Saturday, July 23, 2016

Minnesota Fringe: My Can't-Miss List

The most reassuring thing that our friend Cherry and Spoon recently told me is that out of the 169 shows in the 2016 Minnesota Fringe, one person can only see 56 at most. I found this comforting.

The Fringe has made some exciting changes to ticketing practices this year. In short, here's the scoop:
Day Pass Wristbands: Your wristband serves as your pass to any show in the festival on a given day. Wristbands are $16 on weekdays; $22 on weekends. 
Reserving Tickets: Reservations may be bought in advance through the Fringe website. Your reservation guarantees you a seat for the show. You must also be wearing a day pass wristband to get in. 
Having scanned all 169 (168?) shows in the festival, a few shows have stood out as can't-miss shows for me from the 36 I put in My Queue. BTW, I LOVE the My Queue feature on the Fringe website. I need one in real life. Don't forget to check out Fringe fanatic Cherry and Spoon's Must-Sees List as well!

 Now or Later
(all images from Minnesota Fringe website.)
Now Or Later
Directed by Joseph Stodola
Playing at Southern Theater
On election night, controversial photos of a presidential candidate's son spread over the internet, potentially sparking an international incident. Smart and timely, from the ensemble behind 2014's ONE ARM.
Why I'm In: New Epic Theater produced two of the best plays I've seen this year (The Normal Heart and Coriolanus). Also, Grant Sorenson.

Know Your B-Movie Actors
By The Miller Conspiracy
Written by Derek Lee Miller
Playing at HUGE Theater
Derek Lee Miller (with the help of his personal bartender) brings you the weird lives of the working stiffs of Hollywood. They weren't famous, but they were there. A different collection of bios every night!
Why I'm In: Cause I am FASCINATED by the lives of non-star working actors. (Also background/extras, but that's a different story.) Also, amazing cast including a ton of Transatlantic Love Affair company members. And a different story every night? Way to aim for the---oh, shoot. What's that sport analogy? Win one for the Gipper? Anyhoo, way to raise the bar, Miller.

H.P. Lovecraft's The Rats in the Walls
By Ghoulish Delights
Directed by Tim Uren
Playing at Mill City Museum
The last heir to a cursed lineage returns to his ancestral home and discovers horrors hidden within. This critically acclaimed show returns to mark the tenth anniversary of its premiere to sold out houses.
As Auntie Mame would say, "How vivid."

Why I'm In: a) I love spooky. b) I also love site-specific, and what better place for a spooky show than the Mill City Museum.

By The Catalysts
Created by Max Wojtanowicz
Max Wojtanowicz was diagnosed with stage 3 testicular cancer in January 2016. A friend told him to "conquer it, and then sing about it." A one-man comedy about the moment when life throws you a curve... ball.
Why I'm In: Because Max Wojtanowicz is funny, charming and talented. Need I say more?

Bezubaan: The Voiceless
By Bollywood Dance Scene
Created by Bollywood Dance Scene
Playing at U of M Rarig Center Thrust
The creators of 2015's best-selling show bring you an original dance dramedy exploring preconceptions, fear, and identity in flamboyant Bollywood style. Happily, we're never too old to learn or too old to love!
Why I'm In:  Cause it's "an original Bollywood dance dramedy exploring themes of immigration, integration, and identity" and it's by Bollywood Dance Scene, of last year's highly acclaimed Spicy Masala Chai. Also, Bollywood!

Take Talkback
By Six Four Six One Productions
Directed by Brad Erickson
Playing at Ritz Theater Proscenium
Join the cast and creative talent behind Beulah Community Theatre's gritty production of Take for an explosive post-performance discussion, featuring a special appearance by Take playwright A. Thomas Klein.
Why I'm In: 1) Because it sounds deliciously inside baseball, but for theater nerds. 2) Because I have strong opinions on talkbacks. 3) Because I just saw some of the fab cast in DalekoArts Urinetown (which I LOVED.)

Sometimes There's Wine
By Shanan Custer & Carolyn Pool
Created by Shanan Custer & Carolyn Pool
Playing at Theatre in the Round
The 2 Sugars, Room for Cream team bring new "scenes from life, stuff we think is funny" about wine. When there's wine there's celebration, joy, regret and sometimes questionable text messages. But mostly joy.
Why I'm In: Because after the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers moderated a post-show discussion for Park Square Theatre's Calendar Girls, I so belatedly discovered how freaking delightful and hilarious (off stage--I knew about the on stage part) Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool are.

Broken English, Mother Tongue
By minnerican productions
Written by Javier Morillo
Playing at Bryant-Lake Bowl
One of the hosts of the Moth Story Slam, Javier Morillo in this show tells stories of growing up on a US Army base in Puerto Rico. Note: Audience may be quizzed on its knowledge of Puerto Rico. You will fail.
Why I'm In: Because of the emotional rollercoaster of the above note. I was worried, then reassured. Also, this from Morillo's bio: "He also advises political campaigns, enjoying a reputation as a dogged strategist and a really sore loser." Hee hee.

In The Time of Spies
By Ferrari McSpeedy Theatrical Productions
Created by Joe Bozic and Mike Fotis
Playing at U of M Rarig Center Thrust
A crackerjack team of secret agents saves the world again and again because the world is always in need of saving. More American than The Americans, less bridge-heavy than Bridge of Spies.
Why I'm In: Fotis. Also, the cast list has funny character names.

COUGAR-OKE the improvised soap opera with music
By Casting Spells Productions
Created by The Entire Cast
Playing at Strike Theater
When the aging glitterati of Palm Desert descend on The Nest, a legendary hot spot, for Cougar-oke night, you could cut the comedic tension with a plastic surgeon's knife. All improvised, including karaoke!
Why I'm In: They had me at "aging glitterati." Also, the cast, which includes Dane Stauffer, Shanan Custer and James Detmar.

By Its Time Productions
Written by Chris Andersen & Lee Lawing
Playing at The Playwrights' Center
Three stories told TWICE. Sex. Church. Death. REPEAT. Six one-act plays by two playwrights. Two versions of each scene remind us we are seldom original, never alone and things are rarely what we think.
Why I'm In: Intriguing premise. Also, Peter Vitale and Dennis Spears.

The Real World Fring Festival
By Trusty Paper Ship
Written by Annie Scott Riley
Playing at Mixed Blood Theatre
Find out what happens when people stop being polite in this absurdist reality TV satire from the writer of "I Make No Promises, But Someone's Probably Going to Die." There's a hot tub.
Why I'm In: PURELY for David Beukema's biography, which I urge you to GO READ RIGHT NOW. Dear Mr. Beukema, your ideas are intriguing to me and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

The Chair-Builders
By Catalog Models
Created by Gemma Irish and Mark Sweeney
Playing at Phoenix Theater
Preparations for a dinner party transform into an epic journey when a couple struggles to assemble Swedish furniture. A play about casting spells, forging paths, and pushing through fear.
Why I'm In: It's listed as New Music/Opera, which intrigues me. Also, love the company name.

Snow Country
By Minnehaha Productions
Written by Carmen Angelica & Emily Schmidt
Playing at Theatre in the Round
When Madeline becomes a flight attendant for local Snow Country Airlines, she encounters some turbulence. Between tough passengers and icy coworkers, the contents of her overhead compartment get shifted.
Why I'm In: The plethora of exclamation points in the cast and crew list. Also, Shanan Custer and Eric Webster.

Directed by Joe Johnson
Playing at Southern Theater
Will the Princess escape from the evil clutches of Secundus? Will Nicodemus reach his heroic potential? And does any of this really matter when the music of SmashHammer wails this epically and rocks this hard?
Why I'm In: It has NOTHING to do with that picture. At all. Nope. It's all about the hard rocking.

Mead Hall
By Tedious Brief Productions
Written by Greer, Tallen, and Watson-Jones
Playing at U of M Rarig Center Thrust
A one-man production of Beowulf and a wild adaptation of Road House find their Fringe venue double-booked. They come to realize that a 5th century monster-slayer has a lot in common with a Missouri bar bouncer.
Why I'm In: Did they say Road House? Best movie ever? I am IN. Also, literature.

Becoming Inga
By David Mann
Created by Colleen Kruse and David Mann
Playing at U of M Rarig Center Arena
Working in a sensual massage parlor as "Inga," Colleen must adapt to a hidden world she knows little about. Dark secrets and strange longings transpire. As Inga takes over, Colleen will never be the same.
Why I'm In: Because both Colleen Kruse and David Mann are fricking hee larry us.

Apple Picking
By Ben San Del Presents
Created by Ben San Del
Playing at Ritz Theater Proscenium
Two couples go apple picking. It escalates from there. A darkly comic, psychedelic crime thriller from the creator of encore-winning Fringe plays A Nice Guy's Guide to Awkward Sex and Minnesota Middle Finger.
Why I'm In: From apple picking to crime thriller? Okay. Also, Mo Perry and Christopher Kehoe.

Also On My Radar:

You Suck.
By Tinker-2-Evers-2-Chance
Written by George Campbell

Visiting Hour

By Hegg's Army
Directed by Elliott Mallin

There's No Coffee in Heaven
By Jayme Allen
Written by Jayme Allen

the place between
By two somethings
Created by Annie Galloway, Autumn Ike, Ben Kolis, Malia Yang, Rob Ward

The Exclusion Zone!
By Martin Dockery
Created by Martin Dockery

Suite Surrender
By PZ Productions
Directed by Piper Shatz-Akin and Zach Christensen

So Bright the Night
By Hey Rube
Created by Marcus Anthony

By Savage Umbrella
Created by Savage Umbrella

Orpheus and Eurydice
By Garden of Song Opera
Written by Christoph Willibald Gluck

My Uncanny Valley
By Olly's Room
Directed by Demetre Papageorgiou

By Rhymes with Montana
Written by Tyler Mills

By Three Knives
Written by Tyler Olsen

By Animal Engine
Created by Carrie Brown and Karim Muasher

Celebrity Exception
By Giant Giraffe
Written by Katherine Glover

Celebrity Book Club
By Outlandish Productions
Written by Jimmy LeDuc, Dan Hetzel, and Sulia Rose Altenberg

Caucasian Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales
By Fearless Comedy Productions
Written by Duck Washington

Break Your Heart
By One T Productions
Written by Scot Moore

Bird of Seven Colors
By Erin Sheppard Presents
Directed by Erin Sheppard

Happy Fringing!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Dear Theaters - Can We Talk About Your Website?

Dear Theaters,

I love you. You know I do. This whole blog is about how much I love you.

Can I tell you, though? I just spent a few hours going through your websites to update a show list for Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, making sure we don't miss any of your amazing shows.

I'll be honest: it was not always easy.

I know: You make theater, not websites. You're probably paying someone to make your website look snazzy, but, darn it, snazzy does not always equal user-friendly and intuitive.

So out of love, here are ten tips from your devoted theatergoing friend:

1) Current Show Info: Got a show running? Put it front and center. Don't make me hunt around for the show info. If I'm going to come see your show, I really need to know when and where the show is playing and how to buy tickets.

2) Dates and Times: That said, please don't make me click through to your ticketing software to find the dates and times of your show. Having to jump back and forth between your ticketing site and your website is irritating.

3) Giant Pictures: Beautiful pictures of your past productions are fine, but I hate having to sit through a slide show just to figure out what you're doing next. And those sites that consist of nothing but a giant image and a few mysterious unmarked links? Oy.

4) Mystery Meat: Speaking of those buttons: please don't let style overtake substance. I don't want to spend more than 30 seconds clicking on various icons in the hopes that I'll be able to find out if you have a show running. I REALLY don't want to do this. Labels are awesome.

5) Click Here to Enter: This is just web design 101: Don't make me click on something to actually access your website. You do not need a splash/entrance page. It is unnecessary. Love, your friend, me.

6) USE THE YEAR: I'm sorry to yell, but there's little more annoying than getting psyched about an upcoming show only to realize that it was last year, not this year. Why do people hate the year so much?

7) Cast and Crew List: Hey, who's in your show? Got a cast list? Put it online. Often the aspect that tips me over the indecision threshold into buying a ticket is based on the cast. We've got an amazing theater community--build on it.

8) Past Productions: After seeing one of your terrific productions, I'm often thinking about your other productions I've loved. Even a list (with the year presented!) will help spark amazing memories and goodwill. Not to mention, that historical overview and noted longevity is great for someone who is considering giving you money.

9) About Us: You know who wants to know about you? Theatergoers. Know who else? Potential donors. Tell us about yourself! What's your mission, who do you serve, what's your focus? These are all amazing things to know.

10) Reviews: Did someone say something nice about you? Share it! Just like picking up a book and seeing a blurb by a favorite author, a positive review from a critic or blogger (ahem!) can tip the scales in your favor. People love your show? Let us know!

And One to Grow On: If you aren't updating your website, please direct me to where I can get more info about your theater. Are you using Facebook and/or Twitter? Instagram? Snapchat? Some new social media I've never heard of? Let me know.

Although I was tempted (thanks, shoulder devil), I am not calling out any theaters directly. Why? Because of LOVE. And a little optimism!

Thanks for listening, theater friends!

See also: Ten Tips for Your Post-Show Discussion (from your audience member)

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sweeney Todd at Mill City Summer Opera

Mill City Summer Opera is currently performing Sweeney Todd (through July 24). If there is a lovelier place in the Twin Cities to see opera (or musical theater) than the Mill City Ruins, I have not yet found it.

Don't get too excited--as usual, tickets sold out almost immediately. Thank goodness for rush tickets.*

Mill City Summer Opera has been in operation for five years, and this is their first musical. We've had a bit of resurgence in local Sweeney Todds in recent years--it was part of last year's Theater Latte Da season starring Sally Wingert and Mark Benninghofen. (This acclaimed production was to return this season, but for some reason, it fell through.)

Finally, his arm is complete. Catherine Cook and
Robert Orth. Photo by Dan Norman.
If this show is new to you, or if you missed the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a 1979 musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. There's a two-page synopsis in the program, but here's the condensed version from
One of the darkest musicals ever written, Sweeney Todd: A Musical Thriller is the unsettling tale of a Victorian-era barber who returns home to London after fifteen years of exile to take revenge on the corrupt judge who ruined his life. When revenge eludes him, Sweeney swears vengeance on the entire human race, murdering as many people as he can, while his business associate Mrs. Lovett bakes the bodies into meat pies and sells them to the unsuspecting public.
Fun, am I right? The musical actually fits the setting beautifully, with a marvelously versatile set (by Narelle Sissons) that features a birdcage and oversized scissors. Judge Turpin's oversized chair did remind me of Edith Ann, but worked well for a snuggling Anthony and Joanna.

The cast of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Dan Norman.
As with the other Mill City Summer Opera productions I've seen, the orchestra (led by Brian DeMaris) was outstanding. Robert Orth was a sepulchral Sweeney, and had an uncanny physical resemblance to Len Cariou (who originated the role).** Mrs. Lovett was portrayed by Catherine Cook, who nailed both the comic and the more poignant elements of the character. I haven't heard Mrs. Lovett sung as operatically as this before, but it worked very well. 

The talented ensemble cast was fun to watch and consists of powerfully strong singers. In particular, the ensemble numbers such as "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" and "God, That's Good" filled the Ruins space beautifully.

That said, musical theater is a different animal than opera, and Sweeney Todd, in particular, has a lot of information that is conveyed in dialogue and in song. The dialogue got a bit lost at times in the large space. Also, though the cast and the ensemble was wonderful, I was disappointed to see only one actor of color among the cast of over 30, and in a very minor role--especially given the rich talent in our racially diverse musical theater community.

So why did they choose to take on Sweeney Todd? According to the Director's Note by David Lefkowich: "It was time to push the boundaries of opera and present thrilling music as well as a fantastic story." Hurrah for boundary pushing! I'd love to see them take on some of the marvelous operettas, especially since Skylark Opera has cancelled their Summer Festival (boo hoo). 

Just imagine: Sitting in the ruins on a gorgeous summer night and listening to an amazingly talented cast like this singing "Make Your Garden Grow" from Candide or "Ain't It Awful, The Heat" from Street Scene, or Barbe-Bleu by Offenbach, or anything at all by Strauss. 

Mill City Summer Opera provides one of the most unique and special experiences in local theater. Fabulous music in a gorgeous setting makes for a not-to-be-missed experience for theatergoers.

*Rush ticket policy: Show up before 7:30 PM, get in the rush ticket line and make all your dreams come true! $35 per ticket. First come, first serve basis. Rush tickets are available on the following show dates: July 17, 19, 21, 22, 24.

**Andrew Wilkowske is a cover for Sweeney Todd. Having seen him mostly be charming and comic in shows such as Minnesota Opera's The Magic Flute, I would LOVE to see what he does with the role.

***Belated trigger warning. There is flagellation. I repeat, there is flagellation. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Talley's Folly at Artistry

Talley's Folly, now showing at Artistry's Black Box Theater (through July 24) is an intriguing idyll for a summer theater night.

From Artistry's website:
On the Fourth of July, 1944, two unlikely lovers reunite for the first time in more than a year. Matt has every intention of marrying Sally, but family ties and hidden pasts prove difficult to overcome. By turns thoughtful and funny, this Pulitzer Prize-winning romance examines the lengths people are willing to go for love.
Written by Lanford Wilson, Talley's Folly won the Pulitzer in 1980 and is part of a trilogy of plays known as the Talley Cycle, which includes Talley & Son (also set in 1944) and Fifth of July (set in 1977). After seeing this play, you will definitely want to catch up on the further adventures of Talley and Co.

Talley's Folly features just two characters: Matthew Friedman (David Beukema) and Sally Talley (Chelsie Newhard). Big city, fast talking Matthew is trying to woo the prickly, defensive Sally and among all of the banter, some pretty tough truths emerge. Did I say fast talking? David Beukema as Matt has so many quick and hilarious lines and asides that I think it was hard for the audience to absorb them all. He delivers them hilariously, and portrays the rather tough character of Matthew with his customary lovable charm. Chelsie Newhard, as Sally, has a tough job as well: She simply will not let herself be loved.

Sidebar: Does this happen a lot in real life? That people will not let themselves be loved? Cause it sure does in movies and theater. The fabulous How Did This Get Made bad movie podcast discusses it at length.

In her Director's Note, Angela Timberman, wildly gifted actress and local treasure, says: "I'm a sucker for a good romance. Especially when the characters are complex, funny, and vulnerable. Throw in some mystery, nostalgia and moonlight and you've got Talley's Folly." Beautifully said!

And can we talk about the set? Before even opening the program, I had a feeling the set was by Joel Sass (and yes, I was right). The setting is a boathouse on a farm in Missouri. There's a dock, a rowboat, beautiful lighting, lanterns, a moon, fabulous detailed props, and the entire set is framed by a horseshoe, which adds to the fairy tale-like feeling of the play. It's utterly lovely and fits the play beautifully. It seems a shame that it will have to be broken down at some point--I'd love to go back and visit again.

BTW: If this play leaves you wanting to know more about Lanford Wilson (as it did me), the New York Times wrote a lovely obituary for him after his passing in 2011.