Red Velvet

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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

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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.

Vietgone

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Source: twitter.com/mixed_blood

Without a doubt, Vietgone is my new favorite show. I’ve known Qui Nguyen’s writing from She Kills Monsters, a favorite script of mine that (while I’ve yet to see staged) I cherish for its female protagonists and humorous perspective on D&D and geek culture. But I wasn’t prepared for the hilarious, heartbreaking, and sexy world that Vietgone creates.

How do I begin to describe this performance? Well, for one, there’s the stellar cast of characters – the playwright (Sherwin Resurreccion) introduces us to Quang (David Huynh) and Tong (Meghan Kreidler), who met each other in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Tong and her mother (Sun Mee Chomet) have come to America in order to escape the collapse and fallout of US Troops pulling out of Vietnam. Quang, a helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese forces, has come to the US against his will after he and his friend Nahn (Flordelino Langundino) landed on an US military vessel and had no way of going back to Vietnam. Quang wants nothing more than to find his way back to Vietnam while Tong believes the life that’s best for her, where she can become who she wants to be, can only be found in the US. Despite their differences, they become “friends with benefits,” then fall in love. But the struggles of being an immigrant, a refugee from war, in the United States complicates their lives and their relationships.

Chomet and Kreidler steal the show with their hilarious mother-daughter relationship (especially Chomet, whose punch lines and physical humor will make your sides ache). This entire cast is incredible, moving between bold, honest sexuality and painful loss with boldness and delicacy. Punctuating certain scenes are rap numbers, feeling half Doomtree, half Lin Manuel Miranda. They highlight inner thoughts the way a monologue would but add an energy and musical element that fuels and powers the show in its rich, vibrant language and environment. In a nonlinear narrative, the raps also work to tie different scenes together as they occur out of time sequentially.

Language is used wonderfully in this show – playing with American words to give the idea of what English sounds like to those who don’t speak it, replacing sentences with words like “Tater tots! Nixon!” Playfully and seriously making fun of the US, the criticism is not just about American culture but how refugees are treated, how one finds a home in a country that promises things it cannot deliver, and the complications of US military involvement. I learned essentially nothing about the Vietnam War in school, except that most people think that it was a mistake. This play clues us in on a different perspective – that South Vietnam needed US military intervention in order to keep the VC from destroying them, and that one cannot simply painting a war as right or wrong. Showing life in the camps scattered throughout the US, camps I never knew existed, not only presents overlooked history, but at a different kind of immigration story – one that complicates the narrative we think we know.

With amazing design by Paul Whitaker (set and lighting), Abbee Warmboe (properties), Mandi Johnson (costumes), and C Andrew Mayer (sound), this production creates a world that shifts easily between time and space, allowing for everything from a motorcycle trip to California, profanity-filled mother -daughter arguments about the camp, and movie-referencing sex scenes (including Say Anything, When Harry Met Sally, and Titanic to name a few) all set to the soundtrack of Redbone’s groovy “Come and Get Your Love.” You really just have to see it.

This show is sensual, heartwarming, provocative, and challenging, making its audience question not only what we think we know about sex and relationships, but also what we think we know about history and about the US. It’s one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen while also giving voice to a story that until now, I’ve never heard. Some argue that theater should be entertainment, some argue it should say something important about being human, some say it should allow for different voices and different perspectives to be heard. Vietgone does all of that and more. It absolutely should not be missed.

Vietgone is written by Qui Nguyen and is directed by Mark Valdez. It is playing now through April 30th at Mixed Blood Theatre. Ticket and show information can be found on Mixed Blood’s website. For every performance, tickets are available free of price, first come/first served, two hours before the show through Mixed Blood’s Radical Hospitality program.

The Master Builder

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Source: facebook.com/TheatreNoviMost

I love a show that takes a new twist on a classic production and Theatre Novi Most’s The Master Builder does just that. Grabbing Henrik Ibsen’s play by the throat and delving down to its core, this adaptation creates a dark, fantastical world where trolls are real and a powerful, seductive tension perpetually simmers beneath the surface.

The Troll (Alex Barreto Hathaway) introduces us to this world, describing Norwegian winters and life there. Physically pulling a statuesque Halvard Solness (Pearce Bunting) onstage, a master builder whose tale the Troll eagerly wants to tell, the Troll shifts into different people in Halvard’s life – his coworker Ragnar whom he is trying to prevent from leaving and getting his own architectural work; Kaia, Ragnar’s fiance, whom Halvard is having a sort of sexual relationship with; and Doctor Herdal. Herdal, brought in by Halvard’s wife Aline (Barbra Berlovitz), is there to help Aline who continues to suffer after the loss of her twin children and the destruction of their former home, and to ascertain whether Halvard might be going mad. Through all of this, the Troll shifts between this figures, seeing to pay homage to the shapeshifting trolls/frost giants of Norse Mythology. As Halvard grapples with what he calls the troll inside him – physically represented by the Troll and expressed through his own id and desire – he tries to construct a life and mold the people around him into what he desires. And then, with a knock on the door and an explosion of party music, disco lights, and confetti, Hilda Wangel (Shelby Richardson) appears in Halvard’s life. A young woman he hardly remembers, Halvard one made a twisted promise that he would build her a kingdom. And now Hilda has come to reclaim what she has been promised.

This production is stunning and jaw-dropping. Bunting’s builder is Shakespearean at moments, on par with a self-destructive Hamlet, but also feels new and unique, unlike anyone we have met before. We want him to build something astounding, but we also aren’t sure we want to be left alone in a room with him. Hathaway’s Troll steals the show with his clear shifts between character, humor, and breaking through the fourth wall to engage with the audience. Berlovitz is beautiful, serene, and sad, contrasted with Richardson’s beautiful, chaotic energy. Both seek to change Halvard for the better and become at odds with each other in their desires.

With a simple, Scandinavian-inspired set that becomes a playground for building and destroying dreams, a rich sound design that shifts between low background murmurs to loud music, and costuming that capture each character’s mentality while playing with recognizable styles in Scandinavian stories (lederhosen, hipster backpacker, wealthy socialite, fur-wearing mountain man), a rich, metaphoric space is created where rocks become more than just mere props and a shift in light and sound brings powerful changes. Novi Most specializes in incorporating physicality into their work and it is used in this piece to its full impact – from the Troll’s shifting between characters, to character entrances, to personal interactions and body language, to nudity. Actions can say things that words cannot or give them a different meaning, and this adaptation uses that create bold, powerful, and discomforting drama.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a production quite like this and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to see such an incredible adaptation. Each moment carries with it a certain complexity and I’ve found myself puzzling over it long after the show ended. I cannot recommend this show enough and hope you all get the chance to enter this strange, frightening, magical, and beautiful world.

The Master Builder is adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s play and is directed by Vladimir Rovinksy. It is playing now through April 22nd at the Southern. Ticket and show information can be found on Theatre Novi Most’s website as well as the Southern’s website. 

The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin

"The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin" - MN History Theatre

Source: historytheatre.com

If you studied American history in the public school system, more than likely you never learned about the Chinese Exclusionary Act. As this article (recently shared on My Performing Art’s Facebook page) describes, much of Asian American history is left out of syllabuses and textbooks. Before I encountered The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin  in History Theatre’s Raw Stages festival in 2016 (then under the title Paper Daughters) I knew very little, if anything, about this period of history. The act, signed by Chester A. Arthur in 1882, prohibited immigration of all Chinese laborers and was meant to last 10 years but instead was renewed in 1902. It was the first law that presented a specific ethnic group from entering the United States. In order to get into the US, Chinese citizens bought documents of other family members, friends, and neighbors who had relatives in the US and assumed these names.

Harry Chin (Song Kim) does just that. When we meet him, it is the 1970s, he is living with his daughter Shelia (Meghan Kreidler) and struggling to work at the restaurant where he is a chef. Throughout his days, ghosts of his American wife, Laura, (Sandra Struthers), a poet who did not make it through immigration (Sherwin Resurreccion), and his wife in China, Yuet, (Audrey Park) haunt, tease, and torment him. As the ghosts send him into flashbacks of his past – falling in love with Laura, the harrowing immigration process with a monstrous immigration officer (Rolando Martinez), and writing to Yuet whom he will never see again, Harry grapples with being a father and an immigrant, trying to come to terms with his past and his present.

The cast is marvelous and captures the humor, heartbreak and the haunting of this tale wonderfully. Struthers and Park and particularly wonderful as the wives and Resurreccion brings a playful humor into his ghostly poet. Language shifts greatly in Jessica Huang’s script and accents appear and disappear (Harry speaks unaccented English when he is speaking Chinese, his accent appears when he is speaks English to Shelia and Laura; the immigration officer speaks in unintelligible garbled noise to convey Harry’s inability to understand and the officer’s crude, abrasive behavior) and it’s fascinating to see it all interwoven together. I am particularly fond of shows that provide challenges in terms of design and general theatricality and this production does just that. Sandra Struther’s first ghostly appearance – appearing inside the chassis of a car – is spine-tingling and brilliant. With the wandering ghosts, the jumping between a ship at sea, Shelia’s home and Harry’s new apartment, the kitchen of a restaurant, and all the places in between, each locale generates its own atmosphere and emotional quality for Harry. With spectacular lighting design by Wu Chen Khoo, powerful scenic design by Joel Sass, beautiful costuming by Trevor Bowen (including some stunning ghost costumes in the second act), beautiful sound design by Katherine Horowitz, and wonderful props design by Abbee Warmboe, this is truly a dream team of designers (so much so I thought I could feel the temperature drop in the room as ghosts appeared and smell chow mein as Harry cooked).

It’s easy to remark on the timeliness of this production – with current immigration policy trying to prohibit another specific group from being allowed into the US, its place in the season is almost uncanny. While timely and relevant sound like operable words, it’s more than just that. Stories like this keep repeating themselves and American history is full of them. It’s timely because prejudice and xenophobia never stopped being a problem and because it’s a story we still fail to remember. However, Harry Chin’s will haunt you, just like the ghosts who fill up his kitchen. You won’t be able to forget him once you leave the theater. And, like me, you might walk out feeling hungry – for knowledge, for diversity, for answers, for change. Harry Chin hungered for a new life, a better life, and sacrificed much in the process. What must we sacrifice in order to make sure his story is told? So others like him can be welcomed to our country? So that ghosts of all of our pasts stop clamoring for our attention and can actually be recognized?

The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin is written by Jessica Huang and directed by Mei Ann Teo. It is playing now through April 9th at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Ticket and show information an be found on the History Theatre’s website.

And if you go, be sure to check out the “Gateway to History” exhibition by photographer Wing Yong Huie both inside and outside the building of the theater, showing those who were personally affected by the Chinese Exclusionary Act.

Citizen

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Source: facebook.com/FrankTheatreMpls

In 2014, Graywolf Press published Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. A blend of poetry, lyric essays, social criticism, and images, this groundbreaking book focuses on race relations in America – especially microaggressions and repeated racist incidents. It is one of the most powerful books I’ve encountered. As I read it for my MFA program this semester, I was elated to see that Frank Theatre was performing an adaptation of the book. Having seen it both opening night and at a Sunday matinee with a talk-back, I’m still struck by it.

A story like this only grows more important as the days continue. If you’re mesmerized by the film Get Out and still are emotionally recovering from We Are Proud to Present in the Dowling Studio, then Citizen should be your next thing to watch. Using a collaborative ensemble featuring Heather Bunch, Hope Cervantes, Michael Hanna, Theo Langason, Joe Nathan Thomas, and Dana Thompson, this performance splits Rankine’s narrator – who frequently uses the second tense to tell their accounts – into several voices encountering racism that often goes overlooked. Recounting illness cased by dealing with racism every day, a white colleague confusing one African American person for another, a neighbor who calls the cops because a friend who is staying next door is making a phone call from the driveway and he looks suspicious, Rankine’s book does not back away from showing the sheer multitudes of microaggressions and subtle racism that occur daily and the ensemble does a masterful job of portraying them. The poetry in the original work is profound and to hear it pour of the tongues of these incredible actors will wrench at your gut, overwhelm you emotionally, and haunt your mind.

If you haven’t read the book, you won’t have a problem following the story, but for those who have read Rankine’s work, the way that media is brought alive is particularly gut-wrenching. From footage of Serena William’s tennis matches to photos from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the subjects captured on the page are put in front of our eyes, making it impossible to ignore the argument being made.

Of course, reading a book is far different from watching a show and some of the intimacy of Rankine’s work is lost. But theater asks us to share an experience with our neighbors, making for an added level of complexity for how to negotiate space with a show like this. Theater audiences tend to be mostly white in Minnesota and, undoubtably, this is an important show for Minnesotans, especially white liberal Minnesotans, to see. But you can’t always gage where a theater audience is at or where a show registers for them. At the post-show talk-back on Sunday, which included Shannon Gibney and Peter Rachleff as panelists, I was struck by white audience members who were afraid of making microaggressions and announced their discomfort, drawing parallels from the show to reconstruction after the Civil War rather than present day, and pinpointing Trump as an exceptionally racist president, rather than a more vocal on whose precedent was set long ago. Hearing comments that seemed out of touch from what I saw staged concerns me, not that the show isn’t working and isn’t presenting its message clearly, but that audience members have more work to do than I thought. I’m going to step out of reviewer mode for a moment and talk as a community engagement and advocate. I believe that we should have conversations about theater, especially after shows like this. But it concerns me when certain things continually occur during talk-backs – a white male always speaks first; people of color are sharing real, recent instances where certain events are have happened while white people feel the need to discuss their discomfort or show that their only context for these events was in the past or in the South; and African-American panelists and audience members having to do all the work and all the teaching to make white audience members understand. Talk-back should be learning moments but, as it came up in this talk back, here and in our day to day lives, white allies need to do more to jump in, advocate, and explain. As the conversation became uncomfortably focused on white discomfort, I wondered what I, what we, as audience members, panelists, and human beings in general can do to be better allies? How can we help guide talk-backs to keep them from going in outrageous directions? What can we do to correct behavior or explain why a certain comment is given at the wrong time or in the wrong space – and not just in the theater in but in our everyday lives?

Needless to say, this show has given me a lot of food for thought. I cannot stress the importance of the show enough or the brilliance that is Rankine’s work. Read it, see it, and talk about it. And keep talking about it. And don’t stop talking or working or fighting racism in America.

Citizen is adapted by Stephen Sachs from Claudia Rankine’s book. It is directed by Wendy Knox and is playing at Intermedia Arts now through April 2nd. Tickets are available on Frank Theatre’s website.

For more on this production of Citizen, check out the live video I did with Kendra Plant from Artfully Engaging where I chat with Wendy Knox and Hope Cervantes about the production!

The Awakening

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Source: facebook.com/SavageUmbrella

I’ve been trying to find the words to describe Savage Umbrella’s The Awakening, playing now at the Southern. And I have to admit that I’m more or less lost for words.

This isn’t a new phenomena for me recently – more and more I’m finding it hard to discuss shows I’ve seen in an review or post. Part of that I think is due to pressures around me. And part of that is due to how do I, as an artist, discuss another artist’s work?
The Awakening has the added caveat of being a highly musical and visual piece, so much so that I can’t describe the experience because you simply need to see it. And while any show is like this, The Awakening, based off of Kate Chopin’s landmark novel of the same name, takes emotional moments and performs them through movement and musical styles. A novel which takes place primarily in the mind of its protagonist, the unhappy Edna Pontellier who desperately wants to break out of the fragile mold society has forced her into, it at first seems an impossible work to adapt to stage. However, it’s the perfect story to tell because it is so emotional and, with the waves of feminism we ride like waves on the sea, it once again feels very present and very live in our current culture. Though it deals with Victorian women and their yearnings, it contains a force that is still very much alive in the lives and minds of modern women.
With a marvelous ensemble of Emily Dussault, Nick Wolf, Amber Davis, Seth K. Hale, Alexis Clarksean, Mike Swan, Russ Dugger, Nathan Gebhard, Lauren Diesch, Nayely Becerra, Rachel Kuhnle, Tinne Rosenmeier, Aaron Henry, Eric Marinus, Thomas Ferguson, and Daniel Rovinsky, with music performed by Nic Delcambre, Carley Olson, and Alissa Ona Jacobsen, the world these performers create grips you and ensnares you. Edna’s life of leisure on Grand Isle which becomes a life caged in back in New Orleans becomes a portrait of a life that cannot be fully lived as long as one’s society does not fully accept you. In the middle of women’s history month and in discussions of current events, a play like this has never felt more important.
The Awakening is adapted and directed by Laura Leffler-McCabe and created by the Savage Umbrella ensemble, with music by Candace Emberley. It is playing now through March 18th at the Southern Theater. Tickets can be purchased on Savage Umbrella’s website.

Big Money

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Source: facebook.com/sandboxtheatre

I’ve made a challenge to myself in the new year to see as many new works as possible. I’d like to see more theater in general, but I’m especially interested in supporting new playwrights and theater companies that produce new work. Sandbox Theatre is one of those companies. Dedicated to creating new plays and developing artists, they focus on visual dramaturgy (storytelling through design and movement) and divisive theater which creates shows through collaboration of the artists performing the shows.

Big Money is a great example of this work. Staged as a live taping of the game show Press Your Luck, the show explores the life of Michael Larson (Peter Heeringa), a game show contestant who won over $100,000 on one episode of the show in 1984. A resident of Lebanon, OH, Larson looks to get rich without work, saying, “I don’t do jobs.” This real-life story follows Larson’s clever methods of finding loopholes in the rules and shortcuts through the system to make money. He knows how to play the game and he plays it well. At home, his wife Theresa (Sarah Parker) struggles with his scheming and obsessive game-show watching, feeling torn between the love she has for him and the turmoil his actions cause. Both Heeringa and Parker are absolutely wonderful in their roles and bring a great emotional depth to both their characters and the relationship they share. Also marvelous are Derek Meyer as host Peter Tomarken, Emma Larson as Michael’s daughter, Eric Weiman as Michael’s brother, and Cameron Mielicke and Cortez Owens as Technicians who, along with the other cast members, create the environment of the game show and keep it moving smoothly.

Because the show is staged as a game show, there are some really fantastic technical elements at work. Synth-styled music, designed and performed by Tim Donahue, capture the feel of Press Your Luck while also aiding in creating Larson’s mindset. Heidi Eckwall’s lighting design creates a game board full of wins and whammies and also produces the wide emotional shifts that occur throughout the show. Mandi Johnson’s costumes keep us rooted in the 80s while also helping us clearly distinguish the actors when the take on multiple roles. And Leazah Behrens’ set design works to move us from the game show set to Larson’s home with ease. I also greatly enjoyed that the soundboard and the lighting board were at the front of the theater, both to heighten the feel of the game show set but also as a nice way to highlight the work the real-life technicians were doing.

Long after seeing this show, my heart still aches for Michael Larson. There are moments where he appears greedy and conniving, almost Trumpish in his attempt to evade and escape the rules. But there are also moments where he is just a person fighting to escape a system and succeed at winning the American Dream that has been proclaimed to be his and everyone’s. Everyone’s a winner, Press Your Luck states. But not everyone wins. And even Larson, who walks away with more prize money than the show had ever given out before, loses everything, including his family. At times it reminds me slightly of Assassins in its struggle with what happens when the American Dream fails us and might not be true at all, as well as what happens when those who are not traditionally seen as winners fight for success as Larson was – Theresa tells us multiple times that he’s not handsome, his refusal to hold a job and work hard outrages his brother, and, while his attitude towards being rich are part of the success narrative we all know, his methods at getting it are not. This heartbreaking story reveals what happens to a clever mind caught in the wrong place and how a need for monetary wealth and squelch out everything else. As a kid who was overly fascinated with getting rich quick and hoped to find “pirate treasure” one day so I wouldn’t have to worry about working, Larson’s anxiety about monetary security are all too familiar. And for those of us that now know how difficult or even impossible to have monetary security (such as myself), Larson’s story still resonates in a different way. There’s a strong difference between him and the billionaire who’s about the take the oath of office this Friday. The play shows this, in the scene where Larson is told by real estate consultants how he should use his money to invest. However, they’re the ones who see the profits rather than Larson. While Larson might claim that he doesn’t do jobs, he puts an immense amount of work into trying to play a game in a system that ultimate screws him over. The timing of this show is perfect and asks questions that will only continue to be more important in the days to come: what does it really mean to be a winner? A loser? If we play the system, can we every really break out of it? And what do we sacrifice to do it?

Big Money is directed by Theo Langason and created by the ensemble, led by Derek Lee Miller. It is playing now through January 28th. Ticket and show information can be found on both Sandbox’s website and Park Square’s.