Red Velvet

redvelvet

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.