Monday, October 31, 2016

Immerse Yourself in Step Afrika!

What is the beginning? 

Photo by Meredith Hanafi.
Where do we start? Historically it seems humanity's origins are traced back to Africa, back to the jungle and the sand and the heat and the steady, beating heart of unbounded nature.

One of history's greatest tragedies is the forceful severance of one branch of humanity (the white western world) from the rest (people of color, but particularly Africans). Even more tragic is America's original sin of slavery and the horrific way that sin has played forward into modern times.

Thankfully and despite unfathomable obstacles, slaves carried that steady, beating heart of vivacious life from the shores of Africa to the plantations of the South to the gleaming cities of the Northern United States, enriching American culture and adapting their cultural ways into unique and innovative forms of art (see: tap dancing, blues or jazz music, or innumerable other forms of art we now take for granted).

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing the entire above history come to vivid life in Step Afrika! The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence at the Ordway. The performance was a moving portrayal of the history of African Americans from when they were stolen from the shores of West Africa to their twentieth century journey to the cities of the Northern United States (Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, New York City) after the Great Migration. The narrative of the stories is paced based on the painting series called The Migration Series by incomparable painter Jacob Lawrence (you should read this fabulous book - and my review of it - about Jacob Lawrence; more information here).*
Photo by Meredith Hanafi.
The painting series provides a concise guide for narrating the dance and drum portions of the story, clearly taking us from drumming on an African beach to dry cotton plantation fields to the trains that transported freed slaves and sharecroppers to the North to the jazzy urban city streets of Chicago and New York City. It's a slick transition and performed gorgeously by the dance company, who interchanges costumes, instruments and dance steps with total ease. Each era is beautifully performed and stirs the soul. The standouts are the opening drum number, which immediately grabs you by the hips and grips you into the beat that transitions, but never diminishes, throughout the show. Also stunning was a tap dance/Step mix dance series about trains and train stations, performed by three perfectly matched male dancers who left you breathless with their perfectly attuned timing.

By the way, quick stop: if you're wondering what dancing has to do with drumming, why both are imbued with much deeper meaning than being simple performances, and how that has evolved over the years, check out this EXCELLENT TED video. It is five minutes you will never regret spending.

Back to Step Afrika!: Most of the music is rhythmic, provided either by the dancer's steps, drums, poles beaten on the floor, clapping, or some combination of the above. There are a few tracks dubbed in during transitions but honestly typical "music" isn't really necessary here - there is so much creativity provided through the rhythmic performances of the dancers that there is more than enough art to go around. There isn't much of a set to speak of - just those large, projected "paintings" by Lawrence that oversee the proceedings - and costumes are simple, just evocative enough of time periods to help you place the dancers into the appropriate era.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this show - how do you tie paintings to dance? What's the point? - but it took my breath away. It was so creative, so beautifully performed, so fully imbued with the history and story that it told, that it couldn't help but draw you in. I was pleasantly surprised and instantly left wishing that I could see more Step Afrika! performances. It's been a while since they've visited the Twin Cities, and I hope they return again soon. Sadly, there are no more performances of this show at the Ordway, but you can find more information about the tour and the company by clicking on this link. They're based in Washington D.C. and if you're able, please go see them - it's worth every penny.

*As a testament to how amazing Jacob Lawrence is (he's like the African American version of a Matisse/Gaugin mashup. It's totally contemporary and delightful, but with a more serious political undertone), listen to this: he completed the 60 piece Migration Series at the ripe old age of 23, and it was the first major series of his work published. It's proved seminal and a very important visual representation of a lesser-acknowledged portion of American history, and set Lawrence up for entree into some very elite art clubs in an age when black citizens weren't accorded much elite membership to anything. His story is compelling and truly American - I really do encourage you to look into him more. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Pleasing Pericles

Nothing is sacred - and I like it.

Do you like Shakespeare?

Chances are that at some point in your schooling you read at least one of his plays. There's a reason for that: Shakespeare's plays are good. Some of them are REALLY good. They deserve their place in the literary canon, and they do have value today, hundreds of years after they were first written.

That being said: Shakespeare's plays are living documents, not precious treasures set in stone. So it can be really frustrating to go see Shakespeare performed, as you never know what you are going to get. Some productions pull off a full read beautifully, but with most... well, as is always my opinion: a little judicious editing can't hurt.

That's why I am always so thrilled to see Shakespeare performed by Ten Thousand Things, my favorite company in the Twin Cities and easily the best performers of Shakespeare around. Their latest offering is Pericles, a lesser-known adventure tale, which director Michelle Hensley not only cropped down to a tight two hour length but even re-wrote portions of to modernize it a bit. Heresy? Some might say so, but to me it's the best arrangement for comprehension and breathing new life into what could otherwise become a theatrical dinosaur.

Pericles tells the story of Pericles, the king of Tyre, and the mishaps he befalls as he travels throughout life. It begins with a very unsettling quest to find a bride and instead encountering an incestuous, rapey father (King Antiochus). Fleeing the father (and unfortunately leaving the princess to her fate), Pericles decides to travel the world until such time as Antiochus is dead and he is no longer threatened with divulging the evil king's secret. Pericles travels first to Tarsus, where he saves the people from a terrible famine. From there he comes to Pentapolis, where he falls in love with and marries the Princess Thaisa and is very happy for a while.

Antiochus dies and Pericles sets to return home to rule Tyre with his pregnant wife, but unfortunately they never get there. They are beset by a storm while Thaisa goes into labor, and dies in childbirth. She is thrown overboard and the Princess Marina, Pericles' infant daughter, is left in Tarsus on the way home to be raised by the still-grateful royalty there. Everything seems set, except: Marina grows up to be a wonderful woman and rival to the princess of Tarsus; beset by jealousy, her host tries to kill Marina, Marina is kidnapped and sold to a brothel; and Marina takes life into her own hands to save herself from desperate straights. Thaisa is also not dead after she is dumped into the sea, and washes on the shores of Ephesus. She is highly aggrieved at Pericles' quickness in throwing her overboard and becomes a priestess to the goddess Diana. Pericles returns to fetch Marina and is informed she has been killed. He puts himself into silent martyrdom aboard his ship until one day, Marina is brought upon his boat and they are accidentally reunited, as well as reunited with Thaisa thanks to the goddess Diana's intervention.
Complicated, right? I'm pretty sure there are about a dozen places in the above synopsis where you cringed, wondered what the heck was wrong with Pericles, and otherwise had a hard time relating as a modern person. That's what's so great about this production - Hensley has constructed it to be not only a performance but a critique of Pericles and the morals it holds, and it makes the play far more interesting than it would otherwise have been.

It helps that the performers are excellent and the cast is highly diverse. Theaters, take note: no one does diversity and representation better than Ten Thousand Things, and there are quite a few companies that NEED to learn from their process. The parts are perfectly cast, anyone can play an interchangeable role, and their chemistry is off the charts. It's awesome.

Ansa Akyea is quietly wonderful as Pericles, forcing the audience to empathize with him even though his actions are so misguided. Audrey Park is strong as the Queen Thaisa and a good pair with Akyea. Pearce Bunting is terrifying as a series of villains, including King Antiochus; the sailor who petitions to throw Thaisa overboard; Leonine, a murderous henchman; and Bawd, the brothel owner who purchases Marina. Bunting has a distinctly Willem DaFoe vibe (no really, he's a dead ringer), and he completely owns the villainous space for this story.
The standout of the cast is Maggie Chestovich, who plays multiple roles with consuming passion. Chestovich makes every word of the script ring clear as a bell, and her well timed antics not only aid comprehension of the story but provide some much-needed laughter throughout this heavy tale. I've seen her in multiple productions and she's always wonderful - if the only reason you go see this is her, GO. She's amazing. The rest of the cast is also excellent, and you won't be disappointed with their thoughtful performances.

Pericles may not be at the top of most peoples' lists of favorite Shakespeare plays, but this is a version well worth seeing. No one performs Shakespeare better than Ten Thousand Things, and this judiciously and modernly edited version is well adapted to today's needs. It's super affordable and supports a great cause.

I really, really love the mission and execution of Ten Thousand Things and I am totally okay with providing a shameless plug in their favor here. Their productions are excellent, affordable, and most importantly are far removed from the ivory tower we so often think of theater as residing. Ten Thousand Things performs in prisons, homeless shelters, schools, church basements and more, with the lights totally on and little bells and whistles to speak of - just completely excellent performances that take your breath away. Their mission clearly states:
"Ten Thousand Things brings award-winning, high-quality theater to people with little access to the wealth of the arts. This company invigorates ancient tales, classic stories, and contemporary plays through vital, open interactions between actors and non-traditional audiences."
PLEASE, please donate, or if you go, make sure you pay for a ticket. Think of every purchased TTT ticket as a donation to help someone else see the show too (like a pair of Toms shoes) and it is an extremely worthy cause. For more information about Ten Thousand Things, click here; to donate, click here; and to see Pericles, click here to find information and get tickets.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hold These Truths Holds Up

"I seek to live as though what ought to be, is."

Photo by Laura Pates.
Did you know that during World War II, anyone with more than 1/16 of Japanese descent was rounded up and thrown into an internment camp for the duration of the war?

If you did, gold star - you have paid attention and done some independent digging into American history. If not, you're not alone. The stories of places such as Manzanar tend to be swept under the rug. After all, history is a lot easier to tell when a) you're the winner (of the war, the narrative, or whatever the general conflict might be); and b) people tend to follow a government more willingly when they believe it's always the good guy.
Photo by Laura Pates.
That conflict between teaching what's easy and what's right is why shows like Hold These Truths, now showing at the Guthrie, are so important. Hold These Truths is a one man play which tells the story of the childhood, education, and subsequently disappointing growing up of Gordon Hirabayashi, an American Nisei* and one of few who fervently fought the internment of Japanese Americans throughout World War II. It's a thoroughly inspiring story, and is told excellently by Joel de la Fuente, who plays Gordon. One man shows are extraordinarily tough (when is the last time you memorized anything to recite, with verve, for 90+ minutes straight?   ...    I thought so), and Fuente keeps the audience engaged throughout.
Photo by Laura Pates.
In fact, Fuente's greatest talent is to make the audience feel like we are right there in the story. This narrative may not be a well-known one but it is over 70 years old at this point. The excellent narrative style of Hold These Truths prevents it from feeling like a dinosaur. In fact, it seems eerily prescient; haven't we heard a lot of talk lately of rounding up people of another race and sending them "back home where they belong"? Haven't many people of a certain religion lately been facing destruction of property and violent threats as they try to conduct their everyday business?

One of the most powerful moments of this show is the crescendo of Hirabayashi's trial as it reaches, and fails, the Supreme Court. The utter failure (unanimously!) of the highest court in the land to protect citizens' rights due to a nationalist disease is one of the blackest stains on American history within our borders (under only the massacre of Native Americans and slavery), and it deserves not only to be widely known but widely avoided in the future. Fuente beautifully portrays the thorough devastation of such a ruling, as well as the importance of overturning it later, even if it is technically "too little too late."
Photo by Laura Pates.
The set is highly minimalist, consisting of three chairs and an angled window. There are some opaque projections that provide a sort of fluid scrim throughout the show, as well as a few strategic and often used props. Fuente is so engaging that the spare set feels only appropriate; this way, we can focus on his narrative rather than a lavish frontispiece. I do want to give a special shoutout to the many ladies backstage for this production; although we only see one man on stage, there are seven other people behind the scenes helping with costuming/lighting design/sound/etc. who made this run smoothly, and it's exciting to see the majority of them be female. A final note (because I have to, you know I do): I will say that even though this is 90 minutes, it does feel a little long halfway through; but hold on, because the best part of the show is the latter third, and it has a lot to say.
Photo by Laura Pates.
Hold These Truths is an exceptional example of the importance of history. People say they want progress and forward motion - so, let's do it! Let's not repeat the mistakes of the past. Let's not excoriate groups by their races or religions. Let's not isolate communities and try to rid ourselves of them. Let's not let our tribal instincts overrule our commitment to a free, just, egalitarian, safe society. Instead, let's choose a better path. Let's choose a wiser path. Let's choose the constitution. Let's choose each other.

*A Nisei is a person of Japanese descent born in another country (in this case America); first generation immigrants are called Issei.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Jitney at the Penumbra

I forget sometimes what an embarrassment of riches the theater community in the Twin Cities is. 

I've seen a whole lot of shows in the last few weeks, more than usual, and I keep coming away from them with profound reactions. There is a movement of late to provide audiences with meaty, poignant pieces, often addressing themes (particularly political and racial) that affect us today. I don't want my reviews to sound like a broken record...but I am being honest! We have so many awesome companies in this area and the bar has most definitely been raised. There is consistently excellent work making the rounds, and it's a joy to witness.

Jitney, the August Wilson-authored and newest offering from the Penumbra, falls right into that category. Refreshingly set outside of the better-known periods of twentieth century, instead falling squarely in the mid-1970s, Jitney details the stories behind the men who work as drivers in a jitney* shop. Main plot lines follow Becker, the jitney shop owner, and his son Booster after Booster is released from jail; Youngblood, a young driver, and his girlfriend Rena as they navigate their relationship and financial woes; Turnbo, a driver who can't keep his nose out of everyone's business; and other colorful characters such as the driver Doub, pimp Shealy, and Philmore and Fielding, who have struggles with substance abuse.

Two very striking things about the show: 1) this is definitely a period piece, set squarely in the mid-1970s. This was rather delightful for me as we don't see a lot of art set in the 1970s; it also marks a time of stark transition in America for black communities, and Jitney feels like a realistic snapshot of the challenges faced at that time; and 2) this is the most raw language I've ever heard flow from August Wilson's pen. There is no holding back; pimps and hoes, n*****, and all manners of cuss words are strewn throughout this show. As they are used appropriately, as any good profanity should be, they are jarring to hear thrown at the audience. We're not used to hearing colleagues and friends refer to each other in base ways. We're not used to seeing the real effects of trickle down economics, race driven drug policies, segregation caused by the interstate highway system, or system-wide gentrification staring us straight in the face either. All alone, those problems may seem serious but they remain abstract. Jitney jumbles them all together and forces you to stare them in the face, viscerally.
This is the 40th anniversary of the Penumbra Theatre, and they brought back many old hands for this show. James Craven, a 35 year Penumbra veteran, anchors the show as Becker, and he's terrific. He has all the exhausted wisdom and delayed emotional processing a man like Becker should have, and the scenes between Becker and Booster are tightly drawn and fraught with frustration. James Alfred is superb as Becker's son Booster; he brings an unrepentant pride and fierce tribalism to his role, and although we are a little scared of Booster's past and what he might intend for the future, we cannot help but respect his undying strength, thanks to Alfred's inspired portrayal.

Terry Bellamy, an original founding member of Penumbra, is unbearably convincing as Turnbo. I say unbearable because the character IS unbearable, repeating all manner of sexist, misogynistic, small minded nonsense that in today's political climate would not sound out of place. Still, Bellamy manages to make the character somewhat sympathetic; that feat alone should speak to his talent. Jasmine Hughes, a recent Ivey Award winner for Sunset Baby, is vivacious as Rena. There are not enough female roles in this show, and I can't wait to see her in something that gives more room for her talents. Darrick Mosley is well paired with Hughes as her boyfriend Youngblood, and the most eerily contemporary figure. Youngblood's troubles fit right into our contemporary problems with adequately supporting our veterans and the unemployment rate for young people of color; he speaks directly to today's youth.

I'm not sure what I expected from Jitney, but this was much rawer, tenser, more fraught than anticipated. It made me uncomfortable in a good way, and reminded me why I like shows about ordinary folks so much. So much has been said lately about the phenomenon of Trump, but one of the most important things that still seems overlooked is simply that a large percentage of our population feels ignored - they don't see themselves in politics, or TV shows, or literature or news stories, unless they're being excoriated. The community portrayed in Jitney shares those problems, before the 1970s, in the 1970s, and today. Maybe by holding up a mirror, showing more people a real representation of themselves, warts and all, we can all find ways to make deeper connections with each other and deepen our human brotherhood. Jitney runs through November 6. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.
Also, as a PSA: The Penumbra is engaged in an extremely noble pursuit to register as many voters as possible for the election next month. The theater is located in a highly diverse neighborhood, and they encourage anyone interested in this cause to join and help. For more information, click here. 

*A jitney is an unlicensed taxi; modern day folks might think of it as an Uber or Lyft, but without governmental endorsement.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Pensive, but Powerful, Parchman Hour

What do you do when a show punches you right in the gut? 

Photo by Dan Norman.
That was the first feeling I got watching The Parchman Hour, the new show at the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage. Shortly after opening a bus "explodes" on stage; obviously the explosion isn't literal, but the effect is just as shocking and really takes you aback.

It may help to have a little more background. The Parchman Hour is a new-ish play that refers to the time the Freedom Riders - black and white students who rode buses through the American South in the summer of 1961 in hopes of kick-starting racial integration - were put in the Parchman Farm in Mississippi. Parchman Farm (also known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary) is renowned as one of the worst jail systems in the country then and now. Placed on a former plantation, inmates are forced into hard labor and face notoriously cruel treatment. 
Photo by Dan Norman.
The show, then, is anchored with the Freedom Riders in their time at the jail, and interspersed with comedy/music they performed for each other to pass the time, as well as flashbacks to other scenes throughout the Freedom Riders' summer at other locations in the South. It was a highly volatile time in history, years before the passing of the Voting Rights act and other landmark civil rights legislation, and was a major catalyst in affecting public opinion of integration.

It's impossible to watch this show without making at least minor connections with our current Black Lives Matter movement. This show affects you viscerally, getting right into your psyche from the get-go with that shocking explosion, and continues throughout the absolutely GORGEOUS music set throughout. I wouldn't technically label this a musical but it sure comes through with some beautifully performed songs. It's been long enough since the major events of the Civil Rights era that we forget sometimes just how controversial the measures taken - which were often as simple as a black and white person sitting next to each other on a bus or in a diner or at a rest stop - were, and how dangerous a lot of those peaceful protests were for the protesters themselves. It took a lot of courage to push progress forward in the 1950s and 1960s; the problems we face today will require the same kind of courage.
Photo by Dan Norman.
One of the things I liked best about this show is that the casting is all mixed up. This is not just true of the cast itself, which is about equally female to male and white to African American, but that each actor plays multiple parts - for example, a black woman might play a white man, a white woman might play a black woman, etc. etc. Certain parts such as Stokely Carmichael (played with passion by Kory LaQuess Pullam), John Lewis (a staunch but warm Jared Joseph) or James Farmer (relatably acted by Kevin Free) stick with the same actor throughout the show, but other actors shift between roles and it really adds emphasis to the real problem of racism. We're used to seeing photos of black protesters being beaten during marches in the Civil Rights movement. How does the context change when the physical image acted before us is a white man being beaten? A white woman? Does that change how we feel about the "rightness" of the beating? Why would that be? There's a lot to be said for the mix-up and the actors handle the transitions beautifully.
Photo by Dan Norman.
I also have to give a shoutout to the musical stars of the show, Katherine Fried and Zonya Love. Fried has a voice that is straight out of a Gershwin musical. It has some really unexpected peaks and valleys and provides an interesting, almost mournful tone, to the music. For one of the best live voices I've ever heard, turn to Love. You know the first time you saw that scene in Dreamgirls where Jennifer Hudson started singing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going,"and you didn't know who she was and your soul connected with something brand new and really beautiful? That is what it is like listening to Love, every time she sings. Her voice is out of this world good and it really anchors the show. Watch out Aretha - Zonya Love is coming for you!
Photo by Dan Norman.
The set looks like something straight out of the Walker Art Museum; its sheer white walls with the words "Rise Up" carved into the top, the eerie electric pipe slicing through the middle, the monochromatic benches and simple staircase, evoke a postmodern feel that provides both a blank slate for us to view the events of The Parchman Hour and divorces it from territory. Remove the American South context from the show and this could be any street in Minnesota. Again, the effect is to make the moral undertones seem modern and immediate, and it definitely works. Lighting and projections are also used to their fullest possibilities, mimicking explosions, prison lights, headlights, broadcasting photos and videos of the actual Freedom Riders, and changing from bright sunlight to disturbing dusk in minutes. It's really effective and adds a lot to the show.
Photo by Dan Norman.
I wasn't really prepared for the heaviness of The Parchman Hour on a random Tuesday evening. As mentioned before, the opening of the show hits you like a suckerpunch, and the bruise lingers throughout the show. It's a necessary performance though, especially to provide context to the act of peaceful protest, to explain divisions within a political movement, and to help some of us realize that history does repeat itself. There are so many, many parallels between the Black Lives Matter protests of today and the marches and rides of the Civil Rights movement 50 years ago. It behooves us all to remember those protests, to learn from their mistakes and successes - and to try to do better this time around.

The Parchman Hour runs through November 6. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Comedic Camelot

Not Might is Right; but Might FOR Right. Let's be civilized, shall we? 

Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Knights seem to be having a moment these days.

Whether it's Game of Thrones, the Tudors, anything Tolkein based, or even in a weird way Star Wars, stories about knights, chivalry and mystical adventures seem to be more popular than ever.

This is good news for Camelot, the latest offering from the Chanhassen Dinner Theater. Although the musical has been around for decades, it's gotten a slight facelift and fits well into our current cultural context.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Camelot is based on the terrific book The Once and Future King by T.H. White (what was it about fantasy fiction written in the early to mid-twentieth century that is just so enduring?) and tells the story of King Arthur, from his early days as king developing the new code of chivalry and knights of the round table, to the battle to save it from itself later on. It covers quite a wide range of ground in Arthur's back story but focuses mainly on the blooming (and devastating) relationship that develops between Guenevere and Lancelot, eventually ripping the kingdom apart.

I will preface this review by saying that although I love the general fable of King Arthur, this has never been one of my favorite musicals. In the past I've found it something of a dinosaur, a little cobwebby and boring. That's not the actors' fault - just wasn't ever at the top of my list.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
That said, I was impressed by this production and I think they've done a great job of breathing life into the story. It's hard when you're used to modern or Broadway musicals with all of their pizzazz and flashy elements to remember that musicals originated in a much quieter form, and that there is still value in those older books. The thing that struck me most watching this production of Camelot was just how funny it is (I don't remember that from former productions at all). The story itself ends rather sadly, but there are plenty of lighthearted moments, which are heightened by the cast's inability to take themselves too seriously (in a good way). These actors know they're in a caricature of Camelot, but they love it anyway - and that sells the whole show.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
There are some supremely talented cast members who assist with this perception as well, beginning with Helen Anker as Guenevere. Anker was last seen in the Twin Cities in a magnificent turn as Eliza Doolittle at the Guthrie, and she really nails it here. Guenevere can seem like a really pathetic character, but Anker gives her a healthy dose of spunk and a perfect diction to her songs. She's somewhere between the look of Clara Bow, the voice of Julie Andrews and the temperament of Amy Adams. It's a winning mix, and she does a great job.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
David Anthony Brinkley opens the show as Merlyn, and all I can say is: I wish we had more of him. It really sets the tone of a mystical fairy tale, and I missed that influence the second it was gone. Brinkley shows up later as Pellinore, where he has some comedic touches - but I wish it had been Merlyn all the way. Aleks Knezevich plays Lancelot, and he suits the role perfectly. He definitely carries over the overbearing confidence he demonstrated as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, but adds a more selfless spirit this time that adds complexity to Lancelot's spirit. It surprised me but really works, and it helps that Knezevich's voice is glorious. I hope we find a show he can lead in coming productions, because he'd joyfully carry one through. Keith Rice rounds out the anchored cast as King Arthur. Ever the steadfast Chanhassen regular, I thought he was an odd choice initially and a little old for the part. But Rice handles the aging Arthur beautifully, showing the wisdom Arthur gains while retaining his youthful energy, and it worked for me somehow. I wish Rice sang a little more than spoke his songs, but overall he really transfers the regal aspect of Arthur and anchors the show in Camelot itself.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
As always the sets and costumes are gorgeous. The sets include a flickering magical forest (my favorite) and some rich yet minimalist castle pieces, replete with tapestry, gilded furniture and rich coloring. They are simple but convey the sense of the show well. Almost everyone in this show has splendid costumes, but Guenevere's gowns are particularly lovely. The lighting mix is soft and comfy, and the sound mix is one of the best I've heard. Everyone's voice is clearly articulated without being overwhelmingly loud and you can truly understand every word. It really helps the show along and I hope more productions and theaters take note - no one wants to be blasted out of their chairs during a show!!
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
My overall verdict for Camelot? Surprisingly engaging. It's not the best thing I've seen, but it's thoroughly satisfying and leaves you with a smile. There are some terrific cast members and an evening at the Chanhassen is always a good time. One warning: there are some action scenes but this is NOT "The Battle of the Bastards" - if you're going to see a lot of sword smashing, it won't be found here. Don't let that discourage you though, because what this Camelot lacks in swashbuckling it makes up for with a lot of heart.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Camelot also visits us at a particularly good time. King Arthur's determination to create a more civilized society, one that values not "Might is Right" but "Might FOR Right," doing good without reward but for the sake of good itself, is more necessary now than ever. It's a little old-fashioned but comforting to hear, and I found it quite the balm on my political concerns. Camelot runs through February 2017; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

GOOD KARMA: Go Bowling and End Homelessness

Do you like fun? Do you have a conscience? 

If so, please join Aeon for a super cool event on Tuesday which will work to end homelessness in the Twin Cities. The event costs $25/person or $125 for a team and includes tickets for bowling, drinks, networking opportunities, and general fun all around. The most amazing part?

100% of proceeds will go to help end homelessness and support Aeon's work. 

It's an amazing opportunity to have fun while doing good, and supports a really important cause as winter approaches. Please consider signing up! 

About the cause: 

Homelessness is a huge problem facing Minnesotans every day. More than 14,000 Minnesotans experience homelessness on a daily basis, a problem that is growing in the Twin Cities as affordable housing is bulldozed to create space for luxury apartments and condos. Aeon works to create and sustain quality affordable homes that strengthen lives and communities, with the vision that every person has a home and is interconnected within a community. They are committed to creating stability for vulnerable populations and a caring, respectful culture with responsible property management and affordable rent.

Here's a little more information about what Aeon does (and also, check out their website to figure out more ways to get involved)

Aeon was founded in 1986 to replace 350 units of housing that were demolished to build the Minneapolis Convention Center. At that time, Aeon’s board of directors committed to “do affordable housing better than it’s been done before.” That commitment has led to nearly three decades of passionate commitment and efforts to make the affordable housing industry better.
Aeon's first development, Buri Manor, provided 38 units of single-room occupancy apartments for minimum wage earners. Thirty years later, they continue to build quality affordable homes that connect residents to stabilizing resources.
Aeon is committed to providing affordable rent in safe and secure environments with responsive property management. They are also committed to developing an overall respectful, caring culture throughout Aeon apartment homes and across our organization. Driven by the principle that everyone deserves a home, Aeon continues to expand their work in order to work with families and individuals struggling to afford housing throughout the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
Aeon currently serves more than 4,500 adults and children and offers 2,700 affordable apartments and townhomes in secure, safe environments. In 2014, approximately:
  • 88 percent of households served by Aeon earned very low or extremely low incomes at an average of $15,849.
  • 22 percent of homes served formerly homeless individuals.
  • 1,100 residents used Aeon’s Resident Connections to work toward greater stability in their lives and to help create home.

The Last (Fabulous) Firefly

Writing stories well for children is really, really hard. 

Photo by Dan Norman.
I mean you think it's simple right? You just think of some sort of moral lesson, translate it into talking animals, and you're good to go.

Not so fast.

A really great children's story does feature some sort of moral theme or true growth, but it needs to have a little more than that to excel. Something that touches the heart, or connects to the real world, or that demonstrates that even though kids are small in size, the emotions and problems they face can sometimes be very big, and very grownup - and that those problems are surmountable.

Few stories really do this well. The latest show at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, The Last Firefly, is one of them.
Photo by Dan Norman.
The description of the plot is technically simple: Boom, the son of Thunder, leaves home and his mother to find his absent father after a scary man enters Boom and his mother's life. In the process, Boom discovers his own strength and how to carry on.

It's a familiar story right? Single parent, scared child; scared child overcomes growing up and finds inspiration and stability within. This show, though, touches something deeper. I'm not sure how to describe it exactly, but Boom's story feels incredibly contemporary. This is a much more grown-up story, and theme, than we are used to seeing at CTC, but it's done in a way that feels relatable to grownups and small kids alike.
Photo by Dan Norman.
The Last Firefly reminded me a lot, in fact, of Inside Out, the fabulous film released by Pixar last year that was the most sophisticated (yet accessible) explanation to kids of emotions such as loneliness or depression or guilt or fear that I've ever seen. Inside Out was masterful in particular for the way it forced its audience to see life from the main character's point of view, and The Last Firefly reaches the same place of empathy with its audience. Boom is on a quest to find his father sure, and himself; but Boom really finds that place in all of us that is sad and small, and shows us how to inspire ourselves. He also shows us how important it is to verbalize our feelings, express our fears, and face them head on in order to defeat them. It's a really inspiring point and one that is good for many kids to learn.
Photo by Dan Norman.
Boom is played by Ricardo Vazquez, who does a great job of translating Boom's complex emotions into a kid-relatable delivery that doesn't bore adults. Vazquez oozes good intentions and his winning mannerisms definitely lighten the tone of the show.  Boom meets many entertaining characters on the journey to find Thunder. They include Sun Mee Chomet as Monkey. As always Chomet is a delight and her antics lighten the show's heavier themes. Joy Dolo is wonderfully nurturing as the Spider who weaves clouds. The imagery with her character is gorgeous, and also adds a motherly, loving touch that follows Boom on his adventure.
Photo by Dan Norman.
Stephanie Bertumen is the show's most engaging character as Boom's half sister Lightning. Bertumen is fierce and plays her active fight scenes (did I mention there were fight scenes? No? Well, the girl kicks butt and they're super cool. Any kid who likes light sabers will be totally into it) and electrically wired costumes to full effect. I have a very strong feeling 90% of the kids in attendance went home pretending to be Lightning thanks to her dynamic performance. Luverne Seifert rounds out the cast as the villainous Ax and Tree. Seifert is very creepy and very dark, almost a little too much so - the show has a lot of darkness already on its own- but definitely brings home the need for Boom to find someone to protect himself and his mother.
Photo by Dan Norman.
The sets for this show are pretty minimal but have some innovative touches .There are few set pieces, but all are moved by black swathed technicians with fencing masks on. The quick movements from the technicians and their eerie headgear add to the anime vibe of the show. As previously mentioned there are some light up costumes and set pieces, as well as interactive costume pieces (such as the Spider's legs which appear and disappear as she "weaves" clouds with her silk) that have a slightly creepy but not freaky vibe. And who can forget the fireflies themselves, which are caught in a beautiful beehive and provide a striking contrast to the otherwise plain, dark backdrop.

I have a feeling that The Last Firefly is one of those shows that will fly under the radar, and it shouldn't. I was sucked in from the second I sat down, and although the story may feel familiar it definitely is told in an innovative way. I think there's a lot of benefit in treating kids like grownups and not dumbing down tough subjects. Missing parents, threatening adults, fear, learning to trust yourself - those are all really adult themes that are presented in a digestible way for children in The Last Firefly. I know they definitely touched me, and I have a feeling they may have helped at least a few kids in attendance get in touch with themselves as well. I highly recommend this show for both kids and grownups. Please note that it's requested to have kids be age 8 or older to attend. If you want more information about the show, you can find it by clicking on this link.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Just in Time for Halloween: Bluebeard's Dollhouse

Halloween seems to be one of those truly polarizing entities with no middle ground - either you wait for it all year and dress to the nines, or you hole yourself up with Netflix and no lights, hibernating all month until the little ghouls have locked their costumes away. 

Photo by Kym Longhi
I tend to be of the latter camp (true confessions: I have never trick or treated in my life. Not ever), but this year I thought I should get out of my comfort zone. So it was a pleasant surprise to be invited to Bluebeard's Dollhouse, an innovatively staged new production from the Combustible Company currently being hosted at the James J. Hill House. After all, who could hate a show set in one of the most gorgeous historic mansions in Minnesota?

Located somewhere between Ibsen's A Doll's House and Perrault's (author of Mother Goose) instigation of the fairy tale genre (inspiring such writers as the Brothers Grimm), Bluebeard's Dollhouse is a mashup of the horrifying side of traditional fairy tales and the social problem play/novel of the late Victorian era. There are multiple iterations of the characters of Bluebeard, Nora and Thorvald, all of whom cross spaces and time and encounter each other in freshly disappointing ways. There is definitely no happy ending for Bluebeard's Dollhouse; each character has some form of misery that they inflict upon each other and themselves.
Photo by Kym Longhi
Pro tip if you attend this show: you must, and I mean absolutely MUST, do some research prior to attending. At a minimum, check out the Wikipedia listings for the texts the show is based on. The entire performance is out of sequence (and the audience is split into groups, so you can't count on fellow viewers to have the same order or experience as yourself) and characters use the same names for different actors, so it is imperative you have some shred of an idea what is going on or you will be totally lost. For those who are simply interested in the more macabre aspects of the story it may not matter and you can just show up, but if you want to understand what's going on you really do need to do a little research (or at least read through the program).

The performers have creepy vibes down pat, and they appropriately invoke the fall feeling. Unfortunately, however, I got a little lost. Individual performances were compelling and seemed on point as we went through each vignette, but I still somehow lost the greater sum of their parts. It is probably just because this isn't my favorite genre, but I had a hard time following the action and understanding how the characters related. This isn't necessarily the actors' fault, but it would have been nice to have a little more cohesion throughout the show or a little more plot line to really guide viewers through the action. I've read Ibsen and was raised on fairy tales, and I was still lost here and there.
Photo by Kym Longhi
That being said, the James J. Hill House is the perfect setting for this show and I'm glad the Combustible Company is finding a new way to utilize a historic space. It was really cool to be there after hours and enjoy the magnificent paneling and designs, and it definitely added a creepy factor and some necessary period context to the show.

Bluebeard's Dollhouse was a struggle for me but I think it's a perfect fit for horror movie junkies, particularly those who aren't up for something quite as terrifying as an annual trip to the Soap Factory. Even though I lost the story, I appreciated Combustible Company taking a risk and coming up with a totally original piece. It never hurts to add a gorgeous historic setting either. Bluebeard's Dollhouse runs for two more weekends - if you want to check it out, click here to get your tickets.