Monday, May 13, 2019

Thrillist: Best Rooftop Bars

The weather's warming up, so you know what that means... 


Photo courtesy of Thrillist

Patio time! But patios fill up so quickly when the weather is nice; what to do? Hit one of the spectacular rooftops (or honorary rooftops) in my latest piece for Thrillist. I've got several favorites here (some of which I'm loathe to share, but hey - I want these places to stay in business). Click here to read the full article, and tell me: what are your favorite rooftops to visit? Where should I go next? I'd love to know.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Autonomy Is In A Class All Its Own

I can truly promise that you will never see a show like this again. 



You've heard of drive-in movie theaters, but have you heard of drive-in plays? No?

You wouldn't be alone! It's a highly unusual concept, but a drive-in play (or maybe a drive-by play is more accurate) is exactly what Autonomy, the latest show from the ever innovative Mixed Blood Theater, is. Hosted in St. Paul's River Centre, Autonomy is a densely packed, politically charged play set amidst a closely curated collection of exotic automobiles that moves the audience through the action on golf carts, rather than having us sit statically in a theater as usual.

Photo by Rich Ryan

It's hard to succinctly describe exactly what Autonomy is all about. The main characters focus on the life of Gabby Reyes, an undocumented teenager, as she tries to survive in an America where ICE has unfettered powers three years from now and her father has recently died in a car accident. Hidden away from the public for risk of deportation, Gabby slaves away online to invent a free coding program for controlling autonomous vehicles that will help barter her freedom and make the world safer. Gabby is finally hunted down by for-profit companies like Amazon and Ford to take her coding offline, and a new chapter begins. At the same time, scientists are working to clone woolly mammoths to assist in the fight against climate change and unknowingly release an ancient pandemic in the process. All of these threads take place in and around cars and transportation. 2022 is a world where almost all vehicles are automated, and Autonomy closely examines the nuanced implications of transitioning the world to an automated driving system (which are far more complex than anyone might suspect).

Photo by Rich Ryan

The large cast is almost a who's who of #tctheater, including several of my personal local favorites. You can see three possible actresses play Gabby Reyes; we had Isabella LaBlanc, who is quickly becoming one of my top young performers to watch locally. LaBlanc is dynamic and emotional, and you can't help but empathize with her plight as the show unfolds. Other amazing performers from my local favorites include Juan Rivera Labron; Malachi Caballero; Bruce Young; Raúl Ramos; Taj Ruler; Nathan Barlow; and Ansa Akyea, all of whom make poignant cameos. There is also a delightful voiceover short film starring Joy Dolo, Stephen Yoakam and Jeff Hatcher that was hilarious and utterly charming; it reminded me of something you might see on Adult Swim, and I'd happily subscribe to a channel of similar shorts featuring local actors.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The set is really just a chance to look at all those specialty cars! It's a dizzying array of types from many eras of American automotive design, from Corvettes to El Caminos to DeLoreans. My personal favorite included a suite of movie themed cars in pristine condition. This collection included a Gotham Roadster Batmobile; Jaguar XKE Series 1, also known as the Austin Powers "Shag Jag"; a 1981 DeLorean just like the Back to the Future Time Machine; the Ghostbusters station wagon; and a bonafide Ford Econoline Scooby Doo Mystery Machine. It was so nostalgic and fun to be that close to those famous cars, and it really showed how much character and personality an inanimate object can carry.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Ambitious is hardly a big enough word to describe what Autonomy is. There are so many things about this play that are truly unique: it's not set in a theater at all; attendees have to drive around from station to station to see the show; nothing is told in a linear fashion; there are 9 concurrent productions happening at any given moment; dozens of actors and cars are included in the show, all of whom are giving distinct performances; attendees have to wear ear pieces to hear all of the dialog in the cavernous space; film elements have to be routinely switched and coordinated to match each cast member acting for each specific group, without disrupting the radio channels that the 8 other groups are listening to; and so on. It's a mammoth undertaking and mostly successful. We had some audio glitches at the very beginning of our performance, but they were quickly fixed and the rest of the show went seamlessly. I also definitely recommend getting a seat in the middle carts if possible to help with visibility, although any position will allow you to see the action. Overall, Autonomy is a really impressive risk to take, and hats off to Director Jack Rueller for the mountains of work he surely completed in order to get this off the ground and the insanity the sound and tech teams are tackling in every performance with very few errors.

Photo by Rich Ryan

I thoroughly enjoyed Autonomy and learned so much from the unusual mix of subject matter. It's an awkward mix of things on the surface - who else would be smart (crazy?) enough to combine immigration policy, automated (aka robotic) cars, and climate change into a single show that finishes in less than two hours? Somehow Autonomy not only works but actually hits on some surprisingly profound insights. Every person I overheard leaving the River Centre was having rich conversations about things they learned, and there are just so many ways in which to engage with this material. While the story may be fictional, many of the events are based on things that have actually already happened, and it's really important to remember that issues are always more complicated than they seem on the surface. Autonomy is an absolute blast and a completely different kind of theater experience, one that I highly recommend you see. I have heard that the first two nights are already completely sold out, and there are only four days of performance available - so make sure to click here to snap up your tickets ASAP before they're gone forever.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Play That Goes Wrong is a Hysterical Mess

What if absolutely nothing went right? 


Photo by Jeremy Daniel

That's the question asked in the seriously committed physical comedy The Play That Goes Wrong (TPTGW), the latest in the traveling Broadway series at Hennepin Theatre Trust's Orpheum Theater.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

A play within a play, TPTGW is supposed to be a devastating performance of a murder mystery on a college theater campus (think Clue). Unfortunately it never achieves the gravitas it wants, because literally everything goes south from the second the curtains open. Sets fall apart, actors forget their lines, props are misplaced, technicians get distracted, effects come in at the wrong times (or don't come in at all) - go down the list of the worst case scenarios you can imagine for live performances, and something is going to be awry at every single stage of this accidental horror show. The result is a heavily physical comedy that can't help but get you laughing at some point; the plot is so absurdly over the top that you just can't believe what you're seeing. There are several special effects that even had me gasping in shock, and I was amazed at how committed the performers were to this show.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

A play like TPTGW only works if everyone is on board, and this cast is in it to win it. It's a taut group of eight performers, each of whom end up serving multiple roles in the play as events unravel and further support is needed to keep the show going. Annie Twilloil is the jack of all trades as the crew member who is forced on stage when the only female performer, played by a vivacious Sandra Wilkinson, is knocked out by a set piece. The two women have very different styles and duke it out, and I enjoyed the contrasting temperaments they displayed. Max Bennett takes clear delight in the absurdities, and his balletic movements made an odd contrast to the roaring dumpster fire of a production surrounding him. Jonathan Harris has the fewest lines as "victim" Charles Haversham, but his wordless stage exits were the funniest thing to me in the entire show. Robert Grove's carefully rehearsed basso voice is just the kind of outrageous exaggeration a show like this needs, and Trevor Watson's disgusting antics as the out of control stage hand shed unwelcome light behind the scenes. Dennis Tyde was charming as the memory-challenged butler Perkins, and Chris Bean has a smooth, lithe delivery as the only cast member worth their salt.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

If this show gives any value outside of comedy, it's in demonstrating the extreme importance of good, safe production design and technician work. It's easy to take for granted how hard it is to make safe, visually exciting set pieces. There is a horror to be found in the comedic antics of this group; if this were a real life scenario it would be extremely dangerous and even life threatening. I'd like to take this opportunity to give a resounding round of applause for the unsung heroes of our #tctheater community, the stage hands and set builders and costume and scenic designers who spend thousands of hours ensuring that every performer is able to safely act their part. It's unfathomably hard work that very rarely is adequately applauded, and The Play That Goes Wrong does an amazing job of demonstrating why those roles are so important.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

I also enjoyed the light TPTGW sheds on choreography. Too often people associate choreography and blocking solely with musicals; while musicals provide the most obvious example of choreography, it's also very important in plays. I think it's especially important in comedies, where timing is everything; in a physical comedy such as TPTGW, where the disintegrating set is almost a character of itself, is even more important than usual. There are several moments in this show where a person standing even an inch to the left or right could mean serious injury to their person, and this group clearly has run through every conceivable scenario to ensure they stay safe. It's a masterful physical performance and is sure to awe even the most jaded theater goer with how daring it collectively is.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

TPTGW is not a perfect play. It's a little too long for my taste (I think it could well do with an intermission-trimming haircut) and can become a little overwrought. We get the point after seeing a joke repeated two or three times - going up to five or six is overkill and unnecessarily time consuming. This is definitely on the farther end of the spectrum for "dumb" humor, so if physical comedy isn't your jam it might be a tougher sell. All that said though, I was very impressed with the amount of spectacle on stage and the sheer bravado of the choreography. If there were ever meaning behind the cliche phrases "all for one and one for all" and "the show must go on no matter the cost," this cast absolutely defines it. They are totally fearless and seem like they're having a lot of fun, and isn't that what live theater is supposed to be all about? This is a very different kind of Broadway play than usually tours through the Orpheum, so I think it's worth a look if you want a change of pace. For more information about TPTGW or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Brothers Paranormal is a Thrilling Nail-Biter

Although not my preferred genre, horror really seems to be having a moment these days. 


Thanks to brilliant filmmakers like Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story), horror is becoming a nuanced, complex genre that many people share a love of. More than many genres it is a group fan effort, with people taking whole friend groups or hosting viewing parties to dissect the latest and greatest. 

That said, horror is not a genre often seen on stage. There are likely many reasons for this, but it makes those who do attempt productions stand out in the crowd. The Brothers Paranormal, a blended production equally co-produced by Penumbra Theatre and Theater Mu, is an excellent addition to this group and a true original in more ways than one. 

The Brothers Paranormal tells the story of two Thai brothers, Max and Visarut, as they make their first home site visit for their fledgling business investigating ghostly paranormal activity. Delia, a transplant from New Orleans, is terrified as she describes seeing an angry Asian woman who she is certain is a ghost. Thinking they are about to earn some easy cash, Max and Visarut immediately dispatch to Delia's home, where they meet her husband Felix and learn many unsettling details about the case. I don't want to reveal any more of the plot here because there are many important, unnerving surprises in this nail-biter of a script; instead, I'll just say that even the most jaded, experienced theater goer is likely to find plot twists here that they didn't expect, and it is a really exciting live experience. 

One of the unusual things about this show is that it truly blends different cultures (in this case Thai immigrant and African American), making both greater than the sum of their parts by their contrast. There were nuggets of cultural information and history tucked throughout the script that I didn't know before, and in addition to the thrilling action I was delighted to have learned a lot of new things by the end of the show. It helps that The Brothers Paranormal is perfectly cast, with a rock-solid group that brings so much nuance to their acting. Perennial favorite Regina Marie Williams is magnificent as Delia, making the ghostly visions totally believable. Sherwin Resurreccion is tenderly emotive as Max and brings a real depth to his role, leaving many of us teary-eyed on more than one occasion. Kurt Kwan brings necessary levity as Visarut, and James Craven is powerful as the concerned husband Felix. Michelle de Joya is positively terrifying as Jai (you'll know what I mean); hats off to her serious physicality. And the standout was new-to-me Leslie Ishii as Max and Visarut's mother Tasanee; Ishii was a warm, mysterious presence throughout the show, and her story was the most profound for me. I'd love to see her stay in the Twin Cities to work with more companies in the future. 

The set, designed by Vicki Smith, bears many hallmarks of Penumbra's recent shift in vision, with small but expertly crafted dioramas that hold all sorts of surprising, secret special effects. Combined with Mathew LeFebvre's simple costume design, we are able to stay focused on the tiny details that alert us to paranormal presence, and several are real wowzers. Karin Olson and Scott Edwards play several tricks through their respective lighting and sound design that had me on the edge of my seat, and Ruth Coughlin Lenkowski's dialect coaching provided nuanced characterizations for each generation of character in the show. Hats off overall to the direction from Lou Bellamy and assistant direction from Sun Mee Chomet; their clear vision provides a seamless integration of two very different companies, and this excellent production is better for both of their involvement. 

The Brothers Paranormal is a significant performance for several reasons. It's one of the best live horror shows I've seen on stage, anywhere; it combines two powerhouse but very different companies and provides a template for how to produce more integrated work in the future (which I surely hope to see); and it also marks by far the most ambitious outing for Theater Mu since the abrupt departure of their long-term artistic director, Randy Reyes. Bringing in Sun Mee Chomet to lead Theater Mu's portion of the production was an inspired choice and shows that Theater Mu is going to stay a strong presence in #tctheater regardless of the unexpected changes. I am very excited to see where Theater Mu's leadership search finally ends up, and if The Brothers Paranormal is any indication we have great things to expect in the future. 

If you're on the fence because of content, know that I loved this production despite being a person who hates being scared. It's a gripping and beautifully acted drama starring some of our finest local actors, and there's not a bad seat in the house to see the really special production design. I highly recommend readers check this out; for more information or to buy your tickets, click on this link

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Cool Field Trip: Game Changers at the Science Museum of Minnesota

There's only one more weekend to experience THE coolest interactive exhibit I've seen in a while. 


100 games over 10,000 square feet? #yesplease

I'll be the first to admit that video games (and video gamers) have gotten a bad rap over the years.

You can really see the full evolution of characters

I was long an opponent of the medium. I never grew up playing video games, and it was hard for me to see the value in it.

Another popular booth: Guitar Hero

But over the years I've come to see just how rich this technology (and the worlds it builds) is. There are so many fascinating elements about video games that have started to get serious celebration from vaunted organizations (MPR's fabulous podcast Top Score about the orchestral music written for video games is one such example) and it's really bringing the world of gaming out of the small screen and into the mainstream.

The detail is extraordinary

Game Changers, an ongoing exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota, is the perfect vehicle for novices and hardcore game heads alike to educate themselves about this world. It's an encyclopedic exploration of the history of video games, from the very first Space Invadors and Pac-Mans to the decades-long complexities of world-building games like SimCity or World of Warcraft. Visitors can not only read about the history of these games, their technology and their creators - they can also actually play each of the games mentioned on the original equipment. And this is not to be downplayed: the arcade space is comprised of more than 100 games over 10,000 square feet, an enormous temple to the sport of true gaming.

The sketches are endless

I was really blown away by the intricacy and detail of this exhibit. There is such a lineage to the construction of games - much like novelists or painters or chefs can directly credit those who came before them as inspirations and foundations to build their art on and expand it to new heights. Many games also have original sketches and models on display so that you can see the process from ideation to inception, and it's a really powerful visual testifying to just how complex the process of creating a game is.

A group dance station was easily one of the most popular elements

The global nature of gaming is included as well, with different regions appearing in focus with distinctive art styles and plotlines. Japan is the clear standout among regions outside of the United States, but there are also creative games from Sweden, Korea and a host of other countries. It is one more example of the unifying power of sharing an interactive world with someone else, and much like Trekkies, gamers have a friend wherever they go.

Gorgeous color sketches

This is an exhibit appropriate for groups of all ages and is actually an amazing way to connect with kids whose modern knowledge of gaming you may not understand. I took my niece and nephew with me, both of whom are avid gamers, and they had the time of their lives. We don't always have a lot to talk about directly, and I learned so much about them from the way they engaged with and explained each of the games that I never would have gleaned in casual conversation. It was a really fun day and reminded me how quickly things change from generation to generation. It was almost impossible to tear the kids away from the exhibit when we needed to go and it was packed to the gills, so I can testify first hand that the price of admission is absolutely worth it. The kids even loved the current omnitheater film about Cuba, which is not a subject they're normally interested in. This trip was a grand slam in terms of keeping them interested and occupied!

Loved this creative monster

And about that - another benefit to Game Changers is that admission is included in general admission to the Science Museum; this is not a separate ticketed event like many of their special exhibits have been. It's all the more reason to take your family or your date on a field trip to check it out before it closes on May 5. Run, do not walk, to go - there are limited edition games here that you very well may never see in working order again in your life. It's a fabulous, affordable trip for families or dates and is guaranteed to teach even the most serious gamer something they didn't know before. Click here for more information or to buy your tickets!

Up a little closer

An indicative list of the games available includes: 

The Arcade Heroes section spotlights pioneering designers from the trailblazing and revolutionary arcade era, including Ed Logg (Asteroids, 1979), Tim Skelly (Reactor, 1982), Masanobu Endo (Xevious, 1982), Toru Iwatani (Pac-Man, 1980), Eugene Jarvis (Defender, 1980), Tomohiro Nishikado (Space Invaders, 1978), and Dave Theurer (Tempest, 1981).

Long lines to play the vintage games like Asteroids, pictured here

The Game Changers section features leading contemporary designers who have had a major impact on shaping the medium as we know it: Blizzard Entertainment (Diablo III 2012), Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Sega Rally Championship, 1995), Peter Molyneux OBE (Fable III, 2010), Yuji Naka and the Sonic Team (Sonic the Hedgehog, 1991), Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy (Rock Band 3, 2010), Tim Schafer (Broken Age, 2014), Warren Spector (Disney’s Epic Mickey, 2010), Yu Suzuki (Hang On, 1985), TT Games (LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham, 2014), and Will Wright (SimCity, 1989).

Full story boards

The Indies section explores the groundbreaking and future-focused world of independent game designers. Artists such as Jonathan Blow (Braid, 2008), Capy (Critter Crunch, 2007), Eric Chahi (Heart of Darkness, 1998), Jakub Dvorský (Botanicula, 2012), Firemint (Flight Control, 2009), Halfbrick (Fruit Ninja Kinect, 2011), Introversion (Dawinia, 2005), Markus ‘Notch’ Persson (Minecraft, 2014), Rovio (Angry Birds, 2009), Erik Svedäng (Blueberry Garden, 2010), and The Behemoth (Castle Crashers, 2008) are profiled in this section.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

A Mindful Metamorphoses

The Guthrie's modern take on Roman mythology will leave you with lots to ponder. 


Photo by Dan Norman

In a world of ever-shrinking budgets for the humanities, sometimes it's good to get back to the basics. People aged 30 and older likely had at least minor engagement with Roman mythology at some point in their education, but I'm willing to bet the Millennial-on-down era probably has less-to-none.

Photo by Dan Norman

If that's the case, the Guthrie Theater's modern take on Ovid's Metamorphoses provides a great opportunity to brush up on your ancient mythology. In strikingly modern incantations, the show flashes through vignettes of each story almost like a photographic flash, leaving visual imprints that bring the dusty tales to life. Many of the most famous stories are here, such as the heartbreaking end to Orpheus and Eurydice, Phaëton's daring chariot ride, King Midas' tragic golden touch, and even a quick, totally silent flash of Narcissus. It's a fresh way to reinvent the stories for an audience with much shorter attention spans than those of 8 A.D. (when the original text was composed), providing new entry points into the myths.

Photo by Dan Norman

All roles are shared in a rotating manner by the cast. Rodney Gardiner has fewer lines than other actors, but provides standout, striking cameos (including that silent moment as Narcissus). Sango Tajima likewise has fewer speaking roles than some other cast members but provides a powerful, deeply physical performance that will rock you to your core. Felicity Jones Latta brings great gravitas to her part, with a cinematic voice and the nuanced delivery of a Cate Blanchett. Louise Lamson gives an especially emotional performance as Alcyone, telling the origin of seabirds. Benjamin T. Ismail lends a livelier presence on-stage, and Alex Moggridge is a romantic comedy charmer in several of his roles.

Photo by Dan Norman

The real main character of this play isn't really a character at all: the entire show takes place around a giant, deep pool of water which is deftly manipulated by the actors to transform the narrative. It's the element that attracted me to this show in the first place, and it was really interesting to see how emotional the use of the water could be: terrified splashing, flirty droplets, passionate waves, placid slow ripples. The actors are clearly unafraid of getting doused, and the more I've reflected on Daniel Ostling's meditative scenic design, the more I really enjoy it. T.J. Gerkens and Andre Pluess pair their lighting and sound design, respectively, to make sure that additional context is provided through the minimal sets and props. Mara Blumenfeld cleverly finds simple but elegant ways to pay homage to each character and allow for quick transitions between them, be they intricate headdresses or flowing robes (or, in one case, no robes at all - be warned of full frontal male nudity, if that's not your jam).

Photo by Dan Norman

It's pretty clear to me that Director Mary Zimmerman (who is also the adapter of this play) had a very defined vision for which mythologies she wanted to tell and how. It's very interesting to see the ancient world through her thoroughly modern eyes, like bringing a Helenic statue to life in the middle of the Walker Art Museum. Much of the content of these stories does not age well - incest, violence and vengeance is rife throughout most of them - but there is a certain amount of undeniable humanity and eventual beauty to be found through their devastation by the end. I imagine it's one of the reasons Zimmerman wanted to adapt this in the first place, and I would be interested to hear a panel of responses from audience members of very different ages and walks of life about their reactions to this staging. This is the kind of play that you will receive very differently depending on your life circumstances, making this ancient text a breathing, engage-able object that is much more complex than its seemingly simple packaging would indicate. It's a thoughtful presentation and one that modern art lovers are likely to find visually stunning. I do think it helps to be previously familiar with this content before you attend, so consider brushing up on the Wikipedia overview at the least before going. Click here for more information and to get tickets before Metamorphoses closes on May 19.

Photo by Dan Norman

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Thrillist: Top Up and Coming Cities to Visit

Where the wind comes sweeping down the plains....


Photo courtesy of Thrillist

If you haven't guessed by now, traveling is one of my very favorite things to do. I'll go anywhere and everywhere, and I've found the more I explore that the places I inevitably end up loving the most are the ones that were the most random destinations. Case in point: Oklahoma City, which I visited in a brief weekend trip a couple of years ago and became deeply enamored with. I had the chance to write about it for Thrillist recently. Click here to read the piece and discover other overlooked American cities who are worth your time.