Thursday, June 25, 2015

Choir Boy at the Guthrie

The Guthrie Dowling Studio season began in September with a Pillsbury House Theater/Mount Curve Company co-production of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, the final installment in his Brother/Sister Plays trilogy. We enjoyed that production, and anxiously awaited the Guthrie's production of McCraney's new play, Choir Boy.

McCraney's script takes us into the fictional Charles R. Drew Preparatory School, a historically black boarding school with an acclaimed choir that helps to support the institution. The student leader of the choir is Pharus (John-Michael Lyles), whose homosexuality is tolerated grudgingly by Headmaster Marrow (the always-terrific James Craven). Through the school year, Pharus tries to drag the choir (Nathan Barlow, Ryan Colbert, Darrick Mosley, and Kory LaQuess Pullam) into shape while dealing with antagonistic classmates and more complicated relationships. 

I knew the play included music, having seen this wonderful clip of the New York cast:

James Craven (Headmaster Marrow) and John-Michael Lyles (Pharus).
Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp
But I was surprised at the amount of music, and the way it was woven through the story and the staging, frequently happening during the seamless scene changes.

The vocal arrangements by Sanford Moore are wonderful, and the actors' beautiful voices ring out through the theater without accompaniment, beyond the rhythms stomped on the stage, pounded on chairs, and beat-boxed. Austene Van is credited as movement consultant, but the beautifully coordinated moves of the choir looked a whole lot like dance to me.

The cast are all just wonderful, including Robert Dorfman as a past headmaster who comes back to teach the feuding choir some lessons in life as well as literature. The action plays out on Michael Hoover's set, which puts us in the classroom, the headmaster's office, the shower room, a dorm room, and other locations on campus with minimal shifting of furniture and evocative lighting by Ryan Connealy.

Peter Rothstein's staging keeps the 90-minute one-act moving smoothly, but his best work is with the dialogue. McCraney's script is very musical, with cadence and rhythm and poetry, which in this production sounds both like everyday speech and like great oratory. I enjoyed the language so much that I picked up a copy of the script in the gift shop and was a bit surprised to find the formatting rather like poetry, suggesting the rhythm of the speeches right on the page. But delivering those words in such an elegant and yet earthy way cannot be easy, though Rothstein and his cast make it seem effortless.

In short (too late!), this is a terrific production of a moving, funny, and above all, musical play, and I'm so glad I got to see it! See it. You'll be entertained, enlightened, and very glad you got to experience Choir Boy.
John-Michael Lyles (Pharus), Ryan Colbert (A.J.), Nathan Barlow (David), Darrick
Mosley (Bobby), and Kory LaQuess Pullam (Junior). Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review: Once at the State Theatre

Music, passion and community.

Many saw the film Once and saw it as a love story that also dealt with the power of music. Then it was noted that the film may have been semi-biographical about the relationship between Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Once then became a best selling soundtrack, was nominated for two Grammy Awards, and also won the 2007 Academy Award for best original song for "Falling Slowly." Finally it became a Broadway show - winning eight Tony Awards (including Best Musical), along with a Grammy Award for the cast recording.

Honestly, I wasn't taken with the film. I thought it was sweet and charming but something about it didn't really work for me. Of course, I enjoyed the music but I didn't really see the passion in the film. There were awkward moments, and charming moments but nothing that really caught my attention, or moved me. And while I did listen to the soundtrack a few times, it wasn't all that inspiring or moving to me.

 Then I saw this on the Tony Awards.

I was moved to tears. That clip right there tells you almost everything you want to know about the show before seeing it. It is folksy, has a small yet incredibly talented cast, abstract choreography that works magic and it is clearly about the passion for music and the passion for kindred souls.

Seeing the show last night, there was so much that I was taken with. The audience is invited on stage before the show and during intermission to grab a drink from the onstage bar and get immersed in the set. The set is a semi-circular Irish pub set with a bar at the back. Above it on all three sides are brick walls set in a square - giving the impression that you are seeing the back of the theatre space, as well as giving a sense (to me) of being blocked, stuck with no escape. Towards the start of the show the cast comes on and mingles with the audience. They then turn to the folks still on stage and start playing songs. As the audience trickles off the stage and to their seats, the cast turns and starts playing to the full house. They each take turns playing a song, and finally they turn to one guy who says he doesn't really have anything to play - and yet he starts playing "Leave". The house lights slowly go down and the show has begun. What a fantastic way to start. It creates a bond between the audience and the cast right away and the cast never leaves the stage. They sit in chairs along the sides and provide additional instrumentation, and backing vocals when needed. They also provide underscoring for certain scenes in the most imaginative and simple ways.

I think this is the heart of this show. It tells a simple story about the power of music to bring folks together. It also shows how the support and belief of one person can make a huge impact in another persons life, and by doing so - impact them both. The lead characters have no names. Stuart Ward plays "Guy" while Dani de Waal plays "Girl." They both have fantastic voices and great stage presence. The character of "Girl" is Czech, and there are some portions of the show where the characters are speaking in Czech. However they actually speak in English with Czech supertitles show above the bar. I found this to be a wonderful way to show the difference in language. Simple and imaginative.

I could write a few more paragraphs about the wonder that is this show. It is moving and funny and powerful. It is simple and grand. It has some of the most beautiful vocal arrangements I have heard in a long time - the acapella version of "Gold" in Act Two is quiet and stunning. Suffice it to say that Once is a show that you will enjoy, if not love. And if you love the movie, you will LOVE the stage show.

note: all photos by Joan Marcus

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Damn Good Production - Damn Yankees at the Ordway

There are so many things to love about Damn Yankees at the Ordway--where to start?  First of all, go see it now as it runs only through June 28th, which is shockingly short for such a great production.

Did you go buy tickets? I'll wait here. Let me know when you're back.

Got 'em?  Great! In a nutshell: Damn Yankees is a variation on the Faust legend and has a middle-aged baseball fan selling his soul (to "Mr. Applegate") for a chance to play on his favorite team (the Washington Senators) and the chance to help them beat those "damn Yankees."

Damn Yankees is a truly classic musical, first running on Broadway in 1955. With music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, Book and direction by George Abbott, and choreography by one Bob Fosse, this was a follow-up to The Pajama Game, which featured much of the same creative team.

(BTW, did you know there's a longtime jinx about shows dealing with baseball and Damn Yankees broke it by being a hit?  True story.  I learned it from Stanley Green, who knows everything about Broadway Musicals.)

The Ordway's production is a sure-fire hit. It's an absolutely delightful evening of magical musical theater that features a cast of local favorites and some marvelous new faces. It's a fabulous production, just as their production of A Christmas Story was last year, and I love the trend of these amazing homegrown productions that feature and employ such amazing local talent. Yay!

Above all else for me, though, what stands out for this show is the wonderful cast.

Lawrence Clayton (as middle-aged Joe Boyd) and Thay Floyd (as young Joe Hardy) not only have gorgeous voices (I mean, GORGEOUS, in ways I am not qualified to explain), but they both have chemistry for days with Meg Boyd (the wife Joe leaves behind to play baseball, played beautifully by Ann Morrison). Their relationships are realistic and touching and provide a whole lot of heart.

I love a man in uniform. (Allen Fitzpatrick, Randy Schmeling,
Dieter Bierbrauer and Reid Harmsen)
Speaking of heart, a local triumvirate (I just really like using that word) of talent is included in the Washington Senators: Dieter Bierbrauer, Randy Schmeling, and Reid Harmsen. Add in Allen Fitzpatrick as the coach Van Buren, and from the second number ("Heart"), it's clear this is going to be a standout production. I love when a well-known number is performed so skillfully and so authentically that it feels like a whole new song. And I could watch Randy Schmeling and Dieter Bierbrauer sing together all day any day. They knock "The Game" out of the park. (That is a baseball reference, right?)

On the evil side of things, Monte Riegel Wheeler plays the hell out of Mr. Applegate. You can not take your eyes off him, and he adds a whole other level of humor to his material. He's so over-the-top, but it works perfectly. (He wears a few red suits to death as well).

Are those not two AMAZING theater faces?
(Tari Kelly and Monte Riegel Wheeler)
His handmaiden Lola is played by Tari Kelly, who came through town a few years ago in a tour of Little Shop of Horrors, in which she was a vulnerable and sweet Audrey (far better than Kerry Butler, who had just played it on Broadway). Every inch of the role of Lola has Gwen Verdon written all over it, but Kelly gave it her own spin and welcome depth.

Oh my gosh, and I haven't even mentioned Kersten Rodau as the publicist Gloria Thorpe, with her amazing voice, which feels utterly effortless, or Regina Marie Williams, who makes the most of the wit and charm in her role as Sister, or the adorable Mario Esteb as Joe's Fan Club.

In case I didn't mention it before, this is a terrific production that also happens to feature a racially diverse cast. There's a fascinating Casting Note in the program about the casting of African American males in the lead roles, and the interracial marriage of Joe and Meg. The Ordway continues this conversation with displays in the lobby that feature the integration of baseball, including a few local ball clubs, as well as featured talkbacks.

Beautifully done, Ordway. Can't wait until your next production!

Friday, June 19, 2015

I Shall Be Redeemed: Wise Blood at The Soap Factory (Guest Post!)

In the entire canon of literary fiction, the novel Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor would surely be placed in a special section of the exceedingly bizarre, as would all the work of this enigmatic author. The tale in many ways defies description, which brings us to The Soap Factory's retelling of the novel as an immersive opera (co-presented and co-commissioned by Walker Art Center.)

Flannery O’Connor wrote in a Southern Gothic style, creating grotesque characters, many of whom are in spiritual crisis and searching for redemption and truth. In Wise Blood, the damaged Hazel Motes rejects common religious beliefs and sets out to establish an anti-­religious ministry in a small southern town full of equally eccentric and colorful characters. First off, the production was probably the most bizarre and unique theater experience that I have ever had. It’s important to note that I didn’t say best.

As you probably know, The Soap Factory is a 130-year-old warehouse. Wise Blood is billed as an opera exhibition and consists of set installation pieces created marvelously by Chris Larson, around which the whole production revolves. The audience is invited to take the journey with Hazel Motes as we travel, directed by volunteers, from one set piece to another as the story unfolds.

The orchestra also has various sites situated near and sometimes farther back from these installations, so they are on the move, as well. For most of the 90-minute presentation the audience is standing. They did have benches set up where one could sit down for some of the longer scenes. The thing is, you never knew exactly where the action was going to occur. Sometimes the actors would be right in front of you or in the middle of the audience, other times they may be up on a platform or in a railroad car or automobile, which would be moved alongside the audience by stage techs.

One interesting set piece was the boarding house, where Hazel stayed. The beds were tilted upward at an angle where the performer could stand on the bottom base board and he appeared to be lying down on the bed. The show also used some rear projection, which was a good thing, when you might have wandered to a spot in the warehouse where it was difficult to see because you were too far removed from the action.

The production was for the most part well sung, with special shout outs to baritone Brian ​Major and tenor Martin Bakari, composer David Lee Echelard, and Anthony Gatto and the Adam Meckler Orchestra. The music at times seemed discordant and jarring and even overbearing, but fit the tone of O’Connor’s dark and gloomy tale. One peculiar thing is that the actors used hand mikes, which lent an odd note. Also, I think it would be good for patrons to do some homework for this type of performance beforehand in order to familiarize yourself with the storyline. It was too difficult to read the scene descriptions in the program in the dim theater lighting. The words to the songs were also hard to decipher at times, even though they were in English. It would be impossible, however, to project them anywhere, with the audience on the move. The more one knew about the piece beforehand the better off the theater experience would be. I only had a vague recollection of the novel and the John Huston film (1979) but it was enough to get the gist of the crazy, upside down world of Flannery O’Connor in a extremely unique presentation.

Despite any quibbles, just being a part of this marvelously unique show was special enough for me! I’d recommend an immersive show like this one in the future for a unique theatrical experience. (Contributed by rickjallen)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Romantic Summer Opera - La Rondine at Skylark Opera

 I'm going to say it flat out: I love Skylark Opera.

I love musical theater, I love opera, and like peanut butter and chocolate, if you put them together, you get perfection in the form of operetta. Almost no one in town is performing operetta right now, so I feel especially grateful for Skylark Opera. Even if they decide to forego the operetta this year for flat-out (albeit light) opera and musical theater.

There is just something about Skylark Opera's summer festival that warms my theatergoing heart, which I couldn't help but ponder as I watched La Rondine and Putting It Together.

The runs are amazingly limited, and seem to always take place on the most beautiful warm summer's night, or afternoon. But I never regret the time I spend in the intimate E.M. Pearson Theater. There's something about the simple sets, the gorgeous lighting (often by local genius Michael Wangen), the exquisite orchestra with musical direction and conducting by Artistic Director Steve Stucki, and the marvelously talented casts. As I watched this summer's shows, I was suffused with warm memories of other amazing Skylark shows I've loved in the past like The Desert Song, Wonderful Town and She Loves Me, as well as too many charming operettas to count.

This year's festival kicked off for us with Puccini's La Rondine (The Swallow).  Here's the gist from Skylark:
From the creator of La Bohéme comes the story of Magda, who flees her luxurious life as the mistress of a wealthy banker for the hope of true love. Sung in English, this first-ever Twin Cities production marries operetta’s romance with opera’s deep emotion, and features some of the most sumptuous music Puccini ever wrote.
 A slight personal digression: The first time I ever remembering hearing opera was in the gorgeous 1986 film A Room with a View, which had two arias sung by Kiri Te Kanawa, which led me into loving opera. Thank you, Merchant-Ivory! I had forgotten that one of the arias was La Rondine's "Chi il Bel Sogno di Doretta," which is so beautifully sung, so beautifully timed, that I will forever associate opera with beauty and kissing Julian Sands in a field of poppies while wearing a gorgeous dress. (The other aria? The also gorgeous "O Mio Babbino Caro.") Relive the magic here:

Skylark's production of La Rondine absolutely lives up to the promise of its gorgeous first aria (as heard above.) Directed by Ben Krywosz, simply staged, beautifully lit, wonderfully acted, and with gorgeous orchestration and singing, this is the perfect opera for a summer's night. Cecilia Violetta Lopez as Magda sang exquisitely--seemingly effortlessly--and acted the role with ease and emotion. Her voice was one of the best I've ever heard on a Minnesota stage, and she'll be on my to-watch list from now on. Won Whi Choi as her suitor Ruggero balanced a youthful aspect (in keeping with the story) and a solid and thrilling baritone. They were a lovely and thrilling romantic pairing. One more standout for me was the engaging Norman Shankle as the poet Prunier. In addition to having a gorgeous voice, Shankle was a marvelous comedian and had a wonderful stage presence. Add to this a lovely chorus with gorgeous voices, and a romantic story, well acted and sung, and it's a lovely opera for your summer's night.  Go quick!  It only plays through June 21.

(Power tip: For the fascinating backstory on this rarely performed opera, check out Ben Krywosz's Director's Notes in the program.) 

Sophisticated Summer Musical - Putting It Together at Skylark Opera

Because I've had this in my head since I saw the show ...
Bit by bit,
Putting it together...
Piece by piece-
Only way to make a work of art.
Every moment makes a contribution,
Every little detail plays a part.
Having just a vision's no solution,
Everything depends on execution:
Putting it together-
That's what counts!
Well said, Stephen Sondheim! Putting It Together is a marvelous musical revue that left me pondering which cast album I'd be racing home to listen to.  (Verdict: A Little Night Music, followed by Merrily We Roll Along.)

A quick description from Skylark:
Experience Sondheim’s clever musical exploration of two relationships — one budding and one mid-marriage — at once witty and tender, set at an elegant Manhattan cocktail party. Songs culled from familiar shows like Sweeney ToddInto the Woods, and Merrily We Roll Along illuminate Sondheim’s keen understanding of how we think, interrelate, and protect ourselves from heartbreak.

Photo by Matt Bellin

Written specifically for Julie Andrews as a star vehicle and put together by Sondheim himself with Julia McKenzie and longtime orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, this is a smooth, sophisticated, and cohesive musical revue, fabulously performed by five wonderful singers and actors, who like the greatest of musical theater actors, not only sing the songs, but act the hell out of them. Although it is a musical revue, their skill (and Sondheim's) creates character through songs that gives wonderful amounts of depth.

The outstanding performer here is Emily Gunyou Halaas, who is frequently seen on Twin Cities stages, but who knew she could sing, too? She is a revelation in the role created for Julie Andrews, bringing a legitimate sound and serious acting chops to each and every song. But each performer contributes something unique to the revue. Paul Coate, a veteran of the Skylark stage, is hilarious as the observer who both takes part in the story and explains it, mostly through one-word or phrase introductions to scenes. Jeffrey Madison is charming as the husband with a wandering eye, and his real-life wife Vicki Fingalson is assured and feisty as half of the younger couple. Her counterpart is Gabriel Preisser, who displays both a wonderfully rich voice and a light comic touch.

Each of the performers has at least one standout number, which I won't share here. Part of the fun of this kind of revue is listening for the next song and realizing how it fits with the scenario. Many plays are represented in addition to the ones listed above, including A Little Night Music, Company, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, and more. There are rather too many songs from the film Dick Tracy, but I blame that on the timing of the revue, just a few years after Sondheim wrote songs for the comic-book movie.

Without an actual plot, the clearly defined characters and cleverly chosen songs create a flow that carries the show along, merrily. Sondheim's songs are witty and wise, many with new or slightly revised lyrics to fit the situation. But most of the songs work perfectly with their original words intact. For someone who wasn't in long-term relationships until fairly late in life, Sondheim wrote more than almost anyone about relationships and especially marriage. He illuminates not just the beginnings and endings of love affairs, but the sometimes murky time between, with humor and empathy.

Putting It Together is an effervescent evening with five wonderful performers and their terrific band providing the perfect entertainment for a summer's evening. It runs just one more weekend, through June 20, so get your tickets now!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Taking the Leap: H2O at Gremlin Theatre

As an audience member, sometimes you just take a leap into a show you know nothing about and find out where it takes you. Gremlin Theatre's H2O was a little like that for me. In recent seasons, Gremlin's work has been consistently interesting enough to make their next show a must-see, even before reading anything about it.

The premise was intriguing: Jake, a loose-cannon movie star, decides to prove himself in a Broadway production of Hamlet. Deborah is an evangelical Christian and struggling actress who is trying to fulfill the calling she heard from Jesus in the New York Public Library.

Jake's fame entitles him to casting approval, which he uses to audition actresses for Ophelia, Hamlet's doomed love. When Deborah turns up at his apartment for the audition, she is immediately drawn into Jake's dysfunctional life. In spite of himself, Jake is fascinated with Deborah and her firm beliefs, while she sees the prospect of a high-profile job and perhaps the possibility of saving a soul along the way.

Everything about director Ellen Fenster's production, from the costumes and lights to the four "essentials" who smoothly facilitate costume and set changes, keeps the focus on the characters and their ideas. The two speaking roles are brilliantly inhabited by Peter Christian Hansen and Ashley Rose Montondo. Jake and Deborah are both changed by the relationship, which is clear in the terrific script by Jane Martin as well as in the performances.

Although the play is quite intense, deals with some very deep subjects, and refers quite a bit to the script of Hamlet, it is also very funny. H2O is a new play, which premiered in 2013 at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in West Virginia and was hailed as a "masterpiece" by the MD Theatre Guide. We are very fortunate to experience this new piece in such an exceptional production. Although the play runs just 90 minutes, the impact reverberates long after the show ends.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Summer Theater Preview - Greater Minnesota!

We all know that the Twin Cities are teeming with theaters, but there's also a heck of a (heckuva?) lot of wonderful theater in greater Minnesota. Why not combine a lovely Minnesota day or overnight trip with a visit to one of these great theater companies? Here are a few upcoming summer shows that you should definitely add to your Explore Minnesota list!

(By the way, I was inspired to research this preview by Cherry and Spoon's great Summer Theater Preview, and her inclusion of the Paul Bunyan Playhouse. Thanks, Cherry and Spoon! Love ya!)

Heading north and west? Check out Theatre L’Homme Dieu in Alexandria, who have an amazingly full line-up of shows you may have missed the first time around. First up, River Songs and Tales with Mark Twain (June 23-28), performed by the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers and starring Don Shelby as Mark Twain, it's a musical journey celebrating life on the Mississippi of past and present.

Then, joy of joys, a second chance to catch Yellow Tree Theatre's acclaimed production of next to normal (July 7-12), the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning rock opera that tells the story of a mother battling bipolar disorder and the effect the illness has on her family. Another local favorite follows, 2 Sugars, Room for Cream (July 14-19), written, produced, directed, and performed by Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool.

Another play that I regret missing here in the Cities is Nature, produced by TigerLion Arts (July 21-26). Written by Tyson Forbes (recently so amazing in TTT's Unsinkable Molly Brown), this is a mythic telling of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s and Henry David Thoreau’s mutual love affair with the natural world--performed outdoors as a “walking play.” So cool. I also heard great things about Daleko Arts of New Prague and their production of Little Shop of Horrors, the Menken/Ashman musical (August 4-9). Check it out!

Head north and west to the Paul Bunyan Playhouse in beautiful Brainerd. The five shows in their summer season all sound great. First up? I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (June 3-13), where four actors play forty roles in a hilarious musical that skewers everything from first dates to marriage. The Underpants by Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin (June 17-27) includes unsatisfied wives, idiotic bureaucrats and wardrobe malfunctions.

And yes! Another second chance at a show I missed. How did I not know I could relive theater magic in greater MN? Prints by John Middleton (July 1-11) was much buzzed about when it played in Minneapolis. Circa 1935, two reporters navigate their way through gangsters and crooked cops to find a kidnapped Hamm’s Brewery magnate in this sometimes dark, often hilarious play.

The season is rounded out by I Oughta Be in Pictures by Neil Simon (July 15-25), about a Hollywood screenwriter whose past is hitchhiking her way to his door. and finally, Monty Python's Spamalot by Eric Idle and John Du Prez (July 29-August 8), which includes killer rabbits, snarky Frenchmen and knights who say “Ni!” Check out the season preview below:

Going all the way up to the big lake? Spend a little time at the Duluth Playhouse! First up, Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (June 4-14), a Chekhovian themed farce (if you like that kind of thing--I was not sold by the Guthrie's production.) Then the old favorite Guys & Dolls, which is sure to be a good, fun time (July 16-August 2).

I'm a little more intrigued by Duluth Playhouse's Underground Season, including Game Show (June 18-20 and 25-27), a zany play written by Jeffrey Finn and Bob Walton, where audience members have a chance to be a contestant of the game show and win actual prizes. Also, catch Behind the Shining Star, a family-friendly production that is a celebration of fun, childhood, lasting friendship and the music of Duluth's own Trampled by Turtles.

Don't feel like venturing too far?  Try Excelsior's Old Log Theatre, which is playing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas all summer long (June 12-August 29). This happy-go-lucky view of small town vice and statewide political side-stepping recounts the good times and the demise of the Chicken Ranch, known since the 1850s as one of the better pleasure palaces in all of Texas.

Head south to Red Wing, and check out the Sheldon Theatre. Built in 1904, and the first municipally owned theater in the United States, the theater was restored in the 1980s to its original glory. Catch the musical Oliver!, presented by Phoenix Theatre, from July 9 through July 19.

Further south, you'll find Rochester Repertory Theater, which is showing Tribute, a comedy by Bernard Slade (June 26-27 & July 2-3, 9-11). Scottie Templeton is a charming, irresponsible guy, a sometime Broadway press agent and former scriptwriter who has spent his life shirking responsibility. When he discovers he is terminally ill, he attempts to reconnect with his long-estranged son. (Thanks for the summary and the image, Wikipedia!)

Heading even further south will lead you to Commonweal Theatre Company, "Lanesboro's professional theatre company telling soulful stories with honesty and creativity in Southeast Minnesota since 1989." Ibsen's The Master Builder (adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher) is playing now through June 13; Woody Guthrie's American Song plays now through September 28; or check out Charley's Aunt from June 19 through October 26. (Also, plan ahead for their fall offerings!)

Want more info about theaters in Minnesota? The Minnesota Theater Alliance has a handy-dandy list, which includes locations and links. And although these are professional theaters, sometimes the most charming productions are found by looking for signs around town!

Happy traveling and happy theatergoing!

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Gospel of Lovingkindness at Pillsbury House Theatre

The Gospel of Lovkingkindness. Photo of Thomasina Petrus and Namir Smallwood connected by the Chicago skyline.
I saw The Gospel of Lovingkindness at Pillsbury House Theatre nearly a week ago, and I still haven't absorbed it completely.

I'll tell you this, though. As soon as it ended, I was making plans to see it again.

Set in Chicago in 2012-2013, The Gospel of Lovingkindness is about the murder of a young man, the reasons and aftermath of that murder, and the events leading up to it. The play moves back and forward through time, and the full cast of characters is played by just four amazing actors--Namir Smallwood plays both the perpetrator and the victim of the murder, and Thomasina Petrus plays Mary, the grieving mother of Manny, the murdered boy. Aimee K. Bryant and James A. Williams. play all the other roles, creating distinct characters in each scene.

This is the second play by Marcus Gardley that I have seen at Pillsbury House Theatre (they did the road weeps, the well runs dry in 2013) and I love his way with language. Conversations between characters sound authentic, whether between coworkers or between sons and their mothers. But Gardley sometimes lets his language soar poetically, as in a description of peach cobbler, delivered by James A. Williams, that made my mouth water. Heightened language also conveys the depths of sadness experienced by both mothers.

Language is not the only tool this play uses to tell the story. Director Marion McClinton uses the spare set to great effect, and creates seamless transitions between scenes, locations, and times. And one of the most moving scenes is nearly wordless, as Petrus breaks down after Manny's death, to devastating effect.

Although the subject matter, partly based on actual events, is grave and incredibly timely, there's a surprising amount of humor in this play, and even a little magic realism when Bryant appears as famed journalist and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells. I'm hesitant to say any more, as part of the joy of Gardley's work are his unexpected parallels and allegories, which are best discovered in the theater.

I'll say this, though: It's playing through June 28. Don't miss it. See it twice.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Shakespeare for All - Twelfth Night by Mu Performing Arts

Photo credit: Rich Ryan Photography
Mu Performing Arts' new production of Twelfth Night, playing through June 14 at Mixed Blood Theatre, is a must-see. I repeat, a must-see.

As adapted and directed by Mu's artistic director, Randy Reyes, it's a whirlwind 99 minutes of music, laughs, love, and mischief.

Twelfth Night is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and I wasn't sure how it would fit into less than two hours, but this adaptation keeps the scenes that are necessary to the story, and most of what was left behind is not missed.

The show begins with music, as is appropriate for a play that begins, "If music be the food of love, play on." The Asian-influenced score, composed and directed by Jason Hansen, involves the entire cast at times, but primary musical duties come from the four-woman chorus, providing amazing a capella vocals with accents of percussion, and from Reyes, who plays ukelele and sings as a charming Feste. The chorus adds atmosphere and comments on the actions of the play throughout, and though it was a style I'm not familiar with, it was beautiful.

The plot is timeless: Girl survives shipwreck, pretends to be boy to work for a Duke, who sends the boy (girl) to woo his beloved, a lady who falls in love with the girl, who is also in love with the Duke. That old story! Of course, in Shakespeare's day, all roles were played by men, so it seems appropriate that several of the male roles here are played by women.

The cast is uniformly terrific in all of their roles, but Stephanie Bertumen as Viola and Francesca McKenzie as Olivia are really wonderful. And Eric "Pogi" Sumangil and Alex Galick are hilarious as Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheeck. These can be characters where a little goes a long way, but not a moment of their stage time is wasted. Eric Sharp is a gloriously pompous Malvolio before his terrible comedown, and a tragic figure by the end of the play.

The production is low on pretension and high on physical comedy. Mixed Blood's stage includes a number of levels, with seating on two sides of the playing area, effectively placing the whole audience within a few rows of the stage and in full view of the other half of the audience. The many levels also allows Reyes to keep players on stage even for scenes they are not part of, and I loved watching their reactions to the action.

In another nod to Shakespeare's time, the cast, particularly Reyes as Feste, welcome the audience into the show with funny asides and a few contemporary uses of language that work very well. The comedy is performed with relish and not much reverence, but the love stories in the play are never lost in the laughs. I think this would be a wonderful first experience for anyone who hasn't seen much Shakespeare.  I would go so far as to say that if he were with us today, this is a show that the Bard himself would enjoy.

It's also a great introduction to Mu Performing Arts, and here's another one: Through the run of Twelfth Night, Mu is offering season tickets to their four-show 2015-2016 season for $50. It's a great deal, and a great way to make sure you're not missing the work of this wonderful company!

Trailer for Twelfth Night below!