Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Mr. Popper's Penguins Brings Delightful Puppets to Stage

God bless children's stories. 

Photo by Dan Norman

When times are dark, and the weather is darker (literally), all I seem to want to do is seek out things that make me feel good. Comedies, cozy clothes, endless amounts of carbs - call me a hedonist all you want, but at this time of year you do what you have to do in order to survive the darkness.

Photo by Dan Norman

Leaving with an endless feeling of light and joy is one of the main reasons I appreciate the Children's Theatre Company (CTC). Even their dramas always contain moments of brightness, and the casts are so skilled at being bubbly and positive without being cloying (a feat in itself) that you can't help leaving without a smile on your face.

Photo by Dan Norman

Enter the latest CTC production, Mr. Popper's Penguins. Based on a popular children's book (which was adapted into a film by the ever-great Jim Carrey in 2011), Mr. Popper's Penguins details the story of a man's life as it's turned upside down in favor of great (albeit chilly) adventure. Mr. Popper is a simple painter living in Stillwater, where the biggest joy of his life is learning about the creatures in and history of the exploration of the South Pole. One day, Mr. Popper's favorite explorer reads his fan mail aloud on the radio and sends Mr. Popper a surprise gift as a thank you. Inside the noisy crate Mr. Popper finds a penguin, who he promptly names Captain Cook. The trials and tribulations of raising a penguin in a Minnesota living room, including finding additional penguins to keep Captain Cook company; going bankrupt feeding Captain Cook's progeny; and eventually making the heartbreaking decision to return Captain Cook to his Antarctic home; provide plenty of G-rated antics throughout the show.

Photo by Dan Norman

Although it's on the main stage, Mr. Popper's Penguins features actors transplanted from the U.K. rather than the typical CTC company members. I have to say that I did miss their familiar faces, but it was refreshing to find a brand new, thoroughly charming cast on-stage. Richard Holt is the definition of pleasant as the amiable Mr. Popper. His light British accent and winning smile got the audience on board right away. Monica Nash hits all the high notes as Mrs. Popper and brings a Mary Poppins vibe to her role. The rest of the cast - Susanna Jennings, Christopher Finn and Oliver Byng - smoothly transitions between a wide range of supporting characters and excellently handle the stream of penguin puppets on stage. I've always been impressed with the puppet work CTC conducts (most recently in The Lorax - click here for my review of that excellent production last year), and the puppets here are no different. The dynamic movement the puppets perform make them seem almost like real penguins, and the adorable nature of them - especially the eight baby penguin puppets as they "grow up" - charmed kids and grownups alike.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set (designed by Zoe Squire) appears small and centralized at first glance, but is ingeniously used with great diversity throughout the show. A poster backdrop becomes a see through screen into a kitchen; a living room transforms into an Antarctic exploration ship; and combined with Ric Mountjoy's clever lighting design, many tricks are revealed throughout the show that delight despite their simple nature. The production design's standout, however, are clearly the adorable puppets from Nick Barnes (who also developed the puppets for The Lorax). Interactive, dynamic and detailed, there are so many delightful nuances to these puppets that you easily forget they aren't real penguins. Their clever use is what really sells Mr. Popper's Penguins, and we had so much fun once they came out.

Photo by Dan Norman

I can truly testify that Mr. Popper's Penguins is a show for all ages. I took my baby nephews to their first-ever play to see it, and even the infant was thoroughly entranced with the action on stage. It was such a joy watching them engage with the story, and my parents (a steady six generations older) left raving about how much they enjoyed the experience as well. This gentle, lovely show doesn't pull any punches; there are no major twists or tense moments, and that's exactly what I liked about it. Sometimes it's nice to wrap yourself up in a cozy blanket of a play and warm yourself from the inside out. Mr. Popper's Penguins is a delightful, all-ages treat that will bring you the magic of puppets and a renewed satisfaction with the simple things in life. It's a great gift for any kids you forgot to buy presents for over the holidays, so click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Photo by Dan Norman

Monday, January 21, 2019

Out There 2019: Kaneza Schaal's JACK &

Every year I visit the Walker Art Center's annual Out There series... 

Kaneza Schaal: Jack &. Photo: Christopher Myers.

And every year I leave with a plethora of exciting new ideas about performance art.

The avant garde festival can be really intimidating for those who don't see a lot of theater or prefer explicitly traditional forms of performance, but that's exactly why I find it valuable. As much as I love the usual circuit of theaters and companies I frequent, I find that January (aka the season of resolutions and incipient goal setting) is such a great time to refresh my perspective and re-set my expectations of the shows I'm going to see throughout the year. I'm really grateful the Walker puts this on annually and I encourage you to check out their programming!

This year kicked off with the return of Rabih Mroue, who I wrote about on his first Out There performance in 2016 (click here to see my thoughts). Intriguingly, the kickoff was offered as a free of charge reception as part of the monthly Target Free Museum nights, which take place every Thursday (and are a must-do if you haven't been - what better way to see an internationally renowned museum than for FREE?).

The first show I attended was last weekend's performance called JACK &, created by Kaneza Schaal and starring Cornell Alston. It was a three part show with completely different feelings to each portion. The first was a dynamic monologue that helped get the audience into the appropriate perspective and context to understand the overall performance. The second part was a witty, innocent parody of a 1950s comedy sitcom, reminiscent of an I Love Lucy sketch (but blacker). The third portion moved straight into the modern art period, with a completely silent (other than an eclectic mix DJ'd by Rucyl Frison) performance made of eerie costumed dance in front of a projection of a goldfish in a bowl. The dance somehow managed to be energetic yet wistful, carrying some of the energy and sinister-with-a-smile feeling from This is America.

JACK & as a whole had the flavor of an Americana you never see, telling the story of black people through what are thought of as white artistic mediums in one of the most stereotypically white venues of all: an elite art museum. The very presence of the actors on stage felt radical, like a breath of fresh artistic air, and the lyrical patois of the monologue (which fed into the kitschy sitcom feel of the second part) moved us lyrically and seamlessly through what otherwise might have felt like a very disjointed effort. The cast on-stage (composed of Cornell Alston, Rucyl Frison, Modesto Flako Jimenez and Stacey Karen Robinson) worked as a cohesive unit with wit and presence; I'd be interested to see the fresh approach their chemistry could take on more established scripts as well.

The annual Out There festival is one of the most affordable season tickets you can get in the Twin Cities and will give you an innovative, unusual artistic experience you won't find anywhere else. For ore information on this festival (which runs on weekends throughout January) or to buy tickets, click on this link. Make sure to keep following the blog throughout the month to see my coverage of the upcoming performances!

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

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Children Brings a Pensive Start to 2019 in #tctheater

This disaster minded drama features impeccable acting and a thoughtful plot

Photo by Dan Norman

Art is supposed to reflect and explain the world around us, right? That said, with the political world in chaos these days it seems only natural that dystopian fiction and high drama should make appearances with increasing frequency on screen, stages and pages around the world.

The Children, the latest play on offer from Jungle Theater, falls somewhere between these two categories. Not quite dystopian (or at least as I would define it - it falls short of blatantly apocryphal scenarios like those offered in The Road, for example), it still presents a dire vision of the hard choices humanity will be required to make as the fallibility of our modern world becomes ever more apparent. Hazel and Robin are a husband and wife who have uprooted their life after the fallout of a nuclear power plant in the U.K. They are living an intense existence for the so-called first world - no power, an inability to drink running water, etc. - and are visited by surprise by an old friend named Rose. All three are nuclear scientists who helped build and run the now-failed nuclear plant in its glory days but retired before the fallout. Through the length of Rose's visit we learn of many intricate ways this group is connected that go far beyond sharing a place of work, and that Rose's visit has far deeper (and harder) implications than that of reconnecting with a long-lost friend they haven't seen in decades. The reveals are central to enjoying the show so I won't say more, but suffice it to say there are plenty of surprises scattered throughout this story.

Photo by Dan Norman

The Children can best be described as a slow burn, with a seasoned cast that gently unveils layer by layer of the lives of the trio on-stage. It couldn't work without a deep level of nuanced acting, and luckily the three actors chosen here are ringers. Linda Kelsey brings a comfortable British plebianism to her character of Hazel, with a witty charm that lightens the mood of a plot that could otherwise feel devastating. Stephen Yoakam charms as the kindly yet duplicitous Robin; when reveals are made about Robin's character, Yoakam performs them with a gentleness that knocks your heart straight below your stomach. Laila Robins is marvelous as the troubled, regretful Rose. It is Rose's mistakes and missed opportunities that drive the entire plot, and the stealthy way Robins tiptoes through the plot's many landmines keeps the suspense heightened throughout the show. You never quite know what grenade Rose will throw next, and it leads to an astonishing range of emotional experiences as a member of the audience.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set is an understated cottage interior that, like the plot itself, reveals unanticipated depth. Designed by Chelsea Warren, doors open to reveal multiple floors and windy moors; bathrooms gently flood over; working appliances transition from day to night; and overall we are firmly grounded in the eerily silent reality of Hazel and Robin's everyday life. Costumes by Mathew Lefebvre tie directly into this presentation and are comfortable and straightforward. C. Andrew Mayer performs a few neat tricks with the sound design, wisely allowing the silence and pregnant pauses between the stunning reveals of the story to do most of the work. And Marcus Dilliard grants subtle lighting to finish the environment and show the transition of the narrative from day to night.

Photo by Dan Norman

The Children is a play that defies easy description and leaves a lingering memory, much like the actions of the characters in the show. It is a pleasure to see a trio of seasoned, skillful actors share the stage on equal footing, and the fact that it was so striking to note an absence of anyone under 50 on-stage made me simultaneously thrilled to see such genius and sad that it's so rare to find in culture at large. There's a bruising, truly adult beauty to The Children's darkness that assumes a maturity of the audience that I found uncommon and often unsettling. It asks impossible questions of us: Who is worth sacrificing amidst a wide range of suffering? Is there ever a time when your own selfishness should take priority over the needs of many others? What makes a life worthy of having been lived? When humanity has taken "progress" too far to the edge, who is responsible for fixing it? How should you spend the last days of your life? The Children asks us all of this and more, and it's certain to leave a strong impression as it does so. It's a quiet, impactful start to 2019 and worthy of a viewing; click here for more information and to get your tickets.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Thrillist: The Best Winter Activities To Remind You Minnesota Is Actually The Best

It's a good thing I love being a Minnesotan, because I'm really becoming an expert in activities to do here. 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

Close on the heels of my Thrillist roundup on best non-holiday related Minnesota activities, I've compiled a new roundup of more active hobbies to undertake at this time of year. Skijoring, curling and ice fishing snuggle up with extensive samplings of locally distilled cocktails and lavish foraged tasting menus to give you a jump start on your best winter ever. Click on this link to read the full piece, and let me know - what else do I need to do in the next few months? Email me at compendiummpls@gmail.com, or follow me on Instagram for a deeper dive into some of these awesome activities.