Meet Me in St. Louis

second fiddle

Source: facebook.com/secondfiddleproductions

If you aren’t already aware of Second Fiddle Productions, a company that produces staged readings of rarely produced musicals each year in the Twin Cities, let me introduce you. This year’s production was of Meet Me In St. Louis, a movie turned Broadway musical about a family living in the city of St. Louis during the World’s Fair in 1903. While the fair was a celebration for St. Louis and became a great source of regional pride, this musical celebrates a year in the life of the Smith family.

What I like best about these staged readings is the bare-boned nature, with actors standing before music stands with script and music in hand, featuring their acting and singing skills with the piece after a very short rehearsal period. With one rehearsal focusing on learning the music and another with a run-through of the piece, the result is always incredible, with wonderful acting and brilliant musicality. The casts feature some of the best of Twin Cities musical theater and this performance was certain no exception:

  • Esther Smith  – Sheena Janson
  • Mrs. Anna Smith – Kym Chambers
  • Tootie Smith – Natalie Tran
  • Grandpa Prophater – Gary Briggle
  • Rose Smith – Bergen Baker
  • Katie – Shelli Place
  • Agnes Smith – Anna Baker
  • John Truitt – Adam Moen
  • Lon Smith – Andrew Newman
  • Mr. Alonso Smith – Bill Marshall
  • Warren Sheffield – Robbie Droddy
  • Lucielle Ballard – Ruthie Baker
  • Eve/Ensemble – Elena Glass
  • Postman/Motorman/Clinton Badger – Adam Qualls

The reading was directed by Emily England and also featured Kyle Picha as musical director/keyboard, Ellen Hacker on violin, Melissa Nielsen on horn, and Matt Nielsen on drums.

I’ve learned a great deal about musical theater from these staged readings and can’t recommend Second Fiddle enough. Keep an eye out for the upcoming 2018 season as well as a benefit that will happen this fall to help support future readings. And if you’d like to donate so that Second Fiddle can keep staging these rarely produced musicals, please visit their website and learn more about who they are and their past productions!

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Sweet Land

sweetland

Source: History Theatre

About this time last year, I got really obsessed with the music from Bright Star, which at the time was still playing on Broadway. While that show has, sadly, since closed, I’m grateful that another beautiful, folk-inspired musical is playing now at St. Paul’s History Theatre.

Sweet Land, based off the film of the same name and Will Weaver’s novel A Gravestone Made of Wheat, is the story of Inge Altenberg (Anne Michels), a woman from Germany who immigrates to US (specifically moving to Park Rapids, MN) in order to marry Olaf Torvik (Robert Berdahl), a man she has never met. However, upon meeting Inge, the residents are taken aback that she is German. Right on the tails of WWI, distrust and prejudice of Germany and Germans is high and the local pastor (Michael Gruber) refuses to marry them. While Inge waits for her references from German to confirm that she can be trusted, she lives with Torvik’s neighbors Alvin and Brownie (Jon Andrew Hegge and Tinia Moulder) who have troubles of their own. Behind on their mortgage payments, the bank is threatening to take away their farm if the don’t pay. While Inge and Torvik fall in love and eventually face ostracism for their relationship, they fight for the community they belong to, even while it excludes them.

This show has a lot of incredible work layered into it. The cast is stellar, full of musicians who double as actors and actors who double as musicians, keeping the musical performers present and fully onstage for the whole show. Michels and Berdhal steal the show, but Gruber gives them a run for their money, making the pastor a wonderful balance between empathetic clergyman recovering from the war and a stiff, antiquated man whose perceptions need changing. The music in this show perhaps really steals it all though, with beautiful, soaring pieces that personify the way the harvest feels, the way the country looks, and expressing the innermost stories of people who otherwise cannot express themselves – especially Inge, who struggles through learning English as the show progresses. The design on this show is wondrous – Joe Chvala’s choreography is spirited and lively, Paula Post’s costuming is rustic and sumptuous, Lee Christiansen’s props, Erica Zaffarano’s set, C Andrew Mayer’s sound and, Mike Grogan’s lighting blend beautifully together to form scenes that include church services, farm house kitchens, barnyards, and train stations. What makes this show even more incredible is that it was created by an all-female team of Perrin Post (director and playwright), Laurie Flanigan Hegge (playwright and lyricist) and Dina Maccabee (composer).

While stories of immigration continue to resound in our current time, I don’t have to harp on why this story feels important at this current time. I do remember during the Raw Stages for this show that the issue of diversity was brought up and I do wish that that the cast itself had been more diverse. But overall the work of this production is staggering. It’s no small feat to create a new musical and to create one that has the . narrative arch of a classic book musical that caters both to conservative romantic stories while also bolstering more liberal (well, socialist – I mean, there’s a socialist in the show and one could argue that it’s socialism that *spoilers* saves Alvin and Brownie’s farm) approaches is especially challenging. This show does it all with panache and, on top of a fantastic season and a coming season that looks even more wonderful, I think History Theatre has yet another hit on its hands (I’m looking at you, Glensheen). So if you’re looking for an uplifting, heartwarming show to enjoy on an evening after spending a day soaking up this wonderful spring weather, this show’s for you.

Sweet Land is directed by Perrin Post, written by Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge. It is play now through May 28th. Tickets and show information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.

Big Money

bigmoney

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.

Baltimore is Burning

baltimore

Source: facebook.com/theatreforunderdogs

This is the show you need to see in post-election America. A show like Underdog Theatre’s Baltimore is Burning is always important, especially given current issues of police brutality. But in an environment as heated and strained as the one we currently find ourself in, a performance like this can only double in magnitude.

On the day Freddie Gray disappears after being violently apprehended by police, Baltimore’s CPAA, who seek justice and the protection of civil rights, are attending a scheduled meeting where their president is mysteriously absent. Trying to continue on despite absent leadership, the group is divided on issues that affect the future of their organization and how they react to the event around them. Anxiously hovering on the agenda is Freddie’s disappearance and what the CPAA will do when they discover what really happened to him.

This performance is a tour d’force, with a powerhouse cast of Brianna M. Daniels, Pedro Jaun Fonseca, Anna Hickey, JuCoby Johnson, Joann Oudekerk, Siddeeqah Shabazz, Dana Lee Thompson, and Andrew Erskine Wheeler. In a story that shows and inside look at how a civic organization functions, ideas advocacy are complicated – should the CPAA advocate rioting over peaceful protests? Can an organization run effectively when their president makes public appearances but won’t attend private meetings? What does “we just want to help” really mean? Each character is multi-dimensional, especially in terms of the police, represented by a season lieutenant with corruption coloring his career and a young officer who struggles to see past her privilege and need for respect in order to communicate with the CPAA members. Featured between scenes is real footage of Freddie Gray’s arrest. This footage, as well as the climax of the play, are difficult to watch. But they’re scenes we see more and more often, due to filming from eyewitnesses and cameras worn by the police capturing the issues of police brutality that run rampant in law enforcement.

At the end of the show, I found myself wondering if I’d breathed at all during the performance. It is an intense ride with tension arriving from the very beginning. This play excels in many ways but what it does best is taking us into a situation quite a few of us – especially us white allies – may never be in: throwing us into the meeting of a civil rights organization about to speak with the police. Quickly, we learn where each CPAA member stands and what they’re advocating. It becomes clear how impossible it is to remain calm when terrible things happen and when justice is occluded by the phrase “I was just doing my job.” Theater is especially powerful when it’s writing about a current cultural moment, and Baltimore is Burning does so wonderfully.Words cannot fully capture the power and impact of this show, so I can only beg you to see it – don’t miss this one, Twin Cities. You need to see it.

Baltimore is Burning is written by Kory LaQuess Pullam and directed by Jamil Jude. It is playing now through December 4th at Savage Umbrella’s SPACE. All shows are pay what you can and tickets can be purchased in advance from Brown Paper Tickets.

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.

Bluebeard’s Dollhouse

bluebeard

Source: facebook.com/combustible-company

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

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

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

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

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

Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story

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Source: facebook.com/historytheatre

Almost two years ago, I saw History Theatre’s production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story for the first time and, in some incredibly coincidence, was lucky enough to sit right behind Bobby Vee during the show. I was delighted to see the staged reading of Teen Idol, a new musical about Vee’s life, during Raw Stages last winter and very excited to see this story now staged at the same theater.

Beginning with Vee’s rise to fame right after Holly’s plane crash, Teen Idol follows the story of a teenage boy (Tyler Michaels) who cares deeply about his family and making music. After being offered a record deal with Snuffy Garret (Josh Carson), Vee enters the world of recored producing and works to balance his career with the needs of his family, including his girlfriend, Karen (Eleonore Dendy). Including many of the musicians Vee worked with and weaving their music with his into a sound montage of the time, Teen Idol is a fun, musically-driven new show that, as Jeff Vee described in the pre-show discussion before hand on opening night, is a personal story that tells more about Vee than just his hits and his connection with Buddy Holly.

Tyler Michaels really carries this show (even the program reflects this) and, while the other musicians Vee collaborated with are featured in the show, Vee is the most prominently featured. With Michaels’ skill and charisma, he’s the perfect Vee, capturing the enthusiasm and talent of the performer. However, other musicians such as Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Little Anthony, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, and Dion and the Belmonts are featured and we see how all of these performers collaborated and influenced each other (Note: if any of you saw the staged reading of this show during Raw Stages last winter, I’m really sad that we lost the Carole King sequence. But I’m happy the song she wrote for Vee still appears in the show for the final number). Because this is such a strong and multitalented ensemble comprised of Peter Middlecamp, Ben Bakken, Leslie Vincent, Bowen Cochran, Kenny Watson, Kasono Mwanza, and ShaVunda Brown (just to name a few of this stellar group) I wish there had been more reoccurring appearances of certain characters they performed, though I did love see them move seamlessly and easily from one characters to another in each scene. With so much talent there, it’s hard to not want to see more of them.

The largeness of the cast is a new musical is unusual at the theater, as director Ron Peluso noted before opening. Originally the show was written on a much smaller scale to feature 9 actors instead of the 26 actors and musicians that now take the stage. However, the growth in size was done to feature the variety of experiences Vee had working with different people and works to not only only add more richness to Vee’s story but also create a large-scale musical with a lot of really fabulous people, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long time.

What’s also unique about this show is the longevity of the career it follows – Vee is still alive and there’s a great deal to cover in his life. I realized after watching it how rare it is to see a bio piece about a musician in which they don’t die young and how unfortuantely prominent that narrative is in our culture. Instead, we get the rare narrative that covers both youth and old age and follows the joys and hardships throughout many years of life. The show doesn’t shy away from dark periods, focusing on Vee’s mother and brother’s mental illness, the suicide of Del Shannon, as well as Karen and Bobby’s health issues, such as Bobby’s diagnosis of dementia. 

This show has an almost cinematic feel with its quick transitions and movement between time and space in an incredibly clever stage design. The number “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” which replicates the filming of the music video includes projections from a live camera showing the ensemble dancing and is full exhilarating choreography which exhausted me just to watch. The show is rather long – it was opening night and I always find openings run a bit long, but it was at least a full 2 1/2 hours of show – yet it never dragged or lost pacing. My only wish? A rather petty one – I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the band onstage during Buddy and in Complicated Fun and, while we do see the Shadows perform with Bobby and the offstage band makes an appearance onstage for the recording room scenes and as Bobby’s sons, I really love a band present onstage at all times.

While this show’s core audience is likely those who were alive for Bobby’s rise to fame or followed his career in their youth, this performance isn’t exclusive to that audience – it’s a little nostalgia filled, but jam-packed full of music I grew up on (the Ronettes, Chubby Checker, etc) and music history. The 1960s and 70s were a time of integration in the music scene, as well as American at large, and Vee’s work plays an important role in it. I wish this thread was delved into more and handled with more care, but I’m happy to see it there. Overall, this show is a ton of fun, full of really dynamic talent, and a wonderful tribute to a musical legend.

Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee story is playing now through October 30th at the History Theatre in St Paul. It is directed by Ron Peluso, written by Bob Beverage, arranged and music directed by George Maurer, and choreographed by Jan Puffer. Show and ticket information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.

 

Calendar Girls

SONY DSC

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

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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.

 

 

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.