This play follows a girls’ indoor team of high school soccer players as they navigate relationships, friendships, and trying to make it to nationals. #46 is new to the team (the rest of the group having played together since they were kids) and is learning their inside jokes, their habits, and what it mean to be part of the Wolves.
Why I Chose to See It
I saw this play last spring when it was first performed at the Jungle. At the time, the play was part of my graduate work at Augsburg and I was excited to see it staged. I adored the production and, when I heard about the remount, I knew I had to see it again.
If I liked this play the first time, I am absolutely infatuated with it this time around. The nuances between the players, the overlapping conversation, and the emotional trials of being a teenage girl are powerful and even more finessed and clarified. It helps that this same group of actors performed it less than a year ago and (from what I gather from Instagram) adore this play. Creating theater is teamwork so it’s no surprise that a show that mixes soccer and acting together works so well. The physicality is mesmerizing and, with the location of the Souther, it truly feels like you’re in the bleachers watching a game (the stage is on ground level – it is not raised about the seats – which is a huge advantage in this show). I don’t want to give away too much about this show, but it really hits personal notes for me due to my experiences in high school and I have heard other women have the same reactions. Even if you do not identify as a woman, the characters and the stories will feel familiar and tell a very moving story about growing up in the Midwest.
Just go see this show. Bring your friends, bring your enemies, bring everyone. This is modern theater at its best.
The Wolves is written by Sarah DeLappe and directed by Sarah Rasmussen. It is playing now through February 17th at the Souther Theatre. Ticket and show information can be found on the Jungle’s website.
Elisabet, self-help guru and Instagram celebrity, suffers a sort of break-down in the middle of one of her public speaking engagements. Alma, a nurse, is charged with looking after Elisabet on a seaside retreat. A bit starstruck and struggling with authenticity herself, Alma works to help Elisabet find herself again, but things take a dark turn when the two women discover how similar and yet how different they are. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona, this show is part of the Bergman Jubilee in 2018 (a celebration around the world the centennial of the celebrated filmmaker’s birth).
Why I Chose to See It
I love seeing new work, especially work that is multi-media and advertised as something “like you’ve never seen before.” I admire the work of Emily Michaels King and Debra Berger (who both appear in the show) and I’m excited about their company E/D generating new work about women for everyone.
This absolutely is like nothing I’ve seen before. It’s gorgeously staged and challenging (both to watch and understand) which is very much welcomed on my end – I love a good puzzling story as well as a production that feels uncomfortable and suspenseful throughout, which this play delivers wonderfully. Much of the suspense is created through the ever present camera operator – Amber Johnson of Dangervision Productions – who captures close-up details that otherwise might be as noticeable to the audience’s eye in theater while also emphasizing the influence of social media and the focus on physical appearance. Johnson is onstage almost the entire show, following both King and Berger’s characters, often using camera angles to reveal something about the two or giving the perspective that they are standing side by side when the in actuality might be a whole stage apart. The show also uses prerecorded footage to add to the sense of unease.
There’s a lot to unpack in this performance and I’m certain that anyone who sees it will walk away with a slightly different idea of what it’s about, reflections that all overlap on the same foundation. The production shows the complexity of people – especially women, the ways in which the self-help industry can profit off of people and use them rather than help them, how authenticity is a nebulous topic – How can we be real in a world that at times feels both too real and utterly unreal? How can be be real people when our social media presence causes us to act and entertain in certain ways? How can women really know who they are when they are constantly barraged with ideas and perspectives of who they’re supposed to be? I’ve spent some time in my personal life struggling through feeling authentic and who I think I am (including conversations with my therapist about it) and much of the show hit me very personally for this reason.
By the end of the piece, the audience is left with a great deal of questions. I don’t want to give away the story but I can’t help but note and appreciate the yin and yang symbolism that is used throughout the show (from costuming, to movement, to the cover of a book in one scene). As Elisabeth and Alma travel over the course of the show, I’m never quite certain if they’re different people, the same person, people existing only in the mind of the camera operator. Perhaps we all get to decide at the end, just as we all must decide how we be authentic in this world and how live and find balance ourselves – as it’s nothing that a self-help expert can fix for us, no matter how good they are.
This was the perfect show for me to see in my present moment (where I’m navigating belief changes, new health practices, and new ways of defining myself) and I can’t recommend it enough. Whether you’re a film fan – especially of Bergman, but also of filmmakers such as Lars von Trier or David Lynch – or looking for theater that pushes the boundaries of what we think it can do, or just looking to see some great new work – specifically work by women artists – I think you should see this.
Animus is created by and features Emily Michaels King, Debra Berger, and Amber Johnson. It runs now through December 22nd at the Southern Theater. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit E/D’s website or the Southern’s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love a show that takes a new twist on a classic production and Theatre Novi Most’s The Master Builder does just that. Grabbing Henrik Ibsen’s play by the throat and delving down to its core, this adaptation creates a dark, fantastical world where trolls are real and a powerful, seductive tension perpetually simmers beneath the surface.
The Troll (Alex Barreto Hathaway) introduces us to this world, describing Norwegian winters and life there. Physically pulling a statuesque Halvard Solness (Pearce Bunting) onstage, a master builder whose tale the Troll eagerly wants to tell, the Troll shifts into different people in Halvard’s life – his coworker Ragnar whom he is trying to prevent from leaving and getting his own architectural work; Kaia, Ragnar’s fiance, whom Halvard is having a sort of sexual relationship with; and Doctor Herdal. Herdal, brought in by Halvard’s wife Aline (Barbra Berlovitz), is there to help Aline who continues to suffer after the loss of her twin children and the destruction of their former home, and to ascertain whether Halvard might be going mad. Through all of this, the Troll shifts between this figures, seeing to pay homage to the shapeshifting trolls/frost giants of Norse Mythology. As Halvard grapples with what he calls the troll inside him – physically represented by the Troll and expressed through his own id and desire – he tries to construct a life and mold the people around him into what he desires. And then, with a knock on the door and an explosion of party music, disco lights, and confetti, Hilda Wangel (Shelby Richardson) appears in Halvard’s life. A young woman he hardly remembers, Halvard one made a twisted promise that he would build her a kingdom. And now Hilda has come to reclaim what she has been promised.
This production is stunning and jaw-dropping. Bunting’s builder is Shakespearean at moments, on par with a self-destructive Hamlet, but also feels new and unique, unlike anyone we have met before. We want him to build something astounding, but we also aren’t sure we want to be left alone in a room with him. Hathaway’s Troll steals the show with his clear shifts between character, humor, and breaking through the fourth wall to engage with the audience. Berlovitz is beautiful, serene, and sad, contrasted with Richardson’s beautiful, chaotic energy. Both seek to change Halvard for the better and become at odds with each other in their desires.
With a simple, Scandinavian-inspired set that becomes a playground for building and destroying dreams, a rich sound design that shifts between low background murmurs to loud music, and costuming that capture each character’s mentality while playing with recognizable styles in Scandinavian stories (lederhosen, hipster backpacker, wealthy socialite, fur-wearing mountain man), a rich, metaphoric space is created where rocks become more than just mere props and a shift in light and sound brings powerful changes. Novi Most specializes in incorporating physicality into their work and it is used in this piece to its full impact – from the Troll’s shifting between characters, to character entrances, to personal interactions and body language, to nudity. Actions can say things that words cannot or give them a different meaning, and this adaptation uses that create bold, powerful, and discomforting drama.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a production quite like this and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to see such an incredible adaptation. Each moment carries with it a certain complexity and I’ve found myself puzzling over it long after the show ended. I cannot recommend this show enough and hope you all get the chance to enter this strange, frightening, magical, and beautiful world.
I’ve been trying to find the words to describe Savage Umbrella’s The Awakening, playing now at the Southern. And I have to admit that I’m more or less lost for words.
This isn’t a new phenomena for me recently – more and more I’m finding it hard to discuss shows I’ve seen in an review or post. Part of that I think is due to pressures around me. And part of that is due to how do I, as an artist, discuss another artist’s work?
The Awakening has the added caveat of being a highly musical and visual piece, so much so that I can’t describe the experience because you simply need to see it. And while any show is like this, The Awakening, based off of Kate Chopin’s landmark novel of the same name, takes emotional moments and performs them through movement and musical styles. A novel which takes place primarily in the mind of its protagonist, the unhappy Edna Pontellier who desperately wants to break out of the fragile mold society has forced her into, it at first seems an impossible work to adapt to stage. However, it’s the perfect story to tell because it is so emotional and, with the waves of feminism we ride like waves on the sea, it once again feels very present and very live in our current culture. Though it deals with Victorian women and their yearnings, it contains a force that is still very much alive in the lives and minds of modern women.
With a marvelous ensemble of Emily Dussault, Nick Wolf, Amber Davis, Seth K. Hale, Alexis Clarksean, Mike Swan, Russ Dugger, Nathan Gebhard, Lauren Diesch, Nayely Becerra, Rachel Kuhnle, Tinne Rosenmeier, Aaron Henry, Eric Marinus, Thomas Ferguson, and Daniel Rovinsky, with music performed by Nic Delcambre, Carley Olson, and Alissa Ona Jacobsen, the world these performers create grips you and ensnares you. Edna’s life of leisure on Grand Isle which becomes a life caged in back in New Orleans becomes a portrait of a life that cannot be fully lived as long as one’s society does not fully accept you. In the middle of women’s history month and in discussions of current events, a play like this has never felt more important.
The Awakening is adapted and directed by Laura Leffler-McCabe and created by the Savage Umbrella ensemble, with music by Candace Emberley. It is playing now through March 18th at the Southern Theater. Tickets can be purchased on Savage Umbrella’s website.
I must admit that this is the first production by Transatlantic Love Affair that I’ve seen. And wow, have I been missing out. A retelling of the story of selkies in folktales, this performance focuses on a small fishing town where fisherman have been known to catch seals which transform into beautiful women. One such fisherman (Diogo Lopes) catches a selkie (Emily King) and loses her seal skin, preventing her from returning to the sea. Homesick, the fisherman takes her in and she tries to adapt to a life on land. Through a wonderful ensemble of Heather Bunch, Alex Hathaway, Adelin Phelps, Allison Witham, and Derek Lee Miller as the Narrator, a beautiful story unfolds that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
One of the most marvelous things about this production is how the storytelling is conveyed. There are no props, no outside sound effects. All music and sound is produced by the actors, either through Miller’s performance on the accordion (and using the instrument to make airy sounds of ocean waves, which I found really stunning) or through vocalizations and effects made by the actor’s. This piece also focuses largely on movement, using different postures and body language to convey different characters in the ensemble as well as King’s switch from Anna (the Selkie) as human and Anna in her seal-form. Choreography is used to mimic the movements of the sea, the ebbing of the tide, seals basking on the beach, and everyday life in the small village. This allows most of the story to take place in the imagination of the audience and left me feeling as if I had actually seen the sea rising and falling, experienced the transition of a selkie moving between human and seal forms, and knew exactly what this little fishing village looked like. And all this through the movement and emotions conveyed by the actors. Along with lighting design by Mike Wangen that highlights the mood of the sea versus the village and the selkie’s internal struggle and consuming by Anna Reichert that allows for easy movement and subtly emphasizes the ensemble’s characters, this piece is utterly breathtaking. So much of this piece works because of timing – having lighting shifts line up perfectly with sounds made by actors or their movements, keeping the choreography consistent and making it feel believable. The ensemble does this marvelously and I left the theater thinking I could actually smell a hit of salt and seaweed in the air.
I’m a fan of anything that includes a retelling of mythology or folktale with folk music and beautiful storytelling, so I absolutely adore this show. I’m utterly blown away by this performance and can’t wait to see another Transatlantic Love Affair production soon.
Before I begin this review, I’d like to share a bit of my personal experience to frame my viewing of this show. I was born in Indiana, in the southern part of the state, then moved north when my dad quit his job and started grad school. My mom and I spent two years living in trailer on a lake in rural Indiana that had once belonged to my paternal grandparents while my dad attended school at Ball State. As my mother drove me to school every day in Warsaw (which was about a twenty minute drive), I would see abandoned houses in the overgrown fields, begin to decay and run into ruin. I always wondered what had happened there and why there were abandoned, sometimes creating stories to make answers of my own.
Sam Shepard’s Buried Child feels like one of those answers in the most nightmarish of possibilities. Set in rural Illinois in an old farm house where the fields have long since gone fallow, Dodge (Terry Hempleman) is confined to a couch in the sitting room, suffering from some unknown illness and watching baseball while upstairs, his wife Halie (Barbra Berlovitz) prattles on about the weather, Dodge’s health, and a son of theirs who had died. Leaving to talk to their church pastor about how to commemorate their son, Halie leaves Dodge in the care of his two sons, Tilden (Brian Goranson) and Bradley (Paul de Cordova). Tilden, who previously lived in New Mexico, had returned after running into some “very bad trouble” and is now living with his parents, sneaking outside to enjoy the weather and bring back vegetables that seem to mysteriously be growing in the field. Bradley, eerie and bully-ish, arrives to cut his father’s hair while he is asleep, shaving his head entirely. The brothers hate each other for unknown reasons and Dodge insults them and doubts their legitimacy as his sons. While he is sleeping and the brothers are gone, Tilden’s sone Vince (Matthew Englund) and his girlfriend Shelly (Charlotte Calvert) stop by the farmhouse. They are on their way to New Mexico to visit Tilden, believing him to still be there, and Vince is convinced he should stop by the old farmhouse, reconnect with his grandparents, and celebrate the old times. But he returns to far different situation where no one knows who he is and seems lost in a world that is void of reason and disconnected from anything that Shelly or Vince can understand. By the time Halie returns with Father Dewis (Leif Jurgensen), confusion is rampant, Vince has disappeared, and Dodge is on the brink of sharing a terrible secret that reveals what’s really out in the cornfield and the true darkness simmering under the surface of what once appeared to be a “Rockwell painting” family.
Having seen Pro Rata’s A Lie of a Mind (another Shepard play) last fall, I was at least somewhat prepared for the issues of memory, cyclical dialogue, and dislikable characters that I was likely to encounter (and also continually ask, “Sam Shepard, are you okay, man?”). But it still can’t take the edge off of the environment that is created by Shepard’s words. The frustration that is felt by Dodge’s curmudgeonly attitude, Halie’s lack of connection with the present (depicted by her first large conversation being delivered entirely offstage, her constant misremembering of her deceased son, and her lack of acknowledgement that Tilden is even in the room), and Vince’s refusal to admit that things were not as they once were adds a high level of tension and dramatic irony. Combine that with Shelly’s feeling of being utterly out of place while also remaining the one voice that sounds somewhat reasonable, Bradley’s creepy playing with power (which becomes misogynistic when directed to Shelly), and the looming feeling that there is something very, very wrong in this house leads to what I heard one audience member describe as “unnerving… makes you feel kind of throw-uppy.”
I’m not sure I like Shepard’s writing – I’m not sure I’m supposed to – but he does what he does very well. Ruminating on how twisted patriarchy is – especially in family lines – the play works as a commentary on masculinity and paternity while playing with notions of memory and recalling the past within something that feels that, at any minute, it could spiral into a Lovecraftian horror story or a Stephen King novel. The cast does an incredible job of conveying this tension, especially in Hempleman’s delivery of dialogue that circles around and around in the same ideas. There were a few moments there seemed to be some awkwardness with props, but then again, holding onto a dozen ears of corn or long-stemmed roses is awkward. The simple, austere set (designed by Justin Spooner) wonderfully captured the run-down farm house and added to the unease. Also, being from Indiana, I was impressed with the accents by the actors and work done by dialect coach Sara Schwabe. The lower Midwest accent is unique – it’s not quite Appalachian (ie: Kentucky or Tennessee) but it’s sure got a certain twang to it.
I strongly recommend this show, but know that it isn’t your typical night at the theater. If you can handle tension that never eases up, realizing that “buried child” doesn’t mean what you think it means, and feeling like you exorcized some demons after this performance, go for for it. The moments of dark humor – and there are a lot – help ease the tension somewhat, but by the second act, you’ll be gritting your teeth, and squirming in your seat. A must-see for fans of psychological thrillers.