Saturday, March 23, 2019

Pangea World Theater's "Mother Courage" is Worth Consideration

What makes a good mother? 



That's always been a mercurial question, but it's harder to answer than it seems. We live in an era of helicopter parenting, and while there seems to be a backlash coming - what is the alternative? Do we want to return to the days of moms doing martini lunches sitting bored at home all day and chain smoking Mad Men style? Where's the healthy balance?

Asking the question far more dramatically than Matthew Weiner ever did is Bertolt Brecht's legendary play Mother Courage and Her Children (Mother Courage), now being produced by the delightful Pangea World Theater (Pangea) at the equally delightful Lab Theater in the North Loop. Mother Courage details the story of a woman of the same name as she navigates the devastating 30 Years' War over the course of 12 years (in 12 scenes). Mother Courage travels to the battlefront in hopes of profiting off of others' misfortunes but quickly finds her own; first one (Swiss Cheese, the honest), then the other son (Eilif, the brave) are recruited by the army and die in equally sad ways. Her mute daughter Kattrin eventually dies as well after many years of hard toil and suffering at her mother's side. Various figures of the war, from soldiers to peasants to prostitutes to generals to cooks, waft in and out of Mother Courage's orbit and illuminate the deep level of suffering the war caused. Overarching the show is the question - what kind of mother brings her children into a war zone (and then lets them leave to die)? But in a world of poverty and devastation, at the end of the day - what kind of mother wouldn't try to take advantage when no other options were left?

This is the second Pangea show I've had the pleasure of seeing, and let me say: they are really a delightful bunch doing incredible work under the radar. Despite the heavy material, Mother Courage still has a lot of heart, hope and entertainment wrapped within it. The darkness won't leave you feeling depressed by the end, and that's mostly due to the passionate and charismatic cast. Almost all the actors serve in multiple roles, and they convincingly paint a much wider picture than their small numbers would indicate. Favorites for me included Marcella Mobama as a duty-bound soldier; Clay Man Soo as convicted recruit Eilif; Ricardo Beaird as the deceptively charming cook; and Adlyn Carreras as the wily, empathetic Mother Courage. They all find small details that breathe their characters into life (such as Beaird's pipe and Mobama's sooted soldier's face) and tackle this material with full humanity. I also want to call out that this performance uses some of the most impeccable diction I've ever heard on stage (thanks to vocal coach Mira Kehoe); Brecht can be a little winding and obtuse, but their care with the dialogue and characterization ensures that nothing gets lost in translation.

This is somehow my first time ever attending a show at the Lab Theater and I have to tell you - I have been completely missing out! It's a stunning setting that gives plenty of room for the mobile set (mostly comprising of a wagon and accouterments, designed sturdily by Orin Herfindal) to breathe and easily implies the starry night skies of a battlefield. Costumes, designed by Mary Ann Kelling, are generally simple but feature the same careful and iconic attention to detail as the actors pay to their parts. Mike Olson composed music to punctuate the script and mimic Brecht's iconic dissonant style, and with musician Homer Lambrecht he provides an audible context for the tone of each scene. Overall, director Dipankar Mukherjee's vision is clearly realized and emotionally conveyed by this eager creative team both on and behind stage, and I really appreciated the obvious care with which they approached this material.

Brecht's purpose in writing this play (allegedly within only a single month in 1939) was to bring awareness within Germany to the dangers of the swiftly rising forces of Fascism and Nazism. Unfortunately we all know how that story ended, but one hopes that staging Mother Courage in our modern era - another time when Facism seems to be gaining quick and terrifying popularity at locations around the world - will help educate audiences toward another, better outcome. Don't let the idea of Brecht or the subject matter scare you away from seeing Mother Courage; it's a very well made show with a gorgeous program that will explain everything you didn't know, and the performers will leave you with an emotional, heartfelt performance. If you've made the rounds of the heavyweights in the local theater circuit (the Ordways and Guthries and Hennepin Theater Trusts and yes, even the Jungles) - and if you're reading this I'm guessing you've attended each of those venues a time or three - consider branching out into a lesser known (but by NO means less important) local theater company that is also beautifully producing "classic" work. Pangea's mission to support diversity and true, genuine inclusion at all levels of a production is more of what we need to see in the world (aka providing solutions), and your dollar will go much further there to spread throughout the local arts community than it will at theaters with much shiner endowment lists. Mother Courage runs through March 31; for more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, March 22, 2019

GSVLOC Modernizes "The Mikado"

Are you familiar with Rick Shiomi? 


Photo courtesy of GSVLOC

If not, what rock have you been hiding under!

One of the legendary luminaries of the #tctheater scene, Rick founded Mu Performing Arts (one of my favorite local companies), Full Circle Theater (another favorite local company!), and has been pitching in at theaters around the Twin Cities to consult and produce various shows.

One of the most interesting things about Rick, to me, is that while firmly (and correctly) in the camp of increasing on-stage diversity, he is not someone who always agrees we should throw out racist old shows. In the first ever Twin Cities Theater Blogger Continuing Conversation series, which was focused on race (and unfortunately was the only one our group never recorded - such a shame!), Rick spoke eloquently and at length about the possibility of rewriting such scripts to be more historically accurate, not racist, and still retain the spirit of the original that audiences have admired for generations. The case study he presented at that time was The King and I - did you know that the real-life Anna Leonoens was actually bi-racial, completely changing the context of that musical in a good re-write?! - but it turns out that's not the only show he has thoughts about.

The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company (GSVLOC), which produces one Gilbert & Sullivan show every year, chose The Mikado as their show for 2019. If you are not familiar, the show goes like this: Franki-Poo, the crown prince, has run away from home (and Katy Shaw, the woman who has betrothed herself to him), in order to regain freedom of choice and find true love. He meets and falls in love with Tum Tum, the beautiful young ward - and fiancee - of the creepy (but cunning) Co Co. Co Co is kept in power by the Lord High Everything Else, the man who singlehandedly holds all offices in this imaginary English city called Ti-Tea-Pu. When the King of England sends word he will visit, he also sends word that Ti-Tea-Pu is in need of holding an execution. The chosen subject is none other than the king's son-in-disguise Franki-Poo, who is willing to die from pining after his lost love; but there's a catch. Tum Tum doesn't actually want to marry Co Co, instead finding a way to marry Franki-Poo; and the leaders of Ti-Tea-Pu all learn Franki-Poo is the king's son and can't be killed anyway. Typical Gilbert & Sullivan shenanigans ensue, and everything turns up roses by the end.

Photo courtesy of GSVLOC

The historic issue with The Mikado is that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote it to be a parody of England, and it became an enormously successful one - but only because it was set in Japan. The Mikado is easily the best selling Gilbert & Sullivan show in history, while also being historically performed in yellow face with abounding racial stereotypes about Japanese people. Throw in a few n-words and other racial stereotypes on top of it, and the show becomes atomically problematic. See the trouble?

So along comes Rick Shiomi at the request of GSVLOC, who not only rewrote the show to remove those harmful stereotypes, but delightfully modernized it to reflect today's American politics and cultural references. The effect is a show you would never know was re-written, that is infinitely easier for an audience to understand and relate to, and in my humble opinion the most Gilbert & Sullivan-y way to treat such a script to begin with - after all, every one of these shows was originally written as a cultural commentary before things like Saturday Night Live or Key & Peele existed, so shouldn't contemporary productions reflect current events as well?

I first discovered GSVLOC last year, which is a shame because I generally love Gilbert & Sullivan humor and they are a terrifically talented group. The ensemble sounds gorgeous every chance they get to assemble, and I found myself often wishing there were more full-ensemble numbers, a rarity for me in a show that clocks nearly three hours. All of these leads are charismatic, but I especially enjoyed Maggie Matejcek as a sly Tum Tum; Anthony Rohr as a love-stricken Franki-Poo; Alex Kolyszko as Lord High Everything Else (and the winner for Man Having Most Fun On Stage at my performance); and Lara Trujillo as a spectacularly devious Katy Shaw. I could have watched Trujillo alone all night, and I really hope I encounter her in future productions.

Photo courtesy of GSVLOC

With so many people on stage and involved in the musical aspects of The Mikado (at least 50 between the singers and pit orchestra), the production design is relatively straightforward - which is not a bad thing. The static set by Larry Rostad is painted with romantic technicolor tones reminiscent of an Old Hollywood watercolor and Edwardian English style. The costumes, by Barb Portinga, are similarly grounded and effective. The music direction, by Randal Buikema, is gorgeous and the supporting orchestra does a beautiful job of pacing the music. And the overall stage direction by Rick Shiomi - much like his inspired script re-writes - keeps this show feeling fresh, young, and engaging, an experience which I greatly appreciated.

I am all about advocating for new work to be written and produced that is inclusive and modern and not-problematic; but I also recognize that there are shows that have been beloved for other reasons, and that companies still want to produce them. By bringing in a visionary like Rick Shiomi to move The Mikado into the modern era, GSVLOC has found a way to have their cake and eat it too. They clearly enjoy working with this new script and perform the music with full conviction. It's a really fun experience with all sorts of hidden gems that will delight anyone who follows the news every night, and I think this refreshed version of The Mikado is a much more accessible version of the show than you might assume at first glance. GSVLOC generally only does a show or two a year, so now is your chance to catch them before The Mikado is gone; click here for more information and to buy tickets before the show closes on April 7.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

MUST SEE: Roe at Mixed Blood Theatre

History is way, way more important than modern society gives it credit for. 


Photo by Rich Ryan

And I'm not just saying that because I was a history major in college.

When people think of history, they tend to think of a boring giant textbook with tests that make you memorize endless dates and stories about a bunch of fusty old white dudes who have nothing to do with modern life.

History as I think of it is a living, breathing text coexisting all around us. It's the context that frames our understanding of life and culture (although we don't always know it). History doesn't just tell us the who and the when of a thing; it tells us the why. And that why really matters when it comes to solving big problems like racism or sexism or income inequality. Good history helps us understand the problem itself and the way forward by asking fundamental questions like: Why does this system exist? Who made it, and for what purpose? Can it be better? How?

Those origin questions are at the heart of Roe, a dense, fabulous new show at Mixed Blood Theatre and my first MUST SEE production of 2019. Roe tells the story of the Roe vs. Wade court decision, the infamous case that legalized abortion procedures across America. Thanks to two generations of legality, abortion is cropping up again in the cultural consciousness as an issue to be debated. Unfortunately, that debate is mostly absent the context that history provides - Why did "Jane Roe" win her case? What about her argument was compelling? What does the Supreme Court decision actually say is and is not legal? Why has this law been applied unequally state by state? What is the impact of reversing that decision and going back to the days when abortion was illegal?

Photo by Rich Ryan

These are not trivial questions, and it's imperative that we ground this conversation in context with that level of detail. Lives are literally at stake, and once this right is reversed it will not be so easy to get it back again. Roe is a MUST SEE because it provides a fully fleshed context to understand the issue of legal abortion by centering those most affected by it: women. Leading the show are Tracey Maloney as Norma McCorvey (the real life Jane Roe) and Laura Zabel as Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued and won the Roe vs. Wade case in front of the Supreme Court. The story could have stayed narrowly focused on the relationship between these two women and still been fascinating; the origins of the Roe vs. Wade suit and the way the case was argued are really interesting and rarely discussed. Roe's genius is that it takes that relationship, gives it the long perspective of stretching over several decades, and then adds in voices from many others along the way who seem to be otherwise completely absent from this conversation: medical professionals who worked in clinics before abortion was legal and saw the medical trauma women would go through when they were botched; experiences of any stripe of women of color; lesbians; and many more.

This subject, and the level of detail that Roe utilizes, could easily become daunting or obtuse. The brilliant cast at Mixed Blood does an excellent job of turning it into a riveting, almost game show-level piece of entertainment that educates as thoroughly as it enthralls. Maloney and Zabel are superstars in the leading roles and perfect shepherds of this material. They both bring great complexity to their performances; neither is a villain or a saint, and Maloney in particular totally disappears into her role as Norma. They force us to find empathy on all sides of the aisle, and in a debate as fraught as this one that is no mean feat. A host of spectacular supporting actors provide great depth to the show that helps transition the action through the years. Several regular favorites, such as Dame-Jasmine Hughes, Bonni Allen, and Kate Guentzel grace the stage and are just as good as ever. Two new-to-me actresses also provided astonishing depth in their short times on stage: Lisa Suarez, who was devastating as Norma's partner Connie; and Jamila Joiner, who pops out of nowhere and give a heartrending monologue at the end of the show, closing Roe out with a moving, modern understanding of what this issue really means.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Hats off to director Mark Valdez for his stunning vision for this performance. The cast is perfect and the production design sets a clean stage for the complexity of the story. Anna Robinson keeps the scenic design understated so the large cast can quickly rotate through roles, a wise choice. Sarah Bahr and Emma Gustafson provide iconic costume and wig design, respectively, placing us smack in the middle of each decade featured in the play. C. Andrew Mayer provides subtle sound design that subconsciously moves the audience between perspectives, and Paul Whitaker's lighting design fleshes out the lean set. Abbee Warmboe places several key props - such as hanging judicial coats - that loom over the drama, helping us never forget who is really in charge of this issue.

Why do I declare Roe a MUST SEE performance? For one, it's a damn good piece of theater work; the writing is tight and engaging, the cast is filled with rock star performers, and it's overall a beautifully run production. The real reason, though, is that the issue of abortion is only abstract until you need one, and people need them more often than you think. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 75% of abortion recipients are poor or low income and 62% are religiously affiliated. Perhaps most astonishingly, 59% already have at least one child and 60% are obtained by women in their 20s or older - not their teens.

Photo by Rich Ryan

It is very hard to watch the debate around abortion - especially as a woman - and know there is so much misinformation being weaponized within it. What is undeniable about this issue is that women WILL get abortions whether they are legal or not. The question as a society is: do we want to make that process safe? Do we care about the lives of pregnant women who are put at risk, or who will be put at risk by receiving dangerous care on the black market? Wherever you stand on this issue, Roe is the best thing I've seen yet that provides important context and detail to help you distill your thoughts. It turns the issue of abortion from an abstract but vitriolic debate into one with flesh and blood and very important consequences. I think any person of any belief system can find valuable information in Roe and I highly encourage everyone to check it out before it closes on April 14. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Hobbit is Thrilling at Children's Theatre Company

Who would dare tackle turning Tolkein's The Hobbit into a stage show for a children? 


Photo by Dan Norman

Better yet, who would dare tackle The Hobbit for a wide age-range of audience (but focus on kids) in less than two and a half hours with only five actors and a two piece band on stage?

Photo by Dan Norman

The Children's Theatre Company (CTC) has always been audacious, but their newly minted production of The Hobbit is a gamble of another order. Adapting beloved stories well is always tricky, but it's especially difficult with an epic story set across dozens of fantastical landscapes and including magical creatures like trolls, goblins, dragons, gollums and more. How fortunate, then, that CTC's gamble has paid off - we left the theater to the loudest applause I can remember at a show there, and it's gotten nothing but buzzy social media shares ever since.

Photo by Dan Norman

For a quick overview, The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, a member of one of Middle Earth's gentlest and most domestic species - the homebound hobbits - as he is abruptly thrown into an adventure of epic proportions. Bilbo is conscripted to join Gandalf, a wizard, and a team of ragtag but extremely proud dwarves (led by their king Thorin Oakenshield) to recover the dwarves' ancestral home and extreme riches buried in the Lonely Mountain. In addition to an unbelievable series of obstacles, including traversing long distances on foot, goblin infested caves, hungry cannibalistic trolls, vengeful wood elves and more, the group has to contend with the ultimate challenge at the end of their quest: an enormous dragon named Smaug, the same dragon who displaced the dwarves and stole their treasure decades ago. The group is successful in their goals although it takes a wandering path to cross the finish line, and many lessons are learned by their band - and the audience - along the way.

Photo by Dan Norman

The biggest question I had about this show was: how on earth are they going to cover all that ground in just a few short hours? Especially with only five actors? When The Hobbit was first announced I envisioned a magnum opus with dozens of children playing each set of magical creatures, an endless revolution of detailed sets, projections, harnesses - in other words, the works. Thanks to a truly excellent cast, it turns out you don't really need all of those other trappings. CTC company member Dean Holt narrates the show as Bilbo, and he's an excellent example of how careful timing, audience engagement and extremely expressive acting can fill in imaginative gaps that sets or props might otherwise cover. He's a perfect choice for the part, and I can't imagine anyone else as Bilbo. Joy Dolo holds it down as many of the story's iconic characters - including Gandalf (!!) and Gollum - and is an inspired choice for those parts. She brings a new, modern life and consciousness to each role, and she's a major reason this production feels so fresh and energetic. H. Adam Harris and Becca Hart both do a great job filling in key context as some of those "other creatures" - like Smaug and Bard, the human who kills Smaug - giving glimpses into each world with shocking ease. It is HARD to switch characters so quickly, and they do an awesome job of nimbly jumping between parts to keep the story feeling fully fleshed out. Reed Sigmund is an anchor as well as Thorin Oakenshield; it's a change from his usual Grinch-y roles, but one that really fits his rich baritone and steadfast stage presence.

Photo by Dan Norman

The scenic design by Joseph Stanley is ingenious and fully utilized by the cast. What looks like a skeleton set becomes caves and spiderwebs and mountains, and all sorts of secret surprises are tucked into the stage. I will be honest - I was really hoping for something a little more lush and literal with this show, so I wish CTC had gambled a little more on that front - but logistically I do understand why they decided to go this route, and I definitely think it works. The costumes by Annie Cady look simple, but it's amazing what small details - such as the addition of a weapon or a change of goggles - can do to transform a character. The lighting and sound design, by Nancy Schertler and Sten Severson, respectively, is pitch perfect - and it has to be. Flashes of light show Bilbo "becoming invisible" with his magic ring, crashes signify the heat of a battle, and an illuminated map leads the way to the Lonely Mountain. On a set and cast this sparse, lighting and sound are imperative to provide context, and this team succeeds in that goal. I also have to call out the movement direction by Joe Isenberg. There are so many clever blocking and choreographed sequences in this show that make it seem bigger than it really is, and hats off to him for visualizing how to expand that set into a full Middle Earth-ian universe.

Photo by Dan Norman

If I had my druthers (and an endless budget and time span), I'd love to see The Hobbit on stage turned into a sprawling hours-long extravaganza with lush sets, dozens of extras and every special effect that can be summoned in modern theater. Neither I nor CTC has these things, however, so instead CTC wisely chose to use this show as a challenge to get kids to use their imaginations and inspire them with the fundamentals of good theater - excellent acting, a judiciously edited script, and clean but versatile production design. It was clear that the audience of kids and grownups alike was entranced by this play - it nearly got a standing ovation at intermission, and a boy sitting next to me wept at the ending - and the fact that such a beloved narrative (and especially one that has been done so well on film) can become a captivating experience as a live audience is a testament to the excellence of CTC and this cast. I have a feeling The Hobbit is going to become one of the highlights of CTC's current season, and I hope it inspires other companies not to fear producing some of these epic fantasy and adventure stories. With hard work and good fundamentals we can move anything into reality, and isn't that what live theater is supposed to be all about? Snatch your tickets while you can before The Hobbit closes on April 14; click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Photo by Dan Norman

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's Mamma Mia is a Merry Good Time

Who else has the muddy March blues? 


Photo Credit: Tom Wallace, 2019

I don't know a single Minnesotan who hasn't felt positively demoralized by our last six weeks of hellish winter weather. Yes, it's now 40 degrees and endlessly rainy, but what comfort is that when it feels like we will never see the sun again?!

Photo Credit: Tom Wallace, 2019

If you're like me (and everyone else it seems) and are wrestling off some heartily thriving winter blues, look no further than Chanhassen Dinner Theatre (CDT) to raise your spirits. Mamma Mia, the ultimate musical of beachy sunshine and feel good tunes, just opened and if that's not enough to put a smile on your face and a song in your heart, I don't know what is.

Photo Credit: Tom Wallace, 2019

For a quick plot recap: Mamma Mia tells the story of Sophie, a young woman about to be married, as she searches for her father. She secretly reads her mother Donna's diary for a clue of who he is and invites three possible candidates sight unseen to her wedding. All sorts of shenanigans unravel on the small Greek island Sophie and Donna call home as the guests arrive - including all three possible fathers and Sophie and Donna's best friends - and each character reconnects to their pasts and their identities. The entire score is comprised of Abba tunes seamlessly woven in between the plot lines.

Photo Credit: Tom Wallace, 2019

Let me preface this review by saying that although I've seen this show in several iterations, Mamma Mia has always felt a little overblown to me; even for a musical the plot is a little overwrought, the songs tend to be vastly over-sung, and although I enjoy Abba's music, it's never been my preferred playlist to pop on at the end of a long day.

Photo Credit: Tom Wallace, 2019

All that said, Mamma Mia is a perfect choice to feature CDT's perennially peppy cast members, and their trademark kitschy delivery is a great fit for this show. Even further, clearly there's something I don't know in feeling meh about the show overall - because Mamma Mia has been seen by more than 60 million people and grossed over $2 billion in ticket sales worldwide since it premiered 20 years ago. It was one of the first times that three women collaborated as a creative team behind a show, and its undeniable success has made a huge case for increasing the roles of women in creative and production teams across the theatrical world. That's a story I can get behind.

Photo Credit: Tom Wallace, 2019

As I mentioned, CDT's core of cheery cast members are perfect to deliver this show, and many long-term players steal the show. Kersten Rodau is flawless as Donna; she blows me away every time I see her, and I am so happy to see her front and center here in Mamma Mia. Jessica Fredrickson is blissfully peppy as Sophie and has just the right energy to lead the show, a sunny soprano to Rodau's bold contralto. The crowd literally burst into applause at the sight of Michelle Barber and Therese Walth as Donna's friends Tanya and Rosie, respectively, and it's no wonder. Barber has never looked better, clearly enjoying swanning around as the vainest character of the show. Walth always seems to be relegated to the "funny friend" roles (can we get her a lead outside of Hairspray already? She's tres fabulous), and she had the crowd absolutely roaring as the grounded and hilarious Rosie.

Photo Credit: Tom Wallace, 2019

The men take a back seat throughout the show for once (an unfortunate rarity in the musical world), except for the preponderance of washboard abs popping up all over the stage. Aleks Knezevich is his usual charming self as Sophie's fiancee sky, and I was glad to see him back. Rush Benson is a scene stealer as the flirty young Pepper, and he gives saucy Michelle Barber a run for her money in their coquettish scenes. Michael Gruber has a pleasant groundedness as "headbanger" Harry; Jay Albright brings a physical comedy to his role as Bill Austin; and John-Michael Zuerlein brings a darker perspective to his role as Donna's long-lost love Sam Carmichael. Zuerlein's portrayal, combined with Rodau's fierce Donna, brought a different kind of chemistry to Sam and Donna's partnership than I've seen in the past; I think it gave this Mamma Mia a little more gravitas than it usually has, and I really appreciated the thought they put into their roles.

Photo Credit: Tom Wallace, 2019

The stage has been painted blue to resemble those gorgeous Grecian seas for this production, and it really brightens the entire show. I always enjoy seeing how CDT manages production design on its unusual stage size, and Nayna Ramey's airy scenic design really gives the beach concept an efficient but breezy feel. Rich Hamson provides some flirty costuming, and combined with technicolor lighting design by Sue Ellen Berger it warms you up from the inside out (something we all need right now, no?). One of my favorite parts of CDT shows is always Tamara Kangas Erickson's lyrical choreography; unfortunately Mamma Mia doesn't allow for many true dance scenes, but several clever moments (such as a pseudo-tap dance done in flippers) utilize her trademark style and were crowd pleasers.

Photo Credit: Tom Wallace, 2019

In short: if you're going to see Mamma Mia (or if you enjoy it more than I always have and it's a perennial fave), CDT's perky production is the one you need to visit. They put their trademark style on this show, and the talented musical cast and sunny dispositions of their portrayals are just what I needed to brighten my winter blues. What could be better to cure your seasonal doldrums than seeing one of the most successful musicals (especially produced by and for women) in history for Women's History Month? It's a two for one surefire winning idea, and a word to the wise: get your tickets ASAP. I've heard runs of Mamma Mia are already selling out and it looks certain to be a tough ticket to nab if you don't book quickly. Click here for more information or to get your tickets.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Review in Brief: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Is this really a world of pure imagination? 


Photo by Joan Marcus

How do you feel about Roald Dahl?

Let me back up. It seems to me that when it comes to opinions about the tenor of art marketed towards children, there are two decidedly different camps. On the Disney-fication side are those who only want positive, colorful, sanitized versions of stories. "Let the kids be kids," they might say; "protect their innocence." On the other side are the dark-hearted "realists" - the Brothers' Grimms and Roald Dahls - who say "this world is trash - kids should know that as soon as possible."

Photo by Joan Marcus

Because of this deeply split perspective, your opinion on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now showing at the Orpheum Theater through Sunday, might vary wildly. Dahl aficionados should leave pleased at a standard presentation of one of his most beloved stories. Disney fans will likely leave disappointed at the lack of spectacle they are used to in signature stagings like Lion King or Aladdin.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Quickly for those in the dark: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tells the story of Charlie Bucket, a young boy living in extreme poverty under the ominous shadow of a candy factory. Charlie loves chocolate - a treat he only receives once a year - and dreams of touring the factory to learn how his hero Willy Wonka makes all of his favorite treats. Unbeknownst to Charlie he meets his hero in disguise and inspires him to open his factory up to tours for children with golden tickets and a contest to win a lifetime supply of Wonka chocolate. The chance to win a golden ticket inspires a worldwide Wonka frenzy, and despite all odds Charlie gets his golden ticket to enter the contest. A number of odd (and horrifying) things happen during the factory tour, but Charlie ultimately leaves Wonka with everything he desires most.

Photo by Joan Marcus

There were a few real standouts among the cast of this show. As Charlie's mother, Amanda Rose boasts a pristine voice and winning Ellie Kemper-like quality that I found totally charming. Rueby Wood was the image of Charlie, and he steered the show with a confidence quite outside his age. James Young was a little wobbly in the vocals as Charlie's Grandpa Joe, but his sweet mannerism and blustery delivery made the character a highlight. Benjamin Howes skips Johnny Depp and heads straight to a Gene Wilder iteration of Willy Wonka, a decision that seemed to be a crowd pleaser. And something about Daniel Quadrino's cameos as Mike Teavee had me giggling in stitches throughout the show - "Chocolate Neeeeeews!" might just become my new tagline thanks to him.

Photo by Joan Marcus

To be honest, I found the production design overall a little underwhelming. I came expecting the Dahl equivalent of the Cave of Wonders, but the bulk of the production relied so heavily on projections that it almost felt like I was watching a movie with live actors. I wanted a little more of the tactile magic I've seen in other shows and the preponderance of projections felt like it stole that magic away. I realize that not everything can be Disney level, but Willy Wonka's factory is such a fantastical world - can't we do a little more to bring that magic to physical life?

Photo by Joan Marcus

I'm somewhere between the Dahl vs. Disney camps - I appreciate Dahl's perspective, but sometimes it can be a little *too* dark for me. The main reason I wanted to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory live was to re-discover that sense of wonder in the factory; this seemed like the perfect kind of show to go really over the top. While the overall effect was successful, it didn't have that magical, lush quality that I was looking for. The audience was delighted throughout the show with the Oompa Loompas and kitschy asides, so if you're a giant fan of this story you will probably still enjoy it. There are several ear-worms among the soundtrack - "Willy Wonka," "Pure Imagination" and "If Your Father Were Here" were all standouts - that I haven't stopped humming since I left the theater. I'm glad I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this time around, but I don't think I'll attend again. If you want to check it out on your own (and you should! don't take my word for it), make sure to click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Photo by Joan Marcus

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.