The Children

children

Source: pillsburyhousetheatre.org

It’s better late than never to see Pillsbury House Theatre’s production of The Children. I made it to the closing weekend of the production and I’m so glad I caught it. A riveting adaptation of the Greek story of Medea, this play imagines what would happen if someone had intervened before Medea killed her children out of rage and grief at her lover’s plans to marry another. When Ben (Kurt Kwan) and Lily (Kate Guentzel), Medea’s children, are taken away from Ancient Greece into modern Maine by chorus member (Tracey Maloney), their nurse-maid (Michelle O’Neill) inadvertently joins them. Terrified that her mistress is enraged at her and causing the hurricane that they are trapped in, the nurse-maid believes that she must placate Medea, find her spell book, and return the children to her. When a sheriff (Jim Lichtscheidl) arrives to help them evacuate from the storm, the nurse-maid believes him to be Medea in disguise and, instead of going with him and the chorus member, she whisks the children away and hides them, wanting to be forgiven by her mistress more than caring for the welfare of the children.

As Ben and Lily realize their caretaker is not to be trusted, Ben tells Lily stories to calm her down. But when he realizes he cannot remember his own mother’s story accurately, things begin unravel and Ben’s hope that the chorus member will return to save them becomes faint. Realizing that they must find the hope and strength within themselves to get out of this situation, Ben’s story becomes that of another child and in a powerful, gut-punching twist, this play delves into a deep and astounding realm of dealing with trauma and hope.

Not only is this play mesmerizing and emotional, the world it inhabits is rich and beautiful, swaying back and forth between frightening and magical. The use of puppetry, beautifully designed by Masanari Kawahara, adds a wonderful level of skill and emotion, allowing the audience to go back and forth between the puppets’ movements and the actors’ emotions that they are showing and projecting through the puppets. As Michael Elyanow noted during the discussion after the performance I attended, the use of puppets prevents child actors from being traumatized every night but also allows the characters a way to work through their trauma as they shift from childhood to adulthood. The lush sound design by Katherine Horowitz, poignant lighting by Michael Wangen, and haunting set by Joel Sass blend with Kellie Larson’s props and Clare Brauch’s costumes to make a world that lends itself both to the imagination and the far too real.

This show is full of really wonderful theatrical moments – the movement of the puppets, beams in the ceiling that move as the hurricane hits, lighting that aid scene shifts but carry a certain significance at the very end of the play. This show really carries a huge emotional component that is reminiscent of another of Elyanow’s shows, Lullaby. This show has haunted me afterwards and is such a powerful, beautiful perspective on overcoming trauma, finding strength and trouble in the power of hope, and learning how to be loved after a terrible ordeal. It’s one I wish I could see again, after knowing how it all comes together, and hope it returns in another staging soon.

The Children is written by Michael Elyanow and directed by Noel Raymond. It is playing now through October 16th. Ticket and show information can be found on Pillsbury House Theatre’s website.

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Bluebeard’s Dollhouse

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Source: facebook.com/combustible-company

If you’re like me and love this time of year for its spookiness but don’t like the idea of going to an intense haunted house, then Bluebeard’s Dollhouse by Combustible Company at the James J Hill House is the perfect Halloween experience for you. Merging Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House with the dark fairytale Bluebeard’s Wife, this immersive theater experience throws you into a psychologically tense and riveting journey through a house ridden with people trying to face their fears and struggle against the confines of the house, of relationships, and of society itself.

I’e never attended immersive theater before and this was a wonderful first experience. Expertly led by actors from room to room and split into groups so that the story unfolds in a different order depending who you’re experiencing it with, two stories (of Nora and Thorvold, and Bluebeard and his wife/wives) intertwine of a mesmerizing, eerie, and unsettling marriage. With an extremely talented cast of Isaac Bont, Beth Brooks, Karla Grotting, Paul Herwig, Erik Hoover, Renee Howard, Rachel Nelson, Lillian Noonan, Pearl Noonan, Anna Pladson,and Jonathan Saliger, all play different variations of Nora and Bluebeard/Throvold. This allows different versions of these characters to act out the story over and over, like they are reliving or retelling their past. They ask at end of the show, if you do something over and over, will it turn out different? And when it doesn’t, why do we think that it will? This refers not just to the horrors Bluebeard creates, but repetition in marriage, in communication, in hautings and what haunts us and, in a sense, in theater itself.

What’s so wonderful about this show is that since it’s immersive and sight-specific, you’re drawn deeply into this world and firmly rooted in this strange, otherworldly place where both magic and horror coexist. With astonishingly detailed costumes by Allisa McCourt and Nico Swenson, a soundscape of organ music and clock chimes, projections and videos by Jim Peitzman, vocal direction by Kalen Keir, and captivating writing and direction by Kym Longhi, for 80 minutes you truly feel you are caught in this house where secrets hanging in the air as thick as fog. This piece is wonderfully coordinated and I was deeply impressed with the flow (as well as the crowd control) of this performance and stage management of Caleigh Gumbiner. You also don’t have to know the source material to understand the show, but if you’re familiar with both Ibsen’s play and the fairytale, it’ll add an extra layer to this beautifully dense piece. And if you want some quick background before the show, the program has a wonderfully written essay by dramaturg William Banks.

I don’t want to say too much about this show because there’s different ways to interpret what’s going on (especially through the wonderful metaphors and symbolism through keys, mirrors, letters, dolls, veils, and knives). So go see it and tell me what you saw and I’ll tell you about my experience. I saw this in one order and I’d love to know how it feels in the other many possible ways that exist in seeing it.

Bluebeard’s Dollhouse is written and directed by Kym Longhi. It is playing now through October 15th at the James J Hill House. Show and ticket information can be found on Combustible Company’s website.

Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story

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Source: facebook.com/historytheatre

Almost two years ago, I saw History Theatre’s production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story for the first time and, in some incredibly coincidence, was lucky enough to sit right behind Bobby Vee during the show. I was delighted to see the staged reading of Teen Idol, a new musical about Vee’s life, during Raw Stages last winter and very excited to see this story now staged at the same theater.

Beginning with Vee’s rise to fame right after Holly’s plane crash, Teen Idol follows the story of a teenage boy (Tyler Michaels) who cares deeply about his family and making music. After being offered a record deal with Snuffy Garret (Josh Carson), Vee enters the world of recored producing and works to balance his career with the needs of his family, including his girlfriend, Karen (Eleonore Dendy). Including many of the musicians Vee worked with and weaving their music with his into a sound montage of the time, Teen Idol is a fun, musically-driven new show that, as Jeff Vee described in the pre-show discussion before hand on opening night, is a personal story that tells more about Vee than just his hits and his connection with Buddy Holly.

Tyler Michaels really carries this show (even the program reflects this) and, while the other musicians Vee collaborated with are featured in the show, Vee is the most prominently featured. With Michaels’ skill and charisma, he’s the perfect Vee, capturing the enthusiasm and talent of the performer. However, other musicians such as Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Little Anthony, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, and Dion and the Belmonts are featured and we see how all of these performers collaborated and influenced each other (Note: if any of you saw the staged reading of this show during Raw Stages last winter, I’m really sad that we lost the Carole King sequence. But I’m happy the song she wrote for Vee still appears in the show for the final number). Because this is such a strong and multitalented ensemble comprised of Peter Middlecamp, Ben Bakken, Leslie Vincent, Bowen Cochran, Kenny Watson, Kasono Mwanza, and ShaVunda Brown (just to name a few of this stellar group) I wish there had been more reoccurring appearances of certain characters they performed, though I did love see them move seamlessly and easily from one characters to another in each scene. With so much talent there, it’s hard to not want to see more of them.

The largeness of the cast is a new musical is unusual at the theater, as director Ron Peluso noted before opening. Originally the show was written on a much smaller scale to feature 9 actors instead of the 26 actors and musicians that now take the stage. However, the growth in size was done to feature the variety of experiences Vee had working with different people and works to not only only add more richness to Vee’s story but also create a large-scale musical with a lot of really fabulous people, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long time.

What’s also unique about this show is the longevity of the career it follows – Vee is still alive and there’s a great deal to cover in his life. I realized after watching it how rare it is to see a bio piece about a musician in which they don’t die young and how unfortuantely prominent that narrative is in our culture. Instead, we get the rare narrative that covers both youth and old age and follows the joys and hardships throughout many years of life. The show doesn’t shy away from dark periods, focusing on Vee’s mother and brother’s mental illness, the suicide of Del Shannon, as well as Karen and Bobby’s health issues, such as Bobby’s diagnosis of dementia. 

This show has an almost cinematic feel with its quick transitions and movement between time and space in an incredibly clever stage design. The number “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” which replicates the filming of the music video includes projections from a live camera showing the ensemble dancing and is full exhilarating choreography which exhausted me just to watch. The show is rather long – it was opening night and I always find openings run a bit long, but it was at least a full 2 1/2 hours of show – yet it never dragged or lost pacing. My only wish? A rather petty one – I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the band onstage during Buddy and in Complicated Fun and, while we do see the Shadows perform with Bobby and the offstage band makes an appearance onstage for the recording room scenes and as Bobby’s sons, I really love a band present onstage at all times.

While this show’s core audience is likely those who were alive for Bobby’s rise to fame or followed his career in their youth, this performance isn’t exclusive to that audience – it’s a little nostalgia filled, but jam-packed full of music I grew up on (the Ronettes, Chubby Checker, etc) and music history. The 1960s and 70s were a time of integration in the music scene, as well as American at large, and Vee’s work plays an important role in it. I wish this thread was delved into more and handled with more care, but I’m happy to see it there. Overall, this show is a ton of fun, full of really dynamic talent, and a wonderful tribute to a musical legend.

Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee story is playing now through October 30th at the History Theatre in St Paul. It is directed by Ron Peluso, written by Bob Beverage, arranged and music directed by George Maurer, and choreographed by Jan Puffer. Show and ticket information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.

 

Ragtime

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Source: theaterlatteda.com

Dear America: You need to see Theater Latte Da’s Ragtime right now. It’s your past and your present. And if we don’t change things, it’ll continue to be your future.

Ragtime is based off the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name and tracks three different story lines that interweave with each other throughout the course of the early 20th century. Mother (Britta Ollmann) is a young woman taking care of her brother (Riley McNutt), her grandfather (James Ramlet), and son (Soren Thayne Miller) while her husband, Father (Daniel S. Hines), is on Admiral Perry’s journey to the North Pole. While gardening one day, she finds a baby in the ground. The baby belongs to Sarah (Traci Allen Shannon), an African-American woman who is the lover of Colehouse Walker (David L Murray Jr), a ragtime pianist. In love with Colehouse but afraid of what having his son means in their relationship, Sarah disappears from him without a trace and tries to get rid of her son. The police catch Sarah after Mother finds her baby but, instead of having her handed over the police, Mother accepts responsibility for Sarah and the child. Sarah lives with the family while Colehouse looks for Sarah to convince her to come back with him. Meanwhile, Tateh (Sasha Andreev) and his daughter (Georgia Blando) have immigrated from Latvia and struggle to survive in the harsh tenement houses of New York. Around them, the world is captivated by the story of Evelyn Nesbit (Emily Jansen), the magic of Harry Houdini (Benjamin Dutcher), and the success of Henry Ford and JP Morgan (James Ramlet and Daniel S Hines). Through all of this, Booker T Washington (Andre Shoals) and Emma Goldman (Debra Berger) call for change against the racism and income inequality in America while Colehouse fights for justice after the unthinkable happens.

I don’t want to give away the full story in this summary, but so much happens in the first act that it feels like a stand-alone story of its own. Despite the fact that this musical takes place over one hundred years ago, it strongly reflects our modern world of racial strife, xenophobia and immigration issues, white privilege, and escapism from the world. It was impossible for me to watch the show and not think about how Tateh could represent Latino, Syrian, or Somalian immigrants today or how the stories of Colehouse and Sarah appear in the news day after day after day.

You will weep during this show – I cried through a great deal with it and was not ashamed. It’s impossible to hide your tears in this production and you’re not meant to. The heavy silence and discomfort at the end of the first act is one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever beheld in a theater this year, and possibly in a theater ever. This show is utterly devastating, beautiful, and desperately needed. Every once in a while, a revival is staged at just the right cultural moment, and that is precisely what Peter Rothstein has done with Ragtime. In another production done with less heart and intellect, these characters could become shallow representations of cultural issues. Instead, the boldly represent what is at stake both in the election and in the world in general. If you don’t understand why so many of us are clamoring for justice, for change, for hope, see this show. There is no way you won’t understand it afterwards.

Ragtime is written by Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens. It is directed by Peter Rothstein, music directed by Denise Prosek, and choreographed by Kelli Foster Warder. It is playing now through October 23rd at Latte Da’s new home in the Ritz Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on Latte Da’s website.