Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Jonah and the Whale" by 7th House Theater at the Guthrie Theater

Friends, the future of Minnesota theater, and perhaps American theater, is here. It can currently be seen in the Guthrie Theater's 9th floor Dowling Studio, where a group of smart, talented, ambitious, dedicated, hard-working young music-theater artists have created a beautiful new original musical, based on the biblical story of Jonah. It's everything I want theater to be - fresh, innovative, delightful, heart-breaking, inspiring, genuine, and epic. This is 7th House Theater's fourth production in less than two years, and they continue to explore new ideas and push the boundaries of what theater can be. They've proven themselves with three low-budget but high-quality productions, and now have the resources of the Guthrie behind them to expand even further in this production. The result is beautiful and breath-taking. If 7th House is the future of theater, we're in good hands.

This Jonah and the Whale is a loose and modernized interpretation of the story of Jonah, set somewhere along the Mississippi River sometime in the last century. Jonah is a well-liked happy man, expecting a child with his beloved wife, and fixing anything that's broken in his small close-knit community, including the town clock. An unspeakable tragedy causes Jonah to run away from his life in search of something - peace, healing, answers, a reason to live. He joins the crew of a riverboat and seems to be making progress, until a storm tosses him overboard. The whale is never explicitly named, but Jonah ends up inside something, where he experiences the culmination of his personal crisis, a revelation, and decides to come home. A simple story really, but profound in its telling.

Jonah with Susan always behind him
(David Darrow and Kendall Anne Thompson,
photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
This is a true ensemble piece, with the eight-person ensemble and four-person band (some of whom cross over into the action of the play) taking turns narrating the story and playing various characters in it. At the center of the tale is composer David Darrow, with a heart-breaking and beautifully sung performance as Jonah. Kendall Anne Thompson is his ever-present wife Susan, with a beautiful clear voice that pierces the heart. The rest of the talented ensemble includes Matt Riehle (with a fantastic revival song), Gracie Kay Anderson, Serena Brook, and 7th House company members Cat Brindisi (leading a rousing gospel chorus), Derek Prestly, and Grant Sorenson. Tyler Michaels and Emily King have combined their talents to direct and choreograph this group, and created some really wonderful and innovative movement around the stage.

In just over six months playwright Tyler Mills, along with composer/lyricists* Blake Thomas (a gifted singer/songwriter, check out his music on iTunes) and David Darrow (who gave us a glimpse of his songwriting skills at the Fringe a few years ago) have written what feels like a full and complete musical. The clever, funny, and poignant book has light-hearted homey moments, with plenty of small details added that add color to the characters, as well as intense and personal drama. The score is in the style of "old timey folk/Americana music" (which just happens to be my favorite genre) and includes a gospel chorus, a revival tent song, a bar song, plaintive ballads, and a recurring wordless tune that ties the whole thing together. I'm crossing my fingers that they record a soundtrack; this is music I could listen to endlessly. In addition to the music, there are constant wonderfully inventive sound effects that illuminate the world of Jonah, many created by Mary Fox on various percussive instruments and objects.**

This is definitely the most elaborate set that 7th House has had. The black box theater that is the Dowling Studio is arranged in the frequent proscenium style, with the back of the stage area filled with ladders, barrels, crates, and a moving doorway, creating that early 20th century Americana feel. The simple costumes are also of that Americana dust bowl sort of style, with homespun dresses for the women and worker's coveralls for Jonah (set by Kate Sutton-Johnson, costumes by Mandi Johnson).

Jonah and the Whale is less than 90 minutes long but it feels epic, full and complete and layered, like you've gone on the journey along with Jonah and returned home changed. It's one of those experiences where time stands still and what's happening on stage is the only reality. This is a truly unique and special creation, with so much work and heart put into it by the cast and creative team. It makes my heart glad for the future of theater. I could not be prouder of or happier for the kids at 7th House for their continued success and growth as a company. Go check them out in this show if you can (two shows have been added and limited seats remain), and keep your eye on them in the future.

Jonah (David Darrow, photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)

*Listen to Blake and David talk about writing the song "Wondering Wandering" on an episode of Twin Cities Song Story, hosted by Mark Sweeney.
**Mary and Blake have experience creating wonderful, whimsical, innovative sounds on Take it With You, their monthly radio show, recorded live in Duluth, which you can listen to here.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Friday, December 19, 2014

"4000 Miles" at Park Square Theatre

Is there a sweeter word in the English language than "Grandma?" Maybe it's because I don't have one anymore, but there's something about the grandchild/grandparent relationship that strikes me as so unique and special. Your grandparents are sort of like your parents, only much cooler and wiser. Park Square Theatre's production of playwright Amy Herzog's 2011 play 4000 Miles explores this relationship in a really beautiful way. With a small cast and a simple and profound story, it's perfectly suited to their new thrust stage* in the basement of the historic Hamm Building.

The title refers to Leo's cross country journey by bicycle, starting from his current home in Seattle, through his childhood home in St. Paul, and ending at his grandmother's Greenwich Village apartment. The journey took some unexpected turns, and Leo is suffering from more than just the usual angst of youth. He and his grandma Vera don't know each other well, but he has nowhere else to go. He needs to heal and figure out where to go from here, and Vera helps him do that, just by being there, listening (when she has her hearing aid in), and providing that no-nonsense sage advice of those older and wiser than us. Vera comes to rely on Leo as well and enjoy having him around. They develop a comfortable rapport, but alas, by definition of the relationship the situation can't continue as it is, and once Leo has healed, he's ready to leave the nest again.

Leo and Vera (Gabriel Murphy and Linda Kelsey,
photo by Petronella Ytsma)
Under director Gary Gisselman, this four-person cast really shines. Brief appearances by Becca Hart as the estranged girlfriend and Joann Oudekerk as his date shed more light on Leo's character, but the show belongs to Linda Kelsey and Gabriel Murphy. Linda's performance as Vera is so lived in and real, it's easy to imagine sitting down at her table for coffee and frozen pastry. She gives Vera a vital spirit that's struggling to get through her aging body and mind. Gabriel hits all right the notes as this cocky youngster who thinks he has it all together, slowly peeling back the layers as Leo lets his grandmother (and the audience) see the trauma he's experienced and the pain that he's feeling. The two of them together are just so charming as they portray a really beautiful multi-generational relationship.

This is only the second play in the new Andy Boss Stage, so it's fun to continue to explore what it can look like and be. In this case, scenic designer Rick Polenek has transformed it into a very detailed and realistic NYC apartment. The back of the stage is lined with shelves filled with books and tchotchkes, while dated grandmotherly furniture extends into the thrust part of the stage.

4000 Miles is one of those wonderful plays that's not big on action, but that really digs into relationships and characters, through sharp, funny, poignant dialogue, as well as through things left unsaid. Unfortunately I'm catching this one towards the end of its short run; it closes this weekend. But if you have some free time in your holiday schedule this weekend, it's definitely worth a visit.

*I was not able to see 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, now playing on Park Square's main stage, due to scheduling issues, but I saw it two years ago and found it to be quite delightful! Read more of my thoughts here, and buy your tickets for this year's show here.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"A Hunting Shack Christmas" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Christmas at Yellow Tree is always a wonderfully wild and ridiculous affair. Now in their seventh season, the little theater that could is continuing in their tradition of hilarious, heart-felt, and very Minnesotan Christmas plays. But this year they're taking a break from their popular Miracle on Christmas Lake series (two installments so far) to venture to a new location - the hunting shack. Yellow Tree co-founders Jessica Lind and Jason Peterson have combined to write and direct, respectively, this funny and charming new play, and have assembled a fantastic cast to bring these quirky and familiar characters to life. I'd tell you to go see it, but it's sold out for the rest of the run, despite the fact that they've added a bunch of shows. So make your plans early for next Christmas, because Yellow Tree Theatre is a wonderful place to be at this time of the year.

Like the Christmas Lake plays, A Hunting Shack Christmas centers on a relatively normal couple facing a possibly life-changing event who encounters some ridiculously Minnesotan characters. Charlie and Jennifer live a perfectly comfortable life in "The Cities," but perhaps one that's lacking a bit of adventure. On the eve of their 10th anniversary vow renewal, Charlie skips town to head to his grandfather's hunting shack to contemplate his life and the changes he's being forced to make. Jennifer is upset that he left, and follows him to the rustic shack. Much to their surprise, Charlie's eccentric uncle Paul and (sort of) aunt June and cousin Ham are squatting in the cabin, and are none too happy to have their lives interrupted by this "citiot." Charlie and Ham bicker like boys, and even engage in some hilarious slow-mo childish fighting. But at the insistence of Aunt June, everyone makes peace with each other, and Charlie and Jen decide to make a change for the better. This oddball family lives happily ever after in their cozy hunting shack (at least until the sequel).

John Haynes, Greta Grosch, and
Sasha Andreev (photo by Keri Pickett)
A Hunting Shack Christmas is told in informal narration, with narrator Charlie often speaking directly to the audience and fully acknowledging that we're in the theater, directing the sound and lighting and calling for memories. This structure allows a charming and likeable Sasha Andreev to play with the audience and draw us into the story. Daisy Macklin Skarning (in a role that's the complete opposite of the one she played in Gremlin Theatre's Rocket to the Moon this spring) also brings great charm and enthusiasm to the role of Jennifer, making Charlie and Jen a couple to root for. The character of Ham tells the audience he's the comic relief, and understudy Joseph Pyfferoen is just that, committing fully and hilariously to the role of this oddball young man who lives with his parents, wants to start a jerky company, and is engaged to marry a woman from Norway who rides a reindeer. Greta Grosch and John Haynes both have a strong comedy/improv background, which they bring to the roles of Aunt June and Uncle Paul. Greta especially is a hoot as this stereotypical hotdish-making kombucha-growing Minnesota woman. The entire cast works and plays well together with a great energy, showing no signs of the exhaustion one would think might set in when doing so many added shows.

I've never been to a hunting shack, but Katie Phillips' set design looks pretty authentic to me, in fact it looks quite appealing (minus the alleged smell, anyway). Walking into the theater you go through the entry way of a typical cabin (or Minnesota home), with various coats, jackets, snowsuits, and other warm weather gear. The stage is populated with an ugly couch with mismatched afghans, a wood-burning stove, and kitchen appliances that looks rustic and barely functional. And oh yes, there are the deer heads and mounted fish one would expect at a hunting establishment. Lori Schwartz's costumes are entirely appropriate to this world, from the citiots' puffy vests to the comfy nightwear to the warm but not so stylish outerwear.

Yellow Tree Theatre has done it again - created an original holiday show, written by someone* who obviously has familiarity with and affection for Minnesota, that delights and entertains its loyal audience. Their last play featured a couple of Ivey winners, and their next play stars a brilliant actor currently playing Scrooge at the Guthrie, but Yellow Tree hasn't forgotten who their audience is and what they want to see at the holidays. With A Hunting Shack Christmas, they've delivered a thoroughly enjoyable play worthy of its popularity.

Sasha Andreev and Daisy Macklin Skarning (photo by Keri Pickett)

*For more of Jessica's funny and folksy Minnesota writing, check out her blog
Unfamous Minnesota Girl.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"The Longest Night" at Open Eye Figure Theatre

There's one holiday that no one can escape at this time of the year, at least not those who live as far from the equator as we do here in Minnesota. And that is the solstice, the longest night of the year. It is a holiday that predates Christianity by millennia, a time when our ancient ancestors wondered if the sun would return from it's long sleep, and celebrated when it did. These solstice celebrations form the basis of modern holiday celebrations in many diverse cultures; they all begin with this simple fact of nature. Right now, here in Minnesota, we have less than nine hours of daylight, and it's decreasing every day. But soon, after December 21, that will turn around and the days will begin to lengthen to their summer height. What better reason to celebrate is there than that? The wonderfully talented local music-theater artist Bradley Greenwald has created a one-man show around this idea, and it's completely delightful. Accompanied by Sonja Thompson on the piano (and himself on the baritone), he regales the audience with songs, stories, and poems of the solstice, this winter season that we're right in the middle of. Part science lesson (complete with visual aids), part history, part mystical spirituality, The Longest Night is the loveliest of celebrations of the season.

Don't expect to hear the usual holiday songs, the ones repeated on endless repeat on radio stations and in the mall. I did not recognize more than a few songs, but they are all perfectly appropriate to the theme. From Carole King's "So Far Away" (the sun is so far away at this time of the year!), to "The Cold Song" from the opera King Arthur, to Dar Williams' "The Christians and the Pagans," to "Let the Sunshine In" from HAIR, along with the writing of Margaret Atwood, William Blake, and Ogden Nash, each selection is a celebration or a lament of this cold dark winter season.

Bradley has a gorgeous opera-trained voice and elevates every song he sings, and turns poetry and prose into music. He closes the show with a song by one of my favorite local musicians, Peter Mayer's "My Soul." Bradley turns this poignant and simple folk song into a glorious anthem that will send chills down your spine. It's always a thrill to listen to this "baritone with a baritone," never more so than in this hand-picked collection of songs and stories around a very relevant theme.

When you're doing a show about darkness and light, the lighting must be paid attention to. And it is here. From total darkness to soft candlelight to the bright light of the returning sun, Darren Hensel's lighting design highlights every point in the show. And Sean Healey's sound design allows Bradley to sing harmony with himself - if there's anything better than one Bradley Greenwald singing it's multiple Bradley Greenwalds singing!

Open Eye Figure Theatre is a lovely space but one with not a large audience, and the return of this popular show is almost sold out. But if you can beg, borrow, or steal to get yourself in that room, do so. It's a truly heart-warming experience that will help get you through the long, dark, cold nights to come. Like the cycle of the sun, we can let go of the past and begin again. (Playing through Monday, December 22 - a newly added show that has the best availability.)

Monday, December 15, 2014

"The Hothouse" by Dark and Stormy Productions at the Artspace Grain Belt Bottling House

I admit it - I don't get Pinter. Dark and Stormy's production of The Hothouse is the third play I've seen by English playwright Harold Pinter, and the third time I've left the theater (or in this case the bottling house) with a feeling of "what just happened?" Pinter plays are absurd, don't spell things out clearly, and are open to interpretation. But that's not a bad thing. In fact in this case it's a good thing. Dark and Stormy's production of this bizarre and funny little play is entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking. And like all of their work (this is just the 5th play they've done over the past few years), it's brilliantly cast with some of the Twin Cities' top talent, and presented in a unique nontraditional location.

The title refers to an institution where the play takes place. It's called a "rest home," in contrast to a "convalescent home," but the details of how patients come to be in the institution and what kind of treatment (or punishment) they receive is unclear. What we do know is that there's a clueless boss (an absolutely delightful Robert Dorfman, making the most of every moment), a seemingly sycophantic but secretly ambitious second-in-command (Mark Benninghofen), another employee who seems to be his rival for the boss' attention (Bill McCallum), a new and eager employee (John Catron), the lone woman on the staff who seems to be in a relationship with several of the men (Artistic Director Sara Marsh), and a lower level employee who walks around turning off lights and moving furniture (Bruce Bohne). The play takes place on Christmas Day, which is neither here nor there, but what is noteworthy is that one patient has recently died and another has given birth. The staff tries to get to the bottom of this, but seems to be more concerned with their own place in the institution. The newbie becomes the scapegoat, which makes me wonder if he's actually a patient and just thinks he's an employee.

the cast in rehearsal in the Grain Belt Bottling House
The location of this play is truly unique - a large open atrium in the Arthouse Grain Belt Bottling House. It very much feels like a cold institution - cement floor and gray walls, with doors around the perimeter on both levels. Sparse office furniture populates the set, with four rows of chairs on one side for the small audience. Sound escapes and echos in this sort of a space, so the solution Dark and Stormy came up with is mics on the actors and headphones for the audience. It's a very odd and cool way to experience theater, one completely new to me, with the sound right in your ears even though the actors may be whispering in a far corner of the space. This allows for subtlety in delivery that can be heard in full detail, while the echos in the larger space can still be heard through the headphones. It all makes for an innovative and fascinating theatrical experience (sound design by C. Andrew Mayer).

The Hothouse continues through January 4. Check it out for a truly unique experience of this bizarrely funny and inexplicable Pinter play. UPDATE: The Hothouse has been extended through January 10.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"A Christmas Story" at the Ordway Center

St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is returning to its tradition of an original and (mostly) locally cast production during holidays, rather than the touring productions that often come through.  In fact, the last Ordway Original holiday production was 2011's Cinderella. This year's production of the new musical based on the cult holiday movie A Christmas Story is worth the wait. I am usually skeptical of movies turned into musicals, because often it doesn't work or it just simply isn't necessary. But I saw a preview of A Christmas Story (which officially opens on Friday and runs through December 28) last night and was pleasantly surprised; I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. In fact I loved pretty much every minute of it. The creators (book by Joseph Robinette, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) did a wonderful job of retaining the movie's unique tone of humor, silliness, and nostalgia while creating something new that stands on its own merits, whether you're a fan of the movie or not. And best of all, director James Rocco and his team have created a wonderful production that showcases some of the Twin Cities' finest talent, as well as giving a chance for talented local youngsters to play and shine on stage. The Ordway's A Christmas Story is a wonderful, fun, extravagant, poignant, top-notch production of a new musical based on a beloved classic.

In the musical, the familiar story of the 1983 movie is narrated by the author on whose writing the movie was based, Jean Shepherd (played with much warmth and humor by Gary Briggle). He takes us back to that time in his (or anyone's) youth when the most important thing is getting that gift you desperately want. In this case, young Ralphie wants a BB gun. Specifically, a Red Ryder carbine-action BB gun. His every moment revolves around convincing his parents, his teacher, Santa Claus, anyone, to give him this gun. His quest seems hopeless as he is constantly told, "You'll shoot your eye out!" But he perseveres, as we see several little vignettes of 1940s childhood play out - dealing with bullies, changing a flat tire with your dad, getting your mouth washed out with soap, Christmas shopping and visiting Santa at the mall, writing an essay for school, getting in a fight, daring a kid to lick a flag pole, a family dinner. All told with the seriousness of a child living through these seeming calamities, but with plenty of humor and nostalgia as the narrator (and we adults) know that those really were the good days. In the end, it's really a touching look at family, youth, and fading memories of days long gone.

Ralphie (Jake Goodman) and pals
This mostly local cast of over 40 adults, children, and dogs is a joy to watch. In fact there are so many familiar faces among the ensemble that I barely caught a glimpse of some of them. There is a huge amount of talent on that stage, much more than we're able to see in a mere two hours or so. The Ordway held an open casting call, from which many of the kids were cast, and they're all so stinkin' cute. Is there anything cuter than a bunch of kids in PJ's singing and dancing? Not that I've seen in a while. Our hero, Ralphie, is played by Jake Goodman, who is not a local kid but one who has tremendous talent - stage presence and a fantastic voice - and a bright future. His mother is played by Seattle's Billie Wildrick (last seen at the Ordway as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls), an embodiment of idealized 1940s motherhood, singing the show's most poignant song, "Just Like That." As Ralphie's "old man," local fave Dieter Bierbrauer is quite funny as this hapless dad and sings as gorgeously as always, even when singing about winning a "major award" that everyone else sees as a tacky leg lamp (yes, the leg makes an appearance and even gets its own song and dance number!). And I must mention the always hilarious Erin Schwab, stealing scenes as Ralphie's teacher Miss Shields who sings and dances in his fantasies.

The sets are really fun and fantastical, with an idyllic suburban house that splits in half to move in and out, complete with a bunk bed bedroom above and Santa on the roof. Other set highlights include the family's vintage car, and a huge slide for the mall Santa. It's all very Christmassy and very retro, right down to the gift tags surrounding the stage that look exactly like the ones we had as a kid. The period costumes are great and fun, especially when the kids get to dress up in zoot suits and flapper dresses (sets by J Branson, costumes by Lynda L. Salsbury).

The Ordway's A Christmas Story has everything you want in a Christmas musical - humor, nostalgia, warmth, singing and dancing children, dogs, catchy songs (that are still running through my head), big dance numbers, and plenty of the holiday spirit without being too schmaltzy. Bring your kids or your parents, your favorite aunt or your best friend, or go by yourself and revel in the awkwardness and wonder of youth, and those memories we hold especially dear at this time of the year. (More info here, or check out the discount deals on Goldstar here.)

the lovely and talented cast of A Christmas Story

Monday, December 1, 2014

"Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story" at the History Theatre

"That'll Be the Day." "Peggy Sue." "Oh, Boy." "Maybe Baby." These iconic songs by '50s rocker Buddy Holly are so much a part of our culture that everyone knows them, even those of us born long after his tragic death in a plane crash in 1959. Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story, a jukebox musical that uses Buddy Holly's music to tell his story, premiered in London in 1989 before crossing the pond to be seen on stages around the country. It's a fitting choice for the History Theatre, which brings varied and sometimes obscure pieces of Minnesota history to life on stage. What does Buddy Holly have to do with Minnesota? His doomed plane was on its way from Clear Lake, Iowa to Moorhead, Minnesota when it crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. This production, which premiered at the History Theatre a few years ago, is back this year with much of the original cast of actor/musicians and director Ron Peluso. It's a fun celebration of the all too short life and career of this pioneering rock-and-roller, enjoyed equally by those who remember first-hand his life and death, and those who only know the legend (although the audience skews much more towards the former).

The show follows Buddy's life from his early days in Lubbock, Texas, breaking out of the country-western genre and creating something entirely new, through a failed recording contract, his unprecedented string of hit songs, a whirlwind romance and marriage, and finally, to that fateful last concert in Clear Lake, Iowa. Along the way we hear many of his best hits, along with other songs of the era, including Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper's biggest hits, "La Bamba" and "Chantilly Lace," respectively. Despite the fun music, there's a slight sense of foreboding as the audience knows how the story ends, even as Buddy and friends move towards it unaware of their fate. But we're not down for long, a brief moment of silence with a single spotlight illuminating a frozen Buddy in his final concert, and we're back to the party, with several songs continuing through and after the curtain call to leave the audience in a good mood.

Nicholas Freeman as Buddy, and the ensemble
Nicholas Freeman returns as Buddy, and fully embodies the rocker's spirit, voice, and trademark glasses (even if he does look a little more like Stephen Colbert than Buddy Holly). His experience with and dedication to this show are evident, as he brings this long ago legend to life and makes him seem like a real person. He's supported by a large and talented ensemble, many of whom are current or former students at the McNally Smith College of Music, with which the History Theatre shares a building. The students dancing on stage before the show and in the aisles during some of the numbers bring an authentic youthful energy to the show. Buddy's drummer and bass player are played with great musicianship and personality by Zac Spicer and Ryan Janssen. Lynnea Monique Doublette and Munyaradzi Tirivep embody the spirit of the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem and rouse the crowd with "Shout!" The excellent ensemble includes Charles Fraser as several music industry people; Andrea San Miguel, charming as Buddy's sudden wife; Four Humors' Brant Miller as the Big Bopper et al.; Bryan Porter, making the most of several small roles; and Mariah Trimm, with a hilariously Midwestern version of The Star-Spangled Banner.

Refreshingly for a musical, the actors are not miked, but use retro style microphones for the big numbers. This also allows for a few lovely unplugged moments, including Buddy singing to his new wife. The stage is set up to look like a '50s stage, and the period costumes include poodle skirts, crinolines, and bow ties galore (sound by C. Andrew Mayer, set by Justin Hooper, and costumes by Lynn Farrington).

If you remember where you were on "the day the music died" and long to reminisce about the days before that loss of innocence, you'll want to catch this show before it closes on December 21 (or later, I hear it's going to be extended). If you only know of it from the song (or, for you other children of the '80s, the 1987 movie La Bamba about Ritchie Valens), this is a chance to learn a little bit more about the legend and imagine what it was like to be a bobby soxer. Either way - a good time was had by all.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"The Cocktail Hour" at the Guthrie Theater

If the Guthrie's annual production of A Christmas Carol is too schmaltzy and feel-good for you (a show I called the feel-goodiest of feel-good shows), then head across the hall to the McGuire Proscenium Theater. Playwright A.R. Gurney's "most personal" play The Cocktail Hour is perhaps a bit more like what most of our family gatherings are like. This look at the WASP culture of the Northeast and what happens when a son tries to break out of it is sharp, funny, poignant, and well-acted by the four-person cast.

Playwright John returns to his parents' upstate New York home to share with them his newest play. While his other plays may have included a reference or two to his family, this one is very closely based on his family life, and he wants his father's approval. Which of course, he doesn't get. Bradley and Ann live a perfectly distinguished and structured life. A lifestyle that, by the mid '70s, is fading thanks to "the war" and "your friend Roosevelt." Ann jokes that people think WASPs are all Republicans, superficial, and alcoholics - only the last one is true. Every evening before dinner the family gathers for cocktail hour, a chance to unwind, converse, and smooth things out ("we're never too busy for the cocktail hour"). John can't understand why his parents still cling to these old customs and ideals in the changing world. He uses his plays to work through his feelings about his parents and the fact that he's never felt love from his father, who dotes on youngest son Jigger (if you have a son named Jigger, you might be a WASP). His father doesn't want the family embarrassed by the play, which is also titled The Cocktail Hour, and his mother thinks he should put it in a book instead, because it's less public. Only daughter Nina arrives for cocktails and dinner, and is disappointed that she doesn't play a bigger role in play, expressing discontent with her seemingly perfect life of husband, home, and family.

This all leads to some heated and intense discussions over cocktails as dinner is delayed, some of which is quite hilarious to watch from the comfort of the theater seats. But they also dig into some very real and relatable issues, especially for families of this era. In addition, it's a bit of love letter (to use the title of one of Gurney's other plays, a running joke in the show) to the theater. Ann and Bradley lament the great plots of plays of old, while John feels cursed that the only thing he feels compelled to write is plays, a dying and archaic artform (insert audience chuckle). Theater is changing, as is the life Bradley has lived for over 70 years, and he makes sure everyone knows how unhappy he is with it (although he does have a good point that "no one likes a long play, they want to get it over with and go home to bed").

Bradley and Ann with son John (Peter Thomson,
Kandis Chappell, Rod Brogan, photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Director Maria Aitken (making her Guthrie debut) strikes just the right tone with her excellent four-person cast (an equal mix of Guthrie vets and newbies) - biting and funny with real moments of poignancy as the family digs deep into their issues. Peter Thomson and Kandis Chappell are just perfection in their roles as Bradley and Ann, both so comfortable with their characters and each other, creating real people that are somehow endearing despite their faults. As John, Rod Brogan plays the right mix of exasperation at his parents and hidden desire for their approval, and Charity Jones is the typical Daddy's girl who's less warm with her mother.

James Youmans has designed a beautiful set (with a few surprises), a meticulously arranged upper class living room that's clinging to the past and shows no sign of the '70s. Robert Morgan has attired Bradley and Ann in a perfectly WASPish wardrobe, featuring Bradley's neat bow-tie and Ann's elegantly draped cardigan, while their children are allowed more relaxed and modern apparel.

The Cocktail Hour is a perfect complement or antidote to A Christmas Carol, and shows the other side of family love - the real life side. Grab a cocktail and settle in for a funny and not too long play, with not much of a plot but plenty of character (playing now through January 4).

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go make myself a cocktail.

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" at Children's Theatre Company

'Tis the season for stories of sad, lonely, grumpy people who experience a change of heart and learn to love their fellow citizens, whether of London or Whoville. After a double bill of Christmas Carols last week, I saw a similar story this week in Dr. Seuss' classic fable How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Like Scrooge, the Grinch hates Christmas, people, and dogs. Also like Scrooge, the Grinch learns how wrong he was, not from ghosts but from one sweet open-hearted little girl. Where A Christmas Carol is the perfect image of a Victorian Christmas, The Grinch takes place in the fantastical rhyming world familiar to anyone who's read Dr. Seuss, or had it read to them, as the case may be with much of Children's Theatre Company's audience. It's a bright and colorful, silly and funny, sweet and heart-warming tale of redemption and love.

In this musical adaptation by Timothy Mason (book and lyrics) and Mel Marvin (music), which premiered at CTC in 1994 before moving on to other stages, including Broadway, the Grinch's story is told by his dog Max, who is now an old dog ready to move on from the cave in the mountain above Whoville. But first, he shares with the audience the remarkable transformation he witnessed. No mention is made of what has happened since that pivotal Christmas long ago, or where the Grinch is now, but it's a clever device that allows much of the original descriptive rhyming language to be used. Old Max remembers how disagreeable Grinch was when he was an eager young pup, and how he forced him to help steal Christmas from the Whos. The plan failed when the Whos woke up on Christmas day to find all their presents, decorations, and food gone, but still sang and made merry, filled with the joy of togetherness and the spirit of the holiday. The Grinch realized that perhaps Christmas is more than presents and roast beast, his heart grew three sizes, and the rest is history.

On the night I attended the show, understudy Max Wojtanowicz stepped into the role of the Grinch, as he will continue to do for the next week or two until Reed Sigmund returns to the show. He more than capably fills the furry green shoes of the Grinch, performing with such gusto and heart in a role he didn't expect to play. He's deliciously and delightfully evil, especially when interacting with the terrified Whos, keeping them on pins and needles as he's alternately insincerely nice and truly horrifying. He fits right in with the large (and small) talented ensemble; I guarantee you will not know you are seeing an understudy.

The rest of the cast is pretty great too. Brandon Brooks is adorable and full of puppy-like energy as young Max, the perfect happy yin to the Grinch's grumpy yang. H. Adam Harris mirrors that spirit as old Max, but with the slowness and nostalgia that comes with age. Little Natalie Tran, stealing scenes across town, continues that tradition here with her adorable performance as the cutest Who, Cindy-Lou, with a voice as clear as a bell. There are almost as many kids on stage as there are in the audience, and they're all so animated and enthusiastic, born entertainers every one.

The original songs are fun and well performed by the cast and live pit orchestra, although I was disappointed that "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch" was not sung but just played by the orchestra after curtain call. The CTC stage looks like something right out of a Dr. Suess book, with cartoonish and playful set pieces (by Tom Butsch), and bright and colorful costumes that are somehow cute despite being the most unflattering shape - a bit wide at the hips and high in the forehead (by David Kay Mickelsen).

How the Grinch Stole Christmas continues through January 4. Bring your little Whos for a fun and heart-warming holiday treat, or go by yourself - I've learned that it's OK for adults to go to the Children's Theatre by themselves. This Grinch is fun for adults, children, Whos, and furry green grumps.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Love's Labour's Lost" by the Moving Company at the Lab Theater

The Moving Company's new adaptation of one of Shakespeare's earliest romantic comedies, Love's Labour's Lost, includes at least one line from each of his 37 other plays. Not being a Shakespeare expert, I only recognized a few, mostly from Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, the two plays with which I (and probably most people) am most familiar. If I didn't know that they had removed sections of the original play and replaced them with lines from other plays, I would never have known; it feels very much like one cohesive story, not at all the mash-up that it is. Which is a credit to creators Steve Epp, Nathan Keepers (both of whom also star in the play), and Dominique Serrand (who directs), who have so seamlessly woven in lines and plot points from other plays to create something entirely new and original. In typical Moving Company style, it's at times wacky, or funny, or moving, or just plain entertaining.

The original plot of Love's Labour's Lost follows a king who convinces his three companions to join him in three years of intense study, fasting, and avoiding the company of women. This only lasts until the daughter of the King of France arrives with her three comely companions, and the men forget their vows to woo the women. We follow these four love stories through the ending, which is not your typical happy ever after, but allows room for the possibility.

Other than Steve Epp and Nathan Keepers (Co-Artistic Director and Artistic Associate), the rest of the 13 person cast are all new to The Moving Company, but it doesn't feel that way. They all mesh very well in the MoCo aesthetic and bring their own skills to the table. As one of the four pairs of lovers, Emily King and Lucas Melsha have created several stunningly beautiful dances, in a sort of animalistic modern dance style. These two characters speak no words but say everything with their bodies. Jim Lichtsheidl is such a unique and gifted physical comedian, a skill that's on great display here. There's music too, with a couple of songs sung by the ensemble in gorgeous harmony (not surprising with voices like Ricardo Vazquez and Jennifer Baldwin Peden). Steve and Nathan are a couple of goofballs and work so well together after years of collaboration. Heidi Bakke as the object of their affection completes this silly trio.

Director Dominique Serrand has created an exceedingly simple set that is so lovely and evocative - just an AstroTurf-like carpet unrolled on the floor, and sheer fabric creating the green of the field and the blue of the sky, that ripple with the slightest motion. I absolutely loved the costumes (by Sonya Berlovitz), so unique and creative and perfectly suited to each character. In the first act everyone is dressed in military garb - traditional camouflaged soldiers and warrior women looks; the second act civilian costumes are beautiful but whimsical, with each pair a perfect matched set. Of particular note is the king's daughter, who goes from an armored breastplate to a lusciously full-skirted gown.

This is my 6th Moving Company show, and they never cease to surprise and delight me with their innovative and unique style of creation. Love's Labour's Lost, billed as "a fresh new riff on a very old play," covers all the bases - it's sweet and poignant, with some lovely dancing and music, and silly entertaining antics. Watch the video below to get a taste of the show, and then order your tickets here.

"A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie Theater and Lyric Arts

Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol has become a staple of holiday traditions. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that this classic story can currently be seen on multiple stages* in the Twin Cities. The biggest of these is the Guthrie Theater; this is the 40th year that the Guthrie has produced A Christmas Carol (I have seen one quarter of those productions). I think it's safe to say this is one of their most popular shows every year, with many families incorporating it into their annual traditions. Lyric Arts is also producing the show on their Main Street Stage in Anoka. I was lucky enough to see these two different interpretations of this classic story on back-to-back nights. And while I do have a clear favorite between the two, it's really unfair to compare them too closely. Both are entertaining and creative interpretations of Charles Dickens' heartwarming story about the rich-in-money poor-in-friends businessman who learns through the visitation of four ghosts that it's better to be kind than rich.

The Guthrie Theater

If you've seen the Guthrie's A Christmas Carol in the last few years, it's pretty much the same show. But that's not a bad thing. It's familiar, warm, and comforting, like your favorite holiday dish shared with your family. Joe Chvala returns as director and choreographer, which means there are many fun dance scenes, including one of my favorites - the Fezziwig party scene. Also returning are Mathew J. LeVebre's gorgeous Victorian costumes, Walt Spangler's elaborate moving set, and lovely renditions of traditional Christmas carols. It all looks and feels like a traditional Victorian Christmas card come to life before your very eyes.

Even though it's basically the same show every year, there are a few tweaks and cast changes to keep it interesting. One of my friends asked me what's new with the show this year, and I responded: Tyler Michaels. The My Fair Lady scene stealer makes his Christmas Carol debut in a few small but fun roles. Joel Liestman is also a newcomer to the show as the Ghost of Christmas Present, with a big booming voice both laughing and singing. Making their welcome Guthrie debuts are the charismatic Bear Brummel as Scrooge's nephew and an appealing Zach Keenan as young Scrooge. Peggy O'Connell returns to the show after a long absence as Mrs. Fezziwig, with an impish grin and sprightly spirit. Most of the rest of the cast will be familiar to those of us who've seen the show recently, which is actually a very good thing. I love seeing this beloved stage filled with so many familiar and beloved faces. There's J.C Cutler as Scrooge, making a delightful and believable transformation from grumpy to giddy; Kris L. Nelson as his beleaguered clerk Bob Cratchit, who still manages to find interesting and surprising moments after many years of playing the role; Virginia S. Burke as his devoted wife and mother to a passel of children; Angela Timberman, hilarious as ever as the drunken Merriweather; Jay Albright hamming it up in the best possible way as Mr. Fezziwig; and Tracey Maloney floating across the stage in a swirl of skirts as the Ghost of Christmas Past. This is the first time I recall young Marley and ghost Marley being played by the same actor, which is kind of genius, especially when you have a versatile actor like Robert O. Berdahl who can play the creepy ghost version as well as the living but still disagreeable version. The rest of the big Guthrie stage is filled with children and adults in all kinds of roles, over 40 people passing through that stage - so much going on and so much fun to watch.

After 40 years, the Guthrie has A Christmas Carol down to a science, with many intricate pieces - sets, costumes, music, dance, and story - all working together flawlessly. In short, if this doesn't warm the cockles of your heart, then you really are a Scrooge. It's truly the feel-goodiest of feel-good shows, and who doesn't need that at this busy and stressful time of year? Head to the big blue building on the Mississippi between now and December 28 to experience this holiday goodness.

Lyric Arts

Unlike the Guthrie, Lyric Arts does not have a 40-year tradition of producing A Christmas Carol, but this year is producing a steampunk version of the classic. What is steampunk you might ask? It seems to involve a lot of gears and machinery and clockwork. And it makes for a darker, grittier, more sinister Dickensian world (although with some silly humorous moments that don't quite match the overall tone). Working from an adaptation by Michael Wilson that focuses more on the ghost aspect of the story, director Daniel Ellis and his team have created a version of A Christmas Carol that's spooky, wacky, and fun to look at, but not as warm-hearted as other versions.

There are some familiar things about this version, including a crotchety Ebeneezer Scrooge (an effective Richard Brandt) and a chorus of children, although they're a little dirtier and more ragged in this version. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are played by the same actors as play people Scrooge encounters in his waking life, people who owe him money, which makes the ghostly visitations seem more like a dream (like Dorothy dreaming that the farmhands are the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion). The ghosts all have elements of steampunk, particularly the Ghost of Christmas Past - a life-size windup mechanical doll (Christy Nix does a great job with the mechanical movements). The steampunk element is also brought in with the silent chorus of three women and a man in top hat who dance across the stage in a mechanical robot sort of way (choreography by Hannah Weinberg). The set and costumes are really quite cool and pull off the steampunk look in a way that's fun and interesting to look at (set by Sadie Ward and costumes by Stephanie Mueller).

Lyric Arts' A Christmas Carol is a little bizarre and unexpected, especially seen right after the Guthrie's familiar version. It feels a little like that nightmare you might have from a bit of undigested beef or uncooked potato. But the steampunk ghost angle is an interesting one, and this story is so rich there's room for many versions (playing weekends through December 21).

So there you have it - two very different versions of this beloved classic story. One traditional and heart-warming, the other new and steampunk. Take your pick.

*In addition to the above two productions, versions of A Christmas Carol can also be seen at East Ridge High School in Woodbury and Chaska High School. If you know of any other local productions, please comment below.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Killer Inside" by Sandbox Theatre at Red Eye Theater

The "murder ballad" is a genre of music in which a deliciously tragic tale of murder is told through a sad and lovely song, often associated with Appalachian or traditional Scottish or Irish music. Sandbox Theatre, a company that performs new works created by the ensemble, has taken the idea of the murder ballad and turned it into a 90-minute musical called Killer Inside. Basically it's a series of new murder ballads acted out and sung by the ensemble, tied together in a prison setting. It's dark and disturbing, but really creative and inventive, and well-performed by the seven-person ensemble (Derek Lee Miller, Derek Meyer, Evie Digirolama, Kristina Fjellman, Megan Campbell Lagas, Sam Landman, and Theo Langason) and two-person band (Charlie Henrikson and Derek Trost).

The ensemble members, who collaborated to write all of the music and the story, play various characters on both sides of the law - prisoners and officers at Pittsville Penitentiary. There's not so much a throughline plot, but rather a series of vignettes in which we hear the various stories of these characters in the prison. The officers tell and sing about what it means to them to work with murderers. The prisoners also share their stories of murder. Some of the murderers are sympathetic - wronged people standing up for themselves or protecting their family, others are after revenge, still others are cold-blooded psychopaths. They all have a different reason for killing, but they all ended up in the same place.

Songs range in style from the Appalachian/bluegrass sound (my favorite) to a wild rock song, with a crazy tap dance thrown in. Some of the songs are funny, some poignant, some frightening, all pretty great. (You can hear some of the creators talk about the process of writing in an episode of Twin City Song Cycle.) The band accompanies the ensemble, some of whom also join in with the band, on fiddle, guitar, drums, and piano. All are dressed in matching gray and yellow color-blocked prison uniforms, on a starkly bare stage.

Killer Inside continues for one more weekend at Red Eye Theater. Check it out for some original, inventive, creative music-theater.

Monday, November 17, 2014

"Relics" at the Guthrie Theater

It's that time of year when the Guthrie Theater is full of families attending the annual production of A Christmas Carol, which opens this week. There is noticeably more congestion, with a plethora of little girls in their Christmas dresses. But that's not all that's happening at the Guthrie. Up in the 9th floor studio there is something strange and innovative and decidedly nontraditional going on. After making your way through the Christmas crowd in the 4th floor lobby to the elevators that go up to the 9th floor, you are greeted not just by the usual Guthrie ticket-takers, but also by uniformed personnel who scan your neck, and possibly by men with Johnny Depp Willy Wonka bobs who warn you not to go in. The experience continues in the elevator and after you step off on Floor 9, which has been transformed into a museum of 300 year old artifacts, in the year 2314. i.e., today seen through the eyes of future civilizations. This is not theater as we know it where you sit in your seat and watch something happening onstage, but rather an interactive experience of walking through a museum to witness exhibits, presentations, and reenactments. This is not A Christmas Carol.

Craig Fernholz and Luvern Seifert (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
This strange and fascinating concept came from the mind of creators Sarah Agnew, Nick Golfis, and Chantal Pavageaux. An ensemble of more than a dozen actors play museum workers, protesters, and other mysterious figures involved in the exhibit. We learn that in that long ago year of 2014, something called "The Great Wipe" occurred. Anarchyologists have recently discovered a family home and everything that's inside, and have created this museum with their theories about what things are used for. Which of course are completely wrong. But it makes you wonder, just what would future people think about our iPhones and Brita water filters and muffin tins? And not only that, but what if all of our assumptions about archaeological digs are wrong? Or maybe the ancient artifacts we ooh and ah over at museums are just everyday items that ancient people would think we're crazy for displaying?

Relics is a really cool idea, I just wanted a little more of it. I wanted to see more exhibits along with the crazy theories. There seemed to be a few too many moments of waiting around for the next exhibit to open or presentation to start, but maybe that was my own fault of not pacing correctly. The reenactment of ancient life is quite hilarious, narrated by the endlessly entertaining Luverne Seifert. But just as it's getting good, it's over. The chief anarchyologist who mysteriously disappeared returns, and is about to tell us what happened, when the show is abruptly over and we're told to leave. I felt a little cheated by that - I wanted to hear what happened, I wanted more Sarah Agnew! Overall I enjoyed the experience, but it left me wanting more.

If you're looking for something a little different this early holiday season, head up to the Guthrie's 9th floor to discover ancient secrets about the things we use today.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Inside the Beat" by Mu Daiko at Mixed Blood Theatre

I've seen Mu Daiko perform about a half dozen times, and it never ceases to be an absolutely thrilling experience. Minnesota's own taiko drumming ensemble, under the umbrella of Mu Performing Arts, always gives a passionate, spirited, emotional, and thoroughly entertaining performance. I was reminded of the lovely little folk music festival I attended this fall, where one of the musicians gave a profound campfire speech about how everything is made of vibrations, including and especially music. Those big drums create some big vibrations, that literally move the ground beneath your feet and the chair you're sitting on. Perhaps all music is like this, but it's more evident with drums that music is not something you just listen to with your ears, the vibrations of the music can be felt within and throughout the entire body. The insane rhythms created by Mu Daiko move right through you.

Now in their 18th season, Mu Daiko's fall concert was held at Mixed Blood this weekend. The concert includes about a dozen pieces, most composed and/or arranged by Mu Daiko founder Rick Shiomi, current director Jennifer Weir (who performs with a fierce joy), and ensemble member Heather Jeche. They call the show Inside the Beat, and create that experience for the audience with drums on all four sides of the seating in Mixed Blood's black box theater. You can hear and feel the rhythms literally surrounding you. In addition to the drums, some pieces include flute song, or traditional stringed instruments, or singing, including a lovely piece that harkens back to the songs of childhood. Another piece incorporates theater, as masked figures act out a sweet story. Jennifer worked with choreographer Joe Chvala, a natural fit with his percussive dance style, on a piece called "Stepping Up." Joe's foot-stomping hand-slapping choreography combines with the drumming to create something fun and playful.

I brought a friend with me who had never seen Mu Daiko before, and it was so fun to watch her reaction and remember the first time I saw them. It's really indescribable and must be experienced firsthand. Taiko is a beautiful and unique art form that combines athleticism, strength, musicality, spirituality, dance, theater, and grace. It's beautiful to watch the movement and thrilling to hear and feel the rhythms. There's something raw and primal about it.

Only one more performance of Inside the Beat remains, and it's sold out. Check out their website for information on upcoming concerts and taiko workshops and classes.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Disenchanted" by Casting Spells Productions at Illusion Theater

The princesses of Disenchanted will cast their spell on you in a whole different way than their Disney predecessors. While Disney portrays such fairy tale princesses and historical figures as Snow White, the Little Mermaid, and Pocahontas as sweet, mild-mannered, passive ladies waiting for a prince to come along and save them, the salty, sassy princess of Disenchanted are smart, strong, and unwilling to put up with crap from anyone! This new musical comedy by Dennis C. Giancino has had several productions around the country in the last few years and is currently playing Off-Broadway, but more importantly, it's currently in its second production here in the Twin Cities. Casting Spells Productions has brought back three of the princesses from last year's fantastic production at the Ritz Theater, added a few new and equally fabulous princesses, spiffed up the costumes, and included a few tweaks by the creator. It opened at the Illusion Theater on Halloween and continues through November 23; I finally saw it this week, and it's still a super fun show for anyone who loves and/or hates Disney princesses. It also makes for a perfect girls night out; I went with a bunch of friends and spotted several tiaras in the crowd (princess attire encouraged). These are the kind of princesses little (and not so little) girls should emulate!

Our host for the evening is Snow White (Jen Burleigh-Bentz is perfection, reprising the role from last year's show). She's smart, strong, and determined to convey her message about "the Princess Complex" to the audience (she's also not afraid of singing unnecessary runs, to hilarious effect). Her back-up singers are Cinderella (the delightfully daft Bonni Allen, also returning from last year) and a very sleepy Sleeping Beauty (Katherine Tieben-Holt, a welcome newcomer to the cast). They each introduce their story, which of course ends with getting married. But these princesses are here to tell us what happens next - and it's not as pretty and idyllic as Disney would have us believe. We also hear the stories of an insane Belle, a drunken Ariel, a very German Rapunzel (Kim Kivens as all three, a true musical comedy genius as she sings in three distinct styles, each hilarious with spot-on vocals), a possibly lesbian Mulan, a misrepresented Pocahontas, a second-place Jasmine (another excellent triple performance, by Stephanie Bertumen), and last but not least, the frog princess (an underused Joy Dolo, also returning from last year's show). The princesses sing about body image, dieting, and the crazy marketing of the princess image that little girls are rarely able to escape.

All of the princesses have fantastic voices, singing solo or in harmony. The night I attended they were accompanied by the "Understudy" Musical Director, Steven Hobert (filling in for Lori Dokken), who did a great job with the music, and occasionally interacting with the princesses. The structure of the show is casual and tongue-in-cheek, with direct address to the audience, sing-a-longs, and a bit of ad-libbing ("Garth Brooks took all the parking spots!"). Since the show was written, one new Disney princess has risen above all others, and you all know who I'm talking about. While she doesn't appear in the show, the creator has added a "Let It Go!" moment that makes fun of the craze. And of course, you can't talk about princesses without mentioning what they're wearing! Which is a modern spin on each princess' traditional attire (costume design by Barb Portinga).

I'm so glad I had the opportunity to see this show again, and I stand by what I wrote last year: "Featuring catchy and melodic tunes, clever and funny lyrics, and a stellar cast, it's a really fun and fantastic 90 minutes!" Disenchanted continues this weekend and next - don't miss this hilarious and well-sung princess satire! (Buy your tickets here, or get the few remaining discount tickets on Goldstar before they're gone.)

Mulan, Snow White, Cinderella, the Frog Princess, and the Little Mermaid
(Stephanie Bertumen, Jen Burleigh-Bentz, Bonni Allen, Joy Dolo, and Kim Kivens)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"On Golden Pond" at The Jungle Theater

This is Bain Boehlke's last full season as Artistic Director of The Jungle Theater, which he co-founded in 1991 (he will retire next summer). For the final production of the 2014 season, he has chosen the beloved American classic On Golden Pond, which was made into an equally beloved 1981 movie starring Katherine Hepburn and real life father/daughter team Henry and Jane Fonda. In a final trifecta, Bain has directed the show, designed the set, and stars as loveable curmudgeon Norman. It's a sweet, funny, beautiful triumph. Nothing showy or flashy or over-the-top, rather a lovely and quiet exploration of relationships and life.

On Golden Pond centers on Norman (Bain Boehlke) and Ethel (Wendy Lehr), who have summered together on Golden Pond in Maine for 48 years. It's a quiet and simple life, kept busy with picking strawberries, fishing, playing Parcheesi, and talking to the loons. Their only visitor is mailman Charlie (E.J. Subkoviak), who stops in for coffee when delivering their mail by lake. Their daughter Chelsea (Jennifer Blagen), who has always had a strained relationship with Norman, shows up with her fiance Bill (Michael Booth) and his son Billy (Peder Lindell). The boy ends up staying for a month, and he and Norman become fast friends. Chelsea suspects he's like the son that Norman always wanted her to be. We witness the course of the summer, from opening up the cabin and settling in, to packing up and heading back to city life. Having just turned 80 and suffering from heart palpitations, Norman talks as if he has one foot in the grave, which annoys and frightens Ethel. When the play ends, we're not sure if they'll return to Golden Pond next summer, or if we've just witnessed Norman and Ethel's last summer on their beloved lake. But all in all they've lived a good and happy life, if not perfect, and we can be certain that they'll enjoy whatever time they have left, whether it's 10 more days or 10 more years.

Norman and Ethel (Bain Boehlke and
Wendy Lehr, photo by Michal Daniel)
Everyone in the cast does a fine job, but On Golden Pond is all about Ethel and Norman, and Wendy and Bain are perfection. Their decades of friendship and collaboration are evident in the very real and natural relationship between Norman and Ethel. Bain physically inhabits the role of Norman with a slow and deliberate gait and labored breathing, but an internal fire as he verbally challenges everyone he comes up against, while still showing occasional glimpses of vulnerability. Wendy's Ethel has the busy energy of a retired woman with things to do, who loves her family wholly. She calls Norman a nitwit and "you old poop" with great affection. Watching these two local legends (both have Ivey Lifetime Achievement Awards) is a true pleasure. I had a smile on my face throughout the show and tears in my eyes at the end.

As always at the Jungle, the set is a perfect representation of the story. The cozy cabin is packed with books, photos, tchotchkes, games, blankets, and hats, like an actual cabin that has been lived in and loved for 50 years. It's a place I'd love to spend the summer, a place that feels familiar to anyone who has a summer retreat. The costumes (by Annie Cady) are vaguely '70s, especially with the younger set, but in an unobtrusive way. Ethel and Norman's clothes look comfortable and lived-in. The sideburns, bell bottoms, and phone operator are the only things that make this seem like a period piece; otherwise it could be happening on any lake in Minnesota or elsewhere.

On Golden Pond continues through December 21, so you really have no excuse not to head to this lovely little Uptown theater to see it. It's a great example of the quality theater that the Jungle has been producing for over 20 years under Bain Boehlke's leadership, that will hopefully continue after his tenure concludes next year. But for now, take this opportunity to watch a couple of legends in a beloved American play. You won't soon forget it.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

"The Juniper Tree" at Open Eye Figure Theatre

Open Eye Figure Theater is in its 15th season, but surprisingly, I had not experienced their unique brand of theater until last night. I have been to their charming theater space on 24th Street just off 35W several times for other theater productions, but not to see one of their own shows. It's well past time that I remedy that glaring omission in my Twin Cities theater experience. With their adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale The Juniper Tree, I see what I've been missing at Open Eye, which "creates original figure theatre, animating the inanimate on an intimate scale." And that is delightful, whimsical, quirky, charming, engaging theater that combines multiple art forms including puppetry and original music to tell a story.

The Juniper Tree is not one of the Grimms' more well-known fairy tales; surprisingly, Disney has yet to make a movie about this stepmother who kills and cooks her stepson, feeds him to his father, and then is killed by a millstone dropped by the boy in bird form (Wikipedia offers a nice plot summary if you'd like to familiarize yourself with the story beforehand). Director/adapter/designer Michael Sommers and the team at Open Eye have taken this dark and disturbing tale (as most fairy tales are before being Disney-ized*) and turned it into something light and sweet and fun, although still with that undercurrent of darkness.

the epitome of
the evil stepmother
(Robert Rosen)
It seems like there are more than just six people on the tiny stage, playing all the characters and manipulating things behind the scenes. It's all perfectly timed and well choreographed, as puppets and humans interact almost like magic. Two of the onstage actors also play in the six-piece orchestra, playing delightfully whimsical original music by Michael Koerner. It's sort of all hands on deck as people smoothly transition from the orchestra to the stage to backstage puppeteering and back again.

the hauntingly lovely
Juniper Tree
I'm no expert on puppets, but these are really beautiful, or scary, or silly, depending on what is called for. There is a puppet of the titular tree, which moves like a living thing in the small stage space behind open doors, creating strikingly beautiful images as smaller versions of some of the characters dance among the branches. An almost lifesize boy and girl puppet interact with the human father (a jolly Julian McFaul) and stepmother (Robert Rosen, so loose and playful with the audience), who are just slightly too big for the charming cottage set with various opening doors and windows, creating an interesting juxtaposition. Puppeteers Liz Schachterle and Justin Spooner bring the girl and boy to life, and also pop up in human form, while Tara Loeper sings hauntingly as the boy's bird spirit.

If you've never experienced the unique wonder that is Open Eye Figure Theatre, The Juniper Tree is a great place to start. Innovative storytelling at its best, using multiple art forms that come together to create something truly unique.

*For another look at how Disney the fairy tales wrong, go see Disenchanted, in which Disney princess tell the real story to hilarious musical effect.

Friday, November 7, 2014

"Hauptmann" by Candid Theater Company at the People's Center Theater

The kidnapping of the son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1932 was headline news across the country and caused a media sensation. Eighty years later, the "crime of the century" is still a fascinating story and a bit of an unsolved mystery. Last year the History Theatre produced a fantastic musical Baby Case about the kidnapping, investigation, and media frenzy. Playwright and screenwriter John Logan (see also the multi-Tony-winner Red) wrote a play about it from the point of view of the man accused, convicted, and executed for the crime, Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Candid Theater Company's current production presents a fascinating and compelling drama with the barest of sets and costumes and a cast full of new young talent.

The focus of Hauptmann is not Mr. and Mrs. Lindbergh, whose child was stolen and murdered, but, as the title suggests, Hauptmann himself. He tells his story directly to the audience from his prison cell where he's awaiting execution. He narrates his story from his arrest two years after the crime, through the brutal interrogations, through the trial with resources and public opinion in the Lindberghs' favor, to his almost predetermined conviction. He never wavers in his insistence of his innocence, as the real Hauptmann never did. Someone needed to pay for the "crime of the century" to put the watchful nation at ease, and Hauptmann did. The possession of some of the ransom money, which he says he got from a friend, handwriting experts who testified to the similarity between his writing and the ransom notes, and wood experts who insisted that the wood from the ladder found at the scene of the crime matched wood in his attic was enough to convict him. History is undecided about whether or not Hauptmann was guilty of the crime, but this play leaves no doubt that he was the innocent victim of circumstance and the public and law enforcement's desperate need for a conviction.

Director Justin Kirkeberg tells the story efficiently with simple costumes, minimal sets (just a cot and a few chairs), and his seven-person cast, several of whom are new to the Twin Cities theater scene, with no a weak link among them. Aaron Henry plays the title character and rarely, if ever, leaves the stage as he guides the audience through the story. His Hauptmann is a sympathetic man, an average Joe caught up in a whirlwind, but who eventually shows his anger and frustration that no one believes him. The rest of the cast all play multiple characters, from nameless police and guards to the other personalities in the story. Jonathon Dull's Lindbergh is a strong and elegant man, desperate to find answers for his wife. As Mrs. Lindbergh, Kate Zehr is the picture of a grieving mother. Kevin Fanshaw plays four different witnesses, never getting up from the witness chair but managing to create four distinct personalities in a short period of time. Matt Saxe is the cruelly efficient prosecuting attorney, relentlessly badgering Hauptmann until he gets the answers he wants. Rounding out the cast is Elohim Peña as multiple characters including the judge, with a nice array of accents.

The American public has always been obsessed with true crime stories, and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping is one of its earliest obsessions. Hauptmann shows us the other side of the story, the possibly innocent man who was sacrificed to create a satisfying end to the story. Candid Theater Company's well done production of John Logan's compelling story continues through November 23 at the People's Center Theater on the U of M's West Bank campus (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.