Thursday, February 27, 2014

"The Doyle and Debbie Show" at New Century Theatre

Wednesday night is usually Nashville night in my house. But last night I decided to postpone my date with the deliciously soapy look at country music to see The Doyle and Debbie Show, a warped and wacky version of that same scene. There's plenty of drama in this relationship, but instead of singing at the Bluebird, country duo Doyle and Debbie are making their comeback at The Station Inn (a real-life Nashville music establishment where the show has performed). It's very funny and entertaining with committed performances by the three-person cast and some really great country-sounding songs, with just one serious flaw (more on that later).

As one half of the famed country duo, Doyle has seen some hard times (divorces, alcoholism, fraud, and various other scandals). He discovers a new "Debbie" singing in the VFW and hires her to go on tour with him and bring back the old Doyle and Debbie act. The hard-working single mother puts up with the misogynist and slightly crazy Doyle to get her one big chance in Nashville. The show consists of the duo singing old and new hits, interspersed with stage banter and a few glimpses into the not-so-happy backstage life.

Although I'm no fan of what passes for country music on the radio today, I love that good old Country-Western sound, and the original music in this show hearkens back to that. Written by Bruce Arntson (who also performed in the original Nashville version of the show), the dozen or so songs include ballads, up-tempo numbers, and some fantastic harmonies. They're really wonderful traditional country songs, but with completely ridiculous lyrics that poke gentle fun at the common themes of the genre. There's the overly patriotic song, the cheated-on woman song, the sappy love song. But all of them take it to the extreme so that you're laughing and grimacing while taping your toe to the rhythm.

Kim Kivens and David Andrew Anderson
as Debbie and Doyle
A big reason why I chose to see this show is Kim Kivens, who is absolute perfection in everything she does (see also, the ridiculously hilarious political satire Shelly Bachberg Presents...). As Debbie, she has completely transformed both her singing and speaking voice into an authentic Country-Western sound, with shades of Dolly and Loretta. Even the way she says Doyle is perfection. She sings these ridiculous songs with absolute conviction, and lets us know exactly how Debbie feels about Doyle with every sideways glance as she tries to pretend for the audience that everything's OK. As Doyle, David Andrew Anderson is her equal, mastering that slightly nasal (in a good way) country sound and almost making this jerk sympathetic. The two create some beautiful harmonies together, even if the words they're singing are the likes of "when you're screwin' other women, think of me" and "I peed your name in the snowbanks of life." Also good is Paul Somers as their reliable "band leader" Buddy, who tries to help Debbie keep Doyle in line.

And now we come to the bad news. Unfortunately this production does not include a live band; they sing to a recorded track (I doubt they'd be able to get away with that in Music City). This is one of my least favorite things in musical theater, to which I take offense as a former band geek. I wish the producers had shelled out a few more bucks to hire some musicians; the experience would be greatly improved with a couple guitars and a fiddle, and would be worth an increase in ticket price. It would feel more like a real Nashville club, rather than a really excellent karaoke performance. The "band leader" counts down and then pushes a button on his laptop. Add a live band, and maybe some wait service to bring out drinks during the show, and The Debbie and Doyle Show could be a fantastic immersive country music satire experience.

The Doyle and Debbie Show is playing at Hennepin Theatre Trust's New Century Theatre, which is set up as a country bar, with tables in the audience and photos and music memorabilia on the walls, and has been extended through May 11 (check out the discount tickets on Goldstar). It's a fun and entertaining 90 minutes featuring some great original country songs well performed by the cast.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Freud's Last Session" at the Guthrie Theater

As a friend of mine once said, sometimes the best theater is two people sitting in a room talking. Freud's Last Session is perhaps the best example of this idea that I've ever seen. The two people in this case are Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, two intelligent, eloquent, strongly opinionated men. The imagined conversation between the two of them plays out in real time, with neither actor leaving the stage for more than a brief moment. It's one long fascinating and brilliant 80-minute conversation that we get to listen to. Freud's Last Session was a hit Off-Broadway (where I saw it a few years ago) and is now playing in the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio. Brilliantly written and marvelously acted, it's just really great theater.

The play is set in 1939, when Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis and an atheist) is near the end of his life and in pain from advanced oral cancer. He is in exile in London, having been forced to leave his native Austria due to the rising threat of the Nazis. Lewis (perhaps best known as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia but also an accomplished author on the subject of Christianity) is teaching at Oxford and pays Freud a visit. What follows is a fascinating discussion of God, religion, sex, relationships, death, family, evil, morality, and myths. The war and Freud's impending death bring an immediacy to these theoretical issues, as the conversation is occasionally halted by air raids and Freud's increasing pain. Playwright Mark St. Germain has brilliantly constructed this conversation with facts from the men's life as well as their writing. And in the persons of Robert Dorfman and Peter Christian Hansen, Freud and Lewis come to life before our eyes.

There are only two flaws in this play. One, it's too short. I could easily spend another hour or two listening to Robert and Peter as Freud and Lewis debate the very essence of life. The other flaw is that it's impossible to watch both of them at once, which is perhaps more a flaw of human vision. I wanted to watch one's reaction as the other was speaking, but also wanted to watch the speaker at the same time. It's like watching a tennis match between two brilliant and equally matched players (or at least I assume that's what it's like, I don't watch tennis). I found myself nodding in agreement with one, and then the other, as they made their points. In the end it's clear that it's not about who "wins" the debate, it's about two people sharing their opposing viewpoints and gaining a better understanding of the other. Neither is swayed from their position, but they respect each other's opinion and try to understand it as they debate. How I wish people on opposing sides of arguments today could converse like Freud and Lewis do in this play.

C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud ponder the big questions
(Peter Christian Hansen and Robert Dorfman)
The Dowling Studio looks completely different than I've ever seen it before, and also completely different from the last time I saw this play. The Off-Broadway set was a very realistic and lived-in study, with books and tchotchkes on every surface, like a cozy and cluttered professor's office. The set at the Guthrie is quite the opposite, more stark and fantastical than cozy and realistic. Everything in the set is black - the books are black, the figurines on the desk are black, the furniture is black, the floor is black, the radio is black. Prior to and after the show there is an odd otherworldly lighting and almost creepy haunted house sounds, although during the play the lighting is quite natural and you soon forget they're in a colorless world as the debate takes center stage. Director Rob Melrose explains in the playbill, "I imagined a production that dispensed with clutter and realistic details and allowed the focus to be on the great men and their ideas, almost as if we were ripping them out of time and space and bringing them to the Dowling Studio for our own edification." He also chose to position the long narrow stage between the audience on either side, so that we're surrounding the conversation and can see the audience on the opposite side. It's an interesting choice. (Set design by Michael Locher)

Freud's Last Session is a wonderful play, so smart, challenging, thought-provoking, moving, and even funny at times. It will thoroughly engage your brain and maybe even get you to think about your own life and beliefs a little. My friend and I stayed in the theater talking until we were kicked out of the space. It's that kind of play. If you like smart, thoughtful, well-written and well-acted theater, go see Freud's Last Session (playing now through March 16).

Monday, February 24, 2014

"Godspell" at Lyric Arts

Godspell is one of those well-known musicals that I've never seen. It's also the first musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, who wrote one of my favorite musicals, Wicked. So I was curious to see it, and showed up at Lyric Arts not knowing much about the show or any of the songs (although a few were familiar once I heard them). I found it to be fun and entertaining, with some great songs of various styles, energetically performed by a cast that is obviously having a blast. It's unabashedly corny (e.g., characters touching each other on the nose as a sign of affection), but that's not a bad thing, in fact it sort of revels in the corniness. Godspell is not going to be joining Wicked on my list of favorite musicals, but it's cute and fun with catchy tunes (I can't stop singing "Day by Day").

Godspell is sort of a musical comedy version of the life of Jesus and his followers, with the parables he tells them forming different little skits and songs as they all act out the stories. The show begins with everyone on their cell phones, individuals in this modern world. They soon throw away their phones and come together to listen to and learn from Jesus. The show is overall pretty light-hearted in tone, almost campy at times, with a brief somber moment when Jesus dies. But it ends on a high note, with everyone returning to stage and sharing the joy and love of this community they've built.

Being unfamiliar with the show, I looked for parallels to shows I do know, and I found one in Hair. Godspell premiered off-Broadway in 1971, just a few years after Hair rocked the musical theater world (literally and figuratively). I can see a lot of similarities between the two pieces - a tribe of friends with similar ideals trying to change the world, a loose plot structure more like a series of skits and unrelated songs on a similar theme, a leader who dies in service to his people and then comes back for a glorious final anthem, and an overall message of peace, love, and harmony. In a way, Jesus was the original hippie, with his long hair and sandals, preaching peace, love, non-violence, and community. Godspell is like Hair without the sex, drugs, and nakedness (in other words, not quite as much fun ;).

the cast of Godspell
Director Robert Neu gracefully leads his talented ten-person cast through this high energy and musically challenging show. Other than Jesus (Colin Hutchins) and John/Judas (Charles Goitia), there are no characters as such, rather a group of followers going by each actor's name. Each one gets their moment to shine, and rises to the occasion (standouts include the high schooler Zach Marleau, a total ham in the best possible way, and Quinn Shadko, with a lovely classically trained voice and great onstage presence). But the best part is when they're working as a group, ad-libbing and joking with each other in the moments between scenes. It's almost more fun to watch these side conversations than the main action. The cast is obviously very comfortable with each other and have worked hard to achieve that camaraderie along with the musicality. Another fun aspect of the show is its interactive nature. Audience members are occasionally brought up on stage to participate, and the cast hangs out during intermission to mingle with the audience. This is the kind of thing I enjoy watching but dread being forced to participate in, so I was happy to observe from my inside seat.

The costumes (by Samantha Fromm Haddow) are odd and colorful and quirky, and provide some individuality to the cast of nameless characters. The set (by Kirby Moore) is a series of grey stone blocks and steps that allows the cast plenty of room to play. And the four-piece band capably leads the cast through the diverse musical styles.

Lyric Arts' production of Godspell is a cute, fun show with a talented energetic cast that is having as much fun as the audience. Playing through March 16 with discount tickets available on Goldstar.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

"Cinephilia" by 7th House Theater Collective at the Q.Arma Building

I admit it, I'm not a movie buff. I spend so much time at live theater that I rarely have time to go to a movie theater. And I grew up watching TV, not old movies, so my education in classic cinema is sorely lacking. Not so the characters in the play Cinephilia. They live and breathe movies, and speak to each other in movie quotes like my cousins speak to each other in Friends quotes (or I sometime speak in musical theater quotes). But of course, the play is not about movies. Rather, movies are the language through which playwright Leslye Headland explores the ideas of relationships, sexual politics, friendship, and self identiy. 7th House Theater Collective has chose Cinephilia as it's second production, following last summer's wildly successful production of the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical Hair. As a new theater company, they and the audience are still figuring out who they are and what sort of work they want to do.This is a great choice and continues them on a nice trajectory - the grass-roots hands-on feel of a small theater company, an intimate staging, and a youthful and modern production (yes Hair is set in the 60s, but its themes are timeless). I look forward to seeing where they go next.

Cinephilia unfolds on one night in the Brooklyn apartment of longtime friends and roommates Johnny (Torsten Johnson) and Plato (company member Grant Sorenson). Johnny's on-again-off-again lover (but not "girlfriend") Arden (Miriam Schwartz) wants more from him than he's willing to give, and is upset when he announces his plans to move to L.A. Plato walks into this argument and adds his opinions (and also much humor); it's clear these three have a comfortable, yet sometimes contentious, friendship. The arrival of Johnny's new girlfriend Natalie (company member Cat Brinidisi) complicates the situation further, as more secrets are revealed.

All four characters are cinephiles (and sort of movie snobs), and constantly talk about their favorite movies and directors, sometimes acting out entire scenes. One particularly important movie that seems to bear some resemblance to these characters' lives is Splendor in the Grass (which of course I've never seen but now really want to!). There are so many movie quotes in this play, and not being a movie buff, most of them I didn't recognize. In fact I'm sure many quotes went by that I thought was just original dialogue in the play. I imagine this would be quite a fun play for actual cinephiles, although a knowledge of film history is certainly not necessary to enjoy the play.

Miriam Schwartz and Torsten Johnson
in the cool space in the Q.Arma Building
The production takes place in the Q.Arma Building in NE Minneapolis - a very cool non-traditional theater space. A small corner of the room represents the Brooklyn apartment, with big windows looking out on the dark cold Minnesota night. About 40 folding chairs are set up facing the set; an intimate setting that allows you to get up close and personal with the work. With direction by company member David Darrow, the entire cast is great, so present and committed to their roles. And they need to be; in a small space like this there's nowhere to hide.

I should warn you that there is frank sexual language in the play, but nothing you wouldn't hear on an episode of Girls. In fact it reminded me a bit of the Lena Dunham-penned HBO series, in that it's set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, features much sex and (semi) nudity, and showcases a group of friends who sometimes don't treat each other very well, but remain friends in spite of this. But the tone of Cinephilia is quite different from Girls. Where Girls is almost absurd and mocking in its comedy, Cinephilia feels more real and grounded. But also like Girls, none of these four characters are very likeable; each of them angered or frustrated me at times. Like many young people in their 20s, they can be pretty self-centered with not much self-awareness. But each has their sympathetic moments too. At one point Johnny says that he feels no one really knows him. Maybe that's because he's always speaking through the voice of movie characters. I'm not sure he even knows himself. Johnny escapes into movies and uses them to keep from becoming too invested in anyone or anything real.

If you love movies, or site-specific intimate theater, or if you want to see a group of smart, young, talented, dedicated theater artists creating a space for their work, you might want to check out this play. But act fast, only five performances remain (Sunday and Monday night, and next Friday, Saturday, Sunday). At just $10 a ticket (email for reservations or just show up), it's a bargain, and a great opportunity to see what the up-and-coming young theater community is up to.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Tristan and Yseult" by Kneehigh Theatre Company at the Guthrie Theater

"Warning: You may come in contact with latex balloons." Not something you see often at the theater, but if there's anything I know about Kneehigh, a theater company out of Corwall, England, it's to expect the unexpected. Four years ago they brought their delightful adaptation of the movie Brief Encounter to the Guthrie Theater, and then to Broadway, where it was nominated for two Tony Awards. I saw it at both locations and found it absolutely delightful - fresh and innovative and imaginative. Kneehigh returns to the Guthrie with Tristan and Yseult - how fitting that a Cornish theater company would adapt the legend about the forbidden love between a Cornish knight and an Irish princess (see also the Wagner opera Tristan and Isolde). Kneehigh's production premiered over ten years ago and is currently on a US tour, and it's just as fresh and innovative and imaginative as the last time I saw them.

Here's a little tip for you - get to the theater early to be entertained by the band at the "Club of the Unloved," with a white-gloved, cat eye glasses-wearing lady singing standards like "Crazy" and "Only the Lonely." Meanwhile, people in black rain jackets, knit hoods, and thick glasses are wandering around with binocolars taking notes. As the show begins, we learn that they are members of the Club, constantly on the look out for love and lovers. Through them we learn the story of Tristan and Yseult, as the hoods come off and the actors become characters in the story. Tristan is sent by King Mark to retrieve Yseult from Ireland to be his bride. Along the way they fall in love due to a love potion. But upon arriving at Cornwall, Yseult finds that she also loves Mark. What follows is a beautiful and tragic love triangle.

Kneehigh is able to tell this story with the deep emotion it requires, but also with a lightness and playfulness and sense of wonder. In addition to the aforementioned balloons (which require a bit of audience participation), they make use of swings, ropes, pulleys, trampolines, many musical instruments (played by the four-piece band and ensemble members), and other props. In the middle of the stage is a circular raised platform where the main action takes place. In one scene the main characters swing from ropes, and it's almost as entertaining to watch the people on the other end of the ropes as they throw themselves off the platform and run to the end of the stage to lift them off the ground.

Carly Bawden croons as Whitehands
Most of the actors in the eight-person ensemble play the knit-hooded members of the Club of the Unloved as well as characters in the story. Standouts include Etta Murfitt and Andrew Durand as the lovers, Giles King as the King's jester-like right hand man, and Carly Bawden as the white-gloved lady known as "Whitehands" (until we discover her true identity), who functions as the narrator and also the primary singer, moving the story along and providing commentary. But I think my favorite of this great ensemble is Craig Johnson (not to be confused with the local actor/director), who is equally great as the dangerous Irish invader who comes in like a ganster and Yseult's lady's maid, a role which could have been merely played for laughs (which it is to some extent, note her hilarious entry to the stage), but Craig also lets us see a real and tender-hearted side to the character.

Kneehigh Theatre is so unique in what they do, incorporating physicality, music, aerial work, and other innovative elements, and infusing such heart and playfulness into their work, that I would have recognized Tristan and Yseult as a Kneehigh production even if I hadn't known. They're in town through March 23, check them out for a truly unique and delightful theater experience.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Elephant's Graveyard" by Theatre Pro Rata at Nimbus Theatre

The play Elephant's Graveyard is one of those "truth is stranger than fiction" stories. In 1916, a five-ton circus elephant was hung in the town of Erwin, Tennessee after killing a man. You read that right - they hung an elephant. Theatre Pro Rata's production of the play tells the story so vividly that it's absolutely horrific. By that I don't mean that it's a bad play, on the contrary it's so good at telling this tragic story that as an animal lover, it's almost unbearable. I'm not sure I could use the word enjoyable for the experience, but it's a completely captivating and fascinating look at a bizarre historical incident with larger implications about the way that we have historically treated and continue to treat animals (and other second-class citizens) in this country.

The play is written as a series of monologues, in which circus people and townspeople take turns telling the story directly to the audience. They take us through the excitement of a circus coming to a small town, the unique lives of circus performers of that era (see also the bizarre and wonderful HBO show Carnivàle), and the horror of the hanging. It's like one long story being told by multiple people. I don't think think I've ever seen a play with so many characters in which they never talk to each other. It's an effective storytelling device and lets us get inside the heads of all of the characters to learn how they view the event, whether it's as the triumph of the American spirit, or a business failure, or the death of a true friend, or a similarity to the other lynchings happening in the South.

Emily Dussault, Ben Tallen,
and Wade A. Vaughn
This is a true ensemble piece. There's no main character (other than Mary the elephant, who looms large even though we never physically see her or any representation of her), rather each of the 13 actors and two musicians share the spotlight equally, including Wade A. Vaughn with an electric performance as the ringmaster, Neal Skoy as Mary's heartbroken trainer, and young Jillian Jacobson representing the children of Erwin.

Adding greatly to the mood of the piece is the period appropriate music by Theo Langason on guitar and Shannon Foy on percussion. The cast also occasionally adds its lovely voices to the music. Particularly noteworthy are a haunting duet between Joy Dolo's townsperson and Emily Dussault's Ballet Girl, and Ethan Bjelland's preacher song.

The story takes place on a completely bare stage, with only a bench as an occasional prop/set piece, and lights evoking a big top. This really allows the audience to focus on the descriptive language and the images it evokes in our minds. The colorful costumes also stand out in this bare environment, from the red coat of the ringmaster and the green of the ballet girl, to the more drab colors of the hardworking townspeople (costumes by Mandi Johnson).

Elephant's Graveyard is my first experience with Theatre Pro Rata, and I like what I saw. It's storytelling at its best - completely captivating and so vivid that you feel like you're actually seeing the events play out, which in this case can be painful. Playing now through March 2 at nimbus theatre.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"The Ballad of Emmett Till" at Penumbra Theatre

On what would have been Jordan Davis' 19th birthday (a black teenager who was killed by a white man because of events that happened outside a store where he was buying bubble gum), I went to see a play about Emmett Till. History repeats itself, and theater is there to tell the stories and speak the truths that cannot otherwise be told or spoken. And when it comes to African American history, which really is our shared history, no one does it better than Penumbra Theatre. The Ballad of Emmett Till is the story of a smart, funny, precocious 14-year-old boy from the South Side of Chicago with his whole life ahead of him, until one summer in Mississippi when he unknowingly violates the unwritten rules of the 1950s South - do not touch a white woman, do not talk to a white woman, do not look at a white woman. The light-hearted and music-filled play takes a turn into darkness when Emmett is kidnapped from his uncle's home in the middle of the night several days after "the incident," driven around in a truck to various locations, beaten, tortured, shot, and dumped in a river with a weight around his neck. A note in the playbill from Co-Artistic Directors Lou and Sarah Bellamy says it best:
We will not make the tragedy of this child's death easy for you. We will not stage gratuitous violence. We will not erase the flagrant racism of the environment that justified his murder. We will celebrate, with heavy hearts, the dignity and grace of a child who paid the price for our nation's tolerance of hatred and discrimination. It will be what you have come to expect from Penumbra Theatre Company, a frank and unflinching depiction of issues that urgently need our attention.
I admit I didn't know many of the details about Emmett Till's life and death (read more about it here), so it was quite educational for me. But this is not a dry and sober history lesson, it's an entertaining and captivating play, a celebration of life and family, with wonderful music (music direction by Sanford Moore). You almost forget the tragic ending looming over the story as you get to know these characters and share in their life and family. But it all comes crashing down when Emmett is taken, and we see scenes of the torture, Emmett's mother's reaction, the trial and its aftermath.

Darrick Mosley as Emmitt Till
with Greta Oglesby, T. Mychael Rambo,
and Shá Cage
At the center of this wonderful six-person ensemble is Darrick Mosley, who plays Emmett with great spirit and energy. Shá Cage and Greta Oglesby play the women in Emmett's life with strength and sympathy. H. Adam Harris, T. Mychael Rambo, and Mikell Sapp play multiple roles from amusing to threatening, including the two men who kidnapped and beat Emmett. Playwright Ifa Bayeza writes in such a way that there are sometimes multiple versions of a character onstage, so that we can more clearly see the different sides of them. In one particularly moving scene, we see two mothers testifying at the trial and grieving their son in different ways, one the strong and farsighted woman who insisted on an open casket, which became a spark in the Civil Rights Movement, one the emotional woman witnessing the mutilated body of her baby.

The simple but effective set (by Maruti Evans) consists of a raised platform in the center of the stage, and wooden planks on the walls upon which are written the words of the murderers who, after being acquitted of the crime and therefore protected by double jeopardy, admitted that they killed Emmitt in an interview with Look magazine. It's quite sobering to watch Emmitt's story play out surrounded by those hateful words.

The Ballad of Emmett Till is a beautiful, tragic, spirited, and very well-done play. Emmett's final words to the audience are, "Is it done?" That is a question to ponder. (Playing now through March 2 at Penumbra Theatre.)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Prints" by Torch Theater Company at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

This has been a most excellent week of theater. I saw five shows (four plays and one musical), and each was so different from the rest but so wonderful in its own unique way. I truly experienced the breadth and depth of the Twin Cities theater community this week, from a lovely and intimate two-person musical, to an intensely dramatic historical play, to a funny and poignant play about small town Minnesota, to a wildly inventive new fairy tale. And capping it off is Prints, a sharp and funny new play written by local actor John Middleton and presented by Torch Theater Company (their first production in over a year), brilliantly acted by the company of eight, "corrupted from a true story" about the kidnapping of Minnesota beer tycoon William Hamm in 1933.* I couldn't have asked for a better conclusion to this most excellent week of theater.

The story in Prints features a mishmash of facts from the true story of the Barker-Karpis gang, along with completely made up bits designed to tell an entertaining story. And it works. We view the kidnapping through the eyes of two reporters who are asked by the kidnapped man's daughter Pearl to help investigate. They soon decipher that it must be the work of the infamous Barker-Karpis gang, and work with a corrupt cop and the Hamm family to try to prove it and find Hamm. The FBI gets involved and applies the brand new "Silver Nitrate Method" to pull fingerprints off the ransom note (this part of the story is true). Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the stage, the gang is holding poor Mr. Hamm hostage and trying to figure out how they're going to get out of this mess.

The highlights are many and include:

  • The tone is pitch-perfect, as director Craig Johnson gets just the right mix of sharp humor and occasional darkness from his cast. Some audience members were laughing during the shooting scenes but I found them sad and scary.
  • Speaking of, Zach Curtis is truly formidable as the unstable gangster "Creepy" Karpis, and is the one dark element that anchors the comedy and gives real weight to this crime story, despite the silly shenanigans going on around him. There's nothing funny about Creepy (at least not that you would admit in his presence).
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, Karen Wiese-Thompson cracked me up as the flighty socialite Mitzi Hamm with her every expression and gesture, and also brings a bit of pathos to the role of Ma Barker - a mother who loves her boys, even though those boys are gangsters.
  • Playwright John Middleton and Mo Perry share a witty banter and sly humor as the reporters, in a His Girl Friday sort of way.
  • Most of the cast play multiple roles, and slip easily and quickly back and forth between the different skins they inhabit, including Summer Hagen as Pearl, Creepy's girl, and FBI director Hoover; Casey Hoekstra as an uptight FBI agent and the nervous gangster Doc, who's on the receiving end of much of Creepy's brutality; Ari Hoptman as everybody's favorite bartender, the kidnapped man with a bag over his head, and a stand-up comic with jokes so bad they're funny; and Sam Landman as the corrupt Minnesota cop and one of the Barker boys. Just really beautiful and interesting and funny performances by everyone in every role.
  • The writing is really fantastic - sharp and tight, with one particularly clever scene featuring two interrelated and overlapping interrogations by the two reporters.
  • I love the range of accents, from gangsters who talk like we think gangsters talked, to women who talk like women in old movies, to Mitzi's occasionally returning German accent, to the very Minnesotan cop.
  • The set by Michael Hoover (who I swear is the busiest set designer in the Cities) is a perfect backdrop. A brick wall with several doors, and a Hamm's label functioning as a scree upon which videos are played and behind which shadowed scenes take place. (Although the multiple levels seemed to be a bit tricky for the cast to negotiate as they tripped more than once, but never breaking character for a moment so that the stumbles almost seemed planned.)
  • Finally, the period costumes (by John Woskoff) look pretty snazzy and help differentiate the multiple characters.

Welcome back Torch Theater Company, don't be gone so long next time! This is a great example of why the Twin Cities theater community is so stellar - a new play by a local playwright, an ensemble of individual talents who work well together, and an all around high quality production. Playing now through March 8 at the Minneapolis Theater Garage, with discount tickets available on Goldstar.

*This is not the first show I've seen on this topic, see also History Theatre's Capital Crimes: The St. Paul Gangster Musical.

Friday, February 14, 2014

"Out of the Pan Into the Fire" by The Moving Company at the Lab Theater

The Moving Company is bringing back last year's hit Out of the Pan Into the Fire.* Even though I saw it last year, I was very happy to see it again. It's that kind of play that is so rich it benefits from multiple viewings, plus there have been a few tweaks and changes. Like everything that The Moving Company (a newish company that is a descendant of Theatre de la Jeune Lune) does, Out of the Pan is highly creative and inventive, marvelously acted by company members, and delightfully unique. A new original fairy tale inspired by the classics collected by the brothers Grimm, but bearing no direct resemblance to any of them, Out of the Pan Into the Fire is at times amusing, moving, poignant, odd, sad, and sweet. If you missed the show last year now is your chance to see it, and especially if you've never seen what The Moving Company can do, this is a must see for local theater lovers.

Serving as a storyteller and narrator, as well as a character within the drama, the endlessly watchable Steve Epp plays Angelo. He begins the show reading a story from a book, a story from "a time when wishing was of some use," and then takes part in that story. Angelo collects children to raise and then send off into the world, and is left with just two oddballs who've never quite left. Elsie (Christina Baldwin like I've never seen her before, but just as captivating as always) is the super smart young woman who knows everything but has experienced nothing. She's deathly afraid of leaving her safe home and going out into the world. She's a sort of awkward child-woman, dressed in rags and dorky glasses with clothespins in her hair. Her brother Thirteen is her exact opposite - dumb as a rock and afraid of nothing, because "he doesn't know enough to be afraid." In Nathan Keepers' usual physical style of character creation, Thirteen is like a big eager happy puppy dog, who only wants to be loved and be happy and play with his best friend, potato. Christina and Nathan created a beautifully doomed romantic couple two years ago in Werther and Lotte, and now with Elsie and Thirteen they have created a funny, sweet, and genuine sibling relationship. This odd little family is happy, but Angelo knows that he has to send his children out into the harsh world to complete their development as human beings. Angelo leaves so that Elsie will have to face the world and experience the heartbreak that goes along with it (for true wisdom is knowledge plus experience), and Thirteen will learn fear (which is, as Elsie tells him, dread plus reverence). They encounter the exceedingly creepy Stumpfmutter (Justin Madel), who is like something right out of the darkest German fairy tale. Growing up is hard, as these two overgrown children learn, but entirely necessary and in the end, rewarding.

Angelo (Steve Epp) plays with Thirteen (Nathan Keepers)
The world in which this story takes place is quite magical, and the set from last year's production at the Southern Theater has been transported to the Lab Theater exactly as I remember it. The Southern and the Lab are two of my favorite theater spaces in town, both with gorgeous open spaces, but the Lab feels a little more intimate and close to the action. There is so much to look at in this set, my favorite of which are the little chairs in graduated sizes, from child-sized to doll-sized. The set (designed by director Dominique Serrand) is comprised of odd spaces created by cardboard, a locker, a raised stage area, plastic garbage bags, and various other compartments. There are secret doors and windows, from which characters suddenly appear and disappear (leading to several moments of "how'd they do that?!"). Delightful and surprising things happen with the set and props; there is wind, ice, rain, feathers, blood, and dirt (without spoiling everything, there is significant clean-up that must happen between shows).

The cool thing about The Moving Company is that often the actors help in creation of the work (this one was written by Steve, Nathan, and Dominique), so that the characters are suited to the particular talents of the actors, whether it's Nathan's crazy physicality, or Christina's lovely voice (which she does use here, singing a beautiful Rilke poem in German), or Steve's great storytelling. Watching the three of them play in this strange and magical world is a joy. One that you really must experience to fully comprehend. Check them out at the Lab Theater through March 2.

*Yes, I borrowed liberally from what I wrote last year. But don't accuse me of plagiarism, I gave myself permission to use my words.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"The Pavilion" at Yellow Tree Theatre

This is the way the play The Pavilion by Minnesota playwright Craig Wright begins:
This is the way the universe begins. A raindrop (that isn't really a raindrop) drops, like a word, "rain" drops, into a pool (that isn't really a pool, more like a pool of listening minds), and tiny waves circle out in an elegant decelerating procession, -cession, -cession. Then, after a time, the pool of listening minds grows still once more.
Now, but backwards, this is the way the universe begins: the still pool of listening minds, the sudden shrinking circles dissolving at the center, conserving at the center until boom, sloop!, up goes the droplet, up towards the voice that raindrops words, up towards the voice and it hangs in the air — remember it there — because that’s the way the universe begins. A little pavilion. A momentary sphere. A word made of stars, dancing.
The play is filled with beautiful, poetic, profound, airy language such as this, interspersed with very real and grounded scenes of average humans at their 20-year high school reunion. The story itself is not very original (in life or literature) - high school girl gets pregnant, boy leaves her to deal with it alone, forever changing both of their lives. The original thing about this Pulitzer Prize nominated play is that this very common idea is used as the seed to explore themes of time, regret, happiness, letting go of the past, and second chances. It's funny and earthy at the same time that it's deep and philosophical. The Pavilion is another great choice by Yellow Tree Theatre - it shines on their intimate and homey stage.

Pine City class of 1977's "cutest couple," Kari and Peter, reunite at their 20-year reunion, and it's not a happy reunion. She's still deeply hurt and angry that he left her when she got pregnant, a situation that isn't soothed at all by his deep regret. Unfortunately neither of them have been able to leave this unhappy incident behind them; she is trapped in an unhappy marriage and he is dating a 23-year-old because she's too young to realize how messed up he is. They begin the evening by trying to avoid each other, but by the night's end they have put it all out there. A narrator tells us about this couple and where they fall in the creation of the universe. There is much fourth wall breaking, as the narrator says things like "this is a play about time," calls for lighting and sound from the crew, and speaks directly to the audience. At one point the characters in the story, mostly oblivious to his presence, speak directly to the narrator. It's a really clever construction and an innovative way to tell a story.

Bonni Allen, Jason Peterson, and Michael Lee
Yellow Tree co-founder Jason Peterson as the narrator speaks these beautiful words with clarity and meaning. He also has the fun of playing multiple characters at the reunion who function as sounding boards for our two main characters. Bonni Allen, whom I've previously only seen in musical comedies, proves that she's a great dramatic actor too as she brings life to the conflicted Kari. Michael Lee is earnest and sincere in Peter's love for Kari. Local actor Terry Hempleman (who starred with Jason in the gripping Fool for Love at the Jungle last fall) does a beautiful job directing the piece.

At intermission I had a discussion with my friends about who to side with. There's no question that Peter did Kari a great wrong, but she's been holding on to the grudge for 20 years. We agreed that she needs to find a way to get over it and let it go for her own sake, not his. Whether or not he deserves her forgiveness, she deserves to forgive him and be at peace about it. The play doesn't wrap things up so neatly. It's an ambiguous ending, as the evening ends and the play fades away into starlight, with no clear direction about what happens next. It's one of those plays that's so full, I wish I could see it again.

The set (designed by Jeffrey Petersen) couldn't be more simple - a large square wooden dock with the word "PAVILION" in lights behind it, the stage empty except for a few crates. But the language is so specific that the imagination can easily fill in the details so that you can almost feel the wind off the water and smell the fresh air. The lighting (by Courtney Schmitz Watson) creates some really lovely effects, from the blue light under the dock to the stars overhead.

Minnesota playwright Craig Wright (who has also written for such TV shows as Six Feet Under and Lost, and graduated from my alma mater) has set this play (and several others) in Pine City, and the play is filled with Minnesota references. The characters casually drop many Minnesota place names, and he has perfectly captured the way that out-staters talk about "the Cities." It's great to see the work of Minnesota artists represented on our stages, especially a play like this that's so 
funny, bittersweet, and wistful. (Playing now through March 2 at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo.)

Because the language is so beautiful, I'll leave you with another quote from the play:

At every single moment, the whole creation is beginning again, stretching the tent of the present moment to bursting. And the waves that push up through the oceans, and the waves that push up through the stars; and the waves that push upwards through history are the same waves that push up through us. And so we have to say yes to time, even though it means speeding forward into memory; forgetfulness; and oblivion. Say "no" to time; hold on to what you were or what she was; hold onto the past, even out of love... and I swear it will tear you to shreds. This universe will tear you to shreds.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Schiller's Mary Stuart" by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at Red Eye Theater

There's nothing crazier than the history of the British monarchy. The complicated line of succession in the Renaissance era is an example of "truth is stranger than fiction." The many instances of murders, coups, beheadings, declarations of illegitimacy, and incest constitute more drama and intrigue than any soap opera ever could. Therefore it's great fodder for historical fiction today (e.g., the recent miniseries The White Queen) and in times past. In 1800 German playwright Friedrich Schiller wrote a play called Mary Stuart about the Scottish queen, who was imprisoned by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I because she was a threat to the throne. Walking Shadow Theatre Company is presenting a new adaption of the play by Peter Oswald, and the result is a delicious and hearty meal.

Queen Mary comes from a troubled past - ascending to the Scottish throne at 6 days old, growing up in France, married to the king until his death, and returning to Scotland, where she might have had her new husband killed and then married the man who killed him. After this latest scandal, she sought sanctuary in England with her cousin Queen Elizabeth, but because the Catholics of England saw Mary as the rightful ruler, Elizabeth had her imprisoned for nearly 20 years. This play takes place near the end of those years, as Mary pleads for her release and Elizabeth debates Mary's fate with her advisers. Over the course of nearly three hours, we watch the schemes and politics of these two queens unfold and crumble, until only one is left standing. It's really quite gripping, and it doesn't feel like a 200 year old play about events that happened 400+ years ago, but rather feels fresh and dramatic and almost modern.

Queen Mary (Jennifer Maren)
pleads for her life from
Queen Elizabeth (Sherry Jo Ward)
The best part of this production is the excellent acting by the entire 13-person company. It's such a treat to just sit there and watch the skill of these artists as they play out this complicated tale. At the top are Jennifer Maren and Sherry Jo Ward as the Queens Mary and Elizabeth, both strong and regal and sympathetic, so that I found it difficult to choose sides between the two. Jean Wolff is wonderfully Mrs. Hughes-like as Mary's staunch supporter, friend, and ladies maid. Other standouts include Adam Whisner as Mary's firm but ultimately kind captor, and Dustin Bronson and Peter Ooley as Mary's (or Elizabeth's?) suitors.

The second best part of this production are the gorgeous costumes, which are not 16th century period costumes, but have more of a mid-20th century classic look. The men are dapper in suits and hats, but the women truly shine in stunning dresses. I love it when a dress comes out and takes my breath away with its beauty, and that happened several times in this play (costumes by Lori Opsal). Michael Hoover's classic and simple set design of multiple arches and opaque windows is a perfect backdrop for the complicated story and large cast.

Schiller's Mary Stuart is not a short play, coming in at nearly three hours with intermission, so be prepared for that. But it's a gripping, fascinating, and intriguing true(ish) story about two powerful women, with excellent performances by the entire cast. If you're an Anglophile, or if you just like great drama, this one's for you (playing now through March 1 at the Red Eye Theater, with discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Monday, February 10, 2014

"The Last Five Years" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Hillcrest Center Theater

This was my second time seeing the Jason Robert Brown cult hit musical The Last Five Years, and I think I enjoyed it more the second time around. It's a complicated piece, both in structure and emotion, so it benefits from repeated viewings. This production by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company employs a much simpler staging than the Flip Theatre production I saw last fall, with minimal set pieces and no microphones, which serve the intimate two-person 90-minute musical well. Already familiar with the story and structure, I was better able to appreciate the emotion of the story and Jason Robert Brown's fantastic score.

The premise is simple, but told in a complex way. A man and woman meet, fall in love, grow apart, and split up. The unique thing about this familiar story is that one half of the couple tells the story (through song) chronologically, while the other half is simultaneously working through the story backwards from the end. The show begins with a heartbroken Cathy singing about the end of her marriage and a newly lovestruck Jamie singing about this girl he just met. The two timelines cross in the middle when Jamie proposes to Cathy, and continue on to their ultimate conclusions - Cathy happy and hopeful at the beginning of the relationship, Jamie sad and conflicted at the end. It's quite fascinating to watch a relationship grow and disintegrate at the same time, and see how much these two people love each other but realize that they just can't make it work.

Matt Rein as Jamie
and Sarah Shervey as Cathy
As Cathy, Sarah Shervey* is sweet and sympathetic, with a lovely voice. Matt Rein as Jamie is charming and much more likeable than my first experience with the show. In a post-show talk back, director Kevin Dutcher (who does a fine job with this "puzzle" of a piece) said they made a conscious decision to make Jamie less of a "dick," and it works. Seeing the show this time I didn't think that either one was solely to blame for the break-up, but could see that they both contributed to the sad conclusion. The interesting thing about this pieces is that you only see the couple connecting together for one moment in the middle, but Kevin chose to begin the show with a brief happy moment between the two so the audience could see just what it is that's lost. He calls their one duet "The Next Ten Minutes" the "payoff" for "desperately wanting to see them together," and he's right. The two characters might be on stage at the same time at several points throughout the show, but they're never together in the moment except for that one song, and it's all the more bittersweet for it.

On the small stage at the Hillcrest Center Theater, the four-piece band is behind a screen. The forefront of the stage consists of a few city sketches as backdrop, with simply a chair and table for furniture (set design by Dan Wold). There's very little transition time lost between scenes as one song flows into the next. In a piece like this, less is more.

There's no question that Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years is deserving of its popularity, and I welcomed the chance to spend more time with it. This is a nice production with a charming and talented cast, and a simple staging that lets the story and the songs shine through. Playing weekends only through March 2.

*I was told that both leads were sick with colds on the day I saw the show, so they might not have been at their best. But what I saw was still pretty great.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

"Shakespeare's Will" at the Jungle Theater

If 2013 was the year of the one-man show (see my 2013 wrap-up for more on that), then perhaps 2014 will be the year of the one-woman show. It's certainly off to a great start with the Jungle Theater's Shakespeare's Will, in which Cathleen Fuller commands the stage as the woman behind the man who became perhaps the world's greatest playwright. Playwright Vern Thiessen offers one interpretation of this woman about whom not much is known except for a few bare facts. He fills in these facts with a personality and a relationship that was unconventional (the couple mostly lived separate lives) but worked, and gives us a sense of who this woman might have been.

In about 75 minutes, Cathleen as Anne takes us through her life with "Bill," from their first meeting, through marriage and children, through separation as his career took off, to his death and the controversial contents of his will (he left her "my second best bed with the furniture," while leaving most of his estate to their eldest daughter). This all takes place on the day Bill is buried, while Anne is waiting for a visit from his sister. She talks to Bill, recites conversations she had with him, her father, and others, and relives pivotal moments in her life. Through it all we get to know Anne as a person, not just a footnote in Shakespeare's biography. She's a funny, smart, spunky, strong woman, fully inhabited by Cathleen as she goes through a range of emotions, from the happiness of new love to anger to grief at the death of a child.

Cathleen Fuller as Anne Hathaway
The beautifully sparse set designed by Bain Boehlke, who also directs, consists of a bare stage populated only with a bench, chair, and table, upon which sit period-appropriate writing materials and and other props. The stage is framed by two columns on either side, with a bay window at the back, once again creating that perfect diorama effect. Anne wears a beautifully authentic looking dress of velvet and brocade (designed by Amelia Cheever). The entire scene looks very much like it came straight out of an Elizabethan era English country home.

Shakespeare's Will plays through March 23 and is a wonderful start to the Jungle's 2014 season, which continues with the comedy Detroit, the Tony Award-winning play The Heiress, and a return of The Mystery of Irma Vep with Steven Epp and Bradley Greenwald, and concludes the brilliant team of Bain Boehlke and Wendy Lehr in On Golden Pond. It's shaping up to be another great year at the lovely little theater in Uptown.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Dress Rehearsal of Ten Thousand Things "The Music Man"

Friends, I experienced a rare treat last week. I attended the final dress rehearsal for Ten Thousand Things' new show, The Music Man, and it was scrumptious! They posted an open invitation on their Facebook page so I was sure the seats would be filled. That was not the case; only about ten people took advantage of the opportunity to see some free, live, excellent theater. In a cold church basement in Minneapolis, where the cast and crew outnumbered the audience, I witnessed TTT's usual bare bones, straight-to-the-heart-of-the-matter style of theater as applied to the classic musical about a con man salesman and the small Iowa town forever changed by his visit. In one word, it was spellbinding. This ensemble of wonderful actors led by Luverne Seifert cast their spell over me just as Professor Harold Hill cast his spell over the people of River City. And this was just a dress rehearsal! It was already nearly flawless (and the rare miscue only added more entertainment value in the hands of these professionals), so I can only imagine that the full production (running Feb. 14 through Mar. 9 at Open Book) will be a thing to behold.

Luverne Seifert is an absolute charmer as Professor Hill, as he easily wins over the town with his smooth-talking, and stern Marian the librarian a little less easily. Aimee Bryant conveys Marian's strength of character and longing for something more, and lends her lovely voice to such songs as "Goodnight My Someone." Dennis Spears is a delight as her mother (in a great example of TTT's color- and gender-blind casting, an African American man plays an Irish woman). Recently crowned Ivey Emerging Artist Ricardo Vasquez plays Marian's little brother Winthrop (whose lisp was made famous by little Ronnie Howard). Ricardo completely transforms into a ten-year-old boy, and not just any ten-year-old boy, but a sad, lost, troubled ten-year-old boy. When he begins to open up thanks to music and the band and friendship, it's a thing of beauty. Rounding out the cast as salesmen, townspeople, school board members, and dancing ladies are the very entertaining Bradley Greenwald, Jim Lichtsheidl, Sarah Agnew, and Kimberly Richardson.

The wonderful thing about musicals as performed by Ten Thousand Things is that because it's quite stripped down (just a two-person band in this case - Jake Endres on keyboard and Peter Vitale on a myriad of instruments), the music feels very organic to the characters and story. Unlike typical musicals in which there's a clear differentiation between full-blown musical numbers and straight dialogue, the actors flow naturally back and forth between speaking and singing, with the band subtly coming in to support them. The Music Man is a good choice for this sort of style, with it's rhythmic talky songs. The fast and lyric-heavy opening number on the train* ("you gotta know the territory!") is extremely well-done by the cast, as is "Ya Got Trouble," and everything with the barbershop quartet and gossiping ladies - the same four actors switching back and forth, often within the same scene! But my favorite moment is the most famous song in the show. How do you create the sound of 76 trombones with just two musicians? You don't even try, you do it as a soft, gentle, reverent plea. I was sitting a few feet from Luverne and could see the awe and wonder in his eyes as he softly spoke of this marvelous band, and I fell completely under his spell as much as the townspeople did. The speaking eventually becomes singing, with the musicians chiming in as it grows into the familiar big band song.

There's a reason The Music Man is such a classic. It's a beautiful story about the power of music, storytelling, family, friendship, community, and having a common goal. Professor Hill gives River City hope and something to strive for, and Marian's love and faith in him helps him become the man that she thinks he is. With direction by Lear deBessonet and choreography by Jim Lichtsheidl, this is a wonderfully unique and delightful interpretation of this familiar story. Ten Thousand Things productions are always extremely professional, yet retain a playfulness and laid back feeling that draw the audience in, whether that audience is prisoners or seasoned theater-goers. Mere words cannot express how much I love this show, and look forward to seeing it again at Open Book. It's playful and funny, sweet and touching. I'll be back to update after seeing the final version in a few weeks. In the meantime, reserve your seats for one of the three performances that are not sold out. Trust me, you are not going to want to miss this one!

*I once saw Bradley Greenwald perform the opening number by himself, and it was quite impressive!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"The Incredible Season of Ronnie Rabinovitz" at the History Theatre

This really is an incredible true story. In 1960, a 15-year-old Wisconsin boy was friends with both Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball's color barrier, and the 35th American President John F. Kennedy. One would think that this was a story made up to create a great play, except that it's true. Ronnie Rabinovitz met JFK through his father, a prominent lawyer in Sheboygan who worked on Kennedy's campaign in the 1960 presidential primary. Ronnie also wrote fan letters to Jackie Robinson, who responded, leading to a lifelong pen-pal relationship that included telephone conversations and in-person meetings. When the History Theatre's Artistic Director Ron Peluso heard this story, he commissioned Midwest playwright Eric Simonson to write a play about it, which was presented as part of last year's "Raw Stages" new works festival. The Incredible Season of Ronnie Rabinovitz is now being presented with a full production at the History Theatre's downtown St. Paul stage. It's a really engaging and entertaining look at baseball, politics, and civil rights through the eyes of one precocious teenager.

JFK and Mr. Rabinovitz talk politics
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
There's lots of fourth wall breaking in this play, with Ronnie beginning the play talking directly to the audience and acknowledging that this is a play in which he's telling his remarkable story, and breaking into the action several times to explain things to the audience. It's quite a clever and effective device, a great way to relax and engage the audience. The action of the play flashes back and forth between two evenings when the two Jacks are in the Rabinovitz home on separate occasions. Kennedy wants Robinson's support in the election, and asks Ronnie's father to talk to him about it. But Robinson supports Humphrey first, Nixon second, and won't be budged. A scene showing the meeting of the two men explains why. Already retired from baseball in 1960, Jackie was active in Civil Rights, and his visit to Wisconsin prompts racist graffiti that seems to upset Ronnie's father more than it does Jackie.

The strong cast begins with the adorable and exuberant Jack Alexander as Ronnie. Mark Benninghofen is great as always as his father, and Teri Park Brown provides much of the comic relief as his mother. Peter Middlecamp plays JFK with the suave charm a Kennedy requires, and Ansa Akyea is comfortable in the role of Jackie Robinson, which he also played in Children's Theatre Company's Jackie and Me last year. Rounding out the cast are E.J Subkoviak with an amusing turn as the sheriff, and Jim Stowell as a frustrated striker.

Jackie Robinson in the Rabinovitz living room
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
The very cool set (by Rick Polenek) looks like it's from a 1960s TV show. But not with the harsh realism of Mad Men, more like the nostalgia-tinged sitcoms from the era. Picture Rob and Laura Petrie's living room, in color. In fact that sums up tone of the play as well, it's a little like a 1960s sitcom, with the precocious child, the hard-working, stern, slightly comic father, and the apron-wearing mother making her husband drinks and hors d'ouevres. It just so happens that into this sitcom wander two of the most famous Americans of the 20th Century. The play includes many amusing local references (cheese curds!), although I couldn't figure out why Wisconsonites would be Atlanta Braves fans, until I discovered that they were the Milwaukee Braves until 1965, and the Brewers didn't arrive until 1970.

The Incredible Season of Ronnie Rabinovitz is the History Theatre doing what it does best - presenting an entertaining and informative new play about a moment in Minnesota (er, Wisconsin) history that has larger implications to American history. It's an entertaining, engaging, nostalgic look back at the extraordinary friendships of one ordinary youngster. Playing through February 23, with discount tickets available on*

*If you've never used, I highly recommend that you sign up. They offer half-price (or better) deals for many theaters around town. You'll receive a weekly email that will tell you about some of the deals available. Click here for more information and to see all of the great deals currently offered.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

"Ash Land" by Transatlantic Love Affair at Illusion Theater

On the last night of the 2012 Fringe Festival, I went to see an "Audience Pick" show that I had been hearing a lot about. A play called Ash Land by a theater company called Transatlantic Love Affair, with which I was unfamiliar at the time. By that point in the fest I was fringed out - sick of the crowds and lines and parking and traffic. But sitting in the Rarig Center, I was completely transported by what was happening on stage in front of me and moved to tears. Such is the power and beauty of what Transatlantic Love Affair does, a style of physical theater that is so unique and special. They are currently remounting an expanded version of Ash Land as part of Illusion Theater's "Lights Up!" series, and it's just as heartbreakingly beautiful as it was the first time I saw it.

Conceived and directed by TLA's co-Artistic Director Diogo Lopes, Ash Land is a very loose re-imagining of the classic Cinderella tale, in which our heroine is now a farmer's daughter somewhere in the plains of middle America in the last century. Ellie's beloved mother dies, leaving her and her father devastated and with a farm to care for in a drought. Ellie's aunt marries her father in order to help care for her and the farm, but decides to sell it. Ellie goes to the town banker's party to try to stop the sale, where she meets his kind and handsome son. And then, it begins to rain.*

On a completely bare stage, this wonderful cast of eight (seven of whom were in the original production) create everything in the world of the story with their bodies and voices. They are the doors and windows, the waving wheat, the wind, the livestock, the water pump, furniture, a car, and most poignantly, the rain. Along with the subtle lighting (by Michael Wangen) and the melancholic sound of a steel guitar (played by Harper Zwicky), the movement of the cast is so evocative of a specific time and place that you can feel the dry heat, see the tumbleweeds blowing, and revel in the release of the long-awaited rain. The cast also sings a few songs from the traditional Americana canon that I love so much, including "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot," "Ain't No Grave," and "Poor Wayfarin' Stranger." The show has been expanded from its original Fringe length (under an hour) to about an hour and a half, which has allowed them to add a few new scenes, as well as given other scenes the room to breathe and expand a little.

Ellie (Adelin Phelps) and her mother (Isabel Nelson)
drinking lemonade on the porch swing
At the heart of this piece is the relationship between Ellie and her mother, which continues long after she dies. This relationship is beautifully expressed by the actors - Adelin Phelps as Ellie and Isabel Nelson (the other co-Artistic Director) as her mother. Along with Derek Lee Miller as Ellie's father, you can truly feel the love and loss in this family trio. Adelin is just wonderful as our heroine, with an open expressive face. Heather Bunch brings a gritty humanity to the role of the "evil stepmother." Nick Wolf, as the banker's son, is the one new ensemble member and fits right in, tall and lanky and adorably awkward when confronting Ellie. All of the other roles of the animal, vegetable, and mineral variety are filled by these actors along with Peytie McCandless, Eric Nelson, and Allison Witham.

Ash Land plays through February 22, and if you've never seen Transatlantic Love Affair before, you really need to experience their unique and beautiful style of theater. And with tickets for as low as $5 on Goldstar, you'd be a fool to miss this one! (Tip: bring tissues.)

I'll leave you with how I concluded my blog the first time I saw the show.
Friends, this one really touched me. And that's all I ask from theater - to move me in some way, whether it's to laughter or tears, or a different way of thinking about something, or a different way of seeing something. To leave the theater knowing that I'm different than when I walked in, that I've been forever changed (in some small way) by what I've seen. That's what this show did for me. 

*Yes, I plagiarized myself by copying the plot summary from my previous post about the show.