Monday, March 16, 2020

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

We're all in this together. 


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:

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. 


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:

  • Click here for a growing list of excellent educational ideas for kids of all ages. 
  • Scholastic offers an easily navigable learn at home site, probably best for kids middle school age and younger. 
  • A lot of other kid-centric learning institutions are offering virtual tours, including zoos, museums, science centers, etc. Check the list out here
  • If you have older kids, consider having them work through at least part of the New York Times' brilliant exploration of black history and the legacy of slavery in America, The 1619 Project. Click here to see the full curriculum they have developed, and who knows - maybe you will want to take some lessons yourself! 
  • Indigenous educators are hosting online lessons for kids age K-8; click here to learn more
  • JSTOR just released their entire online archive for free access.
  • I've seen creative posts on Instagram from parents constructing homemade obstacle courses to entertain toddler to kindergarten age kids - the only limit is your imagination!
  • Google is doing 360 degree tours of U.S. National Parks - click here for more
  • The Governor of Minnesota released a list of essential workers who can receive free childcare. It's pretty comprehensive and includes grocery workers, utility workers, etc. - click here to check it out
  • I just learned of the Faerie Tale Theatre, which offers wildly vintage performances of classic fairy tales directed by Hollywood legends like Francis Ford Coppola, Emile Ardolino and Tim Burton and featuring huge stars like Jeff Goldblum, Liza Minelli, Matthew Broderick, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Bernadette Peters, and numerous other legends (who knew?!) on YouTube. Great one for kiddos that is *not* Disney related, if that's your thing. 

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.

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).


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.

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.


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
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
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

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
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
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 
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
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.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Penumbra's The White Card is a Must See

White people especially need to prioritize attending this gripping drama depicting the devastation caused by microaggressions

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

It doesn't happen too often, but once in a while I witness a piece of theater that directly reflects some of my experiences and I visibly cringe.

The White Card, now showing at the Penumbra Theatre, is just such a show - and man, did I cringe HARD. Authored by the magnificently talented author Claudia Rankine (if you haven't yet read Citizen, her unmissable treatise on police brutality published by Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press - RUN, don't walk to get it), The White Card peels back the layers of privilege, ignorance and internalized racism that runs throughout the black-white dynamic in America today into an uncomfortable exposé of what is wrong with simply resting on good intentions and armchair activism.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

The entire play takes place in the stylish living room of a very wealthy couple, Charles and Virginia, who are famous art collectors. Their art dealer Eric connects them with a young black female artist and rising star, Charlotte, as she completes an eagerly awaited new photography collection. Upon arrival, Charlotte uneasily contemplates the couple's inimitable private art collection, most of which features daring, expensive, rare work by black artists exposing violence they experienced in American society. She reveals that her coming work is a look into the unseen devastation of the Charleston church shooting, instantly exciting the eager collectors.

Charles and Virginia's liberal activist son Alex crashes the dinner party halfway through, essentially dropping a lit Molotov cocktail into an already tense emotional environment. Many unsavory details about the source of Charles' wealth and Virginia's understanding of life outside of her white bubble are revealed in explosive fights, causing Charlotte to experience her own identity crisis. Who is her art really for? Does intention negate impact? By making black suffering the focus of her work, has she fetishized it into something unrecognizable and inhuman? The play closes on a reveal of Charlotte's next project, which is takes a completely different approach to the problem she initially set out to solve.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

This cast is tight, and bravo for their steadfast portrayals of nefarious characters who can't have been pleasant to portray. Bill McCallum brings layers to the role of Charles, and I think he's the character who will singlehandedly feel the most familiar to audiences. Michelle O'Neill is viciously brilliant as Virginia, with a whiplash delivery that had several audience members appearing visibly struck. Jay Owen Eisenberg is the perfect choice for Alex, shining a mirror on all well-intentioned activists. John Catron snugly wears the social climbing Eric's role, truly defining the rationale against the #notallmen movement through his performance. And Lynnette R. Freeman brings heartbreak and hope to her role of Charlotte; she is a strong, new-to-me anchor in the storm of this show, the blazing arrow pointing out the effects of microaggression to all of us. It's a brilliant cohort, and I appreciate the hard work they put in on a tough script.

Tavin Wilks brings a searingly clear vision to his role as director, and it's thanks to his straightforward vision that the layers of The White Card can unfold. Chelsea M. Warren's gleaming, chic scenic design looks plucked straight out of a Vogue spread, and it's an appropriately blank canvas for the gruesome dialogue to unfold within. Marcus Dilliard's clean lighting design makes the most of Warren's bright staging, as do Kathy Maxwell's impactful projection designs. Mathew LeFebvre's costume design is equally stylish, luxe and comfortable; once again I coveted several of the pieces he chose. And special note to Abbee Warmboe's carefully selected properties design, the well-intentioned elements of which provide critical context to The White Card's overall undertones.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

There are several reasons The White Card feels like a surprising choice for an African American-focused theater to produce during Black History Month, chief among them that all but one of the cast members is white. I think, however, that therein lies the brilliance of the plot overall. What does blackness, especially the experience of being black in America, really mean without whiteness? You can't have one without the other. We should all be familiar by now with the endlessly violent suffering and trauma porn of the African American experience that is splayed across television and social media feeds daily. But at which hands does that suffering occur? Where is the root of that adversity? Why don't we ever seem to see that part, unless it's the end of a police officer's gun (notoriously rarely showing a face)?

Maybe because, as The White Card brilliantly depicts, modern racism takes more subtly insidious forms than that which we've been trained to identify. A burning cross, white hood or lynch knot are rare to see these days. But when talking about people of color, do you ever notice yourself utilizing a language of "us vs. them"? As a white person, are the only times you engage with black people when they are serving you (whether as actual maids or hired help, or as janitors or servers or baristas)? Do you purposely, meaningfully seek out stories about black people that are positive, violence-free and hopeful - or is the extent of your engagement with news stories highlighting poverty, drugs and violence? Do you call out the color of skin or texture of hair on a black person while never mentioning it with your non-black compatriots, especially when in mixed company? Have you ever said or heard any of the things on this list?

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

The trouble is, not everything I just listed can seem like an offense, and to be clear: I don't mean this review to become a preachy treatise. I raise my hand here as a transgressor in many of these ways; I constantly seek to un-learn the internalized language, habits and thought processes that inflict such microaggressions on my fellow citizens of color. The endless amount of irony of sitting as a white reviewer in an almost all white audience that was audibly gasping throughout The White Card only to drive back to our cozy safe homes and punch out a bunch of preachy messages about race on social media was not lost on me for a second.

And that discomfort I experienced, the mental dissonance, is the reason why The White Card is a must see for white audiences for me. In the hundreds of plays I have seen over the years, almost always with audiences who are overwhelmingly white, it is exceedingly rare that I have seen a play so effectively turn the gaze back upon us. How did we get here? What layers of privilege have allowed us access to the arts? What are we doing - actually, actively doing - to solve the problems we proclaim to identify with so severely? Like Charles and Virginia and Alex, are we really just indulging in trauma porn, or are we meaningfully making the world more equitable? I touched on some of these thoughts in my review of West Side Story a couple years ago, but they remain as (if not more) relevant than ever.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

So in honor of the enduring strength and perseverance of the black community and the sea of work that still needs to be accomplished among my own white-skinned compatriots, please, please go watch The White Card. Non-white audiences will find a lot to like here as well I'm sure - the performances are excellent, the set is beautiful, and I'm sure a lot of the subject matter will feel at least tangentially familiar - but those of us who are privileged enough to see a lot of theater and have discretionary income for the arts owe it to society to turn unflinchingly towards that which will make us better, even (perhaps especially) if it makes us intensely uncomfortable first. Claudia Rankine's intimately detailed The White Card is just such a work. Click here for more information or to buy tickets before The White Card closes on March 8. I leave you with these words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

"First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Once On This Island Heats Up the Ordway

And the gods heard her prayer... 

Photo by Joan Marcus

If you're feeling "over" the Minnesota winter but don't have the cash money for a beachside escape, you're in luck - the next best thing has hit #tctheater stages at a fraction of the price.

Photo by Joan Marcus

First came Children's Theatre Company with Bob Marley's Three Little Birds, transporting audiences to a sunny island filled with reggae music and folklore. The Ordway Center has quickly responded by hosting their own version on the other side of the river - the traveling Broadway production of Once On This Island, which comes to Minnesota for the first time ever.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Think of Once On This Island as a more politicized, folkloric version of The Little Mermaid. Set on the island of Haiti, it tells the story of a beautiful orphan named Ti Moune who is raised by an elderly couple named Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie after she washes on their beach in an enormous storm. Ti Moune's story is closely followed by the gods of the island - hospitable Agwé, water powered Asaka, fearsome Papa Ge, and the kind, beneficent Erzulie - who grant her wish for true love as she gets older. The only catch? The gods never give you exactly what you want. Each places a condition on granting her wish, including the harshest of all from Papa Ge: that Ti Moune must choose between herself and her love as a test of whether her commitment is true.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Ti Moune unfortunately falls for Daniel Beauxhomme, son of the island's legendary (and legendarily wealthy) Beauxhomme dynasty. Against the advice of her family and friends Ti Moune nurses Daniel back from the brink of death, even going as far as to bargain her life in favor of his in a ghastly trade with Papa Ge. Ti Moune follows Daniel back to his faraway home in the city, where she becomes his mistress to the great disapproval of the Beauxhomme crew. Comprised of mixed folks descended from white French settlers and their Black servants, the Beauxhommes are a highly colorist and classist tribe who have no interest in Ti Moune and make no secret of getting rid of her. Heartbroken, Ti Moune stays long enough to see Daniel marry Andrea, another Haitian elite, and is unable to kill him to revenge herself with Papa Ge. The gods finally have pity on Ti Moune and free her from her mortal longing by turning her into a beautiful tree who watches over the island and Daniel's family as it grows.

Photo by Joan Marcus

I'll be honest: the moral of this story was lost on me. Ti Moune was so pure and so lovely, and all she got was becoming a tree in the end?! Seams like a crummy deal. What wasn't lost on me, however, was the fabulous work of this highly talented cast. Courtnee Carter is insanely talented as Ti Moune, with the kind of wide eyed wonder and explosive voice that made Cynthia Erivo such a star. Tamyra Gray was a quick favorite as Papa Ga, slithering around the stage with full confidence and creepiness. I enjoyed Kyle Ramar Freeman's smooth voice as water god Asaka and Jahmaul Bakare's lithe vocals as earth god Agwé. Tyler Hardwick has the sweaty abs and confident carriage Daniel Beauxhomme requires and it was hard to watch him break Ti Moune's heart. Cassondra James brought shades of Glenda the Good Witch to her role as Erzulie, the goddess of love, and often provided the story's most peaceful moments. And by far my favorites were Phillip Boykin and Danielle Lee Greaves as Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie, respectively. These two have vaunted, thunderous voices that wash over the audience like waves of the deep sea; they blend beautifully and I could have watched an entire show featuring just their work.

Photo by Joan Marcus

I believe the original staging of Once On This Island in New York City had the audience seated in a 360 degree formation with the stage at the center. Unfortunately that option is not available here, so as a remedy the production team has placed some seats on stage. I found the presence of the audience there a bit distracting, but the set is already quite busy so it is not completely unbalanced. I LOVED the vibrant, dynamic costumes - the colors truly pop and the movement gives such grace to the equally charismatic choreography. And there are several clever lighting tricks that make the stage really shine - a starry night sky, a lit fire on the beach, a gleaming firefly - and make the most of what is otherwise a pretty straightforward staging.

Photo by Joan Marcus

I grew up loving mythology and fairy tales. It was a pleasure to live on Haiti's shores for a couple of hours, warming up to island beats, learning about the Haitian gods, and seeing a stage filled with Black faces during Black History Month. The ending did confound me a bit - I wanted to see Ti Moune thrive, and she seemed cheated to me here - but that has nothing to do with execution; the show is beautifully produced and a really unique piece of traveling Broadway. Once On This Island is a true célébration de la vie, a fête for the ages. It bears the timeless qualities of all good lore and fables and will fill you with joy despite the story's innately unhappy ending. I'd love to see more national tours of such diverse casts and crews, and for that reason alone I think this is an important one to fill seats for. Once On This Island has a very short run through February 9 at the Ordway in St. Paul; click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Photo by Joan Marcus