Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Little Night Music Gives Us a Saucy Sondheim

This saucy show has plenty of punch for Sondheim fans. 

Photo by Dan Norman

When you hear the "great" names of creators of musical theater, the list tends to be pretty short. Rogers and Hammerstein are up there, to be sure. Leonard Bernstein makes the cut. Andrew Lloyd Weber, but of course. Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin are all contenders. A hot case could be made for adding Lin-Manuel Miranda these days, despite his young age. And then there's Stephen Sondheim.

Photo by Dan Norman

Defiantly riding headfirst against the river of generally treacle-y smash successes made by the men mentioned above, Sondheim stands alone with his freaky sense of humor and genuine love of the macabre. Controversial, fearless and unabashedly strange, Sondheim defies easy categorization and remains a singularly enigmatic figure in the history of theater.

Photo by Dan Norman

What does that mean for the rest of us? That the work of Steven Sondheim tends to be an acquired taste, and I'm not certain yet if I've attained the status of a Sondheim connoisseur. From a technical perspective his scores are complex, creative and even brilliant, constantly re-interpreting musical possibilities and pushing boundaries. Melodically this means they can suffer a bit for me (at least in terms of hum-along tunes), and combined with his truly singular subject matter they tend to wander a bit far off the path for my tastes. Still, there is a robust Sondheim fan club out there, and his musicals still tend to be top sellers on local stages. West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George have all made appearances on #tctheater stages in the last few years, and now we have A Little Night Music to add to the collection thanks once again to Theater Latte Da.

Photo by Dan Norman

Although according to the excellent program this is based on Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night, it actually reminded me a lot of Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest. A Little Night Music follows the most complex of love knots. Desirée Armfeldt is a popular play actor and the toast of Sweden, who is known almost as much for her many lovers as she is for her work on-stage. Her former lover Fredrik Egerman decides to attend her latest play with his young, virginal wife Anne, and finds himself swept up in love of Desirée all over again. Anne fumes with jealousy but finds plenty of fun flirting with her stepson Henrik, who is much closer in age (and desire) to her. Desirée's lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm is filled with violent jealousy when he learns of her assignation with Fredrik; his wife Countess Charlotte Malcolm is filled with equal furor over his lack of care for his own wife, compared to his mistress. Through this tangled web we see many schemes emerge to win former loves back, flee with new lovers, and re-discover old flames. It's a complicated plot that unravels neatly by the end, but pay attention - it's easy to miss a connection if you blink too slowly.

Photo by Dan Norman

Sally Wingert is the show's draw as Desirée, and while I loved her characteristic witty timing, this wasn't my favorite role for her. I did quite enjoy Mark Benninghofen as Fredrik, her romantic foil; his rich voice grew as the show developed, and he was very well paired with Wingert's characterization. Thank goodness for Britta Ollmann and Bradley Greenwald as servants Petra and Frid, respectively; they are the heart of the music of this show, and their beautiful voices provide a strong foundation on which the rest of the cast builds. Susan Hofflander is hilarious as Desirée's mother Madame Leonora Armfeldt; her perfect comedic timing was just the lighter tone the show needs. And I really enjoyed Grace Chermak and Riley McNutt's chemistry as Anne and Henrik Egerman. They play the age dynamic really well and have some charmingly youthful moments that kept the show feeling fresh.

Photo by Dan Norman

An honest disclaimer: this was not my favorite musical. The first act especially dragged for me, and while I saw the full picture by the end of the play, it just wasn't my favorite.

Photo by Dan Norman

I disclaim that because I want to focus instead on the fact that I think this production was excellently acted and produced. Not everything is going to suit my preferences, but that doesn't mean the quality was lacking - and this is a case of an excellently produced show that just wasn't for me. Theater Latte Da always does a great job with musicals, and their treatment of A Little Night Music is no different. The stage opens on a sepia-toned set design from Joel Sass; as the show progresses it gains a bit more color (much like a Wizard of Oz effect), and the detailed period costumes from Rich Hamson, paired with the vibrant hair and wig design from Paul Bigot, shine on stage. The lighting design by Marcus Dilliard, who was the 2018 Twin Cities Theater Blogger's choice for best lighting designer, is excellent as always and really makes the most of that detailed set. And the sound mixing by C. Andrew Mayer allows us to hear every one of Sondheim's complicated lyrics. Combined with the live band on-stage, led by Jason Hansen, we get the feel we are on a series of Edith Wharton-eqsue lavish estates, and it keeps the wealthy aura of the play fully engaged.

Photo by Dan Norman

The audience seemed delighted in this considered rendition of A Little Night Music. Patrons next to me gossiped about the action on stage throughout the show as if it was the latest episode of Real Housewives, and at some level or some point in time, isn't that what A Little Night Music really is? A dark (but not Sondheim's darkest) farce about the fallibility of relationships, the difference between relationships you should have and relationships you want to have, and a meditation on marriage, A Little Night Music has all the salacious gossip you could ever want to see in a musical. Even though the subject wasn't my favorite, I can attest that the quality of this production is impeccable, and Sondheim fans are sure to love this rendition of the show. It's a great way to escape our current polar vortex and worth a visit for Theater Latte Da's perennially excellent execution. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Dan Norman

Monday, January 28, 2019

Out There 2019: Berlin's Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close]

A nuclear apocalypse seems to be on many artists' minds these days.

Photo courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Last year gave us The Lorax at Children's Theatre Company. A few weeks ago The Children opened at the Jungle Theater. And now we have Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close], created by the Belgian artist collective BERLIN and the next installment of the Out There series at the Walker Art Center.

I'm not sure how to describe Zvizdal other than a multimedia documentary experience. The bulk of the performance is spent watching a film, which interacts seamlessly with three meticulously crafted models of the film's subject - a single crumbling farm still standing in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster 32 years ago. Dido and Baba are the final two inhabitants of Zvizdal, a small village in northern Ukraine that fell within the permanent radiation radius after the disaster. The majority of the village's population was evacuated and re-located elsewhere, but a few residents stubbornly refused to leave.

Dido and Baba are the final inhabitants of Zvizdal and make for a fascinating film subject. Much like the agnostic gaze of Planet Earth, in Zvizdal we are taken deep into observing Dido and Baba's truly analog lives without a filtered perspective. In addition to the nuclear fallout, the subject is made all the more difficult by the fact that Dido and Baba are in their early 90s when the video is shot. Because the village was evacuated they are left totally without access to services we take for granted - running water, electricity, television, paved roads, gas for cars or motorized vehicles, grocery stores, post offices - even the radio station no longer services Zvizdal's two remaining residents.

The film focuses on Baba and Dido's lives over several seasons. Below the screen, three intricately detailed models (one each) of the summer, winter, and transitional spring / fall seasons show their home, animals, and foliage of the neighborhood. A focused camera on a track silently moves between them, interspersing the recorded documentary footage with the live rotation of the models. It has the effect of an almost 3D-meets-claymation imagery, and although I think it was unnecessary in terms of adding to the meaning of the piece, it was certainly interesting to watch. I could see how you might make a more efficient version of stop-motion animation with this technology, and it did help the piece to feel more interactive than simply staring at a screen surrounded by strangers.

I took my husband to this show, and we both agreed it's one of our favorite Out There performances of any year. Something about the quiet nature of Baba and Dido's lives profoundly affected each of us; the pregnant pauses between the mundane elements of each of their lives gave space for thoughtful reflection on modern society and humanity's responsibility to each other. Interestingly he and I left with very different lessons from the film. He was profoundly impacted by the imagery of Chernobyl's nuclear fallout and rightly pointed out how little detail is taught about the disaster today. As much we are told that the Cold War is over (an increasingly debatable fact, one might think), we still live in a highly nuclear world. There are nuclear power plants located in Minnesota and warheads planted all over the Midwest; a disaster could easily fall here, where it is far more densely populated than Chernobyl was, and what would we do if that happened? Are there better, safer ways of producing energy? Why bother with nuclear at all anymore with our increasingly efficient technologies for solar and wind power? How do you gauge what technologies are safest for life yet still meet our endless appetite for more and more powerful energy sources?

I, on the other hand, was deeply moved by Zvizdal's subconscious conversation about aging in Western societies. Baba and Dido aren't just living what is essentially a peasant's life in the 1800s; they are doing it in the latest decades of their lives, without access to electricity, modern medicine, telephones to call for emergencies, or even nearby family to check on them regularly. Their decades-long companionship provides them with a profound relationship that is truly the cornerstone of their survival, but it is clear that they are very hungry and physically suffering. Their mental quality of life would be devastated if they had to leave the only homes they've ever known, the homes they've lived in for nearly a century; but what about their physical needs? Is it moral to leave them alone in Zvizdal knowing they will be injured or starved and unable to reach help? Or is it better to allow them to die on their own terms, no matter how hard it is to watch? The way the elderly are treated in Western societies is a serious, troubling question that I don't think we publicly think about enough. Zvizdal shines a spotlight on many of the challenging aspects of this conversation and any viewers are sure to have a lot to think about by the time they leave.

I found Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close] to be a thoughtful, lyrical, quietly profound piece of art. It surprised me with its simple eloquence and left me with so much to discuss and think about. It's a great example of how art done well can delight, innovate, teach and advocate for change all at the same time. If you get a chance to go I would highly recommend it; click here for more information about Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far - so close] and the rest of the Out There series at the Walker Art Center, which continues through the end of January 2019.

For a roundup of past Out There performances I've covered, see the following: 

Friday, January 25, 2019

On Your Feet Deserves a Standing Ovation

The first (and only) musical about Gloria Estefan is the new West Side Story (yeah, I went there). 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

We hear electrified instruments; a blistering trumpet fills the air, and suddenly! A thin fabric screen is whisked away to reveal the awesome power of the new Miami Sound Machine, enveloping the Orpheum in a glorious melee of brass instruments and island rhythms.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Every time I hear the heated rhythms and funky basslines of Conga, I flash back to when I was 8 years old, waking up for school to the 106.7 FM WJJY radio station. The smooth voice of the DJ would come on and all of a sudden - that fiesty beat that instantly infected my feet and got me straight out of bed.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Of all the music I loved during my childhood - which is based almost entirely on what was played on that radio station, seeing that it was before the internet, streaming, Kazaa, or even CDs were available in my rural small town - that of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine remains among my very favorite. Go down the list of songs - Anything for You, Don't Wanna Lose You, Everlasting Love, Get On Your Feet, Rhythm is Gonna Get You, Turn the Beat Around - and you can't find a loser among the bunch.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

This is one of the main reasons I was so excited that On Your Feet, the first-ever musical about Gloria Estefan (self-produced by the artist with her husband Emilio), was coming to Minneapolis this winter. The show progresses through the full story of her life, from her childhood to singing as a teenager in Miami clubs to a self-hustled meteoric rise to fame in the 1980s and beyond, giving a fun and engaging look at a story that is truly the American dream. It includes many fascinating details about Gloria's life that were new to me, including the fact that her mother was a famous entertainer in Cuba (and almost the Spanish language voiceover for Shirley Temple in Hollywood) before fleeing to the U.S.; that her father suffered from multiple sclerosis contracted by contact with Agent Orange after fighting in the Vietnam War; that Gloria negotiated a whopping $50 million record contract in the 1980s, more than even *Madonna* made at the time; and that she survived a near-paralysis after a devastating bus accident in 1990.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

It's a dramatic, engaging story about racism in the music industry, family conflict, a total love for music and art, the power of love over immense difficulty, and ultimately a testament to the rewards of hard work and strong faith in yourself and your family. It reminded me a lot of West Side Story, in fact, and I think On Your Feet is a show that hasn't gotten enough credit for how good it is across all levels. With all of the concern about authenticity regarding West Side Story and its portrayal of the Latinx community, why not look to On Your Feet as a more modern substitute? It may not have that exact same, lush Bernstein score, but no matter - the musicality (screeching brass from the Miami Sound Machine) is still fierce and tropical as hell; the dancing (a vibrant mix of island dances like the salsa, cha cha cha and mambo, and a dance leader who I swear hand to god is the Latinx Gene Kelly) is certainly powerful enough to compete; and most importantly the story is a true one, told by the people who experienced it in an honest and respectful way. All things considered, isn't that at least worth a second look?

Photo by Matthew Murphy

I thought the cast entire of On Your Feet was terrific, beginning with Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan. She has a sparkling presence, radiating joy just the way the real Gloria does on stage - and she doesn't mess around with the bullet train-paced enunciation on songs like Conga, which are much harder to pull off convincingly and cleanly than you might think. Eddie Noel is completely charming as Emilio Estefan, with a buttery baritone voice and heartwarming presence that is convincing as Gloria's spousal rock. Nancy Ticotin is fabuloso as Gloria's mother Gloria Fajardo; her showstopping solos and bittersweet characterization reminded me a lot of Rita Moreno in West Side Story. Alma Cuervo was an instant audience favorite as Gloria's grandmother Consuelo, and her rock solid support of Gloria from the beginning brought me back to Abuela Claudia's gorgeous solos in In The Heights. And nothing in this show could work without the deliciously on-point on-stage band meant to rival the Miami Sound Machine. Music Director Clay Ostwald conducts them to dizzying heights, and if On Your Feet had been just a concert of this band, I'd have been happy with even that.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

This show's production design has all the harbingers of tropical settings; palm tree silhouetted sunset scrims, vibrant colored backdrops and sets, and open air concert arenas shore up the action throughout the plot. The costumes are varied and colorful, with an entertaining range of 1980s coastal style reminiscent of the best of Miami Vice. The lighting flashes us through the span of years in mere minutes, transitioning us gracefully through various high points of Estefan's career. But most importantly, the sound design allows us to hear every instrument of that glorious band and every syllable Prades sings. There were a couple of small glitches with the sound mixing on opening night - which was to be expected with a touring show, and I am sure are corrected now - but overall I was really impressed with how well and clearly we were able to hear all of the moving parts.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

I went into On Your Feet with high expectations and left the theater even happier than I entered. I think this has been an extremely underrated show (maybe because it's a story about Latinx people told by themselves? Maybe because it's the highest amount of non-white actors I've seen on a Broadway stage since Hamilton? who knows) and it really deserves a closer look and a wider fan base than it's gotten so far. What Gloria Estefan did for popular music - in opening cross pollination between the Latin and U.S. musical markets, bringing a more global sound to American pop, melanizing the highly waspy white world of pop music (especially for women), bringing her own enormous live band on tour, demanding high value contracts as part of her worth and setting the stage for women in music to earn big dollar figures like the men did - is not to be underestimated, at all. The fact that this living legend had to fund create and fund a show about her own story to get it on stage says a lot about what kind of narratives we value in the world of theater and pop culture. All of the ways Gloria Estefan has defied, and continues to defy, stereotypes and assumptions deserves to be widely known. I had an absolute blast at On Your Feet and I think anyone could. It's a family friendly show with amazing music, beautiful dancing, and a story that will amaze you. It's only at Hennepin Theater Trust through January 27, so go ASAP to get your tickets before this underestimated gem is gone. Click here for more information or to get your tickets.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Great Leap Reaches for the Stars

I've always loved historical fiction, but it can be a tricky thing to get right. 

Photo by Dan Norman

Where is the line between taking a fictional account of history too far and hitting just the right balance? Done well, historical fiction can provide an exciting, accessible way to engage with past events that might otherwise seem dull and boring. Done sloppily, the genre can irresponsibly give audiences a misconception of what happened and an incorrect basis on which to place their knowledge of history. Even small errors can vastly change the course of a person's context for the world (for example, someone who doesn't know about the three fifths compromise in the U.S. Constitution will have a hard time grasping the full reality of racism in the American legal justice system), which has direct consequences when it comes time to vote or make policy.

Photo by Dan Norman

That's why I appreciate creative, responsible historical fiction so much - I believe it its power and have seen the near-instantaneous changes it can inspire when it's done right (I mean, helloooo Hamilton). The Great Leap, now showing at the Guthrie Theater, is just such a show. It weaves two historical occurrences - basketball games played between U.S. and Chinese college teams in the 1980s and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 - to help audiences understand what was at stake in the roiling change China experienced in the late 1980s. It's a masterful piece of writing that could easily convince an audience that it's true, and the seemingly incongruous themes of communism vs. capitalism and a broken family history told in the sports arena are seamlessly woven together into a single compelling package. It's the first mainstream Guthrie production I've seen centering Asian American stories (past productions have been hosted in the Level 9 theater featuring visiting companies like Mu Performing Arts - which is great but not the same), an overdue treatment and one that I hope we see a lot more of in the future.

Photo by Dan Norman

The Great Leap follows Manford, a bombastic, gifted high school basketball player, as he tries to join the University of San Francisco basketball team to play a traveling game in Beijing in June 1989. Coach Saul (who leads the UCSF team) is a profane, washed up figure who needs an athletic anchor to save face in his last shot at remaining a coach. Manford talks Saul into letting him play without revealing that he has significant personal reasons to go on the trip, a fact that severely complicates the game once the team arrives in China. When Manford's good friend Connie learns of his plans, she reluctantly helps him go but only after helping set up security measures should something go wrong on the trip - which it does. Wen Chang, the Beijing coach, patiently lies in wait for the American team once it arrives and is ready to beat them at their own game - but the dynamic forces at play in Beijing in 1989 prove too much for him to overcome as the tumult of Tianenmen Square and the pressures of foreign media explode by the end of the show.

Photo by Dan Norman

This full, richly nuanced story would seem to require a large cast, and yet it is pulled off with a tight-knit crew of four actors. Manford is played with vitality by Lawrence Kao, with an athleticism and bright energy that shines throughout the show. His positivity is balanced by Lee Sellars, memorably playing the dour and intensely coarse Saul; and Kurt Kwan, who brings stoic gravitas and a deep complexity to his role as Wen Chang. Leah Anderson infuses her role as Connie with savvy modernity, and despite limited stage time she leaves a deep impression. This cast has an excellent chemistry, and it's clear that director Desdemona Chiang and assistant director Sun Mee Chomet had a precise vision that is flawlessly executed throughout the cast.

Photo by Dan Norman

The production design is elegantly spare and gorgeous, one of my favorites I've seen in a while. The stage is covered in a retractable scrim panel with a basketball court's lines, which is used to great advantage with shadows, strategic lighting, and some fabulous black and white pictures from Beijing 1989. The projections and photos (masterfully assembled by projection designer Tom Mays) add so much depth to the story and were one of my favorite elements in The Great Leap. The rest of the set design by Sara Ryung Clement is clean and efficient, and I was impressed at the physicality it allowed the cast. The costumes by Helen Huang hit the 1980s to a T, and it was fun to throw back to some of the dated styles we no longer see on street corners. Paul Whitaker's lighting design and Sarah Pickett's sound design are efficient and seamless, and combined with the rest of the production design we get a full-fledged image of The Great Leap's stories with what otherwise would seem very few elements.

Photo by Dan Norman

I'm not much of a basketball fan, but like the better adaptations of sports stories for screen or stage (Remember the Titans or Miracle come to mind) I found myself fully engaged and immersed in The Great Leap from the first minute the scrim screens drew. It's a tautly written piece and provides so much context about events I know embarrassingly little about; the context surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacre was particularly mind expanding. Through Manford's journey we are able to engage with that hidden history with a complexity and empathy that we do not normally afford to stories about communist countries, particularly as Americans. I thoroughly enjoyed The Great Leap and would recommend it to audiences of any stripe; it's suspenseful, inspiring, heartbreaking and nuanced at a level that you don't always get to see. I'm always a seeker of good writing in any form I can find it, and Lauren Yee's script here is not to be missed. Make sure to click here to get your tickets or more information about the show before it closes on February 10; you'll definitely want to see this one. 

Photo by Dan Norman

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Mr. Popper's Penguins Brings Delightful Puppets to Stage

God bless children's stories. 

Photo by Dan Norman

When times are dark, and the weather is darker (literally), all I seem to want to do is seek out things that make me feel good. Comedies, cozy clothes, endless amounts of carbs - call me a hedonist all you want, but at this time of year you do what you have to do in order to survive the darkness.

Photo by Dan Norman

Leaving with an endless feeling of light and joy is one of the main reasons I appreciate the Children's Theatre Company (CTC). Even their dramas always contain moments of brightness, and the casts are so skilled at being bubbly and positive without being cloying (a feat in itself) that you can't help leaving without a smile on your face.

Photo by Dan Norman

Enter the latest CTC production, Mr. Popper's Penguins. Based on a popular children's book (which was adapted into a film by the ever-great Jim Carrey in 2011), Mr. Popper's Penguins details the story of a man's life as it's turned upside down in favor of great (albeit chilly) adventure. Mr. Popper is a simple painter living in Stillwater, where the biggest joy of his life is learning about the creatures in and history of the exploration of the South Pole. One day, Mr. Popper's favorite explorer reads his fan mail aloud on the radio and sends Mr. Popper a surprise gift as a thank you. Inside the noisy crate Mr. Popper finds a penguin, who he promptly names Captain Cook. The trials and tribulations of raising a penguin in a Minnesota living room, including finding additional penguins to keep Captain Cook company; going bankrupt feeding Captain Cook's progeny; and eventually making the heartbreaking decision to return Captain Cook to his Antarctic home; provide plenty of G-rated antics throughout the show.

Photo by Dan Norman

Although it's on the main stage, Mr. Popper's Penguins features actors transplanted from the U.K. rather than the typical CTC company members. I have to say that I did miss their familiar faces, but it was refreshing to find a brand new, thoroughly charming cast on-stage. Richard Holt is the definition of pleasant as the amiable Mr. Popper. His light British accent and winning smile got the audience on board right away. Monica Nash hits all the high notes as Mrs. Popper and brings a Mary Poppins vibe to her role. The rest of the cast - Susanna Jennings, Christopher Finn and Oliver Byng - smoothly transitions between a wide range of supporting characters and excellently handle the stream of penguin puppets on stage. I've always been impressed with the puppet work CTC conducts (most recently in The Lorax - click here for my review of that excellent production last year), and the puppets here are no different. The dynamic movement the puppets perform make them seem almost like real penguins, and the adorable nature of them - especially the eight baby penguin puppets as they "grow up" - charmed kids and grownups alike.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set (designed by Zoe Squire) appears small and centralized at first glance, but is ingeniously used with great diversity throughout the show. A poster backdrop becomes a see through screen into a kitchen; a living room transforms into an Antarctic exploration ship; and combined with Ric Mountjoy's clever lighting design, many tricks are revealed throughout the show that delight despite their simple nature. The production design's standout, however, are clearly the adorable puppets from Nick Barnes (who also developed the puppets for The Lorax). Interactive, dynamic and detailed, there are so many delightful nuances to these puppets that you easily forget they aren't real penguins. Their clever use is what really sells Mr. Popper's Penguins, and we had so much fun once they came out.

Photo by Dan Norman

I can truly testify that Mr. Popper's Penguins is a show for all ages. I took my baby nephews to their first-ever play to see it, and even the infant was thoroughly entranced with the action on stage. It was such a joy watching them engage with the story, and my parents (a steady six generations older) left raving about how much they enjoyed the experience as well. This gentle, lovely show doesn't pull any punches; there are no major twists or tense moments, and that's exactly what I liked about it. Sometimes it's nice to wrap yourself up in a cozy blanket of a play and warm yourself from the inside out. Mr. Popper's Penguins is a delightful, all-ages treat that will bring you the magic of puppets and a renewed satisfaction with the simple things in life. It's a great gift for any kids you forgot to buy presents for over the holidays, so click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Photo by Dan Norman

Monday, January 21, 2019

Out There 2019: Kaneza Schaal's JACK &

Every year I visit the Walker Art Center's annual Out There series... 

Kaneza Schaal: Jack &. Photo: Christopher Myers.

And every year I leave with a plethora of exciting new ideas about performance art.

The avant garde festival can be really intimidating for those who don't see a lot of theater or prefer explicitly traditional forms of performance, but that's exactly why I find it valuable. As much as I love the usual circuit of theaters and companies I frequent, I find that January (aka the season of resolutions and incipient goal setting) is such a great time to refresh my perspective and re-set my expectations of the shows I'm going to see throughout the year. I'm really grateful the Walker puts this on annually and I encourage you to check out their programming!

This year kicked off with the return of Rabih Mroue, who I wrote about on his first Out There performance in 2016 (click here to see my thoughts). Intriguingly, the kickoff was offered as a free of charge reception as part of the monthly Target Free Museum nights, which take place every Thursday (and are a must-do if you haven't been - what better way to see an internationally renowned museum than for FREE?).

The first show I attended was last weekend's performance called JACK &, created by Kaneza Schaal and starring Cornell Alston. It was a three part show with completely different feelings to each portion. The first was a dynamic monologue that helped get the audience into the appropriate perspective and context to understand the overall performance. The second part was a witty, innocent parody of a 1950s comedy sitcom, reminiscent of an I Love Lucy sketch (but blacker). The third portion moved straight into the modern art period, with a completely silent (other than an eclectic mix DJ'd by Rucyl Frison) performance made of eerie costumed dance in front of a projection of a goldfish in a bowl. The dance somehow managed to be energetic yet wistful, carrying some of the energy and sinister-with-a-smile feeling from This is America.

JACK & as a whole had the flavor of an Americana you never see, telling the story of black people through what are thought of as white artistic mediums in one of the most stereotypically white venues of all: an elite art museum. The very presence of the actors on stage felt radical, like a breath of fresh artistic air, and the lyrical patois of the monologue (which fed into the kitschy sitcom feel of the second part) moved us lyrically and seamlessly through what otherwise might have felt like a very disjointed effort. The cast on-stage (composed of Cornell Alston, Rucyl Frison, Modesto Flako Jimenez and Stacey Karen Robinson) worked as a cohesive unit with wit and presence; I'd be interested to see the fresh approach their chemistry could take on more established scripts as well.

The annual Out There festival is one of the most affordable season tickets you can get in the Twin Cities and will give you an innovative, unusual artistic experience you won't find anywhere else. For ore information on this festival (which runs on weekends throughout January) or to buy tickets, click on this link. Make sure to keep following the blog throughout the month to see my coverage of the upcoming performances!

For a roundup of past Out There performances I've covered, see the following: 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Children Brings a Pensive Start to 2019 in #tctheater

This disaster minded drama features impeccable acting and a thoughtful plot

Photo by Dan Norman

Art is supposed to reflect and explain the world around us, right? That said, with the political world in chaos these days it seems only natural that dystopian fiction and high drama should make appearances with increasing frequency on screen, stages and pages around the world.

The Children, the latest play on offer from Jungle Theater, falls somewhere between these two categories. Not quite dystopian (or at least as I would define it - it falls short of blatantly apocryphal scenarios like those offered in The Road, for example), it still presents a dire vision of the hard choices humanity will be required to make as the fallibility of our modern world becomes ever more apparent. Hazel and Robin are a husband and wife who have uprooted their life after the fallout of a nuclear power plant in the U.K. They are living an intense existence for the so-called first world - no power, an inability to drink running water, etc. - and are visited by surprise by an old friend named Rose. All three are nuclear scientists who helped build and run the now-failed nuclear plant in its glory days but retired before the fallout. Through the length of Rose's visit we learn of many intricate ways this group is connected that go far beyond sharing a place of work, and that Rose's visit has far deeper (and harder) implications than that of reconnecting with a long-lost friend they haven't seen in decades. The reveals are central to enjoying the show so I won't say more, but suffice it to say there are plenty of surprises scattered throughout this story.

Photo by Dan Norman

The Children can best be described as a slow burn, with a seasoned cast that gently unveils layer by layer of the lives of the trio on-stage. It couldn't work without a deep level of nuanced acting, and luckily the three actors chosen here are ringers. Linda Kelsey brings a comfortable British plebianism to her character of Hazel, with a witty charm that lightens the mood of a plot that could otherwise feel devastating. Stephen Yoakam charms as the kindly yet duplicitous Robin; when reveals are made about Robin's character, Yoakam performs them with a gentleness that knocks your heart straight below your stomach. Laila Robins is marvelous as the troubled, regretful Rose. It is Rose's mistakes and missed opportunities that drive the entire plot, and the stealthy way Robins tiptoes through the plot's many landmines keeps the suspense heightened throughout the show. You never quite know what grenade Rose will throw next, and it leads to an astonishing range of emotional experiences as a member of the audience.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set is an understated cottage interior that, like the plot itself, reveals unanticipated depth. Designed by Chelsea Warren, doors open to reveal multiple floors and windy moors; bathrooms gently flood over; working appliances transition from day to night; and overall we are firmly grounded in the eerily silent reality of Hazel and Robin's everyday life. Costumes by Mathew Lefebvre tie directly into this presentation and are comfortable and straightforward. C. Andrew Mayer performs a few neat tricks with the sound design, wisely allowing the silence and pregnant pauses between the stunning reveals of the story to do most of the work. And Marcus Dilliard grants subtle lighting to finish the environment and show the transition of the narrative from day to night.

Photo by Dan Norman

The Children is a play that defies easy description and leaves a lingering memory, much like the actions of the characters in the show. It is a pleasure to see a trio of seasoned, skillful actors share the stage on equal footing, and the fact that it was so striking to note an absence of anyone under 50 on-stage made me simultaneously thrilled to see such genius and sad that it's so rare to find in culture at large. There's a bruising, truly adult beauty to The Children's darkness that assumes a maturity of the audience that I found uncommon and often unsettling. It asks impossible questions of us: Who is worth sacrificing amidst a wide range of suffering? Is there ever a time when your own selfishness should take priority over the needs of many others? What makes a life worthy of having been lived? When humanity has taken "progress" too far to the edge, who is responsible for fixing it? How should you spend the last days of your life? The Children asks us all of this and more, and it's certain to leave a strong impression as it does so. It's a quiet, impactful start to 2019 and worthy of a viewing; click here for more information and to get your tickets.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Thrillist: The Best Winter Activities To Remind You Minnesota Is Actually The Best

It's a good thing I love being a Minnesotan, because I'm really becoming an expert in activities to do here. 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

Close on the heels of my Thrillist roundup on best non-holiday related Minnesota activities, I've compiled a new roundup of more active hobbies to undertake at this time of year. Skijoring, curling and ice fishing snuggle up with extensive samplings of locally distilled cocktails and lavish foraged tasting menus to give you a jump start on your best winter ever. Click on this link to read the full piece, and let me know - what else do I need to do in the next few months? Email me at, or follow me on Instagram for a deeper dive into some of these awesome activities.


Summer is easy to like. It’s got sunshine, water sports, and the built-in nostalgia of time off from school. But winter? That takes some more gumption to appreciate. While other parts of the country are either freaking out over a light snowfall or counting down the days ’til spring, living in Minnesota -- where temps are regularly below freezing and the average annual snowfall is more than 70 inches up north -- means you learn to relish the freezing weather rather than hide from it. With the right mindset, winter is secretly the best time of the year, with plenty of cold-weather activities in the Twin Cities and around the state to keep you active and engaged with your fellow Minnesotans. From dog sledding to ice sculptures to a truly epic foraged tasting menu, we have a little bit of everything here to help you brighten up the coldest months.

Train your dog for extreme winter sports
It’s pretty well known by now that Minnesota has some of the best park spaces in the country, and snow on the ground shouldn’t stop you from enjoying them -- in fact, it can be a bonus. If you live near the Twin Cities and have a dog weighing over 30 pounds, visit the Three Rivers Park District with your pooch to try out dog sledding or skijoring (which is like dog sledding but on skis instead of sitting down on a sled). Need an introduction from a knowledgeable expert first? The Loppet has ongoing workshops about how to get started with your dog, including training and command tips.

Create your own ice sculpture tour
For some DIY fun this winter, spend an afternoon appreciating Minnesota’s most badass seasonal artists: ice sculptors. Last year was a banner year for Twin Cities ice sculptures thanks to the Super Bowl, but you can still find plenty of impressive work at places like Urbana Craeft Kitchen in Bloomington, which sports a beautifully detailed ice bar on the patio; The Lexington in St. Paul, which has a rooftop ice bar, miniature curling tables, and a perfectly Instagrammable throne made of ice; and more to be announced as temperatures drop. For the insider’s scoop, be sure to follow Liam Flahive, one of the top local ice sculptors whose work will be featured around the area this winter.

Warm up with a cocktail from a local distillery
Cold winter nights (and days) call for drinks that will warm your belly, and thankfully there’s a bevy of distilleries around the Twin Cities that allow you to sip liquor that’s locally-made. Head to Norseman and sample their original vodka, a chameleon that can shine in many kinds of cocktails (or upgrade to one of the aquavits, if you’re hardcore). Du Nord is a family-owned distillery that sources all their grain for distilling from local farms, including the award-winning Apple du Nord, a spirit made from heritage Minnesota apples grown on a nearby orchard. Tattersall’s spirits and liqueurs can be found in bars all over the Twin Cities, but make sure to visit their brick and mortar location to taste some of their more unusual options like grapefruit crema, orange crema, or sour cherry liquors. And Crooked Water, the first certified female-owned spirits company in the country, may not have a public distillery space yet, but you can find its spirits at venues like the Lora Hotel, Day Block Brewing, and Nightingale.

Sample a limited-edition winter beer for a good cause
Christmas may be over, but that’s no reason to forget about the giving spirit of the season. Finnegans, the local beer brand that changed the game by pledging to donate 100% of its profits to charity, lets you support community food banks as you sip. And just in time for those short winter days, they’re introducing “Dark Week,” when they’ll release one of eight limited-edition dark beers every night for a week, with flavors like a dark chocolate mint stout and oatmeal spruce tip porter. The beers will be available on tap at their new multi-level facility in downtown Minneapolis for a special one week-only event (January 13-19), with select flavors available for sale later on by the bottle.

Attend the world’s largest ice fishing contest
Since 1991, the Brainerd Jaycees have spent every winter planning and executing the world’s largest ice fishing contest. (Last year’s event drew 12,000 anglers.) This year’s contest will be held on January 26 on Gull Lake, 10 miles north of Brainerd, and is free for spectators to attend (or $50 if you want to enter), although you can always purchase a raffle ticket to support the Jaycees’ charitable causes. If you can’t make the one-day tournament or are a first-timer, check out Sportsman’s Lodges three Minnesota locations for one-day trips that include a heated fish house and transportation to and from the ice. For a long-weekend experience, the family-run Brindley’s Harbor Resort in Walker has ongoing ice fishing operations on Leech Lake (famous for its jumbo perch) through mid-March (with a two-night minimum). Whichever you choose, make sure to watch Grumpy Old Men beforehand to get in the right mindset.

Join the Luminary Loppet
If you’re mourning the long darkness that is Minnesota winters, why not make some light yourself? That is exactly the mission of the Luminary Loppet, one of the Twin Cities’ most special annual winter events, where attendees take a nighttime walk on top of the frozen Lake of the Isles to enjoy art, performances, and the cozy ambiance of hundreds of glowing luminaries glittering in the snow. Sights include landmarks made of ice (think a frigid replica of Stonehenge), fire dancers, and regular snack stops (including hot cocoa to keep you warm). Registration is capped for the February 2 event, so make sure to reserve your tickets ($28 for adults) ahead of time to guarantee entry to a true winter wonderland.

Indulge in Minnesota-style comfort food
When the temperature drops, you crave dishes that are warm, filling, and maybe a little indulgent (thanks to that forgiving bulky sweater you’ll be rocking all season). The comfort food at Hazel's Northeast has made the family restaurant a Minneapolis staple for over 50 years with a menu that is creative without being intimidating. Some of the best current dishes are regional specialties, like gumbo made with wild rice (which is only grown in the state), classic Swedish meatballs (just like those famously made by the local Scandinavian immigrant community), and the ultimate Minnesota culinary invention -- a smoked cheddar-stuffed juicy lucy burger that will knock your socks off. A bit of advice: get to Hazel’s earlier than you want to eat, as the wait for a table is often long.

Explore the Excelsior Ice Castles
If you’ve been there/done that with St. Paul’s Winter Carnival, consider venturing further to Excelsior for their even more intense ice castle experience. As opposed to the former’s traditional, square-shaped construction with ice bricks, these ice castles are larger, more abstractly shaped, and ever-growing. Each one is created via an elaborate sprinkler system that makes over 20 million pounds of ice and grows an estimated 12,000 new icicles daily. The result is a fanciful, fairy-like design, which features grown-up play areas like caves and slides to explore, as well as entertainment such as fire shows and star-gazing parties. Better yet, ticket prices (you reserve an entrance time in advance) never top $16 on weekends, making this is an affordable date night option. Opening day is expected for January 11 -- dependent on when the weather gets cold enough, so remember to dress warmly. Oh, and build in some time to stroll through quaint downtown Excelsior to enjoy views of Lake Minnetonka while you’re there.

Splurge on a foraged tasting menu
Foraging is all the rage on the coasts, but it’s always been tough to find foraged foods at Minnesota restaurants (especially at this time of year). That is no longer the case with the chef’s tasting menu experience at Cosmos in Minneapolis, where diners can enjoy multiple courses featuring delightfully customized ingredients like maitake mushroom steaks hand-picked by Chef Timothy Fischer from his privately-owned land in Northern Minnesota. Standout dishes from a recent visit included a stunning charcuterie board piled with local meats and cheeses; the aforementioned maitake mushroom, which was smoked in a globe; and some delicate, perfectly fried smelt fished from Lake Superior. Choose from the five-course tasting menu in the dining room for $75 or the seven-course “Chef’s Table” menu served right in the kitchen for $150. (The wine and liquor pairing is an additional cost). Sure, it’s pricey, but you’ll get to chat up some of the smartest culinary staff in town and savor one of the best meals you’ll eat all year.

Take a day trip to Duluth
Minnesota’s veritable winter wonderland doesn’t get better than the gorgeous coastal area around Duluth that abuts Lake Superior. There are plenty of great outdoor experiences available in this city year round, but for winter fun, entrust yourself to the care of experienced professionals to maximize your activities. Day Tripper of Duluth’s winter tours include fat tire biking through the steep hills of this area or snowshoeing and cross country skiing. The Duluth Experience also offers those activities plus curling lessons, photography workshops, and a nighttime bike ride that includes a visit to a local brewery. Post-workout, end your day trip with a visit to Vikre Distillery for a cocktail made with liquor utilizing hyper-local ingredients, like sumac and cedar in their Boreal gin.

Cozy up to an outdoor fire
One of the best features of Minneapolis bars and breweries is that plenty have outdoor fire pits at this time of year. Our favorite is the Nomad World Pub, where you can get an affordable local brew and a cozy outdoor fire, plus a poppin’ salsa night complete with live music on the first Friday of every month. If that sounds a little too cosmopolitan for you, head across the street to Palmer’s Bar, a cash-only hidden gem that doubles as a time machine. The watering hole, which dates back to 1906, offers live music nightly ranging from jazz to hair metal and a large patio with fire pits out back that even (or especially) your grungiest friend will love.