Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016 Favorites in #TCTheater

My dear theater friends, here we are again at the end of another year. Time to reflect and look back on the amazing year that 2016 was... in terms of theater anyway, if not in other areas. And now is the time, when we are faced with crises on many fronts, that we need to look to our artists to lead the way, to shine a light on the problems in the world and start a conversation. Thankfully we have an unparalleled pool of theater artists in the Twin Cities, whose work I will be looking toward and sharing in the year to come.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

"Public Exposure" by Market Garden Theatre

On a frigid and snowy Saturday night, I arrived on a not-very-well-plowed street in an industrial neighborhood filled with semis. I entered the building at 451 Taft Street in Northeast Minneapolis (not too far from the new Crane Theater) and made my way down the stairs to a long hallway that smelled funny and was cold. If not for the signage at various points, I would have been unsure I was in the right place. But I was in the right place, the right place to see a smart new play in a perfectly suited found space with a small cast that was so great and natural I almost felt like I was eavesdropping on a real conversation. This was my first experience with Market Garden Theatre, but not my first experience with a Keith Hovis penned work, and I continue to be impressed with his evolving talents. First he amused with his very Fringey musicals (including Teenage Misery which recently received an encore production), then he moved to tears with the lovely trio of short musicals Pioneer Suite, and now he disturbs and intrigues with a play about our modern world and how quick we are to publicly shame people for their mistakes.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

"All is Calm" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

If you're looking for 70 minutes of calm, peace, and wonder in this crazy busy season at the end of this crazy busy year, look no further than Theater Latte Da's annual favorite, All is Calm. But look quickly because only a few shows remain this weekend at the Pantages Theatre. This is my fifth time seeing the show, and since I've written about it four times I don't really have any more words left to write. Except that this is a truly beautiful piece of music-theater. Created by Latte Da's Artistic Director Peter Rothstein based on extensive research, with gorgeous musical arrangement of traditional Christmas carols and military songs by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, All is Calm is a succinct and exquisite look at a moment of peace in the midst of war. An ensemble of a dozen men sing in breath-taking harmony and read (in a delicious smorgasbord of accents) the words of soldiers who experienced the Christmas Truce of 1914. With simple staging and costumes and no applause breaks to interrupt the storytelling, it's 70 minutes of beauty, sadness, and hope.

Read my thoughts on last year's show, which is virtually the same as this year's, here.
Read my thoughts on the previous version of All is Calm featuring Cantus here.

Friday, December 16, 2016

"Fun Home" Broadway Tour at the Orpheum Theatre

The 2015 Tony winner for best musical, Fun Home, is on tour and is stopping at Minneapolis' Orpheum Theatre this week. I was lucky enough to see this funny and heart-wrenching modern musical on Broadway last fall with most of the original cast intact. And now we here in the Twin Cities are lucky to see it with a fantastic new cast (including Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan, and Alessandra Baldacchino as the Alisons large to small, and Robert Petkoff and Susan Moniz as the parents) and a slightly modified set design and direction (it played in a much smaller in the round house on Broadway and has been adapted to fit a large proscenium theater like the Orpheum). If you're a fan of music-theater, I highly recommend you head to Minneapolis this cold and snowy weekend to see what the future of the art form looks like: an intimate, real, raw story about life, death, love, and loss told with a small cast and a smart and beautiful score. You can read all my thoughts about the musical here, and keep reading below for a conversation with my fellow bloggers Laura at Twin Cities Stages and Jules and Carol at Minnesota Theater Love.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

"The Longest Night" at Open Eye Figure Theatre

Ah, winter. Those of us who've lived in a cold climate like Minnesota for a number of years know that winter is not just a season. It's a force, it's a living thing. And while maybe it's not actively trying to kill us, it certainly doesn't care if we live or die. It's all we can do to survive the cold, the snow, the dark, the seasonal affective disorder. But winter is also a welcome time to slow down, to reflect on one's life, to recharge for the coming spring. Because spring will come again, as hopeless as it sometimes feels when the temperature fails to climb above zero or a sudden snowstorm forces you to cancel your plans. But as Bradley Greenwald tells us in his solo show The Longest Night, our ancestors have given us a solution to this possible death by winter - celebration. And The Longest Night is most definitely a celebration. A celebration of winter, and a celebration that winter will end. I truly loved this show when I saw it two years ago (the solstice celebration appeals to my inner pagan), and it's just as comforting, inspiring, funny, and touching this year. Since it's virtually the same show, I'm copying what I wrote then here. I highly recommend The Longest Night as a unique and uniquely special holiday show (playing at Open Eye Figure Theatre through December 23).

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"Irving Berlin's White Christmas" at the Ordway Center

There's no denying that 2016 has been a less than stellar year, but inside the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, it's nothin' but blue skies! You may be concerned about the state of our nation, or our world, you may be worried about what the next year will bring on a national or personal level, you may be feeling grief, or loss, or confusion, but the Ordway's scrumptious production of everyone's favorite Christmas-movie-turned-stage-musical will make you forget all of that, at least for a few hours. There are two things art can do in times of crisis - it can provide a welcome escape from the stresses of the world, or it provide commentary, conversation, questioning about the world. Both are needed, and as long as we have plenty of the latter (and we do - see this, or this, or this), there is room for pure escapism that thrills and enthralls with its familiar beloved music, gorgeous set and costumes, and fantastic performances by a large and mostly local cast. This is exactly what the Ordway's White Christmas does. So if you're worried and you can't sleep, go see this show, and when you go home you will fall asleep counting your blessings. And then get up and get back to work.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

"The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer" at Park Square Theatre

At Park Square Theatre, the soul of Gershwin is alive and well. Specifically, composer George Gershwin, who in his 38 short years was one of the most prolific, influential, and important American composers of the first half of the 20th Century. Joseph Vass's creation The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, which premiered at Park Square in 2011 and for which he won an Ivey Award, is history lesson, play, music theory dissertation, and fantastic concert all rolled into one. This is my first time seeing the show, although I did see the companion piece about George's lyricist brother Ira, the lovely (and awkwardly titled) Words By... Here in The Soul of Gershwin we learn about George's Jewish heritage and how he wove the melodies of the synagogue and the klezmer street musicians into his songs. It's a fascinating examination of how Gershwin's music, so much a part of our culture, came to be. And maybe we need to be reminded of George and Ira's story, the children of Jewish immigrants who became some of the most notable American artists, at this moment in time, when anti-semitism and other forms of bigotry seem to be on the rise. Maybe now is the perfect time to celebrate Jewish music and culture and what a huge influence it's had on shaping American as we know it.

Friday, December 9, 2016

"The Norwegians" by Dark and Stormy at Grain Belt Warehouse

To close out their fourth season, Dark and Stormy Productions once again brings us an anti-holiday selection. Except that this one takes place in winter in Minnesota, so it's pretty holiday appropriate, even if it is about two women who hire two Norwegian gangsters to kill their exes. Austin-based playwright C. Denby Swanson was inspired by her time in Minnesota at the Playwrights' Center* to write this darkly funny play that pokes fun at all things Minnesota in a fun-loving way. The Norwegians is a cross between a Prairie Home Companion sketch and an episode of Fargo, with more edge than the former but without the latter's ominous cloud of despair. Director Joel Sass and his dynamic and dynamite four-person cast bring this wacky story to life in an intimate setting, providing a truly entertaining 90 minutes (no intermission!) of theater. And as if all this wasn't enough to make me love the play, any mention of the 1991 World Series Champion Minnesota Twins (or 1987 of course) is a surefire way into my heart!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Reading of "Wink" at The Playwrights' Center

"Now in its 12th year, the Ruth Easton New Play Series gives selected Core Writers 20 hours with collaborators to workshop their script—to write, rewrite, experiment, and shape their work. For playwrights, this means great leaps forward for their plays. For audiences, this means a thrilling and intimate night of theater."

And that it is! I attended the second reading of the new play Wink by New York-based Jen Silverman at the Playwrights' Center. It's so much fun to be part of the play development process and get a peek inside what it takes to get a play on the stage. Here's a description of the play:

Monday, December 5, 2016

"The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical" by Minneapolis Musical Theatre at Camp Bar

And now for something entirely ridiculous (in a good way). There is a lot that's sugary sweet about Christmas, and Christmas-themed theater in Minnesota (of which there is much from which to choose). But none of it exists in Minneapolis Musical Theatre's contribution to the holiday theater scene - The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical. It's pure campy and irreverent fun. This is a sequel to The Great American Trailer Park Musical, which MMT did in 2009 (and played Off-Broadway in 2005). If you saw the original, you will recognize some familiar characters (and even one returning cast member). But if you didn't, no matter, it stands on its own in all its trailer trash glory. The songs are catchy and fun, director Ryan McGuire Grimes sets the perfect campy tone, and the terrific six-person cast completely commits to the stereotypical characters and nonsensical plot. Appropriately performed in St. Paul's Camp Bar, with readily available alcohol, it's great escapist fun (at least until that one reference towards the end that will sober you up right quick).

"A Christmas Carole Petersen" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

It's December in the Twin Cities, and that means there are a ton of holiday shows to choose from (Christmas sells well in Minnesota). I've seen six already, with six more on the schedule for the next few weeks (read about all of them here). And right smack dab in the middle of this holiday marathon comes one of my favorites of the past, Theater Latte Da's A Christmas Carole Petersen. After a successful nine-year run in the aughts, everyone's favorite Minnesota family the Petersens took an eight-year break, and are now making a welcome return this holiday season. I saw the show once near the end of its original run and was completely charmed by it, and am thrilled to see it again. Master storyteller Tod Petersen shares his unique family story and holiday traditions that may feel familiar to many Minnesotans. But even if your family traditions are different from the Petersens', even if you celebrate different holidays or no holidays, this show will make you nostalgic for the days of yore and grateful for the gifts of the present.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"The Crucible" by Theatre Coup d'Etat at Zion Lutheran Church

I first saw Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible last spring at the Guthrie, and was wowed at how this story about the infamous Salem witch trials of the late 17th Century, during which twenty people were put to death for the crime of witchcraft, speaks to the issues of the day. Things have changed a lot in the last year and a half, making the play's themes of religious fanaticism, mob mentality, and persecution of people who are different even more scarily relevant. How terrifying to live in a world where one person's false accusation can incite mass hysteria and result in the persecution of innocent people, a world that sadly isn't too far from the current reality. I'm not saying that our president elect is Abigail Williams, but I, and this excellent and intimate production by Theatre Coup d'Etat, am suggesting that we need to take a breath and look at the facts before we rush to condemn someone based on a spiteful rant. The Crucible dramatizes one of the greatest failings of the American, or rather pre-American, judicial system, and 60 years after it was written still remains a cautionary tale.

Friday, December 2, 2016

"The Lion in Winter" at the Guthrie Theater

There's no family more dysfunctional than the British monarchy. I've been hearing a lot about them recently through Shakespeare's history plays Henry IV Part I, Henry V, and Richard III. The Lion in Winter takes place a few centuries and generations before the earliest of these plays, but was written in 1966 by James Goldman, so it has a more contemporary feel. The family of Henry II on Christmas of 1183 is about as dysfunctional as it gets. And while hopefully our family members don't imprison, threaten to kill, and raise armies against each other, we can all relate to that awkward holiday dinner that goes awry. This contemporary and relatable feel, along with a truly fantastic cast of local and national talent, sharp direction, and a stunning set, make the Guthrie Theater's production of The Lion in Winter a highly entertaining evening, and a spicy counterpoint to the sweet fare across the hall.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" on tour at the Orpheum Theatre

It's rare for Broadway plays to go on tour; typically it's the musicals that travel across the country. I'm not sure why that is, maybe producers think that those of us who live between the coasts would only go for the big splashy musicals, or maybe it's been proven that plays don't sell as well as musicals. Whatever the reason, when a play does go on tour (the only other ones I can remember are August: Osage County and Proof), you know it's something special. And The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is most definitely something special. The story of a 15-year-old boy with an unspecified autism-like condition who goes on an epic journey in search of the truth is fantastically told in a clever adaptation, with stunning technical effects and innovative physical theater techniques, the high tech and the low tech combining in a unique way. And there's math, and a puppy, which makes it a winner in my book!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"Baltimore is Burning" by Underdog Theatre at SPACE

There's another new theater company in town, and they're coming out of the gate with a strong message and a powerful new play. Underdog Theatre hopes to be a voice "for the underserved, the underrepresented, and unheard." Founder Kory LaQuess Pullam, a talented young actor who's made quite an impression on several stages around town in the last few years, has written a great new play about the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore last year. While Baltimore is Burning is about this one specific incident, on a larger scale it's about the many such deaths that have occurred around the country, even right here in Minnesota, and the need to have a conversation about why it's happening and what can be done to change it. At its best, theater brings attention to issues and starts a conversation about them, which is exactly what this play does.

Monday, November 28, 2016

"Orphan Train" at History Theatre

The History Theatre excels at telling often unknown Minnesota stories, as they did in 1997 with the original musical Orphan Train. At the time, most people hadn't heard of the so-called orphan trains, in which from 1858 to 1929 some 200,000 children were sent west from the East Coast to new homes across the country. The recent New York Times best-selling book Orphan Train has brought more attention to this fascinating bit of American history. Perhaps that's why the History Theatre is bringing back Orphan Train this season. The musical tells fictional stories of orphan train riders based on real events. While it's a bit cheesy and, well, Disney (for lack of a better word), the stories and music brought a tear to my eye on more than one occasion. The wonderful ensemble of seasoned pros and children alike, the excellent folk/Americana score played by a sparse but lovely orchestra, and the moving stories about immigrant orphan children in search of a home is a very affecting combination.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"The Averagers: Christmas War" by Comedy Suitcase at Bryant Lake Bowl

Last year's smash hit Fringe Festival show The Averagers returns with a Christmas special, because 'tis the season. Our favorite average people turned superheroes are back, and while the show may not have anything to do with Christmas (other than one scene that takes place in the Target Christmas aisle, a scary place indeed), it is hilariously funny, family friendly, chock full of local references, only an hour long, and a whole lot of fun.

"What Fools These Mortals Be" by Interact Theater at the Lab Theater

Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts is celebrating 20 years of "creating art that challenges perceptions of disability." In one of the finest examples of inclusivity in theater, Interact provides opportunities for artists with disabilities to share their work, which allows the audience to see beyond the disability to the artist and the art that they create. I attended a performance by Interact Theater for the first time this weekend, a mish-mash of Shakespeare plays called What Fools These Mortals Be, written by and starring beloved local storyteller extraordinaire Kevin Kling. I was completely charmed by the performance. It's such a beautiful thing to see people of various abilities working together to create art. What Fools is filled with much humor and heart, and a spirit of playfulness often lacking in Shakespeare. Ten Thousand Things shows us that "theater is better when everyone is in the audience," and Interact shows us that theater is better when everyone is on the stage.

Friday, November 25, 2016

"A Gone Fishin' Christmas" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Original Christmas plays at Yellow Tree Theatre have become a beloved tradition in the last 9 years. Due to a happy accident, Yellow Tree was forced to produce their own play (written by co-founder Jessica Lind Peterson) when they lost the rights to the play they were intending to do their first season. This was the basis of the plot of that first play, Miracle on Christmas Lake, which after three successful runs inspired a sequel Miracle of Christmas Lake II that also ran for a couple years. Then came A Hunting Shack Christmas, and now this year we head to the icehouse for A Gone Fishin' Christmas. All of these plays follow a similar blueprint - a small Minnesota town with adorably quirky characters, the "citiots" who return to the small town they grew up in and make some sort of a life change. It's not the most original of plots, but it works, and provides a framework for Minnesota humor, outrageous antics, and lovely quiet moments of family and connection. There's a reason that Yellow Tree's original Christmas plays are so popular and sell out virtually every performance - they are a perfect mix of heart and humor wrapped up in local jokes that we love so well, with a talented cast that makes these characters and the sweet and silly story sing (literally and figuratively). And Gone Fishin' may be the best of the bunch. A few tickets remain (with best availability at weekday matinees) so get your tickets now to experience this hilarious and heart-warming tale.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"A Christmas Story" at Lyric Arts

The 1983 movie A Christmas Story has become a holiday classic, thanks in part to TBS running it for 24 hours on Christmas Day every year. Full of humor, nostalgia, and heart, this story of 9-year-old Ralphie and his quest for a very special BB gun for Christmas is a charmer. Fans of the movie are sure to enjoy Lyric Arts production of the play version of the movie, written in 2000 by Philip Grecian (which is different from the musical version that the Ordway did a few years ago). While this story based on a 30-year-old movie based on memories of a time 40 years before that is a bit dated, and viewed a bit differently in today's environment, the heart of the piece is still there. At the Sunday matinee performance some of my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (from Artfully Engaging, No Filter Reviews, One Girl, Two Cities, and Twin Cities Stages) and I were greeted with a Christmas cocktail, and after the show we chatted with the adult members of the cast and toured the set, with more Christmas cocktails of course. We bloggers always welcome the opportunity to talk to artists about their work and to learn about what happens behind the scenes.* Lyric Arts is one of the top community theaters in town (along with Theatre in the Round), and it was a treat to get to know them a little better and enjoy this festive and fun holiday show.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

"The Passage, Or What Comes of Searching in the Dark" by 7th House Theater at the Guthrie Theater

Musical theater is my favorite art form, and new original musicals are my favorite things in the world. I love seeing how music and theater can combine to tell a story in interesting forward-thinking ways. After re-imagining a couple of classic musicals (and one play), newish theater company 7th House Theater has turned to producing new original musicals. The Passage, Or What Comes of Searching in the Dark, is the third such creation to be presented in the Guthrie Theater Studio (now for just $9 per ticket). It's the first one for which company member David Darrow has written music, lyrics, and book (he's previously worked with a co-composer and/or book writer). I've loved all of their work, but this one feels more personal and more modern and forward-thinking than what they've done before. Jonah and the Whale is a folk musical that harkens back to the early 20th Century, The Great Work is almost operatic and classical in feel, but The Passage feels like it's continuing along the trajectory of modern musicals like Next to Normal and Fun Home - an intimate family story told with a small cast and modern inventive staging. And the result is truly something special. I can't help feeling that we're going to lose the incredibly talented artists of 7th House to New York someday (to Broadway's benefit), so we need to relish their work while we still can, and then someday we can proudly say "we knew them when."

"A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie Theater

A rich, greedy, selfish old man with no regard for his fellow human beings, especially those that are different from him, that are suffering, that could benefit from a little kindness. Why is it that the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge seems so familiar? It must be because this is my 11th time seeing The Guthrie Theater's gorgeous, lively, and warm-hearted production of A Christmas Carol. And I never tire of seeing it, because Charles Dickens' story of redemption, community, family, and human kindness never gets old. It's a beautiful and necessary thing to be reminded that "what brings us together is greater than what drives us apart." That it's never too late to change, to grow, to become a kinder and more generous person. In today's current environment when there's so much division among us, so much violence and ugliness, A Christmas Carol shows us how good humanity can be.

Friday, November 18, 2016

"Orange" at Mixed Blood Theatre

Being 17 is hard enough, but for a young woman on the Autism spectrum raised in India and returning to the strange land of her birth - Orange County, California - it's even more challenging. Mixed Blood Theatre's Playwright in Residence Aditi Brennan Kapil premieres her 7th new work there, the funny, poignant, imaginative story of the unusual but perfect Leela in Orange. In just 90 minutes with no intermission (a morning person's dream), the excellent three-person cast takes us on Leela's one-night adventure and, aided by a really cool set, makes us feel like we're right there with her as she begins to grow up and gain her independence.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"FIVE" by 20% Theatre Company at Dreamland Arts

One of the things I most admire in theater is artists who tell their own very personal and often difficult story through their work. I find it incredibly brave to expose your life, heart, soul, heartaches, and triumphs on stage in front of a bunch of strangers, and this sharing of truth often results in the most affecting theater. The audience can sense the realness and the raw emotion they're witnessing. Such is the case with 20% Theatre Company's new work FIVE, written by Claire Avitabile. Claire is the founder and Artistic Director of 20% Theatre, named after a 2002 study which found that 20% of professional theater artists are women. 20% Theatre is "committed to supporting and vigorously promoting the work of female and transgender theater artists, and celebrating the unique contribution of these artists to social justice and human rights," work that is perhaps more important now than it ever has been in the company's 10-year history. FIVE is one person's specific story of overcoming childhood trauma, universal in its themes of loss, search for identity, and healing.

"Henry V" by Theatre Pro Rata at the Crane Theater

I recently wrote, "I should just give up seeing anyone else do Shakespeare, because no one does it like Ten Thousand Things." Of course that's not very realistic for a theater blogger; Shakespeare is still one of our most produced playwrights. But lucky for me, Theatre Pro Rata's new production of Henry V borrows a few things from TTT, namely a small cast, an edited story, and a playful spirit. They use just five actors to play the two dozen or more roles, and what's even more interesting - each actor takes a turn playing the title role. It's all done in a meta theater style in which five actors attempt to tell this epic story and realize just what they're up against, congratulating each other at the end when they accomplish the task. And accomplish it they do, in what is a new and inventive take on a very old play.

Monday, November 14, 2016

"Cinderella" at Children's Theatre Company

Two weeks ago I was invited to a backstage tour for bloggers at Children's Theatre Company, where they were busy preparing for the third production of their original adaptation of Cinderella, previously seen in 2009 and 2013. Along with my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers Kendra (Artfully Engaging) and Tracy (What Stirs Your Soul), two other bloggers, and three lucky children, I was led through all of the backstage departments where they were hard at work creating everything from chandeliers to wigs to glass slippers. It was a truly eye-opening experience to witness up close and personal what goes into creating a show this big. It was also wonderful to witness the passion and dedication that all of the artists have for their job, making sure that the show is the best that it can be for the many children (and grown-ups) who will come to see it. The highlight of the tour was a visit to the rehearsal room, where director Peter Brosius and choreographer Linda Talcott Lee were leading the ensemble through a few scenes that take place at the ball. Last weekend I finally got to see the final product that all that preparation has led to, and it's a crazy, wonderful, magical, insanely fun experience for kids and adults alike.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"Company" by Shoot the Glass Theater at New Century Theatre

"Company! Lots of company! Years of company! Love is company! Company!" So ends my favorite Stephen Sondheim musical, the 1970 multiple Tony winner Company. A new theater company in town called Shoot the Glass Theater has kindly chosen to do this, my favorite Sondheim, on this, my birthday weekend, as just their second show as a company. They're presenting a fairly simple staging and a fairly straight-forward and traditional production at the New Century Theatre, with a talented young cast, some new to me, some familiar. I was thrilled to begin my birthday celebration with Bobby and his crazy married friends. If you're a Sondheim fan, act fast, because they're only doing six shows (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"Musical Mondays" at Hell's Kitchen, November 2016

I don't know about y'all, but it's been a pretty busy and stressful week for me. So it's taken me a few days to get around to writing this, but I don't want to let the 4th birthday of Musical Mondays at Hell's Kitchen go by unmentioned! This fabulous monthly cabaret series hosted by super talented local actor/singers and real life BFFs Sheena Janson and Max Wojtanowicz began in November of 2012. Four years, 43 shows, over 200 performers, and over 300 musicals (what?! who knew there even were that many musicals!) later and they're still going strong. On the first Monday of every month, from 7 to 9 pm (morning people everywhere rejoice) at Hell's Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis, some of our top local talent can be seen singing songs from musicals beloved and obscure. The goal is to provide performing and networking opportunities, to celebrate musical theater, and to have fun! Their next event is on December 5 when the theme will be a grown-up Christmas wish list. Watch their Facebook page for more details.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"The Oldest Boy" at the Jungle Theater

Friends, it's really hard to go back to writing about theater when half of the country is devastated, and I happen to be in that half. But maybe now, when politics and politicians have failed us, is when we need to turn to our artists. Our playwrights, our actors, our painters, our sculptors, our dancers, our comedians, our musicians. To heal our wounds, to bring people together, to make sense of the world, to promote social justice and equality. The Oldest Boy perhaps doesn't seem on the surface to be a profound political statement Rather it's a simple story of love, faith, and non-attachment. Which perhaps is the most profound statement of all, and one that I, for one, would like to focus on today of all days. The world was a different place when I left the Jungle Theater last night than when I entered it, but for two hours but I was immersed in a world of love, learning, sacrifice, faith, and hope.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"A Raisin in the Sun" at Park Square Theatre

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Monday, November 7, 2016

"105 Proof; or, the Killing of Mack 'The Silencer' Klein" by Transatlantic Love Affair at Illusion Theater

Since being mesmerized by Ash Land at the 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival, I've been a loyal follower of Transatlantic Love Affair, the physical theater troupe that casts a spell and weaves a dream by using nothing but their bodies, voices, hearts, and souls to tell stories. Their subjects are typically very loose retellings of fairy or folk tales (Cinderella in Ash Land, Little Red Riding Hood in Red Resurrected, the legend of the Selkie in The Ballad of the Pale Fisherman), but recently they've developed original stories including the memory play These Old Shoes and the modern-day love story emilie/eurydice. Most of their shows premiere at the Fringe, but thanks to their partnership with Illusion Theater, they, and we the audience, often get a chance to revisit the stories in a slightly expanded version. Such is the case with 105 Proof; or, the Killing of Mack "The Silencer" Klein, which debuted at the 2015 Fringe. 105 Proof is another original story, but one with a decidedly different tone than their other work. The tale of a small town boy who becomes a Chicago mobster in the Prohibition era is darker, grittier, more suspenseful, and also funnier than their usual dreamy tales. But what's not different is the way the cast (most of whom were in the original production) and live musical soundtrack create an entire world of the imagination that feels real and all-encompassing.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

"Tartuffe" by Wayward Theatre Company at the James J Hill House

I love seeing theater in non-traditional theater spaces; it shakes me out of the usual and allows me to see theater in a different way. These days, it's becoming a necessity for the many nomadic theater companies in town to look outside the box when planning to mount a show (see also Frank Theatre's Good Person of Setzuan in an abandoned Rainbow Foods). Happily, the James J. Hill House seems to be quite amenable to hosting theatrical events; I've seen three plays there in the last six months. It's a gorgeous and historic building, and lends itself quite well to a variety of projects, from a comic opera like Marriage of Figaro, to a creepy horror tale like Bluebeard's Dollhouse, to a 17th Century French comedy. The latter can currently be seen in the grand surroundings on St. Paul's Summit Avenue (once the home of more millionaires than any other street in the country), in the form of new-to-me Wayward Theatre Company's innovatively imagined and well-executed Tartuffe. I can't help thinking the Hill family would be thrilled to know people are experiencing wonderful theater in their home.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Twin Cities Horror Festival at the Southern Theater

This is the fifth year of the Twin Cities Horror Festival at the Southern Theater (or so I gather from their TCHFV acronym, unless V stands for Vampires). TCHF is an 11-day festival of theater, film, music, and dance in the horror genre. Not being a fan of this particular genre (I haven't celebrated Halloween since elementary school, and avoid scary movies and TV shows), I've never attended before and didn't think it was something that would interest me. But my friends at Minnesota Theater Love are big fans, so they convinced me to give it a try this year. The structure and schedule is similar to the Minnesota Fringe Festival (hour-long shows with half hour breaks in between), but unlike the Fringe, TCHF happens right in the middle of the busy theater season, so I was only able to spare one day. I picked two companies that I was familiar with, and happily neither show was particularly gory. Below are a few thoughts about each show. I'm still not convinced this is the event for me (much like sadness, I don't do horror), especially with so many other theater choices right now. But it's a fun alternative to the usual theater scene, and if you're a fan of the horror genre, you should definitely check it out.

Monday, October 31, 2016

"Aunt Raini" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at Highland Park Center Theater

What happens when your beloved great-aunt, the woman who helped raise you and is your only remaining family, is also a Nazi war criminal? Or if not a war criminal, at the least a Nazi sympathizer and the woman responsible for creating propaganda films for Hitler. Of course I'm referring to Leni Riefenstahl, whose legacy remains complicated. Was she merely a talented artist and director whose subjects happened to include the rise of the Nazi party? Or was she an active part of the cause, and therefore responsible for the death of millions of people? Or is it possible that she was both of these things? The new play Aunt Raini, receiving it's world premiere at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, examines these questions by giving Leni a fictional great-niece in New York City who is with her when she dies at the age of 101 in 2003. While the play could benefit from another round of revisions, it's an intriguing concept and grapples with important questions about art and politics without offering any easy answers, with complex characters and relationships brought to life by a terrific four-person cast.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

"The Good Person of Setzuan" by Frank Theatre at an Abandoned Rainbow Foods

Yes, you read that right. Last night I saw theater at an abandoned Rainbow Foods in South Minneapolis. It was definitely the strangest place I have ever seen theater, but not the strangest place Frank Theatre has ever done theater. According to a note in the playbill from Artistic Director Wendy Knox, Frank used to do a lot of shows in a found space, until they settled into more conventional spaces like the Southern and the Ritz in recent years. Some last minute changes this year caused them to get creative again, and with the dearth of small theater spaces (just as we gained The Crane Theater, we lost Bedlam Lowertown), theaters need to get creative. Frank has made terrific use of this space in their latest production of a Brecht play - The Good Person of Setzuan. Frank + Brecht = weird, but weird in a creative, interesting, entertaining way. Although the 8 to 11:15 pm runtime was way too late and long for this morning person (can we not all just agree to start all shows at 7:30, and can't we edit super-long plays into something more manageable?), it's a very well-done, intriguing, thought-provoking, entertaining play in typical Frank style.

Friday, October 28, 2016

"Black Death: The Musical" by Apostasia Productions at Sabes JCC Theater

The new original musical Black Death: The Musical runs for three performances only, just in time for Halloween. I was invited to attend the final dress rehearsal a few nights ago. Writer Susan Woehrle and composer Scott Keever have created a well-researched piece with a unique musical style. They originally intended it to be for the Fringe Festival (read my fellow Twin Cities Theater Blogger Kendra's interview with Susan here), and it definitely has that feel. If you miss those Fringey musicals of August, enjoy dark humor and original music, and don't mind driving all the way out to St. Louis Park, you might want to check out Black Death: The Musical - this weekend only!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"110 in the Shade" by Second Fiddle Productions at Camp Bar

Second Fiddle Productions, the company that brings us one-night-only staged readings of rarely produced musicals, closed their third season with the 1963 musical 110 in the Shade. I became aware of them in the middle of their second season, and now I don't miss a show. It's great for my musical theater education - for a musical theater geek, there are a lot of old shows I don't know, especially if they're not often done. It's also a great opportunity to watch some of the Twin Cities finest music-theater talent tackle something they might not otherwise have the opportunity to. Assuming they get the grant money and donations to keep this relatively simple operation going, they'll be back in 2017 with three more musicals I've never heard of! Watch their Facebook page for details.

Monday, October 24, 2016

"The Baker's Wife" at Artistry

I had a rare experience at the theater yesterday - I went to see a musical I knew nothing about and was absolutely charmed by it. Stephen Schwartz's Wicked may be the 10th longest-running show on Broadway and one of the most "popular" musicals of recent years, but his 1976 musical The Baker's Wife never made it to Broadway and is rarely produced. I'm grateful that Artistry's resident Music Director Anita Ruth was finally able to do her "dream show," and what a dream it is! The absolutely lovely score, the touching story about love and forgiveness, and the cast, led by everyone's favorite Bradley Greenwald and soon-to-be everyone's favorite Jill Iverson, make this a dream show indeed. Head to Bloomington before November 12 and take a chance on an unfamiliar musical, you just might fall in love.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Playlabs" at the Playwrights' Center

Playlabs. It sounds like a scientific experiment about plays. And it sort of is. While the play-writing process is not as rigorous and clearly defined as the scientific process, there is a process involved in bringing a new play to the stage. The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis is one of the best resources in the country for facilitating that process. Now in their 45th year, they work with 1700 playwrights every year in some capacity. That's a lot of new plays! And while we love our classics, and they're important to keep alive, new works of theater are what keep theater thriving and evolving and moving forward. The 33rd annual Playlabs festival is a week-long celebration of this concept. There are a number of special events during the week, but the focus is on three plays by three playwrights who have the chance to workshop the play with top local talent (actors, directors, and designers) and present two readings to the public. As audience members, this is our chance to be part of the play development process. And it's free! Playlabs ends today, but follow the Playwrights' Center on social media and keep your eye on the "Events" page of their website for more opportunities to see readings of new works, including the upcoming Ruth Easton New Play Series.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

"Finding Fish" at Illusion Theater

Did you know that there's a fishing crisis in New England? Being a vegetarian who never really liked to eat or catch fish, living in land-locked Minnesota, I've never heard about this issue. I've never even thought about how environmental issues affect those making their living off the sea. But I'm thinking about it now, thanks to Carlyle Brown's new play Finding Fish, now receiving its world premiere at Illusion Theater. Rather than just being a boring recitation of facts (like "from 1991 to 2003 the cod catch fell 99%," as noted in the thick program that has tons of information and resources about environmental issues, particularly those related to water), Finding Fish combines the realism of family drama with fantastical elements to create a story that's both thought-provoking and entertaining.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Hold These Truths" at the Guthrie Theater

"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal." ("And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I'm 'a compel him to include women in the sequel, werk!") Before Lin-Manuel Miranda made it impossible for me to read this quote without singing, I remember learning it in history class. And I remember my teacher saying that what the authors of the Declaration of Independance really meant was, firstly, men and not women, and secondly, the implied qualifiers of white, land-owning, and age 21 or older. In the last 200+ years, we have worked to expand that definition to include women, people of color, young people, poor people, and LGBT people, so that truly in America "all people are created equal." But the road towards that expansion has not been easy and it hasn't been linear; it's more of a two steps forward one step back kind of thing. And one huge step back was the internment of Japanese people during World War II, when over 100,000 people, 62% of them American citizens, were forced to leave their homes and live in camps hundreds or thousands of miles away. It's unthinkable that the president ordered this and our government allowed it, yet at the same time, it's scarily similar to what's going on today in terms of fear of immigrants and "others." The one-man play Hold These Truths, now playing in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio, tells the specific story of one man who defied these orders in a way that makes the injustice feel real and personal, and reminds us that we must never let it happen again.

Monday, October 17, 2016

"Always... Patsy Cline" at Lyric Arts

The plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper is known as "the day the music died." But what about the plane crash a few years later that killed Patsy Cline? On that day the world lost one of the best voices it's ever known. Always... Patsy Cline gives us a peek into the human side of the music icon as we get to know her through her fan, friend, and pen pal Louise. The new production at Lyric Arts in Anoka is perfectly cast, full of heart, and highly entertaining for anyone whose ever heard Patsy's music, and let's face it - who hasn't?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"The Last Firefly" at Children's Theatre Company

The new play The Last Firefly by Naomi Iizuka, commissioned by the Children's Theatre Company, feels like a new fairy tale for the modern age. The playwright has combined elements from several Japanese folktales and put at the center a child of a single mother who has never met his father and is living with an abusive stepfather. A lot of today's kids can relate to this situation in some way. Boom goes on a hero's journey in search of his father to help his mother, and along the way discovers his own strength. It's a familiar story, but one told in a new and modern way with some fantastic design elements to create an engaging 80-minute play.

"Pericles" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

When I first saw Pericles, at the Guthrie earlier this year, I wrote, "I had a bit of a hard time with the play (as I often do the first time I see a Shakespeare play, unless Ten Thousand Things is doing it)." Lucky for me, Ten Thousand Things is doing it! And while I appreciated that production of Pericles, it didn't resonate with me the way that TTT's new production does, it didn't get inside me and make me feel for the characters and understand their plight. I should just give up seeing anybody else do Shakespeare, because no one does it like Ten Thousand Things. They make these 400-year-old plays so relevant and relatable and current, in a way that makes me love Shakespeare! The complicated plot of Pericles, filled with many characters and locations, is made simple through the use of smart editing, props, costumes, and most of all these eight incredible actors who make Shakespearean language sound so natural and easily understandable. Trust me, you've never seen Shakespeare quite like this.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"Jitney" at Penumbra Theatre

Jitney is the first play in the so-called "Century Cycle" that August Wilson wrote, but, set in the '70s, it's the 8th in the series chronologically. Each of the ten plays speaks to the African American experience (which I've learned at Penumbra Theatre is really the American experience) in one decade in the 20th Century. This is only the third Century play I've seen, after Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (set in the '20s) and Two Trains Running (the '60s) in 2011. I seem to recall that Penumbra planned to produce one of these plays every year, or maybe every other, but plans were derailed during their financial setback of 2012. I'm happy that they've returned to August Wilson's work during this, their 40th anniversary season. Penumbra has a long history with August Wilson, having produced his first professional play and more of his plays that any other theater. We are privileged to have Penumbra in our community, and I hope that they continue to do the Century plays until I've seen them all. August Wilson wrote such rich characters and specific experiences that speak to the universal truths of friends and family, love and heartbreak. And Penumbra's troupe of actors is experienced and quite brilliant in bringing these stories to life, as they do in Jitney.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"The Parchman Hour" at the Guthrie Theater

"Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. Hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah!" The closing number of the fantastic music-theater piece The Parchman Hour by Mike Wiley is so uplifting and inspirational. This "docudrama" about the 1961 Freedom Riders, in which primarily young people, black and white, from all over the country, came together to make a stand for desegregation of the bus stations of the South, is pretty heavy and difficult to watch at times. But in the end it left me with an overwhelming feeling of hope. We've come a long way in 55 years, people are no longer beat up by a mob of bigots for sitting in the wrong waiting room, but we have our own issues today (the play ends with a chilling recitation of the names of black men and women who have been killed by police in recent years). But I believe that there are more people in this country like those Freedom Riders, perhaps not as brave and selfless, but with our minds stayed on freedom, than there are like the people who stood in their way. If we stand (or sit) together, stand up for freedom, practice non-violence, and sing, we can get through this difficult time and achieve true justice and equality for all. At least that's how I felt leaving the Guthrie Theater last night; such is the power of The Parchman Hour.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"Teenage Misery" by Revisionary Theatre Collective at Sandbox Theatre

There's another new theater company in town. They're called Revisionary Theatre Collective, and they're making their debut with a remount of the 2013 Minnesota Fringe musical Teenage Misery. It was one of my favorite Fringe shows that year, about which I wrote:
What do you get if you combine the Stephen King novels Misery and Carrie with the musicals Sweeney Todd and Bye Bye Birdie? You get this odd and delightful mishmash of a musical, that doesn't shy away from the material it borrows from (the opening song is "attend the tale of Carrie Black," and Conrad Birdie is replaced by Shane West). A little rough around the edges, but the songs are great, with clever commentary on what it's like to be a young person growing up today, and winking jokes about "no time for proper character introduction, we only have an hour."

Monday, October 10, 2016

"Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story" at the History Theatre

Friends, I think the History Theatre has another hit on their hands. After the huge success of last fall's new original musical Glensheen, which received a second run and an Ivey award this year, they follow in the footsteps of the proven success of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story with Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story. In a way, this story picks up where that story left off. Bobby Vee's career was born on the day the music died. But this new musical (or rather play with music if you want to get technical about it, and I do*) doesn't just rest on the nostalgia of baby boomers, who, let's face it, would come see the show no matter how good it was just to hear these great old hits of the '60s. Teen Idol is more than just a string of familiar hits, it's a well written and extremely satisfying play with music that tells the story of Bobby Vee's life, music, family, and rise to and fall from fame. Kind of like a cleaner version of Jersey Boys (Fargo ND is far from New Jersey and not just in geography). Featuring a star performance by Tyler Michaels, who continues to impress with his range of talents and characters, and an incredibly strong ensemble chock full of local talent, who all get their moment to shine, Teen Idol is a fantastic show no matter your generation.

"The Kalevala" by nimbus theatre at The Crane Theater

What's The Crane Theater, you ask? It's nimbus theatre's brand new theater space in Northeast Minneapolis. Less than a year after a rent hike forced them out of their previous space in Northeast, a space where they not only presented exciting new work of their own but also hosted many nomadic theater companies in presenting their work, nimbus has found a new home. There seems to be a dearth of small affordable theater spaces for small theater companies (of which there are very many in this town), so the opening of The Crane Theater is an important and exciting thing. This big, open, airy former factory space with 30-foot ceilings will provide a great home for not just nimbus, but many theater companies who need a space in which to share their work, and also for audiences who want to see such work. That's why I donated to their Kickstarter campaign to help with continued renovations, which include a second theater/studio space, and I look forward to watching the space progress and to seeing some great theater there. Last weekend nimbus opened the first show in The Crane Theater, a new work based on the Finnish epic poem The Kalevala. As a new work it's a bit rough, but also fascinating, introducing me to a piece of literature and history with which I was previously unfamiliar, using modern language and cool design elements.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Barbecue" at Mixed Blood Theatre

When you see as much theater as I do, you can often see where things are going. Not so with Barbecue at Mixed Blood Theatre. This play did something that theater rarely does - it surprised me. Surprised me in such a huge way that the play I ended up watching was not the play I thought I was watching at the beginning. Surprised me in such a wonderfully clever and challenging way that this post is going to be frustratingly vague and uninformative because I don't want to ruin that surprise for anyone. If you're intrigued, just go see the show and find out what I'm talking about. In addition to being surprising, Barbecue is also really funny and asks some tough questions. Questions about race, questions about our assumptions about race, questions about how different races are portrayed in the media, questions about truth, questions about drug and alcohol abuse, questions about family relations. There's a lot going on at this little family barbecue, and this incredible cast pulls it off brilliantly.