Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Top 10 Reasons to See Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie

Or: The Most Millenial Review of the Most OG Millennial Play, Ever.

Photo by Jenny Graham

Who knew Romeo and Juliet could be funny?

I really mean it; WHO KNEW?

Certainly not me. I'll be the first to say that performances of Shakespeare tend to bore me to tears with productions that are far too reverent, slow, and dry; that are filled with emphatic, unnecessary pauses; and tend to feature audiences so quiet (and constrained) that you could could hear a pin drop. They're not fun. Shakespeare in general (at least for the majority of productions I've seen in my lifetime - Ten Thousand Things excluded) tends not to be fun, and it can really turn me off.

Knowing this, you can imagine my jubilation at attending Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie last night, a spectacular production that billows fresh, vivacious life into this overdone play and opened my eyes to new facets of the show that I'd not seen before, despite how many times I've seen it.

I'm not going to recap the plot of Romeo and Juliet here; I think by now we have all seen the show (or some iteration of it) aplenty. I do want to focus this piece on all the ways this production stands out from others I've seen with a list of my top 10 favorite elements. One request of the Guthrie before I start: can you please, please add some Tweet seats for this (and future) shows? I was DYING for a live tweet of this modern adaptation and I really think it could enhance the engagement, especially for younger audiences. Please consider it! 

And without further adieu, here are the top 10 reasons to see Romeo and Juliet:

Photo by Jenny Graham

1. The Nurse. Typically I'm a little over the servant and supporting roles in plays like this; their speeches feel unnecessary, overlong, and boring. Thankfully, none of these adjectives describe Candace Barrett Birk, the ingenious woman playing the Nurse here. Birk is the ultimate town gossip, deliciously sharing salacious tidbits of her mind and leaving us hanging on her every word. It's the OG Real Housewives word-of-mouth style, and it feels delightfully naughty to eat up every tidbit Birk drops. She's absolutely marvelous, and you'll adore her portrayal.

Photo by Jenny Graham

2. Straight Up Street Swagger. It should be pretty well established by now that the men of the Capulet and Montague gangs are all big mouth, dick swinging showoffs whose incessant meddling in things that are not their business is the whole reason this mess of a plot is pushed into action in the first place. Their incessant bawdiness is perfectly played up here with a punk rock wardrobe and robust performances from Lamar Jefferson and Kelsey Didion, who play Benvolio and Mercutio, respectively. Jefferson is utterly charming as Benvolio, and it's easy to see how he can talk Romeo (or pretty much anyone) into anything. He explodes into the shining heart of every ensemble performance, and it's thoroughly engaging. Didion is surprising as Mercutio, bringing a sinful delight to each of her lewd lines. Her casting is an inspired choice, and Mercutio's braggadocio bears a whole new meaning when played by the ballsiest woman in the game. Stan Demidoff is excellent as the quietly evil Tybalt, clearly relishing playing the man we all love to hate. This is the definition of a Mötley Crüe (in every sense of that phrase - band included), and it really works. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

3. The Wardrobe. I often relish the Guthrie's costuming, and this is no different. The gang's aesthetic is somewhere between The GodfatherThe Matrix, Green Day and the Hobbit, which sounds bizarre but really works against the set's pale wash.The entire cast is swathed in shades of black, white and grey, literally leaving the play's heavy handed morality in your face at all times. Small touches, such as a shirt cut just low enough to reveal a giant chest tattoo, or an exquisitely bedazzled capelet for a ball scene, push these looks over the top. Each costume is exquisitely tailored and imbues a Milanese precision to the characters, and I can safely say that I wish I owned every piece of this wardrobe (even the men's duds, which are just as finely crafted as the women's.) 

4. Diverse Casting. This Romeo and Juliet is chock full of interracial couples, women in men's roles, men displaying stereotypically effeminate qualities, and so much more. I dig it. 

5. Juliet climbs her own damn balcony. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

6. Appropriate Emotional Maturity Levels. In all the brouhaha that typically surrounds Romeo and Juliet, it can be *really* easy to forget that the protagonists are only 15 years old. FIFTEEN. YEARS. OLD. They are immature, naive, impulsive, and completely unprepared for the gigantic life choices they are making. This production never loses sight of this, fully emphasizing the immaturity of Romeo and Juliet while also showing the overwhelming irresponsibility of their elders and the direct role their dysfunction has in the doomed couple's destruction. It clearly cuts the action, and there is no way you will leave this production confused about who did what and why it was wrong. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

7. Ryan-James Hatanaka as Romeo and Kate Eastman as Juliet. These two are perfectly paired and thoroughly embody what Romeo and Juliet is all about. Their charming repartee is equal parts winsome, delightful, heartbreaking, idealistic, naive and bombastic. They are totally adorable and trust: by the end of this, you will be 'shipping them, so hard. Also, they're gorgeous. Never hurts to have a little eye candy, and these two fulfill all your sappy romantic dreams in droves. 

8. Papa Pope in the House. I mean not really, but Scandal fans (shout out to the Shondaverse!) will be *living* for the no bullshit, Joe Morton-as-Papa-Pope truth bombs that James A. Williams expertly drops throughout the play in his role as Friar Lawrence. Is Friar Lawrence an enabler who is directly responsible for the mess in the Capulet tomb at the end of the play? Sure. But you can't say he didn't warn everyone multiple times in multiple ways, and his wisdom stands up today, over 400 years after the show was first performed. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

9. The Set. I know, I know. I wax poetic about almost every Guthrie set I see. I mean, they have one of the biggest budgets in town, so there's definitely an unfair advantage they have when it comes to raw resources. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I am always dying to see what their set team is up to, and this play has an absolutely gorgeous full size castle on a turnstyle that revolves into multiple rooms and views of Verona and Mantua, depending on how it is positioned. The effect is really stunning against the sky wash in the background, and when coupled with thoughtful details like a working fountain in the town square, sturdy vines for climbing Juliet's balcony, and a richly filled closet in Juliet's bedroom, it really knocks your socks off. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

10. It's Relevant. The idea that Shakespeare is timeless is literally the most tired of theater cliches, but it can be easy to forget in dry performances that suck the life out of the scripts, which are hundreds of years old and can always use a little judicious trimming. The Guthrie was clearly unafraid to make some edits here, juxtaposing scenes on top of each other and playing up the modern themes with contemporary deliveries that make many stanzas sound almost like beat boxing. Coupled with very trendy 1990s film references (chiefly Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet and The Matrix), and the ubiquitous plot (which, after all, is really just about gang violence and opposites attract, just about the most universal thing ever), this rendition of Romeo and Juliet could easily stand next to Hamilton in contemporary audiences' esteem if it gets that chance.

Photo by Jenny Graham

If you have some extra time, get thee to the Guthrie and see a stunning rework of an old, comfy fan favorite before it closes on October 28. The cast is clearly having so much fun, and they'll sweep you into their auras posthaste. If you're really clever about it you can see this excellent rendition for only $10 per ticket; click on this link to learn how to do so. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Want $10 Tickets to Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie? Yeah, Me Too.


Photo by Mark vanCleave

Just popping in on a *very* busy theater month with this amazing deal for tickets to Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie! There will be a special 1 p.m. matinee on Sunday, October 8 where all tickets are $10. This is definitely a deal to take advantage of; mainstage tickets normally run from $20 to $54 per pop for this show.

This event is part of the Guthrie's 19th Annual Shakespeare Classic, whcih was established in 1999 to help encourage more young people to attend these shows. There will also be a meet and greet with the cast in the lobby after the performance; this is a definite win-win-win!

For more information about the show itself (if you really don't know.... is that even possible?), check out the press release:

It’s a story so well-known it scarcely needs an introduction, yet surprisingly the Guthrie has produced it just twice before. Set in Verona where the rival houses of Capulet and Montague have had a long-standing feud, Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s famous tragedy of star-crossed lovers, filled with all the passion of young love. Underscored by ingenious wit and astonishing beauty, the play pits the bitterness of resentment against the intensity of romance.

Tickets to the popular annual event are just $10, and every order must have at least one but no more than two adults for every young person. Tickets for the Shakespeare Classic are available through the Guthrie Box Office at 612.377.2224 or toll-free at 877.44.STAGE. This performance is not available for purchase online. 

Theater Latte Da's Man of La Mancha is Not to be Missed

Sometimes in life, all something needs is a fresh political climate to feel brand new again. 

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

This was my main thought while watching Man of La Mancha, the premiere musical of Theater Latte Da's 20th anniversary season. I'm sure we've all heard at least a portion of the story of Don Quixote and you'd be hard pressed to find a musical lover who has yet to hear a raucous rendition of "The Impossible Dream," and I'll confess: I wasn't sure we really needed another staging of Man of La Mancha.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da
Post-performance, I will happily admit that I was very, very wrong. Clipping in at an intermission-less 110 minutes of non-stop action (be still my expediency-loving-heart!), Man of La Mancha Latte Da-style is engrossing, emotional, and even (dare I say it?): a little avant garde.

For an overview of the story as quick as Latte Da's staging, lest any reader missed their Wishbone: Man of La Mancha is the musical re-imagining of the story of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes' eternal novel that launched a thousand literary copycats. Don Quixote is the self-appointed name of Alonso Quixano, a lesser nobleman who spends his retirement immersed in literature about the long-gone traditions of knighthood and chivalry. Somewhere along the way Quixano become convinced he actually IS Don Quixote, and sets forth to return Spain to the days of chivalry and manners and jousting and vigils. Alongside Don Quixote is his faithful companion Sancho, who is firmly rooted in the real world and able to help his friend safely navigate the visions he summons at every turn. They meet giants disguised as windmills; a castle disguised as a lowly inn; and a beautiful lady Dulcinea disguised as a lowly prostitute named Aldonza.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

Don Quixote's illusions are relatively harmless to anyone but himself and are even found charming by several he encounters, until it becomes clear that the line between reality and fiction is becoming too unbearable for those around him to maintain. This mainly affects Aldonza, who struggles to marry her painful life of suffering with Don Quixote's endless adulations. Things come to a head when Don Quixote is finally tricked out of his madness by his nephew and enters the end of his life a much "saner," but unhappier, man. Woven throughout the action for this production is a trial of Cervantes himself, who performs the story of Don Quixote as his defense. Although it sounds a little weird, the intermittent trial really helps to keep the narrative moving and allows us to hear some of Cervantes' thoughts on his master work that bring even more relevance to the story of Don Quixote today.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

The excellence of this performance is a testament to the wonderful cast, who are punchy and precise in their delivery and keep the action humming along. Anchoring the cast is the tremendous Martín Solá. Solá has a ravishing voice and emphatic delivery that instantly make him sympathetic, and it's impossible to resist being captivated by his noble, charming rendition of Don Quixote (and as an aside, can I just say: how refreshing to have someone who actually has a Spanish heritage play this role?!). Meghan Kreidler is perfectly paired with Solá as the fiery Aldonza, bringing her trademark strength and vitality to Man of La Mancha's most difficult scenes to watch. Her devastating performance provides a strong antidote to Quixote's charms, and it is through her pain (and later adoration) that we can see the strongest heights and pitfalls of Don Quixote's impact.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

The rest of the ensemble sylphs nimbly between multiple roles and constructs a rock-solid melodic foundation for the rest of the show. This is a cast so musical that you can hear their singing as they speak, from Rodolfo Nieto's thundering basso to McKinnley Aitchison's trilling (and thrilling) soprano. Jon-Michael Reese provides some much-needed comedic relief as the Padre, hilariously mediating a scene at the confessional and showing empathy for Don Quixote's plight when others are only ready to laugh. Andre Shoals bring mesmerizing presence as the Governor who puts Cervantes on trial, and Sara Ochs lends operatic gravitas to her role as the Housekeeper. The ensemble's impressive musical prowess is on full display by the end of the show, in which a rousing reprise of "The Impossible Dream" leaves the audience with full hearts and damp cheeks.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

The costumes are ingeniously designed by Rich Hamson and feature delightfully macabre masks for each scene set in the fictional La Mancha. I was fixated on the masks, which are somewhere between a Hamlet skull and Dia de los Muertos attire and are utterly transformative. The swift costume changes are simple but completely metamorphic, and Hamson's work is a testament to the value of truly thoughtful design. Hamson's work is greatly assisted by the fabulous lighting from Marcus Dilliard, which transports the story to new dimensions. Deceptively complex operations such as placing the characters into top-lit chessboard squares or washing the entire frame in a violent crimson hue instantaneously alters the tone and provides the transition feeling usually assigned to scene changes, which aren't really present here. Mason and Dilliard's work in concert is all the cast needs to elevate Man of La Mancha to a whole new level, and they succeed swimmingly.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

It's amazing how context changes the tone of everything, and this Man of La Mancha is no different. It's become a tired, overused cliche to talk about the difference in the world since our recent presidential transition. I don't mean to harp on it, but Don Quixote's apparent madness really seems so much more complex in light of current events. What could seem more pressing than the story of a man who is so delusional that he lives in a totally alternate universe, to the consternation of all who encounter him? Or conversely, and perhaps more relevant: how mad is it, really, to turn away from the cruelty and suffering of the real world and instead work with all of your heart and might to create a better, more beautiful one, even if it should cost you your sanity in the end? After all, as Cervantes writes:

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!” 

This Man of La Mancha is not to be missed; the music is lovely, the staging is tight as a drum, and you'll see a whole new side to a classic work of literature and theater. Man of La Mancha runs at the Ritz Theater through October 22; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Monday, September 18, 2017

~ [almo$t equal to] almost makes it

For my first ever visit to Pillsbury House Theatre, I was lucky enough to see ~ [almo$t equal to], a newly translated Swedish play. 

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

Making it's premiere on this side of the Atlantic (with the help of the always-excellent American Swedish Institute), ~ [almo$t equal to] uses the interwoven stories of three people's lives to make a point about capitalism, assumptions and kindness. The play opens with a short lesson on sociological equations that evaluate happiness. Can you quantify happiness by boiling it down into a simple equation? What makes a thing or experience truly worth your investment of time and money? How can you evaluate?

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

From there, the audience explores these questions through the life of Peter, a homeless man; Andrej, a volatile poor young man looking for a job (and failing); Martina, a privileged woman who chooses to live a humbler life than her family raised her with; and sundry characters who surround and encounter each of these people and help provide color to their stories. These can include a job coach, reverend, liqueur store employees, a long term life partner, or even the id of a character herself. 

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

These seemingly simple elements combine to create a surprisingly rich script. Andrej at first appears a sympathetic character but we become horrified as we learn how far he's willing to go to avenge his perceived lack of privilege and opportunity. Martina seems noble but becomes much more complex as we learn how resentful she is of her chosen life of poverty. Perhaps the most complexing moral quandary arises in our views of Peter, through whom we see every shade of perception from a lazy opportunist posing as a homeless person to a victim of violence to a mourning brother to a person of character. It is through our reaction to the way our perception of Peter changes (and the surrounding characters' reactions to his presence in various scenarios) that the audience is forced to really reconcile with their notions of fairness, support, and charity. It's a humbling exercise, and I'd venture a guess that many in the audience were surprised and uncomfortable with their reactions to the many sides we see of Peter's experience. 

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

There are a few frustrating elements to ~ [almo$t equal to]. The first two acts clip along at rapid pace and really pull the audience into this morality play. The third act gets a little lost as it tries to tie up each loose end, with some of the tension dissolving into a subplot that muddies the characters' relationships. I wish the ending was a little tighter, explicitly confronting and continuing the focus on Peter and Martina and the way their disparate realities were in conflict. An odd pause between the second and third acts also provides a jarring gap in the action and really interrupts the momentum of the show, which flows beautifully until that point. There were some excellent elements that stood out, too. The total ignorance of stereotypical gender roles - each actor played a variety of parts without a second thought - was really refreshing. The sleek stage design was simple but streamlined and was perfectly adequate for the performance. The appearance of a 19th century sociologist at the beginning of the show is charming and reminiscent of your favorite historical YouTube artists. And the actors speak as if breathing, with a conversational tone that really warms up the relationships on stage. 

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

Still, those are personal preferences, and the writing and staging has nothing to do with the terrific cast. Each person plays multiple characters in the show, and their skill at quickly transitioning between roles really shows. Sun Mee Chomet remains a perennial favorite in multiple appearances, always lending a comedic edge (and often a hefty dose of poignancy as well) into each of her parts. Randy Reyes is equally charming in multiple supporting roles, and he does a good job of serving as a narrator of sorts throughout the show. Jay Owen Eisenberg is punchy and volatile as Andrej, and brings a real edge to his acting. Tracey Maloney is deceptively convincing as a young teenage boy and sickeningly convincing as the kleptomaniac Martina. Paul de Cordova, however, was my surprise favorite in multiple roles but especially as Peter. de Cordova really had me examining my relationship to the homeless and needy in my own life, and he expertly manipulates the audience's stereotypes with a broad range of portrayals. I was really impressed with his work and I look forward to seeing him again in future productions. 

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

~ [almo$t equal to] is an excellent foray into the dangers of assumptions and the limits of capitalism when it comes to happiness. It's true that money is not the key to happiness; it's also true that there is nothing sexy or glamorous about poverty. What we are all seeking lies somewhere in a delicate balance between these two things, and it's an evaluative process that never really ends. By forcing the audience to truly confront their assumptions about what is good or bad; who is or is not deserving of help or sympathy; and revealing the deeper story behind the basic assumptions we all make daily about those we encounter,  ~ [almo$t equal to] makes room for a deeper, more thoughtful exploration of what it really means to be a human in society today. ~ [almo$t equal to] runs at Pillsbury House Theatre through October 22; more information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link

MUST SEE: In The Heights at the Ordway

What was Lin-Manuel Miranda up to prior to Hamilton

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

If you don't know the answer to that question, you could be forgiven. Hamilton has become such a ticket sales juggernaut that its reputation has eclipsed a host of other excellent new musicals of the last 10 - 15 years; which is a shame, because there are a lot of excellent pieces out there that deserve a little more love.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

In The Heights, Miranda's first musical (and a Best Original Score winner at the Tony Awards in 2008), is one such piece. Detailing the story of a vibrant, richly drawn neighborhood in the Washington Heights area of New York City, In The Heights is a clear precursor to Hamilton (and Miranda's success) and a testament to the value of uplifting new artists who are reinventing the definition of Broadway and what "belongs" on stage.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

In The Heights follows Usnavi, a bodega owner, as he observes the neighborhood he's grown up in all his life. Raised by his "Abuela" Claudia (an elderly Cuban woman who took him in after his parents died), Usnavi cares for his cousin Sonny and pines after the beautiful Vanessa, a woman who has dreamed all her life of leaving the Heights but is anchored by her dysfunctional mother. Vanessa works for Daniela, a vivaciously colorful salon owner who also hired Carla. Living next door is Nina, who has recently left Stanford after a difficult year of being unable to afford tuition. Nina lives with her parents Kevin and Camilla Rosario, who have built up a local limousine taxi business and are devastated to learn of their daughter's plans to stay at home. Nina falls in love with Benny, the dispatch worker in her parent's business, and together they plan for the future and change her parents' minds about the plans for Nina's life.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

Got all that? Good, because that is essentially the show. There are some major plot lines - such as Abuela Claudia winning a $96,000 lottery ticket that creates a small crisis in Usnavi and Sonny's future plans, and a city-wide blackout that wreaks havoc in the neighborhood left without power - but really, at it's heart In The Heights is a story about relationships. Every person in this show has a purpose and a meaning to another. There are not really true extras or a chorus - we come to know (and love) everyone in these Heights, right down to the frozen ice vendor walking down the street. It's a gorgeously drawn, complex, heartbreaking, inspiring melee, and I can't say enough about how captivating this world is.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

Part of that is due to the profoundly beautiful music, which features Miranda's trademark hip-hop style mixed with an encyclopedic melange of sounds from every Latin American influence imaginable. We hear salsa, bachata, tango, mambo, merengue, rumba, samba, perrero, and the sounds of giants such as Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, Selena, Thalia, Tito Puente, and so much more. The score explodes with life and the interwoven sounds of the islands, and it belies the surprisingly small pit orchestra. Hats off to this group (expertly led by conductor Eugenio A. Vargas), who really made this production shine through vivacious numbers like "96,000," "Paciencia y Fe," and "No Me Diga."

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

The mostly locally-grown cast is also excellent and a testament to the power of working with local arts organizations to help grow and sustain talent right here in the Twin Cities. Justin Gregory Lopez absolutely captures Miranda's spirit as Usnavi, with a lyrical delivery, heartwarming smile and so, so much heart. Debra Cardona is magical as Abuela Claudia, lending a gravitas and serving as the beating heart of the show; her exit in Act II had the audience in tears. Emily Madigan and Lauren Villegas are side-splittingly hilarious as salon ladies Carla and Daniela, respectively, and their fabulous performance of "Carnaval del Barrio" had everyone dancing in their seats. Pedro Bayon and Lara Trujillo are perfectly paired as Kevin and Camila Rosario. Fernando Collado is winning as Usnavi's young cousin Sonny and Val Nuccio struts her stuff as Vanessa. My personal favorites were Aline Mayagoitia as Nina and Stephen Scott Wormley as Benny; their chemistry was off the charts and their voices beautifully interwove in duets such as "Sunrise" and "When the Sun Goes Down." Mayagoitia also had the standout song of the show in her portion of "Alabanza," a gorgeous dirge that has lingered in my head for days.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

The set and costumes for this show are colorful and evocative, another perfect blend of the decidedly international flavor of Washington Heights. Dingy tenement buildings are adorned with colorful produce, vibrant flags and clear love and respect by those who reside in them. Clothing is colorful and in constant motion, with flowing skirts and interesting shapes exploding with every hue of the rainbow. There's not a lot of props to speak of - the production wisely focuses instead on the lavish choreography from Alexander Gil Cruz, which covers every dance style imaginable and is breathlessly executed.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

If you can't tell by now, In The Heights had me captivated from the first 30 seconds. I make it a policy not to research new-to-me shows before I see them, as I believe any story should be clear without needing an encyclopedic amount of research to understand it before I even sit down. The world of In The Heights is so clearly drawn, so relevant to our times, and so extraordinary in its ordinariness that I couldn't stop engaging, even long after the last curtain fell. When is the last time that you heard a song about student loans and affording college on stage? Or saw people dream over winning not a million or billion dollars, but $96,000, just enough to comfortably catch them up on their bills? When is the last time you saw new immigrants really celebrating their lives in America, but not without simultaneously explicitly discussing the difficulties they've faced since arriving - gentrification, police violence, poverty, and more?

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

Watching the Ordway's main stage blossom into a radiant bouquet of melanin was one of my favorite theater memories there to-date, and I hope that In The Heights marks a turning point in terms of doing more contemporary, diverse stories (utilizing locally nurtured talent). I would happily revisit this production again and again, and I can confidently state that you will get a definite bang for your ticket dollars. Please fill this theater to capacity every night - let's have more In The Heights in our futures! In The Heights runs at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through September 24; more information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Exploring the Enigma that was Einstein with Matchbox Theater

"The man behind the myth" may be a cliche phrase, but it's stuck around for a reason. 

Photo courtesy of Matchbox Theater

Such a phrase is perfectly applied to Einstein: A Stage Portrait, currently showing at Matchbox Theater. This one-man show places Einstein at the end of his life, reminiscing to the audience about the many phases he has experienced and truly humanizing a historical figure who has become so lionized that it can be difficult to remember that he was a man, too.

Thomas Schuch is the maestro leading us through this play, which he has been performing internationally for more than 16 years. Schuch's passion for this subject (he'd have to be to continue the same show for so long!) really shows throughout the show and the talk-back following the performance. He clearly loves Einstein, not just for the greatness of his reputation but also for the humanity and growth he showed throughout his life. Schuch can feel a little long-winded as he progresses - with some slight judicious trimming, this show could easily go without an intermission and feel a little lighter paced - but he presents a very relaxed, comfortable persona on stage, and it's a great entree into this great figure if you're not familiar already.

"The search for truth is always more important than its possession."

If you haven't read Walter Isaacson's exhaustive biography about Albert Einstein (and you really, really should - it's magnificently written), there will be a lot about Einstein's past here that will be new to you. For example: did you know that Einstein flunked out of grade school? That he historically received very poor marks in the maths and sciences? That his family (especially his father) considered him a failure? That he was divorced? That he regretted the creation of the atomic bomb? That he felt hunted by the level of fame he achieved near the end of his life?

These might seem trivial details; why should we care? But the thing is, Einstein was a rare man in his own day and would be the human equivalent of a unicorn if he existed today. Think of it: an eccentric, ethnic refugee whose fame and career resulted from total immersement in upending the established theories of science; who was a celebrity for the scientific principles and hard data he discovered, not his scandalous life story; who refused to shy away from involvement in politics and morality, even (or perhaps especially) as it applied to his work; who was so eccentric that, as beloved as he was, he never felt that he truly belonged to the society in which he lived.

"Man can create as well as destroy. Surely there are more men who value beauty than destruction."

There's a lot we can learn from a man like this; from a person who was determined to live life in all of its glorious complexities; who took a moral stand against overwhelming powers even if it would cost him his life and career; and who found the profoundest mysteries to have the most elegant answers. I like to think there's always an Einstein out there; the question is, will we listen to them? Will we receive them? Will we make room for their difference and uncomfortability? Many of the problems facing us today depend on us thinking hard about these questions and answers. Einstein: A Stage Portrait provides an accessible, perfect venue for conducting such reflections.

Einstein: A Stage Portrait runs at Matchbox Theater through October 1. It's a kid friendly show and tickets range from $10 - $25. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Dancing on the Edge with Theatre Novi Most

It's easy to romanticize the past. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Novi Most

Or at least that's what I was thinking while watching Dancing on the Edge, the latest show from Theatre Novi Most, last night. Centering on the tumultuous romance of legendary dancer Isadora Duncan and Russian poet Sergei Esenin, the story takes place in a Russia still reeling from the freshly bloody Communist revolution that left the royal and political systems in shambles and millions of people's lives in chaos.

There is something about this period that has always appealed to mystic lover's psyches, I think. Between the mystery of Anastasia Romanov's whereabouts and the grandiose (albeit unkept) promises of the revolutionaries, the Russian revolution is the story of a lifetime and continues to seize the imagination 100 years later. Amid all the nostalgia, it can be easy to forget how terrifying the Russian revolution really was and how devastating it was to Russian society, some effects of which are even seen to this day.

To its credit, Dancing on the Edge shows a darker side of this revolution through the hidden, somber side of Isadora and Sergei's romance. It's lust at first sight for both when they first meet, despite the fact that neither speaks the other's language. The longer they are together, however, the more it becomes apparent that Sergei and Isadora will be unable to overcome the burdens in front of them and they may never be truly happy. Isadora may perform for party leaders, but she cannot command their financial support. She may have taken in a school of young girls, but she cannot support them (or any of the other millions of starving Russians), as evidenced by a vivid passage describing people eating raw meat from a dead horse on the street. Sergei may scribe overwrought poems and dream of worldwide acclaim, but the arms of his infamous lover cannot save him from his demons. To watch Dancing on the Edge is to really see a country and a relationship in chaos, tumbling over one another and stumbling into the future, battered by the writhing tides of history.

Photo courtesy of Theatre Novi Most

Starring as the lovelorn Isadora is Lisa Channer, who channels her best rebellious Gibson girl. Channer embodies an empathetic soul, and it's easy to see how the real Isadora may have been so beloved if she behaved with such compassion. Sasha Andreev stomps through the script as Sergei, quickly bringing the audience into the tormented psyche of a disillusioned revolutionary. Andreev wields his body like a weapon, bringing the most physicality to this role that I've seen him show on stage yet. Sergey Ngorny and Katya Stepanov stand in as multiple supporting characters, gently ushering the audience through the story and slowly providing context to Isadora and Sergei's pasts as their relationship unfolds.

The set is simple in elements, generally composed of antique furniture strategically strewn about the stage and covered in bedsheets. The sheets are periodically removed and pieces rearranged to form multiple mobile vignettes, and the fluidity of their placement keeps the environment fresh and the scene changes short. The lighting is absolutely gorgeous, leaving the stage awash in a warm effervescent glow that is perfected with twinkling, dangling lights from the ceiling that give a period starlight or candlelight effect. The shimmering patina it creates bathes the performance in a sepiatic
glow that really feels like you're stepping back 100 years, and it was my favorite element of this performance.

Photo courtesy of Theatre Novi Most

I don't know how I got the perception that Dancing on the Edge was billed as more of a dance show than a play, but that's definitely not the case. There are some simple dances in the performance to be sure, but they're not the focal point (nor should they be). The real story here is Isabella's relationship with Sergei and their equally tumultuous relationship to Russia itself. I can't really describe how I felt about that. The actors clearly had a relationship with their characters and each other, and it felt like they were engaged in the story. But something always felt a little distant to me, as if the whole thing were happening at arms length and we were seeing the action through a pensieve. It held my attention but didn't pull me in viscerally. I was left wanting a little more, and although I'm not sure how to define that, I think Dancing on the Edge could continue to be developed into a tighter, more emotional piece. The bones are there; the screws just need to be tightened a little bit.

If you like fraught romance, learning about early 20th-century Russia, or just want to see some damn good stage lighting, Dancing on the Edge is for you. I enjoyed it despite the distance I felt, and the cast and crew clearly have put a lot of thought and work into the script. No matter what you're guaranteed to learn something about this period that you didn't know before, and you'll hear some Russian on stage to-boot. You only have a few days to check it out (the limited run closes on September 10!), so head quickly to the Southern Theater to see it this weekend. Tickets cost $24 at the door; more information can be found by clicking on this link.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Walk on the Dark Side: An Interview with Jonathan Weir/Jafar in Disney's Aladdin Tour

What is it like to play the villain? 

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

I think many people stereotypically assume that the best part to play in any script is the role of the hero. I mean, who doesn't want to be admired and spout pithy quotes and swashbuckle their way to a glorious ending? It's great, right?

Speaking from experience (and the success of shows like Wicked that flip the villain's script), I can say that this is not always the case. The role of the villain is often one of complexity, range, depth, challenge, and, dare I say it? Fun! After all, it takes a lot more work to make an audience respect, or especially to like, a character full of nefarious deeds and sinister subplots.

Jonathan Weir, who is starring as Jafar in the touring production of Aladdin (coming to Hennepin Theatre Trust next week!) is no stranger to loving to play the villain. Having served in the role of Scar in The Lion King on and off for 13 years, he has worked all over the country and survived more than 30 years in the business, which is no mean feat. I sat down with him to chat about his work on Aladdin, his illustrious career, and much more. Read on to learn more about the ins and outs of working on a Broadway touring show!

1. You have over 30 years in this business! That's a long time in any career, and Broadway can be notoriously grueling. What keeps you going? 

The majority of my 30 years in the business has been based in Chicago. I’ve been fortunate to have worked on Broadway three times in the past 2 years doing The Lion King and I’ve done a few national tours of The Lion King, Jersey Boys and now Aladdin.  The business of acting can be trying, challenging and grueling wherever you’re geographically based. I’d say what has kept me going is the Chicago theater community. I’ve grown enormously as an actor and I continue to be challenged and inspired by my fellow actors, directors and designers here in Chicago.

2. Having had such a long, legacy relationship with The Lion King, you clearly have an interest in Disney and these stories that are now considered children's classics. What drew you to Aladdin after such a long time in The Lion King world? Have you noticed any specific differences between each experience? 

I have had a unique relationship with Disney.  I did the second national tour of The Lion King which started in Chicago back in 2003. I was a Scar/Pumbaa standby and left after a year.  However, every few years Disney would call me to come standby on the tours and eventually on Broadway. I never dreamed that I’d do The Lion King on and off for 13 years. As an actor I have an interest in working in all kinds of plays. There was a lot that drew me to auditioning for Aladdin but foremost was that Disney does it right. They spare no expense in bringing a story to stage and they take exceptional care of the cast and crew. That was my experience on The Lion King and it has held true for Aladdin as well.

3. You've played Scar and now Jafar, and I read that you would love to play Ursula as well - do you have a special penchant for playing villains? What appeals to you about embracing the "dark side”?

The ideal of playing Ursula was said partly in jest. She’s one of the iconic Disney villains and she has a special flair. However, given the state of female roles in theater, playing that role is best left to any of the phenomenally capable actresses out there. I seem to have found a niche in playing the Disney villains. I think it’s always fun to play the antagonist, to play a character that has a strong point of view. For the record I have played some nice guys in my career too.

4. Playing such iconic characters must be a little difficult sometimes, as people have preconceived ideas of them from the movies. How much of yourself are you able to bring to these roles? Do you find the familiarity of the story challenging? 

During rehearsals we were encouraged to bring ourselves to our roles. To not just imitate or recreate what was done in the animated feature or on Broadway. As an actor it’s vital to bring yourself to any role and to own it. Jonathan Freeman, who was the voice of Jafar in the animated feature and who plays the role on Broadway, created a rich road map and many iconic moments. However, we are not only different actors but have had different life experiences, and those experiences inform our individual takes on the role.

5. What is the most special part about Aladdin to you - sets, costumes, cast and crew, etc.? 

It’s the people. I love being in a theater. Not just on stage but in the building itself. I love interacting with all the different departments, stage crew, props, wardrobe, makeup, orchestra etc. Being in a building that holds that much talent means endless creativity.  I’m fortunate to have made a living doing what I love.

6. What is it like to be a touring actor for a Broadway show? The schedule and travel must be intense. How does it differ (aside from the obvious) from other productions that don't tour? 

First off, maintaining and keeping a long-running show fresh is a challenge but rewarding. I always say getting the job is one thing, but maintaining and giving an audience a fresh show nightly is craft. Touring is a different beast. I was fortunate to be in Chicago rehearsing and running Aladdin for 22 weeks at home. The perks of touring are that you get to explore a variety of cities and come in contact with a wide array of people in the business. I love to travel. The downside is that you’re away from family and friends.

7. How long did it take between casting to get to performances for this show? What is the rehearsal process like? 

My initial audition and callback was in NYC in September 2016. I was cast later that month. We started rehearsals in Chicago on February 27, 2017, so I had about 5 months between casting and starting rehearsals. In those 5 months I had several costume fittings in NYC. We rehearsed for about 5 weeks, had 2 weeks of tech, previewed for a week and opened in Chicago in mid-April of this year. The rehearsal process was truly a joy. Everyone in the cast was supportive, caring and encouraging of the work that was being done in the rehearsal room. This is one of the most generous, talented and loving casts I’ve worked with.

8. How do you keep a semblance of normalcy on a tour like this? What kinds of self-care do you practice? 

That’s a good question. Keeping a sense of normalcy or routine is key while on the road. The cast becomes close knit and having that “family” helps. Doing Aladdin nightly requires a great deal of energy. I do a few things to maintain my physical health. I work out several times a week at the gym, I get massages, I stretch and warm-up before the show.  

9. What is your favorite theater experience as a performer (most fun to be a part of)? 

Boy, that’s always a tough one to answer.  I’ve had so many favorite experiences as a performer. Most recently, last summer I played Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night for Chicago Shakespeare’s summer parks tour. We performed outdoors in 19 Chicago parks. It’s free to the public and going into so many diverse neighborhoods and connecting with audiences like that was very satisfying. We had little kids excited about Shakespeare! And anytime you can turn someone on to live theater it’s a good day at work.

10. Conversely, what is your favorite experience as an audience member (best show you've seen)? 

Back in 1989 I attended a final run through of Steppenwolf Theatres The Grapes of Wrath directed by Frank Gallati. It was a final run through in the rehearsal hall with rehearsal props, and a few costume pieces. It was right before they went to Broadway with the show. It was one of the most moving, exhilarating and inspiring theater experiences I’ve had.

11. What are your hopes for future projects? Anyone other than Ursula you'd love to play? Do you see yourself leaving the Disney universe? 

I will do this tour then I imagine return home to Chicago. It’s my home base. As for future roles…one never knows. I’d like to do more Shakespeare and I enjoy doing new works.

12. I read that you had a great teacher in high school that inspired you to get involved in drama. How important is education and outreach to you? Do you consider that part of the job? What are ways you give back?

I am a big advocate for training and education. I had some very influential teachers and mentors along the way. One of them taught us that once you start acting you’re a student for life, both in your on stage life and off stage. I believe the two are intrinsically connected. I am an adjunct professor in theater in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Loyola University Chicago. I love teaching. To help a student find a way into a character and grow is very fulfilling.

13. What advice would you have to young performers who are hoping to enter this field? 

How much time do you have? I believe that the journey to becoming a performer happens differently for every individual. That being said, I believe there are some absolutes. A few words of advice:

  1. Read. Know history, know about the world both the past and present. As actors we’re called on to not only engage our imaginations but our intellect. The more you know the more you have to bring into the rehearsal room and to the role.  
  2. Be the solution. In an audition situation I like to think that there are two things you can control; your preparation and your attitude. Everything else is out of your control. Once you understand that it’s an empowering feeling. Coupled with that is the idea that they have a problem, they need to cast the role. The auditors want you to be good and be the one for the job. Right before I go in to audition I say the little mantra: “be the solution.” 

Before you go... did you like this post? Would you like to see more interviews? It's been a while since I regularly conducted interviews but I'd love to mix it up if you are interested. Let me know in the comments! 

And don't forget to enter the drawing for four free tickets to see Grease at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres to celebrate Compendium's fifth birthday! It's so easy to enter and you can win a full table of tickets for free - you don't want to miss out.