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.

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Ghost Sonata" at nimbus theatre

nimbus theatre's production of Swedish playwright August Strindberg's Ghost Sonata is delightfully bizarre. It's a surreal world full of not just ghosts but also vampires, mummies, murders, mysteries, and one insane dinner party. The only other Strindberg play I've seen is Miss Julie which, although dark and twisted, is incredibly realistic, so I was not quite prepared for the strangeness of this play written after what is known as Strindberg's "inferno crisis." But I found it fascinating, with many ideas and layers and complex characters to contemplate. I was fortunate enough to attend on a day when there was a post-show discussion, which helped me to make sense of what I had just seen. But even without that added benefit, Ghost Sonata is a wonderfully new and innovative production of a classic piece of theater, with lovely original music, ingenious set design, and a cast that jumps into the strangeness with both feet.

Ghost Sonata is one of Strindberg's chamber plays, a play with three acts that flows like a piece of music (especially when accompanied by original music played by a three-piece onstage orchestra). In the first act we meet an idealistic young student (Andrew Sass) who has just saved a bunch of people from a collapsed building. A wily old man (Charles Numrich) uses him in his plan to get inside a grand house. The old man seems to know and be connected to many of the residents in mysterious ways, especially the Colonel (David Tufford) and his crazy wife (Karen Bix). The student is fascinated by these rich people in this fine house, so he agrees to the plan. In the second act, the old man and the student have managed to get inside the house, and the old man confronts the residents and the servants over dinner as we learn of his twisted plan. In the third and final act, the student talks with the young lady of the house (Megan Dowd) and learns about the strange happenings. Her parents are crazy, she's terrified of the servants, and despairing of life in general. The student soon realizes that what's inside this house is not as beautiful and fine as it appears on the outside.

the ghostly girl scout aids the student as the old man looks on
(Nissa Nordland, Andrew Sass, Charles Numrich,
photo by Mathieu Lindquist)
The whole thing reminded me of a warped and twisted version of Downton Abbey, where Mrs. Patmore is a vampire, Carson is angry and careless, Lady Grantham is a mummy, Lord Grantham is not who he says he is, Lady Mary is sick and frightened, and Matthew is the son of a lunatic who may be on his way there himself. If the ghost of a girl scout in the first act doesn't clue you in to what you're in for, the second act insane dinner party leaves no doubt that something is amiss. Bengtsson (Mark L. Mattison) is no Carson as he sloppily spoons soup into bowls and drops some strange pink goop on the plates in front of the guests, which some of them actually eat. And then, the transition between the second and third act, from the dining room to the flower room where the young lady spends her time, is unlike anything I've ever seen. It's quite thrilling and will blow your hair back, literally (set design by Zach Morgan, who also directs).

I apologize if I'm not making sense, but this is a difficult one to make sense of. I mean that in the best possible way, it's really quite fascinating and fun to watch. Themes of class tension, redemption, relationships, revenge, and being haunted by one's past all come into play in this strange Strindberg world. It was obvious listening to the creators talk about their work in the post-show discussion that a lot of time, thought, and effort went into creating this piece, including a new modern-day translation by Danielle Blackbird, original music by Charlie McCarron, and abstract video projections by Josh Cragun. All of these pieces come together quite beautifully in a bizarre and surreal sort of way. There's really no way to adequately describe it, you just have to see it for yourself. Ghost Sonata continues at nimbus theater through November 23.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Grounded" by Frank Theatre at the Playwrights' Center

Drones are everywhere. The increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles in war is all over the news, and is even the focus of this season of Homeland. But you never think about the person behind the drone, the one who's flying it remotely and pushing the button to make the hit on the target, to sometimes devastating effect. Frank Theatre's Grounded does just that. A fighter pilot who has been grounded is reassigned to fly military drones from half a world away. In this one-woman show starring the always excellent Shá Cage, we watch this pilot adjust to her new job, new family, new schedule, until the effects take their tole and she's no longer as grounded as she appears.

The unnamed main character is the epitome of a tough fighter pilot, loving nothing more than being up in "the blue" and fighting for her country. She's forced to give that up, at least temporarily, when she falls in love and gets pregnant. After a few years at a desk job she longs to return to the blue; even though she loves her husband and daughter, it's not enough. She reports for duty and is told she'll be remotely flying drones rather than going up in planes, and is assigned to a base outside of Las Vegas. She initially thinks she's being punished, but is eventually convinced that drones are where it's at. She moves with her family into a house in the suburbs and begins her daily 12-hour shift of flying drones, returning home to her family at night. War as a 9 to 5 job may sound nice, fight the bad guys during the day and then go home to your family, but this pilot learns that it's not as easy as it sounds. It becomes increasingly difficult for her to separate her day job of killing "military age males" from her home and family life in the suburbs. Instead of transitioning out of war mentality once a year on leave, she has to do it every day, and soon the lines begin to blur, to the detriment of both her work and home life.

Shá Cage as the grounded pilot
(photo by Tony Nelson)
Before the show, Sousa marches get the audience into the military mood. About five minutes before the show starts Shá Cage walks out and stands at attention, her arm in salute (you try holding your arm in salute and see how quickly your arm fatigues!). Shá is an excellent choice for this role. She's strong enough to command the stage and play this strong woman, but also convey her vulnerable side with her family, as well as the cracks that begin to appear as she struggles with the transition between the two. I attended a preview, so Shá had her script in hand, flipping pages and occasionally glancing down at it to orient herself in the 90 minute one-woman show. But this did nothing to take away from her fully realized and emotional performance. And she's only going to get better over the course of the run as the script is let go. Her performance is allowed to shine in the simplicity of the design; the stage is bare except for a chair and bench, with only subtle changes in lighting to set the tone (set by Joseph Stanley, lighting by Mike Kittel).

Grounded is a fascinating look at the sacrifices made by and challenges facing those who work in the military, at home and abroad, as well as more generally the challenges of being a working mother. It also touches on the idea that everything we do is being watched. An idea which, if not totally true, seems to be where the world is moving, which is a disturbing thought. Grounded continues at the Playwrights' Center through November 23.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

"The House on Mango Street" at Park Square Theatre

It's finally here! Park Square Theatre's long anticipated and planned for second stage opened this weekend. It's great to have another theater space in St. Paul after the Ordway's McKnight Theatre was demolished to make room for their new concert hall, opening in March. Park Square's new space in the bowels of the historic Hamm building in downtown St. Paul is cozy and intimate, separated from their original stage by a stairway and a long hallway. It has its own lobby, ticket office, concession stands, and bathroom, and can be accessed either through the main Park Square lobby on 7th Place or through the Hamm lobby on St. Peter. The stage itself is a three-sided thrust stage that offers nice views from all sides (with exception of the two large pillars at the front corners of the stage that can cause some obstruction to seats in the corners). The inaugural production, The House on Mango Street, is a perfect example of what Park Square is hoping to do with the addition of the new stage - increase engagement of young people (several weeks of student matinees are offered), share more diverse stories (a Latina coming of age story), and bring in more theater artists from around the community (director Dipankar Mukherjee and the entire cast are making their Park Square debuts).

The House on Mango Street is based on the 1984 novel of the same name by Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros, inspired by her own experiences growing up in Chicago. Like the novel, which Wiki tells me is a series of vignettes, the play does not present a linear plot, but rather a series of scenes depicting the main character's experiences with her family, school, neighbors, and friends. Playwright Amy Ludwig has adapted the novel, keeping much of the poetic language and narrative style of the book. Characters speak "he said" and "she wondered," as they simultaneously act out the descriptions. The main character is a charming and adventurous young girl named Esperanza, seen both as an adult reminiscing about her youth, and the child Esperanza as she lives the things she's describing. The two take turns narrating, sometimes interacting with each other. Esperanza and her family move into a house on Chicago's Mango Street which is nicer that the other places she's lived, but not as nice as she hoped it would be. Esperanza experiences many of the joys and troubles of growing up, making friends, testing boundaries, her first dance, death and grief, learning to walk in high heels, and men's reactions when she does. She deals with everything by writing, carrying a little notebook around in her bag and constantly pulling it out to jot things down. Somehow she knows that this will be her way out of Mango Street, although she eventually comes to learn that she'll never leave for good, and doesn't want to. She "leaves only so that she can come back."

Adlyn Carreras and Alejandra Tobar
as Esperanza (photo by Petronella Ytsma)
The two Esperanzas are brought to life by two talented actors, representing two versions of the same person. Adlyn Carreras plays the older incarnation with an air of nostalgia as she looks back with the perspective of an adult. As the younger Esperanza, Alejandra C. Tobar convincingly plays this energetic, curious, smart, open-hearted, growing girl. She's a likeable and relatable heroine; when she laughs you can't help but smile, when she cries it'll break your heart. The six-person ensemble ably transforms into numerous characters, from young children to the old and dying, from nuns to criminals, and everything in between. A quick change in costume (designed by Trevor D. Bowen) helps to differentiate the characters. The set by Seitu Jones makes good use of the space - with raised platforms representing the houses along Mango Street, and no walls to obstruct views.

The House on Mango Street is a poignant and sweet coming of age drama. Even though it deals with a specific culture and place, the experiences of childhood and growing up depicted are universal (I was taken right back to my childhood with the Tootsie Roll jingle, a song I didn't even know I knew). Evening performances conclude on November 9, while student matinees continue through November 20. See the Park Square website to learn how your school or students can attend a performance.