A Little Respite, A Little Rest

Hey all. It’s your friendly neighborhood playwright/blogger here. You might have noticed a slight lull in reviewing. It’s not that I haven’t seen shows – I saw Hamlet at Park Square at the beginning of October, The Privateer at Park Square a couple of weeks ago, and In the Next Room at the Rarig Center just this weekend. I, however, have not reviewed them. It’s not that I don’t want to review them. But the problem is with my brain and the things it’s struggling through right now.

I have anxiety. And not like Zooey Deschanel-New Girl -“I’m socially awkward” anxiety. I mean the actual mental condition of generalize anxiety disorder. It’s been a greater struggle as I’ve become an adult and left the structure that school and having set classes offered and, as the years have gone on, it’s become a larger influence on my life. I only acknowledged that I had anxiety in 2015 and, since then, I’ve been working to learn to better handle it and reduce the things that provoke and trigger it. The 2016 election has been a definite trigger, so the last year has been a little rough. But it’s also been one of the best years of my life and I’ve grown in a lot of ways.

Right now, I’m relearning how to live with my anxiety. I started taking Zoloft just over a month ago and cut out a lot of things in my life that were causing me additional stress. One of those things was the number of shows I see. I decided to cut back in order to have more free time to focus on grad school and relax. However, after cutting back shows I found that I still didn’t have the desire to review. I wanted to see theater, but reviewing had begun to feel like a job – no, a relentless task, something that I was continually being asked to do and continued to accept because, more and more, I feel that the theater community is becoming reliant on bloggers to make up for the inadequate press we have in town. As much as like voicing my views on theater, I also don’t want to create the expectation that I will see all the shows and write all the reviews and always share my socio-political perspective. I like doing that, but right now I am tired and I need to take a break. I need to remember what it’s like to see a show without having to worry about getting home to my computer to write down my thoughts. I want to remember what it’s like to watch shows as an audience member, as an artist, not a reviewer. In the long run, I think it’ll make me a better artist and critic.

I’m hoping to get back into reviewing, I think, but right now I really need to make time for myself. The world is full of stresses and triggers, as it always has been, but my engagement with them has changed. I’ll continue to see shows, hopefully a couple a month, and I plan on writing here, more about playwriting and other thoughts I have on theater. In the meantime, I’m working on a series of posts about anxiety and theater for Minnesota Playlist, so keep your eyes out for that (I’ll also share them here once their published).

Thanks all and see you around town.

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mONSTER

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Source: Swandive Theatre; photo by Dan Norman

What happens when new technology is suddenly available to everyone and is unrestricted and unregulated? That question is at the heart of Swandive’s mONSTER, a play set in 1994, the early days of the internet. Nessa (Jamie Fields) is a college freshman, looking to make the most out of her first year of college. But she isn’t expecting roommate Brill (Kelsey McMahon) who’s taken over half the room with a desk full of the latest computer equipment who refuses to sleep except for 20 minutes every four hours and who vehemently guards her computer screen as much as she hides what she’s doing there. RA Greg (Avi Aharnoi) hints that there’s more to this than meets the eye and tries to get Nessa to move elsewhere before she agrees to the the roommate guidelines the two roommates discuss. But Nessa is too focused on having her idealized college experience to recognize something is very, very wrong in the room. Eventually, she learns that Brill doesn’t even go to college and she’s commandeered the room to fight off something that’s lurking the internet that, unless it is constantly monitored, will take over and destroy humanity. With a Black Mirror meets H.P. Lovecraft tackles modern technology vibe, this show is eerie, unsettling, and tense. All the three actors are wonderful, especially McMahon, who goes from 90s grunge chill to deeply terrified and protective in the blink of an eye.

The internet is a complicated place, and this script tries to tackle that. The show is wonderfully designed, with a spooky, claustrophobic set by by Sean McArdle, costuming by Lisa Conley, lighting by Jesse Cogswell, and sound by Kevin Springer, that all captures the feel of a 1990s dorm room while capturing the technical power of the monster that lurks beneath the surface. I did struggle with a couple of things in this piece. One part was the language – I generally really like stylized or beautiful language, but I got lost or distracted a few times in this show. Some of the technical jargon was hard for me to follow and the stylized, eloquent language, though beautiful, was hard for me to sit with, especially given the 90s setting and Nessa’s much more casual speech (which I felt like we heard more of). I also struggled with how the internet is discussed – it felt a little vague at times, especially in regards to the affect the monster has on people once they come across it on the internet. Mostly it just left me a lot of questions (which are not entirely spoiler free, so forgive me) – does the monster bring out the worst in people or does it just make them catatonic zombies (I remember both discussed, but we hear more about the latter)? How does the video sequence after the monster goes wild (which features internet bullying, 4chan, forum comments, Trump and Twitter, etc) work with the 1990s setting and the affects the monster has there? Why am I so frustrated with Nessa’s need for an awesome freshman year – is this because I had a horrible freshman experience and am now totally jaded by people who think college is going to be an awesome party and they’ll make a million friends their first year? (The answer is yes, but I digress).

Clearly it’s not a bad thing I’m having these questions – the show is thought-provoking and I love that I’m thinking about it days after the show. My struggle is that my relationship with the internet is a deeply personal one – I’ve had personal interactions with the dark side (ex: that one time I tried vlogging about fandom and someone who’s blog I foolishly mentioned went on for days about how I was the most horrible of humans and several of her friends told me how I ugly I was and all because I was baffled at why she posted the same photo of Benedict Cumberbatch over and over) and had incredibly good experiences to (I’ve made friends through social media sights, I’ve been able to keep in contact with people through Facebook that wasn’t possible before the page existed, I’ve raised money for Fringe and donated money to help fellow artists out). The internet is personal for all of us. Did it feel this way in 1994? I don’t know (I was four years old. We had a computer but I didn’t use it until I was a little older and that was to play this ridiculous game called Chip’s Challenge that was all about this guy being stuck in a computer club house and he kept getting killed by bugs. Most frustrating thing ever). I think my struggle is summed up in that we’re all coming in to this show with our own personal experience with the internet and technology and there is no earthly way that one show can ever capture all of that. The internet is a public place but because we’re accessing it from a personal place – our dorms, our homes, our phones – it feels intimate. So when something dangerous happens, it feels even more terrifying. We used to able to run away from that danger – if we something frightening in real life, we can run away. When it’s on your cellphone, on your computer, where do you go? You can turn it off, but you’ll still see those words in your mind. This show captures that fear and that’s a powerful thing. My only fear is that some people will walk out of this show feeling justified in condemning people who walk around on their phones and “look like zombies staring at their screens” (which, yes, we shouldn’t be on them all the time but also it’s the only means of staying connected with certain people in my life and I feel like the argument is always posed at millennials being the problem, instead of the fact that I see people of all ages, genders, and ethnicity on their phones. It’s all of us). This isn’t about passing judgement – it’s about recognizing how technology works on us and changes us in the world.

So, to sum up – go see this show. It’s a great place to start in the conversation about the internet. But it doesn’t stop there because this show can’t say everything. We have to share our own experiences and our own stories in order to fight for the good that the internet provides and fight back against the monsters that lurk in the deep (looking at you, Facebook trolls.) Because modern technology isn’t the monster. The monster has always been there and it’s just found a new home.

mONSTER is written by Sam Graber and directed by Meg DiSciorio. It is playing now through October 7th at the Southern Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on the Southern’s website.

When I Nod My Head You Hit It With the Hammer

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Source: facebook.com/wldrness

I have to admit that I hadn’t seen a Wldrnss/Jon Ferguson show before this (go ahead, Twin Cities, gasp in astonishment. Despite the fact that I’ve been living in Minneapolis for around seven years now, I’ve only been seriously attending theater for about three of them. And there’s a lot of theater to get to). When walking in to see this show, I only knew going in that the work was devised, featured aspects of clowning and… well, that was it. But that was all I really needed to know to enjoy this wonderful piece.

When I Nod… features three performers – Norman (John Cooper), Hugh (Jon Ferguson), and Kenny (Allison Witham) waiting in the greenroom of the theater to go on. At first it seems like they might be going on for their own show, as Eva (Katherine Fried) discovers them and they compliment how much they admire hearing her perform each night. Then when the stage manager (also Katherine Fried) comes in needing an understudy in what appears to be Hamlet, it looks as though they might be waiting to go on as ensemble members. A small child (Thomas Ferguson) appears and disappears in the scenes, perplexing the performers and the audience as to where he came from. There’s also some lovely music performed by an onstage musician (Mitchell Seymour) that smoothly glides in and out of scenes. While Kenny remembers a double act he once performed in, Hugh gets his chance to go onstage, and Norman struggles with the stage manager not remembering his name, all three grapple with memory, losses and gains, and where in the world they actually are and why they’re in this theater. At times it feels like they’re in some sort of purgatory, waiting for something to happen. As the play circles back around ideas of memory and art, I got the impression that this is a metaphor for creative work – you get stuck in a rut, you keep waiting for something, you do the same thing over and over, hoping for a change. When really you need to do something entirely different and exciting, not stick to the script, and do what you really want to do. As an artist struggling with where my place is in the theater world and continually discovering what kind of work is important to me, I found this heartwarming and inspiring (and I’m not going to lie, I cried and I don’t really know why, except that it really struck a cord with me and was really beautiful).

It’s sort of hard to put this show into words because I could see so many layers in the piece that now, trying to transcribe on paper, are hard to capture. The story seems simple at first – three guys waiting in a greenroom of a theater – but there’s more than just that story interwoven through it all. I heard others talking about this show days after I saw it, saying it was confusing or messy. I think it might look that way because there’s so many different ways to look at this piece – sort of a Waiting for Godot meets Oscar Wilde, a collage of different ways of looking at theater, a metaphor about being an artist, a hodgepodge of different scenes linked together. I don’t think there’s one way to understand this show and that’s what I love about this. But most of all I love the moments that celebrate the audience by asking them to come onstage and recognizing them at the end as if they were the artists creating the work. And, as mentioned previously, I adore the focus on what it means to create, especially surrounding the need to keep things the same and to let go of the past and move on to something new.

I unfortunately didn’t get to see this show until the end of its run, but I’d love to talk about this show with others who saw it and see what stood out to them. When I left the theater that night, I felt like I’d just sat down with a cup of tea in someone’s living room and had a long talk about melancholy things, happy things, complicated things, and inspiring things that keep us going. I felt like someone had wrapped me up in a warm blanket before sending me back out into the world and, given the way the world looks right now, that’s something I’m incredibly grateful for.

Dancing on the Edge

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Source: facebook.com/theatrenovimost 

Language is a finicky thing. As I sit here writing this, I’m aware that my words to you are going to sound different depending on whether you know me or not, whether you habitually read my blog or are coming across it for the first time, whether you have certain expectations for theater blogging and so on. I’m personally struggling to find the right language to discuss the Twin Cities theater scene right now – there’s a lot of moving parts in my mind and I have a lot of contradictory feelings. So it’s more than fitting that the play I’m discussing focuses so much on language, translation, and how we communicate.

Dancing on the Edge is a new work by Theatre Novi Most, focusing on the relationship between Russian poet Sergei Esenin and American dancer Isadora Duncan (though I hesitate to use the word “dancer” as Duncan hated it and preferred being known as an “expressioniste of beauty”). Their relationship was passionate and turbulent. They fell in love quickly, even though they didn’t speak each others languages but loved each other for how their art reflected the world. Esenin abuses alcohol and Duncan is still tormented by the death of her children in an automobile accented. Esenin, played by Sasha Andreev, and Duncan, played by Lisa Channer, are complicated, beautiful, difficult and wonderful, moving constantly from empathetic to dislikable to extraordinary to mad. Sergey Nagorny and Katya Sepanov serve as narrators and important figures in the lives of Esenin and Duncan, giving a window into the lives of these figures who, in their words, drove people around them insane.

What’s most striking about this piece is how it deals with language. Characters who speak Russian to each other or speak English to each other are shown speaking in English for the audience to understand. But when Duncan and Esenin communicate, Duncan speaks English and Esenin speaks Russian. Regardless of whether we understand Russian or not (and I only known the handful of words my college roommate has taught me) we can still understand what is being expressed and hear the music in Esenin’s poetry in the language it was written in. When Lola (one of the characters played by Katya Sepanov) tells Esenin that she’d rather his words not be translated into English because they would lose their inherent beauty, we understand why she’s resistant to share his words. Likewise, having language that might be foreign for audience members allows for us to better understand how Duncan and Esenin’s relationship functioned as they couldn’t communicate solely through words. I love it all most of all because, as a writer, there comes a time where words can’t speak on their own and something more is needed. Through Duncan’s movement and the emotional honesty in this piece, something far greater is created.

As I was leaving the theater Thursday night, I passed by a couple, one of whom remarked, “Well, that was interesting.” I’ve lived long enough in Minnesota to know that often that’s a passive-aggressive remark that means one doesn’t know what to think or didn’t enjoy the work. As I didn’t butt in to ask them what they meant, I’d like to assume their language means something more than that  – this piece is a lot of things, and most of all, it is interesting, sincerely so. It’s complex and doesn’t leave the audience with an either/or, black and white perception of this couple. They led complicated lives and had powerful art and this play does wonders capturing it all in two and some hours.

Dancing on the Edge is written by Adam Kraar and directed by Vladimir Rovinsky. It is playing for one short weekend at the Southern theater, now through September 10th. Show and ticket information can be found on Theatre Novi Most’s website.

Meet Me in St. Louis

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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!

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.

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.

Little Wars

 

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Source: primeprods.org

This post was originally published on Minnesota Playlist. 

Prime Production is one of the newest theater companies in town, seeking, as their website states, to “explore, illuminate, and support women over fifty and their stories through the creative voice of performance.” Looking for more diversity of storytelling work that create more outlets for all women to share their stories (especially in theater, where women over fifty can find it difficult to find a role) I eagerly awaited their first full production, Steven Carl McCasland’s Little Wars.

Set in Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s Parisian salon in the beginning of WWII, the play introduces us to a group of writers (Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Agatha Christie) visiting the book-cluttered and art-filled home to discuss writing. Among them is Bernadette, a German Jew in hiding and Muriel Gardiner, a political activist who has come in search of funds in order to help Jews escape from Germany. Full of strong characters and stronger opinions, I was swept away by the whiskey-drinking, swearing women who strode through sexual norms, issues of relationships and divorce, and politics with broad strides and strong words.

Seeing a space that reminded me of my own with books piled precariously, walls filled with bright images and literature references while the women my friends and I might hope to be in thirty years discussed intellectual and personal topics struck me as something a bit different. I don’t recall seeing an entire cast of women, a majority of them over the age of forty, onstage before, let alone a show that featured them and gave them more to talk about than just love and growing old. This play celebrates women in all of their complexities and allows them to argue and drink in ways that is too often only written for men. As a whiskey-drinking, swearing LGBT writer who spends a great deal of her time discussing politics, the characters and issues at stake hit a personal tone for me.

The politics of the piece also feel timely (unfortunately) as discussions of fascism are only on the rise. “I won’t let it happen again, Bernadette,” Gertrude promises her maid, echoing a promise I hear uttered again and again. In the play, this involves not just the rise of Nazis but also sexual violence. “We waste so much time with silence,” Muriel tells us towards end of the show. What is perhaps most compelling is the need and desire thes women find to do something, to have their own resistance to the world around them that reaches beyond their salon, where they can discuss things in safety and privacy. For Lillian Hellman, it becomes more than just donating but actually getting involved in acts of resistance. Given our time and place, it’s an important message we all need to hear.

There is a caveat to this. As Kit Bix discusses on Talking Broadway and Matthew Everett alludes in his review, the historical accuracy of this play is highly questionable. Unfortunately, it seems that Gertrude Stein most likely did not support the resistance of Nazis – in fact, is seems she supported the Vichy government (as discussed in this New Yorker article). Though I certainly don’t expect plays to be entirely accurate in terms of history, I do like to know when things stray from the truth or when liberties have been taken. Since the play focuses so much on who will tell their stories, especially Bernadette’s speech at the beginning and at the end, it comes as a bit of a shock to know that play is far more fictitious than it seems.

As a dramaturg, I find these historical perspectives important and wish they had been dealt with in some way – a statement in the program, a resource guide, etc. As Prime is a new company, I hope that future productions will work to include this research when it is necessary. While these uneasy historical lessons do change how I relate to the show, I still find myself blown away by the representation of women in this piece. The moments of intersectionality – between gender and sexuality, age and gender, and politics and gender – are moments of vital connection to me.

I look forward to seeing more of these intersections (with race, class, etc) in the future work that Prime has planned. I hope I continue to see more and more diverse representation of women, not just in this theater company, but in all companies.

Note: It was pointed out to me by a Minnesota Playlist reader in the comments that there is a director’s note in the program that the situation of the play is purely fiction. Perhaps it’s telling that I overlooked this or perhaps it’s merely my not paying enough heed to the program. Nevertheless, it is noted. 

Red Velvet

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Source: facebook.com/WalkingShadowCompany

In the program for Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s production of Red Velvet, director Amy Rummenie includes in her notes, “…I’m fearing the implications of the well-worn phrase ‘the more things change, the more things stay the same.'” This sentiment haunts and propels the play, which features the story of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge (JuCoby Johnson) is the first African-American to play Othello, taking the stage after company member Edmund Kean collapses onstage in a Covent Garden production. Kean’s son, Charles (Ty Hudson) is infuriated that he is not the natural replacement for his father. While protests occur in the the streets of London calling for an end to slavery, Charles and company member Bernard (Michael Lee) see the fight for equality as a fad and company director Pierre’s (Andy Schnabel) choice of lead catering to fashion and politics. Pierre believes that Ira is the right man for the part and, while rehearsing with Ellen (Elizabeth Efteland), he proves himself to be progressive in his acting style. “So I may play how I feel? How avant garde!” Ellen proclaims. Despite his wonderful skill onstage, the reviews that come in about the production focus only on Ira’s skin color and the perceived indecency to have a black man physically touch a white woman onstage. When accusations about the company come out against Ira, the true prejudice in the theater is revealed and when we see Ira at the end of his career, we see him in white-face, playing Lear in Poland, taking on the guise of a man who had a successful career – but not the man we first saw in Covent Garden.

This outstanding cast carries the variety of roles and viewpoints with panache. Johnson and Efteland steal the show with beautiful, poignant performances, balancing 19th century dialogue along with Shakespearean scenes. However, Lee and Hudson’s love-to-hate characters are compelling as well and give voice to opinions that were considered logical not so long ago (and continue to persist in many ways today). Schnabel carries the complicated role of Pierre wonderfully – a man who wants his theater to be political but also wants to keep his company alive. And when worst comes to worst, he is no more free from the biases of society than anyone else. Bear Brummel (Casimir/Henry) adds excellent comedic relief and insight to progressive voice in theater at the time. Sulia Rose Altenberg (Halina/Betty/Margaret) carries three roles and three accents with exceptional poise and Kiara Jackson (Connie) with few lines brings enormous impact with her role as a maid who is present but often silent, until she warns Ira of what it is like to be black in this society.

There are so many layers of social discussion going on in this show – there’s the issue of race, the issue of what it means to “threaten decency,” the debates around different styles of acting (show wonderfully in Charles’s audience-facing, high dramatic delivery versus Ira’s more modern, intimate delivery given to the other actors in the scene), and the very purpose of theater itself. Is it for escapism or is it meant to be political? As someone who often finds herself at odds with patrons who do no understand the political implications of theater and continue to have debates such as the ones in the play, I was grateful to see these issues presented in front of an audience in such a way.

Beyond the politics, there are other implications for theater – what do you do when someone is accused of being unsafe onstage and harming another company member? This has a certain gravity given the events at Profiles Theatre in Chicago, but the allegations that come out against Ira in the show appear unfounded and racist, given what we know about him. Earlier, when Charles is concerned about Ellen’s safety, Ellen cries, “We were acting!” “How do you know?” he volleys back, unable to tell the difference between Othello and Ira, making the racist assumption that all black men are the same. Hidden in this is also the fear that an actor may not actually but acting but playing themselves, an issue Pierre later brings up, tying racist thinking up into the very concerns that actors have about working with each other. For Ira, this leaves him in a complicated place – what does he have to sacrifice to succeed as an actor? What is he to do about actors making instant judgements about him and his skill based on his skin color? What does he have to do to have a career? In the end, when we see him putting on white face to play Lear, this appears to be our answer. But I do wish the script had dug into this more and shown more of the aftermath of Covent Garden and what happened between there and Poland.

This show is beautifully designed, with an elegant set by Annie Henly, exceptionally sumptuous costumes by E. Amy Hill, gorgeous light and sound by Jesse Cogswell and Thomas Speltz, lovely prop design by Sarah Holmberg, and incredible accent work done by Keely Wolter and Ari Hoptman. Overall, the world feels familiar, regardless of whether we’ve ever seen a show in Covent Garden – often in uncomfortable ways. Days after seeing the show, the story broke about the Edward Albee’s estate refusing rights to a production in Oregon that wanted to cast the role of Nick to an African-American actor. Regardless of the debate on this issue, the uncomfortable parallels between this and the issues of Red Velvet are impossible to ignore. These problems continue to repeat themselves – Ellen mentions how the things that are being said about Ira were the same things they said about women actresses. We are still saying similar things about men like Ira, and also trans actors. The world of theater, for the most part, is more progressive than other communities, but we are no less susceptible to blind spots, biases, and strong prejudices. Red Velvet presents a powerful story of just that and how it affects those artists trying to fight against the tide.
Red Velvet is written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Amy Rummenie. It is playing now through May 28th at the Southern Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on Walking Shadow’s website as well as the Southern’s.

The Assembly featuring Erik Pearson

I had the pleasure to see the Assembly on the evening of May 7th at the new Strike Theater. Riffing off the idea of a school assembly, these performances feature sketch comedy paired with a special guest. This particular evening featured Erik Pearson and the Old Smugglers, a music group whose stylings are reminiscent of Flogging Molly, using old sea ballads as the basis for a folk/rock style.

The sketches seemed inspired by the nautical theme, feature many stories of pirates (such as “Pirate Naming Day”, “Geoff the Pirate” and “Good Pirate/Bad Sailors”). Ranging from hilarious to more serious, the sketched featured a variety of narratives, stemming form influence from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen to James Bond trying to teach a new recruit that you can’t just punch your problems in the face to wondering what happens when you actually become as your Halloween costume on Halloween? What I love about sketch comedy is that it takes a lot of risks and its a way to test material. Not every joke lands the way its expected to, but it’s a lot of fun to see these sketches play with ideas and work to see what can get an audience response. My particular favorite of the evening was “Clickbait Art”, about a guided art tour by a guide who seems to be making up facts while getting challenged by a bit of an art snob and encouraged by a guy who just wants to see art about farting.
With a fantastic ensemble including Kevin Albertson, Clare DeBerg, Jeremy Johnson, Andrew Lindvall, Kim Miller, Emma Osmunson, Madeline Rowe, Josh Palmer, and feature Erik Pearson himself in several of the sketches, this was a lot of fun and a great wan to spend a Sunday evening. This was the first Assembly I attended and hope to attend more in the future.
For more about the Assembly, check out their Facebook page as well as Strike Theater’s website with information on the next performance featuring guest Heather Meyer.