Minnesota Tonight

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Source: author’s photo

I recently attended a live taping of Minnesota Tonight at Brave New Workshop. If you’re familiar with The Daily Show, then you know the premise – it’s a pseudo-news show that has a guest, political analysis, a musical act, and various news stories presented by “correspondents.” Unlike The Daily Show, it’s taped monthly and it doesn’t require a trip to New York. Each episode features a theme, a guest to talk about that theme, and a musical act.

I attended episode five of the second season, which was scheduled to feature Peggy Flanagan of Minnesota House District 46A. However, due to the current situation at the Capitol, Representative Flanagan was working so Bharti Wahi, current executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota filled in for her (she can be seen in the above photo with Minnesota Tonight host Jon Gershberg). The theme of the night was child care, but the stories were not limited to that. A humor-filled and education segment focused on LIHEAP (emergency assistance programs for heating in Minnesota), the limitations the program already has, and the great threats it faces in being cut with new government budgeting that would leave many without assistance to heat their homes. Another discussed the rationale for legalizing medicinal marijuana. Yet another discussed the controversy around Duck Washington’s upcoming production with Chameleon Theater Company being refused space at Burnsville’s Ames Center. Minnesota Tonight This Morning with the State of Minnesota riffed on the cheesiness of morning news shows and showed us how film editing can make it look like you’re interviewing Al Franken as he time travels back to his younger years. And musical guests Shrieking Harpies blew minds with improved songs about Minnesota summers and brunch.

And of course there was childcare, including a wonderful interview with Bharti Wahi and jaw-dropping statistics about the expense of raising children and the difficulties of finding childcare providers (not so fun fact: most childcare providers make less than $20,000 a year. And yet they are responsible for little human lives).

Education, humorous, and engaging, this performance was more than just that – it was interactive, it was topical (dealing with recent news and ongoing issues), it made me laugh until my sides ached, and it added in mixed media – slides, previously taped segments, using pauses in the taping for musical acts and news stories shared by the host. The feeling of being at a taping is different from other shows – at any moment in a show, something can go wrong, but in a taping you might have to back and redo it. This added an extra level of tension – just having cameras in a room along with a teleprompter adds a different feel from a traditional night of comedy or improv. As someone who’s dreamed of being at a taping of The Daily Show since they were sixteen (and once wondered what the odds were of being one of their interns), this was a fun, thrilling experience. I love comedy but I especially love comedy that intertwines itself with an important message. Minnesota Tonight is informative and entertaining, serious and hilarious, and I love that something like this is happening right in my neck of the woods, discussion issues I care deeply about and informing me of new ones. I really enjoyed this and I can’t wait to go back.

Minnesota Tonight tapes monthly, Their next taping is June 28th, featuring Bad Bad Hats (whom I love and adore) and featured guest (not yet named). Ticket and show information can be fond on the Minnesota Tonight website.

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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.

Calendar Girls

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Source: parksquarethatre.org

I’m not accustomed to writing reviews that negatively convey a performance. There are two reasons for this. First, I’m not always comfortable voicing my opinion to the internet when it’s divergent from the norm, as I worry about how it will be received. Being a writer, this is the kind of an issue I need to overcome and am thus am daring myself to get over this as soon as possible. Second, I don’t want to keep people from seeing a show – I truly believe that most theater is worth seeing and don’t want to be like newspaper critics who (to steal an idea from a colleague of mine) think know better than the people performing or seeing the show. I’m also hesitant in this particular case, as Calendar Girls was part of an event for the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers. And while I’m very grateful for the event and enjoyed it, I don’t want to keep that from being honest about the show. Because I was very disappointed by Calendar Girls. But before I go on to the critique, let me give you a little bit of background where I’m coming from.

I am a young woman who has had a number of body image issues in her life. I can hardly remember a time before I worried about my weight, worried about how I looked, and received comments on my body. Since at least the age of eight, I’ve dealt with being considered overweight, heard, from doctors to classmates, the word “fat” used negatively, and harbored a dark self-loathing for my own body. I lost weight when I started college and, though I’m now at what most people consider a healthy body weight, I still suffer somewhat from body dysmorphia and have no good conception of what size I really am. I find it easy to support people of others sizes and strongly support body positivity/embracing “fatness” as something that’s not a pejorative, but still struggle to feel good about myself.

This being said, I expected that Calendar Girls – a show that deals with female nudity and undressing onstage – would deal with issues of female body image, body positivity, and embracing female power. While the show did this in some ways, it feel dreadfully short in others. This being said, don’t skip the show on my account – but do take into account the following perspectives.

Most of my issues deal with the script, not the production by Park Square itself. The cast is lovely, dynamic, and clever. But the pace of the show felt a bit slow, especially in the beginning. There were moments where I questioned why certain actions were happening and wondered what the point of certain scenes were. Overall, it felt a bit disjointed. I never fully understood why the WA sold calendars. I never fully understood what the WA was. And I certainly didn’t understand why the way to raise money for a memorial for Annie (Christina Baldwin)’s deceased husband John (John Middleton) was to sell calendars with the WA members nude. If you’re going to pose nude for a calendar to benefit a man (a well-liked deceased man, but still), there needs to be a strong explanation of why.

Part of this is due to how little John is in the play. While the show’s focus is clearly on female relationships, I do wish it had spent a little more time building up John’s character so that we understand why he was so important to the women of Yorkshire and why he is so sorely missed (aside from dying from cancer. Yes, this is tragic, but is a person is more than their disease). The show doesn’t reveal this much, nor does it dig into other issues that women have with their bodies. It is mentioned that some of the ladies, such as Cora (Laurel Armstrong), are reluctant to undress because they don’t look like Chris or Celia (played by Charity Jones and Carolyn Pool, respectively) though Jessie (Linda Kelsey) shows little reservations, though she is the oldest in the group. But it doesn’t divulge further into this and maintains the idea that the calendar viewers who are men are far more interested in these two than the others. Nor does it explain the idea that the women – primarily Ruth (Shanan Custer) – are concerned about undressing because their husbands have never seen them nude. While this line is intended for humor, it never explores this idea that seems to be true for many of the women. How is it you can be married to someone and never see them without clothing? How can photographing female nudity never lead to a deeper discussion of body image? The issues at stake with this are ignored.

The actual nudity in the show does feel fun and empowering, but this effect doesn’t last after the printing of the calendar. While the focus should be on the letters Annie is receiving from women who have lost loved ones to cancer and grateful for the calendar making this issue known, I feel the script spends a lot of time with how men (never present onstage but mentioned) react to seeing the women nude. Perhaps it’s because I’m from a different generation (one that hears about nude selfies being leaked all the time and knows how personal images can be used against women) but I’m never comfortable with the underlying bit of objectification that comes with the production of the calendar. This is not the kind of empowerment I want – women’s liberation of their bodies at the cost of being continually ogled by men. I felt heavily bogged down in this issue by the end – especially with Chris trying to get the women to move into advertising – and I never felt the connection the women between regain its former joviality after this. There’s a quote from Charlotte Perkins Gilman that says, “Women’s economic profit comes through the power of sex-attraction” and I can’t help but feel this idea of using sexuality to sell calendars (though for humanitarian reasons) never loses a uncomfortable edge that takes away from the empowerment that should be happening onstage (Donovan 44).

 

 

My biggest issue with this show is the lack of diversity. I know that this takes place in Yorkshire, but as Yorkshire is being created for us, then why not create it so it looks more like our own communities? Yes, it’s based of a true accounts, but I feel like that’s a weak excuse to not include more diversity in terms of race, age, ability, and body size. However, it can’t be overlooked that this show does do something radical. It is rare for women of a certain age to be able to work together on a show in the theater world (as was mentioned in the post-show discussion) and Calendar Girls certainly does this. And while this is marvelous and groundbreaking, it makes me sad at still how far we have to go in terms of representations of women in theater. I admit, I’d be more intrigued by this play if it allowed a larger representation of women to be cast in it. Again, I know that I am from a different generation and that I have a different perspective on feminism than the characters in the show do. I realize that this show’s purpose is not to portray young bodies because young bodies get all the attention in the mainstream media. But what about young bodies and all the other female bodies that don’t match up to media expectations? Overall, I still find the representation of women sorely limited. A scene with Ruth really drives this home for me. In a wonderfully-acted scene, Ruth confronts Elaine (Anna Hickey), the woman with whom her husband is having an affair. While this scene is powerful, I can’t help but wish it were different. I don’t like the attack of the “other woman” and I don’t like that there’s no chance for Elaine to respond, to apologize, to team up with Ruth and find positivity together, to confront the husband together and demand an answer. Instead, it shames her and seems to condemn her more sexual nature, rather than just the affair. While Ruth’s shift from complacent and shy to outspoken and demanding here is incredible, I found myself clapping but uncomfortably so, wishing the scene had a different result. It certainly takes two to cheat, but it would seem that both women got used here and mutual understanding of one another would be a lot more fulfilling.

At the end of the show, I wasn’t sure what it had accomplished. Did I feel that I had a better understanding of people who lose loved ones to cancer? Maybe. Did I feel proud of womanhood and empowered that we can take control of our bodies and create change? Slightly. Was I happy to see so many women gathering together for a show that they so clearly enjoyed and felt celebrated them? Absolutely. Was I happy to see theater become a safe space for women to relax and enjoy? 100% yes. Did I feel that the show only advocated celebration for a select group of women? Sadly, yes. I had a lot of big expectations for this show that weren’t met. But I don’t think this show was meant for me. But if it does make one woman more comfortable with her body or gets one person thinking about feminism and the representation of female bodies, then it’s succeeded. I’ll just have to wait until next time for the show I was looking for.

 

Calendar Girls is directed by Mary M. Finnerty and written by Tim Firth. It is playing on Park Square’s Proscenium stage now through July 24th. Show and ticket information can be found on Park Square’s website.

 

 

Work cited: Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Theory: Fourth Edition. New York: Continuum, 2012. Print.

Review: Le Switch

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Source: jungletheater.com

As it’s Pride Week here in the Twin Cities, what better show to see right now than Le Switch at the Jungle Theater? A new play that is experiencing a rolling debut, having been first performed in Chicago and now here (where it got its start at the Playwrights Center PlayLabs), this comedy deals with romance right on the brink of the monumentous legislation of marriage equality. David (Kasey Mahaffy) is librarian who loves to categorize subjects but struggles to categorizing himself, finding he is straddling different things in his life. As his best friend Zachary (Michael Wieser) is about to get married and plans his bachelor party in Montreal, David as best man struggles to understand why people want to get married while his sister Sarah (Emily Gunyou Halaas) admits she has fallen in love with her husband – a green card marriage of convenience that has become far more. While in Montreal, David decides to make it up to Zachary after having an argument about the wedding and buys flowers from florist Benoit (Michael Hanna). David falls head over heels for Benoit and ends up spending the entire day with him. Guided by his family and friends, especially his roommate Frank (Patrick Bailey) who is still mourning his deceased partner and supports the idea that marriage may not be for everyone, David struggles through learning French, tackling cultural and personal differences, and mental blocks in order to have a relationship with Benoit and ultimately try to answer, “What is it about?”

This show is wickedly funny, clever, and poignant. It was hard for me, after Orlando, to not take every moment with a little bit deeper meaning. While this show feels like a rom-com, it has a much more complex and philosophical root. David has learned to identify as the kid who disappointed his parents, while his twin Sarah was successful. Identifying himself as weird and abnormal, a failure of sorts, David has learned to accept that marriage is not for him because it represents what is normal, be it heteronormative or the traditional idea of success. Because David is not these things, he cannot accept that marriage is an option. However, it also prevents him from allowing himself to feel he deserves a loving relationship and he continues to push out anything “good and perfect” in his life. Instead of learning to learn new ways of success, he accepts that the traditional routes are the only option and keeps certain doors closed, as he refuses to open his antique books. Benoit challenges him to live different and to find other options.

What this play succeeds in (in terms of conversation about the LGBTQA community) is recognizing that not all people in the community think alike. They don’t all feel the same way about marriage. They don’t have the same experiences being gay or coming out or how and what they choose to embrace what identifies them as who they are. Through differences in age and generation, there are different attributes and ideas on what it means to be a member of the queer community. Though a great deal of support is shown for marriage as a positive outcome, its struggles are shown with Zachary and Franks reminds that it may not be for everyone. But the play does show that it is one answer and, though it looks different for everyone, it is another way to express love. I really enjoyed the writing of this piece, focusing on switching and being caught between ideas, especially in how lines switched between people – the idea of “It doesn’t matter/Everything matters” getting passed around and the layers that “classification” carried with it throughout the piece. Though this piece is not radical or extremely diverse in terms of race or gender, it does provide a more nuanced representation than must media surrounding the LGBTQA community and one with a great deal of sincerity.

The aesthetics of the piece are also captivating – the hyper-real moments that flow almost cinematically as Benoit performs an almost ballet to arrange a bouquet to the Flower Duet from Lakme, lighting a cigarette in slow-motion, the repetitions of “La Vie en Rose” throughout, the moments of a librarian and a florist falling in love a long a canal. All of this is conveyed through the brilliant, fluid set design of Kate Sutton-Johnson, stunning lighting (that moves seamlessly between club scenes, New York apartments, and Montreal mountains) by Barry Browning, complex and gorgeous sound design by Sean Healey, beautiful, detailed costumes by Moria Sine Clinton, and clever, coordinated directing by Jeremy B. Cohen. Also I appreciated how much focus was put on the dialect and language by the cast and vocal coach Keely Wolter. The French spoken by Hanna sounded authentic and spoken with ease (and personally reminded me of my French teacher from high school, who was Minnesotan but could speak French without an American accent).

Most of all, what I liked about this play was that it was hopeful. After Orlando (and the other mess of events this week), the world looks bleak. A play that is heart-warming, uplifting, and provides hope for different ways of living and different ways of community is something I think we all need right now.

 

Le Switch is written by Philip Dawkins and directed by Jeremy B. Cohen. It is playing now through July 31st at the Jungle Theater. Show and ticket information can be found on the Jungle’s website.

And for those of you who might be interested in some of the issues touched upon in the play, check out these books which I’ve encountered in some of my studies/research:

  • Virtuous Vice: Homoeroticism and the Public Sphere by Eric O. Clarke – discusses ways in representations of queer culture fall short and how inclusion only accepts a small aspect of homosexuality.
  • The Queer Art of Failure by Jack (formerly Judith) Halberstam – discusses alternatives to the narratives of success and finding positivity in difference and failure.

Review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

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Source: theatreprorata.org

I first heard of The Knight of the Burning Pestle from a friend of mine who read it in college and lauded its humor and parodying of Renaissance theater. Written and performed in 1607, it references Shakespearean tropes and Cervantes-esque drama and chivalry and I was elated to see that Theatre Pro Rata was doing it this season.

If you loved Four Humor’s Don Quixote, enjoy spending time at the Renaissance Fair, and/or have any interest in bawdy Elizabethan humor and penis innuendo, this show is for you. A play within a play format, the show begins with the Prologue (David Schlosser) introducing the performance, The London Merchant, only to be interrupted by theater patrons George, a grocer (Ben Tallen) and his wife Nell (Rachel Flynn). Concerned that they are about to be bored and insulted, they take over the show, inserting their apprentice Rafe (George Dornbach) into the performance. The actors portraying the love story of Jasper (Grant Henderson) and Lucy (Julie Ann Nevill) struggle to compete with Rafe’s story line of assuming knighthood, becoming the Knight of the Burning Pestle (an interesting choice of allegiance which leads to phallic references) who is used to prevent Jasper and Lucy’s union, as the grocer and his wife thinks Lucy is better suited for the merchant Humphrey (Andrew Troth). Amidst other stories of the Falstaff-like Master Merrythought who continually breaks into song (Andrew Troth) and his wife (Julie Ann Nevill) who runs off with her favorite son (Davide Scholosser) and the family fortune, Rafe’s story line is inserted again and again as the grocer and his wife make a running commentary almost like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets or and Renaissance RiffTrax and quite literally steal the show, despite attempts by the stage managing apprentice (Becca Hart) to keep them in line.

The show is chock-full of references to other theater of the time. Rafe’s courageous battle sequence and cheering to St. George is reminiscent of a speech from Henry V and his journey into knighthood and battling giants is very Don Quixote (as is his devotion to his ladylove, Susan). Merrythought is a Falstaff caricature, and Jasper and Lucy are somewhat reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet (though the grocer is clearly in favor of Rosalind). There are many other references, I’m sure, but as I’m no Elizabethan expert, I leave that to the better studied scholars to establish. (And if you are looking for more fun tidbits about the show, check out Pro Rata’s play guide put together by the wonderful dramturg Christine/Kit Gordon. Not that I’m biased or anything.)

I’ve never been in Dreamland Art’s space before but it’s wonderfully suited for the Globe-like setting designed by Gabriel Gomez and audience-interactive performance.(Okay, so this show was actually first performed in Blackfriars Theater, but the pillars of the set draw a strong resemblance in my mind to the Globe.) Filled with music, a variety toy instruments produce much of the sound played mainly by Becca Hart and produce as vibrant soundscape as the personalities portrayed. With lush rich costuming by Mandi Johnson, illuminating lighting by Julia Carlis, clever props by  Abbee Warmboe, and humorous and well-orchestrated fight choreography by Carin Bratlie Wethern, the piece comes together as a delightful montage that celebrates and mocks the themes of the times while showing how adaptable performance can be. The entire cast is wonderful and on point, with timing that wonderful hits home jokes and added audience heckling that is recognizable and hilarious to those who have ever experienced a show with patrons who simply don’t understand certain etiquette, such as opening a noisy snack in the middle of a kissing scene is probably a bad idea (not that I’ve ever experienced this). Tallen and Flynn wonderfully steal this show (for the audience, not just the performers) with their antics and reactions throughout and their reflections on the characterizations, especially Nell’s outcry against Merrythoughts’ treatment of his wife (which, if you’ve ever struggled with Shakespeare’s depiction of women, is much appreciated). Most of all, George and Nell capture what I as an audience member have often longed to do – to insert myself on stage and interact with the characters. Instead of restraining themselves from this yearning, George and Nell create immersive theater well ahead of their time and insist on becoming a part of the story as much as they insist on allowing Rafe his moment of glory onstage.

There is a lot going on in this show, even in the off-stage parts with the actors of The London Merchant sleeping, messing with costumes, trying to control their outrage at the unraveling of the established script, and complaining to stage manager Clara Costello for the grocer and his wife’s intercessions. Amber Bjork’s wonderful directing really shows in handling layers that occur and keeping everything flowing smoothly with the understanding that there isn’t always just one center of attention onstage. This production is really a delight and a perfect way to spend a tranquil summer evening.

 

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is by Francis Beaumont and directed by Amber Bjork. It is playing now through June 19th at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul. Show and ticket information can be found on Theatre Pro Rata’s website.