Sunday, July 30, 2017

Getting My Fringe On - My 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival Don't Miss List

Friends, this year, I am FRINGING with a vengeance.

I'm taking vacation from the day job and utterly dedicating myself to see all the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival shows that I can.

Won't you join me (and my fellow theater bloggers) in this fantastic theater celebration that runs August 3-13 at a variety of venues about town?

Step One: Read Cherry and Spoon's tips for newbies, which has helpful information like this:
"You'll need a daily wristband (sold at the box office at each location for $16 on weekdays or $22 on weekends), which will get you into any show that day. Once you have a wristband, get a token for the show from a volunteer, and get in line for the theater."
C&S also recommends sunscreen which makes me a bit trepidatious--what am I, camping?

Step Two: Comb through the helpful Minnesota Fringe website and add promising-sounding shows to My Queue.  Right now, I have sixty shows in My Queue. Apparently, math says you can only see 56 shows, so it's an ambitious start.

Step Three: GET ORGANIZED. I believe math and geography will be involved.

And now, to help you plan your Fabulous Fringe Experience, here are the shows that I am most looking forward to:
Jefferson Township, etc. "Sparkle, baby!"

Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant: A New Musical - by Devious Mechanics
Twenty years after a freak accident ended the Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Pageant, three contestants will settle the score and see who should've won by finishing the pageant, in all its pre-teen glory.
Why I'm In: This musical is written by Keith Hovis, a writer/composer/actor whose work we've loved lately (Teenage Misery, Public Exposure). Also, it stars Ryan London Levin and Kelly Houlehan. Plus, a beauty pageant! Sparkle, baby!

Blackout Improv - by Rogues Gallery Arts
Members of this all person of color improv team take on the Minnesota Fringe in a way that only they can, with humor, swag, and a focus on social issues. Each performance will feature an amazing special guest!
Why I'm In: Because Blackout Improv has some of the funniest performers in the Twin Cities and I am too old and sleepy to go see their usual late-night shows. AND social justice plus improv! AND fabulous special guests! PLUS swag! WHAT.

Much Ado About Nothing (as told by Dogberry and Verges). - by Rough Magic Performance Company
Shakespeare's classic comedy of love/hate relationships made modern by 6 women and 2 puppets. A hilarious and moving tale of love, jealousy, trickery, and redemption with a fresh and feminist perspective.
Much Ado About Nothing. Plus side eye.
Why I'm In: Directed by Sarah Agnew and featuring six fabulous actors (Taj Ruler, Sara Richardson, Catherine Johnson Justice, Alayne Hopkins, Elise Langer and Kirby Bennett). Plus, love Much Ado.

It Can't Happen Here - by Sinclair Lewis Productions
A small-town news editor struggles with the election of a fascist demagogue to the US presidency in this Federal Theatre Project's 1936 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' bestselling novel. Abridged for the Fringe.
Why I'm In: Because did you see that description? It's eerily appropriate. Maybe Sinclair Lewis has some words of wisdom for us.

Making It Home - by Delve Theatre
The largest population of Somalis in North America lives in the Twin Cities. Listen as a local ensemble of storytellers share their experiences of the joys and challenges of creating home in Minnesota.
Making It Home. Best show promo photo EVER.
Why I'm In: I still don't know enough about Somalis and Somali culture and life. I firmly believe in the power of hearing someone's story, and I really appreciate people who are willing to share their stories.

ODD MAN OUT - by Underdog Theatre
The death of a family patriarch summons James to his hometown in South Texas. Once he arrives, James is confronted with issues of the past and present. Nothing is left on the table in this world premier drama.
Why I'm In: Cause it's directed and written by Kory LaQuess Pullam, an incredibly talented young theatermaker and I firmly believe it getting in earlyish, so you can say, "Oh, I saw that award-winning playwright's show at the Fringe. I think it was back in oh, 2017?" Also, fabulous cast.

Thrill to two classic tales of terror from the radio's golden age, "The Shadow People" and "The Gibbering Things," performed in the style of an old-time radio broadcast, including announcements and commercials!

The Ghoulish Delights with their eyebrow game ON POINT.
Why I'm In: Love the podcast of the same name, and love tales of terror from any age. Also! Eric Webster and Shanan Custer, who are also featured in Couple Fight 3: Weddings!

Facility - by Imagined Theatre
An elderly man suffering from dementia struggles to understand his situation and maintain a relationship with his daughter, even as he forgets how he ended up in a senior care facility.
Why I'm In: Although it's a challenging topic, it's also incredibly timely and worthwhile. And terribly close to home.

The Memory Box of the Sisters Fox.
Also, can we bring foxy back?
The Memory Box of the Sisters Fox - by The Winding Sheet Outfit
A circle. A seance. A story. A memory. A tale of two sisters who spoke to the dead.
Why I'm In: I find the story of the Fox sisters eternally fascinating. Also, the excellent photos on the MN Fringe write-up indicate a charming aesthetic.

Sevlin & Devlin Presents: Seven Evans in Heaven - by Ferrari McSpeedy Theatrical Productions
Join your hosts Sevlin and Devlin as they present the story of the battle for one Evan's soul. A very weird show in a very small venue.
Why I'm In: Joe Bozic, Mike Fotis, Erin Sheppard and Ryan Lear. Directed by Jason Ballweber. And is every actor really playing Evan? Hmm. I'm listening.

Repertoire Dogs. Repertoire is hard to spell.
Repertoire Dogs - by Ideal Productions
A high-energy hour of celebrity impressions and cartoon voices "recast" into iconic movie scenes, plays, music, and more! Featuring a panel of well-known local performers and hosted by Josh Carson!
Why I'm In: Fabulous cast including the unmissable Allison Witham.

The End of the World Sing-Along Hour - by The Heavy Mettle Assembly
Has "Resisting" lost it's zip? Collapsing under all the crazy? Has your passion for protest paled? Let's fix that with SINGING! We'll sing lots of great, and two pretty stupid, songs. Let your voice be heard!
Why I'm In: Jennifer Eckes and Kevin Werner Hohlstein, who perform a charming cabaret act around town (often at Honey). Also, SINGING.

DUNGEON - by Hit the Lights! Theater Co.
A young man falls into the unknown to rescue the thing he holds most dear. Inspired by kabuki, video games, horror movies, and pixar shorts, DUNGEON builds a world where darkness speaks louder than the light.
Why I'm In: Cause that description sounds super neat. Sometimes it's just that easy.

There are SO MANY more shows to talk about, but it's time for me to start figuring out how in heck I'm going to see them all.

Happy Fringing, y'all!! 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Native Gardens at the Guthrie Theater

Native Gardens tells a deceptively simple story of mismatched neighbors that touches on topics from immigration and white privilege to local ecosystems and colonization. And it's funny!

Karen Zacarías's play is so new that the ink is still dry. After premiering in Cincinnati, the author and director (Blake Robison) came to the Guthrie to work on a script that will be the version that other theaters can license. And they should, because it's a winner.

In a posh neighborhood of Washington D.C., two houses stand right next to each other. One is meticulously kept, with an elaborate garden. The other looks worse for wear, with a dry and barren backyard. We meet the new residents of the fixer-upper: the very pregnant Ph.D. student Tania Del Valle (Jacqueline Correa) and her lawyer husband Pablo Del Valle (Dan Domingues). Both are excited by their new house--Tania to create a beautiful garden of native plantings and Pablo to have a home base from which he can work towards partner in his office.
Jacqueline Correa, Dan Domingues, Sally Wingert and Steve Hendrickson.
Photo by the incomparable Dan Norman.
Fantastic set by Joseph Tilford.
They are excited to meet their next door neighbors, the Butleys. Virginia (Sally Wingert), a retired defense contractor, and Frank (Steve Hendrickson), who works for "the Agency." Frank's great goal in life is to win the local gardening competition and obsessively cares for his pristine English garden. When Pablo and Tania plan a new fence to divide the yards, taking down the existing eyesore, they find that their property extends a few feet farther than they thought--directly through Frank's flower beds. Conflict ensues.

Jacqueline Correa, Dan Domingues. Photo by Dan Norman.
Contemporary dramas and comedies that involve neighbors and conflict are nothing new (see Detroit, God of Carnage), but the delight in Native Gardens is that it's not just hateful white people shouting at one another. For a play that runs a tight ninety minutes with no intermission, Native Gardens covers a lot of ground (hee hee). It's a play about identity and privilege, of Americanism (or North Americanism), land, and culture. But it does all this while still being dang funny.

Playwright Karen Zacarías, co-founder of the Latinx Theater Commons, has also written musicals (in addition to her plays) and you can hear the music in her writing. Her dialogue feels natural, but musically rhythmic and a treat to listen to, particularly when performed by such a great cast. Dan Dominguez and Jacqueline Correa create an endearing and charming (but certainly not perfect) couple, and Dominguez has fantastic comic timing. You can't ever go wrong with Sally Wingert as an uptight white lady, and Steve Hendrickson is in turns infuriating and pathetic as Frank. The landscape technicians who toil silently in the background (Reyna Rios, Pedro Juan Fonseca, Brandon J. Cayetano and Guillermo Zermano) provide a fantastic additional layer to the action, and even more realism and humor.

Steve Hendrickson, Sally Wingert, Jacqueline Correa,
Dan Domingues. Photo by Dan Norman.
Director Blake Robison, who came with the play from the Cincinnati Playhouse, hits the perfect tone with this play. So much of the audience at the Guthrie (particularly on opening night) has far more in common with the Butleys than the Del Valles, and Robison keeps the perfect edge on the humor so that the audience never tips over into identifying too much with the Butleys. It's a fine, fine line, but Robison and Zacarías do a gorgeous job with it, and I'm so pleased to have this hilarious and thought-provoking show at the Guthrie (through August 20!).

(co-written by Jules and Carly)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Maria de Buenos Aires at Mill City Summer Opera

Maria (Catalina Cuervo) and that DRESS.
Photo by Dan Norman.
As we've said before, 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.

This year, due to the repairs at the Mill City Ruins Courtyard, their summer show has moved to a historic industrial spot in Northeast Minneapolis called the Machine Shop. This hip venue turns out to be a perfect setting for Maria de Buenos Aires for this intimate opera-tango-drama, with its urban feel made even more atmospheric by a heavy layer of fog, adding a sultry feel.

With text by Horacio Ferrer and music by Astor Piazzolla, Maria de Buenos Aires premiered in Buenos Aires in 1968. At this production, Mill City Summer Opera artistic director David Lefkowich, in his pre-curtain speech urges the audience to let the music wash over them, try not to work too hard to understand the story. The supertitles are not direct translations of the text, but "help to navigate the surreal poetry and the tango will provide a heartbeat and a mood" (according to the Director's Note.)

Luis Alejandro Orozco and Catalina Cuervo
Photo by Dan Norman
However, I still like to understand a story. This New York Times review of a 2013 production at Les Poisson Rouge gives a nice overview:
The work is more of an oratorio than an opera. Written in the key of “Ay! minor” (Ferrer’s libretto is laced with musical puns), it’s a Passion play in which the central character, María, represents both Jesus and the Virgin. She sleepwalks through scenes of sexual violence, her burial and dreamlike confessions to a chorus of psychoanalysts until, resurrected, she gives birth to a new version of herself.
So THAT's what happened! The performers are uniformly excellent and inhabit the roles as if they've played them many times before--which they have. The main actor/singers have played these roles multiple times and do so beautifully. The voices of Maria (Catalina Cuervo) and Payador (Luis Alejandro Orozco) are rich and gorgeous, and El Duende (Milton Loayza) narrates the action with the perfect mix of menace and sadness.

Also, noted in the program as one of four main cast members is JP Jofre as the Bandoneon player. Hey, what's a bandoneon, you ask? Here's some info that the very musical among you may understand. All I know is that it creates a beautiful sound and watching Jofre's expressive performance was one of the great pleasures of this show.

See that guy in white? That's the star of this show, JP Jofre.
Photo by Dan Norman.
I was also delighted to see Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan among the stylish dance ensemble, who apparently did a lovely marionette routine.

Here's the sad news. Theatermaking friends, can I remind you that when you put action on the floor with the audience on risers, sightlines can be challenging. Although we could see most of the action beautifully, as soon as the performers dipped to a certain level, the audience was leaning and straining to see the action. We missed the last scene with Maria entirely and couldn't see the beautiful sparkly dress she was wearing, much less what she was doing.

But in total, Maria de Buenos Aires was atmospheric, delightfully site-specific, with amazing performers and gorgeous music. As usual, Mill City Summer Opera is creating unique, engaging theater and is an utter delight. Also as usual, this is a short and sold out run, so put Mill City Summer Opera on your list for next summer!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Ten Reasons to See Jesus Christ Superstar at the Ordway. Like, NOW.

I believe in the restorative power of theater. If you need your spirit restored, I highly recommend seeing the Ordway's new production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which runs only through July 30.

Although I could gush for days about how amazing this show is, I will keep it short, so nothing will get in your way of seeing this show. Cause, GO. Also? Go.

p.s.? Go.

But Minnesota Theater Love, you ask, why should I go? It's summer and I am spending time outdoors with family and friends and nature. Theater is BORING! And Jesus Christ Superstar? Isn't that a tired old show?

First of all, quit asking questions. I'm trying to write a coherent blog post about this show, and you aren't helping. Secondly, I'll TELL YOU WHY.

Ten Reasons Why You Should See Jesus Christ Superstar. Like NOW.

Randy Schmeling in JCS. Melting faces. Photo by Rich Ryan. 

1) Randy Schmeling. I've seen Randy Schmeling in a million shows locally over the years. I first remember him from Theater Latte Da's Gypsy in 2006, but have loved him in everything. He's adorable, and funny, and really should have played Bobby in the Jungle Theater's Urinetown (but that's a story for another time). Oh, and dude can SING. Judas is one of my favorite musical theater roles of all time, and he sings the bejeezus out of it. The term face-melting comes to mind. He acts the hell out of the role (see what I did there?) and sings his heart out in a way I never expected.

2) Jesse Nager as Jesus Christ. I am a jaded theatergoer and given to viewing standing ovations with judicious side-eye. But at the end of Nager's performance of "Gethsemane" in the second act, I was ready to leap to my feet. In the middle of the show! This song made me wish that musical theater followed the tradition of opera in demanding immediate aria encores. In addition to his fantastic voice, Jesse Nager is charismatic, compelling, and plays Jesus with real humanity. He and Schmeling create marvelous chemistry and tension--which plays out delightfully in the curtain call.

Lauren Villegas and Jesse Nager in JCS, moments before
Judas kills the buzz. Again. Photo by Rich Ryan.

3) The Whole Dang Cast.
Way too much love, but in short: Dieter Bierbrauer in a skirt also singing his face off. Erin Schwab as Herod? Utter genius. James Ramlet and John Brink perfectly cast as Caiphas and Annas. Lauren Villegas, performing Mary Magdalene with a powerful, but exquisite voice, and bringing depth and heart to a role which can be passive and inert. More love for Julius Collins, Kersten Rodau--fantastic as always--and Rudolph Searles as Peter, who performs a gorgeous "Could We Start Again, Please?" with Mary M. And the entire ensemble--utterly amazing.

(Shoot, I'm running out of adjectives and I'm only on number three. Rats!)

4) The Orchestra. Musical director and conductor Andrew Bourgoin gets the most out of his fantastic 16-piece ensemble. I don't think I've heard the Ordway rocked that profoundly since the first tour of Rent came through. The music was tight, hot, and a whole bunch of other words that sound vaguely dirty.

Terance Reddick and the amazeballs ensemble.
Photo by Rich Ryan.

5) Dancing.
Remember earlier, when I said I wanted to leap to my feet for a mid-show ovation? I also almost leapt to my feet after "Hosanna" and "Superstar", two numbers which featured unbelievable dancing. The energy! The movement! The fact that the ensemble is also singing while dancing like mad? Ah. May. Zing. I can't even call out a few favorites (like Rush Benson, Wes Mouri and Kayla Jenerson) because the entire ensemble kicked butt, directed and choreographed beautifully by James Rocco.

5a) Direction by James Rocco. My more rational co-blogger demands I give James Rocco some love. To wit: "I think he pulled together a fabulous show, starting with the amazing cast and design team. The visuals were powerful, but not overwhelming, and he knew when to let the singers be the focus. The huge shifts in tone from exuberant joy to painful sorrow, which could have been jarring, all seemed to flow naturally. And I suspect from some of the moments he created that he’s been thinking about this show for a long time, and what he wanted it to look like and achieve. Good direction is often overlooked because it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but this show was masterfully directed." Done and done!

6) The Set. Scenic and lighting designer Paul Whitaker creates a simple but wonderfully dynamic set. Beautifully lit, and featuring some amazing feats of theater magic. Spoiler: the bit with the cross is really powerfully done.

7) The Audience. Again, I am a jaded theatergoer and heartily sick of--yet resigned to--the uncivil behavior of theater audiences. The audience when I saw this show, though? Fantastic. I didn't hear anyone chatting during the show (yay loud shows), I didn't see anyone texting or even checking the time on their phone, and very few people left and reentered the theater during the show. The audience was RAPT. Totally in, totally on board. Emotionally leaning forward in their seats (though not physically, cause if you do that, people behind you can't see. PSA over.)

All hail Erin Schwab. But not Herod. He's a bad dude.
Photo by Rich Ryan.

8) Erm, the Actual Show?
ALW (Andrew Lloyd Webber to you) frequently gets a bad rap--often from me. But this show made me remember that Jesus Christ Superstar was my first grown-up musical theater obsession. My best friend and I listened to her mother's record of the 1970 studio album over and over again until we could replicate every last bit of phrasing and intonation. I still love the show, and this production made me remember that love. This show ROCKS.

Me at the curtain call. Nope, sorry, it's Jesse Nager and
Randy Schmeling. Photo by Rich Ryan.

9) Children! Adorable children! Singing and being cute. In small doses!

10) Randy Schmeling. In case I didn't make the point strongly enough the first time around. Go see this fantastic actor and singer in this true star turn. I will be going again. You'll recognize me cause I'll look like this:

Jesus Christ Superstar. At the Ordway through July 30. Go. See. It. Love, your friends at Minnesota Theater Love.