Action Sequence

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Source: In the Heart of the Beast

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

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

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

Romeo and Juliet (Mission Theatre Company)

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Source: facebook.com/missiontheatrecompany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up: The Man in the Flying Chair

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Source: theatreprorata.org

There’s quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (a book I have yet to read in full but adore nonetheless) that says, “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.” This is the territory that that Theatre Pro Rata’s recent production of Up: The Man in the Flying Chair investigates. So much of what occurs in the play are things that are felt – they may be shown through actions or words, but most of all they provoke an emotional response.

Based upon the story of Larry Waters, who, in 1982 tied weather balloons to a lawn chair and flew into the sky, Walter Griffin (John Middleton) performed a similar feat. Longing to return to that feel of flying and that surge of inventiveness, he spends his days tinkering in the kitchen while his wife Helen (Shanan Custer) slips “help wanted” ads his way and keeps up a mail route in order to pay the bills. Their only child, Mikey (Keegan Robinson) loathes high school but seems to hate it a little less when on the first day of his sophomore year he meets new student Maria (Lillie Horton), a feisty, pregnant girl who sees the world a little differently than most. Their lives become intertwined as Maria recovers from a life with an alcoholic mother and deals with perceptions of teen pregnancy (while enjoying the state of it very much, claiming its the best she’s ever felt in her life). Mikey begins working for her aunt Chris (Noe Tallen), striving to find one thing he’s good at.

Forced to get a job to pay the bills, Walter goes off to work each day, but an unsettled tone floats in the air. While famous tightrope walker Philippe Petit (Mark Benzel) appears to motivate him, Walter burns dollar bills and makes extravagant purchases. Yearning for greatness collides with basic needs of living. This story moves from calm beauty to turbulence and, much like flying itself, it’s both beautiful and a little scary.

Middleton and Custer are incredible, tugging and pulling and tearing at the audience’s heartstrings, making it both easy and impossible to see how Walter and Helen ended up together. Robinson and Horton are pitch-perfect in their portrayal of teenagers, to the point that I felt uncomfortable remembering what that level of angst felt like. Tallen brings a wonderful quality to the complicated Aunt Chris, who’s both incredibly trustworthy and terrible deceptive. And with a nice dash of magical realism akin to Amelie or Harvey, Benzel adds a lovely bit of levity along with captivating tightrope walking.

While all design elements are wonderful, with costume design by Mandi Johnson and Samantha Kuhn Staneart, sound design by Jacob M. Davis, lighting design by Julia Carlis, and props design by Abbee Warmboe, I was most taken by the set, which is not built but projected on a backdrop, allowing for it to be erased and blown away like chalk on a blackboard or show a chair with balloons floating in the air. The illustrations are by Max Lindorfer and add an extra level of magic and creative possibility to the atmosphere of the show.

Bittersweet and beautiful, funny and haunting, this show reminds me of my favorite bits of French literature and film. It’s captivating and hits a chord that captures so many different tones of emotion. What’s most wonderful about this show can’t be described so easily because it’s not what I saw onstage, it’s how it made me feel. There were a hundred different emotions I felt myself processing throughout the performance and am still feeling now. This is a wonderful piece for its work with historical fiction. magical realism, and especially all the complicated things the heart feels and yearns to express. If theater’s job (at least one of its jobs) is to help us understand different experiences and different feelings, then this show does exactly that.

Up: The Man in the Flying Chair is written by Bridget Carpenter and directed by Carin Bratlie Wethern. It is playing now through June 11th at Park Square Theatre. Ticket and show information can be found on Theatre Pro Rata’s website or Park Square’s website.

Juliet: a poem

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Source: author’s photo

I’ve decided to play around with content out here and start including writing that’s not limited to reviews or thoughts on shows. As I’m working on the Guthrie’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet as the literary intern, I’ve been thinking a lot about this play. It used to be one of my least favorite, but not because of the play itself. Because of 9th grade English, Taylor Swift, and Bella Swan, I found myself hating how the play had been appropriated into our culture instead of what the play actually contained. Revisiting it in my reading and research (and planning to see a production of it by Mission Theater Company this Friday) I did some soul-searching and rethinking about what in this play did intrigue me. Turns out I actually really love this play (as I do most Shakespeare) so I wrote a poem about it. 

Juliet
“beautiful flower”
A contradiction
Portrayed so often
as an ingénue who doesn’t know
the pain of heartbreak
(or so someone would like me to believe)
Yet she would rather die
than live without her Romeo
live a life caged in
by iron bars and iron ways

Though she is seen as sweet and simple
her world is pain
filled with relentless violence
senseless hatred
poisoned words and poisoned minds
Perhaps she has learned to hide this pain
(as so many women do)
Beneath bright skin and cherry red lips
a storm rages

Though she fights no battles on the page
she is a badass, a warrior
turning against society’s norms
Bold bright and cunning
she listens to her mind and heart and body
instead of numbing herself to the pain of the world
and doing what she is told

She spurs her family
trading blood lines for life lines
and breaks out of hatred
based on names
based on bodies
based on prejudice

Some claim Shakespeare wrote this tragic tale as a warning
of what happens when fools fall in love
of romantic love overtaking family bonds
and children refuse to listen to their elders
But perhaps it’s a different warning
a warning of what happens
when we refuse to let ourselves love freely
of violence begetting violence
prejudice begetting prejudice
Cycles that repeat because
we cannot break free from the wrong kinds of passion

Juliet
too often reduced to petty love songs
and cardboard characters
in love for the sake of love
Society would prefer me to hate her
(and I did, not so long ago)
because it would prefer me to be jealous
(that greened eyed monster)
jealous of her looks
her innocence
her love
but most of all her freedom
Her fate is not one I want
but if my choice is death or a cage
it would be death that I take
She took her own life
rather than live with hate
with losing the power to make up her own mind
with hatred, the greatest pollutant of the soul
She battled against the darkest of foes
a battle women continue to fight
(we have died that same death a thousand times)
Still that fight goes on

 

 

Minnesota Tonight

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Source: author’s photo

I recently attended a live taping of Minnesota Tonight at Brave New Workshop. If you’re familiar with The Daily Show, then you know the premise – it’s a pseudo-news show that has a guest, political analysis, a musical act, and various news stories presented by “correspondents.” Unlike The Daily Show, it’s taped monthly and it doesn’t require a trip to New York. Each episode features a theme, a guest to talk about that theme, and a musical act.

I attended episode five of the second season, which was scheduled to feature Peggy Flanagan of Minnesota House District 46A. However, due to the current situation at the Capitol, Representative Flanagan was working so Bharti Wahi, current executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota filled in for her (she can be seen in the above photo with Minnesota Tonight host Jon Gershberg). The theme of the night was child care, but the stories were not limited to that. A humor-filled and education segment focused on LIHEAP (emergency assistance programs for heating in Minnesota), the limitations the program already has, and the great threats it faces in being cut with new government budgeting that would leave many without assistance to heat their homes. Another discussed the rationale for legalizing medicinal marijuana. Yet another discussed the controversy around Duck Washington’s upcoming production with Chameleon Theater Company being refused space at Burnsville’s Ames Center. Minnesota Tonight This Morning with the State of Minnesota riffed on the cheesiness of morning news shows and showed us how film editing can make it look like you’re interviewing Al Franken as he time travels back to his younger years. And musical guests Shrieking Harpies blew minds with improved songs about Minnesota summers and brunch.

And of course there was childcare, including a wonderful interview with Bharti Wahi and jaw-dropping statistics about the expense of raising children and the difficulties of finding childcare providers (not so fun fact: most childcare providers make less than $20,000 a year. And yet they are responsible for little human lives).

Education, humorous, and engaging, this performance was more than just that – it was interactive, it was topical (dealing with recent news and ongoing issues), it made me laugh until my sides ached, and it added in mixed media – slides, previously taped segments, using pauses in the taping for musical acts and news stories shared by the host. The feeling of being at a taping is different from other shows – at any moment in a show, something can go wrong, but in a taping you might have to back and redo it. This added an extra level of tension – just having cameras in a room along with a teleprompter adds a different feel from a traditional night of comedy or improv. As someone who’s dreamed of being at a taping of The Daily Show since they were sixteen (and once wondered what the odds were of being one of their interns), this was a fun, thrilling experience. I love comedy but I especially love comedy that intertwines itself with an important message. Minnesota Tonight is informative and entertaining, serious and hilarious, and I love that something like this is happening right in my neck of the woods, discussion issues I care deeply about and informing me of new ones. I really enjoyed this and I can’t wait to go back.

Minnesota Tonight tapes monthly, Their next taping is June 28th, featuring Bad Bad Hats (whom I love and adore) and featured guest (not yet named). Ticket and show information can be fond on the Minnesota Tonight website.

Little Wars

 

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Source: primeprods.org

This post was originally published on Minnesota Playlist. 

Prime Production is one of the newest theater companies in town, seeking, as their website states, to “explore, illuminate, and support women over fifty and their stories through the creative voice of performance.” Looking for more diversity of storytelling work that create more outlets for all women to share their stories (especially in theater, where women over fifty can find it difficult to find a role) I eagerly awaited their first full production, Steven Carl McCasland’s Little Wars.

Set in Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s Parisian salon in the beginning of WWII, the play introduces us to a group of writers (Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Agatha Christie) visiting the book-cluttered and art-filled home to discuss writing. Among them is Bernadette, a German Jew in hiding and Muriel Gardiner, a political activist who has come in search of funds in order to help Jews escape from Germany. Full of strong characters and stronger opinions, I was swept away by the whiskey-drinking, swearing women who strode through sexual norms, issues of relationships and divorce, and politics with broad strides and strong words.

Seeing a space that reminded me of my own with books piled precariously, walls filled with bright images and literature references while the women my friends and I might hope to be in thirty years discussed intellectual and personal topics struck me as something a bit different. I don’t recall seeing an entire cast of women, a majority of them over the age of forty, onstage before, let alone a show that featured them and gave them more to talk about than just love and growing old. This play celebrates women in all of their complexities and allows them to argue and drink in ways that is too often only written for men. As a whiskey-drinking, swearing LGBT writer who spends a great deal of her time discussing politics, the characters and issues at stake hit a personal tone for me.

The politics of the piece also feel timely (unfortunately) as discussions of fascism are only on the rise. “I won’t let it happen again, Bernadette,” Gertrude promises her maid, echoing a promise I hear uttered again and again. In the play, this involves not just the rise of Nazis but also sexual violence. “We waste so much time with silence,” Muriel tells us towards end of the show. What is perhaps most compelling is the need and desire thes women find to do something, to have their own resistance to the world around them that reaches beyond their salon, where they can discuss things in safety and privacy. For Lillian Hellman, it becomes more than just donating but actually getting involved in acts of resistance. Given our time and place, it’s an important message we all need to hear.

There is a caveat to this. As Kit Bix discusses on Talking Broadway and Matthew Everett alludes in his review, the historical accuracy of this play is highly questionable. Unfortunately, it seems that Gertrude Stein most likely did not support the resistance of Nazis – in fact, is seems she supported the Vichy government (as discussed in this New Yorker article). Though I certainly don’t expect plays to be entirely accurate in terms of history, I do like to know when things stray from the truth or when liberties have been taken. Since the play focuses so much on who will tell their stories, especially Bernadette’s speech at the beginning and at the end, it comes as a bit of a shock to know that play is far more fictitious than it seems.

As a dramaturg, I find these historical perspectives important and wish they had been dealt with in some way – a statement in the program, a resource guide, etc. As Prime is a new company, I hope that future productions will work to include this research when it is necessary. While these uneasy historical lessons do change how I relate to the show, I still find myself blown away by the representation of women in this piece. The moments of intersectionality – between gender and sexuality, age and gender, and politics and gender – are moments of vital connection to me.

I look forward to seeing more of these intersections (with race, class, etc) in the future work that Prime has planned. I hope I continue to see more and more diverse representation of women, not just in this theater company, but in all companies.

Note: It was pointed out to me by a Minnesota Playlist reader in the comments that there is a director’s note in the program that the situation of the play is purely fiction. Perhaps it’s telling that I overlooked this or perhaps it’s merely my not paying enough heed to the program. Nevertheless, it is noted. 

Red Velvet

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Source: facebook.com/WalkingShadowCompany

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.

The Assembly featuring Erik Pearson

I had the pleasure to see the Assembly on the evening of May 7th at the new Strike Theater. Riffing off the idea of a school assembly, these performances feature sketch comedy paired with a special guest. This particular evening featured Erik Pearson and the Old Smugglers, a music group whose stylings are reminiscent of Flogging Molly, using old sea ballads as the basis for a folk/rock style.

The sketches seemed inspired by the nautical theme, feature many stories of pirates (such as “Pirate Naming Day”, “Geoff the Pirate” and “Good Pirate/Bad Sailors”). Ranging from hilarious to more serious, the sketched featured a variety of narratives, stemming form influence from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen to James Bond trying to teach a new recruit that you can’t just punch your problems in the face to wondering what happens when you actually become as your Halloween costume on Halloween? What I love about sketch comedy is that it takes a lot of risks and its a way to test material. Not every joke lands the way its expected to, but it’s a lot of fun to see these sketches play with ideas and work to see what can get an audience response. My particular favorite of the evening was “Clickbait Art”, about a guided art tour by a guide who seems to be making up facts while getting challenged by a bit of an art snob and encouraged by a guy who just wants to see art about farting.
With a fantastic ensemble including Kevin Albertson, Clare DeBerg, Jeremy Johnson, Andrew Lindvall, Kim Miller, Emma Osmunson, Madeline Rowe, Josh Palmer, and feature Erik Pearson himself in several of the sketches, this was a lot of fun and a great wan to spend a Sunday evening. This was the first Assembly I attended and hope to attend more in the future.
For more about the Assembly, check out their Facebook page as well as Strike Theater’s website with information on the next performance featuring guest Heather Meyer.

Sweet Land

sweetland

Source: History Theatre

About this time last year, I got really obsessed with the music from Bright Star, which at the time was still playing on Broadway. While that show has, sadly, since closed, I’m grateful that another beautiful, folk-inspired musical is playing now at St. Paul’s History Theatre.

Sweet Land, based off the film of the same name and Will Weaver’s novel A Gravestone Made of Wheat, is the story of Inge Altenberg (Anne Michels), a woman from Germany who immigrates to US (specifically moving to Park Rapids, MN) in order to marry Olaf Torvik (Robert Berdahl), a man she has never met. However, upon meeting Inge, the residents are taken aback that she is German. Right on the tails of WWI, distrust and prejudice of Germany and Germans is high and the local pastor (Michael Gruber) refuses to marry them. While Inge waits for her references from German to confirm that she can be trusted, she lives with Torvik’s neighbors Alvin and Brownie (Jon Andrew Hegge and Tinia Moulder) who have troubles of their own. Behind on their mortgage payments, the bank is threatening to take away their farm if the don’t pay. While Inge and Torvik fall in love and eventually face ostracism for their relationship, they fight for the community they belong to, even while it excludes them.

This show has a lot of incredible work layered into it. The cast is stellar, full of musicians who double as actors and actors who double as musicians, keeping the musical performers present and fully onstage for the whole show. Michels and Berdhal steal the show, but Gruber gives them a run for their money, making the pastor a wonderful balance between empathetic clergyman recovering from the war and a stiff, antiquated man whose perceptions need changing. The music in this show perhaps really steals it all though, with beautiful, soaring pieces that personify the way the harvest feels, the way the country looks, and expressing the innermost stories of people who otherwise cannot express themselves – especially Inge, who struggles through learning English as the show progresses. The design on this show is wondrous – Joe Chvala’s choreography is spirited and lively, Paula Post’s costuming is rustic and sumptuous, Lee Christiansen’s props, Erica Zaffarano’s set, C Andrew Mayer’s sound and, Mike Grogan’s lighting blend beautifully together to form scenes that include church services, farm house kitchens, barnyards, and train stations. What makes this show even more incredible is that it was created by an all-female team of Perrin Post (director and playwright), Laurie Flanigan Hegge (playwright and lyricist) and Dina Maccabee (composer).

While stories of immigration continue to resound in our current time, I don’t have to harp on why this story feels important at this current time. I do remember during the Raw Stages for this show that the issue of diversity was brought up and I do wish that that the cast itself had been more diverse. But overall the work of this production is staggering. It’s no small feat to create a new musical and to create one that has the . narrative arch of a classic book musical that caters both to conservative romantic stories while also bolstering more liberal (well, socialist – I mean, there’s a socialist in the show and one could argue that it’s socialism that *spoilers* saves Alvin and Brownie’s farm) approaches is especially challenging. This show does it all with panache and, on top of a fantastic season and a coming season that looks even more wonderful, I think History Theatre has yet another hit on its hands (I’m looking at you, Glensheen). So if you’re looking for an uplifting, heartwarming show to enjoy on an evening after spending a day soaking up this wonderful spring weather, this show’s for you.

Sweet Land is directed by Perrin Post, written by Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge. It is play now through May 28th. Tickets and show information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.

Prometheus Bound

prometheus

Source: facebook.com/uprisingtheatre

I was fortunate enough to see Uprising Theatre’s production of Prometheus Bound before it close at the Phoenix Theater. I had never seen a show by Uprising before and was intrigued by their belief that stories can change the world.

This production, translated by Bryan Doerries and directed by Denzel Belin, deals with the Greek myth of Prometheus, a god who is punished by Zeus for giving fire to humans. This adaptation, however, focuses more on Prometheus’ need for truth-telling, speaking his mind and refusing to repent for what he has done instead of saying what Zeus wants him to say. Its focus on imprisonment, truthfulness, and tyranny feel particularly familiar and relevant especially certain discussions of Zeus’s megalomania that sound like a certain political figure). The cast was powerful, especially Shahd Eikhier who played Prometheus and Emily Rose Duea, who has a wonderfully heart-breaking portrayal of Io, a woman who is punished for tempting Zeus.

The night I attended, there were unfortuantely a few technical issues (so it goes in live theater) and there were moments I didn’t quite understand what was being expressed to me through movement, mainly in the opening sequence that starts the show. But the story itself moved me and has haunted my mind since I saw it. Best of all, a story that is full of motivation and a need to change was paired with community partners stationed in the lobby, with opportunities to volunteer as a bail runner with the Minnesota Freedom Fund, to donate a book to the Women’s Prison Book Project, and to host a party led by Neighborhoods Organization For Change. Though I’ve made connections with community partners on productions I’ve worked on, I’ve never seen the community partners represented outside of booths on opening night and I loved that this accompanied the production each and every night. The heart of this show was present and very powerful. Though I felt lost at moments during the show, the story itself was engaging and has stayed with me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to see work from a theater company that is new to me and I can’t wait to see what’s next for them.