Action Sequence

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Source: In the Heart of the Beast

If you’re a fan of car chases, actions films, and the 1980s, In the Heart of the Beast’s current production captures all of the things to love about these things – but with puppets. Action Sequence follows Studs (Shelby Richardson) a tough-as-nails, out for revenge vigilante who is fighting the bad guys because… because he wants to. And has to. Reminiscent of Die Hard crossed with… well, too many action films to list, Studs captures the stereotypical action star, with a backstory (shown here through projector slides and music) and a need to punch every person who angers him in the face.

While there’s not a large, complex story (there’s bad guys, Studs fights them, then fights the big boss – literally the Devil – at the end), what makes this performance so compelling are the way in which action is performed onstage. A treadmill becomes a road and plastic cars held by actors portray a car chase. Cardboard signs become comic book action bubbles of “pows” and “booms” and burst into scenes like they do on page. The entire space of the theater is used, from a subway train derailing up into the control booth to Richardson belaying down in a harness from above to the theater itself being “destroyed” in the action, with parts of the grid giving way as fighting occurs, breaking the fourth wall and adding more stage magic the heaps that are already on display. Richardson, along with the ensemble of Peter Rusk, Lizz Windnagel, Akiko Ostlund, Rick Miller, Sam VanTassel, Maren Ward, and Steve Ackerman never seem to stop moving in this highly physical piece and layer a wonderful level of humor throughout the story (while meanwhile, on an old baseball scoreboard, the death count tolls higher as Studs performs his vengeance). Simultaneously mocking and celebrating action films, this parody (complete with a live orchestra of movie-like scoring, directed by Drew Kellum) is delightful and ridiculous, showing us the most outlandish of action scenes while revealing just how much theater can show and stage. There’s so much more this show squeezes into it, more than I could ever describe (such as fighting on the wing of an airplane, a bar brawl, a brokenhearted crocodile) that you’ll just have to see it for yourself. It’s entertaining, fun, and it broadened my idea of what’s possible to do onstage.

Action Sequence is directed by Steve Ackerman and created by the ensemble. It is playing now through June 24th at In the Heart of the Beast in South Minneapolis. Ticket and show information can be found on their website and at Brown Paper Tickets.

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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.

Review: Queen

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Source: In the Heart of the Beast Theatre

Last night was my first visit to In the Heart of the Beast Theatre to see their new production, Queen. Hours laters, I’m still pouring over this incredible production, trying to savor all of its magical, wondrous, and heartbreaking moments. Queen follows the journey of a grandmother who has lost her grandson at the hands of gun violence. Through her despair and her loss, a story of grief, passion, and a need for change unfolds.

I’m unaccustomed to seeing theater that makes uses of masks and puppetry and this show does absolutely incredible things. From actual puppets used across props and bodies onstage, masks, and objects used to make other puppets (such as paper, which is artfully folded and molded by the actors on stage), a vivid, raw world is created that is forever shifting and changing as the grandmother’s journey changes. Accompanied by beautiful music and highly poetic words, a magical sort of world is created that is not quite ours but feels familiar none the less. It reminded me greatly of Beasts of the Southern Wild and creates a similar affect of bringing the audience into a fantastical world to make a strong statement about current affairs. There is a lot packed into a short show, but the piece flows wonderfully, allowing us to relish in moments of beauty and moments of confusion. One element that I loved deeply about this form of storytelling were the metaphors and symbols that called to mind certain ideas and thoughts but didn’t make the audience choose only one to focus one. The use of Ursa Major, for example, draws many associations: the constellation (tied with the use of stars throughout the show), the Greek myth connected to the constellation (which is about a woman and her son), the idea of bears being strong and how they relate to women. This open-ended affect is mesmerizing and powerful, allowing for certain moments – the shooting itself, the grandmother being locked in a cage and burned (is it an abstract interrogation? Is it a mental institution? Is it her own grief trapping her in?) to become stronger and poignant.

I loved seeing all the different uses of bodies and objects, as well as projections and sounds that were incorporated in this piece and it’s a show I’d love to see more than once, to let the poetry wash over me, though the story was heartbreaking and I found myself weeping more than once. While the news is continually filled with gun violence (especially police shootings) and protests such as the ones in Charlotte in response to this violence, a show like this captures a tense, cultural power for its timeliness and honesty that cannot be described by a mere review. However, it can be seen by the passion and engagement of the actors onstage. “May my anger remain real and smaller than my love,” the grandmother states at the end of the show. It is a struggle to do so in our current world, but this production gives hope, as well and working to make the grandmother’s wish for her story a reality: “I have come to set the world on fire. I wish it was already burning.”

Queen is written by Erik Ehn and Junauda Petrus and directed by Alison Heimstead. It is playing now through October 2nd at In the Heart of the Beast. Show and ticket information can be found at In the Heart of the Beast’s website.