Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Extremities" by Dark & Stormy Productions at Grain Belt Warehouse

With their sixth production in the three-year life of the company, Dark & Stormy once again delivers a short, intense, well-acted and directed play in an unconventional space. But Extremities has none of the dark humor that could be found in some of their past shows. It's all violence and drama and complex moral questions. This 1982 Broadway play turned 1986 movie starring Farrah Fawcett explores the weighty themes of sexual violence, power, and justice. There's no clear winner in this story, no obvious right and wrong, just a lot of grey area, where most of us live. Each of these four characters, beautifully portrayed by this excellent cast, is at times sympathetic and at times infuriating in their words and choices. More than 30 years after it was written, Extremities is as relevant and topical as ever.

I don't want to say too much about the plot because you really need to watch it unfold unspoiled, but it centers around a woman named Marjorie who is attacked and nearly raped by a stranger in her home, until she's able to gain the upper hand with plans of enacting justice on her attacker. Her two roommates come home to find an injured man tied up, and aren't sure what to believe. The three women have very different perspectives on the situation, and it's fascinating to watch them struggle with what to do. Terry is scared, then becomes annoyed and doesn't want to sacrifice for Marjorie. Patricia applies her social work techniques to talk everyone through it and try to work out the best possible solution. Marjorie is just trying to survive in the only way she knows how. The attacker-turned-victim tries to sweet talk each of them in turn to get away, belying the monster we meet in the beginning of the play.

Emily Bridges, Sara Marsh, and Tracey Maloney
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Smart young director Mel Day brings a clarity to the murky waters of the play and works well with the four-person cast, each of whom brings their A game. Artistic Director Sara Marsh gives a brave and raw performance as Marjorie, going from a terrified woman at the worst moment in her life, to taking control of the situation, and turning into an unforgiving force. Also excellent as the two roommates are Tracey Maloney (a familiar face on Twin Cities stages) and Emily Bridges (yes, she's Beau's daughter, but also a welcome newcomer to the local theater scene). But perhaps most impressive is James Rodriguez as Marjorie's would-be rapist, somehow bringing some humanity to the role. He makes this man truly terrifying during the attack, then charming and polite as he tries to talk his way out of it, and finally, he's absolutely devastating as this criminal faces what he's done.

The play is staged in Dark & Stormy's temporary new home in the Grain Belt Warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis. The stage is not so much a stage as a living room in a corner of the intimate space, with just a few rows of chairs on two sides. You're right there in the room with these characters and inside their dilemma. The attack scene is brutal and terrifying to watch, with intricate fight choreography (by Annie Enneking) well performed by James and Sara in a way that's almost too real, especially when viewed up close and personal. There are some nifty stage magic tricks that make the results of the violence visible in a very realistic way.

I'm not sure that the way we talk about rape has changed all that much in 30 years. Hopefully it's more acceptable to talk about it at all now (see also Bill Cosby), but unfortunately we still hear talk of blaming the victim because of how she dresses or acts around men, and the difficulties of getting justice through the legal system in what sometimes amounts to he said/she said. At its best, theater can start a conversation about important, relevant, difficult issues, and that's what this play does, without offering easy answers. Extremities continues through September 19 (Dark & Stormy shows tend to sell out in these small spaces, so get your tickets in advance).

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Blood Brothers" - A Reading by Second Fiddle Productions

As far as I know, Second Fiddle Productions is a one-of-a-kind theater company in this town of 70+ theater companies. They are exclusively dedicated to producing one-show-only readings of rare and unusual musicals. Founded by the talented Ruthie Baker (currently a resident of River City at the Guthrie), the company is now in their second year and I finally was able to go to one of their Monday night readings - the 1983 West End hit Blood Brothers. After just eight hours of rehearsal, this ten-person cast full of the Twin Cities top music-theater talent breathed such incredible life into this script and score that I wonder why it isn't produced more often.

Blood Brothers was is set in and was first produced in Liverpool. The titular brothers are twins separated at birth when their poor single mother is convinced into giving one of them to her wealthy and childless employer. Despite their very different lifestyle, the boys meet on the streets of Liverpool and become fast friends, each admiring and envious of what the other possesses. But as they grow up, the extreme difference in their situations becomes more evident as one brother has a successful career and the other turns to crime to feed his young family. But in the end what could come between these best friends and unknowing twins? A woman, of course, and the fight over her results in the death of both brothers.

The story ends tragically but there is fun and humor along the way. I'd never heard any of the songs before but I think the score is great, with an '80s English musical sort of sound. I love how the comparisons to Marilyn Monroe turn from joyful to sad, as does the dancing song. The recurring theme of the devil at your door and the superstition about bad luck with new shoes on the table casts a dark cloud on the show, reminding us of the upcoming tragedy even through the happy times and good humor.

Since this is a reading, I'm not supposed to write a review (although I'm not sure that what I usually write are really reviews), so I'm not going to tell you how amazing this cast is and how incredible and fully formed their performances were even though they only rehearsed for eight hours and were often reading from the book. I'm especially not going to tell you how fabulous Jen Burleigh-Bentz was as the mother, or how adorable Eric Morris and Reid Harmsen were as the brothers, or what a great job Josh Campbell and Nic Delcambre did as Director and Music Director/accompanist, respectively. Nope, I'm not going to tell you that, but I am going to tell you that if you're interested in expanding your musical theater knowledge by watching top-notch local talent "read" a musical you may never have heard of before, keep your eye on Second Fiddle. Their final reading of this year is The Most Happy Fella in October, with their third season announcement coming soon. Stay tuned to their Facebook page for details.

Monday, August 24, 2015

"Escape from Alcina's Island" by Mixed Precipitation at Falcon Heights Community Garden

For another installment of summer outdoor theater in Minnesota, we have Mixed Precipitation. Every summer they deliver something they like to call a "picnic operetta," which is just what it sounds like - a little light opera with food. Perhaps the "mixed" in this company's name refers to the mixture of food, music, theater, and the outdoors, perhaps it refers to the mixture of classic operetta with pop music. Either way it's a fun, charming, delightful, and yummy example of the outdoor theater that can be had in Minnesota. And even better - they travel around to area parks and gardens, so you can likely find a performance near you.

Handel's opera Alcina, about a seductive sorceress (Carolyn Cavadini) who lures Ruggiero (Dan Piering) away from his beloved Bradamante (Maggie Lofboom) with the help of her sister Morgana (Lizz Windnagel), has been transformed into a story of truckers on the road (adaptation by Director Scotty Reynolds and Music Director Marya Hart). This allows them to bring in some great old Country-Western road and heartbreak songs like "Six Days on the Road," "Heartaches by the Number," "The Race is On," and the classic George and Tammy duet "We're Gonna Hold On." It's great fun to hear these songs played by the four-piece classical/country orchestra, interspersed with Handel's lovely music sung mostly in Italian (with some surtitles charmingly rolled out by hand on a scroll to the left of the stage).

Morgana's Melon Margarita
There's nothing serious about this show, except that this cast can seriously sing. The show is loose and playful, performed with great enthusiasm by the large ensemble which includes several children and teens. Their Western attire adds to the fun and informality of this operetta. The acoustics aren't always great with the wind and the nearby soccer game, but that's part of the charm and spontaneity of outdoor theater.

Alcina's Antipasti
And then there's the food (created by Nick Schneider and Kimlinh Bui). The five courses are announced by the cast and somehow worked into the plot, usually as Alcina offers her guests hospitality. Each of the courses is a perfect little bite of flavor, all of them vegetarian and some of them vegan (make sure to ask about any dietary needs). Plates are passed among the crowd seated on the ground or in camp chairs as the show continues. So come hungry (but not too hungry, they are small bites).

Mixed Precipitation offers a unique, fun, and summery opportunity to enjoy good food and entertaining music-theater in your neighborhood park. I know it's mid-August, but summer in Minnesota isn't over yet so be sure to get in this last taste of outdoor theater before the snow falls! Performances continue at parks and gardens around the Twin Cities area and beyond - see their website for the full tour schedule.

the charming scene at the Picnic Operetta - the race is on!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

"Becoming Dr. Ruth" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at Highland Park Center Theater

Everyone knows Dr. Ruth, the famous sex therapist and '80s TV and radio icon. But what do we really know about her, other than that she's diminutive, heavily accented, able to speak frankly about formerly taboo subjects, and always grinning and cheerful? The new play Becoming Dr. Ruth reveals just what a fascinating life she's lead as a young girl orphaned by the Holocaust, never forgetting the importance of education instilled in her by her father, or the love and support of her mother and grandmother. A true survivor, she forged a successful new life for herself and became the Dr. Ruth we know today. This funny and poignant one-woman show does a wonderful job of creating a portrait of the woman behind the icon.

Playwright Mark St. Germain (see also Freud's Last Session) has written Dr. Ruth's life story as a conversation between Dr. Ruth and the audience. There's no fourth wall, as she candidly speaks directly to the audience, saying "I love to go out to the theater, today, the theater comes to me!" The play is set in 1997 as Dr. Ruth is packing up the apartment she's lived in for over 30 years, triggering a flood of memories that she shares with the audience. Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1928, she recounts her days as part of the Kindertransport to Switzerland, moving to Palestine and fighting in the Israeli War of Independence, her three marriages and two children, and her endless pursuit of education, eventually becoming sex therapist to the nation through her radio and TV shows. It's a life both ordinary and extraordinary, filled with unspeakable tragedies as well as everyday struggles of love, family, and career.

Miriam Schwartz as Dr. Ruth (photo by Sarah Whiting)
When I first read that 25-year-old Miriam Schwartz was cast as the 69-year-old Dr. Ruth, I have to admit, I was skeptical. But any doubt is erased within minutes as Miriam takes the stage in full Dr. Ruth mode, and has the audience in the palm of her hand for 90 minutes. She perfectly captures this iconic woman's indomitable spirit, boundless cheerfulness, energetic shuffling walk, and frank and honest sex advice delivered in that familiar German-Israeli-French-American accent. Miriam has completely transformed herself and is an absolute delight to watch as she brings Dr. Ruth to life before us with humor and poignancy.

Of course, a one-person show is never just that, and Miriam has great support in director Craig Johnson, who keeps her busy moving around the apartment set, packing up memories; scenic designer Kirby Moore who has created a cluttered, homey, lived in set; and dialect coach Foster Johns to help her get the accent down pat.

This summer show opens Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's 2015-2016 season and runs for just seven performances. Catch it while you can* to see a funny, poignant, sharply written play about America's most trusted sex therapist who turns out to be much more than what she seems, with a wonderful performance by Miriam Schwartz as the star of this one-woman show.

*Note that Ford Parkway is closed between the theater and Snelling, so plan accordingly and allow time to navigate detours.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Eastland" at Renegade Theater Company

Have you ever heard of a ship called the SS Eastland? Neither had I, which is strange because in 1915 the ship rolled to its side and sunk to the bottom of the Chicago River, trapping many of the 2500 passengers below deck as the ship filled with water and resulting in the death of 844 of them, the most deadly disaster on US soil until 9-11. Maybe it's become overshadowed in history by the sinking of the Titanic, which was even more deadly and more glamorous, with many rich and famous on board. Whatever the reason that this disaster is mostly unknown, the Eastland Disaster Historical Society is working to change that. To find out more about this horrific event, you can visit their extensive website, read any number of books, or go see a musical. It just so happens that music-theater is my favorite way to learn about history, and I feel so fortunate to have seen Renegade Theater Company's beautiful production of the new musical Eastland, just the second production of this piece that premiered at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre. What better way to tell this very human and very tragic story of hope, loss, love, grief, and survival than through music and theater?

David Darrow and Blake Thomas
As the lights came up on stage to reveal Blake Thomas and David Darrow with guitars in their hands, I knew I was in the right place, even though I was in Duluth, about 150 miles from where I usually attend theater. I'd been hearing about Renegade for a while, and this was a perfect first experience with them. The fact that they found this new musical, brought it to Duluth (a town that's no stranger to shipwrecks), and took a chance on it, speaks a lot to who they are as a company. A look at their list of past shows reveals some interesting and challenging selections, and I like that. I wasn't sure if a town the size of Duluth could sustain the level of talent we're used to in the Twin Cities, but judging by this excellent cast, it can. UMD has a great theater program (a few of the cast members are students), and that bleeds out into the community. Plus, 150 miles isn't really so far.

Jenna Kelly as Bobbie
This is not a linear story, a mere recitation of facts and timelines with music. Rather it's a collection of stories. Stories about the disaster itself as experienced by different people on the ship and in the community, and stories about life before the disaster. Stories of these real people's lives that are messy and complicated and wonderful, as life is. Obviously not every story can be told, but the musical creates clear pictures of who some of these people were and what was lost that day, and evokes more emotions that the number 844 ever could. If there is a main character, it's 13-year-old Bobbie (played by Jenna Kelly, and whose granddaughter started the Historical Society with her husband and was at the performance I attended). Through Bobbie's eyes we see all of the excitement of the day, the despair as she's separated from her family and trapped below deck, and the determination to survive. We also meet Ilse (Rachael Ronding), a woman who feels trapped in her expected life of work and family, until she meets a grocer (David Darrow) who shows her that life can be more. There's the ship's captain (Blake Thomas), who refuses to take the blame, an undertaker (Scott Hebert), and a teenager named Reggie (Dylan Rugh) who puts his talent for holding his breath to use recovering dozens of bodies from the water as he imagines his idol Harry Houdini (Zachary Stofer) challenging him to stay down longer.

the cast of Eastland
All of these stories of past and present are clearly and cleverly intertwined by book writer Andrew White, who also wrote the lyrics. The gorgeous music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman is evocative of the early 20th century time period, at times haunting and at times driving (the standout "Into The River"), and is a well-constructed musical theater score with recurring themes ("things tip, they lean"), character solos, lovely duets, and thrilling group numbers. But the show is so fresh and new, the score wasn't really written down. Music director Blake Thomas provided new orchestrations for this production, with a band consisting of two guitars, an upright bass, piano, and an occasional mandolin. Renegade performs in an intimate space at Teatro Zuccone in downtown Duluth, a space that requires no microphones. It's a rare thing to see unmiked performers in a musical, but it's the best way to hear music. There's something about the unamplified human voice that is so effective in conveying the true emotions of the piece. The sound mix is perfect; I wish all musicals could be performed like this. The tiny space also brings the audience close enough to see the fear, hope, despair, and wonder in these marvelous actors' eyes. And with no intermission to break into the flow of the story, it's an incredibly compelling and affecting experience.

Dylan Rugh diving off the stage as Reggie
Director Peter Froehlingsdorf, who found Eastland and brought it to Renegade, keeps these complicated layered stories and the large cast moving in the small space. The stage is made of uneven surfaces with trap doors, appropriate for a ship that tips and leans, with spaces on the sides used for flashbacks and the band housed in the back section of the stage. A couple of beautiful effects include the diving "human frog," using a harness and pulley system, and characters hanging drenched clothing over a washtub as the water pours off of them and the undertaker pins a number on them, representing some of the 844 victims. It's a powerful and haunting effect.

Eastland is a beautifully written new musical, one that doesn't feel rough or unfinished, but fully formed and complete. Renegade's production is extremely well done and well received - the closing weekend is sold out. I believe this rich piece has a future and hope to see it performed in theaters around the country, particularly here in the Twin Cities. It's a story that deserves to be heard, especially when this well told. "Is there any better way to pass the time?" For me, there is none.

Things shift, they change
That's life, it rearranges
Things tip, they lean
'Till you find you're between
Something old and something new
Change is good for you

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"Take It With You" at The Underground

I'm sitting here in the warm and inviting Solglimt Bed and Breakfast, staring out at the blue-gray waters of Lake Superior, on a mini mid-week vacation. And what brings me to lovely Duluth, Minnesota's favorite in-state getaway? Theater, of course. Tonight I will make my first visit to the Renegade Theater Company to see the new musical Eastland, but my first stop was my second time watching the delightful radio show called Take It With You. Now in their second season, TIWY was created by Blake Thomas and Mary Fox (whom you might remember from Yellow Tree Theatre, Theater Latte Da's Our Town, or various other theaters in the cities before they decided to leave us and take their talents to the North Shore). This super talented couple along with some super talented friends write, perform, produce, record, and upload an hour-long episode every month, which you can (and should) listen to for free here!

Take It With You is a scripted show that follows a group of charming oddball friends centered around a Cheers-like bar in Duluth (at least until they tore it down to make way for a baseball field, more on that later). There's romance, adventure, comedy, a bit of social commentary, a visit from Mayor Don Ness, a conversation with local business owners, and of course, music! Many of the songs are Blake Thomas originals (if you like country, folk, Americana, singer-songwriter, or just good music in general, you'll want to check out his albums on iTunes), along with traditional song, standards, or whatever fits in with the theme of the episode. Episode 13 is all about baseball, so we were treated to songs about Jackie Robinson, Joe Dimaggio, and a sing-along to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

In this episode, the gang is challenged to play a game of baseball against a Little League team sponsored by the rival bar across the street. The stakes are high; if our team wins, the rival bar closes up shop. They decide to tear down the bar and build a baseball diamond in a cornfield in the hopes of attracting some baseball stars, but all they manage to attract are the cast of Field of Dreams, who actually can't play baseball. A few "sports montages" later and the game is over, as is the episode, with a whole lot of fun had by all. Including the large and loyal in-person audience and the cast that lends their musical, vocal, and sound effect making talents to the story - Blake, Mary, Katy Helbacka, Matt Helbacka, Ryan Nelson (with a hilarious array of voices from a little girl to James Earl Jones), Lane Prekker, and Zach Stofer (with Abe Curran on bass). It's so much fun to watch them create this wonderfully silly and very specific fictional world through voices, music, and sounds.

After more than a year and 13 episodes, the TIWY crew is like a well-oiled machine, which allows lots of room for playing around and having fun. "Live radio theatre" is a unique concept in this day and age, and TIWY is a unique product. It's fun and entertaining, with loveable oddball characters, great music, and support of local Duluth culture and businesses. Give it a listen and you might just get hooked. Every episode ends with the cast taking turns on the 1930s folky song "Sitting on Top of the World," which perfectly sums up the feeling this show evokes.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

"Hairspray" at Artistry (formerly known as Bloomington Civic Theatre)

Bloomington Civic Theatre has recently rebranded themselves as Artistry, and they've set the bar pretty high for the new direction of the organization. Their first production, a new take on the old favorite Hairspray, is fun and lighthearted, has a powerful and very relevant message about equality and self-love, is performed by a dynamic and diverse cast, and is directed and choreographed with great energy and spirit. It's an all-around wonderful show and is sure to be a smashing success (get your tickets now before they sell out). If Hairspray is any indication, I expect Artistry's inaugural season* to be the top-notch!

At this point I'm sure everyone's seen some version of Hairspray, whether the original movie, the musical based on the movie, or the movie based on the musical based on the movie. Normally this would be a recipe for disaster, but this story is so rich and music-filled that each iteration works. Despite not looking like the prim and proper skinny girls on her favorite TV show, The Corny Collins Show (think American Bandstand), Tracie wins a spot on the show and begins to dance on TV. She can't understand why her "colored" friends can't be on the show, so she arranges a protest and is promptly thrown in jail. But she gets out, continues towards her goal, wins the boy of her dreams, and achieves racial harmony through dance.

What does a 2002 Broadway musical based on a 1988 movie set in 1962 have to do with 2015? As it turns out, a lot. Tracie Turnblad is a heroine for the ages, proving that a young woman who doesn't meet society's standards of beauty can live a happy and fulfilling life, fall in love, and enact social change (all while dancing and singing!). And more than 50 years after the fictional events of the show take place, we are still traveling that road towards racial equality. The protest scenes include signs saying "Black Lives Matter" and "Hands Up, Don't Shoot," landing the show squarely in the present day and bringing an even greater poignancy to the song "I Know Where I've Been." Lyrics such as "there's a road we've been traveling, lost so many on the way" and "there's a struggle that we have yet to win" mean even more today. And somehow singing "I Love You Baltimore," and the entire show that's based on John Waters' love letter to his hometown, takes on a deeper meaning after the events that played out there earlier this year. I was moved to tears several times, which is a rare thing in musical that's also this much fun.

Brandon Caviness and Gracie Anderson
as Edna and Tracie Turnblad
Artistry has compiled a fantastic cast, and it's nice to see some new faces among the familiar ones. Starting at the top, Gracie Anderson is everything you could want in a Tracie Turnblad. She can sing and dance with the best of them, but more importantly, she has great charisma and winningly portrays Tracie's huge heart and spirit. As teen heartthrob Link, Nicholas Kaspari is no Matthew Morrison (who is?), but he's got some smooth moves and oodles of charm, and makes Link worthy of Tracie's affection. It's refreshing to see parents as loving and supportive of their daughter and her crazy dreams as Tracie's parents are. Brandon Caviness is fabulous in this role of a lifetime as the hausfrau Edna who learns from her daughter that it's not too late to take her place in the world, and Alan Holasek's Wilbur is all sweet and lanky awkwardness. The two of them make a charming and "timeless" couple.

"The Big Doll House"
2014 Spotlight Award winner Angela Steele proves she's more than worthy of that honor with her terrific performance as Amber, the mean girl everyone loves to hate (and she looks like a blond bouffanted Cristin Milioti). Catherine Noble is hilarious as Tracie's gum-popping sidekick Penny. Is that Melissa McCarthy stealing scenes in a number of roles from the president of the hairspray company to a cop? No, it's Meagan Kedrowski, but she coulda fooled me with her very specific comic creation of these characters, complete with funny voices and weird faces. Last but definitely not least, Bey Jackson's performance as Motormouth Maybelle, and specifically his rendition of the aforementioned Civil Rights anthem "I Know Where I've Been," is a thing of inspiring beauty.

A hallmark of BCT/Artistry is their traditional pit orchestra let by Anita Ruth, but in this show it's so much fun to see them on stage like a big band on a TV show, sitting behind the Painted Ladies of Baltimore on this simple but effective set by Erica Zaffarano. Ed Gleeman's '60s period costumes are fabulous and might make you miss Mad Men a little less, with the men in sharp suits and the women in lovely full-skirted dresses (several of which I would like to own). And kudos to wig designer Paul Bigot for creating the appropriately over-the-top hairsprayed hairdos.

When the director is a choreographer and a former American Bandstand dancer, you know there's going to be some amazing dancing in the show. Michael Matthew Ferrell has teamed with choreographer Kristin Iiams to create a fun and fast-moving show with such sharp, fast, fun, and very '60s dancing that I wish I were born a few decades earlier. In the capable hands of dance captains Emily Madigan and Krysti Wiita and this dynamic young cast, the dancing is a joy to watch. Warning: it's hard to sit still watching this show!

Hairspray is a show that's been done many times in the last 13 years, so you might wonder, why now? Artistry answers that question by bringing a feeling of relevance and immediacy to this poignant and moving story wrapped up in fabulous '60s song and dance. And it's a beautiful thing to see such diversity on stage and in the audience, especially at a theater in the suburbs (other suburban theaters - take note!). Hairspray continues through September 13, get your tickets now because they're going to be hard to come by (also check for discount tickets on Goldstar).

*The musical theater season continues with Yeston and Kopit's PhantomThe Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Fiddler on the Roof. Also check out the plays in Artistry's black box theater.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fringe Festival 2015: Wrap-Up and Top 15 Shows

Here it is, mid-August, and another Minnesota Fringe Festival has come and gone in a whirlwind of 909 performances of 174 shows at 15 venues around Minneapolis (plus 9 site-specific shows), with a grand total of 50,330 tickets issued (get all the numbers in the press release here). Phew, is anyone else exhausted? Yet also suffering from a post-Fringe malaise? I've certainly been enjoying hanging out with my kitties and finishing my summer-long Scandal binge (yay, Olivia and Fitz!), but it feels strange not to be spending all my time seeing and writing about short works of theatrical creativity. Ah well, it was wonderful while it lasted, and I managed to fit in 44 shows while still taking 2 days off in the 11-day festival. I've already shared my Top Ten from halfway through (or really two-thirds through) the festival, and I've added a few more from my last three days of Fringe-ing to come up with a Top Fifteen. (There are another 5-10 shows that could have made this list, but if it were too long no one would read it!) So without further ado and in alphabetical order, here are my 15 favorite shows from the 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival, which was, as a whole, entirely satisfying, unexpected, delightful, bizarro, and wonderful. See you next year, Fringers!

105 Proof or The Killing of Mack "The Silencer" Klein
Transatlantic Love Affair applies their beautiful and evocative physical theater style to an original story that's a bit darker and more dangerous than their past shows. This story of how a small town boy becomes a Prohibition bootlegger still has plenty of lovely moments in the way this eight-person cast creates everything in this very specific world using just their bodies and voices, with no props or set. But there's also a sense of danger and suspense as the stakes keep getting higher for the ambitious Jonathan and his brother as they get deeper into the world of the Chicago mobsters. The human moonshine still is impressive, the car chases are playful, the creak of the door is consistant, and the gunfights are so fast and sudden and lifelike that I wanted to hit the rewind button and watch them again. 105 Proof has all of the playfulness and inventiveness we've come to expect from TLA, but applied to a story that's not so dreamy and more sinister, deepening the range of stories TLA can tell. The cast is, as always, beautifully specific in their creation of multiple characters and inanimate objects, and it's nice to see some new faces alongside TLA veterans. If you've never seen a TLA show before, what are you waiting for? And if you're a die hard fan like I am, 105 Proof will show you another side of them.

Brother Ulysses
This is one of those Fringe shows that's so uniquely wonderful, I cannot possibly describe it. You just have to see it to know what it is, and if you didn't, I'm sorry for you. I don't know where these guys came from, or why I had this show on my schedule (I guess the combination of history and a capella intrigued me). But it was a delightful surprise on my last day of Fringe-ing. Brothers Christian (writer) and Andrew (director) Gaylord tell us that this show was inspired by James Joyce's novel Ulysses, but not in the straight-forward adaptation kind of way. They talk about Napoleon, and Alexander the Great, and various other figures from history, myth, and literature. They sing in beautiful a capella harmony, sometimes making use of one of those recorder/looper thingies. They climb on and over a single tall block in the center of the stage in strange and interesting ways. At times Andrew reads passages from the book, which all of a sudden morph into Fringe commentary. Christian passionately portrays Napoleon, and Andrew juggles audience members' shoes for no reason in particular other than it's amusing. This show is so creative and odd and charming and unexpected. I think my post-show tweet sums it up best: "I'm not sure what just happened but it was beautiful."

Comedy Suitcase Presents the Averagers
The Averagers is one of the funniest shows I saw at the Fringe this year. The premise is pretty ridiculous - a ragtag group of superheroes including Captain Average, the spoiled boy-god Paul Bunyan, the single mom Black Woodtick, office supply billionaire Iron Range Man, and the super sensitive Bulk travel through time and save the world from Nazis and a blue ox, as told by a guy named Stanley. There are Minnesota references aplenty (including a "too soon?" joke about the Lindbergh kidnapping), and tons of physical comedy as the group fights and shoots things at each other. The show is incredibly loose and playful (perhaps because I saw the final scheduled performance) - everyone was ad libbing and toying with the audience and having fun, which makes it impossible for the audience not to have fun with them. And this show definitely wins the prize for best interaction with the ASL interpreter, as she (unknowingly but not unwillingly) became part of the show. The Averagers sold out all but their first show, and received the encore, and it lives up to the hype. Moral of the story: if you see "Comedy Suitcase" attached to a Fringe show, reserve tickets early and go see it, and prepare to laugh.

The Consolation
Friends, this one is intense. The Consolation is not your typical fun and frivolous Fringe show. The story of a Nazi war criminal on trial may not be new, but it's beautifully and succinctly told in this thought-provoking play that lays bare all of the complexities involved and leaves the viewer with an unsettled feeling. Eichmann is at times infuriating and at times sympathetic, thanks in part to a brilliant performance by David Mann. Scenes of the trial in front of an unforgiving judge are interspersed with scenes talking to an unnamed visitor who seems to be trying to understand how one can be driven to do such horrific things, which Eichmann tries to explain was just a bureaucratic job to him (seen in flashbacks with his assistant), despite the fact that millions died as the result of his paperwork and meetings. And then there's the experiment. Dr. Milgram asks the subject to deliver increasingly greater shocks to a person in another room, and even though he's disturbed by the pain he's inflicting on this stranger, he continues. The play is well constructed by playwright Ari Hoptman, with scenes and timelines intersecting and flowing into one another. Clear direction by Jean Wolff and great performances by the cast bring this story to life in a disturbing way. The Consolation is a heavy drama, beautifully done, that makes one think not just about the crimes at hand, but the complicated idea of following orders vs. following your conscience.

In this super creepy cool retelling of the Frankenstein story, a young boy becomes obsessed with the book to an unhealthy degree. Victor's story is told in a nonlinear fashion, and just like the original Dr. Frankenstein (and Victor himself), we need to put the pieces together to come up with one disturbing whole. Victor is often the narrator of his own story, and we see flashes back to his childhood mixed with scenes from the present at a dark and scary cabin. Scenes often move from one to the other in the middle of a conversation, with characters disappearing and appearing as if by magic. Tyler Olsen wrote, directed, and designed the show, and has created a terrifying and starkly beautiful world. The whole show is done in the dark with hand-held lights and one floor light, flashed on and off at appropriate times to create some really beautiful images with contrasting light and dark. The sound design adds to the creep factor, from the moment you walk into the theater to the sound of buzzing flies. The excellent cast is fully committed to the creation of this world, centered around a raw and emotional performance by Miles Duffey as Victor, with the nimble Joanna Harmon as his girlfriend, Jay Kistler as a childhood friend, and Garrett Vollmer and Noah Bremer as some pretty scary monsters. The whole thing is really well done and yes, there is blood, and some pretty messy clean-up. Moral of the story: don't let your children read Frankenstein.

Fruit Flies Like a Banana
Have you ever watched three people tango while playing instruments? Or heard Mozart performed with plastic tubes? I have. Out-of-towners Hilary Abigana (flute), C. Neil Parsons (Trobone), and Greg Jukes (vibraphone and other percussive instruments) are so clever and innovative in addition to being musically talented. As if performing 22 short pieces in an hour (with time visibly ticking down) isn't hard enough, they let the audience choose the order by picking cards with names like "Toy Piano Man," "How Not to Bow," and "Ginger Minus Fred." Most pieces feature music by classical composers arranged for new instruments and performed with some sort of movement. Most impressive is Hilary, with the core strength and breath control that allows her to play the flute while flying like superman, jumping rope, and hanging upside down. This show is so playful, fast, and fun, you might not realize you're also getting an education about classical composers. In this totally unique Fringe experience, time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a a banana. Look what people can do!

Getting to Ellen
Local transgender activist Ellen Krug's memoir of her life and transition, beautifully brought to life on stage with three actors playing her, is definitely one of the most moving and inspirational true stories you will see at the Fringe this year. Firstly, Ellen's struggle to love herself and live her own life, even if it hurts those she loves, is something everyone can relate to in some way. Secondly, playwright David Ahlers has beautifully and brilliantly adapted the book to the stage by portraying Ellen's story through monologues delivered by three different actors along with scenes between Ellen and her therapist and wife. The writing, along with the direction by Patrick Kozicky, is so clear and precise that it somehow makes perfect sense that these three people are Ellen. Finally, Amy Schweickhardt, Joe Wiener, and Catherine Hansen are equally excellent at portraying Ellen's struggle with living her true self, with not a false note among them. The writing, direction, and acting make it so easy to understand and empathize with issues that most of us who have not personally experienced them struggle to make sense of. An inspirational story is one thing, but when it's brought to life with such professionalism, honesty, and heart, it's a truly special event that seems to transcend this little theater festival.

Ghosts of the Living, Ghosts of the Dead
One woman simply and beautifully reads her story about dealing with the deaths of three people in her life that affected her in different ways. Fringe can be so frantic, rushing from one show to another, most of which are busy or silly or ridiculous, packing everything they can into the allotted time. In that crazy space, a show like this one, with one person standing on stage reading a story into a microphone from printed pages on a music stand, is so quietly refreshing. From the deaths of a complicated grandmother, a father she never knew, and a beloved friend, Ashley Kress weaves a moving, poignant, heartfelt story of grief, loss, confusion, and hope. There's something beautiful about one woman standing on stage telling her story, speaking her truth with straight-forward simplicity and eloquence and no artifice. I had tears behind my eyes and a lump in my throat throughout the performance, as I felt every step of Ashley's journey over the past year. It's not the Fringe if you're not reduced to a weepy mess at least once, and this show delivers that beautifully heart-wrenching experience.

Friends, this one is a gem, and some of the best acting you will see at the Fringe this year. Dustin Bronson and Katie Kleiger are both products of the U of M/Guthrie BFA program (and were both in June and the Paycock earlier this year), and are great testaments to its success. As this normal and very real couple going through normal and real challenges, they both give such natural, honest, raw, and fully realized performances. I completely bought into their relationship that is so believable, it began to feel like eavesdropping on a conversation. Because this beautiful play by Duncan Macmillan is written as one long conversation. Even though it spans years, the conversation never ends, as one scene begins almost before the previous one ends and locations change (on a stage that's bare except for two folding chairs) in the blink of an eye. Things happen, and nothing happens, as this couple navigates life and all its joys and challenges. Dustin and Katie lay their souls bare on stage and it's a beautiful thing.

Pretty Girls Make Graves
I never miss a Loudmouth Collective show. They specialize in smart, well-written, intense, small-cast shows that are funny or heartbreaking or both. Written by Artist in Residence Sam Landman and directed by Artistic Director Natalie Novacek, this new play in which two women meet after a man they both loved died, and bond over '80s bands, boxed wine, and vintage exercise equipment, falls neatly in Loudmouth's wheelhouse. It's one of those two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking plays, which I love, especially when the talk is this smart and funny and real. After she finds out her boyfriend died, Carla (Emily Dussault) goes to his apartment and meets his sister BMX (Katie Willer). They discuss his love of Jethro Tull, Carla's love of The Smiths, and Carla's love of Duran Duran. But even if you, like me, don't get a single one of the music references, you can still enjoy this little slice of life and exploration of two characters that feels very real, until it takes a surreal turn. See this show for sharp writing, directing, and acting - one of the more professional shows you'll see at the Fringe.

Shelly Bachberg Presents: Orange is the New POTUS: The Musical
If you saw the 2013 Fringe hit Shelly Bachberg Presents: How Helen Keller and Anne Frank Freed the Slaves: The Musical, then you know what to expect. But you don't need the background to appreciate this smart, funny, ridiculous political satire that also includes TV and musical theater references while delivering a half dozen fantastic new songs. This is the third new original musical by creative team Max Wojtanowicz (book and lyrics), Michael Gruber (music and additional lyrics), and Nikki Swoboda (direction and more), and the experience and teamwork shows in this ridiculously funny show that's a mash-up of the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black, musicals like Chicago and West Side Story, and the worst that politics has to offer. And the cast is to die for. The incomparable Kim Kivens reprises her role as Shelly from the first show, and I can't imagine anyone else in the role. Her parody of you-know-who is spot-on hilarious and her vocal control is impressive as she sings to great comedic effect and delivers Shelly's ridiculous lines with campy convictions. She's backed by three music-theater divas as her cellmates - Kendall Anne Thompson as Viper, Joy Dolo as Lazy Eyes (having a lot of fun with Crazy Eye's unique mannerisms), and Erin Schwab as the Russian Bread. Along with Todd Bruse as a guard and campaign manager, they take you through this silly tale of Shelly winning over her cellmates and escaping to become president, inspiring catch phrases along the way like "you can even" and "hashtag blessed." This show is a great example of the Fringe musical at its best.

Stuff That Reminds Me Of Other Things
This charmingly original show, one of nine site-specific shows at the Fringe this year, features two bright and spirited guides leading a small group of participants on a tour around the U of M West Bank neighborhood telling delightful stories. Creator Keely Wolter is a disarming and engaging guide not just through the neighborhood but also her life, telling seemingly random and disconnected stories from her past. The stories range from silly to profound as she tells of anxiety, friendship, and dreams. Just when she gets to a particularly poignant point in a story, she lightly says "OK, let's go!" and it's on to the next memory. The soundtrack for this tour is a series of walking songs, from The Brady Bunch's "Sunshine Day" to "Walk Like A Man" and "These Boots Were Made for Walking." Director Rachel Petrie is an able and willing assistant (and I'm going to hold her to her promise to do her own memory tour next year). Each participant is given an official guidebook with photos related to the stories, in which they are encouraged to write down things that the stuff reminds them of, for the next holder of the guidebook to read. The tour is charming and engaging, encouraging participants to notice the beauty that's all around them, and is a nice chance to stretch the legs and enjoy the fresh air after a long week of Fringe-ing.

To the Moon
So much loveliness it's hard to describe. Let's start with Tyler Mill's lyrical and poignant and funny words (see also Jonah and the Whale). Then add in Derek Trost's evocative musical soundtrack to the story. All of it creating a picture in the mind's eye, made real by the cast which includes the playwright (as the father), Debra Berger (as the mother), Emily King (as the narrator), and Tyler Michaels (as everyone else - children, women, men). It's a sweet and simple story, but the joy is in the telling. Tyler Michaels is a master at creating a character from the inside out, and it's a pleasure to watch him do it multiple times in the space of an hour. The other Tyler and Debra are so warm and sweet and funny as this comfortably loving couple (they've had practice - they're married in real life.). Last but not least, Emily presides over the story like Alanis Morisette in that movie where she played God. The only props onstage are two stools, which are used almost as inventively as the props of movement and physicality. To the Moon is my favorite kind of Fringe show - genuine and beautiful and whimsical and dreamy.

Underneath the Lintel
Pat O'Brien brings his excellent one-man show back to the MN Fringe (I saw it four years ago). On the surface it's a funny and quirky little play about a Dutch librarian who becomes obsessed with a book that was returned 123 years after it was taken out. He follows a clue left in the book which leads him on a chase around the world, collecting even more clues. He's assembled and labeled all of the clues and gives us, his audience, an "Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences," using slides, audio recordings, and frantic scratchings on a flipchart to bolster his case that this man he's following is indeed the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander the earth, never resting, never dying. So you see it's not such a simple story after all, but a profound one that ponders the very big ideas of the meaning of life and death. Pat O'Brien, having performed the piece at festivals around the country, gives a masterful performance. From the moment he walks onstage about ten minutes before showtime, nervously setting up his display, he has us believing he is this man. He becomes increasingly more frazzled as the "presentation" goes on, urging us, or maybe himself, to believe... in something. Why are we here? Why do we die? How can we possibly know how one small choice made "underneath the lintel" can affect the rest of our lives? Pretty heavy stuff wrapped up in a quirky and funny little play.

A Woman in Berlin
This one-woman show based on the book A Woman in Berlin, written by an anonymous woman about her experience in 1945 Berlin, is absolutely devastating and difficult to hear, but unfortunately it's not a unique story. Throughout history women have always been the spoils of war, but women have also always been survivors. So too this anonymous woman in the beautiful and beleaguered city of Berlin, one of many who was repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers at the end of WWII. She figures out a way to survive in this new world in which the old rules and morals no longer apply, living with one officer as a protector to keep the other soldiers away. Eva Barr has adapted the book and portrays the woman with such raw honesty that by the end I believed she was this woman. Chain-smoking (or rather pretending to, people can't chain-smoke on stage in 2015), shuffling papers, and nervously pacing as she reads her memoir to be recorded, she brings the audience right there to the terrors of wartime that are particular to women. It's unthinkable. But Eva Barr helps us to face the truth by so beautifully and devastatingly telling this anonymous brave woman's story.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Fringe Festival 2015: "Oregon Trail: A Musical"

Day: 9

Show: 44

Category: Musical Theater

By: Literally Entertainment Productions

Created by: Literally Entertainment

Location: Mixed Blood

Summary: A musical based on the computer game Oregon Trail*, in which a group of intrepid pioneers try to survive a wagon train West.

Highlights: I'm so old that I remember a time before computers, and I clearly remember when my elementary school got its first computer. We had a contest to name the computer (yes, kids, we had one computer for the whole school), and the winner was ETC - Extra Terrestrial Computer (this was clever in the early '80s). The only thing I remember doing on this computer was playing Oregon Trail, and it was the coolest thing ever. Literally Entertainment has turned that very sense of nostalgia into a musical, with great success (they sold out their last two performances and received the encore, which I attended). What a thrill that must be for first time Fringer Kyle DeGoey, who wrote the book and lyrics, directed the piece, and played percussion (with keyboard accompaniment by Lindsey Fallenstein). Everyone in the fresh-faced young cast is so delightfully and campily earnest in their portrayal of these trail stereotypes as they encounter obstacles along the way but never lose their determination. The original songs are fun and catchy and very musical theater-y; it's just an all-around fun show. I think it's safe to say that Oregon Trail: The Musical is the surprise hit of this year's Fringe!

*Fun fact: Oregon Trail was invented right here in Minnesota!

Fringe Festival 2015: "Couple Fight"

Day: 9

Show: 43

Title: Couple Fight

Category: Comedy

By: Weggel-Reed Productions

Created by: Anna Weggel-Reed and Tom Reed

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: Six funny real-life couples reenact a funny real-life fight.

Highlights: What happens when two funny people get married, and then they fight? Judging by Couple Fight, it's hilarious, at least it is to those of us watching, and probably also to the couple once they move beyond the moment. Such is the simple premise of this show that features five married couples and one pair of BFFs. John and Lacey Zeiler fight about him faking a stroke in Vegas to help him win at poker, and not telling her about it beforehand so she could play along. On one of their first dates, Maggie and Marissa Sotos argue about whether a book is a hamburger or a hot dog (first of all, it's a book, second of all, it's obviously a hot dog). Emily Schmidt and Maureen Tubbs' disagreement about the rules of Pictionary turn a fun girls' night into a dramatic scene (I'm with Maureen on this one, you gotta have rules). Laura Zabel and Levi Weinhagen fight about whether Laura's suggestion for a sketch is funny (for the record - it is!). Lizzie Gardner gets mad at Bobby when he farts in the middle of a deep conversation. And finally, Anna Weggel-Reed gets upset that husband Tom (played convincingly by Adam Hummel because Tom was too busy directing) doesn't properly celebrate her on her birthday. The rest of us non-comedians only wish we could fight this funny!

Fringe Festival 2015: "The Famous Haydell Sisters Comeback Tour"

Day: 9

Show: 42

Category: Musical Theater

Created by: The Famous Haydell Sisters

Location: Nomad World Pub

Summary: Country music sister duet team Mattie and Maybelle Haydell reunite after 20 years.

Highlights: I love country music (or at least what country music used to be), so this comedy/music show about two country singing sisters is right up my alley. Plus it's in a bar - just what I needed for my 42nd Fringe show! Mattie and Maybelle (I'm having a hard time finding their real names, or maybe these are their real names?) are funny and sing great harmony on these campy country standards - the patriotically pandering song, the bitter break-up song, the broken-hearted love song. There's not much of a plot, although the sisters do work through some issues in their relationship, mostly just funny songs that sound sweet despite the double entendres, with some silly banter in between. How can you not love songs like "Your Broken Heart is No Excuse for Being an Asshole," "Seven Seconds is Too Short a Ride," "Wrangler Butt," and the spiritual "YOLO." And these ladies know their country music, with jokes about Chris Gaines and Lyle Lovett's sudden marriage to Julia Roberts. I found the Haydell Sisters to be thoroughly entertaining, and hanging out in a bar with them was just what I needed on the final afternoon of Fringe.

Fringe Festival 2015: "Brother Ulysses"

Day: 9

Show: 41

Category: Something Different

By: Rhombus Theatre

Written by: Christian Gaylord

Location: U of M Rarig Center Arena

Summary: Two brothers weave a captivating story about history, literature, myth, science, and family.

Highlights: This is one of those Fringe shows that's so uniquely wonderful, I cannot possibly describe it. You just have to see it to know what it is, and if you didn't, I'm sorry for you. I don't know where these guys came from, or why I had this show on my schedule (I guess the combination of history and a capella intrigued me). But it was a delightful surprise on my last day of Fringe-ing. Brothers Christian (writer) and Andrew (director) Gaylord tell us that this show was inspired by James Joyce's novel Ulysses, but not in the straight-forward adaptation kind of way. They talk about Napoleon, and Alexander the Great, and various other figures from history, myth, and literature. They sing in beautiful a capella harmony, sometimes making use of one of those recorder/looper thingies. They climb on and over a single tall block in the center of the stage in strange and interesting ways. At times Andrew reads passages from the book, which all of a sudden morph into Fringe commentary. Christian passionately portrays Napoleon, and Andrew juggles audience members' shoes for no reason in particular other than it's amusing. This show is so creative and odd and charming and unexpected. I think my post-show tweet sums it up best: "I'm not sure what just happened but it was beautiful."