Friday, February 24, 2017

A Lunatic King Lear

Shakespeare's searing indictment on the moral limits of power is incredibly timely. 

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Some narrative arcs seem to remain essential to the human condition. Love, death, fear, and the quest for power are among the most elemental and recurrent of these narratives; they pop up over and over again in art stretching back to the beginning of recorded history. When it comes to dissecting the limits of these elements of the human condition, no one quite does it like Shakespeare.

King Lear, now showing on the Guthrie's main stage, may not be the best known of Shakespeare's tragedies (that award would have to go to Hamlet, Macbeth, or maybe Othello in certain circles), is probably the best example of the limits of power and filial love. King Lear is an aged king who is slowly (but violently) slipping into dementia. As he names his successors, his youngest (and most beloved) daughter Cordelia refuses to ply him with flattery; as a reward, Lear marries her to the lowest bidder to be banished forever and is left with his two elder daughters Regan and Goneril, two wolves in sheep's clothing who take advantage of their father's madness and fight their way to power. King Lear manages to escape their worst attempts on his life, spending  his time wandering in the moors and forests among the common folk with a few close friends, but Cordelia does not; after returning with an army to rescue her father from her sisters, Cordelia loses the war and is killed after capture. Cordelia's death provides the king's final moment of clarity and closes the play, with his family rent into tatters and his end-of-life prospects lonely ones.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Stewing within this Lear family drama are several key players. One is Gloucester and his sons, one an heir (Edgar) and one a bastard (Edmund). Edmund crawls his way to the top of his family, but only after banishing his brother, betraying his father (whose eyes are put out), sleeping with both of Lear's daughters, and finally being killed by Edgar in a fit of vengeance. Kent, Lear's most loyal adviser (who is banished with Cordelia when he speaks up for her), remains behind in disguise to protect Lear and help Cordelia. Cornwall, Goneril's husband, is fatally wounded while torturing Gloucester and his keen military mind is a key reason that Cordelia's army is defeated.

Suffice it to say, there's a lot going on. And it would be easy to be lost in the action without a strong hand to steer the ship. This production has two actors playing King Lear. Although it would be a fascinating study to see both, I was only able to see Nathaniel Fuller, and he provides a marvelous performance. Fuller completely disappears into his role, riding the waves of Lear's emotions, careening between anger, fear, disgust, timidity, love, and vengeance. It is a masterful performance that will keep you riveted throughout the show, and despite Lear's cruelty gives him a tenderness that you can't help but want to protect.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The surrounding cast is equally excellent. Sun Mee Chomet (Regan), Kate Nowlin (Goneril) and Kim Wong (Cordelia) are delicious as Lear's daughters, each providing a different foil to Lear's erratic behavior. Their strong performances actually turn the play into a treatise on the expanses (and limits) of female power in society; each uses whatever gifts she has to try to wend her way back to the throne and to Lear, and these actresses use every inch of their scripts. A note to the Guthrie: there is not a *single* production photo of these ladies (or 90% of the rest of the cast) - please add one, they deserve to be seen!

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The young men provide the show's brightest sparks. Jason Rojas* utterly unrecognizable as Edgar in one of the most transformative performances I've seen in ages. Thomas Brazzle is delicious as the deceitful Edmund, slithering between the action and piercing the audience with his fiery taste for power. And Howard Overshown is stately and dangerous as Cornwall, truly embodying the possibilities of a man who has nothing to lose and no shame to fear. Although not in the youthful contingent, James A. Williams is righteous as Gloucester, providing the show's only true loving, fatherly presence and a comforting haven from the ruinous action for the rest of the show. And J.C. Cutler is steadfastly heartwarming as Kent, the straightest arrow of the show and the provider of some much-needed comedic relief at key moments.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The theme for production design seems to be "simple but truly luxurious." Marion Williams' spare set recalls Bane's tower in The Dark Knight Rises or some far corner of Westeros, with a tall, dark, concrete tower set sparsely with lights and a single, leafless tree. It's an eerie backdrop for the action and wisely keeps all focus on the drama on-stage. Jennifer Moeller's costume design can only be described as opulent and truly covetable; each character is given simple outfits made of such high quality that they gleam from the stage, particularly two drop-dead-gorgeous fur coats. It lends an opulence and familiarity to the cast that helps ease the centuries-old language into the modern age. Jennifer Tipton's lighting design, combined with Darron West's sound design, is subtle but pointed, each respectively leaving the stage awash with an eerie aura. And three cheers for a production team that is 75% spearheaded by women; like the truly diverse cast, this was an awesome thing to see while flipping through the program.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

With society seemingly careening every day nearer and nearer to the brink of disaster, it's impossible not to see the tragedy of King Lear as some kind of ill fated omen. What happens to a country when the man (or family) ruling a nation becomes corrupted, either by madness or lust for power? At what point is someone's inherited title overcome by their inability to do their job? What is the line between sanity and madness? At the end of the day, who is responsible for ensuring that citizens are kept safe from harm? Where is the line between betrayal and necessary honesty? I think Artistic Director Joseph Haj summarizes the legacy of King Lear best in his program notes:

"I think that the play, finally, is about how close our worse selves are to our better selves, about how fragile a civilized society can be and how easily it can descend into barbarity and irrationality. In each one of us there is a capacity for righteous acts and regretful ones, for both sanity and madness. And in times of turmoil, when a country falters and a family breaks, those distinctions become perilously thin."

This King Lear is an essential treatise on the limits of power and the necessity of a thoughtful, guiding hand to protect a nation's best interests when its leaders have run amok. Written nearly two hundred years before the American experiment began, King Lear could not have more to say to an America struggling with the limits of a man and an office descending into madness. This is marvelously staged production and beautifully performed Shakespeare. Please make sure to go before the show closes on April 2. More information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

*In my initial review I listed Nathan Barlow in this role; he was replaced at the last minute. Sorry for any confusion. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Experience Native American Cultures at the Ordway Center

Expand your horizons (and your palate) next week with this rich new festival celebrating Native American cultures. 

Photo courtesy of the Ordway.

We are super blessed to have a global, rich food and arts community here in the Twin Cities, and while we're historically not always great at acknowledging or supporting our diverse communities, we are definitely getting better.

A great example of this is the world class programming at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, which today announced an amazing new series focusing on the artistry and culture of Native American communities including artists from Native American, Indigenous and First Nations groups. The week of residency programs will culminate in the performance by Oyate Okodakiciyapi: A Unique Celebration of Native Music and Dance on Saturday, March 4 that will feature artists from many different stripes, including solo Hawaiian choreographer Christopher Morgan; Santee Smith of the Mohawk Nation; and an inter-tribal group called Dancing Earth. The Oyate show is guided by community coordinator Christal Moose and an advisory council of Native and Indigenous community leaders, in collaboration with Rosy Simas of Rosy Simas Danse.

Key to the success of this residency is their partnership with many local organizations such as All My Relations Arts, Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), Two Rivers Gallery and The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts. The event is a part of the Taking Our Place Centerstage initiative through which the Ordway and SoulTouch Productions work in collaboration with communities of color. This partnership has faced some controversy, with criticisms about nonprofit funding distributions and the transparency of partnerships with diverse arts organizations being leveraged by groups such as Mu Performing Arts. The points raised in this excellent article are valid, and I hope a conversation about fair arts funding is able to progress through the spark that Mu has lit.
Photo courtesy of the Sioux Chef social media.

Still, there's no denying that a center stage, widely distributed arts organization such as the Ordway is able to spread the message to the masses quite a bit further than multiple individual groups; so here's to hoping that this coming week does a respectful, great job of celebrating Native American cultures. The lineup is really impressive to start, and it's broad, covering not just dance and theater but also food traditions and cultural lectures by great features such as The Sioux Chef (who I've written about as one of the most exciting new things to hit the Twin Cities food scene in ages).

A list of descriptions of programming follows. If you're like me and are constantly looking to widen your understanding of the world around you (and the real history of the places we live in), definitely consider checking this series out!

Photo courtesy of the Sioux Chef social media.

A Survey of Native Contemporary Dance
Sunday, Feb. 26  2:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m.  at The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts

Presented by The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts in partnership with Rosy Simas Danse and Ordway. This public talk highlights the incredible diversity of Native people who live and dance in the Twin Cities. Guest speakers include Kate Beane, Athena Cloud, Lumhe Sampson, Rosy Simas, Winona Tahdooahnippah, Sandy WhiteHawk and Larry Yazzie. Opening prayer led by Janice Bad Moccasin. Optional travel to and from the event on a Storytelling Bus featuring “Coffee Shop” Al Gross from Powwow Grounds is also available.

Indigenous Contemporary Dance Workshop with Rulan Tangen
Tuesday, Feb. 28  4:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m.  at Two Rivers Gallery

In partnership with Rosy Simas Danse and Two Rivers Gallery. This workshop is led by Rulan Tangen, founding director and choreographer of Dancing Earth, an internationally recognized company of intertribal contemporary dancers. Rooted in respect for Native worldview and cultural wisdom as shared by her elders and mentors, Tangen invites class participants to experience a journey into indigenous embodiment. The workshop is free, but registration is required. RSVP at 651.282.3060 or

Welcome Gathering
Tuesday, Feb. 28  6:00 p.m.  at Two Rivers Gallery

In partnership with Rosy Simas Danse, All My Relations Arts, NACDI and Two Rivers Gallery. Come together with artists and community members to welcome several visiting renowned Native contemporary dancers and artists. The opening blessing will be done by Nancy Bordeaux. Catering by Gatherings Café will be provided. On display in the Two Rivers Gallery will be Gathering of Contemporary Indigenous Artists, an exhibition curated by Gordon Coons (Ojibwa/Ottawa).

Powwow Boot Camp with Santee Smith
Wednesday, March 1  6:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.  at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

This high-energy Powwow/dance training class will be led by Kaha:wi Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Santee Smith. This intensive and fun boot camp style workout is for anyone interested in maximizing their physical fitness. Participants will practice skills in the Indigenous dance forms of Powwow and Onkehon:we (Iroquois) social dances. The class is free, but registration is required. RSVP at 651.282.3060 or

Tanya Lukin Linklater Exhibition
Friday, March 3  6:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m. (opening reception)  at All My Relations Gallery

Presented by All My Relations Arts in partnership with Rosy Simas Danse and Ordway. Tanya Lukin Linklater’s performance collaborations, videos, photographs and installations have been exhibited nationally and internationally. She is compelled by relationships between bodies, histories, poetry, pedagogy, Indigenous conceptual spaces (languages) and institutions. The visual art installation will be on view March 3–April 7.

A Night with NACDI: Indigenous Foods and Arts
Saturday, March 4  3:00 p.m.  at All Nations Church

Presented by NACDI in partnership with Ordway. Enjoy dinner by The Sioux Chef while engaging in a talk about the Indigenous food movement. Hosted by Robert Lilligren, president and CEO of NACDI. The event is free, but registration is required. RSVP at or 612.284.1102.
At 5:30 p.m., free transportation to and from Oyate Okodakiciyapi: An Evening of Native Contemporary Dance at the Ordway will be provided. The Storytelling Bus will feature “Coffee Shop” Al Gross from Powwow Grounds.

Oyate Okodakiciyapi: An Evening of Native Contemporary Dance
Saturday, March 4  7:30 p.m.  at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

Co-curated with local choreographer Rosy Simas, Ordway presents a showcase of Native contemporary dance companies called Oyate Okodakiciyapi, which means “people coming together” in the Dakota language. This thrilling evening of dance will feature solo works by native Hawaiian Christopher K. Morgan and Santee Smith from the Mohawk Nation, as well as a new work by Dancing Earth, an indigenous, intertribal dance ensemble. Tickets are available at This performance is part of the Ordway’s World Music & Dance Series.

Arrive early for a pre-show Ordway Extra at 6:30 p.m. to hear Zoë Klein, artistic director/performer at Paradizo Dance in San Francisco, and Tanya Lukin Linklater, a multi-media artist from Ontario, explore defining culture in contemporary terms in a discussion moderated by Rosy Simas.

On display in the lobby will be Gathering of Contemporary Indigenous Artists, a visual art exhibition curated by Gordon Coons (Ojibwa/Ottawa). Themes explored through the art will connect with Native American and Indigenous identity. The exhibition is free to those attending Ordway performances March 2-4, April 20-21 and May 30-June 4. Featured artists include Camille A. Lacapa (Hopi-Tewa/Ojibway), Cole Jacobson (Lakota), Chholing Taha (Cree), Gordon Coons (Ojibwa/Ottawa), Gwen Westerman (Lakota) and Joseph Allen (Lakota).

Round Table Discussion: An artist to artist talk with Indigenous choreographers from Turtle Island
Sunday, March 5  11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m.  at The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts

In partnership with Rosy Simas Danse, The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts and All My Relations Arts. Featuring conversation with Tanya Lukin Linklater, Christopher K. Morgan, Maura Garcia, Rulan Tangen, Zoë Klein, Sam Mitchell and Rosy Simas. The discussion will touch on current work, aesthetics, challenges, methods, audiences, community engagement and plans for the future.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Dr. Seuss's The Sneetches: The Musical Will Open Your Eyes

The Sneetches: The Musical is the perfect way to talk to your kids about current events.

Photo by Dan Norman.

If you think all of the problems we're facing as a country are somehow new to us, think again. Xenophobia, bullying, sectionalism, racism and other divisive philosophies and actions have existed for thousands of years. That does not mean, however, that we are doomed to suffer from them for time immemorial. All it takes is a few people to do the right thing and steadfastly stand up for equality to teach us the errors of our ways and begin to lead us to a better, fairer future.

Photo by Dan Norman.

There is no better way of understanding these problems (and their solutions) than the visionary world of Dr. Seuss (known in real life as Theodore Geisel). Dr. Seuss came of age during both world wars, which tremendously impacted his life and work. After beginning his career as a political cartoonist and advertising illustrator, he transitioned into film and then published children's books that featured gloriously unique illustrations and clever word rhymes. These books have become international best sellers and introduced millions of children worldwide into learning to read in English. Some are simply silly (Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Box) and some are more serious or educational; The Lorax, Oh The Places You'll Go!, Yertle the Turtle and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are all tales of morality disguised in the fantastical rhymes and illustrations of Dr. Seuss.

The Sneetches falls right into the latter category, describing what happens when we allow cosmetic differences to separate us from others. On Sneetch Beach there are star-bellied Sneetches and plain-bellied Sneetches. The star-bellies have set up a system in which they benefit from the labor of the plain-bellies. Sneetch Beach is vigorously segregated and things only continue to get worse for the plain-bellies, until one little star-belly named Standlee changes everything.

Photo by Dan Norman.
Standlee has trouble socializing with her fellow star-bellies, so she seeks friendship among the plain-bellies with Diggitch, another isolated fellow. Although their friendship is expressly forbidden, the two hit it off and play anyway. They are eventually found out and an uproar ensues, causing Diggitch to be banished. After leaving Sneetch Beach Diggitch encounters Sylvester McMonkey McBean, a seemingly friendly capitalist who offers a solution to their problem: for a small fee, he can simply give all of the plain-bellies a star, and everyone will be on the same playing field once more.

Photo by Dan Norman.

The introduction of McBean's solution creates chaos for the Sneetches. Without their innate cosmetic differences, the former star-bellied Sneetches begin a rush to re-divide themselves by removing their stars, but it only makes things worse. The former plain-bellies are determined to be the same, and continue to change themselves to follow the former star-bellies. By the time all of the Sneetches run out of money for McBean's machine, the former star-bellies and plain-bellies are completely mixed up. McBean's departure forces the Sneetches to learn to love each other (and importantly, themselves) despite their differences; after all, star does not dictate how fun or nice someone is, or the value you hold within yourself. Through the reconciliation process the Sneetches learn about forgiveness, honesty and apology to help heal the divides they had created for themselves, and they leave us in a far more integrated, fairer and happier state than before.

Photo by Dan Norman.

The cast is exuberant and brings a lot of life to this story. Natalie Tran is wonderfully expressive as Standlee, with spot-on pitch and a bright demeanor that perfectly bridge the Sneetch divide. Reed Sigmund is cuddly as Standlee's friend Diggitch, blustering his way through the score. Bradley Greenwald inhabits Sylvester McMonkey McBean, cloaking McBean's sinister greed in a candy coated smile and powerhouse pipes. Ryan Colbert was hilarious as Stelvin and recruited the audience to understand the plight of the plain-bellies. With exuberant dancing and expressive faces, the ensemble really engaged the kids in the audience, who clearly understood the story and got quite invested towards the end.

Photo by Dan Norman.

One of the most delightful elements of Dr. Seuss's work is his wonderful illustrations, which are well-represented in this production. The set is filled with vibrant colors and textures that help to lighten the heft of the story. Costume Designer Alex Jaeger did a great job of modifying the actors just enough to make them look animated without removing their ability to move and be expressive, and Scenic Designer William Boles creates lots of fun vignettes and machines for the Sneetches to play with.

Photo by Dan Norman.

The lessons in this parable cover the gamut (racism, bullying, classism, politics, depression, self-acceptance), making it a perfect way to gently teach kids how to navigate tough situations. Alternatively, this is a great, hands-on way to explain some of the political situations facing America today (think Build the Wall, Black Lives Matter, etc.) in a way that kids can really engage with. The Children's Theatre Company includes a marvelous page about discussing and understanding privilege in the children's portion of the program that is an incredible guide to walking kids through that concept and standing up for others.

The Sneetches: The Musical is a gift offered at the perfect time, helping us navigate difficult issues with a smile. Don't shy away from honest conversations with your kids (or the grownups in your life). If you're wondering how to do so, just follow Dr. Seuss's lead: put out your hand, shake into a dance, and smile with each other. That will go a long way to bridging all the lines we draw in our own sand beaches, and we need that positive attitude more than ever. The Sneetches is a lovely way to brighten your family's end of winter; make sure to go see it before it closes on March 26. You can find more information or buy tickets by clicking on this link.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Nina Simone: Four Women Remains a Must-See

Round two of this quintessential show does not disappoint. 

Photo by Petronella.

Some things are just meant to be classics.

Nina Simone: Four Women, running in a refreshed reprise at Park Square Theater, is just such a piece. The first iteration of the show, which premiered last year (and absolutely blew me away), stunned me with its relevance and poise. This year, with the extension and addition of a few new songs and some slight tweaks to dialogue and staging, Nina Simone: Four Women remains more relevant than ever.

For those who missed it the first time around, Nina Simone tells the story of Nina Simone as she is in the process of writing "Mississippi Goddamn" after four little girls are killed in the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama. Nina travels to Birmingham to the church to find inspiration for the final verse. While there, Nina encounters three other women local to Birmingham: Sarah (also known as Auntie), a local maid who enters the church to escape the protests outside; Sephronia, a local activist working with Dr. Martin Luther King's desegregation movement; and Sweet Thing, a prostitute who has a complicated romantic entanglement with Sephronia. Each woman has a different context and relationship with the civil rights movement (notably, not all of it positive); each woman also has a unique way of dialoguing about the problems the country faces and a different solution to offer. The thing that unites them is the horror of the grotesque death of the four little girls and the desire to see better done for them in their memory and for the other little black girls still alive.
Photo by Petronella.

Regina Marie Williams remains a revelation as Nina Simone. Williams clearly has immersed herself in her subject, and has the walk, the mannerisms, the speech, and especially the voice down pat. Williams' rich voice anchors all of the musical action, and she mightily leads the show. I could watch her do this for hours (and we all know how I feel about show length). For her alone, go see this. (And by the way, Hollywood: Nina Simone deserves to have her story told in a good adaptation (think Ray or Walk the Line); call. Regina. NOW).

The rest of the cast is magnificent, too. Aimee K. Bryant (Sarah) and Traci Allen Shannon (Sweet Thing) also returned from last year's performance, and I'm so glad. Bryant's magnificent voice provides a powerful gospel counterpart to Williams' silky jazz, and Shannon's dulcet tones offset the harshness of her character's circumstances. They form the perfect quartet with Jamila Anderson (replacing Thomasina Petrus this year as Sephronia). Anderson is a little weaker in the vocals department than Petrus, but she still has a lovely voice, and brings a much sharper, clearer-eyed perspective to Sephronia's activism.

A welcome change in this year's performance is the expansion of the musical selections; with such talented musicians, shouldn't they be maximized? As before, "Sinnerman" was given a bombastic treatment and exploded through the audience in Act I, and the second act was wrapped up with a bone-chillingly perfect version of "Four Women." The ad hoc performances throughout the show are just as lovely and feature fiery vocals from each performer, particularly the gospel intro from Bryant for "His Eye is On The Sparrow." Bryant's voice soars through the theater and is unbelievably moving; regardless of your personal faith (or lack thereof), you can't help but feel swept into her emotion. Faye Price returned to direct this year and wisely lets the artists take control of their roles; she's done a superb job, and I hope to see her directing more pieces in the near future.
Photo by Petronella.

Context is everything, and while this show was mightily relevant on its premiere last year, there is a new urgency and strength to draw from it in our current political climate. The intersectional conversation between four women of color who have all, in their own way, been overlooked and belittled by society; who have all found an inner strength and purpose and way to protest (outside of the traditional "march"); and who collectively are able to forge relationships and empathy for each other despite their differences; is a vital lesson to us today. There is so much to glean from the wisdom in this play, and I urge everyone and anyone who is able to go see it, not only for the beautiful music and performances, but the powerful words and the thought provoking dialogues. Put some of your entertainment budget towards supporting locally produced/performed art by women of color. The payoffs will be exponential.

For more information about Nina Simone: Four Women and to purchase tickets, click on this link. The show runs through February 26.

Also, a special thanks to everyone who came out last Sunday to the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers latest talk-back event! We love having a chance to dialogue with you guys after shows to hear your thoughts and to help us process our own reactions. Building community is more important than ever, and we hope you continue to join us in the future! You can see the bloggers who attended below: 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Corazón Eterno Warms the Heart

A love story for the ages, just in time for Valentine's Day. 

Photo by Rich Ryan.
We live in tumultuous times, and much of the art being made right now reflects this. It's important to use art as a way to help process things, to put things in their place and to consider them from a new angle. But let's be honest: it can get a little exhausting.

We can't be going at full speed all the time in every direction; something's got to give. So it was refreshing to attend Corazón Eterno last weekend at Mixed Blood Theatre. Corazón Eterno is pure romantic treacle, in the greatest traditions (think The Notebook or Love in the Time of Cholera). It's not revelatory or life changing, but it is definitely heartwarming and hearkens back to a simpler time, which provided a soothing place of respite after weeks of political contention.
Photo by Rich Ryan.
Corazón Eterno is narrated by Julio Gonzalez, a man reflecting on the story of the great love of his life, Julia. It begins with the sweet blossoming of their romance as teenagers, follows the difficult split Julia's father forces upon them, Julia's subsequent marriage to another man (who eventually betrays her), Julio's bitter loneliness without his love, and the final reconciliation between the two much later in life when they have softened and can truly belong to each other. It's a simple story that I'm sure you've heard before, but it's still enjoyable despite its familiarity.

The narration is told alternately in English and Spanish (with subtitles that switch between both). This bilingual performance is one of my favorite things about Mixed Blood (and something I wish was far more common in the Twin Cities, particularly for our diverse communities). It's an additional challenge for the actors, of course, and all of the cast here handled it well, seamlessly transitioning between languages in different contexts. Israel López Reyes is quiet and steadfast as Julio Gonzalez, and he steadily steers the course of the story. I found Reyes' solemnity really endearing, and it made the story feel more grounded than silly. Mariana Fernández plays Julio's lost-love Julia. Fernández has a wily air about her, maneuvering her way through Julia's disappointment. She felt a little less in-touch than Reyes, but they ably demonstrate the mixed dynamics of Julio and Julia's relationships.
Photo by Rich Ryan.

Raúl Ramos is fiery as Julia's father Agustin, and Sasha Andreev is hard to love as Migel Reyes, Julia's first husband. I'm not sure what it is about Andreev but he seems to gravitate towards difficult characters who he somehow manages to render far more palatable than they should be, which is a feat in itself. The show's standout by far is Lisa Suarez who is utterly charming as Julio's mother Clemencia. She brings wit, heart, and tender passion to her role, and she's an absolute joy to watch. I hope to see more of her in the future!

If you need a pleasant escape from today's troubles (who doesn't?), Corazón Eterno may be for you. Is it life-changing? No. Is it innovative? No. But it is heartwarming and familiar, and it felt like the visual equivalent of a cozy blanket with a mug of cocoa. The story's mundanity is exactly what I needed after weeks of dizzyingly paced news, dread of the unknown and crazy events. If you need such a break too (or want a really excellent way to practice your Spanish listening and reading skills), look no further. Corazón  Eterno runs through February 25 at Mixed Blood Theatre. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Royal Family Middles

If the Kardashians lived in the 1920s, this would be for them. 

Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

In this era where we are working to ease the yawning gap between the 1% and the 99%, it can be a little difficult to identify with people on the opposite side of the spectrum from you.

The Royal Family, a play about a prestigious acting family's (the Cavendishes) inner workings (think Keeping Up With The Kardashians circa 1927), puts a spotlight on the 1%, or at least those who to appear to be part of it. The Cavendishes share a lavish, gorgeously appointed apartment in downtown New York City. The matriarch, Fanny, is reaching the end of her career. Fanny's daughter Julie is enjoying a career peak and is about to premiere a new show with her daughter Gwen. Gwen is dating her sweetheart Perry, and Julie is anticipating a visit from her former lover Gilbert.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Their relationships are severely strained by the Cavendish's inability to soften their dramatic tendencies. Tony, Julie's brother, sweeps in and disturbs the family peace on rumors of having assaulted a member of the film he was playing in; Julie demands that Gwen lay down her personal life for the success of the family and their upcoming show; Gilbert works hard to remove Julie from her family's toxic dependence; and Fanny is unwilling to accept that age has rendered her finished with anything mildly adventurous or performative.

The play meanders into a third act (this show is LONG - two intermissions, be prepared), in which we see the resolution of both love stories (Julie and Gilbert marry, as do Gwen and Perry), and the Cavendish's eternal inability to leave the stage. All of the family members are sucked into the vortex of performance, to a fault. As this is meant to be a parody of the illustrious Barrymore family, it should be no surprise that there is an abundance of flair, overwrought drama and unnecessary conflicts along the way, and that the show closes with a dramatic event.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Michelle O'Neill anchors the show as Julie Cavendish, bringing a Joan Crawford-wire-hanger intensity to her part. She clearly gels with Robert Berdahl, who plays Gilbert Marshall (which somehow came off with a Pierce Brosnan vibe). Victoria Janicki alternately simpers and glowers as Gwen Cavendish; Matthew Saldivar is hilarious as the roguish Tony Cavendish; and Elizabeth Franz steers the action as the matriarch Fanny. David Darrow shines a light as Gwen's husband Perry and has an innate sweetness that's very pleasant. Shawn Hamilton similarly brings a welcome warmth to his portrayal of the Cavendish's manager Oscar Wolfe.
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Overall, I have to be honest: I struggled with this show. This is a distinguished cast, and they give it a strong shot, so kudos to them. But the story just didn't capture me. There are so many people struggling right now, and rather than feeling like an escape from the craziness of the world outside, The Royal Family felt so overwrought and unnecessarily tense. It's a comedic play and it should tap into so many societal norms today despite being decades old, and there are elements that do feel relevant - but it was hard to feel any empathy for the behavior of the characters. They are so spoiled and make so much fuss over such little things that it just fell apart for me. Again: this is not a reflection of the quality of the direction or cast or the production itself, just of my feelings of the script. It's always hard to balance personal preference with the quality of a show when constructing a review, and this one just didn't jive for me.

The biggest positive standout, which must be acknowledged, is the riveting production design. No expense was spared to build the lavish set and on-point costumes. The apartment is outfitted with an imposing, full-length set of bookshelves packed with all manner of curios; cozy looking furniture including a fainting couch; and a poetically painted patterned wallpaper set. The Cavendishes are clad in a rich array of thick furs, gossamer silks, and eye popping, on-trend dresses. Kudos to Marte Johanne Ekhougen's lavish scenic design; Brenda Abbandandolo's riveting costume design; and the dramatic lighting design from Bradley King (which lends a cinematic feel to every scene). You can't help but be pulled in by such gorgeous surroundings, and it does help to pass the time as you watch!
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Revivals are always tricky, especially comedic ones. Sometimes, they soar (as witnessed by last year's marvelous update of Harvey at the Guthrie, which breathed fresh life into a story I never even liked) and sometimes, they stall. The Royal Family middles for me. If you're looking for a gorgeous period staging and are a fan of the reality show life, this will probably catch you. If you're looking for something totally abstracted from today's woes, or with a little teeth to it, you won't find it here. The Royal Family runs through March 19 at the Guthrie theater; find more information and buy your tickets by clicking on this link.

And as a note: make sure to join the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers on Sunday at Park Square Theater's matinee performance of Nina Simone: Four Women! This is one of the best shows I've ever seen and I can't wait to see it again. We will be hosting a talk-back after the performance, so make sure to swing by; tickets are quickly disappearing! 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Promising Promise Land

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Photo by Nick Schroepfer.
Art always seems to closely follow politics, and there is no better example than the pointed shows about immigration that opened last weekend, right as the new immigration ban was set in place from the White House. Flower Drum Song, a beautiful co-production from Mu Performing Arts and Park Square Theater, opened as well as a preview of Dr. Seuss's The Sneetches at the Children's Theatre Company and Promise Land, a new original work from Transatlantic Love Affair (TLA) at the Guthrie Theater.
Photo by Nick Schroepfer.
TLA always puts an interesting spin on things (which is why they were voted favorite theater company by the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers!), and that is just as true of Promise Land as their other productions. Promise Land tells the stories of Yosef and Sara, two children who flee hunger and persecution in their unnamed native country for the United States, the land of opportunity. As so many stories of immigrants and refugees go, things are difficult for Yosef and Sara; they face difficult manual labor, sexual advances from predatory employers, horrifying travel conditions, and more challenges. But the show's positive message overwhelms these troubles: Yosef and Sara are also taken in by compassionate strangers, given generous assistance when they need it most, and ultimately are able to pay to bring their parents to the United States, too.
Photo by Nick Schroepfer.
TLA's physical, lyrical style lends itself beautifully to this story. There's just enough dialogue to keep the narrative moving, but the bulk of the action is told silently through creative, expressive choreography that transports the audience from the belly of a steamer ship to the shores of America, into the heart of a hot manufacturing factory and up the stairs of a two story home. TLA's gorgeous, evocative movements make this story truly universal and leave a deep impression that simple dialogue couldn't convey. This is assisted by strategically placed, striking lighting washes that provide a watercolor effect and beautiful shadows on the simple white backdrop. Costumes are kept similarly simple (and comfortable!), affording the cast the highest amount of movement and flexibility.
Photo by Nick Schroepfer.
TLA takes a true team approach to their work, so I can't call out any specific company members, but just know: you can tell they really put their hearts and souls into this piece. It feels relaxed and thorough even though it runs at a tight 75 straight minutes, and everyone is clearly immersed in the story. Diogo Lopes and Isabel Nelson, the company's co-directors, did a gorgeous job of creating and rehearsing this show (check out an inside scoop on their process at the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers Facebook page). Cheers to original theater with a lot of heart; if you enjoy such productions, make sure to go to the Guthrie to see Promise Land before it closes. And remember, tickets are only $9, so it doesn't have to break the bank.

As an aside: Compendium is now on Facebook! Please take a few minutes to join me at my page there. I can't wait to create a more interactive experience and connect this community. Thanks so much for your support!