Monday, October 16, 2017

Riveted to Watch on the Rhine

The Guthrie's latest suspenseful show lands you smack into fall ... and fascism. 

Photo by Dan Norman

It's night. It's dark. It's dangerous. The leading man dashes in for a brief moment, long enough to kiss his wife, embrace his children and slide to the car waiting outside. His furtive movements belie his overwhelming fear, which is justifiable: he has just killed a man, and he will not be returning to this house.

Photo by Dan Norman

So ends Watch on the Rhine, Lillian Hellman's darkly gorgeous play now showing at the Guthrie. Filled with understated urgency and thoughtful evolution, Watch on the Rhine is a call to action that retains its power more than 75 years after it first aired.

Photo by Dan Norman

So how did we get here, to the furtive movements and waiting car and silent tension? We begin in that same house, that of Fanny Farrelly, a wealthy American woman enjoying the height of leisure in her senior years. Fanny's son David lives with her, as well as two long-term guests from war-embattled Europe: Teck de Brancovis and his wife Marthe. The house is abuzz at the news that Sara Muller, Fanny's long-absent daughter, will be soon arriving with her husband, Kurt, and their children. The reunion is awkward but loving, and everyone heaves a sigh of relief that they are actually glad to see each other. Only one thing could spoil this reunion, and it does: ill-kept secrets.

Photo by Dan Norman

Based on Hollywood's tendency to overdo it on the World War II drama, I think we all know why an anti-fascist rebel and an Eastern European aristocrat wouldn't get along very well at this time. What I can't convey very well, and what you'll have to (and should) head to the Guthrie to witness, is the breathless tension with which this relationship is executed. Teck and Kurt circle each other like sharks to the slaughter throughout the show, and there are no easy answers or happy endings when they finally come to blows. This is a world in which choices are made between terrible and awful, and there is no easy way out. It's a beautifully executed denouement, and it's one of the only times I've ever felt that two intermissions were not only appropriate but necessary to let the play's sickening necessities fully sink in.

Photo by Dan Norman

The cast is clearly all-in on this story. Caitlin O'Connell is marvelous as Fanny, bringing a salty joie de vivre to her part that is sharp and hilarious in the best tradition of the grand dames of old Hollywood. Kate Guentzel is pointed and vivacious as Teck's estranged wife Marthe, and her stinging remarks are the first hint that something is amiss in this home despite its splendor. Sarah Agnew is deftly resilient as Sarah, allowing her heartbreak, frustration and resolution to shine through. Jonathan Walker is the cast's weak link as Teck, but still manages to convey the sniveling selfishness that defines Teck's unhappy life. The standout is Elijah Alexander in his Guthrie debut as Kurt. Alexander is swift, strong, troubled and resolute all at once. His quiet observation of the family drama unfolding before him conveys mountains with just a glance, and his bravado performance at the end does a lovely job of demonstrating the horrifying sacrifices heroes must make in real life. Alexander IS this show's gravitas, and he keeps us all level headed as the plot descends into madness.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set, a beautifully imagined drawing room by Neil Patel, is quietly luxurious, filled with the kind of expensively simple objets d'art that define the homes of the upper class. Costumes are richly arrayed in 1940s silhouettes and lavishly printed luxury fabrics, the sheen of which we can see glistening from the audience. Raquel Barreto hit the nail on the head with this apparel, and you'll drool over some of the play's beautiful garments. Ingenious backlighting from Alexander Nichols keeps the time of day clear and casts just enough shadow to keep us in suspense, with almost a film noir vibe. And I wish the various European accents, overseen by Vocal Coach Lucinda Holshue, were a little more acutely pronounced, but it' nice to hear a global inflection coming from the dialogue on stage.

Photo by Dan Norman

Watch on the Rhine is part of a series of troubled times-themed plays that will be gracing the Guthrie's stages this year. It's dark material is suited to the damp chill descending as we go deeper into fall, and it's hard not to feel that Hellman's strong call to action is still profoundly relevant today. Watch on the Rhine's quiet, insistent urgency that all of us, of every age and ability, give all we have - lives included - to fend off the lockstep march of fascism as it sweeps the globe is unfortunately all too familiar in our era. Perhaps, if we listen, this time we can end it for good. Watch on the Rhine plays through November 5 at the Guthrie; tickets and more information can be found by clicking on this link.

These Shining Lives is a Shining Example of the Theater We Need

Did you see Hidden Figures last year? 

Touted nationwide as one of the most surprising, uplifting and wonderful movies of 2016, Hidden Figures was by far the biggest box office for an Academy Award Best Picture nominee last year and the highest grossing movie fronted by an African-American woman, ever. I've heard nothing but great things about the sweet story and impeccable acting, and the positive message pervading the film was nothing but extraordinary and highly timely.

With the undeniable success of Hidden Figures, it begs the question: why are there still so few stories produced about, by and for women (and especially women of color)? In the era of the downfall of Harvey Weinstein (#thankgod, #metoo), there is growing momentum in Hollywood and elsewhere to finally correct the horrific gender imbalance in the art we disseminate and value, both financially and culturally.

If you're involved in this movement and want to see more stories by and about women, and especially if you love true-life historical drama, look no further than These Shining Lives, now playing from Uprising Theatre Company at the Phoenix Theater. These Shining Lives tells the stories of the women of the Radium Dial Company, whose fortunes were made and lost painting watch faces with pure radium in the 1930s. This true story is one of the many that deserves wider airtime, for several reasons: it's poignant, it's beautifully told, and it has a lot to tell us about progress and public health issues.

The women of Radium Dial were renowned at the time for their beautiful work in hand-painting the numbers on watch faces, for which they were paid handsomely. Everything seemed to be coming up roses until it became clear that something about the materials they were using was amiss. Radium Dial's claim to fame was the fact that they painted the numbers on the watch faces with pure radium, which they touted as a health benefit to the employees. Many women worked in this environment for years, clothed in radium dust. This is not an exaggeration - the paintbrushes were sharpened in their mouths (aka they ate the radium dust), the dust spread all over their hair and clothes, and the radium seeped so deeply into the women's skin that they literally glowed in the dark.

It doesn't take much in this day and age to realize that such outsized exposure to radioactive elements couldn't possibly be good for you. But at the time (pre-atomic bomb, don't forget) not many people knew. Either way, no one wanted to face the powerful corporate forces of Radium Dial with such a medical diagnosis for its terminally ill employees, and no one certainly wanted to vouch for a bunch of sickly, poor women. It was only until one brave employee sued the company on behalf of herself and her fellow coworkers (and won - seven. consecutive. times.) that Radium Dial's guilt was acknowledged and some form of financial recoupment allowed to its victims. The harrowing process scarred many of the employees and the victory, which resulted in laughably low amounts of financial compensation, was more symbolic than adequate for the pain the women suffered.

Uprising Theatre's production of These Shining Lives is an inspiring, accessible entree into this story. It was lovely to see a cast formed of a diverse group of women anchoring the narrative with charisma and ease. The audience is led through by Ashey Hovell, who plays Catherine Donohue, the woman who sues Radium Dial. Donohue's coworkers Frances, Charlotte and Pearl are played by Lauren Schulke, Maggie Mae Sulentic, and Ashembaga Jaafarau, respectively. The four women have wonderful chemistry and nuanced portrayals. Pearl is the clown, lightening the mood with bad jokes. Charlotte is fiercely independent and strong spirited. Frances is gossipy but kindhearted. These four women work wonderfully as a team and tell the story together warmly. They are supported by Ryan Lee, in theater's most #ally #feminism portrayal yet of Catherine's husband Tom Donohue; and Brandon Holscher as the diabolical Mr. Reed, the women's corrupt supervisor at Radium Dial.

It was impossible to watch These Shining Lives without thinking of Hidden Figures. This lovely script (written by Melanie Marnich) has so much heart, and I think audiences of any stripe can enjoy it. The cast of Uprising Theatre does a beautiful job of telling this narrative. They bring so much energy and vivacity and passion to the subject matter, and I hope they are able to bring this back despite the show's limited run. This is a young cast, and they'll be around for a while. You may not be able to catch a show soon, but Uprising: please continue with your mission, and please stage this show again. These Shining Lives is a story we all deserve to hear more of, and it's great to hear it from your perspective. For more information, click here.

Monday, October 9, 2017

How to Use a Knife is Searingly Honest about Life as a Chef

The life of a chef seems to be on everybody's media radar these days. 

Photo courtesy of Mixed Blood Theatre

Whether it's thanks to Anthony Bourdain's eternally successful Kitchen Confidential, the explosion of interest in the Food Network, or simply the romance of quitting the office hamster wheel and using our hands all day, the life of a chef has become one of the most romanticized professions in America's daydreams.

What's the problem with all of this?

As a partner of a chef, I can tell you firsthand what no one (except Kitchen Confidential, oddly enough as everyone wants to forget the real parts of the book...) wants to tell you: this is one of the hardest jobs out there. It's not sexy. Most chefs will tell anyone interested that they're insane for wanting to get into this field.


Let me count the ways: the hours are brutal, particularly in terms of lack of rest and no holidays off. There are almost never benefits for work in restaurant kitchens, and cooking staff is notoriously underpaid. Tips almost never make their way to the people making the food, despite the fact that they do the lion's share of keeping up a restaurant. There is no such thing as sick days, making working in a hot, damp, smelly environment even worse when you're ill. It's an incredibly dangerous job, particularly for people without healthcare, and there's a good chance you'll have serious burns and cuts within the first few months. Mental health is a huge problem among people working in kitchens, as is rampant substance abuse.

So why does anyone do this kind of work?

How to Use a Knife, now showing at Mixed Blood Theatre, acknowledges all of these difficulties in stark reality, but shows some of the brighter sides of this world as well. The kitchen is a place where anyone can start over and find employment, regardless of how far they have fallen in their personal life. It's a place of brutal honesty, where no word is too profane and tension must be confronted head on. It creates a tough skin, helping people develop resilience that can carry them through other parts of their lives. At any given time you can hear multiple different languages and dialects all competing with each other. It's one of the few areas in which everyone is on an equal playing field despite their race, gender or economic status.  All that matters in a kitchen is if you have the skills; anything else is just window dressing.

How to Use a Knife follows chef George, formerly a Michelin starred chef who is starting over after losing his career (and daughter) through his addiction and has recently become stone cold sober. George is hired by Michael, one of his least talented former line cooks, to run a casual burger and sandwich restaurant staffed by Miguel and Carlos. Washing dishes is Steve, a mysterious African immigrant who never engages with his fellow staff. George insists on elevating the level of cooking in the kitchen despite the lowbrow reputation, infusing the staff with the discipline of a traditionally trained chef. After hours, George befriends Steve, where they trade lessons in cooking and meditation and create an unlikely partnership. As the details of Steve's dark past unravel, George unravels himself. This is a show with no easy answers - I'll leave the denouement out for audiences to learn for themselves - but suffice it to say, it's an impressively subtle approach to many searingly difficult issues. Civil war, mental health, substance abuse, the death of a child, the desire for revenge, the evil path revenge can take you on; all of these problems are divulged here with despairing honesty, and this play will really have you thinking by the time it's finished.

The cast wields the script with gravitas. Ansa Akyea brings his trademark subtlety to his role as Steve, managing to make this a complex, intricate role that demands the audience pay attention. It's a bravado performance, and few actors could convey such complexity into this part. This was my first time seeing Zack Myers on stage (as George), and I hope it's not the last. Myers brings a bombastic passion to his part that is the yin to Akyea's serene yang, and their performances together are like watching fire and ice. Raúl  Ramos and Jake Caceres are this show's beating heart as Carlos and Miguel, respectively. Each has moments of true, winsome comedy, and I was glad they were there throughout the show. Michael Booth is dishearteningly convincing as the inept, egotistical owner Michael. It's my understanding that Booth's portrayal of irresponsible restaurant owners is distressingly accurate, and his antics are sure to be enlightening to audience members unfamiliar with what really happens behind a kitchen's swinging double doors.

The set, designed by Joseph Stanley, has a strong resemblance to real working kitchens. The space is used beautifully throughout the tight 100 minute performance, with all scene transitions depicting the restaurant at a different time of day and state of use. The effect is to provide a true window into the lifecycle of a restaurant, and it's a fun foray for voyeurs of the industry. Karin Olson's lighting adds to this cyclical effect, and Janet O'Neill's costumes are appropriately uniform for this environment.

I was really looking forward to taking my chef to How to Use a Knife, and I wasn't disappointed. Mixed Blood always offers thought provoking, diverse, difficult work, and How to Use a Knife is no different. For those in the cooking world, this will be a familiar journey with an added political perspective. For those of us outside of that profession, How to Use a Knife is an honest, illuminating portrait of how difficult work in a kitchen is and how deeply politics seeps through every aspect of our lives, even those hidden behind double doors. How to Use a Knife only runs for one more week and closes October 15. For more information and to get tickets, click on this link.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Why the Lynx Deserve More + How You Can Help

You don't have to read this blog for long to know that I am a huge patron of the arts.

Fine art, collage, fashion, theater, dance, music - you name it and I'm probably writing about it. I love finding new ways to expand my mind and creativity. 

Sports, however? That's a tougher sell.

It's not because I don't like sports. I do. I grew up watching baseball and football and I have participated on several different teams throughout the years. Sports build discipline and character in addition to being good for the body. I get it. I like it. It can be a nice change of pace.

What I don't get is how much money is invested into professional sports teams, especially in this state. I will never forget when the $1 billion stadium for the Vikings passed but we couldn't scrounge up a measly few million dollars (in comparison) to save the world-class MN Orchestra. There are arguments to be made (that have been made, and often) on both sides of that conversation, but the long and short of my thoughts? Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. 

Amid all the furious argumentation about new stadiums, "needed" spending for sports teams, and the entitlements they feel they deserve, one team has quietly set the standard for their sport and community involvement without a modicum of fuss: the Minnesota Lynx. 

I am not a born and bred basketball fan, but I've made a point of going to support Minnesota's only winning (and only female) professional sports team over the last few years, and I'm definitely impressed. These are true, dedicated athletes, with vision, discipline, passion and finesse. They keep their heads down, get the job done, and give back to the community with a rare passion. If there's any team that deserves to have a diva moment it's this one, and yet they don't do it.

I was lucky enough to attend the Game 5 WNBA finals (as well as a semifinal game) to watch the Lynx clinch their fourth title. It was a tour de force event, the best of what a sporting event can be, and much of it left me breathless with excitement. It was great fun, and I'm so proud of what these ladies accomplished, but I wish they had had more fanfare and respect while they did it. I couldn't stop thinking about this issue, and it got me pretty salty as I wondered:

Why was this championship team, a team literally made of olympains, relegated to playing their final games in a 90 year old stadium with limited concessions? 

Why did the team have to pay to upgrade that stadium for weather needs when it didn't even own it? 

Why are so many of their regular season games poorly attended? 

Why are these players paid so much less than their NBA counterparts, despite the fact that their winning record is exponentially better?

Why is their championship parade not on a prime time street over the weekend so everyone can attend, rather than shunted into a weeknight in a less populated part of the city? 

Why is there so little press and fanfare over this incredible legacy? 

It's impossible to watch the Lynx play and not have these questions running through your mind. The Twins bombed out (yet again) of their first round playoff series earlier in the same week and were met with breathless fan and press coverage that endlessly dissected every moment of the series. The Lynx went all the way to a Game 5 win against a serious, talented rival in a matchup that is very akin to the Golden State Warrior and Cleveland Cavallier matchup of their NBA counterparts, but comparatively the coverage amounted to a footnote against the Twins' mountains of press.  The Vikings got a $1 billion brand new stadium despite never even attending a Super Bowl, and the Lynx won their final and semifinal series in a second rate stadium that wasn't even as nice as their borrowed regular season venue. Why? Where else could the Wild (whose season hasn't started) practice? (Cue eye roll). Maya Moore, widely acknowledged as the Lynx's biggest star, was making a salary of $45,000 a year until a few short years ago. You won't find a male athlete sitting on a bench for any of the aforementioned teams making that little. She still makes far less in comparison to her Timberwolves equivalent, Jimmy Butler, despite the fact that she's played here for years, is a pillar of the community, and has proven her dedication to her team.

There is such a double standard when it comes to women athletes, and I'm tired of it. This issue has been beautifully discussed by legends like Serena Williams and the U.S. Women's Soccer team, and it has got to change. There are women out here working harder and with better results than the dudes on the other side of the bleachers, but it takes so much for them to get the credit they deserve. 

I'm not a fan of endless complaining. So what can we do? A LOT. Here's how we as fans can help fix this problem: 

  1. Buy tickets. Pack stadiums. Attend regular games, not just postseason. The audience is there; prove it.
  2. Bring a friend. Word of mouth is not enough. Games are inexpensive and fun. It's a great date night and being there is a better testament to the value of the Lynx than anything else you say. 
  3. Buy merchandise. Don't allow arguments about the lack of economic draw for female athletes to exist. It's bullshit, for starters, but we need overwhelming proof to support that. Do the digging, find the merch, demand better products and give the ladies a salary bump. 
  4. Share about it. Ad nauseam. Force people to pay attention. Show the media that we want more stories about female athletes. Like and share and repost everything you can find.
  5. Boycott the bad ones. How much time and money have we wasted on trashy athletes with bad reputations who don't win anyways? There's a riotous Boycott of the NFL that I am happily participating in this year (click here to read more). Join me, and reallocate the time and money you would have been spending there to support our female athletes. You'll be shocked how much you enjoy it. Maybe you'll never go back. 
Sexism invades all areas of life, and it can be a nefarious thing to fight. This is a clear, cut and dry area that we the public can make a difference in. Societal change often starts at the top; why not begin here? Demand equal pay. Demand fair treatment. Acknowledge the accomplishments. The Lynx deserve every bit of it; you won't be disappointed if you do. 

If you have other ideas of proactive ways to support the team, let me know! I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Wandering with Henry and Alice + New Brunch Digs and Frank Theatre

Can privileged people have problems?

Photo by Petronella

Or perhaps it should be phrased differently: do we, or should we, care about privileged people's problems when there are so many more pressing issues facing the world today?

It sounds like a ridiculous question - I mean at some point, all of us face difficulties, right? - but in our current political climate, it is not one that is often given deep attention.

It's something I couldn't help thinking about while watching Henry & Alice: Into the Wild, now showing at Park Square Theatre. The show tackles this question with a lighthearted sincerity that often lifts what could otherwise feel like ridiculous subject matter into a plane of being almost relatable, and has some moments of genuine poignancy that unearth real questions worth considering.

Photo by Petronella

Before we dive in, here's the premise: Henry & Alice first came to Park Square Theatre a few years ago in Sexy Laundry, when they discussed their marriage and love for each other at a romantic retreat. This time around Henry has lost his job, and it's weighing heavily on them both as they clumsily find their way to a more pared down lifestyle. Because of their financial constraints, Henry and Alice's romantic getaway is now a campground complete with noisy neighbors, an actively used tire swing, and Alice's wild sister Diana. All of them come to grips with their aging lives, feats and failures, and rediscover the spark of life throughout the show and several tense arguments in which passive aggressive missives are lobbed through the air like so much whipped cream in a food fight. It is a comedy, but some of the things said are really painful to watch. It's a good example of the cliche that you never know what happens behind closed doors (but really, you don't), and it's worth approaching everyone you meet with a listening ear.

Photo by Petronella

The results of the cast's efforts through the wandering script are generally positive. Some of this show can feel trite as it tries to be silly - such as Alice bringing a cashmere throw and elegant clothing to a dirty campsite. Some of it, however, really is relatable and even poignant: the loss of a job shortly before retirement age is a real thing that a lot of people have struggled with in and since the Great Recession; the yawning gap between the Millennial generation and that of their parents continues to careen into opposite sides of the universe; what happens to a stay at home mother once her children are grown and out of the house?

Photo by Petronella

The actors here keep the show very lighthearted, which helps gloss over some of the more uncomfortable parts of the narrative. John Middleton is the comedic standout as Henry. His wry delivery helps the audience share many laughs, and there are several moments when Middleton's angst over the loss of his job is really touching. Carolyn Pool is much softer as Alice, with several nice moments of elucidation over the amount of work she has invested in the family as a stay at home mother. Alice's struggle is one that isn't often given a clear spotlight, and it's clear that playwright Michele Riml's perspective has given extra dimension to this aspect of the story. As Alice's sister Diana, Melanie Wehrmacher is a great foil for the prim and proper couple and provides a necessary edgy ballast that anchors their conversations with some more realistic perspective.

Photo by Petronella

Henry & Alice left me with some conflicting feelings. It can be a little hard to feel truly sorrowful for these characters who are so steeped in privilege they have a hard time acknowledging their complicity in some of their problems. However, this doesn't mean that there aren't some important points raised in the script, particularly about the role of women in society as they age past their childbearing years. What do we do with women who don't quite fit our collective expectations? Or conversely, what is owed to our stay at home mothers? How do we acknowledge the mountains of unpaid work they do? It's an important question even if it is niche, and it has ripple affects that touch the role of women in other areas of society.

Photo by Petronella

If you're someone who doesn't have very politicized view of the world and is looking for something benign to seek your teeth into, Henry & Alice: Into the Wild is for you. If you're someone who is very invested into resistance movements right now, it may not be the best fit. For myself: Henry & Alice was a break from the usual heavier fare I see, and I enjoyed having a different change of pace. I understand what the show was trying to do, and while I think it glosses over some real issues with white privilege, I still had fun. It was really nice to see a show written and directed by women, as well as a mostly female production crew. Either way I got a few laughs on my Friday night, and it was good to leave the theater feeling lighthearted.

Henry & Alice: Into the Wild runs at Park Square Theatre through October 22. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.

And as an extra aside: I'm sure you often hear of dinner and a show, but for something different, how about hitting brunch and a matinee? The older I get, the more I appreciate being home early enough to get set for the next workday. What are my suggestions for both?

For a matinee, make sure to head to the Gremlin Theater to see Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. by the fiery women of Frank Theatre. This robust feminist play is on stage there through October 15, and the quick 70 minute pacing is a perfect opportunity to get yourself thinking deeply and home before dinner. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.

Biscuits and Gravy, I raise you a Southern Sunrise

And for brunch, consider hitting Dalton & Wade, a cozy new Southern food and whisky bar establishment tucked into the gorgeous new T3 development in the North Loop in Minneapolis. Featuring a wide range of food from crackling fried chicken and cornbread to savory handmade biscuits and gravy to a smoked brisket benedict, Dalton & Wade has something for every country lover's heart. Their brunch just kicked off and is excellent, especially when paired with savory cocktails like the Southern Sunrise and or one of the number of intriguingly herbal whiskey hi balls. I can see this spot becoming a go-to for downtowners throughout the winter, and it's worth going to check it out before the crowds discover it. For more information, click on this link.

How do you lose with a trout benedict? 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

IVEY AWARDS: 2017 Recap

Who were you rooting for? 

I got to sit by Jill Shafer of Cherry and Spoon

The 2017 Ivey Awards wrapped up on Monday night, and as usual they involved a lot of laughs, drinks, and love for the theater. What are the top things I enjoyed about this year's show? Let me count the ways:

1. Michelle Hensley, Michelle Hensley, Michelle Hensley: Could there be a more deserving winner for the Lifetime Achievement Award? Absolutely not. Many of us were bummed out when Hensley announced her retirement from the legendary Ten Thousand Things theater company that she founded earlier this year. She will be irreplaceable and highly missed, but in the meantime it was wonderful to see the life changing work she has instituted honored by a room of her peers. Hensley is literally the definition of leading by example and putting your money where your mouth is. If you don't know much about Ten Thousand Things, check out more by clicking on this link - and then promptly run to buy tickets for their new season. I'm not kidding around: this company will revolutionize the way you think about theater and change your life. We owe Michelle a whole, whole lot, and I sure hope she has something else up her sleeve. Her acceptance speech is the most moving I've heard to date; you can find a good selection on my Instagram account here or One Girl Two Cities, here.

2. Meghan Kreidler for Best Emerging Artist: This is the only annual award outside of the one for Lifetime Achievement. A past list of winners includes luminaries like Tyler Michaels King, Trevor Bowen, Mikell Sapp, Ricardo Vázquez, and Isabel Nelson. This year the honor was bestowed on Meghan Kreidler, who has quickly become one of my absolute favorite local actresses. She starred in my first MUST SEE performance this year in Vietgone (more here) and is currently starring in the truly excellent performance of Man of La Mancha from Theater Latte Da (more here). Kreidler is a powerhouse to watch, and she's got a spectacular future ahead of her. 

3. Vietgone was the First Award Winner: As mentioned above, Vietgone was one of my absolute favorite shows of this year (and ever, honestly). I was so thrilled to see this excellent work recognized right away, as well as reprise a performance from the show during the Ivey's ceremony. I'd love to see this again; wondering why I loved it so much? Revisit my review here and learn more.

4. The Production was Tight as a Drum: Despite starting the show very late this year, everyone was in and out in well under two hours. Theaters, take note: if we can get through celebrating an entire year's worth of performances, an in memoriam, and 8 variety show performance numbers this quickly, your shows don't have to run as long as they typically do. I promise. It can be done.

5. Thomasina Petrus: I have loved Regina Marie Williams' work over the last couple of years as a host, but switching things up can be a good thing too. It was great to see Thomasina Petrus co-hosting the show this year, and her lovely, lyrical voice added a lot to the musical performances. Thomasina has long been an artist I admire locally, so I really enjoyed seeing her get in front of a big event.

6. Much Love for Volunteer Work: The Ivey Awards celebrate the best of the best in Twin Cities theater scene. Evaluations are completed by more than 150 volunteers, who comb theaters all over the Twin Cities for the best of the best. This might not sound like much, but it's a daunting task; last year, the evaluators saw more than 1,100 shows between September 2016 and August 2017 (aka three shows PER DAY in order to cover it all). It's a pretty incredible feat, and major kudos go to the awesome people putting time in to keep the awards running and to see all those shows!

7. Kasano Mwanza in "Beauty School Dropout:" I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Grease earlier this year at the Chanhassen Dinner Theaters. Know what really knocks that show out of the park? Kasano Mwanza, who singlehandedly brings down the house with his ripping rendition of "Beauty School Dropout." Talk about someone who knows how to steal the show (it's literally his only appearance, and it's the first thing you remember months after leaving). Mwanza opened the Iveys this year, and his tour de force performance had the audience engaged from the first note. He's a star, full stop.

For a full list of winners, see as follows: 

  • Ensemble, Vietgone, Mixed Blood Theatre - Sun Mee Chomet, David Huynh, Meghan Kreidler, Flordelino Lagundino and Sherwin Resurreccion
  • Production Design & Execution, Six Degrees of Separation, Theater Latté Da, 
Abbee Warmboe, Barry Browning, Sean Healey, Kate Sutton- Johnson, Bethany Reinfeld and Alice Fredrickson
  • Concept & Execution, Safe at Home, Mixed Blood Theatre
  • Actor, Nilaja Sun, Pike St., Pillsbury House + Theatre
  • Director, Noël Raymond, The Children, Pillsbury House + Theatre
  • Emotional Impact, Wit, Artistry
  • Actor, Steven Epp, Fiddler on the Roof, Ten Thousand Things
  • Actors, Sun Mee Chomet & Sherwin Resurreccion, The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up, Theater Mu
  • Overall Excellence, Ragtime, Theater Latté Da
  • Emerging Artist, Meghan Kreidler
  • Lifetime Achievement, Michelle Hensley

What did you think of this year's winners? Who missed out? I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Abominables Raises Some Questions

The ambitious new musical from the Children's Theatre Company leaves a lot of food for thought. 

Photo by Dan Norman

I'm always excited to see new work. I truly believe that the future of robust ticket sales for theaters of all stripes lies in commissioning new art that reflects the world around us and challenges us within our modern contexts.

So I was very intrigued to see The Abominables, a brand new hockey-centric musical set right in Minnesota. Commissioned by the Children's Theatre Company, The Abominables had a premise just different enough that I had no idea what it would look like.

Photo by Dan Norman

Here's the basics: Mitch Munson (played with verve by Henry Constable) has worked all summer to make the A Hockey Team at his school. Just as tryouts are about to start, the team learns that a new kid has transferred in and he's really good. Why? Because he is in fact a Yeti named Harry (played with heart by Ryan Colbert), adopted by Judy (a vibrant Elie Benson) and Hank (a cocky Bradley Greenwald), mountain climbers who found him in the Himalayas. Harry's quirks offput the school at first, but this is quickly laid to rest when they see how good he is. With visions of grandeur and winning against the Canadian Thunder Bay players for the first time ever, the team moves on with Harry on board and with Mitch on the B Team.

Photo by Dan Norman

This is fine with everyone (except Mitch, of course). Mitch proceeds to spend the show conniving for ways to resume his place on the A Team and rid the school of Harry. Along the way he alienates his younger sisters Tracy and Lily (played with aplomb, wit and charm by Natalie Tran and Valerie Wick, respectively); humiliate his parents Ellen and Charlie (drawn with wicked passive aggression by Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund); meddle with Harry's adoption by inviting his birth parents to Thunder Bay; and destroy his team's chances of winning after simultaneously sabotaging the B Team and impersonating Harry on the A Team once he finally runs him off. In short, it's a big hot mess, one which is a bit too neatly resolved at the end for the major issues the show raises.

Photo by Dan Norman

As I can see it, at face value The Abominables has three major themes: teamwork (or lack thereof); bullying and feeling like an outsider; and the role parents play in setting a good example for their kids. When addressed separately, they are a mixed package of success. The show does a great job of showing how rotten these parents are on every level; they connive, they sneer, they gossip, they cajole, they fight, and are all around horrible role models for their kids; no wonder their children have gotten the wrong message! This clarion call (should have,  hopefully) hit each of the parents in the audience; there's a lot to learn from here, particularly for the sports obsessed. The importance and lack of teamwork throughout the show is also pretty clear. Mitch doesn't lose friends and become an outcast because he isn't on the A Team; he walls himself off in a bitter prison of his own making and becomes a mean, spiteful person. Who wants to spend time with that? How can a team win when one of the players won't pass? This theme could have been made a little more explicit, but overall I think it comes through.

Photo by Dan Norman

The Abominables really loses its way when coming to the third theme, that of the "other" or outsider. There are so many questions I have after seeing this portion of the show: are we more concerned about the fact that Harry is from a foreign place? That he's not human? That he's adopted? There's a lot going on, and the way it plays out through the plot is clumsy at best. I don't think that the show is trying to make any very negative metaphors about foreign humans being animals or adoption happening because birth parents are lazy or neglectful (at least I certainly hope they aren't; I've never seen such a message from the Children's Theatre Company and I have faith that any such subtext is very unintentional here). But because this story is told from Mitch's perspective (not Harry's), we never get the chance to really understand how Harry feels, which to me is really the person who should be explaining his feelings and addressing the audience. By making Mitch an antihero we lose the chance to straightforwardly address some very heavy (and very relevant) issues such as racism, bullying and adoption, and that's a shame. I don't think the kids who will see The Abominables are going to read all this subtext into the show, but it is something that would concern me as a parent. How would I help unpack some of the issues raised here in a way that a child could understand? What if my child was adopted and saw this show and asked me questions? I really wouldn't know how to tackle that.

Photo by Dan Norman

There are things that I really liked. The cast is tremendously talented across the board and they really work hard to sell the show. Their musical prowess, especially in the case of the child actors, is very impressive. The set, designed by Andrew Boyce, is reminiscent equally of a large timber lodge and a hockey arena, and it's a really unique design that I found highly compelling. The most interesting part of the show is easily the enormous amount of choreography performed on roller blades, a complex maneuver that was beautifully led and executed by Fight and Hockey Choreographer Ryan Bourque and Dance Captain Stephanie Bertumen. It really works on stage, and I'd love to see some of these techniques in future performances on other stages for other shows.

Photo by Dan Norman

But I'd be lying if I said I left the theater feeling anything but uneasy. There's a lot going on in The Abominables, and its ambitious scope has so much potential. I hope since this was an original commission that there might be opportunity to straighten out some of the kinks. I may be making a mountain out of a molehill; maybe I'm reading too much into the show and it can be taken at face value as a story of teamwork, and left at that. But with kids I believe you have to be careful and direct, and the confusing questions left by the treatment of Harry, particularly with his adoptive parents, has really kept me pondering. I'd love to hear what your thoughts are.

Photo by Dan Norman

If you want to see what you think of The Abominables for yourself (and I always encourage this; the crowd seemed very engaged at the show and if they liked it, you might too), you have ample opportunity before it closes on October 15. More information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.