Meet Me in St. Louis

second fiddle

Source: facebook.com/secondfiddleproductions

If you aren’t already aware of Second Fiddle Productions, a company that produces staged readings of rarely produced musicals each year in the Twin Cities, let me introduce you. This year’s production was of Meet Me In St. Louis, a movie turned Broadway musical about a family living in the city of St. Louis during the World’s Fair in 1903. While the fair was a celebration for St. Louis and became a great source of regional pride, this musical celebrates a year in the life of the Smith family.

What I like best about these staged readings is the bare-boned nature, with actors standing before music stands with script and music in hand, featuring their acting and singing skills with the piece after a very short rehearsal period. With one rehearsal focusing on learning the music and another with a run-through of the piece, the result is always incredible, with wonderful acting and brilliant musicality. The casts feature some of the best of Twin Cities musical theater and this performance was certain no exception:

  • Esther Smith  – Sheena Janson
  • Mrs. Anna Smith – Kym Chambers
  • Tootie Smith – Natalie Tran
  • Grandpa Prophater – Gary Briggle
  • Rose Smith – Bergen Baker
  • Katie – Shelli Place
  • Agnes Smith – Anna Baker
  • John Truitt – Adam Moen
  • Lon Smith – Andrew Newman
  • Mr. Alonso Smith – Bill Marshall
  • Warren Sheffield – Robbie Droddy
  • Lucielle Ballard – Ruthie Baker
  • Eve/Ensemble – Elena Glass
  • Postman/Motorman/Clinton Badger – Adam Qualls

The reading was directed by Emily England and also featured Kyle Picha as musical director/keyboard, Ellen Hacker on violin, Melissa Nielsen on horn, and Matt Nielsen on drums.

I’ve learned a great deal about musical theater from these staged readings and can’t recommend Second Fiddle enough. Keep an eye out for the upcoming 2018 season as well as a benefit that will happen this fall to help support future readings. And if you’d like to donate so that Second Fiddle can keep staging these rarely produced musicals, please visit their website and learn more about who they are and their past productions!

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Fool For Love

fool

Source: darkstormy.org

If you’re anything like me and the death of Sam Shepard feels a little like a loss of part of yourself, run as fast as you can to Dark and Stormy’s production of Fool for Love. It’s a sort of balm – not so much because of the story which, in true Shepard fashion discomforts – but in how wonderfully this company produces this playwright’s work.

Eddie (James Rodriguez) and May (Sara Marsh) have met in a hotel room where May is staying. They haven’t seen each other years and the tension between them is palpable. May feels drawn to Eddie but also wants him to go. Both filled with jealously, Eddie at May’s waiting for Martin (Antonio Duke) to take her to the movies, May at Eddie for an affair with the rich “Countess,” the two push and pull at each other, starting passionate fires that burn them but also connect them. They’re clearly not supposed to be together, as the ghostly Old Man (Patrick Coyle) hints at throughout, but they can’t stay apart. This play hurtles forward like a nonstop ride you can’t get off and, while it seems like a love story, the play throws you into unexpected territory from which there is no return.

There is more than one fool for love in this story – there’s Eddie and May’s oil and water relationship, the old man who haunts what came before and whatever happens after, and even Martin in his rational well-meant kindness might seem naive, though he has no idea what he’s getting in to. This cast brilliantly shows all the different sides to their characters, from their flaws to their good intentions gone wrong, to pure bitterness and hate. I also appreciate that though the cast is small, it’s diverse and allows these actors to shine in parts that they may not often be given. (For more on this, see this article from the Star Tribune).

Dark and Stormy uses a small space and a simple set to great advantage. There’s something claustrophobic about this play and having a small theater space in the Grain Belt building helps build on that. The production feels fierce and intimate and allows for the tension of the piece to take hold and for the larger designs of the piece to speak more boldly (with lighting by Mary Shabatura, fight choreography by Annie Enneking, costumes by Lisa Jones, props by Katie Phillips, sound by Aaron Newman, and lasso expertise by Megan West). It’s a mistake to think this play is either simple or complicated – it’s both and neither with acting and design that may seem very simple but, like an iceberg, this is only the top layer and there’s far more underneath. This is the first Dark and Stormy production I’ve seen, but I’ve gotten the sense that, as small theater company, this is something they excel at.

Shepard has certain similar themes in his work – issues of masculinity, family drama and conflict, tension between being alone and being part of a community, cycles that endlessly repeat themselves from which there is no escape. Fool for Love is a great introduction to his work for someone who is unfamiliar with his plays and a wonderful celebration for those who know it well. Because Dark and Stormy is so devoted to Shepard’s style of storytelling and what his plays convey, this play is bright and dark, humorous and painful, gut-churning and empathetic. This play could easily stay in the melodramatic realm or become entirely bitter and cynical. All of these elements are present, but the show itself stays honest and sincere to its characters which in mind makes the best staging of Shepard – where all of these moments build on each other into a vivid array of emotions. As Ross Wetzsteon describes it, “His work is based on the spontaneous outpouring of feeling.” I’m so happy to have this production now not just as a way to celebrate Shepard, but also to celebrate what small theater companies in the Twin Cities can create.

Fool For Love is written by Sam Shepard and is directed by Mel Day. It is playing now through September 16th at Dark and Stormy’s space in the Grain Belt Building. Ticket and show information can be found on Dark and Stormy’s website.

A Young Playwright on Sam Shepard

shepard

Source: bbc.com

It might be the middle of the Minnesota Fringe Festival here in the Twin Cities but I want – no, need – to take a moment to talk about Sam Shepard. I’m still reeling from his death and feeling all the levels of loss at once. Out of the playwrights we’ve lost since I’ve been working in theater, his death has hit me the hardest because he is one of the writers I consider a fundamental influence, both in my repertoire and in my own writing.

I found uncanny solace in his plays and they taught me about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional relationships, anger, fear, love, hope, hopelessness, and how to make an audience/reader feel uncomfortable and disturbed. Navigating struggles between community and feeling alone, Shepard has a style and perspective on the world that’s all his own. His dialogue is fast, sharp, harsh, painfully emotional, and, at times, detached and confused. Characters speak across each other and ignore what the other says. Communication falls apart even while lines are still being uttered. When I first discovered his plays, it was like hearing punk music after hearing soft rock and pop all your life.

It’s hard to put into words what it means to lose someone so important to you that you’ve never met, which I why I’m so grateful for the outpouring of articles out there. There’s of course the gorgeous, heartbreaking piece by Patti Smith  and this article by John Leland (which has some great highlights like Shepard worked with Charles Mingus Jr and brought Nina Simone ice). These illuminate Shepard as a complex, brilliant guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time and wasn’t afraid to try something different. This New Yorker piece describes his work and presence wonderfully:

To the downtown New York theatre scene, he brought news of the West, of myth and music. He didn’t conform to the manners of the day; he’d lived a life outside the classroom and conventional book-learning. He was rogue energy with rock riffs. In his coded stories of family abuse and addiction, he brought to the stage a different idiom and a druggy, surreal lens. He also had the pulse of youth culture. He understood the despair behind the protean transformations that the culture was undergoing—the mutations of psychic and physical shape that were necessary for Americans to survive the oppression of a nation at war, both at home and abroad. Martians, cowboys and Indians, and rock legends peopled Shepard’s fantasies. He put that rage and rebellion onstage.

And then there’s this video with Shepard himself talking about his work, not wanting to deal family and how he noticed he was avoiding it in his work – thus making himself focus on it. Some people dislike Shepard for his “testosterone mania” (which I’ve always taken as a critique of hypermasculinity in society, or at least an examination of the dangers of it) and the way he writes women. One person in the video comments that Shepard may not understand women. And in the Leland piece, Mingus says “Some people are one-woman men. And some people never figure out which one woman to be with.” Shepard’s personal life colors his plays. He’s human, trying to figure out this weird world like the rest of us, examining the misunderstandings he holds and the different ways of being that exist for him and others. The bold colors that characterized his life find their way onto the page and shine in vivid hues, some beautiful, some frightening. Shepard is complicated, and messy, and visceral, and so, so wonderfully flaw-fully human. I’m grateful that I got to be in this world the same time as this great writer and that his plays will live on well after he’s gone. And that somewhere, he’s probably super pissed off that I’m rhapsodizing about it. But I wouldn’t be the playwright, the theater advocate, the person I am without knowing his plays. His work means a lot to me and I’m heartbroken in a way I haven’t been since Prince’s death. When you grow up, only knowing playwrights such as Shakespeare or maybe Arthur Miller, it rocks your world when you discover writers like Shepard. And I hope that we keep on rocking it and keep making plays that shake up the world and keep this “rogue energy” alive.

So, Sam Shepard, one last thing: thank you.

Idiot’s Delight

IdiotsDelight_hotel-80_lo

Source: girlfridayproductions.org

I’m several weeks late getting this posted, having attended the show in mid-July, but I’d rather get it posted late than not at all because this show was too good to not talk about.

In the midst of juggling a lot of things this summer, my attention has fallen to news reporting during World War II, due to research I’m doing as the literary intern for Watch on the Rhine. I’ve been drowning in details about the lack of focus and lack of reporting on the Holocaust. Which might be why Idiot’s Delight hit such a powerful chord with me. To be honest, it would have packed a punch, regardless. It’s that kind of show.

On the cusp of war breaking out, American showman Harry Van (John Middleton) and his three singing stars (Bonni Allen, Karissa Lade, and Becca Hart) find themselves at a hotel in the Italian Alps, full of guests who don’t quite know what’s around the corner. A pair of honeymooners (Gabriel Murphy and Adelin Phelps) are looking to enjoying a snow-filled escape, Dr. Waldersee (Karen Wiese-Thompson) just wants to get out of the hotel so she can continue her research to cure cancer, and why the mysterious Russian Irene (Stacia Rice) is there is anyone’s guess but it has something to do with tycoon Achille Weber (David Coral), a weapon’s manufacturer who doesn’t fear the possibility of war. The hotel staff (David Beukema, Sam Landman, Kirby Bennett, and Kevin Dutcher) try to juggle their needs while outspoken anti-fascist Quillery (Kory LaQuess Pullam) speaks out against the soldiers (Eric Knutson, Mike Swan, and C. Ryan Shipley) at the nearby air force base who already know what lies ahead for Italy. While 1930s tunes fills the air of the hotel, Quillery warns of the coming storm – until it suddenly swallows the hotel entirely.

This cast is absolutely mesmerizing. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I’ve seen a cast of this size and this caliber on stage. There’s exquisite costuming by Kathy Kohl, lush scene design by Michael Hoover, poignant light and sound by Dietrich Poppen and Anita Kelling, stellar props design by the ever-wonderful Abbee Warmboe, and lovely music direction and choreography by Kevin Dutcher and C. Ryan Shipley. There’s also a lot of accents – a lot of accents – 1930s American, Italian, Italian as spoken by an Austrian, Russian. The actors do a marvelous job, with the help of rock star dialect coach Lucinda Holshue.

I don’t think I have to explain why this play hits a particular note with current events. With Hannah Arendt’s books suddenly becoming best-sellers and anti-semitic organizations gaining not just attention but power, it’s a frighting place to find oneself. What this play does particularly well is the juxtaposition of terrible fear and large-scale evil along with the struggle of wanting to live your every day life. Harry’s singers – Shirley, Beulah, and Bebe – entertain Italian soldiers who moments later drag off Quillery for verbally attacking them. The tender honeymooners want to continue their escape but know they can’t with the death and destruction that’s happening around them. Beautiful complicated Irene will do what it takes to survive but ultimately becomes the pawn in Achille’s more masterful scheme. Rice shines as the complicated Irene, as does Pullam as Quillery, whose passion comes across not just in the political movement of 30s but of today. Middleton is dynamic and mesmerizing as always and Wiese-Thompson is especially incredible as the complicated doctor who does not want to forsake her research but will let it go if it means being patriotic to her homeland of Germany. And one of my favorite moments in the show (as well as one of the saddest) came from Sam Landman’s character Dumpsty, who speaks Italian but states that he learned the language after what was once part of Austria became part of Italy after World War I. Towards the end of the play, Dumpsty returns to his war uniform of the past to go fight for Italy. “Who will feed your family?” he is asked. He replies cheerfully, “The fascisti will feed them. They have promised to feed all of the families of soldiers.” I could almost hear my heart break at this line. If there’s anything the fascists definitely failed to do, it was feed people.

I only wish I had seen this show earlier in the run so that I could have recommended it because it was so wonderful. Beautiful and cheerful and heartbreaking and frightening all at once. It does all the things that makes theater great while also sending out an important message – and not letting us get away with an ending that makes us feel like everything will be alright.

Idiot’s Delight was written by Robert E. Sherwood and directed by Craig Johnson. It played June 29- July 23 at Park Square Theatre’s Andy Boss Stage.