Friday, December 18, 2015

Reviewed in Brief: Purple Cloud

Every now and then a little show comes along that captures your heart. 

So is the case with Purple Cloud, a new, original piece being performed through Mu Performing Arts at the Mixed Blood Theatre.

Written by Jessica Huang, Purple Cloud details the ways that myth and history combine to create our family stories, and how important those stories are to understanding our own identities. Every family has some kind of legend passed on, about someone; Purple Cloud takes those legends and imbues them with life, making a wholly original piece that touches on identity, disorientation, fear, bravery, ingenuity, and so many other things. Purple Cloud is a truly American story and one we need more of; in a time when xenophobia is at an all-time high, it is more important than ever to share stories of our commonalities, our humanity, and our spirits.

Three generations are featured in Purple Cloud: the family's ancestors (four jade pieces played spunkily by Jeannie Lander, Kylee Brinkman, Stephanie Bertumen, and Audrey Park) and Grandfather Lee Huang (Alex Galick); Hapa Girl (Meghan Kreidler); and her father, Orville Huang (Rich Remedios). The cast is entirely solid and moves fluidly between scenes, generations, and stories. Their swift interaction is part of what makes the show so engaging, and it's awesome to have such relatable portrayals of multiple generations, cross genders, etc. on-stage. There is also a lot of gender and character switching, and it's totally effective, proving that anyone should be able to play a part, as long as they can act it well.

Part of Purple Cloud's charm is that it's not over-produced. Sets, lights, and costumes are simple, but leave room for the imagination and still evoke an appropriate setting. My only quibble is that I'd have loved to see something more elaborate for the jade piece costumes (maybe some masques?), but due to the versatility required by each actor playing multiple roles, I understand why they kept things simple.

Purple Cloud is a beautiful play, with the rare kind of script that strikes you instantly with the excellence of its writing. The two hour show time flies by (interspersed with the option of buying some delicious fried rice at intermission!), and it's an awesome way to shake the winter doldrums. It's only running for a few more days, so make sure you go before it closes. What a charming, heartwarming way to end the year.

For more information, please click on this link.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Reviewed in Brief: Cirque Dreams Holidaze

Flashing lights, enormous trees, oversized edibles, jump roping reindeer... all this and more can be found at the Orpheum Theatre during Cirque Dreams Holidaze, a briefly playing, entirely Christmas centered circus show. 

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
For anyone who has seen a Cirque or just a circus show in the last 10 years, many favorite tricks are returning here. There are ribbons, the acrobats on a swing, feats of balance, dancers with impressive costume changes, topsy turvey contortionists, and unfortunately cheesy pop singers.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Two things were of major note for this performance:

  1. There are no safety apparati of any kind. Zero nets, zero harnesses, etc. For some, this can be thrilling to watch; I found it relatively terrifying, but it's extremely impressive nonetheless. These performers are in it to win it and have to go at it with complete confidence, or they'll never make it out alive (literally). 
  2. The music is astonishingly bad. One of the Cirque hallmarks has always been that the music felt otherworldly, Enya-esque, and transported you to another place. I understand that for a holiday show they have to incorporate holiday music, but the corny delivery and strange arrangements are totally cringe-worthy and at times really detract from the amazing feats of the acrobats. Next time, I'd stick with a canned orchestral tape and call it a day. 

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
There are some really great vignettes in Cirque, especially (and surprisingly) those on the ground. My personal two favorites were a deceptively difficult dance performance with reindeer jumping rope and double dutch. The speed with which they move is completely amazing, they looked like they were having a blast, and the routine is HARD. It definitely was hip hop inspired but grew a life of its own, and was really fun to watch.

A routine involving audience members playing sleigh bells and a "conductor" was also unexpectedly hilarious. The conductor clearly knew how to get a rise out of any audience member, and managed to parody the players while still not going over the line into mean-ness territory. Everyone had a great time and it was one of the few pieces that felt truly holiday inspired.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming impression of darkness behind this show. Maybe it's a lack of Vitamin D, maybe it's the presence of clowns, but whatever it was, there was something eerily macabre about this performance. You can totally get a peppy, happy Christmas feeling out of it if you want, but I think those most inclined to enjoy Holidaze are the Nightmare Before Christmas and Slayer fans of the world.

If you're going to go, get tickets fast - tonight is the second and last performance. More information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Black Nativity Depicts the Reason for the Season

Joy, Mercy, Compassion, Peace...Couldn't we all use a little more of that these days?

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra Theater.
I have to admit, Christmas is pretty low on my happiness totem pole.

Between the incessant consumerism, revolving door of the same old story, and inevitably problematic weather, I much prefer hiding in my Grinch-cave and waiting out the season to diving into the parties. Which is not to knock people who enjoy it; I know for most, Christmas is the best time of year. More power to you friends, but I'm going to hole up with my eggnog and call it a month.

That being said, it's always nice to see someone give a run at the season that takes a new path.** Such is the case with Black Nativity, now showing at the Penumbra theater.
Photo courtesy of the Penumbra Theater.
Black Nativity is a retelling of the biblical nativity story through 1960s-era Langston Hughes. Set in an almost call-response format (between brief narrations, there are spiritual choral performances), Hughes imbues the story with his trademark cool; there isn't much to the narration, with the exception of a few beautiful poetic interludes. The Penumbra's version is a shortened edit of the original.

The choir, performed here by Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church choir and led by the spunky, fah-bu-lous Yolande Bruce, takes a short while to warm up but then carries the show away. There is a thoughtful mix of traditional Christmas pieces and some jazzier new versions, but the message is conveyed anyway. Each soloist is excellent, particularly Jamecia Bennet, whose Jennifer Hudson-esque voice brings down the house. Dennis Spears is present (as always, in his most distilled self), as is Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy as the narrator.

There is also some gorgeous, heavily Alvin Ailey-inspired choreography from Uri Sands. I found myself wishing there was a lot more of this; Penumbra, in future productions can you please up the dance ante? The contemporary movements were evocative and inspiring, and I'd love to see more.
Photo courtesy of the Penumbra Theater.
For those of us who were raised outside of the African American community, it behooves us to encounter their traditions, particularly in the current political climate. I'm not an explicitly religious person any more, but it was nice to see the familiar story I grew up with presented in a different way. It was also nice to spend a brief moment away from the hurricane of conflict that exists in the world now and simply enjoy an evening celebrating peace, joy, mercy, compassion, and all the other values that are supposed to define us. Lately it seems we could all use a reminder of that.

Black Nativity runs at Penumbra through December 20; click here to get your tickets.

**I do have to make a quick aside: for many of you in the black community this is an annual tradition, which is awesome. This was my first time, so I'm coming at it with fresh eyes - but know that it could get a completely different look depending on who is in the audience.**