Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Spectacularly Set Phantom

With the set of a lifetime, this show is a must-see.

Remember what I said about not fixing what ain't broke? Yeah, screw that. 

Because what Cameron Mackintosh has done to bring Phantom of the Opera (which, at 25 years and counting is now the longest running Broadway show of all time) into the 21st century is absolutely incredible. 

I've been pondering why I liked this so much more than the recently updated Wizard of Oz, and I think it's that the new Phantom is truly an upgrade. It feels sumptuously luxurious - so luxurious, in fact, that you have to pinch yourself consistently while you're watching to make sure you're not dreaming. 

The Phantom of the Opera is Andrew Lloyd Webber's exceptional adaptation of Gaston Leroux's
novel of the same name. It eliminates some characters from the book (which is highly worth reading, btw), but retains the romantic heart of the plot: beautiful Christine Daae learns to sing from a mysterious Opera Ghost (Phantom). When the opera's management shifts hands, she becomes a headliner and simultaneously the object of desire and jealousy for the Phantom and the opera's new patron, Raoul. Things begin to spiral out of control as the Phantom and Raoul vie for Christine's hand, climaxing in a showdown in the Phantom's lair deep beneath the opera. 

It's a tense story, with riveting action sequences, lush dance, opera parodies, explosions, boats, swinging chandeliers, and a great, organ-filled score. The cast here holds their own, including Mark Campbell as the Phantom and Julia Udine as Christne Daae, and as always the primadonna Carlotta (Jacquelynne Fontaine) is a crowd favorite.

But to be honest, there is only one reason, and one reason alone, that you should see this show: 


Oh my god, the set. It is hands down, no-doubts-about-it the best set I've seen anywhere in my life. I'm still beating my brain trying to figure out how this production is able to travel with the sheer enormity of each set piece, but it doesn't really matter - all you need to know is that it's spectacular. 

There is a fullsize gilt framed opera house, life size replicas of Parisian statues and cemeteries, the chandelier (which drops over the audience, of course), ceiling-mirrored ballrooms, and more. My personal favorite is the path to the Phantom's lair, which now not only involves the boat floating across the lake but a descent down a stairway that grows in and out of a massive wall set, almost as if it's an alligator disappearing into a lake. I've never seen anything like it, and it's unforgettable. 

Long story short? Long-running shows like The Phantom of the Opera can begin to feel stale, boring, and not worth seeing if you've already seen a production elsewhere. That is not the case this time; it's worth every penny if you can get a ticket, and I'd even go twice if I could. Please, please check it out - you won't regret it. For information about tickets and times, click on this link.

And, for a look at some of the physical updates (although the cast is not the same as that of this Minneapolis production), check out the following video. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Wacky "Wizard"

An updated "Wizard of Oz" retains some of the classic film's sparkle, but new additions can bog it down.

In Oz

What is that famous phrase? "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

I feel no phrase applies better to Andrew Lloyd Webber's update to The Wizard of Oz than this. I may be alone in my feelings, but the addition of several new tunes and the seeming burdens of technological practicality on traveling stageshows didn't leave me with the wondrous feeling I have come to expect from the great Wizard. 

I will assume all readers have seen, or at least heard enough of, the extraordinary 1939 film to relieve me of having to repeat the plot (and if not, SHAME! Go find a copy immediately, lock yourself in your apartment, and don't leave until you've seen it at least five times and cried frequently about the years you've spent in ignorance). I suspect the entire draw of even concocting a stage show is the special effects, so we can start there. 

Wizard's blessing (and unfortunately, curse) is its heavy use of the projector/scrim combo. In terms of creating a sepia effect for Dorothy's time in Kansas, it is spectacular; combined with an awesomely, bafflingly 2D (but interactive) set, it provides a gorgeous backdrop for the home-front. 

Oz, however, does not fare so well. The scrims, so convincing and movie-tastic in the Kansas
portions of the show, begin to edge into Douglas Adams territory, sweeping Dorothy's house through space (?!) to Oz, showering colorful rainbow sparkles on things, and generally just becoming the go-to for any bit of "magic" Oz has to offer. Which is a pity - we know from shows like Mary Poppins, Wicked, Beauty and the Beast, and yes, even the Lion King, that it would be possible to have the Wicked Witch or her monkeys fly over the audience, Glinda arrive in a bubble, Munchkins actually be sized like Munchkins, and "animals" wear more than fuzzy pajama suits. I'm not sure if it was bedazzlement from the projector/scrim technology, or a fear of having to haul 'too many' set pieces, but there's a lack of real life wonder in this production, the "how the hell did they pull that off?" that makes Broadway so magical to all. If any show deserves it, it's this one, and I didn't find it here.

That being said, this is far from a dud, and some characterizations are especially appealing. As the Cowaradly Lion, Lee MacDougall provides some much needed comedic relief, and is clearly the sweetest of Dorothy's three wise Ozians. The surprising stereotypical 'gay' edge he adds to the Lion is also a funny twist. 

I found Danielle Wade's voice a little more "Ariel" than "Dorothy," but she grew on me as the play continued, and far and away I found her the most "authentic" to the movie of the cast. It didn't hurt that she carried an adorable live Toto with her at every turn, but her voice is lovely and winsome and just what the Wizard ordered.

Mike Jackson does a stellar physical portrayal of the Tin Man, even if his vocal characterization falls flat. And Jacquelyn Donovan is disappointing as the Wicked Witch - nowhere near shrill or terrifying enough to convince you of her evil power. 

Musical standouts included a gorgeous reprise of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in Act 2, and a couple of the new tunes ("Bring Me the Broomstick" and "Already Home") also fit in well. "Hail-Hail! The Witch is Dead" featured excellent choregorpahy, mixing a wide range of tangoes, Russian stomp dancing, acrobatics and more for a visceral piece. 

The long story short: take your kids. The Wizard of Oz is made for kids, and they will have a great time (whether there's too much scrim or not). If you can only afford to see one show this year, I'm not sure this is the one you'll want to see - but it's still worth a look if you can make it. After all, it is the Wizard of Oz

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"We Will Rock You" is Wild

If I'm entirely honest, I have to admit: I thought I would hate this show. 

But as long as we're being frank, I also have to admit: although it has several flaws (particularly the pretty out-there narrative), I had an extremely enjoyable time watching it.

We Will Rock You is a musical based on the music of Queen. The collection of songs are held together by a loose narrative set in a dystopian world where music is corporately commercialized, and little opportunity for creativity is allowed the general public. 

There are those who fight back, however. Galileo Figaro (Brian Justin Crum) and Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis) have never fit in with the rest of pop music, and when they connect with the underground rebel bohemian community, sparks fly. The bohemians are intercepted by the powers behind oppressive corporate music, but not before the bohemians successfully set Galileo and Scaramouche on their way towards freeing the world from its generic pop grip. To break it down: think Steven Spielsburg Indiana Jones Nazi villains meet Queen meet Sasha Baren Cohen (phew!).

Crum's voice at times bears an uncanny resemblance to Freddy Mercury's, lending an air of authenticity to his musical performances. He's eager and high energy, two traits that continually got hte crowd involved. 

The show's standout by far, however, is Lewis, whose voice definitively proves that the sometimes expressed opinoin that female voices are not suited to rock music is 1,000% false. She is hard and soft, abrasive and inviting, and every song she performed brought down the house. The show is worth attending if only to hear her sing. 

Other notable cast performances include Jacqueline Arnold as the Killer Queen, who is perhaps the most Ru Paul draglicious character I've seen on stage yet. Her performances aren't as high energy as those of Crum or Lewis, but her strutting is definitely enjoyable. For comedic relief, Ryan Knowles excels as Buddy. His droll, presumably pot-influenced bohemian is hilarious, and saves the second act when it begins to drag.

The best parts of the show, of course, are the songs (the theater interludes tend to drag We Will Rock You down). Standouts include "Somebody to Love," "I Want It All," and the balls to the walls encore of "Bohemian Rhapsody." Many songs had the audience singing, clapping, and/or on their feet, and it was great to see such a high energy connection between them and the performers. 

Against all odds, We Will Rock You is an incredibly enjoyable rock romp, and it's particularly suited to fans of classic 80's rock music. It could use some tightening in the plot and a little judicious editing, on the whole it's definitely worth it for those rock fans. 

Review in Brief: The Veterans Play Project

"You know what we don't need? Another person who says 'thank you for your service.' They don't even know where we served."

When one gets used to attending theater in typical venues, it can be nice to see it moved to a new location. 

The Veterans Play Project, a collaboration between Mixed Blood and local veterans, does just that. Set in a Fort Snelling training area, it provides a more rugged setting for its collection of vignettes about the veteran community's service (both in training and in action) and reception back at home.

Many of the players are former service members themselves, and their experience (and general lack of performance experience) lends a rawness to this project that serves it well. Although the play is a work of fiction, it's entirely based on real experiences service members have had, which were collected through an extensive interview process. 

The actors are clearly emotionally connected to this subject matter, and that raw emotion makes their stories hit home. The disconnect between general civilians and service members has been extensively discussed (particularly in recent media concerning PTSD and veteran health and mental health care), and this project is perfectly poised to help bridge that gap. 

Veterans have an understandably difficult time figuring out how to explain their experiences to the general public, and that hesitation makes it that much more difficult for the public to understand their service and try to help integrate them back into society. It's a pleasure to see a venue for those conversations to take place, those experiences (especially the negative ones) to be related, and communities to learn how to move forward in a positive way for everyone involved. 

"Service is more than just war. Only 5% of them ever see it. Please don't make a movie that glorifies war."

Each vignette is interspersed with music, some of which is quite compelling. A particularly lovely rendition of "Into the Wild Blue Yonder" is definitely a highlight.

The Veterans Play Project is a good starting point for anyone curious about the experiences of service members, and anyone interested in learning how to communicate with veterans should definitely check it out as a great starting point for those conversations. It's a respectful, informative connection, and the Fort Snelling setting fits it well. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

An Evanescent "Arabella"

The Minnesota Opera performs Strauss gorgeously

German operas are notoriously difficult to make accessible, and the MN Opera does it with such grace in Arabellla that it's difficulty becomes barely perceptible. With a mix of love, jealousy, and a hot dash of passion, Arabella is an opera that any novice can appreciate.

Arabella is the eldest daughter of a noble but poor family (seemingly the story of all of Europen aristocracy in the nineteenth/twentieth centuries - see: Downton Abbey). Her family is so poor, in fact, tht her sister (Zdenka) is dressed as a boy in order to avoid the expense of showing her well and marrying her off. 

Arabella is lovely and courted by many a suitor, but it is not until Mandryka, the nephew of a deceased (and wealthy) family friend, appears and appeals for Arabella's hand that she at last chooses a mate. 

As with all great love stories (and operas), there is an obstacle to the happy union of Arabella and Mandryka. Matteo is one of Arabella's many suitors, one who is desperately unhappy at her refusal of his advances. Matteo is ready to kill himself without Arabella's love, Zdenka is in love with Matteo, and Zdenka's last ditch attempt to find a moment of happiness with him while subsequently diverting him from suicide almost derails Arabella's entire future. 

This is a solid cast and one that seems much more accustomed to acting than many opera players I've seen in the past. Many players find ways to make their characters really pop through the dense German text and score, and it's a delight to watch them interact. 

As Arabella, Jacquelyn Wagner is slow to warm up - but when she hits her stride, watch out. She's particularly strong in Act II, simultaneously funny, strong, harsh, tender, and all around in full control of herself and her situation. It's a pleasure to see such a strong woman in an opera script, and Wagner does it right. 

Even better, and the standout of the cast, is Craig Irvin as Mandryka. Irvin swaggers and swoons across the stage, at times so raw that one wonders if he himself was jilted in the past. He has a lovely voice that is perfectly matched to Wagner, and I'd see the show again just for their moments togehter. 

Bringing an extremely welcome comedic relief is Dale Travis as Arabella's father Count Wagner. Travis can only be described as strutting like a rooster across the stage, and he is bellyachingly funny.

The most interesting aspect of the score is its particular evocation of ecumenical music. Arabella's subject matter isn't churchy at all, but the phrasing consistently feels as if one is listening to a glorious choir in an old stone church. Somehow, this feels fresh, and it's an oddly invigorating twist. 

Standout moments include an sinuously chromatic duet in Act I with Elemer and Matteo, and virtually any interplay between Arabella and Mandryka.  Their voices are perfectly paired, and their emotion is so tender, so raw, and so heart-piercing that it's impossible to witness without emotion. I have a hard time remembering another time when two skillsets were so perfectly paired, and their duets alone are far worth the price of admission. Act II as a whole is wonderful, in fact. Just go see the show!

As always, the set and costumes are lovely - no one does opulence (or in this case, stark opulence) like the Minnesota Opera. 

Anyone with the ability should jump to see Arabella. It's witty, lovely, and an all around crowd pleaser. And for anyone concerned about affordability, the MN Opera offers incredible ticket discounts - a season pass through their sexy young group Tempo allows opportunities to see shows for only $24/ticket. You can learn more by clicking on this link.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fiddler Revisits Chanhassen

The quintessential musical still feels fresh

Can a classic musical ever get tired?

In the case of Chanhassen Dinner Theater's newest production of Fiddler on the Roof, the answer is a definite no. While keeping in rhythm with classic Fiddler choreography and characterization, Chanhassen injects a zest and enthusiasm that reinvigorates it.

Fiddler in a way is the Jewish iteration of the Italian neorealist movement forefronted by Federico Fellini. Focusing on a family in a small village (Anatevka) of poor Jews in pre-revolutionary Russia, Fiddler on the Roof melts the issues of class, racism, inter-generational conflict, and religion into a complex and enjoyable melting pot. Tevye leads us through life in Anatevka, replete with matchmakers and arranged marriages, attacks from the Russian citizens, the dawn of modern sexual and racial politics, and the rebellion of three of his five daughters.

Chanhassen veteran Keith Rice plays Tevye, and in classic Keith Rice fashion makes the role truly his own. At times, Rice seems a little overly laissez faire with his Tevye, not taking his daughter's flagrant violations of tradition and authority quite so seriously as he might. However, Rice's portrayal does allow for a more generous, modern Tevye, and the audience leaves feeling connection and warmth to him.

As Golde, Tevye's wife, fellow veteran Michelle Barber is okay. Her character portrayal is very warm and endearing, but her voice doesn't always follow through. Serena Brook is wonderful as Tzeitel, hardworking, hopeful, and perfectly matched with her lover Motel (Zachary Colton Schaeffer). Ruthanne Heyward (Hodel) hits a standout note in her solo as she leaves for Siberia, but otherwise tends to blend in to the rest of the show.

Standout numbers included "To Life," a vignette showcasing the process of arranged marriage in Anatevka, as Lazar Wolf drinks Tevye into agreeing to let Lazar marry Tevye's eldest daughter Tzeitel. Two elements make the scene immensely entertaining: the choreography, which showcases fabulous Russian kick dancing, and the absolutely angelic voice of Tyler Michaels (Fyedka). (In fact, my greatest disappointment with the entire production is that we only get to hear Michaels' voice in this scene; his pipes are SO extraordinary that I am now craving to hear him in almost anything... Chanhassen, this is a plea: PLEASE showcase him more in future productions!!)

The other standout included perennial tearjerker "Far From the Home I Love." Heyward/Hodel is desperately winsome, strong and longing in this short piece, and it is a definite tearjerker.

The greatest test of Fiddler's enjoyability is the 'Tevye's Bedroom' sequence, which can engage or destroy the rest of the show. In this scene where Tevye convinces his wife to let Tzeitel marry Motel instead of Lazar Wolf, Chanhassen pulls it off, although there is a strange use of demonic chicken costumes in Fruma Sarah (Emily Rose Skinner)'s appearance - presumably, this is to indicate Lazar's career as a butcher, but it is very confusing visually.

Fiddler on the Roof is a classic show, and no one does comfort-food classic theater like the Chanhassen Dinner Theater. It's been decades since Fiddler appeared at Chanhassen, and fans of the show (or anyone looking for an easily enjoyable night out from the winter cold) should check it out. You can find more information about the show and purchasing tickets at this link.

*All photos courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner theater/c Michal Daniel, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Bloody Good Time

Carrie The Musical shows a softer side of the classic horror tale

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Stephen King’s first hit Carrie has finally returned to the world of musical theater. Though the original adaptation is still considered one of the most expensive and most spectacular Broadway flops (ever), the re-worked version is being staged now at the New Century Theater, just in time for Halloween.

Carrie White is a late blooming teenager in her senior year of high school. Between being bullied at school and dominated by her overbearing mother at home, Carrie is set for a life of suffering and pain, until she discovers she can move things with her mind. Things seem to be looking up until Carrie’s schoolmates play a terrible prank on her – and Carrie’s telekinesis becomes her final, bloody weapon against her tormentors.

The benefits of putting such a story into musical form are debatable, and the results are mixed. Carrie opens with a strong ensemble performance of “In,” setting the audience up with high hopes. But the immediate follow-up, “Carrie,” is so full of awkward key and tempo changes that it’s hard to pick up the momentum.

Standout musical performances definitely include duets between Carrie and Margaret (her mother), such as “Evening Prayers” and “Stay Here Instead.” And the choreography in “The Destruction” is engaging, with all cast members somehow writhing, rolling, and slamming around in perfect time without looking at each other at all.

As Carrie, Jill Iverson shows a remarkably fluid range as Carrie. Her voice slithers between scenes, hitting high and low octaves with the full angst of a vengeful, bitter teenager. She manages to inspire empathy and pride as she takes her path of revenge, and it’s an enjoyable performance.

Philip C. Matthews is the perfect high school dreamboat as Tommy Ross; Natalie Schleusner has just the right repentant booze-on-Saturday-night-church-on-Sunday-morning pitch as his girlfriend/narrator Sue Snell. Their empathetic views toward Carrie White significantly soften the “scary” in this Carrie, but the show still manages to hit some creepy notes.

Carrie is an exercise in experimentation in just about every way. What happens when a young girl is pushed to the edge? When we give her supernatural abilities? Can a horror story work as a musical? Just like Carrie herself, it’s worth making a visit to the New Century Theater and giving it a chance.

Carrie runs through October 27 at the New Century Theater in the City Center. Click on this link to purchase tickets and learn more about the show

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Sweet Smelling Urinetown

The Jungle production is one of the finest of the year so far

It’s a long established truth of fantasy and science fiction that placing difficult contemporary issues into an unrealistic or otherworldly setting gives them clarity that is not as easily seen when viewed through a more ‘realistic’ lens.

Urinetown, the Jungle’s newest romp, is a shining example of this truth. Filled with witty symbolism and candy coated harsh realities, Urinetown does an exemplary job of shoving our noses into awareness of a political system that is currently, well, shit.

Public Amenity No. 9 a locale facing a devastating drought that has been ongoing for decades. Cladwell and the Urine Good Company (UGC) have long been in charge of water management, thereby controlling all the citizens of the public amenities throughout the city. The UGC’s harsh tactics, high fees, and resource stinginess create a corporate resentment among the citizens reminiscent of Les Miserables or Occupy Wall Street.

The cesspool of ill will towards the UGC finally boils over when Bobby Strong, a low level UGC employee, sees his father sent to Urinetown (the UGC’s penal colony and ultimate sentence) to be punished for refusing to pay the water fee. Strong leads the residents of Public Utility No. 9 to revolt against the UGC, who in the process capture Cladwell’s daughter, enrage a policeman, become inspired by a young girl named Sally, and  experience further misadventures. I won’t risk spoiling the ending, but it’s a refreshingly depressing reflection on the near impossibility of providing good quality of life and responsibly managing natural assets in a world where any resource is scarce.

The cast is a musical tour-de-force, creating the auditory equivalent of a harmonic mortar blast with every tune. They’re a delight to watch and their standout vocals keep the audience whizzing from number to number. It’s difficult to choose a best among the great range of songs, but standouts include “Urinetown,” “It’s a Privilege to Pee” and “Don’t Be the Bunny.”

As always, Jungle regular Bradley Greenwald is a true delight to watch as Officer Lockstock (as seen above). With a wry smile and a banging set of pipes, he is the perfect anchor for the cast, and he carries them and the show with aplomb.

Kersten Rodau (Penelope Pennywise, left with plunger) and Elisa Pluhar (Little Sally) are equally exciting to watch. Both have clearly digested the souls of their characters, and they provide an ear blistering vocal counterpart that parlay’s the show’s snide sense of humor into gut splitting territory.

Patrick Morgan is fine as Bobby Strong, though he has an occasional tendency to over sing. Tiffany Seymour is appropriately sunny as Hope Cladwell, and Gary Briggle an inspiringly nasty overlord as Caldwell B Cladwell.

The Jungle provides a truly unique space to see a musical – traditionally with a gangbusters production like Urinetown, the audience would strain from balconies to see the action. The Jungle’s small space, however, provides an amazing viewpoint from every seat that can be lost in a larger venue. The sound production is also fantastic – each voice can be heard even in ensemble numbers, and the fantastic orchestra leads their way.

Urinetown is one of the delights of the summer and a wonderful respite from the sticky humidity and power outages Twin Cities residents are enduring, making Urinetown’s overt symbolism even harder to ignore. I highly recommend it to any and all, for both a great escape and a chance to thoughtfully reconsider how our system works today.

For more information about tickets or the show, please click this link.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Sonorous Sunset

Sunset Boulevard's script retains the film's charm, but loses some of the tragic spark in musical form.

There are ideas, and there are Ideas. Big Ideas can make or break a show, especially one an audience is familiar with in some other generation - a classic off-Broadway run, a film, a TV miniseries.

Sunset Boulevard unfortunately appears to suffer from the latter syndrome.

Many readers are probably familiar with or have at least heard of the iconic 1950 film, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Gloria Swanson in the role of a lifetime.

In short: A destitute screenwriter accidentally trespasses at a ghostly mansion on Sunset Boulevard while running away from a loan collector. The mansion happens to be the home of forgotten silent film goddess Nora Desmond, who believes she is still the world's greatest movie star despite 20 years of no work and staying out of the public eye. Desmond desires to return to the silver screen, and hires said screenwriter to edit her comeback script. She nearly imprisons him in her home while he works, and a multitude of interesting adventures occur in the interim. There are a love affair and a side job and a host of other mini-plots that spiral out from this, but it's really Norma's narrative that makes the show sing.

Part of what makes the film so glorious is Swanson's ability to make Norma Desmond's totally batshit crazy-ness sympathetic and almost even appealing to viewers. Because Norma Desmond IS crazy - and depressed and suicidal, and honestly a terrifying foretaste of the devastating fall from grace that we see child actors making all the time these days (here's looking at you, Amanda Bynes). 

Sarah Gibson conveys some this angst as Norma Desmond. But I found myself not wholly convinced by Gibson's portrayal - sure, Gibson's Norma is weird - but her performance lacks some of the poignant sadness and devastation that Norma represents.

Part of this may be that it was simply lost in translation, because this Sunset Boulevard is a musical (Idea #1). No offense to Andrew Lloyd Weber, but this is one narrative that demands to be told as a straight drama. Something about hearing this fraught story sung in awkwardly cheery tones just doesn't work. 

One instance in which the music did work well was the story line between screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by Tim Kuehl) and his love interest Betty Shaefer (Aly Westberg). The interactions between Kuehl and Schaefer are the only ones in which the sung portions feel natural and even lyrically lovely. This effectively creates the weird dissonance between the Sunset Boulevard mansion's dark solitude and the cheerful Hollywood world outside Norma's abode necessary to emphasize her loneliness. 

The staging also felt a little awkward. This show would have been served best with a nearly full projected set and very few props. Instead, it features a relatively elaborate set framed by two mystifying projection screens (Idea #2). From time to time the screens feature live closeups of Gibson rather than rotating stills of mansions, which seemed a wasted opportunity. The concept of miming the silent film prowess of Norma's character is great, but filming her sporadically (and in color!) ends up being more distracting than effective.

There are good bones in this show, but it's an awkward portrayal and not a great fit for a musical. That being said, it's taking New Century Theater in a new direction, and it's exciting to see people playing with classic stories and tropes, however unsuccessfully they may do so. I also appreciate that Minneapolis Musical Theater took a chance on the staging - it's not often enough that we see companies trying to truly stretch their stagings. New Century Theater is a fun and different space, and Sunset Boulevard is definitely a destination for anyone looking for a new musical adventure.

More information about tickets and the show can be found here

Tuesday, April 30, 2013


"Of all the roles the economist ascribes to us, 'consumer' is surely the least ennobling. It suggests a taking rather than a giving. It assumes dependence and, in a global economy, a measure of ignorance about the origins of everything that we consume. Who makes this stuff? Where in the world does it come from? What's in it and how was it made? The economic and ecological lines that connect us to the distant others we now rely on for our sustenance have grown so long and attenuated as to render both the products and their connections to us and the world utterly opaque. You would be forgiven for thinking - indeed, you are encouraged to think! - there is nothing more behind a bottle of beer than a corporation and a factory, somewhere. It is simply a 'product.'

To brew beer, to make cheese, to bake a loaf of bread, to braise a pork shoulder, is to be forcibly reminded that all these things are not just products, in fact are not even really things. Most of what presents itself to us in the marketplace as a product is in truth a web of relationships, between people, yes, but also between ourselves and all the other species on which we still depend. Eating and drinking especially implicate us in the natural world in ways that the industrial economy, with its long and illegible supply chains, would have us forget. The beer in that bottle, I'm reminded as soon as I brew it myself, ultimately comes not from a factory but from nature - from a field of barley snapping in the wind, from a hops vine clambering over a trellis, from a host of invisible microbes feasting on sugars. It took the carefully orchestrated collaboration of three far-flung taxonomic kingdoms - plants, animals, and fungi - to produce that ale. To make it yourself once in a while, to handle the barley and inhale the aroma of hops and yeast, becomes, among other things, a form of observance, a weekend ritual of remembrance.

Michael Pollan

Food for thought, no?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Literary Connections: Haiti and the DR

"What scenarios have I absorbed from the media or books {...} that have led me to assume that poverty and misfortune will always bring out the worst in people?"

-Julia Alvarez

The first in my series of literary connections goes all the way back to the beginning of my 100 book goal in 2012.

I frankly have no clue why I added Create Dangerously, by the wonderful Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, to my reading list, but it was one of the first things I read towards my 100 book goal. Perhaps it was my subconscious fantasies of becoming a painter, or my fascination with the way third world countries are presented in literature - either way, it wasn't what I expected when I read it.

Danticat was born in Haiti and moved to the US when she was 12. Her work spans a wide range of subjects and genres - you can find essays, non-fiction, fiction, and all sorts of different things.

Create Dangerously is much more than a memoir or essay collection or a treatise on art. It includes many details of Haiti's dynamic history, the conditions in which Haitian citizens exist - in short, an educational, art focused, real life phoenix from the ashes tale. The most powerful passages tend to be those in which Danticat describes her family and experiences, but the entire book inspired me with its richness, especially because I am so poorly educated about Haitian culture and history. After finishing, I added more books about Haiti and the Caribbean region to my list and moved on.

A few months later, I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was the book I passed out for World Book Day (which just celebrated again last week!). I had never read Junot Diaz before, and while I must admit that the book itself was not my cup of tea, it did present a style of contemporary writing that I was totally unfamiliar with, and also managed to sneakily impart a thorough overview of mid-20th century history in the Dominican Republic (DR) (read your footnotes, kids!). Again, I knew very little of the DR and particularly Trujillo. Trujillo's regime has popped up since in multiple texts and films I've watched, and I can definitely trace my knowledge of him to Diaz. 


Over a year later, I am in the process of reading A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez. A Wedding in Haiti is the perfect (if unexpected) bridge between Danticat and Diaz, and it inspired me so much that I decided to begin a literary connections series on Compendium. 

I added this to my list months ago (likely after reading Danticat), and had forgotten about it until I decided to read something that could make me feel like I was not participating in Minnesnowta's second winter this year.

A Wedding in Haiti is technically a memoir (somewhat like Create Dangerously), but it has the same kind of tangential Carribean history presented in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Alvarez is of DR descent and married to an American citizen. The Alvarez's have a coffee farm in the DR which happens to have several Haitian employees, one of whom is Piti. Early on, Alvarez promises Piti she will attend his wedding, and later has to fulfill her promise.

The rest of the book details her passage to, through, and from Haiti (twice) as she transports Piti and his family. This book puts into stark relief what scholars of Carribean history already know; that the DR and Haiti, although different, are thoroughly unable to be extricated from each other. What happens in Haiti happens again, in a different way, in the DR, and any solution to either's problems must occur in tandem.

The book picks up a lot towards the end, and I appreciated Alvarez's emphasis on the problems with first world solutions to third world problems. How much can one person even accomplish in the face of such staggering problems? Do we get to decide what kind of help is more beneficial to the citizens of Haiti (and similarly situated nations)? Or should we ask them? What if we disagree? How much should we sacrifice?

My friends and I have often discussed the disconnect between being a wealthy Western citizen who wants to help others and the real needs of people around the world who receive Western aid. Reading a book like A Wedding in Haiti throws that disconnect into immediate focus. One can't help reading books about Haiti, or places like it, without wanting to help 'improve' it somehow. We want Haitains to cure/prevent malaria, have driveable roads, available food at any time, both for our sake and theirs. But how can anyone accomplish this? And is it our job? Where is our line drawn?

"We should be held accountable for our fears, be forced to journey to the hearts of darkness of our own imaginings. We might find ourselves surprised, uttering not 'The Horror! The Horror!' with Joseph Conrad, but 'The Beauty! The Beauty!' with Junot Diaz."                           -Julia Alvarez

Alvarez, Danticat and Diaz all choose to bluntly describe devastating situations in the third world both past and present - poverty, illness, lack of infrastructure, sexual abuse, political persecution - and portray it as beauty through a lense of hope and joy and goodness. I can't think of any other part of the world in similar straights that I've seen described so hopefully. It's a testament to each of them (and perhaps an indictment of ourselves) that they are able to focus on the good and find ways to leverage it into better futures. I'd love to see more of this perspective, of finding the 'ugly pretty' in bad situations and building it into 'beautiful'. It's a testament to the people of Haiti and the DR that their indomitable spirits have made such impressions on us, and I hope we can do that spirit justice.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Literary Connections

The journey all started with a goal of reading 100 books in a year.

After graduating from college and finding my first full-time desk job, I felt the need to continue some sort of study outside of work. As taxing as the 9 to 5 can be, it felt important to stretch my mind in other pursuits, particularly those that fulfilled my love of literature and reading.

So, I established the goal of reading 100 books on my own time. Goodreads, where I had had an account for a while, was an enormously helpful tool in listing the books I wanted to read as well as the books I had. It counts pages, authors, books, and more, and I became more and more excited as I saw my goal tangibly increasing with each checked-off book.

As I progressed, I realized that the missing link in my initial goal was communicating my thoughts about the things I read and the act of reading itself. As my goal had been to simply read 100 books, I found that there were interesting things I could say about each book but that I was not utilizing any forum to do so.

Something that I don't often find expressed about reading is the importance of discussing it. Reading 100 books is all well and good, but what is the point if you can't find connections between your literary choices and learn from others views as well? I missed the community of readers that I found in my classes in college and the occasional book group.

Another observation that startled me somewhat was how connected all literature is. I tend to add books on my 'to-read' list very randomly. I have no procedure for deciding what books I like to read; I run across them in 'best of' lists, recommendations from friends and authors I respect, and more, and I add them knowing that at some point I will revisit them whether I will remember why or not. It amazed me how many seemingly unconnected texts from authors of all locales and time periods were sharing similar styles, ideas, and more.

This year, in addition to continuing to read more (the goal is page based instead of book based, in the hopes that I will take the time to tackle more difficult and longer works instead of simply tallying books) I am hoping to create a space where I can connect the books I'm reading and the ideas they present and begin to parse out my logic in reading them and the ideas/connections between them that I glean along the way. I hope you will join me in exploring the incredibly vast world of literature out there, and perhaps even to participate in a conversation about it. If anyone has recommendations or thoughts, please feel free to comment - I am always looking for new texts to explore!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Surprisingly Vibrant "Coat"

One of the best parts of being a reviewer is pleasant surprises.

After learning the newest Chanhassen Dinner Theater (CDT) show was going to be Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (JATD) I couldn’t help but wonder - “What are they thinking?! There are so many better musicals they could show that they never have – why return to this campy story?”

I’m so pleased to tell you how wrong I was.

I've seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat before, and I have never liked it. Never. But somehow, the actors at CDT managed to make this one of the most engaging and vibrant performances I’ve seen anywhere in quite a while.

A familiar story to anyone who faithfully attended Sunday school, JATD chronicles the story about Joseph, son of Jacob, and his 11 treacherous brothers. Long story short: Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son, even though he’s the youngest. His brothers are jealous and get rid of him. Jacob hits the bottom of the well – literally – ending up in jail and as a slave. He climbs back out through his supernatural gift at interpreting dreams, leads Egypt out of famine, becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man, and is reunited with his family after saving them from starvation.

As the name might imply, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat features an extremely vibrant ‘technicolor’ set. Costumes, props, and everything in between are all doused with most saturated hues imaginable, the blockiest fonts, the gaudiest fabrics. Somehow, it works, perfectly fitting the deliciously mac-and-cheesy-ness of the acting...

...Which is equally notable. CDT is one of the few theaters I can think of with a truly regular rotation of
actors, and having seen many of them in multiple shows, I can easily affirm that this is some of their most solid work. Veteran Keith Rice is particularly spectacular as an Elvis themed Pharaoh, and although he’s only on stage for ten minutes (Doing the splits! Pinching nipples!) he easily steals the second act.

Jared Oxborough perfectly fits the role of Joseph, with a satiny, strong voice and the physique to match. Jody Carmelli brings some of her Xanadu creamsicle persona to the role of the Narrator, which also fits her well. Together, Oxborough and Carmelli head up a delightful ensemble cast that matches their springy steps and ringing voices with aplomb.

JATD is weeknight-date friendly, running along at a clippy pace that finishes in under two hours including intermission. The bright colors and songs are great for people of all ages, and particularly kids – two from the audience have the opportunity to be actors in the show. As a side note, it is also well worth mentioning that CDT has been tweaking their menu gradually for some time now, and the food is definitely performing at a higher level than the past.

With tickets topping out at $81 for two courses and the play, CDT is the only theater around able to provide dinner and a great show in the same location for a very reasonable price. Chanhassen has done a great job with JATD, and I highly encourage readers to check it out – it’s a great way to find some sunshine indoors in the midst of our snowy spring.

JATD runs from April 5 to August 31. Tickets and pricing for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat can be found here.

Monday, April 1, 2013

To die or not to die?

The Jungle's Deathtrap is a Caper with Ketchup on the Side

Five characters. Two acts. Three deaths. One script.

Countdown to murder commence - Deathtrap, the Jungle's latest dip into intrigue and laughs, is open.

Somewhat reminiscent of the slicked up slasher Scream films, the plot follows a man who fakes one murder in order to commit a real one. Sidney Bruhl (Steve Hendrickson), a murder mystery writer and closet homosexual, purposely fake grad student Clifford Anderson's (Michael Booth) death in order to induce a heart attack in his wife Myra (Cheryl Willis). With Myra dead, Sidney and Clifford are free to move in together and continue working on their plays.

The plot runs smoothly with the exception of the appearance of Helga ten Dorp, a Dutch psychic who predicts the evening's future events down to the clothing each character wears. Although this shakes Sidney and Clifford, they continue as planned and appear to escape without a hitch.

The trouble is, Clifford decides to use the real story of Myra's murder as his next manuscript. Terrified that others will discover his misdeeds and latent homosexuality, Sidney decides to plan another caper to kill Clifford before the news gets out. Clifford does the same, only to serve his own purposes.

Once again, the foibles are interrupted by ten Dorp and Sidney's lawyer Porter Milgrim. Each set of events and interruptions carries a twist that I won't spoil for you, but suffice it to say it keeps you relatively on your toes.

I have seen each of the cast members in various other shows before, and while I can say that they do a good job of moving Deathtrap's plot forward, they are not as inspiring as they have been in other productions. The Jungle seems to be producing a fair amount of mid-modern British murder mystery comedies of late, and while they are fun and provide a nice break from the 'dr-AHma of the-AT-er' that so many plays can often exude, they do begin to feel a bit repetitive after a while.

The set, as is always the case at the Jungle, is luxurious and almost ludicrously detailed, down to moving shadows behind window panes and working fireplaces. The sets at the Jungle are so magical and alive; I've often wished that some of their magic could be sparked into the performances as well.

While Deathtrap may not be the most innovative or terrifying murder mystery around, it is the ketchup and meatloaf of the genre - filling, solidly produced and tasty enough to enjoy anytime. Check it out as a way to fill time on the upcoming messy spring days with a cozy beer or three. Deathtrap runs through May 19, and tickets and more information can be found here.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Reviewed in Brief: Red Resurrected

"Whether she leaves or stays in the wild unknown, there's a place for her."

So closes Red Resurrected, an imaginative new play at Illusion Theater from Transatlantic Love Affair.

As happens with so many locally created shows, Red Resurrected began as a popular offering at the Fringe Festival. Weaving in plot snippets from familiar folk and fairy tale narratives such as Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, it tells the story of a girl compelled to live life outside of the boundaries of her small wooded town. 

Red is marked as a special girl from the beginning, and after she leaves her town to exist in the woods alone she is forever marked apart. For the sake of suspense I'll refrain from divulging exactly why she leaves the safety of the hamlet and what she encounters in said forest, but let's just say that it's a welcome re-imagining of the "witch." In ways, it's also eerily reminiscent of the narrow line women must still tread to avoid criticism and ostracization in contemporary society.

The choreography was literal and poetic, and it (as well as the set) consists entirely of the actors themselves, always clearly communicated what it was intended to symbolize. Highlights include representations of houses and fire. 

The most notable facet of Red Resurrected is the way Transatlantic Love Affairs manipulates their sound effects. Every noise heard throughout the play is produced by the players themselves, and many of them are lushly spontaneous, perfectly attuned to the show's settings. Forest noises are beautiful and at times more appealing than the standard stock sound effects heard in many productions. Music followed suit, with a heavy emphasis on a 'Sacred Harp Singers at Liberty Church' style of a capella vocals.

While Red Resurrected is by no means a masterpiece, it is a great example of how having a little imagination can entirely change the way a play is put together and how an audience receives it. Running at a clippy pace of under 90 minutes, it's a nice way to wait out the remaining snow. The production closes on March 2, so hurry to get your tickets at Illusion Theater while you can.