If there’s one thing I’ve learned about playwriting in the last year, it’s that seeing your work presented in front of an audience and performed by actors is one of the most amazing and also the most terrifying things in the world. I especially enjoy attending workshop of other people’s work because getting a look at what putting a show together and what the writing process looks like for others is fascinating and I personally admire anyone for sharing a work in progress with the (sometimes less than kind) public.
Savage Umbrella recently staged two nights of workshops at Bryant Lake Bowl for Velvet Swing, a work-in-progress about the life of Evelyn Nesbit, a performer who became famous after her husband, Harry Thaw, killed millionaire Stanford White, a patron of Nesbit’s who had also had a sexual relationship with her. Written by Alana Horton and Megan Clark, this workshop performance featuring Nayely Becerra, Antiona Perez, Jessie Scarborough-Ghent, Mickaylee Shaugnessy, and Leslie Vincent and included forty-five minutes of the piece so far. Certain actors played Thaw and White, while the ensemble all became Nesbit in all her complex incarnations.
Because this isn’t a performance, this piece isn’t a review but rather a look at this workshop and what I love about this process. Though the performance was only a small part of what the piece will eventually become, there was a bold look at what sort of story is being told about Nesbit – a look at what it’s like to be a woman, especially a woman who’s considered good-looking in America. Conversations in the talk-back and had by me after the show involved thinking about Nesbit as a sex symbol, someone who has star power and how the cult of fame can be dangerous, how the court room can turn on a young woman and make her the criminal instead of the victim (ie: look at Kesha, every woman involved in campus rape allegations, I could go on), and how women continually struggle between inaccurate dichotomies of being sexual and innocent. This workshop was the perfect thing to lure me into wanting to see more and I can’t wait to see where this work goes. I’m still overwhelmed in admiration for Horton and Clark to share their work with us and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
There’s quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (a book I have yet to read in full but adore nonetheless) that says, “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.” This is the territory that that Theatre Pro Rata’s recent production of Up: The Man in the Flying Chair investigates. So much of what occurs in the play are things that are felt – they may be shown through actions or words, but most of all they provoke an emotional response.
Based upon the story of Larry Waters, who, in 1982 tied weather balloons to a lawn chair and flew into the sky, Walter Griffin (John Middleton) performed a similar feat. Longing to return to that feel of flying and that surge of inventiveness, he spends his days tinkering in the kitchen while his wife Helen (Shanan Custer) slips “help wanted” ads his way and keeps up a mail route in order to pay the bills. Their only child, Mikey (Keegan Robinson) loathes high school but seems to hate it a little less when on the first day of his sophomore year he meets new student Maria (Lillie Horton), a feisty, pregnant girl who sees the world a little differently than most. Their lives become intertwined as Maria recovers from a life with an alcoholic mother and deals with perceptions of teen pregnancy (while enjoying the state of it very much, claiming its the best she’s ever felt in her life). Mikey begins working for her aunt Chris (Noe Tallen), striving to find one thing he’s good at.
Forced to get a job to pay the bills, Walter goes off to work each day, but an unsettled tone floats in the air. While famous tightrope walker Philippe Petit (Mark Benzel) appears to motivate him, Walter burns dollar bills and makes extravagant purchases. Yearning for greatness collides with basic needs of living. This story moves from calm beauty to turbulence and, much like flying itself, it’s both beautiful and a little scary.
Middleton and Custer are incredible, tugging and pulling and tearing at the audience’s heartstrings, making it both easy and impossible to see how Walter and Helen ended up together. Robinson and Horton are pitch-perfect in their portrayal of teenagers, to the point that I felt uncomfortable remembering what that level of angst felt like. Tallen brings a wonderful quality to the complicated Aunt Chris, who’s both incredibly trustworthy and terrible deceptive. And with a nice dash of magical realism akin to Amelie or Harvey, Benzel adds a lovely bit of levity along with captivating tightrope walking.
While all design elements are wonderful, with costume design by Mandi Johnson and Samantha Kuhn Staneart, sound design by Jacob M. Davis, lighting design by Julia Carlis, and props design by Abbee Warmboe, I was most taken by the set, which is not built but projected on a backdrop, allowing for it to be erased and blown away like chalk on a blackboard or show a chair with balloons floating in the air. The illustrations are by Max Lindorfer and add an extra level of magic and creative possibility to the atmosphere of the show.
Bittersweet and beautiful, funny and haunting, this show reminds me of my favorite bits of French literature and film. It’s captivating and hits a chord that captures so many different tones of emotion. What’s most wonderful about this show can’t be described so easily because it’s not what I saw onstage, it’s how it made me feel. There were a hundred different emotions I felt myself processing throughout the performance and am still feeling now. This is a wonderful piece for its work with historical fiction. magical realism, and especially all the complicated things the heart feels and yearns to express. If theater’s job (at least one of its jobs) is to help us understand different experiences and different feelings, then this show does exactly that.
Up: The Man in the Flying Chair is written by Bridget Carpenter and directed by Carin Bratlie Wethern. It is playing now through June 11th at Park Square Theatre. Ticket and show information can be found on Theatre Pro Rata’s website or Park Square’s website.
I recently attended a live taping of Minnesota Tonight at Brave New Workshop. If you’re familiar with The Daily Show, then you know the premise – it’s a pseudo-news show that has a guest, political analysis, a musical act, and various news stories presented by “correspondents.” Unlike The Daily Show, it’s taped monthly and it doesn’t require a trip to New York. Each episode features a theme, a guest to talk about that theme, and a musical act.
I attended episode five of the second season, which was scheduled to feature Peggy Flanagan of Minnesota House District 46A. However, due to the current situation at the Capitol, Representative Flanagan was working so Bharti Wahi, current executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota filled in for her (she can be seen in the above photo with Minnesota Tonight host Jon Gershberg). The theme of the night was child care, but the stories were not limited to that. A humor-filled and education segment focused on LIHEAP (emergency assistance programs for heating in Minnesota), the limitations the program already has, and the great threats it faces in being cut with new government budgeting that would leave many without assistance to heat their homes. Another discussed the rationale for legalizing medicinal marijuana. Yet another discussed the controversy around Duck Washington’s upcoming production with Chameleon Theater Company being refused space at Burnsville’s Ames Center. Minnesota Tonight This Morning with the State of Minnesota riffed on the cheesiness of morning news shows and showed us how film editing can make it look like you’re interviewing Al Franken as he time travels back to his younger years. And musical guests Shrieking Harpies blew minds with improved songs about Minnesota summers and brunch.
And of course there was childcare, including a wonderful interview with Bharti Wahi and jaw-dropping statistics about the expense of raising children and the difficulties of finding childcare providers (not so fun fact: most childcare providers make less than $20,000 a year. And yet they are responsible for little human lives).
Education, humorous, and engaging, this performance was more than just that – it was interactive, it was topical (dealing with recent news and ongoing issues), it made me laugh until my sides ached, and it added in mixed media – slides, previously taped segments, using pauses in the taping for musical acts and news stories shared by the host. The feeling of being at a taping is different from other shows – at any moment in a show, something can go wrong, but in a taping you might have to back and redo it. This added an extra level of tension – just having cameras in a room along with a teleprompter adds a different feel from a traditional night of comedy or improv. As someone who’s dreamed of being at a taping of The Daily Show since they were sixteen (and once wondered what the odds were of being one of their interns), this was a fun, thrilling experience. I love comedy but I especially love comedy that intertwines itself with an important message. Minnesota Tonight is informative and entertaining, serious and hilarious, and I love that something like this is happening right in my neck of the woods, discussion issues I care deeply about and informing me of new ones. I really enjoyed this and I can’t wait to go back.
Minnesota Tonight tapes monthly, Their next taping is June 28th, featuring Bad Bad Hats (whom I love and adore) and featured guest (not yet named). Ticket and show information can be fond on the Minnesota Tonight website.
Prime Production is one of the newest theater companies in town, seeking, as their website states, to “explore, illuminate, and support women over fifty and their stories through the creative voice of performance.” Looking for more diversity of storytelling work that create more outlets for all women to share their stories (especially in theater, where women over fifty can find it difficult to find a role) I eagerly awaited their first full production, Steven Carl McCasland’s Little Wars.
Set in Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s Parisian salon in the beginning of WWII, the play introduces us to a group of writers (Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Agatha Christie) visiting the book-cluttered and art-filled home to discuss writing. Among them is Bernadette, a German Jew in hiding and Muriel Gardiner, a political activist who has come in search of funds in order to help Jews escape from Germany. Full of strong characters and stronger opinions, I was swept away by the whiskey-drinking, swearing women who strode through sexual norms, issues of relationships and divorce, and politics with broad strides and strong words.
Seeing a space that reminded me of my own with books piled precariously, walls filled with bright images and literature references while the women my friends and I might hope to be in thirty years discussed intellectual and personal topics struck me as something a bit different. I don’t recall seeing an entire cast of women, a majority of them over the age of forty, onstage before, let alone a show that featured them and gave them more to talk about than just love and growing old. This play celebrates women in all of their complexities and allows them to argue and drink in ways that is too often only written for men. As a whiskey-drinking, swearing LGBT writer who spends a great deal of her time discussing politics, the characters and issues at stake hit a personal tone for me.
The politics of the piece also feel timely (unfortunately) as discussions of fascism are only on the rise. “I won’t let it happen again, Bernadette,” Gertrude promises her maid, echoing a promise I hear uttered again and again. In the play, this involves not just the rise of Nazis but also sexual violence. “We waste so much time with silence,” Muriel tells us towards end of the show. What is perhaps most compelling is the need and desire thes women find to do something, to have their own resistance to the world around them that reaches beyond their salon, where they can discuss things in safety and privacy. For Lillian Hellman, it becomes more than just donating but actually getting involved in acts of resistance. Given our time and place, it’s an important message we all need to hear.
There is a caveat to this. As Kit Bix discusses on Talking Broadway and Matthew Everett alludes in his review, the historical accuracy of this play is highly questionable. Unfortunately, it seems that Gertrude Stein most likely did not support the resistance of Nazis – in fact, is seems she supported the Vichy government (as discussed in this New Yorker article). Though I certainly don’t expect plays to be entirely accurate in terms of history, I do like to know when things stray from the truth or when liberties have been taken. Since the play focuses so much on who will tell their stories, especially Bernadette’s speech at the beginning and at the end, it comes as a bit of a shock to know that play is far more fictitious than it seems.
As a dramaturg, I find these historical perspectives important and wish they had been dealt with in some way – a statement in the program, a resource guide, etc. As Prime is a new company, I hope that future productions will work to include this research when it is necessary. While these uneasy historical lessons do change how I relate to the show, I still find myself blown away by the representation of women in this piece. The moments of intersectionality – between gender and sexuality, age and gender, and politics and gender – are moments of vital connection to me.
I look forward to seeing more of these intersections (with race, class, etc) in the future work that Prime has planned. I hope I continue to see more and more diverse representation of women, not just in this theater company, but in all companies.
Note: It was pointed out to me by a Minnesota Playlist reader in the comments that there is a director’s note in the program that the situation of the play is purely fiction. Perhaps it’s telling that I overlooked this or perhaps it’s merely my not paying enough heed to the program. Nevertheless, it is noted.
In the program for Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s production of Red Velvet, director Amy Rummenie includes in her notes, “…I’m fearing the implications of the well-worn phrase ‘the more things change, the more things stay the same.'” This sentiment haunts and propels the play, which features the story of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge (JuCoby Johnson) is the first African-American to play Othello, taking the stage after company member Edmund Kean collapses onstage in a Covent Garden production. Kean’s son, Charles (Ty Hudson) is infuriated that he is not the natural replacement for his father. While protests occur in the the streets of London calling for an end to slavery, Charles and company member Bernard (Michael Lee) see the fight for equality as a fad and company director Pierre’s (Andy Schnabel) choice of lead catering to fashion and politics. Pierre believes that Ira is the right man for the part and, while rehearsing with Ellen (Elizabeth Efteland), he proves himself to be progressive in his acting style. “So I may play how I feel? How avant garde!” Ellen proclaims. Despite his wonderful skill onstage, the reviews that come in about the production focus only on Ira’s skin color and the perceived indecency to have a black man physically touch a white woman onstage. When accusations about the company come out against Ira, the true prejudice in the theater is revealed and when we see Ira at the end of his career, we see him in white-face, playing Lear in Poland, taking on the guise of a man who had a successful career – but not the man we first saw in Covent Garden.
This outstanding cast carries the variety of roles and viewpoints with panache. Johnson and Efteland steal the show with beautiful, poignant performances, balancing 19th century dialogue along with Shakespearean scenes. However, Lee and Hudson’s love-to-hate characters are compelling as well and give voice to opinions that were considered logical not so long ago (and continue to persist in many ways today). Schnabel carries the complicated role of Pierre wonderfully – a man who wants his theater to be political but also wants to keep his company alive. And when worst comes to worst, he is no more free from the biases of society than anyone else. Bear Brummel (Casimir/Henry) adds excellent comedic relief and insight to progressive voice in theater at the time. Sulia Rose Altenberg (Halina/Betty/Margaret) carries three roles and three accents with exceptional poise and Kiara Jackson (Connie) with few lines brings enormous impact with her role as a maid who is present but often silent, until she warns Ira of what it is like to be black in this society.
There are so many layers of social discussion going on in this show – there’s the issue of race, the issue of what it means to “threaten decency,” the debates around different styles of acting (show wonderfully in Charles’s audience-facing, high dramatic delivery versus Ira’s more modern, intimate delivery given to the other actors in the scene), and the very purpose of theater itself. Is it for escapism or is it meant to be political? As someone who often finds herself at odds with patrons who do no understand the political implications of theater and continue to have debates such as the ones in the play, I was grateful to see these issues presented in front of an audience in such a way.
Beyond the politics, there are other implications for theater – what do you do when someone is accused of being unsafe onstage and harming another company member? This has a certain gravity given the events at Profiles Theatre in Chicago, but the allegations that come out against Ira in the show appear unfounded and racist, given what we know about him. Earlier, when Charles is concerned about Ellen’s safety, Ellen cries, “We were acting!” “How do you know?” he volleys back, unable to tell the difference between Othello and Ira, making the racist assumption that all black men are the same. Hidden in this is also the fear that an actor may not actually but acting but playing themselves, an issue Pierre later brings up, tying racist thinking up into the very concerns that actors have about working with each other. For Ira, this leaves him in a complicated place – what does he have to sacrifice to succeed as an actor? What is he to do about actors making instant judgements about him and his skill based on his skin color? What does he have to do to have a career? In the end, when we see him putting on white face to play Lear, this appears to be our answer. But I do wish the script had dug into this more and shown more of the aftermath of Covent Garden and what happened between there and Poland.
This show is beautifully designed, with an elegant set by Annie Henly, exceptionally sumptuous costumes by E. Amy Hill, gorgeous light and sound by Jesse Cogswell and Thomas Speltz, lovely prop design by Sarah Holmberg, and incredible accent work done by Keely Wolter and Ari Hoptman. Overall, the world feels familiar, regardless of whether we’ve ever seen a show in Covent Garden – often in uncomfortable ways. Days after seeing the show, the story broke about the Edward Albee’s estate refusing rights to a production in Oregon that wanted to cast the role of Nick to an African-American actor. Regardless of the debate on this issue, the uncomfortable parallels between this and the issues of Red Velvet are impossible to ignore. These problems continue to repeat themselves – Ellen mentions how the things that are being said about Ira were the same things they said about women actresses. We are still saying similar things about men like Ira, and also trans actors. The world of theater, for the most part, is more progressive than other communities, but we are no less susceptible to blind spots, biases, and strong prejudices. Red Velvet presents a powerful story of just that and how it affects those artists trying to fight against the tide.
Red Velvet is written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Amy Rummenie. It is playing now through May 28th at the Southern Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on Walking Shadow’s website as well as the Southern’s.