Monday, April 24, 2017

An Eerie Bluest Eye

For a heavy taste of poignant melancholy, check out the Guthrie's mainstage adaptation of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye

Photo by Dan Norman.

Have you ever seen something that made the pit of your stomach drop out of your body? Something that physically reached into your chest and pulled out your literal heartstrings?

The Bluest Eye, the Guthrie's lyrical adaptation of Toni Morrison's brilliant first novel, is just such a show. It is so hard to watch, but so vital, so new, and so necessary, that you can't avert your eyes for even a second. It's a 105-minute-long, extravagantly posed snapshot of lives that seem sprung straight off of the page, and it's eerie, troubling themes will have you riveted for the full performance.

Photo by Dan Norman.

The Bluest Eye tells the story of Pecola, an abused 12 year old girl, through the eyes of her two friends Frieda and Claudia. Pecola's life story is a testament to the domestic terrorism faced by black women every day, both from their own families and societies at large. Despite her innumerable hardships (which includes abusive parents, a rape and unwanted pregnancy and miscarriage, homelessness, and relentless teasing and gossiping from her community at large), Pecola manages to keep her spirits lifted because of one big wish: a pair of big blue eyes, which would make her more Caucasian in appearance and, to her mind, more lovable by those who can't love her as she already is. Pecola's thorough desire to be something she is not, her total inability to accept and love herself as she is, is one of the most heartbreaking stories I've ever seen on stage. There are a million small details about Pecola's life, her friendships along the way, her family's backstory and the way she gets her blue eyes that I will leave for you to savor when you see this live, but suffice it to say: they are all wrenching, they are all understandable, and they will break your heart.

Photo by Dan Norman.

This wonderful cast is perfectly poised to tell Pecola's story, with a winsomeness and ferocity that such a serious narrative deserves. Brittany Bellizeare is magnificent as Pecola, truly disappearing into her role and drawing the audience in. Bellizeare profoundly captures Pecola's childish nature - despite everything, she IS a child after all - as well as Pecola's sudden descent into madness at the end of the show in a final scene that will give you quite literal chills. Carla Duren and Deonna Bouye are wonderful as narrators Claudia and Frieda, respectively. They equally capture the innocence of their characters' childish understanding of Pecola's very adult problems, and they narrate the story with a lilting, lyrical delivery that carries the audience like a speeding brook through the story. Their performances are fresh and fruitful, and I hope to see more of them in the Twin Cities.

Photo by Dan Norman.

The supporting cast also ushers the show to success. Stephanie Berry perfectly captures the despair of Pecola's mother, Mrs. Breedlove; J. Bernard Calloway is equally despicable and heartbreaking as Pecola's father Cholly; and Caroline Strang is perfectly despicable as the high yellow Maureen Pearl, the foe of all the local black girls. Guthrie veterans Shawn Hamilton and Regina Marie Williams round out the cast as Frieda and Claudia's parents, and they lend a grounding aspect to the story and stage that keeps the fantastic ending from seeming too foreign.

Photo by Dan Norman.

Matt Saunders provides a fresh, clean setting for the scenic design, which is composed mainly of a cement wall cleverly scattered with interspersed dandelions, and surrounded by a beautiful impression of a field. It manages to be lush and stark all at the same time, and it's a perfect backdrop for the serious story. Small details like unspooling a simple clothesline in the summer sun or a waft of smoke from a coal stove are illuminated with painterly washes from lighting designer Yi Zhao, who puts the simple settings into fantasy territory. Costumes, by Montana Blanco, are pretty simple but pack a big punch, allowing the audience to fully focus on each person directly as their narrative takes flight. Again, attention to detail is key, such as the soft stain of a spilled blueberry pie, or the removal of Pecola's baby from an unbuttoned hole in her dress that can't help but evoke her ripped, broken womb.

Photo by Dan Norman.

The Bluest Eye is not only a unique, affecting story, but one of the most perfectly drawn adaptations of a book that I've seen. The plot is tightly constructed and never loses any of Toni Morrison's brilliant lyricism, even throughout the darkest scenes. It is clear that this cast takes great care with this story, and their deep reverence for Morrison's work and determination to make this a fully rounded performance really shows. The Bluest Eye is one of those rare stories that both illuminates the destruction a community can cause to itself, and lifts the veil on the reason such a community might be so fatally damaged in the first place. It places an unflinching gaze on the terrorism of white supremacy and the ways that children can be abused into believing that the horrors of the world can be solved with simple things such as acquiring a pair of blue eyes. The Bluest Eye is a revealing, uncomfortable, fraught piece - don't expect to leave smiling - but it's one that audiences desperately need to hear and a lovely introduction to Toni Morrison's work if you're not already familiar.

The Bluest Eye may not be the story that America wants to hear, but it's one that we richly deserve after the sins of our fathers - which are quickly becoming our own. The Bluest Eye runs at the Wurtele Thrust Stage through May 21. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Getting Down with Girl Shakes Loose

"You're not supposed to know what you're doing with your life Girl - you're just supposed to live it!"

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

I'm just going to come out and say it: there are some really, really great things happening in our local theater community right now.

I mean the Twin Cities have always had a reputation for making and hosting great art, but there has been a bevy of wonderful, innovative stagings of late that are really reinvigorating my love of the arts. It's evident in my recent reviews of shows like Vietgone, Battlefield, Wicked and Booty and the Beast, and now I have one more rave to add to the pile: Girl Shakes Loose. A Janelle Monae album brought to vibrant life, Girl Shakes Loose is a lovely new piece that is redefining the modern musical and is a hell of a lot of fun to boot.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

I was so blessed to be able to attend the world premiere of this brand new musical last night, and I'm convinced that Girl Shakes Loose is one more step towards reinventing the modern musical. Set distinctively in New York City, Georgia, and San Francisco, Girl Shakes Loose chronicles the story of Girl as she wanders the country trying to discover what will fulfill her. A woman who has made a habit of running from her problems rather than facing them head-on, Girl encounters a series of bad experiences - seedy, bar-driven hookups, couchsurfing, an insufferable Brooklyn roommate, the death of her grandmother, coming out as bisexual to her own mother - until she finally realizes that her rash actions have cost her a relationship with the love of her life, which provides Girl with the rock bottom she needs in order to re-launch her life for herself. The show ends as Girl stands tall and strong, ready to face the world head on and accept happiness when she truly finds it.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

The cast is enormously talented and effortlessly guides us through Girl's journey. The trip is led by Alexis Sims who is masterful as Girl in what I believe is her first role at the Penumbra. Sims has a glorious voice that is a little Mariah, a little Michael and a little Carmen, and her wide range and approachable demeanor absolutely reels you into Girl's dysfunctional world. Jemecia Bennett is a knockout as Girl's Aunt Lucille, with a powerhouse voice that sears through the audience like a red hot fire iron. Bennett's voice is literal fire, and I could have listened to her sing all night. China Brickey is hilarious as Girl's granola roommate Veronica, with a smile for every scene and some necessary comedic relief. Tatiana Williams is smooth and sexy as Girl's lover Ella, lending the show a distinctly feminine sensuality that is all blues, all exquisite. And Thomasina Petrus envelops the audience with her rich, soulful voice as Girl's Mama, a dark but profound relationship that explains many of Girl's faults and insecurities once it is revealed.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

The men of the cast are no slouches either. John Jamison is magnificent as he serves in several roles, the most distinctive as the queer friend who hosts Girl when she is in San Francisco. Jamison has the strut of Ru Paul and the pipes of James Brown, and the only word to describe him is FIERCE. He was my favorite member of the cast to watch, and I hope we continue to see more of him in the future. Lamar Jefferson ignites the audience in a brilliant caricature of a Baptist preacher. And Kory Pullam is dynamite as Girl's high school sweetheart Eddie, with a seductive voice and explosive physicality in his every movement. This well rounded cast can do anything, and I hope they make a recording of the show; their dulcet tones melt perfectly into what is somehow simultaneously an unidentifiable yet perfectly familiar soundtrack, and they had me humming all the way home.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

The music is in fact the most distinctive element of Girl Shakes Loose, and yet even that is hard to pin down. There are so many varied influences woven through every track, and the "songs" aren't really songs at all but more periodic short focus points in the script that propel the action forward. The best way I can think is to break it into "moods." Girl Shakes Loose opens in the dirt, sweat and stress of New York City, where the bluesy feel of Billie Holiday runs smack into Destiny's Child. Act 2 follows Girl to Georgia, where Aretha goes to church with Chuck Berry and the cast swells between gospel inflected tunes and riotous rock and roll. Act 3, a brief stop in San Francisco, brings the electricity of Prince to Janelle Monae, with a little Michael Jackson and Beyonce sprinkled in between. You'll understand once you see the show, but it's at once a completely familiar sensation while simultaneously being something you've never heard before, a modern-day oratorio/hip-hopera that feels great and will leave you wanting more.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

The staging is straightforward but suggestive. New York is a flurry of flashing lights, car sounds, sweaty clubs and subways, and nomadic life. Georgia is richly drawn in Grandma's house with walls covered in mementos, a well worn kitchen and rocking chair, and a cleverly lowered set of church-going ladies' hats right before the funeral. San Francisco is a riot of projected graffiti, splashing waves and house parties. Costuming for the whole show is really fun, with every person wearing a distinct set of black clothes that they periodically arrange under quick tops or accessory changes. Girl Shakes Loose also has a judicious use of wigs, which I found to be fun (and made me wonder - why don't more shows use good wigs? Or maybe they do and I don't notice?). It's exceedingly simple but it really works, and you are never left feeling unstimulated or confused about who is who.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

I couldn't help but think of the word Millennial, so often used as a slur these days, as I watched this show. Girl Shakes Loose captures the quintessence of Millennialism in all its flaws and glories. A failed internet startup? Check. Bicoastal living? Check. Gender identities outside of a binary spectrum? Check. A gorgeously multiracial cast? Check. Feeling lost and inhibited by a poor economy and lack of sense of purpose? Check, check, check. All of these elements combine to provide a rich depiction of modern young adulthood, one that is vitally necessary as our generations continue to age. We can't brandish angry platitudes about Millennials forever - after all, someone has to replenish Social Security's coffers - so what comes next? How can we provide a place for those who are feeling overworked and underappreciated in the new post-recession economy? How can we help people find meaning in a world they increasingly understand to be hostile and hopeless, where their fears for the environment and their fellow citizens around the world feel wholly ignored? Girl Shakes Loose lends a vibrant voice to this conversation, and it's a pleasure to watch it unfold. It has me so excited for the future of musical theater, and I can't wait to see where this powerful artistic team takes us next.

Photo by Allen Weeks. 

A female Bildungsroman for the millennial era, Girl Shakes Loose is replete with soul, heart, warmth, and raw energy. It's really worth a stop and keep your eyes peeled: I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more shows like this in the near future. Girl Shakes Loose runs at the Penumbra Theatre through May 13; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Also, don't forget - the Penumbra is celebrating their 40th anniversary! The Minnesota Historical Society is celebrating this incredible milestone with a new exhibit - see more info from my review here.

Reviewed in Brief: Battlefield at the Guthrie

"Truth, self control, asceticism, generosity, non-injury, constancy in virtue; these are the means of success, not caste or family."

Photo by Caroline Moreau.

In our increasingly global world, it seems to me that certain themes become ever more timeless and universal. Among them are a desire for peace, love of family, and the necessity for sacrifice to move society forward.

All of these themes are present in Battlefield, a previously un-performed except from Peter Brook's adaptation of the larger Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is considered a foundational text of Hinduism, including what is considered to be a historical account (itihasa, or literally "that's what happened") interspersed with lessons about morality (dharma, or Hindu moral law). Brooks previously staged the full Mahabharata story in a 1985 production in London that lasted nine hours and has been "lauded as one of the greatest theatrical achievements of all time," according to the Guthrie's press materials.

I've always been fascinated with the story of the Mahabharata and larger Hindu eschatology and fables. As a person born in the Christian tradition, it has always seemed so much larger than life and possesses not only beautiful stories but really rich, introspective parables on morality and civility. Battlefield is the perfect excerpt from the larger text to encapsulate these lessons and present them in a friendly way to an audience unfamiliar with the intricacies of the larger story.

Photo by Caroline Moreau.

It helps to have a little background: Battlefield is set immediately after the large war between ruling families (the kings of which are brothers), the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Pandavas have been massacred, but it has come at great cost to the Kauravas who have lost many of their own; in fact, only a handful are left. The Kauravan ruler Dhitrarashtra is abject in his grief and adopts his nephew Yudishtira to be his heir. Yudishtira reluctantly accepts and finds himself seeking wisdom from many sources, which range from his grandfather to Krishna himself. Yudishtira eventually reaches an uneasy peace with his inner turmoil, and helps see his uncle and mother to the end of their days as they serve penance in a forest. Interwoven throughout the family tragedy are many parables illuminating the perils of power, the elements that make a wise leader, ways to provide forgiveness for yourself and others, and the importance of time, fate and destiny in determining the outcome of anyone's life.

Photo by Caroline Moreau.

The cast is kept lean and clean, with only four members. Jared McNeill stars as Yudishtira, whose inner turmoil at ascending to his ill-gotten throne is at its peak. McNeill has a dry delivery that manages somehow to encapsulate a thousand years of complex feeling. McNeill forces the audience to empathize with Yudishtira, and it is through Yudishtira's training that we are treated to a range of beautifully told and imaginatively staged parables. The remaining three cast members (Ery Nzaramba, Carole Karemera and Sean O'Callaghan) beautifully weave the rest of the narrative through McNeill's anchoring story, gracefully switching between characters and story lines with simple "costume" changes that often require no more than the addition or adjustment of a colorful shawl. I loved this diverse cast, which is truly international. Despite their cultural differences, it was impossible not to feel a thread of universalism flowing through their delivery, and their wide-ranging backgrounds made the whole performance feel international and approachable. Their quiet stoicism in their roles keeps the audience's attention on the profound words of the Mahabharata; a wise choice for such an introspective script.

There really isn't much to say about the production design as it is nearly non-existent, something I found fitting for a Hindu story and the bleak setting of a battlefield's aftermath. Of note are some gorgeously primary dyed shawls and blankets that are innovatively wrapped to help create different characters. The bright hues make a powerful impact on the otherwise neutral, simple set, and laser focus the audience's attention. It's a wonderful example of how little is needed to create a good show; with some loving attention to detail and a salient script, any story can be told well with just a few well chosen props.

Photo by Caroline Moreau.

Battlefield is a 70-minute-long meditation on stage. Like any good philosophical piece it has many lessons to teach us about the limits and drawbacks of power, the ruins created by war (even a well intentioned one), the uglier side to morality, the impossibility of perfection, the wholeness of grief. Battlefield moves through you like a quiet wind, bringing a peace and stillness that seems wholly lacking in our evermore plugged in culture. I found it a refreshing, grounding performance, and it has inspired me to spend more time studying the Mahabharata for myself. Whether you are a fan of philosophy, fairy tales and parables or not, I'm sure there is something of value to be found for anyone watching Battlefield, even if it is only to spend some quiet time meditating on the state of yourself. It only runs for one more week at the Guthrie, so make sure you treat yourself to this elegant performance by a legendary director while you still can. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

MUST SEE: Vietgone is the Most Badass Play You'll See This Year

Vietgone is Hamilton meets Kendrick Lamarr meets the Vietnam War, and it's sublime. 

Photo by Rich Ryan.

Sometimes, if you're lucky, something will walk across your path that is so totally awesome, so fully realized, that all you can do is sit back in awe and appreciate it.

Vietgone, currently running at the Mixed Blood Theater, is one such entity. It has the brilliant theatricality of Hamilton; the raw emotion, profanity and lyricism of Kendrick Lamarr; and a brutally complex view of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a Vietnamese man who fought in it that defies all stereotypes presented in more traditional depictions such as Miss Saigon or Apocalypse Now. Vietgone is part On the Road with Jack Kerouack, part Dessa musicality, part kung fu-tastic; it defies all description and is singlehandedly the best thing I've seen so far this year. Go see it. The actors more than deserve it, and you need it for personal growth, and TICKETS ARE FREE. Just do it.

Photo by Rich Ryan.

To provide an overly simplistic summary: Vietgone follows Quang, a handsome, dedicated soldier and father fighting the Vietcong, and Tong, a beautiful, spirited woman defying cultural mores, as they escape Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and end up in the same American refugee camp, Fort Chaffee. Quang is determined to get back to Saigon to rescue his wife and two children, who he had to leave behind in the madness of evacuation; Tong loves America, unlike her mother Huong who longs to end her life in her homeland. Despite their different motivations, Quang and Tong become lovers and partners in their new world, perfectly complementing each other. The story follows their tug of war between tradition and modernity, war and peace, living in the past and crafting a new future. Quang takes a road trip across the country in a last ditch plea to get to his family, and Tong considers marrying an American she doesn't love to fit into her new locale; neither plan works out, and both decide to face their uncertain futures together. This all sounds so blase and mundane but please trust me: in this seemingly simple description are some extremely potent realities that will leave you breathless with their power.

Photo by Rich Ryan.

It helps that this is such an extraordinarily talented cast. Every single member is clearly having the time of their lives, and their excellent chemistry elevates the rich script to new heights. David Huynh anchors the cast as Quang, with a strong, wry delivery that makes Quang's heartbreak at leaving his family behind all the more wrenching. Meghan Kreidler is perfectly cast as Tong, bringing vulnerability to Tong's proud, stoic exterior. Sherwin Resurreccion is in his best role yet as the Playwright and a member of the ensemble, bringing hilarity to each of his scenes. Flordelino Lagundino is the perfect sidekick as Quang's best friend Nahn. And Sun Mee Chomet is a knockout as Tong's mother Huong and a member of the ensemble. Chomet steals every single scene and is delightfully profane in her role; I could not get enough, and she had the entire house rolling on the floor with laughter each time she appeared.

Photo by Rich Ryan.

The staging is simple but perfectly evokes each sense of place. The road trip scenes are particularly emblematic with cartoony postcards and simple motorcycle props that are surprisingly suggestive. Costume changes are quick and easily transition the viewer through each setting, which is important due to the many flashbacks and scenery switches throughout the script. And I have to give a shoutout to Brian Bose and Allen Malicsi who provided choreography and fight choreography, respectively. They paid attention to every single detail - spoofing classic rom coms for Tong and Quang's love scenes, filling a little Bruce Lee into every kung fu kick, providing a realistic kick back for every sputter of the "motorcycle" chases - and their attention to small items really elevates this show to the next level.

Photo by Rich Ryan.

If you follow this blog you know I have spent a lot of time thinking about the role of legacy in theater lately, and the responsibility for the arts to continue to push society forward. Like many theater lovers I was raised on "classic" films from the Golden Age of Hollywood and for a long time I expected the stage to reflect and replicate those stories - so I never minded the unceasing revivals of Rogers and Hammerstein and Bernstein musicals. But as I get older and encounter more diversified perspectives, it gets harder and harder to appreciate those shows. So many communities feel rightly ignored and offended by these "classic" shows - as best described in this incredible article about Miss Saigon (so important that yes, I am sharing it twice) - that I have a hard time appreciating them anymore.

Photo by Rich Ryan.

And why shouldn't we move on? Vietgone is the best argument yet for moving theater forward into a new paradigm. Why produce Miss Saigon when you can have this hilarious, heartbreaking, profoundly introspective piece that describes war in much more vivid detail and deepening complexity, and particularly that honors the community most affected by said war in the first place? Why immerse yourself in lovelorn ballads? when you can have a Quang rapping

You lost your brother? I lost my family
You lost your brother? I lost my country
You lost your brother? I lost my wife.
You lost your brother? I lost my life

In fact, I was not expecting the hip hop focus in Vietgone, and once I got over the initial surprise it seemed the most fitting way to flow the story. Rap and hip hop is the latest iteration of storytelling in our society, and Vietgone's vital perspective assaults the ears in this format in the same way Kendrick Lamarr does. I couldn't help but think of his recent song "DNA" as Tong and Quang pined for home, critiqued America, cried their tears and bared their fists:

I got, I got, I got, I got
Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA
Photo by Rich Ryan.

Vietgone is everything you could ever wish for in a theatrical piece, and it's the single most relevant thing I have seen to explain the pitfalls (but also the profound necessities) of participating in other countries' civil conflicts. It has heart, soul, and a little bit of rock and roll, and it will leave you with tears of joy and sorrow. Most importantly, it decolonizes the narrative of the Vietnam War that we so often hear and flips the tables on white America, portrayed here often as poorly speaking, ignorant, callous people. It's hilarious and deserved, and I wish more playwrights had the balls (or production companies would fund) such pointed critiques of the stories that are often told of our diverse communities. Vietgone hits you smack in the face with the flaws of traditional narratives, and it's a wonderful, poignant, necessary revelation. DO NOT MISS this incredibly produced, perfectly executed, gorgeously written love letter to all of those who have had to leave their country behind to build a new life in a place that doesn't want them. It's the best thing you will do for yourself this year (yes I'm calling it that early) and will linger in your thoughts long after the curtains close. I will leave you with the words of Quang, who provides the most profound endorsement of American intervention I've heard: "Many of them died so I could live — so I can be here right now."

Vietgone is on stage at Mixed Blood FOR FREE through April 30. You have literally zero excuse to not see it. For more information about the show and tickets, click on this link

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reviewed in Brief: The Master Builder

Ibsen's dark id is on full display at the Southern Theater

Photo courtesy of Theatre Novi Most.

Feeling a little glum at the advent of our early spring?

If so no worries, because you can find a chilly winter vibe at Theatre Novi Most's staging of The Master Builder at the Southern Theater. Although this is one of Ibsen's better known stories, Theatre Novi Most has provided it with a stark, modern staging that strips it down to bare bones and weaves Ibsen's dark id throughout.

The Master Builder is about Halvard Solness, a master architect renowned throughout Norway for his work. Halvard is married to Aline, a quiet, serious woman who has not been able to provide him with a family. Halvard employs Knut Brovik, his son Ragnar, and Ragnar's fiancee Kaia, with whom Halvard is sexually involved. Halvard is a master manipulator pulling the strings of all those around him in an abusive manner that he clearly enjoys, with little thought or care to how his actions might negatively impact them. All of this changes with the arrival of Hilda Wangel, a woman many years Halvard's junior who has tracked him from their initial encounter in her childhood. Hilda exploits Halvard's manipulative tendencies as he becomes more and more obsessed with her, and manages to convince him to build his largest tower yet, although he is afraid of heights. I won't spoil the ending by revealing how this fear is molded by Hilda, but suffice it to say, Halvard receives his just reward for his deviousness.

Theatre Novi Most makes the most of the macabre story with their sparse cast, which includes Barbra Berloitz as Aline; Pearce Bunting as Halvard; Shelby Richardson as Hilda; and Alex Berreto Hathaway, who switches between the remaining characters and Halvard/Ibsen's dark id, Troll. Each actor plumbs their psyches to find the twisted, menacing delight of their characters. Like many Scandinavian stories there are no real heroes (or honestly, even likeable characters) in The Master Builder, and the company clearly enjoys their walk on the dark side. Hathaway in particular is adept at switching between his characters, providing unique voices and staging for each one to delineate.

I have to be honest: overall I struggled a little with this show. The lines between characters became a little muddy in this compact staging, and it felt like much of the preamble to the story didn't lend itself to helping provide clarity for the overall narrative. It may be that translating the setting of the original play into the modern era lost some helpful context. It's also true that this isn't the sort of play you're inclined to be predisposed to enjoy, simply because the characters aren't really likeable. Much of the genius in Ibsen lies in his ability to totally resist the impulse to soften his characters and instead keep them in (an unfortunately more realistic) dark places. This darkness is where Theatre Novi Most shines. The company is totally unafraid to "go there," and you are destined to feel uncomfortable watching some of the physical, troubling actions that Halvard releases on those around him. Halvard eventually gets what is coming to his deranged soul, and Bunting will lead you to his fall with aplomb.

Put a little chill in your spring by seeing The Master Builder, which runs at the Southern Theater through April 22. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Wonderfully Wicked

Wicked offers many lessons for reinventing the "classics." 

Photo by Joan Marcus

I've been thinking a lot lately about art in terms of modernity versus the "canon." I truly believe that nothing is sacred and that taking a fresh eye to things is not only fun but often necessary in order to have our stories keep up with a changing world. Evolution is a vital component of any successful endeavor; why should art be any different?

Photo by Joan Marcus

There has been so much (rightful) furor lately over the revival of musicals that have not aged well. This powerful piece on the troubling legacy of Miss Saigon is one such example, but it extends to local productions of South Pacific and West Side Story, as well as national tours such as the recent The King and I and Book of Mormon runs. I can understand both sides of an argument about these shows - that they possess a musical and choreographical legacy of deep importance, but that they are also fatally flawed in depictions of diverse communities - and at the end of the day, I can't help but think that the latter view is the correct one.

Photo by Joan Marcus

So with all of this on the mind, it was surprisingly refreshing to watch Wicked last night, the smash-hit reinvention of the Wizard of Oz as told from the perspective of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. I think the totally new approach taken by Gregory Maguire, the original author of the novel Wicked that the musical is based on, is one we should encourage for more and more of the "canonical" stories that we can't seem to let go. Why not rewrite them? Why not flip the perspective completely? What do we have to lose by looking at these stories with completely fresh eyes? Or why not write something that's wholly new and has never before been created?

Photo by Joan Marcus

If you're only familiar with the original Wizard of Oz story, tune in: Wicked follows Elphaba from birth to melt, filling in an astonishingly rich amount of detail of her story in between. The bulk of the tale focuses on Elphaba's time as a student at Shiz University, where she learns about the mistreatment of the Animal race, taps into her political potential, and most importantly learns to harness her incredible magical powers. Elphaba's presence at Shiz only occurs due to the expectation that she will help her sister Nessarose (the witch of the infamous red sparkling shoes), who is unable to walk. Like all best-laid plans, however, Elphaba makes Shiz her own once she's there.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Elphaba's ostracization due to her green appearance is also her saving grace; the strength she develops from being an outcast is carried into her political activities and helps her buck the system, living in hiding and trying to expose Oz to the Wizard's shortcomings. Before opposing the Wizard Elphaba befriends the diametrically opposite Galinda (later known as Glinda the Good Witch), from whom she learns softness, friendship and people skills. Glinda also introduces Elphaba to Fiyero, the swashbuckling prince who later becomes Elphaba's lover and only true supporter. Glinda and Elphaba's inherent tension is at the heart of the show, and their deep, complex friendship is what drives the story and is the most memorable element of the story.

Photo by Joan Marcus

This is the kind of show that only succeeds with a powerful cast, and this production delivers. Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda is the perfectly plush foil to Jessica Vosk's dynamic Elphaba. These women have terrific chemistry and it's clear to see they relish their roles. Their voices are equally lush and sharp, and they handle the nuanced conflict between the characters beautifully, particularly on "The Wizard and I," "I'm Not That Girl," and my eternal favorite "For Good." Jeremy Woodart fits neatly into their pairing as the dashing Fiyero. Woodart was a clear audience favorite and gave a surprisingly nuanced look into life as a socially responsible prince. As Elphaba's sister Nessarose Kristen Martin isn't quite as strong as the other leads, but she does lend a dangerous sweetness and excellent physicality to her part. Isabel Keating is deliciously grotesque as the vile Madame Morrible, lending a Hunger Games quality to her character's lust for power. And Fred Applegate hits some lovely high notes as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Photo by Joan Marcus

The sets and costumes are fabulous as always, blending the original magic of the 1939 film with a steampunk and Hunger Games inspired harshness. Glinda's creamsicle colored gowns float in and out on an iron-reinforced "bubble;" a red eyed dragon sneers above the stage; and the Emerald City gleams with the harsh, cold beauty of a city without a soul. Elphaba's grassy skin sears through the entire spectacle, focusing your full attention; her comparatively plain wardrobe and simple appearance demonstrate why oftentimes, less is truly more.

Photo by Joan Marcus

While Wicked does include a love story, and politics, and magic, at the end of the day it's one of the few great masterpieces exploring female friendship; the rich, complicated relationship Glinda and Elphaba share is a wonder, and I hope it continues to inspire more stories like it to be written (Frozen being an excellent example of another successful story in the same vein). Can we please stop pretending that stories about women aren't interesting or successful? To give a little perspective on the success of Wicked itself: over 9 million people have seen Wicked at it's Broadway home in the Gershwin Theater alone; 18 million more have seen the show on tour in other cities across the United States, and 50 million have seen it worldwide. The show has grossed a combined total of nearly $3 billion in North America alone and has even more success abroad.

Photo by Joan Marcus

So Broadway, are you listening? Instead of reviving troubled, outdated and often racist and sexist shows, can we focus on creating more new, inventive and inclusive stories? The limits of the imagination are endless, and there are so many ways we can sing and dance and inspire that have nothing to do with opening old wounds. Let's take a lesson from this brilliant musical's success and rewrite our art. After all, as Glinda says:

I've heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason, bringing something we must learn and we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them and we help them in return. 

Let's take a lesson from that lovely lyric, and apply that philosophy to our art. It has only good things to offer. Wicked is playing at the Orpheum Theater through May 14. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Penumbra Celebrates 40 Years at the Minnesota Historical Society

You don't have to be a history buff to enjoy this stunning new exhibit.

Endless programs covering 40 years of theater.

Sometimes you don't appreciate what you have until it's gone (or nearly so).

That was my main thought last Sunday as I strolled through the marvelous new exhibit celebrating the Penumbra Theater's 40 years of existence at the Minnesota Historical Society. This truly one-of-a-kind experience does a magnificent job of detailing what makes the Penumbra so special, the enduring legacy of their partnership with August Wilson, and the absolute tragedy that would have occurred had they shuttered for good over financial crises (as recently as five years ago, in fact).

Production design features were a favorite element of mine.

There are two rooms featured in the exhibition. The first offers a history of the black arts movement (BAM) and Penumbra's quilt wall. Although I visited this room second, I would really recommend beginning with it - it offers a lot of context for the featured pieces on the Penumbra itself. This room has a varied mix of playbills, books, posters, performance photographs, and more that showcase some of the primary movers and shakers of the BAM. Among these are Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Lou Bellamy, and more.

Heart stopping features on African American history and the BAM.

The second room features a solid focus on the Penumbra itself, with a wonderful sampling of highlights from past productions, interviews with core company members, and a marvelous focus on August Wilson's work. For cast interviews, you can sit before a "mirror" and play touching testimonies from company members such as James Craven, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, or Austene Van. Their stories are heartwarming and inspiring, ranging from juicy details of antics backstage to tear-inducing testimonies to the way that Penumbra's vibrant, diverse representation of black life has enriched their lives and careers. I highly recommend watching each video to hear the range of experiences.

The exhibit excels at showing the intersection of art, history, performance and legacy.

Many productions are featured in special showcase here, with everything from video clips of performances to costume and set design close-ups to production photos and sound bites from sound technicians. It's not only a great look at the Penumbra's work itself, but also a testament to the legions of work inherent in creating any theatrical production. Any theater buffs, or novices who have never worked behind the scenes on a performance, will find a lot of interesting things to investigate here. Featured productions include Ma Rainey's Black Bottom; Black Angels (about the Tuskegee Airmen); The Ballad of Emmett Till; Dutchman and The Owl Answers; and, of course, the coup de grĂ¢ce: Fences.

So awesome to see costumes close up where you can truly appreciate them.

It's only appropriate that the first time an August Wilson piece is translated into an Oscar winning film occurs in the same year as this lovely tribute to his work. The Shakespeare of America (at least I am thoroughly convinced), August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle is one of the most genius explorations of life in America, and specifically black life, in existence today. The Penumbra has produced more of August Wilson's work than any theater in the world, and was in fact the first theater to stage one of his shows. Wilson's symbiotic relationship with the Penumbra (particularly Lou Bellamy, for whom he specifically crafted roles), is a fascinating subject and an excellent reminder that not all great work is created in an atmosphere of wealth or fame. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the best work, or at least the most important, is that which can truly reflect the lives of ordinary people and show how extraordinary seemingly quotidian events can actually be if we only change our perspective. No one does this better than Wilson, and I was riveted by the rich detail available in this exhibit.

Bow down and get close up to the original set and costumes for Fences.

Wilson's magnum opus Fences receives terrific treatment in this exhibit. Fans can see the original set and costume pieces, marked up scripts from Bellamy and Wilson, video clips of past productions, and more. There are breakdowns of key elements of the show as well as strong connections to the rest of Wilson's work and the themes circulating throughout the Pittsburgh Cycle, culminating in a book of essays available on the subject. I was so happy to see this detail laid out and archived; I can only imagine what profound qualities to this relationship will be added in coming years.

Listening to detailed sound tech from the Black Angels.

There are other cool features to this exhibit too. For kids, there is a series of coloring book sheets featuring past costume designs. An entire wall is filled with a copy of every program for each show the Penumbra has produced over the years, a glorious mosaic of graphic art excellence. A detailed history of the real Emmett Till primes readers for a richer understanding of the Penumbra's adaptation of that show. A guide to the art hanging in the Penumbra's halls, as well as the theater's importance to the neighborhood in which it resides, is also available and engaging.

Company member interviews were easily one of my favorite elements.

This is the first museum exhibit I've seen that focuses on a specific theater for its subject, and it's absolutely worth a visit. It doesn't have to take a long time to walk through - you can breeze through in under an hour or spend hours if you prefer to really dive in to all the material available - and it's a fabulous reminder of the vibrant cultural history of the Twin Cities and a monument to the dedicated, often thankless work of the Penumbra company members. Without them we may very well have had fewer August Wilson plays; without them, generations of African Americans would not have had a safe, creative and diverse space in which to choose and rehearse roles outside of stereotypes in Minnesota. Without the Penumbra we would have no Black Nativity each holiday season, no summer arts camps specifically for African American students, no dynamic heart exploring the myriad ways one can be black in America. The gifts the Penumbra has given us are priceless indeed, and you need look no further than our own Minnesota Historical Society to see why. I hope they repeat this series with some of our other wonderful companies (such as Mu Performing Arts, Teatro del Pueblo or In The Heart of the Beast) and continue to remind us why the arts is more important than ever.

I highly encourage you to see this exhibit before it closes on July 30. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link