Tuesday, October 8, 2019

"The Hollow" is Anything But

I know it didn't work out this time, but can we have a little Ichabod Crane again later?  

Photo courtesy of Trademark Theater

Sometimes I think my mind exists in a vortex and I'll never catch up.

Let me explain: in my busy day to day of late, I seem to be missing basic facts. Or themes. Or just really missing the point of what I'm supposed to be doing.

For example, I had the pleasure of attending the achingly lovely original piece The Hollow by Trademark Theater last weekend. It's a nifty, 75-minute long exploration of many things; the program lists themes including "nature, mysticism, death and rebirth, coupleship, abandonment, repair and perseverance." A symbiotic pairing of contemporary dance and a Sleater Kinney-meets-First Aid Kit rock album (don't ask how I got there, just trust that it's true), The Hollow would be fully at home in the Walker Art Center's Out There series (hey Walker, give Trademark a call!). There's not really more plot than that - just a pure aesthetic, auditory experience for the sake of itself.

Somewhere along the line I had caught that The Hollow was supposed to be a modernization of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; another glance at the program says I'm not insane and that was the initial point, but this The Hollow is so far removed from Washington Irving's 1820 novel that I can't believe the original concept was still rattling around my head somewhere. I still think it would be immensely cool to have Ichabod Crane hit the stage sometime soon and I hope someone else picks up the original project, but in the meantime - back to the scheduled programming.

The visual focus of The Hollow is on Reach (Emily Michaels King) and Resist (Tyler Michaels King). Based purely on appearances, one could be forgiven for assuming The Hollow details the story of a fraught romantic relationship. These two are superb dancers, and their lithe choreography is like a poem in bodily form. It's a good thing they're married because this performance is extremely intimate, and you can feel their kinetic energy radiating from the stage. Their contemporary, abstract costumes, designed by Sarah Bahr, add interesting shapes to their performances too; some are angular and stiff, others soft and flowing, and the cumulative effect weaves in and out of focus like a dream.

The Michaels Kings are backed up by an adroit band starring Jenna Wyse and Joey Ford who sing a roving troupe of original songs. It's a little hard to hear the lyrics live but thankfully all audience members are given a handy book of lyrics, which read like a ghoulish internal voice that won't leave you alone (song titles such as "Fearful Shapes," "Skele-bones + Burial Wrongs," "Scry" or "Scary Situation" give you an idea what I mean). The music itself is really beautiful and haunting, and I can see how it evolved out of the initial idea of adapting The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Several audience members appeared raptly focused throughout the show (the person next to me even got a few headbangs in), so don't just take my word for it.

I'm not really sure what else I can say about The Hollow other than that it's worth seeing, if only to expand your definition of what you think theater can or should be. It's bracingly modern yet feels familiar, lyrical and abrasive, loud and tender. It's not going to give you a story or a moral or a "point," but it won't not give you those things either - and really, does everything have to have a defined outcome? Sometimes it's good to set down your smart phone and your Ivy Lee method and your nonfiction business books to give your subconscious room to roam, your nose the chance to smell the tactile pages of a *gasp* real book, and your imagination a blank page to fly around in. The Hollow is a celebration of that ancient leap towards fantasy that still lies within us all - we just need to give ourselves room to access it. The Hollow has a very short run and closes on October 20, so click here to learn more or buy your tickets now.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Aubergine is a Quiet Pleasure

"We're always already dead - so why not live?"

Photo by Rich Ryan

The culinary world has been having a good run in pop culture for the last decade or so. Beginning with the explosion of food TV pioneered by Emeril Lagasse, Anthony Bourdain and the Food Network, culinary stories have finally trickled onto stages around the country. What's that all about? It might be because food is a universal human need and a communication device that can transcend cultural barriers and provide a new window into subjects that normally function as taboo.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The last few years have seen a host of food-themed shows in #tctheater. How To Use A Knife told the true story about life as a chef, which is much darker than most people suspect. Waitress is a musical about a server whose real talent is in baking pies, which helps her escape her abusive husband. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner explores the tensions over a meal when a "liberal" couple realizes their white daughter plans to marry a black man in the 1960s. The inimitable playwright Lynn Nottage focuses Floyd's on the life of inmates struggling to integrate in society after release from prison and sets the entire show in the kitchen of a sandwich restaurant.

Photo by Rich Ryan

And now we have Aubergine at Park Square Theatre, a story about illness and death and cultural memory as intimately related through food. Ray is a chef who is on an indefinite hiatus from work to take care of his father, who is very sick and near dying. Ray's mother died in an accident when he was young and Ray has no support system to help him through this difficult time. He turns to an ex-girlfriend, Cornelia, to help him contact his father's younger brother back home in Korea before his father dies (Ray does not speak much Korean himself). Cornelia reluctantly helps Ray and becomes an integral part of Ray's life in his father's last days, interpreting conversations between Ray and his uncle, and helping heal some longstanding wounds within Ray and his family memories. Lucien, the hospice nurse attending Ray's father, also becomes a calming presence in Ray's life as his father dies. It's a quiet exploration of what really matters in life and the relationships we need to maintain to stay connected to our humanity and happiness, a lovely message.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The main thing that attracted me to Aubergine was the cast, featuring some of my favorite local actors. Sun Mee Chomet, always a highlight, shines as Cornelia. She delivers a wide range of lines in Korean and English with equal aptitude, and provides many of Aubergine's comedic and poignant highlights. Kurt Kwan brings subtlety and heart to his role as Ray. You really feel for his plight and driftlessness, and he has great chemistry with Chomet. Song Kim is lovely as Ray's long-estranged uncle, and despite the fact that he almost exclusively has lines in Korean, we know exactly what he means to say. It adds a delightful depth to the show, and I loved the nuance the linguistic transitions provided. Darrick Moseley adds so much warmth to the stage through his portrayal of Lucien; he has a softness and heart that breaks open Ray's character.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The real focus of Aubergine is on Ray's emotional turmoil, and the production design facilitates that well. The set design by Deb O centers mostly on the hospice bed and a few sparse areas in Ray's home. It is relatively drab but that's okay, because it's supposed to be. The same can be said of the costume design by Amber Brown. Kathy Maxwell's video design is one of the few welcome pops of color, and well chosen props design by Kenji Shoemaker provides the attention to detail that makes the blander settings come to life. I'm not sure if Chomet's striking platinum bob was a production choice or her own decision, but either way it adds a subtle characterization to her portrayal of Cornelia that I thought was very fetch. 

Photo by Rich Ryan

I adore Theater Mu and I love seeing them partner with other theaters in town, but I have to say that it's really nice to see a main stage in the Twin Cities doing a story about Asian Americans on their own too. Aubergine is a lovely little play with some important things to say, and it deserves the kind of wider platform a place like Park Square Theatre can give it. Chomet and Kwan are charming co-stars, and the hard work Park Square Theatre has done to portray cultures accurately does not go unnoticed. Regardless of your family heritage, I think anyone can connect to Aubergine's messages of loss, loneliness, fear and love. I'd definitely recommend crossing the river to see this show before it closes on October 20. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Mean Girls is Deliciously Devious

"On Wednesdays we wear pink."

Photo by Joan Marcus

*Pretty sure* there's nothing better than posting a review of my first time seeing the Broadway version of Mean Girls on October 3 (aka #MeanGirls day itself). Just had to throw that out there for any other superfans.

The Goonies of my generation, Mean Girls is the iconic story penned by Tina Fey long before she left Saturday Night Live's hallowed halls. It tells the story of Cady Heron, a teenager who grew up in Africa and moves to the U.S. to enter her first ever public school in her junior year of high school. Cady has heretofore been socially isolated during her time growing up in Africa and does not understand the American teen psyche; she is completely unprepared for the mind games and harassment her peers inflict on one another as she struggles to navigate this new world.

After experiencing some backstabbing herself, Cady allies with Damian and Janis, two of the few at school who are not aligned with a clique, to take down the school's resident bully and queen bee: Regina, the ringleader of the uber cool (and incredibly snobby) "plastics" clique. The trouble is that although the trick works - Regina is briefly unseated from her throne - the process turns Cady more plastic than Regina was, completely disconnected from her authenticity and moral compass. Everything comes to a head when the full scope of the plastics' bullying is expose to the entire school, even capturing some teachers in its midst. Some hard truths are shared, building a path for a new era of treating others with kindness and dignity in the school.

The original film, now 15 years old (!!), has a veritable who's who of today's movie stars. The cast includes Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Tim Meadows, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Amanda Seyfriend, and a host of other delicious cameos. One of the best parts about Mean Girls is its whiplash-inducing, hyper-trendy quips. I wasn't sure how that would play out in a world of smart phones and social media that has emerged since the movie aired, but I needn't have worried; there have been some smart updates to the book to reflect current teen trends, and the jokes hit their mark almost all of the time.

Photo by Joan Marcus

A surprisingly strong cast helps that humor land, and their enthusiasm and sharp vocals make the story soar. Mariah Rose Faith is delicious as the diabolical Regina; her low alto saunter into every room was delightful to watch. Adante Carter is adorable as Cady's crush Aaron, shining his treacly dimples all over the place. Kabir Bery was hilarious as Kevin Gnapoor, the head of the mathletes; his rap interludes delighted the audience. Megan Masako Haley brings real poignancy to her role of Gretchen, Regina's best friend; she is the first character to crack the facade of teen popularity, and I found a lot of depth in her performance. Jonalyn Saxer is hilarious as Regina's dumb bestie Karen, continuing to surprise. Danielle Wade does an admirable Cady, wresting the portrayal from Lindsay Lohan's memorable turn in 2004, and she makes the role seem fresh. The crowd loved Eric Huffman as Damian "too gay to function" Hubbard; he has a sweetness the movie missed. But my overall standout was Mary Kate Morrissey as Janis, the art student who conceives the whole plot to take Regina down. Morrissey has gravitas and a true Linda Ronstadt-level rock and roll voice. I loved her swag and I especially liked how her character has been expanded to provide a moral arc through the story.

Normally I feel like the excessive use of projection on Broadway shows is "cheating;" this is one of the first shows I've seen that might change my mind. The set is really a dynamic sculpture of LED screens that rapidly shift us between Africa, a Chicago public high school and a spoiled brat's bedroom. Used with some well-chosen props, it makes the scene transitions lightning fast so we can focus on the physical, dynamic dancing. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the choreography, the closest thing to "hiplet" (hip hop + ballet - click here to see more) I've seen on a Broadway stage. It all feels modern, fresh, timely and young.

I've heard many people say the reason they love Mamma Mia so much is that it's a true feel good, positive show and they love to leave the theater with a smile on their face. I think the same case could be made for Mean Girls; it's so much fun to see a diverse, vivacious, mostly female cast having the time of their lives. Mean Girls has a real moral compass and important message to share with today's teens (and their parents if we're being honest) in addition to being a damn good time. As a long time fan of the film I entered this with a healthy skepticism but I'm relieved to report that this show really works as a Broadway musical! It's a great excuse to get some bonding with the Gen Z-ers (or Millennials) in your life, so buy some tickets to take a youthful date before Mean Girls sashays away on October 13. Click here for more information or to get tickets.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Thrillist: Best Dive Bars in Minneapolis

What's better than a cheap ass dive with filling food and stiff drinks? 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

My answer: basically nothing.

I have always held an unholy love in my heart for dive bars, and I cannot stress how much fun it was to compile a list of the best ones in the Twin Cities for my friends over at Thrillist. We are blessed with a really great host of dives to check out in Minnesota and the hardest part was honestly narrowing this list down!

Click here to see the full piece on the site; I'm copying the text below too for a quick scan if you want to check it out in one stop. And let me know - what did I miss? Where do I need to check out next? I love a good dive, I'll take any and all suggestions!


One of life’s most amazing pleasures involves finding that one great dive bar that you can call your home away from home. While we love all of the Twin Cities' many great dives, and boy do we have a lot, we do also have our standouts. This isn’t about bars with fine prohibition-style cocktails or incredible craft beer selections, it’s about dark watering holes where you and other people like you congregate in order to escape the outside world. And we'll cheers to that.

Neumann’s Bar
Est. 1887 | North St. Paul
The owners of Neumann’s Bar claim it’s the oldest still operating bar in Minnesota, and they might be right. The speakeasy that helped the town survive Prohibition is still open upstairs, and curious history fans are welcome to snoop around to check it out. Perhaps most unique, though, is the tank of live frogs that has graced the windows since the 1930s and the live fishing bait still sold in the main bar. For a blast from the past that still feels comfortably modern, Neumann’s a is a don’t miss on your dive bar tour.

Matt’s Bar
Est. 1954 | Powderhorn
The best food at a dive has to go to Matt’s Bar, the home of the infamous Juicy Lucy. Not familiar? The geniuses behind Matt’s decided that melty cheese deserve to be inside the burger rather than on top - and the rest is history. In an age of hand-ground short rib burgers, there is nothing gourmet about this menu and we like it that way. A regular hamburger still costs less than four bucks, tap beer comes in pitchers, and you can’t find a cozier place in town to beat the impending snowy nights.

Half Time Rec / Paddy Shack
Est. ?? | Como
Not every dive that can boast a two-for-one, but Half Time Rec’s got it down pat. By folding Irish-style Paddy Shack into the bar four years ago, Half Time Rec ensured it is a dive bar that is here to stay. You’ll still find the ripped up seats, daily happy hour and karaoke nights of yore, but now you can pair them with some of the best excellent bar food. Our advice? Head straight for the signature dishes -- like a gluttonous ham and cheese toasty -- for a satisfying way to soak up your Bloody Mary or beer back.

Est. 1906 | West Bank
If a dive bar could be an icon, Palmer’s would be it. They’ve got an outdoor fire pit, a shockingly great musical lineup (including jug bands) indoors and outdoors, and a history longer than most of Minneapolis combined. Founded by the Minneapolis Brewing Company (predecessor to iconic beer brand Grain Belt), Palmer’s has outlasted Prohibition, waves of varying immigrant communities, and even the credit card trend (yes, this remains one of the last cash-only holdouts around). No tour of Twin Cities dives is complete without a stop at Palmer’s.

The Vegas Lounge
Est. 1973 | Northeast
Locals know that, if you’re down for karaoke, there is nowhere more legendary to take the stage than The Vegas Lounge. It’s become such a popular karaoke bar that you can expect to pack in elbow to elbow and fight for a seat. But it’s a dive, and where’s the fun if you don’t have to work for it a little bit, right? Karaoke happens every single night here, so if you want to go (and really, you should -- don’t let us scare you off), make sure to get there early to snag a seat and a drink or three before the pandemonium begins.

Est. 2000 | West 7th
Community is the name of the game at Skinner’s, the latest in a long line of dives at this iconic St. Paul location. You’ll find all the usual dive bar features here, along with an innovative and assertive approach to community engagement. Skinner’s is committed to serving the military community in Minnesota and around the globe -- so much so that it won the first-ever national award for civilian service to the National Guard. Don’t just take our word for it.

Schooner Tavern
Est. 1932 | Longfellow 
Live bands with no cover charge is a rarity these days, and Schooner Tavern knows a thing or two about dive bar hospitality. Twice-weekly bingo and meat raffles, a rotating cast of regulars, and two heated patios mean this dive can accommodate fun in any kind of weather. Free popcorn, free hot dogs on Fridays, $3 beers, and easy access to public transit make this a must-stop. You can’t afford not to go, really.

The Cardinal on 38th
Owners don’t even know | South Minneapolis 
Take a poll of Minneapolitans and The Cardinal is sure to top their list of favorite dives. With all the hallmarks of a great dive bar -- tasty food like fried Stevie wings and deep fried green beans with sweet cajun sauce, cheap beers, karaoke, pleather seating -- it also sneaks in surprises. Some of the latest additions, like homemade hard seltzers, make this place a crowd-pleaser, and mean you can get your 100-calorie drink on despite the national shortage of White Claw (you’re welcome). Oh, and everything on the menu is well under $20, making this an incredibly affordable date night.

Liquor Lyle’s
Est. 1963 | Uptown
A legendary keystone in Twin Cities drinking culture, Liquor Lyle’s has been serving up two-for-ones every day for decades. It’s a surefire bet when you want quantity over quality, but there’s good stuff to be found here, too. Order up some tot-chos (nachos, but made with tater tots) and squeaky cheese curds to have the most Minnesotan bar meal of your life. Come any night of the week and enjoy free parking, all-day breakfast, and food served until 1 a.m.

The Terminal Bar
Est. 1932 | Northeast
Another long-time holdout that is powering through gentrification in the Twin Cities is Terminal Bar. All you need to know is in a quick sweep of the reviews, where the top phrases used include “dive bar,” “whiskey,” and “doghouse swine.” Local music fans can come every week to see multi-band shows with no cover charge, leaving patrons with more cash for a brewsky or two. Come for a wild card musical adventure and stay for a night you’ll most likely forget.

Hexagon Bar
Est. 1934 | Seward 
Metalheads have long frequented Hexagon Bar (lovingly known as “the Hex”) for decades, and they’re not stopping anytime soon. Pool tables, dusty rope lights, and a staffed bingo counter with plenty of pull tabs make this one of the last dives in the city that hasn’t cleaned up some part of its act. Don’t expect anything but the basics here -- but why would you ask anything more of your favorite dive anyway? Make sure to visit its Facebook page for an update on the rotating list of punk and metal bands playing every week.

CC Club
Est. 1934 | Lyndale
Good luck finding a seat at the CC Club, perhaps the best known dive still standing in the heart of Uptown. With a spacious back patio, morning cocktails, and industry nights, it’s regularly packed to the gills. While the rest of Uptown might be getting a makeover, the CC Club hasn’t lost its rock and roll vibe. Think of it as the First Avenue of dive bars and worthy of a stop at least once.

Grumpy’s NorthEast
Est. 1998 | Northeast Minneapolis
Northeast Minneapolis is a legendary haven for dive bars in the Twin Cities. With great power comes great responsibility and Grumpy’s doesn’t disappoint, serving up an excellent rotation of burgers, robust beers, and free specialty events like Firkin Fridays -- where guests can try rare editions of local beers and specialty foods like octopus on a stick. It’s a little less divey than its late, great sister Grumpy’s in Downtown Minneapolis (RIP), but still a solid bet for a Northeast night out.

Est. 1955 | Northeast Minneapolis
Daily drink specials aren’t the only draw for Mayslack’s. There’s also live music, game day specials and the real draw -- the food. Mayslack’s serves up better-than-average eats off of its wide-ranging menu, including the addictive waffle fries with seasoned sour cream. From its origins as a Polish-owned polka bar to its current life as a comfort food castle, Mayslack’s is one of the last remnants of this historic Minneapolis neighborhood.

Est. 1952 | Northeast Minneapolis
With an impressive list of locally made taps, a meat raffle, vintage beer signs, and light bar games, Dusty’s manages to bridge nostalgia into modern success. Not one to be outdone by its fellow innovative dive bar menus, Dusty’s is the origin of the Dago burger. Less famous than it’s sister the Juicy Lucy, the Dago is certainly not any less delicious. Composed of a homemade Italian sausage patty, any iteration of the Dago is a welcome flavor bomb to sop up your beers.

Merlins Rest Pub
Est. 2007 | Longfellow
Bagpipe performances? Whiskey and scotch tastings? Free Wi-Fi? A little more on the pub side of the spectrum, Merlins Rest still qualifies as a Longfellow dive with a slightly spiffier sheen. It doesn’t disappoint, though, with themed events like kilt and corset night or the drunken knitters club. It’s also one of the few kid-friendly locations on the list, meaning you can continue to enjoy dives even into early parenthood -- thank god for that!