Sunday, January 29, 2017

Follow this Flower Drum Song

Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry....

Photo by Rich Ryan.

Immigration is a hot topic these days, so the new joint production from Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts couldn't have come at a better time. Flower Drum Song, a seldom-performed part of Rogers and Hammerstein's considerable repertoire, tells the story of Mei-Li, a young Chinese immigrant who flees communism and lands on the shores of San Francisco. She follows the only address she has to the Golden Pearl theater, which is owned by her dead father's best childhood friend Wang. Wang, a proponent of the ancient Chinese opera, is in eternal struggle with his son Ta, who wants to bring a more modern, American program to the Golden Pearl's stage. Economics decides the fate of the Golden Pearl, which becomes Club Chop Suey after Ta's star showgirl Linda brings on a new manager, Madame Liang. Madame Liang has a knack for savvy marketing and flashy programming; with her guidance and Wang's broadening perspective, Club Chop Suey becomes a hot new venue.
Photo by Rich Ryan.
Concurrent with this story is the love triangle between Mei-Li, Ta, and Linda. Each chases or runs away from the other, culminating in a whirlwind of epiphanies towards the end of the show. Ultimately, each finds their place in an America that doesn't fully accept them; but that's okay, because Mei-Li, Ta and Linda each find their own unique, hybrid way of life that is true of every immigrant who has settled in America. The show culminates in a powerful curtain call, in which each actor steps forward and states the place of their birth. The timely message could not be clearer: America is a land of people from near and far, many of whom have fled (or are fleeing) persecution in their home countries. Not only is this diversity what makes America great, but it also should unite us. The finale is perfectly timed and had the audience leaping to their feet - it couldn't have been better executed.

As far as music goes, this is not Rogers and Hammerstein's greatest work but it's still fun. "I Enjoy Being a Girl" is probably the most familiar piece from this show, and it gets a solid rendering here. "A Hundred Million Miracles," the main theme of Flower Drum Song, is musically a little underwhelming but definitely grows on you throughout the show. "Gliding Through My Memoree" and "Don't Marry Me" provide plenty of laughs and some welcome comedic cameos from ensemble members. The most beautiful musical moments come from Mei-Li and Ta, who have wonderful chemistry and beautiful dances together in songs like "You Are Beautiful" and "Like a God."
Photo by Rich Ryan.
The best part of this show is the renewed book, written by David Henry Hwang (who was in attendance on opening night!). The story feels very modern and fresh, and manages to tell a very difficult, serious tale with so much humor and nuance. Ta and Mei-Li represent the struggles of all of us (or our forefathers and mothers, at the very least) as we struggle to fit into a blended culture. Where is the line between giving away your heritage and becoming accepted in your new society? Which traditions do you choose to keep or to discard? When is the time appropriate to give up on your dream and return home?
Photo by Rich Ryan.
You can tell that the cast is engaged in this script, and that really helps to sell the show. Stephanie Bertumen (last seen in The Last Firefly, which I loved), is great as Mei-Li. Her performance is understated and welcoming, truly drawing you into Mei-Li's struggles and dreams. She also has great chemistry with Wesley Mouri, who plays Ta. Mouri displays a lyrical grace, particularly with Ta's traditional dance scenes, and it's easy to see him as a Clark Gable or Cary Grant figure. Meghan Kreidler is spirited as Linda and leads the ensemble through the dance scenes. Sherwin Ressurreccion and Katie Bradley are hilarious and perfectly paired as Wang and Madame Liang, respectively. Eric "Pogi" Sumangil provides deft touches of humor as Wang's friend Harvard, and always provides a shining moment with a bright smile.
Photo by Rich Ryan.
The set is pretty minimalist, mostly focused on two large interchangeable theater fronts (which double as storefronts, a restaurant, a name it). Sets are relatively minimal too, and the pit is always in the background, hovering past the action. The costumes are the best part of the production design, featuring hand fans, strategically placed "takeout boxes", themed pieces and some gorgeous, ornate robes. The costumes help provide a sense of humor to the show, and they go well with the specially designed scarves that decorate Park Square's entrance.

Flower Drum Song is slow to start, and only starts to pick up two thirds of the way through Act I. If you're not already familiar with Chinese history, some of the beginning may be a little confusing until explained later on in the show. And while the cast holds its own musically, this isn't the most profound singing or dancing you'll ever hear. I wish there was a little more hard tap dancing to help drive through the musical interludes.
Photo by Rich Ryan.
That being said, I still really enjoyed Flower Drum Song. The cast has so much heart, and they really pull you into the story. The book is so contemporary (and after the events of this weekend feels urgently necessary) and it was really nice to see something that genuinely made me smile. You can't help but love Mei-Li and Ta and Wang and Madame Liang and all of the other well-rounded characters of Flower Drum Song by the time you're done. They're just too familiar, too engaging, and too sentimental to shut out. And that's really where Flower Drum Song's power lays: by telling a universal American story, it can appeal to all of us despite our cosmetic differences. If you're a fan of musicals see this to expand your repertoire; if you're a fan of reaching out to shorten the distances between us in this increasingly stratified society, see this to hear one more perspective of life as a new member of this country. You might be surprised what you learn.

Flower Drum Song plays at Park Square Theatre through February 19; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link. 

And as a notice: Compendium is now on Facebook! Please consider following there - in addition to including all of the pieces posted here, I'll be able to better link to fellow Twin Cities Theater Blogger posts and review roundups and include other cool events that are upcoming - don't miss out, follow by clicking on this link. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

36 Hours in: Oklahoma City

Where the wind comes sweeping down the plains....

We spent several hours at the Oklahoma City bombing national memorial and museum - totally worth it!
We're finally kicking off the travel section over here at Compendium, and we're doing it in the unlikeliest of places: Oklahoma City!

I should begin by saying that my guy and I have set a goal to see all seven continents and all 50 states, which we are eagerly working to complete. This has been a great way to force ourselves out of our winter doldrums and to force us to engage with places and people we otherwise may have avoided. Neither of us has spent much time out west or down south in the United States, so they are two regions we are really focusing on in 2017.
We got trapped by a non-moving train; another good reason to stay in one neighborhood! 
When our original plans to head to Texas fell through, we decided to go just a sidestep away and head to Oklahoma City instead. We weren't sure what to expect, but it turns out that there was more than enough to do to fill the weekend. We were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed this trip; I'm sure we will be back someday.

Things to Do

Some may have considered Oklahoma City cold, but for fog and snow-trapped Minnesotans the sunny 65+ degree weather was a welcome change. We were able to spend the day walking around to multiple things, enjoy the quiet city, and refresh after a busy few weeks after the holidays.

We spent most of our time in the Automobile Alley part of the Midtown District which was a wise choice. This area is just spread out enough to give visitors a good workout walking between locations, but nothing is so far away as to be daunting (think 1.5 miles or less from start to stop of each stop on our trip; all those .7 mile jaunts really added up later in the day!). This is also an area with a thriving hipster community. I've taken my share of potshots at the hipster community before, but I have to say it was oddly comforting to know that I could find some familiar, decent local beers and trendy decor just around anycorner.

The bulk of our tourist time was spent at the Oklahoma City Bombing National Museum and Memorial. This is a deceptively thorough museum; it doesn't look that big from the outside but holy cow, there is so much to do there! It took us several hours to get through the exhibits (and by the end we weren't even reading every single placard) and we spent another good chunk of time wandering the beautiful, peaceful memorial outside.
Don't miss the memorial's peaceful grounds and stark but beautiful tribute to the dead. 
It was such an interesting experience to re-visit this event 20+ years after it had happened; so much has changed since then. The museum did a wonderful job of putting guests into the context of 1995, particularly in terms of technology, and having guests experience how unexpected the bombing really was. It's easy to forget that this was an era pre-World Trade Center attack and that terrorism in America was still a really abstract concept. It also was interesting to see terrorism defined as conducted by homegrown, white power-centric hate groups, rather than associated with Islam. It definitely lent a more complicated perspective than what we think of as terrorism today. I really appreciated the complex view the museum took of the event and the way it utilized multiple perspectives to tell the story. The museum also has an excellent display of the investigation to find the perpetrators and follows it through the trials and convictions of those involved. Fans of CSI and Law and Order (or Quantico or Shades of Blue...) will really get into it.
This was pretty inspiring. 
Unfortunately, I wasn't familiar with Film Row while we were there and we didn't check it out - but as a huge fan of old school Hollywood, I will definitely be doing that when we return.

Pro tip: If you have a short trip somewhere (say a weekend, or three days or less), focus your efforts on a small area and get to know it really well. If you're too spread out, you'll spend more time coming and going than seeing the place you're suppose to be visiting! 

Things to Eat

This is where Oklahoma City really shone. I wasn't sure what to expect on the food front - I've never heard of an Oklahoma equivalent to, say, a Philly Cheesesteak - but we needn't have feared. It turns out that Oklahoman food is a good bridge from Midwest to Tex Mex, and definitely good for carnivores.

Who doesn't love saucy eggs?
For brunch, I highly recommend trendy Packard's. We were blown away by their inventive, affordable menu (particularly the cocktails) and had a great start to our day there. I had an awesome green chile pulled pork benedict on some fluffy homemade biscuits; my date had a duck confit hash with comeback sauce that also hit the spot. Don't take my word for it though - just look at the photos! And get there for an early brunch; the place was getting really full towards the 11 a.m. - lunch rush.
This stuff is FILLING - so glad we split! 
Lunch was a stop at Fassler Hall for some great German-style beer, duck fat fries and a grade A venison hot dog. It reminded me a lot of the new Surly Brewing Complex in Minneapolis, and it was a welcome stop between our long walks. In addition to having a huge, sun-lit patio, Fassler Hall featured lots of games (like full size Jenga) and was dog and child-friendly. I definitely recommend stopping by if you need a little more patio in your life. Veggie friends: they also had a good range of friendly items for you such as falafel dogs and pretzels. Fassler Hall welcomes all!
We got four full meals and some snacks out of this one order! 
Dinner was at the magnificent Cafe do Brasil, a better-than-Fogo upgrade to Fogo de Chao. The food was spot on (again meat heavy....sensing a theme? Sorry vegetarians, I'll get you back when we're on the West Coast and out of steak territory). In between caipirinhas we split a massive platter of roasted meats, silky beans and rice, fried yucca, plantains and polenta, and a knock-your-socks off chocolate and passionfruit mousse. It was a far more exotic meal than we intended but it was absolutely worth it - as was the price tag! We had way more food than we could stomach, so we took home the grade A leftovers and cooked them up after the flight back home.

Where to Stay

We had our second foray into Air BnB on this trip. It wasn't nearly as transcendental an experience as our first time, but I'd still recommend it as a great way to find a place to stay. We had an affordable room in a large loft-style house at a central location in the city. It didn't have the luxuries or amenities a hotel may have had, but that's okay; we really only needed our room for sleeping anyway. Uber got us there and back from the airport, and the rest of our forays around the city were on foot thanks to the good location of our neighborhood (right in Midtown). I'd highly recommend checking Air BnB options first if coming to Oklahoma City; save what you would spend on the hotel on a great meal instead!

How to Get There

We took a plane and I would definitely recommend this over other forms of travel between Minnesota and Oklahoma. It's a lot to drive and not the prettiest area to train through, but the flight is only one and a half hours. It was extremely direct and we had a great experience with Delta - flying is definitely the way to go. If we had spent more than a day here I would have rented a car upon arrival to allow us a little more flexibility, but it was just fine without one for this short trip.

Have you ever been to Oklahoma? What are your travel goals? Where should we swing by next? Let me know your recommendations - I'm always up for trying new things! 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

GOOD KARMA: The Ghostlight Project

#bealight #ghostlightproject #allarewelcome

Photo courtesy of Mixed Blood Theater.
Ahead of the looming inauguration festivities (or, some might say, dirges) this coming weekend, theaters around the country are hosting a Ghostlight ceremony this Thursday, January 19 at 5:30 p.m. to help shine a light of solidarity with marginalized groups and fellow theater patrons who are concerned about current political events. The Ghostlight Project is creating safe spaces and commitments from the public to help defend such spaces across America; they define safe spaces as those where:

  • It is safe to be who you are, regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. 
  • Diverse opinions, dissent, and argument are not only tolerated, but invited.
  • Active listening and courageous exchange are fundamental values.
  • Collective action, activism, and community engagement, both within and outside the walls of the theatre, are cultivated, encouraged, and supported."
The event is meant to be a national event of solidarity and inclusion, and participants are coming from all 50 states and more than 30 local theaters and learning institutions. Twin Cities theater groups are certainly involved; just check out this list of attendees:

  • 7th House Theater
  • *Augsburg College
  • Girl Friday Productions
  • Hero Now Theatre
  • Impossible Salt
  • In The Heart of the Beast
  • * Intermedia Arts
  • *Lyric Arts
  • *Mixed Blood Theater
  • MN Theater Alliance
  • Moving Company
  • Mu Performing Arts
  • *The Ordway
  • Pangea World Theater
  • *Park Square Theatre
  • Patrick's Cabaret
  • *Penumbra Theatre
  • *Pillsbury House Theater
  • Prime Productions
  • Sandbox Theatre
  • *St. Olaf College
  • *Stages Theatre Company
  • Theatre Latte Da
  • Theatre Novi Most
  • *University of MN Theatre Arts & Dance
  • *Winona Senior High School Drama program
  • Young Dance

There's a wonderful piece up on CityPages about the local groups involved, much participation of which has been helmed by Mu Performing Arts' own Randy Reyes; check it out here.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theater.
If you want to attend (and if you're free, you should; the event is only 30 minutes, beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the respective locations), you have two main options:

In Minneapolis, Mixed Blood is hosting a coalition of theater companies and is participating with local businesses to provide specials. 15% of all proceeds from sales at the 7 Corners location of The Republic will go back to Mixed Blood that day, so make sure you stop by if you attend the ceremony. Their full schedule says: "Join us, along with representatives of 7th House Theater and Theater Latté Da at the firehouse beginning at 5:00pm. A brief presentation will occur at 5:25pm with our lights shining together at 5:30pm. Bring your own light source to share in this moment. All those who participate are welcome to then bring their light to the Republic at 7 Corners to further this important conversation."

In St. Paul, the largest gathering will be at Park Square; their schedule includes:

  • Gather under the 7th Place Marquee at 5:30 p.m. on January 19
  • “Light up” – use your cell phone flashlights or come wrapped in fairy light – to join our ghost light of people
  • Turn on the ghostlights in Park Square’s outer vestibule and in the Boss Lobby that will remain on as a symbol of welcome. Park Square will put its DEI pledge next to these lights
  • Group sing “We are a Gentle Angry People" by Holly Near.
  • Adjourn to Park Square’s Proscenium Lobby for coffee and hot cocoa
  • Make the “I am____ I fight for_______” pledge. Notes along with a board for display will be provided

More information on nation-wide plans at

Monday, January 16, 2017

Big Stakes for Sandbox in "Big Money"

Could you game a system if it meant big money?

Photo by Matthew Glover.
If you're a person of a certain age (aka you were raised prior to the predominance of satellite or cable TV), at some point you had a gameshow day. You were 8, you had the chicken pox, and mom or dad took a much needed day to nap while you sat on the couch eating over-salted, canned Campbell's chicken noodle soup watching bad talk shows and even worse TV game shows*. Despite their utter mediocrity, however, there was something about the democratic idea that anyone with half a brain could earn some much needed money that was compelling, riveting in the right circumstances, and a welcome distraction from the real-time realities of managing money in America.

Big Money, the new production from Sandbox Theater (showing at Park Square), re-imagines the real-life story of Michael Larson, a Class A swindler who won $110,000 playing Press Your Luck in what was (at the time in 1984) the largest amount of money ever won on a game show. Big Money begins with the story behind the Press Your Luck win, showing Larson's obsession with non-working** and the effects it has on his family. Although the Press Your Luck win brings a much needed financial balm to the troubled family's woes, it's not enough to save it; between Michael's poor financial and filial management and the end of his wife's patience, Michael ends up on the run from the Feds, fatally ill and completely alone. It's a cautionary tale that quick money is never really "yours," family and relationships are far more important than cash, and the most important things in life can't be bought.
Photo by Matthew Glover.
The Sandbox Theatre cast approaches Big Money with wink and a smile, with each actor finding the humor in their parts. Peter Heeringa does a good job playing Michael Larson, finding the humanity even in Larson's most crazed moments. You can't help but kind of like the guy, and to empathize with his feelings; who among us would work every day if we didn't really need to? Michael isn't necessarily "right," but he really demonstrates the truth behind human nature and the fluidity of morality. Much of this is contrasted well by Sarah Parker as Michael's Wife Teresa. Parker has a stern demeanor that grounds her passionate feelings about Michael's lack of ambition and brings a level-headed opposition to his harebrained schemes.

The rest of the cast (Eric Weiman, Emma Larson, Cameron Mielicke and Cortez Owens) cycle through various supporting parts as bank tellers, audience members, fellow game show contestants and employees, network executives and family members. They each find ways to make the most of their time on stage and provide a lot of humor in between the seriousness of Michael's gaming obsessions.

The production design is relatively sparse, most notable for some floating, lighted panels at the back of the stage meant to mimic the Press Your Luck gameboard. They provide a jeweled contrast to the darkness of the theater, and are used with pointed lighting to illuminate various clues to Big Money's plotline. Piles of cash, simple costuming and basic tables and stools make up the rest of of the spare set, and it's all the show really needs; the focus here is on Michael and his scheming, and that's more than enough to keep you occupied.
Photo by Matthew Glover. 
Big Money is one of those stories that digs in after it's done. Much like other famous swindling stories (The Wolf of Wall Street, Catch Me If You Can, etc.), there is something delicious about Michael Larson's refusal to play by the rules. In the age of the 99% versus the 1%, Occupy Wall Street, Bank Bailouts and the financial disaster that is anything labeled Trump, why shouldn't an ordinary citizen be able to play the system? Is Michael Larson's refusal to "work" really that much worse than the runner of a Ponzi scheme or a derivatives-based stock sale? It's certain by the end of Big Money that Michael's life is in shambles, but it's easy to see why he did what he did. Big Money is an entertaining look at the ethics of gameshows and gambling with your life; it runs at Park Square Theater through January 28. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

*I know some of you have much love for the Pat Sajaks and Bob Barkers and Alex Trebeks of the world but sorry guys, bad TV is bad TV - even if you love it. Just embrace it.

**Which, ironically, was far more work than just working itself would have been.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Whitney Lives On in The Bodyguard

I have always felt that playing roles of real-life people are the hardest of all. 

Photo by Joan Marcus.
This is especially true of iconic celebrities; get it right, and you are a superstar. Fail, and it could end your career.

We've been gifted with marvelous performances of Ray Charles, Malcom X, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Johnny Cash and more. We can now add Deborah Cox's starring turn in The Bodyguard to that list.

Now I realize that The Bodyguard is a fictional story and of a very different kind of content than the biopics listed above, but let's be frank: nothing embodies the heights of the peerless late-Whitney Houston's career than her dazzling songs in The Bodyguard movie. The pop hits that emerged from that movie live on in dance halls to this day 25 years later, and many have tried (and failed) to recreate the gorgeous, dizziness inducing performances that Whitney blessed us all with.

So even though The Bodyguard is a popular movie adaptation and not a true story, I couldn't help but view this production as the vanguard of Whitney's legacy, somehow. And I'll admit, I had low expectations; I didn't really love the film, and I didn't see how it would work well on stage. So I was pleasantly surprised with how delightful this staging was. It's campy, it's Hollywood, and I know some people don't consider that to be true "theater." But for me, live performances become magical when they contain a certain spark and fire and passion regardless of their context; even the most avant garde pieces can fall flat for lack of feeling, and this was a beautiful demonstration of what could have been a cheap knockoff turning into a wonderful live theater experience thanks to performers who give it 100,000%.

For a brief summary if you haven't seen the film: Rachel Marron is a world famous pop star (in today's parlance, think Beyonce level) trying to have a normal family life amidst her interstellar fame. Unfortunately she is being threatened by a highly skilled stalker who holds delusional fantasies about having a relationship with her. After his threats become more frequent and more dangerous, Rachel's security hires a new bodyguard named Frank Farmer. Frank thinks outside the box and is a vast improvement in keeping Rachel safe, in more ways than one. The show follows their tumultuous relationship as they find the balance between security and normal life, and their love story in between. The Bodyguard has a bittersweet ending despite catching the bad guy that lends it an air of authenticity that helps sell the zealous plot.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
One big thing to note: the show opens with a huge, unforeseen gunshot. Anyone who goes needs to be prepared for the TRIGGER WARNING at the beginning of the show - it was extremely unsettling in our times of mass public shootings, and I wish for everyone's mental health that they flagged it ahead of time.

The number one selling point of this show is the music, featuring many of Whitney Houston's biggest hits such as "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," "All At Once," "I Have Nothing," "Greatest Love of All," "One Moment in Time," "Run to You," "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" and the coup de grace, "I Will Always Love You." This playlist is no slouch; many of these songs are incredibly fast paced and require a certain vocal gymnastics to really sell them.

Thankfully, Deborah Cox (playing Rachel Merron and performing all of these songs live; see clips in the video above) is up to the task, and how. She sells the *shit* out of this show. Rachel Merron's story could be relatively uninteresting, especially in our times of celebrity overexposure (helloooo Kardashians), but Cox infuses Rachel with a deep sense of relatability and a passionate heart. And her singing is virtuosic, particularly in her (literally) showstopping rendition of "I Will Always Love You." Cox nails every note of that gorgeous ballad, and literally left the audience leaping to their feat. If for no other reason, see the show for that one song. You owe it to yourself (and the memory of Ms. Whitney) to do so.

The rest of the cast is equally talented. Jasmin Richardson is incredible as Rachel's sister Nicki, demonstrating another unbelievably beautiful musical talent. Jasmin has some dazzling duet moments, both with Deborah and with Kevelin B. Jones III, who plays Rachel Merron's son Fletcher. Kevelin also has a wonderful voice, and together the Merron trio of Jasmin, Deborah and Kevelin put out a heart stopping rendition of "Jesus Loves Me," which I can only describe as the world's plainest song that gets the world's best musicality treatment. Normally I'd be bored, here I was enthralled; they are that good.

Judson Mills is square jawed, strong yet sympathetic as the stoic Frank Farmer. Judson is perfectly cast in this role and brings the Kevin Costner charm to his fearsome duty as the bodyguard. It's a good thing too, because Jorge Paniagua is absolutely terrifying as Rachel's Stalker. If we didn't have Judson calming us down and making us laugh, it would be tough to get past the chills that went down our spines as Jorge paraded around with his bowie knife. It's a testament to Jorge's effective creepiness that he was actually booed during the curtain call - a first in my years of theater-going.

It should be noted for eye candy fans that this show truly defines abtastic. Seriously, I saw more shred in the first five minutes than I think I have in the last five years combined - this is Magic Mike level. Is it a standalone reason to see the show? Nope. Is it still awesome (and campy and fun)? Absolutely. There are other campy moments in staging choices - I know the bad guy is a stalker, I get it, but does he *really* need an unzipped hoodie with nothing on underneath that is constantly lined in shadows, or the unbearably blunt phallic symbolism of stroking a truly enormous bowie knife right at pants zipper level? NOPE - but it didn't bother me. This show is a Hollywood movie, after all, and the campiness lent a little charm that I found quite endearing.

Photo by Joan Marcus.
This national tour of The Bodyguard is premiering here in Minneapolis, and I urge you to see it. This is a pure treacle and candy show, and we all deserve something a little sweet after the bitterness of 2016's disappointments. It was far, far better than I expected it to be, and any Whitney Houston fans can walk away proud of what they saw. My guy enjoyed the show even more than I did, so I can confirm that it's a great date night experience and will leave you both in smiles. Make sure to stay throughout the final credits, as the post-show performances are as good as the show itself. The Bodyguard only runs through January 15 so run to go get your tickets; you can do so by clicking on this link.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Out There 2017: Andrew Schneider's YOUARENOWHERE

Are you nowhere? Or now here? 

Photo by Maria Baranova.
Ah, January. Whoever decided to schedule the change to a new year here really knew what they were doing. When you're overloaded with holiday foods, tired due to Vitamin D deficiency, and waiting for the snow to melt so you can leave your house (aka thoroughly sedentary), you need quite a bit of motivation to stay active. New Year's resolutions definitely make instigating that level of activity so much easier.

I'm still mulling through my resolutions (can't I make resolutions all year long?), but one of them as always is to keep working to refresh the blog. For my perspective on theater, there is no better palate cleanser every year than the Out There series at the Walker Art Center. Challenging everything you think is possible (or impossible) to put on a stage, the Out There series always features innovative, thought provoking work that rewires my brain and pushes me to get out of my deep-rooted expectations for art and performances.
Photo by Maria Baranova.
The first of the Out There series shows premiered on Thursday with Andrew Schneider's YOUARENOWHERE, a true exercise in learning to bend your perspective. The show starts off ordinarily enough with the audience watching a one man show in front of a plain white screen. The monologue traverses multiple areas - philosophy, pop art and music, religion, beliefs, past experiences and mistakes, memoir and autobiography - while being interspersed with thoroughly schizophrenic lighting. About half way through the show the curtain (or the literal fourth wall) drops, and our perspective on what we just witnessed is completely changed. I don't want to give away what happens lest I ruin the surprise for future viewers, but suffice it to say: it involved a bravado dual performance that is perfectly synced and gives new definition to the term "mirror effect."
Photo by Maria Baranova.
Unexpected plot line aside, the lighting is the real conversation starter here. If you're not really sure why lighting or sound tech is important or it feels often invisible to you, this show is a striking, slap-in-the-face demonstration of the effects it can have. Much of the beginning of the show is interspersed with quick turns of the lights on and off, strobe lights, fast paced color changes and loud, dispersed sound effects. It can be quite jarring and takes a while to get used to, but once you get over the hump it's an interesting live version of often-irritating technological snafus (think: the moments back when you still watched VHS and the tape was fuzzy or the screen started to skip because the tape was damaged - it's like that, but real life). The special effects are essential for helping the audience follow the jarring script and truly sense the emotional extremes of the narrator; they'll definitely get you thinking.
Photo by Maria Baranova.
If you missed YOUARENOWHERE, no worries! There are three more shows coming up in the Out There series, and all of them are worth visiting. One of the best things about Out There is that it features avant garde performers from around the world who are otherwise difficult to see - don't miss this chance to do so. Tickets are super affordable and shows almost always run short at two hours or much less, so it's easy to squeeze performances into your work week. Keep up on your New Year's resolution to learn more about art (I know there are some of you out there!) and check this series out; it's a wasabi-fresh way to wipe out your preconceived notions of performance art and start the New Year with a New Perspective. For more information on the Out There series or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Best of 2016: This Year's Best Theater Performances

The 2nd Annual Twin Cities Theater Blogger Awards are coming! 

Photo courtesy of Park Square Theater.
And I cannot wait to see how they turn out. We have had such an incredible year of theater here in the Twin Cities and let me tell you: trying to narrow down the nominees (let alone vote for only one of each category!) has been so. difficult. 

This is the best of first world problems though, is it not? I am so grateful to live in a place where the arts are not only totally accessible to the everyday citizen but also truly excellent across the board. I wanted to post a quick roundup of some of my favorite shows from the past year as well as some observations that I'm looking forward to in the coming year. Let me know your favorites and if there's anything I simply must put on my calendar (I'm starting to do programming for the year now, so please let me know! I welcome suggestions). 
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theater.
A standout for 2016 was set very early on with the production of Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theater. This exceptional, profound show was locally written, featuring women (and women of color!) in not only starring but production roles, and gave an honest, unflinching depiction of one of my favorite musical artists of all time: what was not to love? Zoe Saldana can go suck it; Regina Marie Williams was far and away the better Nina Simone. Her co-stars (Traci Allen Shannon, Aimee K. Bryant, and Thomasina Petrus) are no slouches either. Every second of this play gave me chills (read my full review here) and I am THRILLED that Park Square is bringing the show back this year with even more awesome music. Run, don't walk, to get your tickets - this cast is once-in-a-lifetime good and they'll be even better this time around, I'd bet money on it.
Photo courtesy of Dan Norman.
There were several repeat offenders on my list of favorites this year. From the above list: Traci Allen Shannon as Cinderella in a totally charming performance opposite David Murray (both also stood out in Theatre Latte Da's truly exceptional production of Ragtime; I didn't write a review but wow, did it blow me away). These two have wonderful chemistry, gorgeous voices, and can anchor a show whether the subject matter is serious or comedic. I hope they stick around and keep working together! Cinderella was a truly diverse, whirlwind of a production (that is showing for four more days, do NOT miss it!). The Children's Theatre had another favorite with The Last Firefly, a totally imaginative, beautiful production that won me over with it's beautiful set and story.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theater.
Aimee K. Bryant also had a great year, serving in multiple shows including the brilliant A Raisin in the Sun at Park Square Theater. Lorraine Hansbury's classic play was giving a sterling performance from another loaded cast (including Darius Dotch, who was great with Ansa Akyea in Bars and Measures at the Jungle Theatre; and Greta Oglesby) and the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers held a thought-provoking talk back after the show.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
I have finally (after many years of ho-hum feelings) fallen hard for the Guthrie Theater, which is thriving under Joseph Haj's excellent tutelage. Among my favorite developments? The new program which is providing free or subsidized ticket prices; flexible programming (including the powerful one-man shows Acting Black and Hold These Truths); and some of the most uncomfortable (yet powerful) performances of the year. My favorite of the Guthrie's edgy, contemporary productions was the full home-run that was Disgraced, but there were more awesome pieces too: The Parchman Hour gave me shivers with its potent musicality and disturbing visuals; Trouble in Mind held a quiet, powerful sway over our perceptions of race in the media; and The Lion in Winter took the bawdiness of the presidential election and boiled it down into a sinister, Game of Thrones-style dessert.
Photo courtesy of Dan Norman.
Sarah Rasmussen is another repeat offender, but this time in the director's chair. I have adored her fresh, lively programming at the Jungle Theater as Artistic Director as well as some excellent turns she's taken guest-directing at other theaters (Sense and Sensibility at the Guthrie being a prime example). I was super impressed with her all-female rendition of Two Gentlemen of Verona, as well as the stunning The Oldest Boy, the last show of 2016 at the Jungle (and what a production!). Rasmussen is one to watch, and I cannot wait to see what she brings to the table in her second year at the helm. The How and The Why also featured some amazing feminist work, and Calendar Girls made it fashionable to feature women of any age; I'm predicting shows about/by/for women will continue to be trends next year, and here's hoping I'm right!
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Musicals and comedies had an excellent year as well. Sasha Andreev breathed new life into Barbra Streisand in the hilarious Buyer and Cellar; Peter Rothstein helmed two refreshed musicals (aforementioned Ragtime and a winning Gypsy); Passing Through Pig's Eye gave us spectacular tap dancing and a bold look at St. Paul's history; and perennial favorite Chanhassen Dinner Theater gave us all the gift of the year's best production design and ever-delightful Beauty and the Beast as well as a surprisingly deft production of Camelot. On the traveling Broadway circuit I really enjoyed a play (a play!) version of A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, as well as an ethereal production of Lion King and darkly hilarious, heartwarming Fun Home, which I loved for its literary references as much as for its wonderful performances.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.
It was a good year for smaller companies too. I love everything Mu Performing Arts does, and I thought all of their shows this year were spectacular (including the lyrical and haunting You for Me for You; the spectacular Spectacular Story of a Filipino Hulk Hogan; and the year's best rom-com, The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up). Orange was also a surprise hit for me at Mixed Blood, the most accessible theater in town, and introduced me to a host of young actors I'm hoping stick around for future shows. And the Penumbra produced some heavy hitters too, including a striking performance of Jitney (just in time for HBO's upcoming August Wilson renaissance courtesy of Denzel Washington).

I could go on and on, but this list has gotten exhaustive and I've only scratched the surface! Suffice it to say it was an incredible year for the arts, and I cannot wait to see what 2017 has in store. Please leave me your favorites and suggestions on Twitter and in the comments; I can't wait to hear what you have to say. And don't miss the live announcement of our Twin Cities Theater Blogger award winners on Monday, January 9 on Twitter - it's a must-attend event.