Saturday, October 7, 2017

Monster at Swandive Theatre

I adore walking into a theater, seeing a fantastic set, and being super excited to see what's going to take place on that set.

In this case, the theater is the Southern, the set is by Sean McArdle and the play is Monster by Swandive Theatre. Monster is a world premiere by Minneapolis playwright Sam Graber, and plays through October 7.

Kelsey McMahon in Monster. That SET!
Photo from Swandive Theatre
Monster is a play about the dark beginnings of the World Wide Web, and the Director's Note (Meg Di Scionio) begins: "Do you ever think about what our lives would be like without the internet? Would the state of the world, our society, our individual days be better or worse if we weren't carrying around tiny pocket computers?"

Kelsey McMahon and Avi Aharoni
Photo from Swandive Theatre
We open on a dorm room in September 1994. Nessa (Jamie Fields) is psyched to start college and to have a roommate to join in her adventures. Brill (Kelsey McMahon), said roommate, is already entrenched in the room, tapping away at her computer, utterly absorbed to the exclusion of all else. Nessa doesn't appear to be concerned about Brill's obsession with her computer and with the vague threat that Brill obliquely refers to frequently, both to her and to RA Greg (Avi Aharoni). 

While Nessa has the traditional college experience of crushes, drinking to excess and studying, Brill does not get up from her computer due to a vague threat of what will happen if she leaves the computer, and what will happen if people see what's on her screen. 

It's an intriguing premise, but we spend too much time watching Brill freak out without having enough of a sense of what she is protecting the world from. Stronger characterization would have helped as well. Still, it's always exciting to see new plays from one of the many fabulous smaller theaters in the Twin Cities.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Man of La Mancha at Theater Latte Da

Theater Latte Da artistic director Peter Rothstein knows what his theater does best. They've got a great program for developing new musicals, but when they take on a classic--they give it their own unique and special spin. The new production of Man of La Mancha, playing through October 22 at the Ritz Theater, is a stellar example of their work.

A Broadway hit in 1965, followed by a generally-panned movie version in 1972, tells the story of Don Quixote de la Mancha, knight errant, and his adventures. Except that Quixote is actually a persona adopted by Alonso Quijano, an old Spanish gentleman. And Quijano is a role played by Miguel de Cervantes, who was the writer of the original book Don Quixote.

Photo by Allen Weeks
In the musical, Cervantes is an itinerant actor and storyteller who runs afoul of the Spanish Inquisition. While waiting to be called before the authorities, he tells the story of Don Quixote.
The original musical has a framing device for its play within the play. Generally, this is a 17th-century dungeon filled with assorted prisoners.

Martín Solá and Zach Garcia
Photo by Allen Weeks
For this iteration, Rothstein and scenic designer Michael Hoover have created a modern monstrosity: an ugly cinder-block waiting room where people are being held, with their belongings, for no discernible reason. Whether this is an immigration detention center or some other place, it is cold, impersonal, and dehumanizing. The inmates do not speak to one another, each experiencing their private sadness, fear, or anger.

A guard brings in new people who seem to have not yet had their enthusiasm dimmed by their circumstances. We learn that Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant are traveling performers, and that no one knows how long they may be held. Although the words of the play are unchanged, setting it in this familiar place makes everything feel very immediate for the contemporary audience.

Jon-Michael Reese and cast of Man of La Mancha
Photo by Allen Weeks
One prisoner, calling himself the Governor (Andre Shoals), states that the new arrival will be tried by his fellow prisoners, forfeiting his belongings if he does not make a good impression on them. Cervantes proceeds to tell the story of an old man, Alonso Quijano, who has become obsessed with knights and chivalry, and adopts the persona of Don Quixote de la Mancha, knight errant. He roams the countryside fighting imaginary dangers--he's where we got the idea of "tilting at windmills"--and righting the wrongs he finds along the way.

Cervantes as Quixote is played by New York actor Martín Solá, who recently appeared in On Your Feet, the Broadway show about Gloria Estefan's life. He sings beautifully, and is perfect in all aspects of his character from the prisoner to the knight to the old man.

Zach Garcia is his ideal foil as Quixote's squire and friend Sancho Panza, touching with a gorgeous voice, and with a sweetness that allows him to sell "I Really Like Him" with utter sincerity. Meghan Kreidler is a perfect Aldonza. Very few actors can sell exasperated (and tough!) with as much charm as she.

The cast, as a whole, are marvelous. In a fantastically strong cast, Jon-Michael Reese (as Paco/The Padre) is a standout. His voice is clear and beautiful, and I hope to see him in many more productions.

Man of La Mancha is not a show that gets revived often, but Theater Latte Da's gorgeous and ingenious production creates a heartrending link to the current day, while still showcasing the beauty and heart of this classic. And they make it look so easy.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Nether at the Jungle Theater

Stephen Yoakam and Mo Perry in The Nether
Photo by the amazing Dan Norman
I went into The Nether at Jungle Theater knowing nothing about the play or the production.

From the title, I was expecting some sort of spooky Irish drama like those by Conor McPherson (The Veil, The Weir). I left thinking much more of another Irishman, Martin McDonagh and an Englishman, Charlie Brooker, creator of the television series Black Mirror.

Like those creators' works, The Nether presents a dark view of humanity and our relationship to technology. I have struggled for days about how to write about this show. It's short, haunting, beautifully acted, and gorgeously designed. It's thought-provoking, but it's really best not to know too much going into it. And you should go see it.

Written by Jennifer Haley, and directed by Casey Stangl, The Nether premiered in Los Angeles in 2013. Although its subject is the fast-moving world of technology, this play feels brand-new. This play and production are a perfect representation of the Jungle Theater under Sarah Rasmussen, using all of the fabulous skills and craftsmanship of the Jungle on innovative new plays and productions. And it's written and directed by women. Yay!

Here are five things I utterly loved about The Nether.

1. The production and scenic design. Two wildly disparate settings which perfect encapsulate the main conflict of the play. Lighting, set, sound, projections--all exquisitely done. At times claustrophobic, at times jarring, and at other times utterly idyllic.

2. The cast. Stephen Yoakam, Mo Perry, Craig Johnson, Ella Freeburg, Jucoby Johnson. Amazing performers, all. Often the play consists just two actors on stage, as one is undergoing an interrogation, and their faces are projected above the stage, and it's a beautiful master class in subtlety.

3. The cast, part two. In one scene, Stephen Yoakam and Craig Johnson are alone on stage, and I can't think of a time I've seen these two alone on stage together before, which is astonishing. Now I would like them to star together (perhaps attached like Daisy and Violet in Side Show) in everything from now on.

4. The content. Again, no spoilers here--not even a hint. There is a fair amount of disturbing content, but the script and production handle this content so skillfully (and yet straightforwardly) that it's almost less palatable than it would be if it was more overt. The story itself is thought-provoking and relevant, told in a mysterious and enthralling fashion. This show brings up a lot of questions and provides no easy answers--which is rare and delightful.

5. The talkback. The Jungle's Stay Late program features talkbacks with the cast and/or creative. We were fortunate enough to have Stephen Yoakam and Mo Perry talking about their experiences with the play. This play cries out to be discussed, and the audience--who were utterly rapt during the show in a way I seldom see at the theater--were eager to engage in discussion.

Fantastic. Go see it, support the Jungle, discuss it with a friend!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Abominables at Children's Theatre Company

"Check it—
Can I be real a second?
For just a millisecond?
Let down my guard and tell the people how I feel a second?"
- Right Hand Man, Hamilton
About The Abominables at Children's Theatre Company ...

First of all, yay for new musicals! Hurrah for for the Children's Theatre Company for partnering with The Civilians, the fascinating NY-based "company that creates new theater from creative investigations into the most vital questions of the present" that brought us Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play and a host of other amazing sounding productions.

Secondly, but not secondarily, is the tragic passing of Michael Friedman, who wrote the music and lyrics for this show. Please read this lovely tribute to him by Sarah Larson at the New Yorker
"Michael Friedman, who died Saturday, at forty-one, was a brilliant and prolific composer and lyricist, a pianist, a thinker, a mile-a-minute talker, a gesticulator, a person who dazzled and could leave you dizzied—not just by his talent and intelligence but by his kindness and humanity, which were always at the forefront of his work."
With all that said, though, I wish I could give this show some love. But I need to be real (a second). I found this show really problematic.

Let's start at the very beginning. Here's the summary from the CTC website:
"Rink rats, hockey moms, tournament weekends and the quest to play your best – It’s tryout season in the Great State of Hockey! Mitch has always played on the A team for the Prairie Lake Blizzards – these are his guys – they've played together forever, but he's worried this could be the year he gets sent down to the B team. When a new “kid” appears at Bantam tryouts, things go from bad to worse. From the land of ice and nice comes the first Minnesota hockey musical! Will you love it? You betcha!"
Hockey! Musical! Minnesota-set! Fun fun, right? Not so much.

Mitch Munson (Henry Constable) has been practicing all summer for hockey tryouts, and convinces his friends to let him go out on the ice first, which, astonishingly enough, they do. He tries out but does not make the A team. A new family has moved to town with their yeti son, adopted from the Himalayas. (It turns out yetis are really good at hockey.) Harry, the yeti (Ryan Colbert), gets a spot on the A team, and Mitch gets a spot on the B team. Cue massive amounts of pouting and privilege from young Mitch, mostly at the expense of the new kid in town. Mitch does everything he can to try and bring Harry down, including finding his lost yeti parents, so they will take him away.

I've got two major concerns with this show.

The first is that the show is remarkably inconsistent and underwritten. Although the Civilians is notable for devising and creating their work as a group, Steve Cosson is credited as the writer.

We meet Mitch's parents, Ellen and Charlie (Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund), but we learn almost nothing about them except that she is a hockey mom (who likes to drink and be an A team parent) and he--I don't know. Does he support Mitch? Is he a toxic sport parent? Does he think Mitch is a lousy hockey player? Does he have shattered dreams from his own sporting youth? We get a hint of that near the end of the play, but not when we need it--in the beginning.

Our "hero", Mitch, is severely undercharacterized. He has practiced all summer. That is all we know about him, and yet we are expected to sympathize with him and with the journey he takes (eventually) to being less of a brat (in theory). I got to be honest: When a young, white, male character is expected to earn our interest and affection merely by existing, I can't help but feel that the playwright is considering the white male character to be the neutral default (see Steven Epp in Refugia). Apart from that, the character is just a complete whiny little creep.

Oh, and Mitch has two younger sisters: Tracy (the always delightful Natalie Tran) and Lily (an engaging Valerie Wick), neither of whom gets nearly the attention that Mitch does, despite the fact that Tracy is a great hockey player. A particularly infuriating scene has Mitch breaking Tracy's trophy (which she was sharing with another player due to their excellent teamwork) with no repercussions whatsoever. It is never referred to again, nor is Tracy's admirable sportsmanship. Certainly not by the parents. A note: Having the script acknowledge that these characters get less attention does not get you a pass on shortchanging their stories. And when Lily gets lost in the snow because her parents have again ignored their daughters, she saves herself and others with intelligence and competence that literally no one even comments on.

Let's meet Mitch's arch-enemy, shall we? Harry the yeti (a delightful and poignant Ryan Colbert) and his parents (Bradley Greenwald and Elise Benson), as well as son Freddy (adorable and winning Alejandro Vega) have just moved to town so that Harry can play hockey and make friends. Wait, what? A yeti? Explain how.

APPARENTLY, Hank and Judy, mountain-climbers/television stars/authors/etc., were climbing in the Himalayas and found a young Yeti and took him home and named him Harry. Although we are told Hank and Judy are selfish, self-centered egotists, apparently they care enough about their son to bring him to Minnesota to play hockey and make friends.

And here's where everything gets just a little bit more complicated. Having recently seen The Sneetches at CTC, I know that children's theater often has deeper and more substantial themes than one might find at face value.

Hank and Judy are human, and Harry is a yeti. He is constantly referred to as "other" and especially so when Mitch takes so strongly against him and refers to his adopted status derisively. Even his parents consider him as "other" and highlight his differences from his human teammates. Part of Mitch's plan to get back on the A Team involves him contacting Harry's yeti parents, who come to town and accuse Hank and Judy of stealing their son.

Seriously, how can you not see this as a depiction of transracial adoption? Or at the very least, an incredibly problematic portrayal of adoption in general.

The yeti parents have no names. Hank and Judy are portrayed by white actors and their adopted son is portrayed by an actor of color. Stephanie Bertumen plays a variety of anonymous characters, with far less dialogue than her counterpart Doug Nethercott. And far more ridiculous wigs.

I truly don't know what to make of this musical. If it's truly a light-hearted hockey musical, it at least needs to tell us what these characters want and need. What drives them? What is our happy ending? Why can't we resolve a few problems? Why isn't it more fun? If it's something more serious, then tackle those issues. I literally think the writer did not consider the implications of portraying adoption and certainly transracial adoption in this way. But that's no excuse, especially for the Children's Theatre, which generally does pay attention to issues like these.

One last note: CTC does have a content advisory page for the play, and it includes this statement:
Special note: This production contains potentially triggering situations surrounding adoption. If you and/or your child have adoptive experiences, please contact the ticket office...
That doesn't seem to be enough. Putting together new work is hard, but especially when creating a new play for and about children, I'd hope that the creative team would be on the lookout for problems like these.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In the Heights at the Ordway

As we may have mentioned, we love Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway show, In the Heights. Why I Love In the Heights (and you should, too)

So we were excited when the show was announced as one of this season's Ordway Originals. And it's finally here!

A little background for those who may not have heard of the immensely talented Mr. Miranda. He's got a little show on Broadway (and in Chicago, and Los Angeles, soon to be touring the United States and opening on London's West End) called Hamilton. Before writing the Tony-winning, Pulitzer Prize-winning hip hop musical about the founding of the United States, Miranda penned and starred in In the Heights. If you are a Hamilfan, you really should see this show.

Debra Cardona and Justin Gregory Lopez as
Abuela Claudia and Usnavi (photo: Rich Ryan)

In the Heights is an original story, not based on a movie or a book, but on the lives of ordinary people living and working in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Washington Heights at the north end of Manhattan. As gentrification spreads north, rising rents mean changes for everyone in the neighborhood.

The Ordway's coproduction with Teatro del Pueblo, directed and choreographed by James Rocco and Alberto Justiniano, brings this community to vibrant life for an all-too-brief run (ending September 24). The cast is excellent, with Justin Gregory Lopez leading the ensemble as Usnavi, the role originated by Lin-Manuel Miranda on Broadway. Lopez, seen in last year's Ordway production of Paint Your Wagon, has the perfect blend of bravado and sweetness. Val Nuccio nails the beauty and personality of Usnavi's crush, Vanessa. The whole cast is wonderful, and it was delightful to see Lauren Villegas, recently Jesus Christ Superstar's Mary Magdalene, in a completely different role as the outspoken salon owner, Daniela. Stephen Scott Wormley as Benny and Debra Cardona as Abuela Claudia have great voices and presence.

The cast of In the Heights (photo: Rich Ryan)
The excellent nine-member orchestra keeps the music moving, and there is some terrifically energetic dancing, most impressively from Brian Bose as Graffiti Pete. With a compelling array of characters and plotlines, In the Heights is a joyous celebration of life, love, and community that makes you think about the true meaning of home.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

DUNGEON - MN Fringe 2017


By Hit the Lights! Theater Co.
Created by Hit the Lights! Theater Co.
Playing at Jungle Theater
Physical theater/Clowning, Puppetry, Sci-fi/Mystery/Horror, First-time Minnesota Fringe Festival producer, Actors' Equity participants, National/international company

A young man falls into the unknown to rescue the thing he holds most dear. Inspired by kabuki, video games, horror movies, and pixar shorts, DUNGEON builds a world where darkness speaks louder than the light.

I should say, the audience LOVED this show. LOVED it. Me? Not so much. Although the use of puppetry and shadow work was inventive, this show felt like a rough draft. The story was pretty weak, the visuals not quite matching up as intended, and some genuinely confusing moments. What the heck was that lantern thing? Some ingenious ideas to be sure, and I'm intrigued by their work, but it didn't come together for me. I kept thinking of Davey Steinman and his show Basement Creatures, and how well it handled so much of the same material. Note to self: What's Davey Steinman doing these days?

Stranger-er Things: Netflix and Kill - MN Fringe 2017

By Turd Spout Productions
Created by Tom Reed
Playing at Phoenix Theater
Solo show, Sci-fi/Mystery/Horror
Warnings: Adult language.

Parody powerhouse Tom Reed hilariously reenacts season one of "Stranger Things" in a one-man musical romp. This nostalgia and pop culture-infused horror cranks the comedy to Eleven and will leave you dying.

I've seen maybe two episodes of Stranger Things, but my friend Cherry and Spoon LOVES Tom Reed, so we checked it out. Despite not knowing much about the source material, this show was hilarious. This two-man show features Tom Reed acting out all of the characters and situations in the first season of Stranger Things, accompanied by Jon Pumper on the piano. Of course, Tom Reed was energetic and very funny, but we loved watching Jon Pumper accompany Reed and his deadpan reaction shots. I swear, it was nearly as good as watching Reed. Again, these are two more to watch for these fairly Fringe newbies!