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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The Children

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Source: pillsburyhousetheatre.org

It’s better late than never to see Pillsbury House Theatre’s production of The Children. I made it to the closing weekend of the production and I’m so glad I caught it. A riveting adaptation of the Greek story of Medea, this play imagines what would happen if someone had intervened before Medea killed her children out of rage and grief at her lover’s plans to marry another. When Ben (Kurt Kwan) and Lily (Kate Guentzel), Medea’s children, are taken away from Ancient Greece into modern Maine by chorus member (Tracey Maloney), their nurse-maid (Michelle O’Neill) inadvertently joins them. Terrified that her mistress is enraged at her and causing the hurricane that they are trapped in, the nurse-maid believes that she must placate Medea, find her spell book, and return the children to her. When a sheriff (Jim Lichtscheidl) arrives to help them evacuate from the storm, the nurse-maid believes him to be Medea in disguise and, instead of going with him and the chorus member, she whisks the children away and hides them, wanting to be forgiven by her mistress more than caring for the welfare of the children.

As Ben and Lily realize their caretaker is not to be trusted, Ben tells Lily stories to calm her down. But when he realizes he cannot remember his own mother’s story accurately, things begin unravel and Ben’s hope that the chorus member will return to save them becomes faint. Realizing that they must find the hope and strength within themselves to get out of this situation, Ben’s story becomes that of another child and in a powerful, gut-punching twist, this play delves into a deep and astounding realm of dealing with trauma and hope.

Not only is this play mesmerizing and emotional, the world it inhabits is rich and beautiful, swaying back and forth between frightening and magical. The use of puppetry, beautifully designed by Masanari Kawahara, adds a wonderful level of skill and emotion, allowing the audience to go back and forth between the puppets’ movements and the actors’ emotions that they are showing and projecting through the puppets. As Michael Elyanow noted during the discussion after the performance I attended, the use of puppets prevents child actors from being traumatized every night but also allows the characters a way to work through their trauma as they shift from childhood to adulthood. The lush sound design by Katherine Horowitz, poignant lighting by Michael Wangen, and haunting set by Joel Sass blend with Kellie Larson’s props and Clare Brauch’s costumes to make a world that lends itself both to the imagination and the far too real.

This show is full of really wonderful theatrical moments – the movement of the puppets, beams in the ceiling that move as the hurricane hits, lighting that aid scene shifts but carry a certain significance at the very end of the play. This show really carries a huge emotional component that is reminiscent of another of Elyanow’s shows, Lullaby. This show has haunted me afterwards and is such a powerful, beautiful perspective on overcoming trauma, finding strength and trouble in the power of hope, and learning how to be loved after a terrible ordeal. It’s one I wish I could see again, after knowing how it all comes together, and hope it returns in another staging soon.

The Children is written by Michael Elyanow and directed by Noel Raymond. It is playing now through October 16th. Ticket and show information can be found on Pillsbury House Theatre’s website.

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.