Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Rise Up O Men Rises to the Occasion

Our second TCTB blogger night was a blast - please join us next time! 

Photo credit: Paul Nixdorf
If you're a theater fan living in central Minnesota, chances are you've heard of the Church Basement Ladies (CBL).

This huge hit, which first premiered at Plymouth Playhouse in 2005, has been making the rounds all over America in various iterations for the last 11 years. The latest and sixth installment, Rise Up O Men, debuted last weekend at Plymouth Playhouse, and it's a keeper.

A disclaimer about demographics should be made here: I found this show hilarious (somehow this is the first CBL installment I've ever seen). I also come from a long, proud tradition of Lutheran families, many of whom grew up in the Midwest in small towns. Ergo, I am perfectly poised to "get" these jokes. If you are not of this demographic you can still enjoy this show - but you may find certain elements of the humor over your head or just plain dumb. You're not wrong; you're just not Lutheran.

Back to the performance. Rise Up O Men is the first in the CBL series to include more than a single male character on-stage. In this show, the men (a pastor and two husbands, Elroy and Carl, as well as a smattering of others) take turns narrating, performing manly maintenance in the church basement kitchen, performing at talent shows, and preparing the church for the town's very special upcoming Diamond Jubilee celebration. The show is loosely centered around the planning and hosting of this Diamond Jubilee celebration, although it feels a little more like a series of small vignettes in the lives of the characters.
Photo credit: Paul Nixdorf
Either way it works. This is a very vanilla show, but that doesn't mean it isn't funny or charming. It plays off of mid-20th century gender stereotypes well, and does a great job of spoofing the small town world of the Lutheran church. The real scene stealers are of course the Church Basement Ladies themselves (Mavis, Karin and Vivian, all played here by the original actresses from the first show in 2005), all of whom hold the show together with their spunk and salty facial expressions.

Janet Paone is the keystone of the show as Vivian, the vengeful Widow Snustad who has a heart of gold despite her snarky, controlling personality. Paone is straight up hilarious in the show's funniest song "Disaster," where she charges into the church basement kitchen, which is full of the men's repair mess, clad in Wonderbread bags and shrieking about the men's invasion of her "sanctuary." It's a total hoot and awesome in a George Bernard Shaw-meets-Wagner kind of way. Greta Grosch is heartily charming as the handy farm-wife Mavis, and her chemistry with Paone is as comfy as American apple pie. Dorian Chalmers is lovely as Karin and plays the 1960s housewife role with ease. All have voices that blend beautifully, particularly in the show's loveliest song "And Now These Three."
Photo credit: Paul Nixdorf
Tim Drake perfectly nails the humble countenance of Pastor and the eccentric nature of Arlo, the church's oldest parishioner. Jeff March is charming as the narrator and Karin's husband Elroy. He's a new addition to the cast but Lutheran humility shines through his role, and I'd love to see him stick around for future productions; he fits in perfectly. Peter Colburn is also a new addition as Carl, the taciturn parishioner with a heart of gold. Colburn nails the hardworking farmer type, and I can also see him heading up future productions (because if one thing is for sure, CBL will continue to be around for a long, long time).

Rise Up O Men is a great show for small town folks who don't mind seeing a slice of their life poked at on stage. It brought back warm memories from my upbringing in a small town (hey there Staples, MN!) and is a creamsicle delight for those who yearn for the days when moms were home, dads worked with their hands, and everyone knew the hymns by heart. For more information on the show or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo credit: Paul Nixdorf
This was also our second ever sponsored Twin Cities Theater Bloggers night. We helped work with the panel of cast members who spoke at the post-show talk back and were hosted for dinner at the Green Mill by Plymouth Playhouse. I was pleasantly surprised at how great the Green Mill food was - I haven't been there in ages and it was totally yummy - and it was so nice to have a chance to group up with fellow theater enthusiasts and commiserate about this and upcoming shows.
I mean...honestly Green Mill, check out that lobster mac! #delish
If you are a fellow theater fan, please follow us on Facebook and get involved! We are always working on more events like this one - which to-date have involved Talk Backs with the cast (this one was fabulous, as the actors had also written the show - we learned everything there was to know!), happy hours in theater lobbies, and monthly Twitter chats themed around local theater. All the information can be found on our Facebook page - please make sure to check it out! And check out the amazing blogs of my fellow writers - they can all be found by clicking on this link.
Our talk backs are so fun - this one was especially great! You should come.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Brave Election Commentary: The Lady and the Trump

Tick one more thing off my bucket list

How have I never been to the Brave New Workshop? How, how, how?!

I have walked by the theater hundreds of times on Hennepin (until last week it was the only theater on Hennepin that I've never visited, in fact), and somehow always thought meh, I can miss it.

Oh how wrong I was!

It turns out there is a thriving comedy scene in the Twin Cities and it is solidly anchored by the good work coming out of the Brave New Workshop (BNW). In addition to their themed events (currently based on the election - more of that coming soon!), BNW provides improv sessions, hosts other comedy performances, and brings innovation workshops to dozens of corporate partners. They participate in monthly charitable based happy hours partnering with Finnegans beer, have been in business for over 58 years, and support a student union that leads students in learning the art of improv. SO. IMPRESSIVE.

So my PSA for the day - if you haven't been to BNW yet, run don't walk! You'll not only see an awesome show, but also support a lot of great work they're doing for the community.

On to the Lady and the Trump, the current feature show running at BNW (through November 5).

This show reminded me a lot of a local, live Saturday Night Live kind of vibe. They are spot-on with their election coverage (as they say, everyone, regardless of which candidate they support, should leave at least mildly offended by the end of the evening), spoofing the major presidential candidates as well as their chief political rivals. Sketches range from showing the average supporter of each candidate to the dreams of Hillary and Donald on their first nights in the White House to musical takes on gender and current events. There are some striking news bulletins (Weekend Update style for SNL fans), and general political shenanigans.

The actors are also great, particularly in the core cast. Ryan Nelson was absolutely hilarious as multiple nefarious candidates, including Donald Trump. He brought a perfect bluster, bravado, and waving tiny hands to his parts. Taj Ruler was also outstanding as a motley crew of candidates. Her standout was Bernie Sanders, but I truly believe she could have played anyone. She was pitch perfect - I can't wait to see more of her!

Comedy has always seemed uniquely suited to interpreting and deflating the mounds of bullshit that politicians love to throw around every election season, and this has never been truer than this presidential year. Both sides have had plenty of awkward moments so far, and BNW faces them with aplomb. My date and I were in stitches throughout the evening, and The Lady and the Trump provided a very, very welcome release from the many depressing stories we've seen on the news of late. I can't wait to see more from BNW, and I highly encourage you to go check it out! It's a relatively inexpensive evening and will provide a much needed comedic respite from the dark issues of our day. Find out more and purchase tickets by clicking on this link.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Help Fund America's First Indigenous Restaurant

Your Good Karma for the day is calling. 

Rabbit, Wild Rice, and Cedar getting ready for a long stew...
This will be short because everything I have to say is much better said in the expose here by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, but: if you're looking for the coolest thing you can do today, it's funding The Sioux Chef Kickstarter.

Why? Let me count the ways:

  1. It supports America's first ever restaurant focusing on Indigenous and Native American foods. 
  2. It's hyper local and sustainable. 
  3. The price point is killer. 
  4. Could there be a more clever restaurant name? (NO. Be honest).
  5. This is the trendiest way possible for you to feed your orthorexia (looking at you Paleos/Vegans/Vegetarians/Locovores).
  6. It doesn't make up for centuries of cultural whitewashing, but it is a step in the right direction. 

Venison roast with wild bergamot, cedar, balsam fir, and maple
I encourage all of you to take your spare $5 (or more!) and trot on over to The Sioux Chef Kickstarter to support this amazing, amazing idea. The Twin Cities already have an amazing food scene; let's help them have a respectful, responsible one too.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Truth Behind Acting Black

This stunning performance perfectly depicts the heart of our race problems in America

I've often heard people question why art matters. When we have small budgets for necessities such as paving roads or education or clean water, why should we make room to fund the arts as well?

It's always hard to answer that question well (even though I powerfully believe supporting the arts means supporting the essence of humanity), but now I know: all I need to do is point such naysayers to Carlyle Brown and particularly his work Acting Black.

Acting Black just completed a brief two-day run at the Guthrie in which all the performances were free and sold out. Held by the Guthrie in response to the Philando Castille shooting and larger Black Lives Matter movement, Acting Black was perfectly poised to spark a necessary, hard conversation about racism in Minnesota. As Artistic Director Joseph Haj said:

"In light of recent local and national events, we gathered as a staff to discuss how we might be most useful to our community in these uncertain times. Carlyle's performance quickly rose to the surface of that discussion. The combination of local artists and the material seemed fitting and appropriate for this moment in our world. We are proud to present this powerful theater piece, and hope it will serve as a springboard to conversation and community building."

And what a springboard it was.
Carlyle Brown masterfully delivered the presentation in a one man performance that quietly seeped through the audience's psyche. He combined an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject with Morgan Freeman's friendly, authoritative demeanor to deliver a powerful history of racist stereotypes and their full perversion of representing minorities in every aspect of society, from advertising to books to television to movies and beyond.

Acting Black combines the best traditions of monologue, historical research, PBS specials and the wisdom of folklore into a densely packed one-hour long performance. As Carlyle said it's really intended to educate a white audience, but also engaged many of the people of color in the room. The focus is mostly on representations of African Americans in media but also spreads to include other minorities such as Native Americans, Latinx, Asian immigrants and more.

The most striking finding of Acting Black is how specifically we can trace the origins of America's racist past. Specific damaging stereotypes such as blackface and the Jim Crow dance go straight to 1829; if we had a time machine we could prevent them from being invented at all. It is incredible to see how these powerful, negative stereotypes were able to spread so widely in an age before internet or even telephones could spread the news. That these stereotypes continue to exist to this day is a shameful reality that we must all work to fix.

And where do we start? That was the focus of the after-performance discussion, which pushed a group of normally shy Minnesotans to reveal some deep fears about our current state. The frank questions and answers were a necessary push to encourage those of us with privilege - who are white, straight, middle or upper class, have higher education - to leverage our privilege to a useful benefit. What do we, who are so well positioned in society, really have to lose by supporting change? Many solutions were offered, the most powerful being to stop the polite "Minnesota Nice" reaction to racist conversation. We must hold each other to a higher standard, and we must start with ourselves and those around us: our families and friends. It's uncomfortable, yes, but until the bodies of our brown brothers and sisters are safe, we cannot stop. In the immortal words of Viktor Frankl:

You may of course ask whether we really need to refer  to "saints." Wouldn't it suffice just to refer to decent people? It is true that they form a minority. More than that, they always will remain a minority. And yet I see therein the very challenge to join the minority. For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best. 

So, let us be alert - alert in a twofold sense: 
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. 
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake. 

Acting Black was a perfectly poised exposition of the importance of using art to explain difficult concepts. It provided an educational platform to spark meaningful progress on some devastating issues facing us today, and I can only hope the Guthrie offers this show again and continues their community gatherings series as planned. Acting Black was a magnificent offering in the wake of Philando Castille's shooting; thank you, Guthrie, for offering that up.