Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Twin Cities Horror Festival VI: Why I LOVE TCHF and Review Roundup

Wanna see something scary? 

One of the joys of seeing all twelve shows at the Twin Cities Horror Festival in one glorious weekend is that now I can see some again. And so can you!

The Twin Cities Horror Festival VI runs through November 5th at the Southern Theater and there is so much spooky theater goodness awaiting you. Below I've included links to our short takes on the shows we saw. Super props to the Twin Cities Horror Festival for being so inclusive with shows created by women and POC. Yay!

Quick, a quick rundown on why I love the TCHF:

- Manageable size (twelve shows, perfect for the completist who finds the Fringe daunting)
- Runs a reasonable amount of time (eleven glorious days)
- It's all at one theater (the atmospheric and spookily decorated Southern Theater)
- Which has a bar (with excellent [and affordable!] beer)
- Their website rocks: (love the schedule, love the genres and ratings)
- The staff and volunteers are welcoming, friendly and efficient
- Plus, it's all horror, the time. I know some people are like, eek, I don't like horror, but there is something for everyone at the TCHF.

As for me?


Unexpected Delights:

In short, we had no idea what to expect but Matthew Kessen's hilarious deconstructing of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was both hilarious AND informative. And HILARIOUS.

Intuition and the Mantis by Rogues Gallery Arts
Chilling from the moment you step into the theater, and featuring rich, complex characters and plot (by Duck Washington), this was a gripping, unnerving experience.

Intuition and the Mantis.
Even this picture creeps me out.
Created and performed by Debra Berger, Emily Michaels King and Amber Johnson, this new play incorporates film beautifully and is moody, atmospheric, intense and unsettling.

Expected Delights:

After the Party by Erin Sheppard Presents
Erin Sheppard Presents is amazing--the music is fantastic, the lighting is gorgeous and the dance is compelling and evocative. Go SEE IT. DO IT.

After the Party. Dancey AND spooky.
Harold by Four Humors
It's Four Humors at the TCHF. Do I really need to say anything else?

Short Film Festival VI: Horrorshow Hot Dog
Love Horror Show Hot Dog's selections of short horror films. It's a lovely little spooky break in the festival. The film selection changes each night, which is awesome. See all you can.

Gory AND Socially Aware:

Skin by Dangerous Productions
Playwright Oya Mae Duchess-Davis's thought-provoking take on race and beauty is gory, crowd-pleasing and ambitious as heck. Did I mention gory?

Hand-Picked by Theater Unchecked
This sleepaway camp story with a twist is filled with female voices, moments of surprising gore, and plenty of uncomfortably knowing laughter.

Hand-Picked. I find this image strangely compelling.
Also, I hate camping.
See Also under Socially Aware:

Intuition and the Mantis
Something New: These new works are sure to develop and grow. Develop your early adopter street cred by catching them now and supporting the artists' process.

Eddie Poe by The Coldharts
Love The Coldharts and their devised theater blend of dark comedy, music and gothic horror? Check out this brand-new play by the people who brought us the delightful Edgar Allan.

Eddie Poe. Another amazing image.

Sadie Mae, 1969 by Boston Community Collaborative
An interesting take on the story of Susan Atkins (aka Sadie Mae) and the Manson Family, told with dance, movement and music. 

But Wait, There's More!

The Fae by Special When Lit
Gorgeously costumed and featuring some fabulous movement, this tale of humans venturing into the faery world has some amazing imagery and an interesting story.

The Fae.
The faery queen's headdress is so cool in the show.
A Terrifyingly Intimate Evening with Fotis
Whatever show Mike Fotis is doing tends to be one to definitely catch. We loved last year's The Philip Experiment. If you are a Fotis Fan, and there were lots in the audience, you'll probably love this as well.

That's it! Enjoy! Get your spooky on! Support this amazing festival in which 100%  of ticket sales go to the performers.

AND Happy Spooky Theatergoing, Friends!

Monday, October 30, 2017

TCHF VI: Intuition and the Mantis by Rogues Gallery Arts

Show: Intuition and the Mantis

Rogues Gallery Arts

Genre: Theater, Psychological/Lovecraftian

What's It All About:

"Danah, an unconventional scientist, believes she has discovered a way to send messages to her past self in the form of foresight or intuition. She also believes the Danah of the future is sending her similar impulses. As those impulses grow darker, she invites over an estranged family member to aid in testing her theories. As she does so strange dark things observe eagerly from the shadows."

What We Thought:
We walked into the theater and were greeted by robed, masked characters standing silently in the aisles. Instantly, the mood was spooky AF. (My inclination was to head back out the door, but theater beckons. Eek.) Written and directed by Duck Washington, Intuition and the Mantis was the most chilling play at the TCHF.

Though seemingly a straightforward play about time travel and foresight, the presence of the mysterious masked ones out in the house among the playgoers was decidedly eerie and unnerving. Of course, things get dark beyond expectations. For an hour-long play at a horror festival, Washington does some amazing world-building. His characters are so beautifully fleshed out, and portrayed so effectively by Adelheid Berg as Danah, Philip D. Henry as her loyal assistant (with his own agenda) and Tim Uren as Danah's brother that it's hard to remember that this was a play performed with only three major roles. (Sidebar, fans of the podcast The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society will find Tim Uren's voice eerily familiar--he's one of the creators. Also, check out this podcast. It's SO good.) Major props to Washington for creating such a rich, complex female character in Danah. Go see it. Don't be scared by the masked people--unless you LIKE being scared. What a fabulous way to end our massive two-day TCHF binge! Am I still awake?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

TCHF VI: Skin by Dangerous Productions

Show: Skin

Theater: Dangerous Productions

Genre: Theater, Psychological Gore

What's It All About:
"Black women in search of beauty are lured to the services of a benevolent plastic surgeon. This startling new production by Oya Mae Duchess Davis cuts into the grim truths of racial identity and white privilege in this bloody and terrifying horror story. How far would you go to be beautiful?"

What We Thought:
So far at the TCHF, we've seen psychological horror, dance, short films, dark comedy, and music, but something has been in short supply: GORE. Dangerous Productions, as usual, brings the bloody. This time, however, they also bring a new play by up-and-coming playwright Oya Mae Duchess-Davis that explores the horror that lies behind the fact that "in our society Black women are shamed for having certain features that are then declared beautiful once they are put on a white woman" (from the Director's Note).  This show is thought-provoking, and still a crowd-pleaser. (Not that they are mutually exclusive, I just thought it was interesting that this was the first standing o of the festival for us.). They bring the gore, and they really aim high. I love to see a show with such amazing ambitions and ideas for days.

TCHF VI: Sadie Mae, 1969 by Boston Community Collaborative

Show: Sadie Mae, 1969

Theater: Boston Community Collaborative

Genre: Theater/Dance, Psychological/Historical Fiction

What's It All About:"Susan Atkins, aka Sadie Mae Glutz, was a member of Charles Manson’s cult, known as The Family. In 1969, the group committed one of the most notorious crimes in American history, the murder of film star Sharon Tate and her guests at her home in Hollywood’s Beverly Hills. The event was a turning point in the fabric of American culture, a case where the Free Love values of the 1960s turned violent and no one felt safe, not even in their own home. This play follows Susan as she reveals her crimes in a jailhouse confession, an event that was pivotal in convicting the Manson Family for their crimes. Her memories explore her state of mind, her indoctrination into the cult and the connections between sex and violence. The text itself focuses on Susan’s perspective, looking at motherhood and her relationship to her primary victim, the 8 months pregnant Sharon Tate, wife of film director, Roman Polanski. This play aims to amplify their voices, moving away from the men who made them famous, neither of whom were present at the scene of the crime. The piece is scored by a haunting reworking of the music they worshipped, The Beatles’ White Album, where the audience will see the sinister lyrics through the eyes of Charles Manson. These new songs are also accompanied by movement pieces, incorporating dance as a form heightened storytelling. This play will bring you to the depths of a dark mind, begging the question how did an average girl next door transform into a brutal killer?"

What We Thought:
The Manson Family story is absolutely fascinating. If you have not yet, you should absolutely listen to podcast You Must Remember This's in-depth, ten-part series on the Family.  Sadie Mae, 1969 was written by Boston Community Collaborative's lead dance and drama instructor, Ingrid Oslund. No program insert was provided, otherwise I'd have called out the actress who committed 100% to the role of Susan Atkins, aka Sadie Mae. [Update! The actress's name is Erica Wisor. Also, check out the interesting story of the past and future of Sadie Mae, 1969.] Incorporating dance and music, this show clocked in a a brisk 40 minutes.  Honestly, the summary describes the show pretty fully. It's got some high ideals--hopefully, further development is in the works.

TCHF VI: Reverend Matt's Monster Science: Trinity of Terror

Show: Reverend Matt's Monster Science: Trinity of Terror

Genre: Theater/Spoken Word, Comedy / Non-fiction / Monsters

What's It All About:
"Rev. Matt’s talks present historical and mythological background, science facts, and comedy jokes about the monsters we create and the fears that they embody. Plus, Powerpoint! A different talk every night, each on a venerable monster later canonized by 20th-century cinema – 'How to Contract Lycanthropy,' 'Neck Romance,' and 'Frankenstein: D-Bag!'"

What We Thought:
We had no idea what to expect with this show--which is part of the joy of the Twin Cities Horror Fest, of course. Rev. Matt comes out looking the perfect part of the college professor, folder in hand, ready to discourse upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and, as he says, regale us with incredibly detailed trivia about monster movies. Fun, right?  The welcome surprise of this show is how freaking hilarious Rev. Matt's deadpan observations are. He had us, and the whole audience, right out the GATE.

Accompanied by some judicious use of Powerpoint and stellar comic timing, this show not only makes you laugh but you actually learn something (in spite of yourself). We definitely feel compelled to revisit the novel--or at least The War of the Gargantuas.

TCHF VI: Harold by Four Humors

Show: Harold

Theater: Four Humors

Genre: Horror Comedy

What's It All About:
"Based on the best of campfire ghost stories, Harold is a horrific comedy that delves into the deepest fears of our own imaginations and the animal instincts of the human psyche. Two brothers drive their herd deep into the mountains to graze. Isolated from the outside world, they build a scarecrow for their amusement; Harold. They show Harold amazing kindness and they show Harold amazing cruelty, until one day, Harold starts repaying the favor."

What We Thought:
Here are the things you should know: It's Four Humors, directed by Jason Ballweber, and starring Brant Miller, Matt Spring and Ryan Lear. It's crazy funny and the Four Humors really know how to tell a spooky story. Misdirection, jump scares and amazing sound design add up to an extremely fun campfire story. It's also crazy dark (no, not that way, but lightwise) and made me really think about the use of light in theater. It's wonderfully claustrophobic and hilarious at the same time.  And there's a scarecrow. See it.

TCHF VI: Animus

Show: Animus

Theater: By Debra Berger, Emily Michaels King, and Amber Johnson

Genre: Theater/Dance Film, Psychological

What's It All About:

"Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 psychological horror film, Persona, Animus uses performance and multi-media projection to explore the merging identities of two modern women, one who speaks, and one who doesn’t, who compare hands and 'get all mixed up in one another.'"

What We Thought:
Motivational speaker and Instagram star Elisabet Thompson (creator Emily Michaels King) is giving a speech when she has a breakdown.  She ends up hospitalized and cared for by nurse Alma (creator Debra Berger) and psychological drama ensues. The proceedings are recorded (by creator and cinematographer Amber Johnson) and played simultaneously with the live action. The two women head off to the seaside for a mental health retreat where secrets are shared, clothing is changed and things get exceedingly complicated. The relationship between the two women is constantly shifting and evolving, and Berger and King play off each other perfectly.

Animus is moody, atmospheric, intense and unsettling. It's stylish, and the technology perfectly serves the story. This show will keep you thinking long after you leave the theater. Highly recommended.

TCHF VI: Short Film Festival 2017 by Horror Show Hot Dog

Show: Short Film Festival 2017

Theater: Horror Show Hot Dog

Genre: Film

What's It All About:
"Some of the most exciting filmmaking in horror happens 5, 10, or 15 minutes at a time. We scoured the web, film festivals, and even unreleased shorts to bring you five hour-long blocks of our very favorites. These short films will make you laugh, chill your blood, turn your stomach, and might even provoke a tear or two."

What We Thought:
Every single time we go to the Horror Show Hot Dog Short Film Festival at the TCHF I think, dang, I should watch more short horror films. As a huge horror film fan, it's frankly appalling. Thank goodness the HSHD guys are here to help.  The same way that a short story can be beautifully evocative and cutting, a short horror film can provide a near-perfect scare. The line-up for HSHD changes each night, which is awesome. See all you can.

Night Two, when we saw it, featured:

Taste - Directed by Adrian Selkowitz. An ambitious woman strives to impress a television producer but her plans go awry when a naked woman is found in her driveway.

20HZ - Directed by Chris Keller (probably not the fictional character from Oz as portrayed by Christopher Meloni). A songwriter tries to track down a mysterious sound in her home. Includes a scene with shades of my favorite episode of Tales from the Dark Side.

Kisses -
Directed by Sean U'Ren. Freaky and disturbing and involving a mannequin. This never ends well.

The Armoire - Directed by Evan Cooper. Technical issues impaired our ability to watch this short, but I love how intently the whole audience was watching a frozen scene to see something, anything happening.

Earworm - Directed by Tara Price. Genius and I had to watch it through my fingers. That is all.

Even the Darkness Has Arms - Directed by Chris Bavota. Sometimes all you need is some really scary as heck imagery. Also, that title rocks.

Caravan - Directed by Nathan Lacey. Despite almost indecipherable Aussie accents and a caravan which was Tardis-like in its dimensions, this film was creepy and complex.

After a day of horror theater that was enjoyable but not scary, this was the perfect way to get our scare on.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

TCHF VI: Eddie Poe by The Coldharts

Show: Eddie Poe

Theater: The Coldharts

Genre: Theater/music

What's It All About:
"Sixteen year-old Edgar Allan has one goal: to gain mastery over all his subjects at university. He has only one obstacle: Eddie Poe. From the creators of "Edgar Allan" comes "Eddie Poe," a manic riff inspired by the life and short stories of America's first writer."

What We Thought:
Clearly a work in progress by the very charming company that previously brought us Edgar Allan and The Legend of White Woman Creek. Duo Katie Hartman and Nick Ryan "create American Gothic-inspired, devised, music-theatre" (per their website) and Eddie Poe is their latest work.

Where their previous show, Edgar Allan, was about Edgar at school as a younger boy, Eddie Poe is about Edgar Allan Poe going to university in Virginia. Despite his best efforts to be an upstanding young pillar of society and to be true to his girl, Elmira Royster, he gets involved in cards and gambling, and a feud with a wealthy rival. There are songs and some unexpected gore, but as usual, The Coldharts present a creepy and original take on Poe. BTW, if you haven't seen Edgar Allan, you can purchase the recording at the merch coffin upstairs at the Fest.

TCHF VI: A Terrifyingly Intimate Evening with Fotis

Show: A Terrifyingly Intimate Evening with Fotis

Genre: Storytelling/Spoken Word, Psychological

What's It All About:
"Mike Fotis returns with his first storytelling show since his Fringe Festival hit, Fotis Canyon. Join Mike as he opens up his brain and starts digging into the creepy spots with a pick axe. "

What We Thought:
A table, a water bottle, and a stack of papers comprise this voyage into the mind of Mike Fotis. In this show, Fotis reads old comedy pieces and gives his take on his work today. Line by line, he reads, recites, comments on and reviews his work. Fotis super fans (of which the audience was full) seemed to very much enjoy it.

TCHF VI: After the Party by Erin Sheppard Presents

Theater: Erin Sheppard Presents

Genre: Dance/Theater, Psychological 

What It's All About: 
"Pip and Kat meet at a party and declare that only death can break them apart. However, when death comes, Pip discovers that he won't let Kat go after all. From the creators of Bird of Seven Colors comes a ghost story that interweaves dance and dialogue to explore what happens when you are haunted by love."

What We Thought:
True confession: we see a LOT of theater but not a lot of dance, so our dance cred? Not great. That said, I will always see every single thing Erin Sheppard does.

This year's show has a bit more narrative than in years past, with Joe Bozic playing the non-dancing role of Pip to Erin Sheppard's Kat. As old-school musical fans, we were so delighted when Pip and Kat were replaced with dream versions of themselves (see Dream Laurey, Dream Curly from Oklahoma!). The narration, both written and performed by Joe Bozic, is particularly lovely for anyone who loves to read Missed Connections (and this lovely article)--at least in the beginning. It gets a bit darker, of course.

As usual, the music is fantastic, the lighting is gorgeous and the dance is compelling and evocative. The dance ensemble is superb, the costuming on point, and it sustained a dreamlike atmosphere--one in which it would have been nice to view without unnecessary transition applause. (See comic below.)

In short, go see this show. Erin Sheppard is ameeezing and as usual, a high point of the Twin Cities Horror Festival. GO SEE IT. And if you have any ideas of how I can get her to choreograph and soundtrack my life? Let me know.

From Q2QComics

TCHF VI: The Fae by Special When Lit

Show: The Fae

Theater: Special When Lit

Genre: Theater, Fantasy

What It's All About:
"On Hollantide Eve, otherwise known as Old Samhain, a group of tourists are seduced into entering a mysterious faerie ring on the Isle of Man. They discover there’s a reason why the Fae were once feared, rather than admired. Based on the old tales of faerie, including nudity and blood, Special When Lit presents: The Fae. Join the dance, if you dare."

What We Thought:
This show begins with Gerd (Linda Sue Anderson) sitting outside a wedding party in the Isle of Man contemplatively enjoying a drink. American brother and sister Darby and Ethna happen along and Gerd tells them to be cautious cause it's the night the fairies come out. Long story short: They don't.

They wander around in the woods with another couple they picked up, Roscoe and Quinn. They hear mysterious music, see mysterious lights, drink from an enchanted waterfall, and then happen upon a fairy ring. Dancing and cavorting with fairies ensues and the siblings ignore every warning they were given by Gerd. Much rapey groping of the Americans ensues, and the fairy queen comes along and sexes Roscoe to death.

Soooo ... the fairies were kind of neat. They have an interesting movement vocabulary and their physicality was the high point of the show for us. There are a couple other high points that other people may enjoy (if you know what I mean--snicker). The Americans were pretty awful, and things picked up much more when the fairies show up. It's an interesting idea, and some of the execution is particularly memorable, but the story falls short.

TCHF VI: Hand-Picked by Theater Unchecked

Show: Hand-Picked

Theater: Theater Unchecked

Genre: Theater, Dark Comedy

What It's All About: 
"A leadership camp for young women takes a dark turn when select campers learn they have been invited in exchange for much more than their skills. A dark comedy about the realistic horrors of racism, privilege, appropriation, and systemic oppression. Created, written, and performed by female identifying theater artists."

What We Thought:
Hand-Picked takes the tropes of sleepaway camp movies and adds a whole lot of contemporary issues. Well-acted by a good cast, and making excellent use of the Southern stage and theater, it is a play with a whole lot to say--and yay!--it's a show that is completely filled with female voices. There are moments of surprising gore, and plenty of uncomfortably knowing laughter. For a first play from young emerging artists, it's awfully impressive. It's not the most subtle play, but these are remarkably unsubtle times.

Directed by Marisa B. Tejeda and Sulia Rose Altenberg, we loved this from their Director's Note:

"No, not all white people are practicing racists. But, complacency is dangerous. Ask yourself, what are you doing to raise up the people of color and queer people in your own community?

Patrons of the theater, we hope you feel aggravated to make an impact after this piece. Believe women. Believe in women. Shut down racism and homophobia. Check in with your community and take care of each other."

YES! We'll definitely be following Theater Unchecked.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Catching Up - Some Shows We Saw in October 2017

How to Use a Knife (photo by Rich Ryan)
Here's a bunch of shows we saw lately:

How to Use a Knife at Mixed Blood Theater

We saw this on the very last night, which is always so sad because the show was amazing. Written by Will Snider and directed by Jesca Prudencio, this fast-moving, complex drama (with a fair dash of humor) set in a restaurant kitchen was utterly fantastic. From the enormously detailed (and working!) set to the rich, vivid performances to the unbelievable movement on stage, this show was a delight. The entire cast was wonderful, with particularly outstanding performances by Zach Myers as volatile head chef George, Raul Ramos as agreeable (to a point) sous-chef Charles, to Ansa Akyea as 'Steve' the dishwasher behind whose calm appearance lies incredible secrets. Big shout outs also to Jake Caceres, whose energy adds so much to the mix. Loved it!

Photo from Theatre Pro Rata
The Minotaur by Theatre Pro Rata at the Crane Theater

Written by Anna Ziegler and directed by Amber Bjork, this retelling of the classic myth is about Ariadne, her brother, the Minotaur, and Theseus, who has come to slay the Minotaur. It's an incredibly compelling production, with a bare bones stage, a small, excellent cast and perfect costuming by Mandi Johnson. It's one of those shows where maybe you don't understand everything that's happening, but you are on board completely with the ride. The retelling is fascinating with a mix of modern and classical language, and the performances are terrific, particularly those by the three main actors: Stanzi D. Schalter (Ariadne), who is like a Disney princess come to life--only more interesting, Derek Meyer (Theseus), whose vain handsomeness and comic timing is perfect for the adventuring Theseus, and Kip Dooley (The Minotaur), whose deep complexity is mesmerizing to watch. (Also, online program! Sweet!)

The Watch on the Rhine at Guthrie Theater

A bunch of our Twin Cities Theater Blogger friends really enjoyed this show and saw copious parallels to the events of today, but it left us cold. I am so tired of the arch, mid-Atlantic accent (think Katherine Hepburn) and, frankly, the problems of rich, white people. Yes, it's about a spy fighting fascism and Sarah Agnew is wonderful, but the rest? Sneh. (Love the gorgeous show art, though.)

Wedding Band at Penumbra Theatre

Wedding Band is the first show of Penumbra Theatre's new season, Sarah Bellamy's first as solo artistic director. But Lou Bellamy is not completely gone from the theater he founded; he directs this moving production with his usual finesse.

Alice Childress, whose play Trouble in Mind was part of the Guthrie's season last year, wrote Wedding Band in 1962, amid the turmoil of the civil rights movement and five years before Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision, which overturned laws against interracial marriage in 16 states. The play wasn't performed until 1966 (at the University of Michigan) and had its first professional production at the New York Shakespeare Festival of the Public Theater in 1972.
The Wedding Band cast; photos by Allen Weeks.

I'd like to pause here to plug
Penumbra's study guides. Available on the theater's website, the guides present a wealth of background and history for their shows. A play like Wedding Band always makes me curious about the time and place where it's set, and the study guide is a wonderful resource, which I made good use of above.

Set in 1918 South Carolina, the play introduces Julia Augustine (Dame-Jasmine Hughes), just as she moves into rented lodgings behind the house of Fanny (George Keller), who is very proud of being a rare property-owning black woman. Soon, her new neighbors learn that Julia is in a romantic relationship with Herman, a white baker (Peter Christian Hansen). Though they've been together for ten years, they can't legally marry, and his family business keeps him from moving elsewhere.

All of the characters have opinions about the relationship, which they don't hesitate to share. The play is full of wonderfully complicated female characters, and the director and his cast bring out their individual qualities beautifully. Julia and Herman have a loving relationship, but it's not free of strife or resentment, and we see how those undercurrents play out in their interactions.

It's fascinating to think of the different time periods that affect our experience of the show. In 1918, the United States had entered into the World War, and characters hope that serving their country will make things easier when the war is over. In the 1960s, when it was written, issues of race and equality were at the forefront of public discussion, and the arguments and problems sound all too familiar in 2017.

Wedding Band deals with a lot of heavy issues, but at heart is a story of ordinary people dealing with the harsh realities of their lives as best they can. And they are people worth spending two hours getting to know.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Music Man at Artistry

Harold Hill (Michael Gruber) takes on the ladies of River City (Corey DeDanann,
Becca Hart, Deidre Cochran, Lauren Drasler, Wendy Short-Hays). Photo: Devon Cox.
The new production of The Music Man at Artistry is delightful. Meredith Willson's classic musical is brought to beautiful life by a host of amazing theatrical talents.

Marian, Winthrop, and Mrs. Paroo (Jennifer Eckes,
Liam Beck-O'Sullivan, Lolly Foy). Photo: Devon Cox.
As salesman/huckster Harold Hill, Michael Gruber is fantastic, exuding charismatic energy, charming the audience as well as the population of River City. From his introduction on a train full of traveling salesmen, he hits the small town with his best material, convincing the stolid Iowans that not only is their sleepy little town in trouble, but that he can solve everything by starting up a boys' band. As his wiles work on the town, everything gets a little brighter. And when the band instruments arrive, even librarian Marian Paroo softens toward Hill when she sees how excited her little brother is. As Marian, Jennifer Eckes starts starchy and gradually loosens up in both appearance and actions, lending her sweet soprano to a raft of lovely songs along the way.

Joel Sass has designed a stripped-down but never empty set that speeds the transition between scenes without distracting from the action. Even the wooden-plank moon in the sky is effective, glowing under the colorful lights designed by Grant E. Merges. The most fully realistic aspect of the production design is Ed Gleeman's costumes, which showcase period-appropriate clothes that make everyone look good. The ensemble is pleasingly varied in size and appearance, which makes them all the more fun to watch.

Harold Hill (Michael Gruber) makes his sales pitch.
Photo: Devon Cox.
With a well-made musical, it's tempting to sit back and let the music and story work their magic, but director Angela Timberman has done something more. I'm not even sure what it is, but I was noticing nuances of the show I'd never paid much attention to before. And Anita Ruth's orchestra does full justice to the score without sounding like a carbon copy of the cast recording. Michael Gruber does double duty as choreographer, bringing a playful energy to the many dances. The dance in the library and the novelty Shipoopi number are great fun, as are the big production numbers that involve the whole ensemble.

The entire cast is terrific, and the show is a whole lot of fun. Unfortunately, unless you already have tickets, you are unlikely to see it, since the show was sold out before the second weekend of performances. I only wish the run were longer so that more people could see this lovely show.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Monster at Swandive Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Man of La Mancha at Theater Latte Da

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Nether at the Jungle Theater

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

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

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

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

Here are five things I utterly loved about The Nether.

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

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

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

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

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

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