Sunday, June 18, 2017

Don Giovanni - Skylark Opera Theatre at The Woman's Club of Minneapolis

Dear Skylark Opera,

In regards to your recent production of Don Giovanni, presented in partnership with Angels & Demons Entertainment and performed at the The Woman's Club of Minneapolis:


Also:



I could not be more pleased that one of my all-time favorite companies is back and better than ever. 

I've loved Skylark Opera since they were NorthStar Opera, and their summer productions have always been a highlight of my theater summer. As a lover of opera and musical theater, operetta hits my sweet spot beautifully, and Skylark Opera has created some gorgeous productions over the years.

Sadly, most of their productions pre-date this blog, but they live on warmly in my heart: 2014's gorgeous Candide, 2013's The Mikado (in partnership with Mu Performing Arts), 2011's fantastically cast On the Town, and 2009's The Desert Song, which was stunning. I could SO go on, thanks to Skylark Opera's Past Production list. Ooh, Wonderful Town with the Baldwin sisters, and a beautiful She Loves Me. Okay, I'm done.

Things have been a bit challenging for Skylark Opera in past years, and the Star Tribune wrote a great summary of their travails and their resurgence. Understandably, they are moving away from operetta and towards more opera productions, but if Don Giovanni is any indication, they are heading in a marvelous direction.
Gabriel Preisser as Don Giovanni (veramarinerstudio)
Mozart's 1787 opera Don Giovanni is based on the legendary character of Don Juan and "brings humor and tragedy" [to] "the essentially grim story of a serial seducer who escapes all retribution except death" (thanks, DK Opera Eyewitness Companion!). 

The original libretto was by Lorenzo Da Ponte and my favorite sassy opera book comments that "the great thing about Mozart and Da Ponte's take on the story is that the opera's music and text are somewhat more complicated: the don can be seen as a truly oversexed, amoral hell-raiser, a randy young guy who is merely having a good time, or a boastful creep; he does not consummate any sexual act during the opera--it's all hearsay, flirting, and bluster. Maybe." (Weep, Shudder, Die by Robert Levine).

However, Gabriel Preisser (of Angels & Demons) and Robert Neu (of A&D and Skylark Opera) have written a completely new translation, which fits in beautifully with the 1930s time period and the gorgeous setting of Woman's Club of Minneapolis.

Andrew Wilkowske (veramarinderstudio)

The opera starts in the lounge of the Woman's Club, with staff passing hors d'oeuvre, and a conveniently located bar. Don Giovanni himself (Preisser) is already wandering about, looking appropriately louche. 

Want to know the whole story of Don Giovanni? I recommend checking out the Met Opera's synopsis. (And NOT on your phone during the show while you're in the front row, bald man with glasses with woman with dark topknot and white sweater. People, man.)

Here's your TL; DR of Don Giovanni. 

Act One: Donny G--playah extreme--'seduces' Donna Anna. Her dad, the Commendatore, challenges Don to a duel, which Don wins. Anna demands her fiance avenge her dad's murder, then Don's ex Elvira shows up, pregnant. Meanwhile, Don's bestie Leporello fills us in on all the haps. Then a wedding! Don is all over Zerlina (the bride) and gets rid of Masetto (the groom) temporarily. Elvira shows up and is all, 'Girl, don't even,' with Zerlina. Anna figures out that Don killed her dad, there's a party and masks and a gun.

Act Two: Don and Leporello disguise themselves as one another and seduction, singing and confusion ensues. Then we're at a cemetery and the Commendatore's statue haunts Don. More singing, more confusion, and then the statue appears. Bad news for Donny G as he refuses to repent and is consigned to hell. And we're out.

Andrew Wilkowske and Tess Altiveros.
Leporello/Donna Elvira fanfic anyone? (veramarinerstudio)
The performers are all amazing, and the voices are universally exquisite. Although it can be occasionally challenging to make out the words, to hear these beautiful voices in such an intimate setting is truly a gift. There is NOTHING like intimate opera.

Gabriel Preisser is a marvelously smooth and semi-sleazy Don Giovanni. Andrew Wilkowske, who I tend to adore in everything, is a delightfully humorous and touching Leporello. And he plays guitar in a lovely scene with Tess Altiveros, who is a perfectly gorgeous Donna Elvira. Altiveros handles the role of the wronged woman with wit, strength and considerable charm. Benjamin Sieverding as Masetto and the Commendatore has not only impressive hair, but is genuinely chilling in the last scene as the Commendatore. Quinn Shadko, Karin Wolverton and David Blalock also provide wonderful performances, as does the six member ensemble. And can I just say: Preisser's Wilkowske impression is ON POINT.

So this is all to say, even if the opera had been performed in a traditional setting, it would have been beautifully done. But it's being performed at The Woman's Club, which was built in 1928 and has history seeping from every cornice and corner. The opera ranges through several floors of the building, from the lounge to the ballroom to the dining room and into the theater. Your ticket price comes with the aforementioned hors d'oeuvre, as well as some intermission nibbles, and a lovely after-opera dessert. Plus, the opportunity to wander about in the beautiful Woman's Club building.

I would urge you to go see this, but I'm pretty sure the remaining performances are all sold out. Which bodes well for the future of Skylark Opera. Yay!!

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Weekend in Chicago - Chicago Shakes, Lyric Opera and a little show called Hamilton

I need to start off this Chicago theater trip recap with a massive shoutout to the League of Chicago Theatres.
Dear League of Chicago Theatres: 
We recently traveled to your fair city to see a few shows, but we had not made a lot of advance plans. After a cursory online search, we had a lot of options, but was having trouble deciding. We stopped by the Hot Tix location on 72 East Randolph and had a lovely chat with the Hot Tix 'theater geniuses.' They described the various available shows, provided incredibly helpful directions (including train stops) and helped figure out if we could make it from one show to another in ample time. The next day, we stopped by the Block Thirty Seven Shops on State Hot Tix booth to decide on our final show of the trip. The charming and hilarious theatre genius helped us pick out a show that was relatively unknown to us, but turned out to be an amazing experience.
Thank you for all the awesome theater help, 
Kate McGonigle in Shakespeare in Love.
Photo by Liz Lauren
Your friends at Minnesota (and now more than a little Chicago) Theater Love
More about the League below, but now on to the shows!

Shakespeare in Love - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Luigi Sottile in Shakespeare in Love.
Photo by Liz Lauren
Despite the fact that we didn't really love the movie that this play is based on, we absolutely love Chicago Shakes and will take any opportunity to see a play there. Love their beautiful house, the gorgeous location on the lake, and the fabulous lobby bar that looks like a miniature British pub. They also do beautiful theater--we adored previous shows like Heir Apparent, Sense & Sensibility: The Musical and even way, way back to Pacific Overtures.

Directed by Rachel Rockwell, with scenic design by Scott Davis and costumes by Susan E. Mickey, Shakespeare in Love was beautifully put together. Kate McGonigle was a delightful Viola, and led a strong ensemble cast. I wish Will Shakespeare was a stronger character--he didn't have much to add to the action despite being the lead character. The action picked up immeasurably when Luigi Sottile as Ned Alleyn leapt onto the stage. His energy and enthusiasm, as well as a charming personality and mad fight skills brought the entire show up to a new level. He will be one for these Minnesota Theaterlovers to watch. A few musical interludes showcased amazingly strong voices, and made me wish the entire play was a musical. Still, Chicago Shakes rocks and we are always happy to be there.

Bonus! Check out this completely adorable interview with Luigi Sottile and his dog Dash, who also stars in the show.


Marry Me A Little - Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773
Recommended by the folks at Hot Tix, we took the train out to Lakeview to Stage 773 to check out this charming (and short!) musical created by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene and comprised primarily of songs cut from Stephen Sondheim musicals. This two-person musical directed by Jess McLeod stars Bethany Thomas and Austin Cook (who also serves as the musical director) is about two urban singles living in the same apartment building and the full arc of their romance, with the song lyrics telling their story. The two terrific actors don't need dialogue to create their characters, and it's interesting to see how the context can change the meaning of these songs. Porchlight has a great graphic on their website showing where the songs in the show originated.



Next up was the whole reason for the trip: My Fair Lady at Lyric Opera of Chicago, which had us at Richard E. Grant playing Henry Higgins. Add in Bryce Pinkham and Lisa O'Hare, so fabulous in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway, and there was no way we were missing this. This sumptuous production premiered in Paris, which may explain the fashion-forward costumes. It's nice to see a colorful Ascot scene, and Eliza's dress (see pic above) is to die for. O'Hare is a forceful and gorgeously sung Eliza, and Grant makes a rather charming Higgins, managing to seem more absent-minded than purposefully mean. And it's rather thrilling to see the show with an enormous singing and dancing chorus. Lyric Opera is knocking these musicals out of the park lately. We adored their Carousel (with Steven Pasquale and Laura Osnes). Next year's big Lyric Opera musical? Jesus Christ Superstar.


Photo by Joan Marcus. 
Do you believe in theater miracles? We do. Good timing paid off when we stopped by the Private Bank Theatre and bought two second-row tickets to Hamilton for that afternoon at face value. We'd seen Hamilton back in September 2015 and couldn't even really absorb what we were seeing. To see it again, with an amazing cast that included Daniel Breaker as Aaron Burr, Karen Olivo as Angelica Schuyler and ton of (new to us) other fabulous performers. And to see it so close? Amazing.

FYI: The show holds UP y'all. A couple of outstanding cast members that join Luigi Sottile and Bethany Thomas on our must-see list: Samantha Marie Ware as a fun-to-watch Peggy/Maria, Jin Ha as a hilarious King George, Colby Lewis as Lafayette/Jefferson (Daveed Diggs is pretty tough to compete with but Lewis made the role his own), Wallace Smith as a magnetic Hercules Mulligan/James Madison, and Jose Ramos as a heartbreaking Philip Hamilton. Really, the whole cast was fantastic. You should see it. But don't buy resale tickets. All that does is benefit evil ticketing companies and promote scalping. Boo hiss.

Photo from Lookingglass Theatre
To finish off the trip, the Hot Tix theater geniuses recommended Beyond Caring at Lookingglass Theatre. When we asked why we should see the show over another choice, we learned that it originated at the National Theatre in London and was having its US premiere, plus it was the last night, and we were sold. Set in the break room of a manufacturing plant amongst the temp, minimum wage workers and their supervisor, this immersive performance featured amazing performances and a fascinating, thought provoking script. Written and directed by Alexander Zeldin, this was the perfect, meaty, marvelously acted play to finish off our trip.

Love you, Chicago. We'll be back soon!

As promised above, here's more about The League of Chicago Theatres - "The League of Chicago Theatres is proud to serve a membership of more than 200 theaters, a rich and varied theater community ranging from storefront, non-union theaters with budgets under $10,000 to major cultural centers with multi-million dollar shows."

Looking for a show to see in Chicago? Check out ChicagoPlays, the League's comprehensive theater listings.

Hot Tix booth on Randolph.
How about a deal on tickets? Try Hot Tix, both available online and in person at the following locations (highly recommended!):
72 E. RANDOLPH, Chicago
(Between Michigan Avenue and Wabash Avenue, across the street from Chicago Cultural Center)
Open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm and Sunday 11am-4pm
108 N. STATE, Chicago
(in Block Thirty Seven Shops on State, first floor Guest Services)
In the Downtown Chicago Theater DistrictOpen every day: Monday-Saturday 10am-6pm and Sunday 11am-5pm
Happy theatergoing!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Speed Dating through a Bunch of May Theater

Y'all, we've seen a LOT of plays lately. And we have fallen down on our mission to share these works with you, our loyal and devoted readership. In an attempt to win your hearts again, and to start the summer theater season with a clean slate, here is our speed dating recap of recent local theater.

Five Fifths of Jurassic Park - Minnesota Fringe benefit at Ritz Theater
How have I NEVER been to any of these shows before? I am appalled at myself and my co-blogger Jules. Here's the scoop: They pick a script, divide it into five parts and give it to five local theater companies to put their own spin on it--one night only.

This year's companies were Shanan Custer with the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society (listen to their podcast--it is MOST fun), Lounge-asaurus Rex (who I will now be following avidly, and not just for his impeccable taste in suitwear), Wayward Theatre Company (totally new to me--yay, new discoveries!), Blackout Improv (absolutely amazingly hilarious), and Erin Sheppard Presents (always fabulous and their costumes were ON point.) So fun and such a great teaser for the Fringe (August 3-13, 2017)!
Ann Michels in Sweetland
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
Sweetland: The Musical - History Theatre
Based on the lovely movie of the same name, which was based on a short story by local author Will Weaver, and with music by Dina Maccabee, and lyrics by Laurie Flanigan Hegge, and directed by Perrin Post .. With such a lovely pedigree and as it is such a labor of love, we wanted to like it more. However, our friend Cherry and Spoon loves it deeply, so please check out what she had to say!

Red Velvet - Walking Shadow Theatre Company
A really interesting premise from a well-regarded theater company, and a new play by a female playwright of color, Lolita Chakrabarti. (Fun fact: In London and New York, her husband Adrian Lester played the leading role). How can you go wrong? Although this was a very watchable play, and featured some strong performances, we ultimately found the play lacking. Single White Fringe Geek does a great job of outlining where we felt the play fell short. And although we adore JuCoby Johnson, this role didn't feel like the right fit for him.

Next on the calendar was Medea at New Epic Theater, but that show was cancelled. As we've seen great work from them in the past, we hope they sort out their issues and return to making theater.

Nate Cheeseman, Thallis Santesteban, John Catron, and
Christian Bardin in Lone Star Spirits (photo by Dan Norman)
Lone Star Spirits - Jungle Theater
Which we saw on its LAST DAY. So not helpful to anyone, particularly since the show was GENIUS. Dang it! The play, by Josh Tobiessen, was brought to life by director Sarah Rasmussen with a terrific ensemble of Terry Hempleman, John Catron, Christian Bardin, Nate Cheeseman, and Thallis Santesteban. Set and costume designer Sarah Bahr created the perfect small-town atmosphere, and the show ran a tight 80 minutes. So glad they extended a week and we were able to see it. 

Eric Sharp in Charlie, etc
(photo from Mu Performing Arts)
Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery - Mu Performing Arts
Lloyd Suh's script examines and critiques Asian American stereotypes using a play-within-the play to bring unspoken assumptions into the light. Randy Reyes directs this funny, thought-provoking, and challenging piece with a wonderful cast. And the show is in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie, so tickets are just $9! Catch it before the show closes on May 28.

Broadway Songbook: Hollywood and Broadway - Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Though the show started a bit slowly, with songs best known as standards rather than theater music, the talented cast brings zing to songs from shows from 42nd Street to Grease to Legally Blonde. The Songbook series has been a wonderful addition to the local theater scene, and we hope it continues after James Rocco leaves the Ordway later this year.

Refugia - The Moving Company
This new work, playing on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium stage, aims to explore "exile, borders and the displacement of people," but we found the piece problematic, seeming to focus on white characters and stories and to underuse its few actors of color. Our friend Laura from One Girl, Two Cities wrote a wonderfully thoughtful post on this show, which has sparked an amazing amount of discussion in the local theater community.

Intimate Apparel - Ten Thousand Things Theater
Playing at Open Book through June 4, this gem of a play by Lynn Nottage is sensitively staged by Austene Van in TTT's trademark stripped-down style. The excellent cast is led by a luminous Aimee K. Bryant as a seamstress at the turn of the century who yearns for love and seems to find it by corresponding with a man working on the construction of the Panama Canal. As always, the cast is superb, and though I had seen this play when the Guthrie did it in 2005, I had forgotten what a wonderful script it is. 

Whew! Now, on to more theater-watching! Happy theater-going, friends!!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

One Man Two Guvnors - Yellow Tree Theatre

There's still one weekend to catch the terrific production of One Man Two Guvnors at Yellow Tree Theatre. This was my first experience at Yellow Tree, and it was certainly worth the drive to Osseo (which was not as long as I expected!).

Based on the Italian comedy The Servant of Two Masters, One Man Two Guvnors sets its action in Brighton, England, in 1963. The story revolves around Francis Henshall, newly arrived in town with his employer. He takes on another job, making him the one man with two guvnors, trying to juggle both jobs and employers while trying to get something to eat. The plot is ridiculously convoluted, featuring an assortment of shady characters in increasingly silly situations.

Elise Langer, Elena Glass, and Marika Proctor
Photos by Yellow Tree Theatre / jcoxphotography.com
Characters speak in distinctly British accents with the slang to match, which can take a bit of getting used to, but it's an important part of the atmosphere, along with the period costumes and music. The whole thing works amazingly well with the commedia dell'arte-inspired style of the Goldoni play, which includes asides to the audience and plenty of physical comedy. Richard Bean's script was originally performed at the National Theatre in London in 2011, with James Corden as Francis. The show was a huge hit that transferred to the West End and later, to Broadway.

The Yellow Tree production features an incredible cast that work together seamlessly. Besides playing their characters to perfection, the cast also perform interstitial songs that were written for the original production. In the London production, a separate band played the music, with occasional vocals by the cast. Under the lead of Brant Miller, this group does double duty, playing everything from guitar and drums to washboard and kazoo. (Note: the song lyrics cleverly relate to themes in the play and are definitely worth a listen on their own after you've seen the show. Amazon carries the original cast recording.)

Ryan Lear and Jason Ballweber

Photos by Yellow Tree Theatre / jcoxphotography.com
Jason Ballweber plays Francis with exactly the right blend of guilelessness and charm, entrancing the audience while keeping them in stitches. Marika Proctor plays the first guvnor, a woman masquerading as her dead brother, with enough swagger to convince the other characters of her identity. Granted, the folks she's trying to trick are not the brightest bulbs. Sam Landman bellows as businessman Charlie Clench, who's celebrating the engagement of his dim daughter (Elise Langer) to the son of his colleague Harry Dangle (Peter Simmons). Neal Skoy revels in the ridiculousness of the fiance, whose dream is to be an actor, but whose idea of acting is melodramatic at best.

Ryan Lear shines as the second guvnor, who clearly has more looks than brains, but an excellent way of expressing his heartbreak in an unexpected instrumental solo. Elena Glass is the long-suffering bookkeeper who has an eye for Francis, Warren C. Bowles is a pub owner who can keep a secret, and Tristan Tifft is an elderly, but very spry waiter who takes a lot of physical abuse. I wanted to mention everyone, because each actor is terrific, adding up to a fantastic ensemble.

The ensemble of One Man, Two Guvnors
Photos by Yellow Tree Theatre / jcoxphotography.com
Director Anne Byrd has done an amazing job of keeping the play moving on Gabriel Gomez's compact but surprisingly functional set. The technical aspects are all top-notch, including Sarah Bahr's character-defining period costumes. Special recognition is owed to dialect coach Keely Wolter. The specificity of the various English accents contributes enormously to the tone of the play, and the actors carry them off splendidly.

One Man, Two Guvnors is not a play to change the world, but it keeps the audience laughing, even howling, for the entire evening. Don't miss this opportunity to see this hilarious production, as a more masterful comedy is unlikely to come along anytime soon.

Need more convincing? Watch the video Yellow Tree put together. Doesn't that just look like fun? Now go get your tickets!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

GIRL Shakes Loose at Penumbra Theatre

GIRL Shakes Loose is the final show in Penumbra Theatre's 40th anniversary season, and it's an ambitious, engaging, and energetic world premiere musical that explores modern, black female identity.


This intimate new musical by Imani Uzuri (music & lyrics) and Zakiyyah Alexander (book & lyrics) includes the words of poet Sonia Sanchez, whose work is grounded in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Directed by May Adrales, this is a rare show that has a creative team comprised of all women of color.

If that's not reason enough to celebrate this show, Penumbra Theatre and Artistic Director Sarah Bellamy have been directly involved with the bringing this musical to life. As Ms. Bellamy writes in her program note:
Alexis Sims and the plaid shirt.
Photo by Allen Weeks.
"That we are investing in the representation of ourselves, our lives, how we love, and who we love with such tenderness, excellence and ferocity is to be widely celebrated. GIRL Shakes Loose truly is #blackgirlmagic!"
YES!

The cast of GIRL Shakes Loose. All hail Jamecia Bennett.
Photo by Allen Weeks.
The story of GIRL Shakes Loose isn't groundbreaking, except that it's being told about a young woman of color. The title character, simply called GIRL, is a young black woman at a crossroads in her life. She has worked hard for success, attending a good college, obtaining a graduate degree, and running her own start up in Oakland, California. When her company goes bust, she loses any sense of who she is, and has to learn whether her life is worthwhile without the career success she worked so hard to get. Meanwhile, her love affairs are in equal disarray. GIRL heads to New York, and then to Atlanta to attend a family funeral, all the while figuring out what home really means.

Alexis Sims and Kory Pullam.
Photo by Allen Weeks.
As played by Alexis Sims, GIRL is quite sympathetic, even when she's feeling very sorry for herself. It helps that her moping isn't indulged by her friends, or by her family when she goes back to Georgia. She has an engaging spark of energy, and her voice is, quite simply, exceptional.

Jamecia Bennett brings her considerable talents to bear as GIRL's aunt, who tries to reunite her niece with the mother she hasn't seen in years. Thomasina Petrus is, as always, terrific as the mother who feels abandoned by her child but can't bear to condemn her.

Bennett and Petrus also stand out as singers in the eight-member ensemble which musically accompanies GIRL's journey and play the people she meets along the way.

A few standouts: John Jamison is very funny as a friend whose couch she crashes on, and he has an amazing singing voice which I hope to hear again soon. Kory Pullam, wonderful in so many local productions of the last few years at Pillsbury House, the Guthrie, as well as a standout role in Choir Boy, is compelling as an old love, while Tatiana Williams shows tenderness as well as anger as a more recent lover. China Brickey, Lamar Jefferson, and Valencia Proctor also bring beautiful voices to the mix.

Tatiana Williams rocks the house.
Photo by Allen Weeks.
The music is contemporary, with detours into gospel, doo-wop, R & B and other styles, with the strong ensemble present for most of the music and Sanford Moore leading the band from backstage. John Acaerrgui's sound design puts the voices front and center without being over-amplified. I wasn't exactly whistling when I left the theater, but I could see the music taking hold over a few listenings.

In intention, the show felt a little RENT-like to me. Possibly due to the minimal set and revolving cast of characters, and possibly due to a plaid shirt that outstays its welcome on stage.

But I love that the show is trying something new, musically and narratively. Not only is it telling the story of a young woman of color finding herself, it's also telling a story in which a person doesn't have to find someone else to find herself. This is pretty unusual in musical theater, and I applaud it wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Five Weeks - Pangea World Theater

Going into Pangea World Theater's new play at the Lab Theater, I knew next to nothing about Partition, the term used for the post-WWII division of formerly colonial India into the countries of India and Pakistan.

Five Weeks: A Play About Divided Hearts, written by Meena Natarajan, is a heartrending, personal look at Partition and the many human costs that ensued.

A bit about Partition: In 1947, the British government assigned a lawyer to draw the new border. Sir Cyril Radcliffe had no experience in India, or with drawing borders, and within five weeks, had drawn a border that allowed little consideration of demographics. Despite a stated intention to keep most Sikhs and Hindus in India and most Muslims in Pakistan, the reality was much more complicated.

Photo by Bruce Silcox.
After thousands of years of coexistence, Partition divided up shared communities, neighborhoods, and social circles. As families migrated from one country to the other, about a million refugees were killed, millions more were displaced, and an estimated 75,000 women and children were raped and abducted, most of whom were never recovered.

Natarajan's script weaves together stories of families and friends divided by Partition, bringing the massive carnage to a very personal level. A child is separated from her parents during their flight, a college-educated woman naively tries to help refugees, and a family finds its home no longer safe in just a few of the stories woven through the evening.  

Projected captions indicate place and time, and also provide translation of some of the dialogue, which includes Punjabi, Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu as well as English, sometimes in the same conversation. Live musical accompaniment is performed by singer Pooja Goswami Pavan, tabla player and vocalist A. Pavan, and keyboard player Vijay Rmanathan.

Photo by Bruce Silcox.
Local actors of South Asian descent make up the acting ensemble and all play multiple characters. With a number of first time performers onstage, the performances can be a bit uneven, but the emotional resonance is clear. Madhu Bangalore, Tarun Kumar, and Prakshi Malik gave standout performances, imbuing each of their characters with incredible depth and emotion.

If you'd like to learn more about Partition and its aftermath, Pangea's program is informative, and they also have an extensive study guide on their website.

The website also features the personal stories of how Partition affected the cast members and their families, making it clear that this is not ancient history, but recent and real. The study guide and program also include a timeline, an explanation of terms used in the play, and a suggested reading list.

Although I came to this play with very little knowledge about the situation, the stories and characters were incredibly moving and made me want to learn more.

Pangea World Theater's mission is "Pangea illuminates the human condition, celebrates cultural differences, and promotes human rights by creating and presenting international, multi-disciplinary theater." I think Five Weeks does all of these things beautifully, and I'll be following Pangea's work with interest.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Vietgone at Mixed Blood Theatre

There simply aren't enough adjectives to describe Vietgone by Qui Nguyen, now playing at Mixed Blood Theatre through April 30. 

But here are a few: Hilarious, irreverent, touching, sexy, energetic, surprising, romantic, raunchy, thought-provoking, enlightening, pop-culture-reference-filled, heart-breaking, and did I mention completely hilarious?

Also: NINJAS!

Playwright Qui Nguyen, a self-described "playwright, screenwriter, geek!" is the co-founder of NYC theater company Vampire Cowboys and has a fascinating catalog of plays with titles like Alice in Slasherland, Living Dead in Denmark, Six Rounds of Vengeance, and She Kills Monsters. [Note: Can someone in the Twin Cities please produce all of these plays immediately? Kay, thanks!] 

With Vietgone, Nguyen tells the story of his parents meeting in a refugee camp in Arkansas in 1975 after immigrating from Vietnam after the war. I love this video from Broadway.com that explains his parents' reaction to a first reading of this play:


Essentially, his mother said the play didn't sound like him at all. So he went back, worked on it, and made it more him. The play has a fascinating style. Nguyen explains the unique tone in a New York Times article (Diep Tran, NYT, 10/6/16):
It’s a story that Mr. Nguyen grew up hearing and knows well, but it has also been filtered through his pop-culture-filled and irreverent sensibility.
“When my parents told me stories about Vietnam, they told me the real stories, what actually happened,” he explained. “But what I imagined was kung fu movies. Because the only things I ever saw [growing up] that had a lot of Asian people in it, were kung fu movies.”
So there is kung fu in “Vietgone,” and ninjas. As in Mr. Nguyen’s other works, everyone speaks in a modern voice and raps — and no one speaks with “an Asian accent,” part of his fight against minority stereotypes.
Stefon tells you all about Vietgone.
Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty
The result? This show has EVERYTHING. So much that I need to list it in bullet form:
  • A touching, true story
  • A fascinating, thought-provoking look at an another aspect of the Vietnam War
  • Amazing fight scenes and NINJAS
  • Rap and hip-hop interspersed in the narrative
  • Songs and dancing
  • Delightful pop culture references
  • Romance and sexy sex for days
  • A spare, but clever set
And the cast. The Twin Cities Theater Bloggers annually award the best in local theater, and it will be hard to top Vietgone for Best Ensemble.

Sherwin Resurreccion, Sun Mee Chomet and Meghan Kreidler
Photo by Rich Ryan
David Huynh plays Quang, a helicopter pilot who longs to get home to his family in Vietnam. He meets Tong, played by Meghan Kreidler, in the refugee camp, who is embracing life in America. The two get it on and fall in love--in that order. Sun Mee Chomet plays Tong's mother, Flordelino Lagundino plays Quang's good friend, and Sherwin Resurreccion plays the playwright himself. Chomet, Langundino and Resurreccion play all the rest of the characters in the cast as well--depicting a variety of characters with little more than wigs and a costume change.

But this CAST.

Huynh's Quang is vibrantly complex: intense, melancholy, funny, and sexy. His relationship with Kriedler's Tong is equally complex, and their witty, sarcastic relationship is right up there with the best romantic comedies (to which the play pays homage). Chomet, as Tong's mother, gives one of the most hilarious performances I've ever seen on stage. Lagundino gives a sweetness and groundedness to his characters. And Resurreccion plays all of his characters with his customary skill and humor, such as Bobby, an American soldier who takes a shine to Tong, and courts her in pidgin English (actually Vietnamese) in a delightfully over-the-top Southern accent. Also, the relationship between 'the playwright' and his father is beautifully depicted, and it's fascinating to see David Huynh utterly disappear into his older self at the end.

Meghan Kreidler and NINJAS.
Photo by Rich Ryan
Director Mark Valdez masterfully manages a complex story and a wide variety of storytelling styles to create an amazingly cohesive show. Paul Whitaker's minimal set and lighting design uses just a few pieces of furniture, sliding screens, and some effective projections to transport us through decades, across the country, across the world, into a war, and to a refugee camp. Add some touches of interstitial rap, amazing fight choreography, and even some dancing, and you have an enormously energetic production that keeps its perfectly irreverent tone for two and a half hours (w/intermission).

I can't say enough, and yet I'm saying too much. Just go see it.

Don't let accessibility get in your way. Mixed Blood Theatre is dedicated to complete accessibility. Read more about their Disability Initiative.

Don't let cost get in your way either. Check out Mixed Blood Theatre's Radical Hospitality program.

Trust me. Go.