what the stage should look like?  And when you've got the talent to do both, as Bain does, it's a beautiful cohesion of story and environment.  In this case the set is a detailed London apartment, complete with tennis trophies and tea sets, and the all important turnkey.  I don't know if it's the way the theater and stage are structured, but at the Jungle I always feel like I'm looking into a very detailed and perfect little diorama that comes to life when the actors enter.

This is the first production in the Jungle Theater's 2012 season (playing now through March 18), and they're off to a fabulous start.  With The Birthday Party, Noises Off, Waiting for Godot, and In the Next Room (with some great casts already lined up), 2012 could be a very good year at the Jungle!

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Edith Stein" at Open Window Theatre

Open Window Theatre's play Edith Stein* is a powerful and thought-provoking play.  But it's not an easy one, either to watch or to write about.  Partly because it's about the Holocaust, which is an extremely complicated and sensitive issue.  And partly because I have my own personal issues with the Catholic Church, which are difficult to set aside.  Maybe the solution is not to look at it not as a general statement about the Holocaust and Jewish/Catholic relations (I think Minnesota Jewish Theater's Our Class did a better job of exploring the subtleties and complexities involved), but to look at it as a depiction of the life of one woman, who was inspirational not because of her conversion or death, but because of her intelligence, ambition, and conviction.

Edith Stein was a Jewish woman who converted to Catholicism and joined a convent, was killed in a concentration camp in 1942, and was later declared a martyr and a saint by the Catholic Church.  The play begins with a Jewish historian visiting a convent near the site of Auschwitz, asking them to move out of respect for the millions of Jews who died there.  The nun engages the historian in a conversation, and the story of Edith's life is then told, with occasional flashes to the present to return to the conversation.  We see Edith celebrating the holy day of Purim with her family, and hear about her work with wounded soldiers during WWI.  She leaves the home and family she loves to pursue her education and career.  She's inspired by reading about the life of St. Teresa of Avila to convert to Catholicism and join a convent.  Despite my issues with the Catholic Church, I do have great admiration and respect for nuns; throughout much of history the convent was one of the few places where women could go to receive an education and live an independent life.  Perhaps that's part of what drew Edith to it.  While she's preparing to take her vows, a Nazi soldier named Karl-Heinz begins to visit the convent and speak with Edith (now called Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross) through a screen.  He becomes obsessed with her, and she is asked to continue speaking with him as part of her service, despite (or because of) the fact that he represents everything she's fighting against.  This part of the play is fictional, but her conversations with him help to shed light on her beliefs as she tries to explain them to this man.  Edith is eventually transported to Auschwitz and killed along with millions of Jews.

Highlights among the very capable cast, directed by actor Josh Campbell, include, first and foremost, Kendall Anne Thompson as Edith.  She does a wonderful job portraying this strong and independent woman, at the same time expressing her vulnerability and doubts.  Meri Golden is believable and sympathetic as Edith's mother, who clearly loves her daughter despite being disappointed at the choices she's made and the direction her life has taken.  Jeremy B. Stanbary, the Artistic Director of Open Window, is a commanding presence as Karl-Heinz, somehow creepy and charismatic at the same time.  Unlike Karl-Heinz, the other Nazis in the play are caricatures of pure evil, which is an easy trap to fall into.  This oversimplification can be dangerous; if we forget that Nazis were human beings just like us who let their fears take over and turn into hate and discrimination, we run the risk of going down that same road, in small ways or big.

I always enjoy checking out new theaters.  This one is actually new, not just new-to-me.  Open Window Theatre is in its inaugural season in a warehouse behind the Basilica in Minneapolis.  The space reminds me a little of Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo - unassuming exterior, warm and cozy lobby, and black box theater (I think they even have the same comfy lawn chairs as theater seats).  The stage itself is set up as a cross (I doubt that's a coincidence) with the chairs facing in different directions.  There are no set pieces; the sparseness works well for the piece.  Despite whatever issues I may have with the subject matter, the play is very well done.  I wish them well in their new venture and will continue to keep an eye out for future productions.  Next up: The Hobbit, which is sure to be much lighter!

*I received one complementary ticket to see Edith Stein.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mu Daiko's 15th Anniversary Concert at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

I've talked about Mu Daiko before, so I'll keep this brief.  Mu Daiko is Mu Peforming Artstaiko drumming ensemble, led by Artistic Director Iris Shiraishi, and they're celebrating their 15th anniversary with a series of concerts at the Ordway's McKnight Theatre.  I attended last night's performance, and it was, as always, thrilling.  I don't know enough about the art form to really speak intelligently about it or differentiate songs - some are soft and gentle, but most are fast and loud.  Drum sizes and placements vary, and sometimes there is guitar or voice accompaniment (local actors Katie Bradley and Sheena Janson).  Megan Chao Smith as the featured performer is amazing (and she gets to wear a sparkly top).  Next weekend's concerts will also feature Hanayui, an ensemble from Japan.  I'm sure they're great too, but I was happy to attend on an all Mu Daiko night.

A few words that come to mind when watching a Mu Daiko performance:

Energy, Drive, Power, Passion, Playfulness, Joy, Grace, Beauty, Collaboration, Rhythm, Precision, Focus.

The bottom line is, if you ever get a chance to see Mu Daiko perform, take it.  I guarantee you'll have a great time.  Not just from listening to the amazingly intricate rhythms and watching the performers dance around their drums, but feeling it in your body right down to your bones.  Happy anniversary Mu Daiko!  I look forward to more performances, and if I'm brave enough, I might even take a class someday.

"Still Life with Iris" at Yellow Tree Theatre

For the past year and a half I've seen every Yellow Tree Theatre production with a group of co-workers from our nearby office.  The group changes in size and composition depending on the show and people's schedules, but we always have a good time at the theater (and the lovely and delicious Nectar Wine Bar in downtown Osseo).  After seeing Still Life with Iris this week, my friends said to me, "I can't wait to read what you write about this because I don't quite know what to make of it!"  I'm not sure I do either, but I'll do my best.

Still Life with Iris is a fantastical tale set in the fictional world of Nocturno, where the inhabitants create everything that exists in the world.  They paint spots on lady bugs, teach the wind to howl, and lift the fog.  They're the worker bees behind the universe.  And they seem quite happy to toil away every night, fulfilling that last minute storm order.  Most importantly, they must take care of their coat, for their coat is what holds in their memory.  If it rips, they start to forget things; if they take it off, they forget their entire life, everyone and everything they've ever know.  (What happens when they take a shower?  Sorry, there's no place for logic in Nocturno!) 

Our heroine Iris is chosen to go to Great Island, which is not as great as it seems.  First her mother's coat is removed so she'll forget she ever had a daughter, and then Iris' coat is removed so she won't mourn for her own life.  She's taken to Great Island to be the daughter of the Goods, who have one perfect specimen of everything.  Hence they only wear one shoe, one sleeve, one eyebrow, in a delightfully asymmetric world.  But Iris is a special girl, she knows something is off, something existed before she got to this island that she can't quite remember.  So she escapes, and is aided in her attempt by none other than 18th century composer Mozart (whom she affectionately calls Moz) and the fictional Annabel Lee, from the Edgar Allen Poe poem.  They manage to escape and find the lost memory coats, and Iris returns home to the life she loved and remembered.  If I were to try to make sense of this wild ride, I'd say that we need to actively hold on to our memories, our past.  Not just our own past but our family's past.  Like in the genealogical show Who Do You Think You Are (Fridays on NBC), in which celebrities search for their ancestors' stories, we need to remember our collective past in order to live our best present.  My great-aunt recently passed away, the last remaining member of her generation, leaving behind a treasure trove of stuff in my great-grandparents' house.  I feel like I've found a few lost buttons and threads of my coat, looking around in that beautiful, run-down, stuffy old house.

As always, the cast features wonderful members of the Yellow Tree family (for that's what it feels like).  The director, Andy Frye, has himself appeared on stage in Miracle on Christmas Lake II and [title of show].  The always captivating Mary Fox plays Iris, giving her childlike strength and wisdom and curiosity.  She's a hero we can root for.  I'm not quite sure why Mozart is there, but I'm glad he is, with his Austrian accent and oversized keyboard.  Yellow Tree newcomer Nathan Surprenant is a natural charismatic presence on stage and I look forward to seeing more of him.  Molly McLain gives a delightfully wacky performance with a Cockney accent as Annabel Lee.  Doree Du Toit plays Iris' mother; she has the role of the mourning mother down pat, having played a mother who loses her daughter in Steel Magnolias and Our Town.  Our favorite nerdy stereotypical Minnesotan couple from Christmas Lake, Carolyn Trapskin and Ryan Nelson, are reunited here as Mr. and Mrs. Good.  Their characters are just as quirky but much more evil.  I was particularly impressed with Carolyn's ability to gracefully maneuver in her dress with a long side train while wearing only one high-heeled shoe, and with her maniacal laugh.

The show has a wonderful look.  Yellow Tree regulars might do a double-take when they walk into the theater, as I did.  The stage is on the opposite side of the room, and the curtain dividing the stage from the lobby is gone, making room for the two story set with lots of stairs and doors and windows to play with (set design by Katie Phillips).  The costumes by Sarah Bahr are adorable (striped socks and colorful patchwork sweaters in Nocturno), sleek (the Goods in their stark, asymmetrical black), and whimsical (Annabel Lee's fairy-like layers).

I'm not sure how well I did in making sense of this play, but I'm not sure sense is what it's about.  It's more about the feeling that's created.  And as always at Yellow Tree, it's a good feeling.  Their next production is one of my favorite plays, The Glass Menagerie.  Unlike musicals, I don't have a lot of favorite plays (it's pretty much The Glass Menagerie and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia), so it goes without saying that I'm looking forward to it!

Monday, February 6, 2012

"End of the Rainbow" at the Guthrie

End of the Rainbow is the second show about Judy Garland that I've seen this season.  The first was The History Theatre's Beyond the Rainbow, which was set during Judy's famous 1961 Carnegie Hall concert.  It was a wonderful production with two actors beautifully portraying Judy, one in the present (1961) and another in memories from the age of 4 throughout her life.  At the time I wrote: "I can't imagine anyone capturing Judy better than Jody Briskey and Norah Long."  But that was before I saw Tracie Bennett.  Not that I think any less of Jody and Norah's performances, but this is a different Judy.  Only seven years later but in a much darker place - broke, desperate, bitter, and angry, and less than a year away from her death.  Tracie holds nothing back in a portrayal that is fearless, fierce, heart-breaking, and completely mesmerizing.

Similar to Beyond the Rainbow, End of the Rainbow is set against the backdrop of one of Judy's famous concerts - a five-week run at the London cabaret "Talk of the Town" in 1968 (here I am, back in 1968 again).  It turned out to be among her final performances.  Her new beau/manager and soon-to-be husband Mickey Deans arranged it and works hard to get her to complete her obligation sober.  When that doesn't work he gives in and eventually enables her addiction, anything to get her up on stage.  This is a woman who was fed drugs by the studio from a young age and probably couldn't have gotten sober without a serious and lengthy in-patient medical intervention.  And more importantly, she had to want it, which she didn't seem to at this point in her life.  In response to Mickey and her pianist cajoling her, she says, "I won't be clear of it because I don't think I need to be clear of it!"

Tracie Bennett has been involved in this project for ten years, as I learned in the post-show discussion.  In its earliest form, it started as a show at a pub for which she was paid "70 quid a week."  She had a lot to do with the creation of the piece as it now is, including choreographing her own drunken dance stops.  Since the show was first performed in London where it takes place, she spoke to several people who had been at Judy's concerts, so much of her performance is based on eyewitness accounts.  Tracie is vastly different from Judy, but just as entertaining a character.  As Judy she's completely convincing and authentic, throwing herself physically, vocally, and emotionally into the role.  She talked about how she made a conscious choice to almost go over the top, because that's what Judy did.  Judy was playing a role onstage, and Tracie plays the role of a woman playing a role.  There's no way she won't be nominated for a Tony (the show moves to Broadway in March) for Best Actress in a Play.  This is not a traditional musical, but a play with music; while the music is great and she sings with that familiar smokey vibrato, both a cappella and with a six-piece band, it's not the focus of the show.

The small supporting cast is great too.  Broadway veteran Michael Cumpsty is completely charming as her Scottish pianist, not a historical character but an amalgamation of many pianists who worked with Judy.  As they say in the show, "Judy Garland's pianist is a wider job description."  Anthony is also her friend, confidant, and sponsor, even offering to move her into his home and take care of her.  He represents the importance Judy has to the gay community and the gay rights movement.  Judy's young fiancee Mickey Deans is played by Tom Pelphrey, two-time Emmy winner for his role on Guiding Light (although I know him for his brief but memorable role on my beloved soap As the World Turns).  Tom is one of those great NYC soap/theater actors, a dying breed due to the demise of the New York soap.  So I'm very happy to see him get his Broadway debut.  He does a great job as the new man in Judy's life who's way out of his league (as Tom said in the post-show discussion, wearing a NY Giants shirt on Super Bowl Sunday like a good New Yorker).  Mickey thinks he can control Judy and help her out of her addiction and back into stardom, but that's an impossible task.  Tom is a good match for Tracie, countering her every move, and affects a great hearty laugh as Mickey (mostly at his own jokes).

Like the Kander and Ebb musical Scottsboro Boys in 2010, which also came to the Guthrie just before it hit Broadway, this is your chance to see an almost guaranteed Tony-nominated production before it gets to Broadway.  The elegant set and period costumes (designed by William Dudley) were built at the Guthrie and will be traveling to NYC along with the cast.  But be forewarned, this is not a pretty picture of the Minnesota darling.  She smokes and swears and throws things.  It's an honest portrayal of a woman at the end of her rope, worn down by years of drug addiction and fame and expectations.  But she can still sing and entertain a crowd!  End of the Rainbow is playing at the Guthrie through March 11; Broadway previews begin a week later with the official opening on April 2.

"It's a terrible thing to realize what you're capable of, and know you'll never get there."

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"The Dragons are Singing Tonight" by TigerLion Arts at the Southern Theater

I've missed the Southern Theater.  Last season I had a season package that introduced me to several small theater companies I hadn't heard of.  Each show was unique and innovative and sometimes a little weird (in a good way).  Unfortunately the last show in my package was cancelled due to financial troubles, from which they're still recovering.  So I was happy to hear* about the new musical The Dragons are Singing Tonight, which sounded every bit as interesting as other things I've seen at the Southern.  And it is.  So many people and groups are involved in this show that I don't know whom to credit for what, so I won't even try.  The Dragons are Singing Tonight is based on a book of poems by Jack Prelutsky and is a collaboration of TigerLion Arts, Minnesota Boychoir, Puppet Farm Arts, Circus JuventasIn the Heart of the Beast, four actors, a composer, and twelve musicians, and more, all of whom seemed to have a hand in what's being presented at the Southern Theater.  And the result is delightful and whimsical and moving and silly and fun.

A boy (Maxwell Chonk Thao) wishes for a dragon of his own, and a girl (the luminescent Isabella Dawis), who herself has a dozen dragons, leads him to an egg in the garden which eventually hatches into a baby dragon.  But being a dragon-owner is harder than he thought, as Nasty (so named because of his breath and attitude) grows bigger and more independent.  The boy only wants Nasty to obey, so he puts chains on the dragon and makes him do his bidding.  But the girl warns him, "give him room or he will boom!"  And boom he does.  The boy eventually learns that he can't control Nasty; he has to let the dragon be himself so that they can both be happy.  Something that every pet owner (and Daenerys Targaryen) knows.  Nasty is portrayed by two actors as he grows from a spark to a huge dragon.  Elise Langer (who I've seen in several Ten Thousand Things productions) and Tyson Forbes (who's appeared many times on the Guthrie stage) are both amazing and work together so well to give life to the growing series of puppets.  At times they speak in unison, giving more dimension to Nasty.  The full-grown dragon puppet is graceful and lifelike, with Elise inside the body of the puppet and Tyson directing its head and expressions.  The two humans and the puppet combine to create a loveable full character.

Jack Prelutsky's poems have been beautifully set to music by composer Laurie MacGregor.  The songs are fun and catchy, sad and thoughtful, playful and whimsical.  I find they're still running through my head two days later.  "If you don't believe in dragons, it is curiously true, that the dragons you disparage, choose to not believe in you."  These are great poems for children that don't talk down to them.  The program includes a glossary of terms (such as disparage) that might be challenging for younger children.  The awesome twelve-piece band crammed into the side of the stage bring the words to life.  The Minnesota Boychoir joins the band and the actors in telling the story, and they're completely adorable - acting the songs instead of merely singing them.  Last but not least, three lovely and graceful aerialists perform on ropes and swings and add to magic.

The Dragons are Singing Tonight is a perfectly delightful theatrical experience for adults and children alike.  Here's a suggestion: if you can't get tickets to The Lion King, or if you don't want to shell out $100+ per person to take your family to the theater, go see The Dragons are Singing Tonight.  You'll save a ton of money but you'll still have a wonderful experience of theater, music, puppets, and circus.  And your money will go to support local artists rather than Disney.  :)

*I received two complementary tickets to The Dragons are Singing Tonight.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"1968: The Year that Rocked the World" by the History Theatre at the Minnesota History Center

I have to admit, I'm enamored of the late 1960s.  The music, the fashion, Woodstock, HAIR, people standing up for what they believe in.  It all seems so thrilling and, well, cool.  But the late 60s were not all love beads and peace signs.  It was a tumultuous time in our history, particularly 1968, the year that is the focus of an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center and a corresponding play by the History Theatre.  Two of our country's leaders were assassinated, the Vietnam War was at its height with hundreds of people dying every week, protests on our own soil turned deadly, and there was a dramatic and pivotal presidential election.  All of these events and more are covered in the exhibit and the play, and I learned so much more about this era that I find so appealing.

The play is comprised of seven scenes that showcase returning soldiers, the Civil Rights movement in various forms, people's reactions to the assassinations, the election, and Apollo 8.  The scenes are strung together with songs and dialogue as the cast guides us more or less chronologically through the year.  History Theatre's Artistic Director Ron Peluso structured the scenes (written by seven different playwrights) and directed the play.  Standouts in the cast include Lindsay Marcy, who plays three different characters equally well (the new wife of a soldier, a modern-day TV reporter in a clever tie-in with WCCO news, and the New Jersey mother of a future astronaut).  Randy Schmeling (who was in the first production I saw of one of my now favorite musicals, HAIR, at the Pantages in 2004) is a convincing Bobby Kennedy and a charismatic modern day astronaut visiting his family at the time of his birth in 1968, congenially interacting with the audience.  Perhaps the funniest scene (although at times scary funny) is a creative re-imagining of newly elected president Richard Nixon's experiences that year along with his friend and campaign manager John Mitchell.  Paul de Cordova and E.J. Subkoviak have an easy chemistry, and Paul does a great Nixon as well as a pretty good Johnny Carson (not surprising since he so convincingly played three different characters in last year's The Pride).  Last but not least is Karen Weber's (the witch in last year's Into the Woods) moving portrayal of Rosemary Clooney struggling with depression after the death of her friend Bobby Kennedy.

The music is great, although I would have liked more of it.  We only hear snippets of songs between scenes, when I wanted to hear the whole song.  This isn't a musical, it's a play with music.  The band is made up of students from McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul (which shares a space with the History Theatre's usual location), and they sound pretty groovy.  They start playing 10 or 15 minutes prior to showtime, so get there early if you want to hear some full song selections from this great year of music.  The play itself begins and ends with songs from HAIR, the ground-breaking musical that dealt so well with the issues of its day, which seemed quite perfect to me.

In the last week I've seen two pieces that deal with tumultuous times in American history: the fantastic musical Ragtime at Park Square Theatre, and this play.  I see a lot of similarities between the two.  In 1906 and in 1968 our country was dealing with issues of war, violence, race and gender discrimination and the fight to end it, poor people demanding to be heard.  All of things these things we're still dealing with today.  It's good to look back on our history and remember how far we've come, and how far we have yet to go.  The struggle, the journey, is not yet ended.

If you go, I would recommend getting to the History Center a few hours early to peruse the exhibit (your theater ticket gets you $2 off admission), but check the website for hours to make sure they're open.  The cafe there has good, local food (again, check the website for hours, Tuesdays seem to be a good day to go).  And if you, like me, love the 1960s aesthetic and are tempted to buy everything with a peace sign, stay away from the museum gift shop.  They have some dangerously cute stuff.