Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A Jiffy "Joseph"

It's the Bible if it were covered in sequins and served with a double gin and tonic

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
And isn't that always a good thing?

If your understanding of the Good Book could use a refresh but you find the typical Old Testament sermons a little dry, look no further than Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, currently showing at the Orpheum.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
One of Andrew Lloyd Webber's first and best known musicals, Joseph follows the story of the man whose obvious position as his father Jacob's favorite was too much for his 11 jealous brothers. Through a series of attempted fratricide, almost-rape and skill at dream interpretation, Joseph lands himself a plum position in Pharoah's court, where his brothers eventually come in repentance and are forgiven for their devious actions.

It's likely to be a familiar story to many of us, and the technicolor wash over this production manages to hide the insanely dark subject matter (I mean how many of us would attempt to kill a sibling and then lie about NOT doing it to our parents? And things get weirder somehow...). This company in particular keeps things moving, with the entire show including intermission clocking in at under two hours - the perfect amount of time for most shows, I believe.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
This clippiness is partly due to the stylings of the excellent Narrator Laura Helm. Helm truly steers the ship of Joseph straight through murky waters and towards its end goal. Her lithe voice shimmys through the story and injects it with the energy it needs to really shine. She is key to this musical's success, and she does a great job.

Also enjoyable is JC McCann as Joseph. McCann tends to stray from his natural abilities - sorry sir, but Christina Aguilara you are not - but he still possesses a lovely voice that suits the part of Joseph quite well. In particular, McCann nails the classic "Close Every Door," ushering the first act towards a heady close.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The ensemble is appropriately enthusiastic, and they sell their costumes like nobody's business. I've not ever been a huge fan of the production design in general for Joseph - I usually find it a little too Age of Aquarius for my taste - but there is some definite eye candy among the ensemble cast and that helps soothe the soul here. They also make excellent use of scrims and projections, adding an oddly comforting cartoonish aspect to the design that modernizes it and makes it feel homey.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Joseph has never been a huge favorite of mine, but this production really brings a fresh take to an age-old story. It's especially appropriate following Easter (if you're into that) and a reminder that although we have our differences, we are all brothers. It's a good thing to keep in mind as we mourn Jamar Clark and find a way to heal our community together.

For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link. Joseph runs through April 3.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Tosca is Quintessential Opera

Pavorotti would have loved this production

Photo courtesy of the MN Opera.
In fact, I'm pretty sure that Dominick Chenes, who plays Mario Cavaradossi, stole his playbook straight from under Pavorotti's nose. His powerhouse tenor rips through the role and shatters every glass in the house, without even sounding breathless.
Photo courtesy of the MN Opera.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Tosca, like many operas, is a tragic love story. The difference here is that although Tosca (the lover of painter Mario Cavaradossi) believes he is seeing another woman, she is mistaken; he is helping a former friend to escape from prison. For revenge, Tosca turns Cavaradossi in, only to find that he is innocent of cheating on her.
Photo courtesy of the MN Opera.
The source of all the confusion is the villain Scarpia, who abuses his position of power to try to ensnare Tosca to be his own lover. Tosca's passion for Cavaradossi outweighs her disgust with Scarpia, and she agrees to spend a night with him if she will free her lover. However, Scarpia backs out of his promise after their foiled night together and kills Cavaradossi after all.
Photo courtesy of the MN Opera.
As always, Puccini provides an entertaining opera, and  it is hard not to feel involved in Tosca and Cavaradossi's drama. This is often thanks to Chenes, but Alexandra LoBianco provides quite the foil as Tosca herself. LoBianco is a worldwide primadonna and shows herself as such in her duets with Chenes. Mark Walters clearly relishes his role as the villain Scarpia, and swaggers around in nefarious opulence throughout the show.
Photo courtesy of the MN Opera.
As always, the MN Opera production team has proven they are some of the most talented around with a knockout set, particularly the golden features of a church in the first act. It is absolutely stunning, particularly when surrounded by the ensemble swathed in period appropriate clothing from the Catholic Church. There's nothing like Italian decadence to feast the eyes on, and Tosca has that in spades.
There always seems to be a fear with comprehension of opera that inhibits people from attending. This really bums me out, because at their core, most operas are no different from your average romantic comedy or soap opera; AKA, you've seen this before and have nothing to fear. The MN Opera is determined to help combat your opera phobias, and they have provided an amazing set of resources on their website and in the program that includes historical facts, biographies, plot synopsis, YouTube clips, Pinterest boards and more (click here to go to their resource section for Tosca). Even if you're not attending the show, it's a fabulous compendium of information; it's worth a perusal.
Photo courtesy of the MN Opera.
This production runs for one more week and Puccini is always fun to watch; make sure you get your tickets now by clicking on this link.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

MUST SEE: Nina Simone: Four Women

I can't rave enough about this. 

Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
I'll just dive right in: Nina Simone: Four Women, the new show at Park Square Theatre, has everything you could want in a play, and they go all the way with it. It is a must see; forget even reading this review and run to buy your tickets now!

Nina follows a day in the life of singer Nina Simone, a once-forgotten vanguard of the Civil Rights movement who is having something of a renaissance moment these days (Netflix did an awesome documentary of her and a much contested biopic is scheduled for release later this year). Simone travels to the southern Baptist church where four young girls are killed in a bombing in 1963. There, she attempts to finish her song "Mississippi Goddamn," one of her most famous hits.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
As the show progresses three more women successively enter the church: Sarah/Auntie, a member of the church and a local maid; Saffronia, a local volunteer with Martin Luther King Jr.'s organization; and Sweet Thing, a pregnant prostitute and childhood acquaintance of Saffronia. Each woman shares a deep pain or social struggle, and each finds healing through the connections they make with each other. This show is tense, fraught with all sorts of drawn lines: lines of color, lines of class, lines of sexuality, lines of geography; but as the women come together, it demonstrates how much power we have when we decide to stop standing alone and find community.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Nina is locally written (by Christina Ham, who has two more shows being produced in the Twin Cities this spring) and absolutely profound. The script would be excellent on its own, but several of Simone's songs are woven into it and the musical punch they pack is intense. In particular, a gorgeous rendition of "Sinnerman" and the final piece that influenced the entire writing of the show, "Four Women," are deliriously beautiful. The show's strength is also it's only weakness - we need more songs! This cast is so talented, and I would gladly watch them sing anything they wanted. 
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Park Square found an inimitable group of women for this performance. Regina Marie Williams is born to play Nina Simone; she has the deep, throaty tone, the anxious tick, the toothy speech mannerisms, and she brings the stage alive. Williams is able to shepherd the audience through deep, sometimes terrifying understanding of the dangerous world the characters inhabit (which sadly isn't much different today). Sarah, played by the equally gifted Aimee K. Bryant, has a spine tingling gospel voice that shatters through the theater every time she sings. Bryant shines through Sarah's learned servile restraint and brings heartaching warmth to her performance. She is a strong, strong partner with Williams, and they anchor the show.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Thomasina Petrus brings a robust soprano and unique perspective to the show as Saffronia, the "high yellow" who is also the only flag-planting civil rights activist. Saffronia's presence displays the deep fission of hurt within the black community regarding traditions such as the paper bag test; her presence exposes the raw emotions felt around politics and privilege, and Petrus helps Saffronia to stand tall. Traci Allen Shannon is much darker than we've seen her before (last seen as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz) here as Sweet Thing, and her youth and enterprising nature bring the story a more modern feel.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Nina Simone: Four Women is an absolute must see. I can think of no better way to celebrate Women's History Month than to view this female written, female produced, expertly acted and goosebumps beautiful knockout of a show featuring four exquisite women of color. If Nina can't move you, nothing will. And Park Square: please bring these ladies back for a concert!! They sing together so beautifully, and we would love to hear more.

Nina Simone: Four Women runs through March 26; find more information and buy tickets by clicking on this link.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Finding New Magic in Beauty and the Beast

The Chanhassen's latest is unexpectedly timely 

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
I have a confession: when I found out Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) was doing Beauty and the Beast, I was disappointed.

No matter that it's been 10 years since the last time they performed this show; I felt like I'd seen it enough to not have to see it again. But I guess I had to discover that it's amazing what fresh eyes will do to a familiar piece.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
I found myself unexpectedly nostalgic as I watched the same story I've been watching since I was a little girl, and found the show to be unexpectedly timely. I'll assume that most readers are familiar with this plot, so I don't need to repeat it. The themes, however, struck me anew and seemed eerily timely for our current political climate: narcissistic, violent villain who will take everything he wants at all costs? Check. A gentle soul and good ruler hidden in ugly beast's clothing? Check. A heroine who is whip-crackingly smart and stands for justice at all costs (and is also gravely underestimated)? Check. A general population of people who are easily stirred to violence and prejudice? Check, check, check.

The Chanhassen hired a ringer cast for this show, and they sell it hook, line and sinker. In fact, it's impossible not to imagine the possibilities of further shows they could do with this cast - Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables please? Think about it CDT.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
Ruthanne Heyward shines as Belle, with the perfect Disney spring to her step and some unbelievably animated hair. Her finest moments moments occur in the second act, with "A Change in Me" and "Is This Home," both of which are gorgeously sung. Robert O. Berdahl is a perfect match for Heyward as the Beast. Berdahl makes the Beast incredibly human despite very heavy makeup, and his lyrical baritone anchors the show. All of Berdahl's solos are wonderful, and unexpectedly moving. This is a different pair than we're used to - Belle is much more confident and brandishes her intelligence like a weapon, while the Beast is far more tender and less confident in himself. It adds new depth to the story and is greatly enjoyable.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
The standout star (how could it not be?) is Aleks Knezevich as Gaston. Knezevich hams it up at absolutely every opportunity and clearly relishes his silly yet sinister role. The best number of the show (unexpectedly "Maison des Lunes" with Lefou (Daniel Hines) and Monsieur D'Arque (David Brinkley)) belongs to him, as his beautiful voice but evil words slithers out of his handsome face. This is a darker Gaston than I'm used to seeing, but he is still very funny - Knezevich knocks his role out of the park, and the similarities between his lines and some of the statements from current presidential candidates will have you giving a double take. Make sure you pay attention to them.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
There is such a wealth of great character parts in this show, and they're all well performed here. Ann Michaels (Babette), Emily Skinner (Madame de la Grande Bouche), Mark King (Lumiere), Keith Rice (Maurice) and Scott Blackburn (Cogsworth) all lend great charm to their parts. Susan Hofflander is remarkable as Mrs. Potts and delivers a ringing rendition of "Beauty and the Beast," causing you to forget all thoughts of Angela Lansbury. It's her finest work yet at CDT and will give you chills.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
A special shout out also has to go to Rich Hamson (costume designer), Susan Magnuson (hair/makeup designer) and Michael Brindisi (artistic director). The Chanhassen is a unique theater space and always has to reinvent what we're used to seeing in Broadway shows when they perform these classics. They have absolutely knocked it out of the park with this staging. The set is simple with very few moving parts, but it gives a sublime feeling of the castle and makes it clear exactly where you are in each scene. The costumes are amazing, and baffling; I honestly can't figure out how the performers get such complicated pieces on and off so quickly, nor where they store them. It's a feat of stage direction, and hats off to this team for some incredible work.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
Sometimes it's easy to forget that children's stories (and children themselves, for that matter) aren't stupid or simple things. They have so very much to offer us and a lot of reminders, especially about behavior, that any grownup could stand to bear every now and then. Kids will love this show, and you should take them - but grownups, make sure that you don't miss the message Belle is trying to send you. It's okay to be smart, it's okay to stand up to bullies, and fighting for good things and better lives for the general population is never wasted time. Beauty and the Beast runs through the summer, so you have plenty of time to check it out. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.

Monday, March 14, 2016

A Reminder: Anyone Can Make Art

I've had this on the brain all weekend...

So I had to share briefly.

A good friend of mine invited me to a performance this past weekend. She didn't even know much about it, so my date and I walked in blindly to the experience, completely unsure of what to expect. Fortunately, we were blown away.

I Am Woman was a one-night-only (for now; I hope they bring it back!) event, which encompassed original work (dance/spoken word/storytelling/drums) by several women of color. Separated into vignettes, each interacted with each other differently, sharing stories of their lives or families, their interaction with art, their struggles with societal norms, and more.

Each piece was beautifully performed, and it was so heartwarming to see multiple generations share the stage. The entire show blew us away and was a reminder to me that sometimes the best, most soul-sating things are the simplest. "Real Art" doesn't exist only in museums and on Broadway stages; it's around us all the time, and we can tap into it at any moment. I Am Woman could have been performed in a living room, a coffee shop, on a street corner, or anywhere else, and it really wouldn't have made it any less impactful.

So, an encouragement: keep writing, keep painting, keep dancing. Let yourself get swept away in the process of creation. You may find some truly amazing things as a result.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Why "The How and the Why"? See For Yourself

This show is what is usually called "white feminism" at its finest

And although I may catch some flak for saying that, I do mean it. Things are going to get real in a second.

Before all that: The How and the Why is an absolutely fascinating play about the relationship between Rachel and her biological mother Zelda, who she finally tracks down after her adopted parents are dead. Both Rachel and Zelda are working in the same narrow scientific discipline of evolutionary biology, and studied at similar schools. The show follows them as they discover more about each other's personal lives and about each other's research. The script is super nerdy, getting extremely technical at points about the theories each woman has developed. I loved it, and it was so refreshing to see a productions of females discussing serious technical matters between themselves. There are a lot of deep concepts to think about after you leave, and a lot of conversation that will deeply resonate with female audience members (the theories are about menstruation and menopause).

As Rachel, Molly Pach brings an earnest emotionality to her role. She vibrates youthful, passionate energy, and she is fun to watch. Pach sparkles on stage and brings her full range to the performance. As Rachel's mother Zelda, Caroline Kaiser anchors the play. She does a wonderful job with steering Rachel even though they know little of each other, and she radiates emotion without a word. Several times Kaiser even comes to the brink of tears, and her nuanced, brave portrayal of a woman who gave up everything for her career is truly touching and unexpectedly sympathetic.

There is a lot to recommend The How and the Why. It's tagline Smart | Engaging | Incisive is apt, and it touches on loads of issues that are important to women but aren't always talked about by, to and for women themselves: abortion, single motherhood, performing well at work in a field dominated by men, breast cancer, strained mother/daughter relationships, getting your period, menopause, and more. It's very nearly an all-female show: the director, author of the play, actors, and most of the production team are all women. In many ways it is so progressive, and it's so important for shows like this to be produced. I think everyone, male and female, should see it, and there's no reason not to - tickets all run under $20 per person.

However, the only time people of color are mentioned (in this case, an African tribe called the Hansa), they are literally called savages. And that is such a shame.

It ruined the show for me. One line. I almost walked out. And that sucks.

I know how nitpicky this sounds, that one line, literally one word, could be that tough. "It's just a joke," I can hear you saying now. "Who cares? It's one line." Most of the audience laughed; why couldn't I?

I think it's such a shame that a show that is working SO HARD to be progressive, that is right on so many fronts, pushing so many boundaries, can be so colonial in it's thinking when it doesn't directly apply to people who look like the main character/writer/director. And that's what I mean by white feminism: There is so much good to be found here but at the end of the day it's meant only for a Certain Kind of Woman. Many people could dismiss all the good the production creates based on that one principle. And I just don't want to buy into that concept.

Additionally, isn't it the mission, spoken or non, of most theaters to bring art to as many people as possible? More and more audiences, productions and reviewers are noting (and lamenting) just how non-diverse they are thanks to huge hits like Hamilton. Sure, financial access is part of the reason that audiences tend to be so white - any glance at general demographics reveals this - but that is not all of the problem. Maybe part of the problem is that people of color don't feel included in the mainstream world of theater, thanks to scripts that equate them to savages. There is a reason Minnesota is known as the king state of microaggressions: we. can. do. better.

This all being said: SEE THIS SHOW. I mean it. It's really good. It is complex, it is visceral, it gets so many things right. It is far and away the best thing I have seen in the New Century Theater, and the production and Hennepin Theater Trust should be proud of the work they have put on.

Just please, when a cultural group is called savages: don't laugh. It's not funny. If the chance happens, campaign that it be written out of the script. It's 2016 guys - we don't have room for that anymore.

For more information about the show and to buy tickets (YOU WANT TO BUY TICKETS, THIS SHOW IS GREAT), please click on this link.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

If/Then Takes Hypotheticals to a Whole New Level

Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you had made different choices? 

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust. 
Maybe taken a trip that you decided you couldn't afford at the time; or dumped that partner when you knew they were wrong for you, instead of waiting two more years; or chosen an out of state college instead of one in-state; or never met your best friend. What if?

That is exactly the question asked by If/Then, the current production running at the Orpheum Theater. If/Then follows Elizabeth through two parallel lives she may have lived, had she made certain choices - one as Liz, who has a passionate love affair with Josh, a soldier and doctor; and one as Beth, a single woman who becomes one of the most successful urban planners in New York City. Both lives are interesting, both lead to success for Liz/Beth, and both have their own unique, difficult challenges.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The concept of this show is absolutely fascinating, and I found myself unexpectedly moved, particularly in Act II when several difficult things happen in Liz's relationship with Josh. That being said, I have to be honest - this show is long. In a lot of ways, it's actually more of an opera than musical - there's very little dialogue or non-musical interludes - and it clocks in at nearly three hours. Die hard theater goers will love this show, and there's a lot to recommend it; reflecting real life and dialogues rather than made-up ones, not shying away from tough issues, a realistic view of life in a big city - but it will take some investment. Worth it, but be aware.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The role of Liz/Beth was originated by Idina Menzel on Broadway, and her involvement was clearly a guideline for casting Jackie Burns, who plays Liz/Beth in this production. Burns has that Menzel-esque soaring voice that made "Let It Go" such a hit and she utilizes is fully here, which is a great thing; the score itself can be a little underwhelming and having some belters definitely helps sell the songs.

As Liz's love John, Matthew Hydzik is sweetly charming. He has a shy but great tone, and brings real heart to the hunky soldier stereotype. Anthony Rapp is endearingly normal as Liz/Beth's friend Lucas, and although his voice isn't classically "Broadway," provides a nice contrast to the rest of the cast. Daren Herbert is beguiling as Beth's love interest, Stephen. Tamyra Gray, Liz/Beth's best friend Kate, is unfortunately out during the Minneapolis run of If/Then; however, Charissa Bertels does an admirable job filling in.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust. 
Another cast note and huge thank you to Telsey+Company, who cast this production: it features a great spread of diversity, both in the roles (ranges of sexuality, interracial dating) and the cast itself, which features a human rainbow. It was SO refreshing to watch a reflection of the real world we live in (especially those of us living in cities), and to see a broad representation of America's faces in the cast. Theaters, please: DO THIS MORE. Audiences want it and it enriches the show - keep moving in this direction.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Liz/Beth's calling as an urban planner is the inspiration for the set, which is themed with construction drawings, city maps and other subtle AEC industry touches. It lends a new, deconstructed feel to the stage, and I loved it. Costume changes are impressively quick, but nothing out of what you'd see in ordinary life. The choreography here is underwhelming, but the show sort of dictates that; there isn't an opportunity for the stereotypical razzle-dazzle kind of number, and that's okay.

If/Then's greatest strength by far lies in the way it shows how glamorous actual, real life can be. When we're in the shuffle of the everyday, it's easy to forget to appreciate how far we have come, how impressive our achievements are, or even to just stop and appreciate the good things in our lives for a moment. There are so many ways to be fulfilled, so many paths to choose, and there is no reason to regret the road you took. If/Then shows us all that there's a reason to take any of the paths available to you; just enjoy the one you get, because you'll only get one chance at it.

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

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Happy International Women's Day!

Where my ladies at? 

Although I firmly believe that EVERY day is women's day, I wanted to mark International Women's Day (and Women's History Month) with a post roundup of all the pieces I've done that prominently feature female artists. And make sure to check out the above TED Talk from Roxane Gay, one of my favorite writers and a true feminist force. How are you celebrating women this month? Feel free to post and let me know.

Sisters Flee North Korea in the Magical Realist You For Me For You
A Production About America's Favorite Stripper Gypsy Rose Lee
An Amazing, All-Female Production of Shakespeare
Guerilla Girls Take Over - and I Love Every Second of It
Lena Dunham on Building an Internet Empire
Women Playing American Icons Elvis and Teddy Roosevelt
Beautiful Describes One of America's Best Songwriters Carole King
Traci Allen Shannon is Radiant in Non-traditional Casting as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz
Sister Act Shines at Chanhassen Dinner Theater
Little Mermaid Lights Up the Orpheum
A Local Version of the Real Housewives Series
Annie is One of My Favorite Broadway Revivals
Mary Poppins Hits It Off
I Discover Miwa Matreyek
Hello Dolly is a Huge Hit
My First - and Favorite - Encounter with Little Mermaid On the Stage
Mamma Mia is Always a Fave
Evita Brings History to Life
Local Faves Shannon Custer and Carolyn Pool at the New Century 
Be the Match Registry Donates to 50,000th Patient
Ballet Prejcolaj is the Most Incandescent Ballet EVER
Dessa Talks About Ethics in Hip-hop
Hairspray is Magic
Dial M for Murder Shows Female Dark Side
Girls Only is for Girls Only
Anne Ulku, Female Font Designer
Women in Letterpress at Zeichen Press

Science and Mummies and Parks, Oh My!

Indulge your inner thanatologist with the new exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota

Photo courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota.
I have yet to meet a person young or old who wasn't obsessed with mummies at some point in their lives. 

Usually this means Egyptian mummies, but not always. For those who possess an inner Egyptologist or mummy obsession, you're in luck: the new exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota has plenty for you to explore. 
Photo courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota.
Mummy exhibits have come around several times, so what makes this one different? The standout element of the current display is technology. There are several interactive locations allowing attendees to zoom in on X-ray scans of unwrapped mummies, discovering what their contents hold past wrapped objects and into bone and skin.  It can be easy to forget the amazing-ness of modern technology since we've become so used to it, and these techniques pose a stark contrast to the ancient objects they study. 
Photo courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota.
There are also some eerily life-like recreations of what some of the mummies likely looked like as living humans. Again, the advances in technology and the astonishing authenticity of the recreations are stunning, and it adds a much needed human element to the exhibit. 

It bears mentioning too that this exhibit is not stuck solely in Egypt. Although Egyptian mummies tend to be the most famous, the first societies in the world known to mummify their dead actually lie in Peru; they began mummifying thousands of years prior to the Egyptians, and the contrasts and similarities between the two techniques are interesting. The stark difference in art style (and size of the remains from modern humans!) are also fascinating, and help the exhibit to feel better rounded. 
Photo courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota.
If human mummies aren't your thing, you're in luck; there are also a number of coffins, burial objects, and mummified animals that accompany this exhibit. The surrounding set pieces are also sturdy and lifelike, great for kids who need an area to run around and objects to touch. The Science Museum has also brought in several staff at strategic locations to help explain further elements of the exhibit in person; their expertise is a useful addition to the exhibit if you're able to snag some time with them. 
Photo courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota. 
The Science Museum is also featuring a new film in the Omnitheater that celebrates our national park system. National parks are a uniquely American concept and have only existed here for a little over 100 years; they have become an integral part of our national identity and provide safe, clean, engaging natural spaces that millions of people visit annually. Minnesota is unfortunately a little isolated from the bulk of our national parks (although we have one in the Boundary Waters!), so it can be easy to feel removed from this environmental treasure. The Omni film really places you as if you're in the parks themselves and provides some beautiful footage that you simply couldn't access in person. It's less dramatic than some of the other Omni films, but is still an engaging one and great for small kids. 
Photo courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota.
It's easy to take the incredible museums the Twin Cities enjoys for granted, and we SHOULDN'T. Not many places have such a rich tradition of museums spanning a wide range of subjects, and the Science Museum of Minnesota always has something new to offer. Kids are sure to enjoy the Mummies exhibit and National Parks film. It's worth a stop if you have some time to spare or need to pass a rainy day. For more information about the mummies exhibit, click here; for the national parks, click here

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Heavy Hearted Dutchman

Penumbra's latest offering shows it's not always fun and games. 

Photo courtesy of Allen Weeks.
They say art imitates life - or is it the other way around?

In any case, the Penumbra is offering two deep reflecting pools in the form of one act plays. There is a LOT to be unpacked in each show, so buyer beware: you will want to do your research before attending. Most theater I find to able to be accessible for anyone who hasn't read/seen/encountered it before, but that is not the case here. You will want to have some history and reference points to help guide you through the performances.

The first play, Dutchman, is a searing critique of white culture from James Baldwin heir Amiri Baraka. A white woman (Lula) becomes intimately involved with a black man (Clay) on a subway train car. Much of Dutchman's power lays in its surprise, so I won't give you more specific information on the plot than that - but trust me, the ending will shock you. In fact, several of the more elderly audience members moved back farther into the audience after intermission to distance themselves from the wrenching display onstage.
Photo courtesy of Allen Weeks. 
Nathan Barlow is excellent as Clay, showing a maturity far beyond his age. Barlow is nuanced, alternately lustful, vicious, guarded and thoughtful, and his subtle performance anchors the rest of the spirited action onstage. As his foil Lula, Kate Guentzel is intensely dynamic. She fully "commits to the crazy" and goes deep into Lula's troubled psyche. Guentzel is horrifying but simultaneously riveting, and her violent actions will leave lingering emotions for any audience member.

Costumes and the set are both simple (suits and a subway) and perfectly suited to the dynamic performances. They show, in fact, that great acting can enlighten without any trappings; a performance is what is made of it. Barlow and Guentzel are powerful in their portrayals here, and their chemistry shines through the simplicity of the subway set. Dutchman can feel like there is some wasted time, but it offers complete and total honesty. As hard as it is to hear, it is also refreshing, particularly in an environment where every element is intended to be artificial.

The second play, The Owl Answers, is a piece by the highly influential Adrienne Kennedy and features a more mythological feel. Though the plot is relatively simple (a woman is born the child of a wealthy white man and his black cooking servant; she is adopted by a local pastor and his wife, and forbidden from attending her blood father's funeral. She imagines herself visiting England, home of his ancestors, while she takes men to her home to sleep with; eventually, she tries to murder one and transforms into an owl), this is a complex show with vivid imagery and a hefty dose of magical realism.

The set is filled with medieval era projections, cage elements, and feathers. The claymaytion-esque masks and costumes are gorgeous, particularly those of the British characters (Chaucer, Shakespeare, William the Conqueror and Anne Boleyn).
Photo courtesy of Allen Weeks. 
As the lead character, Austene Van is able to pierce your emotions, even if you're not fully aware of the meaning of her actions. For the rest, I have to be honest: I found it incredibly obtuse. The Owl Answers is what it appears to be about on face value, but for me, something didn't click. I still enjoyed the performers, the costumes, the set, the whole shebang, but I couldn't tell you how these elements relate to each other. There were some themes I was able to cling to: the question of identity and history, especially of a black person relating to their European heritage; the places of escape that victims of rape or violence or social shunning create for themselves; the many ways a person can feel trapped in a cage, even if they physically aren't locked in anything. I found each of these themes interesting and important, and I think Kennedy had a lot more to say; for some reason however, I just couldn't access it (nor could my date for the night). Everyone needs to approach this show on their own terms, and I think there are many people who would find it very engaging and profound; unfortunately, I had a hard time accessing that deeper meaning.

If you want a night of intense thought, and one that directly relates to the cultural chaos surrounding us (pick one: election, Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, collective history - any of that ties in here), you should definitely attend this duo of plays. It will be hard to watch, it will make you struggle, it will make you uncomfortable whatever your color; but that is what makes theater so much more powerful than film. The tangible reality of live people in 3D living color presenting hard ideas cannot be replaced in any other way. Dutchman and The Owl Answers have had me pondering for days, and in an age of immediate gratification, it's nice to have some thoughts to chew on for a while. For more information about performances of either show, click on this link.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

'You For Me' Is For Us All

Mu's latest production sheds a welcome new light on the refugee experience

Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.
And what a welcome light it is. It's amazing how easily media can overwhelm a conversation, and the current state of refugees is no different. One would assume that the only refugees out there are from the Middle East; while there are many, and their needs are extreme, refugees are constantly entering countries around the world fleeing oppressive governments. One such place is North Korea.

You For Me For You tells the story of two sisters who attempt, at different times, to leave North Korea. The youngest, Junhee, is the impetus for the initial attempt; while she manages to escape, her sister Minhee does not. Junhee travels to America, where she works to save money and gain access to as many American resources as possible in order to return to North Korea to help her sister. Minhee travels through a magical realist period, where she encounters various elements of North Korean society in a fantastic way that allows her to realize the truth and the danger of the society she lives in. Junhee manages to return for her sister, but the price in order to get her out is too high for them to live together again.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts. 
You For Me For You evokes a feeling much akin to Pan's Labrynth, in which the fantasy of magical realism and the strange imagery it provides somehow makes the horror of a real experience feel more true. You can't help but bleed for Minhee, who does everything she can to survive and never seems to catch a break. Part of this is due to a sympathetic performance by Sun Mee Chomet, who perfectly depicts the character's extremely humble attitude. As her sister Junhee, Audrey Park is a fiery pleasure, whose strength is integral to the plot's success. Kurt Kwan is always engaging as the ever-shifting characters encountered in Minhee's fantasy, particularly in a portrayal of a man who makes music out of rice. He has a quiet strength, and it gives the show gravitas.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts. 
The ensemble cast is also enjoyable. JuCoby Johnson is quietly charming as Junhee's almost-love Wade, and he gives her story a solid grounding in American culture and our double standards. Sarah Richardson does a fabulous job of depicting what it is like to be in a country you know nothing of, particularly in language; her garbled passes through "English" shortly after Junhee arrives in America are impossible to understand and bravely force the audience into a new arrival's shoes.

It also bears special noting that this is the first time that this show has been performed using actual Koreans for actors. In addition to being a telling statement of the current state of diverse casting, it's a feature that lends this performance real gravitas.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts. 
The set is gorgeous in this show and full of strength. It immediately evokes the solemn feeling of a Korean temple, and thanks to innovative elements such as interlocking cubes with different designs on each side, or gorgeous lighting over a simple "well," is much more complex than it seems at first sight. This is the Swiss army knife of production design; every element has multiple purposes and can be customized for the scene. It adds a lot to the story.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts. 
You For Me For You continues a completely original and completely enchanting season by Mu Performing Arts. It's a wonderful show full of heart that reframes the argument for assisting refugees, and features some fairy tale style fantasy besides. It's a great show and totally worth a visit at the Guthrie before it closes on March 6 - make sure you check it out by clicking on this link.