The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin

"The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin" - MN History Theatre

Source: historytheatre.com

If you studied American history in the public school system, more than likely you never learned about the Chinese Exclusionary Act. As this article (recently shared on My Performing Art’s Facebook page) describes, much of Asian American history is left out of syllabuses and textbooks. Before I encountered The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin  in History Theatre’s Raw Stages festival in 2016 (then under the title Paper Daughters) I knew very little, if anything, about this period of history. The act, signed by Chester A. Arthur in 1882, prohibited immigration of all Chinese laborers and was meant to last 10 years but instead was renewed in 1902. It was the first law that presented a specific ethnic group from entering the United States. In order to get into the US, Chinese citizens bought documents of other family members, friends, and neighbors who had relatives in the US and assumed these names.

Harry Chin (Song Kim) does just that. When we meet him, it is the 1970s, he is living with his daughter Shelia (Meghan Kreidler) and struggling to work at the restaurant where he is a chef. Throughout his days, ghosts of his American wife, Laura, (Sandra Struthers), a poet who did not make it through immigration (Sherwin Resurreccion), and his wife in China, Yuet, (Audrey Park) haunt, tease, and torment him. As the ghosts send him into flashbacks of his past – falling in love with Laura, the harrowing immigration process with a monstrous immigration officer (Rolando Martinez), and writing to Yuet whom he will never see again, Harry grapples with being a father and an immigrant, trying to come to terms with his past and his present.

The cast is marvelous and captures the humor, heartbreak and the haunting of this tale wonderfully. Struthers and Park and particularly wonderful as the wives and Resurreccion brings a playful humor into his ghostly poet. Language shifts greatly in Jessica Huang’s script and accents appear and disappear (Harry speaks unaccented English when he is speaking Chinese, his accent appears when he is speaks English to Shelia and Laura; the immigration officer speaks in unintelligible garbled noise to convey Harry’s inability to understand and the officer’s crude, abrasive behavior) and it’s fascinating to see it all interwoven together. I am particularly fond of shows that provide challenges in terms of design and general theatricality and this production does just that. Sandra Struther’s first ghostly appearance – appearing inside the chassis of a car – is spine-tingling and brilliant. With the wandering ghosts, the jumping between a ship at sea, Shelia’s home and Harry’s new apartment, the kitchen of a restaurant, and all the places in between, each locale generates its own atmosphere and emotional quality for Harry. With spectacular lighting design by Wu Chen Khoo, powerful scenic design by Joel Sass, beautiful costuming by Trevor Bowen (including some stunning ghost costumes in the second act), beautiful sound design by Katherine Horowitz, and wonderful props design by Abbee Warmboe, this is truly a dream team of designers (so much so I thought I could feel the temperature drop in the room as ghosts appeared and smell chow mein as Harry cooked).

It’s easy to remark on the timeliness of this production – with current immigration policy trying to prohibit another specific group from being allowed into the US, its place in the season is almost uncanny. While timely and relevant sound like operable words, it’s more than just that. Stories like this keep repeating themselves and American history is full of them. It’s timely because prejudice and xenophobia never stopped being a problem and because it’s a story we still fail to remember. However, Harry Chin’s will haunt you, just like the ghosts who fill up his kitchen. You won’t be able to forget him once you leave the theater. And, like me, you might walk out feeling hungry – for knowledge, for diversity, for answers, for change. Harry Chin hungered for a new life, a better life, and sacrificed much in the process. What must we sacrifice in order to make sure his story is told? So others like him can be welcomed to our country? So that ghosts of all of our pasts stop clamoring for our attention and can actually be recognized?

The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin is written by Jessica Huang and directed by Mei Ann Teo. It is playing now through April 9th at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Ticket and show information an be found on the History Theatre’s website.

And if you go, be sure to check out the “Gateway to History” exhibition by photographer Wing Yong Huie both inside and outside the building of the theater, showing those who were personally affected by the Chinese Exclusionary Act.

Citizen

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Source: facebook.com/FrankTheatreMpls

In 2014, Graywolf Press published Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. A blend of poetry, lyric essays, social criticism, and images, this groundbreaking book focuses on race relations in America – especially microaggressions and repeated racist incidents. It is one of the most powerful books I’ve encountered. As I read it for my MFA program this semester, I was elated to see that Frank Theatre was performing an adaptation of the book. Having seen it both opening night and at a Sunday matinee with a talk-back, I’m still struck by it.

A story like this only grows more important as the days continue. If you’re mesmerized by the film Get Out and still are emotionally recovering from We Are Proud to Present in the Dowling Studio, then Citizen should be your next thing to watch. Using a collaborative ensemble featuring Heather Bunch, Hope Cervantes, Michael Hanna, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas, and Dana Thompson, this performance splits Rankine’s narrator – who frequently uses the second tense to tell their accounts – into several voices encountering racism that often goes overlooked. Recounting illness cased by dealing with racism every day, a white colleague confusing one African American person for another, a neighbor who calls the cops because a friend who is staying next door is making a phone call from the driveway and he looks suspicious, Rankine’s book does not back away from showing the sheer multitudes of microaggressions and subtle racism that occur daily and the ensemble does a masterful job of portraying them. The poetry in the original work is profound and to hear it pour of the tongues of these incredible actors will wrench at your gut, overwhelm you emotionally, and haunt your mind.

If you haven’t read the book, you won’t have a problem following the story, but for those who have read Rankine’s work, the way that media is brought alive is particularly gut-wrenching. From footage of Serena William’s tennis matches to photos from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the subjects captured on the page are put in front of our eyes, making it impossible to ignore the argument being made.

Of course, reading a book is far different from watching a show and some of the intimacy of Rankine’s work is lost. But theater asks us to share an experience with our neighbors, making for an added level of complexity for how to negotiate space with a show like this. Theater audiences tend to be mostly white in Minnesota and, undoubtably, this is an important show for Minnesotans, especially white liberal Minnesotans, to see. But you can’t always gage where a theater audience is at or where a show registers for them. At the post-show talk-back on Sunday, which included Shannon Gibney and Peter Rachleff as panelists, I was struck by white audience members who were afraid of making microaggressions and announced their discomfort, drawing parallels from the show to reconstruction after the Civil War rather than present day, and pinpointing Trump as an exceptionally racist president, rather than a more vocal on whose precedent was set long ago. Hearing comments that seemed out of touch from what I saw staged concerns me, not that the show isn’t working and isn’t presenting its message clearly, but that audience members have more work to do than I thought. I’m going to step out of reviewer mode for a moment and talk as a community engagement and advocate. I believe that we should have conversations about theater, especially after shows like this. But it concerns me when certain things continually occur during talk-backs – a white male always speaks first; people of color are sharing real, recent instances where certain events are have happened while white people feel the need to discuss their discomfort or show that their only context for these events was in the past or in the South; and African-American panelists and audience members having to do all the work and all the teaching to make white audience members understand. Talk-back should be learning moments but, as it came up in this talk back, here and in our day to day lives, white allies need to do more to jump in, advocate, and explain. As the conversation became uncomfortably focused on white discomfort, I wondered what I, what we, as audience members, panelists, and human beings in general can do to be better allies? How can we help guide talk-backs to keep them from going in outrageous directions? What can we do to correct behavior or explain why a certain comment is given at the wrong time or in the wrong space – and not just in the theater in but in our everyday lives?

Needless to say, this show has given me a lot of food for thought. I cannot stress the importance of the show enough or the brilliance that is Rankine’s work. Read it, see it, and talk about it. And keep talking about it. And don’t stop talking or working or fighting racism in America.

Citizen is adapted by Stephen Sachs from Claudia Rankine’s book. It is directed by Wendy Knox and is playing at Intermedia Arts now through April 2nd. Tickets are available on Frank Theatre’s website.

For more on this production of Citizen, check out the live video I did with Kendra Plant from Artfully Engaging where I chat with Wendy Knox and Hope Cervantes about the production!

The Awakening

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Source: facebook.com/SavageUmbrella

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.

Local Music Scene: Geoffrey Brown

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If you’re like me and you just realized it’s the end of February, then you might be thinking about attending this month’s Local Music Scene at Bryant Lake Bowl. But first, here’s a very belated look at January’s event with Geoffrey Brown, of the Dregs.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Local Music Scene, each month a local musician performs some of their songs while a team of improv artists brainstorm scenes based off the lyrics. After the songs, the artists perform the scenes. Geoffrey Brown, who describes his songwriting as, “I specialize in sad songs with catchy melodies” provided the audiences with songs perfect for our “post-truth” era about lying, truth, and poverty, as well as stories about pretending to play the banjo and giving advice of choosing adventure “because safety’s boring.”

The improv scenes that accompanied were wonderful, playing off the themes of truth, adventure, and reminding us it’s a bad idea to tell your sister you can totally play the banjo at her wedding when you can’t play at all. If you’re looking for an opportunity to take life a little less seriously and enjoy some local music, certainly check it out. They’re back at Bryant Lake on the 27th with Amanda Costner as their music guest.

Ticket and show information can be found on The Local Music Scene’s Facebook page or Bryant Bowl’s website. For more of Geoffrey Brown’s music, check him out on Gigsalad.

 

Big Money

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Source: facebook.com/sandboxtheatre

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.

Local Music Scene: John Genz

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Source: facebook.com/thelocalmusicsceneimprov

If you haven’t heard of about the Local Music Scene at Bryant Lake Bowl, listen now. Once a month, Bryant Bowl hosts this mash-up of improv scenes based off the lyrics of songs performed by a local musician. This month featured John Genz, described as a “violent lamb of a man” whose music hovers somewhere between folk and punk.

I was unfamiliar with Genz’s music before hand but am certainly a fan now. Penning lyrics that capture heartbreak, angst, isolation, and anxiety, I have a lot of personal reasons for enjoying the lyrics. And, as the questions asked throughout the show about the musician (which breaks down the traditional divide between performer and audience) we learn about the inspiration for the songs, the musician’s view on the world, and other random fun facts (like Genz is a Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature major. As I’ve got my undergrad in that, I feel like that’s important to mention).

The improv scenes that occur after the songs and Q&A were hilarious, creating math jokes, a complicated relationship between a man and his dog, seeing VHS rental stores as museums, and surprising amount of mentions of Mogadishu. You kind of had to be there. Nevertheless, the wonderful combo of music and humor is the perfect mix and a great way to spend a Monday evening in Uptown. They’ll be back at Bryant Lake on January 30th with Geoffrey Brown will be their guest and certain to be a night of great songs and lots of laughs.

Ticket and show information can be found on The Local Music Scene’s Facebook page or Bryant Bowl’s website. For John Genz’s music, check out his Bandcamp page.

La Natividad

lanatividad

Source: In the Heart of the Beast

La Natividad, In the Heart of the Beast’s reoccurring Christmas show inspired by the gospels of Matthew and Luke, is one of the most poignant shows you’ll find this holiday season. Traveling to site-specific locations culminating in a procession to St Paul’s Lutheran Church near In the Heart of the Beast’s theater, this performance combines a Christmas pageant-style story with a remarkable music, puppetry, and masks.

I’ve never seen La Natividad before, but I was surrounded by many who had. It was wonderful to watch their experiences and hear them singing along with songs they had heard before as I took it all in for the first time. While I grew up Roman Catholic and am very familiar with the story of the Nativity, it’s never felt so relevant before. Drawing parallels with stories of refugees and immigration, this bilingual show, presented both in English and Spanish –  follows Maria and Jose’s trek grappling with Maria’s pregnancy while also dealing with Cesar Augustus’s call for people to return to their place of birth in order to be counted and accounted for. While filling out immigration papers, Jose proclaims, “Isn’t a person worth more than paperwork?” Meanwhile, King Herod hears about the coming of a child who will be “king of all kings” and, threatened by one who will be more powerful than he, attempts to bar entry to those seeking refuge in Bethlehem. There’s something very Trump-like about Herod, both in the costuming and in the words he delivers and, while In the Heart of the Beast confirms that this is the same presentation of Herod that they’ve had in years past, it seems my mind and those of others watching the performance couldn’t help but imprint current events onto Herod (the exaggerated gestures of his hands don’t help. Trust me, you just have to see it). It really emphasizes how stories of refugees and those who refuse to give them shelter repeat over and over and over again.

This performances is unlike any theater experience I’ve had before – perhaps because it’s more than just a theater experience. It’s site-specific, immersive, and personal. It doesn’t just break the fourth wall – it never feels like there’s a fourth wall to begin with. In between scenes as you travel from place to place, you’re able to chat with your neighbors and see what their reactions are to each scene. At the end of the performance, after a lush and magical scene in which the world welcomes the birth of Jesus, performers and patrons alike congregate for a fiesta, with warm food and drinks prepared by volunteers. I’ve never felt so welcomed into a community nor have I ever had so many strangers talk to me just for the sake of getting to know someone new. I’ve been spending more time on Lake Street this year for theater than I ever have before (frequenting In the Heart of the Beast, the Jungle, Frank Theatre’s site-specific show, and Pillsbury House) and I love the community I’ve found her.

While this show has its roots in Christianity and the New Testament, this performance is one people of all faiths can enjoy. I myself am agnostic and found the story affirming of the hope and beauty I’m looking for in the world right now, and also found it much warmer and heartfelt retelling than I ever experienced in the churches I attended. At the fiesta afterwards, audience members are welcome to record their responses to the show on a board and ask further questions – who would I shelter? Who would shelter me? Would I shelter an enemy? With our current political climate, these questions are more relevant than ever.

La Natividad is playing now through December 22nd in the Lake-Midtown neighborhood. Show and ticket information can be found on In the Heart of the Beast’s website. Group rates are available and no one is turned away for lack of funds.

White Christmas

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Source: ordway.org

I find it important to be honest in my reviews, even if I risk being unpopular. While most everything I’ve read about the Ordway’s White Christmas is full of positivity, remarking on its charm and holiday cheer, I had a far different experience with this show. I feel almost embarrassed, like the Grinch about to run off with Whoville’s Christmas decorations. But I believe overlooking the issues I have will do more harm than good and I believe it important to our theater community to consider the issues I have with this production, even if I end up being the only one who sees them.

Don’t get me wrong. This theatrical elements of this production are incredible. The costuming, set construction, lighting and effects are wonderful. The cast is fantastic, with some of the Twin Cities best – Brian Sostek, Dieter Bierbrauer, Ann Michels, Jenny Piersol, James Detmar, Gary Briggle, and Thomasina Petrus. But I’m not happy about the story told. I know it takes place in the 1950s and that “times were different.” I know that the source is a movie that can only be updates so much without completely leaving the story that so many know and love behind. Yet I’m still astonished how sexist the show was. From Phil Davis’ comments and smug flirting with Judy, to the portrayal of the twins Rita and Rhoda as unintelligent sex objects, to the moment a girl stretching at the piano freezes with her leg up in the air as General Waverly enters during rehearsal and ogles at her leg, making her body the punch line of a joke – all of this added up to make a very uncomfortable experience for me and my friend who accompanied me.

I really wanted to enjoy this show. I desperately wanted a moment of escapism for  just a few hours to leave behind this rough year we’ve had, to embrace the holiday cheer that is meant to be at the heart of this story. Instead, I felt like I was walloped in the face by the very things that I struggle with every day – women being objectified, harmful jealousies caused by women seeing the men they want to possess in the company of other women, believing that women have to force a  man to “settle down,” and benevolent sexism in its many forms. Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum and when current issues appear in a script, they’re amplified by the cultural moment I find them in. Maybe it’s bad luck that White Christmas happened to be staged in a year when sexism is at the forefront of many people’s minds. But it’s also important to me what decision were made in this staging and I’m disappointed that these concerns didn’t seem to be at the top of mind. Perhaps the actors and artistic team dealt with these experiences internally during rehearsals (and I hope for the sake of the actresses onstage that they did) but I certainly didn’t get the feeling that they had from the performance I saw. Instead, I felt uncomfortable for them, for myself, and for the other women in the audience.

I’m sure that 90% of people who see this show will enjoy it and I’m sure that people will day I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. But representation matters. I’m one of the few people who had a negative experience with this show and I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t. I’m not going to write what I think people want to hear or shy away from criticism. I don’t want to overshadow the good work the Ordway does based off of one production, but I am disappointed by this show and expect better in a theater community that is usually very sensitive to issues such as these. I hope that by recognizing these issues in theater we can have better discussions about how to work around or change these issues in productions and recognize them, rather than ignoring them.

White Christmas is written by Irving Berlin, Dave Ives, and Paul Blake and is directed by Jame A. Rocco. It is playing now through December 31st at the Ordway. Ticket and show information can be found on the Ordway’s website.

A Very Die Hard Christmas

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Source: Bryantlakebowl.com

If you’re feeling more naughty than nice this holiday season and looking for something a little different in your choices of festive fair, check out A Very Die Hard Christmas at Bryant Lake Bowl. Based of the 1988 movie staring Bruce Willis and the late great Alan Rickman, this musical parody retells the story of John McClane, a Jack Bauer-like cop who, unlike Bauer, “can get those problems solved in two hours. I don’t need twenty-four.” McClane is just trying to get home for the holidays to see his kids and estranged wife, Holly (Anna Weggel-Reed). But wouldn’t you just know it, West German extremists take over the Christmas party Holly is attending at Nakatomi Plaza, led by the hostile Hans Gruber (Matt Sciple). Bent on destroying the Nakatomi Corporation because… because evil, Gruber holds the party hostage and demands some secret code things.

Okay, so I’ve seen Die Hard at least four times, and I always get lost here. What exactly does the Nakatomi Corporation do? Why does Gruber want to mess with them? Why does McClane jump in solo to mess with literally a whole brigade of terrorists? Relax, Die Hard Christmas tells us. Don’t think too hard about the film’s gaping plot holes. Marvel instead at the Carson’s hilarious take on McClane and Sciple’s fantastic Alan Rickman impression. Enjoy a highly talented ensemble of Andy Rocco Kraft, Dan Hetzel, Anna Hickey (who for this weekend is doing double duty, performing both in Baltimore is Burning and this show) , and Brad Erickson, playing partygoers, Germans, and magical Christmas puppets.

Oh, yes, did I mention there are puppets? Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer-esque puppets and a Don Bluth-like mouse, incorporate other Christmas films and 1980s culture into the story. There’s a lot of references to 1980s film and TV throughout the show, from Pretty Woman to Steven Seagal to The Princess Bride, including an entire gag focused on working the names of 80s TV shows into dialogue. Mixed in with music throughout (such as a duet of “Where Are You Christmas” with Holly and her very pregnant co-worker Ginny and a variation of “What’s This?” sung by Gruber), this performance takes an iconic action film and makes it a spectacular and ridiculous celebration of the holidays.

I don’t remember Die Hard being so weirdly uncomfortable when I saw it as a kid but post-9/11 and post-Trump it sure feels a lot more dire than I recall. Thankfully, the bit of camp, the magical holiday puppets, and layers of humor embedded into this piece makes the parody work instead of being trapped in a conflict with the awfulness that has been 2016. It’s wildly inappropriate, bloody, brash, and also incredibly endearing. I loved it. Carson’s stellar improv and the cast’s breaking of the forth wall alone made me understand why people have been supporting this show for five years. There hasn’t been a lot to laugh about this year (not cynically, at least) and it was wonderful to see something that honestly made me laugh so hard my sides ached. So if you need a pick-me-up this holiday season and want to see a wildly funny take on a classic 80s film, this show’s for you.

A Very Die Hard Christmas is written by Josh Carson and directed by Brad Erickson. It is playing now through December 17th at Bryant Lake Bowl. Show and ticket information can be found on Bryant Lake Bowl’s website.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Les Liaisons DangerusesBooth Theatre

Source: Hennepin Theater Trust

It’s not very often I get to walk into a popular show knowing nothing about it, so it was a fun experience having that for A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I haven’t yet read the book by Mark Haddon, but I’ve heard nothing but praise for the stage adaption by Simon Stephens. The play follows the story of Christopher, a young boy on the autism spectrum, whose neighbor’s dog has been killed. He is blamed for the crime and, curious about who the real murderer is, he decides to start an investigation and write a book about it. At its heart, the play is a mystery. But it is so much more than that. It is full of family drama, adventure, and a innovative looking to a person’s mind that shows just how powerful and unique the world of theater is.

With a fantastic cast, Adam Langdon is wonderful as Christopher, as are Gene Gillette as Ed (Christopher’s father), Maria Elena Ramirez as Siobhan (Christopher’s mentor), and Felicity Jones Latta as Judy (Christopher’s mother). Most striking of all is the computer-like set, designed by Bunny Christie, full of grids and chalk-like surfaces with lights that illuminate throughout the performance.

 

 

Going in with the bit I did know about the show, I was really interested in how it conveyed those who are neuordivergent – after all, I have several friends on the autism spectrum and I’m interested in representation. It hit me during intermission that a person with autism may not be able to sit through the show – it was disconcerting, overwhelming, very loud, and very bright. And that’s the point. Theater techniques are used to make the audience experience what Christopher is experiencing, what it’s like to live life differently and how some things – walking down city streets, taking subways – that those of use who are neurotypical assume everyone experiences the same can actually be vastly different experiences.

However, I’m not without critique. But it doesn’t land where you might expect. I spend a great deal of my time watching the audience as much as I watch the show. And I was concerned with the number of times I felt the audience laughing at Christopher instead of understanding. Because the word “autistic” was never used, I wondered how many watching the show understood Christopher’s actions. On one hand, I like that the word wasn’t used – it can create certain immediate judgements. But at the same time, we don’t talk about autism well. We’re still debating those who think it can be “cured” or is caused by vaccines. It is a different way of living and this play shows us that. I’m curious why Stephens never labeled Christopher in the script. Maybe he felt it wasn’t his place to do so. So instead of diagnosing, he created an experience in which the audience was put in a place where they had to accept that their view of the world was not what was being shown. I find seeing a character like Christopher  being portrayed both compelling and comforting. I’m neurodivergent myself, having anxiety (note: for those of you unfamiliar with the tern, neurodivergence includes the autism spectrum and also those who have mental illnesses such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and obsessive/compulsive disorder, to name a few)  and some of Christopher’s experiences are ones I feel myself. I can only hope that the audience learned something about perspective and left with different understanding, as I feel this show had such a sincere and striking way of putting us in Christopher’s shoes.

After only seeing it once, I’ve really fallen in love with this show. It feels very near and dear to my heart and I wish I could see it over and over. It really reveals how much we have to play with in theater and what kind of experiences we can create that can’t be replicated in an other art form. Through the breaking of the fourth wall with the play inside a play structure of the second act, to the visuals and sounds the create Christopher’s experiences, the difficult yet beautiful relationships with in this piece, and the poetry that is given to the maths and sciences that Christopher so loves comes together to create an incredible experience. This is the first touring production of a play I’ve seen and, though plays sadly don’t often tour from Broadway, I’m so grateful this one has.

A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is written by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliot. It is playing now through December 4th. Ticket and show information can be found on Hennepin Theater Trust’s website.