Review: Scapegoat

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Source: pillsburyhousetheatre.org

You’re at the theater. The lights lower down into a harsh, red tone as the soundscape of a riot plays and the worst screaming you’ll ever hear pierces your ears. Immediately you are thrown into the fall of 1919 in Elaine, AK as Effie Reynolds (Regina Marie Williams) argues with her husband Virgil Hillman (James A. Williams) about letting their son be burned alive outside their home.

Scapegoat is intense from the first moment, grabbing its audience by the collar and never letting go. Focusing on two different story lines in the same Arkansas town and four different couples, the play grapples with how the past continues to haunt the present. Virgil and Effie, who are mourning the murder of their son, are also struggling to take care of their farm without the extra help. Plagued by guilt and in some way responsible for their son’s murder, Ora Gibson (Jennifer Blagen) returns vegetables that her husband Uly (Dan Hopman) has stolen after assisting in the murder. Ora pleads with Effie to let her help with harvesting cotton to assuage her guilt, though Effie is furious with her for the lies that appeared about her son’s relationship with Ora. Meanwhile, Virgil is organizing a union of black sharecroppers to fight for better returns on their crops. Tensions rise as Ora continues to be haunted by Effie and Virgil’s son and Uly plans to stop Virgil’s efforts.

In the present day, Paula and Russell Barnes (Regina Marie Williams and Dan Hopman) and Elaine and Greg Macaslan (Jennifer Blagen and James A. Williams) are on vacation from their homes in New York City and driving through the rural South. Russell is peeved with Greg for his continual comments on race and the groups toys with the idea of trying not to talk about such issues, which becomes impossible when they discover the past of the town around them.

Double casting can be tricky in a show, but in this piece, it not only works brilliantly, it’s necessary. The quote from Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past” applies here, in a town that may have forgotten what occurred but the resonance of the tragedy still hangs in the air. The mixed-race relationships between the characters compared against the relationships of the first act allows for a deep, dense conversation about race and marriage that, due to the dual roles, allows for a continual looking forward and looking back. The poverty of the sharecroppers (especially the “white trash” look of Ora painfully displayed in a dress made from a burlap sack by costumer Trevor Bowen) contrasts sharply with the well-off Ivy league professionals who complain about the hotel not having room service, while still leaving room for different conversations of privilege (such as Elaine’s eagerness to learn about the history of the town while Greg and Paula don’t want to “play Roots.”)

There’s a lot going on in this show and a great deal of ground being covered in an enthralling two hours, focusing on the intersections of race, class, gender, families and raising children, relationships, adoption, and history. The dramatic irony of the audience knowing the history of the town before the characters in Act 2 discover it adds a wonderful layer on top of the conversations they have and makes their realization of it all the more effective. Regarding the title of the play, there is no singular scapegoat in the show, but instead a look at all the different things receive blame or become the reason to avoid discussing certain topics. Virgil and Effie’s son the one person who receives blame but is actually innocent. Other elements become scapegoats however – Ora blames herself for the death and searches for a way to resolve the issue while Virgil and Effie blame her and her husband for what happened. In the second act, different rationales are blamed for avoiding the conversation of race – not finding it appropriate to discuss with children, wanting to have a vacation and leave these issues behind, etc. However, no blame is clearly laid out. Understanding is expressed for all characters, even the violent Uly who desperately wants to own his own farm. As the characters grapple to understand in the second act, Elaine’s powerfully expresses what it’s like to try and understand race as a white person -no matter how much you learn, it will never be enough – while Greg and Paula personally dismantle the idea of a “post-racial society.” In some ways, the show reminds of Clybourne Park (the double casting, the use of the similar setting switching between past and present) but, where Clybourne fails to have a nuanced discussion and lays blame in the wrong places, Scapegoat marvelously succeeds and delves into an honest and more sincere look at modern day racial understanding.

The writing by the impeccable Christina Ham is full of pithy, wise lines that roll naturally off the tongue and can’t help but illicit sounds of agreement and awe from the audience. Ham’s trend of focusing on little-known or overlooked history (as previously seen in Ruby! and Nina Simone: Four Women) works powerfully with the issues at hand – Uly says at the end of Act 1 that the town will soon forget the events that have occurred and in Act 2, the characters remark on how quickly we’ve forgotten the deaths of those like Michael Brown. The tension of not wanting to know the past because of its horror and needing to remember it to pay respects and spur justice weaves in between the horror of learning just how nightmarish the past can be – and how the nightmare never really leave. Though never seen, only heard, the presence of the dead son haunts every line and the scream at the beginning never entire fades from the ears. Though the show is full of wonderful humor and wit, there is also a layer of despair and horror – a horror at realizing that many of these things are so terrible because they are true.

With a smooth set designed by Dean Holzman with props by Kellie Larson that cleverly moves from two sharecropper homes into two hotel rooms, sound design by Katherine Horowitz that manages to capture a leak in a tin roof without ever having to see the roof, and powerful lighting design by Michael Wangen, this show is a tour-de-force all around. I have the tendency to get really excited about each show I see, but this one hit a really unique chord in my mind. It’s the sort of show that I want to drag all of my friends to, the kind I wish my family in Indiana could see, the kind I want to force Donald Trump to see. If there’s any show that demands to be seen right now, it’s this one. And it absolutely cannot be missed.

Scapegoat is written by Christina Ham and directed by Marion McClinton. It is playing at Pillsbury House Theatre now through June 26th. Show and ticket information can be found on Pillsbury House’s website.

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Music and a Minnesotan Millennial

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Source: northfieldartsguild.org

Today, for a moment, I’m going to deviate slightly from the realm of theater and focus on my relationship with music. This is kind of bio-post and a little odd to share, but it is very relevant to what I do as an artist and something that has been very relevant here recently with my work on shows such as Nina Simone and Complicated Fun, the loss of Prince, and my own realizations through my work and personal life. So, in reaction to the magic that was the Current’s 893 essential albums, please allow me to divulge into my relationship with music.

Back in high school, music was the thing that kept me caring. I found school boring and dull and kind of a terrible place for someone who had anxiety and social issues to be. Playing with the high school concert band gave me a place where I felt that I could fit in and be good at something, as well as developing better communication, finding true friends who would stick by my side and who I would stick up for, and also have the chance to create something amazing. Meanwhile, my own musical tastes were developing – with new technology such as iTunes and the iPod I got for my birthday, I was able to create my own music library and store tunes that influenced me in my childhood – Disney songs, various songs that resonated with me (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Brandy”), and my early Broadway show loves – as well as branching out into new music that would stick with me – Kansas, Green Day, Sara Bareilles, to name a few.

My relationship with music wasn’t easy – no matter how hard I practiced, I never felt good enough. No matter what music I liked, it wasn’t cool enough. By college, I would have a lot of tension with  my relationship with music – I’d audition for the School of Music at the U for music education and was rejected, which came as a relief as I’d come to hate the structure of formal music education. I’d be called a hipster or have my musical tastes be criticized as being “bad” or “too pop” or “bizarre.” I would learn to associate songs with people and have a hard time breaking those associations and struggle to listen to songs without being emotionally tormented with the memories they held. I’d have people assume my feelings weren’t valid about music or that my experiences as a musician weren’t serious. I stopped thinking of myself as a musician and I put aside much of the importance that music held in my life.

This was a terrible mistake. Fortunately for myself, I ended up in theater and remembered how important music is to me, through both observing as an audience member and working on shows as a dramaturg. Working on Complicated Fun has reminded me how formative music was for me in my teen years. Listening to the Current and to other stations such as Jazz88 has helped me to connect with others who have broad musical interests, legitimize my preferences without feeling bizarre or hipster-y, and feel a stronger connection to my community. Watching others perform has encouraged me to get back into playing and even branch out to new musical experiences. Though Prince’s loss has been difficult, it has reminded me that, even when the worst happens, we always have music to hold us up. When people leave us and things get difficult, we always have music to support us. “Purple Rain” will never sound the way it once did, but it is eternal and forever powerful.

I truly believe that Millennials have a unique relationship with music. With new technology, new music listening habits, new genres (and the loss of genres), and different relationships with the artists we listen to, I don’t know a single Millennial that doesn’t have a passionate relationship with music. I believe that for us, much like our Gen X counterparts, it is a way of dealing with a strange world and expressing ourselves, especially in counter to mainstream culture (this especially hit me yesterday when both Gen X-ers and Millennials rejoiced at Nirvana’s Nevermind being named the most essential album). And like other generations for since the 1950s, it’s a bedrock for how we identify and complicate ourselves. I’m still feeling the resonances of Kid Simple‘s focus on the importance of sound, and it’s important to take a moment to recognize that sound and music are two of the most important aspects in theater for me as an artist. Because, for me, it perfectly captures the heart of what we do.

Review: Kid Simple

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Source: twitter.com/SwandiveTheatre

If there’s one thing I’d like to say about Swandive Theatre’s production of Kid Simple: A Radio Play in the Flesh is that this show is my jam. It’s relatively rare for me to see a show where I wish I’d created it, been in it, and worked in the development of it all at once. But for Kid Simple, this was how I felt and then some.

You should know that I love radio plays. Last winter, I got to see Shades Brigade, a locally produced live radio play at Bryant Lake Bowl (if you were at the Iveys last year, you might remember seeing an excerpt from one of their shows). The way sound effects, melodrama, and humor work in these pieces is something that I aesthetically and creatively love. So to see a full-fledged 90 minute production that incorporates this into homage to sound design was a dream.

Here’s the premise: the Narrator (described as “a mellifluous voice” and played by Debra Berger) describes how the brilliant inventor Moll (Boo Segersin) listens to a weekly radio drama called “Death and the Music Teacher” with her parents (Sarah Broude and Kevin McLaughlin, who also provide the voices of the characters in the radio drama). In her spare time, Moll invents things, putting her focus into a grand science fair project of a machine that produces sounds that cannot be heard. Including a bit of herself – her stirrup, one of the tiny bones in her ear – into the machine, called the Third Ear (Derek Trost), she gives the machine life and allows listeners to hear sounds that objects collect as people pass by them. However, her machine grows attention from sinister figures, including one known as the Mercenary (Kip Dooley), who wants to steal the Third Ear. A master of disguise, the Mercenary takes on the persona of a boy known as Garth to seduce Moll and steal her machine. Vowing revenge for her broken heart and to save the Third Ear from falling into evil hands, Moll recruits the virgin Oliver (Nathan Gebhard) to be her guide through the wilderness to find the Third Ear.

Playing with themes of Apollonian versus Dionysian creativity (organized methodology vs. artistic mess), the tension between love and lust, how we perceive and interact with sound, how we connect with our world, and what it takes to create something and change the world, there’s a lot going on in this 9o minute show. Presented as a radio play, Kid Simple experiments with storytelling and how we follow the events of a show, interrupting the main story to introduce excerpts of “Death and the Music Teacher,” the radio play with in the play that eventually crosses over into Moll’s story line. As events unfold, words begin to be replaced by sounds as the Third Ear is used more and more, distorting usual ways of hearing and communicating. The narrator breaks the fourth wall, coming out into the audience to find her importance and to discern how she should continue to vocalize this story.

Overall, this play is a dynamic devotion to sound. Influenced by the 2014 decision of the Tony’s governing body to remove Sound Design as an award category, Swandive’s production effectively proves why this was a poor choice. The artistry, technicality, and beauty of sound design is abundantly clear, putting heavy emphasis on precision and timing. The Third Ear, a steampunky machine of found objects that is run by Derek Trost (who is also the sound designer), includes musical instruments such as a harp, a cymbal, a zither, a metronome that plays at the top of the show, ticking away like a clock to the beginning of the play, and other handheld objects used to produce sound effects (ala radio show). The effects blend with other sounds produced by the sound board as well as some superb voice acting by the cast. Visual projections not only add to the set design but also describe some of the sounds being heard as well as describing sounds that are never heard, allowing the audience to imagine the sounds themselves. Found sound of audio clips and recordings as well as musical excerpts are also included, involving every kind of sound design that you could expect to find in a show.

This show is so satisfying for the ears. Using beautiful, clever dialogue, carefully planned words, and even invented words (“spookening” and “fuckiteer of the forest” happen to be my favorite) speech also becomes a part of the soundscape. There are moments where the show almost feels overwhelming with sound but in its exploration and creation, it  becomes magical and incredible, playing off of the mythological and fairy tale feel of the play. I don’t think I’ve left a play feeling my ears tingling by how much I listened, but in this show I certainly did. Even visually the show works to reference sound – lights aid in the description of certain noises and effects and the set includes panels with newsprint and spiraling pieces hanging from the ceiling reminiscent of sound waves.

There’s so much for me to love about this – the story of a female inventor, the homage to sound, all the theatrical risks it takes without ever for a moment being snobby or trying too hard to be clever. This is one of the best works I’ve seen all year and it does exactly what I want theater to do – to engage the audience, to challenge what they’re used to seeing, and to tell a smart, heartfelt story that’s beautiful, striking, smooth, and messy all at once. It’s so inspiring as an artist to see this sort of storytelling and I’m grateful to Swandive for producing it. I’m adding this to my list of dream shows to work on and this is a production you absolutely cannot miss.

Kid Simple written by Jordan Harrison and directed Meg DiSciorio and Damon Runnals. It is playing in rep at the Southern Theater through May 22nd. For show information and ticket prices, check out Swandive’s website or the Southern’s website.

Charm – The Importance of Representation

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Source: mixedblood.com

I would like to preface this article by saying that I am a cis-gender individual and that, while I do my best as an ally, I make mistakes and am still learning. If I say anything word-wise or representation wise that is incorrect, please let me know. It is not your job to teach me what I might be doing wrong, but your voice is important.

I had the wonderful opportunity to see Charm at Mixed Blood last night. It’s the first play I’ve seen at the theater in a long time – too long. It’s a very timely production and one that is much needed, especially here in the Twin Cities.

I was told by a friend that this production had been done in Chicago but did not cast according to representation. That production cast cis-gender people (or people who identify with the gender they were born with) in roles meant to represent trans-gender people. This received many negative reactions from individuals who wanted to see these roles performed by people who actually represented these identities. In Mixed Blood’s production, the show was cast mostly this way, allowing trans actors to take on roles that are not often seen. This show represents not only their personal story but also stories of people rarely seen not just onstage but in all other media forms.

I’d heard complaints about some of the acting in this show not being up to par because of the faithful casting, but, if this is an opinion you hold, it should be seen as an issue with the actors. This is an issue with the acting community as a whole. There are not many opportunities for trans actors – either they don’t get cast for roles that exist or there are no roles available to them. They may not have as much experiences or the same kinds of experience as other actors simply because fewer options exist for them. If I were to audition (God forbid) for a show, I would have no trouble being cast according to my gender and sexual preference. The same cannot be said for those who are not cis-gender or even heterosexual. While we may live in one of the “gayest cities” in the US (at least as of 2011) and Minneapolis is making great steps to accept LGBTQA identities, there is still room for improvement and we are still under the influence of what large opportunities can exist in a nation that apparently is terrified of who might be in the bathroom stall next to them.

The wonderful thing about having a community like ours is that we can make our own rich, theater scene and create new chances. We local playwrights can write new roles for different identities, people who have these identities can write their own work, directors can begin to consider different methods of casting. However, we have to want to do this not just because social justice compels us to, but because we want to and because we truly care, whether our patrons are going to care or not. Trust me, I’ve heard the onslaught of discomfort of people trying to understand (or flat out refusing to understand) trans identity. They argue that it’s biology, that you can’t base such large social changes on feelings. To which I’d like to remind you that racism also used to be (and still is, by some) backed up by biological differences. The fact of the matter is that feelings ARE important – any psychologist and neuroscientist will tell you that. If feelings are irrelevant, then there’s no reason I should feel angry when people misidentify people’s gender or refuse to use their correct name, or treat someone as less than equal because they identify with a certain gender (I got catcalled on the way to Mixed Blood that night and spent much of the evening being an deeply annoyed feminist). And it’s more than just a feeling – it’s knowing you are what you are, regardless of your biological sex. There’s more than one way to do things, Charm tells us, and there’s more than one way to be a man, woman, agender, and just a human being in general.

What I love about Charm is how much it packs into the show. Not only does it deal with the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and sexuality, it also deals with fissions within the LGBTQA community itself. There are misunderstandings between the character Mama Darleena, a trans woman, and D, who is agender and uses the pronouns they/them. Darleena cannot understand why D doesn’t “pick a gender” when she has fought so hard to be recognized as a woman. D cannot understand why Darleena is focused on charm, when it represents a method of oppression to them. Charm speaks to the different attitudes towards surgery for trans individuals and how some deeply desire it while others want to be accepted by who they choose to be regardless of their body. There are discussions of violence towards one another in the community, especially through the character Beta, who is part of a gay gang that assaults trans people. It also deals with the confusion of trying to make your identity known and feeling that you don’t know who you are. Lady, a trans girl who is struggling with her identity, powerfully represents this and shows the struggles of becoming who you are when living in a society that won’t accept you. The show doesn’t always deal with these dense issues smoothly, but there isn’t really a way to deal with it without out a bit of messiness and complexity. Being human is complicated but we all want something very simple – to be accepted and to belong. Charm conveys this important message beautifully and makes a place for people who are different – and that’s what theater has always done and will continue to do.

Charm is playing now through May 8th at Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis. Ticket and show information can be found on Mixed Blood’s website.