Friday, September 20, 2019

Bone Mother Sets the Tone for the Season

How do you define a witch? 

All images are copyright of Matthew Glover for Sandbox Theatre

Despite our burst of humid heat in the last week Minnesota is entering spooky season, which means costumes, minor toned music and pumpkin everything are about to inundate us all. I know several people who consider fall and especially Halloween to be their favorite time of year, and it seems like every year more friends are rejoicing over the return to orange and black and scary stories as soon as Labor Day passes.

But where does all this come from? Once you strip away the eerie movies and cotton cobwebs and holiday commercialization, what is left of Halloween?

Often it's tropes and mythologies that spread back hundreds or thousands of years. Take, for example, the Witch. Witch stories can be found in most cultures and invariably involve some version of an ugly old hag who negatively impacts the communities around her, usually with a curse or a dark spell. She might have a cauldron, a black cat, a pointy hat (or nose), and almost always lives in the woods.

But why does this narrative persist? What if the witch wasn't evil, or even magical, at all? What if she served some other purpose entirely?

All images are copyright of Matthew Glover for Sandbox Theatre
That is the question asked (and poignantly answered) in Bone Mother, the latest show from Sandbox Theatre. An original piece inspired by centuries of folk tales, Bone Mother tells an interconnected series of three stories about a girl named Vasilisa as she explores her feminine power. It begins with young Vasilisa, who seeks the "witch" Baba Yaga in the forest to learn the powers of the wilderness after Vasilisa's beloved grandmother dies. Soon bored with Baba Yaga's rudimentary chores, Vasilisa runs back to her village where she grows into a woman and becomes the town eccentric, alienated and lonely. She returns to Baba Yaga only to find that she still has more to learn from her community and must again live as an outcast, and out of the forest. It is many decades until Baba Yaga calls Vasilisa to her forest hut for one final encounter, where Vasilisa learns the true power of Baba Yaga and the magic of the wilderness. It's a beautiful story that felt distinctively feminine to me, full of cycles, renewal and strength.

In addition to the lyrical story, Bone Mother features aerial acrobatics in varying levels from all of its performers, who also trade in portrayals of each character through each iteration of the story. Carolina Gwinn is the first Baba Yaga and the final Vasilisa. She clearly had the most acrobatics training and brought just as much physicality to her facial expressions as she did to her silks work. I found her to be highly charismatic and fearless, a real presence on stage. The first Vasilisa and second Baba Yaga was played by Chasya Hill, a Liberian-American actress who recently relocated here from Birmingham, Alabama, and someone I predict is going to have a large impact on #tctheater this year. Hill has gravitas and a sonorous voice, and I couldn't take my eyes off her while she was on stage. Heather Stone plays the second Vasilisa and the final Baba Yaga. She has a less physical performance than Gwinn and Hill, but brought far more comedy to her performance. She was a welcome dose of levity in a story that can dip into the dark side, and I really appreciated what she contributed. Henry Ellen Sansone was alluring as the resident cat, with a mischievous Cheshire Cat flare that also added a touch of warmth. And Megan Campbell Lagas helps anchor the rotating cast of supporting characters, slipping in between mythical creatures and human portrayals with aplomb.

All images are copyright of Matthew Glover for Sandbox Theatre

One of the artistic values of Sandbox Theatre is to integrate visual design, physical performance, music and text; another is to limit consumption and minimize waste. These two tenets (of their core nine values) perfectly encapsulate the production design here. Because the performance is set in the hall of the Russian Art Museum and most of the blocking focus is on the silks, there is no set to speak of. Instead, we have a few strategically placed flood lights designed by Bryan Gunsch to set the tone for the plot; this works remarkably well, whether we are in the forest or swimming under a river. I loved Mandi Johnson's costume design, which adapted comfy athleisure wear with strategic accessories to give the actors the freedom to create highly physical performances but retain a sense of magic. And I especially appreciated the otherworldly, eerie music composed and performed by Anna Johnson, Emily Kastrul, Sarah Larsson and Willow Waters. It was the perfect accompaniment to a mystical, haunting, Russian-esque folk story, and it really coheres by the end of the show.

All images are copyright of Matthew Glover for Sandbox Theatre

Bone Mother is a truly unique performance, at once ancient and entirely original; modern but familiar; feminine and powerful. Something in it really moved me. I'm not sure if it was the effect of stripping away the trappings of elaborate sets and costumes and focusing on breathwork and the music of bodies, or the hearkening back to my favorite kind of fairy tales, or just the sense of womanly power that swept through the whole show, but I left Bone Mother feeling lightened, inspired and connected to a bigger world of spirits than when I had arrived. It's the perfect thing to watch as our seasons transition to a darker one and we prepare to sit more quietly inside ourselves. Tickets are selling very quickly, so make sure to snatch some up by clicking on this link before the whole run for Bone Mother is sold out by close on September 27.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Ride the Cyclone is an Un-missable Ride

Holy shit Becca Hart. 

Photo by Dan Norman

Pardon the profanity, but I'm just not sure how else to describe one of #tctheater's buzziest ingenues without it. Her performance in the Jungle's season opener Ride the Cyclone - which is a wild ride overall and worth seeing - is a standout that I'm calling early on as one of the best of the year. It's an audacious claim, I know, but I think it's warranted.

Photo by Dan Norman

Backing up a bit - Ride the Cyclone is a new musical that tells the story of a quintet of high school musicians, all of whom are killed as they ride a roller coaster called the cyclone. They are invited by a talking carnie machine named Karnak to play a game for the chance for one of the students to return to real life. The rules? They must unanimously vote for who they send back, which is tough with teenage attitudes running high. The wild card? A headless body was found under the cyclone, that of ghostly Jane Doe. No one knows who Jane is (including Jane herself), so she is entered to play with the five classmates for the chance to return and learn who she really was. Each player spins the wheel to make a case for their shot at Life 2.0, giving a solo about their distinct pasts and what we need to know about them. There are a few surprises revealed during these acts - an obsession with Weimar-era French drag; a fantasy about space sex with a race of kittens; an obsessive goody two shoes who couldn't be more insufferable if she tried; a surprisingly romantic Ukrainian whose tough facade reveals a goey sentimental center; and a lonely but kind girl who struggles to define herself outside of her peer's expectations. It's Mean Girls meets Phantom of the Opera (the Love Never Dies version, to be specific) with a sprinkle of Pippin, a truly weird mix of things that somehow works.

Photo by Dan Norman

The plot can get a little loose at times (if you can't tell in a previous paragraph, there's a *lot* happening here) and some of the stereotypes presented in the way the characters are written could use refinement, but overall I was surprised how well this show worked. That is high key thanks to the amazing performances, which are executed with a crisp military precision that makes the whole thing sparkle. At the heart of it (pun intended) is Becca Hart as the ghastly Jane Doe. I literally gasped the second she appeared on stage; her performance, but particularly her body work and choreography, is truly extraordinary. Nothing about her looks as if it's of this earth, and my jaw dropped several times as she floated through the stage. It's a stunning performance and worth your ticket price alone - do not miss this one, as it's going to be the talk of the town for months to come.

Photo by Dan Norman

The rest of the cast is excellent too. Jim Lichtscheidl (who also masterminded that crisp choreography) brings a striking physical performance as Karnak; he barely blinks and moves just like a machine. His otherworldly performance ties the loose stories of the students together, and he's a magnificent anchor for the show. Shinah Brashears lends her clarion voice as Ocean, the perfectionist that could, and her deliciously hateful performance could be in Mean Girls itself. Gabrielle Dominique is lovely as the shy Constance; I wish she had more time to shine. Michael Hanna is riveting as always as the dark Mischa, clearly having the time of his life. Josh Zwick relishes the strip you never saw coming as Noel, and although probably the weakest of the cast vocally, his charismatic performance is a lot of fun to watch. And Jordan Leggett goes all in as the crippled Ricky; he gives a full commitment that has more than a little Prince in it, and it's a welcomely weird surprise.

Photo by Dan Norman

This production design is one of my favorites in a long time that I've seen anywhere. Chelsea Warren's set design has so many layers, from Karnak's magical box to the handsome carousel with hidden projections and clues to the contestant's pasts; it's hyper-detailed and gorgeous. Trevor Bowen's costume design is wildly imaginative and it's so fun watching the crew prance around through various fantasies. Marcus Dilliard's lighting design and Sean Healey's sound design is seamlessly detailed, down to the crank activating each round of the game and the twinkling lights on each ride. Kathy Maxwell makes the most creative use of projection I've seen in a while, melting into the set design as one cohesive whole. Paul Bigot's wig and makeup design creates distinct characters for each performer. And the props design by John Novak shows the same care and attention to detail that makes every element of the show stand out.

Photo by Dan Norman

There's really no way to adequately encapsulate Ride the Cyclone into a textual review; all I can do is encourage readers to go and enter a world that is truly unlike any I've seen before. The season blurb online didn't really engage me - I decided to go because I trust the Jungle and wanted to know what they'd do with something so abstract, and I was more than rewarded. Becca Hart is truly transformative in this role, and I'm calling it as her star-maker performance in a run that's had several standouts so early on. The rest of this young cast is eager and talented and vivacious too, and you can't help catching some of the sparkle they release through their performances. It won't take much of your time - 90 minutes without intermission - but it will definitely leave you feeling changed. I can't think of a better show to usher in the Halloween season. Make sure to get your tickets before they disappear on October 20; click here for more information or to buy some.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A Steaming “Hot Asian Doctor Husband”

If you’re a rom com fan, this is the show for you

Photo courtesy of Theater Mu

I’ve waxed ad nauseam about my love for new theater work, and one of my favorite companies consistently celebrating and commissioning new plays is Theater Mu. Their new play, Hot Asian Doctor Husband, is another exciting addition to the catalog and one I think will be traveling around the country for some time.

It goes like this: Emi and Collin seem made for each other – except they’re not. At least in her mind. Emi is mixed race, and the more serious things get with Collin, the more she questions if they have a viable future. She is especially worried about having kids who might not identify with her Japanese heritage. To further complicate things, Emi’s mother, who raised her a single parent and was her last direct link to her ethnic history, recently died in a tragic accident. Emi decides to take a leap of faith and find a “hot Asian doctor husband” to fulfill her fantasy of an idyllic Asian American household, breaking up with Collin and stunning her friends.

The trouble is, of course, that love doesn’t work on preferred timelines and specific fantasies. Emi and especially Collin still have feelings for each other, which is plainly evident when they continue to run into each other after the breakup. Emi does find a hot Asian doctor and it seems like things will work out; the only trouble is that he is already someone else’s husband, which Emi learns in a devastating emotional blow that finally pushes her to confront her unprocessed depression and sadness about her mother’s death. The play goes a little off the rails after the affair with the doctor ends, taking a turn from nippy comedy into a serious exploration of mental health issues; it felt a little bit like two different plays in one, but it leaves the audience with a rich understanding of Emi’s identity crisis by the time we leave.

The cast includes Theater Mu regulars and several newcomers, and they’re a really fun crew. Meghan Kreidler deftly handles the role of Emi. No matter how serious or radical her character’s actions seem, Kreidler keeps them believable and touching. Damian Leverett is a joy as the shunned, mournfully #woke Collin; by leaning into the stereotype, he finds some kernels of truth about the white male experience that are new on the stage. Mikell Sapp is delightful as Emi’s best friend Leonard. I haven’t seen him on stage before and I sure hope this isn’t the last time. Danielle Troiano is equally lovely as Leonard’s girlfriend Veronica, bringing vulnerability and poise to the role. Eric Sharp is thoroughly, gut-splittingly hilarious as the Hot Asian Doctor Husband. His scenes were among my favorite in the show and I wish we got a little more of him. And eternal favorite Sun Mee Chomet is fabulous as the Mother characters, milking the most of her time on stage and making a great mentor to Maekalah Ratsabout, the young actress playing the child version of Emi.

The clever scenic design by Sarah Brandner is millennial approved and has all sorts of Ikea-style innovations that keep the action swiftly moving and the aesthetic clean. Costumes, by Jeni O’Malley, are equally well matched to the tone. Karin Olson’s lighting design and Katharine Horowitz’s sound design are subtle and warm, enhancing the action on stage (especially Horowitz’s original music, composed with Damian Leverett). And it’s good to see the importance of physical movement in comedy embraced by Magnolia Yang Sao Yia’s clever choreography and Lauren Keating’s intimacy consulting, a field I suspect we’ll see much more of on programs around #tctheater in this season and beyond.

Hot Asian Doctor Husband is one of the shows I was most excited for this year, and it doesn’t disappoint. Like any new play, there is some revision I’d do on a future iteration to help clarify the story – is it about Emi and Collin’s relationship, or her relationship with her mother? – but the content here is engaging and has a lot of potential. It’s a golden time for Asian Americans* in the rom com world, and Theater Mu’s consistently approachable and inspiring new work is a vital addition to the genre. Make sure to head to Mixed Blood Theatre to check it out before it closes on September 1; click here for more information or to buy tickets.

*If you want more shows like this one on the silver screen, you’re in luck! Here are a few in the last year that I have really loved: 

Friday, August 9, 2019

Floyd's Is A Poignant Delight

It's starting to feel like Lynn Nottage is the only name I've heard in theater the last few years. I'm ok with that. 

Photo by T Charles Erickson

The famous don't always live up to their reputation, but Lynn Nottage sure does.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

The Guthrie made no secret of the fact that Nottage was debuting a world premiere new composition this season as a companion piece to her history-making play Sweat, which won the 2017 Pulitzer and made her the first woman (and first African American woman) in history to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama a second time. While I haven't seen Sweat myself (just heard innumerable glowing recommendations from everyone else who has), I have to say that if it's anything like Floyd's, the hype is very real.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

Floyd's takes place in the back kitchen of a sandwich restaurant of the same name, where all of the employees are formerly incarcerated people. They all struggle to find careers and stable lives after leaving prison, and Floyd's is the first place willing to hire them and pay them a decent wage to hep them get on their feet. The only problem? Floyd, the owner, is a truly negative person. She abuses the employees physically and verbally, flies off the handle at any given time, and takes full advantage of the fact that she knows - and they know - that as much as they don't like her, there is nowhere else they can go to get back on their feet. Little by little, we learn the backstory of each employee and how it infuses their time at Floyd's and dreams for the future. The slow reveal of their lives is one of the most poignant elements of Floyd's so I won't spoil it here, but suffice it to say, it's a long overdue humanization of a very American problem that is beautifully written and acted.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

This tight-knit cast is filled with Guthrie debuts, like Floyd's itself. At the heart is a long-term favorite of mine, Dame Jasmine Hughes, who shines as Letitia in scene-stealing cameos. I can't believe it's her first time on a Guthrie stage and I'm certain it will not be her last. John Earl Jelks is wonderful as the zen-master Montrellous, lending wisdom and poise to every line. Reza Salazar is another scene stealer as the energetic Rafael; he demonstrates big heart through is performance that won the whole audience over. Andrew Veenstra gives the former white nationalist Jason a surprising amount of depth, inserting nuance into a very important stereotype these days. And Johanna Day is deliciously, heartbreakingly cruel as Floyd. Day is like the Cruella de Vil of the formerly incarcerated, and she clearly relishes the role.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

The set, designed by Laura Jellinek, cleverly opens like an aperture from an initial small vignette into a larger wide-screen, workable kitchen. It reminded me quite a bit of Mixed Blood's How to Use a Knife a couple of years ago, and it never wavers from the image of a simple prep kitchen. Jennifer Moeller's costume design is similarly straightforward. Christopher Akerlind hides all sorts of cherries into his nuanced lighting design, with special spotlights and special effects enhancing the dialogue. Justin Hicks' original music is a great background to the pauses between vignettes and gives the cast plenty of charisma to work with. And Director Kate Whoriskey has clearly provided a singular, clear vision for Floyd's that is beautifully executed by the rest of the wider production team.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

I am predisposed to enjoy shows that have a social / political message, and Floyd's fits right into my sweet spot. It's my second Lynn Nottage play (after the magnificent Ruined I saw at Mixed Blood several years ago - my first glorious time seeing Regina Marie Williams on stage), and I have a lot of catching up to do on the rest of her work. It's exciting to see the momentum mounting in the theater community towards commissioning and producing new work that reflects our current way of life, rather than constantly re-hashing old "classics" that may not have as much to say about our modern dilemmas. Nottage is a master at embedding a nuanced, believable, direct message into a highly entertaining package, and Floyd's is accessible and enjoyable for any kind of audience. I highly encourage anyone able to check out the show; click here for more information or to buy tickets before Floyd's closes on August 31.

Also: make sure your stop at the Guthrie isn't your only engagement with this subject matter. Floyd's might be a fictional play, but it represents very real problems. All Square, a restaurant in South Minneapolis, is a living embodiment of the issues raised in Floyd's. Make sure to visit All Square to get some delicious sandwiches and pay it forward to the formerly incarcerated community. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Thrillist: Best New Attractions in America

I love Minneapolis but it's not the only thing I know about!

Photo courtesy of Thrillist. 

I try as hard as I can to get out of my #twincities bubble. One of the greatest surprises for me has been Oklahoma, one of my favorite short weekend trips.

The Sooner State continues to capture attention thanks to thoughtful developments like The Gathering Place, which is one of Thrillist's Best New Attractions in the U.S. I wrote up a short interview with the staff there and was so pleased to learn about the incredible ways the community of Tulsa is being served by this beautiful new space. Click here to read the full piece, and let me know - what are your favorite local developments? What parts of the country are unjustly ignored?

Friday, July 26, 2019

Stinkers Smells Pretty Fresh

What happens when you end up parenting your own parents?

Photo by Dan Norman

Has any locale in #tctheater had a better year than the Jungle?

Photo by Dan Norman

In a climate when many of our treasured thespian institutions seem to be crumbling under the repercussions of #metoo era revelations, this small Uptown enclave seems to be faring better than ever. Packed audiences (many of whom are skewing into the much-desired under 40 demo); shows running on concurrent stages; selling out in a polar vortex; debuting 3 new world premieres; hiring women for all manner of roles off-stage and quietly changing the face (and resumes) of our production community… the list of successes is endless, and it’s only getting better if evidenced by the Jungle’s season closer, Stinkers.

Photo by Dan Norman

Even the story behind Stinkers is amazing: Sally Wingert commissioned a new play from an exciting young playwright who decided to make it about parenting – with dad staying at home and toddlers as actual characters on stage. Like so much of the Jungle’s recent work, Stinkers has just the right amount of subversive energy to keep you giggling in your seats but thinking really hard for days after you see it. It's a delightful piece of new writing that will be making the circuit long after Wingert is gone, and another jewel in the Jungle's crown of recently commissioned originals.

Photo by Dan Norman

Overall, Stinkers tells the story of Brad, a former chef of a failed restaurant whose current career is Stay At Home Dad. Brad seems okay with his life, until his mother Joyce – who has just been released from prison – appears at his house to crash the party. With Joyce comes her prison friend Lilith and the clingy attention of Brad’s good friend Calvin, a supremely lazy man who just can’t seem to get his life together. Joyce quickly whips the household into a ruckus, convincing Brad to start a business selling toy trucks and Calvin to achieve his lofty dreams. The only problem is the underhanded way she does this, using Brad's business as a front for money laundering and coaxing Calvin into taking risks he can ill afford with his lack of employment. Everything crumbles apart as Brad learns his mother hasn't changed that much since prison and Joyce loses her ill-gotten nest egg, leaving them left to appreciate the only thing that really matters anyway - each other.

Photo by Dan Norman

This is such a brilliantly unique script and Sally Wingert shines in the role she commissioned. Wingert's Joyce is unabashedly cocky, completely unapologetic, and a delightful mess. It's the perfect foil for John Catron's very modern father figure in Brad. Catron plays his role so winningly, and it was wonderful to see an unironic portrait of fatherhood and a male character wrestling with many of the struggles and blessings that are often faced by stay at home mothers. George Keller was delightful as the swashbuckling but tenderhearted Lilith, adding depth to what could have been a cliched character. Nate Cheeseman stole the show (as always) with his devastatingly unmotivated Calvin, always eliciting giggles from the audience. And Megan Burns and Reed Sigmund were clever as the puppeteers behind the Brad's children Evie and Oscar. Their presence really helped depict the chaotic state of a home filled with little kids, and their total commitment to the preschool mindset lent a welcome comedic relief to several tense scenes.

Photo by Dan Norman

One of the reasons I love the Jungle is that I can always trust them to do something totally unique. Stinkers is no different and is worth an audience visit. Wrapped inside this lighthearted comedy are some important narratives about recidivism, parenting, modern fatherhood, and so much more. It's a colorful piece perfect for the depths of summer and something you can enjoy taking your best friend or wryest auntie to. It's a fantastic capstone to a transcendent season at the Jungle, and I highly encourage you to check it out. Stinkers runs through August 18; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Dan Norman

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Where on Earth Have I Been?

Greetings from the future, lovely readers…

Photo courtesy of One Heart Africa

I bet some of you are starting to wonder what the heck has happened to me!

In one word: Africa.

I spent all of June 2019 on the trip of a lifetime through several countries in West Africa. Naturally, a trip of this length is a real bomb in one’s work life, so I needed several weeks before and after to pre-work and play catchup for being gone so long.

I’m slowly getting back to normalcy and to having time for things like blogging! I am definitely taking some extra time post-trip to evaluate that I have enough space to accomplish all of my goals (working up in my paid job, volunteering with causes important to me, etc.), so please note that although I’m still around, I may not be on here as consistently as you’re used to depending on workload.

That said, I’m not going anywhere – and I still want to take you all along for the ride. I will be doing a series of posts about my trip breaking down tips and tricks for traveling in West Africa, which I have found is a region not often covered in media outside of local media. I’m so excited to share this with you all and learn together about places that deserve far more attention and respect than they get.

Thanks for hanging in there, and please continue to reach out as cool things arise! I love hearing what’s going on and will happily share what I can when I can.

XOXO, Becki