Monday, May 16, 2016

A Quixotic Quixote

Everyone's favorite bumbling fool returns to the Guthrie's Dowling Studio

Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
Classics are classics for a reason.

There are hot debates in the literary/art world about what establishes the "canon," and those conversations have to be had. But that doesn't mean that work formally considered a part of that canon isn't still amazing, even if it's no long included on the short list of "best works."

Don Quixote is just such a story. In any of its many permutations, Don Quixote is a charming tale about the true key to happiness (belief and imagination, not drudgery and confining oneself to society's expectations) that stands up to the test of time more than 400 years after it was first published. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (IGDQM), the new show running in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie, is just as charming as its predecessor.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
IGDQM takes the original adventures of Don Quixote, in which he battles "giants" (windmills), pledges allegiance to a nearby "noble lady" (farmgirl, who has no idea who he is), and hires a "squire" (cons the loveable Sancho Panza into following him around), and embellishes. It imagines a new (and much happier) ending to the novel and introduces the audience to part two of the original book, which is less familiar to many than the first half.

Four Humor adds a unique spin to this show and they do it with aplomb. You can't help but like Ryan Lear's portrayal of Don Quixote, which includes a fabulous mustache, pillowed armor and an extremely enthusiastic transformation of a broom into a horse. He is utterly charming and perfectly conveys the spirit that makes Don Quixote such a wonderful character, despite his crazy-ness. Brant Miller is equally fabulous as Sancho and punctuates each development with a great punchline.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
Dario Tangelson s hilarious as the narrator and author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. His musings on why and how he constructed the story add a lot of depth to this quick portrayal and set the show up with a smile. The ensemble cast does some good work as well, particularly Adrew San Miguel and Andy Rocco Kraft as the Duke and Duchess, whose snide asides create a true sense of empathy for Don Quixote.

There isn't much set to speak of (just simple white panels that move around as the play progresses), but the show does use some innovative live filming and projection techniques. The projected images are very simple but add a full sense of place to each scene. The costumes are likewise simple but charming, particularly Don Quixote's. His makeshift pillow armor and lampshade helmet indicate his mental state while still somehow appearing rather debonair, and it works.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
It's always good to see old stories get a new face and this is a delightful interpretation of the eternal Don Quixote. It's a great primer to the story if you haven't read it (or don't have the patience to slog through the 1,600 pages or so of the original). IGDQM runs by at a clippy 90 minutes with no intermission and is a family friendly, good time for all. It's only running through March 22, so make sure you check it out! More information can be found by clicking on this link.

A Thoughtful Trouble In Mind

What's old is new again in the new Guthrie offering. 

Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
They say history repeats itself, but maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe history just never changes that much.

That is a huge takeaway of Trouble In Mind, the latest Guthrie offering at the McGuire stage. Trouble In Mind was written sixty years ago by Alice Childress, a luminous author whose career projected much like Toni Morrison's. Both started in relative anonymity and shot to the top of their respective artistic careers soon after delving into their art, and brought unique, vital perspectives as women of color to a whitewashed genre.

Trouble In Mind follows a cast of African American actors as they work in a mixed race cast on a Broadway play. The play they are performing casts each of them in a stereotypical light, and although they are used to having their parts reduced to simple tropes, something about this production sends them over the edge. Tensions run high as rehearsals continue, until finally Wiletta, a 25 year veteran actor who normally keeps her opinions to herself, delivers a powerful monologue about the shameful ways she and her fellow actors of color have been marginalized.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
Margo Moorer is powerful as Wiletta, bringing a calm, grounded center that makes Wiletta's outburst even more striking. Cleavant Derricks provides an equally vibrant partner to Wiletta as Sheldon Forrester, another seasoned actor. Derricks may appear to be clowning around for most of the show, but he brings the audience to a dead silence while relating Sheldon's experience with lynching.

Marcel Spears is eager as new actor John Nevins and portrays Nevins' struggle with the status quo well. John Catron is wholly despicable as director Al Manners and truly demonstrates the insidious nature behind phrases such as "I'm not racist, but...". Chloe Armao (Judy Sears) shows the struggle facing young, more liberally-minded people as they try to find their place between pushing society forward and staying in their lane. Austene Van is sensuous as the fiery Millie Davis; Nathaniel Fuller fully depicts the stereotypical thespian Henry; and Peter Thomson is completely charming as the old theater hand Bill O'Wray, whose Irish heritage lends him a special ability to empathize with the actors of color.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
It was interesting seeing this show after watching the Book of Mormon, where outdated stereotypes of Africans abounded. The mammy/whore/sharecropper/evil-villain types dismantled in Trouble In Mind aren't that different, and they still abound today (The Help/12 Years A Slave/Training Day, anyone?). It was impossible to watch this without reflecting on the fact that for every Shonda Rhimes Superwoman or Cookie kicking ass on network TV, there are dozens more roles that continue to promote dangerous stereotypes of minorities. It was also striking that the racial characteristics of this play could be interchangeable with just about any minority group and the story would still fully apply; that is more than a shame.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
I'm so thankful for people like Alice Childress, Aziz Ansari, Shonda Rhimes and more who changed or are changing the makeup of our art, be it in plays, movies, television, books or more. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

Plays like Trouble In Mind are fighting that single story one step at a time. If you're interested in social justice issues, want to know more about why shows like Scandal and Empire are such a big deal still today, are interested in the Civil Rights era or simply want to see a solid period drama, Trouble In Mind is for you. It's a solidly acted, moving play that will have you thinking long after you leave. It runs through June 7 at the Guthrie; click here for more information or to order tickets.

Friday, May 13, 2016

More Book of Mormon

The popular play visits Minneapolis for a third time

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Context is everything. That is what kept running through my head while watching the Book of Mormon for the first time this week.

Prior to the astonishing success this year of Hamilton, Book of Mormon was known as the most trendy musical out there. It's had more buzz than a beehive and I was so excited to check it out. Scripted by the writers of South Park, Book of Mormon is known for it's equal-opportunity offending and a welcome Adult Swim approach to the musical.

The plot follows a pair of Mormon teenage boys who are sent out on their requisite mission trip. Rather than a "sexy" location like France or Japan, they are sent to Uganda, where their expectations are forced to meet reality. They end up reaching the local population but only by lying about the purpose of their mission and the text of the Book of Mormon. In the process, they discover that strictly adhering to what the church says may not be the best path for the Ugandans or themselves, and strike out on their own.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
This is a talented cast. They are young, enthusiastic and definitely sell the show. Cody Jamison Strand and Ryan Bondy are perfectly set as Elder Cunningham and Elder Price, respectively. They are the yin to each other's yang, bringing the chubby-nerd-sidekick and seemingly-perfect-but-shallow-poster-boy to a full stop. Candace Quarrels has a gorgeous voice as Nabulungi and leads her fellow "Ugandans" through several beautiful tunes. Speaking of the "Ugandans" - they are musically the strongest part of the show but have the fewest solos. I would have loved to see more from them! The brief moment of song at the end of the show after curtain call gave a taste of where they could have gone, and it was glorious.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The sets are also totally far-out. Glittering pink vests, a full on hell-dream scene replete with Hitler and an axe-wielding Satan, shabby huts, and a gleaming Mormon temple edifice, there is something for everyone on set. The choreography is also great, with some excellent tap dancing and high energy toe tapping that will have you grooving in your seat.

Now, back to that whole pesky context thing. Like I said, this was written from the "equal-offender" perspective. And comedy tends to get its biggest guffaws from making fun of people. I get that. Much of this show succeeds in that vein, and that offensiveness is what people tend to love about it so much. And yet...
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
I couldn't help feeling like this show is just lazy, particularly in its representations of Africa. Can you make jokes about gullible non-English speakers, who basically live in the Lion King, or have maggots in their scrotums, and no education? Sure, you can do that. And the mostly white audience loved it. But wouldn't it be funnier if there was a more diverse representation of minorities in the show? Can we have some who are smart, or successful, or don't live in dirty, bug infested houses? Some who have something valuable to teach their "white saviors"? Do they really all need to have AIDS? Because the real Africa contains a huge range of experiences and class and education levels. There was a nuanced array of experiences for each of the Mormon characters - they had needs, problems, successes that were all unique. Could the people of color in the show be drawn with the same nuance, or do they all have to be painted with the wide brush of ignorance?

I know that many people are not looking to think too hard when coming to the big-ticket shows. They want to sit back and enjoy the play and laugh. But I've seen a lot of South Park, and I know that Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone are capable of some brilliantly complex humor. They are so smart, and they can just do better.

Context is everything. If you are a person of color, you may struggle watching this show - we saw several people walk out, and my date (who was African) had some very conflicting feelings. If you're white, you will probably enjoy it - the vast majority of the audience did.

STILL: This is a really talented cast, and they deserve to be seen. Script issues aren't their problem and they really own the material they're given. It's worth seeing them, and you still can - Book of Mormon runs through May 29. Get more information and tickets here.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Likeable Leap of Faith

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Are you born-again? Do you love stories of the lost and sinful coming to redemption? If so, Leap of Faith, the current show at the New Century Theater, is definitely right for you.

Leap of Faith is a musical that follows Jonas, a crooked revival tent preacher, and his sister Sam as they become stuck (in every definition of that term) in Sweetwater, Kansas. With the help of their chorus of "angels," Jonas and Sam intend to swindle the townspeople out of as much money as possible until they can get their vehicles back on the road. The only problem is that the local sheriff, Marla, is on to their scheme from the get-go. The story follows many ups and downs in the tensions between groups, particularly Jonas and Marla, until they reconcile at the end and both Sweetwater and the revivalists leave better than they started.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The cast is culled from a selection of the Minneapolis Musical Theatre troupe, and from the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir. They lend an authentic, down-home characterization to their roles right down to the extras. They also showcase a range of abilities and make the revival setting feel like it really is in Kansas.

Cast standouts included Jill Iverson, the vocal star of the show as Jonas' sister Sam. I wish Iverson had more solos- maybe in future runs? Brandon Jackson brings an R&B feel to his role of Isaiah, the son of choir leader Ida Mae (played with spirit by Sonya Nolen-Moon). As the protagonists, Matt Tatone (Jonas) and Emily Jansen (Marla) have hard-earned chemistry. They seem to have a genuine feeling for each other, and it shows in their scenes.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
I will say that this show is not for everyone. If you're not attracted by overtly religious scenes you may feel a little uncomfortable with some of the content. On the other hand, if you like to see characters grow for the better, overcome obstacles or find love in unexpected places, you will probably enjoy this. Also of note: the cast is occasionally a little overzealous with their vocals. For this show simple is best - it would be nice to leave some of the more Christina Aguilara moments at home.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Leap of Faith is a nice way to mix more community into performances through the Hennepin Theatre Trust. It's sure to be a popular piece with our expansive evangelical community and runs through May 22 at the New Century Theater. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.