Wednesday, July 26, 2017

MUST SEE: The Guthrie's Extraordinary Native Gardens

You NEED to spice up your summer with this hilarious, poignant, perfectly timed show. 

Photo by Dan Norman

I'm not gonna lie: Last weekend I just wasn't feeling going to the Guthrie. 

I mean don't get me wrong, I love it there and I love live theater (heck, I do have this blog after all). But I was feeling a little beaten down from a long work week, it was gorgeous outside, and all I wanted to do was throw on my favorite athleisure and take a long walk outside to the greenest patio in Minneapolis. 

I'm SO GLAD that I roused myself to go anyway, because I was treated to what may be my favorite Guthrie performance of all time: the delicious, delightful cast of Native Gardens

Photo by Dan Norman

Native Gardens tells the story of Tania and Pablo del Valle, first-time homeowners in a ritzy, waspy neighborhood, as they navigate their relationship with their new neighbors Frank and Virginia Butley. The Butleys have been living next door for decades and initially provide a warm (although somewhat ignorant) welcome, until the del Valles begin renovation work on their back yard. Upon revisiting the plans of their new home, the del Valles discover that what they assumed was the Butley's yard actually overtakes their own by two feet in width. Determined to reclaim their property and get their back yard sorted in time for hosting a work barbecue, the del Valles tackle the Butley's intrusion in a straightforward manner that is hardly well received. The ensuing conversations over whose property belongs to whom, what kind of values in property ownership really matter, an unbelievably hilarious and simultaneously finely nuanced exploration of racial stereotypes, and all sorts of other issues - ageism, sexism, classism, pretty much every ism there is - leads the audience through a riotous performance that left us breathless with laughter. 

Photo by Dan Norman

There are only four speaking roles in this show and each actor has knocked theirs out of the park. Anchoring the cast is Twin Cities legend Sally Wingert as the Halliburton contractor and ball buster Virginia Butley. Wingert can convey in a single raised eyebrow what many actors struggle to demonstrate in an entire monologue. Her perfectly forged iron-strong will is an excellent foil to Steve Hendrickson as Virginia's simpering, plant-obsessed husband Frank. Equally as formidable are Jacqueline Correa who is absolutely marvelous as the extremely pregnant, environmentally-focused Tania del Valle, and Dan Domingues, who is delicious as Tania's high-powered lawyer husband Pablo. Together this cast really lets sparks fly and they hold nothing back; there are word battles, hose battles, chainsaw threats, shrieks of defiance, spying on lawns in the middle of the night - the antics are unending. Each actor's total commitment to their part really sells the absurd (yet relatable!) plot of Native Gardens, and they are *so* worth going to see. 

Photo by Dan Norman

Hats off to the creative team because this production design is glorious. Despite the show's very brief run time of only 80 minutes and no intermission (music to my ears!!), each character has multiple costume changes that perfectly evoke their current status, be it a very pregnant woman gardening in overalls or a sumptuous cashmere sweater thrown over Virginia's waspy frame. We have Kara Harmon to thank for that delicious detail in costuming. And Joseph Tilford left no stone unturned in his unbelievably detailed set. Seriously, this scenic design has everything - a full size oak tree, lush garden spaces (with plants that actually release dirt when pulled up), wood chips flying from a chainsaw as it is released on the tree, and so much more. The show could have survived with a far more simplistic set but the rich attention to detail here really kicks Native Gardens up to the next level. I mean guys, they have a running chainsaw and a hose spraying all over - how can you beat that?! 

Photo by Dan Norman

Native Gardens is the rarest of plays that marries world-class writing, best-in-craft actors, a spectacularly detailed production design and perfectly paced timing to create a truly universal theater experience. Every character in this show is right and wrong about some things, making each of them relatable in some way to the audience. Despite the show's short run time each character is richly drawn, and the intimacy we share with them as they navigate this tricky situation of managing adjacent properties not only lets us in on all of the jokes but helps us truly empathize with each of their experiences. Thanks to Karen Zacarias' flawless script, Native Gardens is a master class in dismantling the stereotypes and assumptions we make about people upon appearance and demonstrates how we can't ever assume we know anything. I am convinced that any audience member of any age will adore this show, and thankfully you have a lot of time - through August 20! - to check it out. You absolutely need to buy tickets to see Native Gardens (it is worth the hour and a half you won't be outside, I promise). Find more information and buy tickets at this link

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Giggling at the Guardians of the Fallacy + Downtown's Best New Date Night Restaurant

Brave New Workshop's latest brings humor back to our unending political drama.

Photo courtesy of the Brave New Workshop

Hats off to the Brave New Workshop's (BNW) always-on-point branding, which led me to believe that their latest show was supposed to be a superhero spoof. Think about it though: when is the last time you heard of Guardians of the Galaxy? I thought so (#wonderwoman #trumped #getit?).

Instead, BNW chose to spoof the current political climate (again), relieving all of our exhaustion with the never-ending news cycle with a few laughs. In an era where everyone is offended all the time about something or another, why not celebrate that fact and take it all the way?

Like all their shows, Guardians of the Fallacy: Executive Disorder takes BNW's trademark wry humor and infuses it into a number of pointed, timely sketches. These include Donald Trump singing his own praises in parodies of pop songs; forlorn women spending endless days on the couch with slow jams and photos of Hillary Clinton, hiding from their depressing post-election reality; and a magnificent tour of the future Trump dynasty's presidential library, including a full suite reserved solely for screenshots of his Twitter account. Hillary makes a couple of appearances reminding everyone why they should miss her, and the actors each take turns starring in pieces that help release some of the collective tension and disappointment in the current political reality.

LOVE the BNW's clever branding schemes. Always on point! 

The regular cast is here for this show - meaning Ryan Nelson as the Trump impersonator extraordinaire, Denzel Belin with his signature double take delivery, Tom Reed as the closest thing in the Twin Cities to Andy Samberg, Lauren Anderson with her Hillary wig and guff to match, and the always hilarious Taj Ruler with a medley of spot-on characters that keep you rolling in your seat.

I will say overall that the energy felt a little lower on this show than usual - I think we're all a little drained with this subject matter - but the show was still hilarious. Our friends (who were visiting BNW for the first time ever) absolutely loved this performance and raved about it for hours afterwards. If you haven't gone to a BNW show yet, I'd highly recommend it - Guardians of the Fallacy runs through October, so you have tons of time to go! More information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

After the scripted show the audience has the opportunity to check out the cast in a series of improv sketches. I have always stayed for these session and I'd highly recommend you do the same - it's like two shows for the price of one! Pro tip: if you go, make sure to plan some good suggestions for their sketches. The most inventive of the night we went was "Pineapple Surprise," which turned into a musical delight.

Mercy outdid themselves with this gorgeous, summery scallop dish.

I'd also like to mention that a trip to BNW makes a fabulous group outing or date night. This time my guy and I took four of our friends on a big couples date bonanza and we had such a great time! It's so fun watching people discover the joys of my old theater favorites for the first time and our crew really enjoyed themselves.

If you decide to take the group route and want a suggestion for where to eat before, you have to check out the new Mercy restaurant inside the Le Meridien Chambers hotel downtown (previously the overpriced and over-formal Mirin). They have a great (for downtown Minneapolis) happy hour running twice a day every day, but that's not even the best part. In addition to gorgeously cooked food (I had a scallop/corn/pepper/succotash medley that was phenomenal; the regular menu also features duck with potstickers, pork chops, beer can chicken and steaks and oysters), they offer an unbeatable deal of a true party punch.

Two words: PARTY. PUNCH. Yes, you need it. Now. 

When is the last time you ordered a group beverage at a restaurant? Never? I thought so. Remedy that IMMEDIATELY if you go to Mercy, where we got a booze laden and perfectly curated punch bowl that managed to please every palate. For those who have had the IPA vs. cosmopolitan vs. rose wine battle in group settings, this is no mean feat. It was also a whole lot of beverage; although the menu lists it as 6-8 servings we easily got three times that out of it. In fact, that single bowl of punch covered libations for six moderate to heavy drinkers for an entire dinner and pregame moment, and it all worked out to about $8 per person. That kind of price is unbeatable in such a restaurant and general location; I highly recommend you check it out for your next group event. Additionally, Mercy has one of the few (really nice!) off-street patios in downtown, which you can check out any time you dine there. More information about Mercy can be found by clicking on this link.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Some Thoughts on High End Restaurants and Racist Servers

I have been hedging on writing this post for a couple of years now, but I feel like it's time to speak out. 

Why can't we all be as charming as Marcus Samuelsson? (Photo here)

Guys, we need to have a chat.

I'm not sure how to write this and I've been thinking seriously about it for months, but after an experience my partner and I had (again) at a nice restaurant over the weekend I just feel the need to call it out: we have got to do something about racism in the service industry.

Here's a little back story: my partner is a chef and a Togolese American. He trained at Le Cordon Bleu, has two degrees, speaks three languages, and is truly one of the nicest, most beautiful people you will ever meet. I have never, ever introduced him to anyone who thought he was mean or rude or a waste of their time. I consider myself beyond blessed to have this man in my life and I thank my lucky stars every day that I get to wake up  next to him.

Since he is a chef and we live near downtown Minneapolis, it would seem pretty natural that we really love to eat out. We consider getting a great meal to be a true artistic experience; watching an open kitchen function properly is like witnessing a great ballet - graceful, poetic, inspiring and skillful. We love food of all kinds from all places, from the cheapest pho and banh mi hole-in-the-wall to getting a great multi-course dinner from a linen tablecloth-type establishment.

Our tastes really run the gamut and we've eaten all over the Twin Cities and enjoyed the best of what they have to offer, as well as some of the worst. And there is only one thing that has ever truly destroyed our dining experience. It's not bad food. It's not inattentive service due to busyness. It's not dress codes or prices or lack of parking or loud ambiance. It's intentionally bad service that is clearly racially motivated.

I want to preface all of what follows to say that I understand that working in a service industry is HARD. It is an often thankless, physically demanding job. It doesn't matter if you're a cook or a busboy or a bartender or a server, often your nights can be exhausting, especially when dealing with demanding patrons. I can totally empathize with someone who is overloaded because they're covering too many tables, or has a broken walk-in and the food is slow to come out, or just started their job and is training in their role. I believe in always tipping at least 20-25%. Like I said, we eat out a LOT. I will never cut a tip for someone who has been busy and doing their best to keep up.

But there are some servers who treat us badly because they make a host of assumptions of who we are when we sit down at their restaurant. I have overheard servers complaining among each other about being seated with tables filed with people of color (POC) because they just *know* that these guests will run out on the bill or not tip (I am not kidding, I have overheard this exact conversation). I have watched servers bend over backwards for patrons to either side of us (who are older, and white) and have us wait 15 - 30 minutes between orders or drink refills or to get our checks. Let me give you a detailed case study from the now-closed Brasserie Zentral:

In the short year-long-ish life of Brasserie, I ate there at least seven times. Half of those were with my partner, and half were with friends or coworkers (all of whom were white). The first time I went was with coworkers, and we had a wonderful experience. The food was incredible (to this day still some of the best food I've had the pleasure of eating in the Twin Cities), the service was great, the prices were reasonable, and I was hooked. I came back a couple of weeks later with my partner, so excited to share this wonderful restaurant with him, and all of a sudden things were different. The food was still divine, nothing about prices on the menu had changed, but somehow the service We were waiting at least twice as long as those around us to order. Food (which was perfectly cooked and made in an open kitchen not far away so we could directly see it) sat out, getting cold, waiting to be taken to us. Glasses at the tables around us were filled promptly and gracefully, while ours sat empty for most of the night. Other patrons' checks were whisked to them with a smile and witty banter, and we had no more interaction with our server than simply putting our order in. We decided it may have been an off night for her, left our normal generous tip, wrote a note about how much we loved the food, and decided to give it another try.

Guys, we went back there THREE MORE TIMES. Two of those times we had the same server again, and guess what? The experience was the same. Each time she neglected us, each time we left her a large tip, each time we were utterly perplexed as to how a place with such incredible food could generate such an obviously biased service experience. If we had gone there on our own (and I'd never gone with others) I might have written it off as just off nights for that particular server, but I went other times with all white groups of guests, had the same server, and had a phenomenal experience. It was night and day. There was one variable that changed between those visits, and it was race. And that sucks.

I cannot express to you how infuriating this problem is. To catch a popular phrase our money is "as green as anyone else's," and there is no excuse for making assumptions about your patrons' circumstances and giving them a shitty experience based on that assumption. This myth about POC providing bad tips may be "true" but only in the sense that people won't tip when they receive poor service - ever think of that? Who among us is going to drop over $100 on a meal and then leave a 25% tip for someone who couldn't be troubled to stop by to chat or fill glasses or take orders or bring a check in a timely fashion? Especially when you have witnessed them to be capable of doing this to patrons sitting no less than a foot or two away?

The worst part is that just one bad service experience reflects poorly on an entire restaurant, and that's not fair to everyone else working there who is doing a great job. We are not afraid to tell our friends not to patronize a certain place when we have had problems. Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and it is a huge shame to have a restaurant's entire capital - the millions of dollars that went into facilities and decor, the hard (and often thankless) work of the chefs and cooks sweating in the back to create delicious and beautiful food, the dream of a new restaurant owner - completely killed because one server decided their tip might not be as high as they want and gave patrons a poor experience (which they then report to all of their friends, coworkers, get the idea).

Our experience at Brasserie Zentral, which was so clearly biased, was also unfortunately not our last. Without fail, every few months there's another place that raises our hackles and gets added to the "be wary" list. The latest offenders include 510 Lounge* and now, last weekend, a bartender at Tullibee asked us (and only us) to leave the bar we were sitting at with other patrons around.

This piece was supposed to be a retrospective of that dinner at Tullibee - and I want to write something about that later too, it's such a cool thing they're doing with farm-to-table work and accessible tastings and a beautiful space - but I just couldn't bring myself to write a glowing adulation after we essentially were asked not to partake with everyone else by one bartender who was on a high horse. Over an hour of great food and conversation was totally dismantled by one guy who singled us out. There was not enough seating at this event. Other patrons had migrated to the bar to have a seat. We stood for over an hour waiting for a place. We picked the furthest corner to stay out of the way when we finally decided to sit, and there were plenty of other seats at the bar available. Not a single other patron with their compostable plates was asked to move elsewhere. It really sucked.

So here's my plea for the restaurant industry: please, please have a training with your serving staff about how to treat ALL patrons equally. Please say explicitly that it is not cool to assume that the black family walking in won't tip you and to chintz them on their experience. Please address these issues immediately if they are raised to you by patrons who know they are being singled out. 

I want restaurants to succeed. I want to keep eating out. I want my partner to be able to be proud of the industry he has spent more than ten years of his life putting his passion into, the industry for which he has missed holidays and birthdays and weddings of siblings, all in order to help make dining a great and inclusive place. Don't let one person's racist assumptions ruin an entire industry. Please train your servers (and bartenders and anyone client facing!) and do it today. Your restaurants and all of your patrons deserve better. 

*The host was wonderful, as was another server we passed on our way in. Unfortunately once we sat down, our server loudly requested to be moved to another table, was huffy when he wasn't traded out, refused to look my partner in the face and only took his order through me (literally I was the only person who could talk to this guy... I wonder why?), and aggressively grabbed my partner's credit card out of his hand without a thank you or even a single word when we were ready for the check. It was so bad that this other server saw what was going on and stopped by a few times to check in. She was lovely and it was much appreciated - but she should not have had to do that. Get it together 510 Lounge. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Motown: The Musical is Absolutely Magical

I've got sunshine on a cloudy day....

Photo by Joan Marcus

What would the world have been like if Motown Records never existed?

I mean think about it - the entire popular musical landscape we enjoy today would essentially not exist. No Marvin Gaye. No Temptations or Commodores. No Diana Ross or the Supremes. No Smokey Robinson. No Stevie Wonder. No Rick James. No freaking MICHAEL JACKSON you guys! What a world that would be.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Thankfully, we'll never have to know thanks to Motown's founder: Berry Gordy. Berry's drive and passion for music are the molten core around which all of Motown: The Musical (currently at the Orpheum) revolves, and it's a red hot performance from start to finish. The show briefly introduces us to Berry as a young boy who was inspired watching Joe Lewis' historic boxing win, then as a relatively unsuccessful man until one day he is fed up with the white-owned music business and begins his own record company. Through a whole lot of life hacking, innovative ideas and guerrilla marketing, Berry manages to build up a behemoth of a recording company with the funky sounds of Motown at it's heart. The show whirlwinds the audience through snippets from Motown's unbelievably good catalog as the company's fortunes rise and eventually shatter, culminating in a 25th anniversary performance where Motown's greatest talent assembled to pay tribute to Berry Gordy's incredible story.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Most of this cast moves seamlessly in and out of roles in the ensemble so I unfortunately can't call them out here. It's worth noting that the whole cast is truly excellent, effortlessly weaving in between various groups of performers (Temptations vs. Commodores, anyone?) and regularly inciting the audience to explosive applause. This excellence begins at the top with the stunningly good Chester Gregory as Berry Gordy, whose dulcet tones had me swooning from the first note. Gregory is *seriously* good - think could beat Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles good - and I sure hope someone's in the wings waiting to offer him a record deal of his own. Gregory sets the standard for the rest of the cast, including Allison Semmes who embodies Diana Ross down to the last perfectly manicured nail. Semmes swans all over the stage with Ross's trademark breathy voice, beautifully blending in the songs for the Supremes and providing the show with an evanescent female presence. Jarran Muse is marvelous as the sexy, smooth Marvin Gaye, with a controlled delivery that showcases his buttery voice. And David Kaverman provides Motown with a whole lot of heart as the ever-loyal hit generator Smokey Robinson.

Photo by Joan Marcus

The set and costumes can best be described as Live in Technicolor. Motown holds nothing back from the exuberantly hued 1960s and 1970s era from whence it came, and you will be dazzled by the clever pattern mixing and rainbow of colors exploding across the stage. Most of the set is quickly interposed as cleverly painted scrims, keeping the pace quick and allowing for more resources to go to lighting effects. In addition to a string of projections Motown makes excellent use of silhouettes and the striking choreography of the charismatic performers on stage, and many of the hyper physical dances were extra fun to watch through the great lighting they used. Costumes are the height of fashion at that time, meaning full of flares and sequins and pungent colors - AKA a whole lotta fun.

Photo by Joan Marcus

I've been looking forward to seeing Motown: The Musical for months and I can safely say that I wasn't disappointed. This is such a rich story with so many incredible characters to feature that it can't help but be compelling. The creators of Motown also wisely decided to include regular snippets of history of each era of the show, firmly anchoring Motown's art within a historical context that adds an extra level of depth to every song that passes by. My only complaint is that for once I wish this show was even a little longer, giving more time to some of the amazing songs that we only get to hear portions of (I mean 3 half songs with the Jackson 5 isn't enough, right?). Seriously, here's the song list - imagine all the hits that DIDN'T make the cut!

Photo by Joan Marcus

“A Breathtaking Guy”
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”
“All Night Long”
“Baby I Need Your Lovin’”
“Ball of Confusion”
“Brick House”
“Buttered Popcorn”
“Bye Bye Baby/Two Lovers”
“Can I Close the Door” *
“Dancing in the Street”
“Do You Love Me”
“Get Ready”
“Give It to Me, Baby”
“Good Morning, Heartache”
“Got a Job”
“Happy Birthday”
“Hey Joe (Black Like Me)” *
“I Can’t Get Next to You”
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”
“I Got the Feeling”
“I Hear a Symphony”
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
“(I Know) I’m Losing You”
“I’ll Be There”
“It’s What’s in the Grooves That Counts” *
“I Want You Back”
“Lonely Teardrops”
“Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone”
“Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)”
“Money (That’s What I Want)”
“My Girl”
“My Guy”
“My Mama Done Told Me”
“Please, Mr. Postman”
“Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”
“Reach Out and Touch”
“Reet Petite”
“Remember Me”
“Shop Around”
“Sign, Sealed, Delivered”
“Square Biz”
“Stop in the Name of Love”
“Stubborn Kind of Fellow”
“Super Freak”
“The Happening”
“The Love You Save”
“To Be Loved”
“What’s Going On”
“Where Did Our Love Go”
“Who’s Loving You”
“You’re All I Need to Get By”
“You’re Nobody ’Til Somebody Loves You”
“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”

Photo by Joan Marcus

Motown: The Musical is a rip-roaring good time and absolutely worth the ticket price. In addition to teaching you about some little known history, it will leave you with a huge smile your face and twinkle in your toes. These performers are incredible and you wont' be disappointed with their A++ efforts. Motown runs through July 16 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

MUST SEE: The New Griots Festival at Guthrie Theater

What are you waiting for? Run to get tickets to this hot new festival, lighting up the Guthrie's Dowling Studio for the second year in a row. 

Courtesy of Blackout's website

I have a confession to make.

There are a few things I hear often from readers when I introduce myself as a blogger. I love meeting readers - it's so helpful to get feedback! - and I really enjoy these conversations. However, sometimes a phrase will stick in my craw, and the number one thing that bothers me the most is when someone says "Oh that's so cool that you blog about theater! I wish I could do that. I love theater but I never seem to get out."


I just don't understand it. Minneapolis has more theater per capita than anywhere else in the United States except NYC. I know that there is a perception that tickets to see live shows can be spendy, but it simply isn't true here. Sure, you could easily drop hundreds of dollars on front row tickets to the latest Cirque du Soleil tour, but it is totally easy to have dinner and a show in the Twin Cities for two people for less than $50. And for that price you won't be resigned to any slouchy, crummy theater.

Photo by T_Upper Boundary Photography

Many of our most illustrious institutions regularly host incredible deals that are downright criminal not to take advantage of. A couple of faves? Mixed Blood's Radical Hospitality program, which continues to provide world class theater for literally free for all of their year-long programming (I mean FREE YOU GUYS, and you don't even need reservations - there's literally zero excuse not to go), is always at the top of my list. And a quickly rising favorite is the Guthrie's initiative to offer edgier, more renegade, more diverse pieces in the Dowling Studio at very low prices. The specials constantly rotate (some are free like last year's excellent Acting Black), and many are extremely affordable, ringing in at $9 or so per ticket.

Photo by Alice Gebura

The latest incredible program to fall in the Dowling Studio is the incomparable New Griots Festival, a week-long extravaganza celebrating everything wonderful about black theater that also includes self-care exercises for POC and classes and panels to stimulate community engagement. We can address prices right off the bat:
Tickets to single shows are $9 each, and if you buy tickets to 3 shows you can see the entire rest of the festival for free. Tally that up: a whole week of performances by radical, exciting, new black artists, at one of the most renowned theaters in the country, for the total price of $27. That's an unbelievable deal and you are highly remiss if you don't take advantage. 

To provide a snapshot of what to expect: I had the pleasure of attending one of the dozens of performances last weekend and let me tell you - that theater was LIT. The performance I attended was The Minority Report by Blackout, an all-black improv comedy troupe. Blackout has been around for a minute, and here's how their show works: prior to beginning the one-hour session, audience members put suggestions for comedy routines into a hat by the entrance. The performers then draw subjects out of the hat at random and sit in a semi-circle to discuss the topics spontaneously in front of the audience. The subjects at the performance I attended were really all over the map, ranging from pasta salad to intersectionality and colorism to celebrating Michelle Obama and black women as a whole. After setting a groundwork and common theme through their brief conversation the performers then enact 1 - 2 completely improvised sketches that build on the subjects they discussed.

Photo by Johnny Stuckmayer

These are some extremely talented performers, and they are quick to the punch. A couple verifiable faves included a sketch of someone auditioning to be a cook at Byerly's, replete with a regal manager and slow motion taste test; and a clever spoof on the Lion King. What sets this improv apart from the usual (and an element I really enjoyed) are the conversations prior to the sketches, particularly the deeper ones that occurred as the night went on. You have to be relatively fearless to be an improv performer, and no one on stage was hesitant to dig deep and get real with their thoughts. This was particularly evident in a wrenching conversation about colorism, in which one female performer revealed how difficult she has found it to accept love and fondness from others due to scarring past experiences and her own growing understanding of the way cultural norms have hurt her self-love and self-care. It was a heartbreaking, troubling, breathtakingly honest discussion, the likes of which we need far more of in order to get past some of our society's most difficult issues.

Photo by Nancy Musinguzi

The New Griots Festival is billowing a galestorm of fresh air through the Guthrie's hallowed halls, and it couldn't come at a better time. Blackout's performance was easily the most diverse audience I have ever sat with at a Guthrie performance, and it was also one of the most fun. People were so hyped, so happy, and so interactive. The engaged audience really brought the performance alive and emphasized even further how much I miss that kind of interactivity when it's absent.

Blackout's performance was also one of the first times I've felt such a strong, contemplative, unflinching, non-white gaze anchoring the perspective of a performance and particularly in that specific space. This is a show by, for and about black performers, and while mixed race audiences are welcome and encouraged, the content is clearly tailored to the black perspective. Again, it was such a refreshing experience, and much like my joyous experience viewing Wonder Woman as a woman herself envisioned her, it reminded me how unfortunately rare it is to come to what is supposed to be a common and accessible space and find that kind of point of view anchoring the stage without apology. There are several places in the Twin Cities doing a good job of creating and uplifting diverse art and perspectives and I don't want to discredit them at all (shoutout to Full Circle/Penumbra/Mixed Blood/Mu Performing Arts and all the rest - you guys are awesome!), but it was unique to feel it so strongly at the big G, and I hope that feeling remains long after the New Griots festival has wrapped.

Remaining New Griots performances (also available at the Guthrie's website)

Blackout can be found on the third Friday of every month at Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis (more info here). You can also catch them at the Guthrie Theater one more time as well as dozens of other incredible black performers for the New Griots Festival. A full list of all programming and chance to snag tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Delightful "Don't Dress for Dinner"

The Gremlin's premieres a romantic farce in their first show in the shiny new space. 

Photo by DreamFirstBorn Images

How often do you see a screwball comedy on stage? 

I mean really think about it. Stand up comedy is having a renaissance, and venues like the Brave New Workshop have perfected the variety show format. But how often do you see a fictional, full story, straight up comedic piece performed by a theater group? Especially a true romantic comedy?

Like the sad state of comedy on film, it's rarer than you might think. For that reason, I'd highly encourage you to skip over to the Gremlin Theatre to check out their latest show Don't Dress for Dinner. Essentially a "Who's on First?" for romantic relationships, this silly caper will have you giggling without having to worry about being hit over the head with heavy themes.

Don't Dress for Dinner opens with a wife, Jacqueline, about to leave her husband Bernard for the weekend as she visits her mother. On her way out the door Jacqueline discovers that her secret lover (and Bernard's best friend) Robert is heading into town at that exact moment to bach it up over the weekend. Determined not to miss the fun, Jacqueline immediately changes her plans to stay in the house. The only problem is that Bernard has a secret too: he has invited his lover Suzanne to spend the weekend in the house for her birthday and ordered a caterer to make the event extra special. Mayhem ensues, however, because there are just too many damn secrets to have under the roof at one time. The players move in and out, each trying to hide their own devious plans. The cook arrives and is named Suzette, causing obvious confusion as Bernard tries to conceal his relationship with his real lover Suzanne (both of whom are nicknamed Suzy). One thing leads to another as lies continue to build and bubble into an unmanageable mess.

Photo by DreamFirstBorn Images

The cast is small but lively. Peter Christian Hansen is emphatic as Bernard, with a spritely step that is reminiscent of a very young Cary Grant. Melanie Wehrmacher is formidable as Jacqueline, providing a strong foil to the Sierra Schermerhorn's simpering, slutty, salacious (and stunning) Suzanne. Grant Henderson brings a posh modern feel to the two-faced Robert. The show's standout though is clearly Maeve Moynihan as the blue collar chef Suzette. Moynihan has a wonderfully bawdy accent and dialogue as Suzette, and her sly navigation of the intense shenanigans of the show were such a pleasure to watch. Mike Dolphin is perfectly suited to play Suzette's husband George, a giant, kindhearted blowhard whose abrupt appearance near the end of the show is the key to unraveling the web of lies spun by each character.

The set stays entirely placed inside Bernard and Jacqueline's living room, with basic but nice furnishings. The simple setting (and a strategically loaded bar cart) provide all the physical context we need for the whirlwind of intrigue on stage. Costumes change quite frequently between a number of wild physical fights, including sprays of club soda, dumped cocktails, and more. In fact, the whole cast almost does a striptease as the show goes on, beginning in nice business casual wear and devolving to some semblance of night dress/lingerie by the end. It goes with the feel of the unraveling plot and helps to break up the more bland stage settings.

Don't Dress for Dinner can be a little overwhelming and is the kind of plot line I might normally sniff at a bit, but I found myself laughing through almost the whole show. It's a little too long for a plot of this type - 90 minutes without intermission would be more than enough to cover the material, which gets a little exhausting by the end of this 2ish hour rendition - but still, Don't Dress for Dinner provided me with a pleasant, fun-filled way to enjoy the theater last weekend. The show does a great job of demonstrating the kind of ridiculous behaviors all couples can indulge in throughout a relationship, and both the ways this can be harmful and the ways it can also keep things a little exciting. Don't Dress for Dinner is a great date night show and something I'd love to see more of on stage and on screen - a true comedy. Make sure to head to the (sparkling, shiny, brand new!) Gremlin Theater space before Don't Dress for Dinner closes on July 30 to check it out. And while you're at it, order some brewskies from Lake Monster Brewing at intermission, which is just down the hall and the perfect hipster libation to pair with such a show. More information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Must See: The Science of Pixar at the Science Museum of Minnesota

What's vibrant and interactive and great for people of all ages? 

Photo is my own

Why that would be the brand new feature exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMN), of course. SMN always has an incredible array of exhibits, but they have truly outdone themselves with the latest. The Science of Pixar takes patrons straight into the world of your favorite animated movies, from the very beginning with Toy Story all the way through their latest favorites such as Inside Out and Finding Dory. The exhibit has heart, imagination, and so much learning packed into subtle activities that it will absolutely blow you away.

Photo by Michael Malyszko

Guests begin the exhibit by viewing a short 5 minute video that details the brief history of Pixar and overview of what you're about to see. From there, all attendees enter an enormous room with a few dozen stations set up. Each station is a part of a different element of animated film-making such as story and art, rendering, modeling by hand/sculpting, computer/3D electronic modeling, lighting, stop motion animation, creating set pieces, creating movement in cartoon characters, and more.

Photo by Michael Malyszko

Every themed station is set up with a series of activities to help guests learn hands-on how the animation process works. This serves both to make the exhibit itself a whole lot more fun and to keep your eyes from glazing over as you go through each station. The procedure for creating animated movies can be extremely complex, and The Science of Pixar does such a great job of making really detailed processes accessible to a layperson who knows nothing about animation already.

Photo by Michael Malyszko

I would have attended this exhibit regardless but I wanted to take out my nieces and nephews, so they joined me and gave some inside kid perspective on the exhibit. Their ages ranged from 8 to 13, and I can absolutely testify that even across that age spread they really had a great time. Anyone who has spent time around kid stuff knows how difficult it can be to please adults and kids (or even teens and younger children! a few years difference can be enormous) all at once. The total fixation from all of us of all ages is a true testament to The Science of Pixar's entertainment power.

Photo is my own

What sold it for them? Easily the biggest draw were the endless interactive activities that cover every aspect of 3D animation. There were so many hands-on experiences, such as creating basic shapes out of magnetic sculptures, posing Pixar's iconic desk lamp intro through stop-motion, and touchable, full scale models of Pixar characters. What really got them going, however, were interactive touchscreen programs that got into the meat and potatoes of the electronic animation process. These were as simple as coloring lightscapes inside of settings by taking scenes from day to night, and as complicated as building a full 3D character out of basic shapes within the pre-set software. Others included using different Photoshop-style filters to create different effects on shapes; selecting rendering options to choose how fluid or rigid a character's movements were; and putting these elements together step-by-step to see how familiar movies (like a fully stripped scene from Inside Out) were made.

Photo by Michael Malyszko

I cannot stress how brilliant these interactive vignettes were. Even as an adult I was so excited to try (and challenged by!) the process of recreating familiar scenes and sets. It really gives you a good perspective on how difficult it is to make even seemingly simple animated movies and how many thousands of hours go into creating every film we enjoy in only an hour or two's worth of length for the finished product. The kids were totally enthralled by the process of making their mini-cartoon elements, and they were all inspired to learn more about this process in the future. They also picked up a lot of math and science by osmosis as they problem-solved through trying to create each scene.

The Science of Pixar runs at the Science Museum of Minnesota through September 4, and I definitely recommend that you swing by if you have a chance. You can easily spend hours in this exhibit going through all of the short film interviews of Pixar employees and the hands-on interactive exhibit elements. It's educational and super fun all at once, nailing that precarious entertainment balance that Pixar so excels at. If you've ever seen and loved a Pixar movie (and let's be honest, who hasn't?), you will find something to love in this exhibit. And while you're there, check out the Omnitheater film (currently Journey to the South Pacific, an environmentalist undersea feature that enthralled the kiddos with gorgeous cinematography of the creatures under the sea) and the regular museum itself. We were there for over four hours and the kids could have gone all day, so make the most of your admission fee and stay a while! You can find more information and buy tickets by clicking on this link.