Last week was rough. Between the horrific headlines and my own mental health issues, it was hard, to say the least. So when I say that watching Sandbox Theatre’s new show In the Treetops was like drinking a nice, big cup of hot cocoa, know that I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Warm, sweet, with just a dash of bitter sadness to it, this new devised work was a delight.
With an ensemble of Kristina Fjellman, Megan Burns, Evelyn Digirolamo, Ashawanti Sakina Ford, Kalen Rainbow Keir, and Theo Langason, In the Treetops tells the story of Wanda Gag, known for her illustrated children’s books (especially Millions of Cats). The play focuses on Wanda stepping in to raiser her siblings after her parents die and the tension between making money to support them and allowing herself to draw the sort of art she dreams of. In this whimsical, playful piece, loss, grief and imagination are dealt with great depth while also giving a lot for young audience members to enjoy. Stories told by Wanda and others come to life onstage and become as much of the narrative as Wanda’s own life.
This play is heartwarming and dear, a refuge from the onslaught of cruelty in the world while also grappling with the very issues we face in the world outside the doors of the theater. Wanda’s struggle of choosing between “the penny or the pencil,” (or making money and pursuing her art) is an issue many artist face and seeing her choose both as an option is inspiring and optimistic (especially for young artists in the audience). The show has really stuck with me long after I saw it and I’ve taken Wanda’s father idea of using a day to paint whatever he wanted and worked it into my own life (on Sunday mornings, I will writ whatever I like). Wanda’s story is a unique and beautiful one and helps remind us the important part that art can play in helping us cope with the world around us, is work well worth our time, and allows us to talk about the world differently. And when the world gets tough, it’s good to have a reminder of all of that in a way as lovely as this show.
In the Treetops is directed by Matthew Glover and written by the ensemble. It is playing now through October 15th at Open Eye Figure Theatre along with three performances October 28-29th at the German American Institute. Ticket and show information can be found on Sandbox’s website.
What happens when new technology is suddenly available to everyone and is unrestricted and unregulated? That question is at the heart of Swandive’s mONSTER, a play set in 1994, the early days of the internet. Nessa (Jamie Fields) is a college freshman, looking to make the most out of her first year of college. But she isn’t expecting roommate Brill (Kelsey McMahon) who’s taken over half the room with a desk full of the latest computer equipment who refuses to sleep except for 20 minutes every four hours and who vehemently guards her computer screen as much as she hides what she’s doing there. RA Greg (Avi Aharnoi) hints that there’s more to this than meets the eye and tries to get Nessa to move elsewhere before she agrees to the the roommate guidelines the two roommates discuss. But Nessa is too focused on having her idealized college experience to recognize something is very, very wrong in the room. Eventually, she learns that Brill doesn’t even go to college and she’s commandeered the room to fight off something that’s lurking the internet that, unless it is constantly monitored, will take over and destroy humanity. With a Black Mirror meets H.P. Lovecraft tackles modern technology vibe, this show is eerie, unsettling, and tense. All the three actors are wonderful, especially McMahon, who goes from 90s grunge chill to deeply terrified and protective in the blink of an eye.
The internet is a complicated place, and this script tries to tackle that. The show is wonderfully designed, with a spooky, claustrophobic set by by Sean McArdle, costuming by Lisa Conley, lighting by Jesse Cogswell, and sound by Kevin Springer, that all captures the feel of a 1990s dorm room while capturing the technical power of the monster that lurks beneath the surface. I did struggle with a couple of things in this piece. One part was the language – I generally really like stylized or beautiful language, but I got lost or distracted a few times in this show. Some of the technical jargon was hard for me to follow and the stylized, eloquent language, though beautiful, was hard for me to sit with, especially given the 90s setting and Nessa’s much more casual speech (which I felt like we heard more of). I also struggled with how the internet is discussed – it felt a little vague at times, especially in regards to the affect the monster has on people once they come across it on the internet. Mostly it just left me a lot of questions (which are not entirely spoiler free, so forgive me) – does the monster bring out the worst in people or does it just make them catatonic zombies (I remember both discussed, but we hear more about the latter)? How does the video sequence after the monster goes wild (which features internet bullying, 4chan, forum comments, Trump and Twitter, etc) work with the 1990s setting and the affects the monster has there? Why am I so frustrated with Nessa’s need for an awesome freshman year – is this because I had a horrible freshman experience and am now totally jaded by people who think college is going to be an awesome party and they’ll make a million friends their first year? (The answer is yes, but I digress).
Clearly it’s not a bad thing I’m having these questions – the show is thought-provoking and I love that I’m thinking about it days after the show. My struggle is that my relationship with the internet is a deeply personal one – I’ve had personal interactions with the dark side (ex: that one time I tried vlogging about fandom and someone who’s blog I foolishly mentioned went on for days about how I was the most horrible of humans and several of her friends told me how I ugly I was and all because I was baffled at why she posted the same photo of Benedict Cumberbatch over and over) and had incredibly good experiences to (I’ve made friends through social media sights, I’ve been able to keep in contact with people through Facebook that wasn’t possible before the page existed, I’ve raised money for Fringe and donated money to help fellow artists out). The internet is personal for all of us. Did it feel this way in 1994? I don’t know (I was four years old. We had a computer but I didn’t use it until I was a little older and that was to play this ridiculous game called Chip’s Challenge that was all about this guy being stuck in a computer club house and he kept getting killed by bugs. Most frustrating thing ever). I think my struggle is summed up in that we’re all coming in to this show with our own personal experience with the internet and technology and there is no earthly way that one show can ever capture all of that. The internet is a public place but because we’re accessing it from a personal place – our dorms, our homes, our phones – it feels intimate. So when something dangerous happens, it feels even more terrifying. We used to able to run away from that danger – if we something frightening in real life, we can run away. When it’s on your cellphone, on your computer, where do you go? You can turn it off, but you’ll still see those words in your mind. This show captures that fear and that’s a powerful thing. My only fear is that some people will walk out of this show feeling justified in condemning people who walk around on their phones and “look like zombies staring at their screens” (which, yes, we shouldn’t be on them all the time but also it’s the only means of staying connected with certain people in my life and I feel like the argument is always posed at millennials being the problem, instead of the fact that I see people of all ages, genders, and ethnicity on their phones. It’s all of us). This isn’t about passing judgement – it’s about recognizing how technology works on us and changes us in the world.
So, to sum up – go see this show. It’s a great place to start in the conversation about the internet. But it doesn’t stop there because this show can’t say everything. We have to share our own experiences and our own stories in order to fight for the good that the internet provides and fight back against the monsters that lurk in the deep (looking at you, Facebook trolls.) Because modern technology isn’t the monster. The monster has always been there and it’s just found a new home.
mONSTER is written by Sam Graber and directed by Meg DiSciorio. It is playing now through October 7th at the Southern Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on the Southern’s website.
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.
I’ve made a challenge to myself in the new year to see as many new works as possible. I’d like to see more theater in general, but I’m especially interested in supporting new playwrights and theater companies that produce new work. Sandbox Theatre is one of those companies. Dedicated to creating new plays and developing artists, they focus on visual dramaturgy (storytelling through design and movement) and divisive theater which creates shows through collaboration of the artists performing the shows.
Big Money is a great example of this work. Staged as a live taping of the game show Press Your Luck, the show explores the life of Michael Larson (Peter Heeringa), a game show contestant who won over $100,000 on one episode of the show in 1984. A resident of Lebanon, OH, Larson looks to get rich without work, saying, “I don’t do jobs.” This real-life story follows Larson’s clever methods of finding loopholes in the rules and shortcuts through the system to make money. He knows how to play the game and he plays it well. At home, his wife Theresa (Sarah Parker) struggles with his scheming and obsessive game-show watching, feeling torn between the love she has for him and the turmoil his actions cause. Both Heeringa and Parker are absolutely wonderful in their roles and bring a great emotional depth to both their characters and the relationship they share. Also marvelous are Derek Meyer as host Peter Tomarken, Emma Larson as Michael’s daughter, Eric Weiman as Michael’s brother, and Cameron Mielicke and Cortez Owens as Technicians who, along with the other cast members, create the environment of the game show and keep it moving smoothly.
Because the show is staged as a game show, there are some really fantastic technical elements at work. Synth-styled music, designed and performed by Tim Donahue, capture the feel of Press Your Luck while also aiding in creating Larson’s mindset. Heidi Eckwall’s lighting design creates a game board full of wins and whammies and also produces the wide emotional shifts that occur throughout the show. Mandi Johnson’s costumes keep us rooted in the 80s while also helping us clearly distinguish the actors when the take on multiple roles. And Leazah Behrens’ set design works to move us from the game show set to Larson’s home with ease. I also greatly enjoyed that the soundboard and the lighting board were at the front of the theater, both to heighten the feel of the game show set but also as a nice way to highlight the work the real-life technicians were doing.
Long after seeing this show, my heart still aches for Michael Larson. There are moments where he appears greedy and conniving, almost Trumpish in his attempt to evade and escape the rules. But there are also moments where he is just a person fighting to escape a system and succeed at winning the American Dream that has been proclaimed to be his and everyone’s. Everyone’s a winner, Press Your Luck states. But not everyone wins. And even Larson, who walks away with more prize money than the show had ever given out before, loses everything, including his family. At times it reminds me slightly of Assassins in its struggle with what happens when the American Dream fails us and might not be true at all, as well as what happens when those who are not traditionally seen as winners fight for success as Larson was – Theresa tells us multiple times that he’s not handsome, his refusal to hold a job and work hard outrages his brother, and, while his attitude towards being rich are part of the success narrative we all know, his methods at getting it are not. This heartbreaking story reveals what happens to a clever mind caught in the wrong place and how a need for monetary wealth and squelch out everything else. As a kid who was overly fascinated with getting rich quick and hoped to find “pirate treasure” one day so I wouldn’t have to worry about working, Larson’s anxiety about monetary security are all too familiar. And for those of us that now know how difficult or even impossible to have monetary security (such as myself), Larson’s story still resonates in a different way. There’s a strong difference between him and the billionaire who’s about the take the oath of office this Friday. The play shows this, in the scene where Larson is told by real estate consultants how he should use his money to invest. However, they’re the ones who see the profits rather than Larson. While Larson might claim that he doesn’t do jobs, he puts an immense amount of work into trying to play a game in a system that ultimate screws him over. The timing of this show is perfect and asks questions that will only continue to be more important in the days to come: what does it really mean to be a winner? A loser? If we play the system, can we every really break out of it? And what do we sacrifice to do it?
Big Money is directed by Theo Langason and created by the ensemble, led by Derek Lee Miller. It is playing now through January 28th. Ticket and show information can be found on both Sandbox’s website and Park Square’s.
Mu Performing Arts is producing the world premiere of tot: The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (a Filipino) Hulk Hogan. Following the story of nine year old Tot (Randy Reyes), who moves from his life in the Philippines with his grandmother Lola (Mary Ann Prado) to live with his parents in the US. His parents (Hope Nordquist, Eric “Pogi” Sumangil) are distant to their son, favoring the younger child Kitty (Stephanie Bertumen) that Tot has never met. Using his interest in wresting to help cope with being in a new culture and, essentially, a new family, Tot uses his interest in wrestling to weave his own story into that of the fictitious Orbiter (Torsten Johnson), a Hulk Hogan-like character who overcomes obstacles to be powerful and successful, aided by Chorus members (Michelle de Joya and Kyle Legacion) to provide context and commentary.
Knowing little about wresting, I enjoyed the exploration of the performative nature of the sport and the ways in which Tot adapted the stories told in the ring to better understand his own situation. The unique storytelling and great acting work together to make a new, fascinating work. At times, this show confused me and I felt a bit lost. I wasn’t sure if the sequences with the Orbiter were meant to be glimpses of the wrestling Tot was watching on TV or imagined sequences. It became clearer when the Orbiter’s story began to mirror Tot’s (aided by the double casting of the actors) and the confusion could be intentional, to emphasize how interwoven the tales of these muscular men have become in Tot’s narrative. The distance that Tot struggles with, not only being an immigrant in a new places but a child that does not fit into family he belongs to, is especially powerful. Reyes’ embodiment of a child is spot-on and humorous, but also painful as he confusion leads to aggression that he takes out on his sister. Despite the aggression, he also has moments of connection with Kitty and the she understands him in a way his parents cannot. Balancing between humor and sadness, this performance went to a darker level that I was not expecting, gesturing towards abuse that Tot faces from his aggressive father. These aspects were very difficult for me to watch, especially given the discussions of hyper-masculinity in both culture and in theater right now (I’m thinking of Orland as well as the situation at Profiles Theater in Chicago). This is not at all a fault of the production but an issue with my own sensitivity, and no show exists in a vacuum, causing performances look different depending where one’s mind is.
Based on what I’ve heard from my friends over at Cherry and Spoon and MN Theater Love after they saw tot, I think a wide variety of reactions are to be expected with this show – as should be with any show, really. For me, this is a show I’d have to see more than once to really appreciate. As I spent much of the time getting a grasp of what was going on (partially, I’m sure, due to exhaustion from a frantic day at work beforehand), there are greater nuances that I likely missed focusing so much on plot. I did enjoy design of the theater, using the Boss Stage at Park Square, as a wrestling ring with seating all around. I sat in the bleacher seats behind the stage and loved seeing the performance from that angle. As with every new play, I’m sure there are things that could be tightened up and clarified. But sometimes, theater isn’t easy to watch and it’s nice to have a show that challenges the audience and disrupts traditional storytelling methods. tot is such a show and one that’s worth taking a chance on, to support new work, a wonderful local theater company, and stories that often go overlooked, such as Tot’s wondrous, wacky wrestling tale.
tot is directed by Randy Rayes and written by Victor Maog. It is playing now through June 26th on Park Square’s Andy Boss Thrust. Show and ticket information can be found on Mu Performing Art’s website.