Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Queen: In The Heart Of The Beast

May my anger remain real and smaller than my love. 

It's always good to support local art, and original art. I find that displacing myself from traditional performance pieces periodically helps me open my mind and get some new ideas about what is possible in theater and shake up my expectations. It also keeps me from getting bored.

A reliable place to turn for such displacement is In the Heart of the Beast (ITHOTB), the uniquely artisan local puppet theater located on Lake Street. I attended their latest production, Queen, last weekend and it definitely was an eye opener.

Queen follows a grandmother after her grandson is killed. The Grandmother climbs into her grief and experiences it at many levels. Watching the show is like peeling an onion, seeing her search through her imagination and her pain for an answer to explain her grandson's death, an area to displace her hurt, a salve to heal her wounds. These places range from the sky to the bog to dragonflies and guitars and all sorts of other imaginative things.

The performance of Queen is split between a narrator; an acted out tableaux with puppets, masks and a set; and some beautifully performed musical interludes. The music was by far my favorite part of the show. The musicians are not only talented but blend very well, and their voices perfectly capture Grandmother's anguish.

"Rebel woman. It is time to heal the one we came to this realm with. Yah damn self. The wild girl. Let us pray."

The narration and puppetry, however, I struggled with. I love the concept behind this show and the actual handicraft of the puppets is gorgeous. ITHOTB has some true artisans, which is demonstrated not just in the exquisite masques but the incredible use of plain butcher paper, cleverly folded in front of your eyes, to create moving, living characters. It's a little like watching claymation come to life and it's really interesting. The projections, obviously hand-sketched, are also really lovely.
But somehow, someway, the show just didn't feel totally cohesive. I got a little lost in the magical realism portions, and I wonder if this is a show that suffers from just a little too much love. There are lots of great elements here but it can feel really opaque as a viewer encountering it for the first time. I can see this becoming a really tight show with just a little more editing and streamlining of the story.
If you're seeking reaction pieces to the recent police shootings and racial climate or are simply looking for a truly original, locally created piece of art by a highly diverse team, then Queen is for you. It's a complex show with some beautiful passages to offer if you're willing to open your mind to it, or at the very least, provides some gorgeous masques and really beautiful songs to listen to for a little while. It only runs for another week, so get tickets now if you're interested by clicking on this link.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The 2016 Ivey Awards: A Brief Recap

It always takes a while for events to hit their stride, and this year the Ivey awards did. 

Although it's been around for 12 years it's never felt quite so engaging or well organized as it did on Monday night.

It was my third time attending and I have to say that in addition to being more fun than ever (since I'd seen more of the shows and had a great friend come with), there was also a much better mix of entertainment. The hosts for the evening, Regina Marie Williams and Mark Benninghofen, kept the pace clipping by (despite starting a few minutes late the show was done in less than two hours!) and the audience engaged. The set was simple with a creatively lit curtain placed behind a live, on-stage band. And the performance lineup was tighter and better than ever.
Production Winner Glensheen; Photo by Scott Pakudaitis
My favorite performance piece of the night was (naturally) "Sinnerman" from the cast of Nina Simone: Four Women, but since I'm biased I'll give best performance to a group and show I was unfamiliar with: Yellow Tree Theatre did a gorgeous rendition of "On My Way" from Violet to kick off the evening and it was a perfect choice. The vocals were gorgeous and the audience was clearly on board, giving the piece a rousing round of applause. There were also more dramatic excerpts than ever before, including a highly energetic piece from Equus at Theatre Coup d'Etat. I've always been a little scared to check out that show (something about it intimidates me for sure) but there's no denying that the performance was electric.
Production Winner Wizard of Oz; Photo by Dan Norman
The rest of the performances included an excerpt from I'll Eat You Last: A Conversation with Sue Mengers from Candid Theater Company; "Goodbye My Dear" from June by Savage Umbrella; an excerpt from Emilie/Eurydice from Illusion Theater; excerpt from And So It Goes from Dark and Stormy Productions; "Rocky Mountain High" from Country Roads by Plymouth Playhouse; "Hound Dog" from So Blue by The Urban Spectrum Theatre Company; and "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" from Gypsy by Theatre Latte Da.
Production Winner Le Switch; Photo by Dan Norman
Overall it really was an excellent evening, tightly scheduled, accessible, and very diverse. It was so great to see such a wide range of people represented on stage, covering every race, gender, talent and more (Hollywood, catch up to theater already; they're kicking your ass in the representation department). The Emerging Artist Award winner (Trevor Bowen) this year is actually a costume designer, not an actor, which was another great moment; it's always awesome to see the behind the scenes folks represented to the public. I greatly look forward to next year's show and I hope we see more of this kind of programming!
Emerging Artist Winner Trevor Bowen; Photo by Tom Wallace
Kudos to the Ivey Committee; they did a great job this year. And there is also some gorgeous, gorgeous art created for the Iveys this year; make sure to check out the images (which were used on the program) by clicking on this link. 

A full list of winners follows: 

The Wizard of Oz (Children’s Theatre Company) – Overall Excellence
Glensheen (History Theatre) – Overall Excellence
Le Switch (Jungle Theater) – Overall Excellence

Victor Zupanc – Sound Design and Music: Pinocchio (Children’s Theatre Company)
Kevin Fanshaw and Charles Numrich – Acting: Equus (Theatre Coup d’Etat)
Warren C. Bowles – Direction: The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife  (Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company)
Kate Sutton-Johnson – Set Design: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street  (Theater Latté Da)
Jasmine Hughes – Acting: Sunset Baby (Penumbra Theatre)
Ensemble – Acting: Trouble in Mind (Guthrie Theater)
Ensemble – Acting: Now or Later (New Epic Theater)

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Sensational Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen fans should be very pleased....

Photo by Dan Norman.
...With the latest offering from the Guthrie theater. In the tradition of the best Austen adaptations, from Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility to Gwenyth Paltrow's Emma to Clueless to Bridget Jones, the current staging of Sense and Sensibility retains all the Edwardian charm of the period while remaining incisively on point as a piece of cultural criticism that feels right at home in the 2010s.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
Sense and Sensibility follows the foibles of the two eldest Dashwood sisters as they and their mother and younger sister are forced from their childhood home after the death of their father. The girls couldn't be more different; Elinor, the eldest, is reserved and incisive, always thinking five steps ahead. Marianne is emotional and impetuous, reveling in life without care to others' opinions. The girls fall in and out of love with several men throughout the show for completely different reasons, and each learns something unique and important through the problems of her relationships. As these relationships are the entire crux of the story I won't give away their details, but suffice it to say if you've encountered any Austen you probably know about the kind of character these gentlemen possess and how it all rolls out in the end.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
This is a super engaging production for many reasons, the primary being that it features the work of some greatly talented women from top to bottom. It's not only based on a book authored by a woman (Austen) but was adapted for stage by a woman (Kate Hamill), directed by a woman (Sarah Rasmussen), has a predominantly female production team (including the scenic designer, costume designer, vocal coach, dramaturg and both stage managers) and features strong female lead performances (a very Kate Winslet-esque turn as Marianne from Alejandra Escalante and a riveting, pitch perfect performance of Elinor from the exquisite Jolly Abraham. Look out for Abraham; she's the new Gugu Mbatha-Raw and she is going to go places).

This excellent anchor provided by the XX chromosome team is complemented by charming performances from the male half of the cast. Remy Auberjonois is stiffly heartwarming as the upright Colonel Brandon and John Catron *nails* the oeuvre of Colin Firth as Elinor's love Edward Ferrars. Other supporting cast fit their roles as well, including Suzanne Warmanene as Mrs. Dashwood and a completely winning performance from Isadora Swann as the very young sister Margaret Dashwood.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
The set in general is simple but elegant. It appears the bulk of efforts were (smartly) spent on creating a gorgeous parquet floor, the center of which revolves to ingenious effect. For example, to portray a dining room scene each character sits facing the audience from the exterior of the circle and we are able to see each of their dining habits, manners and expressions as the conversation commences. Similarly, a carriage is created out of a settee, a chair, and some artful seating arrangements, set in motion once the floor begins to rotate (this neat trick had the audience break out into spontaneous applause). The blocking is not only innovative but charming and lends a downright modern/abstract feel to the play. It's a simple thing but keeps the set very fresh and clears the audience's attention for the action on stage. Costumes are similarly elementary but gorgeous and each perfectly suited to the character's needs.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
Something about Jane Austen has always felt timeless but this staging felt particularly relevant to me. In an age of constant FOMO, when we are drowning in social media and unsolicited opinions and unable to escape gossip even if we try our hardest, Sense and Sensibility provides a prudent reminder that a) other people's opinions shouldn't make a difference to your personal happiness but also that b) someone is always watching. Live your life as you will and do it with fortitude, but understand that both of these things are true and you will need a thick skin some days when people can't mind their own business.
Photo by Dan Norman.
Jane Austen is one of the first clear feminists left to us by history. Her crystal clear call for female independence, for insisting on featuring a diverse cast of women at the centers of each of her stories, valuing intelligence and resourcefulness over appearance and wealth, unashamed vilification of men who take selfish advantage of women, and general advocacy for all of us to just stop being so damn nosy all the time are poignant lessons in the age of social media and the Stanford rapist (Brock Turner = John Willoughby; we all know it). Aside from being just a delightful staging and really fun ladies night out, Sense and Sensibility has wisdom to pass on. Make sure you enjoy partaking of it - it's worth it. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Love: The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up

TKTBSU is a modern day romantic comedy with something for everyone

I always find Mu Performing Arts' shows so thoroughly original, highly engaging and really thoughtful. Most of Mu's performances also tend to fall in my performance sweet spot of 90 minutes or less**.

Their latest offering is a dark romantic comedy in the stylings of One Day, the enormously popular David Nichols novel published in 2009. The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up (TKTBSU) follows Diana and Max as they meet at age 10 when their parents start dating, and follows their relationship through its many ups and downs afterwards. The story jumps around between short vignettes at a variety of ages ranging from 10 to 38 and the many ways that Diana and Max support each other in between.

TKTBSU covers a lot of territory including marriages, breakups, death, divorce, theft, and other heartbreaking issues. It's this "realness" that gives the show such an edge; I absolutely loved the story. The plot is revolutionary in its mundanity, reflecting all of the pieces of relationships that we don't want to air. TKTBSU is no fairy tale, and there isn't a clear happy ending here. Rather than happily ever afters, the audience is greeted with disagreements, betrayal, death, and other disappointing or dark life events. That's not to say that this play is heavy (it's not, and there are a lot of funny moments), but the comedy is found through the portrayal difficult emotions, rather than instead of them.

Part of the show's success is due to rock solid performances from Sun Mee Chomet (Diana), who is quickly becoming one of my favorite local actors, and Sherwin Resurreccion (Max). Sun Mee and Sherwin have awesome chemistry and it truly feels like they have a deep, loving relationship throughout the show. It would be easy to let such emotional material get fraught with tension and become subject to overacting, but there is a quiet mutual respect between these two that anchors the show and the script's emotional footing, allowing them to probe the depth of the characters' relationship to each other without ever seeming trite or overdone.
The set is innovative as always. It is cleverly constructed of cardboard boxes, which are moved and dug through as the actors find new costumes, constantly shifting between their different ages or making new sets with the objects they find in and around the boxes. Scenes can include snowmen, a noodle shop, a city hall, a messy parent's home, or a grave site. The simplicity of the boxes allows your imagination to run wild. A few clever light displays cut into select boxes adds a more sophisticated element and anchors the setting and the age of the characters through each vignette. I found the simplicity very charming and it shows that you don't need a lot of fancy scenery to put on a great show.

I always highly recommend Mu's performances for the same reason, and it's this: there are few companies doing a better job of telling real life, relatable stories, particularly such stories of a non-white or non-dominant culture experience. The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up is a modern romantic comedy, one that would make a fabulous movie, and one that men and women can both enjoy. As Randy Reyes says in his director's notes:
"Carla Ching wrote a play about something we never see. It's a dark romantic comedy starring two Asian American characters. This doesn't see like such a profound idea until you think about the last time you saw two Asian Americans starring in a romantic comedy in any medium, including movies and television. It's another example of the invisibility of Asian Americans in our country."
Well, invisible no more. The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up is a great show (only showing through one more weekend!) so make sure you see it soon. It adds to the increasing diversity evident in our art and media that is finally beginning to reflect the diversity of the world around us. It's a great show and deserves a big audience - make sure you go! For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

**I know I harp on this but guys I mean it: You can tell a really detailed, beautiful story in a short span of time. If you can't figure out how....maybe you're not cutting judiciously enough? Long stories can be good sometimes but they should be the exception and not the rule. Period.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Humming Along with Bars and Measures

How can I pray for my country when my hands are broken? 

Social movements and the arts have always seemed to stay closely intertwined, and things haven't changed in the 21st century. It seems that the Black Lives Matter movement is inspiring all sorts of innovative programming in the arts these days. The latest to fit in this mold is Bars and Measures (running at the Jungle Theater through October 9), and does it ever have something to say. 

Bars and Measures follows two musically inclined brothers who take different paths in life. Eric is a classically trained pianist who makes a few extra dollars teaching children and accompanying vocalists on the side. Bilal is a fiery jazz musician who is sent to prison after he is caught in an FBI sting at his mosque for donating to alleged terrorist activities. 

The bulk of the show follows Eric as he visits his brother and works to free him from his cell. The two are bonded over music, and teaching and learning jazz music is intrinsic to their relationship. Eric believes fully in Bilal's innocence and holds a very public benefit to raise money for Bilal's legal fees. During the trial, however, recordings are released that seem to directly implicate Bilal. The new evidence leads Eric to seriously question their relationship and creates a deep rift between the brothers. The insightful script packs all of this information into less than an hour and a half; this is a textbook case for why plays/movies/books/etc. don't need to be long to be great. The writing here is wonderful and profound, and it has nothing to do with excessive length.
Photo by Dan Norman.
The cast is a mixed bag. Ansa Akyea is riveting as Bilal, bringing a quiet, deep strength to his role and communicating untold amounts of anguish through mostly silent scenes. Akyea is one of the finest actors the Twin Cities has to offer, and it shows; he can communicate with a glance what many struggle to convey with entire monologues. Darius Dotch is a good match for Akyea as Bilal's brother Eric, and his lively narration and explosive emotion towards the end of the show provides a vibrant foil to Akyea's silent power. The supporting cast doesn't fare quite as well. Taous Claire Khazem is earnest but ultimately a little too tentative as Sylvia, Eric's student and almost love interest. She fares better in a series of cameos as various reporters and lawyers. Maxwell Collyard is okay as Wes the prison guard and several other supporting characters, but doesn't add much beyond the basics to his part. 

The biggest draw of Bars and Measures is the tension between Eric and Bilal, in the chasm between their life choices. On one side is respectability, Christianity and keeping up appearances, working your ass off to do the "right thing," and swallowing your tongue against any dissension that might ruffle too many feathers. On the other is passionate protest, a willingness to follow your beliefs to the grave, switching religions to fulfill political as well as spiritual goals, a total alliance with the downtrodden and against the oppressor. 

The show tends to vouch slightly more towards the latter perspective, and it's that allegiance that makes it so thought provoking. So often we hear from society that Muslims are violent or cruel or oppressive or evil; how often do we hear from the other perspective? How often do we hear from those who are not born in that faith, but choose it instead? How often do we question what it is exactly about American culture that might make a person turn against it and want to destroy it? 

These are uncomfortable things to ask, but it's important to do so as we see cultural movements continuing to challenge the status quo. Life tends to exist outside of the box, in a gray area, and Bars and Measures does an excellent job at probing that space. It's a great show to approach with an open mind to learn something about your assumptions as an American, and to learn a little about yourself. Bars and Measures may feature a heartbreaking narrative but it is not one without hope. That hope is worth seeking, and I hope it's something we continue to fight for. For more information about the show or to buy tickets, click on this link. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Pleasantly Passing Through Pig's Eye

You won't be able to stay in your seat during this infectious show

Did you know that an alcoholically-inclined fur trapper founded St. Paul? No?

Well it's true. Long before St. Paul was the city of gangsters, long before it was even known as St. Paul, it was known as Pig's Eye after the nickname of the man who founded the first distillery in one of the caves by the river.
This neat tidbit of history, as well as a host of other strange but interesting facts, are strewn throughout Passing Through Pig's Eye, the thoroughly unique show being hosted by Park Square Theater and performed by Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum. It's a little bit of everything: a little theater, a little tap, a little jazz, a little comedy, a little modern dance, a little walking tour, and a whole lot of fun.

Passing Through Pig's Eye could easily fall into the trap of being too big for it's britches. It runs at well over two hours (nearer to three, at the performance I attended) and contains what appears to be a random mix of vignettes. It's really a conglomeration of a tap/jazz history of St. Paul, and a totally abstract modern dance piece. Somehow, however, this odd combination works.
I am the first person to complain about shows that are too long, but this supremely talented cast really sells the show. The dancing is straight up phenomenal, and even extras give every toe tap their last drop of energy. This zeal is infectious, and good thing - there is plenty of audience participation to go along with it.

I can't possibly list every individual member of the cast, but I do have to give strong props to Joe Chvala, who created the show and whose touch infects every inch of it. It takes a lot of work to create such a thoroughly original piece and then to get 20+ other people on board to perform it with you. I am totally intrigued by Chvala's inner mind (what *did* possess him to come up with this concept?) and I hope to see a lot more of him. And, I can't emphasize enough: the dancing is AWESOME guys. If you are a dance fan of any stripe, there are steps in here for you. Please check it out.
If you don't have plans this weekend (Passing Through Pig's Eye closes Sunday!!), please make sure to stop by Park Square Theater and check it out. It's such a great way to take advantage of the beauty of downtown St. Paul, the last of our nice weather, and to learn something to boot. For more information or to get tickets, please click on this link.

Cool Volunteer Opportunity: Deschutes Brewing and Second Harvest Heartland

Get your Good Karma in this weekend and volunteer to stop hunger. 

Do you like beer? Are you social justice minded? Would you like to help better your community?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, and you have no plans this Saturday, now you do!

Second Harvest Heartland, one of the leading voices to end food waste and stop hunger in the Twin Cities, is pushing all month to step up their hunger-solving game. In addition to promoting extra volunteer shifts and matching financial donations, they are hosting an incredible event, the Street Pub, on Saturday in partnership with Deschutes Brewery.

The shifts with the most need are posted below in the press release. If you're interested, follow the hyperlinks - it should be a fun event!

This Saturday, September 10, Deschutes Brewery will be bringing their epic pop-up Street Pub to Minneapolis! Enjoy live music, food, family activities and your favorite Deschutes beers. Proceeds benefit Second Harvest Heartland.
We still have 62 volunteer opportunities available. Our greatest volunteer needs are:
  1. ID/Wristband – 7-11 p.m. – 14 open spots
  2. Floater – 7-11 p.m. – 10 open spots
  3. Floater – 4-7:30 p.m. – 6 open spots
Volunteers will receive free Deschutes beer and a Deschutes t-shirt or hat (depending on volunteer position)! Please bring a friend and pass this email onto others who may be interested!
Thank you for joining us to fight hunger!
P.S.  Every hour you volunteer in September will be matched with a $5 donation from Bremer Bank, up to $50,000. Sign up now for a shift in September!