Thursday, February 28, 2013

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at Red Eye Theater

Last night I walked into Red Eye Theater (a new venue for me) to find the large open stage area strewn with dried leaves, backed by a fence with bare trees painted on it. It set the scene for a delightfully spooktacular and silly story to play out in an innovative way - Walking Shadow Theatre Company's new version of the short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. While parts of it I didn't quite get as much as the rest of the audience seemed to (similar to how I feel when I try to watch Saturday Night Live - I just don't get it), there are also parts that I found to be funny and whimsical and clever. Written by co-Artistic Director John Heimbuch and directed by Jon Ferguson, it's inventive and creative storytelling, which I always applaud.

You all know this story - 18th century schoolteacher Ichabod Crane arrives in the small New England community called Sleepy Hollow. The town is full of ghost stories and legends, including the one about the headless horseman who haunts the woods. Ichabod vies with a local man Brom Bones for the affection of the lovely young Katrina Van Tassel, and soon becomes a ghost story himself when he supposedly encounters the horseman and disappears without a trace. Walking Shadow tells this story with exaggerated dramatic effect - audible gasps, extreme facial expressions, and wild gestures - which makes it more campy and funny than scary.

Things I enjoyed about the show:

  • The set and costume design are fantastic and really couldn't be better. Erica Zaffarano's set and props (the aforementioned leaf-strewn floor and bare tree fence) are simple and natural and creative - a stack of books for a chair in the schoolhouse, sticks and branches to form a horse. Lori Opsal's costumes are gorgeously distressed and dusty, looking authentic but aged. The hair and make-up is the icing on the cake, the pale faces and dark eyes and lips of the actors accentuating their already over-the-top reactions.
  • At the Sunday church service, the ensemble sings a wonderfully dark hymn, "Death! 'Tis a melancholy day, To those who have no God."
  • Ryan Lear is fantastic as Ichabod, he really embodies this character and is a delight to watch. He's backed by a great ensemble (many of whom helped create the piece in its first incarnation at the Jon Hassler Theater in 2010), including Brant Miller as the bully Brom, Joanna Harmon as the ghoulish coquette Katrina, and Casey Hoekstra as the enthusiastic preacher.
  • All of the physical storytelling bits are really clever and effective - the various ways of representing the horse and horseman, the strange little puppet show, the wind blowing Ichabod's coat, and my favorite, Ichabod and Katrina's walk through the woods while remaining stationary in space, with one or the other falling behind when the conversation gets tricky.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow continues through this weekend only. Check it out for something different.

Ryan Lear as Ichabod Crane, with the wind blowing his coat

Monday, February 25, 2013

"Hello, Dolly!" at Lyric Arts

Despite being a huge musical theater fan, there are quite a few classic musicals I've never seen, on stage or on screen. Hello Dolly is one of them, so I jumped at the chance to see it at Lyric Arts in Anoka, just a short drive from my home in the Northeast suburbs. It is a bit dated ("it takes a woman all powdered and pink to joyously clean out the drain in the sink" is so not charming), but Dolly Levi is a heroine for all ages - independent, confident, and industrious, a woman who knows how to get things done. Lyric Arts' production features some fine performances of the catchy score and fun dance numbers.

Widow Dolly Levi is a matchmaker (among other things) in turn of the century New York, who delights in "putting a hand in here and there" to make love grow. One of her clients is the "half-a-millionaire" Horace Vandergelder, and she sets her sights on him for herself. It's not a great love (and personally I think she could do a lot better), but she misses her husband and is tired of living hand-to-mouth. She intentionally sabotages Horace's other matches to make herself look good, while also setting up Horace's poor young employees Cornelius and Barnaby with hat shop owner Irene and her assistant Minnie. The couples spend the day together, watching a parade, and end up at the fanciest restaurant in town. Hijinks ensue, everyone ends up arrested, and Dolly saves the day and gets what she wants, of course.

Highlights of the show include:
Beth King as Dolly
  • First and foremost, Beth King gives a fabulous performance as Dolly Levi. She's everything Dolly should be - fierce and funny, playful and at ease with the audience, and with a great voice for belting out such numbers as "Hello, Dolly!" and "So Long, Dearie."
  • In addition to any scene with Dolly, the best scenes involve the charismatic foursome. Justin Anger and Kerry Fager as Cornelius and Barnaby are quite the entertaining comedy team, and Kerry possesses an awkward grace that reminds me a little of a young(er) Tyler Michaels. Alyssa Wyatt's Irene has a voice as lovely as her hats, and Megan Rodriguez is quite charming as Minnie.
  • The energetic ensemble ably performs some fun choreography, including some fancy plate spinning during the restaurant scene.
  • Unfortunately the orchestra is out of site backstage somewhere, but they sound great. Favorite numbers include "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," the requisite love song "It Only Takes a Moment," and of course the joyous title song.
As I left the theater and walked down the streets of Anoka on a beautiful sunny late winter day, I whistled tunes from the show and happily checked Hello, Dolly! off my list of classic musicals to see.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Speed-the-Plow" by Dark & Stormy Productions at the Miller Bag Building

the playbill for Speed-the-Plow, constructed
as a movie script with typewriter font
and brass fasteners holding it together
Today is Oscar Sunday, the day when we celebrate the best that Hollywood has to offer. It's entirely appropriate, then, that last night I saw the David Mamet play Speed-the-Plow*, about the inner workings of a Hollywood studio and how one movie gets made instead of another. It's a rather cynical look at the movie business; the characters care most about making money. Judging from what's playing at my local cineplex, it's not entirely inaccurate. But with such small indie films as Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild on the Best Picture list alongside blockbusters Django Unchained and Lincoln, it seems there is a way for smaller (radiation) films to get made and appreciated. But not in the world of Speed-the-Plow, where a newly promoted studio executive has to decide between a sure money-maker, pitched by his longtime coworker and friend, and an artsy book about the end of the world, brought to him by a naive young woman who may have ulterior motives. It's smart, funny, and fast, and a great choice for Oscar weekend.

The new theater company Dark & Stormy Productions is again staging a theater production in a non-traditional setting, i.e., not an actual theater. Last summer they staged Outside Providence, a trio of short plays, in an office building in downtown Minneapolis. The location for this production is a building in Northeast Minneapolis. It looks like a cool office space, entirely appropriate for this play that takes place in a movie studio office. Also like Outside Providence, there are multiple staging areas, with the action moving to a new location in the space for the second act, and the audience following along. It's a fun change of pace from the usual theater where you sit in your seat in the dark for two hours. I also appreciated the high stools in the second row which provided a great view without having to see around someone's head.

Karen (Sara Marsh) makes her pitch
to Bobby (Bill McCallum)
The play begins in the office of Bobby Gould, sitting at a desk filled with movie scripts (the playbill itself looks like a movie script, a nice touch). In walks Charlie Fox to hand him a sure blockbuster with a big movie star. The two agree to share producing credits, a huge career boost for Charlie. Bobby will pitch it to the studio head (a mere formality, he assures), but can't get a meeting until tomorrow, which makes Charlie nervous. In the meantime, for a little misogynist fun, the two make a bet that Bobby can have "anything but a professional relationship" with temp secretary Karen. Bobby gives her a book to read as an excuse to get her to come to his house. But what he doesn't expect is that she takes the assignment seriously, and is so moved by the book (an end-of-the-world tale where all the world's radiation was sent by God to end life as we know it, or something like that) that she earnestly tries to convince Bobby to back the film. He has a decision to make, and in doing so rethinks his entire life and career.

Charlie (Kris L. Nelson) makes his pitch
to Bobby (Bill McCallum)
The dialogue is fast and funny, with characters speaking the way real people do, not always smooth and polished, but hesitating and talking over each other. The quick banter is well-executed by the three-person cast which includes a couple of Guthrie regulars, Bill McCallum and Kris L. Nelson, alongside Dark & Stormy Artistic Director Sara Marsh (add in frequent Guthrie director Benjamin McGovern, and you have a pretty high caliber of talent for a fledgling theater company). Sara is believable as the sweet and innocent Karen, who just wants to make a good movie out of this book she is so moved by (or does she?). Bill portrays Bobby as a typical greedy and confident studio exec, but with a little self-doubt creeping in when he's unexpectedly challenged by this woman he's just met. Last but not least, Kris is fantastic as Charlie, in a very physical performance that has him jittery and excited in the first act, and working himself into a frenzy in the third act when Bobby threatens to not back his film.

The mission of Dark & Stormy is to develop the 18-35-year-old theater audience, something they say is lacking. I'm slightly outside of that age range, but looking around at the theater I often find I'm one of the youngest people there (especially at certain theaters or on a Sunday matinee), so I think they have a point. The audience had a good laugh when Sara talked about the mission before the show, as we looked around to see that very few of the 30 or so people in the audience fit into this age range. The ideas are great - cool space, a small audience leading to an intimate experience, inexpensive ticket prices, relatively short run times - so hopefully the young audience will find them. But whatever your age, this is a great play by one of the best known American playwrights/screenwriters, with a great cast, in an interesting non-traditional space, which makes for a unique and entertaining evening at the theater, even for us old folks.

*Wikipedia tells me that the playwright explains the perplexing title thusly: "I remembered the saying that you see on a lot of old plates and mugs: 'Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow.' This, I knew, was a play about work and about the end of the world, so 'Speed-the-Plow' was perfect because not only did it mean work, it meant having to plow under and start over again."

Saturday, February 23, 2013

"Long Day's Journey Into Night" by The Gonzo Group Theatre at the James J. Hill House

I saw Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night for the first time just a few weeks ago, at the Guthrie Theater. It's a wonderful production, as to be expected from the Guthrie. But what fascinated me most about this play is that fact that it is autobiographical, and is so painfully true that O'Neill did not allow it to be published or produced until after his death. The Gonzo Group Theatre also seems to be fascinated with this idea; they have created a production that is as much about the playwright as it is about the play. Gone is the character of the housekeeper (not a big loss, mother Mary's conversation with her turns into a monologue), while a new character is added - O'Neill's wife Carlotta. She wanders around and through the action of the play, collecting the papers that are strewn all over the set (more on the magnificent "set" in a moment), assisting her husband as he tries to make peace with his family and his past through the process of writing (as explained in the note by director Jennifer Harrington). When I first saw the play, I wanted some sort of resolution at the end. But there is none, only hopelessness, and a bit of relief for the audience that they can leave the dark place they have entered into and go back to their lives. But as this version of the play makes clear, the only resolution is in O'Neill's mind, as he was hopefully able to release the demons of his past by writing about them. And leaving us with this poetic, depressing, moving, gut-wrenching, masterful play.

the play takes place on and at the bottom
of the grand staircase at the JJ Hill House
The location of this unique production is the main hall of the James J. Hill House in St. Paul. If you've never been there, it's worth a visit to see this grand home of one of Minnesota's most wealthy historical families. The house also hosts special events, concerts, and occasionally, works of theater. I saw Gremlin Theater's After Miss Julie in the basement kitchen a few years ago, which I found to be an entirely appropriate and authentic setting for the play. This magnificent mansion is not exactly a summer home on the sea, but the period is right (Long Day's Journey takes place in 1912, at which time the Hill family was still living in the house), as is the weighty atmosphere of history and grandeur. And with just 25 seats, it's an intimate experience; you're practically sitting at the table with the Tyrone family, sharing a drink with them. They make great use of the space - the entire long hallway, the out of sight dining room, and the grand staircase, going in and out of doors and looking out the windows at the foggy sea. The house is open before the show and during intermissions, and guests are free to roam around and soak in the atmosphere.

Another unique feature of this production is that it's a true family affair. Real-life married couple Claudia Wilkins and Richard Ooms play Mary and James Tyrone, and their son Michael Ooms is the elder son Jamie. It's kind of trippy to watch a real-life family acting out the life of another real-life family that lived 100 years ago, and they all give great performances. Claudia and Richard once again play a believable married couple (they also played a married couple in The Birthday Party at the Jungle last year), as Mary grows more and more unhinged due to her morphine addiction, and James, himself an alcoholic, gradually accepts their fate. Michael shines in the third act when Jamie is seriously drunk, funny and heart-breaking and a little scary. Luke Weber plays younger son Edmund (aka Eugene O'Neill) and fits in well with the family. Edmund is quiet and sickly, and comes alive when reciting his beloved poetry. It's a tragic story, except that the ever-present Carlotta (Evelyn Digirolamo) is able to successfully gather up the pieces of her husband's life and put them in some kind of order.

If you're reading this on Saturday, you might still be able to catch this unique theatrical experience - call or email now to see if there are any seats left for tonight's final performance (the price couldn't be better - free, with a suggested donation if you like what you see). I love seeing theater in non-traditional spaces, and this is an incredible space, a classic American play, and a really great production. I think this is the first time I've seen two different productions of the same piece in one year, much less in the same month. At first I was reluctant, not wanting to compare the two, but they turned out to be really nice companion pieces that gave me further insight into this play and the mind of the playwright.

Friday, February 22, 2013

"Other Desert Cities" at the Guthrie Theater

Other Desert Cities is the first of two 2012 Tony nominees for Best Play in the Guthrie's 2012-2013 season (the second is the Tony winner Clybourne Park, coming this summer). It's a family drama written by Jon Robin Baitz, creator of the TV family drama Brothers & Sisters. Similar to the Walker family featured in Brothers & Sisters, the Wyeths are a well-to-do political California family with secrets. The Walkers are liberal, but their eldest daughter grew up to be a Republican and moved to the East Coast. The Wyeths are California conservatives (hobnobbing with the Reagans) whose eldest daughter grew up to be a Democrat and moved to the East Coast. She returns to her parents' Palm Springs home with the manuscript of a book she has written and wants to publish, which will air all of the family's dirty laundry that her parents have worked so hard to overcome.

Unlike the Walker brood of six, the Wyeths have three children. The eldest died decades ago, after becoming involved in the bombing of a recruitment center in the 70s. Middle child Brooke was permanently effected by the tragic death of her big brother and has struggled with depression as she tried to make sense of it. The only way she could do so was to write her memoir, the story of her brother from her perspective as a young girl watching it unfold, but not really being able to grasp the whole story. Trip, the youngest, is a producer of reality TV, working really hard to be happy and keep the peace in the family. Polly is the epitome of tough love, especially where her daughter is concerned, and Lyman would do anything for his children. Rounding out the family is Aunt Silda, Polly's recovering alcoholic sister who is living with them until she gets back on her feet. She's not afraid to tell it like it is, and these five people with very different and strong opinions about the situation make for a Christmas to remember, and an entertaining play.

the Wyeth family secrets come out
Another similarity to Brothers & Sisters is that the Guthrie's production of Other Desert Cities features a fantastic ensemble cast, made up of some Twin Cities favorites as well as a few newcomers (directed by my favorite director, Peter Rothstein of Theater Latte Da). As the family patriarch and actor-turned-politician, David Anthony Brinkley is the stern but loving father, a calming presence until he explodes when overcome with love and frustration. The fabulous Sally Wingert (who I like to refer to as the Meryl Streep of the Twin Cities theater scene, but I may have to change that to the Sally Field of the Twin Cities theater scene, now that she's played two Sally Field roles - the matriarch in a Jon Robin Baitz family drama and Mary Todd Lincoln) is the tough love mother, and Michelle Barber is a hoot as her sister Polly. Sally Wingert and Michelle Barber should play sisters whenever possible; that's something I'd like to see repeatedly, these two divine and powerful actresses sparring with each other on stage. The Wyeth children are played by two welcome newcomers to the Guthrie stage, Kelly McAndrew and Christian Conn, who really dig into their roles. Kelly as the messed up Brooke, and  Christian as the loveable Trip, trying to cheer everyone up and smooth things over, but soon revealing some torment of his own. This a family that is entertaining to watch as they try to make it through this crisis intact.

I found myself getting frustrated with Brooke, still blaming her parents for things that happened decades ago, when she doesn't really know the whole story. There comes a point when you have to forgive your parents for what they did or didn't do, and just accept that they did their best and take responsibility for your own life choices. When you're young you think your parents hung the moon, then comes the stage where all you see is their mistakes, and finally, you come to accept them as human beings. This is what Brooke finally seems to learn by the end of the play, which jumps forward several years in a sort of postlude.

I find it interesting that Other Desert Cities is playing across the lobby from Long Day's Journey Into Night (at least through this weekend). Although one takes place 100 years ago and one is modern, both plays are about a dysfunctional family dealing with mental illness and drug addiction, who love and support each other despite everything (although perhaps not in the most healthy of ways). Other Desert Cities has some lighter moments and doesn't feel as hopeless as Long Day's Journey, but it's interesting to me that family dynamics haven't changed all that much in 100 years. The Wyeth family will be residing in the sunny and airy Palm Springs home on the Proscenium stage now through March 24.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

"The Seven" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

Friends, I know I rave about Ten Thousand Things often on this blog, but I'm telling you, The Seven is crazy good. It's unlike anything I've ever experienced. Using an adaptation by Will Power, they've taken an ancient Greek tragedy and reinvented it as something entirely modern, fresh, relatable, energetic, contemporary, and understandable. The New York Times review of the 2006 premiere at NY Theater Workshop referred to it as "a hip-hop musical comedy-tragedy." This cast of eight includes some of the top talent in this town, and they all bring it. There's really no choice but to do so; in the small fully lit space at Open Book with minimal sets and costumes, there's nothing to hide behind. What you see is what you get, and in this case, what you get is awesome.

Artistic Director Michelle Hensley introduces the show, as she always does, and sets the stage for those of us unfamiliar with the story. The original play, Seven Against Thebes, tells the story of Oedipus' sons, upon whom he levied a curse - that they would kill each other. Despite their best intentions to avoid the curse, they of course fulfill it, as always happens in Greek tragedies. The Seven also shows us Oedipus, explaining his own curse (that he would kill his father and marry his mother) and bestowing it upon his sons after they cast him out, and later appearing to them to encourage them in falling victim to it. It's a universal tale of family, war, power, fear, and destiny.

The cast is comprised of eight talented actor/singer/rappers (most of whom I've seen in theaters around town), directed by Sarah Rasmussen, fresh off the completely delightful In the Next Room at the Jungle. We are guided through the story by the narrator/DJ, mixing tunes and tales, played by the fabulous Aimee K. Bryant. Bruce A. Young is strong and powerful as Kind Oedipus, with a scary turn as one of the Seven who wage war against Thebes. As his sons, H. Adam Harris and Kinaundrae Lee give their all, vocally, physically, and emotionally, as the loving brothers who unthinkably turn against each other. One tough and kingly, the other a nature-loving poet, but both sons of the cursed family. The excellent Greek chorus consists of Katie Bradley, Brian Sostek, Ricardo Vazquez, and Joetta Wright, who also play the worried people of Thebes and the titular Seven, a parade of superheroes. Particularly impressive is Ricardo (see also Next to Normal), who possesses a voice that was made for musical theater, ringing out across the room with no amplification necessary. He also has a pretty cool fight scene with himself.

Even though hip-hop and rap are not my favorite musical genres, the music here is fantastic (directed, as always, by Peter Vitale, who also accompanies on percussion). Fast raps are combined with more pop sounding tunes, much of it a capella, all ably performed by the talented cast. The costumes (by Annie Cady) are simple but effective, modern mixed with classic (and to-die-for green gloves worn by the chorus to represent nature).

I don't know how Ten Thousand Things does it. In a fully lit room with minimal sets and costumes, you're more aware that this is just pretend, but somehow, because of their particular brand of genius, it's so easy to be carried away into their world, and never want to leave. I was so engrossed in the world created in that room, that when it was over and I walked outside, I forgot for a moment where I was and what I was supposed to do next. Reality is jarring when you realize that what you truly believed was reality for a short space in time was only make-believe. That's theater at its best, and that's what Ten Thousand Things consistently does. Three more weekends of paid public performances remain (in addition to their usual schedule of performing in prisons, schools, and community centers). Go see it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

"Lot of Living to Do" by ColliDe Theatrical Dance Company at the Southern Theater

I don't go to many dance performances, mostly because it's hard enough to stay on top of the incredible theater scene in the Twin Cities area. To be fully immersed in the theater and dance world would be too much for one person to handle. But occasionally I find myself at a dance show (typically one with theatrical connections), and I always love it. Dancing is a further extension of the core principle of musical theater - that when ideas and emotions cannot be expressed in mere words, music and movement are necessary to fully convey them. In ColliDe Theatrical Dance Company's original jazz dance musical Lot of Living to Do, a story is told through dance alone, without a single word of explanation (a story summary in the program helps set the stage). The talented troupe of dancers is accompanied by jazz standards performed by a fantastic three-piece band and two talented singers, all of which combines for a very entertaining evening.

ColliDe's mission is to partner artists with Minnesota charities to create new works, an admirable goal (I've always believed that theater has the power to change the world, a little at a time). In this case, the charitable partner is the Women's Foundation of Minnesota's campaign to end underage prostitution in Minnesota, called "MN Girls Are Not For Sale." It's unthinkable that this occurs right here in our fair state, something I wasn't really aware of before reading the literature for this show. In fact, the Twin Cities is one of the 13 largest centers for child prostitution in the country. But don't worry, Lot of Living to Do doesn't preach or hit you over the head with scary facts. It's a story about working girls in the 1930s and their problems and triumphs over them, as a subtle reminder that things aren't that different today. The story centers on teen-aged Jenny, abandoned at a brothel by her mother who can no longer support her. Jenny eventually finds a way to escape this life, with the support of the other women who are in too deep to see a way out for themselves.

Some highlights of the show:
  • I have to admit, one of the reasons why I wanted to see this show is to see one of my favorite musical theater actors, Jared Oxborough. Just after a successful run as Radames in Theater Latte Da's Aida, he channels Michael Buble on such classics as "The Best is Yet to Come," "Have You Met Miss Jones," and my theme song, "The Lady is a Tramp" (I get much too hungry to eat dinner at 8, I love the theater, but never come late, I never bother with people I hate). Jared also plays the role of a jerk of a john, and gets to kick up his heels a bit at the end.
  • Katie Gearty plays the brothel madam, the aforementioned Miss Jones, and lends her gorgeous jazzy voice to songs like "Nice Work if You Can Get It" and "Frankie and Johnny," all while presiding over the brothel and collecting money from her girls.
the light-on-his-feet (and hands) Galen Higgins
  • All of the dancers are so gorgeous performing the choreography of ColliDe Artistic Director Regina Peluso, a sort of Fosse-esque jazz style, sharp and yet loose at the same time, and very expressive of the high emotions of the characters. Standouts in the cast include Lauren Anderson, a fierce and powerful dancer, conveying strong emotion as the tough working girl Frankie. As Jenny's sweet boyfriend, Galen Higgins is incredibly light on his feet and expressive in every muscle of his body, from the tips of his toes to his open face. His dancing is so joyful, it's impossible not to smile while watching him.
  • The Southern Theater is a great place for dance, with its wide-open cavernous space, well-used by the dancers. A few set pieces, including a bar on the left, a small stage for the singers, and some tables in back, set the scene of a 1930s brothel while still leaving plenty of space for dance.
ColliDe Theatrical Dance Company beautifully tells this story in a fun and entertaining way. On the surface it's just a beautiful dance performance, until you see that it goes a little deeper than that. It's a great way to draw people in and inform them of a very real and serious problem, as well as offering a solution to that problem. In the real world, young girls need more than a cute bartender boyfriend to get them out of this terrible situation, which is where MN Girls Are Not For Sale comes in. See their website for more information on how to help in this worthwhile campaign, and go check out the show at the Southern (one performance Saturday night and two on Sunday) for an entertaining evening of jazz, music, vocals, and dance. Talented dancers, singers, and musicians, a captivating story, a great cause, and free drinks from sponsors Whiplash Wines and Stella Artois. What more can you ask for?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Venus in Fur" at the Jungle Theater

Venus in Fur was all the rage when I was in NYC last spring. I didn't end up seeing it, but it went on to be nominated for a couple of Tonys, including a win for best actress. When the Jungle Theater announced their 2013 season last fall, I was excited to see that Venus in Fur would be their first production, and even more so when I saw that it would star two of the Twin Cities best actors, Anna Sundberg and Peter Christian Hansen (who previously co-starred in Gremlin Theatre's After Miss Julie, performed in the basement kitchen of the James J. Hill House*). As usual, the Jungle does not disappoint. Venus in Fur is smart, sexy, funny, and highly entertaining.

Playwright David Ives adapted the 19th century German novel Venus im Pelz in an unconventional way (the book was written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, after whom the latter half of the term Sado-Masochism was coined). Rather than a direct adaptation, the play is about a playwright/director who has adapted the novel and is auditioning to find an actress to play the main character, Vanda. Hence we are treated to interactions between the characters in the novel, as well as interactions between the director and auditioning actress, which start to blend together as the play goes on. The play opens with the director, Thomas, frustrated that he can't find his Vanda after a long day of auditions. In walks a woman named, coincidentally, Vanda. She's flustered and flighty, having been caught in the rain, and seems ill-prepared for the audition. But Thomas reluctantly agrees to let her audition, and the moment she starts speaking, she becomes the Vanda from the book, and it's clear that she knows more than she's let on. She convinces Thomas to read the role of Severin, a man who falls so deeply in love with Vanda that he begs to become her slave. As they interact in character and as themselves, the balance of power shifts subtly between Vanda/Vanda and Severin/Thomas, so that it's difficult to keep track of who has the upper hand. The line between fiction and reality gets blurred, and it soon becomes clear that Vanda has an agenda that goes way beyond just getting a role in a play.

Anna Sundberg and Peter Christian Hansen
The play is one long scene, with neither actor leaving the stage or even taking a breath for 90 minutes. Both Anna and Peter give fantastic performances, as expected, and are just as comfortable in the period roles as the modern. Anna always throws herself completely into every role I've seen her play, holding nothing back, and this is no exception. As Vanda the actress she's funny and a little goofy, as Vanda the character she's smooth and elegant, and she even gets to play the seductive Venus herself. Peter is, as always, wonderfully intense. He too, gets to play multiple roles - the somewhat reserved director who is gradually drawn out by Vanda as he lives the roles he has written, Vanda's "slave" Severin (whom she calls Thomas, the footman!), and even taking a turn as Vanda. Under the expert direction of Joel Sass (who, as usual, also designed the set - a sparse and lifelike rehearsal room), Anna and Peter create a beautiful crazy dance.

When the lights went down at the end of the play, I had a moment of "wait, what just happened?" But I like that. It's never quite clear what Vanda's motivations are in planning this scenario, but I guess the playwright meant it to be ambivalent, I mean ambiguous. People and relationships are not what they seem, and are constantly changing. Go see Venus in Furplaying now through March 10, for a wildly entertaining and engaging night at one of the best theaters in town, featuring a couple of the best actors in town.

*The James J. Hill House is currently hosting another production of a classic play - The Gonzo Group Theatre's Long Day's Journey Into Night, starring real-life married couple Claudia Wilkins and Richard Ooms.

Monday, February 11, 2013

"Red Resurrected" by Transatlantic Love Affair at Illusion Theater

My favorite show of the 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival was Transatlantic Love Affair's Ash Land. I was incredibly moved by their simple and eloquent storytelling; the company of actors created a rich and complex world using nothing but their bodies and voices. I was completely transported into another world, which is all I ask for from theater. Transatlantic Love Affair's 2011 Fringe hit Red Resurrected is currently being presented as part of Illusion Theater's "Lights Up!" series. Like Ash Land, it's another innovative piece of theater, and it deserves a much larger audience than the one at the Illusion Theater last night. At just 70 minutes, it's well worth your time to see something fresh and unexpected and completely lovely.

Red Resurrected, written and directed by 2012 Ivey emerging artist Isabel Nelson, loosely re-imagines the familiar fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, combining it with other myths and legends in a way that makes it feel like a completely new story, yet familiar. Red lives in a small town called Primrose in the hills of Appalachia; she has no family of her own, and instead is literally being raised by the village. She's a happy child, doing chores and playing with her friends, but warned never to go down to the woods. Red is fascinated by the woods, and as she grows up she begins to find that the woods are the only place she feels at home. When her safe and familiar world is shaken (the wolves that young women face are not always of the canine variety, but are just as dangerous), she escapes into the woods on a path that runs west out of Primrose. There she meets a woman who can heal the broken, and learns from her. Eventually she decides to return home to see if she can bring healing to her friends and family in the village.

the wise woman and Red in her hut in the woods
In Transatlantic Love Affair's signature style, this seven person cast tells their story on a completely bare stage with not a single set piece or prop. This is a true company; all of them have appeared in previous TLA shows, and that connectedness shows. At times they move as one unit, representing everything in Red's world from the trees to the dripping faucet to every sound you've ever heard in the woods. They also beautifully sing traditional Appalachian music, which adds so much in creating this world. I hesitate to call out any members of this true ensemble because they're all just wonderful, but I will. Heather Bunch brings levity to her role as Red's friend and the grim Mrs. Quinn, but also brings out the serious side of both of these characters. Anna Reichert is also great as the narrator and wise woman of the woods, and Adelin Phelps once again embodies a completely relatable heroine to root for.

the family sits down at the dinner table
I love the way that Transatlantic Love Affair tells such simple and beautiful stories, combining movement, music, and words in a completely innovative way. It's really indescribable, so you should go see it for yourself (playing at the Illusion Theater in downtown Minneapolis now through March 2). If I may paraphrase the moving final words of the show, sometimes a woman finds herself on a path in the woods, fixing things that are broken, singing with a full voice to the mountains. I'll camp a little while in the wilderness, and then I'm goin' home.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Buzzer" by Pillsbury House Theatre at the Guthrie Studio Theater

The new play Buzzer by Tracey Scott Wilson premiered at Pillsbury House Theatre last year. It explores issues of race, class, gender, and gentrification in this seemingly post-racial world. It's one of those plays that'll leave you with a slightly uneasy feeling because of the very real and intense issues it brings up. Like all theater by Pillsbury House, it's more than just a play, it's an exploration of ideas, conflicts, and issues that are extremely relevant to the world we live in, but that we may be reluctant to face. That's what great theater does, make us face those issues head on. If you missed it last year, you have a second chance to see it at the Guthrie studio (playing now through March 3), where the entire cast and creative team has reassembled. The play may have been tweaked a bit since its last run, but I didn't notice any drastic changes from when I saw it last year; it's as if the entire production was plucked out of Pillsbury House and placed intact in the Guthrie Studio. It was one of my favorite plays last year, and the kind of play that almost requires repeat viewing, so I was more than happy to see it again.

Tracey Scott Wilson has crafted an intense one-act drama, with the action and the tension constantly building. Scenes overlap; a character will be having a conversation, then turn and begin a new scene and conversation with another character without taking a breath. It never lets up, until the final painful confrontation. Here's the plot summary I wrote last year:

Jackson is a successful lawyer who grew up poor in a neighborhood filled with drugs and violence, and was able to get himself out and make a better life for himself. He rents (to own) a newly remodeled apartment in his old neighborhood, which is transitioning from a "bad neighborhood" to one with coffee shops and lofts and restaurants. He and his girlfriend Suzy, a teacher in the inner-city schools, move in. Jackson convinces Suzy to let his down-on-his-luck best friend Don move in with them, despite her reluctance. Don is from a privileged background, and despite constantly getting himself into trouble, has been able to get out of it thanks to his rich and powerful father. Jackson was given nothing and worked hard to achieve the life he wanted, while Don squandered every opportunity he had. But somehow the two men remained friends. Their friendship is tested when Suzy tells Don that she's being harassed on the street, and they grow closer. Each member of the trio has their own plan to end the harassment. Suzy thinks that if she stays strong and ignores the bullies, they'll eventually stop. Jackson wants to threaten them with violence, while Don thinks reasoning with them and being friendly will solve the problem. The conflict grows inside the apartment and outside on the street.

Namir Smallwood, Sara Richardson, and Hugh Kennedy
Hugh Kennedy won an Ivey Award for his performance as Don, and seeing it again it's even more clear why.  He completely embodies this damaged character struggling with his demons and trying to live a better and sober life. It's a very physical performance; Don's addiction is apparent in his jittery hands and frenetic energy as he moves uneasily around the apartment. Namir Smallwood and Sara Richardson are also great as the troubled couple Jackson and Suzy. Each of these three actors creates a complex character, all of whom make bad choices at times but are very real and relatable. Marion McClinton returns as director and brings all of this complexity together in a cohesive way (check out this feature on MN Original about his amazing career journey). Lastly, the simple and elegant set by Dean Holzman (which looks very similar to what I remember from last year's production) provides a great space for the story to take place.

The title refers to the broken buzzer in the apartment building, and who the residents are willing to let in based on their own prejudices and assumptions, which may not agree with what they claim to believe. In the program notes, the playwright says, "The young characters in Buzzer think they are beyond race. They were raised on ethnic food, multi-cultural TV and hip-hop. They don't discuss race because they don't see race. They know slavery was an abomination and all men are created equal. What's to discuss? They discover that there is a lot to discuss and keeping silent is much more destructive than speaking the truth." This play breaks through the silence and speaks the truth, at least from the point of view of each of these three complex characters. It doesn't offer any solutions, but addressing the issues and bringing them to light is a great beginning.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

"Circle Mirror Transformation" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Circle Mirror Transformation is an odd little play, full of awkward pauses, interrupted conversations, and silly games. But it's also surprisingly deep and poignant. It'll make you laugh, think, and feel, which is my favorite kind of play. I saw it at the Guthrie a few years ago and it was one of my favorites of the year, and I knew it was a perfect choice for Yellow Tree TheatreCircle Mirror Transformation and Yellow Tree are a great match - both are slightly quirky and offbeat, but with a lot of heart and great storytelling.

The entire 90-minute play takes place in a six-week community acting class in a small town in Vermont. We mark the passage of time with a changing sign on the bulletin board announcing the week. The play is constructed as a series of short scenes depicting class exercises, as well as interactions between the characters during breaks or before class. As the play progresses we piece together more and more of each person's story. Teacher Marty (Doree Du Toit, read an interesting story about her acting journey here) wants to share her love of the art with her students, one of which is her husband James, an original hippie (Kurt Schweickhardt). Theresa (Yellow Tree co-founder Jessica Lind Peterson) was a struggling actor in NYC until breaking up with her boyfriend and moving to Vermont a few months ago. Lauren (Tara Borman) is a typically sullen teenager who signed up for the class to help her win the role of Maria in her school's upcoming production of West Side Story, and wants to know if they're going to do any "real acting." The final student, Schultz (Dan Hopman), is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis, recently divorced and dealing with living on his own and trying to make a new start.

James and Marty act out a scene as Lauren looks on
Each of these characters comes to the class for a different reason and gets something different out of it, but as the title suggest, each is transformed, in big or small ways. We witness the entire course of a relationship between Theresa and Schultz (beautifully, painfully, and realistically played by Jessica and Dan), from nervous attraction, to giddy infatuation, to a really awkward breakup, to some sort of closure. Marty is not quite as together as she seems and has some issues of her own to work through, with or without the help of her husband. Lauren is trying to escape some family issues, which she's finally able to admit in a really fascinating class exercise - each class member tells another person's life story, which reveals as much about the speaker as it does about the subject. This play is really a character study, and playwright Annie Baker has quite brilliantly allowed us to gain vital tidbits of information about each of them in an unconventional way, without telling the full story. One gets the sense that this is just a short snippet in each character's life, a full and complex life that started long before the action of the play began and continues long after it ends. As director Andy Frye (who does a beautiful job bringing out the depth of each of these characters as well as making great use of the space) says in the program notes, "the exercises performed serve only as a catalyst for what's really going on with these complex characters." As the play progresses, the exercises take on more and more meaning as we learn about the people performing them.

an intense moment between Schultz and Theresa
Costume, set, and props designer Sarah Bahr has perfectly created the world in which this story plays out. The slight wardrobe changes effectively signal a new day while allowing for quick changes between scenes. The Yellow Tree stage is about as bare as I've ever seen it - the back wall is painted a dull yellow, adorned simply with a barre, mirror, and bulletin board. The only set pieces are a hula hoop, stool, and and ball. It looks like any well-used community center classroom where any number of activities have taken place over the years.

I almost wish I could participate in a class like this, that's less about acting than it is about connecting more deeply with oneself and one's fellow human beings. On second thought, maybe that's exactly what (good) acting is, as perfectly illustrated in this production. This five-person cast, with no weak link among them, fully rises to the requirements of the material - being fully present and in the moment, speaking the way real people speak, with all the awkwardness of real life. If you've never made the trip up to Osseo, now is a great time to do it. Circle Mirror Transformation is one of the best shows I've seen at Yellow Tree Theatre. If you love funny, quirky, real, and poignant theater, you won't be disappointed. Playing now through February 24.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"The Book of Mormon" at the Orpheum Theatre

We are still Latter Day Saints, all of us
Even if we change some things
Or we break the rules
Or we have complete doubt that God exists
We can still all work together to make this our paradise planet.

This pretty much sums up my fundamental spiritual belief. It's quite unexpected to find such profundity in a big old-fashioned Broadway musical that contains the foulest language I've ever heard coming from the stage. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) brilliantly walk that line between hilarious vulgarity and a beautifully sweet heart, and have created that truly rare piece of entertainment that lives up to all of the hype surrounding it. The Book of Mormon is perhaps the most joyful musical I've ever seen, full of the joy of life, friendship, and community.

Elders Price and Cunningham have a Lion King moment
The heroes of our story are a couple of young Mormon men who are paired together on a mission to Uganda to convert the native people to the Mormon religion. The two have opposite journeys in the story. Elder Price is the overachiever who has the perfect life planned out for himself, and has to learn some painful lessons (literally) that life is not quite that easy. Elder Cunningham is the schlubby compulsive liar who's never done anything right, until his well-intentioned lying saves the day. The Ugandans resist every attempt at conversion because the stories about an American prophet half a world away have nothing to do with the very real problems of illness and violence that they face on a daily basis. It's only when Elder Cunningham is able to make the stories more relatable that they begin to find comfort in The Book.

the young Mormons excited to go on their missions
Despite my disappointment that my favorite Broadway actor Gavin Creel recently left the role of Elder Price in the First US National Tour to create the role in the London version of the show, I have to admit that this is an all-around fantastic cast. I saw the original cast on Broadway and this one is every bit as good. The ensemble has such sharp precision in the execution of this wonderful and traditionally Broadway choreography and the decidedly non-traditional lyrics. There are moments in the opening number when they sound like a heavenly choir. Mark Evans is extremely charismatic and enthusiastic as Elder Price, with a voice to match. Before reading his bio at intermission and discovering that he's a Welsh actor who's worked mostly in the UK, I had no clue that he was anything but All-American; he has no trace of an accent. Christopher John O'Neill makes the role of Elder Cunningham his own; no one can be Josh Gad so he wisely doesn't even try. He doesn't have a strong voice, but that works for the character, and he more than makes up for it with his complete embodiment of that sweet, innocent, well-meaning buffoonery. Samantha Marie Ware is a star as Nabulungi, with a beautiful singing voice and appealing stage presence. The duet between Elder Cunningham and Nabulungi, "Baptize Me," is about the sweetest unconventional love song ever seen onstage. Other favorite moments include the exuberant "Two by Two" as the boys are sent on their missions, Elder Price's fierce declaration of unwavering faith in "I Believe," and the finale, "Tomorrow is a Latter Day," in which our characters joyfully exclaim that today is what matters, not some future other world.

The Book of Mormon is an example of everything musical theater can and should be. Using this traditional American art form in a new and interesting way, telling stories, sharing joy, poking fun at established institutions (not just the Mormon religion, but religion in general), singing clever and musically entertaining songs, and just plain old entertaining the audience. It even includes a few nods to classic musicals - several references to The Lion King, and a line that's similar to a song from The Sound of Music (although one written for the movie, not the stage version). If you want to experience this new classic of musical theater, check out the Hennepin Theatre Trust's website for information on ticket availability and the daily lottery (all shows in the two-week run have been virtually sold out for months). Unless you have no heart (or can't get past the language), you will leave the theater feeling a lot lighter and happier than when you entered it.

Ma ha nei bu, Eebowai.

Monday, February 4, 2013

"The Tiger Among Us" by Mu Performing Arts at Mixed Blood Theatre

Sometimes when you go to the theater, a play is just a play. At other times, a play is so much more than just a play, it's a meaningful exploration of ideas or experiences, in which artists speak their truth. Mu Performing Arts' world premiere production of the new play The Tiger Among Us is such a case. Playwright Lauren Yee brings to life one of Minnesota's largest minority cultures, Hmong, through the story of one family. We're introduced to the family through the oldest son, Pao, who sits at the front of the stage and talks directly to the audience. He tells us that Hmong people "have big families and eat a lot." Sounds like just about every culture I've ever heard of!

Family patriarch Thao (Saikong Yang) immigrated to the US from Laos with his wife, eventually ending up in the small central Minnesota town of Perham. Mother May (Sheng Kong, seen in flashbacks and hallucinations) has been gone for years, and Thao is raising his two children by himself on a janitor's salary. Pao (Maxwell Chonk Thao) dropped out of high school to help support the family with a job at the local Panera bread (artistic licence, I'm pretty sure Perham doesn't have a Panera). Lia (Gaosong Vang Heu) is a senior in high school and the star of the volleyball team, being courted by college scouts. She's a typical American teenager, with no more worries than the next big game, until a school project requires her to ask her father about his immigration experience. Thao is out of town on a hunting trip, so Lia does some investigating on her own. As secrets come out, the world she knows slowly begins to fall apart. Meanwhile, Pao is making plans to move to St. Paul where they'll be surrounded by other Hmong people instead of isolated in this small rural community, where they daily face subtle racism (perhaps the worst kind). Thao wants to leave his past behind him and just live his quiet simple life, but he's forced to face his demons. It's a bit of a tragic ending, but yet with hope that the new generation can continue their parents' dream of making a new life for the family.

Maxwell Chonk Thao, Sheng Kong, Saikong Yang,
and Gaosong Vang Heu as the Xiong family
The strong cast includes four Hmong-American actors (who also shared their experiences in the post-show discussion), as well as Claire Bancroft as Lia's cheerful friend and Garry Gieken as several characters, ranging from the friendly neighbor to much more threatening forces. Maxwell is a very appealing actor (see also Into the Woods), and Gaosong is a fresh-faced and exuberant young actor; together they create a believable supportive and bickering sibling relationship. Also good are Saikong as the father struggling to raise his family, and Sheng as a haunting vision in her family's life.

Playing now through February 10, The Tiger Among Us is an interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking look at the immigrant experience in a typical American family.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"Power Balladz" at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

As I've said before, I'm not a fan of 80s music. But what I am a fan of is Dieter Bierbrauer and Randy Schmeling singing anything together, especially in a show with Peter Rothstein's* name attached. I've had a few samples of this show that they first did at the Lab Theater in 2009, but I've never quite been able to catch it (I even had tickets to the Off-Broadway version in 2010 before they cancelled certain performances, which worked out because I ended up seeing this instead). Dieter and Randy are currently reprising their roles in Power Balladz on tour, along with the third original cast member, Katy Hays (whom I've never seen before but who is equally fabulous). The show will play at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's Fireside Theatre the first weekend of every month through May, along with several other stops around Minnesota and the country. I was definitely in the minority in the audience; most of the audience was made up of fans of the 80s (some of whom appeared to still be living in the 80s) and were there to hear their favorite songs, not to listen to their favorite musical theater actors. But we all seemed to enjoy it just the same, although for different reasons. All three performers are incredibly talented vocalists as well as actors, creating distinct (if not very deep) characters - Dieter, the rock scholar with a PhD; Randy, the high school dropout who never quite grew up; and Katy, the rock fan and groupie. The show is interactive, with people being invited onstage to participate in games (Lyric Challenge, Meatloaf or Meat Loaf) and to vote on a medley of songs whether or not they qualify as a "power ballad." It's not high art, but it's a really entertaining evening, whether you're going to see great performers or relive your youth.

A few highlights of the show:

  • The songs I enjoyed the most were the ones I like to call Glee songs: "Faithfully" (Journey is a favorite of Mr. Schue's), "Total Eclipse of the Heart," "Alone" (Katy's rendition is awesome and she really rocks out with a voice much better suited to this song than Kristin Chenowith), and "Dream On" (the only thing better than Matthew Morrison and Neil Patrick Harris singing "Dream On" is Dieter, Katy, and Randy singing "Dream On!").
  • The five piece band is fantastic and keeps things moving along.
  • Video screens on either side of the stage illustrate the stories and songs, and even include some of my favorite 1980s memories (The Facts of Life!).
  • We get to see Dieter's PhD thesis project (with help from Randy, GeD), "Und die Mauer Fällt," about how one particular rock ballad was responsible for the end of communism.
  • The show is wonderfully cheesy, intentionally so (which is so much better than unintentionally cheesy).
  • The show ends strong with the classic and oft-requested "Freebird," with an encore of "We Are the Champions," which I know because of its association with the best thing to happen in the 80s - the Twins first World Series win in 1987!
Whether you long for the days of big hair and melodramatic rock ballads, or you're a theater geek who loves to see talented singer/actors throw themselves into a performance, check out Power Balladz at the Chanhassen March 1-2, April 5-6, and May 3-4, or visit out the tour page to see if the show is coming to a town near you. Here's a video montage of scenes from the 2009 version of the show, which is pretty similar to the version currently on tour (except for the crazy costumes):

*I spotted Peter Rothstein, one of the creators of Power Balladz and Artistic Director of Theater Latte Da, in the audience the night I attended. It gave me a chance to tell him how much I enjoyed Latte Da's most recent show Aida, and all of his work. Next up: I'm looking forward to seeing what Peter and the fabulous local cast has done with the hot new play Other Desert Cities opening this week at the Guthrie.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"Long Day's Journey Into Night" at the Guthrie Theater

Long Day's Journey Into Night is the autobiographical masterpiece of American playwright Eugene O'Neill. The son of an actor, he was born in a hotel at what is now Times Square - you can't get much more ingrained in the history of American theater than that. This piece was so personal to him that he left instructions that it not be published until 25 years after his death. His life reads like a tragedy, full of drug addiction and mental illness, so it's no wonder that this most truthful of all his plays is a tragic family story. Set in 1912 at the family's summer home on the sea, the mother is a morphine addict (as was O'Neill's mother), the father and two sons alcoholics (O'Neill's older brother died of complications of alcoholism at the age of 45). The action of the play takes place all in one day as it journeys into night (such a beautiful and poetic turn of phrase). There is love in this family, but also anger, frustration, and desperation. With the Guthrie's usual top-notch production values and stellar (and primarily local) cast, it's a heavy, intense, thought-provoking, and deeply rewarding look at an American classic.

John Skelley and Helen Carey as mother and son
On the night I attended the play, shortly before the lights came up in that lifelike and lived-in seaside home built on the thrust stage, there was an announcement that the role of family patriarch James Tyrone was to be played by Raye Birk, rather than James' usual portrayer, Peter Michael Goetz.* A slight murmur of disappointment rippled through the audience, but 30 seconds after Raye Birk stepped on stage I forgot that anybody other than him was supposed to be playing this role. I've been a fan of Raye's for years, but I'm even more in awe of his talent after watching him step so smoothly into a role that he'll probably only play a handful of times in the six-week run of the show. He and the rest of the cast completely embody these characters both physically and emotionally, and make your heart break at the tragic situation they've created for themselves. The beginning of the play is almost hopeful. Mother Mary (a fragile and fluttery Helen Carey) has just returned from her latest attempt to get sober and seems to be doing well, despite the men in her family watching and reading into her every move and word (it's almost as if their suspicion of a relapse is a self-fulfilling prophesy; they expect her to return to her addict ways and so she does). Youngest son Edmund (a stand-in for the playwright) is sick with consumption (played by John Skelley, who, thanks to his constant cough and the make-up and wardrobe, looks and sounds convincingly sickly, sallow, hollow-eyed, and thin in an oversized sweater). Things go
downhill as the day
the Johns Skelley and Catron as the Tyrone brothers
progresses and pre-lunch drinks turn into pre-dinner drinks turn into an after-dinner binge (as the elder son Jamie, John Catron is such an excellent drunk that I was afraid he was going to fall over!). Heartfelt discussions and confessions (in vino veritas, as Jamie says) are shared between various pairs of characters, but the day ends with the family stuck in the tragedy of self-destruction.

If you're a fan of the American theater, head to the Guthrie between now and February 23 to experience this classic.

*Update: Raye Birk is permanently taking over the role of James Tyrone from Peter Michael Goetz, who has returned to his California home to take care of a personal matter. I'm sorry to see Peter go and I wish him well, but rest assured that the role is in good hands.