Tuesday, May 23, 2017

GOOD KARMA: Support the Nation's Largest Circus School!

Did you even know there was such a thing as circus school? 

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas

If not, you could be forgiven. With the end of Barnum & Bailey's and the Ringling Brothers after a 100+ year run, animal performance venues like Sea World on death throes, and the every day county fair slowly receding into the night, circus events under a true big top are hardly commonplace.

Acrobatics and physical performance art, however, are a whole other story, and that's where Circus Juventas comes in. As the nation's largest circus arts school with nearly 1,000 students, Circus Juventas does amazing work to help kids not only stay in peak physical performance but learn confidence, balance, storytelling, and many other skills.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas

I can attest first-hand that the work Circus Juventas does is truly inspiring. I will never forget the first performance of theirs that I was able to witness - a lively iteration of Peter Pan a few years ago - and I was absolutely blown away by the talent of the students. There's nothing quite like live acrobatics (as any Cirque du Soleil fan can attest), and watching pint size acrobats whirling through the air is beyond thrilling.

If any of this piques your curiosity then you're in luck! On Saturday, June 3 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Circus Juventas is letting the public behind the scenes by inviting anyone interested to watch circus classes and rehearsals for their upcoming flagship performance. Co-Founder Dan Butler will also give tours around the ring and explain the intricacies of all the high-flying apparatus and how the school works.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas

The event is totally free (so you should go no matter what), but here's where the Good Karma comes in: Circus Juventas is currently working to raise money for their trip to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival June 29-July 9. They have just $5,000 left to raise, so anything donated at the open house will go straight towards helping the kids to perform later this summer.

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There are so many incredible, unique opportunities to get out of the house for free in the Twin Cities. Compendium is all about helping people better explore their cities and try new things. If you can give back to kids' summer programs and learn about circus arts while doing it then, why not? I highly encourage you to follow Circus Juventas and check out this open house, it's going to be a blast. For more information, click here to go to their website.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Wrestling with the Moving Company's Refugia at the Guthrie

This world premiere play left me with more to think about than usual. 

Photo by Dan Norman

I immediately marked Refugia on my "must-see" list when it was announced last year. I've been following the current migration and refugee crises swallowing the world whole with great interest over the last few years, and I was so excited to finally see a piece from a major theater that would address it head on. The fact that it was being staged by the recently renewed the Moving Company was just icing on the multi-layered cake.

But when I left the theater last Friday after finally seeing Refugia, I found myself with more questions than answers and facing a review that I don't really know how to write.

Photo by Dan Norman

Let's start with what I can absolutely verify: the Moving Company is made up of some spectacularly talented artists, and they act the hell out of their roles here. The set is innovative and evocative, and offered a surprising amount of flexibility for what looked at face value like such a static structure. The costumes are perfectly tailored and beautifully appointed, and each character is exactly represented as you might imagine them off the page. Attention is paid to every tiny detail, down to exquisitely placed props and a live soundtrack (mostly provided by Christina Baldwin) that will make your heart stop.

Photo by Dan Norman

But I think the success of all these small details is what leaves the audience of Refugia in such a confusion, because at the heart of this show aren't really refugees at all, as one might suppose. The play opens and ends with an elderly white man walking in a Rainman-esque trance and babbling about his human family, long life, the vagaries of senior homes, and more, none of which is directly related to the more searing vignettes contained throughout the middle of the play. A dance with a polar bear may be intended to evoke some sort of animistic refugee crisis (climate change??) but left me more confused than content. The first true refugee story, about a young girl left at the Mexican border in Arizona as she is being "processed," has some hilarious caricatures of governmental staff at the border. However, the laughter created by these caricatures cruelly ignores the girl, the abuse she faces by these adults who treat her with such contempt, and never truly atones for itself. I found it extremely uncomfortable to watch while laughter boiled around me, unable to think of anything but a 10 year old girl stuffed in a trash can straight in front of my eyes, as forgotten on stage as her real life counterparts seem to be.

Photo by Dan Norman

That's not to say Refugia is wholly without nuance or benefit. I did appreciate an extended storyline discussing the critical issue of European citizens who are leaving to the Middle East to join Daish, and the effects that that selfish betrayal has on families back home. The pain parents suffer when their children abandon the generations of work they have put in to survive is extraordinary and often overlooked, I think, and that narrative is beautifully displayed through several moving interactions. A group of female Muslim refugees silently and stoically pray while planes fly overhead, and their quiet strength is an inspiring thing to see. And a gorgeous piece about Polish Jews fleeing Russia in the 1950s has some beautiful things to say about the place of art in such painful moments and the benefits of starting completely from scratch.

Photo by Dan Norman

As mentioned before, the cast is incredibly talented and really lights up each sketch. Christina Baldwin anchors the action, of course, with her lovely voice and ability to vanish into her characters. Baldwin is a master actress, and even when the action on stage is unsettling, it's hard to take your eyes off her. Nathan Keepers is hilarious as a wayward librarian at the end of the show, the only truly comedic part of Refugia. Orlando Pabotoy is heartbreaking as a father seeking his corrupted son, and his scenes of loss are some of the most moving of the show. Steven Epp is reminiscent of 1980s Dustin Hoffmann in his meandering monologues, and he really loses himself in his part.

Photo by Dan Norman

So, at the end of the day, should you go see Refugia? I honestly don't know. I can't deny that in it's individual elements, Refugia is a beautifully crafted piece of drama. On the other hand, I have some very strong reservations about the script itself. I may believe that the authors intended this well (and I really do believe it), but somewhere in all the madness the point of the story - of refugees, of those who are suffering, of those who are forgotten and overlooked, of those to whom it is far too easy to turn a cold shoulder - is utterly lost. Some moments are downright uncomfortable, and not in a purposeful way that generates necessary, productive self-reflection. I think (if you dig) there is something good to be found here, and I think this company could develop it further into a truly transcendent piece, but I'm not confident enough in Refugia's current iteration to endorse it wholeheartedly as-is. Do you agree? Disagree? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. For more information about Refugia, click on this link.

A Middling Murder Mystery

How many contemporary Asian American characters can you name in popular media today? 

Photo by Bob Suh

That was the question met with total silence at the intermission of Charles Francis Chan Jr's Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (OMM hereafter), Mu Performing Arts' latest offering that is now showing at the Guthrie through May 28. I thought about it for a while afterwards and there are a few notable portrayals - the screaming fresh Fresh Off the Boat or Aziz Ansari's exquisite Master of None among them - but on the whole, Asian Americans are still highly underrepresented in the wider world of American pop culture.

OMM tackles the question of representation literally, following Frank Chan as he navigates the process of creating his own art to help him be the change he wants to see in the world. The play is split between Frank writing his play and acting in it himself; the writing process evolves as the performances take shape, and the story ends on a much different note and with much different results than Frank intended at the beginning. Frank is guided to his realizations by a mystical Capuchin monkey and his wife Kathy and foiled by the depressing blended incarnation of his father and typical Asian stereotype, Charlie Chan. Suzy and Charlie Sr. also step in to help flesh out the show.

Photo by Bob Suh

Eric Sharp is, well, sharp as Frank Chan. I believe it's his first time working on a Mu show and I was so impressed with his delivery. Sharp slides through the difficult dialogue with ease, and I can see him in even meatier roles in the future. Hope Nordquist is a good pair with Sharp as Chan's wife Kathy, with a pointed delivery that pushes Chan to think more holistically about his goals and problems. Stephanie Bertumen and Song Kim are bombastic as Chan's sidekicks and helpmeets; Luverne Seifert is appropriately disgusting as the stereotypical, yellow-faced Charlie; and Randy Reyes is a little weird as OMM's resident mystical monkey.

The set is split into two vignettes, which the actors flip between to tell the story of Frank Chan and also to "perform" the play Chan is writing. Both are kept to the simplest iteration imaginable, as are the costumes (which don't change much throughout the show). Some clever lighting helps provide OMM with the mystical feel of a caper, and there are plenty of good sound effects to help spice up the action. A notable detail is the use of having the audience witness the actors applying their makeup, which is particularly painful when Seifert dons his "yellow-face" as Charlie Chan and Bertumen her "white face" to portray a wealthy white woman. It's uncomfortable watching the actors transform into a stereotype for no other purpose than to flay it, and the process makes the point about representation far more elegantly than words could ever say. It's also the second time in less than a week that I watched an actor paint themselves another color on stage; is there a trend brewing in local companies?

Photo by Bob Suh

I was a little disappointed with OMM overall, and it had mostly to do with the script. LLoyd Suh has a lot of important things to say about Asian representation in American culture and there are several lovely, vital, barbed monologues scattered throughout the play, but it feels like the point of them is lost in all the moving parts of the show itself. The murder mystery portion of the show, which was what initially drew me to OMM in the first place, is less Agatha Christie and more Comedy of Errors. The mystery feels muddled, some of the connections between characters are set adrift, and it's just not always clear where the show itself is going. It's easier to envision this script more as a cartoon series, stretched out with a little breathing room between narratives, than as a live action stage play.

That being said, the actors from Mu Performing Arts give it their all as always. It was a pleasure to be introduced to Eric Sharp (I'm hoping to see a lot more of him!) and more of old favorites like Stephanie Bertumen. Mu always provides audiences with stories that are original, interesting and complex, and I wholeheartedly endorse exploring their work, even if it's not my favorite thing I've seen them do. If you need to escape our unseasonably cool, rainy weather, slide over to the Guthrie's 9th floor for some $9 tickets and a new show that will make you pay closer attention to the media and stereotypes surrounding us every day. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Red Velvet is Riveting

Telling the long-lost story of Ira Aldridge, Red Velvet pulls you into a narrative of heartbreak and perseverance. 

Photo by John Heimbuch

Sometimes, things can be distilled into simple essences. Red Velvet, the latest production from Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the Southern Theater, could be summed up simply with: what would you do if there were no obstacles in your way?

That is the question facing Ira Aldridge, a giant of classical theater (especially Shakespeare) and one of the first true international African American celebrities. Treading the boards in the first half of the 19th century, Aldridge crossed the Atlantic from his New York birthplace (preceding so many other great black artists, like Josephine Baker, James Baldwin and Nina Simone) to make his way as an actor in Europe. Landing in London in 1824 (where slavery was already illegal, decades before the U.S. finally got its shit together on that front), Aldridge made quite a name for himself and drew large audiences, particularly in eastern Europe and Russia when he began to tour. His hard-won success was not free of obstacles, however. Many reviewers and theater boards treated Aldridge with disdain at best and outright racism at worst.

This tension between Aldridge's talent and box office success and the theater world's regressive attitude towards non-white (and even non-male) performers is at the heart of Red Velvet, which imagines the story of a deeply scarring experience Aldrige had performing Othello at the Covent Garden theater in London. The script will make you recoil with horror and disgust, particularly in the reading of actual reviews of Aldridge from his performances in the 1830s and discussion of Aldridge's perceived "flaws" by fellow white actors when he's not in the room. It's hard to watch, but it's important: statements made in this setting maybe a little balder than what we hear today, but they are by no means gone, and it's a worthwhile exercise to see such conversations laid bare on stage.

Portrait of the real Ira Aldridge by William Paine

JuCoby Johnson anchors the cast as the volatile Ira Aldrige. With a Donald Glover swagger, Johnson leads several riveting interactions, particularly in his initial engagements with his fellow performer Ellen Tree (played by Elizabeth Efteland). Efteland perfectly inhabits her role of strong Victorian virtue, providing a calm and persistent foil to the racist tendencies of the other cast mates. Ty Hudson is absolutely vile as Ellen's fiancee Charles Kean, and does an excellent job of humanizing (and making horrifyingly relatable) all of Kean's ludicrous objections to Aldridge's place. Sulia Rose Altenberg impressively masters many accents in several key supporting roles, chief among them the beset Polish reporter Halina, whose insatiable curiosity and determination to succeed in a male-dominated profession sets the whole story in motion.

Andy Schnabel is bombastic as theater manager Pierre Laporte, and lends the only true check to Aldridge's passionate play. Bear Brummel is heartwarming as the ahead-of-his-time Henry Forester, showing that history is often more complex than we allow it to be and that heroes can come in many stripes. Michael Lee is perfectly cast as the self-important Bernard Ward, with a dry British delivery that brings Red Velvet some sorely needed laughter. And Kiara Jackson is wonderful as the maid Connie, the show's most underrated character (seriously, I really wish we could have seen more of her) and who offers Aldridge the most sage advice he refuses to take.

The entire set stays on stage without changes, with Aldridge's touring dressing room at stage right, a vignette of the theater office at stage left, and the center left open for the actors to literally tread the boards. It's an efficient setup and allows the players to swiftly switch between time zones and locations. Some beautiful lighting from Jesse Cogswell provides literal walking shadows throughout the show, an effect that certainly lends a more Victorian aura to the piece. And costumes, designed by E. Amy Hill, are period-specific and thoroughly set the tone for the show.

Photo by John Heimbuch

Red Velvet was a pleasant surprise as it's a show I didn't know I needed to see. I always love seeing new stories find the stage, particularly ones about historical figures who are underrepresented or otherwise forgotten, and that of Ira Aldridge certainly fits the bill. This story also fits beautifully into the ongoing controversies about casting for roles on Broadway and beyond, a debate that has been ongoing for hundreds of years and is unlikely to stop anytime soon. It's a shame that the challenges Aldridge faced haven't changed nearly as much as they ought to by now, but the progress that has been made is encouraging and worthy of celebration. Red Velvet offers each of us an opportunity to truly look inside and determine: What are my preconceived prejudices? How am I preventing others from fulfilling their dreams? In what ways can I take a step back to help lift up new stories, right old wrongs, defend the downtrodden? Red Velvet is a great exploration of the nuances of allyship and racism, and a fascinating story to-boot. Make sure to stop by the Southern Theater to see Red Velvet before it closes on May 28. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Thrillist Feature: Things to Do in Duluth

I have some exciting news....

Photo Credit: http://duluth-mn.purzuit.com/ 

I've been bursting at the seams to share this with you all but I needed to wait until the first piece was up: I'm now writing for Thrillist!

I'm so excited to venture into a new form of writing and to work within an editorial structure again. Business as usual will continue on the blog here, I'll just be adding in links to my Thrillist pieces from time to time as they post. Please follow me there! Much of the pieces will be focused on food-based events in the Twin Cities and short staycation trips in greater Minnesota. It's all great information and will hopefully help you populate some new ideas for things to do now that we can once again bask in the gorgeous weather of Minnesotan summers.

For my first piece I featured things to do on Duluth, which is perfect timing since I'll be there over Memorial Day. Check my suggestions out and let me know - do you agree? Disagree? What did I miss? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Click to read: Things to Do In Duluth, Minnesota

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Tap Your Toes to Ragtime Women

This show is Chicago meets the Andrews Sisters, and it will have you humming along. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

Last weekend, I saw two shows and neither had a single man on stage (unless you count a lone accompanist - but he had no speaking lines so I'll give it a pass). 

This wasn't intentional on my part, but it was striking, and it made me realize: how often does theater (or film, or books...) truly center the female experience? I mean we've all heard of the Bechdel Test, and more and more productions are working to fill the female character gap. But how often do you see a story told entirely from the perspective of women, without a single element of the male gaze around to change it? 

It's pretty rare. And that focus on untold female stories is why you should also go see Ragtime Women, running at Dreamland Arts for one more week. Like many forms of popular art, ragtime (which was popular in the early 20th century and a prelude to the jazz and blues craze of the 1940s) was (on the surface, at least) dominated by white men. As a new art form, however, ragtime presented new opportunities for women and people of color to get a foot in the door and earn some money on their artistic talents. Much like early cinema, many women and people of color capitalized on this opportunity by submitting work with pen names or sticking to work behind the scenes; through their participation, they greatly contributed to moving the art form forward. Ragtime Women follows four real-life female ragtime composers and performers who found ways to get footholds in this new world. The show loosely narrates their story in between performing many of their songs, providing a narrative to connect the clear evolution of ragtime music in between. It's an ingenious way to construct a narrative out of thin air, and although it takes some liberties with historical context, Ragtime Women gives an accessible snapshot of what many of the pressures facing women at the time who wished to have a career outside of the home, particularly in the world of popular music. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

Jen Maren opens the show as Cora Salisbury, a renowned ragtime composer and performer who worked the vaudeville circuit in the Midwest. Maren has a spunky delivery and perfectly mimics the corny jokes of hosts of the vaudeville era. Christine Polich leads the action through the story as determined ingenue Julia Niebergall, who is inspired to get in the ragtime business after seeing Cora perform and grows by leaps and bounds throughout the show. Polich has a witty charm that is reminiscent almost of an Anne of Green Gables, and she fits her role excellently. Tara Shaefle makes a brief appearance as Gladys Yelvington, an extremely talented composer who stops working as soon as she is married. And Krin McMillen brings all social issues to a crux as May Aufderheide, the most prolific of all the artists features and the most conflicted (she leaves the business at the behest of her less successful husband). McMillen's sweet delivery really hits the conflict Aufderheide must have felt home, as she grapples with the choice between who and what she loves. It's a conflict that is far too common still today, and it's hard to see her character leave her passion behind. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

The set is almost nonexistent, with a simple couch, desk, and vanity piece on stage. These are used intermittently with strategic lighting and function to create far more context than you might first assume. Harrison Wade sits on stage at a piano to accompany the ladies, which gives the performance a spontaneous, authentic feel to each ragtime jam. My favorite element was the use of a projector to show old film shorts, vaudeville scenes, and to provide some historical context at the beginning and end of the show. The screen really ties the vignettes together, and it provides some great information for those who refuse to wade through the exhaustive program notes. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

Ragtime Women is an exciting upstart performance about women who refuse to let societal standards define them. Filling in one more missing piece of history, Ragtime Women tells a vital story about female composers and performers, as well as life as a women in the Midwest at the turn of the 20th century. The show brings this history to colorful life and revisits many toe-tapping tunes you have probably never heard of. Ragtime was far more than Scott Joplin and vaudeville was more than the Orpheum circuit, although you'd never know it if you flipped through a history book. It's fascinating to learn more about these art forms, especially since they're so responsible for much of the popular entertainment we enjoy today. Ragtime Women is only running for one more week, so make sure you check it out at Dreamland Arts before it closes on May 14. You can find more information and purchase tickets by clicking on this link

Monday, May 8, 2017

Little Wars Packs a Big Punch

Prime Productions fills a much-needed empty niche of stories by and about "women of a certain age." 

Photo by Joseph Giannetti.

When is the last time you saw an unironically scripted role for a woman over age 50? Something that didn't involve being a grandmother, witch or some other societal burden? Now, when is the last time you saw a show featuring multiple women over age 50 that fits the same description?

If it's taking you a while to think of something off the bat (particularly something that isn't the Calendar Girls - I mean don't get me wrong, I love it, but it can't be the only one!), don't worry - you're not alone. Women in their sunset years tend not to be the feature focus of most new work. Whether it's a perception about their perceived attractiveness or just an assumption that their lives aren't that interesting, this is a demographic that is consistently overlooked in the creation of productions, much less the performance of them.

And that lack of representation is a damn shame, because there is a wealth of experience, knowledge and beauty to be found in these unique stories. I can attest first hand to this as I am blessed with two wildly interesting and vivacious great aunts who are still living their best lives and having adventures all over the world in their 70's and 80's. They are some of my favorite people in the world, and I treasure the wisdom and thrill they share with every conversation.

Photo by Joseph Giannetti.

Thankfully, this missing gap in American media is beginning to be filled. With strong societal pushes by actresses like Meryl Streep and Patricia Arquette, the celebration of performances by vaunted actresses such as the Dames (Judi Dench, Hellen Mirren and Maggie Smith), and the foundation of new production companies such as Angelina Jolie's, Drew Barrymore's and Reese Witherspoon's, the quantity and quality of roles by and for older women are becoming easier to find and better than ever. For an example, you can check out Grace and Frankie on Netflix (featuring the incomparable Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin), or the hilarious series of films called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Opportunities in this niche are cropping up on the local front as well, most lately in Prime Production's Little Wars at Mixed Blood Theater. Little Wars re-imagines a meeting in the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas as France surrenders to Hitler in World War II. Present for the conversation are Stein and Toklas, as well as their maid Bernadette; the illustrious Agatha Christie; fiesty playwright Lillian Hellman; hilarious writer Dorothy Parker; and Muriel Gardiner, a leader in the resistance to the Nazis who smuggled many Jews out of Germany throughout the war. The women initially meet for a social call, but their cattiness and insatiable curiosity about who Muriel really is quickly leads the conversation to devolve into politics, relational truths, sexual devastation of various ways by horrifying male acts, and the severe racism facing Jews at the time.

Little Wars' plot could easily be bogged down in its heavy subject matter, but this excellent cast ushers it to success. Candace Barrett Birk is wonderful as Gertrude Stein, bringing a Judi Dench-ian fire and brimstone fearsomeness to her role. Sue Scott is wonderfully paired with Birk as Stein's partner Alice B. Toklas, firmly navigating each character's thorny nature and tying them all together throughout the show. Miriam Schwartz is powerful as Stein and Toklas' maid Bernadette, and her horrifying story of sexual violation at the hand of the Nazis near the end of the show left the audience in chills and deafening silence. Vanessa Gamble is perfectly despicable as the overwrought (yet talented) Lillian Hellman; her vivacious performance drives much of the conversation, and she perfectly represents the snotty attitude that drips from Hellman's character. Elizabeth Desotelle is witty and tugs your heart strings as Dorothy Parker. Desotelle's performance reminded me a little bit of Elizabeth Moss's turn as Peggy in Mad Men, with a deceptively fierce will masked in a winsome facade. And Alison Edwards is the epitome of droll as the rapacious Agatha Christie. Edwards couldn't be more British in her delivery, and it's a familiar tone that is much welcome amidst the serious subjects of the show.

Photo by Joseph Giannetti.

The set-piece for Little Wars remains fixed on the living quarters of Stein and Toklas. It's a menagerie of books, art pieces (particularly female nudes), well worn furniture and other curios. The artfully disheveled set lends a comfortability to the harsher elements of the script, and it's the perfect setting for a riveting discussion. Costumes are perfectly period appropriate and reflect each character's idiosyncrasies (for example, Stein is swathed in a loud kimono; Bernadette stands ramrod straight in a simple black dress; Christie is impeccably tailored in a camel suit). Lighting, props, and any other production design is kept simple to keep the focus on the story at hand.

Little Wars is set in the familiar trappings of World War II intrigue, but it has something very different to offer than other wartime shows. Featuring a plethora of vivacious, ravenously intelligent, fascinating women, Little Wars has a rich, deep well of things to say about the lives of women at many stages of their lives. Covering everything from racism to rape to homosexuality to the challenges of having a career outside of society's preferred mores,  Little Wars is a delightful, provocative piece that will leave you reflecting on it for days. I am so, so glad that Prime Productions is working to fill the gap for shows for women above middle age, and I hope very much that they succeed. We need more pieces like Little Wars to keep pushing ourselves forward and to learn to harness the gifts that all members of our society, no matter how young or old, are able to give. Little Wars runs at the Mixed Blood Theatre through May 21; get your tickets and more information by clicking on this link.