Thoughts on Henry and Alice: Into the Wild

Before I begin this post, I’d like to provide a frame of reference for where I was mentally when I saw this show (I think it’s important, as a reviewer, to be honest about what you’re entering the theater with, as it’s different for everyone). I’d had a long day, starting with helping out at a student matinee at the theater I work at, as well as a full hectic day of work, and exhaustion from anxiety struggles earlier in the week. I’m sad to say that I entered this show already feeling fatigued and not very energized. I was hoping the show would lift my spirits. It didn’t.

I have never left at the intermission of a show before, but I did this night. I hesitate to call this an actual review since I didn’t see the whole show but it did provoke me quite a bit and I have thoughts I feel are important to share about the production. My issues are not with the quality of the production, the acting, or the theater itself (all of which are wonderful) but rather the script and the show’s story,

The writing was lacking for me. While I haven’t seen the previous play this one is a sequel to, I didn’t feel that seeing it would have helped me understand the characters or situation better. Henry and Alice are camping to save money instead of staying at an expensive hotel. It was all pretty simple – and that was the beginning of the problem for me. While there was conflict and some sense of urgency, I could find Henry or Alice likable or interesting. Diana I liked and could relate to in some ways, but she was supposed to be an annoying bother, and I couldn’t understand why. Her entrance made me interested, for a while, until she became a stereotypical hippie, “too wild” for Henry and Alice” (if too wild is a “carpe diem” tattoo, I hate to think what my eight tattoos reads as in this world).

I also didn’t appreciate some of the jokes – the swingers misconception had potential, but I felt like it was still dismissive or stigmatizing to actual swingers (as a supporter of polyamory and other nontraditional lifestyles, this could have been an educating or embracing moment and it didn’t read that way). I’m over the “breathing into a paper bag because I’m hysterical” gag. Panic attacks are real. I have them. Please don’t trivialize them (or at least make it a larger part of the character, ala Leo Bloom in The Producers). I’m also pretty sure that g*psy is a slur now, so I don’t know why this was used at all.

I’m just being prescriptive now, which is against everything I’ve been taught in playwriting. But I’m disappointed in this play. Really disappointed. It’s by a female playwright, it’s a new show. It’s everything I want to support in theater. But while sitting and listening to Alice and Henry bicker and not being very interested, I realized a large part of the problem for me. I don’t live in Henry and Alice’s economic world. I don’t live in a place where people retire early or where being laid off means you need to formulate a budget and you can’t shop at Pottery Barn any more. I live in a world where people work until they day they die and a world where, if you’re laid off, your house gets foreclosed. I am not upper middle class. I’m not middle class. I’m lower middle class at best, and most of the time I’m working class. Theater is not a wealthy industry to work in, despite what Broadway might like to depict it as. I make minimum wage, I’ve spent a lot of money for my degrees that has not left me with debt (yet) but has for most of my generation. As a millennial watching this show, I was stunned by the presentation of wealth and money. It made no sense to me that in order to save money, Henry and Alice went camping. If you haven’t been to an REI or a Cabella’s recently, go and check out camping gear – it’s not cheap. At all. Saving money for my family when I was growing up wasn’t changing our vacation – it was not going on vacation at all (it was the same for both of my parents growing up as well). It made no sense that Alice, who clearly worked hard for what she had, wouldn’t understand why her husband was concerned about her spending habits or why her horror story became having to live on a budget instead of, well, maybe being homeless. The fact of the matter is that Alice and I live in completely different worlds. And it’s something I think we need to start talking about.

We are living in the most economically disparate time since the 1920s (or so I learned my first year in my MFA program). Never before has there been such a large difference between the wealthiest of people and the poorest in our country. In the world of theater, we of course need money (especially donors) to fund our work and make things happen (there are of course arguments agains that, but I won’t tackle those here). But we also want to open our doors to most diverse audience, especially those who can’t often afford to attend theaters. I couldn’t help but think about the students I saw at the student matinee I helped at, who were awed at the expensive look of the building they were entering, and started thinking about how they might feel about Alice complaining about not being able to buy stuff. Perhaps how it was how I was raised, perhaps it was my college education, hell, maybe it’s my fondness for Brecht – regardless, classism is never far from my mind. It’s not that I don’t think shows can’t just be entertaining or have wealthy characters – they certainly can, but it’s important in how you talk about it and discuss it in the show. It’s also about creating more diverse work about diverse people. But in this case, it was how money was discussed. I didn’t stay around for the second act and maybe it’s resolved and Alice learns materialism isn’t so important and Henry learns not to be so uptight. But that’s not really the issue. The issue is that I don’t ever believe there’s that much to lose. It all felt hollow to me because in the world around me, the stakes are much different. If all Alice is going to do is not get her trip to Europe, I don’t feel a connection with that. I would love to go to Europe – but right now I’m worried about paying my rent that’s going up in December because Minneapolis is being filled with expensive luxury apartments that cost as much as half a semester of my grad school tuition per month and everything is getting more expensive. Alice can’t buy her Pottery Barn furniture? I know people who can’t afford medication they need, who don’t have health insurance, and if they do have insurance, they are or are afraid they will lose coverage.

Theater doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. And for me it’s impossible not to see what’s happening in the world around me when I attend a show. I can’t just sit back and relax and shut off everything else – I wish I could, But the play I’m attending is always in dialogue with the world around me. And I think that’s a really important function of theater. A show can be really entertaining and make you forget your troubles but also teach you something really important or make you realize something. And what bothers me is that this play does touch on some really wonderful stuff – Alice’s hard unappreciated work as a stay at home mother, trying to care for an aging parent, and the affect the economy and lay offs have on personal relationships. But I just don’t understand why it used story to work with those issues.

I also have to ask what kind of audience was this for. I was one of the youngest members of the audience on a relatively full weeknight and, yes, it was a mostly older, white, seemingly middle class audience. This is not a critique of Park Square alone but a theater-wide issue. There’s a contention between the subscriber base and the urging to bring in younger and more diverse audiences. I feel bad criticizing this show because I really love the cast – John Middleton, Carolyn Pool, and Melanie Wehrmacher are absolutely wonderful. Mary M. Finnerty is a fine director. And I’m looking very forward to the season ahead, especially to Hamlet. I could simply admit I’m not the intended audience for this show. It’s not about my world. But I also want to know what happens when not the intended audience enters the room and what happens then. How do we deal with that? How do we recognize their feelings without brushing it off as a overreaction? I admit that I’m emotional about this, but I hope it shows it’s because I care. I love theater too much to let it continue to be overwhelmed by classism, I’m tired, so tired of this fight on many levels – there’s a great intersectionality with economic status that affects age, gender, race, sexuality, etc and it too often gets overlooked. I want to challenge theaters to consider classism more when discussing seasons, marketing, access to patrons, etc. We need our wealthy patrons who are willing and able to support our shows, but we also need patrons of different economic levels to enjoy what is produced, to feel inspired, and see their stories shared onstage.

I want to end this (very) long post with a final thought on why I am so passionate about this. The first theater show I ever attended was “The Wizard of Oz” at Wagon Wheel Theater in Warsaw, Indiana. I never in a hundred years thought that one day, after seeing that show with my grandmother, I might one day write a play myself. While they were community theater actors, I saw them in a professional light – partly because I was six and anyone who was an adult was cool and partly because theater lighting has the power to make anyone look incredible and magical. Seeing someone onstage puts them in a privileged position – in Western theater, we’re sitting the dark focused on them, while they have the floor to speak and we’re quiet (well, different levels of quiet depending where you’re attending theater). Regardless, they literally have the mic – and what they say matters and resonates. I think it’s too easy to think theater is just another art form that people consume and shrug off. It’s like any other – some of it we always we remember, others not so much. But unlike other art forms, it’s happening in real time. And it has the capability to speak to us immediately, presently, as a collective of different people with different experiences. It is one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever been privy to. I’ll always remember seeing “The Wizard of Oz” in the theater and not the first time I saw the film, because seeing it with a group of people who also were afraid of the flying monkeys and were mesmerized by Glinda and gasped at the Wicked Witch’s wickedness is downright incredible. What we make matters. We know that. I just hope that we continue to broaden our idea of who it matters to.

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Idiot’s Delight

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Source: girlfridayproductions.org

I’m several weeks late getting this posted, having attended the show in mid-July, but I’d rather get it posted late than not at all because this show was too good to not talk about.

In the midst of juggling a lot of things this summer, my attention has fallen to news reporting during World War II, due to research I’m doing as the literary intern for Watch on the Rhine. I’ve been drowning in details about the lack of focus and lack of reporting on the Holocaust. Which might be why Idiot’s Delight hit such a powerful chord with me. To be honest, it would have packed a punch, regardless. It’s that kind of show.

On the cusp of war breaking out, American showman Harry Van (John Middleton) and his three singing stars (Bonni Allen, Karissa Lade, and Becca Hart) find themselves at a hotel in the Italian Alps, full of guests who don’t quite know what’s around the corner. A pair of honeymooners (Gabriel Murphy and Adelin Phelps) are looking to enjoying a snow-filled escape, Dr. Waldersee (Karen Wiese-Thompson) just wants to get out of the hotel so she can continue her research to cure cancer, and why the mysterious Russian Irene (Stacia Rice) is there is anyone’s guess but it has something to do with tycoon Achille Weber (David Coral), a weapon’s manufacturer who doesn’t fear the possibility of war. The hotel staff (David Beukema, Sam Landman, Kirby Bennett, and Kevin Dutcher) try to juggle their needs while outspoken anti-fascist Quillery (Kory LaQuess Pullam) speaks out against the soldiers (Eric Knutson, Mike Swan, and C. Ryan Shipley) at the nearby air force base who already know what lies ahead for Italy. While 1930s tunes fills the air of the hotel, Quillery warns of the coming storm – until it suddenly swallows the hotel entirely.

This cast is absolutely mesmerizing. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I’ve seen a cast of this size and this caliber on stage. There’s exquisite costuming by Kathy Kohl, lush scene design by Michael Hoover, poignant light and sound by Dietrich Poppen and Anita Kelling, stellar props design by the ever-wonderful Abbee Warmboe, and lovely music direction and choreography by Kevin Dutcher and C. Ryan Shipley. There’s also a lot of accents – a lot of accents – 1930s American, Italian, Italian as spoken by an Austrian, Russian. The actors do a marvelous job, with the help of rock star dialect coach Lucinda Holshue.

I don’t think I have to explain why this play hits a particular note with current events. With Hannah Arendt’s books suddenly becoming best-sellers and anti-semitic organizations gaining not just attention but power, it’s a frighting place to find oneself. What this play does particularly well is the juxtaposition of terrible fear and large-scale evil along with the struggle of wanting to live your every day life. Harry’s singers – Shirley, Beulah, and Bebe – entertain Italian soldiers who moments later drag off Quillery for verbally attacking them. The tender honeymooners want to continue their escape but know they can’t with the death and destruction that’s happening around them. Beautiful complicated Irene will do what it takes to survive but ultimately becomes the pawn in Achille’s more masterful scheme. Rice shines as the complicated Irene, as does Pullam as Quillery, whose passion comes across not just in the political movement of 30s but of today. Middleton is dynamic and mesmerizing as always and Wiese-Thompson is especially incredible as the complicated doctor who does not want to forsake her research but will let it go if it means being patriotic to her homeland of Germany. And one of my favorite moments in the show (as well as one of the saddest) came from Sam Landman’s character Dumpsty, who speaks Italian but states that he learned the language after what was once part of Austria became part of Italy after World War I. Towards the end of the play, Dumpsty returns to his war uniform of the past to go fight for Italy. “Who will feed your family?” he is asked. He replies cheerfully, “The fascisti will feed them. They have promised to feed all of the families of soldiers.” I could almost hear my heart break at this line. If there’s anything the fascists definitely failed to do, it was feed people.

I only wish I had seen this show earlier in the run so that I could have recommended it because it was so wonderful. Beautiful and cheerful and heartbreaking and frightening all at once. It does all the things that makes theater great while also sending out an important message – and not letting us get away with an ending that makes us feel like everything will be alright.

Idiot’s Delight was written by Robert E. Sherwood and directed by Craig Johnson. It played June 29- July 23 at Park Square Theatre’s Andy Boss Stage.

Up: The Man in the Flying Chair

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Source: theatreprorata.org

There’s quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (a book I have yet to read in full but adore nonetheless) that says, “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.” This is the territory that that Theatre Pro Rata’s recent production of Up: The Man in the Flying Chair investigates. So much of what occurs in the play are things that are felt – they may be shown through actions or words, but most of all they provoke an emotional response.

Based upon the story of Larry Waters, who, in 1982 tied weather balloons to a lawn chair and flew into the sky, Walter Griffin (John Middleton) performed a similar feat. Longing to return to that feel of flying and that surge of inventiveness, he spends his days tinkering in the kitchen while his wife Helen (Shanan Custer) slips “help wanted” ads his way and keeps up a mail route in order to pay the bills. Their only child, Mikey (Keegan Robinson) loathes high school but seems to hate it a little less when on the first day of his sophomore year he meets new student Maria (Lillie Horton), a feisty, pregnant girl who sees the world a little differently than most. Their lives become intertwined as Maria recovers from a life with an alcoholic mother and deals with perceptions of teen pregnancy (while enjoying the state of it very much, claiming its the best she’s ever felt in her life). Mikey begins working for her aunt Chris (Noe Tallen), striving to find one thing he’s good at.

Forced to get a job to pay the bills, Walter goes off to work each day, but an unsettled tone floats in the air. While famous tightrope walker Philippe Petit (Mark Benzel) appears to motivate him, Walter burns dollar bills and makes extravagant purchases. Yearning for greatness collides with basic needs of living. This story moves from calm beauty to turbulence and, much like flying itself, it’s both beautiful and a little scary.

Middleton and Custer are incredible, tugging and pulling and tearing at the audience’s heartstrings, making it both easy and impossible to see how Walter and Helen ended up together. Robinson and Horton are pitch-perfect in their portrayal of teenagers, to the point that I felt uncomfortable remembering what that level of angst felt like. Tallen brings a wonderful quality to the complicated Aunt Chris, who’s both incredibly trustworthy and terrible deceptive. And with a nice dash of magical realism akin to Amelie or Harvey, Benzel adds a lovely bit of levity along with captivating tightrope walking.

While all design elements are wonderful, with costume design by Mandi Johnson and Samantha Kuhn Staneart, sound design by Jacob M. Davis, lighting design by Julia Carlis, and props design by Abbee Warmboe, I was most taken by the set, which is not built but projected on a backdrop, allowing for it to be erased and blown away like chalk on a blackboard or show a chair with balloons floating in the air. The illustrations are by Max Lindorfer and add an extra level of magic and creative possibility to the atmosphere of the show.

Bittersweet and beautiful, funny and haunting, this show reminds me of my favorite bits of French literature and film. It’s captivating and hits a chord that captures so many different tones of emotion. What’s most wonderful about this show can’t be described so easily because it’s not what I saw onstage, it’s how it made me feel. There were a hundred different emotions I felt myself processing throughout the performance and am still feeling now. This is a wonderful piece for its work with historical fiction. magical realism, and especially all the complicated things the heart feels and yearns to express. If theater’s job (at least one of its jobs) is to help us understand different experiences and different feelings, then this show does exactly that.

Up: The Man in the Flying Chair is written by Bridget Carpenter and directed by Carin Bratlie Wethern. It is playing now through June 11th at Park Square Theatre. Ticket and show information can be found on Theatre Pro Rata’s website or Park Square’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.

A Raisin in the Sun

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Source: parksquaretheatre.org

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

 

Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” inspired the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. A story that focuses greatly on dreams that are pushed aside, returned to, and changed for the characters of Hansberry’s play, Park Square’s current production shines new light into the Younger family. I find this poem relevant not just too the production but also to the current social and political situation I woke up to Wednesday morning. I feel many dreams are deferred now in the wake of an unstable climate and progress we have made feels as if it has suddenly slipped away. I’ve struggled to write my review of this show because of this and, while I don’t want to make this post political, theater is political and I can’t ignore how it feels to see a production of Hansberry’s play occurring now.

If you’d like a more traditional review, please check out those of my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers. Warren Bowles superb direction in the Andy Boss space as well as the stellar performances of Aimee Bryant, Darius Dotch, Am’Ber Montgomery, Greta Ogelsby, and Andre G. Miles as the Youngers (as well as Theo Langason, Cage Sebastian Pierre, Robert Gardner, Neal R. Hazard, and Kevin Sanders Nelson, who comprise the rest of the cast) certainly deserve recognition. But unfortunately, this blogger’s mind is too caught in motions of fear and disbelief of current events to accurately describe to you the more theatrical elements of this production. However, I would like to focus on the talkback that I participated in along with fellow blogger Becki Iverson who blogs at Compendium. We were invited to have a discussion with the audience after a performance and I greatly enjoyed this conversation about Hansberry, family drama, and racism throughout the United States, including Minnesota. Audience engagement is a passion of mine and with a show like A Raisin in the Sun, having a moment to consider the importance of the issues at hand along with others who have just watched the performance is really wonderful as an audience member, blogger, and playwright.

Right now, as a white ally (and also a bi woman with mental illness) who feels as if she has failed to do enough, is yearning to do more, and is also afraid of what might lie ahead, I can only hope that people can walk out of a show like A Raisin in the Sun having learned something or understanding something new or seeing a powerful story that makes them reconsider their own worldview. There’s a line that really struck me in the production, delivered by Robert Gardner who plays Lindner, who arrives to discourage the Youngers from moving into a currently all-white neighborhood. “You just can’t force people to change their hearts, son,” he says. This line has stuck with me as I consider the power that I hope theater does to do just that – change hearts. Not forcibly – you can’t force anyone to change – but to encourage, to give voice to different stories, different perspective, to tales that would otherwise go unheard and shine a light on what people aren’t currently seeing. Right now there’s a clamoring and perceived victory for a voice that is not one that represents the US I know, the US I want to see, and the US I want to love. The utter disconnect that I see between those that share my opinion and those who disagree with us baffles me and I struggle to find the words to describe to others what I see and what I believe. I look to the arts to help me express that, to find a way to communicate where other forms of discussion have failed me. I am grateful for A Raisin in the Sun for providing such a form of communication, from the first time I read it in high school to the discussion last Sunday after the show. It encourages me to keep talking and to keep working and I hope that it encourages others as well.

A Raisin in the Sun is written by directed by Lorraine Hansberry and directed by Warren C. Bowles. It is playing now through November 20th. Tickets and show information can be found on Park Square’s website.

“Harlem” by Langston’s Hughes is taken from Poetry Foundation.org.

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: Tot

tot

Source: Mu Performing Arts

Mu Performing Arts is producing the world premiere of tot: The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (a Filipino) Hulk Hogan. Following the story of nine year old Tot (Randy Reyes), who moves from his life in the Philippines with his grandmother Lola (Mary Ann Prado) to live with his parents in the US. His parents (Hope Nordquist, Eric “Pogi” Sumangil) are distant to their son, favoring the younger child Kitty (Stephanie Bertumen) that Tot has never met. Using his interest in wresting to help cope with being in a new culture and, essentially, a new family, Tot uses his interest in wrestling to weave his own story into that of the fictitious Orbiter (Torsten Johnson), a Hulk Hogan-like character who overcomes obstacles to be powerful and successful, aided by Chorus members (Michelle de Joya and Kyle Legacion) to provide context and commentary.

Knowing little about wresting, I enjoyed the exploration of the performative nature of the sport and the ways in which Tot adapted the stories told in the ring to better understand his own situation. The unique storytelling and great acting work together to make a new, fascinating work. At times, this show confused me and I felt a bit lost. I wasn’t sure if the sequences with the Orbiter were meant to be glimpses of the wrestling Tot was watching on TV or imagined sequences. It became clearer when the Orbiter’s story began to mirror Tot’s (aided by the double casting of the actors) and the confusion could be intentional, to emphasize how interwoven the tales of these muscular men have become in Tot’s narrative. The distance that Tot struggles with, not only being an immigrant in a new places but a child that does not fit into family he belongs to, is especially powerful. Reyes’ embodiment of a child is spot-on and humorous, but also painful as he confusion leads to aggression that he takes out on his sister. Despite the aggression, he also has moments of connection with Kitty and the she understands him in a way his parents cannot. Balancing between humor and sadness, this performance went to a darker level that I was not expecting, gesturing towards abuse that Tot faces from his aggressive father. These aspects were very difficult for me to watch, especially given the discussions of hyper-masculinity in both culture and in theater right now (I’m thinking of Orland as well as the situation at Profiles Theater in Chicago). This is not at all a fault of the production but an issue with my own sensitivity, and no show exists in a vacuum, causing performances look different depending where one’s mind is.

Based on what I’ve heard from my friends over at Cherry and Spoon and MN Theater Love after they saw tot, I think a wide variety of reactions are to be expected with this show – as should be with any show, really. For me, this is a show I’d have to see more than once to really appreciate. As I spent much of the time getting a grasp of what was going on (partially, I’m sure, due to exhaustion from a frantic day at work beforehand), there are greater nuances that I likely missed focusing so much on plot. I did enjoy design of the theater, using the Boss Stage at Park Square, as a wrestling ring with seating all around. I sat in the bleacher seats behind the stage and loved seeing the performance from that angle. As with every new play, I’m sure there are things that could be tightened up and clarified. But sometimes, theater isn’t easy to watch and it’s nice to have a show that challenges the audience and disrupts traditional storytelling methods. tot is such a show and one that’s worth taking a chance on, to support new work, a wonderful local theater company, and stories that often go overlooked, such as Tot’s wondrous, wacky wrestling tale.

tot is directed by Randy Rayes and written by Victor Maog. It is playing now through June 26th on Park Square’s Andy Boss Thrust. Show and ticket information can be found on Mu Performing Art’s website.

 

 

The Rehearsal Room

inspiration

My rehearsal inspiration board for Nina Simone.

For the last couple of weeks, I haven’t be seeing any shows as I’m working on one myself. I’m dramaturging for Park Square’s Nina Simone: Four Women, which as been a phenomenal experience so far and a show I’m very excited about. I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about the rehearsal process a little bit and describe what my part of this looks like, for those who aren’t personally in this aspect of theater or those who might be curious what a dramaturg does.

Day 1 (5pm -10pm)

The actors, director, playwright, music director, costume designer, set designer, stage manager, and I all meet in the rehearsal room. Introductions are made and the most updated copy of the script is handed out (as this is a new work, we didn’t receive this until the first day – usually scripts are sent out at least a couple of weeks in advance). The artistic director and director of education at the theater come down to welcome us and inform the actors about certain aspects of this show, such as student matinees. I have a made an informational packet about Nina Simone’s life and the Civil Rights Movement, which has already been sent out to the actors to help them prepare. The set designer gives us an overview of what the space will look like, using a model to clarify any questions the actors and director have. The costume designer shows us sketches of what the attire is planned to look like for each character. We do a read-through of the script and I read stage directions. We discuss the script, suggest changes, and break for the day. Having met on a Monday – usually a day off due to equity regulations, our stage manager notes that we will have the following Sunday and Monday off.

Days 2-5 (roughly 11am-4pm)

Our rehearsals are during the day, as our stage manager has a show going on in the evenings at another theater. I work my day job several of these rehearsal days and arrive late. On day two, another read-through has taken place and some changes have been made. Day three, we receive and updated script and I read stage directions again for the new read-through. By day four, the actors are on their feet and begin blocking (or learning where they will stand and move throughout the space as the show progresses). A simple set with furniture is brought in and props begin to appear as they are found/requested. I begin to bring in photos to post on a board to inspire the actors, focusing on women involved in the Civil Rights Movement and 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. Our music director begins to arrange songs and work on what musical interludes should appear and what they should sound like throughout the show. Our costume designer takes measurements and brings in accessories such as hand bags for the actors to use. Additional changes are made to the script and questions are asked to clarify interactions between the characters. In my evenings after rehearsal, I continue to do research, either looking up information I am asked to find during rehearsal or adding to the photos in the rehearsal room. I beginning planning a lobby display I hope to showcase, getting in contact with the marketing director at the theater to see what my options are. In between all of this, I manage to grab eat dinner (either brought from home or from Afro Deli), catch A Chorus Line at the Ordway, and also catch a cold.

Days 6-9 (3:30-9:30pm on days 6 and 7, 4pm-9pm on days 7-8)

After a two-day break, we’re back to blocking and pacing, getting a feel for how the show will unfold, what the major arcs are and what needs to be emphasized. I continue to research (having mostly recovered from my cold) and am now putting together a timeline of the events of 1963 to have displayed in the lobby. As far as the script goes, all major changes are done, minus a few word tweaks. Our music director is given specific time in the rehearsals to practice songs, assign harmonies, and work through a capella pieces and improv components. Our costume designer takes additional measurements and continues bringing in wardrobe pieces – especially shoes – to see if they will work for our cast. I’m bouncing back and forth between my day job and rehearsals and miss part of rehearsal on day 7 in order to see a performance at my theater for work. Rehearsal is cancelled on day 8 due to a cast member’s absence for a family obligation and I have the evening off to do some writing, finish the timeline, and do some errands.

Days 10 and 11 (12pm-8:30pm on day 10, 12pm – 6:30pm on day 11)

Our two longest days in rehearsal are in front of us and give us the opportunity to really dig into material. Songs are run and rerun, particular scenes are focused on to see what isn’t working, to bring out important emotional components, and to focus on what is giving the actors trouble. We begin to work a song that includes choreography and sound elements performed by the actors, getting help from another artists in the community to help work this scene. I’m given the task of researching accents, something that usually would be given to a dialect coach, but as there isn’t one for the production (and the Birmingham accent isn’t as difficult to learn as a South African accent, for instance) I’m happy to help. I scour internet resources and Youtube videos, trying to put together a guide for vowel and specific word pronunciation. Watching Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls documentary after rehearsal on day 10 becomes my most useful source of pinpointing the accent while also expanding my knowledge of the historical root of the show.

Day 12 (3:30pm-9:30pm)

After a day off, we review what we worked – focusing on accents, remembering new blocking, and tracking props. At the top of rehearsal, the actors are fitted for microphones and new underscoring ideas are tried for the musical elements of the show. We run certain portions and focus specifically on a difficult song.

Day 13 (4pm-10pm)

Our first day onstage. I’ve received the materials I need for my lobby display and I post it while the actors warm up and practice music while on mics. This rehearsal focuses on memorizing lines, exploring the space, and working on blocking to aid sight lines in the space. I wander about the theater, sitting in various locations where the view isn’t as good to see how the show looks from these spots.

From here on out Days 14-17 are tech days. This is when lighting and sound elements are worked into the show along with the actor’s lines and movements. Costumes are worn and refitted and certain make-up and wig elements are tested. This process is very slow going at first, going from cue to cue to make sure that each sound element and lighting effect properly sets the mood and tone. It feels a little bit like stop-motion, tweaking each moment to get it right. I stick around to help with sight lines in the theater as well as to stay on book and take line notes for the actors as they continue to memorize and practice their lines. These days are long and exhausting but it’s incredible to see all the pieces fall into place during this process.

That’s the process! Interested to know more or have a specific question? Feel free to ask. If you want a more specific look at dramaturgy, please check out my guest post on my friend Kendra’s blog – and check out the rest of her amazing blog while you’re at it!

And come see Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theatre in St Paul. The show starts previews on March 8th, opens March 11th, and runs through the 26th. Ticket information and prices can be found on Park Square’s website.