Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Clever "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time"

Explore the world with brand new eyes.

Photo by Joan Marcus.
Fellow avid readers may remember A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the overnight success novel by Mark Haddon that swept the literary community in 2003. It's made waves ever since, and currently is showing at the Orpheum (through December 4).

ACIDN (I know the acronym is awkward but it really is far too long to spell out....sorry guys) follows Christopher Boone, a boy with severe autism who is also a mathematical savant, as he attempts to solve the mystery of who killed his neighbor's dog. This mystery unravels relatively quickly as Christopher comes to find that there are far bigger mysteries surrounding his personal life, which he discovers and begins to reconcile. Through this journey he learns much about himself and his capabilities for survival outside of the world of his sheltered family home.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
There is SO much more to say about the plot of this show, but I really don't want to give away the twist if you haven't seen it yet - suffice it to say, it's a doozy, and it will definitely break your heart. Thankfully it will also put you back together, helping you to grow with eyes wide open, as Christopher learns to do.

This show features some very special performances, particularly that by Adam Langdon as Christopher Boone. Langdon captures Christopher's brilliance and savance with thunderous acuity. He is fully, thoroughly committed to his character at all times, and he manages to connect Christopher with the audience despite the barriers of his autism. It's a truly brilliant performance, and if nothing else sells this show, Langdon will.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Maria Elena Ramirez is lovely as Christopher's teacher/guide Siobhan, and is a wonderful paean to those everywhere who dedicate themselves to working with special-needs kids. Ramirez is full of heart, tenderness and humor and knows exactly how to guide Christopher through the real world. She's the yin to Langdon's yang, and their communion works beautifully to help reveal the inner workings of Christopher's mind.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Gene Gillette is great as Christopher's father, showing a wide range of emotions that swing from consuming love to exhaustion to fear to total disgust. He is the pivot on which all action hinges in ACIDN, and he complements Langdon well. Felicity Jones Latta is prickly as Christopher's mother. She does a good job of conveying the difficulty and despair her character must feel, and we can't help but pity her as we are simultaneously disgusted with her actions. The ensemble is tightly choreographed and briskly moves through their scenes, keeping the show moving at a quick pace (even though by the end it clocks out at 2 1/2 hours, it feels fast).
Photo by Joan Marcus.
The most intriguing part of this show for me was the staging, which takes place essentially within a three-sided cube (much like if you were visualizing advanced calculus equations). As a mathematical savant, Christopher draws out his thoughts in diagrams which are replicated on the grid of stage-high light screens. I can only describe them in appearance as a series of small square solar panel-looking items, but they are really a fluid, complex system of lights, projections and storage spaces. The effect is one of Christopher pulling himself, and things, out of deep space and into the immediate present. It's a really stunning backdrop and it's used to maximum effect. The lighting goes hand in hand with this set piece, often coming from within the "cube" rather than on top of it. This gives everything a piercing blue sheen, which combined with strobe lights and potent high beams helps us to understand how jarring experiencing the outside world is for Christopher. It's a tangible way to place us inside Christopher's head and feel what he feels, and it definitely works.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
I will confess that I read this book shortly after it came out and I struggled with it. It felt slow to me and a little bogged down in its own self-importance. This staging strips away most of those extraneous details and leaves us only with the tense core of what A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is really about, questions such as: What defines family? Where should your loyalties lie? Why do we value the things we do? When is lying better than telling the truth? Do we really understand reality, or do we just think we know about it? Christopher's unique, valuable perspective helps us to understand what is truly important and drives home the importance of consequences. He provides valuable life lessons with a magical mindset. It felt good to disappear with Christopher for a while; I'd encourage you to do the same.

A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time runs at the Orpheum Theatre through December 4. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Laugh Your Stockings off with "What the Elf?"

Christmas needs a little comedy. 

Since Christmas is a time of rituals and habits, it can be difficult to make a holiday show seem fresh.

I mean come on, we all love The Christmas Carol and A Christmas Story, but every single year? Sometimes you need to mix it up a little.

If you're in agreement, then please don't hesitate to check out What the Elf?, the new holiday comedy sketch roundup from Brave New Workshop. It opens with a spoof on The Christmas Carol, continues through an eggnog themed twist on Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat Song" and crashes right through an irreverent, modernized look at Jesus' birth.
This irreverence is my favorite part about Brave New Workshop: they never take themselves (or anything else) too seriously. Break character mid-song? No problem. Just tell everyone exactly what you did and start over. Feeling anxious about holiday parties? Just channel it into a sketch about your heart stopping social anxiety and make sure everyone else laughs with you.

That's not to say that nothing is taken seriously, however. A few more politically minded sketches grace this stage, including "Blelf" (the black Elf on the Shelf with the social commentary to match) and the particularly incisive "Game of Life," which gives players of different races different boards, cards, rules, and outcomes. It's hilarious and pointed, and I wish we had more satire like it floating around.
Other key sketch highlights include the "Gift Rapper," an elf-patterned suit coat wearing Gift Wrapper who raps about the wrap; "Santa Wolf," featuring Santa as a werewolf (because holidays are all starting to mush together); and a wonderfully updated version of the "12 Days of Christmas" that includes your parents nagging you about having kids, your father complaining about turning up the thermostat, a drunk friend, an insufferable holiday hipster, and your mother's Country Crock butter tub-clad leftovers.
The usual crew is back again for this show, including a very funny Tom Reed, Lauren Anderson and Ryan Nelson. Denzel Belin is a funny new update from the last performance I saw, and Taj Ruler is easily the standout again with her incredibly funny faces and voices. And there are plenty of seasonal drinks too, so make sure you grab a couple to sip while you snicker.

Tickets to Brave New Workshop are always reasonable, but today they are on sale for Cyber Monday (use the code CYBERMONEY to order before 6 a.m. on Tuesday, November 29. For more information about the show and box office, click on this link. What the Elf? Runs through January 28.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Good Karma: Christmas with a Conscience

I know a lot of us are feeling motivated these days to do something to make a change in the world for the better.

I'm not much a fan of gift guides for giving stuff; this is America after all and I can guarantee that 90% of us have at least a few things (but let's be real it's really more like an entire room's worth of stuff) that we neither need nor use.
My gift of choice (no judging).
So rather than supporting the spirit of capitalism this holiday season, how about supporting some organizations that need your help? You can volunteer or donate, but either way, these groups are working for: healthier and safer communities; civil rights protections; media literacy and position-neutral in-depth journalism; a healthier environment; socially aware art; and general just cool stuff to make the world a better place. Please feel free to suggest any other great groups that I may have omitted - it takes a village!
Education is a huge passion of mine and I love to support organisation helping kids grow. The MN Urban Debate League, hosted at my alma mater Augsburg College, does amazing work with kids in the city to help them gain confidence, learn debate, and become better public speakers. I love their work and they are a great place to focus donations! And while I'm at it, Augsburg College is a great place to send donations as well. They consciously cultivate one of the most diverse student bodies in the country and students always need extra help with scholarships and grants - your money will go far there. Rebound Inc. works with strengthening education and averting the prison pipeline for young African-American men; they're also an awesome place to give to.
Arts Organizations
I am a huge fan of purchasing tickets for plays, museums, concerts, exhibits, or season passes for the same, instead of giving people stuff. This is particularly true for little kids, who usually already have a huge amount of toys but don't often get to go see live theater or events. In that spirit, I definitely encourage you to consider purchasing the three show package at the Children's Theatre Company for the littles in your life - it's an amazing deal. Or if you want to support arts accessibility for everyone, contribute to my favorite company Ten Thousand Things. Their mission is incredible and I'd love to see everyone support it. And Black Table Arts is a collective featuring black artists and helping support their work, which often includes activism and supporting social justice initiatives. Black Table Arts often hosts free events - you can find more here at their Facebook page.
Healthy Journalism
Media literacy is a huge cause I support, particularly in the age of the internet. There is very little to help us sift through the detritus of the web right now so anything that helps provide us with more investigative reports with honest sourcing is a friend of mine. This is a list of organizations trying to do that work; please consider financial contributions to help prevent them from being privatized.
  • Democracy Now is a shining beacon in the current media swamp, providing incredible journalism on vital issues around the world. You will never regret an episode, and it is always available for FREE - help support their work.
  • NPR — local and national. Donate to your local member station.
  • ProPublica—leading some of the best investigative projects in the country, and designing incredible data and tech tools to do it.
  • Center for Public Integrity—Pulitzer-Prize winning reporting on everything from politics to juvenile justice.
  • International Consortium for Investigative Journalists—the folks who brought you the Panama Papers investigation, coordinated by hundreds of journalists across a dozen countries.
  • The Center for Investigative Reporting—they’ve got Emmys, Peabodys, and other awards, plus an excellent podcast, Reveal.
  • The Texas Tribune—pioneering a new approach to state politics and policy reporting, which is desperately needed.
  • Institute for Nonprofit News—a network of small and local nonprofit news publishers, who are usually paying attention to things the big players don’t or won’t.
Religious Organizations
The holidays are obviously a key time for religious organizations to engage donors and volunteers. Despite your personal beliefs, many of these organizations do great work all over the world (just keep in mind that work comes with a message). A sampling of effective organizations includes:
  • Lutheran World Relief: I have some strong family ties to this organization, which was the first Christian organization to provide aid to Palestine after the creation of Israel post-WWII. It's a great organization and near to my heart. They do a really cool gift program around the holidays where you can sponsor wells, buy livestock for farming families, provide families with medicine, or select other unique and truly useful items to give to families in need.
  • Samaritans Purse: If you've ever heard of Operations Christmas Child, look no further; this is the organization that sponsors that initiative, in addition to other acute aide relief initiatives. This is an evangelical Christian organization.
  • World Vision: Most famous for their child sponsorships, World Vision is an evangelical Christian organization tackling poverty around the globe. 
  • CAIR is doing amazing work in America to help dispel some of the taboos surrounding Islam and provide protections for Muslims who are endangered in our current political climate. You can learn more about their mission here. 
  • Afro Deli is a locally owned, delicious restaurant that also donates a portion of all proceeds to community organizations. You get amazing food AND support your local community? Wins all around.
Secular Organizations
If you're just not on board with "the reason for the season," look no further - these are great, international organizations that have been proven to truly give their donations to those in need, and don't come with a message attached.
  • Oxfam features a similar giving program to Lutheran World Relief, and their money goes far - roughly 80% of donations go straight to the causes they're intended to support.
  • If you crave a really personal connection to your donations, consider using Kiva, where you can choose directly the person your gift impacts. Better yet? It's a microloan with a very small chance of default; once the loan is paid back, you can reinvest it in another small business on the site.
  • Campus Kitchens is an incredible group that takes leftover food from school cafeterias and re-purposes it to feed the food insecure, be they senior citizens or kids in after school programs. It's an amazing mission I've volunteered with before and I highly, highly recomomend getting involved. The local chapter at Augsburg College goes way beyond food packaging, and also includes nutrition education, working in a community garden, multicultural holiday meals, and more.
  • I can easily guarantee you that the furthest bang for your buck locally will occur by giving to Second Harvest Heartland. This is another group I've volunteered with, and their impact is staggering. With short, two-hour long donation shifts covered throughout the week, volunteer impact last year alone gave meals to well over half a million people and more than 77 million meals.
  • The Experimental Farm Network is doing incredible work on the East Coast to help revive heirloom species, plant rare seeds from endangered climate zones (for example, they have quite a few items right now from Syria), and help people of color earn property. It's an ambitious mission they perform on a shoestring budget. You can donate and receive seeds from their collection (promised to be interesting!). Definitely check them out.
  • If you believe women's health isn't a niche issue and is actually quite vital to everyone's happiness and success (I do), consider donating to Planned Parenthood. They provide crucial services to women (and men!) of all ages, particularly in rural, under-served communities. They do amazing work and are going to need all the help they can get.
Ongoing Sponsorships
Do you have $20 or so to spare monthly? Then consider participating in an ongoing giving program. The Mocha Club is one such option, asking participants to give up a couple luxury coffees a month to sponsor ongoing aid work in Africa; the donations sponsor community based efforts. To sponsor a child in a third world country (usually for education, sometimes for other needs), give to World Vision (see the religious organization sections above). Or, if you're a fan of subscription services like Birchbox or StitchFix, you can get a 100% locally produced and curated box each month from MinnBox - a truly innovative way to support the local economy. Oh, and each of the products they feature is also eco-friendly and sustainable - they think it through.
Actual Stuff
If you just can't help yourself and simply must buy things for people, consider getting from companies with a strong social service mission. Lego has really committed to supporting social justice issues. Or you can go guilt free and purchase fair trade items from a place like a co-operative store or a fair trade focused website (like this one). I adored local artist Julie Van Grol's series of 100 Badass Women on Instagram in 2016 and she's selling prints of her amazing sketches here. If you want a wider range of options, try Etsy; in addition to getting something original, you can filter to only see products that will donate a portion of their proceeds to charity organizations (click the "proceeds to charity" filter when searching).

Friday, November 18, 2016

Orange Lights up Mixed Blood

Screaming fresh. 

Screaming fresh is the only word I can think to describe the last couple of seasons at Mixed Blood Theatre, which has been producing some truly modern, new stories. It's exciting to see theater describing our contemporary experience, feeling it's way through our increasingly diverse society and holding a mirror up to let us know who we really are. 

Orange, Mixed Blood's latest offering, fits nicely into this pattern. Orange follows an autistic woman named Leela as she travels with her mother from India to Los Angeles to see her father and attend a cousin's wedding. Her parents are estranged, and it is clear upon arrival that Leela's father is not prepared to care for or engage with her. At a wedding party that evening, Leela's cousin "abducts" her to have a reason to escape the family festivities. Leela travels around Los Angeles with this cousin and her boyfriend, acquainting herself with Los Angeles as they visit a series of places Leela's cousin experienced growing up. Leela tends to be ignored or talked down to due to people's assumptions about her autism, but this changes throughout the story as people realize Leela is a complex, thoughtful, caring and self sufficient person who is not afraid to defend herself. 

I'm afraid the above summary doesn't catch the nuance of Orange. This is a show that lingers with you, and although I've thought about it constantly since viewing I still can't quite capture its essence. Orange is a truly thoughtful exploration of life through an "other's" eyes - in fact, Leela is an "other" twice, because of her autism and her status as a foreigner. Seeing America through this lens is striking, and definitely challenges some of our cultural mores - for example, the "coolness" of getting drunk at a beach party, or chasing after a man who is dangerous for you, or staying in a relationship even though you're unhappy. Leela provides us with a defined perspective shift, and I really enjoyed stepping outside of my usual filter and into her world for a while. 

Annelyse Ahmad is wonderful as Leela, giving her what I can only describe as a flat delivery, but with a lot of warmth and nuance. Leela could seem very strange or unlikable but Ahmad helps us see her brilliance and rare qualities. It's a really lovely, subtle performance, and I hope to see Ahmad in more shows. Owais Ahmed (playing all of the show's male characters) and Lipica Shah (playing all of the show's female characters) are also awesome. Their performances bring to mind Tatiana Maslany's incredible work in Orphan Black; each transitions quickly and effortlessly between different characters. This would be a feat in itself, but they also help tease out the range of Leela's emotions and demonstrate how special she is. They are amazing co-performers and really drive the show, unafraid to play un-likeable characters to the enth degree. They have great chemistry and are a good reason to see this show. 

The staging of this show is really unique. The stage is the biggest set piece, flipping up/down/in/out into airplanes, beaches, tide pools, billboards, and more. It's utilitarian, quick between transitions, and still totally imaginative. There aren't many props to speak of and costumes are pretty basic, but that's okay - it keeps the focus on the performers. There are also screens showing all of the dialogue as well as the sketches Leela makes in her notebook as she goes on her L.A. adventure. The sketches are key in helping us see the world through Leela's eyes, and although simple they add a lot to the staging and are key to our understanding of her. 

Orange is a truly unique piece of work about an often underrepresented portion of the population (in theater/arts anyway); people with autism or other mental disabilities, particularly when they are represented in a compassionate, un-condescending way. This world premiere play does a great job of helping us empathize with the "other," putting us in Leela's shoes and showing us the world through fresh eyes. Similar stories like The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime (coming soon to the Orpheum Theater!) are becoming nationwide hits; it is likely we'll see more and more characters like Leela, and that's a good thing. Diagnoses of autism and other disorders are rising every year, and it behooves us to learn a little more about what the world is like for those who live with it. Orange is a beautiful little show that gives us empathy and perspective, two things we desperately need these days - please check it out. Orange is 90 minutes with no intermission and runs at Mixed Blood Theatre through December 4. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Good Karma: Sandwiches for the Homeless

Partner with Finnegans and Brave New Workshop to feed the homeless. 

As we enter a season of thanks and giving, I always like to take a pause and try to find ways to pay it forward.

I've been extremely lucky in my life to always have a backup plan of some kind if something went wrong. Sure, it may not have been luxurious or easy - but I've never been in the position of having nowhere to turn for help.

That is unfortunately untrue for many of our neighbors here in Minnesota, where hundreds of thousands are homeless or food insecure. The need for safe spaces to sleep and ready food to eat is especially acute at this time of year, as temperatures drop, snow eliminates the ability to sleep outside, and reminders of the abundance of others is all around.

So, it's the perfect time to pay it forward for a few hours with Happy Hour Squared, an amazing initiative where participants help package sandwiches to feed the hungry for a few hours when they would traditionally be at a happy hour. Attendees can purchase a beer from Finnegans and have the opportunity to donate to their reverse food truck, which collects non-perishable foods and cash for future giving. The entire event is hosted at the Brave New Workshop space on Hennepin Avenue, and attendees are welcome to stay and see the evening's performance there at a discounted price after the Happy Hour Squared event is over.

The initiative has so far delivered over 70,000 sandwiches; the more people pitch in and spread the word, the more likely it is that the program can spread to other bars and cities throughout the country, which is Happy Hour Squared's ultimate goal. And if you can't make it this Thursday, November 17 (the next time Happy Hour Squared is being hosted), no worries; they repeat this event every month on the third Thursday of the month from 5- 7 p.m.

The sandwiches are distributed by Allan Law, who is famous for driving out every single night (yes that's not an exaggeration - he really does go EVERY NIGHT) between 9 and 10 p.m. to distribute sandwiches to homeless people he finds around the streets in Minneapolis. The results of this deceptively simple effort are staggering; Law has delivered nearly $500,000 worth of food over 175,000 hours of volunteering, just by himself. You can find more information by going to his page here.

There's a full event web page where you can get more details straight from the horse's mouth, which you can find by clicking on this link. I highly encourage you to consider going - it's such an easy, fun way to give back! And it feels really good to do something positive for your community, particularly at a time when everyone's feeling a little fraught over the election results. A recurring event page is up at the Compendium calendar page - feel free to add it to your own calendar to remind you to come.

A word about Finnegans: Finnegans is a delicious, locally produced beer from Minnesota's 10th largest brewing company. All proceeds from purchased brews are reinvested back into the community to feed the hungry, which so far has resulted in  a total impact of more than $800,000 donated. Finnegans is still hoping to have 2016 be the year that total exceeds $1 million, and I believe we can do it! You can see an infographic about how their system works here

A word about Brave New Workshop: Brave New Workshop has been a cornerstone of the comedic community in the Twin Cities for more than 58 years. The club includes live comedy performances, community outreach, classes for corporations, improve and public speaking courses, and more. They have a long history of civic engagement and are one of the most affordable, relaxed places around to find entertainment. I saw my first performance at Brave New Workshop a few months ago - check out my thoughts by reading my review here. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Creative, Cacophonous Cinderella

Kids will roll in the aisles for this modern take on an old tale. 

Photo by Dan Norman. 
Sometimes in life, you need to take a risk and go for something unexpected.

The latest production of Cinderella at the Children's Theatre Company is just such an event. Rather than go with the equally excellent but competing visions of Disney and Rogers and Hammerstein, the Children's Theatre decided to flip the story on its head and go with something entirely new.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
The result is an edgy, modern, physical take on the classic fairy tale that has kids leaping with excitement and their parents rolling in the aisles.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
This Cinderella is narrated on stage by a Victorian family as they celebrate Christmas. This family routinely interrupts scenes (or more literally, covers scene changes) from the Cinderella story to tell jokes, tap and clog dance, and sing some relatively obscure carols. It was a little unexpected at first, but provided a heartwarming holiday feel to the story and provided cast extras with a little more exposure to the audience.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
The Cinderella story itself contains the same plot elements as always. This one focuses more on the stepmother and ugly sisters than Cinderella herself, giving them about 50/50 equal time in the show. This is a great strategy for drawing in kids - they absolutely loved the stepsisters - although as an adult I was yearning for a little bit more of Cinderella and her prince. The stepsisters are steeped in modern pop culture references, singing portions of popular pop hits, telling jokes about local sports teams and dabbing and Beyonce-ing their way across the stage. The kids in the audience LOVED these modern touches and it really got them engaged with the show. It was definitely a smart strategy and something that I hope more kid-centric shows will consider incorporating.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
The cast for this show is wonderful, beginning with Traci Allen Shannon as Cinderella. Shannon has a wonderful warm aura that resonates from the stage, and she is a perfect choice (and role model) in this part. Her talent and warm nature keep the show from getting too "out there" from the original, and her voice perfectly syncs with David Murray (playing Prince Eric). Murray has a Jamie Foxx quality that definitely centers him in swoon-worthy territory, particularly with his excellent cover of Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" (which shockingly every child in the audience knew all the words to. Who knew?). My only quibble with Murray is his wig, which is a little over the top, but I think that was the point - so I'll let it go.

Autumn Ness (the Stepmother), Reed Sigmund (stepsister Dorcas) and Dean Holt (stepsister Pearl) are really the trio to watch here. They are clearly well rehearsed, performing some insanely physical comedic stunts (around an open orchestra pit no less - I had periodic heart attacks watching them!) without a single moment of hesitation. These three are bawdy, sly and just plain funny. They have a collective Three Stooges meets Jim Carrey edge that the kids loved, their Lisa Frank-colored wardrobe is certainly eye popping.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
The ensemble itself is also terrific, weaving in and out of scenes and transitions with aplomb. It's a really diverse group of performers, which was so encouraging to see. It's awesome to have kids see shows that have an on-stage representation of America's real population; the Children's Theatre Company always does an amazing job with this, but I want to keep congratulating them. Companies are diversifying all over the Twin Cities but we can still do better - please keep on!
Photo by Dan Norman. 
The set and costume design, by Eduardo Sicangco, is fabulous and lavish. Beginning with the Victorian carolers who intersperse the scenes, every detail has been thought out down to the last shoelace and top hat. Cinderella's hearth and the palace are truly exceptional sets, not only featuring gorgeous elements but some really striking visual effects (such as mice that move as if they are animated). The stepsisters' costumes are straight out of a Lisa Frank fantasy with spectacularly bright colors, unbelievable proportions and just general excess that works for the characters. Cinderella's ball and wedding gowns are gorgeous and provide any interested party with plenty of fantasy material. It's awesome to see such a rich vision come to life, and hats off to Sicango for creating such a beautiful piece that kids can really engage with.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
There is nothing wrong with abolishing traditions - I am a huge fan of flipping the script - and this Cinderella really fits the bill. It is charming without being too precious, edgy without being trashy, modern without forgetting its origins, lively while still having some heart. There are jokes for parents and kids, and some holiday singing thrown in to-boot. Children's Theatre Company's Cinderella is a marvelous example of the magic that can happen when you dare to ask, "What if?" It's a gorgeous show with a beautiful, diverse cast that perform their socks off. Please go see this show - tickets would make a fabulous gift for whichever holiday you choose to celebrate this season.
Photo by Dan Norman.
Cinderella runs through December 31 at the Children's Theatre in Minneapolis. For more information or to buy tickets, please click this link. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Das Rheingold at the MN Opera

Fantasy fans are going to have a field day

By Mathew LeFebvre.

Do you like Lord of the Rings? The Hobbit? Mythical stories of ancient Nordic and Germanic religions? Beowulf? Fantasy in general?

If you do: then friend, do I have the show for you.

Das Rheingold is kicking off at the Minnesota Opera tomorrow night and it will have nerds squeeing in tandem. It has everything - a mystical ring forged from magic gold; sirens of the water; dragons; magical helmets; dwarf slaves; gods and kings; giants; en-fortressed castles; and a lot more.
By Mathew LeFebvre.
Das Rheingold is the first in the four-opera Der Ring des Niebelungen cycle by Richard Wagner, a pinnacle of operatic history and one can only assume a keystone in the education of J.R.R. Tolkien. The series begins with the story of the Rheingold itself and how it becomes the magic ring of power. This is a winding journey, beginning with a sexually rapacious and thieving dwarf named Alberich who steals the magical gold from some water dwelling Rhine maidens who refuse his advances. While said dwarf is thieving, the fortress of the gods has been completed in a Freudian bargain with some giants who agreed to construct it in return for keeping Freia, one of the goddesses. The gods attempt to get out of this bargain and must steal the magic ring made from Alberich's stolen gold as payment for this construction.
By Mathew LeFebvre.
Said gods (Wotan, better known to Minnesotans as Odin; and Loge, better known as Loki) travel deep into the abyss of the earth where Alberich has enslaved his fellow dwarves to mine gold. Loge tricks Alberich out of the gold and the ring, and brings it back to ransom Freia from the giants. But before they leave, Alberich curses the ring so that anyone who possesses it will be killed. Wotan reluctantly hands the ring over to the giants, and Alberich's curse is fulfilled when the fight and one is killed. The gods are freed of their debt to the giants; the ancient earth goddess Erda warns the gods of their imminent demise; and Loge is left to ponder the decline of the order of things.
By Mathew LeFebvre.
This is a complex story and there is obviously way, way more detail and nuance to the above, but this is the quickest synopsis. The story in its entirety is actually really interesting, and you can read the full summary here if you are interested.

As this is the first of a four part series, there are some structural differences to this opera from the usual. For example, Das Rheingold runs straight through in 2.5 hours without an intermission. This can lead to intermittent moments where the show feels long, but it does help it to pass quicker than a normal opera might. Anyone attending should be aware and plan their beverage allocation accordingly.
By Mathew LeFebvre.
There are some kickass voices in this show. Mary Evelyn Hangley is magnificent as Woglinde, the soprano portion of the Rhine maiden trio. Her voice blends perfectly with the others while at the same time soaring above them, and it's lovely. The leading men, particularly Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Nathan Berg as Alberich, are enjoyable but don't quite reach the point of transcendence. Richard Cox is intensely interesting as Loge and his theatricality keeps you engaged throughout the show - he's definitely a focal point. And Denyce Graves has a stellar moment as the goddess Erda, not only for being unexpected, but because it's so damn nice to see a woman of color on an opera stage! She's dynamic and an inspired choice - I only wish she had a larger part. MN Opera, bring her back!
By Mathew LeFebvre.
I usually fall head over heels for the production design of MN Opera shows. This one left me a little underwhelmed (with the exception of some of the costumes, seen throughout this review), mostly because of the heavy reliance on projectors - I would have liked to see a little more tangible construction of the Rheingold universe materialized in the flesh. Also, an odd camera mechanism filming the giants live on stage as they sing is a little confusing - I get the concept, but it ends up being a lot to look at and a little distracting. That being said, how else are you really going to depict a dragon, or an epic journey through caves at the center of the earth, or a magical floating sky palace all in one show? I get it, and space is limited because the full orchestra is 100% visible on stage for this production. Since it's such a broad orchestration and a larger pit than usual, it's really neat to get a inside look at the conductor and how each instrument relates. Super geeky music fans (*ahem*myfamily*ahem*) will adore this.
By Mathew LeFebvre.
This would be a good "gateway" opera for those who aren't sure if they like the medium or who have never seen a show. Unlike most opera which tends to be about moody, passionate and doomed love affairs, Das Rheingold has a solid footing in fairy tales, magic, lore and mystery. It's really more of a quest tale than anything else, and many viewers (particularly those familiar with Tolkein's work) will find it much more engaging than the usual narratives. It's also part of the best of Wagner's repertoire, and the striking arias and gorgeous, tormented orchestrations will feel very familiar to Bugs Bunny or movie soundtrack aficionados.

I encourage you to give Das Rheingold a shot. It opens tonight and runs through November 20. The MN Opera does an AMAZING job of providing supplementary materials and other events for shows; for the full list of opportunities, synopsis, study guide, costume designs, related events and more, check out their site by clicking on this link.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Poignant "Oldest Boy"

Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions. - Dalai Lama

Photo by Dan Norman. 
I'm pretty sure that a couple decades from now, our kids are going to ask what we were doing last night, on the election of the 45th President. Where were you? Where was I?

At the theater.

In this long, unending, demoralizing slog of an extended campaign season, theater has been a wonderful refuge for me. It's such a positive place to immerse yourself when it feels like things are falling apart. You can escape into new worlds - new, fresh stories; places where all are accepted; places where problems can be resolved peacefully through conversation.

There was no better refuge for me last night than seeing The Oldest Boy, a lovely new play by Sarah Ruhl that is closing out this year's season at the Jungle Theater. The Oldest Boy follows a white Mother and Tibetan Buddhist Father as they learn that their son Tenzin, all of three years old, is a reincarnated Lama of the Tibetan Buddhist faith. Both parents struggle between the idea of letting their son go to be trained as a monk in his heritage, and wanting to keep him in America with them as a normal American child. The play is filled with tension between duty and freedom of choice, the difficulties of interracial relationships (particularly when kids are involved), the importance of passionate love, and the meaning and beauty to be found in true sacrifice.
Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them. - Dalai Lama
This cast is small and intimate, making the show feel as if you're a part of their family too. Christina Baldwin narrates the show as Mother and is extraordinary in the role. She is clear but soft, emotional but strong, and her tearful journey through accepting her son as he is and his place in his culture is moving and profound. Baldwin's tender portrayal guides all of us through the path of becoming open minded towards other cultures, towards raising our children with freedom instead of fear, and truly loving by letting go. It was the perfect antidote to the nasty election raging outside of the theater, and it gives me much hope for the hundreds of people who will see Baldwin's nuanced, vibrant performance.

Randy Reyes is shy and calm as Father. He perfectly shows his character as the bridge - between cultures, between old and new worlds, between the duties of a father and the duties of an acolyte. Reyes is always enjoyable and he grounds Baldwin's performance here. Eric Sumangil is lively and heartwarming as Tenzin's Lama. You can't help but think of the Dalai Lama as Sumangil quietly spreads his smile across the stage, and his performance is gentle and pleasant.
We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves. - Dalai Lama
It's also impossible to talk about the cast without mentioning two unique elements: a Monk, played by Tibetan cultural consultant Tsering Dorjee Bawa; and Tenzin, the reincarnated Lama-son who is actually played by a puppet (who is in turn performed by Masanari Kawahara). Bawa serves several roles in the show, not just as an actor but also a dancer, and his clear insight into the world of Tibet is strewn throughout the settings, costumes, scents (yes this play has a smell!), and more. Bawa's help makes you feel like you are truly in Tibet, and lends a richness to the setting that really enhances the performances. Kawahara is wonderful with the puppet Tenzin. I'm not normally a puppet fan, but Tenzin here is large enough to see clearly and feels very lifelike thanks to Kawahara's youthful performance. This puppet interaction really worked for me somehow and left the focus of the story to be on Mother and Father and their journey as Tenzin's parents, rather than the distraction an actual three year old would have provided on stage.

The set and costumes also have to be mentioned, because they are phenomenal. The first half of the play is focused inside of the family's home in America. It feels familiar but trendy, and comfy enough that I could see myself climbing into it to stay for a while. This is removed in the second act for an absolutely gorgeous set placed in a Buddhist monastery in India. The colorful beams of the temple, prayer flags, smooth floors and vibrant fabrics are totally mesmerizing, as is the light scent of incense as it wafts from the stage into the audience. It is transportive and really lovely - definitely my favorite visual aspect of this show.
Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared. - Buddha
This show really was so timely for me, particularly its Buddhist themes. So much of The Oldest Boy focuses on reincarnation and the cyclical nature of life, as well as the benefits of learning to truly let go and let things be as they are. It was a gorgeous reminder that we are more successful and happier when we live in a world with our palms spread wide open, approaching others with generosity - not with fists clenched to keep everything to ourselves.

I really needed that reminder (I think we all do right now). And aside from its beautiful moral, The Oldest Boy is also simply stunningly original. It has a cultural blend that is fresh and modern and a gentle introduction into Tibetan culture. I loved this original script, the second by Sarah Ruhl in this season at the Jungle. I'm new to her work and so grateful for Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen for choosing to produce her plays; three cheers for doing more original pieces and supporting more women in theater in all positions.

The Oldest Boy closes on December 18; for more information or to buy tickets, please click on this link. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Riveting Raisin in the Sun

Classics are classics for a reason. 

Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
That is immediately obvious after seeing A Raisin in the Sun, currently playing at Park Square Theater.

Lorraine Hansberry's timeless story feels more relevant than ever (if that's even possible) in this gorgeous portrayal, which features an all-star local cast. For those who haven't seen it, A Raisin in the Sun is about a black family (the Youngers) living (and trying to expand beyond) Chicago's South Side. Set entirely within their home, the story follows the matriarch Lena; son Walter Lee and his wife Ruth; and sister Beneatha throughout their daily life struggles. Other folks wander through, including Beneatha's suitors, a man from the white neighborhood the family intends to move to, Walter Lee and Ruth's son Travis, and some local friends of Walter Lee's.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Perhaps what makes this story so compelling (and heartbreaking) is its unassailable normality and the depressing nature of that reality. The Youngers could easily exist today, and their bitterness - about underemployment, exhausting physical jobs, poor health due to lifetimes of incredibly physical work, segregated housing, the struggle to climb out of one's economic class, the inability to trust your friends - is all too often represented in today's news. This is also the Younger family's strength, however; despite all obstacles and the unending sea of disappointments they face, the Youngers constantly climb back up, dust themselves off and sally forth with dignity and class. They are a family built on bedrock, and nothing can stop them.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
I said this is an all-star cast, and I mean it. Aimee K. Bryant opens the show as Ruth, perhaps this production's most relatable character. You can't help but be drawn in to Bryant's warm, winning portrayal of Ruth and feel for the struggle within her as she faces a difficult pregnancy and distance in her marriage. Darius Dotch is spectacular as Ruth's husband Walter Lee. He fully embodies the role and with it gives us a full picture window into the despair being a black man in America can create, as well as the innumerable forms of strength such men possess (and is often ignored in the news). Walter Lee is an unrealistic dreamer to be sure, but he is right to be disappointed too, and provides some thunderous thoughts on this subject. Dotch's emotional, full throttle realization of Walter Lee is powerful and one of the best performances of 2016.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Greta Oglesby is monolithic as the matriarch Lena Younger, constantly bringing her family back to their roots, to their ancestors, to their honor and responsibility. She is the sun around which this world turns, and Oglesby carries the role with appropriate gravity. Am'Ber Montgomery is fiery as Beneatha, and you can see in her lineage all the protest movements, Nina Simones and Michelle Obamas who have come after her. Supporting characters such as Theo Langason (as Beneatha's African suitor Asagai); Cage Sebastian Pierre (as Beneatha's wealthy African American suitor George); and Robert Gardner (as Lindner, the representative from the white "welcoming committee" of the Younger's new neighborhood) all provide decent portrayals, and Andrew Miles is heartwarming as the grandson Travis Younger.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
As previously mentioned, one of the wonderful things about this show is it's total introspection. It is set in the home, it is about inner thoughts and fears and hurts, and this is beautifully represented in the set for this piece. Perfectly evocative of the Younger's heard earned but shabby apartment, this set has a working oven and iron, period placed cleaning tools, creaky slammed doors and shallow stuffed sofas. It's worn but warm, and it perfectly sets the tone for the Younger family.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Fun fact, to provide some context: the title of this show is based on a famous poem by Langston Hughes, entitled Harlem (often referred to as A Dream Deferred). It's a worldly and clear eyed piece, including the phrase that gives this play it's name:

What happens to a dream deferred? 

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load. 

      Or does it explode?

The disappointment of such deferred dreams is one of the reasons there is so much fraught tension surrounding Obama's presidency and the current state of progress (or lack thereof) for African Americans today, a tension we are going to see exploding in the results of tomorrow's election. No matter who wins, there will be a long way to go to helping realize Hughes - and Hansberry's - deferred dreams, ones much like that Dr. Martin Luther King expressed in a speech at the steps of the National Mall ten years after A Raisin in the Sun was published.

A Raisin in the Sun has been performed thousands of times, and for good reason. It is a riveting show, filled with timeless themes such as loss, racism, a sense of dignity, finding one's place, the struggle to be understood, and more. Park Square Theater's production is gorgeous, timely, and powerful. The dynamic performances will have you riveted in your seat and thinking about this production for weeks to come. Please go see it - you will be blown away. A Raisin in the Sun runs through November 20 at the Andy Boss Thrust Stage; click here for more information or to buy tickets.

This is the second Twin Cities Theater Blogger event hosted in partnership with Park Square Theater, and we had a great time. I helped moderate a conversation after the show with Gina Musto of The Room Where It Happens and Jamil Jude of Park Square Theatre, and we had some awesome engagement with the audience. We have plenty more blogger events planned for the coming year - please make sure to follow our Facebook page and join us for our next event! They are always presented in conjunction with thought provoking, excellent local theater, and you definitely don't want to miss it.