Sunday, April 24, 2016

Six Characters in Search of an Author - Wonderlust Productions

Six Characters in Search of an Author, currently playing on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage at Park Square Theater (through May 8) is a fascinating, multi-layered work of meta-theater.

Alan Berks adapted this work from Luigi Pirandello's 1921 play (which you can read on the Internet, thank you Project Gutenberg!) and also directs the production.

Here's a snippet of the synopsis of the Pirandello play from
A stock company under the direction of their Manager and with the assistance of the Prompter and the Property Man is about to rehearse a play. Since there is a dearth of good French comedies, they have to fall back on a comedy by Pirandello, which, the Manager admits, is, as usual, quite incomprehensible. Just as rehearsal starts the Door Man interrupts. He is followed by a queer assortment of Characters who announce that they are looking for an author.

It appears that the author whose imagination has conceived them has decided against putting them in a drama. Their only chance to live is to find some author who is willing to put them in a play. The bewildered Manager finally consents to let the Characters live out their own story on the stage, while the Prompter takes down the parts in shorthand and the stock company stands round to pick up suggestions for proper interpretation.

The action proceeds accompanied by the attempts of the harassed Manager to keep it within the selective and arbitrary requirements of the stage, and by the insistent endeavors of the Characters to act out the whole of their internal struggle. (Here's the rest of the synopsis.)
This adaptation is set in the world of reality television, which allows Berks to comment on some of the tropes of the genre and on the artificiality of "reality" television.

Joe Wiener, Annika Wahlquist, and Paul LaNave, with Michael T. Brown
on monitor screen. (photo from Wonderlust facebook page)
The play begins in the control room on the set of The Maze, a Big Brother-like tv show, which is preparing for its live finale. Playgoers are the studio audience, watching the crew prepare for the show and being coached by the host (Joe Wiener) to applaud, boo and hiss. Banks of monitors show various views of the house, as well as footage from past episodes of the show.

In the midst of all this, the three remaining contestants burst into the control room, complaining about the game, the show, and each other. The Producer (Paul LaNave) tries to take back control of the proceedings without much success. Meanwhile, we gradually become aware of a strange group of people moving through the supposedly empty house--a wonderfully spooky effect.

The strangers enter the control room, and everything gets a bit surreal. They identify themselves as Characters (Adam Whisner, Sandra Struthers, Kiara Jackson and Gabriel Murphy) who have been abandoned by their author and are searching for someone to help them finish their story. To explain more would be too spoilery. Suffice it to say that the Characters (who are dressed in old-fashioned clothing and kind of otherworldly make-up, but don't appear to be of any specific era) are from the Pirandello play, and their stories are appropriately (and decidedly) complicated.

The beauty in this adaptation is the conceit of the Characters meeting the 'characters'--the contestants, who each fill a particular reality show niche. Rachel (Rachel Finch) is "the flirt", Sam (the wonderful and committed Sam Landman) is "the jerk," an outspoken racist/sexist stereotype. Sam's ill-informed barbs are mostly directed at "the dude," Michael (Michael T. Brown, whose frequent asides to the audience are hilarious). Although the reality show unsuccessfully tries to cast Michael as a thug, he's actually a gay, black man. I'm not sure the stereotyping has been totally averted here. There are tons of interesting observations here about the nature of "reality" television--I only wish they had been developed more fully. At points, those observations feel less like comment, and more like an excuse to have the characters behave in reprehensible ways, especially Sam. It's a very thin line to walk.

The reality show setup has some very nice touches, like the banks of monitors showing "camera angles" from the rest of the house, and the ability of the Techs (Gregory Adam and Annika Wahlquist) to turn their live cameras on the action and individuals. I loved the two Techs tweeting each other during the show, and the tweets being displayed on the monitors. The video showing what was happening in the rest of the house was very well done and integrated into the onstage action. (See the trailer for the reality show below.)

Elements of the Characters' stories are doled out in bits and pieces, and are so complicated as to make the story unclear, but that seems to have been the point in the original play. It's still kind of unusual to see a work of entertainment that doesn't spell out the whole story, but it gave me and my companions plenty to discuss after the show, as we all had different interpretations of what we saw. And hurrah for plays that make the audience think!

The performances by the cast were universally excellent, with the stylized portrayals of the Characters contrasting nicely with the other, more realistic, but equally dramatic, characters. Each actor plays a recognizable "type" but delves below the surface to make each player specific. No matter how confusing the plot becomes, the cast is rock-solid in maintaining each distinctive character. In addition to the work on stage, the actors had the added layer of performing in and reacting to the video from other rooms in the house, which is done seamlessly. Kudos to this talented group and Berks' direction.

Wonderlust Productions updated Berks' adaptation (originally performed in 2013 at Gremlin Theatre) with input from a residency at the University of Saint Thomas, where they asked how young people in our modern society interpret some of the questions asked by the play. Wonderlust has more community-driven projects coming up, including plays about the adoption experience and about being an employee at the state capitol. I look forward to seeing more of this newish company's work, given their unique take on this classic.

Check out the trailer for the play's "reality show:"

(Co-written by Carly and Jules)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Constellations at the Jungle Theater

Beekeeping and quantum mechanics mixed with the multiverse - that is what to expect when seeing Constellations at the Jungle Theater. This play is an amazing kaleidoscope of ideas, options, and chances all mixed into a two-person show. Written by Nick Payne, Constellations is about Roland (Ron Menzel) and Marianne (Anna Sundberg) who meet at a barbecue. Roland is a beekeeper while Marianne is a theoretical physicist - a very unlikely combination. There are several attempts at starting a conversation, each time the characters come to an impasse the scene starts again. When the conversation actually continues, the scene continues. In less talented hands this could look like a high school production of the "first date sketch" in which a bell rings each time the date doesn't work out.
Photo: Dan Norman

Lucky for us this incredible cast, under the precise direction of Gary Gisselman, transforms this work into an amazing show about two people and how each interaction changes their lives. Take the opening scene. Each time the characters come to an impasse the scene starts again. However we start to ask ourselves - is it the same characters making another attempt at connecting? Or is it the same characters in a different universe which creates the alternate outcome of the conversation? I felt the play showed multiple versions of events which really highlights how each choice we make affects our lives and the lives of others. The multiverse is the main through line to this show. That is not to say the characters don't have a storyline. It is fascinating and mesmerizing to watch these actors play similar scenes repeatedly but each scene is played slightly differently - either in attitude, or physicality, or small changes in the words. Roland and Marianne (in some universe) meet, date, are in a relationship, break-up (because she cheats multiple times, or he cheats once), meet again at a ballroom class (some very sweet and simple choreography from Myron Johnson), get married, and deal with death. In one universe there is possible abuse, in another there is a brain tumor in the frontal lobe that may or may not lead to assisted suicide. All I can really say is that this show provides a lot to think about while also providing laughs, sighs of romantic joy, tears, and simple wonder.

I have already mentioned that the cast and direction were singular and incredible. The other thing that I have to mention is the set by Kate Sutton-Johnson. The directors note states "...a new play whose only stage direction is 'with every change of font there is a change of universe.' And there are sixty changes of font." How do you design for that? Sutton-Johnson found the perfect solution by creating a multi-level set with angles and curves through out. There are lines painted on the set, radiating in various directions. There are also metallic bands set across the top of the set, along the back and sides of the set creating an abstract sculpture for the actors to work on. Occasionally the bands would reflect light into the audience creating a shimmer - reminding us of the multitude of stars (and possible universes) in the sky at night. The program provides more insight into her process, along with some fantastic background to the science of the show, beekeeping, and a list of four books available at Magers & Quinn to further explore the ideas behind the play. I had an amazing, talk-creating experience watching Constellations. It plays through May 29th so there is plenty of time to see it, but if it gets reviews like it did on Broadway, I have a sense that the sooner the better.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunset Baby - Penumbra Theatre Company

Sunset Baby, is the last play in Penumbra Theatre's 2015-16 Revolution Love season. The play, by rising star Dominique Morisseau, is playing through Sunday, May 8.

Before we get to the play, can I just tell you what I love about Penumbra Theatre? I love that they've devoted their whole season to shows about social justice. I love the comprehensive "Dig Deep" resources and readings, and their thoughtful post-play discussions. I love their innovative Bookends, Let's Talk and Reel Talk programs, which provide even more of an opportunity for engagement. I even love their tee shirts. I wanted to love Sunset Baby as well.

Dominique Morisseau is currently working on a three-play cycle about her hometown. The first of these is Detroit '67, which Penumbra produced last year in a marvelous production directed by Shirley Jo Finney, and starring Austene Van, James T. Alfred, Darius Dotch, Jamecia Bennett and Elizabeth Efteland. Detroit '67 was a moving and musical play about people trying to live their lives in the midst of intense racial tensions that led to one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in history. The play evoked the anxiety of the time, as well as the very real and funny personal relationships of a fascinating group of characters.

Sunset Baby is not part of Morisseau's "The Detroit Projects," and the play is quite different in feel. Detroit '67 was music, dancing and affection in the face of incredibly tense times, and Morisseau's language practically danced across the stage. Sunset Baby is set in contemporary times, and the harsh, profane language never flows, but is fairly spit out by each of the characters.
James Craven and Jasmine Hughes

Nina (Jasmine Hughes) is a hustler who works with her boyfriend Damon (Ronnel Taylor), a drug dealer. It's a harsh life and Nina is a tough customer, which is at least partly due to the absence of her father in her life. Kenyatta Shakur (James W. Craven) was an important figure in the black liberation movement, and ended up in prison for following his ideals. As the play begins, Nina's mother Ashanti X, famous in the movement as well, has died, leaving Nina some letters that she wrote to Kenyatta but never mailed. He wants the letters, but since the news has spread of previously unreleased letters between these two historic figures, Nina has been offered a lot of money to sell them, which could help her to leave her grim life.

What I find fascinating about this play in contrast to Detroit '67 is that I never felt a connection to these characters. They're not easy characters to be sure--there's no dancing in the basement to Motown tunes (as in Detroit '67). Which makes me really think about my own response to this show. Why is it that I found these characters so distancing? Is it really that they didn't exhibit much growth or relationship progression? Is it that the contemporary story of drug dealers and hustlers needs the burnish of years and charming period music and costumes to provide entrée? Or, finally, that I just don't know enough about the black liberation movement?

I keep thinking about Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, and what he wrote about Black History Month:
Every February my classmates and I were herded into assemblies for a ritual review of the Civil Rights Movement. Our teachers urged us toward the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera....Why were only our heroes nonviolent?
And he asks, why do we never see the militants? I love that Dominique Morisseau is addressing the harsher realities, and that her main character is the product of two revolutionary activists. I wanted to know more about Nina's parents, though. Although several scenes have Craven talking to himself (or recording himself?) in a corner of the stage discussing his life, it was hard to understand what he said there (and hard to see from where we were sitting.) I really wanted to know more about Nina's mother, and what she brought to her relationships and the movement. The play felt like it needed a little softness. Although Ronnel Taylor as Damon was the most vulnerable character, he still had a touch of menace. All three actors were solid. James Craven looks and sounds the part of a former revolutionary, Ronnel Taylor brings elements of humor to his performance, and Jasmine Hughes did her best with a pretty unsympathetic character. I look forward to seeing more from Hughes, an engaging actor who was so marvelous in Pillsbury House Theater's Bright-Half Life earlier this year.

However, even at about 100 minutes, the play felt too long and repetitive. I found the dialogue difficult to follow, and even to understand. I clearly may have missed something profound that would have clued me in to the meaning of the play. Unfortunately, I'm still in the dark. It's rare for me to be disappointed by Penumbra, but both figuratively and literally, this play just didn't speak to me. I still appreciate Penumbra's work and mission, and the food for thought that the play has given me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Bullets Over Broadway - Ordway Music Theater

What do you do when you want to turn a very funny Woody Allen film into a Broadway musical? You take Bullets Over Broadway, add songs from 1914 through the 1930s and turn it into a fantastically fun evening. Bullets Over Broadway, now playing through Sunday at the Ordway Music Theater, tells a good story in the best way possible. I mean really, how can you resist chorus girls, garter belts, flappers, and tap-dancing gangsters?
The story, in case you haven't seen the film, is about a struggling playwright (David) who finally has a chance to get his play produced on Broadway. The one hitch? The gangster (Nick Valenti) who is putting up the money is requiring that his no-talent chorus girl girlfriend (Olive) plays a part. Add to this the playwrights girlfriend (Ellen), a drunken diva (Helen) as leading lady, fighting between two mob families, and...well to paraphrase a theater god (Sondheim)...what happens then, well that's the play and you wouldn't want me to give it away. Suffice it to say that you will have a great night.

Production Photos by Matthew Murphy
The set has a false proscenium (the four edges of the stage) which helps to shrink the enormous Ordway stage. It also has two other prosceniums, one which moves up and down to help create other locations. At the top of the show there is a curtain hanging from the back proscenium. This is all in reds, black, and off-white - it shows a very 1920's style jazz scene. Cheech (played by Jeff Brooks) comes out with a tommy gun and shoots the title of the show into the curtain. Curtain up and we are in a club with show girls singing a song called "Tiger Rag." This song is one that I have never heard and that was one of the great joys of this show - being introduced to some new oldies! Sure, I have heard "Let's Misbehave", and "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You" - but there were quite a few that I didn't know and now love! The music was fantastic. Every song was perfectly selected and used. Glen Kelly adapted and wrote additional lyrics to these songs and they were great! Add to that the amazing choreography by Susan Stroman and there is nothing more I could want in a show. 

The show has a classic musical style with some small changes. Sure, I'm a sucker for shows like "42nd Street", "Crazy for You", "Nice Work if You Can Get It", "Ain't Misbehavin'", all these shows with old classic tunes, and a classic old-school style story. If you take those style shows, add a bit of swearing and some hints of burlesque (mainly in comedy and double entendres), you get Bullets over Broadway. Honestly I can not say enough about the choreography and direction. Each scene had such a smooth transition into the next, the characters were true and believable (even if they were truly over-the-top) and each dance step was perfect. Stroman has a way of moving that is so smooth and beautiful, yet can turn on a dime in an energetic forcefield. Take, for an example, the number "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do." This is performed by Cheech and the gangsters....and it is a tap dance. Nowhere have I seen a tap dance like this - gorgeous, yet perfectly suited to the characters of gangsters - angular, angry, full of machismo. It was performed on the 68th Tony Awards, and when it was finished last night - it received a long applause. It didn't reach an ovation, but it certainly stopped the show. 

Another stand out number was "Tain't a Fit Night Out for Man or Beast" - also in Act One. This number show a mob fight between the two opposing families - and it was all told through dance. Parts of it reminded me of West Side Story, but it was such an energetic feast for the eyes and ears. It also highlighted a slight issue with the large space that is the Ordway. There are times where the lyrics get lost - either because the space sucks up the sound, or the band is a bit too loud. I noticed this mainly in the group numbers, especially the women's chorus. It may have been just the higher voices fighting with the band. Honestly, it happened rarely and certainly had no effect on my enjoyment of the show. 

There are some amazing performances in this show. I already mentioned Jeff Brooks as Cheech. Michael Corvino as the gangster Nick Valenti was great - especially when he gets a chance to sing in the finale. What a voice!! Jemma Jane played Olive Neal - the gangsters talentless girlfriend - and got every single laugh possible out of her character, while not milking them, nor winking at the audience at how dumb her character was. She played it with all her heart and was fantastic. She and Bradley Allan Zarr get a chance to shine in "Let's Misbehave" - one of the funniest numbers I've seen. Hannah Rose DeFlumeri (Ellen) has two great moments to shine - Act One's "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me" and Act Two's "I've Found a New Baby." What a fantastic voice. This show would not be what it is without the incredible (and local) Emma Stratton as Helen. She played the Diva leading lady with a heart and a drinking problem perfectly...filling the stage as only that character could, and making the most of playing a Diva while also staying true to the characters heart. She couldn't have done that without the skills, and talent of Michael Williams playing David. Michael plays him with such sweetness, naivete, longing, and determination that even though David cheats on Ellen, we are still rooting for him. Michael has some incredible moments of pure comedy genius and timing. Along with that, he knows how to sell a song and dance. All of these actors, along with an amazing ensemble really created a perfect cast.  Don't miss your chance to see them in action. You won't regret it.

The Ordway has done some great articles that I want to share from their site. There is an article with Jemma Jane, and an interview with our hometown girl Emma Stratton. There is also an article about the amazing costume designs by the incomparable William Ivey Long. Also I wanted to mention that this is a non-equity tour. If you are wondering why I bring that up, check here. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Fantasticks - Nautilus Music-Theater

Nautilus Music-Theater is best known in the Twin Cities for developing new musical theater and opera works, but from time to time, they grace us with a production of an often-produced show, as with their 1997 Into the Woods, 2006 Man of La Mancha, and 2007 Carousel. When we first heard that the company would be taking on The Fantasticks this season, it was surprising. It's never been a favorite show, but if anyone could breathe new life into this old chestnut, it would be Nautilus.

And of course, they do. The unconventional casting is just the starting point of this production, staged by artistic director Ben Krywosz (see photo below). The young lovers of the story are played by veteran performers and real-life married couple Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr. Although they play the roles as written (Luisa is just sixteen, and Matt is just over twenty), the actors' maturity lends poignancy to their youthful dreams and fancies. Briggle and Lehr are sweetly convincing both in their tender moments and their childish disagreements.

Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr - always young lovers.
The lovers are helped and hindered in their romance by their fathers, next-door neighbors and friends who scheme to achieve their desired outcome to the romance, with mixed results. Luisa's father is played by Christina Baldwin as a taciturn tightwad in farmer's overalls and a dour expression. Matt's father is a bit more animated, but still serious, as played by Jennifer Baldwin Peden. Seeing the Baldwin sisters on stage together is always a treat, and hearing them sing together is heavenly!

William Gilness plays the mysterious narrator El Gallo in much more conventional casting, but he shows us that he sees the lovers as young and foolish, and brings a worldly weariness as well as his lovely voice to the role. Brian Sostek rounds out the cast as The Actor Who Dies, which combines three roles from the original script in one. Of course Sostek is more than equal to the task, particularly when it comes to dying with great enthusiasm and style. He also choreographed the show's abduction sequence, which is amazingly ambitious for the small playing space. 

We can't take credit for this brilliant repurposing of the Ivey
Awards' promotional photo of Ben Krywosz that appeared around
Give to the Max Day 2015. We also can't resist sharing it.
The show is snuggled into Nautilus's intimate space in Lowertown's Northern Warehouse. The square stage is surrounded by risers on three sides, one of which holds a loft for music director Jerry Rubino and his piano and Andrea Stern and her harp, who accompany the proceedings beautifully. Sets and costumes by Victoria Petrovich provide simple trappings that let the story and the music shine. And Mike Wangen's lighting, as usual, sets appropriate moods throughout. (Carly says—and I agree—that Wangen could light a Wal-Mart and make it look beautiful.)

There is no reason not to see this show. Unless you can't get tickets, which are selling fast. Get yours now to experience this deeply moving production. The house only seats about 45 people, so you will be among a select few who will be able to say in years to come that they saw the best Fantasticks anyone could imagine.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Buyer & Cellar - Hennepin Theatre Trust at New Century Theater

All photos by George Byron Griffiths
If you are looking for an amusing, humorous, witty, satirical, charming, laugh-inducing show to see some night, then I have a show for you. Did I mention it is funny? Buyer & Cellar, now playing at the New Century Theatre and presented by Hennepin Theatre Trust, is a one-person show about an actor who finds himself working for Barbra Streisand...sort of. The play is written by Jonathan Tolins (who has film/tv experience as well as some Broadway experience) and was inspired by Streisand's book "My Passion for Design." This 2010 book was written by Streisand, with photographs by Streisand and is all about her home in Malibu. The inspirational part is that Streisand has a barn on her property and in the basement of this barn are most (if not all) of her collectibles. However instead of just storing them, she has them set up in various shops - a doll shop, an antique clothing store, a candy store with frozen yogurt and popcorn, etc. THIS fact is what inspired the play Buyer & Cellar. The actual plot of the play is all fiction.

We are brought into Streisand's world as soon as we step into the theatre as the pre-show music is all her. The set is perfect and simple - a blank stage with a backless sofa/bench on one side, and a table and chair on the other. Behind each of these set pieces are screens which have projections of cityscapes (of California, and Malibu) along with photos of the locations the scenes take place. Some of the location photos were taken from Streisand's book (which is featured on the table, along side a glass of water), though some of the projections were blurry giving them a dream-like feel.

Another simple facet of this show is that there is one actor. Now one person shows can be very tricky to pull off. You must have a talented actor who can convincingly play all the parts, but more than that you need an actor who has a voice, energy, and a look that makes the audience want to spend time with them, and who enjoys spending time with them. Sasha Andreev has all of that in spades. Directed by Wendy Knox, Sasha plays at five or six characters. In my mind, there are more because it came across to me that Sasha played a flamboyant actor who sets the stage (reminding us that the mall is truth but the rest is fiction), then this same actor became Alex.

Alex is open and wanting to share his life and bring you along on his journey about working in the mall. Along with Alex, Sasha portrays Barry (Alex's boyfriend) who has a gruff, Fierstein-esque voice, a strong New York accent and rough mannerisms. We meet Sharon, the gum-chewing judgmental manager, along with James Brolin (a perfect interpretation) and finally the lady of the house. Andreev does not impersonate Streisand. As Alex states in the script - there are plenty of Streisand impersonators out there, some of them are even women. Because of that Andreev gives a portrayal of Streisand without impersonation - gestures, the voice, the speech patterns and slight accent, the facial looks that are given...perfection.

I won't give away any story. I will say that the script has a fantastic eye for detail. It is witty, a bit catty, and is funny through out. Jules and I were laughing almost non-stop. The script also makes some great observations on how people think of stars, and how stars think of non-star people. It speaks to the bitterness that can arrive from a tough childhood, as well as diving into some Streisand films and pointing out that they always seem to be about her getting with the person who says she is pretty. Through out the show there was fantastic underscoring made of great orchestral hints of Streisand, yet with no vocals. Musical hints to keep you in the Streisand frame of mind. I felt there was one misstep when the underscore changed to Portishead, however the more I think about it, the more it fit that specific moment. It sticks out because it was so different from the rest of the underscoring.

Needless to say, if one very small underscoring moment is all I can remember that was "negative" - well, who cares. The show did one thing that I love from theater. It makes me interested in going back to watch some Streisand films (and Judy Garland's Summer Stock). It had a wonderful story and message. This intermission-less (100 minute) show is fantastic - script, set, production and most of all the actor. Sasha Andreev is charming, smart, funny, has some incredible moments on stage, and creates magic.

Plays through April 24th, 2016.

Coriolanus - New Epic Theater

I love being right. When I first heard that New Epic Theater was performing The Normal Heart and Coriolanus in repertory this spring, with a cast that includes Michelle O'Neill, Zach Curtis, Torsten Johnson, and Grant Sorenson, I was sold.

Now, after seeing Coriolanus, and putting it together with our viewing of The Normal Heart, I find the promise inherent in this ambitious combination of plays, director (Joseph Stodola), and actors pays off beautifully. And I mean, beautifully.

Coriolanus is a less-known Shakespeare play.  [Jules sidebar: Honestly, for the longest time, I only knew it was Shakespeare because it's a line in the song "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" from the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate.]

However, it's had a bit of a resurgence in recent years; Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a 2011 film adaptation, and Tom Hiddleston played the role in 2014 at London's Donmar Warehouse, an extremely bloody production that was broadcast in America as part of National Theatre Live.

Want to know more about the story in Coriolanus? Check out Shmoop's In a Nutshell guide to the play. tl;dr (too long, didn't read)?
Set in the early Roman Republic, it's all about the rise and fall of a big time war hero who kicks serious butt on the battlefield and then fails miserably when he returns home and runs for political office.
Coriolanus (Torsten Johnson) confronts Aufidius (Michael Wieser, on platform).
Photos: Patrick Kennedy 
The focus, again, is on the characters and the action. No time is wasted getting the battle started. Roman general Caius Martius (Torsten Johnson) leads the troops into battle against the Volscians, led by his old rival Aufidius (Michael Wieser). The battle is waged in a bloody, sweaty, athletic sequence that becomes a pas de deux for Coriolanus and Aufidius, executed shirtless by actors who clearly know their way around a gym. (See photos. Really, see these photos. Don't you love Shakespeare?)

Having defeated the Volscians and captured the city of Corioles, Martius is granted the name Coriolanus. Upon his return to Rome, Coriolanus is greeted with great pride by his mother, Volumnia (Michelle O'Neill), and is persuaded by patrician Menenius (Zach Curtis) to stand for election as consul.

Coriolanus is advised by his mother, Volumnia (Michelle O'Neill) 
and politician Menenius (Zach Curtis).
Unfortunately, Coriolanus is a pompous ass who thinks way too highly of himself and refuses to tone down his opinions to placate the people whose votes he needs. Menenius manages to smooth things over, and Coriolanus is elected, only to be brought down by two tribunes (Grant Sorensen and Adam Qualls) who don't think his heroism is enough to make up for his bad attitude to the poor. They have him banished from Rome, which makes Coriolanus angry. He joins forces with his frenemy Aufidius against Rome, which ultimately leads to his downfall.

Bringing it on. 
New Epic Theater's production plays up the parallels between Shakespeare's tragedy and modern life. But even while illuminating universal themes, the play doesn't lean into caricature. As stubborn as Coriolanus is about expressing himself, Johnson still shows his character's doubts and makes Shakespeare's words meaningful.

The codependent relationship between the soldier and his mother veers into excessive closeness, but Johnson and O'Neill play their characters so intensely that the extremes of their interactions are a natural extension. Michelle O'Neill is hands down my favorite performer of Shakespeare in the Twin Cities, bringing nuance and texture to Volumnia.

Similarly, it's not surprising when Johnson and Wieser's passionate rivalry dances over the line between love and hate. Curtis is another standout, playing the consummate politician who pleads for compassion in a physically wrenching moment that is painful to watch in the best way. These performances are ably supported by the rest of the eight-member cast playing soldiers, senators, and citizens, always clearly delineated by costume or carriage.

This production is stunning. Seeing a lot of theater, it can be easy for plays to run together in my mind, or to slip away unnoticed. But director Stodola's arresting stage pictures have been running through my mind, both from The Normal Heart and from Coriolanus.

The minimalist set for both shows uses rows of old-style metal desks and a rear platform. The costumes are very similar if not the same: modern and neutral, with shoes—or the lack thereof—holding meaning. Even Dr. Brookner's wheelchair and a hospital gown from the earlier play reappear. The Lab has become a favorite place to see theater, but I'm not sure I've ever felt the scarred, brick walls and scarce offstage space have ever been utilized as successfully as in these two shows. Lucid Thomas's dramatic lighting is almost cinematic in focus, and the sounds created by the cast stomping and thumping on the desks set a martial tone.

And it must be said that the actors are the most impressive visual effects. Johnson ably embodies what one of the soldiers says of Coriolanus, "He is their god: he leads them like a thing / Made by some other deity than nature / That shapes man better." And Wieser matches him in physicality and strength, as displayed and emphasized by the expressive movement staged by James Kunz.

The final image in Coriolanus is well worth the price of admission. It's literally breathtaking. When the lights came back on, there was a visceral exhalation of breath from the audience. (And not just the lady behind me who audibly gasped when Coriolanus took his pants off. Come on, lady. Pull yourself together. This is SHAKESPEARE!)

These two plays offer almost an excess of food for thought, with ideas and situations echoing each other as well as current events. The mirror-image relationship of Coriolanus and Aufidius to The Normal Heart's Ned Weeks and Bruce Niles is almost eerie, as are the characters' parallel relationships to Curtis and O'Neill's characters in each play.

Fortunately, New Epic provides a starting point for more study. Excellent background essays by Erica Meium on Coriolanus and The Normal Heart provide concise and valuable context for the plays. And they helpfully reprint the letter that playwright Larry Kramer handed out at the 2011 Broadway revival of his play.

Take advantage of this opportunity to see these two shows in brilliantly conceived and executed repertory. It's not every day that theater like this comes along. New Epic Theater has firmly landed on my can't-miss local theater list.

(co-written by Carly and Jules)

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Spring 2016 Preview - SO. Much. Theater.

If you need me this spring, I'll be at the theater.

As much as I'd like to be out gardening (not really), enjoying the sun (in theory), or taking a long run (stop laughing), I shall be inside a dark theater enjoying the best from our local purveyors of quality theater.

So here's a look at the shows I'm most excited for this spring!

C. at Theater Latte Da (The Ritz Theater)
March 30 - April 24
What: A musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac with book and lyrics by Bradley Greenwald and music by Robert Elhai.
Why I'm Excited: Because it is an absolutely, utterly, gorgeous production of a wonderful new show. The music, in particularly the male chorus numbers, is astonishingly beautiful. Read more about from our friend Cherry and Spoon's rave review.

Buyer and Cellar at New Century Theatre
April 6 - April 24
What: One-man show about a Alex More, an unemployed actor who takes a job running the mall in Barbra Streisand's basement, originally performed off-Broadway in 2013.
Why I'm Stoked: Saw it in New York and the show is completely hilarious. We saw it with Michael Urie, and I can't think of a better local actor than Sasha Andreev to take on the sweet and funny role of Alex More.

The Fantasticks at Nautilus Music-Theatre
April 8 - April 19
What: Classic musical by Tom Jones about two young lovers and the fathers that try to separate them.
Why I'm There: a) That cast! Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr as the young lovers, Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden as their fathers, William Gilness as the mysterious narrator, and Brian Sostek as his sidekick. And b) There's no better place in town to hear amazing performers in charming, inventive productions AND unmiked in an intimate space.

Sunset Baby at Penumbra Theatre
April 12 - May 8
What: "A tough, independent woman in Brooklyn is visited by her father, a former revolutionary in the Black liberation movement who seeks to mend their broken relationship." (From Timeline Theatre)
Why It's a Must-See: Last year, Penumbra produced Detroit '67 by Dominique Morrisseau, and it was a beautiful, riveting night of theater. Also, Penumbra is hitting them out of the park this season.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid at Children's Theatre Company
April 12 - June 5
What: Musical adaptation of the wildly popular children's book series by Jeff Kinney.
Why: Four words: Produced by Kevin McCollum.

Lasso of Truth at Workhaus Collective in association with Walking Shadow Theatre Company(The Playwright's Center)
April 15 - May 1
What: A play that explores the origins of Wonder Woman, written by Carson Kreitzer.
Why I Am Excited (But a Little Sad): 1) Stephen Yoakam. 2) Projections by Davey Steinman (of Basement Creatures.) 3) It's Workhaus Collective's final show.  

Charm at Mixed Blood Theatre
April 22 – May 8, 2016
What: "A beguiling comic drama revolving around Mama Darleena, an African American trans woman in her 60s teaching an etiquette class to trans youth experiencing homelessness in a LGBTQI Chicago community center." (Mixed Blood website)
Why I'm Down: They had me at "beguiling." And I adore all things etiquette. Plus, important social issues and all that.

Leap of Faith at Minneapolis Musical Theatre
April 29 – May 22
What: Charismatic con man preacher has a change of heart (I assume).
Why I'm Up for It: I'm loving Minneapolis Musical Theatre's season this year and this one features the Twin Cities Gospel Choir. Yes, please.

Complicated Fun: the Minneapolis Music Scene at History Theatre
April 30–May 29, 2016
What: Exploration of the Minneapolis music scene of the 1980s.
Why I'm Interested but a Little Freaked Out: My youth is going to be on stage at the History Theatre. The History Theatre. That means I am OLD. Still ... I love that they're leaping into more recent history. Will the History Theatre be rocking? Will I need those kids to get off my lawn?

The Shining at Minnesota Opera
May 7 - 15
What: It's all there in the title. World Premiere, no less.
Why I'll Be In the Front Row: I love Stephen King AND opera! It's as though they made it just for me! Thanks, Minnesota Opera!

Trouble in Mind at Guthrie Theater
May 7 - June 5
What: "It is 1957 in New York and rehearsals have begun for a racially integrated production, one the company hopes will be the next hit. But when prejudices and stereotypes emerge, African American actress Wiletta Mayer faces a difficult decision: should she swallow her pride and compromise her values to achieve her lifelong dream of playing a leading role on Broadway?" (Guthrie website)
Why I Won't Miss This One: New play, by Alice Childress. (Can we talk about all the women playwrights on this list? And the women playwrights of color? HURRAH!) Fascinating story. Support representation at the Big G! And the lovely Mr. Haj.

A Night in Olympus at Illusion Theater
May 7 - June 4
What: I read the description and I really don't have any idea. Mythology? Zombies? Geeks? Wish fulfillment?
Why I'm Underlining This One: Really just a big list of names: Jeffrey Hatcher, Bill Corbett, Chan Poling, Dieter Bierbrauer, Aimee K. Bryant, Norah Long, Randy Schmeling and oh, so many more.

The Changelings at Ten Thousand Things
May 13 - June 5
What: Play by Kira Obolensky. They could put on a dramatic reading of the phone book, and I'd be there in the front row.
Why I Won't Miss It: See above. And because I don't miss a TTT production. Ever. Also, yay Joy Dolo! One of my new favorite local actors!

Happy Spring Theatergoing! And don't worry, Spring will be a little late this year.

Did I miss something amazing? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Catch Me If You Can - Chameleon Theatre Circle

Catch Me If You Can is about the adventures of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Austin Stole), whose exploits were recounted in the book and film of the same name. We start in media res, with Carl Hanratty (John Goodrich), the FBI agent who chased Abagnale (Austin Stole) for years finally catching him. Abagnale asks to tell his story, and the show begins.

The show itself has a framing device of a variety show, which does not come across in this production. I saw this show in New York (with Norbert Leo Butz and Aaron Tveit) and even in that amazing production, the variety show concept did not quite work. In this production, they appear to have discarded that conceit almost completely.

We follow Frank through his life, with parents who don't get along and a con man for a father, he quickly learns that it's easier to "Slip Into Someone Else's Skin," a great number that perfectly encapsulates his decision to impersonate a teacher, a pilot and a doctor.

Oh, and he forges checks. Lots of them. This activity is what brings him to Carl Hanratty's notice at the FBI. He becomes obsessed with tracking down the mysterious forger, and chases him across the country.

Catch Me If You Can is a great play, with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Marc Shaiman, and music and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The musical numbers are gorgeous, tuneful and perfectly tell this story. They also provide an opportunity for some truly great musical theater singing, not just from the leads but by the full chorus.

The best two elements of the Chameleon Theatre Circle's production are in the casting of its two leads: Austin Stole as Abagnale and John Goodrich as Hanratty.

John Goodrich had giant shoes to fill in my mind, as Norbert Leo Butz played the role in New York, and won a Tony for it. But Goodrich did an outstanding job, and made the part his own. He looked perfectly at home in his rumpled trenchcoat, Buddy Holly/George Smiley glasses and hats. He put over his numbers beautifully, even the challengingly wordy (while dancing!) "Don’t Break the Rules." He completely embodied Hanratty's complex character—dedicated and driven, but with a dry wit, and hit the humor in the songs perfectly.

As his nemesis, Austin Stole as Frank Abagnale Jr. is also very good. He has a wonderful voice and handles the songs with ease. He is handsome, youthful and charming, as Abagnale should be, and he has a confidence and an ease that is necessary for this role. He does look and sound unnervingly like Aaron Tveit, but perhaps that's just the Abagnale type.

The production itself sounds wonderful, with musical direction by Dale Miller. The band sounds great, the chorus numbers are terrific, and as mentioned, the two leads do a great job.

The show takes place in The Ames Center's black box theater, with five rows of chairs on risers facing the performance area. I sat in the back row, and wished I could have sat farther back. Sometimes, you need a little distance with your theater. I love a chorus, but to ask them to do chorusy enthusiasm when they are mere feet from the audience is pretty hard on everyone.

The set consisted of a platform, and two sets of stairs leading up to it. Between the stairs was a long black lighting element, and on either side of the stairs were tall, blank walls upon which were projected an image that looked a bit like eyeballs. I still don't know what it is. The set piece was painted a pale yellow, and occasionally orange lights were projected on the stairs. The majority of the action takes place on the floor, and there was a fair amount that I could not see. Basically anything that wasn't back against the set piece was hit or miss. It was disappointing, and I hate to see audience members craning their necks. Why not use some of the space and the set piece? Why not make more use of the platform?

There were a few issues with microphones (I know things have to be miked, but does it have to be so obvious?), and lighting. The men's costumes were generally fine, but the women's costumes tended towards the unfortunate, especially the nurses who were wearing very short outfits with just underwear underneath. (If it wasn't underwear, it sure looked like it. We saw it again in the Mitch Miller number, with pinafores that open in the back with nothing under them.) But it is community theater, and they had a large cast to costume. That said, with such a large cast, is it necessary to make primary cast members move furniture off the stage?

Anyway, John Goodrich and Austin Stole do a terrific job in this production, and I still love the show. Glad to see what a smaller theater can do with the show—it gave me lots of food for thought.

Now for the user experience part of this review. The show was general admission, but many of the seats were reserved for Chameleon Theatre Circle members. This is not particularly welcoming to the average person who is new to Chameleon. Not only that, but the show was sold out, and there was only one center aisle in their seating configuration.

Everyone knows that Minnesotans have to be urged to sit next to each other. Why not have the ushers let people know that the show is sold out and ask them to please use every seat? Or have someone in the house directing people to move down as they sit? Instead, the house manager (I'm guessing she was a house manager, she had no name tag), came in and demanded that people move down, leaving the aisle and center seats for latecomers. I balked on behalf of the lovely older couple sitting next to me, who got there early and chose their seats for the man's comfort (and long legs). In addition, the banquet style chairs were right next to each other and we were packed in like sardines. A smoother seating experience would have made it easier to relax and enjoy the show.

Seeing this show made me remember Norbert Leo Butz's Tony win for this role. In his acceptance speech, he was unable to thank a few people. He made it right in this heartwarming, charming post-Tonys curtain speech: