Friday, May 26, 2017

Trademark Theater Impresses with Premiere of The Boy and Robin Hood

An impressive debut from a dynamic new company, The Boy and Robin Hood is an engrossing play and marks Trademark as a company to watch

Photo by Rick Spaulding

What would you create if you could create anything?

I've thought about that question many times. I like to fancy myself an artist of sorts, but at the end of the day I haven't really ever built a major project. Sure, I have some sketches and paintings and scribbles here and there, and I have this blog (of course), but I've never really taken on a visionary project and assembled it from start to finish.

You know who has created something marvelous? Tyler Michaels, who launches the premiere performance of his new company Trademark Theater this weekend with The Boy and Robin Hood, showing at the Ritz Theater through June 11. Michaels is joined by Tyler Mills, who pens the plays, and Michaels' wife Emily Michaels King, who handles their (beautiful) social media and graphic design (I mean really, their program is inspired! And their website is worth a peek as well). So, the Trademark gang founded a company; why not write, choreograph and score a completely brand new show while they were at it too? #ambitious

Photo by Rick Spaulding

The result is the familiar yet singular show The Boy and Robin Hood, which covers a very new perspective on who Robin Hood (and the rest of the infamous constellation of characters around him) really was. This is a much darker Robin Hood than you may be used to; there is no attempt to oversimplify the story or to lionize his myth. We come to Robin through a boy named Much, who escapes into the forest after he witnesses the Sheriff of Nottingham commit a murder. Much quickly adapts to life with Robin's crew (particularly Robin's right hand man Alan) and through Much's curiosity, we learn many stories about how Robin came to be in the woods, watch him rob the king, and settle into the familiar story. Things take a dark turn when Much informs Robin that Robin's mother is the woman he saw the Sheriff kill, and the ensuing action not only breaks the merry band but little Much and Robin himself. It's a powerful cautionary tale about the vagaries and corrosive capabilities of power, both in the sense of popularity and wealth, and it couldn't be more timely. Accompanied by a gorgeous score from local composer David Darrow, The Boy and Robin Hood is a full circle theatrical event with something for everyone - friendship, sword fights, heartbreak, action, laughter, and everything residing in between.

Photo by Rick Spaulding

This cast could be a little more diverse, and the show unfortunately doesn't pass the Bechdel test, but don't let that discourage you from going; these actors are excellent and clearly well rehearsed. The entire show clips along without a pause in the action, and although it's two and a half hours in length it never drags or feels long. This is thanks mainly to the gorgeous choreography from Tyler Michaels and fight choreography from Annie Enneking, and the painterly lighting from Mary Shabatura. This piece will truly have you gasping in your seat at some of the cinematic dioramas and nimble footwork, and the excellent attention to the minutest detail keeps the story feeling fresh. All of these elements make it feel like you're living inside of the story, and The Boy and Robin Hood really wraps you up into the fold.

Photo by Rick Spaulding

Riley McNutt swaggers on stage like a lanky Tony Goldwyn as Robin, and his fiesty spirit is perfect for the part. He is well matched by the rest of his merry band - Paul Rutledge (holding down the role of John with gravitas); Theo Langason (loveable as Friar Tuck and radiating a Questlove level of warmth from the stage); Ryan London Levin (a firecracker as the energetic Will; he really reminded me of The Princess Bride's Inigo Montoya); and Nathan Barlow, who absolutely steals the show as Alan, Robin's right hand man. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Alan is really the hero of the show entire - brave, strong, kind, thoughtful, surefooted, and Barlow plays him with such strength and vivacity that it is impossible to look at anyone else while he's on stage. He's an inspired member of a very strong cast, and worth the show alone.

Photo by Rick Spaulding

Jason Rojas and Dan Hopman are deliriously devilish as the rotten Sheriff and his hired assassin Guy of Gisborne, respectively. Hopman in particular brings a Game of Thrones level darkness to his baldly bad guy, and he provides an excellent antithesis to Robin's bands' relentless positivity. Kendall Anne Thompson is inspiring as Marian and the Hermione of the Hood; Thompson is wonderful in her part, and I wish she had another woman on stage to interact with throughout the show to play up that singular female strength. Peder Lindell is a clear Michaels apprentice as the boy Much, and he gives a lively performance that helps us to truly see this world, warts and all, through a child's eyes. Lindell is quite the ingenue; keep an eye out for him in future productions around the Twin Cities.

Photo by Rick Spaulding

I don't usually list out members of the pit or chorus, but I really loved the music here and I'd be remiss if I omitted them. The dissonant, expansive vocals of Anna Beth Baker, Tim Beeckman Davis, Benjamin Dutcher, Elizabeth Hawkinson and Lars Lee provide the ideal backdrop for the riveting action on stage, and their beautiful canticles are destined for a cast recording (but really guys, can you record this stuff? It's glorious). There are only four instrumentalists backing them up - Nic Delcambre on piano, Kris Anderson on guitar, Jack Barrett on bass, and Matt Barber on percussion - something you might be surprised to know considering how lush the soundtrack is. And I'd be neglectful not to mention sound designer Nicholas Tranby as well. This is one of the first live shows I can think of where I noticed an extraordinary attention to detail in each sound effect, down to the sharpening of a sword or the tapping of a finger, and it really stood out.

Photo by Rick Spaulding

I was so ready to see something like The Boy and Robin Hood. The world is a scary place these days, the news seems to grow darker and drearier by the hour, and I had had enough. I needed a mystical universe to disappear into for a few hours and come out refreshed with a new perspective. What a blessing that in addition to providing deep societal respite, The Boy and Robin Hood has a rich set of lessons to offer as well. There is a parable for everyone here, and we need it. Some of my favorites?

  • Never let your anger get the best of you. 
  • Even alleged villains have hearts and goodness in them. 
  • Beware lionizing your heroes; you will likely find they will disappoint you in the flesh. 
  • Don't believe everything you hear in fairy tales (aka the fake news). 
  • Face your fears head on and you will have nothing left to dread. 
  • Preserve your innocence, as you can never get it back once it's lost. 
  • Listen to the women in your life. 
  • And best of all: love harder, look deeper, and expect more of the world around you; if we all did that, maybe we'd be a little better off like the Merry Men of Robin's forest

The Boy and Robin Hood is a rich, rewarding retelling of one of British mythology's favorite legends. It's a crowdpleaser for audiences of all types, particularly those who like swashbuckling swordfights, but may be a little scary for young kids. The Boy and Robin Hood is a truly impressive debut, particularly considering the fact that it's an epic, originally authored piece, and I can't wait to see what else Trademark comes up with.  Kick off your Memorial Day weekend right with a viewing at the Ritz Theater; more information and tickets (ranging from $15 - $20) can be purchased by clicking on this link.

Living the Podcast Dream with MN Tonight: Child Care Episode

It's amazing how things come full circle. 

CD's are out and vinyl is in. MP3 players went the way of the dodo, and parachute pants and chokers are back on fashion's frontlines. But you know what old technology is having the biggest renaissance of all? Radio.

Radio in the form of podcasting, that is. Who could have predicted even 10 years ago that an over 100-year-old technology would be the way of the future? With smash success podcasts like Serial and S Town (the former which broke the internet on its release in 2014 by going straight to #1 on iTunes and hitting 5 million downloads faster than any other podcast; and the latter which smoked Serial's record two years later by hitting 10 million downloads in only four days) sweeping the nation and jumps into the podcast pond from everyone from blogger influencers to Malcom Gladwell and Tim Ferriss, it seems everyone has some skin in the podcast game.

And why not? Personally, I think that in our oversaturated pop culture and era of unending newsfeeds, blips, clips, and quick taps and swipes there is a *deep* yearning among the general populous for thoroughly researched stories, nuance and thoughtfulness. It's why we're seeing such an upsurge in readership of major news and long form publications that have struggled ever since the internet ripped the print business model to shreds, or seeing an upsurge in interest in documentaries, or have long-form monologues like John Oliver's Last Week Tonight receiving millions of YouTube hits. People crave considered perspective, and it's just not possible to provide that level of insight in a 140-character soundbyte.

I am a huge fan of podcasting, online shows and long-form comedy for all of the above reasons. Additionally, they provide a free medium that can give me something to do on my walking commute or data entry days, and there are so many terrific, totally unique podcasts* that provide information I can't really find elsewhere. So I was so excited when MN Tonight reached out and asked if I would be willing to attend a live recording of Episode 5 of Season 2 of their life TV show. Although MN Tonight isn't technically a podcast (it's an online television program), the format really felt like my favorite podcast and comedy shows, so it was an opportunity to witness something totally new. I'd never heard of the show, but I couldn't pass this one up; an opportunity to indulge my nascent podcast obsession, get an inside view into how online shows are recorded and written, and learn more about serious issues facing Minnesotans today? SIGN ME UP SALLY.

MN Tonight is a multifaceted package; think Steven Colbert's musical interludes meets the Daily Show's correspondents meets John Oliver's well-researched monologues and interviews, and wrap all that up with a focus solely on Minnesota politics and current events, and you have a good idea of the subject matter. Season 1 tackled light subjects such as Islamophobia, police brutality, water quality, trans rights, and marijuana and liquor law changes on the ballot. Season 2 fits right into the fold with episodes (so far) on the bee and pollinator crisis, refugee communities, and affordable housing, all issues about which I'm super passionate and deserve a deeper (and more fun) dive than local newspaper clips are able to provide. Wednesday's show was a bit of a mix-up due to the special session at the state legislature; the show had Representative (and all-around #girlboss) Peggy Flanagan on deck to discuss the urgent issue of affordable childcare in the state, but she was unable to attend due to, you know, doing her job and shit. Thankfully the team was able to pull in Bharti Wahi, the inimitable head of the MN Children's Defense Fund**, and she did an admirable job of explaining the issues facing our state's most vulnerable population. MN Tonight founder Jonathan Gershberg did a good job of pinch-hitting to help fill the gaps, and it will be very interesting to see where he takes the show as he matures in his role as the show's host.

Outside of the featured interview, there were some inspired performances by the Shrieking Harpies***, who provided a few hilarious (and totally improvised! so impressive) songs about the Minnesota summer, brunching and other awkward tales. Kerri and Kenzi did a hilarious segment on the issue of legalizing weed that hit home with much of the Millennial audience. But my favorite sketch was easily Native American correspondent and MN Tonight writer Dave Anaya's wonderful segment on LIHEAP****, a vital federally funded program that provides financial assistance to provide heat through the winter for those with low incomes. As you might imagine this is an issue key for Minnesotans, and is urgently threatened as the program is on the chopping block in Trump's new budget. Anaya gave a richly rounded overview of LIHEAP and argument in its favor, and I would love to see more segments from him in the future. His winning delivery and clear passion for the subject really sold it to the audience, and you could see him fitting right in with Trevor Noah's Comedy Central crew.

Despite the programming hiccups, I had a romping good time at MN Tonight and I'm looking forward to tuning in to future performances. It's so fun when organizations "lift the veil" and allow audiences to participate in their activities. I stand 1,000% behind MN Tonight's mission to make issues that tend to be dry or boring for people in Minnesota a little "sexier," and I think they have a crack team that's only going to go further. I LOVE that they focus on issues facing all of Minnesota, even the small, poor, rural areas. I grew up in a small town and although I'm a city girl now, there are tons of people still living outside of the Metro and their issues matter too! There's a clear focus on diversity in the show, and I imagine that will only continue to grow as it evolves. The Brave New Workshop is a great comfy venue for MN Tonight and I hope that as the audience grows, more live shows can be added than just once a month (think Prairie Home Companion style).

I highly encourage you all to check out MN Tonight - I mean it IS free y'all - and support some of the causes they are detailing. The show is not only fun but provides real, actionable ways that all Minnesotans can be involved in making our state a better, safer, happier, healthier place to live, and who doesn't love that? Plus at the very worst, their branding is dope AF and you can get some gorgeous new local art to Instagram. Tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the door. You can check out MN Tonight at their website here, where details about the next live show and copies of past episodes can be found.

* I can recommend you *so* many podcasts - faves for sure are Malcom Gladwell's Revisionist History, The Tim Ferris Show, The Skinny Confidential, Serial and S Town of course, Krista Tippett's On Being, and NPR's How I Built This for starters - and that's just the tip of the iceberg. 

** Check them out guys - they do amazing work and always need extra support! Worth a volunteer day or a donation for sure. Link here

*** The Shrieking Harpies are currently in residence at HUGE theater through the end of June, so make sure to check them out. 

**** For real LIHEAP is super important - more information here. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

GOOD KARMA: Support the Nation's Largest Circus School!

Did you even know there was such a thing as circus school? 

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas

If not, you could be forgiven. With the end of Barnum & Bailey's and the Ringling Brothers after a 100+ year run, animal performance venues like Sea World on death throes, and the every day county fair slowly receding into the night, circus events under a true big top are hardly commonplace.

Acrobatics and physical performance art, however, are a whole other story, and that's where Circus Juventas comes in. As the nation's largest circus arts school with nearly 1,000 students, Circus Juventas does amazing work to help kids not only stay in peak physical performance but learn confidence, balance, storytelling, and many other skills.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas

I can attest first-hand that the work Circus Juventas does is truly inspiring. I will never forget the first performance of theirs that I was able to witness - a lively iteration of Peter Pan a few years ago - and I was absolutely blown away by the talent of the students. There's nothing quite like live acrobatics (as any Cirque du Soleil fan can attest), and watching pint size acrobats whirling through the air is beyond thrilling.

If any of this piques your curiosity then you're in luck! On Saturday, June 3 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Circus Juventas is letting the public behind the scenes by inviting anyone interested to watch circus classes and rehearsals for their upcoming flagship performance. Co-Founder Dan Butler will also give tours around the ring and explain the intricacies of all the high-flying apparatus and how the school works.

Photo courtesy of Circus Juventas

The event is totally free (so you should go no matter what), but here's where the Good Karma comes in: Circus Juventas is currently working to raise money for their trip to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival June 29-July 9. They have just $5,000 left to raise, so anything donated at the open house will go straight towards helping the kids to perform later this summer.

Add caption

There are so many incredible, unique opportunities to get out of the house for free in the Twin Cities. Compendium is all about helping people better explore their cities and try new things. If you can give back to kids' summer programs and learn about circus arts while doing it then, why not? I highly encourage you to follow Circus Juventas and check out this open house, it's going to be a blast. For more information, click here to go to their website.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Wrestling with the Moving Company's Refugia at the Guthrie

This world premiere play left me with more to think about than usual. 

Photo by Dan Norman

I immediately marked Refugia on my "must-see" list when it was announced last year. I've been following the current migration and refugee crises swallowing the world whole with great interest over the last few years, and I was so excited to finally see a piece from a major theater that would address it head on. The fact that it was being staged by the recently renewed the Moving Company was just icing on the multi-layered cake.

But when I left the theater last Friday after finally seeing Refugia, I found myself with more questions than answers and facing a review that I don't really know how to write.

Photo by Dan Norman

Let's start with what I can absolutely verify: the Moving Company is made up of some spectacularly talented artists, and they act the hell out of their roles here. The set is innovative and evocative, and offered a surprising amount of flexibility for what looked at face value like such a static structure. The costumes are perfectly tailored and beautifully appointed, and each character is exactly represented as you might imagine them off the page. Attention is paid to every tiny detail, down to exquisitely placed props and a live soundtrack (mostly provided by Christina Baldwin) that will make your heart stop.

Photo by Dan Norman

But I think the success of all these small details is what leaves the audience of Refugia in such a confusion, because at the heart of this show aren't really refugees at all, as one might suppose. The play opens and ends with an elderly white man walking in a Rainman-esque trance and babbling about his human family, long life, the vagaries of senior homes, and more, none of which is directly related to the more searing vignettes contained throughout the middle of the play. A dance with a polar bear may be intended to evoke some sort of animistic refugee crisis (climate change??) but left me more confused than content. The first true refugee story, about a young girl left at the Mexican border in Arizona as she is being "processed," has some hilarious caricatures of governmental staff at the border. However, the laughter created by these caricatures cruelly ignores the girl, the abuse she faces by these adults who treat her with such contempt, and never truly atones for itself. I found it extremely uncomfortable to watch while laughter boiled around me, unable to think of anything but a 10 year old girl stuffed in a trash can straight in front of my eyes, as forgotten on stage as her real life counterparts seem to be.

Photo by Dan Norman

That's not to say Refugia is wholly without nuance or benefit. I did appreciate an extended storyline discussing the critical issue of European citizens who are leaving to the Middle East to join Daish, and the effects that that selfish betrayal has on families back home. The pain parents suffer when their children abandon the generations of work they have put in to survive is extraordinary and often overlooked, I think, and that narrative is beautifully displayed through several moving interactions. A group of female Muslim refugees silently and stoically pray while planes fly overhead, and their quiet strength is an inspiring thing to see. And a gorgeous piece about Polish Jews fleeing Russia in the 1950s has some beautiful things to say about the place of art in such painful moments and the benefits of starting completely from scratch.

Photo by Dan Norman

As mentioned before, the cast is incredibly talented and really lights up each sketch. Christina Baldwin anchors the action, of course, with her lovely voice and ability to vanish into her characters. Baldwin is a master actress, and even when the action on stage is unsettling, it's hard to take your eyes off her. Nathan Keepers is hilarious as a wayward librarian at the end of the show, the only truly comedic part of Refugia. Orlando Pabotoy is heartbreaking as a father seeking his corrupted son, and his scenes of loss are some of the most moving of the show. Steven Epp is reminiscent of 1980s Dustin Hoffmann in his meandering monologues, and he really loses himself in his part.

Photo by Dan Norman

So, at the end of the day, should you go see Refugia? I honestly don't know. I can't deny that in it's individual elements, Refugia is a beautifully crafted piece of drama. On the other hand, I have some very strong reservations about the script itself. I may believe that the authors intended this well (and I really do believe it), but somewhere in all the madness the point of the story - of refugees, of those who are suffering, of those who are forgotten and overlooked, of those to whom it is far too easy to turn a cold shoulder - is utterly lost. Some moments are downright uncomfortable, and not in a purposeful way that generates necessary, productive self-reflection. I think (if you dig) there is something good to be found here, and I think this company could develop it further into a truly transcendent piece, but I'm not confident enough in Refugia's current iteration to endorse it wholeheartedly as-is. Do you agree? Disagree? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. For more information about Refugia, click on this link.

A Middling Murder Mystery

How many contemporary Asian American characters can you name in popular media today? 

Photo by Bob Suh

That was the question met with total silence at the intermission of Charles Francis Chan Jr's Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (OMM hereafter), Mu Performing Arts' latest offering that is now showing at the Guthrie through May 28. I thought about it for a while afterwards and there are a few notable portrayals - the screaming fresh Fresh Off the Boat or Aziz Ansari's exquisite Master of None among them - but on the whole, Asian Americans are still highly underrepresented in the wider world of American pop culture.

OMM tackles the question of representation literally, following Frank Chan as he navigates the process of creating his own art to help him be the change he wants to see in the world. The play is split between Frank writing his play and acting in it himself; the writing process evolves as the performances take shape, and the story ends on a much different note and with much different results than Frank intended at the beginning. Frank is guided to his realizations by a mystical Capuchin monkey and his wife Kathy and foiled by the depressing blended incarnation of his father and typical Asian stereotype, Charlie Chan. Suzy and Charlie Sr. also step in to help flesh out the show.

Photo by Bob Suh

Eric Sharp is, well, sharp as Frank Chan. I believe it's his first time working on a Mu show and I was so impressed with his delivery. Sharp slides through the difficult dialogue with ease, and I can see him in even meatier roles in the future. Hope Nordquist is a good pair with Sharp as Chan's wife Kathy, with a pointed delivery that pushes Chan to think more holistically about his goals and problems. Stephanie Bertumen and Song Kim are bombastic as Chan's sidekicks and helpmeets; Luverne Seifert is appropriately disgusting as the stereotypical, yellow-faced Charlie; and Randy Reyes is a little weird as OMM's resident mystical monkey.

The set is split into two vignettes, which the actors flip between to tell the story of Frank Chan and also to "perform" the play Chan is writing. Both are kept to the simplest iteration imaginable, as are the costumes (which don't change much throughout the show). Some clever lighting helps provide OMM with the mystical feel of a caper, and there are plenty of good sound effects to help spice up the action. A notable detail is the use of having the audience witness the actors applying their makeup, which is particularly painful when Seifert dons his "yellow-face" as Charlie Chan and Bertumen her "white face" to portray a wealthy white woman. It's uncomfortable watching the actors transform into a stereotype for no other purpose than to flay it, and the process makes the point about representation far more elegantly than words could ever say. It's also the second time in less than a week that I watched an actor paint themselves another color on stage; is there a trend brewing in local companies?

Photo by Bob Suh

I was a little disappointed with OMM overall, and it had mostly to do with the script. LLoyd Suh has a lot of important things to say about Asian representation in American culture and there are several lovely, vital, barbed monologues scattered throughout the play, but it feels like the point of them is lost in all the moving parts of the show itself. The murder mystery portion of the show, which was what initially drew me to OMM in the first place, is less Agatha Christie and more Comedy of Errors. The mystery feels muddled, some of the connections between characters are set adrift, and it's just not always clear where the show itself is going. It's easier to envision this script more as a cartoon series, stretched out with a little breathing room between narratives, than as a live action stage play.

That being said, the actors from Mu Performing Arts give it their all as always. It was a pleasure to be introduced to Eric Sharp (I'm hoping to see a lot more of him!) and more of old favorites like Stephanie Bertumen. Mu always provides audiences with stories that are original, interesting and complex, and I wholeheartedly endorse exploring their work, even if it's not my favorite thing I've seen them do. If you need to escape our unseasonably cool, rainy weather, slide over to the Guthrie's 9th floor for some $9 tickets and a new show that will make you pay closer attention to the media and stereotypes surrounding us every day. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Red Velvet is Riveting

Telling the long-lost story of Ira Aldridge, Red Velvet pulls you into a narrative of heartbreak and perseverance. 

Photo by John Heimbuch

Sometimes, things can be distilled into simple essences. Red Velvet, the latest production from Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the Southern Theater, could be summed up simply with: what would you do if there were no obstacles in your way?

That is the question facing Ira Aldridge, a giant of classical theater (especially Shakespeare) and one of the first true international African American celebrities. Treading the boards in the first half of the 19th century, Aldridge crossed the Atlantic from his New York birthplace (preceding so many other great black artists, like Josephine Baker, James Baldwin and Nina Simone) to make his way as an actor in Europe. Landing in London in 1824 (where slavery was already illegal, decades before the U.S. finally got its shit together on that front), Aldridge made quite a name for himself and drew large audiences, particularly in eastern Europe and Russia when he began to tour. His hard-won success was not free of obstacles, however. Many reviewers and theater boards treated Aldridge with disdain at best and outright racism at worst.

This tension between Aldridge's talent and box office success and the theater world's regressive attitude towards non-white (and even non-male) performers is at the heart of Red Velvet, which imagines the story of a deeply scarring experience Aldrige had performing Othello at the Covent Garden theater in London. The script will make you recoil with horror and disgust, particularly in the reading of actual reviews of Aldridge from his performances in the 1830s and discussion of Aldridge's perceived "flaws" by fellow white actors when he's not in the room. It's hard to watch, but it's important: statements made in this setting maybe a little balder than what we hear today, but they are by no means gone, and it's a worthwhile exercise to see such conversations laid bare on stage.

Portrait of the real Ira Aldridge by William Paine

JuCoby Johnson anchors the cast as the volatile Ira Aldrige. With a Donald Glover swagger, Johnson leads several riveting interactions, particularly in his initial engagements with his fellow performer Ellen Tree (played by Elizabeth Efteland). Efteland perfectly inhabits her role of strong Victorian virtue, providing a calm and persistent foil to the racist tendencies of the other cast mates. Ty Hudson is absolutely vile as Ellen's fiancee Charles Kean, and does an excellent job of humanizing (and making horrifyingly relatable) all of Kean's ludicrous objections to Aldridge's place. Sulia Rose Altenberg impressively masters many accents in several key supporting roles, chief among them the beset Polish reporter Halina, whose insatiable curiosity and determination to succeed in a male-dominated profession sets the whole story in motion.

Andy Schnabel is bombastic as theater manager Pierre Laporte, and lends the only true check to Aldridge's passionate play. Bear Brummel is heartwarming as the ahead-of-his-time Henry Forester, showing that history is often more complex than we allow it to be and that heroes can come in many stripes. Michael Lee is perfectly cast as the self-important Bernard Ward, with a dry British delivery that brings Red Velvet some sorely needed laughter. And Kiara Jackson is wonderful as the maid Connie, the show's most underrated character (seriously, I really wish we could have seen more of her) and who offers Aldridge the most sage advice he refuses to take.

The entire set stays on stage without changes, with Aldridge's touring dressing room at stage right, a vignette of the theater office at stage left, and the center left open for the actors to literally tread the boards. It's an efficient setup and allows the players to swiftly switch between time zones and locations. Some beautiful lighting from Jesse Cogswell provides literal walking shadows throughout the show, an effect that certainly lends a more Victorian aura to the piece. And costumes, designed by E. Amy Hill, are period-specific and thoroughly set the tone for the show.

Photo by John Heimbuch

Red Velvet was a pleasant surprise as it's a show I didn't know I needed to see. I always love seeing new stories find the stage, particularly ones about historical figures who are underrepresented or otherwise forgotten, and that of Ira Aldridge certainly fits the bill. This story also fits beautifully into the ongoing controversies about casting for roles on Broadway and beyond, a debate that has been ongoing for hundreds of years and is unlikely to stop anytime soon. It's a shame that the challenges Aldridge faced haven't changed nearly as much as they ought to by now, but the progress that has been made is encouraging and worthy of celebration. Red Velvet offers each of us an opportunity to truly look inside and determine: What are my preconceived prejudices? How am I preventing others from fulfilling their dreams? In what ways can I take a step back to help lift up new stories, right old wrongs, defend the downtrodden? Red Velvet is a great exploration of the nuances of allyship and racism, and a fascinating story to-boot. Make sure to stop by the Southern Theater to see Red Velvet before it closes on May 28. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Thrillist Feature: Things to Do in Duluth

I have some exciting news....

Photo Credit: 

I've been bursting at the seams to share this with you all but I needed to wait until the first piece was up: I'm now writing for Thrillist!

I'm so excited to venture into a new form of writing and to work within an editorial structure again. Business as usual will continue on the blog here, I'll just be adding in links to my Thrillist pieces from time to time as they post. Please follow me there! Much of the pieces will be focused on food-based events in the Twin Cities and short staycation trips in greater Minnesota. It's all great information and will hopefully help you populate some new ideas for things to do now that we can once again bask in the gorgeous weather of Minnesotan summers.

For my first piece I featured things to do on Duluth, which is perfect timing since I'll be there over Memorial Day. Check my suggestions out and let me know - do you agree? Disagree? What did I miss? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Click to read: Things to Do In Duluth, Minnesota


Long a treasured getaway for people who need a break from the Twin Cities but can't bear to leave their refined palates down south, Duluth has developed into a surprisingly hip destination for travelers. About three hours from Minneapolis, it boasts delicious takes on homegrown Minnesota dishes, romantic bed and breakfasts, and gorgeous natural vistas. Here's what you should eat, drink, and do along the stunning shores of Lake Superior.

Try the brews at Bent Paddle's taproom
With a tap list ranging from full-throated IPAs and cold-pressed brews to Pilsners and golden ales, Bent Paddle has a top-notch beer selection that also features seasonal creations. It also hosts tours, pop-up food events from local chefs, live music, and yoga classes.

Get a Jucy Lucy at the Breeze Inn
The Breeze Inn can meet all your pub food needs, and if you want something a little more outside the box, it has a bunch of options. There's a daily soup special served with pretzel breadsticks, crispy green beans, a green olive and cream cheese burger, and a variety of takes on Minnesota's best culinary invention, the cheese-stuffed Jucy Lucy burger.

Explore the gorgeous, sordid Glensheen Estate
Step inside a century-old, 39-room mansion that was the site of a double murder in 1977, in which the heiress to the family fortune had her husband kill her mother. The grim history, opulent architecture, and vast art collection make for an interesting visit, but do yourself a favor and walk the web of trails along Tischer Creek and the paths around the picturesque grounds.

See the birds of prey at Hawk Ridge
Nature is justifiably one of the biggest draws to the Superior/Boundary Waters region, and there are a legion of ways to enjoy it. One unique feature? The Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, which allows visitors to traverse 4 miles of trails while seeing hundreds of birds including falcons, eagles, and vultures.

Get the hangover brunch at Lake Avenue Restaurant
Lake Avenue Restaurant features a little bit of everything. For brunch, there are omelets, apple pannekoeken, and the Tunisian hangover cure, featuring eggs, tomato and poblano gravy, sweet potato pancakes, and chickpeas. Dinner has masterpieces such as bone marrow, manchego-stuffed dates, whitefish casserole, and prosciutto-wrapped rabbit loin. And be sure to treat yourself to a cocktail -- the list features inventive creations and twists on classics like the Negroni and Sazerac made with locally distilled spirits.

Sip creative cocktails at Red Herring Lounge
For a truly excellent happy hour and perfectly shaken libations, look no further than the Red Herring Lounge. Featuring a tightly curated menu of modern twists on Prohibition-era cocktails, all Red Herring Lounge drinks are stiffly backed with local liquors and include other out-of-the-way ingredients such as coconut rum cream, mint bourbon, and kombucha.

Enjoy beautiful views at the New Scenic Café
For a quick excursion from Downtown Duluth, take a drive along the lakeshore to the New Scenic Café. The seasonal menu manages to be simultaneously approachable and exotic, with influences including Indian, Japanese, Norwegian, French, and Italian cuisines. True to its name, it has a gorgeous flower and herb garden as well as local artists' works hanging on the walls.

Perk up at Duluth Coffee Company
For some grade-A java, start your day off with Duluth Coffee Company. The staff at DCC not only serves up a terrific cup of coffee but also truly invests in the process, micromanaging the quality of the brew from start to finish. All beans are imported green and roasted with care by owner Eric Faust then steeped to perfection. Don't forget to grab a bag of grounds on your way out.

Get the meat sweats at OMC Smokehouse
The OMC stands for "Oink, Moo, Cluck," and that's almost all you really need to know about the place. There are a bunch of variations on the proteins, mostly in the barbecue vein with house-made sauces, and drool-worthy sides like duck fat fries, cheesy jalapeño grits, and a Cajun-style queso and chips. Do yourself a favor and finish it off with homemade whoopie pie or the malted caramel sundae, which is made with Bent Paddle Black Coffee beer.

Catch a movie or play at Zeitgeist Arts
Zeitgeist Arts is a complex featuring theater, cinema, and a cafe. In the eatery, you'll find burgers, salads, and rice bowls, with activities including poetry readings and a mimosa-fueled yoga class. The theater, Teatro Zuccone, features musicals, plays, and improv comedy from local company Renegade. At Zinema 2, you can see some of the latest indie movies as well as one-off midnight screenings of cult classics.

Taste the local liquor at Vikre Distillery
Every batch of Vikre's gin, aquavit, whiskey, and vodka is brewed with a unique blend of botanicals foraged for the surrounding forests, lending it a unique whiff of Superior terroir. You can buy expertly mixed cocktails or full bottles of Vikre's purveyance at the distillery, which is perched right on gorgeous Lake Superior.

Try your luck at Fond-du-Luth Casino
If you need more indoor fun, stop by the casino. It's nowhere near Vegas levels, offering just slots and blackjack, but you could always hit the jackpot.

Have afternoon tea at The Snooty Fox Tea Shop
If coffee's not your thing, you're in luck! The Snooty Fox Tea Shop has an array of offerings from chais to yerba mates. And if you don't want hot drinks, there are iced teas, kombuchas, bubble teas, and more. If you prefer a more DIY approach, you can also take classes to learn about brewing your own kombucha at home.

Stock your fridge at Northern Waters Smokehaus
Northern Waters Smokehaus is a more polished version of barbecue, letting you clean your sticky fingers with a cloth napkin. Deliciously seasoned pork meets delicately prepared Lake Superior fish on the menu, a match made in culinary heaven. You can also purchase perfectly smoked salmon, bacon, pastrami, and other foods in the beautifully appointed shop.

Drink like a Belgian at Blacklist Artisan Ales
Nipping right at Bent Paddle's hoppy heels is Blacklist Artisan Ales. Rather than the thicker, darker, and IPA-centric focus of other taprooms, it goes straight for the lineup of more traditional (and higher-ABV) Belgian ales. Blacklist also hosts beer and yoga evenings, art shows, and local musical acts.

Watch a taping of Take It With You
If you grew up listening to and loving public radio stations, you must stop by Take it With You Live Radio Theater. Broadcast from the The Underground Theatre, you can watch a 60-minute live performance of this monthly broadcast about a fictional bar, and sip a Bent Paddle offering in the process.

Hoard the desserts from Lake Superior Bakehouse
Cutting carbs? Then definitely don't go to the superior Lake Superior Bakehouse. Filled with creative baked goods such as cherry cheesecake rolls and cranberry pecan baked oatmeal, Lake Superior Bakehouse also has items for savory palates with pork-stuffed bao, tomato tarts, and fresh brioche. You can also occasionally find its work at pop-ups at other key local hotspots such as Bent Paddle Brewing.

Watch the otters at Great Lakes Aquarium
In addition to learning about all the creatures of the lakes, you'll see electric eels, a zebra shark, piranhas, and a pair of otters named Agate and Ore among the many species here. There are feedings of the various animals every day, as well as an exhibit devoted to shipwrecks.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Tap Your Toes to Ragtime Women

This show is Chicago meets the Andrews Sisters, and it will have you humming along. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

Last weekend, I saw two shows and neither had a single man on stage (unless you count a lone accompanist - but he had no speaking lines so I'll give it a pass). 

This wasn't intentional on my part, but it was striking, and it made me realize: how often does theater (or film, or books...) truly center the female experience? I mean we've all heard of the Bechdel Test, and more and more productions are working to fill the female character gap. But how often do you see a story told entirely from the perspective of women, without a single element of the male gaze around to change it? 

It's pretty rare. And that focus on untold female stories is why you should also go see Ragtime Women, running at Dreamland Arts for one more week. Like many forms of popular art, ragtime (which was popular in the early 20th century and a prelude to the jazz and blues craze of the 1940s) was (on the surface, at least) dominated by white men. As a new art form, however, ragtime presented new opportunities for women and people of color to get a foot in the door and earn some money on their artistic talents. Much like early cinema, many women and people of color capitalized on this opportunity by submitting work with pen names or sticking to work behind the scenes; through their participation, they greatly contributed to moving the art form forward. Ragtime Women follows four real-life female ragtime composers and performers who found ways to get footholds in this new world. The show loosely narrates their story in between performing many of their songs, providing a narrative to connect the clear evolution of ragtime music in between. It's an ingenious way to construct a narrative out of thin air, and although it takes some liberties with historical context, Ragtime Women gives an accessible snapshot of what many of the pressures facing women at the time who wished to have a career outside of the home, particularly in the world of popular music. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

Jen Maren opens the show as Cora Salisbury, a renowned ragtime composer and performer who worked the vaudeville circuit in the Midwest. Maren has a spunky delivery and perfectly mimics the corny jokes of hosts of the vaudeville era. Christine Polich leads the action through the story as determined ingenue Julia Niebergall, who is inspired to get in the ragtime business after seeing Cora perform and grows by leaps and bounds throughout the show. Polich has a witty charm that is reminiscent almost of an Anne of Green Gables, and she fits her role excellently. Tara Shaefle makes a brief appearance as Gladys Yelvington, an extremely talented composer who stops working as soon as she is married. And Krin McMillen brings all social issues to a crux as May Aufderheide, the most prolific of all the artists features and the most conflicted (she leaves the business at the behest of her less successful husband). McMillen's sweet delivery really hits the conflict Aufderheide must have felt home, as she grapples with the choice between who and what she loves. It's a conflict that is far too common still today, and it's hard to see her character leave her passion behind. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

The set is almost nonexistent, with a simple couch, desk, and vanity piece on stage. These are used intermittently with strategic lighting and function to create far more context than you might first assume. Harrison Wade sits on stage at a piano to accompany the ladies, which gives the performance a spontaneous, authentic feel to each ragtime jam. My favorite element was the use of a projector to show old film shorts, vaudeville scenes, and to provide some historical context at the beginning and end of the show. The screen really ties the vignettes together, and it provides some great information for those who refuse to wade through the exhaustive program notes. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

Ragtime Women is an exciting upstart performance about women who refuse to let societal standards define them. Filling in one more missing piece of history, Ragtime Women tells a vital story about female composers and performers, as well as life as a women in the Midwest at the turn of the 20th century. The show brings this history to colorful life and revisits many toe-tapping tunes you have probably never heard of. Ragtime was far more than Scott Joplin and vaudeville was more than the Orpheum circuit, although you'd never know it if you flipped through a history book. It's fascinating to learn more about these art forms, especially since they're so responsible for much of the popular entertainment we enjoy today. Ragtime Women is only running for one more week, so make sure you check it out at Dreamland Arts before it closes on May 14. You can find more information and purchase tickets by clicking on this link

Monday, May 8, 2017

Little Wars Packs a Big Punch

Prime Productions fills a much-needed empty niche of stories by and about "women of a certain age." 

Photo by Joseph Giannetti.

When is the last time you saw an unironically scripted role for a woman over age 50? Something that didn't involve being a grandmother, witch or some other societal burden? Now, when is the last time you saw a show featuring multiple women over age 50 that fits the same description?

If it's taking you a while to think of something off the bat (particularly something that isn't the Calendar Girls - I mean don't get me wrong, I love it, but it can't be the only one!), don't worry - you're not alone. Women in their sunset years tend not to be the feature focus of most new work. Whether it's a perception about their perceived attractiveness or just an assumption that their lives aren't that interesting, this is a demographic that is consistently overlooked in the creation of productions, much less the performance of them.

And that lack of representation is a damn shame, because there is a wealth of experience, knowledge and beauty to be found in these unique stories. I can attest first hand to this as I am blessed with two wildly interesting and vivacious great aunts who are still living their best lives and having adventures all over the world in their 70's and 80's. They are some of my favorite people in the world, and I treasure the wisdom and thrill they share with every conversation.

Photo by Joseph Giannetti.

Thankfully, this missing gap in American media is beginning to be filled. With strong societal pushes by actresses like Meryl Streep and Patricia Arquette, the celebration of performances by vaunted actresses such as the Dames (Judi Dench, Hellen Mirren and Maggie Smith), and the foundation of new production companies such as Angelina Jolie's, Drew Barrymore's and Reese Witherspoon's, the quantity and quality of roles by and for older women are becoming easier to find and better than ever. For an example, you can check out Grace and Frankie on Netflix (featuring the incomparable Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin), or the hilarious series of films called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Opportunities in this niche are cropping up on the local front as well, most lately in Prime Production's Little Wars at Mixed Blood Theater. Little Wars re-imagines a meeting in the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas as France surrenders to Hitler in World War II. Present for the conversation are Stein and Toklas, as well as their maid Bernadette; the illustrious Agatha Christie; fiesty playwright Lillian Hellman; hilarious writer Dorothy Parker; and Muriel Gardiner, a leader in the resistance to the Nazis who smuggled many Jews out of Germany throughout the war. The women initially meet for a social call, but their cattiness and insatiable curiosity about who Muriel really is quickly leads the conversation to devolve into politics, relational truths, sexual devastation of various ways by horrifying male acts, and the severe racism facing Jews at the time.

Little Wars' plot could easily be bogged down in its heavy subject matter, but this excellent cast ushers it to success. Candace Barrett Birk is wonderful as Gertrude Stein, bringing a Judi Dench-ian fire and brimstone fearsomeness to her role. Sue Scott is wonderfully paired with Birk as Stein's partner Alice B. Toklas, firmly navigating each character's thorny nature and tying them all together throughout the show. Miriam Schwartz is powerful as Stein and Toklas' maid Bernadette, and her horrifying story of sexual violation at the hand of the Nazis near the end of the show left the audience in chills and deafening silence. Vanessa Gamble is perfectly despicable as the overwrought (yet talented) Lillian Hellman; her vivacious performance drives much of the conversation, and she perfectly represents the snotty attitude that drips from Hellman's character. Elizabeth Desotelle is witty and tugs your heart strings as Dorothy Parker. Desotelle's performance reminded me a little bit of Elizabeth Moss's turn as Peggy in Mad Men, with a deceptively fierce will masked in a winsome facade. And Alison Edwards is the epitome of droll as the rapacious Agatha Christie. Edwards couldn't be more British in her delivery, and it's a familiar tone that is much welcome amidst the serious subjects of the show.

Photo by Joseph Giannetti.

The set-piece for Little Wars remains fixed on the living quarters of Stein and Toklas. It's a menagerie of books, art pieces (particularly female nudes), well worn furniture and other curios. The artfully disheveled set lends a comfortability to the harsher elements of the script, and it's the perfect setting for a riveting discussion. Costumes are perfectly period appropriate and reflect each character's idiosyncrasies (for example, Stein is swathed in a loud kimono; Bernadette stands ramrod straight in a simple black dress; Christie is impeccably tailored in a camel suit). Lighting, props, and any other production design is kept simple to keep the focus on the story at hand.

Little Wars is set in the familiar trappings of World War II intrigue, but it has something very different to offer than other wartime shows. Featuring a plethora of vivacious, ravenously intelligent, fascinating women, Little Wars has a rich, deep well of things to say about the lives of women at many stages of their lives. Covering everything from racism to rape to homosexuality to the challenges of having a career outside of society's preferred mores,  Little Wars is a delightful, provocative piece that will leave you reflecting on it for days. I am so, so glad that Prime Productions is working to fill the gap for shows for women above middle age, and I hope very much that they succeed. We need more pieces like Little Wars to keep pushing ourselves forward and to learn to harness the gifts that all members of our society, no matter how young or old, are able to give. Little Wars runs at the Mixed Blood Theatre through May 21; get your tickets and more information by clicking on this link.