Friday, January 12, 2024

The History Theatre's New Works Festival "Raw Stages" 2024

It's January in Minnesota and that means two things: below zero temperatures and History Theatre's "Raw Stages" new works festival. This year they're presenting five readings of new plays and musicals, and I thought about getting a hotel room in downtown St. Paul so I could just hang out for a week and see them all. But other duties and shows call, so I'll likely end up seeing just three of the five. I love "Raw Stages" for many reasons - the incredible performers who made these characters and stories come alive after just a few hours of rehearsal, the fascinating stories of little known Minnesota history, and being a part of the new work development process. It's a thrill to get a glimpse into how new work comes to be, something we don't often get to see or even really think about. And the best part is most of these works will end up on the main stage in a fully realized production, and you can watch something new and exciting come full circle. Keep reading for full details of all shows below (from the History Theatre website), as well as my thoughts on the three I saw. Since there's not much snow to play in or to impede getting out and about - head to downtown St. Paul this weekend and watch theater in the making (click here to purchase $15 tickets for one show, or a pass for $30).

Quiet Tough 
Wednesday, January 10, 7:30 pm
Written by: Brian Grandison
Directed by: Theo Langason
Dramaturgy by: Lester Mayers
Cast: Ansa Akyea, Darrick Mosley
Description: Brian Grandison, who deftly penned Diesel Heart last season, brings us the story of Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, who you may also know as one of the purple people eaters of the 1970s Minnesota Vikings. In childhood one of his siblings called him not stubborn, but “Quiet Tough” – a moniker that held true throughout his life. While he is a self-described socially awkward loner, his generous spirit and singular uniqueness make him a beloved member of our community who deserves to be celebrated on the stage.
My thoughts: I'm no football fan, but I am a fan of someone who puts themself through law school while working a challenging job in another field, and then makes it all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The playwright spent hours interviewing Justice Page, and first drafted a solo play. But soon into the rehearsal process for this reading he decided to re-write it as a two-person play, with an interviewer (presumably himself) having conversations with Page. The reading was only about 45 minutes, but it left me wanting to hear more of these fascinating conversations. This was pretty raw, pretty new, so I'm excited to watch it develop. I think it has tons of potential.

Ms. Millett 
Thursday, January 11, 7:30 pm
Written by: Jenna Zark
Directed by: Sophie Peyton
Dramaturgy by: Vinecia Coleman
Cast: Emily Gunyou Halaas, Christian Bardin, Angela Timberman, Charla Marie Bailey, Erik Dagoberg and Laura Esping
Description: In 1970, St. Paul native Kate Millett turned the world upside down with the publication of her thesis Sexual Politics by Doubleday. The book catapulted Millett to reluctant fame, showing how women had long been oppressed by a male-dominated culture. Follow Millett's journey from girlhood to an internationally-known radical feminist who championed the rights of marginalized groups which benefitted all society; and whose courage changed the way we look at each other -- and ourselves. 
My thoughts: As a feminist, I'm embarrassed to admit I hadn't previously heard of Kate Millett. This play, which was also less than an hour long, explores her work as well as her relationships with her husband, her wife, and her aunt Dorothy. The non-linear story shows us vignettes from different periods in her life, with Dorothy serving as her inner voice, or conscience, or antagonist. The play really humanizes this feminist icon, and I can't wait to see Act II.

The 8th Floor (formerly known as Dayton's)
Friday, January 12, 7:30 pm 
Book by: Bob Beverage
Music and lyrics by: Denise Prosek
Directed by: Kelli Foster Warder
Music Direction by: Andrew Bourgoin
Dramaturgy by: Alayna Jacqueline
Cast: Randy Schmeling, John Jamison, Timothy Thomas, Olivia Kemp, Junie Edwards, Julia Valen, Sandra Struthers, De'Anthony Jackson, and Linnea Cole
Description: A new collaboration between veteran writer Bob Beverage and the composer from I Am Betty and music director extraordinaire, Denise Prosek. This is a musical about Dayton’s 8th-floor holiday extravaganzas, a tradition that brought people and families together for over 50 years. We see the impact of one show on a group of children and adults through the eyes of Jack Barkla, the Twin Cities’ legendary designer and creative genius, who devised these amazing events for 40+ years. Throughout the play, we also learn about Jack, his life, and what inspired his unique approach to storytelling that created such lasting memories for generations of Minnesotans.

Secret Warriors
Saturday, January 13, 2 pm 
Written by: Rick Shiomi
Directed by: Lily Tung Crystal
Dramaturgy by: Gemma Irish
Cultural Consultant: Karen Lucas
Cast: Eric Sharp, Wes Mouri, Song Kim, Anna Hashizume, Addie Phelps, Paul de Cordova, Daniel Petzold, Rich Remedios, Alex Galick and Clay Man Soo.
Description: Veteran theatre maker Rick Shiomi will turn his hand to writing the story of the nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) who served as translators and interrogators for the US Armed Forces in the Pacific Theater during World War Two. Two of them, Koji Kimura and Tamio Takahashi, took extraordinary risks to save their fellow soldiers. The two of them and other nisei were the “eyes and ears” of General MacArthur. As Major General Charles Willoughby said, they “saved countless Allied lives and shortened the war by two years.”

Whoa, Nellie: Outlaw King of the Wild Middle West
Sunday, January 14, 2 pm 
Book, Lyrics and Music by: Josef Evans
Directed by: Laura Leffler
Music Direction by: Amanda Weis
Dramaturgy by: Cat Hammond
Cast: Becca Hart, Lamar Jefferson, Bradley Greenwald, Lux Mortenson, Jay Owen Eisenberg, Maddy Trumble, Deidre Cochran, Luke Davidson and Clay Man Soo.
Description: Whoa, Nellie: Outlaw King of the Wild Middle West tells the story of a fake detective, saloon girl, horse thief and all-around outlaw whose wild exploits made her a Minnesota media sensation in the boom-town days of the late 1800s. Nellie King, the alias by which she was best known, lit up the papers of Minneapolis and Saint Paul with sordid accounts of her many crimes, from kidnapping to robbery to (most frequently) dressing as a man, constantly changing her identity and leaving a trail of mystery in her wake. This fast-paced, funny, and surprisingly moving musical unpacks that mystery and touches on issues of gender, celebrity and mental health that still resonate today.
My thoughts: This was my favorite of the three readings I saw. Book/music/lyrics writer Josef Evans is responsible for Open Eye Theatre's delightful outdoor summer musicals, and this piece has that same quirky, funny, yet surprisingly deep tone. The score is a fantastic mix of styles, including old timey country, and the subject is a super fascinating real woman from history about whom not a lot is known. We only saw the first act and one song from the second, but the plan is for a fun first act intoducing Nellie and her seemingly glamorous life of crime and capers, while the second act digs a little deeper into what her lifestyle may have cost her. There's a ton to explore here, also touching on issues of gender roles, trans rights, and sexism, so I cannot wait to see it on stage (perferably starring Becca Hart as Nellie, who fully embodied the character vocally and emotionally).