Monday, September 17, 2018

"Awake and Sing!" at Artistry

I love sad plays. I love stories of miserable families who love each other but don't know how to express it in healthy ways. Awake and Sing!, now playing at Artistry's black box theater, is one such tragically beautiful and beautifully tragic play, like Tennessee Williams set in the Bronx. Or rather, since Clifford Odets' 1935 play predates Williams' major works, I guess I should say that Tennessee Williams is like Odets set in the South. The multi-generational Berger family has become beaten down by life, with the younger generation trying to break free and make a new life in this new country, if only it will let them. With a strong cast and detailed design in an intimate space, Artistry's production is beautiful and heart-breaking.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

"Once" by Theater Latte Da at Ritz Theater

Ever since it became available for regional productions a few years ago, I've been (im)patiently waiting for a #TCTheater company to do Once, the eight-time Tony winning musical based on the Irish indie film that won an Oscar for best song. My (im)patience has finally been rewarded with a production by my favorite company of theater musically that is, in a word, grand. Theater Latte Da used to have a series called "Broadway Re-imagined," but the cool thing about Once is that the original production on Broadway was already re-imagined, at least in terms of what you usually see on a Broadway stage. It's a small intimate story lacking the traditional (clichéd) happy ending; it features folk-rock music; and there is no separate orchestra, rather the ensemble also functions as the band in one cohesive celebration of music, love, joy, and pain. So very Irish. Still, Latte Da has managed to put their own unique spin on it and cast 13 multi-talented local performers to create something truly special that will make your heart ache in the best possible way.

"West of Central" at Pillsbury House Theatre

A thrilling mystery in the classic noir style set in LA in the '60s sounds fun, but add in the fact that the smart and savvy detective is an African American woman and the play deals with issues of racism, segregation, riots, and changing neighborhoods, and you have a uniquely engaging and thought-provoking new play that only favorite #TCTheater playwright Christina Ham could write. West of Central was developed at the Playwright's Center, where I saw a reading two years ago as part of their Playlabs Festival. It was great then, and it's even better now after some tweaking and fully staged at Pillsbury House Theatre with precise design. Directed by Haley Finn (who also directed the PWC reading) and featuring a fantastic cast of local faves, West of Central is not just super cool and fun, but also has some interesting things to say about race relations then and now, as well as how we choose to live where we live and where we call home.

Friday, September 14, 2018

"Spring Awakening" by Shoot the Glass Theater at the Lab Theater

I love Spring Awakening so much that after seeing the eight time Tony winner on Broadway (with most of the original cast), I named the next kitten I adopted Moritz Stiefel, after my favorite character. Nine years and three bladder surgeries later, my sweet Moritz is still with me, and so is my love for Spring Awakening. Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), the themes of the late 19th Century German play, as seen through a rock musical, are still relevant today. Suicide rates are on the rise, there are some very real threats to abortion rights in this country, exposure and intolerance of sexual abuse and harassment is at an all time high, and 21st Century technology is making it harder to be a teenager than perhaps it's ever been. You think Wendla and Melchi had it rough? At least they never had their most embarrassing moment go viral for the entire world to bully them! For all of these reasons I'm grateful to Shoot the Glass Theater for bringing Spring Awakening to us now, in a beautifully staged production featuring a super talented cast of young and unknown actors. I found myself falling in love with this story and these characters all over again.

Monday, September 10, 2018

"Dial M for Murder" at Gremlin Theatre

I concluded my unintentional Frederick Knott double-bill weekend with the fun and twisty murder mystery Dial M for Murder at Gremlin Theatre (see also Theatre in the Round's production of the English playwright's Wait Until Dark). It was fun to see the two plays back to back and notice the similarities: both take place entirely within an apartment with mention of a street door, both use phone calls to further the mystery, and both feature seemingly helpless maidens in distress who overcome their attacker and defend themselves, proving to their husbands that they are strong and capable and not so easily fooled. In Dial M for Murder, the husband plans the perfect murder, but if it were as easy as he thought to get away with murdering his wife, we wouldn't have a play. Gremlin's production is well cast and well designed, and tells an intriguing and engaging story.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

"Wait Until Dark" at Theatre in the Round

I first saw Frederick Knott's 1966 classic thriller Wait Until Dark, adapted by local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, at Lyric Arts two years ago. The second time around, at Theatre in the Round aka the Twin Cities' oldest theater, may have been a bit less suspenseful since I knew what was coming, but it's still a thrilling story of a blind woman who outsmarts the criminals trying to do her in and uses her sightlessness to her advantage.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

"Remembering Pins and Needles" by Theatre Elision at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center

One of my favorite new theater companies, Theatre Elision, is beginning their second full season with another original piece showcasing a little known part of music-theater history. Remembering Pins and Needles does just that - it remembers the 1937 musical created by the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union that went on to become the longest running Broadway show at the time (it's now #100). With a book by producer Cindy Polich, the show includes about a dozen songs from the original and one of the few remaining comedy sketches, interspersed with explanatory dialogue about the phenomenon that was Pins and Needles. The fantastic four-person ensemble and swingin' four-person band do a great job with these fun '30s era tunes, and the songs and story of Pins and Needles have a surprising resonance today - the working class fighting for their fair share against the rich and powerful that are trying to use them and keep them down. Remembering Pins and Needles is 75 minutes of edutainment that you can't get anywhere else.

Friday, September 7, 2018

"If/Then" at Lyric Arts

2014 saw the Broadway premiere of a new original musical written by the creators of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal (Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt) for two of the original stars of the Pulitzer Prize-winning RENT (Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp). I went to see If/Then with super high expectations, which is probably why I was underwhelmed. It's not going to win a Pulitzer (few musicals do, only nine if you want to get nerdy about it), in fact it didn't even win a Tony. But the more I listen to the score and see the show (I also saw the national tour a few years ago), the more I like it. It may not be a brilliant musical, but it's a good one, and it's original, fresh, and modern, which is hard to come by these days. Lyric Arts in Anoka was lucky/smart enough to snag the regional premiere, and I'm quite impressed by what this little community(ish) theater in the 'burbs was able to do with this complex show. A solid cast (and one outright superstar in Kate Beahen), a clever design that captures the spirit of NYC, clear direction by Elena Giannetti, and interesting movement around the small stage bring out the best in this smart, funny, moving, and thought-provoking new original modern musical. I can't ask for much more than that.

Monday, September 3, 2018

"Hamilton" Broadway Tour at the Orpheum Theatre

That's right, #TCTheater friends, music-theater's favorite founding father has finally arrived in Minneapolis, along with all of this friends. Three years after opening on Broadway and becoming the biggest theater sensation in years, maybe even decades, the second national tour is playing at the Opheum Theatre for a six-week run. I'm lucky enough to have seen it four times now, and it's still just as epic and thrilling, if not quite as mind-blowing as the first time. Hamilton is the rare thing that not only lives up to the hype, it exceeds it. In fact it's not really about the hype at all, the "all the cool people are seeing Hamilton so I guess I should see it too." You shouldn't go see Hamilton so you can impress your friends and neighbors, you should go see Hamilton because it's the quintessential American story told through the quintessential American art form - musical theater. It's one of those ground-breaking milestone events in the history of theater that has forever changed it. And it's also three jam-packed hours of music, dance, stories, entertainment, and inspiration. If you don't already have your tickets don't despair (and DO NOT buy tickets from third-party sellers!). There are tickets still available through the official channels, and you can enter a daily lottery in which 40 lucky people win the chance to buy tickets for $10 (click here for all the info). I don't think I need to try to convince anyone to go see it, or tell you how incredibly amazing it is. You already know that, the rest is up to you.

Friday, August 24, 2018

"Dr. Falstaff and the Working Wives of Lake County: A Picnic Operetta" by Mixed Precipitation at the Dodge Nature Center

Cooler weather, back to school sales, and the Minnesota State Fair may signal the end of summer, but one of #TCTheater's summer highlights is in full swing. This is my 5th year attending Mixed Precipitation's annual picnic operetta (now celebrating their 10th anniversary), and if you haven't seen them yet you're missing out on a unique delight. Mixing classic opera, pop music, and Minnesota's bountiful harvest, they perform a charming show outdoors while feeding the audience throughout the show. What's better than that?! For this year's opera, Artistic Director Scotty Reynolds has adapted German composer Otto Nicolai's 1849 opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor), setting it on the Iron Range in the '70s at the time of the foundation of the EPA, adding in songs by Bruce Springsteen. The result is exactly as weird and wonderful as that sounds. It's playful, fun, outdoors, and did I mention they feed you?! Playing in gardens and parks around the state, from Lake County to Winona (including several locations in the Twin Cities area), you're not going to want to miss this unique theatrical and culinary delight.

Monday, August 20, 2018

"What I Thought I Knew" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Center Theatre

NYC-based theater artist Alice Eve Cohen had a surprise late-in-life pregnancy filled with traumatic
experiences and decisions. So she wrote a play about it, because that's what artists do. The result is a frank, funny, and almost unbelievable story that touches on many common and relatable issues. For their production of What I Though I Knew, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company enlisted Kim Kivens to perform the solo piece, a wise choice indeed. As much as anything else, the play is about storytelling. About our need to tell stories, our need to listen to each other's stories. Alice's story is a remarkable one, and listening to it, as told by the team at MJTC, is a joyful, heart-breaking, moving experience.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

"Dear Lenny: Bernstein's Life in Songs and Letters" by Chronofon Productions at Open Eye Figure Theatre

Leonard Bernstein. I know him mostly as the composer of one of my all-time favorite musical theater scores, West Side Story (now playing at the Guthrie for one more week), as well as other works ranging from classical to popular. But I never really knew much about the man behind the music or what his life was like. Thanks to Open Eye Figure Theatre and the team from Chronofon Productions (Bradley Greenwald, Dan Chouinard, Diana Grasselli, and Prudence Johnson), I now feel like I have an even greater appreciation for the music as well as the person who created it. Dear Lenny: Bernstein's Life in Songs and Letters is a well constructed and entertaining deep dive into the life and work of one of the best American composers of the 20th Century.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

"Houdini" by Sandbox Theatre's Swingset

Sandbox Theatre is known for their ensemble-created original plays. Judging by their inaugural production, their new offshoot The Swingset does the same thing, only with aerial work. Like all of Sandbox's work, Houdini is a thoughtful and playful exploration of a subject (in this case the famed escape artist) that uses physical theater. But in this case the physical theater extends into the air on aerial silks hung from a contraption that does indeed look like a very large swingset. Performed outdoors in a couple of locations (I saw it at Pioneer Park in Roseville, where it continues tonight), it's a fun and magical experience.

Friday, August 17, 2018

"'Night, Mother" by Dark and Stormy Productions at Grain Belt Warehouse

Friends, this is a tough one to watch. And I don't necessarily recommend it for everyone, especially people who might be triggered by the events of the play. Proceed with caution, because Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning play is 90 minutes of the most frank discussion of suicide I've ever seen. Dark and Stormy's production, featuring the two-person dream team of Artistic Director Sara Marsh and #TCTheater favorite Sally Wingert, is beautifully done and powerfully affecting, almost painfully so. And they're doing all the right things - partnering with the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) - so that hopefully this play brings more awareness of and discussion about suicide. And it's also some really intense, intimate, engaging theater. I expect nothing less from Dark and Stormy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: Wrap-Up and Favorites

Well #TCTheater friends, we made it through another Minnesota Fringe Festival - 11 whirlwind days of theater, dance, comedy, clowning, storytelling, and so much more. I saw a total of 36 shows this year, which is actually my lowest total in the last 5 years, but I'm OK with that. At this point I'm getting better at choosing shows, so I feel like I saw 36 really good shows. And yes, there are many good or great shows I missed, but such is the nature of Fringe. I also noticed a very exciting trend this year, which is more shows by and about women. Of the 36 shows I saw, 20 were written (or co-written) by women, 19 were directed by women, 21 featured all or mostly female casts, and many dealt specifically with women's issues. This trend of more than half of shows being written and directed by women is one I would love to see continue throughout the theater season.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Blood Nocturne"

Day: 10

Show: 36

Category: Drama / Horror / Musical Theater

By: The Winding Sheet Outfit

Written by: The Winding Sheet Outfit

Location: Southern Theater

Summary: A retelling of the history/legend of Erzsébet Báthory, a Hungarian countess accused of murdering dozens (or even hundreds) of young women and girls in the early 17th Century.

Highlights: I had never heard of Erzsébet, but a quick read of her Wikepedia page reveals a horrifying tale of torture, mutilation, and murder. The Winding Sheet Outfit tells us Erzsébet's story from her point of view, as a powerful woman manipulated and falsely accused, although perhaps not totally innocent. The ensemble tells the story in a non-linear fashion, with charming and creepy original music. They often break the fourth wall, calling each other by their actual name when someone goes too far or suggests something not in line with the story they're telling. This device puts the audience at ease and reminds us it's just one interpretation of a story that can never fully be known. But it's a story that has much to tell us about gender, power, justice, and violence. Emily Dussault gives a strong and empathetic performance as Erzsébet, while the rest of the talented ensemble (Amber Bjork, Boo Segersin, Derek Lee Miller, and Joshua Swantz, Kayla Dvorak) play her helpers, friends, enemies, and alleged victims. Dressed in period clothing and playing period instruments, they work well together as an ensemble, using movement, music, and physical theater to create the world of Erzsébet against the perfect background of the Southern Theater. After seeing the play I'm not sure what to think about Erzsébet, but I know the situation is a little more nuanced and complex than what history usually describes.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Summers in Prague"

Day: 10

Show: 35

Category: Comedy / Drama

By: Sidecar Theatre

Directed by: Kimberly Miller

Location: Rarig Center Arena

Summary: An American woman living in Berlin travels to Prague once a year to hire a prostitute.

Highlights: I attended the final sold-out performance of this top-selling show in the Arena, and I can see why it was such a hit. Sweet, funny, awkward, sexy, and a premise we don't usually see - a woman hiring a male prostitute instead of the other way around. But really it's a character study of these two people who find themselves together under unusual circumstances, and the unique relationship they form over five summers in Prague. Mara is nervous and awkward at their first meeting, and can't stop apologizing. But we see her grow more comfortable and more confident over time. Vaclav is smooth and suave from the start, but you get the sense he's playing a role. Eventually he begins to reveal more of his true self as their relationship becomes deeper. Samantha V. Papke and Avi Aharoni have great chemistry and both give vulnerable and assured performances (and kudos to Avi for mastering the Czech accent) as they navigate the awkwardness of the situation and all the stages of the relationship (and here's hoping they had an Intimacy Choreographer). Beautifully written by Milwaukee-based playwright Deanna Strasse and well directed by Kimberly Miller, this play is an unexpected delight.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Rejection"

Day: 10

Show: 34

Title: Rejection

Category: Comedy / Drama / LGBTQ+ Content

By: Theatre Corrobora

Written by: Hailey Colwell

Location: Augsburg Mainstage

Summary: A relationship dramedy about a group of friends whose relationships change when they take part in a study about relationships.

Highlights: Based on the title of the play you know someone's going to get rejected. But it's a story well told by the strong cast in this entertaining , if not particularly revelatory play. After discussing her relationship with the researcher, Sadie begins to doubt it, and confesses her fears to girlfriend Jade, who doesn't share her same fears. Their (seemingly) happily married friends Penny and Steven also talk to the researcher, revealing some cracks in their relationship as well. Single friend Margo is happy being solo (especially observing her friends' relationship troubles) but tries dating anyway. In the end everyone's life is changed by the study, which really just made clear the issues that were already festering (moral of the story: talk about your feelings). Perhaps a little predictable, but still enjoyable, and bonus points for the thoughtfully chosen instrumental soundtrack of love songs.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Book of Shadows"

Day: 10

Show: 33

Title: Book of Shadows

Category: Comedy / Dance / Drama

By: Erin Sheppard Presents

Directed by: Erin Sheppard

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A series of dances pieces about witches, more specifically about a 13-year-old girl's experience and thoughts about witchcraft.

Highlights: This show is both creepy cool in the choreography (by Erin Sheppard, Regan K. Saunders, and Jessica Chad) and endearlingly sweet in Taj Ruler's confessions of a 13-year-old. Her stories of middle school life are very relatable, even if you didn't practice witchcraft. But Taj did, and kept a spell book from which she recites along with tales of teenage torment and joy. After each story/spell, we see it come to life in dance, performed by an eight-person ensemble (the choreographers along with Caroline Sable, Coralee Kaivo, Derek Meyer, Paige Siegrist, and Rhett Romsaas). There's a spell for your enemies, a love spell, and even a brief reenactment of the Salem witch trials. It's an interesting concept to explore the idea of witches both in history and legend, and through the mind of a young girl who uses witchcraft as a way to feel like she has power in a powerless time. The dances are beautiful, powerful, affecting, and funny. Watch for a follow-up at this year's Twin Cities Horror Fest.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Couple Fight: The Musical!"

Day: 10

Show: 32

Category: Comedy / Dance - Modern / Musical Theater

By: Weggel-Reed Productions

Created by: Anna Weggel-Reed and Tom Reed

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: The fourth installment in the ingenious series in which real life couples reenact their real life fight, only this time it's a musical!

Highlights: This concept is so brilliant it really should have life outside Fringe. I would love for them to bring it back for a 3-4 week run as a 90-minute show, or maybe a recurring cabaret series. This cast is so full of talent that listening to them fight is sheer joy, and adding music and dance only makes it better, especially when uber talented local composer Keith Hovis writes the songs. Whether the fight is about high expectations around a vacation (soon to be married couple Max Wojtanowicz and Allen Sommerfield), overflowing toilets (newly married couple Lizzie and Bobby Gardner), doing a risky dance lift (long married couple Divya Maiya and Madhu Bangalore - they do the lift!), which 1980s Jim Hensen movie is the best (long married couple Lacey and John Zeiler), a disagreement about a broken glass (roomies Michael Rogers and Alex Van Loh), what to watch on TV (best married couple ever Shanan Custer and Eric Webster), or whether or not someone is mad (girlfiends Allison Witham and Emily Dussault), these fights are so real and relatable but at the same time overly dramatic (as fights can sometimes get) and hilarious. As a bonus we also get three women friends (Colleen Sommerville Leeman, Mandi Verstegen, and Anna Weggel-Reed) vowing to support each other 'til death do them part. Each cast member brings their own unique talent, and the songs and sketches really bring out the best of each of them in a well constructed show that flies by. I love this series and this is my favorite installment yet, and just leaves me wanting more! More Couple Fight!!

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Minneosta Fringe Festival 2018 - Family Fringe: "Fruit Flies Like a Banana"

Day: 9

Show: 31

Category: Comedy / Dance / Original Music

By: The Fourth Wall

Written by: The Fourth Wall

Location: Celtic Junction

Summary: Three classically trained musicians (flute, trombone, and percussion) perform a series of short pieces accompanied by movement, dance, acrobatics, theater, and poetry.

Highlights: This is the fourth year in a row that I've seen The Fourth Wall perform at the Fringe, and I never tire of watching their unique and delightful music/theater/dance/comedy/acrobatic performance! This year they're part of Family Fringe, a curated festival of six shows held at Celtic Junction in St. Paul, so the show is slightly tweaked for the younger set, but it's fun for all ages. C. Neil Parsons on bass trombone, Greg Jukes on percussion (mostly vibraphone), and Hilary Abigana on flute combine their talents both musical and otherwise to create a show that is unlike anything I've seen before. They perform short pieces both classical and contemporary, some composed specifically for them. But they don't just play the music. They play the music while on hover-boards, or dancing the tango, or chasing each other around, or hanging upside down. They're creativity and innovation are as amazing as their musicianship, and they really engage the kids by letting them pick the order of the shows and occasionally inviting them up on stage to help out. They have just one performance left - today at 1:30. Whether you're fringing or not it's more than worth a visit to St. Paul's Midway neighborhood and the $10 ticket. Time flies like an arrow, and fruit flies like a banana!

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "The Screaming Skull"

Day: 8

Show: 30

Category: Drama / Horror / Literary Adaptation

By: Ghoulish Delights

Directed by: Tim Uren

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: An adaptation of the 1908 short story "The Screaming Skull" by Francis Mario Crawford, in which a sailor is haunted by, well, a skull that screams.

Highlights: Directed and adapted by Tim Uren, Eric Webster plays the role of the sailor, having a conversation with a friend (whom we don't see). He begins by very calmly and matter of factly telling the story of the previous owners of the house where he now lives, a doctor and his wife, both now deceased. The doctor was found dead on the beach holding a skull, which the sailor suspects is the skull of his wife whom he possibly killed. The skull occasionally screams, as such things do, but the sailor seems to have it under control, no longer sleeping in the bedroom where the skull resides. But he becomes more and more unhinged as the night wears on and he continues to drink. This play is super creepy and will send chills down your spine, thanks to the most horrifying scream you've ever heard, provided by Katharine Glover, part of the live sound effects team including Tim Uren and Shanan Custer (filling in for Joshau English Scrimshaw) who also create other creepy sounds of an old house by the sea at night during a storm. Eric gives a very convincing and terrifying performance, which combined with the sound and lighting effects (see trigger warning below), create some deliciously spine-chilling storytelling.

Trigger warning: the flashing lights to simulate a fire are similar to strobe lights, especially when all other lights are turned out. I spent the last 20 minutes with my hands over my eyes peaking through my fingers. If you're a person prone to migraines or sensitive to flashing lights, you should think twice about seeing this play.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Far Away by Caryl Churchill"

Day: 8

Show: 29

Category: Drama / Horror / Political Content

By: Wayward Theatre Company

Directed by: Sarah Nargang

Location: Rarig Center Arena

Summary: A terrifying post-apocolyptic world in which countries, animals, vocations, and even nature take sides in a brutal war.

Highlights: Wow, this one is super creepy cool. And admittedly, I didn't fully understand what happened until I talked to a friend who had read it and looked at the credits. Which just makes me want to see it again, because there's so much there. It starts off innocently enough, with a young girl staying at her aunt's house who's harmlessly folding laundry. When the girl tells her aunt of a scene of blood and people held captive just outside the house, her aunt assures here that her uncle is helping people, and only killing "traitors." Cut to a factory of people making hats, for some unknown nefarious purpose (yes, nefarious hats), and the young girl is now grown up and a new hat maker, learning the ways of the company. In the final scene all hell has broken loose, literally, with a full-on bloody war between ever changing sides. There's loads of symbolism that would take more space and thought than I have time to give it to unpack. The story is fluidly and stylistically told by the ensemble, even the props (whitewashed boxes of different sizes frequently moved around to create different environments and bright, beautiful, weird hats) and costumes (shades of white and gray) help to to the story. But perhaps my favorite part of the play is the four-piece band that plays during scene changes, original songs (I assume?) so haunting and cool that I hope they're a real band so I can buy all of their albums (music direction by Tim McVean). This is an odd, disturbing, and perplexing little play (it's Caryl Churchill, so of course it is), thoughtfully, hauntingly, beautifully brought to life by Wayward Theatre.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "TITUS: Sweet Water, Silent Walks"

Day: 8

Show: 28

Category: Dance / Drama / Physical Theater

By: The BAND Group

Created by: The BAND Group

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: An adaptation of Shakespeare's most bloody play Titus Andronicus, using movement, music, physical theater, and dance.

Highlights: Wow, and I thought Macbeth was a violent play. A quick perusal of the Wikipedia page (always recommended before a first experience with a Shakespeare play) was enough to turn my stomach, with its tale of rape, murder, dismemberment, and cannibalism (no wonder people fainted). I don't think I ever need to see a full production of this play, but The BAND Group's interpretation (directed and adapted by Adrian Lopez-Balbontin) is beautiful in its brutality and powerful in its message. Focusing on the violent rape and mutilation of Titus' daughter Lavinia (played by Jackie O'Neil, who also choreographed), this production returns some of her power as she dances with other survivors and gets revenge by killing her attackers, with the help of her mother Titus (an interesting and effective gender switch). In fact, The BAND Group is partnering with Cornerstone, an organization whose goal is "to reduce the prevalence of domestic violence, sexual violence, human trafficking, and general crime," all of which are on full display in this play. The talented and committed 18-person cast is comprised of actors, dancers, and musicians (clarinet, trumpet, guitar, percussion), and they create some beautiful (and at times disturbing) sounds and images. The most brutal scenes of violence are also beautiful and graceful in the choreography (which as an audience member makes it a little easier to take). A beautiful, powerful, original, relevant Shakespearean adaptation.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Proof! An Alien Abduction Pop Musical"

Day: 7

Show: 27

Category: Comedy / Musical Theater / Original Music

By: Sister Shakes

Written by: Anna Olson and Mark Schirmacher

Location: Augsburg Studio

Summary: The title says it all: it's a musical about a woman abducted by aliens.

Highlights: This show has been selling out the small studio space, and it must be because it's fun and well-done. Admittedly the 10pm timeslot didn't allow me to be as engaged as I'd like to be (note to self: don't see 10pm shows), but what I managed to catch was quite enjoyable. A talented four-person cast (playwright Anna Olson, Bill Williamson, Don Maloney, and Tynelle Marschall), fun poppy songs (by Mark Schirmacher), and an amusing plot about an alien sent to harvest a human soul who falls in love with said soul, and then they end up saving the world (or something). Just one show left on the last day of the fest, so plan accordingly if you want to catch this funny, poppy, clever show (with aliens!)

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival: 2018: "Self-Titled Debut Album"

Day: 7

Show: 26

Category: Comedy / Drama / Musical Theater

By: Philip Simondet

Written by: Philip Simondet

Location: Mixed Blood Theatre

Summary: A band called The Cautious Opti-Mystics gathers in the studio to record their first album in just four days.

Highlights: I found this show to be really charming, with a simple premise that works well. We watch one hour of day two of their recording session, and in that time the band goes through a whole range of emotions and relationship changes. Lead vocalist Philip (Simondet) has a strict plan, and doesn't want to let his kickstarter supporters down. Producer T-Bone (Eric Heiberg) is enthusiastic if a bit clueless on how the tech works. Each band member gets their own song to tell us who they are, Philip's "One Man Band," drummer Alexis (Erin Kennedy) singing about the job of a drummer while accompanying herself on drums, guitarist John (Genz) lamenting being a third wheel in the band, and bassist Scooter (Will Roberts) shares what it's like to be taken for granted. We also get a duet (with plenty of not-so-subtle "do-it" euphemisms) from Alexis and John, who not only used to date but also played in a band together, which makes Philip jealous. But eventually they all make up and realize they're "Better Together." The show almost has a Flight of the Conchords vibe to it, with a band played by actual musicians with funny, clever songs that spoof the band. It's awkward and fun and silly and sweet, all in one.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Kaboom"

Day: 7

Show: 25

Title: Kaboom

Category: Comedy / Mystery / Physical Theater

By: Sheep Theater

Created by: Sheep Theater

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: The president receives a text message threatening a nuclear bomb strike, so he prepares to launch 1800 missiles himself, except that he doesn't know the target and can't bring himself to push the button.

Highlights: Did I mention it's a comedy? This is Sheep Theater at their Sheepiest, which is ridiculous, clever, and hilarious. The somewhat inept president (no, not that one) acts without thinking when he receives the text, but when others discover that it's hoax and want to undo what he's set in motion, they find out he's been kidnapped by "spiritual anarchists." Complicating matters, the Secretary of Defense wants the bomb to go off to force a do-over on earth. Meanwhile the Vice President hides with her husband and daughter in the bunker she built under the oval office, and is dismayed to find out her daughter wants to sell insurance. There are a whole lot of shenanigans and physical comedy, campily sincere (or sincerely campy) acting, and one big Iowa joke. Everyone eventually ends up in the bunker, with an ending that keeps twisting and turning. If you're a fan of Sheep, this is more of what they do so well. If you're unfamiliar with them, this wacky hour is a good introduction.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Swords & Sorcery: The Improvised Fantasy Campaign"

Day: 7

Show: 24

Category: Comedy / Improv / Audience Participation

By: The Bearded Company

Created by: The Bearded Company

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: An improvised fantasy play based on the rules of Dungeons and Dragons.

Highlights: It's the same show as last year, but different. First of all, the Bearded Men have rebranded to the Bearded Company, because they now have some Bearded Ladies in their midst (Maria Bartholdi and Meghan Wolff), which is nice to see. Secondly, it's improv, so it's different every night, even if some of the characters are the same (which I don't know for sure, maybe that's different every night too). Dungeon Master Allen Voigt sets the stage and rolls the dice to determine how strong a requested move (kick, punch, sword strike) is. The improvises (also including Joe Rapp, Lucas Vonasek, MJ Marsh, Tyler Michaels, and Tyler Mills) create specific characters (spoiler alert: not all survive) and scenarios, all involving quests and demons to fight, while Jack Barrett improvises the always appropriate musical accompaniment on keyboard. This show is simply fun, although not so simple for the improvisers to come up with funny dialogue and cool moves on the spot. And improvised choreography has to be extra hard, but they still make it look cool (and safe). If you like improv, fantasy, D&D (confession: I only know what that is from watching Freaks and Geeks and Stranger Things), and fake sword-fighting, check out one of their two remaining shows.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Gunplay!"

Day: 6

Show: 23

Title: Gunplay!

Category: Comedy / Sci-Fi / Political Content

By: Tom Reed

Created by: Tom Reed

Location: Mixed Blood Theatre

Summary: The National Machine Gun Association (NMGA) sends its new youth liaison to a high school theater group to get them to perform a gun safety drill musical.

Highlights: Is it right to laugh about gun violence in schools? Nothing else has seemed to work to minimize the problem. Although this show doesn't laugh at gun violence, it laughs at the ridiculousness of the gun lobbies and politicians and the way that they speak about gun violence. It's a pretty hilarious and pointed show about one of the most sobering issues we face today. Naive Anders (Tom Reed) is sent to a small school that needs the theater funding the NMGA will provide in return for putting on their show. Teacher Laura (Adelin Phelps) reluctantly agrees so that she can put on the new musical Mortgage (based on RENT) in the spring. Her students (composer Austen Fisher, Karina Strom, Lauren Anderson, Matthew Englund, and Meredith Casey) at first go along with it, but once they realize the pro-gun content of these admittedly fun and peppy songs, they protest and decide to do their own thing (a hilarious mash-up of snippets of musical theater songs). Anders and Laura have chemistry and as Anders begins to learn about the larger world, and think about the organization he works for, he joins the students in their protest. The final moments are sobering as we hear some startling gun statistics, but the message is delivered in a clever, fun, and entertaining way. For a thoughtful exploration of the gun culture in America, go see Gunfighting: An American Story. To laugh at the ridiculousness of everything surrounding the gun culture, see Gunplay!.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Have You Seen This Girl?"

Day: 6

Show: 22

Category: Comedy / Drama / Improv

By: Mermaid Productions

Created by: Ariel Leaf

Location: Hard Times Cafe and the West Bank Neighborhood

Summary: Meeting behind the Hard Times Cafe, a group of about 20 walks through the West Bank neighborhood in search of a missing teenager.

Highlights: I love theater that gets the audience on their feet and outdoors (even if it is 90 degrees with 99% humidity), and this show does just that and makes you feel like you're on an adventure. Led by creator Ariel Leaf playing a character named Ariel Leaf, we walk through the West Bank area, University of Minnesota campus, and over to the river in search of Annie Parks. Ariel tells us that 16-year-old Annie has had a difficult life, including an abusive relationships, and ran away from home. Her parents didn't call the police, believing that she's in the West Bank neighborhood somewhere, and instead send this well-meaning group out to look for her so that they know she's safe. We stop and talk to people along the way, and at times I wasn't sure everyone was in on the act, that's how real it felt. As we walked along, Ariel also asked the audience about their experience in the neighborhood and if they've ever known anyone who left home, which brought up lots of interesting conversations. Because in addition to being a fun and novel way to tell a story, this play also deals with important and difficult issues about runaways, and whether sometimes it's better for them to be on the street if they have access to proper care, or whether being with their parents is always the best option. At the end of the play I had a thought that maybe "Ariel" (or Ariel) was Annie, and she was searching for her younger self, to tell her she's OK. This is a one-of-a-kind experience that often sells out because of the small group size, so plan ahead (and bring a cold drink).

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society"

Day: 6

Show: 21

Category: Drama / Mystery / Historical Content

By: The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society

Created by: The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society

Location: Rarig Center Thrust

Summary: A live reenactment of two radio plays from the '40s and '50s, both involving the good guys defeating the Nazis.

Highlights: If you saw the show last year, it's much of the same, and that's a good thing. This show is best enjoyed with eyes closed so that you can simulate the experience of listening to it gathered around the radio on a day long past. Except that it's hard not to open your eyes and see how the four-person cast is making all those sound effects, standing in front of old timey microphones with odds and ends around them. They're also able to create what sounds like way more than four voices as the play all the characters, good guys and bad. For these stories are from an era when good guys and bad guys were easy to distinguish. Two thirty-minute actual historical radio dramas are read in their entirety, preceded by a bit of context, and it's fun to imagine a time when dramas like this were the only source of entertainment, before TV and video games and the internet. It's good old-fashioned spine-tingling fun!

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "A Justice League of Their Own"

Day: 5

Show: 20

Category: Comedy / Sci-Fi / Political Content

By: Mainly Me Productions

Directed by: Josh Carson

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A mash-up of A League of Their Own and superhero movies, in which female superheroes are recruited to fight evil and the patriarchy.

Highlights: Let me start by saying that I have very vague memories of watching A League of Their Own many years ago, and I don't watch superhero movies. At all. Because of this I probably missed about a third of the jokes (also because the 60 minutes are packed with as many jokes as Lin-Manuel Miranda musicals are packed with words, and because my brain moves considerably slower after 10 pm), but I still found this show brilliant and hilarious. Kudos to director Josh Carson for writing (with ample help from his mostly female cast) a play that skewers the misogyny of the superhero universe and the world in general, and making it so funny and geeky too. Five awesome women (Allison Witham, Emily Jabas, Kelsey Cramer, Lauren Omernik, and Sulia Altenberg) play five awesome superheroes who, despite being strong and capable, have to deal with society's expectations of how they should behave. Heather Meyer is a superhero as well with her multiple characters and lighting fast dialogue, while Josh fills the Tom Hanks role as the past his prime alcoholic Batman hired to coach the women (with Andy Rocco Kraft and Brad Erickson playing many ridiculous roles). The entire cast is fun and playful and all around top notch. If you're more familiar with A League of Their Own than I am (I really need to watch that movie again), you might recognize some familiar scenes and themes, as well as some superhero archetypes. Like Not Fair, My Lady!, this show comes at just the right time and refreshingly shows us female characters just being (super) human. How revolutionary.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Lakes 4"

Day: 5

Show: 19

Title: Lakes 4

Category: Comedy

By: Schmidtshow Productions

Written by: Emily Schmidt

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: In a play on the movie Oceans 8, half as many women from the land of 10,000 lakes plan a heist: to steal the cherry from the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry statue.

Highlights: This show wins the prize for most Minnesota references per minute. It's not the Fringe if you don't see at least one show that loving mocks Target, Perkins, traffic, and everything else we love (or hate) about our fair state. Emily Schmidt's clever and funny script delivers on that front, as well as creating a fun and fringey show. Suburban wife and mom Bridget (Samantha Baker Harris, who also directs) feels like she's lost that sense of adventure from her youth, and is bored sitting around the house with husband Dan (David Kappelhoff) all the time, so she decides to pull a heist just to prove that she can. She enlists her friend Grace (Jen Scott), their fitness coach Cheryl (Maureen Tubbs), and her friend Pam (Casey Haeg), an ace LuLaRoe saleswoman. They meet at Perkins to plan the heist, where waiter Jaden (ball of energy Aaron Vanek) overhears them and wants in. Of course the plans go awry, but the point is that Bridget rediscovers her inner spirit and sense of adventure. The cast is fantastic, the jokes are fast and funny, and the star of the show is the Cherry and Spoon. How could I not love it?!

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.


Day: 5

Show: 18

Category: Drama / Storytelling / Historical Content

By: Crone Productions

Written by: J. Emily Peabody

Location: Augsburg Studio

Summary: A solo piece about the first woman elected to Congress: pacifist Jeannette Rankin from Montana.

Highlights: With a hole in my schedule, I made a spontaneous (note: I am not a spontaneous person) decision to see this show, and I'm glad I did. I had never heard of Jeannette Rankin before, and now I know she's an American hero (although she could learn a thing or two about intersectionality, but in her defense that was not a thing 100 years ago). Despite a few stumbles over lines, J. Emily Peabody gives a convincing performance as the first persistent woman in congress. The story covers the better part of a century and is well-constructed, with a slideshow of historical photos and costume changes as we progress through the years. Jeannette started her career as a social worker but soon decided that social reform was needed to solve the problems from the root. She joined the women's suffrage movement and was a successful speaker, traveling all over the country. Soon after women's suffrage was passed in her home state of Montana, she used that notoriety to run for Congress and win. She was one of 50 congress members to vote against WWI, and when she was reelected 20 years later, she was the only one to vote against declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor. Emily brings Jeannette to life in this brief summary of her long life. Imagine, Jeannette was elected to congress in 1916, and 102 years later women make up only 19% of the house and 23% of the senate. But that could change this November: honor the legacy of Jeannette Rankin by voting!

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Right, Wrong or Bomb! A Dating Musical"

Day: 5

Show: 17

Category: Comedy / Dance / Musical Theater

By: Backyard to Broadway Productions

Created by: Rosie Sauvageu Nestingen, Shannon McDonald, and Brittany Shrimpton

Location: Mixed Blood Theatre

Summary: An original musical about life and dating in the social media age.

Highlights: I saw this musical when it premiered a few years ago, and while I thought it had promise, I did have a few issues with it. The main character (Jill) seemed to be only focused on finding a man. But for whatever reason, I enjoyed it much more this time around. About the premiere I wrote: "It feels like a small-scale musical, in a good way, and with a little trimming would work great as a short and sweet 90-minute-no-intermission show." Creators Rosie Sauvageu Nestingen (music and lyrics) and Shannon McDonald and Brittany Shrimpton (book) have done just that, only 60 minutes. Maybe it was being forced to make cuts, or the fact that director of both versions Shanan Custer also co-wrote Not Fair, My Lady! which takes a very real look at women in musical theater, but this version feels more like a focus on Jill and all her relationships, including her female friends and her mother (who in this version is less of an unpleasant stereotype of a "cougar"), and a study of not just relationships but life in the social media age. The cast (Anna Larranaga, Delanie Wiedrich, Per Nestingen, Rachel Austin, Teri Parker Brown, and Thomas Matthes) is all new and all great, the songs are fun and clever, and there are a few cute winks at the audience. Sometimes less is more, and editing makes things better. This version of A Dating Musical seems fresh, tight, funny, relatable, and just right.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "A Farewell to Armadillos"

Day: 4

Show: 16

Category: Clowning / Comedy / Improv


Directed by: Christopher Kehoe

Location: Strike Theater

Summary: A clowning show with three clowns being clowns.

Highlights: I'll admit it, I have a slight fear of clowns. I think most reasonable people do. But there's nothing to fear from these clowns (although don't sit in the front row or on the aisle if, like me, you don't want to be pulled up on stage). Clowns Kaitlen Osburn, Mohamed Yabdri, and Neal Skoy do clown things as they go about their day on the job, cleaning or something. A non-clown (Autumn Sisson) interrupts to get her tape back, and ends up having a few adventures before she leaves. There are things happening with tape, and rope, and cleaning fluid. Plus spit takes and fart jokes, which are are never not funny. Not much happens in the show so that when it ended I thought, that was a short show. Nope, it was 55 minutes, it just flew by when caught up in the innocent, delightful charm of these silly (and very talented) clowns. One doesn't often get to experience clowns just being clowns, and this is a great opportunity to do so. Judging by the kids that were there past their bedtime (or mine anyway) on a Sunday night, this is one that could/should also be part of Family Fringe.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "MEDUSA"

Day: 4

Show: 15


Category: Dance / Original Music / Opera

By: Vox Medusa and Infiammati FireCircus

Crated by: Vox Medusa with Infiammati FireCircus

Location: Logan Park

Summary: A retelling of the Medusa myth using dance, movement, original music, and fire.

Highlights: Yes, I said fire. The dance company Vox Medusa combines their talents with those of Infiamatti FireCircus to create something unlike anything I have seen before. Performed outdoors in Logan Park in Northeast Minneapolis, the performance feels larger than life. A handy summary in the program tells us the general story of Medusa (she's not just an ugly woman with snakes for hair who turns men to stone, far from it), which helps set the stage so we can just sit back and let the show flow over us. It starts as beautiful flowing dance (choreographed by Julie Marie Muskat, who also performs the role of young Medusa), and then turns darker as Medusa's story grows darker. That's when the fire comes in. Members of Infiammati FireCircus carry big fires on the end of long poles, or small fires on short sticks, or swinging fire on chains, or wear it like a crown around their heads. They fight Perseus who is after Medusa's head, swinging their fire against his shield. Original music (composed by Jeremy Christensen and Dylan Nau, with lyrics written and sung in Latin by Emily Colay, the fierce gorgon Medusa, and also sung by Nicole Collins as Athena) is projected from large speakers so that it fills the vast outdoor space. As if that's not enough, there are also some cool video and lighting effects. Truly, words fail in describing this unique and mesmerizing creation. Their first two shows were rained out so let's all cross our fingers for a dry weekend so you can go see them Friday through Sunday at 8:30!

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Writing Wrongs in a Sandcastle"

Day: 4

Show: 14

Category: Comedy / Puppetry

By: Witchy Beach

Created by: Anders Nerheim

Location: Minnsky Theatre

Summary: A writer and his publicist/editor are stranded on a deserted island, that's actually really only just down the beach from the resort.

Highlights: I'm not sure how to describe this one, but I found it quirkily funny and delightfully odd. It's got a sort of absurd, surreal quality that takes a minute to get into, but once you do, it's a fun ride. Frieda (the always hilarious Madde Gibba) and Alexander (creator Anders Nerheim, also very funny) are stranded on a beach when they're thrown overboard during a storm. Alexander seems cool with this because he saw the resort just down the beach, but Frieda goes into survivalist mode, convinced they're stranded, and not hearing Alexander's protests to the contrary. With Alexander's help, she proceeds to fashion a spear out of a stick, catch a fish, make a fire, and cook the fish. There are funny little props; lots of conversing about writing, editing, friendship, and totally unrelated topics; and a bratty dolphin puppet named Trixie that taunts them both about their writing. I thoroughly enjoyed this show and it deserves a bigger audience than the one that was there Sunday afternoon. Only two shows remain at Minnsky in Northeast; If you enjoy absurd yet grounded humor, great comedy duos, tiny things, and dolphin puppets, this is the show for you!

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "Slapdash Panic: Comedy Suitcase ended up in the Fringe Festival with 3 weeks notice and no show!"

Day: 4

Show: 13

Category: Clowning / Comedy / Improv

Created by: Scrimshaw and Weinhagen

Location: Strike Theater

Summary: There's no show, just a couple of guys being goofy.

Highlights: "What's a concise way to say welcome to something happening live in front of your face that may or may not be worth the price of admission?" "Welcome to the Fringe!" Fringe favorites Comedy Suitcase, aka dynamic duo Joshua English Scrimshaw and Levi Weinhagen, said yes when their wait list spot turned into a Fringe show just three weeks before the festival start. The schtick is that they haven't come up with a show and are just winging it, but of course they do have a show planned, although very loosely structured. There's lots of running around panicking at the beginning, and then they settle into doing things to make the audience laugh (a lot). There's a very short improv scene, physical humor, audience participation, drawing stories, a comedy workshop on writing jokes, a brief scene reading (with audience help) from Joshua's other show about old-timey radio, and a dance party. I'd rather watch Scrimshaw and Weinhagen do nothing than many people do something. If you want to laugh, have a good time, and enjoy the silliness for an hour, regardless of age (this show could and should be at Family Fringe, except then we couldn't use our Fringe passes), go see this show that's not a show but really it is a show. And a super fun one.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2018: "My 4 Bodies"

Day: 4

Show: 12

Title: My 4 Bodies

Category: Comedy / Drama / Storytelling

By: Nightfox Stage Productions

Created by: Patricia Fox

Location: Ritz Theater Studio

Summary: A woman with juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many dysfunctional family issues tells her story of finding balance in her four bodies.

Highlights: The four bodies, as proposed by da Vinci, are physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Writer/director Patricia Fox goes through each of the four in a moving and relatable yet very specific story, performed convincingly by Erin Roberts. She talks about her diagnoses, her complicated family history, and a good relationship she ran away from because she felt that she didn't deserve to be loved. She has a funny name for each of her bodies, each given a funny voice so that we recognize them when they chime in on what's happening. The story isn't told linearly, but more stream of consciousness, and even though Erin has the script in hand you believe her. Patricia's story is funny and moving as she journies towards self love with the help of Buddhism, and Erin's performance makes you feel every bit of it. The Fringe was made for solo stories like this, artists with something to share that audiences need to hear.

Read all of my Fringe mini-reviews here.