Monday, October 31, 2016

Twin Cities Horror Festival V: The Philip Experiment by The Importance of Being Fotis

What's It About: "In 1972, a group of scientists and paranormal researchers embarked on a study that they thought would change the world of parapsychology forever. It was called, The Philip Experiment."

The Importance of Being Fotis has a long history with the Horror Festival and with the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and it shows. We were creeped out by their entry in TCHF IV, The Trail, and entertained by The Farmhouse during TCHF III. So we made sure to catch The Philip Experiment.

Right from the start of the play, the laughs start with the framing device of a Rod Serling-esque narrator presenting a mindbending story. The self-important host (Joe Bozic) is hilariously over the top, and keeps popping back into the story. The plot, in which a group of researchers (Debra Berger, Heather Meyer, Mike Trost and Lucas Vonasek) deal with the consequences of a long-ago experiment, suggests a number of possible realities, which may or may not all exist. Or not.

The Philip Experiment questions the nature of reality and might make you wonder if you are actually in a theater, watching a play. But each unsettling scenario has a lot of humor in it, It's super-entertaining, whether you follow the twists and turns of the narrative or not. And everyone in the show is terrific, with fantastic comic instincts.

If You're Sensitive and/or Delicate: No worries about gore, though the body count is pretty high.

In Short: As in past years, don't miss the Fotis show. The balance of existential dread and humor is just perfect.

Twin Cities Horror Festival V: The Not So Silent Planet by Word Sprout

What's It About: "Have you ever imagined a world whose laws of physics differ from our own? Come listen to regulars from the country's ONLY recurring open-mic dedicated to speculative fiction tell you about places of which you've never dreamt."

I love attending things that make me think: "Hey, why don't I go see [insert activity like spoken word storytelling here] more often? Rather than thinking: "Hey, why did I leave the house?"

So happy to report that The Not-So-Silent Planet falls squarely in the former category. Hosted by the charming phillip andrew bennett low, this "Speculative Storytelling Show" gave a lovely introduction to the kind of storytelling events that Wordsprout and Maximum Verbosity put on regularly around town.

A nicely detailed program gives heaps of information about each storyteller and where you can catch them live and online. The stories and storytellers include Tim Wick (of Fearless Comedy Productions), Fox Smoulder (who had a cool fox mask and POSSIBLY a stage name), Ben San Del (who might have had five minutes to tell an engaging ten-minute story), Damian Sheridan (who helped remind me to always bring a hard-copy backup), Rob Callahan (who was terrific), Riawa Thomas-Smith (fun and funny), and Pat Harrigan (bringing it all home with an epistolary tale). Snippets of song and variant lighting created a bit more of a theatrical feel to this bare bones but charming storytelling show.

If You're Sensitive and/or Delicate: Depends on how vivid your imagination is ... bwah hahahahahaha. No, seriously, you'll probably be fine.

In Short: I'd say to go, but it was one of the Twin Cities Horror Festival's one night only shows.

Hot Tip: I love the special thanks in the program which reads: "Thanks to the Twin Cities Horror Festival for both creating and defending a space for this nonsense to happen in."

Twin Cities Horror Festival V: Severed by Ghoulish Delights

What's It About: "A man from Dorothy’s past has returned to threaten her new marriage. Not even death and dismemberment will stop him from trying to reach her."

A) Hey, this is by Ghoulish Delights, who do the fabulous podcast that I'm currently listening to: The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society!

B) Hey, how did I NOT KNOW that The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society were having a live performance at Bryant-Lake Bowl last weekend?

C) I'm clearly slipping.

D) This was directed by Paul Von Stoezel, who also directed Black Death: The Musical, which we just saw this week, and who also directed a film that my tenderhearted friend dragged me out of at the Parkway Theater years ago. Worlds converging ... or maybe it's just a small (theater) world after all.

E) If there are bookshelves on stage, I am going to work as hard as possible to try and make out the titles. I'm pretty sure I saw Carter Beats the Devil on the top shelf. Either that, or Katherine Hepburn's Me.

Anyhoo, Severed is about Dorothy, a young married woman with a mysteriously lumpy couch, who reluctantly lets an old boyfriend/accomplice and his new girlfriend into her home, wherein blackmail and worse soon ensue. The show is well acted by Kayla McCarthy, Mike Postle, Matthew Kessen, and especially Kelly Nelson. The script includes nicely subtle symbolism, and the production has some terrific visual tricks. Severed is a great entry in the TCHF. But why didn't the rest of the audience find it as funny as we did? Is it us? It's them, right?

If You're Sensitive and/or Delicate: No worries. Violence takes place offstage, mostly.

In Short: Go see it. Hopefully, you'll have an audience with a goofier sense of humor than the one we had.

Hot Tip: If you get nostalgic, as I do, for the old days of KLBB 1400 and the old radio shows they used to play, check out The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society. "Each episode features a classic, or maybe-not-so classic story from the scary old-time radio vault, complete with historical notes and nerdy trivia."

Twin Cities Horror Show: The Well by Kirkyard Productions

What's It About: "Separated from the rest of their expedition and forced to hole-up in mysterious ruins until the night and storm pass. Only too late do they discover they’re not alone and that something still lurks among the crumbling stone walls."

I love the addition of a dramatic reading to the Twin Cities Horror Festival. The Well is written and directed by Chip Limeburner, who also works with Horrorshow Hot Dog. The Well features a cast of four, an intriguing premise, and heaps of atmosphere.

If You're Sensitive and/or Delicate: You'll probably be fine.

In Short: One of the one-night-only events in the TCHF V, if you're reading this now, you've already missed it. Life and the TCHF are short, no?

Twin Cities Horror Festival V: Horrorshow Hot Dog Short Film Festival 2016

What's It About: "Making your skin crawl in fifteen minutes or less. With shorts ranging from darkly comedic to bloodily violent and all points between. A different film lineup each night!"

Horrorshow Hot Dog Short Film Festival presents a selection of short horror films and just as last year, I love how amazingly horror translates to film shorts. I remember being a kid and and checking out 8 and 16 millimeter films from the library (highlights from Psycho and The Screaming Skull) and watching them with my family. No wonder I adore horror so.

The line-up on the night we attended was:

El Gigante - The one I had to avert my eyes from.
Mr. Hendrix - Short and clever. Also, Funsize Horror has the best logo ever and now that I just looked up the logo, I need to spend the rest of the day on their amazing website.


Happy B-Day - Fabulous relationship metaphor (without being heavy-handed)
Life of Death - Gorgeous, adored, want a tee shirt with Death on it
Innsmouth - Moving on...
Behold the Noose - Good acting, some great imagery
Death Metal - Hilarious, gory, LOVED it

If You're Sensitive and/or Delicate: Then heed the blood, language and violence ratings on the TCHF website. I had to avert my eyes during the first short of the evening.

In Short: If you love horror films, then don't miss this fabulously curated evening of short horror films. I'm going back for a second look and possibly a third.

Hot Tip: Check out the Horror Show Hot Dog podcast, where "we review 3 horror movies each week with humor & insight. New, old, funny, scary, we love ‘em all."

Twin Cities Horror Festival V: Senseless by Dangerous Productions

What's It About: "​One woman's journey into an underground facility filled with darkness, horror and blood. Tense and terrifying, this nightmare journey drags you beneath the surface of humanity and doesn't let go. Do not bring children. Do not come alone."

You may remember Dangerous Productions's pretty dang memorable production last year of Epidemic.  

Senseless is at least as bloody as Epidemic, if not more so. The protagonist is an author invited to visit a mental facility because of her own experience in an asylum. Despite a host of bad signs, starting with a scary elevator ride down, she proceeds to observe a doctor performing an experimental procedure on the facility's extreme cases. As her visit goes on, it brings up disturbing memories which are amplified by the erratic behavior of the residents.

If You're Sensitive and/or Delicate: This show has a blood technician, you guys. And you'll never think of marshmallows as an innocent treat again.

In Short: Complex, chilling, and gory, this is a delightfully creepy show.

Hot Tip: Dangerous Productions also has super cute tee shirts for sale in the lobby. Can I just say how much I covet the fabulous coffins used as display cases?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Twin Cities Horror Festival V: A Zombie Odyssey by theater simple

What's It About: "After a car wreck, Brian Smith reluctantly finds himself on an epic quest to find his wife. What is happening to his body? Who is this mysterious voice? And why does everyone say he's dead?"

Zombie Odyssey  is about Brian, a regular guy who is gradually realizing that he might be becoming a zombie. Although it is a solo show, written and performed by Ricky Coates, it never feels like a one-man show. You almost forget that you're seeing only one performer.  The acting, the choreography and Coates's marvelous movement skills are natural and real, but come together to create a truly compelling story. The voiceovers of the people Brian encounters and other audio elements of this show are impeccably timed and expertly performed. Every aspect of this show comes together beautifully.

If You're Sensitive and/or Delicate: There's a bit of nudity and some gory elements, but if that kind of thing bothers you, this is probably not the Festival for you.

In Short: You should go see this.  It's not just good horror, it's good theater.

Hot Tip: Zombie Odyssey is part one of a three-part series of shows that follow Brian's adventures. I hope TCHF brings Coates back again for more zombie Brian.

Twin Cities Horror Festival V: Cinderella: A Revenge Play by Cheap Thrills Theater

What's It About: "​Everyone knows the classic tale of Cinderella. But what if Cinderella decided to save herself? With the help of her dead mother’s demonic spirit, Cinderella takes revenge on those who have wronged her."

Cinderella: A Revenge Play has a large, young and enthusiastic cast of performers. The idea of Cinderella's revenge is an intriguing one, and draws on the elements of the gruesome original Grimm's Fairy Tales. The production uses the space in an interesting way, and uses found lighting to unique effect. Engaging performers help make this tale more intriguing, such as Amy Schumer lookalike (Lauren Syme) as the less-wicked of the stepsisters, and Martin Ware, Jr. as the Prince's envoy.

If You're Sensitive and/or Delicate: You should probably be okay, unless you have unresolved mommy issues.

In Short: The twist on the classic story was interesting, but the show feels a little unfinished. It seems as though this is a young company, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Twin Cities Horror Festival V: Ubu for President by Four Humors

What's It About: "Ubu is a disgusting creature. Ubu is going to be president. Come celebrate the worst of humanity with Ubu!"

[Eeee, this was not my jam. I'll let my less delicate and prudish sister tell you about it.]

Jules says:
Four Humors returns to the Horror Festival with a new and timely show that casts a harshly cynical light on our political and electoral system, with occasional jabs in the direction of a particular large target in this year's race. The show depicts a slightly alternate universe version of the United States in which a politician conspires with big business, the military, and the church, all portrayed in outrageous caricatures.

Ubu for President is based on the Alfred Jarry play Ubu Roi, which opened and closed on one night in December 1896. According to this Paris Review story:
It lives in the annals of drama because it offended almost everyone who saw it. In this, it prefigured modernism, surrealism, Dadaism, and the theater of the absurd.
By that measure, Four Humors' adaptation is a success. It's definitely profane, and the humor is a little too close to reality, which makes more scary than funny at times. So though it's not in the conventional "horror" genre, it's definitely unsettling.

If You're Sensitive and/or Delicate: There is a lot of swears and it's pretty dang profane, if you mind that kind of thing.

In Short: If you're a huge Four Humors fan, you'll love it. The audience certainly did.

Hot Tip: Loved last year's Four Humors TCHF show Mortem Capiendum? You can catch it in New Prague at the lovely Daleko Arts theater on November 11 and 12. I highly recommend both the show AND Daleko Arts.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Baker's Wife at Artistry

Photos by Hilary Roberts
The Baker's Wife, now playing at Artistry in Bloomington through November 12, is a musical that many musical theater fans have heard of, but few have seen.

Let's set something straight right away: The title character of this musical is not the Baker's Wife who shows up in Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's musical Into the Woods.

This story is based on a 1938 French film and despite being written by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, Godspell), the musical has never made it to Broadway. After a 1976 tour and some recasting, the producers declined to take the show to New York. It was presented in 1989 in London's West End to positive reviews and audience feedback, but closed after just 56 performances. One song from the show, "Meadowlark", has become a cabaret and audition staple, but the show itself is relatively obscure.

The Baker's Wife opens in an isolated French village in the 1930s where time seems to have stood still. Though the clothes are contemporary and cars exist, the town is reminiscent of the little town in the opening song of the Disney film Beauty and the Beast. Belle would feel right at home. The villagers gossip as they discuss the impending arrival of the town's new baker. Since the old baker died, they've had to travel miles to get their bread, and it's made everyone cranky.

The new baker arrives, and he's a pleasant-seeming middle-aged guy. Even his name is Amiable. But he surprises the town when he turns out to have a beautiful, much younger wife. Genevieve has determined to make the best of her marriage although she doesn't love her husband as he does her. Nevertheless, she runs off with a smooth-talking local, which breaks Aimable's heart, leaving him unable to bake bread. The townspeople decide to interfere and convince her to return, all in the interest of having fresh bread again.

There are some nice tunes in the show, capably sung by the leading players. Bradley Greenwald, always a delight, puts his lovely voice to good use in the second act ballad "If I Have to Live Alone." Jill Iverson sings beautifully as Genevieve, and Aly Westberg is engaging as our guide to the town, though she seems a bit too modern for the time. The orchestra was also in fine form, making the most of the tuneful score.

Overall though, The Baker's Wife didn't work for me as a story. None of the characters have much development, so their actions don't seem to have any motivation at all. There are far too many stereotypical "men vs. women" fights among the villagers, and as my sister noted, there wasn't a lot of warmth or kindness in the play at all.

Sometimes this production feels like two different plays. The villagers are performing broad (very broad) comedy, while the Baker and his wife appear to be in a quiet domestic drama. I didn't feel particularly invested in any of it.

Also, can I just say, it's rather glaring to me when a large-cast musical produced in the 21st century does not include even one person of color.

Several years ago, Artistry was Bloomington Civic Theater, a well-regarded community theater. In recent years, they have begun to bring in accomplished directors, pay their performers, and engage the occasional Equity actor. The ticket prices reflect their upward mobility, but Artistry appears to be still finding its footing and its identity as a theater. I'm glad they are expanding their repertoire and will be interested to see where they go from here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Black Death: The Musical at Sabes JCC

Illustration by Whittney A. Streeter
Just in time for Halloween, Apostasia Productions presents Black Death: The Musical at the Sabes JCC in St. Louis Park, for just three performances, October 28-30.

Playwright and lyricist Susan Woehrle has combined the historic spread of bubonic plague in Europe with the modern twist of reanimating the dead. Black Plague Zombies!

Scott Keever has also brought together diverse influences to his musical score, which is described as "14th-16th century vocal music combined with the songwriting style of Tom Waits and Nick Cave." It's hard to imagine what that will sound like, but the styles combine surprisingly well. The talented cast sings medieval-style melodies accompanied by keyboard, drums, electric guitar, and bass.

As you may have guessed, this is not a story told with a straight face. Much of the humor comes from references to actual circumstances surrounding the plague, while telling the story of a few people whose paths intersect as they deal with the pandemic. A doctor desperate to convince people that cleanliness is essential to stopping the disease pleads with the Pope to encourage bathing while an alchemist experiments in restoring life to dead creatures and a pair of nuns arrive to help care for plague patients.

Rob Ward is very watchable as the plague doctor, even when wearing the historically-based mask of his profession. Roni Page and Sommer Walters display great vocal range as two of the nuns. The standout in the cast is Rodolfo Nieto, whose bass-baritone voice sounds great both singing and speaking, and who has wonderful comic timing. Some of the lyrics are hard to understand over the band, but the ones I could hear were quite funny. The production is simple, with just a few pieces of furniture on a black stage, but that keeps the focus on the music.

If the idea of a musical about the Black Death sounds like fun to you, it's definitely worth checking out. It still feels a bit like the Fringe show it began as, but is not like any other show I've seen. For more background on the production, check out this Q & A that Kendra Plant did with writer Susan Woehrle for Artfully Engaging.

Jitney at Penumbra Theatre

If you haven't yet seen Jitney at Penumbra Theatre, you just got another chance. The show just extended through November 13, so get your tickets now. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Of course, Penumbra has a long history with August Wilson's work, and put on one of the first productions of Jitney in 1985. The show was last seen on this stage in 2000. The new production is as close to perfection as I can imagine.

Over the years, Wilson continued to revise the script, which tells the story of an unlicensed cab, or "jitney" station. The drivers provide a service to the African American residents of Pittsburgh's Hill District, where licensed taxis refused to go. Wilson's story is a masterful work of drama that draws the audience into the lives of its characters without judging them. The naturalistic dialogue allows the story to unfold without obvious exposition, allowing the characters to reveal themselves gradually.

Penumbra's production is loaded with Wilson veterans, starting with Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy's sure-handed direction, showing us living, breathing people rather than types, each with his or her own quirks and issues. James Craven is the heart of the show as Becker, the leader of this confederation. Unlicensed they may be, but the drivers out of Becker's station are held to his rules, which make the operation more professional and reliable. The most outspoken driver is Turnbo, played by Penumbra founding member Terry Bellamy as a man with an opinion on everything and everyone, who loves to spread gossip.

Jasmine Hughes, Terry Bellamy, Darrick Mosley,
and Abdul Salaam El Razzac. Photo: Allen Weeks
Darrick Mosley is Youngblood, who is working several jobs while putting together the funds to buy a house, which he keeps secret from his girlfriend Rena, the mother of their two-year-old son. Jasmine Hughes is believably exasperated as Rena, who is not willing to put up with any nonsense. The voice of reason when tempers flare is Doub, played by another founding Penumbra member, Abdul Salaam El Razzac. His Doub has the calm presence of a man who has experienced a lot of life and learned what not to get worked up over.

Marcus Naylor plays Fielding, a driver who is a cheerful drunk with an underlying well of regrets. Longtime Penumbra company member T. Mychael Rambo is both delightful and heartbreaking as Philmore, a regular passenger and friend to the crew, and company member Kevin D. West plays Shealy, a fast-talking bookie who takes calls at the jitney station in spite of Becker's complaints. The ensemble is rounded out by one more company member, James T. Alfred, who arrives well into the story as Becker's son Booster, who has just been released from prison.

Abdul Salaam El Razzac as Doub.
Photo: Allen Weeks
Every one of the actors is perfect, each presenting a real, rounded person who, even if we don't spend much time with them, we know are complicated people with a lot on their minds. The authenticity of the personalities on stage is supported by Vicki Smith's exquisitely detailed set and Sarah Brandner's properties, which place us in a battered storefront in 1977, and by Mathew LeFebvre's costumes, which recall the time perfectly without being cartoonish or unreal. As a child of the '70s, I recognized the styles, the fabrics, the flares and wedges, all of which looked lived in. The environment is perfectly run down, from the decrepit couch to the mismatched chairs at the metal folding table and the pay phone on the wall Martin Gwinup's sound, including perfect but not predicable music, and Don Darnutzer's lighting, complete the feeling of being immersed in this time and place.

The amazing attention to detail doesn't feel fussy, but it allows the characters and their trials to attain a realism I have seldom seen on the stage. It is a testament to the production that I was able to watch so many familiar faces on stage and to really see past the actors to only focus on the characters, without seeing echoes of previous roles and productions I've seen and admired them in.

Although the physical production grounds the story in 1977 Pittsburgh, the people and the things that happen to and around them are completely relatable and transcend the time period. Gentrification is still an issue in our cities, and people are always struggling to understand their place in the world and how to improve it and deal with their relationships while making ends meet. People everywhere try to define themselves outside of their family and their history, and carry the weight of others' expectations and assumptions.

Above all, Jitney is a play about humanity, which it demonstrates through every word and action. Penumbra's production is a singular opportunity to see this August Wilson masterwork performed by an ensemble that understands his material inside and out. It might be the definitive production of this essential play by one of our greatest American playwrights.
Kevin D. West, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, James T. Alfred, Terry Bellamy, Darrick Mosley,
Jasmine Hughes, James Craven, T. Mychael Rambo, and Marcus Naylor. Photo: Allen Weeks

If you're a fan of Penumbra's work, you will have seen this production. If you have not seen what this company can do, or if you wanted to see more of August Wilson's work, but didn't know where to start, this is the time and place to dive in. I could say many more wonderful things about this show, but the message is simple. See this play.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Parchman Hour at Guthrie Theater

all photos by Dan Norman
The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the '61 Freedom Riders is performed on the Guthrie's McGuire proscenium stage through November 6.

A play with music, The Parchman Hour tells the story of the young women and men who rode buses headed for the Deep South to call attention to illegal segregation.

You may wonder, if this show is about the Freedom Riders, why is it called The Parchman Hour?

According to the Guthrie Theater's website: 
"Arrested and imprisoned in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm Penitentiary, these Freedom Riders endured by creating a nightly variety show called “The Parchman Hour.” The Parchman Hour is a captivating play with music, one that reveals a defining chapter in American history while celebrating the hope and resilience of a community that joined together to stand against segregation."

This play was originally staged in 2010 as a student production at Duke University, and had its world premiere in 2011 at Playmakers Repertory Theater in North Carolina (with producing artistic director Joe Haj.) Mike Wiley, the playwright, specializes in documentary theater and according to the Playmakers website: "The student production was also featured in workshop in May 2010 as the finale event of the Freedom Riders’ 50th anniversary commemoration in Jackson, Mississippi."

The play features twelve actors, who are listed as both an actor number and a character name (e.g. Actor 1 - Forsyth/Stephen Green). The spare, white stage of the McGuire Proscenium stage features occasional projections of archival footage and mug shots of the Freedom Riders as each actor steps forward as a Rider and tells us about their experience. 

The story of the Freedom Riders is an incredibly compelling chapter in Civil Rights history. If you've not seen PBS's American Experience: Freedom Riders, I highly recommend doing so. Also, WGBH's website has a host of fascinating information about the rides and riders, including full Freedom Riders rosters, an interactive map, a timeline, and biographies of the Riders.

Also, please read John Lewis's graphic memoir March (volumes 1, 2 and 3, co-written by Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell) for a fantastic, compelling look at the movement and the Rides. I warn you, be sure you have all three volumes before starting, because number two ends with a hell of a cliffhanger.

To be sure, the music in The Parchman Hour is wonderful. With a marvelous on-stage band led by Sanford Moore, the chorus numbers are beautifully sung by the great cast. A few cast members really stood out, especially Kory LaQuess Pullam (as Stokely Carmichael), who I've recently seen in non-singing roles. It was a treat to hear his gorgeous voice again. Zonya Love, as Pearl, and the sole woman of color in the 12-actor cast, had a beautiful voice and great stage presence. Other outstanding performance included those of Kevin R. Free as James Farmer and Jared Joseph as John Lewis.

Zonya Love tearing down the roof.
Yet I didn't love this show, and I feel pretty conflicted about it. The Parchman Hour doesn't feel complete to me. It covers such a specific aspect of the Freedom Rides, and one that allows for light-hearted goofing and singing, which is combined discordantly with vivid depictions of body cavity searches and beatings. The end of the show, instead of following up on the Riders, their stories, and what they accomplished, is devoted to a reading of the names of contemporary victims of police brutality. Which is important, but felt tacked on at best.

The reading of names was followed by a rousing song with exhortations to clap along to end the show. It's hard not to feel that the ending was engineered to make the audience feel pretty good about themselves. My sister and theater companion, who is not generally cynical, turned to me after the show and said, "Isn't it great that we solved racism?"

Also, did I mention that Zonya Love is the only actress of color in the cast? And repeatedly, she is placed in the back, off to the side and barely spotlit while the three (three!) white actresses get multiple opportunities to shine. It was really hard to see that kind of disparity, particularly in a show about civil rights. I mean, come on.

The Parchman Hour tells about an important time in our country's history and brings some aspects of it to life, but overall, it felt like a good idea that never really fulfilled its promise. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Pericles at Ten Thousand Things Theater

Ansa Akyea (as Pericles) and
Peter Vitale (in the background)
(TTT web photo)
I was going to write this post about Pericles (through November 6 at Open Book) in the form of the ten thousand things that I love about Ten Thousand Things Theater company, but that seemed vaguely familiar.

Mostly because I already wrote that in 2015. By the way, all of my points still apply. They're amazing.

Pericles is directed and adapted by Michelle Hensley, and as usual, she makes Shakespeare beautifully accessible. I love this from the Director's Note: "I cut Pericles to about two hours in length--I don't think most of us today want to sit and watch Shakespeare to much longer than that--at least I certainly don't." Amen to that.

One of the best aspects of Ten Thousand Things's unique performing style (all the lights on, seating in the round, minimalist sets, costuming and music) is the ability to see some of the Twin Cities's best actors up close, doing what they do best.

And the cast is fabulous, especially Ansa Akyea as Pericles, whose amazing face I could watch for hours. TTT favorites Karen Weise-Thompson and Maggie Chestovich do their customary amazing, hilarious, poignant work. It's also so lovely to be able to see actors who are new to TTT such as Jucoby Johnson, Pearce Bunting, Audrey Park, James Rodriguez and Tatiana Williams work their actorly magic in TTT's setting.

What else is there to say? It's Ten Thousand Things Theater. Go see it. Support them and their amazing work.

By the way, this is the second major production of Pericles this year in the Twin Cities. Read our review of the Guthrie's January 2016 production.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Teenage Misery - Revisionary Theatre Collective

There is nothing sadder to me than seeing a completely amazing show ... on its very last day. Teenage Misery, by Revisionary Theatre Collective, is one of those shows that I'd have loved to sing its praises to horror fans, musical fans, new work fans and pretty much everyone else.



But I have hopes that this amazing show will have a the long and fruitful life it deserves, Originally part of the 2013 Fringe Festival, Teenage Misery has book, music AND lyrics by Keith Hovis, who describes it as a "dark comedy musical that mashes up Bye, Bye, Birdie and Stephen King's Misery." Sold.

Teenage Misery, performed at the intimate Sandbox Theatre space (only 35 seats!), starts with college friends Carrie Black (Kelly Matthews), Whitney Fuller (Karissa Lade) and Harvey Kellerman (Jake Rahler) swearing their devotion to hot young singer Shane West (Ryan London Levin). When it turns out he's coming to town and meeting with his biggest fan, they contrive to win the contest in a most Stephen King way. From there, it goes downhill for nearly everyone. Equally avid Shane West fan and possible psychic Hannah Alloran (Whitney Rhodes) and her lumbersexual bf Richie Gibbs (Adam Rice) drive across the country to save Shane from his fans --

OMG, I just realized that Hannah Alloran's name is not just a reference to a Stephen King character, her character's end is eerily similar to the character's end in the film. There are so many delicious references in this show. I must have the cast recording. MUST.

Two things:

1) When this show started, and the cast started singing in this intimate space, I settled in with delight. There is NOTHING like being in amazingly close proximity to marvelously talented singers. No mikes, no distance, just you and the voices. And they are amazing, every single one of the six-person cast.

2) And not just that, the show is GOOD. I mean, really good. The lyrics are marvelously clever, the music is tuneful, the melodies are memorable, the arrangements are beautifully done. This show has legs, y'all. Mark my words.

Okay, a couple more things--and props to director Ari Koehnen:

1) The staging. There could not be a more challenging space than Sandbox's teensy storefront. With chairs on two sides, facing each other, with all of the action taking place in the center, it is astounding that the actors moved so beautifully and did so much in such a small space, even using the theater entrance to dramatic effect.

2) The tone is PERFECT. With horror comedy, tone is really challenging, but every member of this cast gets the tone perfect. They are utterly committed and sincere, which makes the plot and violence that much more absurd and funny. It reminded me of Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Silence: The Musical (also starring Ryan London Levin) from earlier this year. Ooh, and there's a wildly clever twist, performed perfectly.

I can't really say more except that it's a talented, committed cast performing a hilarious, clever and tuneful show and I really hope to see it again. And if there's a Kickstarter to record a cast album, I'm IN.

Want to know more? Check out Teenage Misery's fabulous Facebook page. In particular, I loved their Easter Egg series of photos explaining all of the references. And trust me, these references go deep.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Why We Can't Have Nice Things - The Recovery Party at Bryant Lake Bowl



Why We Can't Have Nice Things is the first show I've seen by The Recovery Party. Playing through November 6 at Bryant Lake Bowl, the show is sharp social satire with occasional flights into the absurd.

This collection of comic sketches is formally titled Why We Can't Have Nice Things (or: The Peril of Choice), and this theme recurs throughout the show, from complaints about the excessive variety of Oreo cookies available to the number of names for the devil. Mostly, the humor revolves around modern life in today's United States, not shying away from the deep divides we are experiencing.

Joshua Will
It's a little odd in 2016 to see a show dealing with contemporary issues featuring such a homogenous cast, but the group leans into the choice, spending most of the show in identical black slacks and white shirts. They do have the grace to acknowledge that today, it's a little uncomfortable to be seeing five "old white guys" putting on a show. But they are very talented and funny guys who workshopped Joshua Will's script into a swift and entertaining evening.

Writer Will, who also directed, presents a snappy series of highly literate sketches. As a grammar nerd, I was particularly entertained by jokes about language and etiquette. Will reminded me a bit of Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers, not a bad reference for a comedy show.

Jim Robinson and Dennis Curley
Dennis Curley provides musical accompaniment and cheery original songs, as well as a recurring portrayal of the devil as a man frustrated by the difficulty of finding reliable minions to do his bidding.

Jim Robinson is convincing both as a disgruntled biology teacher forced to teach alternatives to evolution, and a guy no one wants to be in the steam room with. In another comedy reference, he bears an interesting resemblance to Fred Willard.

Eriq Nelson
Jeffrey Cloninger

Photos: therecoveryparty.com
Eriq Nelson showed a sly wit, often providing an unexpected twist on the proceedings. Even when things go slightly wrong, he keeps it funny.

Jeffrey Cloninger commanded the stage whether complaining about cookies or accidentally losing his soul by not reading the fine print.

Throughout, we are reminded, not-so-subtly, that we all have a choice to make in November and the show's viewpoint is fairly obvious. But it's not didactic or preachy. Running a tight and sharp 90 minutes, ... Nice Things has a lot of laughs about things that are on all of our minds. And it's good to laugh when we can!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Letter from Wisconsin - American Players Theatre (Guest Post)

After years of coaxing by friends, we finally took the leap and spent a lovely fall weekend at American Players Theatre. Although it was our first visit to this fabulous repertory theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin, it is far from our last. We're sold, we're in. To tell you more, here's a post from our friend Ernest Edwards, a longtime APT fan:

My Annual Weekend at American Players Theatre:

American Players Theatre is a professional theater company located, literally, in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin. It’s near the town of Spring Green, WI, which is about an hour west of Madison, about three hours northwest of Chicago, and about four and half hours from the Twin Cities. They perform their plays in repertory. If you pick the right weekend, you can see most of the season in one weekend.

I’ve been going to APT since the summer of 2008, and the summer of 2016 is my ninth year. Going to APT isn’t just about good theater, it’s also about going with friends, picnicking before and between plays. That is where the magic is.

With both the main stage--the Up The Hill theater, which is outdoors--and also with the more intimate indoor stage--the Touchstone--you and your friends can see whichever play you want and then get together between plays to picnic. With the two stages, everyone doesn’t have to see the exact same play at the same time, although it's great when it happens.

What else makes this theater company magical? The cast. APT has a core set of 10-12 actors/actresses who have made a commitment to APT. Along with the core company, other actors join the company and may be there every year or so. The company is almost like family. 

This fall, my APT weekend consisted of the plays Comedy of Errors, Death of a Salesman, An Ideal Husband, King Lear, Eurydice, and Arcadia.

Thinking of my first time at APT, I still remember the plays I saw in 2008. I only did four plays that weekend, but they were Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Belle’s Stratagem, The Widower Houses, and Ah, Wilderness!. Back in 2008, the Touchstone wasn’t open yet. It was only the outdoor Up The Hill Theater.

Now that APT is doing some long needed improvements to the Up The Hill Stage, I am very much looking forward to the 2017 season. I would love to do another behind-the-scenes tour. That way I can see the backstage of the Up Hill Theater with the expanded backstage storage, dressing rooms and rehearsal space. 
APT is one of my favorite traditions. I look forward to my annual APT weekend with friends every year. 

(Editor's note: One of the best things about American Players Theatre is staying at Spring Valley Inn and discussing the plays around the massive fire pit outside of the bar. Delightful.)

Capsule reviews by Ernest:

Shakespeare's about mistaken identities is hilarious at APT this season. Went to the student matinee Friday morning. Show also has a deus ex machina esque moment at the end too. Besides the costumes and acting, have to say favorite part of this production was Christina Panfilio and Kesley Brennan as the two Dromio's. At first I thought it was the actress playing both characters. Alas no. Great hair and makeup for those two. They were hilarious.

Death of a Salesman
What a great production. Glad I had went to the closing night performance. It has been so long since I read the play, that I had forgotten some details. Like how Willy Loman was also losing his mind. The flashbacks were well acted. Powerful play. On a side note. I had to laugh internally that, again, real life husband and wife Marcus Truschinski and Tracy Michelle Arnold were playing mother/son.

An Ideal Husband (photo by Liz Lauren)
An Ideal Husband
Oscar Wilde's clever language made An Ideal Husband a fun and witty play. I have to say that this play had more bite to it than the movie with Rupert Everett and Julianne Moore. Another well cast production at APT. With this production some of the highlights were the scene changes, costumes and the hats. Loved this play.

King Lear
Saturday evening play was King Lear. It had a simple set design. Jonathan Smoots was amazing as King Lear in this production. The play was done as present day. What we noticed was funny, was how the two oldest daughters of Lear got smaller skirts, bigger hair and more bling as the play went on. They were both vying for Edmond's attention. Being that this was a Shakespearean tragedy, there was a body count. Should have had a check list. The rain storm, thunder and lightning on stage was so effective. That people jumped out of their seats. Great sound affects. Another well done play at APT.

This production of Eurydice was an adaptation that was set in present day. Very simple set, but very effective story about the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Even death couldn't keep them apart. And the life after death was very interesting in the underworld.

Arcadia (photo by Liz Lauren)
Arcadia
I would have to say that Arcadia was a highlight of the weekend. The play covers so many topics. In a nutshell it takes place present day at an English estate, and they are trying to unravel secrets from two hundred years ago. Past and present do collide in this play. Topics range widely too. Cast highlights were Nathan Burger as Septimas Hodge, Jim Devita as Bernard Nightingale, Colleen Madden as Hannah Jarvis, and Steve Haggard as Valentine Coverly.

September Short Cuts - A Month in Review

September got away from us here at Minnesota Theater Love. Here's a super speedy look at what we saw and what we thought.

The Liar - Park Square Theatre: 
1643 French play, rewritten by David Ives. Starring Sha Cage and Zach Curtis, with amazing performances by Sara Richardson, JuCoby Johnson and especially Shanan Custer. So funny that my face hurt from laughing.

The River - Walking Shadow Theatre Company:
Jez Butterworth, a playwright I LOVE, and amazing performances from a cast of three, including Andrew Erskine Wheeler, completely unrecognizable from Walking Shadow/Mixed Blood's The Christians. This production was not afraid to lean into the quiet and the silences, and the audience was rapt.

The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up - Mu Performing Arts
I love Mu, and I adore both Sun Mee Chomet and Sherwin Resurreccion, but did not love this play by Carla Ching, nor the production. This show jumps around in time, but doesn't develop the characters fully enough for us to care about their journey. Also, it was performed at Rarig, and sightlines were awful. Still love ya, Mu. Still happy to be a season subscriber.

Sense & Sensibility - Guthrie Theater
Sneh. The relationship between the sisters was lacking, and the tricksy production didn't work fully. We had WAY more fun recasting the show with our favorite local actors.

And then we went to American Players Theatre in Spring Valley, WI for six shows in four glorious days. More on that later.

The 2016 Ivey Awards - State Theater
The very best things about the Ivey Awards are as follows: Seeing scenes from fabulous shows over the year that I loved or somehow missed, and the love in the room. It might be theater prom, but it's fun even for those of us who work on the school paper. But if I'm totes honest, I'm not sure what's happening with that publicity campaign.

Ragtime: The Musical - Theater Latte Da
I love Ragtime, I love Latte Da, and I now completely adore David Murray. I loved the tour, and Ragtime was the first show I saw at Ten Thousand Things Theater, and I remember it as if it was yesterday (Aimee K. Bryant as Sarah, T. Mychael Rambo as Coalhouse, and Jim Lichtscheidl as Younger Brother). As always, Latte Da does a lovely job and the music is beautiful. But this production feels a bit too stripped-down. The cast feels too small, especially with such iconic characters and the staging too spare (moving staircases for days). But more than anything, in this day and age, to see both of the African-American characters martyred (and so violently) and their child raised by a white family feels....wrong. So many reviews say that this is the show we need right now, but I can't help but wonder: Is it? More on this later.



Broadway Songbook: Rebels on Broadway - Ordway
The Broadway Songbooks are wonderfully produced and sung, and clearly are a labor of love for James Rocco, who's done such a beautiful job in recent years with Ordway productions. This one, though, eh. Despite a wonderfully talented cast, the numbers were too staged, too choreographed, and too awkward. The best numbers were simply done: Telephone Wire from Fun Home (Hope Nordquist and Wes Mouri) and God I Hate Shakespeare from Something Rotten! (Wes Mouri and company). The wonderful cast also included Julius Collins and Brianna Graham.

The Children - Pillsbury House Theatre
This is one of those plays where if they had a second showing right after the first, I'd have stayed to see it again. Beautifully acted by a fantastic cast including Kurt Kwan, Michelle O'Neill, and Jim Lichtscheidl, The Children featured a fantastic script that mixes Medea with modern tragedy. Loved it. If only there were more days in the week, and more time to see amazing theater more than once!

Songs for a New World - Minneapolis Musical Theatre
Four talented performers, including the OUTFREAKINGSTANDING Brandon Jackson, performed Jason Robert Brown's song cycle at Bryant-Lake Bowl. Beautifully musically directed by Tony Sofie, it was a lovely evening of music performed by singers who could really put a song over. However, I do miss an actual program. Even a mimeographed sheet would be great (millennials: it's like a copy machine copy only smearier and smellier.)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Barbecue at Mixed Blood Theatre

Mixed Blood Theatre kicks off its 2016-17 season with a bang with a terrific production of Robert O'Hara's Barbecue. It's a fascinating, outrageous, discomfiting comedy. The play opens in a park, with a family preparing for a barbecue party. That is about all I want to say about the plot, because the play is full of surprises. More than once, the story and telling change so abruptly that the audience has to reorient itself to the new situation.

The cast is phenomenal, handling these shifts and inhabiting all of the facets of their characters wonderfully, under the sure-handed direction of Thomas W. Jones III, who is also in the cast. Regina Marie Williams, Jevetta Steele, and Sandra Struthers were standouts, but the entire ensemble was terrific and also included Bonni Allen, Aimee K. Bryant, Lolly Foy, Sue Scott, Dana Lee Thompson, and Stephen Yoakam.

Besides keeping the actors on their toes, Barbecue challenges the audience to think about racial and cultural stereotypes, about the way the media presents marginalized groups, and about cultural appropriation. But mostly, it will make you think about your own biases and assumptions, whether or not you realized you had them. It's not just about race and class, but about expectations and automatic assumptions.

Barbecue is a rare comedy that entertains while also questioning our prejudices, checking our stereotypes, and interrogating the very nature of truth. Whether or not you believe that theater has the power to effect change in people or in society, this play explores the deep roots of the biases that impact our everyday lives. Barbecue is a must-see that demonstrates Mixed Blood's continuing commitment to "...using theater to address artificial barriers that keep people from succeeding in American society."

Barbecue runs at Mixed Blood through October 16, and thanks to their Radical Hospitality admission program, ticket cost need not be a barrier to anyone.

In looking up the theater's mission statement for the above quote, I found their whole mission and vision statement inspiring. Check it out here. And then consider signing up for a season membership, so you won't miss any of this fantastic theater's important work.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Bluebeard's Dollhouse at the James J. Hill House

Photos by Kym Longhi / Combustible Company.
Bluebeard's Dollhouse is only the second full-length production from Combustible Company, but it's an ambitious, eerie evening you won't soon forget.

The promenade-style production ranges around the Minnesota Historical Society's James J. Hill House in Saint Paul, a perfect location for something a little creepy. This intimate, immersive experience isn't a play, exactly, as it is non-linear. The order in which you see the scenes depends on which group you are part of.

Director Kym Longhi makes good use of the Hill House, setting scenes on three floors in a number of rooms (and a few hallways). The audience is divided into smaller groups, some as few as 6, some of which joined and split again into different combinations throughout the evening. It does feel like a full evening, though it only runs 75 minutes. But it covers so much ground, and there is so much to take in, that time becomes irrelevant. I was totally engrossed in the discovery of the next new scene.

Each group is guided by an ensemble member from one performance space to the next. Though the performers are engaging, interacting is not really required (whew!). With lights, sound, music, dance, storytelling, and film, the company of eleven players spin scenes that combine elements of two stories: A Doll's House, in which Nora feels trapped and not in control of her own life or even her actions, and the folktale of Bluebeard, whose newest wife discovers the bodies of his previous spouses when she enters a forbidden room.

The performers play variations on the two pairs of spouses, with recurring motifs of the key to Bluebeard's mysterious room and the suitcase that Nora will take away from her dollhouse. And dolls. Lots of dolls, many of them creepy, just waiting in an alcove for you to spot them. The overall effect is spooky and creepy, as is the atmosphere of the show. The characters all seem ghostly, as though they may be restless spirits reenacting scenes they lived long ago.

Dolls. Creepy dolls. 
This is a hard show to describe, since it's less about story and more about atmosphere, but I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in its world. It was a great kickoff to the festive Halloween season, and a fun way to see the Hill House again!

If you go:

Bluebeard's Dollhouse runs through October 15 at the James J. Hill House. Reservations are strongly advised, as capacity is limited, but there are two shows most nights, at 7:30 and 9:30. You'll be climbing stairs and sometimes standing, so wear comfortable shoes. I suggest brushing up on the source material before you go (I wished I had).

Some resources:

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Sense and Sensibility at the Guthrie (Dream Recasting)

image from Archive.org
Kate Hamill's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is playing at the Guthrie Theater through October 29, 2016. Many of our theater blogger friends enjoyed it wholeheartedly. I wish I could say the same. I didn't love the adaptation, or the staging.

I'm a steadfast Austenite and a fan of Sense & Sensibility (the movie, the musical, and this tv version). I also adore any opportunity to see an amazing cast that includes Sally Wingert, Robert Dorfman, Ayesha Kinnunen, Emily Gunyou Halaas and more. I just wish the casting was more in line with Austen's original characters and story.

So here's my dream local casting of Sense & Sensibility:

Elinor Dashwood - Emily Gunyou Halaas
Halaas was wasted as Lucy Steele/Gossip in the ensemble of this cast. She has a unique ability to play very smart and clever with just a little bit of endearing quirk.

Marianne Dashwood - Ayesha Kinnunen
Seeing Kinnunen playing Anne Steele/Gossip just reminded me what a wonderfully engaging actress she is. Marianne has more than a little nutty in her, and Kinnunen could play beautiful with a bit of crazy perfectly.

I love the layers casting these two actresses would give the show. The relationship between Elinor and Marianne is the central relationship in the story. I think Halaas and Kinnunen would depict that relationship with chemistry and believability.

Mrs. Dashwood - Carolyn Pool or Christina Baldwin
A frequent misstep in adaptations of Sense & Sensibility is making Mrs. Dashwood too old and not attractive. She is essentially a trophy wife, and quite young and attractive when her husband dies. Either Pool or Baldwin would play a beautiful, slightly flighty Mrs. Dashwood perfectly.

Fanny Dashwood - Annie Enneking or Sheena Janson or Meghan Kreidler
Any of these actresses would give Fanny the perfect steely, strong and slightly cruel bent that she needs. This is a strong character and one of Austen's great villains, and needs strong casting.

John Dashwood - Zach Curtis
I might be influenced by just having seen Curtis knock it out of the park in Park Square's The Liar, but Curtis would play John with good intentions but terribly weak will. Plus, he can do funny with great subtlety.

Mrs. Jennings - Thomasina Petrus
This character is a force of nature, and wonderfully comic and energetic. I'd love to see Petrus play this character. She would liven up every single scene, and provide a great contrast to the more demure and quiet Dashwood family.

Sir John Middleton - Gavin Lawrence
Thinking of Petrus as Mrs. Jennings, she needs a fabulously energetic partner in crime as Sir John, and Gavin Lawrence would kick butt in this role. His engaging energy would partner perfectly with Petrus.

John Willoughby - Eric "Pogi" Sumangil or Alex Galick
Willoughby needs to to be played with lightness and with charm to spare. Though very different types, I think Sumangil or Galick could bring the charm to this role for days, and make everyone fall in love with them (which is what Willoughby does).

Lucy Steele - Suzie Juul 
Lucy's seemingly innocent naivete hides a rather conniving mind. With her wide-open guileless face (that can hide a craftier side), Juul could pull this off amazingly.

Anne Steele - Joy Dolo
A pretty small role, but casting Dolo as Anne would pack a tremendous punch. Her personality and crack comic timing would add so much to this character.

Colonel Brandon - Bill McCallum
Brandon needs to be attractive enough (not just handsome, but charismatic) to attract Marianne's eventual attention, as well as draw attention to the role. He needs to be strong and able to pull off the tragic past without a lot of nonsense. I'd love to see McCallum tackle this role.

Edward Ferrars - Michael Wieser
Edward has a rather shy naivete combined with a subtle charm. He needs to be loyal enough to not break it off with Lucy, and still dashing enough to romance Elinor. When I first considered this role, I'd love to see Ryan Colbert or Jucoby Johnson take it on. However, they're a bit young to be paired with Elinor. I choose Michael Wieser instead, but he might need to tone down the sexy intensity a bit. After all, he's a man of God.

Robert Ferrars - Jay Eisenberg
A bit dashing, a bit sketchy, Eisenberg would beautifully evoke the contrast between him and his brother Edward. And the chemistry between Eisenberg's Ferrars and Juul's Lucy would be rich and complex and fun.

Miss Grey - Caroline Innerbichler or Shanan Custer
Just because it would be amazingly fun to see these amazing comediennes take on this small but crucial role.

Now, if I only had an amazingly well-funded theater company of my very own! To badly paraphrase Jane Austen in the original novel:
“The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a [production of Sense & Sensibility] whom I can really love. I require so much!”
(co-written by Carly and Jules)