All the Way

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Source: History Theatre

I deeply regret not being able to get this post up right after I saw this show (I’ve been delayed by mental health, work, and now the worst cold ever) but now I’m living in a very different mindset than I was just a few weeks ago. Of course, when I saw All the Way, I was in the middle of a panic episode that had lasted several days and influenced how I perceived the show (more about that in a sec) so maybe it’s not all that different. Because now I’m panicked about how we as a theater community operate when allegations of assault arise on social media (I have so much to say about this. There will be a post. Hopefully). And that’s where my head is at right now. But I sat down to write this review because I need to get it written. Because wow.

This show is a doozy. I don’t know what I expected when I walked into the History Theatre, but it was not three hours of fear that history – that I know happened – would not actually happen. How you can make a play about a known legislative act – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – in such an intense way that keep you on the edge of your seat as to whether it’s actually going to get passed is some pretty powerful stuff. Of course, this all carried the added weight that there’s plenty in the world to point out that this legislation wasn’t enough and plenty of people are still pushing for action that would hurt civil rights. The timeliness of this play is certainly noted, especially in the program where artistic director Ron Peluso sees the opportunity to mention Charlottesville and does it. It’s a simple thing but something I’m proud to see – it’s easy to step aside from current events instead of embracing how they affect the play you’re doing. So recognizing that is an important marker – for a theater and for its audience.

This huge, incredible cast does a great job, especially as many remain on stage for large parts of the performance. Pearce Bunting is absolutely incredible as Lyndon Johnson, Andrew Erskine Wheeler is a wonderful Hubert Humphrey (though Humphrey fans might balk at the way the playwright has chosen to portray him), Shawn Hamilton is powerful as Martin Luther King Jr, and J.C. Cutler is a marvelous aggressively antagonizing J. Edgar Hoover. Other highlights include Peter Middlecamp as Walter Jenkins, Darrick Mosley as Stokely Carmichael, Jamila Anderson as Coretta Scott King, and Josh Carson as George Wallace. This whole cast (which due to its size I’m unable to list here) deserves a lot of love and appreciation because there’s so many moving parts in this play – it’s a bulky story with a lot of history but flows easily and smoothly (even though the story it’s telling is anything but smooth).

There is one thing that bothered me though, which has gotten under my skin long after I saw the show. It doesn’t deal with the production, per say, but audience reaction that troubled me. Here there be spoilers, so if you don’t want a twist in the piece revealed to you, you might want skip this until you see it. In the second act, Walter (played by Peter Middlecamp) is arrested for homosexual activity. We watching him uncomfortably undress into hospital garments as we learn his has been sent to a mental institution. Lyndon Johnson asks Hoover, who has revealed this information to him, “How do you know if someone is… that way?” It eventually becomes a way for Johnson to prod Hoover for his behavior and pointing out allegations at Hoover’s own sexual behavior. But it uncomfortably got a lot of audience laughter through this exchange. While Walter is being taken away to whatever hell awaited a gay man hospitalized in the 1960s, audience members are laughing (maybe because Johnson is kind of goofy and that’s just how he is? But not like funny goofy just… he’s that “Southern good ole boy” type that people like to throw around). I know this was the 60s and people had utterly different views on sexuality than they do now, but I can’t help but wonder if the statement of “that way” is setting up for a punchline for a joke. Is it the way it’s written or is it an audience issue? Do they (the audience) think there’s something funny about being “that way”? Even though we’re clearly seeing the repercussions and discrimination towards LGBTQ people on stage (which is such a wonderful nod to how far civil rights really extends, even if it didn’t at the time).

It does worry me that there’s a deeper issue at play. The US recently voted against the UN’s move to ban the death for same-sex acts. (The ban passed nonetheless and since then the US has tried to clarify that they were concerned with “broader concerns” of how the resolution approached condemning the death penalty in all circumstances [source]. Yeah, I’m not happy with that answer either.) Listening to various podcasts has made me realize how far we have to go to accepting LGBTQ+ people in our country and, given the cultural moment, I’m nervous. While my general anxiety upon entering this performance didn’t help, I think it’s important to note this audience reaction, either to inform the theater so that they can better prepare their audiences or… I don’t know. Make us more aware of the little abrasions people in minority groups face during a show? I wanted to walk out at that moment, simply because of the audience, even though I was deeply invested in the show.¬†This play brings up a serious issue of how the FBI punished and hospitalized homosexual people and the audience response deeply concerns me. Since we need to speak up now about issues in our community (as noted in my intro) I feel it’s my job to talk about these issues, no matter how nitpicky or oversensitive it might seem. Because it’s not either of those things. I noticed it and I can’t be alone.

I encourage you to go see this show. No matter how the audience responds around you, it’s a powerful piece and one that shows the complicated maneuvering, the deal making, and the power struggles of DC – and reminds us of how much work we still have to do.

All the Way is written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Ron Peluso. It is playing now through October 29th. Ticket and show information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.

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In The Treetops

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Photo by Matthew Glover

Last week was rough. Between the horrific headlines and my own mental health issues, it was hard, to say the least. So when I say that watching Sandbox Theatre’s new show In the Treetops was like drinking a nice, big cup of hot cocoa, know that I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Warm, sweet, with just a dash of bitter sadness to it, this new devised work was a delight.

With an ensemble of Kristina Fjellman, Megan Burns, Evelyn Digirolamo, Ashawanti Sakina Ford, Kalen Rainbow Keir, and Theo Langason, In the Treetops tells the story of Wanda Gag, known for her illustrated children’s books (especially Millions of Cats). The play focuses on Wanda stepping in to raiser her siblings after her parents die and the tension between making money to support them and allowing herself to draw the sort of art she dreams of. In this whimsical, playful piece, loss, grief and imagination are dealt with great depth while also giving a lot for young audience members to enjoy. Stories told by Wanda and others come to life onstage and become as much of the narrative as Wanda’s own life.

This play is heartwarming and dear, a refuge from the onslaught of cruelty in the world while also grappling with the very issues we face in the world outside the doors of the theater. Wanda’s struggle of choosing between “the penny or the pencil,” (or making money and pursuing her art) is an issue many artist face and seeing her choose both as an option is inspiring and optimistic (especially for young artists in the audience). The show has really stuck with me long after I saw it and I’ve taken Wanda’s father idea of using a day to paint whatever he wanted and worked it into my own life (on Sunday mornings, I will writ whatever I like). Wanda’s story is a unique and beautiful one and helps remind us the important part that art can play in helping us cope with the world around us, is work well worth our time, and allows us to talk about the world differently. And when the world gets tough, it’s good to have a reminder of all of that in a way as lovely as this show.

In the Treetops is directed by Matthew Glover and written by the ensemble. It is playing now through October 15th at Open Eye Figure Theatre along with three performances October 28-29th at the German American Institute. Ticket and show information can be found on Sandbox’s website.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.

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Photo by Tony Nelson

“This play should not be well behaved,” Alice Birch writes in the notes for her play Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. One of the most powerful things about Birch’s play is the language and form and how it misbehaves – it violates the expectations for how a play looks on the page and how it’s written, how dialogue works and how a plot is structured. Frank Theatre is currently staging this gem at Gremlin Theatre’s new space in St Paul and I couldn’t have hoped for a better company to tackle this piece.

With a powerful ensemble of Charla Marie Bailey, Joy Dolo, Jane Froiland, Emily Grodzik, Grand Henderson, and Gabriel Murphy, this play certain misbehaves. This play grapples with the difficult and often contradictory ideas throughout the waves of feminism, from refusing to marry, to starvation as protest, to “my choice.” I would have love to have been a fly on the wall during rehearsal to see how lines were split among the actors, who was going to be in each scene, and how the lines interact with each other. For those of you have never seen the script, Birch breaks away from the conventions of typical playwriting and doesn’t often note what character is saying what line (in fact, only in one specific scene are certain characters given names).

What I love best is how this play deals with layers of feminism – pointing out how large the issue really is and how often we get pushed into dealing with smaller issues. It reminds me of an episode of the Savage Love podcast that Leslie Vincent initially told me about – guest performer Rachel Lark sings a song about freeing the nipple but decides that it’s too nuanced an issue after the election of 45. She instead sings a song repeating “women are people” because that’s where we are. Another podcast I listen to (called Nancy) remarked recently that sexism has changed – it’s become more sinister and harmful in a way. It’s somehow hard to point out the workings of the patriarchy when it’s learned to hide itself – or even when it’s so clearly blatant (looking at you, Harvey Weinstein and 45) that it surrounds itself in power so that it can’t be taken down.

This show also struggles with the ways in which women take each other down and perpetuate the patriarchy themselves, how they have been taught to harm each other in ideas of resistance, how “my choice” is a complicated idea, and that men too are affected by the patriarchy that confines the idea of what a body is supposed to look and act like. It’s not often that a show this refreshing and bold comes along and I’m so glad that Frank is doing it. It’s exactly what we need right now to give us perspective and the drive to keep resisting.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is written by Alice Birch and directed by Wendy Knox. It is playing now through October 22 at the new Gremlin space in St Paul. Ticket and show information can be found on Frank Theatre’s website.¬†

mONSTER

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Source: Swandive Theatre; photo by Dan Norman

What happens when new technology is suddenly available to everyone and is unrestricted and unregulated? That question is at the heart of Swandive’s mONSTER, a play set in 1994, the early days of the internet. Nessa (Jamie Fields) is a college freshman, looking to make the most out of her first year of college. But she isn’t expecting roommate Brill (Kelsey McMahon) who’s taken over half the room with a desk full of the latest computer equipment who refuses to sleep except for 20 minutes every four hours and who vehemently guards her computer screen as much as she hides what she’s doing there. RA Greg (Avi Aharnoi) hints that there’s more to this than meets the eye and tries to get Nessa to move elsewhere before she agrees to the the roommate guidelines the two roommates discuss. But Nessa is too focused on having her idealized college experience to recognize something is very, very wrong in the room. Eventually, she learns that Brill doesn’t even go to college and she’s commandeered the room to fight off something that’s lurking the internet that, unless it is constantly monitored, will take over and destroy humanity. With a Black Mirror meets H.P. Lovecraft tackles modern technology vibe, this show is eerie, unsettling, and tense. All the three actors are wonderful, especially McMahon, who goes from 90s grunge chill to deeply terrified and protective in the blink of an eye.

The internet is a complicated place, and this script tries to tackle that. The show is wonderfully designed, with a spooky, claustrophobic set by by Sean McArdle, costuming by Lisa Conley, lighting by Jesse Cogswell, and sound by Kevin Springer, that all captures the feel of a 1990s dorm room while capturing the technical power of the monster that lurks beneath the surface. I did struggle with a couple of things in this piece. One part was the language – I generally really like stylized or beautiful language, but I got lost or distracted a few times in this show. Some of the technical jargon was hard for me to follow and the stylized, eloquent language, though beautiful, was hard for me to sit with, especially given the 90s setting and Nessa’s much more casual speech (which I felt like we heard more of). I also struggled with how the internet is discussed – it felt a little vague at times, especially in regards to the affect the monster has on people once they come across it on the internet. Mostly it just left me a lot of questions (which are not entirely spoiler free, so forgive me) – does the monster bring out the worst in people or does it just make them catatonic zombies (I remember both discussed, but we hear more about the latter)? How does the video sequence after the monster goes wild (which features internet bullying, 4chan, forum comments, Trump and Twitter, etc) work with the 1990s setting and the affects the monster has there? Why am I so frustrated with Nessa’s need for an awesome freshman year – is this because I had a horrible freshman experience and am now totally jaded by people who think college is going to be an awesome party and they’ll make a million friends their first year? (The answer is yes, but I digress).

Clearly it’s not a bad thing I’m having these questions – the show is thought-provoking and I love that I’m thinking about it days after the show. My struggle is that my relationship with the internet is a deeply personal one – I’ve had personal interactions with the dark side (ex: that one time I tried vlogging about fandom and someone who’s blog I foolishly mentioned went on for days about how I was the most horrible of humans and several of her friends told me how I ugly I was and all because I was baffled at why she posted the same photo of Benedict Cumberbatch over and over) and had incredibly good experiences to (I’ve made friends through social media sights, I’ve been able to keep in contact with people through Facebook that wasn’t possible before the page existed, I’ve raised money for Fringe and donated money to help fellow artists out). The internet is personal for all of us. Did it feel this way in 1994? I don’t know (I was four years old. We had a computer but I didn’t use it until I was a little older and that was to play this ridiculous game called Chip’s Challenge that was all about this guy being stuck in a computer club house and he kept getting killed by bugs. Most frustrating thing ever). I think my struggle is summed up in that we’re all coming in to this show with our own personal experience with the internet and technology and there is no earthly way that one show can ever capture all of that. The internet is a public place but because we’re accessing it from a personal place – our dorms, our homes, our phones – it feels intimate. So when something dangerous happens, it feels even more terrifying. We used to able to run away from that danger – if we something frightening in real life, we can run away. When it’s on your cellphone, on your computer, where do you go? You can turn it off, but you’ll still see those words in your mind. This show captures that fear and that’s a powerful thing. My only fear is that some people will walk out of this show feeling justified in condemning people who walk around on their phones and “look like zombies staring at their screens” (which, yes, we shouldn’t be on them all the time but also it’s the only means of staying connected with certain people in my life and I feel like the argument is always posed at millennials being the problem, instead of the fact that I see people of all ages, genders, and ethnicity on their phones. It’s all of us). This isn’t about passing judgement – it’s about recognizing how technology works on us and changes us in the world.

So, to sum up – go see this show. It’s a great place to start in the conversation about the internet. But it doesn’t stop there because this show can’t say everything. We have to share our own experiences and our own stories in order to fight for the good that the internet provides and fight back against the monsters that lurk in the deep (looking at you, Facebook trolls.) Because modern technology isn’t the monster. The monster has always been there and it’s just found a new home.

mONSTER is written by Sam Graber and directed by Meg DiSciorio. It is playing now through October 7th at the Southern Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on the Southern’s website.

When I Nod My Head You Hit It With the Hammer

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Source: facebook.com/wldrness

I have to admit that I hadn’t seen a Wldrnss/Jon Ferguson show before this (go ahead, Twin Cities, gasp in astonishment. Despite the fact that I’ve been living in Minneapolis for around seven years now, I’ve only been seriously attending theater for about three of them. And there’s a lot of theater to get to). When walking in to see this show, I only knew going in that the work was devised, featured aspects of clowning and… well, that was it. But that was all I really needed to know to enjoy this wonderful piece.

When I Nod… features three performers – Norman (John Cooper), Hugh (Jon Ferguson), and Kenny (Allison Witham) waiting in the greenroom of the theater to go on. At first it seems like they might be going on for their own show, as Eva (Katherine Fried) discovers them and they compliment how much they admire hearing her perform each night. Then when the stage manager (also Katherine Fried) comes in needing an understudy in what appears to be Hamlet, it looks as though they might be waiting to go on as ensemble members. A small child (Thomas Ferguson) appears and disappears in the scenes, perplexing the performers and the audience as to where he came from. There’s also some lovely music performed by an onstage musician (Mitchell Seymour) that smoothly glides in and out of scenes. While Kenny remembers a double act he once performed in, Hugh gets his chance to go onstage, and Norman struggles with the stage manager not remembering his name, all three grapple with memory, losses and gains, and where in the world they actually are and why they’re in this theater. At times it feels like they’re in some sort of purgatory, waiting for something to happen. As the play circles back around ideas of memory and art, I got the impression that this is a metaphor for creative work – you get stuck in a rut, you keep waiting for something, you do the same thing over and over, hoping for a change. When really you need to do something entirely different and exciting, not stick to the script, and do what you really want to do. As an artist struggling with where my place is in the theater world and continually discovering what kind of work is important to me, I found this heartwarming and inspiring (and I’m not going to lie, I cried and I don’t really know why, except that it really struck a cord with me and was really beautiful).

It’s sort of hard to put this show into words because I could see so many layers in the piece that now, trying to transcribe on paper, are hard to capture. The story seems simple at first – three guys waiting in a greenroom of a theater – but there’s more than just that story interwoven through it all. I heard others talking about this show days after I saw it, saying it was confusing or messy. I think it might look that way because there’s so many different ways to look at this piece – sort of a Waiting for Godot meets Oscar Wilde, a collage of different ways of looking at theater, a metaphor about being an artist, a hodgepodge of different scenes linked together. I don’t think there’s one way to understand this show and that’s what I love about this. But most of all I love the moments that celebrate the audience by asking them to come onstage and recognizing them at the end as if they were the artists creating the work. And, as mentioned previously, I adore the focus on what it means to create, especially surrounding the need to keep things the same and to let go of the past and move on to something new.

I unfortunately didn’t get to see this show until the end of its run, but I’d love to talk about this show with others who saw it and see what stood out to them. When I left the theater that night, I felt like I’d just sat down with a cup of tea in someone’s living room and had a long talk about melancholy things, happy things, complicated things, and inspiring things that keep us going. I felt like someone had wrapped me up in a warm blanket before sending me back out into the world and, given the way the world looks right now, that’s something I’m incredibly grateful for.

Ex-Gays: Not a Str8 Remount

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Source: facebook.com/savageumbrella

I never felt quite a uncomfortable entering a show as I did for the performance of Savage Umbrella’s Ex-Gays. Of course, it’s meant to be uncomfortable. Held at Uptown’s Springhouse Ministry Center, overly cheerful “pastors” greet audience members and bless you, directing you where to check in for a “five week” camp to rid yourself of sin and find your way to heterosexuality. Not expecting this interactive aspect, I was pleasantly surprised and hurtled back to my own Sunday bible school sessions at a Catholic Church. Even the program ( a Camp Str8-N-Arrow welcome packet) brought me uneasily back to my childhood with coloring book images that were cheerful but haunting (one of a kitten staring at its reflection really got to me. I’ll save the psychoanalysis of why for another post).

The show itself follows a group of camp pastors teaching campers how to “admit we are powerless over our unnatural attraction to same-sex persons” and to “turn our lives over to the care of God’s heterosexual touch.” The cast, including Eli Purdom, Katherine Skoretz, Amber Davis, Alyssa Davis, Nick Wolf, Shannon McCarville, Meagan Kedrowski, Nissa Nordland, Matthew Englund, and Courtney Stirn, presents these issues with hilarious, over-the-top campy cheer (yes, that’s a pun on campy) which ultimately makes the serious subject matter of the show all the more powerful. We see how many of the characters are pretending to be happy and straight, trying to lead double lives, and doing harm to themselves in order to do what they believe God requires of them.

To understand the full affect this play had on me, you need to know some parts of my personal life. I grew up Roman Catholic. I came out as bisexual just over a year ago. I recently read a book about the Westboro Baptist Church and, having seeing this show during Bisexual Awareness Week, this show certainly packed a wallop. I was uncomfortable, I was entertained, I was horrified, I was heartbroken. But most of all the importance of discussing these issues was brought to mind,

Director Laura Leffler says in her notes that she feels a new apprehension during the remount of the show. I felt this same apprehension. With a sense that the current political climate cares nothing about marginalized people, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+, and those in the White House already working to undo progress that has been made (be it the military ban on trans individuals or overturning Title 9) there’s a reason for the uneasiness and fear. The thoughts of extremists who believe in conversion therapy and that people need to change to fit into their God’s (increasingly narrow) idea of good humans are not just outlier voices but voices that are being given recognition and power. This play is so important because it hears those voices but shows how wrong they are. This show broke my heart but also revealed how important it is to show others – especially young LGBTQ+ community members – that they deserve respect and to be loved who they are. After seeing this, I’ll never look at a bundt cake the same way again (and it’s all for the best) and I feel stronger in resisting forces that wish to harm others. I always feel a little like I’m making up some sort of Stephen King-esque monster when I talk about the threats to the LGBTQ+ to people I’d like to make allies. Maybe I do a poor job of it, still navigating my ways through my identity. Or maybe I feel like people assume I exaggerate the threat because, “it can’t be that bad” or “this isn’t Chechnya.” But I’ve heard the horrific things that people say and heard the horrible acts people commit because someone else’s sexuality makes them uncomfortable. There is a need to speak up and be heard right now, and I’m grateful that this play is not only doing that but encouraging others to do the same.