Monday, March 30, 2020

Thrillist: Cape Verde Vacation Planner

We could all use a little escapism right now, right? 


Photo courtesy of Thrillist

If you agree, then check out my recent article for Thrillist about planning a trip to Cape Verde, a small island nation off the coast of West Africa that I have been wistfully longing to return to ever since leaving last June and named one of Thrillist's 20 best places to travel in 2020. Although cooped up like all of you in quarantine, I can't help dreaming about a return to sunny cocktails and sandy shores, and this is top of my list to get back to someday.

Read the full article on Thrillist here, and the copy is also saved below for posterity. Tell me - have you been to Cape Verde? What other destinations are you dreaming of escaping to in these tense times? I'd love any recommendations you might have for planning when we're all free again!

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Located 350 miles off the coast of Senegal, Cape Verde is a one-of-a-kind island nation, comprised of some of the most gorgeous tropical islands in the world. Historically, though, this wasn’t always the easiest place to survive.

Arid and uninhabited when the Portuguese landed here in the 15th century, Cape Verde's difficult ecology is an extension of the nearby Sahara Desert and multiple volcanoes. Over the centuries, each of its 10 islands developed a distinct cultural flavor, thanks to the disparate groups of people that passed through and managed to survive there. Today, Cape Verde has emerged from a history of struggle and poverty with a rich, complex culture all its own.

All Cape Verdean culture seems to include principles of yin and yang, struggle and celebration, light and dark. The music, best described as a blend of slow Portuguese Fado and Caribbean pop, often pairs happy instrumentation with pensive, deep lyrics; the food is spicy but filled with umami; and the wine is light but deeply flavorful (and shockingly cheap -- a good bottle easily knocks in at under $5 USD, even in restaurants).

Innovative Cape Verdeans have used the dry, mineralized soil to create a delicious cuisine starring bold wines, flavorful coffees, and hearty produce. Combined with fresh seafood and the nearby legacy of dishes like Senegalese thieboudienne, Cape Verdean food blends the best traditions of Portugal and the West African diaspora into flavorful, stewed dishes you’ll find nowhere else.

An increasingly popular destination for Europeans, Cape Verde still flies under the radar for Americans. But with flights to be found in the $600 range, we’re calling Cape Verde one of the 20 Best Places for a Big Trip in 2020. To make the most of your trip, we made this 10-day itinerary featuring the best things to do on the islands -- but when in doubt, find some sand and follow the music.

When to visit Cape Verde in 2020

To avoid the rainy season, plan to visit November through June. Head to the island of São Vicente the week of Shrove Tuesday (February 25) to catch Cape Verde’s celebration of Carnival, which blends the best of Brazilian party and parade traditions with West African influences. An annual crowd favorite is the performance by the Mandingas, an ethnic group from the nearby countries of Senegal and Gambia, who dress as warriors and lead parades throughout the festival. Because attendance is lower at the Cape Verdean Carnival than its Brazilian and Caribbean counterparts, it is comparatively quite affordable.

All festivals in Cape Verde place music in a starring role -- the Gamboa Music Festival on the island of Santiago is in May every year and features an eclectic mix of world-class DJs, local bands, and guest musicians from all over Brazil and Africa who perform a range of genres including salsa, Latino, zouk, reggae, and funaná.

Know before you go

It’s tough to hit every island within a 10-day time frame, and every island has a different vibe to offer, so the best strategy is to pick two or three islands and really nail it.

Visitors with US passports don’t need to purchase a visa unless you’re staying for more than a month. There’s a 31 euro fee per person upon arrival, so exchange some money into euros before leaving the States. (Cape Verde’s local currency, the escudo, is available at ATMs in urban locations around the islands).

Days 1-3: Kick off with beach time on the island of Sal, or São Vicente

Dive deep into island life and fly into Sal, the tourist hub of Cape Verde. This island is a one-stop shop for savoring the sun, sand, sea, and stars. Do as many active excursions as possible (dune buggies, sailing, horseback riding, etc.) with a local company like No Limits Adventure.

Visit a beach where turtles nest; stand in a bay of lemon sharks; and visit historic towns, like the salt-production center in Pedra de Lume for the chance to float in the world’s second-saltiest body of water. You can rent a car and guide yourself around, but to get the most bang for your buck, I recommend a formal tour with Reis Transport.

If you’d rather go somewhere a little less crowded, choose the island of São Vicente. This is the birthplace of world-renowned singer Cesária Évora. Cape Verdean music has evolved from African, Portuguese, and Brazilian influences; the primary genre is a slow, bluesy style called Morna -- Cesária Évora's specialty.

Évora’s spirit is everywhere on her island of birth; visit her home or her grave in Mindelo and savor the beautiful colonial architecture along the way. Évora often sang about São Vicente, describing it as “a little Brazil / full of joy and colors.” You’ll see why immediately while standing at the summit of Mount Verde, Cape Verde’s highest point, or driving through Madeiral, a valley that grows most of the island’s produce such as bananas, papayas, mangos, palm dates, and sugar cane, also popular Brazilian crops.

Days 4-6: Slow down on Boa Vista

On the island of Boa Vista, you'll explore a stunning diversity of beaches in a surprisingly small geographic area; there are direct flights from Sal.

Some of the best beaches include the white sand and quiet seclusion of Praia de Chaves (also a prime windsurfing spot); the golden sand of Praia de Santa Mónica, perfect for long, romantic walks or spotting whales; Praia de Atalanta, where you can explore a shipwreck in the warm, shallow water; or the Praia de Cabral, right by the city of Sal Rei, Boa Vista’s capital. Sink slowly into glowing sand with a cool drink and no plans.

If you get tired of bumming by the water, hire a quad bike through Quad Zone to take advantage of Boa Vista’s unique ecology. A must-visit is the Viana Desert, an extension of the Sahara that will take your breath away. The desert sand also contributes to Boa Vista’s reputation for excellent ceramics, so stop by the city of Rabil, Boa Vista’s former capital, to purchase some traditionally made ceramic goods.

An unforgettable visit is the Museu dos Naufràgos (Museum of Castaways), where guests pose as castaways from a recently crashed ship and are led on a journey through a mystical history of the islands. For a more academic time, hire Cau Tours for a detailed look at Sal Rei.

Days 7-8: Food, wine, and volcanic black sand on Fogo

Take a ferry or airplane from Boa Vista to the otherworldly volcanic island of Fogo, the hungry traveler's favorite stop in Cape Verde. Chã das Caldeiras, the active volcano at the center of the island, looms over all of Fogo and is responsible for the dry but nutrient-dense soil that drives Cape Verde’s wine and coffee industry.

Even the most experienced hikers should hire a local guide to take you up to the peak of the volcano. Prepare to commit -- most tours begin very early and last for a full day, leading directly to the volcano’s peak, then making several stops on the way back down at local villages, which grow excellent wine and coffee. Make sure to ask if the price of your tour includes food and drink at these stops, and bring cash -- you’ll want to haul back at least a few bottles of wine or some goat cheese.

Don’t leave without ordering some Fogo culinary specialties like djagacida (a dense, flavorful, starchy dish made of corn, fish, and beans -- think of it like red beans and rice meets mofongo), pastel de milho (a cake made of corn), bissap (hibiscus flower juice), or calabaceira (baobab fruit juice).

Days 9-10: Cape Verde’s largest island, Santiago

The largest island of Cape Verde, Santiago is home to Praia, Cape Verde’s capital and biggest city. It’s easy to get around Santiago on your own with Ubers and taxis, plus it's easier access to shopping and a wider variety of restaurants and lodging. Praia also offers front-row access to the best clubs featuring live music.

To get a tour of the full island, contact Bu Country Tours -- you’ll get a taste of everything from the Praia market to a traditional Cape Verdean cooking demonstration and a stop at a banana and coconut plantation. Another easy drive from Praia is through the lovely Serra Malagueta Natural Park at the northern portion of Santiago. Or, take a quick jaunt to Cidade Velha, an original 15th century Portuguese settlement with cobblestone streets and dazzling views of the islands.

Whatever route you take, no trip to Praia (or indeed all of Cape Verde) is complete without a night out at Quintal da Musica for a delicious dinner and an unforgettable exposure to traditional Cape Verdean music forms like morna and funaná. Close out your trip on a high note by making sure to order a caipirinha and gambas grelhadas (grilled prawns) to start, followed by a bottle of the crisp local white wine Cha Vinho Do Fogo and the arroz de polvo (octopus rice) for a meal you will never forget, much like the mournful music.

Keep it going: Get to the West African continent

If Cape Verde has piqued your interest in West Africa, now's the time to explore this region, which is uniting under the banner of ECOWAS (think of it as the European Union of West Africa, with a connected infrastructure and currency currently in progress). There are many options to travel between nations, so don't be afraid to flight hop or rent a van and hire a driver for the long haul.

One of the easiest places for Americans to start is Ghana, an English-speaking nation with several direct flights from the East Coast. Ghana has wonderful food, wildlife, and historic tours, plus a bustling African American expat community that is thriving after a successful "Year of Return," a 2019-long celebration that encouraged members of the African diaspora to return to the motherland.

Senegal is a close second choice; its capital, Dakar, is a rapidly rising arts and cultural center. Dakar has wonderful beaches, museums, cuisine, and historic sites to visit, as well as a fun club scene. For a quieter but no less enjoyable stop, consider visiting Togo, a small Francophone nation tucked between Ghana and Benin. You'll find affordable safaris, the origins of Voodoo, and arguably the best foufou the region has to offer.

Meet the Writer

Becki Iverson is a Thrillist writer and an ardent lover of all things arts, food, and travel. You can follow her wide-ranging passions on her blog, Compendium, or on social media on Instagram.  

When was the last time you were in Cape Verde?

June of 2019, at the tail end of a dream trip and honeymoon through West Africa.


What drew you there?

One of my first bonding experiences with my husband was over music. I had always loved the soulful voice of Cesária Évora, and he also loved her music right away. We played her catalog constantly -- she became such a favorite that we included multiple songs in our wedding. It became a priority for us to visit her homeland someday, and when we realized we’d be nearby for our honeymoon in West Africa, we had to spend the extra cash to make sure we made it there to pay homage.

What was the most surprising thing about the place that you didn't expect?

Experiencing the blended Creole identity that the majority of Cape Verdeans now share was striking for an interracial couple like my husband and I -- especially coming from a place like America where people tend to draw stark lines between their individual racial identities. It’s one of the few places we have not received stares out in public together (New Orleans is the only similar comparison I can think of). This story in the LA Times captures Cape Verde’s complex multiracial dynamic better than I ever could.

Number one can’t-miss recommendation for a visitor?

Visiting Quintal da Música for a long dinner, cocktails, and live music. There’s no better way to capture the spirit and contradictions of Cape Verde than spending some real time listening to morna and coladeira.

For example, Cape Verdeans have struggled to define their culture through the centuries -- are they more African? Portuguese? Or something entirely new? One of Cesária’s most famous songs is called “Africa Nossa” (or “Our Africa”). It has a very upbeat, celebratory musical tone, yet includes quite serious lyrics like these:

The sky has cleared
Consciousness has brightened
The time has come to face reality
A suffering people
Have soothed their pain
To live in peace and progress

Make sure to spend time with some songs, even before you go, to gain a richer understanding of the push-pull nature of this culture.

How easy is it to get around for English speakers?

Cape Verde has been a very stable democracy for more than 30 years and is quite safe for tourists. I recommend utilizing a local tour service to connect your destinations or help schedule tours. Travel between islands can be difficult, and spontaneous travel and lodging between islands is especially tough to navigate. Two great options are Todahora Tours or Cape Verde Vacation and Services.

If, however, you prefer to visit only one or two locations slowly on your own or don’t anticipate trying to pack in many activities across multiple islands, you can wing it with no trouble. You’ll find travel conveniences like Uber and Airbnb, especially on the more populated islands like Sal, Santiago, or Boa Vista.

What’s your top piece of advice for someone going for the first time?

This is a place where it really pays to plan ahead. Because travel between islands is relatively limited (usually just a couple flights or ferry options per day), it’s hard to spontaneously jump between them. It’s also like any other island nation where the pace is slower than urban continental life, so expect things to take longer than you’re probably used to.

What's the next big trip you have planned in 2020?

We have several friends living in Sweden and Norway, so we’re hoping to make it out to see them and explore parts of both countries I still haven’t seen (mostly the northernmost areas).

Monday, March 16, 2020

Consistently Updating Post: Ways to Help Fight Covid-19 in Minnesota

We're all in this together. 


Image by ADAM ZYGLIS, THE BUFFALO NEWS, NY

I, like many of you, have been shocked at how quickly changes due to COVID-19 have rippled through our communities in the last few weeks. Literally overnight we have seen closures of stores, entertainment, transit, conferences, workplaces, schools, and just about every non-essential function.

I know that I always feel better in times of need or crisis when I feel like I am able to do something (anything) to help others. Often that involves physical volunteering as my funds are limited, which is obviously off the table right now for most organizations (and for me personally).

That said, there ARE many ways that organizations are creatively finding ways to pitch in to help each other out and uplift the community. I've seen links flying around ad hoc and wanted to consolidate what I can find for anyone seeking a one-stop-shop of ways to give back and kick into gear. See below for what I have and keep checking back here - I will continuously amend this list as more organizations announce initiatives.

And as a reminder - make sure to express your gratitude when you are able to those who are on the front lines of risk of exposure to and fighting the infection rate of the virus. It expands far beyond just healthcare, and there are crucial groups of workers (such as janitors, grocery and gas store clerks, etc.) who deserve our care, attention, respect and gratitude. This article provides a good illustration of some of these workers and the risks they currently face.

To start off, this is a one stop shop collecting resources by zip code across the entire U.S. It's an amazing spot to resource help of many kinds - check it out: https://findhelp.org/

This is also a good resource for questions about the stimulus that passed the U.S. Senate yesterday - it's a handy FAQ from the New York Times. 

Healthcare 

I am *obviously* not a medical professional - so don't listen to me (or any other blogger / internet personality / etc.) about medical habits. Instead, seek these resources:


Education / Childcare

While schools are trying to set up remote learning, many parents still need to fill time with enriching activities while systems are down or overloaded. Here's a roundup of some proactive ideas:


Food Access

Many, many restaurants are offering to provide free meals to students who cannot eat for free at school (god bless them all!). This master list is being maintained with addresses and details of what kinds of meals are available.


For shoppers - pay attention to which foods have WIC marking on the price tags and when possible choose other options. WIC assisted shoppers are not allowed to choose other items when WIC items are sold out, so saving those groceries for those who have no choice will help those most in need.

Also some grocery stores are implementing limited hours for shoppers most at risk of the virus (compromised immune systems, the elderly, etc.) to shop first and have first access to most goods. Lunds & Byerlys is one such store - at-risk shoppers can come from 7 - 8 a.m., and the store opens to all shoppers after 8 a.m.

If you want something to do physically with your free time, Second Harvest Heartland needs volunteers to help pack individual food drop off boxes. They have a huge space that allows volunteers to follow COVID-19 protections (lots of soap available, 6+ foot distance between volunteers, etc.), so it's a safer option than others to volunteer. Click here to learn more.

And additionally, the hospitality industry is being devastated by this crisis - many are already unemployed, and restaurant and catering groups are quickly working to pivot towards nontraditional business revenues. Eater has a more global update on things you can personally do to help your favorite local venues weather this storm.

Local beer producers are beginning to offer pickup and delivery, so if you want libations to pick up your spirits (ahem) - click here to learn more and support small local businesses through an extremely tough time.

Additionally, CityPages developed a nice resource for restaurants and booze purveyors offering pickup and / or delivery, and WCCO News has created *the* definitive list (in interactive map form!) for restaurants offering pickup and delivery throughout the crisis.

NPR just did a great short piece on why you don't need to disinfect your groceries, also giving important tips for safely grocery shopping to limit your exposure.

Housing, Utilities and Pay

Help fellow citizens know their rights regarding housing bills and utilities; many state and governments are mandating consumer ad citizen protections, and Minnesota is one of them. The following are resources for anyone being challenged on bills, housing, etc.:

Several Twin Cities Neighborhoods are collecting resources to share with each other - check out the following links for those:

Entertainment / Business

If you're a long-time Compendium reader than you know how close the arts and entertainment industry of Minnesota is to my heart. They are being deeply impacted by the ongoing crisis. Below are some ways you can support them (as well as creative programs being released to help take your mind off things).

Donate

If you had tickets to a show that closed or was postponed, please don't ask for refunds if you can help it. Every dollar that can stay in the theatrical community will help keep doors open and lights on once they are cleared to do so, and liquid cash is one of the resources most scarce for these organizations even in the best of times.

Donate to the Personal Emergency Relief Fund for artists hosted by Springboard for the Arts. This is going to be a very, very important pot of money as dozens of theaters are indefinitely closed during the height of their regular season programming, affecting hundreds of artists around the state. If you have any cash, please toss a little their way.

Otto Bremer Trust just established a $50 million fund to help organizations weather the crisis. Click here for more information.

Minnesota Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (MnVOAD) has a full listing of organizations cleared to accept hands-on volunteers; check out their detailed information if you want to get out of the house to help the community.

Watch / Distract Yourself

This article is a nice reminder that it's ok to prioritize mental health and unplug from the constant barrage of news about the virus. Take a walk, do some meditation, read a book and call it a day. It's ok to slow down at this time. I will continue adding a roundup of creative initiatives from arts and entertainment organizations below as well:

Locally Hosted Options


National / International Options



Monday, March 9, 2020

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's Nostalgic Music Man

Sometimes, staying in your lane can be a good thing. 


Photo by Rich Ryan

When you go to the theater, do you tend towards revisiting the same shows over and over again? Or do you come seeking something new, modern, or avant garde?

I find that, like with most arts consumption, there are two wildly divergent philosophies. If you're a person who annually re-reads certain books or re-watches the same films on endless loop, you're probably in the former camp. If you're like me, you probably tend toward more of the latter - a one and done-er who doesn't re-experience a text unless there's something really different about it.

When it comes to this little hobby of theater reviewing, however, my usual approach doesn't always work. Certain plays and musicals seem to come back frequently, and with an ever-shrinking geographic range and amount of time on my hands it's not always possible to do the far ranging exploration I'd like to. Or, on a very rare occasion, I want to just show up somewhere comfy and do the absolute least (so sue me).

One of my cozy once-in-a-while comfort spots is Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT). I've written before about my nostalgic love for the nation's largest dinner theater (the scope of their operation is truly extraordinary for logistics-nerds like me. Over 50 million cups of coffee served! Over 12.5 million guests who have all received multi-course meals! I mean come on, how can that not impress?!), and it stands. This was the place where professional theater was first introduced to me at a production of Brigadoon when I was 8 years old. I'll never forget seeing the graceful dancers emerge from the misty air and learning how transportive live theater could be for the first time.

It turns out that Brigadoon is an apt metaphor for CDT itself. This is not a venue of surprises; CDT knows its niche and embraces it with open arms. Rather than short run, rotating seasons of the newest cutting-edge scripts, visitors will find long-term runs of shows culled from what is known as the "golden age of Broadway," the experience of which is almost like stepping straight into a TCM screening of a Gene Kelly movie.

Take their latest production of The Music Man, which opened last weekend. The story of a traveling con man-gone-good thanks to the stubborn integrity of the people in a small Iowa town is most famous for the opening scene, which features a spoken word interlude and iconic choreography imitating a bouncy train ride across the Midwest. The plot is an oversimplified romance with an easy happy ending - no surprises here. It's full of jazzy tap scenes, kitschy slang like "swell" and "gee whiz," and a clarion portrait of the quickly disappearing ethos of the lily white world that used to be identified (at least popularly) as America itself.

Photo by Rich Ryan

I say all this to help you, potential audience members, choose whether or not you'd enjoy seeing this Music Man. If you prefer experiencing well-produced shows with familiar faces, you're going to love it. CDT favorites Michael Gruber and Ann Michels are back in the lead roles of Harold Hill and Marian Paroo, respectively. Like their performance in Holiday Inn, the two share an easy chemistry and chummy rapport reminiscent of the Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers dynamic, but with much better singing. Peggy O'Connell is delightful as Marian's mother Mrs. Paroo, with a pitch perfect Irish accent and a charming delivery that instantly won over the audience. Tony Vierling brings his signature Kelly-esque hoofing style to Marcellus Washburn, and it's fun to watch him swan through the dance scenes. John-Michael Zuerlein, Shad Olsen, Aleks Knezevich and Evan Tyler Wilson make a lovely barbershop quartet, with gorgeously harmonized voices that smoothly move the show along. Keith Rice and Michelle Barber eagerly ham it up as the bristly Mayor Shinn and his wife Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, and it's a perfect cameo for their skill sets.

As always, the unique challenges and benefits of CDT's low-ceilinged space are maximized to the utmost by a top-notch production design team. Rich Hamson's 1910's-era costume design is detailed and danceable, pluming the actors into a perfect period setting. Most of the set is composed of floating rooftops and strategically symbolic props, constructed by a veritable army of prop masters and artisans, carpenters, painters, and other design staff, demonstrating a true team effort and the deep bench required to make such complex numbers appear effortless. Kudos to Artistic Director Michael Brindisi and Technical Director Logan Jambik, whose close attention to detail is clearly evident in every stiffly pointed toe, meticulously curled wig and puff of "dust" from a library book.

If you haven't gathered by now, this rendition of The Music Man is not a production that is going to rock the boat. There's been no modernization of this production and it remains solidly in the realm it first appeared under Meredith Wilson's vision in 1957. If you're hoping to see Harold and Marian twirling through rows of computers or Tommy and Zaneeta sneakily setting up dates through Snapchat, this ain't the one. But it will hit every peak vision of a nostalgic, sepia-toned vision of American Gothic America for the sentimental among us.

I did a lot of thinking over the weekend about my feelings on this. After all, I also just came out of a performance of My Fair Lady that totally put me off with its blatantly sexist script; why was I more comfortable at CDT? The Music Man has problematic characteristics too, and there's nothing firmly moving this production into the modern era. It's not in my top 5 or even top 10 favorite musicals.

Some of it has to do, I think, with that 8 year old that will always be inside me when I sit in CDT's close quarters. I have an inner child there that is hopelessly nostalgic and it looks like it's here to stay. A bigger part, I suspect, is that CDT has carved a specific niche for itself that I understand fully even before I attend. This is not the Guthrie or the Walker Art Center or the Jungle; CDT has a completely different business model, locally available audience, and cast willing to audition for its shows. Like most industries, theaters are enduring the challenges of rapidly evolving audience expectations juxtaposed with a tough business model; this production fully embraces what CDT knows and does best, for better or worse.

Someday I'd love to see some more diverse shows like In The Heights, The Color Purple or Dreamgirls grace this stage. I hope that day will come, and if / when it does I trust that the CDT production machine will make a dreamy, movie-worthy production for the ages that such dynamic scripts deserve. In the meantime, The Music Man was a chance for me to just enjoy a high octane musical production at face value. Like the fellows of Brigadoon, I got to float back to my past in a smashing array of tap dances, high kicks and percussive scene transitions that was as familiar as the towering chocolate cake for two, a welcome moment of sentimental rest that is all too fleeting for me these days.

Everyone approaches theater with their own context and I'm sure readers are out there who will disagree with me on either end of this review. For myself - I liked this Music Man, I know my parents will adore it, and my friends will probably never go. I'm okay with all of those choices, and I don't regret indulging for a few hours in sunny memories, warm smiles and an oversimplified plot line once in a while. It's what I needed this weekend amid the tumult of our world and I don't think I'm alone. If you like period musicals and beautiful production design, you'll want to check out The Music Man before it closes on September 5. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Thrillist: Best Spring Shows and Exhibits in the Twin Cities

Whatcha up to these days? 


Photo courtesy of Thrillist

I'm a little behind on sharing my latest Thrillist pieces, but I'm prioritizing this month get caught up! First up is a list of some of the coolest shows and exhibitions available in the Twin Cities this spring. Some have unfortunately passed, but several are ongoing, excellent exhibits and shows that deserve an afternoon or evening of your time.

We are so lucky to have such a wealth of cultural experiences right at our fingertips, and I encourage you to get outside (especially now that the weather is improving) your cozy abode to experience the best and most unique of them. Click here for the full article or scroll through below to see what cool shenanigans await for you over the next couple months.

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It should come as no surprise that the Twin Cities has a thriving, vibrant arts community -- after all, we have the second-largest number of theaters per capita in the country outside of New York City and a vibrant East African community that contributes to the local arts scene. If you’re feeling the winter doldrums, challenge yourself to get out of the house and explore some of the world-class art, museums, and theaters that Minnesota has to offer. We’ve rounded everything from plays inside a planetarium to an exhibit about the legendary Prince. So spend these snowy months in the warm embrace of the Twin Cities arts community.

The Out There Series
Weekly throughout January at the Walker Art Center 
Lowry Hill / Loring Park
You’ve probably gone to a museum to check out art exhibits, but have you gone to one to see theater? Undoubtedly one of the wildest live performance series you can find is the Walker Art Center’s annual Out There series, which kicks off every January with a bang. This year’s series includes a re-enactment of a real FBI interrogation; a provocative investigation of Latinx cliches and identity politics; a latex-clad “Gothic melodrama;” and a treatise on the powers of artificial intelligence by a group of disabled performers.
Price: $26 for individual shows

After The Explosion: Documenting Chernobyl
On view through February 23 at the Museum of Russian Art
Windom/Tangletown 
If you were mesmerized by HBO’s recent Chernobyl TV series, don’t miss the chance to engage with a real piece of Chernobyl history. Featuring images originated from the archive of Nikolai Tarakanov, the major general who supervised the removal of highly radioactive elements from the Chernobyl site, this exhibit provides a visceral reminder of human fallibility.
Price: $12

First Avenue: Stories of Minnesota’s Main Room
On view now through May 3 at Minnesota Historical Society
Cathedral Hill
The most legendary club in Minnesota finally has an exhibit of its own. First Avenue has been the pinnacle venue for the early careers of many local legends like Lizzo, Prince, The Replacements and more since it opened in 1970. The list of acts who have strutted this stage is a veritable who’s who of music history, featuring everyone from Ike and Tina Turner to REM, RunDMC, the Fugees, Lady Gaga, Billy Idol, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Patti Smith, and many more. Seep in the unseen history of a Minnesota musical institution while you still can.
Price: $12

Prince: Before the Rain
On view now through May 3 at Minnesota Historical Society
Cathedral Hill
It may be three years since Prince died, but in Minnesota the grief still feels fresh as ever. Mend your broken heart a little by stopping by this special exhibit tracking Prince’s early career and rise to superstar fame. All photos are taken by Prince’s personal photographer and friend Allan Beaulieu and are sure to include images even the biggest fans have never seen before.
Price: $12

Black Comedy
January 10 - February 7 at Theatre in the Round
Cedar-Riverside
What would you do if you had to impress an important guest, but all your power went out and your party had to continue completely in the dark? That’s the question at the center of Black Comedy, an unusually funny play written by Peter Shaffer (who is better known for writing heavier dramas like Equus and Amadeus). Theatre in the Round’s unique stage construction will give Black Comedy a whole new perspective, literally. Attend for the chance to brighten up the dark winter nights at this time of year.
Price: $22

Noura
From January 11 - February 16 at the Guthrie Theater 
Downtown East
Questions of identity and immigration are extremely relevant topics right now. Noura, a new play by Heather Raffo, describes an Iraqi woman named Noura who struggles with her new life in the United States and feels left behind by her husband and son, who are more assimilated. Inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, this is a modern take that is not to be missed.
Price: $25-$79

Apollo: When We Went to the Moon
From February 1 - May 10 at the Science Museum of Minnesota
St. Paul
Though it has been more than 50 years since Neil Armstrong and crew touched down on the lunar surface, the Apollo missions feels just as enthralling today. This Science Museum of Minnesota exhibit takes visitors from the beginning of the Space Race to the debut of the International Space Station and more. From a simulated Apollo 11 launch experience to artifacts from the US Space & Rocket Center, museum-goers will feel ready to blast off themselves.
Price: $14.95-$19.95

Bernarda Alba
From January 15 - February 16 at the Ritz Theater
Northeast
Theater Latte Da can always be counted on to provide high quality, thought-provoking musicals. Bernarda Alba, which stars 10 of the Twin Cities finest musical theater actresses, is no exception. This lesser-known musical details the unhappy lives of five sisters under their strict mother’s harsh reign after her second husband dies. Think of it like August: Osage County, but with music. There won’t be many productions of this one elsewhere; seize the chance to see it while you can.
Price: $33 - $53

An Art of Changes: Jasper Johns Prints
From February 16 - September 20 at the Walker Art Center
Lowry Hill / Loring Park
To commemorate the legendary artist’s 90th birthday, this touring exhibit chronicles six decades of Jasper Johns’ famous printmaking. The traveling exhibit showcases various techniques and motifs that the artist explored throughout his career, including his well-known paintings of the American flag, as well as his work with numbers and the alphabet. See how Johns bridged the gap between abstract impressionism and pop art -- and why he’s regarded as one of the most influential 20th century American artists.
Price: $15

A Doll’s House Part 2
From January 15 - February 23 at the Jungle Theater
Lyn-Lake / Uptown
One of the smash hits of the 2017 Tony Awards, A Doll’s House Part 2 imagines the consequences of Nora Helmer’s choice to leave her family in the original Doll’s House published in 1879. What happens when she shows up back at their door years after leaving them behind? This smart, powerful drama is a perfect choice for the feisty Jungle Theater, which has been turning out record audiences and completely rebranded under the expert hands of Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen. Get your tickets early as almost all of their plays sell out quickly.
Price: $20-$55

Sherin Guirguis: Here I Have Returned
On view now through February 23 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art
St. Paul
African-born and Los-Angeles-based artist Sherin Guirguis has had a long-standing interest in exploring the forgotten histories of Egyptian feminists. Her most recent exhibit comes to St. Paul and fills the museum’s two-story Rauenhorst Court with her installation of hand-cut paper artwork, sculpture, and other artifacts inspired by writer Doria Shafik, best known for organizing 1500 women at the American University of Cairo and storming the gates of Parliament, demanding that women be given the right to vote and hold public office.
Price: Free admission

Skeleton Crew
From January 30 - March 1 at Yellow Tree Theatre
Osseo
Don’t miss this new play by Dominique Morrisseau, a contemporary playwright who is quickly becoming a critical darling along the likes of Lynn Nottage. Skeleton Crew tells the story of a group of auto workers struggling with the future of their jobs at an automotive factory in Michigan during the Great Recession. The material is relevant, powerful, and is acted by a cast of Twin Cities all-star actors; don’t miss it.
Price: $26-$30

Silent Sky
From February 22 - March 8 at the Bell Museum 
Falcon Heights
Site-specific theater is a growing trend in Minnesota. One of the most exciting in 2020 is Silent Sky, which Theatre Pro Rata is bringing to the planetarium at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum. The show tells the true story of Henrietta Leavitt and other female “computers” in their work at Harvard University, helping to document and discover hundreds of stars and other planetary bodies. Think of it like your local, live acted version of the smash successful film Hidden Figures.
Price: $30

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
From March 13 - April 5 at Lyric Arts 
Anoka
You probably know a certain author named Charles Dickens for his famous novels like A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist, both of which have been turned into hit musicals. But did you know about his last work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood? Because the novel was never finished (Dickens died while writing it), the musical lets the audience choose who they think killed Edwin Drood, giving every performance a completely different ending. It’s a night of interactive musical theater that lets you solve a mystery and see a comedy at the same time; think of it like a musical Clue.
Price: $30-$35

Storytelling: Julie Buffalohead
On view now through September 6 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art
Whittier
The Minneapolis Institute of Art (or MIA as it prefers to be known) has long been the hidden gem of Minnesota museums, allowing visitors to view the majority of its vast collection for free. Several exhibits celebrating female artists are coming this winter, including Julie Buffalohead. Buffalohead is an enrolled member of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma and creates visual narratives told by animal characters, a mystical subject matter that rarely graces museum walls.
Price: Free

Thursday, March 5, 2020

A Passing Feeling for My Fair Lady

Am I getting jaded or are things not aging well? Maybe both?


Photo by © Joan Marcus

If you were to ask people to name the first thing that comes to mind when you say the word musical, one of the first is likely to be My Fair Lady. Its vaunted pedigree, from the book adapted from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, to the original Broadway performances starring Rex Harrsion and the one and only Julie Andrews, to the film starring an effervescent Audrey Heburn (bolstered by Marnie Nixon's stunning vocalizations), is about as elite as a musical's could be and well beloved by fans all over the world.

Photo by © Joan Marcus

I, like I suspect of many readers, was raised watching and loving the movie version of My Fair Lady. I knew every word by my early teens and dreamed of playing Eliza Doolittle someday.

Photo by © Joan Marcus

The current tour at the Orpheum is an admirable rendition of this beloved show (I won't bother recapping the plot as I assume it's quite familiar to most readers - if you really need a synopsis, click here). Laird Mackintosh is horrifically (but appropriately) conceited as Professor Henry Higgins; I cannot comment on Kevin Pariseau's rendition of Higgins' kindly counterpart Colonel Pickering, as he was sick the night we attended, but his substitute was warmly enjoyable in the role. Shereen Ahmed's nimble voice trills through Eliza's plight as Higgins' dusty but determined plaything, and I respected that she kept up a good fight throughout her role. Sam Simahk is sparklingly silly as Freddy Eysford-Hill, and Adam Grupper clearly relishes the role of scoundrely Alfred P. Doolittle. The ensemble cast is quite strong and are fun to watch swanning around the gilt stage in their elaborate costumes.

Photo by © Joan Marcus

I was quite dazzled by the vastness of the set design, which includes endless (but quickly moving) painted backdrops and scrims. The focus, however, lay on a deliciously detailed, rotating 360 degree view of Higgins' home, a truly remarkable feat of scenic design that is flexibly and versatilely used. I was really impressed at how seamlessly this piece moved in and out and the variety of experiences created with just the one element; it had to have been mind-bogglingly expensive to build and I have zero clue how they move that thing weekly between faraway cities, but damn it's impressive. The costumes are likewise delightfully luxe and period-appropriate, and production design junkies overall will find endless amounts of eye candy to enjoy throughout this staging.

Photo by © Joan Marcus

All that said, it surprised me when, sitting through this very well-produced tour of a classic musical that I was raised to love, things just didn't hit quite right. In the era of #metoo, revitalized women's movements, and the all-too-prevalent sexism hitting our female changemakers on all fronts (R.I.P. Elizabeth Warren's devastatingly impressive presidential campaign), I just couldn't find a way to enjoy this show. Higgins' allegedly comedic insults came off as screeching misogyny; Eliza's ignored protestations rang a little too similarly to domestic abuse; and Higgins' mild comeuppance towards the end just couldn't satisfy the thorough thrashing I wanted him to get.

Photo by © Joan Marcus

Please note, dear reader, that I fully realize that all of the above impressions are thoroughly subjective and are my own opinion. The audience laughed right on cue and seemed to have a dapper time watching this show, and I suspect that any other long-term fans will equally adore this well-produced version. It's got everything that Broadway-lovers seek, and the production design is truly gorgeous and special. This post is not a screed against the show or a treatise on why you shouldn't attend.

Photo by © Joan Marcus

This review is, simply, my confession: I have a severe case of sexism fatigue, and My Fair Lady triggered right into it. This is a beautiful production and please go if you enjoy My Fair Lady, or if you've never seen it and want to experience a well-made version. You'll get your money's worth. The magic was just gone for me this time around, and I'm left mourning the days when it was easy for me to slip into a theater and shut my filter off. The world has changed around many of these classic old shows, and it's just harder and harder for me to watch them simply as fictional stage plays without my modern gaze.

Photo by © Joan Marcus

If you want to get tickets to My Fair Lady go quick - it's only open through this weekend. Click on this link to order them.

Photo by © Joan Marcus

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Theatre Pro Rata's Silent Sky is a Wondrous Success

“In our troubled days it is good to have something outside our planet, something fine and distant for comfort.”

Photo by Theatre Pro Rata

The beginning of March means it's Women's History Month, one of my favorite reminders throughout the year to celebrate the unsung female heroes who walk among us. Thankfully the #tctheater community has several opportunities to celebrate these formidable figures. One of the most unique is Theatre Pro Rata's current run of Silent Sky, which takes place in the planetarium at the secretly fantastic Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota's campus.

Silent Sky tells the story of Henrietta Leavitt, a brilliant mathematician whose astronomical aptitude and obsession with Cepheid stars uncovered the data that allowed us to calculate the distance between earth and celestial bodies for the first time. Detailing Leavitt's journey from a rural village in Wisconsin to a seat at the heart of Harvard's vaunted all-women team of "computers," where she trained under fellow luminaries like Annie Cannon and Willamina Fleming, Silent Sky is an elegant depiction of the triumph (and sacrifice) that comes with complete dedication to one's passion despite all obstacles. Leavitt's obsession with the astral universe is thrilling and devastating; as pleasurable as it is to watch her soar beyond society's ceiling, it is undeniable that she made life altering sacrifice to do so. It's a stark reminder of how far we still have to travel to truly free women to enjoying an equal set of options to their male counterparts and a fun theatrical journey to-boot.

Silent Sky's cast seems to have a blast doing this show, and it was a pleasure watching them have so much fun. Victoria Pyan seamlessly steps into Henrietta Leavitt's shoes, compassionately depicting her trailblazing life. Danielle Krivinchuk oozes empathy as Henrietta's sister Margaret Leavitt, giving a cozy home life contrast to the fast paced world of the computers. Carl Swanson expertly depicts Henrietta's one-time love interest Peter Shaw; I found his character absolutely maddening, but Swanson finds a way to humanize him even in contrast to modern expectations. My favorites were Amber Bjork and Sarah Broude as Annie Cannon and Willamina Fleming, respectively. Bjork is perfectly stoic, a model suffragette, and I was eager to see more about her character (hey Lauren Gunderson - make a show about Annie Cannon too!). Broude was absolutely delightful (with a spot-on accent) as Fleming, quite reminiscent of Downton Abbey's Mrs. Hughes, and I will gladly be looking for her in other local shows after this.

This production is all about the planetarium setting, which is perfect for this show. Projections form the bulk of any discernable set and easily placing us between the major locales of Leavitt's life, and Julia Carlis's lighting design smoothly integrates with the planetarium's photography. Samantha Kuhn Staneart's costume design is period-appropriate with a charming hint of sparkle to match the stars the women study. Props to sound designer Jacob M. Davis, who nails the microphone balance on each actor to make sure their lines don't get swallowed by the unique venue. Overall, Director Carin Bratlie Wethern's vision keeps things simple, a nice way to keep the production quickly moving and the focus on storytelling rather than special effects.

Silent Sky is a perfect fit for fans of Hidden Figures or anyone who likes to know more about under-sung histories or the hows and whats of our universe. There are still so many answers to be found about our world. What's really out there in the sky (or under the ocean)? Why are we here? How do we fit into the purpose of this vast, unmeasurable cosmos? Without visionaries like Henrietta Leavitt (or the Harvard computers as a whole), we would be much further from answering these questions (and our culture and science much poorer for it). I adore seeing the vital contributions of overlooked women finally getting their due, and I can think of no better way to celebrate Women's History Month than to check out this sweet production of Silent Sky. It's also a great excuse to visit the Bell Museum, which is a hidden gem that deserves far more local airtime. Silent Sky runs through March 8; click here for more information or to order tickets.

And if you love this subject matter, you're in luck! There is a kickass movement happening right now to tell more of the stories of unknown or underappreciated women, specifically in science. Time Magazine just released a glorious celebration of 100 notable Women of the Year - do NOT miss it. There is of course the film and book Hidden Figures; outside of that are the excellent The Madame Curie Complex, which gives short biographies of female scientists (including all of the characters mentioned here in Silent Sky); What Miss Mitchell Saw, a beautiful children's book about a woman named Maria Mitchell (whose story is quite similar to Henrietta Leavitt's); and consider branching out into books specifically about under-represented women of color, such as Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees or Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. And follow me on Goodreads to keep tabs on what I'm reading - often it's stories like the one told in Silent Sky.