Saturday, January 31, 2015

"Death and the Maiden" by Gremlin Theatre and Torch Theater at Minneapolis Theatre Garage

Often after going to the theater, there's one word that sticks in my head, that I then use probably too many times when writing about it. After seeing Death and the Maiden, that word is disturbing. This is not a light and happy show; it's dark, intense, thought-provoking, and beautifully done, as I've come to expect from Gremlin Theatre and Torch Theater. Death and the Maiden is the first of four collaborations between these two excellent small theater companies that have been around a while, all to be presented at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage* in 2015. Next up is Torch's Boeing Boeing in March, Gremlin's H2O in June, and another collaboration TBA. But first there is this dark and disturbing little play with an ambiguous ending.

The 1990 play Death and the Maiden takes place in an unnamed country "that has recently emerged from a long period of dictatorship," perhaps similar to playwright Ariel Dorfman's native Chile. Fifteen years earlier, Paulina was kidnapped, tortured, and raped, and spends most of her life hiding in her beach house with her husband Gerardo, who has recently been appointed to a commission to find and punish the people who committed atrocities during the dictatorship. But only those ending in death, so Paulina fears that her captors (whom she never saw due to a blindfold) will never come to justice. By chance meeting, a Dr. Miranda arrives at the beach house, and Paulina instantly recognizes his voice as one of the men responsible for her assault. She ties him up, holds a gun to his head, and puts him on trial. Gerardo doesn't believe his wife and defends Dr. Miranda. And it's unclear to the audience as well whether the doctor is the sadistic man who participated in countless atrocities against Paulina and others, or an innocent man falsely accused. All else being equal I tend to believe the woman, but there are just enough glimmers of uncertainty to leave me a bit unsure what, and whom, to believe.

Peter Christian Hansen, Craig Johnson, and Stacia Rice
(photo by Aaron Fenster)
Torch's and Gremlin's Artistic Directors Stacia Rice and Peter Christian Hansen, respectively, once again team up as the (not so) happy couple (see also Sea Marks), joined by Torch Associate Artistic Director Craig Johnson as Dr. Miranda. All three of these actors are among the best in the Twin Cities, performing on stages around town, and it's a joy to watch the three of them together. But that's the only joy found in this play. Remember, the word of the day is disturbing, and Craig embodies that in his performance of the seemingly nice and harmless doctor who may or may not be hiding a dark secret, with one particularly intense confession scene. Peter is the charming and supportive husband who wants to help his wife, but just can't seem to believe that this pleasant man is a monstor. But the show really belongs to Stacia as Paulina, in a performance that's raw, painful, and vulnerable, while still showing Paulina's fierce strength and determination to make this man pay so she can finally move on with her life. All of the interactions between these characters crackle with tension.

The lovely beachy set features designer Michael Hoover's clean lines, in cool shades of blue and tan. The peaceful surroundings are in sharp contrast to the turmoil of the story, both past and present.

Death and the Maiden continues through February 21 (discount tickets available on Goldstar). I can't say it's a fun play, and it doesn't wrap things up nicely, but it's worth your time to see these three talented actors tackle this meaty, thought-provoking, and yes, disturbing play.

*Last year plans were announced for a new residential and commercial building on the site of the Garage, with a new theater as part of the new space. I have not been able to find any updates on the project since then. But the Garage is a nice little venue, so I hope it sticks around in some form or another.

Friday, January 30, 2015

"These Old Shoes" by Transatlantic Love Affair at Illusion Theater

I'll never forget the first time I saw Transatlantic Love Affair. It was the "Audience Pick" show at the end of a long and exhausting 2012 Fringe Festival. I was tired and crabby and fringed out, but from the moment the lights went down on Ash Land, TLA transported me to another world, a world so specifically and beautifully created on a bare stage by a group of performers using nothing but their bodies, voices, and souls to communicate the story. I've seen them a number of times since then, both at the Fringe and as part of Illusion Theater's "Lights Up" series, and they continue to move me beyond what just "ordinary" theater is able to do. TLA returned to Illusion Theater last night with a remount of their 2013 Fringe hit These Old Shoes, a touching story of time, memory, regret, second chances, and long lost love rediscovered. In everything they do, TLA is nothing less than exquisite (not a word I use lightly, usually reserving it to describe the epitome of the art form that television can be, aka Mad Men). But disappointingly, the theater last night was not as full as it should have been. My goal in writing this piece is to get as many people as possible to go see These Old Shoes. You cannot call yourself a true Twin Cities theater fan if you've never seen Transatlantic Love Affair, and there's no better place to start than with this achingly lovely show.

In an original story conceived and directed by co-Artistic Director Diogo Lopes, These Old Shoes introduces us to a group of people living at a retirement community, and a man named Jim (Derek Lee Miller) who is reluctantly moving in. Jim's granddaughter Beatrice (Adelin Phelps) comes to town to help him pack up his house and move into the community. As Jim goes through his things, memories of days and people long past are stirred up. He remembers a young woman named Marjorie (Peyton McCandless) whom he once loved and planned to spend his life with, until his experience in the Korean War changed him and came between them. They both went on to live seemingly happy lives apart, but never forgot each other. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Marjorie lives in the community that Jim is joining; the true beauty of the piece is watching the two stories unfold - past and present - and how they come together again.

In typical TLA style, there are no props or set pieces on stage. Barefoot actors in simple clothing create everything in this world - furniture, a grandfather clock, trees, doors, gravestones. They mime with invisible props. Sometimes you don't quite know what action they're miming or inanimate object they're embodying, but at other times, it's so clear you can almost see it. As we move from the past to the present, each of the ensemble members (also including Heather Bunch, Eric Nelson, co-Artistic Director Isabel Nelson, and Allison Witham) physically transforms from a young person to an old person, each in their own unique and specific way, whether it's the subtle droop of the shoulders and sinking inward, or a back that's fully bent over, or a slower less stable way of walking. Age affects people differently, and this cast allows you to see those differences. One addition to the piece since the Fringe version is that we get to see each of the members of the retirement community in their past, whether as an actor, or a secretary, or a doctor. This glimpse into the past helps to flesh out each of these characters and inform who they are in the present story.

Jim polishes these old shoes of Marjorie's
(Derek Lee Miller and Peyton McCandless)
Transatlantic Love Affair also knows how to harness the power of music to maximum emotional effect. Dustin Tessier provides the soundtrack to this story on electric guitar, alternately melancholy and hopeful as the story requires. The one theatrical "trick" that's employed is the lighting (by Michael Wangen), which along with the music helps to accentuate the mood created by the ensemble. All of these pieces combine to create a world that feels so real and specific, it's positively jarring to the soul to leave the theater and go back into the real world, a world that now feels too bright and garish, and somehow colorless at the same time, compared to that sparsely beautiful world experienced on stage.

It's not possible to adequately describe what it is that Transatlanctic Love Affair does. It's a style so unique and specific, you just have to see it for yourself. Let go of what you think is reality, let your imagination take over, and let them take you on this exquisitely lovely journey. These Old Shoes is playing now through February 14. Trust me when I tell you you need to see it, and be sure to take advantage of the discount tickets on

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Gertrude Stein and a Companion" at the Jungle Theater

American author Gertrude Stein may be more famous for the "salons" that she hosted in her Paris home with other American ex-patriot and European artists, including Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Similarly, the play Gertrude Stein and a Companion focuses more on this Parisian life than her work, specifically, her relationship with her companion of 40 years, Alice. The Jungle is very familiar with this play; it's their 8th production in the 25-year history of the theater. Before his retirement as Artistic Director this summer, Bain Boehlke has brought back Claudia Wilkins and Barbara Kingsley from the Jungle's first production in 1992 to perform this play once again.

The play begins on the day of Gertrude's death in 1946. Her spirit appears to Alice as they reminisce about their past, and follows her throughout the rest of her life until they can finally be together again. There's a dreamlike quality as we follow these two fascinating women across time and space. Their story is not told linearly, but over the course of the play we get a real sense of their relationship as they reenact their first meeting, the moment they decided that they would be together for life, their work together publishing Gertrude's books, and Alice's life as she continued to live in their home until she was almost 90 years old. It's a quiet play with not much in the way of action, but more of a character study of these two women and their relationship.

Gertrude and Alice on a picnic in Italy
(Claudia Wilkins and Barbara Kingsley, photo by Michal Daniel)
The over 20 years of history that Claudia Wilkins (Gertrude) and Barbara Kingsley (Alice) have with the piece and their characters is evident. There's no acting visible, they just are these two women, fully and completely. Their wit, intelligence, vivacity, and devotion to each other jumps off the stage. Director Bain Boehlke has also designed a set that perfectly matches and enhances the tone of the piece, as per usual. Columns and arches create the appearance of five nested frames retreating into darkness at the back of the stage. Gertrude has her chair with some frames and books stacked around it, and Alice has her desk with papers and things. But they appear to be floating, not anchored in space, in the same way that the story is not anchored in time.

Gertrude Stein and a Companion is a beautiful play that somehow condenses 60 years of a relationship into just over 90 minutes (including an unnecessary intermission). With 8 productions spanning over 20 years, the Jungle has honed and polished this play to a lovely little gem (playing now through March 8).

Monday, January 26, 2015

"La Cage aux Folles" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

The best of times is now.
What's left of summer but a faded rose?
The best of times is now.
As for tomorrow, well, who knows?
So hold this moment fast,
And live and love as hard as you know how,
And make this moment last,
Because the best of times is now.*

La Cage aux Folles is such a heart-warming show. Despite all the glitz and glamour of the drag nightclub in which it is set, at its core it's a simple story about love, family, and having the courage to be who you are. Bloomington Civic Theatre plays up both sides of this show, with big production numbers featuring men (and a few women) in drag with glitzy costumes and sets, but a really sweet heart beating underneath it. As my companion stated, it's "sheer joy."

If you've seen the 1996 movie The Birdcage starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams you're familiar with the story, which began as a 1973 French play called La Cage aux Folles, and then became a 1983 Broadway musical written by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Jerry Herman (music and lyrics). La Cage tells the story of gay couple Georges and Albin. Georges runs the nightclub where Albin is the star, performing as his alter ego ZaZa. Georges' son Jean-Michel, whom Albin has helped raise, comes home to announce that he's engaged to Anne, the daughter of a conservative politician who wants to shut down all drag entertainment. The in-laws are coming to town, and Jean-Michel asks Albin to leave for the evening, instead inviting his birth mother to pretend that they're a "normal" family. Albin is understandably hurt that the man he considers his son is ashamed to introduce him to his fiance. He can't stay away, and poses first as "Uncle Al," and then, in drag, as Jean-Michel's mother. Of course the deception doesn't last, but they're able to convince Anne's father to give his consent with some good old-fashioned blackmail. Jean-Michel realizes what a mistake he made and tells Albin he thinks of him as his mother. And they live happily ever after, for "the best of times is now."

Georges and Albin
(Jim Pounds and Rich Hamson)
At the heart of this piece is the relationship between Albin and Georges, and BCT has found two perfect actors to portray them. Acclaimed costume designer Rich Hamson has come out of the costume shop and onto the stage in a glorious and heartfelt performance. Perhaps it's appropriate for a costume designer to play a role involving so many varied and fabulous costumes, but his performance is about so much more than just the costumes. It's a beautifully real and tender-hearted portrayal of a parent, lover, and performer who just wants to be who he is ("I Am What I Am") and love his family. As Georges, Jim Pounds has never looked or sounded more suave, and the two men have wonderful chemistry and portray such a beautiful and real relationship of an old married couple who still love each other despite, or because of, their eccentricities. Everyone in the supporting cast is great, especially Michael Terrell Brown who is delightfully over-the-top as Albin's butler, er... maid.

Joe Chvala directs this fabulous ensemble cast and choreographed the Cagelles' fantastic dance numbers. And the Cagelles are all stunning. In the exaggerated make-up common to drag performance (which they each apply themselves), it's difficult to tell the experienced drag performers from the men who are donning heels and a wig for the first time or the women who are thrown in just to keep the audience guessing. Benjamin Olsen's sets are big, bold, and colorful. Ed Gleeman has designed the over-the-top nightclub costumes, as well as some fabulous '70s street wear that includes bell-bottoms, super wide lapels, hippie dresses, and one stunning orange/green/gold jumpsuit that I covet.

With the recent passage of marriage equality in Minnesota, and increasingly, across the country, it's timely to see a show that's about two men who have created a long-lasting, loving, stable family. A family that may be a bit more flamboyant than most, but one that's a model of love, support, commitment, and acceptance. La Cage aux Folles is a lot of fun, it's really sweet, and it has a great message - a message of acceptance of all kinds of family, and of being proud to be who you are. Playing now through February 15, BCT shows have a tendency to sell out, so get your tickets now (a few discount tickets remain on Goldstar).

*This sentiment can also be stated as "No day but today," from Jonathan Larson's beautiful creation RENT, which was on my mind because I happened to see this show on the 19th anniversary of his death.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Calvin Berger" by Minneapolis Musical Theatre at the New Century Theatre

"Rare musicals. Well done." Minneapolis Musical Theatre lives up to their motto, having given us great productions of such lesser known musicals as Steven King's Carrie and the controversial Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Their second show this season is the 2006 musical Calvin Berger, loosely based on the classic French play Cyrano de Bergerac, set in a modern day high school. Instead of a sword-fighting poet with a big nose, this Cyrano is an insecure high school student named Calvin who thinks he has a big nose. Whether real or perceived, it keeps him from living the life he wants. It's a clever adaptation of a classic story, relating the still relevant themes of being true to yourself and wanting to be loved for who you are in a modern and accessible way. And while the non-Cyrano parts of the story are a bit cliche and the characters familiar stereotypes, it's charmingly delivered by a strong cast of four and makes for a fun and entertaining evening at the theater.

Calvin Berger is your typical high school nerd, smart and funny in his way but lacking in self-confidence, in this case because he thinks nose is too big. Isn't that always the way, we see our flaws first and think that everyone else sees them too, when really they're too busy with their own lives to notice. In fact we learn in the opening number that all of these characters, even the ones who appear to have everything, are insecure about something. Calvin's best friend is a girl named Bret, who secretly pines for him (a plot point that's familiar to children of the '80s). But Calvin only has eyes for the pretty popular Rosanna, who worries that she may never be anything more. When Rosanna asks Calvin to help her get to know the cute new guy Matt, he reluctantly agrees. Matt's insecurity is his inability to talk to girls, so like Cyrano does for Christian, Calvin gives Matt the words he lacks to help him woo Rosanna. The story diverges from the original (spoiler alert: nobody dies), and the truth is eventually revealed. Everyone learns that it's better to be who you are than pretend to be someone else, and is happier for it.

Matt and Calvin - "We're the Man!"
(Logan Greene and Gregory Adam, photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
The small cast allows for a greater focus on these four characters without the distraction of an ensemble. Director Joshua James Campbell brings out the best in the talented young cast; all four are extremely likeable and bring depth and color to roles that are familiar high school stereotypes. Gregory Adam is adorkable as the awkward Calvin, and has the most poignant moments of the show as he shows us Calvin's deep longing to be accepted. Logan Greene is perfect as the sweet but dumb Matt, and the two have a believable bromance that makes you think they kind of like and need each other, despite their odd arrangement. As Rosanna, Emily Madigan shows that she's more than just a great dancer, bringing a sweetness of voice and character to the role. Last but not least, Kecia Rehkamp is the quintessential funny best friend who wants to be more than just a sidekick. And happily, the two girls become friends in the end and overcome that tired cliche of fighting over a boy. All four actors have great voices singing these funny and clever, if not particularly memorable, songs, with some lovely harmonies in duet, trio, and quartet, accompanied by a four-piece band just barely visible behind the back wall of the set.

Calvin, Bret, and Rosanna in the home of the Cavaliers
(Gregory Adam, Kecia Rehkamp, and Emily Madigan,
photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
I was happy to see that they built out the usually wide and shallow stage, which can feel crowded and two-dimensional, to form a mini-thrust. It gives the characters more space to move around and even interact with the audience a bit as they hand out fliers for the big bachelor auction fundraiser. The set looks like a typical high school, with lockers and the high school colors painted on the floor (set by Darren Hensel). There's nothing noteworthy about the costumes, which is a good thing because these kids look like typical teenagers, each with a style specific to the character (costumes by Lori Maxwell, who doubles as the Music Director).

Calvin Berger is a really cute show, and I don't mean that in a condescending way; cute can be good and pleasant and everything you want sometimes. It's a sweet, charming, funny show, with a great young cast that is fun to watch. Playing at the New Century Theatre through February 15 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"The Color Purple" at Park Square Theatre

"I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love."

Alice Walker's 1982 novel The Color Purple is a story so beautiful, moving, inspirational, and epic that it needs to be seen and heard in as many formats as possible. If someone wants to turn it into a Saturday morning cartoon series I'm all for it, as long as it stays true to the spirit of the original. And the 2005 Broadway musical does that and more. I saw the Broadway tour in 2009 and wept like I never have at the theater, so overwhelming is the emotional impact of this story of a woman who is beaten down by life for so many years, yet somehow comes through it all and discovers her own strength, beauty, identity, and sense of self-worth, the emotional impact increased by the addition of music. Park Square Theatre is presenting the first local production of The Color Purple as part of an ambitious and exciting season that includes the addition of a second stage, partnership with theater companies and artists around town, and a greater commitment to diversity and the community. It's a wonderful statement, but more importantly, The Color Purple is a truly beautiful and moving production that brings to vivid life this epic and beloved American story.

The Color Purple is Celie's story, a young, poor, black woman living in rural Georgia in the early 20th century. At 14, she's had two babies by her father, who has "gotten rid of them" and then sells her to a widower who needs a wife to take care of his home and children. The only love Celie knows is that of her sister Nettie, from whom she is separated and not allowed contact. Celie is repeatedly told by everyone that she's ugly and worthless, so of course she believes it. But as the 40 year story plays out, she meets a few women who inspire her and teach her that life can be more than pain and drudgery. Celie's hard-working daughter-in-law Sofia is a strong woman who demands respect, the glamorous singer Shug Avery teaches Celie about love, and Nettie comes back into her life from far away. It's truly remarkable to watch this woman who has gone through so much choose to reclaim her life from those who have belittled and diminished her, and create a happy life with people and work that she loves, and a renewed faith in herself and the goodness of the world. In Celie's crowning moment, just after the woman she loves leaves her, she sings, "Most of all I'm thankful for loving who I really am. I'm beautiful. Yes, I'm beautiful, and I'm here!"

Shug and Celie (Regina Marie Williams and
Aimee K. Bryant, photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)
This brilliant cast of local talent is led by Aimee K. Bryant as Celie, who brings such humanity, vulnerability, and strength to the role. Jamaica Meyer is a newcomer to the Twin Cities theater scene, but she more than holds her own on this stage full of veterans. Her Nettie is ray of light and hope. T. Mychael Rambo is menacing as the cruel Mister, and his portrayal of Mister's breakdown and rebirth make me forgive him against my will. Thomasina Petrus is perfect for the role of Sofia, so strong and funny and just a delight to watch. Darius Dotch is her equal as Harpo, and the two portray perhaps the most loving and healthy relationship in the story. Their duet "Any Little Thing" is especially charming. Last but not least, Regina Marie Williams fully embodies the larger than life character Shug, and the Shug/Celie duet "What About Love?" is a highlight. The entire ensemble (which includes local favorites like powerhouse Jamecia Bennett and the super smooth Dennis Spears) is fantastic in multiple roles, but special mention must be made of the Greek chorus of gossipy church ladies - Ginger Commodore, Shirley Marie Graham, and Samia Butler - an absolute hoot as they patter in gorgeous and intricate harmonies.

The score is a mix of gospel, jazz, traditional African, uptempo playful numbers, and moving ballads, and sounds beautiful under the musical direction of Gary D. Hines (with new orchestrations by Denise Prosek to fit the score to a smaller six-piece orchestra). The sparse stage allows room for the story and characters, with just a few simple set pieces moved on and off the stage to hint at the location. There's also plenty of space for director/choreographer Lewis E. Whitlock III's creative and diverse dance numbers, including a working man's dance dance, lively church dances, and lovely African movement.

The Color Purple is a big Broadway style musical in a more intimate setting with a fantastic local cast. This is such a story of hope, resilience, faith (not in an overly churchy way - this is Alice Walker, a self-described "born again pagan"), community, and love. It's a truly moving and emotional experience to go on Celie's journey of self-discovery with her, led by this awesome cast and creative team. Head to downtown St. Paul between now and February 15 to be inspired, moved, and uplifted by Celie and friends.

 the cast of The Color Purple (photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Friday, January 23, 2015

"U/G/L/Y" at Intermedia Arts

Accomplished local actor Shá Cage is presenting a three-part series of original works around the idea of identity. Last night I was fortunate to witness the world premiere of the second piece in the series, entitled U/G/L/Y, at Intermedia Arts as part of their Catalyst program. It's a truly unique and original creation, combining the arts of movement, storytelling, music, video, poetry, and visual art to explore the idea of beauty, particularly in women, particularly in women of color, but relatable on some level to all of us who live in this world. Shá's performance is, as always, powerful and moving, and she leaves the audience with plenty to think about.

Shá tells the stories of many women, easily slipping into their skin and bringing each of them specifically to life on stage. The stories are varied, some playful, some devastating, all told with the rawness of truth. At first it's a bit unclear on the surface how all of the stories relate to each other, but in the end they all sort of fall together to inform this idea of ugly vs. beautiful, ideas that are really just social constructs most of with struggle to break free of on a daily basis. The piece also incorporates video of women speaking about what they see and think when they look in the mirror, thoughts which are their own yet feel universal. When we look in the mirror, our eyes are typically drawn to our flaws, things that other people might not even notice. But as the women in the video look deeper, they are able to see the beauty in themselves beyond the supposed flaws.

I was completely fascinated watching Shá create little pieces of art on the floor with what I thought was sand, but later learned is actually grits (I'm from Minnesota, I don't think I've ever seen uncooked grits before). I have no idea what it means, but it's beautiful to watch. She also uses movement and dance, the rhythm of speaking, recorded voice, and a live violinist (Katherine Pehrson, with recorded music by Chastity Brown) to further develop the theme. This is more than just theater, it's performance art. It doesn't all make sense from a literal viewpoint, but it's not supposed to, it's supposed to engender thoughts and feelings and emotions, which is exactly what it does (judging from my own reaction as well as the very responsive audience).

It's interesting that this show is playing the same weekend that Park Square is opening The Color Purple, a story about a woman who is told she's ugly from the time she's a young girl. Through her long life journey, she's eventually able to recognize and own her own beauty, identity, and place in the world, singing "Most of all, I'm thankful for loving who I really am. I'm beautiful. Yes I'm beautiful, and I'm here." Shá's piece speaks to this same idea in a really unique and profound way.

Only two performances of U/G/L/Y at Intermedia Arts remain, after which it will embark on a world tour.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"A Bright New Boise" by Loudmouth Collective at Open Eye Figure Theatre

Loudmouth Collective is closing their third season with another show that is firmly in their wheelhouse of smart, deep, intense, often funny, always thought-provoking, small cast, beautifully directed and acted plays. I've been with them since the beginning, when the surprisingly sweet and touching Gruesome Playground Injuries landed on my favorites list that year. Since then they've done a couple of stellar one-man shows, an absurd comedy, and a Fringe show about talking cats. A Bright New Boise fits in well with that group of plays and helps to further define Loudmouth's point of view, one that's definitely worth paying attention to. It's a beautifully complex play, at times funny, at times utterly devastating, and completely engrossing. I know it's only mid-January, but this is by far the best thing I've seen so far this year.

A Bright New Boise takes place in the break room of a Hobby Lobby in, yes, Boise. It doesn't take long to learn that new employee Will has a reason for being there - to reunite with his teenage son Alex, given up for adoption when he was a baby. Will has other secrets in his past that are slowly revealed throughout the course of the play, and is facing a big crisis of faith after the rapture cult he belonged to ended in tragedy. He's a broken man, trying to figure out a new way of living and having trouble letting go of the past. Having grown up in foster care, Alex has troubles of his own and isn't so willing to let Will in. He slowly agrees to, but on his terms, and protective older brother Leroy is there to intercede if need be. Will meets a new friend in fellow employee Anna, who tries to get him to open up. All of this drama is happening under the supervision of Pauline, who just wants to make this the best Hobby Lobby it can be and is frustrated when her employees' issues get in the way of that.

This isn't a play with a happy ending or really any sort of closure. It just ends, and life goes on. It's the kind of play where you can easily imagine these characters' lives occurring before, after, and outside of the space of the play. They all have lives fully lived, the details of which are merely hinted at in some cases, but the feeling of which is heavily present. The world of the play is so completely engrossing that intermission came as a shock, jarring me back to reality after being completely in this world. The play is long enough that it probably needs an intermission, but I wish it didn't because the typical intermission chatter and phone-checking just distracted me from this world and these people I found so fascinating.

The tone that director Natalie Novacek has set for the piece is so perfect, and walks that line between comedy and intense drama so well. I especially love how the scenes are carried into the scene changes. As the lights darken, the characters remain in the moment for a few breaths, before slowly picking up and moving towards the next scene. Nothing is forced or rushed, but plays out in its own time, with beautiful moments of silence and awkwardness. Open Eye features an adorably tiny stage with an arch, and usually things take place under and in front of the arch. But in this case the break room set is set behind the arch, giving the impression of peering through a peep hole into this perfectly specific and well-defined diorama of a world.

Anna Hickey, Spencer Harrison Levin, and Adam Whisner
This excellent cast is headlined by a beautifully subtle performance by Adam Whisner as Will. He's a quiet man with not a whole lot going on externally, but so much going on internally, all of it brilliantly conveyed by Adam in the hesitating way he speaks, the eye movements, the awkward way he moves around people. Will's past isn't fully explained until the end of the play, but it's clear from the moment we meet him that this is a man who's deeply damaged and lost. There's so much that's big and loud in theater, it's refreshingly lovely to see a performance that's so quiet but equally as dramatic and full of meaning.

The other star of the show is Spencer Harrison Levin as Alex. He's only a senior in high school (although a performing arts high school), but it's already obvious that he's a true talent. His performance as this troubled teen is so believable and natural, funny and heart-breaking. As Pauline, Karen Weise-Thompson is, as always, hilarious, providing much needed comic relief, but she also makes this woman who's proud of her work and her store real and not just a caricature. Rounding out the cast are Zach Garcia as Leroy and Anna Hickey as Anna, who also give great performances in these supporting roles.

Loudmouth Collective does consistently great work - smart choices, excellent casts, and cheap tickets - just $15 with special savings on some nights. The only thing I don't like about Loudmouth Collective is that they only do two shows a year with typically short runs. There are only eight performances of A Bright New Boise over two weekends. If you've never seen Loudmouth before, I highly recommend you check them out to see some smart, funny, thought-provoking, devastating, beautiful theater. This is the kind of show that will stay with you for a while.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The History Theatre's New Works Festival "Raw Stages"

I love history. I love my beloved home state of Minnesota. I love new works of theater. So of course there's nowhere else I'd rather be this week than in lovely downtown St. Paul for The History Theatre's "Raw Stages" new works festival! One of the unique and wonderful things about The History Theatre is that most of the work they do is new original commissioned plays and musicals. "Raw Stages" is an important part in their development process (two of the works in last year's festival have full productions this season - last fall's Radio Man and this spring's The Debutante's Ball). From the audience perspective, it gives you a sneak peek at what may be coming up in future seasons and gives you the opportunity to give feedback about what you'd like to see. I was lucky enough to attend all four readings, and all are wonderfully interesting and entertaining looks at important facets of Minnesota history. The History Theatre gathered a stellar group of actors and directors to breath life into these readings, making it easy to see the potential they all have to be great plays.

Stewardess by Kira Obolensky (cast: Tracey Maloney, Charlotte Calvert, Anna Sundberg, Mo Perry, and John Middleton)
I feel like I should have heard the name Mary Pat Laffey before, but I have not. Thanks to Kira Obolensky's new play, I now know that Mary Pat was a pioneer on the forefront of equal rights for women in the workplace. She was hired by Northwest Airlines as a stewardess in the late '50s, a time when it was perfectly acceptable to hire and fire women based on their weight, height, age, marital status, and hairstyle. It's so outrageous now it seems almost quaint, but it was an extremely unjust system that also did not pay or promote women as much as their male counterparts. Mary Pat joined the union and fought for changes, some of which were accomplished. But when working through the union no longer worked, she filed a lawsuit against the company that took 15 years to resolve and eventually ended in Northwest paying millions of dollars to Mary Pat and the other women who joined her in the lawsuit.

The play mostly takes place in various hotel rooms as the stewardesses talk about their life and work. In addition to Mary Pat, we follow a few of her friends, including naive farm girl Primmie, and wealthy Fran who aspires to be a pilot. The characters are well-defined and all have their arc as the story moves from 1958, through the '60s, and into the early '70s. It's similar to The Heidi Chronicles in that it follows a woman through the equal rights movement; it's one specific story that represents a larger, more universal story. The play is a bit talky, and I like talky plays, but it verges on pedantic at times. A full staging and a few scenes in other locations with other characters could add some of that dramatic punch. And is it wrong that I really want to see those uniforms, especially as they change over time?

Highwaymen by Josh Wilder (cast: Pearce Bunting, Stephen Yoakam, Allen Hamilton, and James A. Williams)
What's so interesting about the building of a highway?, you might ask. When that highway is the long anticipated and needed link between Minneapolis and St. Paul, and its construction destroys an important and close-knit African American community, it's more than interesting, its a brilliant example of the race and class issues that have long plagued this country. Just because we're well north of the Mason-Dixon line doesn't mean that Minnesota doesn't have ugliness in its history too. Josh Wilder has written a dramatic and compelling play that focuses on the (white) decision makers in the building of I-94 through the Rondo neighborhood in the late '50s.

Most of this play takes place in a city hall meeting room, with a few scenes in a Rondo barbershop. The four main characters are soon-to-be Deputy Commissioner of Highways Frank Marzitelli, St. Paul chief civil engineer George Shepard, retiring St. Paul city planner George Herrold, and Rondo resident, activist, and barber Timothy J. Howard (all historical figures, the latter combined a bit with Reverend Floyd Massey for dramatic purposes). The three city officials are attempting to finish the budget for the proposed highway when they're interrupted by a protest outside. Herrold invites one of the men in to plead his case. The three men have different reactions to his proposals, and reasons for wanting what they want. Herrold goes to Howard's barbershop to discuss things and is not welcomed with open arms. Each of the four men gets a monologue in which their character motivations are more fully explored. It's all much more compelling and dramatic than I'm making it sound. In addition to the race and class issues, the play makes some pretty profound statements about the price of progress (and who usually has to pay that price) and the way that technology advances at a rate faster than our ability to process and deal with it. Trust me, you'll be seeing more of this one.

Ernest & The Bull by Kevin Kautzman (cast: Bob Davis, Charity Jones, Charles Hubbell, Paul Rutledge, Aeysha Kinnunen)
I had no idea that the great American author Ernest Hemingway had any connection to Minnesota. But as we learn in this new play by Kevin Kautzman, he spent several months of the last year of his life at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, receiving ECT for depression and paranoia. Sadly, the treatments did not work and he committed suicide shortly after being released. This play weaves together dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations to create a picture of a talented but sick man.

This one was quite interesting and a bit confusing. I'm very curious how this would be staged; it would require much stage "magic" to accomplish the stage directions of people appearing and disappearing, or turning into bulls or beards, or scenes changing as if in a dream. The main characters are Ernest and his last wife Mary, at their home in Cuba and later Idaho. Ernest's colleague Hotch visits him to help with his book, but he also appears as a sort of narrator/hallucination, as does another aspiring writer from thirty years earlier. The tone is playful as the characters occasionally acknowledge they're in a play ("I hate the theater," mutters Hem). Unfortunately I couldn't stay for the post-show feedback session; I would have loved to have heard a bit more about the work and other people's thoughts. It's surreal and complex and fascinating.

Complicated Fun: The Minneapolis Music Scene by Alan Berks (cast: Brandon Brooks, Stephanie Bertumen, Nathan Cheesman, Dustin Bronson, Clarence Wethern, Erik Hoover, Anna Hickey, H. Adam Harris, Darrick Mosley; band: Nic Delcambre and Blake Foster)
Apparently there was some important and ground-breaking music happening in Minneapolis in the early '80s. Bands like The Replacements, The Suburbs, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, and The Jayhawks all got their start during this period. While I've heard of most of these bands, I'm not familiar with their music (I'm not nearly cool enough to be aware of that scene). Not to worry, this new play with music tells the story in a fun and entertaining way, regardless of any prior knowledge of the music. It's a story of a music community, a bar, a record store, musicians, and music lovers all coming together to create a new sound.

Playwright Alan Berks has done a great job constructing the play around the music. This is not your typical jukebox musical in which a story is made up and forced to fit within a group of songs. Rather it's a play with music, that tells the real story around the creation of the music and the community, with the music occurring organically - in a bar, party, or record store. In a world populated with real-life figures, two fictional characters, known simply as boy and girl, lead us through the story. They meet as kids, just wanting to listen to music. Each of their lives are changed in different ways by each other and the music. It's a sweet relationship, and these characters give the audience a way into this world. We also witness the evolution of First Avenue, from a club that helped to discover new bands, to a tourist destination for Prince fans, and beyond. The story moves from the club, to parties, to the next door record store where music nerds passionately debate the intricacies of their favorite records. Even though I'm not a fan of this music, and probably won't become one, I found this piece to be well-written, compelling, and great fun, especially in the hands of this fantastic cast. I look forward to seeing a fully staged production with a full band and the music more fully integrated into the story.

Monday, January 12, 2015

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" at Theatre in the Round

Muriel Spark's 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been ranked among the best English-language novels of the 20th century. In the late '60s it was turned into a play and movie (the latter starring Dame Maggie Smith as the title character, for which she won an Oscar). Theatre in the Round is presenting the play as part of their 63rd season (they're the oldest theater in Minneapolis, by the way). It's a fascinating look at a complicated woman, but in the end, I wasn't quite sure what to think about her.

Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at a private girls' school in Scotland in the '30s (an accent that the large cast accomplishes with varying degrees of success). But not just any teacher, she's a special teacher with her own ideas of what should be taught and how it should be taught. She focuses less on the prescribed curriculum and more on imbuing "her" girls with a sense of confidence and independence. She takes them on outings to museums, theaters, and the countryside, and favors telling romanticized stories from her past over teaching them history from books. But it's not all as rosy as it sounds. She also uses her students as pawns in her romantic entanglements with two fellow teachers, one a married man. As the girls progress through school, they remain under Miss Brodie's influence, for better or worse. She has left her mark on all of them, and some of them will pay the price.

I had a had time with the character of Miss Brodie; I wasn't sure if I was supposed to like her or not. In the end I decided I didn't like her. She talks a lot about educating her girls and forming them into the best they can be, but mostly what I saw was a woman reliving her youth through these vulnerable girls, regaling them with thrilling stories of her past, convincing them to do things like fight for a cause that maybe wasn't theirs, or "pose" for an artist, knowing full well what that would lead to. Several of the girls were bullying another girl, a fact she either was ignorant to or didn't care about. She gained their trust, brought them along on fun outings, treated them as confidantes, but wasn't there for them when they truly needed her. It seemed like a lot of talk that covered a lack of any real feeling for these young women.

Miss Jean Brodie (Anna Olson) with her girls
The young actors playing these young women influenced by Miss Brodie range in age from 14 to 23, and all are wonderfully real and in the moment. McKinnley Aitchison is a standout as Sandy, the one Miss Brodie singles out as her chief confidante, and believably portrays her transformation from teacher's pet to disillusioned young woman. As Jean Brodie, Anna Olson effectively conveys the complexities of the character. Maybe headmistress Miss MacKay was supposed to be the bad guy, but in the form of Mary Kay Fortier Spalding, I found her to be sympathetic and reasonable.

It's always fascinating to see how Theater in the Round deals with the "problem" of a 360 degree stage, and as per usual, it leads to some creative and well thought-out staging, in this case by director Dann Peterson on a set designed by John A. Woskoff. The teacher's desk and students' benches take up half of the stage, with the art studio a tiny but well-used raised space on the side, while other scenes take place in the open area.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie continues weekends through February 1.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

"Blithe Spirit" at Lyric Arts

On a cold and snowy winter evening, I made my way through the slow and busy highways and streets to Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in Anoka. It was a long and unpleasant drive - but this is Minnesota, that's what we do. Once inside the warm and inviting theater, I forgot all about the frozen snowy world outside as I was immersed in the ghostly antics of a sophisticated English gentleman and his two wives, one living and one dead. Lyric Arts' production of English playwright Noël Coward's classic comedy Blithe Spirit is funny and charming, with a perfect cast under the direction of Robert Neu, who sets an appropriate tone that's equally charming and silly, and spot-on set and costumes. i.e., it's a welcome respite from this cold midwinter.

In Blithe Spirit, Charles and Ruth Comdomine live a happy peaceful life in their summer home in the English countryside, despite having to train in a rather incompetent new maid Edith. All of this changes one evening when Charles invites a medium named Madame Arcati to the house to conduct a séance, as research for a new book he's writing. Charles and Ruth, along with their friends George and Violet whom they also invite to the séance, view the whole thing with skepticism, and struggle to hold back their laughter as Madame Arcati goes through her process of contacting the dead. After the business is finished, the party breaks up and everyone laughs at the amusement of the evening. Except for Charles, who has begun to hear and then see his late wife Elvira. Ruth believes her husband is ill or insane, until he convinces her of the reality of the ghost, when she becomes upset not just because there's a ghost in the house, but because Charles seems to enjoy being reunited with his former love. Ruth attempts to rid their lives of Elvira, but Elvira has plans of her own.

the love triangle that crosses death
(Jessica Scott, Ryan Nielson, and Allie Munson)
The word blithe is not commonly used in American speech (although occasionally in musicals: "blithe smile, lithe limb, she who's winsome, she wins him"). But this word, meaning "showing a casual and cheerful indifference considered to be callous or improper," is the perfect word to describe the ghostly Elvira. She floats into Charles and Ruth's life on a breeze, all smiles and giggles, and doesn't care about the disruption she's causing, so happy is she to be back in her home with her husband. This spirit is perfectly embodied by Allie Munson; her Elvira is a lovely and ethereal apparition, somehow charming despite the ruckus she's causing to our happy couple. As said couple, Ryan Nielson and Jessica Scott are perfectly charming and sophisticated as Charles and Ruth, until their life becomes a bit derailed upon the arrival of Elvira, and their voices and tempers raise in a properly English sort of way.

The show is extremely well cast from top to bottom, and everyone in the cast sports a deliciously exaggerated accent. While it does not appear that Madame Arcati is a role usually played by a man, in the case of Grif Sadow, it's an inspired choice. He's an absolute hoot as Madame Arcati goes through her strange rituals and trances, but without making the character a complete joke as it becomes obvious that she's for real. Last but not least, Hannah Weinberg is quite the scene-stealer as Edith, the maid who tries so hard to please but can't help bounding from one task to the next in a manner not at all matching the sophistication of her employers. She makes the most of every moment, drawing it out for maximum laughs, highlighted by a hilariously torturous clearing of the breakfast table.

Mark Koski's set is a very real-looking, charming, and detailed room in an English home (perhaps a drawing room, in Downton Abbey terms), complete with books on the shelves, a fireplace, a sofa and sitting area, a gramophone, lush curtains on the patio doors, and most importantly, a fully stocked bar. Samantha Fromm Haddow's '40s period costumes are all lovely and help to define each character, but Elvira's dress is the pièce de résistance. A pale grey that matches her delicately beautiful make-up, the light and layered dress floats around the stage in a perfectly ghostly sort of way.

"If you think that community theater in Anoka isn't good or popular, then you simply haven't seen it recently." So says Alan Berks in his editor's note on the newly revamped website Minnesota Playlist, and I couldn't agree more. Blithe Spirit is a great example of this; there's virtually no difference between this production and something you might see on a professional stage in Minneapolis. But do note the "popular" part of the above statement; Lyric Arts shows have a tendency to sell out their relatively few performances in a run, so make plans now (discount tickets available on Goldstar) to see this charming, funny, well-done escapist comedy (written in 1941 as an escape from war, it works as an escape from winter too).

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Nautilus Music-Theater's Rough Cuts: Excerpts from "Sweet Land"

Every month, Nautilus Music-Theater presents an evening of new works of music-theater in their "Rough Cuts" series. It could be just a selection of songs, or an entire new piece. To kick off 2015, "Rough Cuts" is featuring an excerpt from the new musical Sweet Land, based on the Minnesota-made film of ten years ago. This musical by the mostly local team of Perrin Post (book), Laurie Flanigan Hegge (book and lyrics), and Dina Maccabee (music) has been in development for a number of years. I was lucky enough to attend a reading of the piece last spring, and was happy to see that it does the lovely little movie justice, retaining the beautiful story and sweet, funny, nostalgic tone, while adding new original folk/Americana music to create something new. It reminds me a little of the musical Once, also based on a lovely little movie, in that it's an intimate musical with overlapping cast and musicians, with the kind of music not typically heard on Broadway. Sweet Land is a gem that I look forward to seeing shine onstage someday after just a bit more polishing.

Last night in Nautilus' Lowertown studio (and tonight at the Walker Community Church in Minneapolis), two of the creators were on hand with five talented singer/actors and musical director Matt Riehle to present eight songs from the show, including two new ones, and get audience feedback. As brought to life by the one and only Ann Michels as Inge, Dieter Bierbrauer as Olaf (if you're going to replace Robert Berdahl, Dieter is a great choice, just don't make me choose between them!), Bradley Greenwald as Frandsen, Tod Peterson as the pastor, and Keri Rodau in the ensemble, the music sounds gorgeous and only makes me long to see the full piece again! Fortunately another full reading is coming this spring, with a larger cast and band, and the addition of movement by Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan*. Check out the Sweet Land the Musical website or become a fan on Facebook to find out more about when and where you can see what I called the most promising new work of 2014. You can also read more of my thoughts on the movie and musical here.

Ann Michels, Keri Rodau, Tod Peterson, Dieter Bierbrauer, and Bradley Greenwald

*You can see more Brian and Megan's inventive and delightful dance storytelling in their show Trick Boxing later this month at Park Square Theatre.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

"2 Sugars, Room for Cream" at Park Square Theatre

Next Sunday, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, two of the funniest women in America, will host the Golden Globes. Until then, we have Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool, two of the funniest women in the Twin Cities, presiding over a delightful evening of comedy, friendship, and coffee. Their 2008 Fringe hit 2 Sugars, Room for Cream has gone through many incarnations, including stints at the New Century Theatre in 2012 and the Jerome Hill Theater in 2013, won an Ivey Award, and has now landed on Park Square Theatre's new Andy Boss thrust stage. Even though this is the third time I've seen it and many of the scenes and characters are familiar to me, it still makes me laugh until I cry, and marvel at the universality of life experiences, and the thing that binds us all together - coffee. From bad church basement coffee to the gourmet stuff at fancy coffee shops, it's a running theme in many of our lives and helps us get through the day, and the long cold winter. This show is a celebration of that, but more so a celebration of friendship and laughter.

2 Sugars, Room for Cream, written and performed by Shanan and Carolyn under the direction of Matt Sciple, is a sketch comedy made up of a dozen or so short vignettes all centered around coffee. Two women bonding over books at a coffee shop, sisters at a funeral, employees on a coffee break, two women who didn't like each other so much 20 years ago reconnecting at their high school reunion, a picky customer at a diner, a worried new mom being comforted by a stranger on a park bench, all of it happens over coffee. The funeral and reunion stories are revisited several times throughout the show, with the funeral story providing some of the more poignant moments as the sisters laugh, drink (something stronger than coffee), and cry through the big issues of life and death. While most scenes are two-character scenes, each woman also gets a solo scene, Shanan as a frazzled mom constructing an all too honest Christmas letter, and Carolyn as a woman recording a video for her unborn daughter encouraging her to be strong, confident, and smart.

After years of performing and fine-tuning the show, Carolyn and Shanan have developed a comfort level with each other and the material. They both come across as genuine in their characterizations and in their easy chemistry with each other. While the show is scripted, there does seem to be some room to play a little within the confines of the script. And there are a few musical moments as well, as the two duet on wistful, funny, original songs.

The set (designed by Sadie Ward) is just darling and much more elaborate than previous versions of the show. A coffee cart holds all the necessary refreshments in various forms, the chairs at the table are trimmed in pink, as is the bench in the back, and either side of the stage holds pink shelves littered with things our characters (and/or actors) like. Photos of inspirational women like Tina and Amy, Mindy, Lucy, Rosemary, and Barbra are mixed in with tchotchkes, Girl Scout cookies, and so many things I wanted to wander by and peruse the shelves for a good long while.

2 Sugars, Room for Cream is only playing for three short weeks, through January 18*. If you've never seen these two smart and hilarious women before, do yourself a favor and head on down to St. Paul, grab a cup of coffee, and lose yourself in laughter. And if you have seen them before, you don't need me to tell you how fabulous this show is and worthy of a second (third, fourth...) viewing!

*As seen in the bottom half of the above program, the Andy Boss stage will next be home to another completely delightful and unique show, Trick Boxing, in which husband and wife dance team Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan play multiple characters and tell a charming story using dance, puppets, and other innovative theatrical tricks. Last seen locally at the Guthrie in 2012.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

"The Misanthrope" at Bryant Lake Bowl

Misanthrope: noun, a person who dislikes humankind and avoids human society.

Such is the title character of 17th century French playwright Molière's most popular comedy The Misanthrope. In a new adaptation by the show's director Adrian Balbontin, based on the translation by Robert Cohen, this cantankerous character is re-imagined as a New York fashion designer. The play opens, at the informal setting of the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater, with a fashion show. Musicians accompany the fashion show and provide interludes between the five short acts of the play. All of this adds to Molière's biting social commentary, heard in delicious rhyme, to create a thoroughly entertaining evening and a great way to jump into the 2015 theater year!

Alceste is the titular misanthropic designer (Sam Pearson, appealing in a Benedict Cumberbatch sort of way) surrounded by a group of characters he barely tolerates, being too quick to point out the faults in everyone, including himself. He's an idealistic man who expects the best in people and society, and is constantly frustrated when they don't live up to his high standards. But despite himself and his ideals, he can't help but love Celimene (a charming Devon Cox), a flighty and flirtatious gossip with many suitors (of all genders and persuasions). Celimene assures Alceste that they mean nothing, and he's the one she truly loves. But he can't believe her, and when given proof of her dalliances, he's devastated, but then forgives her and begs her to leave this world and live with him away from distasteful society. When Celimene is unwilling to leave the life and society she loves, Alceste walks off into the sunset, alone.

This clever adaptation name-drops designer such as Louis Vuitton and Isaac Mizrahi, and feels subtly modern. The talented young cast handles the difficult rhyming dialogue with ease and makes it sound natural, with occasional winks at the audience when it stretches for the rhyme. It's all done in a mostly light-hearted manner, except for a few tense scenes when Alceste's anguish at his predicament is palpably felt.

I'm not sure what genre of music combines a ukulele and mandolin with a trumpet and bongo drums, but the result is quirky and whimsical and wistful, setting a perfect tone for the show. Joe Scheller (who introduces the show and occasionally interacts with the cast) and Maya Elena Baglien add their lovely vocals, and there's a fun interplay between cast and band, as Alceste (or one of the other characters) snaps his fingers to call the band to play when the conversation is over.

When you're setting a play in the fashion world, wardrobe is important, and costume designer Jenna Rose Graupman rises to the task. Each character has a specific style, from Alceste's neat suit to Philinte's hoody, from Eliante's mousy look to Celimene's series of pretty party dresses you might see on [insert name of current female pop star], creating an eclectic mix that's a feast for the eyes, as the music and dialogue is a feast for the ears.

This delightful Misanthrope continues to spew his discontent through January 17 at Bryant Lake Bowl, with 7 and 10 pm shows lasting a perfect 90 minutes, and full menu and bar service during the show (which personally I find a bit distracting, but does contribute to the fun and relaxed atmosphere).

Most Popular Posts of 2014

My most viewed post this year was my annual Fringe Festival must-see list. My Fringe wrap-up also makes an appearances in the top 15, along with two of the shows I saw on Broadway, four Lyric Arts productions, both Chanhassen musicals, two Theater Latte Da shows, and various other shows at theaters big and small.
  1. 2014 Minnesota Fringe Must-See List
  2. The Little Mermaid at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
  3. Stop Kiss by Fortune's Fool Theater at nimbus theatre
  4. Cabaret by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre
  5. RENT at Lyric Arts
  6. Godspell at Lyric Arts
  7. Picnic at Lyric Arts
  8. 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival Wrap-Up
  9. Hello Dolly! at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
  10. Cabaret by Roundabout Theatre Company at Sudio 54 on Broadway
  11. Cinderella by Mounds View Community Theatre at Irondale High School
  12. Young Frankenstein at Lyric Arts
  13. The Velocity of Autumn at the Booth Theater on Broadway
  14. Our Town by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater
  15. Jonah and the Whale by 7th House Theater at the Guthrie Theater

In June of 2014 I began sharing my writing on Broadway World Minneapolis. You can see all of my BWW work here, and even sign up for email notifications.  My most popular articles last year were:
  1. BWW Reviews: The Ordway's Local Production of the New Musical A CHRISTMAS STORY is a Charming, Funny, Nostalgic Look at Holiday Memories
  2. BWW Reviews: The Guthrie Theater and Lyric Arts Present Two Different Versions of the Heartwarming A CHRISTMAS CAROL
  3. BWW Reviews: The Guthrie Theater's Gorgeous New Production of MY FAIR LADY is a Musical with Style and Substance
  4. BWW Reviews: RADIO MAN, A New Play by Garrison Keillor, Captures Everything You Love About A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION and More

Thursday, January 1, 2015

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things in 2014 Twin Cities Theater

Happy New Year my fellow theater lovers! 'Tis the season when we look back and celebrate the year that was, while looking ahead to an even better year to come. And what a year 2014 was! In my 4th full year of blogging I saw more shows than ever before: over 150 shows, representing over 60 local theater companies at over 50 venues around town (not counting the 37 Fringe shows I saw and the seven shows I saw on my week-long NYC trip in April). I know I'm often accused of being "nice" or "not writing anything negative," but I truly do enjoy pretty much everything I see. Some shows of course I love more than others, and that's what this post is about. I'm not saying they're the best shows of the year, but they're the ones that stayed with me the most, because they made me laugh, or cry, or think, or challenged me, or comforted me, or caused me to see something in a new way. I decided to present them in categories this year, and in no particular order. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

Without further ado, here are a few of my favorite things.

My favorite musicals:
  • I've been a fan of the Ordway's Broadway Songbook series since its inception a few years ago, so it's about time I mentioned it in one of these year-end wrap-ups. This series of entertaining and informative lessons on musical theater history showcases some of the area's best singer/actors performing songs from a particular theme or composer. This year's excellent selections were great American composer George Gershwin, lyricist team Comden and Green, and Broadway's first 100 years. Next up: "Rock and Roll on Broadway," April at the Ordway (get your tickets now, these shows have a tendency to sell out).
  • In another brilliant year for Theater Latte Da, which also included a lovely and folky music-infused production of Our Town and an outstanding performance by Sally Wingert in Master Class, the highlight was their first show. Cabaret was presented as part of the "Broadway Re-imagined" series with Hennepin Theater Trust, and it was everything Broadway should be, but local! A fabulous cast led by Tyler Michaels' stand-out performance as the Emcee (the first of many for him this year), a fantastic on-stage band, sets, costumes, choreography, everything combined to make a nearly perfect show. As I wrote at the time, "There is not one single thing that I would change about the show, other than extending it so that I could spend the rest of my life sitting in the Pantages Theatre experiencing the beautiful and tragic world of Cabaret."
  • I was planning to put 7th House Theater's inventive stripped-down production of Little Shop of Horrors on this list until a few weeks ago, when I saw their original musical creation Jonah and the Whale. Featuring original music written by company member David Darrow and super talented local musician Blake Thomas, with a bittersweet book by Tyler Mills, I wrote, "It's everything I want theater to be - fresh, innovative, delightful, heart-breaking, inspiring, genuine, and epic."
  • This summer, Mu did Sondheim, in a big and beautiful way. This is how I described their production of A Little Night Music on Park Square's stage: "The music sounds gorgeous, the costumes are luscious, the show is funny but a little sad too, and the cast is fantastic (and by the way, they also happen to be Asian-American). It's another gorgeous production of a classic."
  • Ten Thousand Things' musicals are like no other. In their trademark bare bones style, everything is stripped down, including the orchestra. But somehow that makes the music more organic to the story; there is no separation between big splashy dancey song and the dialogue, it's just a continuous flow of mesmerizing storytelling, e.g., The Music Man: "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. I've seen a dozen Ten Thousand Things shows over the last several years and love everything they do, but this show is my favorite. So utterly charming, delightful, sweet, funny, and moving, it's a perfectly executed concept."
  • The big musical event this summer was the Guthrie's practically perfect production of the beloved Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady. The nationally cast lead actors (who were all pitch-perfect) were backed by abundant local talent in supporting roles and the ensemble. I wrote that it was "so full of life and energy and dance and music," a truly joyous experience.
  • Next to Normal is a brilliant piece of music-theater, and that's just not me talking, it won a Pulitzer. This fall, Bloomington Civic Theatre took a break from the large-cast feel-good classic musical that they do so well (see: Guys and Dolls) to bring this small-cast intensely dramatic and moving rock musical to their stage. Anita Ruth, queen of the pit orchestra, this time directed an onstage rock band and the six-person cast sang their guts out, in a beautifully heart-breaking way.
  • Speaking of rock musicals, there is Passing Strange. Mixed Blood Theater's production of this short-lived but critically acclaimed Broadway musical was absolutely thrilling, and featured a breakout performance by Nathan Barlow (who broke even further out as the title character in Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, more on that a bit later). I called it "a completely unique creation that comes from the heart, features an awesome rock score, and is wildly entertaining, poignant, funny, and relevant."
  • Last but not least, I'm always thrilled to see any performance of my favorite musical RENT, and even more so when it's as well done as Lyric Arts production was this summer. Featuring a wonderful ensemble cast, great band, and cool set design, simply put, "Lyric Arts has done Jonathan Larson proud. I can think of no higher praise."

My favorite plays:
  • It was another great year at the Jungle (and also happens to be founding Artistic Director Bain Boehlke's last in that position), including the engaging one-woman show Shakespeare's Will, the heart-breaking The Heiress, the wacky The Mystery of Irma Vep, and the sweet and touching On Golden Pond. But perhaps my favorite was the outrageous dark comedy Detroit, featuring a perfect foursome in Angela Timberman, John Middleton, Anna Sundberg, and Tyson Forbes as neighbors in anywhere, America. "The Jungle never lets me down and this is a perfect example of why - a smart, funny, relevant play, fantastic cast, and perfect execution of difficult technical elements."
  • Frank Theater and Irish playwright Enda Walsh seem to be made for each other. Misterman was on my favorites list last year, and New Electric Ballroom was one of my favorites this year. Frank beautifully brought to life the small, sad, and disturbing world of three Irish sisters trapped in the past and the fishmonger who's their only contact to the outside world. In other words, "Frank once again does beautiful work with this weird, challenging, disturbing, completely engrossing, crazy brilliant play."
  • In the cold, dark basement of the Soap Factory, Theater Coup d'Etat created a hauntingly beautiful experience with One Flea Spare, about a handful of people trapped by the plague in 17th century London. So real and raw and intense was the experience, I still get chills just thinking about it. "You can't ask for much more than that from theater - a beautifully written, thought-provoking, disturbing play with wonderfully real and raw performances by the small cast in a space that adds to the tone of the show, that has a lasting impact on the audience."
  • Torch Theater's production of the new play Prints, by ubiquitous local actor John Middleton, was just plain fun. This very funny and at times chilling gangster story featured a fantastic cast, sharp and clever writing, a local connection (the 1933 kidnapping of St. Paul tycoon William Hamm), and spot-on set and costumes. Pure entertainment.
  • 2014 feels like the year that Yellow Tree Theatre was deservedly recognized for the great work they've been doing in a strip mall in the suburbs. After winning two Ivey Awards for their fast and funny production of The 39 Steps, they opened their new season with a lovely, sad, beautiful production of The Rainmaker, featuring Ivey winners and YTT newcomers Peter Christian Hanson and director Craig Johnson (who, BTW, also directed Prints). "It's funny and sweet, hopeful and devastating, a prime example of the beautiful theater that Yellow Tree has been doing for going on seven years, made only richer by the influx of talent from the larger Twin Cities theater scene."
  • In their first year without a permanent home, Gremlin Theater produced two gems, as they are wont to do. Tennessee Williams' A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur found a home in an apartment next to Open Eye, and was funny and a little tragic. But A Rocket to the Moon, at the New Century Theatre, was the one that really got to me. "It's a tragic love story set in a dentist office in 1938, but it's really about a handful of complex characters that we grow to know and care about over the course of a few hours despite, or perhaps because of, their flaws, all so beautifully and vulnerably brought to life by this excellent cast."
Most heart-wrenching: Failure: A Love Story was not only my favorite Fringe show of the 37 I saw this year, but also one of my favorite shows of the year. "Director Joshua James Campbell and this beautiful eight-person cast have created the perfect tone for the show, walking that delicate line between lighthearted quirky comedy and heartbreaking and heartwarming love story. This show is everything I want from a Fringe show, really everything I want from theater - funny, quirky, whimsical, musical, poignant, touching, surprising, moving, and utterly heartbreaking. I was reduced to a weepy mess at the end of this show because it touched me so deeply in so many ways with its true and beautiful depiction of love in its many forms. 'Just because something ends doesn't mean it wasn't successful.'"

Best one-woman show: Sally Wingert has had a pretty remarkable year in a remarkable career. Perhaps most remarkable was her portrayal of an 80-year-old Jewish woman telling her story in Minnesota Jewish Theatre's Rose. She just sat there in someone's living room and talked to the audience of about 40, and completely transported us to her world. Good news - if you missed this Ivey award-winning show, you can catch one of the encore performances this January. It is "inspirational, horrifying, funny, charming, disturbing, brutally honest, and entirely compelling."

Best two-hander: In Pillsbury House Theatre's Gideon's Knot, Aditi Kapil and Laura Esping played the mother and teacher of a 5th grade boy who has recently died. The interaction between these two women played out in real time, and both actors' performances were so real and raw it was almost painful to watch. It was intense, gripping, extremely compelling theater.

Best pairing of two plays in repertory: Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead are just begging to be performed in rep, aren't they? Lucky for us The Acting Company complied, showing us two very different but intricately related sides of the popular story of the doomed prince at the Guthrie this spring. The same story played out on the same stage with the same cast playing the same characters, the latter play smart and hilarious as only a Tom Stoppard play can be, the former familiar play seen with new eyes. John Skelley gave a doubly great performance by showing us two sides of Hamlet, and the brilliant comedy duo Grant Fletcher Prewitt and Ian Gould were like the Abbot and Costello of Shakespeare. Shakespeare shouldn't be this fun.

Best physical theater: Transatlantic Love Affair does theater like no other company. With just the actors on a bare stage with no set or props, they create a world and invite the audience into it. Early this year they remounted their Fringe hit from a few years ago, a very loose retelling of the Cinderella story called Ash Land, and it was as lovely and moving as the first time I saw it. Coming up: the remount of another Fringe hit, These Old Shoes, at Illusion Theater in January.

Guthrie highlights: I've been a Guthrie season subscriber for over ten years, and I'm never disappointed by what the cornerstone of this theater community has to offer. In addition to the aforementioned My Fair Lady, highlights this year include the thought-provoking conversation in Freud's Last Sessionthe inspirational The Mountaintopthe Southern family dramedy Crimes of the Heartthe super fun Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spikethe charming and innovative The White Snakethe gripping drama A Steady Rainand the highly entertaining The Cocktail Hour, which earned me my very first Guthrie quote.

Best use of location: Tiger Lion Arts' Nature was something truly unique this year. An "outdoor walking play," this lovely cast shared the real life friendship of Emerson and Thoreau, played out in the most perfect setting - the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Walking through the fields and flowers, hearing the birds chirping overhead, watching this story of friendship and communion with nature, was nothing less than magical and mystical and grand. "For the song of nature is everywhere if we take the time and listen hard enough."

Best completion of a trilogy: This trilogy doesn't involve hobbits and dwarves and elves, but it's even more compelling. Three years ago, Pillsbury House Theatre presented the first of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Brother/Sister plays, which tell universal stories of love, loss, family, and relationships through a specific set of characters in Louisiana. In the Red and Brown Water was followed by The Brothers Size in 2012, and this fall, we finally saw the conclusion in the next generation of characters - Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. It's an epic undertaking, played out over three years, but the conclusion was oh so satisfying.

Best old-fashioned comedy: There's a reason Neil Simon's 1965 comedy The Odd Couple was made into a sitcom; it's a veritable joke factory. Bloomington Civic Theatre staged this classic with a dream team of Sam Landman as the cigar-smoking, sarcastic, sloppy, gruff Oscar and Wade Vaughn as the sensitive, fastidious, tidy, emotional Felix. With a stellar supporting cast and a detailed set design, it was like watching the best TV sitcom on stage.

Most promising new work: I love attending readings, it feels like you're getting a sneak peek at something new and even participating in the development process, as many readings conclude with a feedback session. My favorite new work in development this year was the new musical Sweet Land, based on the 2005 Minnesota-made movie. Last spring I wrote: "Sweet Land is such a special little movie, a small story but one that's so moving and timeless and beautiful. The musical is everything I hoped it would be, retaining what was so special about the movie and its wistful, funny, romantic tone, and only adding to it with the wonderful new original music of the Americana style that I love so well." The development process continues with a selection of songs presented as part of Nautilus Music-Theater's Rough Cuts Series next week.

Most thrilling set revelation: nimbus theatre's Ghost Sonata, a delightfully bizarre and surreal Strindberg play, featured an unforgettable moment involving the set. At the beginning of the third and final act, the large formidable wall that was the backdrop for the first two acts fell forward in a slow, graceful, and powerful swoosh that literally and figuratively blew my hair back, revealing a floral wonderland behind it. The play also featured great acting and lovely haunting original music, but it was this one moment that is one of the most memorable of the year.

Most devastating experience: Presented in rep with another war play at the History Theatre, Lonely Soldiers: Women at War in Iraq was a deeply affecting experience. At the time I wrote, "After seeing this play I was completely devastated. I had a hard time shaking it. It was one of the most powerful experiences I've had at the theater in quite some time. Because it's not just theater, and it's not just history (both of which the History Theatre does so well), it's about very real and devastating issues facing women in the military." One of the beautiful things about theater is that it can give voice to people whose stories are not heard often or loudly enough, such as the real stories of these brave women.

Best football play for people who don't like football: I haven't watched a football game, in person or on TV, since I was forced to go to games in high school because I was in the marching band. But like one of my favorite TV shows Friday Night Lights, Mixed Blood Theatre's Colossal was not really about football. It was a gut-wrenching story of a young man whose expected future was taken away from him, all told in an innovative way within the confines of four 15 minute quarters and a ticking clock, and with great athleticism and grace.

Most ambitious programming: Park Square Theatre opened their second stage this fall and began a season of nearly twenty productions, both their own productions and collaborations with other theaters around town, and a commitment to greater diversity and outreach to youth. It's exciting to see this theater expansion in lovely downtown St. Paul, and I look forward to spending more time there in the coming years.

Most exciting new theater company: After 7th House Theater's fantastic production of Hair in the summer of 2013, I figured there was a 50/50 chance that we'd see them again. After all, their name comes from a Hair lyric, so maybe they just came together for that one show and would be a one-hit wonder. But this group of young, talented, smart, creative, ambitious theater artists returned this year with not one but three innovative and forward-thinking productions: Cinephelia, a smart and sexy four-person drama staged in an apartment building; an inventive production of Little Shop of Horrors, in which the plant was represented by a cardboard box and an overhead projector was used to illustrate points; and last but not least, their first original creation - the lovely new musical Jonah and the Whale (see above). It seems these kids are here to stay, and I couldn't be happier about it or more excited to see what they do next year.

So there you have it - a few (OK, more than a few) of my favorite things this year. 2014 was also the year that I cut back my hours at my day job so that I would have more time to spend doing what I love - going to the theater and sharing my thoughts and experiences on this here blog. I make no money doing this, other than free theater tickets (thanks to all of the theaters that offered me press comps this year!), but it makes my life fuller and richer and happier. Looking back over this past year, I am filled with gratitude for all of the amazing theater I experienced, the wonderful and talented people I met, and the fact that I was able to share it all with you. I would love to hear your thoughts on my choices, and your own favorite things this year, in the comments section below. Here's to an even better 2015!