Monday, February 19, 2018

Park Square's Pirates of Penzance Reinvents A Genre (In a Great Way)

Sacred cows of the theater be warned: your days of being untouchable are careening towards a swift end. 

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

And what great news that is! Seriously, I've been advocating for years, ad nauseam (#sorrynotsorry), that we need to really feel comfortable revising things for the modern age. Shakespeare is fine and all but there is no reason we need to perform 5+ hour long shows in britches and codpieces and slow vaunted tones. It's totally possible to take a scalpel (or a more woodchopper approach if you're feeling feisty) to old pieces and actually - gasp! - improve them through judicious editing.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

With that said, we all know I'm willing to give points immediately to anyone with the cajones to actually take such an approach to a beloved classic. I was not expecting this to be the case at Park Square Theatre's new production of The Pirates of Penzance - in fact, this is one of the few old shows I'd probably be fine with leaving as-is because I enjoy the original so much - but I was deliciously surprised to find that this is not at all the same old show we've all seen many times. Three huge huzzahs to the delightful editing from Doug Scholz-Carlson and Bradley Greenwald, which manages to somehow shorten the entire run-time of this show without cutting any songs (although some have been modified); add in a bunch of surprisingly fascinating trivia about the real Gilbert and Sullivan; and overall just breathe fresh air through all the dusty cobwebs of a timeworn story.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

The overall tale of The Pirates of Penzance is the ultimate farce of a marauding band: a troupe of pirates who can't seem to turn a profit due to their merciful natures is hoodwinked by a major general, who lies about his parentage to keep them from hauling off his unwed daughters. At the heart is the pirate apprentice Frederic, a young man who would do anything to become a respectable member of society but is bound by an interminable sense of duty to remain in the pirates' employ. A pirate king, a bawdy band of policemen, a surprisingly brave daughter and a whole host of ridiculous antics round out the story. In this fresh addition, a plot telling the true story of how The Pirates of Penzance was initially conceived, written and performed runs concurrent with the musical itself, weaving in and out with factual asides and interesting side stories for consideration.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

Much of this show's definitive success comes from the anchors of the cast. Bradley Greenwald preens across the stage in his concurrent roles as Arthur Sullivan and the Johnny Depp version of the Pirate King. His gorgeous voice is perfect for the part but he also manages to keep the show grounded and his comedic timing on point. This Pirates wouldn't be possible without him, and his touch is all over the show. Alice McGlave, as Mabel and Blanche Roosevelt (the original soprano who sang the role), lays her buttery soprano voice all over the music and brings an unexpected strength to her part. She's super charismatic and the vocal equivalent of an oaken Chardonnay, and I hope I get to see her perform in more shows. Christina Baldwin defies stereotype as the Major General and the Sergeant of Police, two traditionally male roles that she knocks out of the park. Her subversively modern feminist re-writes of several of the lyrical interludes make this performance contemporary and enlightening, and it was a real treat to see these vaunted roles performed in a totally new way.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

The rest of the cast is equally great. Zach Garcia demonstrates a heavenly set of pipes in his parts as W.S. Gilbert and a member of the pirate and policeman bands; I hope to hear him sing more in the future, too. Max Wojtanowicz is surprising and heartwarming as Frederic, and lilts his approachable tenor through the tough verses. Elisa Pluhar is delightful as Ruth and brings a muscular presence to her part that I found endearing and fresh. The remaining performers - Charles Eaton, Elizabeth Hawkinson, and Victoria Price - admirably encompass the outstanding roles and make the staging feel far more lush than evidenced by the lean cast list. The same is true of the modest three-person pit, which does a great job of fleshing out the score (especially when supported by Greenwald and McGlave). It's a pleasure to see them sit on stage and get to participate in the performance, further enriching the "glance behind the curtains" feel to the show.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

Such great attention to detail was paid throughout this production, for which I am very grateful. This starts with Director Doug Scholz-Carlson, Music Director Denise Prosek, and Movement and Dance Director Brian Sostek. Musicals can be notoriously costly and person-heavy productions; this lean team elegantly executes this show on a much bigger feeling than you would expect, and it's a treat to see their efforts rewarded. The set by Ursula Bowden has all sorts of hidden surprises and has the emotional impact of putting together a child's novelty LEGO set. There are all sorts of nooks and crannies and clever multitasking props, and what seems banal at the outset magically transforms as the action inspires. The costumes (by Rebecca Bernstein) are equally canny, with a dapper cut and many unexpectedly multi-use applications that again make the production feel much more lavish than it actually is. Lighting design from Michael Kittel is fresh and instantly transitions the audience between Gilbert and Sullivan's ship and the play itself. The sound mixing from Jacob Davis is excellent, not only providing a great musical mix but also allowing every word in each song to be heard. Anyone who has seen this show knows how important it is to use impeccable diction while performing it, and this is honestly the first time I can say that I was able to clearly hear every lyric enunciated.

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

Let me be totally honest: I was raised watching the delicious 1983 film adaptation starring Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury and Linda Ronstadt which is, to my mind, the definitive version of this musical. I've seen several live iterations of the show, all of which strive to capture that original magic, and which usually fall somewhat short. I wasn't intending to see this particular version because I've watched it so many times and thought, what could possibly be different this time?

Photo by Petronella Ytsma

But I'm SO thankful that I did come! This revision swept me off my feet with its charm and energy, and I think it's the best on-stage iteration of Pirates of Penzance that I've seen to-date. The musical performances are shockingly lush considering that there are only nine people performing on stage, the set was innovative and charming, and the overall energy was engaging and vivacious. I actually learned several things I didn't know about Gilbert and Sullivan, and I had an outrageously good time laughing along with the audience and bathing in the beautiful harmonies from this terrifically talented cast. I can't recommend this staging highly enough, and even die-hard and time-worn Pirates of Penzance fans are guaranteed to find something new to love in this show - I promise. For more information or to buy tickets before the show closes on March 25, click on this link.

And as an important aside: if you enjoy this production, make sure to spread room on your calendar to check out Princess Ida from the Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company next month! Dedicated to all things Gilbert and Sullivan, this local troupe is putting on one of their lesser-known shows and it looks to be a hoot. I'll be going for the first time ever and I invite you to join me! 

A Thrilling Two Mile Hollow

Who doesn't need more opportunities to laugh?

I have to say, I am absolutely loving all of the terrific comedies cycling through Twin Cities theaters lately. Don't get me wrong, I love a good drama - but with the currently contentious state of American politics let's be honest: we all could use an extended break from #reallife.

The latest offering from Mu Performing Arts, Two Mile Hollow, is a brilliant addition to the comedic wave sweeping through #tctheater. The play is a spoof of what is known as the genre of 'white people by the water,' a funny way of saying stories about super wealthy white people living in their mansions and complaining about their ridiculous sets of problems. The story features a wealthy family in their estate called Two Mile Hollow. Blythe, the matriarch, is selling the property and her daughter Mary and stepsons Joshua and Christopher have congregated to say goodbye (or more honestly to gossip about and snipe at each other). The script discusses their horrific relationships with each other as well as their uncomfortable interaction with Charlotte, Christopher's lower-class personal assistant and lover on the down-low. The big twist? These overtly privileged, prejudiced characters are played by an all-Asian cast, adding an elevated level of satire and silent commentary on their wholly ridiculous antics. The best encapsulation I can think of is that the events of Two Mile Hollow lie somewhere between Gossip Girl, Get Out and any of The Real Housewives TV series. It manages to be wholly entertaining but subversive, and the cartoony manner the actors inhabit keeps it from feeling less derogative than trenchant.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The cast for this show is fabulous and features many of my local favorites, beginning with the endlessly jocose Sun Mee Chomet. I've known about her searing comedic chops for some time and they are brilliantly on display here; she had me laughing before even saying a line, barely emerging on stage with an awkwardly dilletante carriage that couldn't be funnier. She's a riot and I only wish we'd seen more of her. Meghan Kreidler is terrific as Charlotte, easily carrying the show's moral compass on her shoulders with an emotive and piercing performance, especially at the play's close. Eric Sharp and Sherwin Resurreccion are in their best roles yet as Christopher and Joshua, respectively. Sharp's parody of a self-important movie star is guttingly humorous and performed with total ease. It's been such a pleasure seeing Resurreccion's career evolve, and he is clearly confident and comfortable with this cast, pulling out all sorts of silly antics and an unexpected but brilliant touch of pathos in his role. Kathryn Fumie is pointed as the overlooked Mary, delivering a few striking surprises in her rants.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The set, designed by Joseph Stanley, remains placed inside the cohabited rooms inside Two Mile Hollow, with beachy Nantucket vibes, a startlingly delicate house frame, and just enough props (from Abbee Warmboe) to make it feel like a retreat. A delightfully "sandy" garden planter, which became the focus of a fight over Charlotte's affections, spilled out across the stage and was my favorite element of the production design. The costumes by Joanne Jongsma could all be cropped straight from a J. Crew catalog and further reinforces the snooty attitudes of these one-percenters.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Two Mile Hollow is a fine kickoff for Mu Performing Arts' 2018 theater season. It's sharp, it's smart, and like so much of Mu's work, Two Mile Hollow does a great job of subverting traditional narratives and making its audience think without even knowing they're doing it. It's a wonderful opportunity to see some of the best of our local theater artists perform together (and clearly have a blast doing so). We never stopped laughing from the moment we sat down; what a gift it is to find such light and joy in such dark times. We could all use our own personal laugh track these days, so head to Two Mile Hollow to lighten the mood a little. Click here for more information or to get tickets to Two Mile Hollow, which closes on March 4.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Resistance of My Skin has the Hard Conversations For Us All

One of the biggest buzzwords since the 2016 presidential election has been "resistance"

More people are feeling disenfranchised and activated than ever, which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it. People have energy and they need to channel it somewhere. But what does it really mean to resist?

The Resistance of My Skin, a lovely new play written by and starring Shannon TL Kearns, reshapes the idea of resistance from one of aggression or anger into one of loving acceptance and empathy. It's a beautiful transition that comes just at the right time and couldn't have a better message to send into the world.

On an overly simplistic level, The Resistance of My Skin is simply a dialogue between two budding lovers: Ayden, a transgender man who has not had a sexual partner since his physical transition; and Jess, a fat woman who struggles with self acceptance amidst bad past relationships and societal pressures. There is so much more encased in this show, however, than that one sentence can grasp; just look at this list of subjects that are covered in this brief 70 minute performance:
  • Abuse of transgender people as they transition, especially from their partners and families
  • An explicit, beautiful, continuous demonstration of the importance and act of proactive consent in sexual encounters
  • White privilige within the trans community
  • White privilege within the female community
  • The practical implications of "bathroom bills" against trans people
  • The practical barriers to traditional intercourse with trans people
  • Healthcare implications for trans people 
  • Healthcare abuse by medical staff towards fat people 
  • The idea of reclaiming words like fat into something descriptive and empowering rather than lazy or denigrating
  • Pervasive violence (like the Orlando shooting) against the trans community
  • Religious "conversion therapy" forced on trans people 
  • Fearing violence as a woman
  • Sexual violence and abuse against women in relationships
  • Generating confidence in yourself 
  • The importance of creating and maintaining a truly open dialogue in relationships
  • Vulnerability in relationships
  • The effect of family members' criticism on your self esteem

And so much more. The effect is the creation of an organic, heartfelt, therapeutic conversation that not only demonstrates the beginnings of a healthy relationship but presents a slew of really difficult, fraught issues to the audience in an empathetic and accessible way. It can be a little off-putting to be told how to believe about an issue, especially when you've been indoctrinated to certain beliefs, but it's a completely different thing to hear someone speak personally and specifically to how those issues directly affect the quality and safety of their lives. Kearns' writing does a great job of navigating that line; if only all of the fraught conversations we are having (or shouting, really) as a nation right now were conducted with the same astute care.

I really enjoyed the performances from Ashley Hovell and Shannon TL Kearns as Jess and Ayden, respectively. They share such a fresh, innate chemistry that sparks off the stage. Their budding romance and genuine interest in each other never feel forced, and they both infuse real feeling into the difficult subjects they discuss. Both start the show in their skivvies and get dressed in front of us, clearly demonstrating the amount of trust and comfort they have in us and each other, and it's a simple but arresting opening. Much attention to detail has been paid by the production team - including Director Shalee Coleman, Stage Manager Allison Knauss, Lighting and Sound Designer Martin Sheeks, and Community Engagement Coordinator Courtney Knoll - and it shows at every level, from the educational pre-show introduction and post-show talk backs to the lighthearted clapping games the actors play to the disheveled bed and "remote controlled" mood lighting in Jess's apartment. The love and good vibes really flowed between everyone involved in the project and it was clear that this was intended to be an inclusive, compassionate space, something that struck me from the second I walked through the door.

A couple pro tips about the space to just help ease your experience: It was my first time seeing a show at the Crane Theater and it was a little hard to find; make note if you haven't been that you need to go to the back (looks like a warehouse parking lot) of the building to get in (a colorful sign stating this facing the street would also be helpful!). Also, wear some good layers - it's a large area and it got a little chilly! This was easily offset by the warm atmosphere presented by all of the people involved, but good to note for future performances.

Overall, I was so impressed by The Resistance of My Skin. It's a great testament to the importance of always trying new things - I'd never been to the Crane Theater or seen a show from Uprising Theatre  Company - and I will most definitely be back. Considering the absolutely heartwrenching events in Florida (this week and two years ago in Orlando) and just the general indignant milieu we seem to be perpetually stewing in as a country these days, there is no better time to immerse yourself in a story between two people who are genuinely interested in - gasp! - actually listening to each other. Jess and Ayden have a lot to learn about each other's respective hurts and experiences, and they make missteps as they talk - but their willingness to grow and really hear each other overpowers what could otherwise easily disintegrate into a brutal shouting match. Bravo to Kearns for a beautiful piece of writing; I hope you keep telling your stories and teaching us more. The Resistance of My Skin opens tonight and runs through February 24. I hope the seats are packed for their short run; I definitely encourage you to check it out by clicking here for info about tickets and the show.

And by the way: if you're interested in learning more about these issues from some truly terrific queer, trans and fat / plus size advocates, here are some great people you can follow: 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Humans is Filled with Real Life

There's been a lot made in the last year or so of people who have been left behind. 

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Call them Trumpeters, or rednecks, or MAGAs, or hillbillies, or whatever you will - the stories of lower class white folks have been blowing up on screens, on pages, and now on stages.

The Humans, now playing in a quick stop at the Orpheum through February 18, is one of the better versions of this story that I've seen so far. Like Hillbilly Elegy or White Trash, The Humans succeeds in taking the story of white working class America and making it one that anyone can connect to. Erik and Dierdre Blake are aggressively "normal" citizens of Scranton, Pennsylvania, cattily undercutting the Big City at any opportunity when they go to visit their daughter Brigid for Thanksgiving at her new apartment in NYC. In tow are Brigid's sister Aimee, Brigid's live-in boyfriend Richard, and their Alzheimer-stricken grandmother Momo.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

There's not a lot to describe of action (as such) because The Humans doesn't really have any in the traditional sense. The entire show takes place on a delightfully split level set (brilliantly designed by David Zinn) that lets us peer directly into Brigid and Richard's apartment as events simultaneously unfold on two floors. The effect is one of cutting a home in half and greedily sopping up all of the interior family drama Kardashian-style - only the Blakes lead far more mundane lives. Aimee is a lonely lesbian whose long term partner left her and whose job is letting her go due to her chronic illness of ulcerative colitis. Brigid is a hardworking bartender and aspiring artist who struggles with her mental health in the wake of overwhelming student loan debt. Dierdre has toiled for decades at a thankless job that will never compensate her well for her work because she doesn't have a college degree. Momo is an ailing Alzheimer's patient whose fleeting grasp on reality is nearly nonexistent, and her care drags the whole family down. Richard seems a little driftless, a man who grew up knowing he would inherit wealth without any motivation to live life fully to use that wealth. And Erik is a recently fired, now penniless, clearly troubled husband and father whose steadfast veneer shatters as it is revealed that he is struggling to find his place in a world he fully unraveled on his own.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

That all may sound relatively banal - and it is I suppose - but The Humans never gets boring. The brilliance of the writing (it's easy to see how this scooped up Tony Awards) is that it catches you from the moment Erik and Dierdre enter the apartment and never lets you go. Like many other of my favorite shows (Dot is a great recent example), The Humans puts everyday life in a concentrated, elevated display of how beautiful the mundane can really be. We root for these characters; we anger at them. We wish them the best and lament their sadness and hope for better luck. Every one of them is richly drawn and a thoughtful representation of a portion of America. I do wish there was a little more diversity on this stage - Richard's part is a halfhearted attempt at this - but I also understand that not everything is going to be an easily arranged rainbow, and I still think this show has a lot of value. It is something that I think is better on stage than screen and is definitely worth physically attending; these actors are masterful and infuse such thought and care into their parts.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes
The terrific acting begin with Richard Thomas as Erik, who beautifully portrays the most wholehearted middle American dad I can think of. Erik reminded me so much of many of the Midwestern fathers I grew up around, and his care for his daughters and devastating inability to unleash emotional vulnerability is deeply familiar to me. Thomas is really extraordinary in this role (even better than his work on the oft-overlooked The Americans - but for real if you're not watching this show you need to be), and he's really worth seeing. Pamela Reed is wonderful as Erik's wife Dierdre. Reed manages to encompass many stereotypes in her role without ever making them a cliche, and the big reveal of her heartache at the end of the show is a tough one. Reed is a true onion on stage, peeling off layer after layer of Dierdre and making her far more than just another halfhearted mom role. It's a brilliant performance that will leave you simultaneously surprised and dismayed.

Daisy Eagan and Therese Plaehn share great chemistry as sisters Brigid and Aimee. Eagan delivers a pointedly millennial performance, and audience members vocally reacted to her rants against student loan debts and eschewing religious practice or association. Plaehn was a lovely surprise as the relatively quiet Aimee. She shares her story in pieces and with feeling, and her performance really makes you ache over lost opportunities. Although she never has true "lines," Lauren Klein is stunning as Momo. Her disappearance into late stage Alzheimers is as astonishing as it is heartbreaking, and her visceral performance moved me deeply. Luis Vega is probably the cast's weakest link as Richard. He struggles to find true chemistry with Eagan and feels a little flat, but he does generate a stark contrast to the tense vivacity of the Blake family, a necessary ballast in the play's direction.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Costumes (by Sarah Laux) are everyday wear that anyone would put on for a casual family holiday dinner, and not much to speak of. The set (as already mentioned) is brilliant, and although plain it really lays the backdrop for the show's mundane events. I found the lighting design by Justin Townsend to be really stunning, and I was fascinated with his generous use of silhouette and shadow. The detailed sound design by Fitz Patton lends an unexpectedly eerie quality to the drama and had me thoroughly convinced that an appearance by a Guilllermo del Toro-style monster was coming before the end (spoiler alert: no monsters here). Overall the production design is straightforward but well kept, much like the Blakes themselves, and I enjoyed how it was laid out.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

I'm loving this series of bringing Broadway-caliber plays to the tours that grace our cities each year. I love musicals (as we all know), but it's also great to get the chance to see fine acting and fresh, vital contemporary writing in action in a straightforward drama. The Humans is a great example of both, and it will take your whole heart with you once it closes. I'd definitely enjoy seeing this again - maybe a local company can get their hands on the script and do a Minnesotan version? Either way, it's worth a trip to the Orpheum to see. Check it out by clicking here to find tickets or more information, and make sure to visit before it closes on February 18.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Theater Latte Da's Assassins is a Haunting Performance

Why should a nation as a whole have to pay the price for the madness of a few? 

Photo by Dan Norman

That was the question on my mind throughout the speedy 100 minute duration of Assassins, the latest to grace the stage at the Ritz Theater via Theater Latte Da. One of Stephen Sondheim's lesser produced musicals, Assassins tells the concurrent stories of successful and would-be assassins of former presidents of the United States, beginning with Abraham Lincoln and ending with Ronald Reagan. Assassins focuses less on the "what happened" of each attempt and more on the "why'd you do it?", giving each villain a chance to soliloquize about their feelings, the ways the world has done 'em wrong, and what they hope for the future. The common theme? Wishing deeply to feel truly seen and heard, especially from a place of disenfranchisement.

Photo by Dan Norman

As always, Latte Da has lined up a musically rock solid cast. Led by Tyler Michaels as Lee Harvey Oswald, the mostly male troupe swaggers their way through bravado arias about their prowess and disenchantment with the world. Michaels is of course terrific, bringing an easy, lighthearted manner to each song he narrates. Another standout is Dieter Bierbrauer as hauntingly sinister John Wilkes Booth. Bierbrauer clearly relishes his moment on the dark side, and he provides a convincing plant to convert would-be assassins to indulge their evil ambitions. Sara Ochs is terrific as Sara Jane Moore and provides almost all of the show's desperately needed comedic breaks. Shinah Brashears shines as the eerily deranged Charles Manson acolyte Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, and Evan Tyler Wilson has a lovely solo as John Hinckley towards the end of the show.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set (designed by Eli Sherlock) is an interesting mashup that reminded me of a blend between twee Americana and an alternate universe Moulin Rouge. Audience members loved the pre-show carnival, which allowed them to climb on stage to play games in the hour before the show and see the design up close. My favorite element included a creative use of colored vaudeville style stage lights. Presidential banners (which were ripped down as each president was shot) provided a nice visual of the evolution of political advertising, if a highly unsettling one (there are several more surprise "drops" throughout the show that will keep your shock levels engaged). Alice Fredrickson's costume design and Paul Bigot's wig and hair design do a surprisingly good job of mimicking the real-life assassins, firmly placing each character into their respective time period and enlivening the excellent program notes on each. Marcus Dilliard provides specific, spooky stage lighting that enhances each villain's moment in the (literal) spotlight and an occasional whiff of idiosyncratic whimsy. And Jason Hansen does a solid job of leading the pit, which sounds surprisingly lush with only four musicians performing.

Photo by Dan Norman

I'll be honest with you, dear reader: I'm having a hard time summating my experience at Assassins.

Here's why: as always, Latte Da's production design and musical execution is top notch. I was really excited to see something brand new to me and a little more brash and edgy than I'm used to on stage. Sondheim is always good for a dark adventure, and as I have recently been fascinated with American history and especially presidents, this fit quite well into my interest zone.

Photo by Dan Norman

However, I have been profoundly unsettled since watching the show. This is due to no error on the part of Theater Latte Da - as previously mentioned, the performances are strong. I think my soul is just not ready to handle such a deeply macabre narrative in the light of our current very real, very serious political conflicts in this country. We know that several attempts were made on President Obama's life while in office (although none as close a call as detailed in Assassins); it is not a stretch to imagine the same is now occurring with President Trump. Since this story is told exclusively from the perspective of the assassins themselves we are never able to hear the perspective of the victims families, fellow citizens, or the many cabinet members who are directly affected by a political assassination and have to clean up the aftermath.

Photo by Dan Norman

Because of this, the whole tone of Assassins is almost unbearably blithe - which is, I think, the point. Each of these people (who have been cast so directly - especially John Wilkes Booth - in American history as criminals of the worst kind) appear here as so ... banal. The bulk of them could be your mildly off-kilter neighbor, your eccentric cousin or your disgruntled ex-coworker. They have some unhinged ideas, sure, but the reasons they give for their assassinations are truly mediocre when weighed against the effects of their actions. It is stunning to peer into the mind of a madman and learn that you have more in common than you might ever think, and when punctuated by the blistering periodic gunshots (expertly timed by sound designer C. Andrew Mayer), it's a jolting effect that never loses its power.
Photo by Dan Norman

So I'm having a tough time determining how to tell you what I think of this show. While the performances are terrific - in the truest, most literal sense of that word - the show itself seems both more timely and more horrifying than ever. The end of the show, which closes with a looped live video recording of the death of President Kennedy - brains out and all - is a horrific reminder of the cost of letting our disillusionment and anger reach their full potential. We as a society feel so at a dangerous political precipice to me that the gruesome implications of Assassins feel like a grim omen.

Peter Rothstein's direction whips this narrative to truly ghoulish heights, and anyone who sees this will find themselves wrestling some cognitive dissonance. If you're a Sondheim die-hard fan, want to see a show that is rarely performed, enjoy bravado singing regardless of the lyrics, or are a devoted horror fan, you will probably be able to sit through this with less trepidation than I did, and I'd encourage you to do so. Maybe we should all be unsettled. Maybe we should take our imaginations to their darkest corners; after all, how else can we stop the next tragedy from happening? Assassins runs at Theater Latte Da through March 18; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link. I'll leave you with the final words from Peter Rothstein's director notes, which are a great wrap to the story:

"Many people have asked me, why produce Assassins now, at this particular moment in history. In my lifetime I have never witnessed a discourse so volatile surrounding the role of the President of the United States. No matter where you stand politically, the anger, hatred and violence surrounding this presidency is unlike anything I've witnessed. [...] Assassins has been criticized for its glorification of its subjects, but I believe Sondheim and Weidman's goal was quite the opposite. I believe their goal was to shine a light on the humanity of these individuals and in so doing illuminate a path to understanding. Only through understanding, through empathy, can real change occur. And like a true Sondheim musical, that path is rarely an easy one."

Friday, February 9, 2018

Joy Rebel Lights Up the Penumbra

When you hear the phrase "good writing," what does it mean to you? 

Everyone has different answer for this question; after all, we have different tastes and preferences, different values and backgrounds, and so the style and subject matter can widely range between what are considered to be good pieces of writing by any collection of people.

Perhaps my favorite definition comes from a recent podcast by Malcolm Gladwell that details why country music is so poignant and impactful (click here to listen - you won't regret it). Gladwell details that what makes country songs so "sticky" is their specificity; for example, they don't just convey an emotion of sadness but explicitly detail who done who wrong, when and how. A four minute song contains multitudes of specifications, instantly painting a picture of exactly what the artist is trying to say that can't help but stick in our psyches.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

I couldn't help but think of this point while watching Joy Rebel, a marvelous new one woman show currently debuting at the Penumbra. Joy Rebel is conceived and performed by Khanisha Foster and relates her experience growing up as a biracial woman, half white and half black, in America and in the acting profession. As her story progresses we learn that her parents were heroin addicts; her early career was built playing Latina characters, because no one believed she was black; and that her white grandmother, despite loving her fiercely, was always disappointed that her daughter had produced black children. It's a piercing monologue and gorgeously written, replete with expansive detail that instantly paints a portrait of Foster's life that can't help but touch you as you listen. Foster's writing is lush and descriptive, bearing hallmarks of Roxane Gay, Lindy West and Tracy K. Smith, and it's just plain riveting.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

Foster's performance oozes charisma and charm, blinking in an instant between tremulous sadness and effervescent joy. What makes the whole of Joy Rebel so lovely (for me at least) is the multiplicitious nature of it. No story is ever just one thing; like Foster is both white AND black (regardless of what those who observe her believe), every story contains kernels of pain and love and heartbreak and elation, all intermingled to make this narrative a truly human story. Foster refuses to indulge in the instinct to make her past a martyrdom. Instead, she tells her truth of it and infuses it with every ounce of wisdom and perspective that only time can bestow. Joy Rebel is 70 straight, intermissionless minutes of power and hard-won peace, and I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed with the full, feminine nature of Foster's graceful performance and beautifully written prose. Even if you're not a fan of one-person shows this one is worth a stop. For a slice of complex beauty in your life, look no further than Khanisha Foster's stunning soliloquy Joy Rebel, playing at the Penumbra through February 18. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Cardboard Piano is Agonizingly Poignant

Where should forgiveness begin and end? 

Pictures speak louder than words. 

That is the question at the heart of Cardboard Piano, a gutwrenching play about the liminal nature of morality, kindness and grace when they are applied in the harshest imaginable circumstances. Who is deserving of mercy in light of the worst crimes? What acts are truly unforgivable? Who is allowed to define what is and is not moral, and the appropriate way to heal from immoral acts?

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

These impossible questions are asked through the story of Adiel, a Ugandan girl, and Chris, the daughter of white American missionaries, who are deep in the throes of a young romance. The girls are truly in love and hold a secret wedding for themselves, intending to run away together to a safer place than the small Ugandan village they call home, where they will certainly be ostracized - and Adiel may be killed - if others learn of their sexuality. Their night of joy and bright future is soon interrupted forever with knowledge of Chris's parents' disgust at their relationship, and with the entrance of Pika, a child soldier on the run from his horrible master. The girls help Pika and promise to care for him, especially after he saves them from the leering intentions of his former commander. Pika is not as forgiving as the girls are of his sordid past once he learns of their sexuality, killing Adiel in his revulsion. The play resumes ten years later as Chris returns to Uganda and once again meets Pika; both of them have been irreparably changed by their encounters, and the rest of the show wrestles with how they should interact and what their roles in atoning for the drastic consequences of their young life are for the future. I won't say more about their dialogue, but it's truly fraught, and it will leave you with many heavy thoughts - as well as some small hope for human nature - by the end of the play.

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

This is a difficult show with so many weighty themes vying for priority - homosexuality (especially outside of westernized countries); white savior complexes; the damagingly judgmental yet also incongruously (but limited) redemptive qualities of Christianity; the victims of rebellions and civil wars; and a community's capacity (or limits) for forgiveness and tolerance. It wouldn't work without a strong cast, and Cardboard Piano features a good one. Roles are given equal weight and stage time, making this a truly collaborative enterprise. As always, Ansa Akyea brings gravitas and depth to his roles as the rebel commander and Pika as an adult. His nuanced portrayals allow us to humanize the devastating reality of his characters, and his monologues as Pika provide some profound food for thought. Kiara Jackson is radiant as Adiel and Pika's wife Ruth, with a calm, placid yet passionate performance. She warms up every line she speaks, and I can't wait to see her in more shows. Adelin Phelps is explosive as Chris. It's clear that Phelps feels this role to the tips of her fingernails, and her physical presence is dynamic as soon as she steps on stage. Michael Jemison is heartbreaking as young Pika and Adiel's cousin Frances. He has such a youthful, wistful vibe, and you can't help but feel for the painful place in which his characters reside.

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

Signe V. Harriday has done a terrific job of directing this fragile story, and I want to make sure to give her commendation. There is so much going on in this narrative that it could easily become overwrought, but with her deft supervision we are able to feel each layer of the story. Foster Johns does a great job of overseeing dialect coaching, with notable accents from most of the actors. Sara Wilcox's costume design is vibrant and simple, as is the set design from Sarah Brandner, keeping the focus on the complex plot unfolding on stage. And a shout out to Lyndsey Harter, who does a bang up job of stage management and keeps the show moving along at a very clippy pace.

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

I want to give huge props to Park Square Theatre for tackling this play. I wasn't sure what to expect from the description and by about 15 minutes in it was clear that I was in for an impossibly dark emotional rollercoaster. This production of Cardboard Piano is nuanced, thoughtful, and has clearly been invested with a lot of intention and care. What could feel like an overly stereotyped or inordinately dramatic plot line instead feels real, impactful and brave. Cardboard Piano is not afraid to ask audiences hard questions - about their beliefs, their stereotypes, their culpability in propagating horrific practices overseas, and the hard work we all must do to create a more just and fair world. I was surprisingly moved throughout this performance (thanks in part to the terrific cast), and I know I will be thinking about the nuances of the story of Cardboard Piano long after the lights close at Park Square on February 18. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.