Friday, March 22, 2019

Roe at Mixed Blood Theatre

Laura Zabel and Tracey Maloney
Photo by Rich Ryan
If you see one play this year, go see Roe at Mixed Blood Theatre. DO IT. GO. BYE.

Still here? Okay, here are the details:

When: March 15 - 31, 2019
At: Mixed Blood Theatre
Running Time: Two hours with intermish

"Roe, a theatrical survey of the complicated and fiery underpinnings of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established a womxn’s right to an abortion. Roe precisely illustrates the fractured and fracturing history of one of the most polarizing social issues of the modern era. Sarah Weddington was a 26-year-old lawyer when she argued Roe v. Wade, and accidental heroine Norma McCorvey was a 22-year-old poor, hard-living lesbian bartender seeking to end her third pregnancy when she first agreed to be the plaintiff under the pseudonym 'Jane Roe,' decades before she renounced her involvement in the case and became an anti-abortion advocate."

Photo by Rich Ryan
What We Thought:
Holy cats. Where do we start?

Roe, by Lisa Loomer, was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 and has played several festivals around the country. However, it has now been optioned for Broadway and Mixed Blood Theatre is the "only regional theater in the country that has been given permission to produce it this season." And what a production they have created. If the Broadway producers have any sense, they'll come to Minneapolis, scoop up this entire cast and this exact production, and bring it all to New York.

Tracey Maloney, Lisa Suarez, Bonnie Allen
Photo by Rich Ryan

Here's the thing: Roe is a really, really good play. Lisa Loomer weaves together all of the complicated elements and emotions surrounding the incredibly polarizing issue of choice and creates a balanced, clear-eyed and resonant play. She uses the participants' own words to bring the story to life, and her characters contradict each others' accounts when their recollections don't quite match. It's a lively and engaging technique, which the playwright uses to powerful effect.

And this CAST. Tracey Maloney plays Norma McCorvey (aka "Jane Roe"). Maloney takes this complicated, conflicted and divisive character and brings her utterly to life. She is, in turns, sympathetic, irritating, and achingly relatable. Laura Zabel, as lawyer Sarah Weddington, is perfectly buttoned-up and determined, though we eventually see she has her own history and issues.

Massive shout-outs to the entire ensemble: Sam Bardwell, Michael Booth, Kate Guentzel, Dame-Jasmine Hughes, Jamila Joiner, Olive Middleton, Patrick O'Brien, and Lisa Suarez, who alternate between multiple roles wonderfully. Their transformations are aided by Sarah Bahr's on-point period costumes and Emma Gustafson's truly stunning and appropriate wigs. Extra special love for Bonnie Allen, who plays vastly contrasting roles as an Operation Rescue volunteer and Norma's horrible mother with equal verve.

Kate Guentzel, Laura Zabel, Tracey Maloney
Photo by Rich Ryan
Every element of this production, directed by Mark Valdez, is perfect, from the music that heralds the beginning of each new era, and the lights and projections that add to the strong sense of place, to the seamless use of real audio from the Supreme Court, and breaking of the fourth wall. The pacing is incredible and emotional resonance is profound. Even for those of us with short attention spans (aka Carly), the play absolutely raced by in seemingly ten minutes. One of the things we loved and admired best in Valdez's direction is that he keeps the play so tight that there's no room for the kind of self-satisfied applause that can so easily disrupt the energy and mood of a play.

Mixed Blood always does great outreach work, but with Roe they have gone even farther, hosting two "book club" discussions of the script in the weeks leading up to the production, and working with community partners for post-show talkbacks and hosting continuing legal education sessions around the play.

If you leave the play, as we did, wanting to explore more about Roe v. Wade and the current state of choice, may we suggest the following?

Books mentioned in the play:

I Am Roe: My Life, Roe V. Wade, and Freedom of Choice by Norma McCorvey and Andy Meisler (1994)

Won by Love by Norma McCorvey and Gary L. Thomas (1998)

Question of Choice: Roe V. Wade: 40th Anniversary Edition by Sarah Weddington (2013)

Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey by Linda Greenhouse (2005)

More recommendations:

The Daily Podcast from New York Times Two Part Roe v. Wade
Recommended by Tim Stanley, Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood MN, ND, SD
(the speaker at the talkback we attended.)

Amazing Info from Planned Parenthood about Roe v. Wade: Then and Now Read and/or listen to the actual case summary and decision from 1973

The Cut offers a reading list of articles for the 45th Anniversary of Roe V. Wade

For a mix of fiction and nonfiction books on the topic, try Bustle's 20 Books to Read on the Anniversary of Roe V. Wade

And, sadly: 

Handbook for a Post-Roe America by Robin Marty (2019)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Hobbit at Children's Theatre Company

The Hobbit at Children's Theatre Company

When: March 12 - April 14, 2019
At: Children's Theatre Company
Running Time: Two hours with intermish
Dean Holt in The Hobbit. Photo by Dan Norman.
"Our unlikely hero, Bilbo Baggins, would much rather be sitting in his cozy Hobbit Hole with a cup of tea and a plate of bacon and eggs. However, he somehow finds himself on a magically mystical adventure. Staged with speed and surprises, you’ll be delighted as things change before your very eyes. Discover what happens as Bilbo travels on an epic journey over freezing mountains and a frightening forest, meeting all sorts of fierce creatures—some who want to eat him, others who turn into dear friends."

What We Thought: The Hobbit is an epic adventure, so why is Children's Theatre presenting this show with only five actors and two musicians? Because imagination is their business and they do it well. This new script, adapted by Greg Banks, who also directs this production, keeps the cast hopping. 

Dean Holt, Reed Sigmund, H. Adam Harris, Becca Hart, and Joy Dolo.
Photo by Dan Norman.
Dean Holt plays Bilbo Baggins, who is drawn into a quest against his will. Holt often speaks directly to the audience, connecting us to the action and moving the story forward. Characters narrating the action can be a crutch, but here it works perfectly. The rest of the cast play all of the roles, including the dwarves who reluctantly take Gandalf the wizard's advice and bring him on their journey, to elves, trolls, a spider, a dragon, an archer, and Gollum. 

Each actor brings new characteristics to each person or creature they play. Joy Dolo is a perfect Gandalf, really creepy as Gollum, and her comic timing shines through as Bombur. Reed Sigmund is a commanding but sometimes conflicted Thorin, leading the quest. H. Adam Harris is charming and hilarious as Kili and imposing as the dragon Smaug. And Becca Hart changes from Balin to the archer Bard primarily by her physicality. Annie Cady's practical costumes and inventive accessories help the ensemble transform into creatures seamlessly and lightning fast. 

The actors are endlessly energetic as they march, crawl, jump, and fall around the ingenious set design of Joseph Stanley. There seem to be endless new configurations and hidden spaces, all in plain sight. Even the musicians' corner of the stage was integrated into the look of the set. The music, by Thomas Johnson, with lyrics by Greg Banks and Johnson, was appropriately evocative and included a number of fun songs. Nancy Schertler's lights and Sten Severson's sound design added atmosphere and helped to delineate the rapidly changing locations. 

The cast of The Hobbit. Photo by Dan Norman.

The Hobbit is an exciting adventure for Tolkein-lovers and newbies alike. All of the adults and children around us were very engaged. At the end of the play, we even heard one young voice say, "Seeing plays is better than watching TV!" We couldn't agree more! 

Accessibility Notes: Children's Theatre has a quiet room at the back of the theater for kids who aren't able to keep quiet during the show, which is an excellent idea, even though the occasional comments from the audience are always entertaining. 

Note: Parking at the Children's Theatre is always challenging, so leave yourself plenty of time to find parking and get to the theater. There was a steady trickle of audience members arriving late for about 30 minutes into the show, and it's too bad they missed part of the show.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Mother Courage and Her Children at Pangea World Theater

Photo provided by Pangea World Theater
Mother Courage and Her Children at Pangea World Theater

When: March 15 - 31, 2019
At: The Lab Theater
Running Time: 3 hours, fifteen minutes

"Pangea World Theater’s take on Brecht’s classic, Mother Courage, is a scathing critique of profiteering through war and misfortune. As relevant today as when it was written, Mother Courage follows a woman determined to make her living from war at any cost. Over the course of the play, she loses all three of her children to the very war from which she tried to profit."

What We Thought:
Considered one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, Mother Courage and Her Children was written by Bertolt Brecht in 1939 in response to the rise of fascism in Europe, but set in 1624 to 1636 during the Thirty Years' War. Mother Courage is hailed as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. Although productions are fairly rare in American theater, some of the most well-regarded contemporary playwrights have adapted the play, including Ntozake Shange, Hanif Kureishi, David Hare, Lee Hall, and Tony Kushner. Pangea's production uses the 1972 adaptation by acclaimed translator Ralph Manheim.

In addition to tackling a weighty subject, Brecht is a challenging playwright. Pangea's program, which includes analysis and background by dramaturg and literary director Meena Natarajan, as well as a timeline and glossary, is well worth a pre-show (and after-show!) read.

A bit more backstory about Brecht's dramatic theory of isolation, or verfremdung. Trust us, this is good to know going in.
Brecht uses the word "alienation" (verfremdung) to describe his method of helping the audience to be receptive to his dramatic intentions. His technique of alienation includes elimination of most conventional stage props; use of charts, slides, and messages flashed on screens; direct involvement of the audience through characters who step out of their roles to function as commentators; and many carefully planned incongruities. Finally, Brecht requires that actors work in a new way: they must not identify with the dramatic characters but, on the contrary, must always demonstrate that they are playing a role. Alienation is Brecht's fundamental dramatic device, and his parody is of course closely dependent on this technique.
Brecht uses the term "epic theater" to characterize his innovative dramatic theory. His new type of drama is non-Aristotelian--that is, his aim is not to purge the audience's emotions but to awaken the spectators' minds and communicate truth to them. To achieve this end, drama must not hypnotize or entrance the audience but must continually remind them that what they are watching is not real, but merely a representation, a vehicle for an idea or a fact. (Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2019)
This is not an easy play due to Brecht's distancing theories. And knowing that we are not to identify with the characters is a bit at odds with contemporary American culture and the value placed on likability.

But one of the things we love about Pangea World Theater is that they don't play it safe. Pangea's production of Five Weeks: A Play About Divided Hearts, a fascinating story about the heartrending and complicated personal stories from Partition still lingers in our minds. Mother Courage and Her Children will stay with us for a long time as well. Director Dipanka Mukherjee's production reveals more complexity and layers the more we consider it.

Speaking of ambitious, Pangea lays out their intent for this production:
Our production of Mother Courage features a diverse ensemble, and presents a fresh perspective on this traditionally Euro-centric piece. Exposing the oft unrecognized impacts of war on women, LGBTQ2A+, and indigenous, black and brown bodies, we uplift these voices, and empower artists to connect to their own truth in this historical text.
Despite Brecht's challenges for the actors, the marvelous and diverse ensemble create a number of engaging characters. Standouts in the cast include Stephanie Ruas, Mother Courage's mute but profoundly expressive daughter and Marcele Michelle, who plays a number of distinct and diverse characters and also sings a lovely, stirring "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming." Ricardo Beaird as the cook/soldier brought vitality to every scene, and Clay Man Soo, as Mother Courage's son Eilif, was virtually unrecognizable from his delightful character in Theater Mu's A Korean Drama Addict's Guide to Losing Your Virginity.

Although the set design by Orin Herfindal was minimal, the sound design (by Eric M.C. Gonzalez) was ambitious and complex. Sadly, the acoustics of the Lab Theater combined with the sound design and music made it challenging to hear and understand the cast at times. This is a show which would have definitely benefited from Brecht's recommendations to use charts, slides, and messages flashed on screens. Open captioning would have been immeasurably useful to stronger understanding of the play.

Seeing this made us wonder how other recent Mother Courage productions have been received--say, the 2006 Delacorte Central Park production starring Meryl Streep. Ben Brantley in the New York Times wrote that Mother Courage "is one of those great plays that almost never play great — at least, not in English. The necessary combination of detachment and engagement is as hard as anything in modern theater to get right." Classic Stage Company's 2016 production set in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo got a rave from Charles Isherwood at the New York Times, despite the last-minute departure of Tonya Pinkins from the production due to creative differences. And, of course, Lynn Nottage's 2009 play Ruined is inspired by the Brecht classic.  Mother Courage and Her Children is a fascinating work with a rich and complex history, and it's exciting to see Pangea's take on the play.

Accessibility: The Lab Theater has parking spots reserved in the lot across from the theater for a $5.00 fee (pay at the box office). Several flights of stairs lead down from the box office to the performance space, but there is an elevator available. Restrooms are on the box office level. The front row of seating for this show does not require steps, but the majority do and there are no handrails.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

She Persists: The Great Divide III at Pillsbury House + Theatre

You should go and see She Persists: The Great Divide III at Pillsbury House + Theatre.

When: March 13-24
At: Pillsbury House + Theatre
Running Time: 70 minutes, no intermish

From "I Voted" by Aamera Siddiqui
© 2019 George Byron Griffiths
"She Persists is a fresh take on the conversation that began with the popular 2017 production, The Great Divide: Plays for a Broken Nation and continued with 2018’s The Great Divide: Plays on the Politics of Truth. Featuring an all-woman cast, production team and playwright cohort, She Persists: The Great Divide III is a powerful, intersectional look at the place where womanhood and politics collide."

What We Thought:
These plays are short, but they each pack a punch. "I Voted" by Aamera Siddiqui shows us a far-too-easy to imagine near-future in which voting rights are more like privileges, particularly for people of color. Casey Llewellyn's "The Team" introduces campaign staffers for a presidential campaign who question the commitment of their candidate to making real change.

From "May Yamoe" by Cristina Florencia Castro
© 2019 George Byron Griffiths
In "Wade in the Water," Oya Mae Duchess-Davis depicts a pitch-dark future where non-white Americans are taken from their families and imprisoned or executed. Cristina Florencia Castro presents an exuberant, if clueless, Spanish-language class in "May Yamoe." Finally, in "Ascension," Philana Imade Omorotionmwan has three characters enacting an internal struggle that will be familiar to most women.

Queen Drea
© 2019 George Byron Griffiths
The diverse cast of four terrific actors bring each scene to vivid life. Ashawnti Sakina Ford, Audrey Park, Nora Montañez, and Sara Richardson are all wonderful in their varied roles, assisted by spot-on costumes by Amber Brown. Noël Raymond's direction brings out the themes of racism and sexism as well as the emotion and humor of these pieces.

Before the show and between the plays, Queen Drea creates music onstage using looping and live singing, which adds to and complements the work. She also provides offstage vocals in "Wade in the Water" that are haunting and critical to the story.

This is an entertaining and thought-provoking evening of plays by and about women, brilliantly brought to life by an incredible ensemble. Don't miss it!

From the She Persists program
Accessibility Notes: PHT has a parking lot to the south of the bike shop next door, and street parking in the area is ample. The theater and all-gender restrooms are on one floor at street level. There are minimal stairs in the theater and you can access seating without needing to use stairs.

BONUS: We love what PHT is doing to partner, educate and continue the conversation by featuring post-show discussions and working with Moon Palace Books on a She Persists reading list.


Friday, January 25, 2019

Behind the Scenes: Props at 84 Charing Cross Road

Last weekend, we crossed the river to beautiful Hudson to see 84 Charing Cross Road at the Phipps Center for the Arts, which runs through February 3rd.  Helene Hanff's charming book about her epistolary exchange with a London bookseller is one of our favorites and we were excited to see it on stage.

Confession: As a librarian, former bookstore employee and all around fan of books, I've always cast a pretty critical eye at the books that are used as props in theater. And I get it! Sometimes you just have to fill a bookshelf on set with Readers' Digest Condensed books.
Photo by Heather Edwards
From the first step through the doorway of Marks & Co (aka the black box theater with a scenic design by Mark Koski), it was clear that this production was going to honor the source material's love of books.

But it wasn't just bookshelves filled with legit antiquarian books--this dedication to creating an authentic environment extended to finding the actual books mentioned in the play and reproducing the letters.

We could not leave the theater without taking a closer look at the beautiful props and chatted with the props person, Heather Edwards. She put so much care, attention and love into the props for this show, we wanted to highlight her beautiful work. By the way, this is a wonderful production of this play.

Helene's desk
But to the books! We asked Heather Edwards to share about how she created such an amazing and accurate collection:
I was in the middle of doing props for Sister Act at the Phipps when I learned they were doing 84, Charing Cross Road based on the book written by Helene Hanff. The book depicts the true 20-plus year correspondence between Helene, a New York writer, and Frank Doel, a London bookseller working at a shop located, not surprisingly, at 84, Charing Cross Road.
84, Charing Cross Road is my favorite book, and it’s a book for which I have great enthusiasm. And so, although the production staff for this show had already been chosen, I begged everyone who would listen that they simply had to let me volunteer. “I’ll just do the books and the letters,” I begged.
Heh heh heh. “Just.”
There are many book titles specifically mentioned in the script, and I was determined to find (some may say, ‘was obsessed with finding’) copies of these books as they were published during the play’s time frame. This ended up being a challenge for a number of reasons. Because the play spans over such a long time frame, I couldn’t use books from one particular decade. All of the books from Act I are published before 1940 (with several being published before 1900), while the Act II books are from the 1950s or 60s.
To make it more tricky, several of the books needed to be duplicated to gave the illusion of Frank “sending” the book to Helene. Finding a specific old book can be a challenge; finding two identical copies was even tougher. My biggest source for locating all these books was, but I relied on eBay, Amazon and antique stores as well. On average, I spent about $12 per book. Although some were as little as $4, others--the really specific ones that we absolutely had to have--were $30-35.
Marks & Co. desk and ALL the books
 Sometimes the script was very specific about which books were needed, like with the Oxford Book of English Verse, with its “original blue cover.” Other books had to be a certain size, while others required gold leaf on the pages. I did my absolute best to find books that fit the description. Sometimes I couldn’t find a title, and on those occasions, I used old book covers to cover modern books. But 70 percent of the books mentioned by name during the production are copies of the actual titles and are from the appropriate time period.
SUCH a great set!
My favorite book is the small red, gold-leafed book of poetry, which is given to Helene from the Marks and Co. staff. It’s actually a book of Robert Browning’s work, which I purchased three years ago when I visited Charing Cross Road. While Marks and Co. is, sadly, long gone, there are many bookstores along that street and this book was purchased at Quinto’s, 72 Charing Cross Rd. 
Helen's desk with Ellery Queen script and food catalog
Filling the rest of the set’s 22 bookshelves was an enormous challenge. We used my collection of old books, which I thought was vast, and it didn’t even fill one of the 22 bookshelves used on set. We hauled out the Phipps’ collection of book props and we received donations from staff, libraries, members of the community, and Half-Price Books. We still didn’t have enough books! Fortunately, there is a Goodwill outlet in St. Paul, where they sell books at 15 cents an inch. (They literally pull out a yardstick to determine how much you owe them!)
I made quite a few trips down to the theater with my whole car weighed down with books, and finally the shelves were filled. (I’m a little nervous about what we’re going to do with all of these when the play is over. We could start our own library with what we have right now!)
The letters and photos!
After the books were taken care of, I turned to the dozens of letters that are written during this extraordinary correspondence. In our intimate black box, and in a theatre-in-the-round setting, we couldn’t fake those letters. So I typed all of Helene’s letters, and hand wrote all of Frank’s using a fountain pen. I found handwritten letters online from both Helene and Frank, and tried to copy their handwriting as much as I could.
Helene’s letterhead was created using a stock picture of a 1940s-era fountain pen.
More letters
 When Helene moves to a different apartment in New York, the letterhead changes as well; it changes into Helene Hanff’s actual letterhead. (Thank you, Google!) I created the Marks and Co. letterhead by taking a picture of the storefront, cropping it down until you only had the “Marks and Co” part, and then tweaking it in various photo editing programs to make it more crisp and colorful. Every “Marks & Co.” bookseller uses the stationery throughout the show.

Doing “just” the books and letters was nearly a full-time job, but it was absolutely the least I could do to complement the extraordinary talent of the cast and the superb set design. Did I mention the superb set design? As an audience member you will smell the old books (thanks to a diffuser emitting “old book smells”) before you see them, and you will be greeted by a glass window storefront announcing your arrival at 84, Charing Cross Road. Walk through the doorway, and you will find yourself in a bookstore seemingly brought back to life.
You’ll never forget your trip to 84, Charing Cross Road.
 THE BOOKS (in no particular order)
Eighteenth Century Essays, Dobson: 1932
The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1924.
The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, 1899
84 Charing Cross Road, 1970.
Virginibus Puerisque, 1917.
Imaginary Conversations, 1935
Samuel Pepys’ Diary, 1928 and 1931
The Common Reader, 1952
The Common Reader, Vol. II 1959
The Compleat Angler, 1988 (reprint)
The Diary of a Provincial Lady, 1989 (reprint)
Canterbury Tales, 1965
Leigh Hunt, “The Seer,” 1850
Every man’s Library, Robert Browning (standing in for Victorian love poems), 1913
Thank you, Heather! Such a lovely labor of love!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

February Is Filled With Theater Love

So much theater to love, so little time!

February is completely packed with amazing new shows. Spend your Valentine's Day (and month!) at the theater with a few shows we are especially looking forward to right now.

What: The Children
Where: Jungle Theater
When: January 12 - February 10, 2019
What: "On the lonely British coast, two retired nuclear scientists reside in a quiet cabin while the outside world erupts in utter chaos. An old friend arrives, revealing a frightening request."
Why We're Excited: Mmm, post-apocalyptic mysterious drama! The Jungle is doing beautiful work and it's always a pleasure to see Stephen Yoakam in action. Plus, our Twin Cities Theater Blogger friends LOVED it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

2018 - Looking Back at the Year in Theater

2018 was another amazing year in Minnesota theater. After voting for the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers Awards (4th annual!), we still had a bit to say about what we loved this year.

Favorite Way to Binge Theater: The Festival 
Between our beloved Twin Cities Horror Festival, Great River Shakespeare Festival, American Players Theatre AND Mixed Blood's Prescient Harbingers festival, power theater-attending is our new favorite sport. Especially the hosts of these festivals are so welcoming and provide lovely venues and hospitality.

Favorite Way to Visit New Places: Site-Specific Theater
This year alone we saw High Fidelity at the Electric Fetus, Thomas Tallis in a church, Trojan Women at a taproom, Our House: A Capitol Play Project at the State Capitol AND The Haunting of Hill House AT. THE. HILL. HOUSE. Like you can get any better than that? Every one was beautifully produced in a setting that made the work even more meaningful and compelling.