Friday, June 8, 2018

Reviewed in Brief: Chicago

If there were one sentence to describe Chicago, it would be "sex on stage."



I've seen many sultry shows in my time, but little compares to the sensual explosion that is Chicago. From the barely there costumes to the musical sighs to the iconic Bob Fosse choreography, Chicago oozes sex through every pore.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

If you're not in the loop, Chicago tells the story of the murdering women in the Cook County Jail in the 1920s. There are women there for many reasons; some had cheating partners; some had men with annoying habits; only one of them is innocent. The plot centers on the competition between two inmates, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, as they try to parlay the fame generated from their crimes into showbusiness careers (once they get free from jail first, of course). It's a riveting competition, one that predicted the incredible fame grabbing happening among social media influencers these days (#kardashians), and it's impossible not to be sucked into the all-out lengths each woman would go to in order to maximize her paparazzi moment.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

It's been a while since I've seen the stage version and I was excited to check out the Broadway tour at the Orpheum this week. All of the classic elements are there, from "All That Jazz" to "Cell Block Tango," and the audience went wild for it. However: I'm not sure why, but this cast didn't hit my sweet spot. I thought Dylis Croman had a great sly delivery as Roxie Hart and Jennifer Fouche had a delightful swagger as Matron "Mama" Morton. The dancers are all extremely talented and step in time. But something about Terra MacLeod as Velma Kelly just didn't do it for me. I've been a solid fan of Chicago since I saw the incredible 2002 film with Catherine Zeta Jones, and I think I was looking for a performance closer to hers. MacLeod isn't bad, but it's much more of a physical performance than a vocal one - just not quite for me. Several of the men's performances felt a little dialed in and the chemistry just wasn't there. The audience loved it, so I'm likely alone in my feelings, but this one was missing the spark that always made Chicago such a spunky surprise for me.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

One thing I did really enjoy? The set. In a bit of a twist, the band is on stage on a tiered performance platform so we can always see them playing, just like we would a live jazz band in a steamy club. It gives a concert-like effect to the show and definitely helps keep things paced more quickly since no sets need to be moved. I loved watching the conductor interact with the actors as they performed their numbers; it reminded me a lot of watching my dad interact with the high school students acting in the plays he conducted pits for while I was growing up. I don't think pit orchestras often get as much credit as they deserve, so it was awesome to see this one being celebrated front and center.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

I was also troubled by some of the audience reactions to the show. It seemed like most of them found Chicago to be... funny? The plot is certainly told with a giant sly wink, and there's a lot of sarcastic banter throughout the show. But the idea of celebrating women for committing murders troubles me; as much as the show has a darkly comic side, the point has always seemed to me that it sheds light on the enormous injustices of our criminal justice system. Innocent people are often incarcerated and punished for crimes they didn't commit; even the most guilty person can get out of sentencing with enough money and influence. Several heartbreaking conclusions are made throughout the show, and even Velma and Roxie come to see the double edged sword of their fame by the end. I must be getting old or something, because I've had similar qualms with other seriously-themed shows playing locally lately. I hate to be a negative Nancy but... I just didn't feel right about the overly jovial atmosphere. I love Chicago; I love that it allows women to be more than precious saints / angels / mothers and embraces the darker side of their complexities; but I also think we can hold that in a more thoughtful place. I'm probably being a Grinch, but I have to be honest.

That said, the rest of the audience went wild for this Chicago, and if you're a previous fan I think you could truly enjoy it. Chicago runs at the Orpheum through June 10, so make sure to get your tickets very soon if you want to check it out. Click on this link for more information or to buy tickets to the show.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Sally Wingert Shines in Underneath the Lintel

Some people are just made for certain parts. 


Photo by Dan Norman

Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Iron Man. Denzel Washington was thoroughly destined to be Malcom X. Who but Idina Menzel could have originated Elphaba? Or who could have breathed life into the Phantom other than Michael Crawford?

Sally Wingert's latest performance as The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel at Theater Latte Da is just such an epochal turn. This one woman show can only succeed with an eccentric, charismatic personality at its core, and Wingert turns in a magnetic performance that carries the show with aplomb. It's impossible to imagine someone else fitting the bill, and I'd call it a star-making turn if Wingert weren't already such an established local #tctheater legend.

Photo by Dan Norman
Underneath the Lintel begins with Wingert making a harried entrance through a hallway side door. Laden with a cadre of eclectic baggage, she quickly disassembles the pile of aged props on stage - dusty chalkboard, chipped desk, manual slide projector - into a war room of sorts. Thus equipped, The Librarian leads the audience on a whirlwind quest to solve the mysterious identity of the patron who returned a 113 year overdue book through the library's mail slot. With a determined air and a series of unbelievable calculations, The Librarian does find an answer to her quest - but not without enormous sacrifice and difficulty along the way. I don't want to spoil the mystery of the show by saying any more (after all, isn't the caper effect the whole point of the fun?), but suffice it to say: the answer involves a thoroughly mystical figure that will leave you with some spooky chills as it is revealed.

Photo by Dan Norman

As I mentioned, Underneath the Lintel really requires charisma to sell this part. The Librarian is difficult, headstrong, particular and erratic, and to feel engaged with her character we need to trust our actor. Wingert is an ideal choice, granting a direct delivery and no-bullshit attitude that appear capable instead of rude (an important distinction), and we are buying into her riddle from the get-go. Dan Chouinard and Natalie Nowytsksi remain eerily obscure as the silent musicians throughout the show, and they provide a supernatural soundtrack that well-suits the plot. There isn't much set or costuming to speak of - this one-act show is done without a change of scenery or costume - which is deceptively simple and evocative. Wingert's expert wielding of the mountain of evidentiary props keeps things from getting too dull, and it's amazing how quickly she places us in myriad settings with just a few small objects, effects, and some vivid monologue.

Photo by Dan Norman

What's interesting about this show is that for such a light on-stage presence there is a veritable Ferris Wheel of people on the production team. As the director, Peter Rothstein appears to have (wisely) let Wingert run her own show and surrounded her with a crack team to provide whatever animation she preferred. Barry Browning's lighting design and John Acarregui's sound design are probably the two standout design elements. Combined with the exhaustive props design from Abbee Warmboe, they speed up the action by creating diverse effect with little on-stage change, and it's a great demonstration of how important effective background work is in pulling off even a seemingly straightforward performance.

Photo by Dan Norman

There are some cringeworthy elements of Underneath the Lintel's script (particularly in references to people of different races and cultures) that haven't aged particularly well. That isn't the fault of the performers, however, and if the opportunity arose to tweak them it would fix any small quibbles I have with the show. If you're a big Sally Wingert fan (and honestly, who isn't?) you will not be disappointed with Underneath the Lintel. I've never seen a show like it and it will definitely keep your wheels turning while you watch. For more information or to buy tickets to see Underneath the Lintel before it closes on July 1, click on this link.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Theatre Elision Ends Season on a High Note with Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling

This is such an exciting time to be an artist. 

But that pie though... I still dream about it, and I'm not even a dessert person! 

Thanks to the power of the internet, social media and crowdfunding, artists are more empowered than ever to really flex their creative muscles, and how lucky are all of we to enjoy it? From Donald Glover to Mindy Kaling, there are so many examples right now of artists who are augmenting their creative crossover using new technologies and tools to truly maximize their impact, and it's a blast to watch. 

Theatre Elision is a homegrown success story of just such a thing that I'm thrilled to talk about. Founded by a cadre of smart, driven young women, Theatre Elision is filling a gap that I didn't even know #tctheater had, but has been fascinating to explore. The company produces and / or reimagines long lost theater classics (their sweet spot seems to lie in the ragtime era, but they do branch out) with a simple eye but powerful musical chops. Their first piece (and an original!) was Ragtime Women (click here to read my review) last year; they've now come full circle with the delightful Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling to close out their 2017 - 2018 season. 

Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling takes several classic pieces from the "Princess Musicals." Do not, like me, assume that these are related to Disney princesses (although I still think that could be a cool show); instead, these are so-named because they were originally performed at the Princess Theatre in New York City in the years between 1915 and 1918. The content is the typical lighthearted romantic comedy you might see in a summer blockbuster or Rogers & Hammerstein musical, just with a softer touch. 

What I greatly appreciated about this particular show was that it has been completely repackaged from the original without losing its integrity. Taking their preferred songs from several different Princess Musicals, the writers have made a new musical that feels shockingly modern considering the style of the music. This is aided by the truly witty production staging, by which I mean: there really isn't any staging at all, and it totally works. Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling is set in the Mojo Coffee Gallery (which serves a delightful meal - complete with some bombdiggity apple pie pictured above - prior to the show. I HIGHLY recommend choosing this option with your ticket), a choice that initially confused me but later felt like a brilliant strategy. 

Rather than perform for us, the performers ARE us, sitting at coffee shop tables, weaving amongst the crowd, and making their relational drama feel familiar and personal. It keeps you constantly on your toes, allows the actors to be really comfortable and engaged, and when paired with the hilarious text message screenshots projected on the coffee house television provides a really witty and contemporary performance that I found just delightful. The performers also work hard to keep things moving, clicking through 21 songs and associated plot lines in less than 90 minutes - a feat that I desperately wish they'd train other theaters in accomplishing. This is definitely a workshop in learning-best-practices-from-Michelle-Hensley, and I thoroughly approve. 

One of the things that's always impressed me about Theatre Elision is the strikingly deep vocal talent they showcase. These are not pop songs that anyone can autotune their way through, and despite the accompaniment of a sole piano they can be deceptively complex. Each of the four performers in Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling has a knockout voice that is the centerpiece of the show (as it should be). With such a barebones production it's important that the music be excellent, and it really, truly is. Standouts for me included "Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling" to open the show; a very nuanced rendition of "The Sun Shines Brighter;" the virtuosic closing of "Wedding Bells Are Calling Me;" and the delightfully tongue-in-cheek "It's A Hard, Hard, Hard World for a Man" that ends with a spontaneous tap dance that had the audience bursting into simultaneously spontaneous applause. I think these spunky artists can sell just about anyone on these 100 year old songs, and I dare you to see the show and not be impressed. 

It's so heartening to see that there really is room for all kinds of art. The bright young artists of Theatre Elision are hustling hard to make their dreams come true, and it's really inspiring to see how far they've come in just one year. I can only imagine what lies in store for future seasons, and I would really encourage any readers to go support their work. Starting a new company is never easy, but if the last season is any sign, there's nowhere to go but up. There is only one more weekend to see Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling, so make sure to get your tickets prior to the last performance on June 10 (and seriously get the food - it's so worth it, and the chef is so charming!). For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Lady Day Stuns at Emerson's Bar & Grill

Biopics can be a tricky thing. 


Photo by Dan Norman

I always feel for actors who have to portray famous figures, especially those alive during the last 100 years or so since the film industry exploded and we have real-life video footage to refer back to. Fans can be very jealous guards of their heroes' memories, and few things are tougher than fudging the portrayal of a beloved person (read: Zoe Saldana's epic flop as Nina Simone). Thankfully Thomasina Petrus, currently starring as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill on stage at the Jungle Theater, will never have to worry about this. She gives a raw, stunning performance with a pitch-perfect voice that will leave you with chills from the moment she struts on stage.

The show feels much more like an intimate live album session than a play, which sets it apart from other biographical art I've seen and is a format I really enjoyed. Rather than flipping through the "greatest hits" vignettes of someone's life, Lady Day allows us to learn of Billie's life through her own eyes and especially voice; short monologues describing key memories are interspersed between performances of her songs with a live band to accompany. The show is divided as a real performance would be between an intermission, and just as we are allowed a window into Billie's mind through her narration, we are allowed a window into her physical reality through a sheer curtain to a backroom stocked with her most notorious vices.

Due to this structure, Lady Day is essentially a one-woman show, and it could never work without a Grade A++ performer. Audra McDonald famously played this role (and swept nearly every imaginable award for doing it) in 2014, meaning anyone else coming up has huge shoes to fill. Enter: Thomasina Petrus. Long a local #tctheater legend, Petrus lands a powerhouse impression of Billie Holiday's voice that is spot-on; seriously, close your eyes and you'll struggle to remember you're in a theater in 2018, rather than a 1954 night club.
I don't have enough superlatives to lavish Petrus with, but let me just leave you with this: her performance is dazzling, moving, and wholly satisfying. Go see her. Fill every seat, for every performance. She is worthy of all and any attention, and you will not be disappointed with her efforts. 

Petrus is supported by a crack team of musicians, beginning with Thomas A. West as her band leader Jimmy Powers. West has a charming demeanor that quietly but expertly guides the band before and after she performs, and he's a perfect choice for this role. Ron Evaniuk provides a strong musical foundation on his acoustic bass. Dale Alexander did an excellent job filling in last minute for Kevin Washington on the trap set, seamlessly meshing into the band. The sound design overall (by Sean Healey) is perfect; intimate yet impressive, distinctive yet blended, and nothing gets lost or overpowering in the Jungle's cozy space.

The set is static and warm, showing the shabby chic interior of Philadelphia's Emerson's Bar & Grill. Set designer Joel Sass paid detailed attention to every inch, down to the well-worn patina on the walls, flaking ceiling tiles, dim lighting and strategically placed chips and dents on every wall and stick of furniture. The appearance feels effortless, allowing us to focus fully on the glittering diamante costumes (designed by Trevor Bowen) that shine with the same brilliance as Billie's voice. There are very few props as provided by John Novak, but they are strategic; we don't need much to instantly understand where Billie is at, both mentally and physically. The soft lighting design by Michael Wangen adds a last sheen to the performance, perfectly poising us as audience members in a dark club waiting for our star to appear.

I want to return briefly to the importance of honest portrayals in biopics, because I think it can be undervalued. The reason Zoe Saldana's portrayal of Nina Simone in Nina was such an epic fail wasn't simply based on the acting itself or physical idiosyncrasies between her character and the real thing; it was also in the perspective with which it was written. Nina, like many biopics, glorified in the darker, sadder parts of Nina's life while ignoring the overall whole. This was done under the pretense of being "honest" or "true" - but how could that be the case if it never even mentioned the good Nina Simone did, her prodigious talents, or the ways she moved the cultural conversation?

The success of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is that it avoids the trap of trauma porn. It's still honest - make no mistake, this is a Billie who still indulges her vices - but it does a beautiful job of explaining why they existed in the first place. Billie Holiday was a black woman living in America during the throes of Jim Crow; she certainly faced more than her share of horrific realities, and she dealt with them in the most successful way she knew how to. Petrus infuses honesty into every second of her performance, never cheapening or sensationalizing the real events of Lady Day's life, and it makes us feel like valuable friends, not cheap gossipers, to participate in her true confessions.

It's been a while since I had the pleasure of visiting the Jungle Theater, and what a time to come back. Director Marion McClinton has given us a lyrical, taut, glorious homage to the music of yesteryear that keeps its feet squarely grounded in believability. It's honest but respectful, featuring a very special performance from Thomasina Petrus that will move any fan. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is a truly special show, and I sure hope it has a run as fabulous as Billie Holiday herself. Check it out at the Jungle Theater before it closes on June 24; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Prescient Enemy of the People

It's amazing how some themes endure. 


Photo by Dan Norman

Something about the human condition seems to render us unable to answer one simple question - why don't we ever learn? A lust for power, flawed focus on short-term gains rather than long-term consequences, the allure of quick money - these themes tend to rise up over and over again under various guises.

Photo by Dan Norman

An Enemy of the People, originally penned by Henrik Ibsen but given a strikingly modern bend in a new adaptation by Brad Birch, takes a fresh approach to tackling such questions in the Guthrie's latest play. The play is concerned with a remote Norwegian town that has recently suffered an economic downturn. As the mayor, Peter Stockmann promises economic relief in the form of a shiny new resort, which explodes with success, drawing in many tourists and creating plenty of new jobs and income for citizens who desperately need it. Everything seems fine, until Tom Stockmann, the director of the resort who is also the mayor's brother, learns that the resort's water has been poisoned due to shortcuts taken during the its construction. Tom tries everything to report the issue and preserve public health, but is met at every turn with new obstacles that block his path - from Peter burying the knowledge to the resort's board commissioning false studies to discredit Tom's science to the newspaper refusing to run stories about the poisoned water.

Photo by Dan Norman

As Tom explores every possible opportunity to present the news, he conflicts with everyone - his wife Kate and daughter Petra; his wife's brother Morten; the newspaper editor Aslaksen; even his theoretical and ideological comrades, resident writer Billing and journalist Hovstad, are unable to stand with Tom by the end. Several pointed political monologues question Tom's motivation and flip the script; it's noble for him to want to save this one resort and one town, but what about his larger culpability for crimes committed by the first world country he lives in? Is he as concerned about the death by wars propagated by his tax dollars and global environmental poisonings from his consumer consumption? The resort is a pet project, but is it worth such a sacrifice from Tom? An Enemy of the People poses many interesting and important questions in our increasingly globalized world, and it's amazing how contemporary it all felt.

Photo by Dan Norman

Like many (accurate) stereotypes of Scandinavian art, An Enemy of the People is a quiet, dark piece, with the most meaningful moments created in the pregnant pauses created as the characters claw their way to some sort of truth. The cast deftly upholds this somber tone, beginning with Billy Carter as Tom Stockmann. Carter brings energy to his performance but without heat, and his tone grows appropriately colder as the plot thickens. Sarah Agnew gracefully foils Carter as Tom's wife Kate, with an elegantly cool demeanor that instantly recalled Robin Wright's delicious Clare Underwood. Christian Bardin was striking as Tom's daughter Petra, leaving a messy performance that had the most hope and life of all the characters on stage. Ricardo Chavira is sneaky as the mayor Peter Stockmann, and makes his villain more complex than at first meets the eye. Mo Perry is steadfast as Hovstad, providing a moral compass that puts her boss Aslaksen (played with gravitas by J.C. Cutler) to shame. And Zachary Fine brings a Lannister - Game of Thrones evil vibe to his role as Morten, leaving Zarif Kabier to provide the occasional positive relief as the writer Billing.

Photo by Dan Norman

The scenic design by Merle Hensel is sleek and spare, but always interesting. The stage is constructed on a roundabout; as each scene plays, an opaque black scrim drops to segment the stage, allowing the crew to put a totally new set in place that turns into view as the scene transitions and the stage rotates. It's hard to describe but a really efficient, austere but clean effect, and I found myself consistently engaged in enjoying the spare but polished aesthetic. Costumes (by Brenda Abbandandolo) are similarly sparse but plush, with obvious quality that gleamed even near the back of the house. The lighting design by Jane Cox and music and sound design by Brochen Chord seamlessly integrate with the set in motion and keep the audience fully engaged. I really enjoyed how thoughtfully this quiet vision was composed, and the efficiency with which it led the play - the whole thing is over in barely an hour and a half, and it keeps the long pauses and silent monologues from feeling too dreary.

Photo by Dan Norman

I really was surprised by how modern An Enemy of the People felt, and how resonant some of the pointed monologues were. Regardless of your political views, I think right now that most of us are really examining the role of the government and the people, the interplay between responsibility and contemporary practical realities, and the limits of power and conscience. What is the appropriate cost for doing the right thing? Should you lose your family, your career, your life? Are people better off left in blissful ignorance or awakened to painful truths? Who gets to decide what you deserve to know? Is there anything we can do to rein in the outsized influence multinational corporations have over our everyday decisions and needs?

Photo by Dan Norman

All of these questions, and more, are raised in An Enemy of the People, and you will leave without any easy answers. This old script still has as lot to tell us, and this beautifully adapted version will have something to say to audiences of any stripe. I know that I'll be chewing on some of these ideas for some time; if you want to engage with art containing a little more gravitas than we've seen of late, this is a good choice for you. An Enemy of the People runs at the Guthrie Theater through June 3; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, May 4, 2018

This Bitter Earth is Honestly Bittersweet

It begins and ends with a bang. 


Photo by Allen Weeks

A broken bottle, a crumpled body, a shattered heart.

Photo by Allen Weeks

These events are the bookends of This Bitter Earth, a terrific new play by local playwright Harrison David Rivers that is currently showing at the Penumbra Theatre. A clear, modern, emotional, piece, This Bitter Earth tells the story of interracial queer love amidst all of the turmoil of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It's a nuanced, painfully beautiful exploration of what it means to love outside the box these days, another gem in a string of lovely plays about interracial relationships gracing stages lately, and I couldn't love it more.

Photo by Allen Weeks

This Bitter Earth is hard to summarize because, as one character says in a eulogy at the end, there's *just so much.* The play jumps around between different vignettes at various points in time in the relationship between Jesse Howard and Neil Finley-Darden. Jesse is a black writer who is finishing his thesis in New York City and later becomes a writing teacher in Minnesota; Neil is a wealthy white man from New York City who becomes heavily involved in activism through BLM as his relationship with Jesse evolves. The two men have different life goals and priorities, and their relationship is never easy; but their ardent, consistent love for one another sustains them despite the fearsome obstacles to their love. Faced with everything from disapproving stares to verbal assaults to the final attack that takes Neil's life, Jesse and Neil find a way to celebrate life's most important things - beauty, love, equality, peace - and their example is a testament to us all.

Photo by Allen Weeks

There are only two actors to carry this show, and they are perfectly cast. Kevin Fanshaw plays Neil with a nuance that gives the character the full emotional breadth he deserves, and I was so impressed with his performance. It can be hard to talk about the personal experience of being a white ally in a way that respectfully does not eclipse or erase the experiences of people of color in the movement. Fanshaw's many monologues and asides on this subject beautifully capture this difficulty without cheapening his message, and I think they really nailed this issue. Jon-Michael Reese is simultaneously complex and layered as Jesse. His role equally explores diversity in racial advocacy - not all black people agree with or are involved in BLM, and they certainly don't need to be admonished on the experience of living as people of color under American racism. Reese's deft navigation of this conversation, which is subtle and hard and vital, completes a complex picture of this relationship. Above all, Fanshaw and Reese share a tenacious chemistry that is the cornerstone of all long-lived interracial relationships: if you can't have each other's backs even at home, how can you ever survive outside your private walls? Both of these actors are fairly new-to-me and I was floored by their impactful performances. There's a lot for anyone to learn here, and I thoroughly appreciate their refined acting.

Photo by Allen Weeks

The set designed by Maruti Evans is clean, modern and comfortable. It's a spot-on background for the difficult conversations taking place on stage, and is one of my favorite I've seen at the Penumbra. The costumes by Sarah Bahr are simple, believable, and changed with lightning speed as we quickly pass through different times and locations. The lighting is warm and elegant, and I loved the way lighting designer Marcus Dillard, projections designer Kathy Maxwell and sound designer Kevin Springer worked together to create instant ambiance no matter where the action is taking place. The projections were actually one of my favorite elements; often they can feel lazy to me, as a way to uncreatively replace sets, but these projections really enhance the significance of what the characters are saying (particularly a beautiful set of quotes by various black luminaries) and instantly set the location, saving time to focus on the plot itself. Overall, I think director Talvin Wilks really nailed the vision for this play; it's cohesive, modern and impactful without feeling overwrought.

Photo by Allen Weeks

I wrote more extensively of my experience in an interracial relationship in my review of Wedding Band (also at the Penumbra) last fall, and I don't want to repeat those thoughts here. There are extremely important differences and challenges faced by same-sex couples in interracial relationships, and I appreciated how fully This Bitter Earth explored them. My favorite element of this show, however, was its firm footing in modern life. The Loving vs. Virginia decision is only 50 years old this year, and the threats to interracial (and especially interracial same-sex couples) are very, very real even (or perhaps especially) in #liberal states like Minnesota. These threats have always been visible and challenging to those of us living through them, but I have to say that something even darker seems to have publicly raised its head amidst the political tumult of the last few years. If we want to create safer, more inclusive communities, it is vital that we address these threats and prejudices head on. This Bitter Earth beautifully encapsulates the hard conversations and experiences all interracial couples are having these days. It is heartbreakingly painful to watch but it is also searingly honest, and I really appreciate Harrison David Rivers' unflinching approach and willingness to invite everyone in to help them truly understand how much this problem matters.

Photo by Allen Weeks

As I've mentioned before, this has been an absolutely dynamite year so far in the #tctheater community. It's hard to feel like I'm raving about everything I see, but honestly there have been so many truly excellent shows gracing our stages! I'm happy to say that This Bitter Earth is yet another gem in this collection. The fact that it's written by a local playwright, features bright young stars, and tackles increasingly pressing social concerns with a deft hand is just icing on the cake. The Penumbra is having a dynamite season, and I encourage you to head to Kent Street to check out their work. Artistic Director Sarah Bellamy is so thoughtfully programming around hard conversations we all need to be having and experiences that are often left ignored, and I'm sure you'll find something to love in her choices. I encourage you to visit This Bitter Earth before it closes on May 20; click here for more information or to buy tickets. Please also reference their excellent study guide to the show and issues surrounding it by checking out their well-researched feature - click here.

Photo by Allen Weeks

And seriously, the Penumbra is killing it! Here are my thoughts on the shows I've seen from them so far the past couple years - all have been truly excellent.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Lorax is a Scintillating Show for Our Times

The Children's Theatre Company's latest show is a perfect piece for Earth Day. 


Photo by Dan Norman

Literary adaptations to stage or screen are always a tricky thing. Few fans are as ardent about faithful story-lines as book readers, and navigating the process of visualizing the collective imagination of textual characters down to the minutest detail can be a daunting task.

Photo by Dan Norman

In some ways, children's literature allows for more creative freedom in this process than novels do. After all, children's books are quite visual and can provide a more literal template from page to stage, eliminating choices that are harder when an author-approved image or vision isn't available.

Photo by Dan Norman

I imagine, however, that Dr. Seuss would provide a unique challenge of its own no matter what age range it's intended for. The imagery of Dr. Seuss books is so iconic, so unique, and so unlike anything we see in the natural world, that making it feasibly come to life involves a crazy amount of work that few companies are willing to take on. Thankfully the Twin Cities' Children's Theatre Company (CTC) is bravely up to the task (and then some); they've adapted multiple Dr. Seuss works for the stage before, but their latest The Lorax, which opened last weekend, might just be their best yet.

Photo by Dan Norman

One of the lesser known (but most explicitly political) of Seuss's tales, The Lorax is a parable about what happens when the environment becomes the least of society's priorities. A man named the Onceler is looking for a great idea to make himself rich when he stumbles upon a forest of truffula trees. The unusual trees provide fuel, food, and a remarkable material that can be knitted into fabric. The Onceler instantly seizes upon the knitting concept and knits the fronds into thneeds, a useless object that nevertheless is instantly seized upon in the consumer world. The trees are guarded by an ancient creature called the Lorax, who instantly demands the Onceler stop chopping trees down to make his thneeds; he explains that the trees require enormous amounts of care and time to grow and that chopping them down makes an irreversible error that will eliminate them forever. The Onceler ignores the Lorax's warnings, consumed by the wealth generated by thneed demand. He continues to edge out the Lorax's forest, removing trees at an ever-increasing rate until they are entirely gone. Once all the truffula trees are extinguished the Onceler sees his mistake, but it's too late: the Lorax leaves the annihilated landscape that used to be his truffula forest, and the Onceler is left to live in the wasteland of his greed. Only with the hope brought much later by a small child hearing the story for the first time can he begin to imagine a brighter future.

Photo by Dan Norman

This production has some changes from the book to flesh it out, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. The show is shepherded by an expert, dynamic cast, all of whom seem to be having the time of their lives. Stephen Epps is the perfect choice for the greedy Onceler. H. Adam Harris is wonderful as the voice of the Lorax, and he performs some magically expressive puppet work with the help of Meghan Kreidler and Rick Miller that is truly captivating. Rajané Katurah explodes off the stage in a dynamic solo, and she's going to be one to watch in coming productions. Ryan Colbert remains one of the best new regular actors on a CTC stage, with a vividly expressive performance that had all the kids giggling. The rest of the cast is great too, rotating through multiple roles (and costumes - man those changes are quick!) at a lightning pace and with clear passion, especially Ansa Akya and Stephanie Bertumen.

Photo by Dan Norman

Speaking of the costumes, holy cow - the production value of The Lorax is perfection from top to bottom. I'd love to know how much they spent developing each piece, because the clear attention to the smallest detail is evident at all levels. The costumes and sets, designed by Rob Howell, retain an exclusive Dr. Seuss feel and a crazy amount of texture. You can almost tangibly sense the softness of each truffula tree or the slime in the thneed factory, and the costumes burst off the stage in a riot of color. The puppets, designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, are a marvel. They have so much expressiveness, and they are moved so masterfully and expressively, that you are totally mesmerized every time they're on stage - from the flying swans to the singing fish to the Lorax himself (on first sight of whom the audience burst into applause), these are some entrancing puppets. The choreography by Drew McOnie is tightly performed and jazzy, perfectly mimicking the mood of the plot, and Emily Michaels King does some beautiful solo work as the dance leader. The lighting design (by Jon Clark) and sound design (by Tom Gibbons) is similarly timed to the smallest details, and the effects combine to make The Lorax a rich, fully visualized experience.

Photo by Dan Norman

Serious issues are making their way onto stages all over the Twin Cities, which is great to see. Race and gender and sexuality have all gotten explicit treatment in recent months, but how do you visually depict pollution as an urgent problem to be solved and a clean environment as something to be valued? I firmly believe that art is a perfect medium to help us tackle difficult subjects, and The Lorax is a genius way to address environmental issues. It may be considered a tale for children, but adults will be amazed at how quickly they are engrossed in The Lorax's beautifully told story. I know that I was pleasantly surprised at how much I genuinely engaged with this show. I couldn't stop smiling from the moment the theater lights dimmed, and if nothing else the incredible production value provides plenty of food for the eyes. I can't recommend The Lorax highly enough for people of all ages (and I truly mean that - adults are not getting cheated in this show). Hats (or thneeds, rather) off to Director Max Webster for a triumphant, creative adaptation that pulls the heartstrings, teaches a lesson, and puts a wide smile on your face all at the same time. For more information or to buy tickets before The Lorax closes on June 10, click on this link.