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.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

"Camelot" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

The rain may never fall till after sundown.
By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
In short, there's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot.

Even in a musical, this idyllic world cannot last forever. The problems of the real world - war, greed, betrayal - come crashing in despite the legendary King Arthur's dreams of peace. Perhaps turning a blind eye to reality is not the best way to keep the peace, but it sure was nice while it lasted. Even though I have some issues with the book, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres beautifully brings the mystical and idyllic world of Camelot to life with gorgeous design, a fantastic cast, and beautiful music.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Death of a Salesman" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Yellow Tree Theatre opened their ninth season with the American classic Death of a Salesman a few weeks ago, and has been racking up rave reviews ever since. So chances are you've already heard what an excellent production this is, and maybe you've even already seen it or made plans to. If not, I'm here to belatedly add my voice to the crowd. I've been a fan and loyal follower of Yellow Tree since their third season, and it's been a pleasure to watch their growth; they just keep getting better. Yesterday Yellow Tree announced that they are one of seven recipients of the American Theatre Wing's National Theatre Company Grant. Which is all just to say that they're doing great things at the cozy little theater in an unassuming strip mall in Osseo, and this intimate staging of an American classic featuring a brilliant cast is the most recent example.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

"The Venetian Twins" by Theatre Forever at the Southern Theater

Wikipedia tells me that Commedia dell'arte is "a form of theatre characterized by masked 'types' which began in Italy in the 16th century." Theatre Forever is presenting the 18th century Italian comedy The Venetian Twins in such a style, with broad, exaggerated, physical comedy, as part of the Southern Theater's ARTshare program. Even though much of it is not really my kind of humor (like Dr. Jody Kimball-Kinney, I find the frequent "erotic pantomimes" to be more gross than funny), it's quite clever and very well done, with total commitment by the dozen members of the ensemble under the clear direction by Jon Ferguson.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"Antigone" by Theatre Coup d'Etat at SpringHouse Ministry Center

Sitting in the lounge at SpringHouse Ministry Center (a venue I was familiar with from this year's Fringe), waiting to see Theatre Coup d'Etat's new adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone, I read the Wikipedia plot summary, as I often do before I see a really old play. The story of the sister who is condemned to death for giving her brother a proper burial started to sound familiar to me, and I realized I had seen it before, only it was called Burial at Thebes, and it was a sort of gospel retelling by Irish poet Seamus Haeney. Sophocles' trilogy of this ancient doomed family begins with Oedipus the King (you know Oedipus, the guy who was cursed by the gods to kill his father and marry his mother), continues with Oedipus at Colonus (which also has a gospel retelling called Gospel of Colonus), and ends with the story of Antigone, Oedipus' daughter. Also related is Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes, which tells the story of Antigone's two brothers who fought over control of Thebes after their father's death (which I experienced as a "hip-hop musical comedy-tragedy in Ten Thousand Things' The Seven). All of this preamble is just to say I was more familiar with the world of Antigone than I thought, and felt comfortable jumping right into this intense 90-minute adaptation. It's a story, or rather a piece of a story, that's been told many many times over the last few millennia. But a story that's still worth hearing, especially this version, which focuses on a strong female heroine standing up for her family and doing what she believes is right, no matter the consequences.

Monday, October 3, 2016

"Bluebeard's Dollhouse" by Combustible Company at the James J. Hill House

If the candy and decorations at Target haven't made you aware that Halloween season is upon us, Combustible Company's immersive and mobile merging of two disastrous marriage tales Bluebeard's Dollhouse will leave no doubt. It's performed in multiple locations in the gorgeous historic mansion that is the James J. Hill House, and it's super creepy. It's definitely not your typical night at the theater - walking up and down grand or narrow staircases, entering rooms simple or elaborate, and seeing scary looking dolls everywhere you turn. If you like a good fright, and appreciate invention and creativity and, well, something that's just different, Bluebeard's Dollhouse (continuing through October 15) is the experience for you. I'm not very fond of scary things and horror (Halloween is a non-holiday in my life), but I appreciate the artistry that goes into creating this very detailed world at this incredibly cool location.

"Nature" by TigerLion Arts at Elm Creek Park Reserve

A few weeks ago, I spent four days and three nights in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, just outside of Ely, MN. Even though I've been to New Zealand and Northern Alaska, this was the most in Nature I've ever been. After paddling into the nationally designated wilderness area, the only signs of civilization I and my six companions saw were the campsite fire pits and latrines (if you can call a copper stool with a hole in it standing in the middle of the woods "civilization"). Nothing soothes my fears and relieves my stress like being in Nature. Those four days were like a balm to my soul; the challenge is to carry that feeling with me back into civilization. TigerLion Arts' outdoor walking play about the friendship between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, simply titled Nature, challenges the audience to escape from civilization for an hour or two and feel Nature's balm. After touring around the Midwest, it was at the beautiful Elm Creek Park Reserve, just north of Maple Grove, last weekend. This was my third time seeing it and the third location (after the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and my alma mater St. John's University), and I will continue to go see it every year they continue to do it. It truly is one of my favorite theater experiences.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

"The Realistic Joneses" at Park Square Theatre

The Realistic Joneses is an odd little play. But I shouldn't be surprised; the other Will Eno play I've seen (Thom Pain (based on nothing) by Loudmouth Collective) is exceedingly odd. But odd in the best way. The Joneses is a little more, well, realistic, than the one-man show Thom Pain, with an actual plot and characters in conversation with each other. But I still don't understand everything that happened, and sometimes characters say things that don't make sense, and there's no resolution to the problems the characters are facing. But that's OK. I like theater that doesn't tie things up in a neat bow in the end, that's a little unexpected and even jarring. I'm happy to spend 90 minutes or so in this odd and sometimes uncomfortable world populated by odd and sometimes unlikeable people, beautifully brought to life by this fantastic four-person cast.

"Songs for a New World" by Minneapolis Musical Theatre at Bryant-Lake Bowl

"Rare Musicals. Well Done." Minneapolis Musical Theatre can check another well done rare musical off their list with their current production of Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World. The first musical written by JRB, who has since gone on to win two Tony Awards for best score (Parade in 1999 and The Bridges of Madison County in 2014, through which I recently fell in love with his music), SFANW is less a musical than a song cycle. There's no plot or throughline, just four actor/singers performing seemingly disconnected songs, but all centered around the theme of that one defining moment in life. In a way, it's a dozen musicals in one; each song is like a mini-musical unto itself, telling a complete story and defining character(s). It's a fantastic collection of songs, some funny, some sad, some poignant, some all of the above. MMT does a great job bringing these songs to life with just four chairs and a keyboard (and percussion) on a bare stage at Bryant Lake Bowl.