Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Stunning Show Wedding Band Tells the Whole Truth About Interracial Relationships

"Ain't too many people in this world get to be loved - really loved."

Photo by Allen Weeks

These graceful words sum up the heartbreaking finale to Wedding Band, a powerful show now running at the Penumbra. I want to state up front that this show was very personal to me, and I can't possibly leave that out of my thoughts. I have included more of myself in this review than usual, and I hope that's okay. 

Photo by Allen Weeks

Wedding Band is, in an oversimplified summary, about the struggles of interracial lovers in North Carolina in 1918. Julie and Herman have been a couple for 10 years, and they are still very much in love - but boy if it isn't difficult. Interracial marriage is still illegal in the American South, and no one on either "side" of the racial divide is pleased about their relationship.

Photo by Allen Weeks

A more accurate description of this beautiful script from Alice Childress, but harder to pinpoint neatly, is that Wedding Band's real moral lies in how it so pointedly captures the nefarious, myriad ways that this country's horrific racial history works to poison interracial relationships at every step. Our protagonists Julie and Herman love each other, true: but love is not enough. Love is not enough to afford tickets to a place where Julia and Herman can legally marry and be together. Love is not enough to protect Julia from gossip in her community and physical threats from other white men who view her as an available dalliance. Love is not enough to make Julia into a member of Herman's family, who are totally unable to accept her despite their own outcast status as Germans during a World War. Love is not enough to allow Julia to call a doctor or care for Herman when he becomes ill, a sickness from which he later dies - because the scandal his sleeping in a black woman's bed might incur is more important to his family and community than saving his life.

Photo by Allen Weeks

This not-enough-ness is what is so hard about interracial relationships and so hard to explain to those outside of one, even today. I am blessed to be half of a beautiful, strong, intimate interracial relationship. It is the pride of my life that my partner and I have found each other. We are great communicators, and luckily we don't face many of the challenges Julia and Herman do in Wedding Band. Our partnership is challenging and bracing and inspiring and so very worthwhile. But moments of this play struck me deeply with their relevance, even though we exist 100 years after this play takes place. Anyone in a committed partnership knows how much work it takes to understand each other and maintain a healthy common ground; imagine fighting for your relationship in tandem with hundreds of years of racial oppression and baggage at the same time.

Photo by Allen Weeks

So much has changed for the better since the time in which Wedding Band is set; 50 years ago the Loving vs. Virginia case made it crystal clear that interracial marriage was legal nationwide; the Civil Rights movement passed the Voting Rights Act and many other important pieces of legislation; the South was theoretically desegregated. But changing laws is not the same thing as changing hearts and minds, and that is the tragedy that confronts interracial couples to this day. I am legally allowed to marry my partner - for which I am extremely grateful - but I have still walked down the street with him and faced threats, been spit on, and been angrily confronted - yes, even here in "liberal" Minneapolis. We still have to carefully code where we live to make sure neighbors will not view one of us a threat. We still have to consider whose name to put on joint accounts and purchases, knowing that if it is mine it will likely receive better fees and interest rates. We have to face the possibility that if we should one day have children, they will be thoroughly planted in two completely different worlds, and that their "otherness" could make them a target of harassment.

Photo by Allen Weeks

It's such a shame that any of those things need to be true here, but they are. And it won't get better until we look these problems straight in the face and say yes, I see you; yes, we will fix this; yes, we will all do better. The denouement of Wedding Band falls when Julia is ready to leave Herman after 10 years of dedication, because the rest of it, of life outside of their locked bedroom door, is just too much. She can't talk about lynchings with him; she can't talk about her loneliness. It is so difficult just to see each other that their time cannot be used for anything other than loving each other, and while that is beautiful, it can't make up for the rest of the horrors Julia ceaselessly confronts as a black woman living in the American South in 1918.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Julia and Herman discuss these problems frankly, and although extremely painful it's the most authentic delineation of an interracial relationship that I've ever seen on stage. These are harsh, vicious, honest words, but they are the only words that could get Julia and Herman through. We like to think today that as a society that we are in some sort of post-racial utopia, that the end of slavery or the end of Jim Crow was enough to make race an arbitrary thing. We like to think that people who bring up race are just making a mountain out of a molehill, but if Charlottesville has taught us anything it's that we are never "over" America's racial sins. Until those sins are cleaned, until we take full ownership and apology and repentance for them, the rest of us will continue to flounder in the mire left in its wake. Julia and Herman cannot be just man and wife; they have to be a white poor man and an orphaned black woman in the American South, and those identities can never leave them despite how many doors they try to shut to lock them out.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Dame-Jasmine Hughes stars as Julia, and she's a revelation. Hughes savors her lines like chocolate cake, slowly wending them out; it's a pleasure to see an actress who has such grace and poise, and she lends a Gabrielle Union quality to her role. Hughes has a cadre of equally delightful actresses to tell the story with her. Ivory Doublette is charming and heartwarming as Mattie, bringing a shining warmth to the stage in her Penumbra debut. Austene Van is sincere and welcoming as Lula, and it's a pleasure to watch her mentorship over these fine young actresses. George Keller is the woman you love to hate as Julia's landlord Fanny, and her vibrant acting plunges the audience into a complex, difficult, rich narrative of the legacy that racism left to many people of color in the form of rigged property ownership, colorism and prejudice. Laura Esping is absolutely chilling as Herman's mother, and spits her dialogue with unmatched venom. It's a hard part, especially if you don't identify with the material, and Esping really knows how to hone her lines. Peter Christian Hansen is appropriately loving as Herman. Darius Dotch crackles on stage as Lula's son Nelson, and delivers several powerful lines about the place of black men (and particularly black soldiers) in U.S. society. Bob Beverage is horrifyingly familiar as the abusive Bell Man, demonstrating an invasion of privacy that is as chilling as it is unfortunately commonplace.

Photo by Allen Weeks

The set, designed by Vicki Smith, is relatively low-key. One half details the inside of Julia's bedroom; the other, Lula's front porch. The economy is comforting, and you never feel displaced or confused as to the place in the action. Every prop, considerately selected by Amy Reddy, feels well worn and well used, and it's clear that the cast is at home in their surroundings. The costumes are deceptively simple as designed by Mathew LeFebvre, and I really enjoyed the thoughtful details he placed on each. They're beautifully evocative of the early 1900s and well-suited to the character's various professions. Mike Wangen's lighting gently takes us through the time cycles of each day, and Lou Bellamy's masterful overall direction infuses this tautly drawn drama with dynamic gravitas.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Wedding Band is a raw, gorgeously told story that is vital to understanding interracial relationships and the devastating heritage of America's racial sins. If you want to understand how we got here (and how we can fix it); if you need a look in the mirror to see your own flaws and tribulations; if you simply want to see a show with powerful, nuanced performances and gripping dialogue; then you must attend Wedding Band. It runs at the Penumbra through November 12; I highly recommend it for any audience. You may not want to see it, but you should see it, and that alone makes it worth the trip. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Modern, Tenacious Take on Hamlet

Shakespeare is getting all kinds of fresh beginnings these days. 

Photo by Amy Anderson

And what a joyful trend it is! First we had the stunningly modern take on Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie (read my review here - one of my faves I've written lately); now we have a strikingly fresh rendition of Hamlet at Park Square Theater.

Photo by Amy Anderson

Hamlet has proven to be one of theater's most enduring scripts. Why? Something about this backstabbing family speaks to the human condition. As an extremely quick overview: Hamlet is the son of the freshly buried King of Denmark. His uncle has married his mother in an incestuous plot to become king, and Hamlet is having none of it. Things should have ended at Hamlet simply living his life with a surly attitude - but instead, he discovers that his father's ghost is roaming the castle. The ghost tells Hamlet that his father was murdered by his uncle; upon receiving that knowledge, Hamlet wholeheartedly dedicates himself to revenge. Like all Shakespearean tragedies, the plot only gets worse from there for our poor hero; much suffering and death faces the players until finally their lives are all spent and our emotions rung clear through.

Photo by Amy Anderson

This production has an exceptionally young cast. This has the effect of not only making the tightly edited action (the original play is near to five hours or so long, but this production clocks in at around 2 1/2 hours) pop, but really enlivens the material. At the center is Kory LaQuess Pullam as Hamlet. Long a rising star in the Twin Cities theater scene (check out this wonderful recent feature at the Strib), this production seals Pullam's place in Minnesota's thespian zeitgeist; stay tuned for much more from him. Pullam captures Hamlet's heated angst and lends a surprisingly funny gallows humor to the part. His style, mirrored in the rest of the cast, is almost conversational, and his intimate delivery really helps the material feel modern.

Photo by Amy Anderson

Surrounding Pullam is a tight, smart team of fellow young actors. Maeve Coleen Moynihan was my absolute favorite as a shiver-inducingly good Ophelia. Moynihan's delivery is truly haunting and horrifying, and you won't easily forget the finale of her powerful performance. Wesley Mouri is swift and brave as Ophelia's brother Laertes. Mouri shares all of the swashbuckling appeal of a Disney prince, and he charms here in this part. Kathryn Fumie is steadfast as Horatio, and brings a warmth and love to her role that helps enliven Pullam's Hamlet. Charles Hubbel and Sandra Struthers are expertly poised as King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, respectively. Their years of acting experience really shows, and Struthers' understated performance in particular sparkles amidst the more dynamic action on stage. My only unfulfilled request? I wish we could have seen Theo Langason in person as the king's ghost - his vocals are great but the physical representation of the ghost, with his face swathed in black fabric (??) is quite awkward and anathema to the straightforward modernity of the rest of the cast.

Photo by Amy Anderson

The set and staging of this production was truly unique, an it hit a lot of references home for me throughout the performance. The entire set is an enormous off-kilter cube, framed with beaming lights and paved with rough stones, in the middle of the stage. The back-center of this cube is a constant change of projections to move the scenes and intermittently used for closeup videos of the actors, almost as a giant TV set. It's really reminiscent of a mashup of the Ethan Hawke 2000-era film version of Hamlet and basically anything Baz Luhrmann made in the millennial era. It's eerie but effective, and the clean, harsh presentation yanks the audience straight out of fusty traditional territory. Costumes are very Matrix-level, with pleather coats, combat boots and dark sweatsuits attiring the heated actors.

Photo by Amy Anderson

Overall, I enjoyed this production. The first act drags a little despite Director Joel Sass's aggressive cutting; I'm not sure why. They make up for this in the second act, which races into a tempestuous fight scene that ends the show with breathless tension. I really appreciated the fresh take on long-hallowed lines (yes, despite the heavy cutting you will hear your To Be Or Not To Bes and Good Night Sweet Princes) that removed their precious reputations and imbued them with a deeper feeling. It was awesome to see more non-traditional casting and an intentional - and mostly successful - attempt to imbue this very dark plot with a healthy dose of humor. I'm excited to see where this dynamic, fresh acting crew heads after this production. They are the future of our local theater scene, and what a promising prospect we have to look forward to. Hamlet runs at Park Square Theater through November 11. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Marching Along to The Music Man

Yes, sir. Yes, sir. The piper pays him. 

Photo courtesy of Artistry

Long before Lin-Manuel Miranda made spoken word (aka hip hop) the hottest trend on stages anywhere, Meredith Wilson penned the iconic opening number of The Music Man (quoted above), where a peck of salesmen jostle on a "train" while sitting on their sales suitcases. The salesmen gossip as they sit in this simple staging, their words wringing together into a deftly musical number that turns elongated vowels into notes and texturizes the sound of the show.

The rhythmic opening leads straight into a theatrical time capsule full of unexpected wit and charm, and it holds up surprisingly well in a new production at Artistry in Bloomington. While a story about a con man who hoodwinks an entire community into giving him money and power with a wink and a smile might be just a bit cringe-worthy these days, The Music Man has a sunny smile to share that will give you hope for a way out of our current political mess.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

The Music Man tells the story of Harold Hill, a traveling salesman who is more con artist than businessman. Hill traverses the United States selling instruments and uniforms to form a boy's band in small towns, leaving the second the payments come through without actually teaching the kids to play. His devious approach to sales leaves a scorched earth environment for the salesmen who follow him, and his reputation precedes him on a journey through Iowa. The people of Iowa are notoriously stubborn and difficult to pitch to, so Hill decides to tackle the challenge. He is ultimately successful in forming a boy's band, but not before serious investigation from townfolk who are determined to find out Hill's true motivations and past. Along the way Hill falls in love with the town librarian Marian Paroo, his fiercest critic who becomes his fiercest advocate. He also unites the city council into a barbershop quartet; herds the town gossips into a rousing rendition of incessant chatter entitled "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little;" and brings the joy of music and imagination to a community starved of both.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

It's somewhat amazing that this show is as charming and positive as it is, considering the fact that Hill is horrifyingly selfish, manipulative and narcissistic. Some of Hill's overtures to Marian are downright rapey (witness the musically delightful but politically cringe-worthy "Marian the Librarian"), and it's easy to see how his reputation might be in trouble. And yet.... there is so much joy in these lighthearted songs such as "76 Trombones," "Goodnight My Someone" and "Ya Got Trouble"; despite Hill's manipulation the townfolk are so much happier by the end; and it's so fun to see a bunch of stuffy old Midwesterners loosen up; that you can quickly forget the less savory parts of the script as it unfolds.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

Artistry's production is quite successful, thanks to primarily to the tireless work of Michael Gruber, who stars as Harold Hill and also orchestrated the choreography. One of the best parts of this show is the cast's nimble footed dancing, and there is never a moment where the blocking hasn't been considered. Gruber has done wonders in arranging this cast, and it translates through to his performance as well. Gruber isn't the best singer of the bunch, but he doesn't need to be. His assured, suave physicality thoroughly encapsulates Hill's unfettered self-confidence, and Gruber's graceful delivery has a Gene Kelly quality that is thoroughly appealing. He is perfectly paired with Jennifer Eckes as a radiant Marian Paroo. Eckes has a gorgeous voice that anchors the cast's musicality, and the two of them light sparks all over the place as the action continues.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

The whole cast does a great job. Notable standouts include Wendy Short-Hays with a hilarious portrayal of Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor's wife; Liam Beck-O'Sullivan is utterly charming as the lispy, adorable Winthrop Paroo; Lolly Foy wields the best Irish accent I've ever heard on stage as Marian's mother Mrs. Paroo; and France Roberts aims a beaming smile that blazes straight through the audience as Hill's friend Marcellus Washburn. Elly Stahlke does a great job leading the dance efforts as Dance Captain, and Anita Ruth leads the pit orchestra with a firm hand. The musicians really set the pace for the whole show, and they did a great job of keeping up with the action on stage.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

The scenic design from Joel Sass shares interesting qualities with this summer's Sunday in the Park with George at the Guthrie. Here we also have a  fixed, floating portrait frame and pointillated lights. This production utilizes far more props and small set pieces around these elements, such as a revolving ladder, librarian's desk, front porch door and the infamous kissing footbridge. The effect is enough to keep the action quickly moving yet provide a surprising amount of detail, and it places us squarely in early 20th century Iowa. I also enjoyed the dynamic costumes from Ed Gleeman, who keeps the production deeply rooted in tradition. The fashion is colorful and evocative, and it perfectly suits the story.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

The Music Man has so many surprising ties to the darker sides of our political arena today - manipulation, falsehood, harassment, crowd mentality, gossip. However, through its lighthearted delivery The Music Man makes these issues seem surmountable. We learn that not everything needs to be taken so seriously; sometimes we need to be tricked into seeing life a little differently; and happiness can be more important than steadfast decorum. Even the worst among us are capable of doing good things, and it behooves us to find that good in each person as often as we possibly can. Artistry's lovely performance of The Music Man is sadly nearly sold out, but if you can manage to get a ticket before they close on November 5 I definitely think you should. For more information about the production, click on this link.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Riveted to Watch on the Rhine

The Guthrie's latest suspenseful show lands you smack into fall ... and fascism. 

Photo by Dan Norman

It's night. It's dark. It's dangerous. The leading man dashes in for a brief moment, long enough to kiss his wife, embrace his children and slide to the car waiting outside. His furtive movements belie his overwhelming fear, which is justifiable: he has just killed a man, and he will not be returning to this house.

Photo by Dan Norman

So ends Watch on the Rhine, Lillian Hellman's darkly gorgeous play now showing at the Guthrie. Filled with understated urgency and thoughtful evolution, Watch on the Rhine is a call to action that retains its power more than 75 years after it first aired.

Photo by Dan Norman

So how did we get here, to the furtive movements and waiting car and silent tension? We begin in that same house, that of Fanny Farrelly, a wealthy American woman enjoying the height of leisure in her senior years. Fanny's son David lives with her, as well as two long-term guests from war-embattled Europe: Teck de Brancovis and his wife Marthe. The house is abuzz at the news that Sara Muller, Fanny's long-absent daughter, will be soon arriving with her husband, Kurt, and their children. The reunion is awkward but loving, and everyone heaves a sigh of relief that they are actually glad to see each other. Only one thing could spoil this reunion, and it does: ill-kept secrets.

Photo by Dan Norman

Based on Hollywood's tendency to overdo it on the World War II drama, I think we all know why an anti-fascist rebel and an Eastern European aristocrat wouldn't get along very well at this time. What I can't convey very well, and what you'll have to (and should) head to the Guthrie to witness, is the breathless tension with which this relationship is executed. Teck and Kurt circle each other like sharks to the slaughter throughout the show, and there are no easy answers or happy endings when they finally come to blows. This is a world in which choices are made between terrible and awful, and there is no easy way out. It's a beautifully executed denouement, and it's one of the only times I've ever felt that two intermissions were not only appropriate but necessary to let the play's sickening necessities fully sink in.

Photo by Dan Norman

The cast is clearly all-in on this story. Caitlin O'Connell is marvelous as Fanny, bringing a salty joie de vivre to her part that is sharp and hilarious in the best tradition of the grand dames of old Hollywood. Kate Guentzel is pointed and vivacious as Teck's estranged wife Marthe, and her stinging remarks are the first hint that something is amiss in this home despite its splendor. Sarah Agnew is deftly resilient as Sarah, allowing her heartbreak, frustration and resolution to shine through. Jonathan Walker is the cast's weak link as Teck, but still manages to convey the sniveling selfishness that defines Teck's unhappy life. The standout is Elijah Alexander in his Guthrie debut as Kurt. Alexander is swift, strong, troubled and resolute all at once. His quiet observation of the family drama unfolding before him conveys mountains with just a glance, and his bravado performance at the end does a lovely job of demonstrating the horrifying sacrifices heroes must make in real life. Alexander IS this show's gravitas, and he keeps us all level headed as the plot descends into madness.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set, a beautifully imagined drawing room by Neil Patel, is quietly luxurious, filled with the kind of expensively simple objets d'art that define the homes of the upper class. Costumes are richly arrayed in 1940s silhouettes and lavishly printed luxury fabrics, the sheen of which we can see glistening from the audience. Raquel Barreto hit the nail on the head with this apparel, and you'll drool over some of the play's beautiful garments. Ingenious backlighting from Alexander Nichols keeps the time of day clear and casts just enough shadow to keep us in suspense, with almost a film noir vibe. And I wish the various European accents, overseen by Vocal Coach Lucinda Holshue, were a little more acutely pronounced, but it' nice to hear a global inflection coming from the dialogue on stage.

Photo by Dan Norman

Watch on the Rhine is part of a series of troubled times-themed plays that will be gracing the Guthrie's stages this year. It's dark material is suited to the damp chill descending as we go deeper into fall, and it's hard not to feel that Hellman's strong call to action is still profoundly relevant today. Watch on the Rhine's quiet, insistent urgency that all of us, of every age and ability, give all we have - lives included - to fend off the lockstep march of fascism as it sweeps the globe is unfortunately all too familiar in our era. Perhaps, if we listen, this time we can end it for good. Watch on the Rhine plays through November 5 at the Guthrie; tickets and more information can be found by clicking on this link.

These Shining Lives is a Shining Example of the Theater We Need

Did you see Hidden Figures last year? 

Touted nationwide as one of the most surprising, uplifting and wonderful movies of 2016, Hidden Figures was by far the biggest box office for an Academy Award Best Picture nominee last year and the highest grossing movie fronted by an African-American woman, ever. I've heard nothing but great things about the sweet story and impeccable acting, and the positive message pervading the film was nothing but extraordinary and highly timely.

With the undeniable success of Hidden Figures, it begs the question: why are there still so few stories produced about, by and for women (and especially women of color)? In the era of the downfall of Harvey Weinstein (#thankgod, #metoo), there is growing momentum in Hollywood and elsewhere to finally correct the horrific gender imbalance in the art we disseminate and value, both financially and culturally.

If you're involved in this movement and want to see more stories by and about women, and especially if you love true-life historical drama, look no further than These Shining Lives, now playing from Uprising Theatre Company at the Phoenix Theater. These Shining Lives tells the stories of the women of the Radium Dial Company, whose fortunes were made and lost painting watch faces with pure radium in the 1930s. This true story is one of the many that deserves wider airtime, for several reasons: it's poignant, it's beautifully told, and it has a lot to tell us about progress and public health issues.

The women of Radium Dial were renowned at the time for their beautiful work in hand-painting the numbers on watch faces, for which they were paid handsomely. Everything seemed to be coming up roses until it became clear that something about the materials they were using was amiss. Radium Dial's claim to fame was the fact that they painted the numbers on the watch faces with pure radium, which they touted as a health benefit to the employees. Many women worked in this environment for years, clothed in radium dust. This is not an exaggeration - the paintbrushes were sharpened in their mouths (aka they ate the radium dust), the dust spread all over their hair and clothes, and the radium seeped so deeply into the women's skin that they literally glowed in the dark.

It doesn't take much in this day and age to realize that such outsized exposure to radioactive elements couldn't possibly be good for you. But at the time (pre-atomic bomb, don't forget) not many people knew. Either way, no one wanted to face the powerful corporate forces of Radium Dial with such a medical diagnosis for its terminally ill employees, and no one certainly wanted to vouch for a bunch of sickly, poor women. It was only until one brave employee sued the company on behalf of herself and her fellow coworkers (and won - seven. consecutive. times.) that Radium Dial's guilt was acknowledged and some form of financial recoupment allowed to its victims. The harrowing process scarred many of the employees and the victory, which resulted in laughably low amounts of financial compensation, was more symbolic than adequate for the pain the women suffered.

Uprising Theatre's production of These Shining Lives is an inspiring, accessible entree into this story. It was lovely to see a cast formed of a diverse group of women anchoring the narrative with charisma and ease. The audience is led through by Ashey Hovell, who plays Catherine Donohue, the woman who sues Radium Dial. Donohue's coworkers Frances, Charlotte and Pearl are played by Lauren Schulke, Maggie Mae Sulentic, and Ashembaga Jaafarau, respectively. The four women have wonderful chemistry and nuanced portrayals. Pearl is the clown, lightening the mood with bad jokes. Charlotte is fiercely independent and strong spirited. Frances is gossipy but kindhearted. These four women work wonderfully as a team and tell the story together warmly. They are supported by Ryan Lee, in theater's most #ally #feminism portrayal yet of Catherine's husband Tom Donohue; and Brandon Holscher as the diabolical Mr. Reed, the women's corrupt supervisor at Radium Dial.

It was impossible to watch These Shining Lives without thinking of Hidden Figures. This lovely script (written by Melanie Marnich) has so much heart, and I think audiences of any stripe can enjoy it. The cast of Uprising Theatre does a beautiful job of telling this narrative. They bring so much energy and vivacity and passion to the subject matter, and I hope they are able to bring this back despite the show's limited run. This is a young cast, and they'll be around for a while. You may not be able to catch a show soon, but Uprising: please continue with your mission, and please stage this show again. These Shining Lives is a story we all deserve to hear more of, and it's great to hear it from your perspective. For more information, click here.

Monday, October 9, 2017

How to Use a Knife is Searingly Honest about Life as a Chef

The life of a chef seems to be on everybody's media radar these days. 

Photo courtesy of Mixed Blood Theatre

Whether it's thanks to Anthony Bourdain's eternally successful Kitchen Confidential, the explosion of interest in the Food Network, or simply the romance of quitting the office hamster wheel and using our hands all day, the life of a chef has become one of the most romanticized professions in America's daydreams.

What's the problem with all of this?

As a partner of a chef, I can tell you firsthand what no one (except Kitchen Confidential, oddly enough as everyone wants to forget the real parts of the book...) wants to tell you: this is one of the hardest jobs out there. It's not sexy. Most chefs will tell anyone interested that they're insane for wanting to get into this field.


Let me count the ways: the hours are brutal, particularly in terms of lack of rest and no holidays off. There are almost never benefits for work in restaurant kitchens, and cooking staff is notoriously underpaid. Tips almost never make their way to the people making the food, despite the fact that they do the lion's share of keeping up a restaurant. There is no such thing as sick days, making working in a hot, damp, smelly environment even worse when you're ill. It's an incredibly dangerous job, particularly for people without healthcare, and there's a good chance you'll have serious burns and cuts within the first few months. Mental health is a huge problem among people working in kitchens, as is rampant substance abuse.

So why does anyone do this kind of work?

How to Use a Knife, now showing at Mixed Blood Theatre, acknowledges all of these difficulties in stark reality, but shows some of the brighter sides of this world as well. The kitchen is a place where anyone can start over and find employment, regardless of how far they have fallen in their personal life. It's a place of brutal honesty, where no word is too profane and tension must be confronted head on. It creates a tough skin, helping people develop resilience that can carry them through other parts of their lives. At any given time you can hear multiple different languages and dialects all competing with each other. It's one of the few areas in which everyone is on an equal playing field despite their race, gender or economic status.  All that matters in a kitchen is if you have the skills; anything else is just window dressing.

How to Use a Knife follows chef George, formerly a Michelin starred chef who is starting over after losing his career (and daughter) through his addiction and has recently become stone cold sober. George is hired by Michael, one of his least talented former line cooks, to run a casual burger and sandwich restaurant staffed by Miguel and Carlos. Washing dishes is Steve, a mysterious African immigrant who never engages with his fellow staff. George insists on elevating the level of cooking in the kitchen despite the lowbrow reputation, infusing the staff with the discipline of a traditionally trained chef. After hours, George befriends Steve, where they trade lessons in cooking and meditation and create an unlikely partnership. As the details of Steve's dark past unravel, George unravels himself. This is a show with no easy answers - I'll leave the denouement out for audiences to learn for themselves - but suffice it to say, it's an impressively subtle approach to many searingly difficult issues. Civil war, mental health, substance abuse, the death of a child, the desire for revenge, the evil path revenge can take you on; all of these problems are divulged here with despairing honesty, and this play will really have you thinking by the time it's finished.

The cast wields the script with gravitas. Ansa Akyea brings his trademark subtlety to his role as Steve, managing to make this a complex, intricate role that demands the audience pay attention. It's a bravado performance, and few actors could convey such complexity into this part. This was my first time seeing Zack Myers on stage (as George), and I hope it's not the last. Myers brings a bombastic passion to his part that is the yin to Akyea's serene yang, and their performances together are like watching fire and ice. Raúl  Ramos and Jake Caceres are this show's beating heart as Carlos and Miguel, respectively. Each has moments of true, winsome comedy, and I was glad they were there throughout the show. Michael Booth is dishearteningly convincing as the inept, egotistical owner Michael. It's my understanding that Booth's portrayal of irresponsible restaurant owners is distressingly accurate, and his antics are sure to be enlightening to audience members unfamiliar with what really happens behind a kitchen's swinging double doors.

The set, designed by Joseph Stanley, has a strong resemblance to real working kitchens. The space is used beautifully throughout the tight 100 minute performance, with all scene transitions depicting the restaurant at a different time of day and state of use. The effect is to provide a true window into the lifecycle of a restaurant, and it's a fun foray for voyeurs of the industry. Karin Olson's lighting adds to this cyclical effect, and Janet O'Neill's costumes are appropriately uniform for this environment.

I was really looking forward to taking my chef to How to Use a Knife, and I wasn't disappointed. Mixed Blood always offers thought provoking, diverse, difficult work, and How to Use a Knife is no different. For those in the cooking world, this will be a familiar journey with an added political perspective. For those of us outside of that profession, How to Use a Knife is an honest, illuminating portrait of how difficult work in a kitchen is and how deeply politics seeps through every aspect of our lives, even those hidden behind double doors. How to Use a Knife only runs for one more week and closes October 15. For more information and to get tickets, click on this link.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Why the Lynx Deserve More + How You Can Help

You don't have to read this blog for long to know that I am a huge patron of the arts.

Fine art, collage, fashion, theater, dance, music - you name it and I'm probably writing about it. I love finding new ways to expand my mind and creativity. 

Sports, however? That's a tougher sell.

It's not because I don't like sports. I do. I grew up watching baseball and football and I have participated on several different teams throughout the years. Sports build discipline and character in addition to being good for the body. I get it. I like it. It can be a nice change of pace.

What I don't get is how much money is invested into professional sports teams, especially in this state. I will never forget when the $1 billion stadium for the Vikings passed but we couldn't scrounge up a measly few million dollars (in comparison) to save the world-class MN Orchestra. There are arguments to be made (that have been made, and often) on both sides of that conversation, but the long and short of my thoughts? Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. 

Amid all the furious argumentation about new stadiums, "needed" spending for sports teams, and the entitlements they feel they deserve, one team has quietly set the standard for their sport and community involvement without a modicum of fuss: the Minnesota Lynx. 

I am not a born and bred basketball fan, but I've made a point of going to support Minnesota's only winning (and only female) professional sports team over the last few years, and I'm definitely impressed. These are true, dedicated athletes, with vision, discipline, passion and finesse. They keep their heads down, get the job done, and give back to the community with a rare passion. If there's any team that deserves to have a diva moment it's this one, and yet they don't do it.

I was lucky enough to attend the Game 5 WNBA finals (as well as a semifinal game) to watch the Lynx clinch their fourth title. It was a tour de force event, the best of what a sporting event can be, and much of it left me breathless with excitement. It was great fun, and I'm so proud of what these ladies accomplished, but I wish they had had more fanfare and respect while they did it. I couldn't stop thinking about this issue, and it got me pretty salty as I wondered:

Why was this championship team, a team literally made of olympains, relegated to playing their final games in a 90 year old stadium with limited concessions? 

Why did the team have to pay to upgrade that stadium for weather needs when it didn't even own it? 

Why are so many of their regular season games poorly attended? 

Why are these players paid so much less than their NBA counterparts, despite the fact that their winning record is exponentially better?

Why is their championship parade not on a prime time street over the weekend so everyone can attend, rather than shunted into a weeknight in a less populated part of the city? 

Why is there so little press and fanfare over this incredible legacy? 

It's impossible to watch the Lynx play and not have these questions running through your mind. The Twins bombed out (yet again) of their first round playoff series earlier in the same week and were met with breathless fan and press coverage that endlessly dissected every moment of the series. The Lynx went all the way to a Game 5 win against a serious, talented rival in a matchup that is very akin to the Golden State Warrior and Cleveland Cavallier matchup of their NBA counterparts, but comparatively the coverage amounted to a footnote against the Twins' mountains of press.  The Vikings got a $1 billion brand new stadium despite never even attending a Super Bowl, and the Lynx won their final and semifinal series in a second rate stadium that wasn't even as nice as their borrowed regular season venue. Why? Where else could the Wild (whose season hasn't started) practice? (Cue eye roll). Maya Moore, widely acknowledged as the Lynx's biggest star, was making a salary of $45,000 a year until a few short years ago. You won't find a male athlete sitting on a bench for any of the aforementioned teams making that little. She still makes far less in comparison to her Timberwolves equivalent, Jimmy Butler, despite the fact that she's played here for years, is a pillar of the community, and has proven her dedication to her team.

There is such a double standard when it comes to women athletes, and I'm tired of it. This issue has been beautifully discussed by legends like Serena Williams and the U.S. Women's Soccer team, and it has got to change. There are women out here working harder and with better results than the dudes on the other side of the bleachers, but it takes so much for them to get the credit they deserve. 

I'm not a fan of endless complaining. So what can we do? A LOT. Here's how we as fans can help fix this problem: 

  1. Buy tickets. Pack stadiums. Attend regular games, not just postseason. The audience is there; prove it.
  2. Bring a friend. Word of mouth is not enough. Games are inexpensive and fun. It's a great date night and being there is a better testament to the value of the Lynx than anything else you say. 
  3. Buy merchandise. Don't allow arguments about the lack of economic draw for female athletes to exist. It's bullshit, for starters, but we need overwhelming proof to support that. Do the digging, find the merch, demand better products and give the ladies a salary bump. 
  4. Share about it. Ad nauseam. Force people to pay attention. Show the media that we want more stories about female athletes. Like and share and repost everything you can find.
  5. Boycott the bad ones. How much time and money have we wasted on trashy athletes with bad reputations who don't win anyways? There's a riotous Boycott of the NFL that I am happily participating in this year (click here to read more). Join me, and reallocate the time and money you would have been spending there to support our female athletes. You'll be shocked how much you enjoy it. Maybe you'll never go back. 
Sexism invades all areas of life, and it can be a nefarious thing to fight. This is a clear, cut and dry area that we the public can make a difference in. Societal change often starts at the top; why not begin here? Demand equal pay. Demand fair treatment. Acknowledge the accomplishments. The Lynx deserve every bit of it; you won't be disappointed if you do. 

If you have other ideas of proactive ways to support the team, let me know! I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Wandering with Henry and Alice + New Brunch Digs and Frank Theatre

Can privileged people have problems?

Photo by Petronella

Or perhaps it should be phrased differently: do we, or should we, care about privileged people's problems when there are so many more pressing issues facing the world today?

It sounds like a ridiculous question - I mean at some point, all of us face difficulties, right? - but in our current political climate, it is not one that is often given deep attention.

It's something I couldn't help thinking about while watching Henry & Alice: Into the Wild, now showing at Park Square Theatre. The show tackles this question with a lighthearted sincerity that often lifts what could otherwise feel like ridiculous subject matter into a plane of being almost relatable, and has some moments of genuine poignancy that unearth real questions worth considering.

Photo by Petronella

Before we dive in, here's the premise: Henry & Alice first came to Park Square Theatre a few years ago in Sexy Laundry, when they discussed their marriage and love for each other at a romantic retreat. This time around Henry has lost his job, and it's weighing heavily on them both as they clumsily find their way to a more pared down lifestyle. Because of their financial constraints, Henry and Alice's romantic getaway is now a campground complete with noisy neighbors, an actively used tire swing, and Alice's wild sister Diana. All of them come to grips with their aging lives, feats and failures, and rediscover the spark of life throughout the show and several tense arguments in which passive aggressive missives are lobbed through the air like so much whipped cream in a food fight. It is a comedy, but some of the things said are really painful to watch. It's a good example of the cliche that you never know what happens behind closed doors (but really, you don't), and it's worth approaching everyone you meet with a listening ear.

Photo by Petronella

The results of the cast's efforts through the wandering script are generally positive. Some of this show can feel trite as it tries to be silly - such as Alice bringing a cashmere throw and elegant clothing to a dirty campsite. Some of it, however, really is relatable and even poignant: the loss of a job shortly before retirement age is a real thing that a lot of people have struggled with in and since the Great Recession; the yawning gap between the Millennial generation and that of their parents continues to careen into opposite sides of the universe; what happens to a stay at home mother once her children are grown and out of the house?

Photo by Petronella

The actors here keep the show very lighthearted, which helps gloss over some of the more uncomfortable parts of the narrative. John Middleton is the comedic standout as Henry. His wry delivery helps the audience share many laughs, and there are several moments when Middleton's angst over the loss of his job is really touching. Carolyn Pool is much softer as Alice, with several nice moments of elucidation over the amount of work she has invested in the family as a stay at home mother. Alice's struggle is one that isn't often given a clear spotlight, and it's clear that playwright Michele Riml's perspective has given extra dimension to this aspect of the story. As Alice's sister Diana, Melanie Wehrmacher is a great foil for the prim and proper couple and provides a necessary edgy ballast that anchors their conversations with some more realistic perspective.

Photo by Petronella

Henry & Alice left me with some conflicting feelings. It can be a little hard to feel truly sorrowful for these characters who are so steeped in privilege they have a hard time acknowledging their complicity in some of their problems. However, this doesn't mean that there aren't some important points raised in the script, particularly about the role of women in society as they age past their childbearing years. What do we do with women who don't quite fit our collective expectations? Or conversely, what is owed to our stay at home mothers? How do we acknowledge the mountains of unpaid work they do? It's an important question even if it is niche, and it has ripple affects that touch the role of women in other areas of society.

Photo by Petronella

If you're someone who doesn't have very politicized view of the world and is looking for something benign to seek your teeth into, Henry & Alice: Into the Wild is for you. If you're someone who is very invested into resistance movements right now, it may not be the best fit. For myself: Henry & Alice was a break from the usual heavier fare I see, and I enjoyed having a different change of pace. I understand what the show was trying to do, and while I think it glosses over some real issues with white privilege, I still had fun. It was really nice to see a show written and directed by women, as well as a mostly female production crew. Either way I got a few laughs on my Friday night, and it was good to leave the theater feeling lighthearted.

Henry & Alice: Into the Wild runs at Park Square Theatre through October 22. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.

And as an extra aside: I'm sure you often hear of dinner and a show, but for something different, how about hitting brunch and a matinee? The older I get, the more I appreciate being home early enough to get set for the next workday. What are my suggestions for both?

For a matinee, make sure to head to the Gremlin Theater to see Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. by the fiery women of Frank Theatre. This robust feminist play is on stage there through October 15, and the quick 70 minute pacing is a perfect opportunity to get yourself thinking deeply and home before dinner. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.

Biscuits and Gravy, I raise you a Southern Sunrise

And for brunch, consider hitting Dalton & Wade, a cozy new Southern food and whisky bar establishment tucked into the gorgeous new T3 development in the North Loop in Minneapolis. Featuring a wide range of food from crackling fried chicken and cornbread to savory handmade biscuits and gravy to a smoked brisket benedict, Dalton & Wade has something for every country lover's heart. Their brunch just kicked off and is excellent, especially when paired with savory cocktails like the Southern Sunrise and or one of the number of intriguingly herbal whiskey hi balls. I can see this spot becoming a go-to for downtowners throughout the winter, and it's worth going to check it out before the crowds discover it. For more information, click on this link.

How do you lose with a trout benedict?