Monday, February 18, 2019

Lashed But Not Leashed is Totally Lovely

Is drag having a golden age? 


Photo by Gustavo Garcia

Between *the* Ru Paul, the effervescently gorgeous (and shamefully overlooked this awards season) Pose on FX, and the preponderance of local drag brunches like Flip Phone immediately selling out, it seems there's never been a better time to do drag.

Lashed But Not Leashed, a part of the Guthrie's "Get Used To It" series to celebrate queer artistry, fits perfectly into this tradition. Starring drag queen Martha Graham Cracker, Lashed But Not Leashed manages to weave subjects as disparate as library science, the ghost of Joe Dowling and the funkiest all-white jazz combo you'll find anywhere together into one neatly laced corset. Part monologue, part cabaret, and part impromptu concert, Lashed But Not Leashed is a whole lot of fun.

Photo by Gustavo Garcia

The whole thing only work thanks to the charisma of host Martha Graham Cracker. She reminded me of a cross between Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot and Cecily Strong on Saturday Night Live. While her voice isn't classically beautiful, Martha Graham Cracker's utter confidence and witty banter really won me (and the rest of the audience) over. She has an intellectual style to the monologue that kept taking surprising turns, and I really appreciated the time she took to customize the show to the location at the Guthrie. I can easily see how this is a show that could endlessly please; it's short (less than 90 minutes), accessible, and completely unintimidating. I really liked it.

Photo by Gustavo Garcia

Martha Graham Cracker's on-stage band was very well put together, keeping a tight quintet that had everyone engaged. They flex very well along with Martha's wandering (both physically and verbally), and it was easy to see they were having a whole lot of fun. I would happily have returned to watch a variation of this group multiple nights in a row - which is not something I often will say. Combined with the mostly-female team behind the scenes, the whole event had a really cozy, thoughtful, ladies-who-brunch feel that I really appreciated.

Photo by Gustavo Garcia

Unfortunately Lashed But Not Leashed has already sashayed away from the Guthrie's Level 9 studio, but you're in luck: there is still one more performance available this coming weekend as part of the "Get Used To It" series. Click here to learn more and get your tickets before this innovative, exciting celebration of queer artists leaves the stage.

Friday, February 15, 2019

"benevolence" Will Blow You Over

What did you do on Valentine's Day? 


Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

The holiday seems to be one that you love or love to hate. As for myself, I could swing either way - there is no denying that the entire day is set up to allow corporations to make far more profit than is justifiable off of markups on flowers, cards, candies, and all sorts of otherwise annually available goods. That said, I also fully believe in the power of stating your love out loud, and it's not a bad thing to formalize the process of doing so.

While other people were out wining and dining and Netflix and chilling last night, my partner and I headed to the Penumbra for benevolence, the next play in their Emmett Till series (we keep it light in our house, no?). We knew we were in for a powerful few hours of theater, but little did we realize just how powerful it would be.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

benevolence tells the stories of two women at the periphery of Emmett Till's death. The first act is from the perspective of Caroline Bryant, the white woman who started it all - by lying that Till came on to her, a lie that got a 14 year old black boy brutally murdered in the dark of night - and why she did it. It manages to walk the razor thin line of being complex and nuanced without being sympathetic, and there are several disturbing details released about Caroline Bryant's life that make Till's story all the sadder for their revelation. Act two focuses on the life and family of Beulah Melton, a black woman trying to survive the Mississippi Delta in the wake of Till's death. Melton's husband Clinton witnesses Till's corpse shortly before he is "disappeared" into the bayou; his inability to stay silent eventually costs his and Beulah's lives.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

A tight, expert cast provides a fully fledged picture of the events of Till's death, and they do an excellent job of grounding this very serious subject matter. Sara Marsh is brilliant as Caroline Bryant. Her measured, severe performance is filled with pain and nuance; it can't be easy to play such an evil character, and I salute Marsh for her fantastic execution. She is well matched with the powerful, transcendent Dame-Jasmine Hughes as Beulah Melton. Every time I see Hughes I think she can't possibly top herself and then she does. In benevolence Hughes displays a peck of emotions with a single glance or trembling finger; she completely sweeps up the action of Act Two and is marvelously filled with gravitas. The men here are no slouch either. Peter Christian Hansen teems with deadly animosity as a revolving door of men in Bryant's life, each iteration demonstrating yet another kind of white man who provided yet another creative way to inflict cruelty on black people. Darrick Mosley is devastating as Clinton Melton and Medgar Evers, portraying yet two more black men who were both murdered for trying to tell the truth. He's a charismatic foil to Hughes' complete power, and collectively this cast will blow you over.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

The set, memorably designed by Maruti Evans, is reminiscent of a macabre Declaration of Independence. A movable wall is painted with the text of news articles detailing Till's death and the ensuing trial; a row of straw panama hats hangs ominously on it, as if in the courtroom npacked with an all-white jury; and a series of plain, sturdy wooden furniture is pushed in and out of the scenery, imparting just how hard these characters are working to stay afloat. Several flickering black and white TV screens show clips of the trial and related imagery, lending the entire thing an eerie Hitchcock-ian effect. Combined with the painterly, Rembrandt-like lighting by Marcus Dilliard, one gets a chilling feeling and a sinking stomach from the second the show starts, and it doesn't lessen as the plot goes on.


The only word I can think of to describe benevolence, over and over and over again, is heartbreaking. The story of Emmett Till is sad enough as it is, but combined with the horrific domino effect it set in motion for the rest of the black community it is completely sickening. The amount of people who have been abused, killed and traumatized in the name of white supremacy is abominable; throughout the show I couldn't stop asking myself "how can people do this to each other?!"

The worst part, however, is that people are still doing these things to each other - specifically white Americans. Police officers continue to kill people of color in the streets without impunity; it seems every day we hear new stories of people of color being unjustly imprisoned, lynched, or their children being abused; and white women continue to use the power of racism to endanger the lives of people of color with things as simple as making a phone call. It's exhausting. It's infuriating. It's endless. So what do we do now?

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra

I'm not sure that anyone has a good answer; the problem of racism and white supremacy in America goes so deep, for so long, in so many infinitely detailed ways that it will take many, many years to uproot. What I can say is that attending the Penumbra's excellent rendition of benevolence and educating yourself about just one example of the failures of the American justice system is a good start. Learn so that you cannot unsee; once your eyes are opened, do everything you can to open the eyes, ears, and hearts of others. We must reach each person individually to help them advocate for fairness and justice - and white people, we have to do better. This one's on us. Maybe if we can make a little progress we'll be extended benevolence from the communities we've persecuted to get the rest of the way there. benevolence runs through March 10; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

We're All Hanging On By "The Skin Of Our Teeth"

Who knew Thornton Wilder could get a little wild? 


Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma  

I've talked a lot on this blog about my feelings on what pieces of art are considered to be "classics." Whether you believe it is correct or not, there are definitely a core few writers who get passed around from generation to generation as *the* people who have set the standard for literature (whatever that means). Names we see often on such lists include Dickens, Tolstoy, Joyce, Mann, and many more fusty old white dudes. Some of them I love, some of them I don't, but it's inarguable that they left a mark big enough that we still discuss them today.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma  

When it comes to candidates for the American canon, Thornton Wilder is an immediate contender. The only person to win separate Pulitzer prizes for drama and literature, Wilder was a key member of the literary community in the mid-20th century. He was a child of the Midwest and is a person who formed the popular imagination of what the American nuclear family looked like. Remember that picture of a mom-dad-two-kids combo with the white picket fence in an idyllic small town, where all the girls are pretty and all the boys are above average? Wilder played an important part in developing that stereotype, and his fingerprints are all over art in America after he started writing.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma  

One of the Pulitzers Wilder won was for a play called The Skin of Our Teeth, a now-rarely mounted piece that just opened at Park Square Theatre. Like Our Town (his earlier and more famous play), The Skin of Our Teeth features a healthy dose of self-awareness via explicit asides to the audience; a play within a play, it has a lot of moving parts. The show feels like an apocalyptic metaphor set within the confines of the history of earth. Showing the immutability of the human condition, The Skin of Our Teeth takes a family (the Antrobuses) in three acts through the end of the ice age, a flood, and a world war. Although their clothes and the conditions of their distress may change, the Antrobuses continue to be unflappably the same. Mr. Antrobus is a family figurehead with a wandering eye; Mrs. Antrobus is the secret powerhouse of the family who hides behind her status as a wife; Henry is a sociopath who can't stop killing people with a slingshot; and Gladys is the ever-overlooked daughter who keeps trying to stand out, regardless of how little attention is paid to her. Sabina, an amorphous antihero whose plans to spoil the Antrobuses' domesticity, provides narration to help guide the audience through each completely different act.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma  

The first thing that struck me about the play was the extremely fast paced dialogue; it has the same slapshot pace as Hollywood classics like His Girl Friday, and if you're not paying close attention this play will whiz straight by you. The long, wordy sentences are chewed up and spit back out with expert pacing by the cast. I was particularly struck by Alayne Hopkins as Sabina, who manages to be perfectly clear despite her turgid lines. She provided the few moments of clarity I found throughout the show, and her expert handling of the script was impressive. Kirby Bennett brought a Hilary Clinton vibe to her role as Mrs. Antrobus, infusing the character with underappreciated intelligence. John Middleton made the blustery Mr. Antrobus downright charming, and I found myself liking the character despite often having clear thoughts against his actions in my head. Taj Ruler stood out to me as a member of the ensemble cast; her trademark timing, so often perfectly displayed in work at the Brave New Workshop, really enlivened this show. I honestly wish we had more of her throughout.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma  

Because the scenes of The Skin of Our Teeth change completely between acts, so must the set - meaning two 15 minute intermissions between acts that brought the show to just under three hours. The sets bear the hallmark of Director Joel Sass's trademark affinity for whimsy; I got it, but they couldn't help but feel a little cluttery to me. There is so much sorting out the audience has to do to distinguish between what is the same and what isn't between the vastly different scenarios that the bright, populated sets can fee a little overwhelming. Ditto for the costume design by Kathy Kohl, which adds even more color and activity to the stage. I quite liked the projections and videos produced for each scene (courtesy of Kathy Maxwell, C Andrew Mayer, and Maxwell Collyard); they added a lot of context and a crisp modernity that neatly started and ended each act.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma  

All in all, The Skin of Our Teeth was not my kind of play. It definitely fits into the theme of apocalypse that seems to be cropping up with aplomb this season (see reviews of The Children or Zvizdal here for more details). Given a modern analysis, you could consider it to be an early condemnation of climate change and humanity's effect on the world, much like those found in popular books of recent years like The Sixth Extinction, Sapiens or The World Without Us. I understood the themes and I fully believe the actors did a really good job committing to and delivering their roles. The sum of the parts just didn't add up I guess - I can tell that this was a good production of Thornton Wilder, but I just couldn't connect to the story. If you're a fan of The Skin of Our Teeth already I have a feeling you'll love this show - many in the audience seemed delighted with the production, and Girl Friday Productions clearly knows their stuff when it comes to this author - it just wasn't for me. It will be showing at Park Square Theatre through March 3, so make sure to click here to get your tickets since Girl Friday only produces one show every two years. Go and form your own opinion! I'd love to hear other people's thoughts.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Reviewed in Brief: Rock of Ages at the Orpheum

Every rose has it's thorn... 


Photo by Jeremy Daniel

And I pricked myself on a few at the touring performance of Rock of Ages last weekend.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The crowd was ready to rock and roll (literally) as the first shreds came off the axe on stage Friday night. The opening number for Rock of Ages was truly electric; concert floodlights beamed through the audience and the hardcore backup band really went for it. Rock of Ages was on, and the crowd couldn't have been happier.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Rock of Ages is basically the Mamma Mia of hair rock - many of your 1980s-era favorite earworms are loosely connected by a fabricated story attempting to make sense of the range of songs. The main difference here is that while Mamma Mia features only work by Abba (and has a decently fleshed out plot to support it), Rock of Ages hits across the spectrum of rock and roll bands - and the story is far floppier. Technically it's about a love story between two aspiring performers whose romance is interrupted by the appearance of a very famous, and very destructive, aging rock star; but the chemistry wasn't there for me, the content felt dated (especially in the era of #metoo), and overall I just wasn't buying what this show was laying down.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The women were the standout vocalists here; particularly Kristina Walz and Emily Croft. Sam Harvey revealed a limber voice (and some thoroughly shredded abs) as smutty rock star Stacee Jaxx, and Anthony Nuccio did a decent imitation of Stephen Tyler-screaming vocals as the lead love interest Drew. Katie LaMark infused leading lady Sherrie with far more energy than I'd have thought possible for the caricature it draws, and she sold the vintage lewks with total conviction that I had to admire. John-Michael Breen squeezed out several laughs as the narrator, Lonny, and his dirty sense of humor was welcome despite the content to keep the show feeling like it was self aware. This cast sounded better to me as an ensemble than individually, but there was some definite vocal power, especially after they got warmed up.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The "visual storytelling" (which I believe is a code for set design?) by David Gallo reminded me of those we typically see for Rent - gritty, grungy, and made of durable materials. As the bulk of the plot takes place in and between rock and roll clubs (think First Avenue in the Prince era), lighting and sound design (by Mike Baldassari and Cody Spencer, respectively) played a major role. In both instances it was pretty loud for me - the lights in particular could be blinding during bigger musical numbers, and the amps felt turned up about as high as they could go.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

I have to say that overall something about Rock of Ages just felt... remiss? There was plenty of enthusiasm for the show on and off stage, but this one just wasn't for me personally. I've never preferred a Tom Cruise movie adaptation over a live performance of literally anything, but I suppose there's a first time for everything. At the end of the day though - what do I really know? Despite my lackluster reaction, this is also the only show I've seen people actually stand up to dance through at the Orpheum before the close of Act I. There were many loud cheers and hoots coming from the audience from the first chord and generally everyone else seemed to love it - so don't take my word for it. If you're a rock and roll aficionado, you may just enjoy this show. Rock of Ages is touring very briefly through the country this winter; for more information click here.

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Wolves Remains a Hit

Is anyone in #tctheater having a better year than Sarah Rasmussen? 


Photo by Dan Norman

Named the Star Tribune's 2018 Artist of the Year, Rasmussen must be flying on a cloud. The Jungle Theater has produced hit after sold out hit since she took the helm in 2015, and her fresh, female-forward perspective is boldly changing the kind of stories and the way those stories are told on #tctheater stages beyond her queendom in Uptown.

Thanks to this success, the Jungle now has two stages running concurrently for the first time ever! On their marquis space on Lyndale is The Children (which I reviewed a few weeks ago - click here for the link). Last night The Wolves, an immediate sell-out and the Twin Cities Theater Blogger's pick for best ensemble performance in 2018, re-opened at the Southern Theater on Seven Corners. I was one of the few unlucky souls who didn't manage to snag a ticket to last year's performance, so I was thrilled to get the chance to check it out this year. Spoiler alert: it was completely worth the wait.

Photo by Dan Norman

The Wolves is a true ensemble drama, depicting the pre-game chatter of a team of high school-aged soccer players as they stretch and warm up before their games. We hear them talk about tampons vs. pads; sneaking out to drink at parties; deeply debate the subject matter in their history homework assignments (Pol Pot vs. Hitler makes an appearance); struggle to feel seen and included; absorb a "new girl" who moves late into their tight knit circle; gossip about shared acquaintances; strategize how to beat their next opponent; support each other after their friends and family members die; and so much more. In short, it's the entirety of teenage girl's experiences told exclusively by teenaged girl characters, distilled into a zippy 95 minute drama that instantly captivated the audience.

Photo by Dan Norman

I think The Wolves is the perfect harbinger of the Jungle's success under Sarah Rasmussen, and let me tell you why: this show felt so organic, so natural in the flow of the season, and is so perfectly cast and produced, that you don't even realize how revolutionary it is. The Wolves moved me deeply despite the seemingly banal nature of its subject matter because I've never seen such an honest depiction of a teen girl's experience on stage. Obviously what The Wolves portrays is not an exact avatar for all teen girls' lives - there are always shades in everyone's experience of the world and the experiences collected here don't cross every race / sexuality / economic line - but overall it allows a frankness that isn't often allowed to women at all, let alone girls in their teenage years. Teens experience things like death or serious illness or injury all the time, but due to their young age it's often assumed that they are unaffected or don't understand the severity of such events. The experience boys have in puberty are infamously portrayed in all sorts of shows, from wet dreams to having sex with pies, to sneaking dirty magazines - but how often do you hear a tampon thrown around in casual conversation? Or using Plan B? It's revolutionary content because it is so commonly ignored, and bravo to Sarah Delappe for a fabulous script that unveils the layers of this experience in a way that all audience members (including the men, of which there were many), can relate to.

Photo by Dan Norman

Part of the success of The Wolves is also due to its tightly knit ensemble actors. All of this dynamic, spicy young cast has gone on to great things in other shows; just look at this lineup!

  • Chloe Armao, who was part of the Guthrie's thoughtful Trouble in Mind
  • Megan Burns, part of the stunning production of Little Women at the Jungle as well as shows with Mixed Blood, Theater Latte Da and other of my local favorite companies
  • Michelle de Joya, who has delighted in several Mu Performing Arts productions including Flower Drum Song and Tot: the untold (yet spectacular) Story of a Filipino Hulk Hogan
  • Becca Hart, who jumped into leading roles in Mary Poppins and Into the Woods after this performance
  • McKenna Kelly-Eiding, who starred as Sherlock Holmes in Baskerville at Park Square Theatre, one of my favorite shows of last year
  • Isabella Star Lablanc, also a standout in Little Women and who is breaking new ground as a Native American artist on stages and on film across the country
  • And a host of up and coming young actresses who are certain to become well known, including Rosey Lowe, Shelby Rose Richardson, Meredith Casey, all of whom are backed up by local legend Jennifer Blagen

It was such a pleasure to watch them all engage in a public form of sisterhood, and I hope their impressive collaboration here allows for more shows with multiple women (hello Bechdel test!) on stages across the Twin Cities. This is a show that is clearly made by women, starring women, for women, and I can't express enough how meaningful that experience was for me. I am so glad the Jungle decided to re-mount this excellent production, and if you didn't get a chance to see it the first time around it absolutely deserves a look. The run goes through February 17 and if last night's packed stage (despite the polar vortex) is any indication, you'll want to snap up your tickets immediately because this one is sure to sell out again. For more information about the dynamic, the powerful, the incredible play The Wolves, click here to see more and to buy those tickets.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Little Night Music Gives Us a Saucy Sondheim

This saucy show has plenty of punch for Sondheim fans. 


Photo by Dan Norman

When you hear the "great" names of creators of musical theater, the list tends to be pretty short. Rogers and Hammerstein are up there, to be sure. Leonard Bernstein makes the cut. Andrew Lloyd Weber, but of course. Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin are all contenders. A hot case could be made for adding Lin-Manuel Miranda these days, despite his young age. And then there's Stephen Sondheim.

Photo by Dan Norman

Defiantly riding headfirst against the river of generally treacle-y smash successes made by the men mentioned above, Sondheim stands alone with his freaky sense of humor and genuine love of the macabre. Controversial, fearless and unabashedly strange, Sondheim defies easy categorization and remains a singularly enigmatic figure in the history of theater.

Photo by Dan Norman

What does that mean for the rest of us? That the work of Steven Sondheim tends to be an acquired taste, and I'm not certain yet if I've attained the status of a Sondheim connoisseur. From a technical perspective his scores are complex, creative and even brilliant, constantly re-interpreting musical possibilities and pushing boundaries. Melodically this means they can suffer a bit for me (at least in terms of hum-along tunes), and combined with his truly singular subject matter they tend to wander a bit far off the path for my tastes. Still, there is a robust Sondheim fan club out there, and his musicals still tend to be top sellers on local stages. West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George have all made appearances on #tctheater stages in the last few years, and now we have A Little Night Music to add to the collection thanks once again to Theater Latte Da.

Photo by Dan Norman

Although according to the excellent program this is based on Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night, it actually reminded me a lot of Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest. A Little Night Music follows the most complex of love knots. Desirée Armfeldt is a popular play actor and the toast of Sweden, who is known almost as much for her many lovers as she is for her work on-stage. Her former lover Fredrik Egerman decides to attend her latest play with his young, virginal wife Anne, and finds himself swept up in love of Desirée all over again. Anne fumes with jealousy but finds plenty of fun flirting with her stepson Henrik, who is much closer in age (and desire) to her. Desirée's lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm is filled with violent jealousy when he learns of her assignation with Fredrik; his wife Countess Charlotte Malcolm is filled with equal furor over his lack of care for his own wife, compared to his mistress. Through this tangled web we see many schemes emerge to win former loves back, flee with new lovers, and re-discover old flames. It's a complicated plot that unravels neatly by the end, but pay attention - it's easy to miss a connection if you blink too slowly.

Photo by Dan Norman

Sally Wingert is the show's draw as Desirée, and while I loved her characteristic witty timing, this wasn't my favorite role for her. I did quite enjoy Mark Benninghofen as Fredrik, her romantic foil; his rich voice grew as the show developed, and he was very well paired with Wingert's characterization. Thank goodness for Britta Ollmann and Bradley Greenwald as servants Petra and Frid, respectively; they are the heart of the music of this show, and their beautiful voices provide a strong foundation on which the rest of the cast builds. Susan Hofflander is hilarious as Desirée's mother Madame Leonora Armfeldt; her perfect comedic timing was just the lighter tone the show needs. And I really enjoyed Grace Chermak and Riley McNutt's chemistry as Anne and Henrik Egerman. They play the age dynamic really well and have some charmingly youthful moments that kept the show feeling fresh.

Photo by Dan Norman

An honest disclaimer: this was not my favorite musical. The first act especially dragged for me, and while I saw the full picture by the end of the play, it just wasn't my favorite.

Photo by Dan Norman

I disclaim that because I want to focus instead on the fact that I think this production was excellently acted and produced. Not everything is going to suit my preferences, but that doesn't mean the quality was lacking - and this is a case of an excellently produced show that just wasn't for me. Theater Latte Da always does a great job with musicals, and their treatment of A Little Night Music is no different. The stage opens on a sepia-toned set design from Joel Sass; as the show progresses it gains a bit more color (much like a Wizard of Oz effect), and the detailed period costumes from Rich Hamson, paired with the vibrant hair and wig design from Paul Bigot, shine on stage. The lighting design by Marcus Dilliard, who was the 2018 Twin Cities Theater Blogger's choice for best lighting designer, is excellent as always and really makes the most of that detailed set. And the sound mixing by C. Andrew Mayer allows us to hear every one of Sondheim's complicated lyrics. Combined with the live band on-stage, led by Jason Hansen, we get the feel we are on a series of Edith Wharton-eqsue lavish estates, and it keeps the wealthy aura of the play fully engaged.

Photo by Dan Norman

The audience seemed delighted in this considered rendition of A Little Night Music. Patrons next to me gossiped about the action on stage throughout the show as if it was the latest episode of Real Housewives, and at some level or some point in time, isn't that what A Little Night Music really is? A dark (but not Sondheim's darkest) farce about the fallibility of relationships, the difference between relationships you should have and relationships you want to have, and a meditation on marriage, A Little Night Music has all the salacious gossip you could ever want to see in a musical. Even though the subject wasn't my favorite, I can attest that the quality of this production is impeccable, and Sondheim fans are sure to love this rendition of the show. It's a great way to escape our current polar vortex and worth a visit for Theater Latte Da's perennially excellent execution. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.


Photo by Dan Norman

Monday, January 28, 2019

Out There 2019: Berlin's Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close]

A nuclear apocalypse seems to be on many artists' minds these days.


Photo courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Last year gave us The Lorax at Children's Theatre Company. A few weeks ago The Children opened at the Jungle Theater. And now we have Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close], created by the Belgian artist collective BERLIN and the next installment of the Out There series at the Walker Art Center.

I'm not sure how to describe Zvizdal other than a multimedia documentary experience. The bulk of the performance is spent watching a film, which interacts seamlessly with three meticulously crafted models of the film's subject - a single crumbling farm still standing in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster 32 years ago. Dido and Baba are the final two inhabitants of Zvizdal, a small village in northern Ukraine that fell within the permanent radiation radius after the disaster. The majority of the village's population was evacuated and re-located elsewhere, but a few residents stubbornly refused to leave.

Dido and Baba are the final inhabitants of Zvizdal and make for a fascinating film subject. Much like the agnostic gaze of Planet Earth, in Zvizdal we are taken deep into observing Dido and Baba's truly analog lives without a filtered perspective. In addition to the nuclear fallout, the subject is made all the more difficult by the fact that Dido and Baba are in their early 90s when the video is shot. Because the village was evacuated they are left totally without access to services we take for granted - running water, electricity, television, paved roads, gas for cars or motorized vehicles, grocery stores, post offices - even the radio station no longer services Zvizdal's two remaining residents.

The film focuses on Baba and Dido's lives over several seasons. Below the screen, three intricately detailed models (one each) of the summer, winter, and transitional spring / fall seasons show their home, animals, and foliage of the neighborhood. A focused camera on a track silently moves between them, interspersing the recorded documentary footage with the live rotation of the models. It has the effect of an almost 3D-meets-claymation imagery, and although I think it was unnecessary in terms of adding to the meaning of the piece, it was certainly interesting to watch. I could see how you might make a more efficient version of stop-motion animation with this technology, and it did help the piece to feel more interactive than simply staring at a screen surrounded by strangers.

I took my husband to this show, and we both agreed it's one of our favorite Out There performances of any year. Something about the quiet nature of Baba and Dido's lives profoundly affected each of us; the pregnant pauses between the mundane elements of each of their lives gave space for thoughtful reflection on modern society and humanity's responsibility to each other. Interestingly he and I left with very different lessons from the film. He was profoundly impacted by the imagery of Chernobyl's nuclear fallout and rightly pointed out how little detail is taught about the disaster today. As much we are told that the Cold War is over (an increasingly debatable fact, one might think), we still live in a highly nuclear world. There are nuclear power plants located in Minnesota and warheads planted all over the Midwest; a disaster could easily fall here, where it is far more densely populated than Chernobyl was, and what would we do if that happened? Are there better, safer ways of producing energy? Why bother with nuclear at all anymore with our increasingly efficient technologies for solar and wind power? How do you gauge what technologies are safest for life yet still meet our endless appetite for more and more powerful energy sources?

I, on the other hand, was deeply moved by Zvizdal's subconscious conversation about aging in Western societies. Baba and Dido aren't just living what is essentially a peasant's life in the 1800s; they are doing it in the latest decades of their lives, without access to electricity, modern medicine, telephones to call for emergencies, or even nearby family to check on them regularly. Their decades-long companionship provides them with a profound relationship that is truly the cornerstone of their survival, but it is clear that they are very hungry and physically suffering. Their mental quality of life would be devastated if they had to leave the only homes they've ever known, the homes they've lived in for nearly a century; but what about their physical needs? Is it moral to leave them alone in Zvizdal knowing they will be injured or starved and unable to reach help? Or is it better to allow them to die on their own terms, no matter how hard it is to watch? The way the elderly are treated in Western societies is a serious, troubling question that I don't think we publicly think about enough. Zvizdal shines a spotlight on many of the challenging aspects of this conversation and any viewers are sure to have a lot to think about by the time they leave.

I found Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close] to be a thoughtful, lyrical, quietly profound piece of art. It surprised me with its simple eloquence and left me with so much to discuss and think about. It's a great example of how art done well can delight, innovate, teach and advocate for change all at the same time. If you get a chance to go I would highly recommend it; click here for more information about Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close] and the rest of the Out There series at the Walker Art Center, which continues through the end of January 2019.


For a roundup of past Out There performances I've covered, see the following: