Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Cool Field Trip: Game Changers at the Science Museum of Minnesota

There's only one more weekend to experience THE coolest interactive exhibit I've seen in a while. 


100 games over 10,000 square feet? #yesplease

I'll be the first to admit that video games (and video gamers) have gotten a bad rap over the years.

You can really see the full evolution of characters

I was long an opponent of the medium. I never grew up playing video games, and it was hard for me to see the value in it.

Another popular booth: Guitar Hero

But over the years I've come to see just how rich this technology (and the worlds it builds) is. There are so many fascinating elements about video games that have started to get serious celebration from vaunted organizations (MPR's fabulous podcast Top Score about the orchestral music written for video games is one such example) and it's really bringing the world of gaming out of the small screen and into the mainstream.

The detail is extraordinary

Game Changers, an ongoing exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota, is the perfect vehicle for novices and hardcore game heads alike to educate themselves about this world. It's an encyclopedic exploration of the history of video games, from the very first Space Invadors and Pac-Mans to the decades-long complexities of world-building games like SimCity or World of Warcraft. Visitors can not only read about the history of these games, their technology and their creators - they can also actually play each of the games mentioned on the original equipment. And this is not to be downplayed: the arcade space is comprised of more than 100 games over 10,000 square feet, an enormous temple to the sport of true gaming.

The sketches are endless

I was really blown away by the intricacy and detail of this exhibit. There is such a lineage to the construction of games - much like novelists or painters or chefs can directly credit those who came before them as inspirations and foundations to build their art on and expand it to new heights. Many games also have original sketches and models on display so that you can see the process from ideation to inception, and it's a really powerful visual testifying to just how complex the process of creating a game is.

A group dance station was easily one of the most popular elements

The global nature of gaming is included as well, with different regions appearing in focus with distinctive art styles and plotlines. Japan is the clear standout among regions outside of the United States, but there are also creative games from Sweden, Korea and a host of other countries. It is one more example of the unifying power of sharing an interactive world with someone else, and much like Trekkies, gamers have a friend wherever they go.

Gorgeous color sketches

This is an exhibit appropriate for groups of all ages and is actually an amazing way to connect with kids whose modern knowledge of gaming you may not understand. I took my niece and nephew with me, both of whom are avid gamers, and they had the time of their lives. We don't always have a lot to talk about directly, and I learned so much about them from the way they engaged with and explained each of the games that I never would have gleaned in casual conversation. It was a really fun day and reminded me how quickly things change from generation to generation. It was almost impossible to tear the kids away from the exhibit when we needed to go and it was packed to the gills, so I can testify first hand that the price of admission is absolutely worth it. The kids even loved the current omnitheater film about Cuba, which is not a subject they're normally interested in. This trip was a grand slam in terms of keeping them interested and occupied!

Loved this creative monster

And about that - another benefit to Game Changers is that admission is included in general admission to the Science Museum; this is not a separate ticketed event like many of their special exhibits have been. It's all the more reason to take your family or your date on a field trip to check it out before it closes on May 5. Run, do not walk, to go - there are limited edition games here that you very well may never see in working order again in your life. It's a fabulous, affordable trip for families or dates and is guaranteed to teach even the most serious gamer something they didn't know before. Click here for more information or to buy your tickets!

Up a little closer

An indicative list of the games available includes: 

The Arcade Heroes section spotlights pioneering designers from the trailblazing and revolutionary arcade era, including Ed Logg (Asteroids, 1979), Tim Skelly (Reactor, 1982), Masanobu Endo (Xevious, 1982), Toru Iwatani (Pac-Man, 1980), Eugene Jarvis (Defender, 1980), Tomohiro Nishikado (Space Invaders, 1978), and Dave Theurer (Tempest, 1981).

Long lines to play the vintage games like Asteroids, pictured here

The Game Changers section features leading contemporary designers who have had a major impact on shaping the medium as we know it: Blizzard Entertainment (Diablo III 2012), Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Sega Rally Championship, 1995), Peter Molyneux OBE (Fable III, 2010), Yuji Naka and the Sonic Team (Sonic the Hedgehog, 1991), Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy (Rock Band 3, 2010), Tim Schafer (Broken Age, 2014), Warren Spector (Disney’s Epic Mickey, 2010), Yu Suzuki (Hang On, 1985), TT Games (LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham, 2014), and Will Wright (SimCity, 1989).

Full story boards

The Indies section explores the groundbreaking and future-focused world of independent game designers. Artists such as Jonathan Blow (Braid, 2008), Capy (Critter Crunch, 2007), Eric Chahi (Heart of Darkness, 1998), Jakub Dvorský (Botanicula, 2012), Firemint (Flight Control, 2009), Halfbrick (Fruit Ninja Kinect, 2011), Introversion (Dawinia, 2005), Markus ‘Notch’ Persson (Minecraft, 2014), Rovio (Angry Birds, 2009), Erik Svedäng (Blueberry Garden, 2010), and The Behemoth (Castle Crashers, 2008) are profiled in this section.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

A Mindful Metamorphoses

The Guthrie's modern take on Roman mythology will leave you with lots to ponder. 


Photo by Dan Norman

In a world of ever-shrinking budgets for the humanities, sometimes it's good to get back to the basics. People aged 30 and older likely had at least minor engagement with Roman mythology at some point in their education, but I'm willing to bet the Millennial-on-down era probably has less-to-none.

Photo by Dan Norman

If that's the case, the Guthrie Theater's modern take on Ovid's Metamorphoses provides a great opportunity to brush up on your ancient mythology. In strikingly modern incantations, the show flashes through vignettes of each story almost like a photographic flash, leaving visual imprints that bring the dusty tales to life. Many of the most famous stories are here, such as the heartbreaking end to Orpheus and Eurydice, Phaëton's daring chariot ride, King Midas' tragic golden touch, and even a quick, totally silent flash of Narcissus. It's a fresh way to reinvent the stories for an audience with much shorter attention spans than those of 8 A.D. (when the original text was composed), providing new entry points into the myths.

Photo by Dan Norman

All roles are shared in a rotating manner by the cast. Rodney Gardiner has fewer lines than other actors, but provides standout, striking cameos (including that silent moment as Narcissus). Sango Tajima likewise has fewer speaking roles than some other cast members but provides a powerful, deeply physical performance that will rock you to your core. Felicity Jones Latta brings great gravitas to her part, with a cinematic voice and the nuanced delivery of a Cate Blanchett. Louise Lamson gives an especially emotional performance as Alcyone, telling the origin of seabirds. Benjamin T. Ismail lends a livelier presence on-stage, and Alex Moggridge is a romantic comedy charmer in several of his roles.

Photo by Dan Norman

The real main character of this play isn't really a character at all: the entire show takes place around a giant, deep pool of water which is deftly manipulated by the actors to transform the narrative. It's the element that attracted me to this show in the first place, and it was really interesting to see how emotional the use of the water could be: terrified splashing, flirty droplets, passionate waves, placid slow ripples. The actors are clearly unafraid of getting doused, and the more I've reflected on Daniel Ostling's meditative scenic design, the more I really enjoy it. T.J. Gerkens and Andre Pluess pair their lighting and sound design, respectively, to make sure that additional context is provided through the minimal sets and props. Mara Blumenfeld cleverly finds simple but elegant ways to pay homage to each character and allow for quick transitions between them, be they intricate headdresses or flowing robes (or, in one case, no robes at all - be warned of full frontal male nudity, if that's not your jam).

Photo by Dan Norman

It's pretty clear to me that Director Mary Zimmerman (who is also the adapter of this play) had a very defined vision for which mythologies she wanted to tell and how. It's very interesting to see the ancient world through her thoroughly modern eyes, like bringing a Helenic statue to life in the middle of the Walker Art Museum. Much of the content of these stories does not age well - incest, violence and vengeance is rife throughout most of them - but there is a certain amount of undeniable humanity and eventual beauty to be found through their devastation by the end. I imagine it's one of the reasons Zimmerman wanted to adapt this in the first place, and I would be interested to hear a panel of responses from audience members of very different ages and walks of life about their reactions to this staging. This is the kind of play that you will receive very differently depending on your life circumstances, making this ancient text a breathing, engage-able object that is much more complex than its seemingly simple packaging would indicate. It's a thoughtful presentation and one that modern art lovers are likely to find visually stunning. I do think it helps to be previously familiar with this content before you attend, so consider brushing up on the Wikipedia overview at the least before going. Click here for more information and to get tickets before Metamorphoses closes on May 19.

Photo by Dan Norman

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Thrillist: Top Up and Coming Cities to Visit

Where the wind comes sweeping down the plains....


Photo courtesy of Thrillist

If you haven't guessed by now, traveling is one of my very favorite things to do. I'll go anywhere and everywhere, and I've found the more I explore that the places I inevitably end up loving the most are the ones that were the most random destinations. Case in point: Oklahoma City, which I visited in a brief weekend trip a couple of years ago and became deeply enamored with. I had the chance to write about it for Thrillist recently. Click here to read the piece and discover other overlooked American cities who are worth your time.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Hello, Dolly! Still Has It Thanks to Betty Buckley

The show is in good hands with the legendary Betty Buckley


Photo by Julieta Cervantes

We seem to be in an era of revivals, these days. Carousel, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma! and Hello, Dolly! Have been making waves on Broadway for a few years now. Of all these recent revivals, Hello, Dolly! is the first to make it to the Twin Cities - and it was actually worth the wait.

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

I've reviewed Hello, Dolly! before (most recently the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's fun production) and I was honestly feeling uninspired when I learned it was on this year's touring Broadway circuit. I once heard this show described as a dowager that doesn't age well, and I have often shared similar sentiments. Been there, done that... who cares?

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

So imagine my surprise, then, when I encountered a spunky, lively production that leans right into that dated material to enhance the comedic effect and find something deeper to say. Dolly Levi is still meddling in her matchmaking ways, holding people hostage and steering them towards her preferred endings; there are still sexist old white dudes and a host of highly gendered lyrics. But it's all delivered here with a wink and a smile, and the sheer joy this cast brings to their parts got the audience deeply engaged from the very beginning.

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

It doesn't hurt that Broadway legend Betty Buckley came out for this tour; a wise choice, considering Broadway attendees got to savor performances from Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters (the original cinematic Dolly was Barbra Streisand... what's up with all these B-named primadonnas starring in this show!). It was an immense pleasure to watch a theatrical legend swan around for a couple of hours, and Buckley clearly relishes every second. Her monologues were especially powerful, bringing real tears to her (and many audience members) eyes. She is deliciously foiled by Lewis Stadlen as the blustery Horace Vandergelder. Stadlen is a complete riot, a lethal stylistic blend of Nathan Lane, Tony Shalhoub and Burl Ives, and he's my favorite actor I've ever seen in that role. He had the audience roaring with laughter at the first note (not an easy feat, considering some of his solo lyrics), and watching he and Buckley spar through their scenes was an absolute delight. The rest of the cast has sunny smiles and strong singing voices, and they anchor the rest of the show so that Buckley and Stadlen can shine. It's a true group effort, and combined with Robert Billig's masterful conduction of the pit orchestra, musical lovers are sure to be delighted with the experience.

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

I found myself surprisingly engaged in the production design of this Hello, Dolly! as well. No expense was spared in the lavish sets, and this production served me all the Broadway glitz and glam that I found sorely lacking in the recent tour of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the same theater. We have trap doors! A working steam train! Three-D, watercolor painted scrims! Easter egg dyed costumes! Luscious velvet restaurant curtains! Absolute mountains of props! It's all the OG theater stuff I grew up entranced by, and hats off to the amazing production designers for executing a fully fleshed, over the top vision that was a true feast for the senses. The choreography by David Chase deserves a special call-out - dancers are absolutely flying around this stage in rickety 1900s-era heels with nary a care, and their fearless performance added to the showstopper scenes (especially that butler scene in the Harmonia Gardens restaurant - *how gorgina*, as Jonathan Van Ness would say).

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

All of this to say, if you've seen Hello, Dolly! before, I think this traveling production is still worth a stop this weekend. If you haven't seen it yet, then this is a must-visit. You'll get to see a Broadway legend at her most fabulous and vaunted, paired with a dreamy (and equally legendary) comedic partner. The production design and dancing are likely to dazzle even the most jaded theater goer and the musical performances are no slouch either. Tickets to shows like this tend to be pricey and you don't always know if they're worth the admission. I think this is a solid bet on bang for your buck, if you like that showy Broadway kind of thing. Definitely look into it by clicking here for more information and to get tickets.

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Rocking Out to Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Before there was Caitlyn Jenner, or Pose on FX ... 


Photo by Dan Norman

... or any number of other famous trans faces or characters; before Janet Mock was a twinkle in the eye of Hollywood's firmament, there was Hedwig.

Photo by Dan Norman

Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been making splashes on stages ever since it first premiered over 20 years ago, perhaps most famously when Taye Diggs became the first African American to perform the role on Broadway in 2015. She's now filling every ounce of Theater Latte Da's stage in Northeast Minneapolis in a taut, high octane performance that forces you to view her straight on, loud and proud, just as she always intended.

Photo by Dan Norman

Let me back up. Part memoir, part rock and roll concert, Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of an accidental trans woman named Hedwig who is trying to scrounge a living as a rock and roll star, literally caught between two worlds - man and woman, Germany and the U.S., the spotlight and the shadows. Born in a world with no defined place for her, abused and with few options, Hedwig gets gender reassignment surgery in order to "marry" an American GI and flee East Germany only two years before the Berlin Wall comes down. Quickly divorced afterwards, bereft and driftless, Hedwig builds a life as a rock star and tells the entire sordid tale of her in a flashy 90 minute performance that includes her backup band The Angry Inch and a host of sideways stories that collectively paint the tapestry of trauma and resilience that define Hedwig and help her continue on.

Photo by Dan Norman

There's not a lot of presence on-stage outside of Hedwig herself, played brilliantly by Tyler Michaels King. I've seen King do a lot of different kinds of roles, but this is his most transformative yet. He easily blends between the hyper-feminine Hedwig and her masculine rock villain Tommy, almost unrecognizable at either end of the spectrum. King's lithe voice brings a classic-meets-metal tinge to the music much like a 1980s-era Linda Ronstadt (not a bad thing at all), and he absolutely dominates the performance. Jay Owen Eisenberg is an equal (if more subtle) chameleon as the other speaking role in this show, Hedwig's partner Yitzhak. Eisenberg is deceptively subtle and showcases an absolutely gorgeous voice at several points in the show, culminating in an exquisite rendition of "The Long Grift" that is a true highlight.

Photo by Dan Norman

Hedwig prances through a dizzying spectrum of costumes and wigs, designed respectively by Alice Fredrickson and Paul Bigot. Each presents a completely different image of her, and the rapid visualization helps demonstrate how confusing - or liberating - such a wealth of options could be to someone who doesn't have a defined place in society. Abbee Warmboe's mountain of props are masterfully tied into Michael Hoover's scenic design, keeping the transitions lighting fast and providing a place for everything. Mary Shabatura's lighting design is intentionally heavy handed - a little too much so for my taste, but certainly effective - and Alex Ritter's sound design prioritizes the distortion and tense tones that define rock and roll and keep the audience on edge as well.

Photo by Dan Norman

I'd never seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch before, and there was so much more packed into this show than I expected. I'm still chewing on it days after seeing it, and I suspect I'll continue to find new themes and threads the longer it sits with me. It's an aggressive, punchy musical that is so different from the softer stories of trans lives and experiences we tend to see in pop culture these days (call it the Janet Mock effect?). I think there's a place for both of them; what's undoubtedly true is that many people feel seen because of Hedwig, and this play opened a door that needed to be for many LGBTQIA+ friends among us. I want to call out Theater Latte Da's beautifully designed program here, which includes interviews, a glossary of terms, and a bunch of other important information that helps provide context around LGBTQIA+ issues and the history of this show.

Photo by Dan Norman

One question that lingers with me is the identity of the actor playing Hedwig herself, and it's one I don't have answers to. When King was announced in the titular role months ago I heard many grumblings in the #tctheater community that it should have gone to a person who publicly identifies as trans instead. Ideologically I support the sentiment; but I have to say in practice and after seeing the show, I have more questions than answers. Should all actors auditioning for roles like this be required to list their sexuality and gender on their applications? How does that affect a right to privacy? What if there are many other trans or queer actors on-stage, but just not in that titular role (as is the case here)? Who gets to be the gatekeeper of who is "acceptable" to play certain parts? Is this a standard that could backfire when applied in reverse? How do we prioritize marginalized voices in casting productions like this without erasing them? What if King really is the best choice for this role for this company - can we say that?

Photo by Dan Norman

It's an interesting conversation, and I think the fact that we're having it shows a lot of positive progress. This show is really well produced (as is Theater Latte Da's standard), and I am inclined to think that fans of Hedwig and the Angry Inch will leave the theater happy with the show they've seen. As far as those deeper questions go, I don't think I'm qualified to weigh in on them; but I am very interested to hear the answers the LGBTQIA+ community presents. If you want to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch, make sure to click here to learn more and get your tickets before it closes on May 5.

Photo by Dan Norman