When I Nod My Head You Hit It With the Hammer

wldrness
Source: facebook.com/wldrness

I have to admit that I hadn’t seen a Wldrnss/Jon Ferguson show before this (go ahead, Twin Cities, gasp in astonishment. Despite the fact that I’ve been living in Minneapolis for around seven years now, I’ve only been seriously attending theater for about three of them. And there’s a lot of theater to get to). When walking in to see this show, I only knew going in that the work was devised, featured aspects of clowning and… well, that was it. But that was all I really needed to know to enjoy this wonderful piece.

When I Nod… features three performers – Norman (John Cooper), Hugh (Jon Ferguson), and Kenny (Allison Witham) waiting in the greenroom of the theater to go on. At first it seems like they might be going on for their own show, as Eva (Katherine Fried) discovers them and they compliment how much they admire hearing her perform each night. Then when the stage manager (also Katherine Fried) comes in needing an understudy in what appears to be Hamlet, it looks as though they might be waiting to go on as ensemble members. A small child (Thomas Ferguson) appears and disappears in the scenes, perplexing the performers and the audience as to where he came from. There’s also some lovely music performed by an onstage musician (Mitchell Seymour) that smoothly glides in and out of scenes. While Kenny remembers a double act he once performed in, Hugh gets his chance to go onstage, and Norman struggles with the stage manager not remembering his name, all three grapple with memory, losses and gains, and where in the world they actually are and why they’re in this theater. At times it feels like they’re in some sort of purgatory, waiting for something to happen. As the play circles back around ideas of memory and art, I got the impression that this is a metaphor for creative work – you get stuck in a rut, you keep waiting for something, you do the same thing over and over, hoping for a change. When really you need to do something entirely different and exciting, not stick to the script, and do what you really want to do. As an artist struggling with where my place is in the theater world and continually discovering what kind of work is important to me, I found this heartwarming and inspiring (and I’m not going to lie, I cried and I don’t really know why, except that it really struck a cord with me and was really beautiful).

It’s sort of hard to put this show into words because I could see so many layers in the piece that now, trying to transcribe on paper, are hard to capture. The story seems simple at first – three guys waiting in a greenroom of a theater – but there’s more than just that story interwoven through it all. I heard others talking about this show days after I saw it, saying it was confusing or messy. I think it might look that way because there’s so many different ways to look at this piece – sort of a Waiting for Godot meets Oscar Wilde, a collage of different ways of looking at theater, a metaphor about being an artist, a hodgepodge of different scenes linked together. I don’t think there’s one way to understand this show and that’s what I love about this. But most of all I love the moments that celebrate the audience by asking them to come onstage and recognizing them at the end as if they were the artists creating the work. And, as mentioned previously, I adore the focus on what it means to create, especially surrounding the need to keep things the same and to let go of the past and move on to something new.

I unfortunately didn’t get to see this show until the end of its run, but I’d love to talk about this show with others who saw it and see what stood out to them. When I left the theater that night, I felt like I’d just sat down with a cup of tea in someone’s living room and had a long talk about melancholy things, happy things, complicated things, and inspiring things that keep us going. I felt like someone had wrapped me up in a warm blanket before sending me back out into the world and, given the way the world looks right now, that’s something I’m incredibly grateful for.

Ex-Gays: Not a Str8 Remount

savageumbrella
Source: facebook.com/savageumbrella

I never felt quite a uncomfortable entering a show as I did for the performance of Savage Umbrella’s Ex-Gays. Of course, it’s meant to be uncomfortable. Held at Uptown’s Springhouse Ministry Center, overly cheerful “pastors” greet audience members and bless you, directing you where to check in for a “five week” camp to rid yourself of sin and find your way to heterosexuality. Not expecting this interactive aspect, I was pleasantly surprised and hurtled back to my own Sunday bible school sessions at a Catholic Church. Even the program ( a Camp Str8-N-Arrow welcome packet) brought me uneasily back to my childhood with coloring book images that were cheerful but haunting (one of a kitten staring at its reflection really got to me. I’ll save the psychoanalysis of why for another post).

The show itself follows a group of camp pastors teaching campers how to “admit we are powerless over our unnatural attraction to same-sex persons” and to “turn our lives over to the care of God’s heterosexual touch.” The cast, including Eli Purdom, Katherine Skoretz, Amber Davis, Alyssa Davis, Nick Wolf, Shannon McCarville, Meagan Kedrowski, Nissa Nordland, Matthew Englund, and Courtney Stirn, presents these issues with hilarious, over-the-top campy cheer (yes, that’s a pun on campy) which ultimately makes the serious subject matter of the show all the more powerful. We see how many of the characters are pretending to be happy and straight, trying to lead double lives, and doing harm to themselves in order to do what they believe God requires of them.

To understand the full affect this play had on me, you need to know some parts of my personal life. I grew up Roman Catholic. I came out as bisexual just over a year ago. I recently read a book about the Westboro Baptist Church and, having seeing this show during Bisexual Awareness Week, this show certainly packed a wallop. I was uncomfortable, I was entertained, I was horrified, I was heartbroken. But most of all the importance of discussing these issues was brought to mind,

Director Laura Leffler says in her notes that she feels a new apprehension during the remount of the show. I felt this same apprehension. With a sense that the current political climate cares nothing about marginalized people, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+, and those in the White House already working to undo progress that has been made (be it the military ban on trans individuals or overturning Title 9) there’s a reason for the uneasiness and fear. The thoughts of extremists who believe in conversion therapy and that people need to change to fit into their God’s (increasingly narrow) idea of good humans are not just outlier voices but voices that are being given recognition and power. This play is so important because it hears those voices but shows how wrong they are. This show broke my heart but also revealed how important it is to show others – especially young LGBTQ+ community members – that they deserve respect and to be loved who they are. After seeing this, I’ll never look at a bundt cake the same way again (and it’s all for the best) and I feel stronger in resisting forces that wish to harm others. I always feel a little like I’m making up some sort of Stephen King-esque monster when I talk about the threats to the LGBTQ+ to people I’d like to make allies. Maybe I do a poor job of it, still navigating my ways through my identity. Or maybe I feel like people assume I exaggerate the threat because, “it can’t be that bad” or “this isn’t Chechnya.” But I’ve heard the horrific things that people say and heard the horrible acts people commit because someone else’s sexuality makes them uncomfortable. There is a need to speak up and be heard right now, and I’m grateful that this play is not only doing that but encouraging others to do the same.

Thoughts on Henry and Alice: Into the Wild

Before I begin this post, I’d like to provide a frame of reference for where I was mentally when I saw this show (I think it’s important, as a reviewer, to be honest about what you’re entering the theater with, as it’s different for everyone). I’d had a long day, starting with helping out at a student matinee at the theater I work at, as well as a full hectic day of work, and exhaustion from anxiety struggles earlier in the week. I’m sad to say that I entered this show already feeling fatigued and not very energized. I was hoping the show would lift my spirits. It didn’t.

I have never left at the intermission of a show before, but I did this night. I hesitate to call this an actual review since I didn’t see the whole show but it did provoke me quite a bit and I have thoughts I feel are important to share about the production. My issues are not with the quality of the production, the acting, or the theater itself (all of which are wonderful) but rather the script and the show’s story,

The writing was lacking for me. While I haven’t seen the previous play this one is a sequel to, I didn’t feel that seeing it would have helped me understand the characters or situation better. Henry and Alice are camping to save money instead of staying at an expensive hotel. It was all pretty simple – and that was the beginning of the problem for me. While there was conflict and some sense of urgency, I could find Henry or Alice likable or interesting. Diana I liked and could relate to in some ways, but she was supposed to be an annoying bother, and I couldn’t understand why. Her entrance made me interested, for a while, until she became a stereotypical hippie, “too wild” for Henry and Alice” (if too wild is a “carpe diem” tattoo, I hate to think what my eight tattoos reads as in this world).

I also didn’t appreciate some of the jokes – the swingers misconception had potential, but I felt like it was still dismissive or stigmatizing to actual swingers (as a supporter of polyamory and other nontraditional lifestyles, this could have been an educating or embracing moment and it didn’t read that way). I’m over the “breathing into a paper bag because I’m hysterical” gag. Panic attacks are real. I have them. Please don’t trivialize them (or at least make it a larger part of the character, ala Leo Bloom in The Producers). I’m also pretty sure that g*psy is a slur now, so I don’t know why this was used at all.

I’m just being prescriptive now, which is against everything I’ve been taught in playwriting. But I’m disappointed in this play. Really disappointed. It’s by a female playwright, it’s a new show. It’s everything I want to support in theater. But while sitting and listening to Alice and Henry bicker and not being very interested, I realized a large part of the problem for me. I don’t live in Henry and Alice’s economic world. I don’t live in a place where people retire early or where being laid off means you need to formulate a budget and you can’t shop at Pottery Barn any more. I live in a world where people work until they day they die and a world where, if you’re laid off, your house gets foreclosed. I am not upper middle class. I’m not middle class. I’m lower middle class at best, and most of the time I’m working class. Theater is not a wealthy industry to work in, despite what Broadway might like to depict it as. I make minimum wage, I’ve spent a lot of money for my degrees that has not left me with debt (yet) but has for most of my generation. As a millennial watching this show, I was stunned by the presentation of wealth and money. It made no sense to me that in order to save money, Henry and Alice went camping. If you haven’t been to an REI or a Cabella’s recently, go and check out camping gear – it’s not cheap. At all. Saving money for my family when I was growing up wasn’t changing our vacation – it was not going on vacation at all (it was the same for both of my parents growing up as well). It made no sense that Alice, who clearly worked hard for what she had, wouldn’t understand why her husband was concerned about her spending habits or why her horror story became having to live on a budget instead of, well, maybe being homeless. The fact of the matter is that Alice and I live in completely different worlds. And it’s something I think we need to start talking about.

We are living in the most economically disparate time since the 1920s (or so I learned my first year in my MFA program). Never before has there been such a large difference between the wealthiest of people and the poorest in our country. In the world of theater, we of course need money (especially donors) to fund our work and make things happen (there are of course arguments agains that, but I won’t tackle those here). But we also want to open our doors to most diverse audience, especially those who can’t often afford to attend theaters. I couldn’t help but think about the students I saw at the student matinee I helped at, who were awed at the expensive look of the building they were entering, and started thinking about how they might feel about Alice complaining about not being able to buy stuff. Perhaps how it was how I was raised, perhaps it was my college education, hell, maybe it’s my fondness for Brecht – regardless, classism is never far from my mind. It’s not that I don’t think shows can’t just be entertaining or have wealthy characters – they certainly can, but it’s important in how you talk about it and discuss it in the show. It’s also about creating more diverse work about diverse people. But in this case, it was how money was discussed. I didn’t stay around for the second act and maybe it’s resolved and Alice learns materialism isn’t so important and Henry learns not to be so uptight. But that’s not really the issue. The issue is that I don’t ever believe there’s that much to lose. It all felt hollow to me because in the world around me, the stakes are much different. If all Alice is going to do is not get her trip to Europe, I don’t feel a connection with that. I would love to go to Europe – but right now I’m worried about paying my rent that’s going up in December because Minneapolis is being filled with expensive luxury apartments that cost as much as half a semester of my grad school tuition per month and everything is getting more expensive. Alice can’t buy her Pottery Barn furniture? I know people who can’t afford medication they need, who don’t have health insurance, and if they do have insurance, they are or are afraid they will lose coverage.

Theater doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. And for me it’s impossible not to see what’s happening in the world around me when I attend a show. I can’t just sit back and relax and shut off everything else – I wish I could, But the play I’m attending is always in dialogue with the world around me. And I think that’s a really important function of theater. A show can be really entertaining and make you forget your troubles but also teach you something really important or make you realize something. And what bothers me is that this play does touch on some really wonderful stuff – Alice’s hard unappreciated work as a stay at home mother, trying to care for an aging parent, and the affect the economy and lay offs have on personal relationships. But I just don’t understand why it used story to work with those issues.

I also have to ask what kind of audience was this for. I was one of the youngest members of the audience on a relatively full weeknight and, yes, it was a mostly older, white, seemingly middle class audience. This is not a critique of Park Square alone but a theater-wide issue. There’s a contention between the subscriber base and the urging to bring in younger and more diverse audiences. I feel bad criticizing this show because I really love the cast – John Middleton, Carolyn Pool, and Melanie Wehrmacher are absolutely wonderful. Mary M. Finnerty is a fine director. And I’m looking very forward to the season ahead, especially to Hamlet. I could simply admit I’m not the intended audience for this show. It’s not about my world. But I also want to know what happens when not the intended audience enters the room and what happens then. How do we deal with that? How do we recognize their feelings without brushing it off as a overreaction? I admit that I’m emotional about this, but I hope it shows it’s because I care. I love theater too much to let it continue to be overwhelmed by classism, I’m tired, so tired of this fight on many levels – there’s a great intersectionality with economic status that affects age, gender, race, sexuality, etc and it too often gets overlooked. I want to challenge theaters to consider classism more when discussing seasons, marketing, access to patrons, etc. We need our wealthy patrons who are willing and able to support our shows, but we also need patrons of different economic levels to enjoy what is produced, to feel inspired, and see their stories shared onstage.

I want to end this (very) long post with a final thought on why I am so passionate about this. The first theater show I ever attended was “The Wizard of Oz” at Wagon Wheel Theater in Warsaw, Indiana. I never in a hundred years thought that one day, after seeing that show with my grandmother, I might one day write a play myself. While they were community theater actors, I saw them in a professional light – partly because I was six and anyone who was an adult was cool and partly because theater lighting has the power to make anyone look incredible and magical. Seeing someone onstage puts them in a privileged position – in Western theater, we’re sitting the dark focused on them, while they have the floor to speak and we’re quiet (well, different levels of quiet depending where you’re attending theater). Regardless, they literally have the mic – and what they say matters and resonates. I think it’s too easy to think theater is just another art form that people consume and shrug off. It’s like any other – some of it we always we remember, others not so much. But unlike other art forms, it’s happening in real time. And it has the capability to speak to us immediately, presently, as a collective of different people with different experiences. It is one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever been privy to. I’ll always remember seeing “The Wizard of Oz” in the theater and not the first time I saw the film, because seeing it with a group of people who also were afraid of the flying monkeys and were mesmerized by Glinda and gasped at the Wicked Witch’s wickedness is downright incredible. What we make matters. We know that. I just hope that we continue to broaden our idea of who it matters to.

Local Music Scene: Tanner J. Peck

Tanner J Peck FB cover
Source: Local Music Scene

Last month’s Local Music Scene featured Tanner J. Peck at Bryant Lake Bowl. If you haven’t been to the Local Music Scene before, let me introduce you to it. Each month features a local musician as a guest along with an ensemble of improv artists. The musicians plays a song and the artists create and improv scene inspired by the lyrics,

This past month taught us a lot about the guest musician – Tanner works for the US Postal Service and had a plethora of stories about delivering mail and telling people at parties he might deliver their mail. This gave the improv team a lot of fuel and they came up with scenes involving:

  • a cat in a box that multiplies itself every time the lid is opened
  • a show-down between USPS, Fed Ex and UPS
  • roommates who want their friend to just finish their spoken word piece so she’ll unlock the fridge in the apartment
  • and many more

I love seeing what from the musician’s music or discussion stands out and makes its way into the scenes. Improv is quickly becoming one of my favorite kind of creation and performance, and this set-up with music as inspiration is unique and always a lot of fun.

This month’s Local Music Scene features the Carnivorous Birds and will be at Bryant Lake Bowl this Friday, September 29th. Ticket and show information can be found on Bryant Lake Bowl’s website.

Dancing on the Edge

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Source: facebook.com/theatrenovimost 

Language is a finicky thing. As I sit here writing this, I’m aware that my words to you are going to sound different depending on whether you know me or not, whether you habitually read my blog or are coming across it for the first time, whether you have certain expectations for theater blogging and so on. I’m personally struggling to find the right language to discuss the Twin Cities theater scene right now – there’s a lot of moving parts in my mind and I have a lot of contradictory feelings. So it’s more than fitting that the play I’m discussing focuses so much on language, translation, and how we communicate.

Dancing on the Edge is a new work by Theatre Novi Most, focusing on the relationship between Russian poet Sergei Esenin and American dancer Isadora Duncan (though I hesitate to use the word “dancer” as Duncan hated it and preferred being known as an “expressioniste of beauty”). Their relationship was passionate and turbulent. They fell in love quickly, even though they didn’t speak each others languages but loved each other for how their art reflected the world. Esenin abuses alcohol and Duncan is still tormented by the death of her children in an automobile accented. Esenin, played by Sasha Andreev, and Duncan, played by Lisa Channer, are complicated, beautiful, difficult and wonderful, moving constantly from empathetic to dislikable to extraordinary to mad. Sergey Nagorny and Katya Sepanov serve as narrators and important figures in the lives of Esenin and Duncan, giving a window into the lives of these figures who, in their words, drove people around them insane.

What’s most striking about this piece is how it deals with language. Characters who speak Russian to each other or speak English to each other are shown speaking in English for the audience to understand. But when Duncan and Esenin communicate, Duncan speaks English and Esenin speaks Russian. Regardless of whether we understand Russian or not (and I only known the handful of words my college roommate has taught me) we can still understand what is being expressed and hear the music in Esenin’s poetry in the language it was written in. When Lola (one of the characters played by Katya Sepanov) tells Esenin that she’d rather his words not be translated into English because they would lose their inherent beauty, we understand why she’s resistant to share his words. Likewise, having language that might be foreign for audience members allows for us to better understand how Duncan and Esenin’s relationship functioned as they couldn’t communicate solely through words. I love it all most of all because, as a writer, there comes a time where words can’t speak on their own and something more is needed. Through Duncan’s movement and the emotional honesty in this piece, something far greater is created.

As I was leaving the theater Thursday night, I passed by a couple, one of whom remarked, “Well, that was interesting.” I’ve lived long enough in Minnesota to know that often that’s a passive-aggressive remark that means one doesn’t know what to think or didn’t enjoy the work. As I didn’t butt in to ask them what they meant, I’d like to assume their language means something more than that  – this piece is a lot of things, and most of all, it is interesting, sincerely so. It’s complex and doesn’t leave the audience with an either/or, black and white perception of this couple. They led complicated lives and had powerful art and this play does wonders capturing it all in two and some hours.

Dancing on the Edge is written by Adam Kraar and directed by Vladimir Rovinsky. It is playing for one short weekend at the Southern theater, now through September 10th. Show and ticket information can be found on Theatre Novi Most’s website.

Meet Me in St. Louis

second fiddle
Source: facebook.com/secondfiddleproductions

If you aren’t already aware of Second Fiddle Productions, a company that produces staged readings of rarely produced musicals each year in the Twin Cities, let me introduce you. This year’s production was of Meet Me In St. Louis, a movie turned Broadway musical about a family living in the city of St. Louis during the World’s Fair in 1903. While the fair was a celebration for St. Louis and became a great source of regional pride, this musical celebrates a year in the life of the Smith family.

What I like best about these staged readings is the bare-boned nature, with actors standing before music stands with script and music in hand, featuring their acting and singing skills with the piece after a very short rehearsal period. With one rehearsal focusing on learning the music and another with a run-through of the piece, the result is always incredible, with wonderful acting and brilliant musicality. The casts feature some of the best of Twin Cities musical theater and this performance was certain no exception:

  • Esther Smith  – Sheena Janson
  • Mrs. Anna Smith – Kym Chambers
  • Tootie Smith – Natalie Tran
  • Grandpa Prophater – Gary Briggle
  • Rose Smith – Bergen Baker
  • Katie – Shelli Place
  • Agnes Smith – Anna Baker
  • John Truitt – Adam Moen
  • Lon Smith – Andrew Newman
  • Mr. Alonso Smith – Bill Marshall
  • Warren Sheffield – Robbie Droddy
  • Lucielle Ballard – Ruthie Baker
  • Eve/Ensemble – Elena Glass
  • Postman/Motorman/Clinton Badger – Adam Qualls

The reading was directed by Emily England and also featured Kyle Picha as musical director/keyboard, Ellen Hacker on violin, Melissa Nielsen on horn, and Matt Nielsen on drums.

I’ve learned a great deal about musical theater from these staged readings and can’t recommend Second Fiddle enough. Keep an eye out for the upcoming 2018 season as well as a benefit that will happen this fall to help support future readings. And if you’d like to donate so that Second Fiddle can keep staging these rarely produced musicals, please visit their website and learn more about who they are and their past productions!

Fool For Love

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Source: darkstormy.org

If you’re anything like me and the death of Sam Shepard feels a little like a loss of part of yourself, run as fast as you can to Dark and Stormy’s production of Fool for Love. It’s a sort of balm – not so much because of the story which, in true Shepard fashion discomforts – but in how wonderfully this company produces this playwright’s work.

Eddie (James Rodriguez) and May (Sara Marsh) have met in a hotel room where May is staying. They haven’t seen each other years and the tension between them is palpable. May feels drawn to Eddie but also wants him to go. Both filled with jealously, Eddie at May’s waiting for Martin (Antonio Duke) to take her to the movies, May at Eddie for an affair with the rich “Countess,” the two push and pull at each other, starting passionate fires that burn them but also connect them. They’re clearly not supposed to be together, as the ghostly Old Man (Patrick Coyle) hints at throughout, but they can’t stay apart. This play hurtles forward like a nonstop ride you can’t get off and, while it seems like a love story, the play throws you into unexpected territory from which there is no return.

There is more than one fool for love in this story – there’s Eddie and May’s oil and water relationship, the old man who haunts what came before and whatever happens after, and even Martin in his rational well-meant kindness might seem naive, though he has no idea what he’s getting in to. This cast brilliantly shows all the different sides to their characters, from their flaws to their good intentions gone wrong, to pure bitterness and hate. I also appreciate that though the cast is small, it’s diverse and allows these actors to shine in parts that they may not often be given. (For more on this, see this article from the Star Tribune).

Dark and Stormy uses a small space and a simple set to great advantage. There’s something claustrophobic about this play and having a small theater space in the Grain Belt building helps build on that. The production feels fierce and intimate and allows for the tension of the piece to take hold and for the larger designs of the piece to speak more boldly (with lighting by Mary Shabatura, fight choreography by Annie Enneking, costumes by Lisa Jones, props by Katie Phillips, sound by Aaron Newman, and lasso expertise by Megan West). It’s a mistake to think this play is either simple or complicated – it’s both and neither with acting and design that may seem very simple but, like an iceberg, this is only the top layer and there’s far more underneath. This is the first Dark and Stormy production I’ve seen, but I’ve gotten the sense that, as small theater company, this is something they excel at.

Shepard has certain similar themes in his work – issues of masculinity, family drama and conflict, tension between being alone and being part of a community, cycles that endlessly repeat themselves from which there is no escape. Fool for Love is a great introduction to his work for someone who is unfamiliar with his plays and a wonderful celebration for those who know it well. Because Dark and Stormy is so devoted to Shepard’s style of storytelling and what his plays convey, this play is bright and dark, humorous and painful, gut-churning and empathetic. This play could easily stay in the melodramatic realm or become entirely bitter and cynical. All of these elements are present, but the show itself stays honest and sincere to its characters which in mind makes the best staging of Shepard – where all of these moments build on each other into a vivid array of emotions. As Ross Wetzsteon describes it, “His work is based on the spontaneous outpouring of feeling.” I’m so happy to have this production now not just as a way to celebrate Shepard, but also to celebrate what small theater companies in the Twin Cities can create.

Fool For Love is written by Sam Shepard and is directed by Mel Day. It is playing now through September 16th at Dark and Stormy’s space in the Grain Belt Building. Ticket and show information can be found on Dark and Stormy’s website.

Idiot’s Delight

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Source: girlfridayproductions.org

I’m several weeks late getting this posted, having attended the show in mid-July, but I’d rather get it posted late than not at all because this show was too good to not talk about.

In the midst of juggling a lot of things this summer, my attention has fallen to news reporting during World War II, due to research I’m doing as the literary intern for Watch on the Rhine. I’ve been drowning in details about the lack of focus and lack of reporting on the Holocaust. Which might be why Idiot’s Delight hit such a powerful chord with me. To be honest, it would have packed a punch, regardless. It’s that kind of show.

On the cusp of war breaking out, American showman Harry Van (John Middleton) and his three singing stars (Bonni Allen, Karissa Lade, and Becca Hart) find themselves at a hotel in the Italian Alps, full of guests who don’t quite know what’s around the corner. A pair of honeymooners (Gabriel Murphy and Adelin Phelps) are looking to enjoying a snow-filled escape, Dr. Waldersee (Karen Wiese-Thompson) just wants to get out of the hotel so she can continue her research to cure cancer, and why the mysterious Russian Irene (Stacia Rice) is there is anyone’s guess but it has something to do with tycoon Achille Weber (David Coral), a weapon’s manufacturer who doesn’t fear the possibility of war. The hotel staff (David Beukema, Sam Landman, Kirby Bennett, and Kevin Dutcher) try to juggle their needs while outspoken anti-fascist Quillery (Kory LaQuess Pullam) speaks out against the soldiers (Eric Knutson, Mike Swan, and C. Ryan Shipley) at the nearby air force base who already know what lies ahead for Italy. While 1930s tunes fills the air of the hotel, Quillery warns of the coming storm – until it suddenly swallows the hotel entirely.

This cast is absolutely mesmerizing. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I’ve seen a cast of this size and this caliber on stage. There’s exquisite costuming by Kathy Kohl, lush scene design by Michael Hoover, poignant light and sound by Dietrich Poppen and Anita Kelling, stellar props design by the ever-wonderful Abbee Warmboe, and lovely music direction and choreography by Kevin Dutcher and C. Ryan Shipley. There’s also a lot of accents – a lot of accents – 1930s American, Italian, Italian as spoken by an Austrian, Russian. The actors do a marvelous job, with the help of rock star dialect coach Lucinda Holshue.

I don’t think I have to explain why this play hits a particular note with current events. With Hannah Arendt’s books suddenly becoming best-sellers and anti-semitic organizations gaining not just attention but power, it’s a frighting place to find oneself. What this play does particularly well is the juxtaposition of terrible fear and large-scale evil along with the struggle of wanting to live your every day life. Harry’s singers – Shirley, Beulah, and Bebe – entertain Italian soldiers who moments later drag off Quillery for verbally attacking them. The tender honeymooners want to continue their escape but know they can’t with the death and destruction that’s happening around them. Beautiful complicated Irene will do what it takes to survive but ultimately becomes the pawn in Achille’s more masterful scheme. Rice shines as the complicated Irene, as does Pullam as Quillery, whose passion comes across not just in the political movement of 30s but of today. Middleton is dynamic and mesmerizing as always and Wiese-Thompson is especially incredible as the complicated doctor who does not want to forsake her research but will let it go if it means being patriotic to her homeland of Germany. And one of my favorite moments in the show (as well as one of the saddest) came from Sam Landman’s character Dumpsty, who speaks Italian but states that he learned the language after what was once part of Austria became part of Italy after World War I. Towards the end of the play, Dumpsty returns to his war uniform of the past to go fight for Italy. “Who will feed your family?” he is asked. He replies cheerfully, “The fascisti will feed them. They have promised to feed all of the families of soldiers.” I could almost hear my heart break at this line. If there’s anything the fascists definitely failed to do, it was feed people.

I only wish I had seen this show earlier in the run so that I could have recommended it because it was so wonderful. Beautiful and cheerful and heartbreaking and frightening all at once. It does all the things that makes theater great while also sending out an important message – and not letting us get away with an ending that makes us feel like everything will be alright.

Idiot’s Delight was written by Robert E. Sherwood and directed by Craig Johnson. It played June 29- July 23 at Park Square Theatre’s Andy Boss Stage.

Action Sequence

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Source: In the Heart of the Beast

If you’re a fan of car chases, actions films, and the 1980s, In the Heart of the Beast’s current production captures all of the things to love about these things – but with puppets. Action Sequence follows Studs (Shelby Richardson) a tough-as-nails, out for revenge vigilante who is fighting the bad guys because… because he wants to. And has to. Reminiscent of Die Hard crossed with… well, too many action films to list, Studs captures the stereotypical action star, with a backstory (shown here through projector slides and music) and a need to punch every person who angers him in the face.

While there’s not a large, complex story (there’s bad guys, Studs fights them, then fights the big boss – literally the Devil – at the end), what makes this performance so compelling are the way in which action is performed onstage. A treadmill becomes a road and plastic cars held by actors portray a car chase. Cardboard signs become comic book action bubbles of “pows” and “booms” and burst into scenes like they do on page. The entire space of the theater is used, from a subway train derailing up into the control booth to Richardson belaying down in a harness from above to the theater itself being “destroyed” in the action, with parts of the grid giving way as fighting occurs, breaking the fourth wall and adding more stage magic the heaps that are already on display. Richardson, along with the ensemble of Peter Rusk, Lizz Windnagel, Akiko Ostlund, Rick Miller, Sam VanTassel, Maren Ward, and Steve Ackerman never seem to stop moving in this highly physical piece and layer a wonderful level of humor throughout the story (while meanwhile, on an old baseball scoreboard, the death count tolls higher as Studs performs his vengeance). Simultaneously mocking and celebrating action films, this parody (complete with a live orchestra of movie-like scoring, directed by Drew Kellum) is delightful and ridiculous, showing us the most outlandish of action scenes while revealing just how much theater can show and stage. There’s so much more this show squeezes into it, more than I could ever describe (such as fighting on the wing of an airplane, a bar brawl, a brokenhearted crocodile) that you’ll just have to see it for yourself. It’s entertaining, fun, and it broadened my idea of what’s possible to do onstage.

Action Sequence is directed by Steve Ackerman and created by the ensemble. It is playing now through June 24th at In the Heart of the Beast in South Minneapolis. Ticket and show information can be found on their website and at Brown Paper Tickets.

Romeo and Juliet (Mission Theatre Company)

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Source: facebook.com/missiontheatrecompany

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been staged, restaged, and reinvented countless times (so much so that I can attend one production of it while doing dramaturgy research for another production in the fall). When staging Shakespeare, there’s always the weight of the past and people’s expectations with the material, as well as struggling to make a tale that feels as old as time new and innovative. Director Penelope Parsons-Lord of Mission Theatre Company’s production currently playing at the Crane Theater recognizes this in her director’s notes, discussing her work to move away from the stereotypes we might carry from this tale of star-crossed lovers. She also discusses falling in and out of love with the play, something I know very well. Like most graduates of the Minnesota public school system, I was introduced to this in play in my freshman year and hated it. I did not understand the love-infatuated characters or the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets.

Because I’m working on this show in the fall (as a literary intern), I’d recently read the script a few times and was more attune to the changes and cuts made in lines than I probably would be. I’m going to assume you know the plot, but just in case you don’t, here’s the Wikipedia article for you. This production gives us certain glimpses that we don’t get in the script, such as a scene before the Chorus’ prologue with two lovers entwined and one being slain, giving us a look at the cycles of violence in Verona. Also added is Romeo being rejected by Rosaline, hints of Lady preferring  Paris to her husband. The world feels fantastical, like a dark fairytale. Rose petals represent love and glittering confetti is thrown at the more joyous moments. Romeo (Vincent Hannam) moves from lovesick to giddy to enraged and violent, giving him a wide emotional trajectory and vibrance. Juliet (Bethany McHugh) is just as vibrant, perhaps more so because she’s given such a refreshing portrayal. If you’ve ever read Harold Bloom (a rather conservative Shakespearian theorist) and his thoughts on Romeo and Juliet, he scoffs at those who “surrender” the play to “commissars of gender and power who can thrash the patriarchy,” resisting the urge to give Juliet a feminist reading*. Considering that I like giving the patriarchy a good thrashing, I was overjoyed that McHugh’s Juliet is headstrong, relentless, and a little sarcastic (especially to her two mother figures, the nurse and Lady Capulet). Juliet seems a little older and wiser than I’ve seen before while still hopeful and lovestruck. Both Hannam and McHugh wonderful capture what it looks like and feels like to suddenly fall in love with someone. Romeo might make the first move, but Juliet quickly reciprocates, grabbing him and pulling him in for a kiss rather than only letting him take the lead. It’s a little detail, but one I greatly appreciated and gave Juliet a different edge – she’s assertive, this may not be the first time she’s kissed someone, and she’s willing to take risks to get what she wants.

Juliet’s physical agency becomes a larger issue in this piece, as the show overall contains a great deal of physical movement. As the show goes on and tragedy unfolds, Juliet seems to slowly lose agency over her body. She is pushed and thrown down by her father Lord Capulet, she is grabbed and shaken by Romeo, and Paris grabs her for a kiss she is repulsed by. Even when she is unconscious and presumed dead, Romeo still takes control, carrying her across the tomb and trying to sit her up. These scenes are hard to watch (especially the scene in which, while telling his daughter she must marry Paris, Lord Capulet throws his daughter and her nurse the the floor and attacks his wife) perhaps because I seem them too much in my own world. The use of violence in this particular scene reminds me of its similarity to Hero’s decision to fake her death in Much Ado About Nothing. Juliet and Hero have some interesting parallels, both with fathers who are upset that they haven’t followed the rules (though Hero has been misjudged) and with faked deaths in order to escape their situations (though it ends very differently for Hero than it does for Juliet). At the end of this show, it’s almost jarring to watch Romeo haul Juliet around because so much has already happened to her. Given current issues with control over women’s bodies, it’s interesting to see this. I don’t know if that’s the intention, but that’s certainly where my mind went with it.

Along additions mentioned previously, there are also some cuts. Towards the end, the Prince’s lines (as well as others) are given to the Chorus, which appears as the ensemble throughout the play, almost like wraiths in the embodiment of death and violence that hangs about Verona. The Nurse’s humorous tangents, as are some of Juliet’s forecasting her own death and her “apology” to her parents, promising she’ll marry Paris (before she actually drugs herself and appears to be dead). Much of Mercutio’s sexual jokes and euphemisms are also cut. While there are many humorous moments in the play, and some are given to Romeo and Juliet, I did miss these bits. I did enjoy that Mercutio and Benvolio are both played by women (Tamara Koltes and Ashely Hovell, respectively) which adds a new element to the relationship they share with Romeo and adds a little more female power the stage. Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is markedly different, with a very dark feel as Mercutio slaps away the hands the ensemble that try to envelop her and ends on a note that feels as if she is recalling an assault. Given the earlier feelings of loss of agency, given Mercutio’s gender and eminent death, perhaps the cuts of humor are important to establish a very different kind of Mercutio.

The way in which the Chorus is used is also really powerful. In the script, the Chorus arrives at the beginning of Act 1 and 2 to give the audience an idea of what’s going to happen/what’s just happened and then is never seen again. While the bit at Act 2 is parsed down, there are other moments where the Chorus steps in, especially in the background of scenes. At times, some of the ensemble work felt a little too much – the dance choreography at the ball scene at the beginning, as much as I liked it, involved clapping and made it a bit difficult to hear some of Romeo and Juliet’s exchanges from where I was sitting. At others it isn’t clear what’s going on until later, which adds an interesting layer of complexity. For example, when Mercutio and Tybalt are slain, the ensemble arrives to drop red rose petals and resurrect them in a sense. Later, when these actors appear in the ensemble, it almost feels as if they have joined this group of wraith-like beings (maybe it’s the ragged black hoods, reminding me of the Ring Wraiths from Lord of the Rings that makes me feel inclined to call them wraiths). One scene in particular that stands out it Juliet’s poisoning/drugging scene. Before she drinks the potion she’s secured from Friar Laurence (who’s portrayed as wonderfully kind and wise by Gary Danciu), uncertain if it’s going to work or if it’s going to kill her, she imagines she sees the her deceased cousin Tybalt. Because Tybalt is one of these wraiths and appears before her, it hits home the impact of Shakespeare’s words and Juliet’s mental state. The ensemble then transitions from Juliet’s unconsciousness to Romeo’s dream, placing Juliet in Romeo’s hideout where he is dreaming that she arrives to find him dead. This work with movement is especially beautiful and powerful.

There are a few little things that I struggled with in this production – at times, emotion in actor’s voices overtook my ability to hear the line being said, though overall I understood/ heard clearly more lines than I have in other productions of Shakespeare’s plays. There were a few transitions that felt a bit long (though one was clearly a costume change, which is understandable) and I found Mercutio and the ensemble’s singing of “Do You Believe in Magic?” during Romeo’s struggle with being lovesick jarring (perhaps only because I’d made up my mind that this took place in some other fairytale world).

There was something else that caught my eye about this production that initially caught me off-guard but made me think about how we work with Shakespeare. On the program/promotional material for this show this quote is featured: “These drops of tears/ I’ll turn to sparks of fire.” I didn’t recognize it from Romeo and Juliet so I did some investigating. A brief search taught me it’s from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Curious about why it was used, I reached out to Mission Theatre and received this response sent along from director Penelope Parsons-Lord:

Whenever I approach a Shakespearean text I try to clear my head of all preconceived notions about that play. This is something that I try to encourage audiences to do as soon as I have an ability to reach them, starting with our marketing material. Hence, I always try to find a quote that cuts to the heart of my interpretation rather than one that is commonly associated with the play. I love the action encapsulated within this quote, it perfectly sums up both the heartbreak and danger of grief. What we choose to do with our personal and collective griefs as a society directly relates to the kind of culture that we create around us – cycles of violence can be started and continue so easily. The world of this play is a heartbreaking combination of grief and fire ready to explode.

I think this really captures the way that Mission Theatre is working with this iconic work and I’m grateful to have received this response. It’s really insightful and I wish that this focus on the quote could have been included in the director’s notes because I find this perspective so interesting.

Overall, this show is moving and powerful. It can be hard to make people care about such iconic characters, especially if we know their tragedy very well. But it was easy to empathize with Romeo and Juliet and feel the urge to leap in and somehow prevent their untimely fates. The violence portrayed was uncomfortable and, even to someone who often feels desensitized, made me cringe and squirm. Juliet’s reawakening from her sleeping potion and her death were the most painful for me, causing me to actually feel nauseous and she choked and cried her way back into life. Pain isn’t always easy to act onstage but this production does it especially well. Performed in two hours without an intermission, this show careens through six short days, making it feel (as Carson Kreitzer has described shows without intermissions) like “a merry-go-round you can’t get off.” Something I especially appreciated was the content warning found in the lobby at the box office/ concessions stand, including warnings that show depicted violence such as suicide and domestic violence and also including hotlines for those who might seek help. I don’t often see content warnings for shows and I’ve never seen one that also provided help referrals. Given the impact of this show and that often young students (such as high schoolers attend) I’m glad this was included. I personally have suicide scenes in other shows triggering and might have found the domestic violence unbearable if the content warning hadn’t ben given.

With Shakespeare, there’s so much to play around with given that his shows contain so many allegories, dense characters, and even denser language. I love how this production investigated new territory and made this well-known play feel new. I might feel a bit conflicted about some of the changes, but over all this is is a dynamic, powerful piece that I’m so happy to have seen.

Romeo and Juliet is directed by Penelope Parson-Lord. It is playing now through June 17th. For ticket and show information (as well as a full cast list, as I was sadly unable to mention them all), please check out Mission Theatre’s website.

For more of my thoughts on my reading of this particular play, please check out this poem I posted while doing my own dramaturgy research for the Guthrie’s production this fall.

*quote taken from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom.