Sunday, April 23, 2017

GIRL Shakes Loose at Penumbra Theatre

GIRL Shakes Loose is the final show in Penumbra Theatre's 40th anniversary season, and it's an ambitious, engaging, and energetic world premiere musical that explores modern, black female identity.

This intimate new musical by Imani Uzuri (music & lyrics) and Zakiyyah Alexander (book & lyrics) includes the words of poet Sonia Sanchez, whose work is grounded in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Directed by May Adrales, this is a rare show that has a creative team comprised of all women of color.

If that's not reason enough to celebrate this show, Penumbra Theatre and Artistic Director Sarah Bellamy have been directly involved with the bringing this musical to life. As Ms. Bellamy writes in her program note:
Alexis Sims and the plaid shirt.
Photo by Allen Weeks.
"That we are investing in the representation of ourselves, our lives, how we love, and who we love with such tenderness, excellence and ferocity is to be widely celebrated. GIRL Shakes Loose truly is #blackgirlmagic!"

The cast of GIRL Shakes Loose. All hail Jamecia Bennett.
Photo by Allen Weeks.
The story of GIRL Shakes Loose isn't groundbreaking, except that it's being told about a young woman of color. The title character, simply called GIRL, is a young black woman at a crossroads in her life. She has worked hard for success, attending a good college, obtaining a graduate degree, and running her own start up in Oakland, California. When her company goes bust, she loses any sense of who she is, and has to learn whether her life is worthwhile without the career success she worked so hard to get. Meanwhile, her love affairs are in equal disarray. GIRL heads to New York, and then to Atlanta to attend a family funeral, all the while figuring out what home really means.

Alexis Sims and Kory Pullam.
Photo by Allen Weeks.
As played by Alexis Sims, GIRL is quite sympathetic, even when she's feeling very sorry for herself. It helps that her moping isn't indulged by her friends, or by her family when she goes back to Georgia. She has an engaging spark of energy, and her voice is, quite simply, exceptional.

Jamecia Bennett brings her considerable talents to bear as GIRL's aunt, who tries to reunite her niece with the mother she hasn't seen in years. Thomasina Petrus is, as always, terrific as the mother who feels abandoned by her child but can't bear to condemn her.

Bennett and Petrus also stand out as singers in the eight-member ensemble which musically accompanies GIRL's journey and play the people she meets along the way.

A few standouts: John Jamison is very funny as a friend whose couch she crashes on, and he has an amazing singing voice which I hope to hear again soon. Kory Pullam, wonderful in so many local productions of the last few years at Pillsbury House, the Guthrie, as well as a standout role in Choir Boy, is compelling as an old love, while Tatiana Williams shows tenderness as well as anger as a more recent lover. China Brickey, Lamar Jefferson, and Valencia Proctor also bring beautiful voices to the mix.

Tatiana Williams rocks the house.
Photo by Allen Weeks.
The music is contemporary, with detours into gospel, doo-wop, R & B and other styles, with the strong ensemble present for most of the music and Sanford Moore leading the band from backstage. John Acaerrgui's sound design puts the voices front and center without being over-amplified. I wasn't exactly whistling when I left the theater, but I could see the music taking hold over a few listenings.

In intention, the show felt a little RENT-like to me. Possibly due to the minimal set and revolving cast of characters, and possibly due to a plaid shirt that outstays its welcome on stage.

But I love that the show is trying something new, musically and narratively. Not only is it telling the story of a young woman of color finding herself, it's also telling a story in which a person doesn't have to find someone else to find herself. This is pretty unusual in musical theater, and I applaud it wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Five Weeks - Pangea World Theater

Going into Pangea World Theater's new play at the Lab Theater, I knew next to nothing about Partition, the term used for the post-WWII division of formerly colonial India into the countries of India and Pakistan.

Five Weeks: A Play About Divided Hearts, written by Meena Natarajan, is a heartrending, personal look at Partition and the many human costs that ensued.

A bit about Partition: In 1947, the British government assigned a lawyer to draw the new border. Sir Cyril Radcliffe had no experience in India, or with drawing borders, and within five weeks, had drawn a border that allowed little consideration of demographics. Despite a stated intention to keep most Sikhs and Hindus in India and most Muslims in Pakistan, the reality was much more complicated.

Photo by Bruce Silcox.
After thousands of years of coexistence, Partition divided up shared communities, neighborhoods, and social circles. As families migrated from one country to the other, about a million refugees were killed, millions more were displaced, and an estimated 75,000 women and children were raped and abducted, most of whom were never recovered.

Natarajan's script weaves together stories of families and friends divided by Partition, bringing the massive carnage to a very personal level. A child is separated from her parents during their flight, a college-educated woman naively tries to help refugees, and a family finds its home no longer safe in just a few of the stories woven through the evening.  

Projected captions indicate place and time, and also provide translation of some of the dialogue, which includes Punjabi, Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu as well as English, sometimes in the same conversation. Live musical accompaniment is performed by singer Pooja Goswami Pavan, tabla player and vocalist A. Pavan, and keyboard player Vijay Rmanathan.

Photo by Bruce Silcox.
Local actors of South Asian descent make up the acting ensemble and all play multiple characters. With a number of first time performers onstage, the performances can be a bit uneven, but the emotional resonance is clear. Madhu Bangalore, Tarun Kumar, and Prakshi Malik gave standout performances, imbuing each of their characters with incredible depth and emotion.

If you'd like to learn more about Partition and its aftermath, Pangea's program is informative, and they also have an extensive study guide on their website.

The website also features the personal stories of how Partition affected the cast members and their families, making it clear that this is not ancient history, but recent and real. The study guide and program also include a timeline, an explanation of terms used in the play, and a suggested reading list.

Although I came to this play with very little knowledge about the situation, the stories and characters were incredibly moving and made me want to learn more.

Pangea World Theater's mission is "Pangea illuminates the human condition, celebrates cultural differences, and promotes human rights by creating and presenting international, multi-disciplinary theater." I think Five Weeks does all of these things beautifully, and I'll be following Pangea's work with interest.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Vietgone at Mixed Blood Theatre

There simply aren't enough adjectives to describe Vietgone by Qui Nguyen, now playing at Mixed Blood Theatre through April 30. 

But here are a few: Hilarious, irreverent, touching, sexy, energetic, surprising, romantic, raunchy, thought-provoking, enlightening, pop-culture-reference-filled, heart-breaking, and did I mention completely hilarious?


Playwright Qui Nguyen, a self-described "playwright, screenwriter, geek!" is the co-founder of NYC theater company Vampire Cowboys and has a fascinating catalog of plays with titles like Alice in Slasherland, Living Dead in Denmark, Six Rounds of Vengeance, and She Kills Monsters. [Note: Can someone in the Twin Cities please produce all of these plays immediately? Kay, thanks!] 

With Vietgone, Nguyen tells the story of his parents meeting in a refugee camp in Arkansas in 1975 after immigrating from Vietnam after the war. I love this video from that explains his parents' reaction to a first reading of this play:

Essentially, his mother said the play didn't sound like him at all. So he went back, worked on it, and made it more him. The play has a fascinating style. Nguyen explains the unique tone in a New York Times article (Diep Tran, NYT, 10/6/16):
It’s a story that Mr. Nguyen grew up hearing and knows well, but it has also been filtered through his pop-culture-filled and irreverent sensibility.
“When my parents told me stories about Vietnam, they told me the real stories, what actually happened,” he explained. “But what I imagined was kung fu movies. Because the only things I ever saw [growing up] that had a lot of Asian people in it, were kung fu movies.”
So there is kung fu in “Vietgone,” and ninjas. As in Mr. Nguyen’s other works, everyone speaks in a modern voice and raps — and no one speaks with “an Asian accent,” part of his fight against minority stereotypes.
Stefon tells you all about Vietgone.
Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty
The result? This show has EVERYTHING. So much that I need to list it in bullet form:
  • A touching, true story
  • A fascinating, thought-provoking look at an another aspect of the Vietnam War
  • Amazing fight scenes and NINJAS
  • Rap and hip-hop interspersed in the narrative
  • Songs and dancing
  • Delightful pop culture references
  • Romance and sexy sex for days
  • A spare, but clever set
And the cast. The Twin Cities Theater Bloggers annually award the best in local theater, and it will be hard to top Vietgone for Best Ensemble.

Sherwin Resurreccion, Sun Mee Chomet and Meghan Kreidler
Photo by Rich Ryan
David Huynh plays Quang, a helicopter pilot who longs to get home to his family in Vietnam. He meets Tong, played by Meghan Kreidler, in the refugee camp, who is embracing life in America. The two get it on and fall in love--in that order. Sun Mee Chomet plays Tong's mother, Flordelino Lagundino plays Quang's good friend, and Sherwin Resurreccion plays the playwright himself. Chomet, Langundino and Resurreccion play all the rest of the characters in the cast as well--depicting a variety of characters with little more than wigs and a costume change.

But this CAST.

Huynh's Quang is vibrantly complex: intense, melancholy, funny, and sexy. His relationship with Kriedler's Tong is equally complex, and their witty, sarcastic relationship is right up there with the best romantic comedies (to which the play pays homage). Chomet, as Tong's mother, gives one of the most hilarious performances I've ever seen on stage. Lagundino gives a sweetness and groundedness to his characters. And Resurreccion plays all of his characters with his customary skill and humor, such as Bobby, an American soldier who takes a shine to Tong, and courts her in pidgin English (actually Vietnamese) in a delightfully over-the-top Southern accent. Also, the relationship between 'the playwright' and his father is beautifully depicted, and it's fascinating to see David Huynh utterly disappear into his older self at the end.

Meghan Kreidler and NINJAS.
Photo by Rich Ryan
Director Mark Valdez masterfully manages a complex story and a wide variety of storytelling styles to create an amazingly cohesive show. Paul Whitaker's minimal set and lighting design uses just a few pieces of furniture, sliding screens, and some effective projections to transport us through decades, across the country, across the world, into a war, and to a refugee camp. Add some touches of interstitial rap, amazing fight choreography, and even some dancing, and you have an enormously energetic production that keeps its perfectly irreverent tone for two and a half hours (w/intermission).

I can't say enough, and yet I'm saying too much. Just go see it.

Don't let accessibility get in your way. Mixed Blood Theatre is dedicated to complete accessibility. Read more about their Disability Initiative.

Don't let cost get in your way either. Check out Mixed Blood Theatre's Radical Hospitality program.

Trust me. Go.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Peter Brook's Battlefield at the Guthrie

I've seldom been in an audience as incredibly rapt and attentive as at last night's production of Peter Brook's Battlefield at the Guthrie Theater.

In 70 minutes, four actors and one musician, on a spare set, armed only with colored robes and sticks, tell a story from The Mahabharata about the aftermath of war and the meaning of time and life.

Jared McNeill, Carole Karemera, Ery Nzaramba
Photo by Caroline Moreau
This production, part of the Guthrie Worldstage Series, is one of the reasons why we are so fortunate to have the Guthrie Theater (under its fabulous new leadership) in the Twin Cities. The opportunity to see a production by the acclaimed director Peter Brook, and to see this show, which premiered at the Young Vic in 2015, with the original cast, is a rare gift indeed.

A bit of background: The Mahabarata is an epic poem that comprises a hundred thousand stanzas which was originally written in Sanskrit, sometime between 400 B.C. and 400 A.D. It's considered to be the longest literary work in existence. About 30 years ago, Peter Brook and his collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne staged a nine-hour production of The Mahabharata, which was subsequently televised. In 2015, Brook and Estienne returned to this work to create Battlefield.

Carole Karemera, Sean O'Callaghan, Jared McNeill and Ery Nzaramba.
Photo by Caroline Moreau.
According to a 2016 NPR article by Jeff Lunden:
Now, inspired by the civil war in Syria, the 91-year-old director has decided to re-explore a part of that poem — but this time he's thinking small. Brook's new play, Battlefield, starts after a catastrophic war. "We wanted to concentrate on one thing only," he says. " ... What is the position of the great leader who realizes that he has done what he set out to do? He has won."
And from Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj's program note:
At its surface, Battlefield is a story of rival factions of a ruling family struggling with the enormity of their war's destructive toll. At its soul, the show is a gorgeous, subtle plea for unity and a meditation on time, destiny and the meaning of a life fully lived. 
Toshi Tsuchitori
 Photo by Caroline Moreau
I'm not sure I can tell you any more than that about this show. I can only say that this is an incredibly rare opportunity to see a truly great work of theater art by who is considered one of the world's best living theater directors.

Also, I will tell you that I have seldom been more enraptured by a work of theater. At times, I felt almost hypnotized by the performances and the storytelling. It's mesmerizing, and so stripped down. The musical accompaniment, by longtime Brook collaborator Toshi Tsuchitori, playing just one drum, lends the perfect tone to each scene.

And the end? Holy cats, the end was truly stunning and unlike anything I've ever seen.

To wrap it all up, a bit more from Jeff Lunden at NPR:
The director shares one of his favorite parables, about a man in a perilous situation: "Hanging over a chasm, upside down, with a snake waiting to catch him underneath and an elephant about to trample him on the side. And in all this, suddenly, the possibility of tasting for the last time a drop of honey. A drop of honey says something to all of us: that life is worth living, because life is there and it is beyond the horrors."
Don't believe me? Check out the super raves in this trailer:

Sunday, April 9, 2017

West Side Story at the Ordway

Anita (Desiree Davar) and Bernardo (Alexander Gil Cruz)
and the cast of West Side Story. Photos by Rich Ryan.

An excellent, energetic production of West Side Story opened at the Ordway on Thursday night. The run is very short--ending on April 16, so get your tickets quickly.

Everyone knows the story, right? Romeo and Juliet on the streets of New York City, with clashing gangs and cultures replacing Shakespeare's warring families.

My touchstone for this story will always be the 1961 film, which I saw on television many times. (Also, this movie was my school's go-to when the music teacher was out. Roll in the VCR cart and cue up West Side Story!) I know the show very well. And so much of the original dialogue was kept intact for the film that at points I felt that I could have recited the words along with the actors. But there's something comforting about hearing familiar lines that still resonate. The Ordway production hits all of those notes very well.
The Jets (Rich Ryan)

The cast was excellent, especially Evy Ortiz as a very young-seeming Maria. The whole story works better when we believe that she is a sheltered and innocent girl. Desiree Davar was a wonderfully tough and sexy Anita, and they both sang beautifully.

The really outstanding feature of this production, though, is the dancing. As I understand it, licensing the rights to the musical means using the original Jerome Robbins choreography. (Read more about that in this interview with Joey McKneely, who recreated Robbins' choreography for the 2009 revival of the show.)

The Sharks (Rich Ryan)
The music and the beats are familiar, and you'll recognize the movement, but this production, directed by Bob Richard and choreographed by Diane Laurenson, takes the dancing to new heights--literally.

Right from the start of the show, the Jets are soaring into the air, and when they meet the Sharks, even their choreographed fights have the dancers flying through the air at each other. It's amazing to see such incredible artistry and athleticism on display, and the dance is so important in conveying the energy and frustrations of these characters that it brings the whole production up a notch. A couple of times, when I saw the dancers panting into the dialogue scenes following their numbers, I had to remind myself that the filmmakers had weeks or even months to capture this choreography, while this incredible cast does the whole thing in around two and a half hours.

Evy Ortiz (Maria) and Tyler Michaels (Tony)
singing their faces off on that balcony.
Photo by Rich Ryan.
I was really pleased, when reading the program later, to see that at least 20 of the 29-member cast had at least some Minnesota credits. The Ordway production is a collaboration with Teatro del Pueblo, which is either a real attempt to improve representation on the stage or a brilliant marketing ploy. (The program doesn't give us much information either way.)

But it's a start, in more ways than one. The two organizations are partnering on artistic training programs focused on inclusion in the arts. The culmination of the collaboration will be the Ordway's production of In the Heights in September. I hope we will learn more about this partnership as it goes along.

In the meantime, if you love West Side Story, or Romeo or Juliet, or really amazing athletic dancing, see this production. Oh, there's also a love story, a lot of familiar-sounding issues about recent immigrants, and lovely music. But you knew that, right?