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.

Local Music Scene: Geoffrey Brown

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If you’re like me and you just realized it’s the end of February, then you might be thinking about attending this month’s Local Music Scene at Bryant Lake Bowl. But first, here’s a very belated look at January’s event with Geoffrey Brown, of the Dregs.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Local Music Scene, each month a local musician performs some of their songs while a team of improv artists brainstorm scenes based off the lyrics. After the songs, the artists perform the scenes. Geoffrey Brown, who describes his songwriting as, “I specialize in sad songs with catchy melodies” provided the audiences with songs perfect for our “post-truth” era about lying, truth, and poverty, as well as stories about pretending to play the banjo and giving advice of choosing adventure “because safety’s boring.”

The improv scenes that accompanied were wonderful, playing off the themes of truth, adventure, and reminding us it’s a bad idea to tell your sister you can totally play the banjo at her wedding when you can’t play at all. If you’re looking for an opportunity to take life a little less seriously and enjoy some local music, certainly check it out. They’re back at Bryant Lake on the 27th with Amanda Costner as their music guest.

Ticket and show information can be found on The Local Music Scene’s Facebook page or Bryant Bowl’s website. For more of Geoffrey Brown’s music, check him out on Gigsalad.

 

Local Music Scene: John Genz

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Source: facebook.com/thelocalmusicsceneimprov

If you haven’t heard of about the Local Music Scene at Bryant Lake Bowl, listen now. Once a month, Bryant Bowl hosts this mash-up of improv scenes based off the lyrics of songs performed by a local musician. This month featured John Genz, described as a “violent lamb of a man” whose music hovers somewhere between folk and punk.

I was unfamiliar with Genz’s music before hand but am certainly a fan now. Penning lyrics that capture heartbreak, angst, isolation, and anxiety, I have a lot of personal reasons for enjoying the lyrics. And, as the questions asked throughout the show about the musician (which breaks down the traditional divide between performer and audience) we learn about the inspiration for the songs, the musician’s view on the world, and other random fun facts (like Genz is a Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature major. As I’ve got my undergrad in that, I feel like that’s important to mention).

The improv scenes that occur after the songs and Q&A were hilarious, creating math jokes, a complicated relationship between a man and his dog, seeing VHS rental stores as museums, and surprising amount of mentions of Mogadishu. You kind of had to be there. Nevertheless, the wonderful combo of music and humor is the perfect mix and a great way to spend a Monday evening in Uptown. They’ll be back at Bryant Lake on January 30th with Geoffrey Brown will be their guest and certain to be a night of great songs and lots of laughs.

Ticket and show information can be found on The Local Music Scene’s Facebook page or Bryant Bowl’s website. For John Genz’s music, check out his Bandcamp page.

La Natividad

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Source: In the Heart of the Beast

La Natividad, In the Heart of the Beast’s reoccurring Christmas show inspired by the gospels of Matthew and Luke, is one of the most poignant shows you’ll find this holiday season. Traveling to site-specific locations culminating in a procession to St Paul’s Lutheran Church near In the Heart of the Beast’s theater, this performance combines a Christmas pageant-style story with a remarkable music, puppetry, and masks.

I’ve never seen La Natividad before, but I was surrounded by many who had. It was wonderful to watch their experiences and hear them singing along with songs they had heard before as I took it all in for the first time. While I grew up Roman Catholic and am very familiar with the story of the Nativity, it’s never felt so relevant before. Drawing parallels with stories of refugees and immigration, this bilingual show, presented both in English and Spanish –  follows Maria and Jose’s trek grappling with Maria’s pregnancy while also dealing with Cesar Augustus’s call for people to return to their place of birth in order to be counted and accounted for. While filling out immigration papers, Jose proclaims, “Isn’t a person worth more than paperwork?” Meanwhile, King Herod hears about the coming of a child who will be “king of all kings” and, threatened by one who will be more powerful than he, attempts to bar entry to those seeking refuge in Bethlehem. There’s something very Trump-like about Herod, both in the costuming and in the words he delivers and, while In the Heart of the Beast confirms that this is the same presentation of Herod that they’ve had in years past, it seems my mind and those of others watching the performance couldn’t help but imprint current events onto Herod (the exaggerated gestures of his hands don’t help. Trust me, you just have to see it). It really emphasizes how stories of refugees and those who refuse to give them shelter repeat over and over and over again.

This performances is unlike any theater experience I’ve had before – perhaps because it’s more than just a theater experience. It’s site-specific, immersive, and personal. It doesn’t just break the fourth wall – it never feels like there’s a fourth wall to begin with. In between scenes as you travel from place to place, you’re able to chat with your neighbors and see what their reactions are to each scene. At the end of the performance, after a lush and magical scene in which the world welcomes the birth of Jesus, performers and patrons alike congregate for a fiesta, with warm food and drinks prepared by volunteers. I’ve never felt so welcomed into a community nor have I ever had so many strangers talk to me just for the sake of getting to know someone new. I’ve been spending more time on Lake Street this year for theater than I ever have before (frequenting In the Heart of the Beast, the Jungle, Frank Theatre’s site-specific show, and Pillsbury House) and I love the community I’ve found her.

While this show has its roots in Christianity and the New Testament, this performance is one people of all faiths can enjoy. I myself am agnostic and found the story affirming of the hope and beauty I’m looking for in the world right now, and also found it much warmer and heartfelt retelling than I ever experienced in the churches I attended. At the fiesta afterwards, audience members are welcome to record their responses to the show on a board and ask further questions – who would I shelter? Who would shelter me? Would I shelter an enemy? With our current political climate, these questions are more relevant than ever.

La Natividad is playing now through December 22nd in the Lake-Midtown neighborhood. Show and ticket information can be found on In the Heart of the Beast’s website. Group rates are available and no one is turned away for lack of funds.

White Christmas

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Source: ordway.org

I find it important to be honest in my reviews, even if I risk being unpopular. While most everything I’ve read about the Ordway’s White Christmas is full of positivity, remarking on its charm and holiday cheer, I had a far different experience with this show. I feel almost embarrassed, like the Grinch about to run off with Whoville’s Christmas decorations. But I believe overlooking the issues I have will do more harm than good and I believe it important to our theater community to consider the issues I have with this production, even if I end up being the only one who sees them.

Don’t get me wrong. This theatrical elements of this production are incredible. The costuming, set construction, lighting and effects are wonderful. The cast is fantastic, with some of the Twin Cities best – Brian Sostek, Dieter Bierbrauer, Ann Michels, Jenny Piersol, James Detmar, Gary Briggle, and Thomasina Petrus. But I’m not happy about the story told. I know it takes place in the 1950s and that “times were different.” I know that the source is a movie that can only be updates so much without completely leaving the story that so many know and love behind. Yet I’m still astonished how sexist the show was. From Phil Davis’ comments and smug flirting with Judy, to the portrayal of the twins Rita and Rhoda as unintelligent sex objects, to the moment a girl stretching at the piano freezes with her leg up in the air as General Waverly enters during rehearsal and ogles at her leg, making her body the punch line of a joke – all of this added up to make a very uncomfortable experience for me and my friend who accompanied me.

I really wanted to enjoy this show. I desperately wanted a moment of escapism for  just a few hours to leave behind this rough year we’ve had, to embrace the holiday cheer that is meant to be at the heart of this story. Instead, I felt like I was walloped in the face by the very things that I struggle with every day – women being objectified, harmful jealousies caused by women seeing the men they want to possess in the company of other women, believing that women have to force a  man to “settle down,” and benevolent sexism in its many forms. Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum and when current issues appear in a script, they’re amplified by the cultural moment I find them in. Maybe it’s bad luck that White Christmas happened to be staged in a year when sexism is at the forefront of many people’s minds. But it’s also important to me what decision were made in this staging and I’m disappointed that these concerns didn’t seem to be at the top of mind. Perhaps the actors and artistic team dealt with these experiences internally during rehearsals (and I hope for the sake of the actresses onstage that they did) but I certainly didn’t get the feeling that they had from the performance I saw. Instead, I felt uncomfortable for them, for myself, and for the other women in the audience.

I’m sure that 90% of people who see this show will enjoy it and I’m sure that people will day I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. But representation matters. I’m one of the few people who had a negative experience with this show and I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t. I’m not going to write what I think people want to hear or shy away from criticism. I don’t want to overshadow the good work the Ordway does based off of one production, but I am disappointed by this show and expect better in a theater community that is usually very sensitive to issues such as these. I hope that by recognizing these issues in theater we can have better discussions about how to work around or change these issues in productions and recognize them, rather than ignoring them.

White Christmas is written by Irving Berlin, Dave Ives, and Paul Blake and is directed by Jame A. Rocco. It is playing now through December 31st at the Ordway. Ticket and show information can be found on the Ordway’s website.

Bluebeard’s Dollhouse

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Source: facebook.com/combustible-company

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

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

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

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

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

The Iveys: A Super Casual Review for a Super Fancy Night of Theater

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#TeamBoxOffice at the Iveys. Kemi, Kendra, and I outside the State Theater. (Source: Kendra Plant)

Once a year, the Twin Cities theater community gathers together to celebrate the last year of theater and hand out awards for exemplary performances (ala the Tonys). This year was only my second year attending and I’m still in that stage of being a little star-struck and take aback by everything. I’m not really sure that I’ll grow out of this stage. I hope I don’t. Approaching the Iveys with excitement and awe makes it a little easier, I think, than if I’d let the ennui of sitting through an awards ceremony and collecting all the complaints I have about theater to brew in my mind. Not that I have ever done that during any kind of theater function).

Honestly, it’s hard not to be excited about the Iveys. After a year of reviewing and working on shows, it’s really wonderful to see them honored. And last night was a great night for theaters I work with – Guthrie Theater won for Trouble in Mind, a production that I was utterly blown away by (I still think about it. Good work, guys). History Theatre won for Glensheen, a show I saw twice and am still thoroughly impressed with for its wicked combination of humor and horror. Because I’ve worked with the History Theatre both in the box office and as a dramaturg, it’s nice to see them win. Theater Latte Da won for their scenic designer on Sweeney Todd, which was a very memorable, complex set (spoilers: I’m working box office there now so that’s a great way to kick off a new job). And it was wonderful to see snippets of Nina Simone (a show I love very, very dearly) as well as shows I’m still kicking myself for missing: Yellow Tree Theater’s Violet, Savage Umbrella’s June, Penumbra’s Sunset Baby, among others.

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Christina Ham, Kendra Plant of Artfully Engaging, and I at dinner before the Iveys. (Source: Kendra Plant)

And then there’s the people. I loved seeing Warren Bowles and Trevor Bowen win Iveys, seeing Joe Haj and Sarah Rasmussen have their theaters win being new artistic directors in town, having dinner with the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers and Christina Ham, and seeing those I know posting about their experiences online. I loved running into friends and people from past shows I’ve worked on. I loved being surrounded by people I’ve just met or have never met and seeing how alive and vibrant our theater community is. And on days when I feel a little less enthused about theater – in times of writer’s block, during long days in the box office, during tough rehearsals and tough moments in the theater world, it’s nice to know that theater can fill the joyful and friendly and interconnected. After attending last year and hardly knowing anyone and feeling a bit like a fish out of water, it’s incredible for me, a year later, to feel instead like it’s a little slice of home. So, see you next year and I look forward to all the new shows ahead we have to celebrate!

Review: Watermelon Hill

With it being Women’s History Month, there’s no time like the present for History Theatre’s production of Watermelon Hill. A story based off of the book Shadow Mothers by  Linda Back McKay, the script by Lily Barber Cole focuses on three young women at the Catholic Infant Home in St Paul in 1965. The women are not here entirely by choice – they have been persuaded, either by their families or their circumstances – to disappear from the lives they know until they conceive the children they are carrying out of wedlock. All three women share a dorm and have the same due dates, causing them to bond together even though they don’t know each others real names and are forbidden to talk about their lives outside of the home. Through various conversations, flashbacks, dreams, and monologues, their stories unfold nonetheless and a striking, painful image of three young women judged by their circumstances of being unwed mothers unfolds. Leah (Aeysha Kinnunen) has come here at the persuasion of her mother, who doesn’t want her daughter’s college career to be “ruined” by a baby conceived by Leah’s boyfriend. Sharon (Adelin Phelps) has fled a dominating parent and is worried about being behind in high school when she returns, pining after a boyfriend who has never tried to get in touch with her. Joan (Emily Gunyo Halaas) hides the circumstances of how she came to be pregnant and uses a biting sense of humor and her Jewish upbringing to combat against the repressive atmosphere of the home.

Despite the heaviness of the story, the show is full of humor. As the three girls bond together over White Castles, Leah’s radio, religious confusion, and shared experiences, they create their own support group as they struggle through pregnancies with children they know they will be forced to give up. They fight to control what happens to their children, lying about the fathers so that their babies have a better chance of being put in good homes and struggle to maintain relationships they have left behind or will be forced to give up – such as their own bonds between one another.

Poignant and touching, this play deals with issues of religion, feminism and control over the bodies of women, sexual education, and adoption. As the church’s negative view of unwed mothers weighs down upon Leah, Sharon, and Joan, problems with the adoption system and its view of women in general become revealed. The amazing talent in the cast, along with great support from Janet Hayes Trow and Sean Dillion (who play various characters throughout the play), creates a strong story of loss, friendship, and support. The wonderful minimalist set with clever nuances plays to the starkness of the situation but allows the characters to warm to one another. The use of lighting and sound design is wonderfully woven into the flashbacks and dream sequences, especially in one terrifying moment in which Joan recalls the circumstances of her pregnancy.

Admittedly, this show is not easy to watch at times. The frustration of how broken the system of adoption is and the treatment of young pregnant women is difficult to bear. A particular scene in the second act is especially triggering, especially for those who have experienced sexual violence. The relevance of this show, however, cannot be understated. One young patron in the audience commented on her way out that it reminded her of the line from Mean Girls: “If you have sex, you will get pregnant and die.” Combined with recent arguments about abortion, birth control, and lack of proper sex ed in schools, the themes in Watermelon Hill are incredibly relevant to the lives of modern women and, in some ways, I wish the show went further to address these issues, as it is a revival of a past production. Perhaps its purpose, though, is to focus its lens on a particular scope of the 1960s and continue a conversation that has been going on for decades. It is left to the audience to do something with the frustrations they might be feeling or the questions they might have and take action themselves.

 

Watermelon Hill is written by Lily Barber Cole and directed by Anya Kremenetsky. It is playing now through April 10th at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Ticket prices and information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.

I Wanna Be In The Room Where It Happens

This blog, as you might have guessed, is titled after a song by the same name from the sensational musical Hamilton. I, however, am in no way affiliated with the production (as much as I would like to be). I’m a Minneapolis-based dramaturg and writer relating to Burr’s longing to be in a room where great things happen as my own desire to be a part of the theatrical process. To me, the room where it happens is the rehearsal room – where a sheets of paper become a three-dimensional production that audiences will see. But there are many rooms – there’s the theater space itself, the room where marketing and advertising is planned, the room where a new season is plotted out, the room where fundraising goals are made, the room where actors are cast, the room where props and sets are made, the room where actors down a cup of coffee between scenes…

The list goes on and on. All of these rooms effect the other and all of these rooms have their own certain character. The goal of this blog is to peruse these spaces, discuss my experiences and experiences of those I know, and hopefully hear from you all in your experiences. I delight in the exchange between artists, creators, producers, and audiences, and I hope that this blog can be a forum for this. Eventually. Right now, this is day one. And if this is the rehearsal process, then we’re starting out with introductions and a simple read-through.

So let’s get started.