Dog Logic at Theatre in the Round Players

Photo from Theatre in the Round

Dog Logic by Tom Strelich playing at Theatre in the Round Players (TRP) in Minneapolis is an odd mix of comedy and drama, with almost a hint of a thriller. The play is held together by the lead performance of Josh Jabas as Hertel Daggett. Hertel is a man content to keep plugging away at his failing pet cemetery while those around him try to get him to sell the land so a shopping mall can be developed. The strength of the play is Hertel’s unique character which is paradoxically intelligent and yet in some ways also a vulnerable adult. Jabas’ brings that character to life and carrying the show through what is an exhaustive run time of nearly two and a half hours including the intermission. Jabas’ performance includes many humorous monologues delivered to the audience as if we were the deceased pets buried in the cemetery. It’s through these one sided conversations as well as his interactions with the other characters that we come to know him. He has a way of baiting whoever he is talking too that is often amusing. For me, Hertel was reason enough to enjoy the show.

If Hertel, and Jabas’ performance of him are the strength of the play, it’s weakness is its length. While the character of Hertel is somewhat original, it’s plot about family members trying to get someone to sell their land so they can all get rich is one of the plots Moses smuggled out of Egypt. Miriam Monasch’s direction seems to lack the pacing necessary to add the needed tension to the real estate scheming. There were some nice moments in that plotline. But when you use something as creaky as that storyline is, you really need to move through it faster or you run the risk of your audience remembering every other film, play, radio and TV episode they have ever seen that utilizes it. I mentioned at the top that there was almost a hint of a thriller, that’s because there are a couple of moments when you are not sure what may have happened to one character and you realize Hertel has been doing something but you are not sure what. There are also some reversals that happen that for some reason don’t play as well as they should. A combination of quickening the pace and some judicious cuts to the text could have brought this play in at a more effective 1 hour 50 minutes. Aside from the bloated length of the play, the theatre was easily 10 degrees warmer than anyone could reasonably desire. A long run time and near tropical conditions will tend to zap the energy out of any play.

Creating a set for a theater in the round production can be a challenge but Latoya Dennis did a great job with this one. The circular fountain in the center gave the actors a natural flow to their movements around it giving all audience members an equal share of the performances. Prop Designer Robert J. smith did an excellent job of filling Hertel’s junk pile home with details that made the location feel real. Ian Fyfield as Fight Captain staged the few moments of physical altercations in such a way that in those moments that play came alive in a way it hadn’t for much of the run. The Sound design by Anita Kelling was at times effective and at other times perplexing. It was almost as if the audio clips we heard between scenes were to indicate the passage of some time or the era, but they didn’t match up with either of those ideas.

Dog Logic isn’t as satisfying as it could have been but I still find it interesting for the main character of Hertel, and Josh Jabas’ central performance which endeared me to him. He finds the humor in the world and has the ability to see through so much of the BS that those around him are trying to pass off as facts. To learn more about Dog Logic and to purchase tickets go to http://www.theatreintheround.org/ Just remember to leave the sweater at home.

Spamtown, USA Has Something to Say About Doing the Right Thing at the Children's Theatre Company

Photo by David Rubene

It has been well over a decade since I’ve been to a performance at The Children’s Theatre Company and it was nice to be back. Spamtown, USA is a more serious minded show than what I would generally expect from CTC, which is why the production is recommended for ages 9 and up. Spamtown, USA deals with the P-9 strike at Hormel in Austin MN in 1985 to 1986. It deals with this serious historical event in a way that will not bore children but will teach them with humor, just enough information, and the use of characters we come to care about. It expertly shows us the event through the eyes of the young people of Austin MN. How they see the adults and how they see each other through the eyes of their parents situations. I don’t think there is a better way to share this event with young people than what Philip Dawkins’ has accomplished with his play.

He tackles the elephant in the room right away, which is the complex reasons for the strike and the points of view of the two sides. Having the adults substitute what a real adult would say with lines like “long word” “blah blah blah” “adult Words” he tells us this isn’t about the details of the event, they don’t matter. It’s not about who was right or wrong, it’s about the effect it had on the people and particularly the kids. It also places the adults in the audience back into childhood, that is literally what we heard when our parents were talking about their jobs with each other at dinner. If that seems wrong, you have to remember this was set back in the 1980’s before children became the center of families. The world was a different place back then, many things will seem strange when compared to today. You may notice a lack of anxiety attacks despite some pretty rough things happening, that again was normal in the 1980’s. It’s a brilliant technique though that reminds adults, while also acknowledging to kids, that the play understands their angle on things.

The play follows 5 kids and 6 adults as they go through the events of the strike. Amy and Travis are the star crossed high school lovers in the play, his Dad works in the plant and her Dad is Management. When the strike begins they feel the pressures to stop seeing each other and they see each others families through the lens of what they hear their own parents say. Amy has a younger sister Carol who will be someone who can ask clarifying questions to help younger audience members understand some of the details, like what a Scab is during a strike. Travis’ sister Jude is the one through whom we see the cost of the parents being so focused on the strike. She doesn’t have clean clothes or a parent there to root her on in the big tennis tournament. She shows us that in their fight for what they want, the parents forgot they were also parents, not just strikers. The final kid is Jude’s cousin and best friend Scott. He wants to be an astronaut so he can get out of Austin MN. His father becomes a scab so that his family will be able to eat. This causes friction within the two related families, and it’s through this family that we see some of the worst elements of the strike, the intimidation and destruction. By the end there was a genuine tear in my eye for several different threads in this story. It really is an amazing example of a serious play for young people that they can understand, identify with, and also be entertained by. The children learn by watching what has happened, watching their parents and watching their own relationships. They learn hopefully a different way for their futures.

The Director of the play Will Davis has done a wonderful job of keeping the story moving. The set Design by Christopher Heilman aids in this tremendously, with a set which is a serious of transparent houses, they are configured and reconfigured quickly switching the scene from one house to the next to the diner or even the factory. There is a curtain along the back wall of plastic flaps like they have in walk in refrigerators which reminds us that Hormel is the backbone of the town of Austin and the backdrop for the drama of the play. There were some nice lighting effects by Lighting Designer Karin Olson that played well with that plastic flap curtain, used to create the appearance of a large rally or the some tension causing silhouettes. I’ll just say also that the cast was very good.*

Spamtown, USA plays through April 5th at the Children’s Theatre Company for more information and to purchase tickets go to http://childrenstheatre.org/

*In general I do not review the performances of young actors. I feel it is important for young people to take part in the arts. I want them to participate in theatre because they love doing it, not for the feeling they get when someone praises what they have done. On the flip side I don’t think they need to hear criticism of their performances at such a young age. A negative comment can be hard on a mature performer but it goes with the territory, as an adult actor you have to develop a thick skin and accept that not everyone is always going to like what you’ve done. But young artists are not always equipped to deal with that. Be sure that if the acting was terrible it would be reflected in the quality of the production itself, which is what my review will be. As a rule, in a show dominated by young actors I will tend to simply avoid performance discussion in general, including the adults in the cast.

The Golden Ass, Perplexing on the Surface, But Profoundly Confusing Underneath

I have written elsewhere about the fact that I have had very little exposure to opera, something that I am working on changing in 2020. 113 Composers Collective’s new production The Golden Ass is an experimental opera. Experimental opera is like regular opera but without beautiful singing, a discernible narrative, or accessibility. Before you jump to conclusions let me point out that I didn’t say it was bad singing, I said “discernible narrative”, and frankly inaccessible seems to be the goal. When the lights came up after a little over an hour I had no idea what I had seen or heard. I mean, obviously I know what I saw and heard, but I had no idea what any of it meant. If I had left the theater right then and headed home I think I would have gotten no further in understanding what I saw. But I stayed after for a talk back session with some of the creators and artists involved in the production. I can’t say that it brought comprehension to what I saw, but at least I moved past the feeling that there was nothing to understand. That is ultimately the goal for The Golden Ass. The creators talked about seeing it multiple times and coming to new understandings each time. A deeper understanding comes from questioning and probing for what meaning is there, and in this case most of what you find will be what you brought with you.

I’m not going to spend time on the basic story, it’s a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche Myth, click her to familiarize yourself with it courtesy of Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupid_and_Psyche . But this is a retelling for a psychological point of view, it’s also being told out of any narrative sequential order. Of course reading that I tried to impose a narrative onto what we were presented with. But there isn’t one, it’s about the moods and feelings that Psyche has at times. Listening to the composer Tiffany M. Skidmore and director Joey Crane it’s clear that for them the experience is filled with purpose and meaning. The problem is there is no way for someone coming in cold to the performance could interpret anything they saw in the way Skidmore and her Librettist Patrick Gallagher see it. There is basically no comprehensible language sung there is no action other than that of dancers who play a sort of silent greek chorus. They move very very slowly around the room. The music is challenging, it’s unlike what you are used to hearing, it is not melodic, it is discordant. The singing is not singing as we traditionally think of it. Rather than singing words the performers seem to be doing impressions of a theremin. But that is impressive in it’s own way. This type of music must be the absolute hardest for a performer, it’s not like you can learn the lyrics and notes to a song, you would absolutely need to read the music and lyrics as you perform it, there is no chorus, no melody, just sounds.

Along with the singing and movement there is also a visual aspect. there are filmed images that are projected behind and above the performers. They said that provides what little narrative there is, but I don’t see it. Between the dancers who move throughout the theater, sometimes in front of the audience sometimes behind, Conductor Elizabeth McCann also doing movement, and the filmed images projected it’s hard to know where to look. This is another element that leads one to be unsure of the intentions of the the company. Where are we supposed to look? What is important? In traditional theater the job of the behind the scenes and the onstage talent is to draw our attention where they need it to tell their story. Experimental opera seems to be the antithesis of that. They don’t seem concerned with you understanding a story, they don’t seem to be concerned with where you are looking, if so they wouldn’t have things happening all over the room, in front of, to the side, and behind you simultaneously.

I know this sounds very negative, and honestly this is not for everyone. But I’m glad I checked it out. I’m describing things accurately above. I think this is an example of what Hamlet said “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”. I’ve described things that in an ordinary play/musical/opera would be negatives. But this is an experimental opera, and these things are perhaps not the negatives in this form as they would be in others. If you are curious, if you like avant-garde, if you enjoy unusual music, you may find this challenging but enjoyable as well. Did I mention the two Cellist who sit on stage throughout and never play? It’s that kind of thing. The Golden Ass plays through 2/23/20, For more information and purchase tickets go to http://www.113collective.com/

Significant Other is Seriously Funny at the MN Jewish Theatre Company

It feels like just about every other show I see nowadays is in a theatre I’ve never been to before. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s production of Significant Other was staged at The Highland Park Community Center. Not a large theatre and like many of these smaller venues it means there isn’t a bad seat in the house. As for the show itself, I remarked to my companion that it’s not often, even at a good comedy that you find yourself laughing out loud at a play. Well, this was one of those times when I laughed out loud many times. This is a wonderful comedy performed by a talented cast. Filled with moments that ring true because the humor comes from character as much as from jokes. The cast finds something in each character to give us a glimpse of real people, it’s funny because it’s true, applies in this case.

Joshua Harmon’s script reminded my companion of Sex and the City. To me it brought to mind Bridget Jones’s Diary if the focus was on Bridget’s gay male friend Tom, instead of Bridget herself. Jordan played by Bradley Hildebrandt is a gay man in New York City who’s circle of girlfriends are hooking up and getting married one by one. Jordan longs for a man of his own, but in very amusing ways he is his own worst enemy. Hildebrandt plays Jordan as a ramped up version of all of our insecurities. Again, his struggles are funny because we recognize them as the same ones we’ve all had at times. He gets the most out of the scripts humor heightening things a bit but never going to far or becoming a caricature. When the play takes a serious turn he is equally up to the task. The play moves fast, switching at times from one time to another mid scene. There are instances of Jordan relaying what happened and as he does so we see it in flashback. Harmon’s script isn’t afraid to draw attention to itself and it works beautifully moving as it does from the present to the past and from reality to fantasy.

The ensemble is tight, particularly Chloe Armao, Audrey Park, and Olivia Wilusz, who play Jordans circle of girlfriends. Each creates a distinct and unique character all are given their moment to shine and make the most of it. Wilusz’s Kiki is every loud coworker, drunk girl at a bachelorette party you’ve ever seen or known. Park’s Vanessa, is the ironic friend who is the voice of reason when the others might get swept away by some romantic notion. Armao’s Laura, is Jordan’s best friend, the buttoned down, and quiet one. When she finds happiness it’s the hardest loss for Jordan to accept. They have a scene at the end that switches gears on the entire play rather abruptly. It’s here where Jordan loses the audience a bit. Up until this point we can identify with his quirks and emotional outbursts, but at the end he goes a little too far perhaps, and we start to think he needs to grow up a little and be a bigger person. Two other actors each play three different roles each and find a way to make them all distinct. Paul LaNave, who is Will, one of the objects of Jordan’s affections is channeling Ryan Reynolds, but when he plays the other two characters, the resemblance is gone. Tony Larkin has a great time with an over the top coworker character Evan, then gets to dial it back to play his other two roles.

Hayley Finn’s direction is spot on, she has the characters move in and out of moments in creative ways. Stage managing one of LeNave’s characters changes in the flash of an eye. The Scenic Design by Michael Hoover is simple and clearly on a budget, but very ingeniously designed. With coffee pot that appears and disappears in the blink of an eye, panels and sections that turn and pull out to instantly suggest a new location, without requiring a lengthy scene change. The one lighting by Todd M. Reemtsma however seemed off. I don’t know if the facilities were lacking and that was an issue, but it was not a good looking show in that respect. But that was a minor distraction.

Significant Other plays through March 8th. For more information and to purchase tickets go to http://mnjewishtheatre.org/.

The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society Focused on MN Writers This Month

Image of an old-time radio with F. Scott Fitzgerald in place of the dial. In the background is a spooky image of a large manor.

The Park Square Theatre Hosted The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society again this past monday. If you missed it they will be back for three more dates March 9th, April 20th, and May 11th. Each show is different – Monday’s show focused on Writers Alonzo Deen Cole and F. Scott Fitzgerald both of whom are from Minnesota. Next month’s focus will be on Hard Boiled Detectives. They will perform “Red Wind” from The Adventures of Philip Marlowe and “Symphony of Death” from Candy Matson Yukon. The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society are Shanan Custer, Joshua English Scrimshaw, Tim Uren and Eric Webster. This Quartet of radio fanatics bring to life scripts from the golden age of radio. Their performances perfectly emulate the style of the radio programs of suspense, horror and mystery from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Along with their vocal work, they also create live the sound effects that accompany the tales.

If you’ve never experienced a performance like this in the style of those old radio broadcasts you really need to check it out. I highly recommend these shows for families, including grandparents who may even remember listening to some of these very shows. It’s a unique opportunity to step back in time and show the younger generation what home entertainment used to look like. If they enjoy this, then you might suggest they take a further step back in time and try reading a book.

The January show sold out, and from what I could see, February’s looks to have as well. I hope Park Square and The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society extend their relationship beyond May. I can’t see why a permanent residency wouldn’t be beneficial to both parties. Reminder upcoming dates are March 9th, April 20th, and May 11th. I encourage you to go to https://parksquaretheatre.org/ to purchase tickets. To get an idea of what to expect you can also check out the groups podcast where they play an original radio show and then discuss it. You can locate that via apple podcasts here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/mysterious-old-radio-listening/id1150030946 It can also be found on Spotify.

Twelfth Night is a Delight at The Guthrie

Photo by Dan Norman

The Guthrie Theater’s new production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is outrageous fun from start to end. Featuring a cast of 10 local artists who bring this nearly 420 year old play to fresh and vibrant life. The Guthrie has a long tradition of staging Shakespeare. Recent years have seen wonderful productions of Romeo and Juliet and As you Like It. This new production of twelfth Night is my favorite. It had been years since I’d seen a production and it took a little while to refresh my mind as the play proceeded. I highly recommend those new to the show read the Synopsis in the program before the play begins. It’s one of those Shakespeare comedies that involves shipwrecks and twins, if you don’t know the basic plot you may find yourself as confused as the characters in the play are. But rest assured, even if you are lost, you are still in for a treat.

Twelfth Night typically begins after there’s been a shipwreck which has separated twins Sebastian and Viola. In the Guthrie’s production, we get to see the shipwreck, which is well handled. But the real start of the play is a treat too sweet to spoil. Viola disguises herself as a man and enters into the service of Duke Orsino. The Duke sends Viola, now called Cesario, to woo the wealthy Countess Olivia on his behalf. Olivia falls in love with Cesario, while Cesario…I mean Viola, has fallen in love with Orsino. There are two other suitors who wish to become Olivia’s husband, Sir Andrew and a servant Malvolio. Remember there is an identical, though opposite gendered twin out there too and you can imagine the antics that will ensue. Add to this three characters that seem soley bent on creating mischief and misleading people. Throw in the Mr. Furley and the Roper’s and you’d have the makings of every single episode of Three’s Company.

A cast this good it’s hard to single out individuals, but my favorites are mostly made up of characters not mentioned above. Sarah Jane Agnew plays Maria, Olivia’s Lady in waiting who plots with local legend Sally Wingert’s Sir Toby, to make a fool out of Malvolio. I found my eyes drawn to both whenever they took the stage. Olivia’s fool Feste is played by Luverne Seifert. Seifert in addition to his unexpected first scene also contributes to one of the major pluses of the production, he sings, and well. One of the unexpected joys of this production is the music that has been infused into the proceedings. Wingert’s Sir Toby is behind Sir Andrews wooing attempts. Joy Dolo portrays Sir Andrew with the intelligence of Lou Costello and the fashion sense of Elton John.

The Costume Designer Ann Closs-Farley efforts are a highlight of the show. From the outrageous outfits of Sir Andrew and Sir Toby’s wild suits to Olivia’s sexy purple dress and Feste’s fool outfits, reminiscent of a clown. The set design by Naomi Dawson, with a water pond in the center and dock-like structures creates a unique environment. Aided by Yi Zhao’s Lighting Design and Sartje Pickett’s Sound Design and musical compositions, this is a well rounded and cohesive production. The use of balloons at several different points works quite well visually. The aforementioned shipwreck is particularly well handled, with the stage proving to be deeper than suspected. The use of ropes and the deck on the outermost portions of the deck was particularly effective. Credit is due to Movement Director Carl Flink particularly for staging a thrilling shipwreck and for that opening I don’t want to spoil. Fight Director Aaron Preusse also does strong work, they is a physicality to this production that makes it feel light and alive. I admire Director Tom Quaintance’s willingness to try something so bold in terms of restructuring the play so we see the shipwreck. The entire production is filled with moments of glee and self awareness. There are many instances of characters playing to the audience or even with them. That first scene really does set the stage for what to expect, which is the unexpected.

Twelfth Night plays through March 22nd for more information and to purchase tickets please visit https://www.guthrietheater.org/ .

Superman Becomes Lois Lane Takes Flight and Soars at the His(Her)story Theatre

Photo by Rick Spaulding

Superman is in the title of the play, but he is not the only hero associated with it. Superman Becomes Lois Lane is written by real life hero Susan Kimberly. This is her story and by sharing it, she helps facilitate understanding and compassion, and that, makes the world a better place. Freya Richman stars in the show as Susan, she is also a hero. You can google both of these women to find out more about what they have done politically and socially to make the world a better place for the transgender community. The incredibly brave thing each of them does is live an open and public life. Many Trans people will decide to transition and then live their life as the gender they identify with. That is the right thing for them, everyone’s needs are different and personal. I also know from personal experience that those who are able to share their journey bring comfort, validation, and hope to those who are just beginning. My son began to transition about seven years ago when he was nine years old. As parents we gained reassurance, comfort, and understanding from reading books, and talking to other people about their transitions and their lives. We have also experienced the understanding and empathy that we can create by sharing our story, and our sons journey. Reading about someone transitioning in a newspaper, magazine, or seeing it on a news program raises awareness and dissipates some of the mystery. Which is crucial to gaining an understanding that this is a normal event for many people on this planet – if anything is normal. But when we share our story in person we transfer that story not simply as data but with emotion as well, and that is when we create empathy. Superman Becomes Lois Lane does that as well. The play shares Kimberly’s story, not just the facts. It delves deeply into her emotions, her inner life, her past, her fears and it creates a much fuller and richer comprehension in the audience of Susan Kimberly. Not as a fictional character or a celebrity, but as a human being. As a woman who was once a man and the challenges that entailed.

This is an important message for all of those reasons, but it is also a really good play. Kimberly’s story is told as if Bob, Susan’s name before she transitioned, is a separate person. Susan and Bob have conversations with each other and talk about each other in the third person. This like so many aspects of a transgender persons journey is different from person to person. I could relate to this aspect, I think of my son and my daughter in some ways as two entirely different people. When I see my son I see who he is now. I remember my daughter, and rationally I can remember the things he did as a little girl, I haven’t lost that person or those memories, but when I look at him and think about him now, I just see my son. I don’t know how he thinks about that aspect. Playing it as two seperate characters was a powerful technique to utilize to tell this story, and I believe that this is how it was for Susan. Susan and Bob basically narrate the story, jumping in and out of scenes with other characters, flashing back and forth in time to uncover the pieces of her story. We meet Therapists, family members, friends, even Norm Coleman, getting a greater understanding with each scene of Kimberly’s journey. The third main character is Mae, Bob’s wife who remained Susan’s friend. Kimberly wisely includes her as a major character as well. Through Mae, many of those in the audience who are Cisgender, have our own “in” to the story. We understand how it must have felt to have gone through this life with Bob and Susan. We can see in her unwavering support, not for Bob or Susan but for the person they both are, a strength and courage that we can all aspire too.

Freya Richman as Susan, Sean Michael Dooley as Bob, and Jamie White Jachimiec as Mae ground a play that involves past lives and conversations between two actors who are in reality, the same person. Freya Richman is the soul of the production, her own journey must have greatly informed her performance and as such it’s hard to imagine another actor that could have brought so much to the role. She plays the lack of confidence and confusion that Susan feels at times particularly well. She has a quality that seems particularly open and allows the audience to develop empathy through every stage. Susan is at times sad, nervous, defeated, jealous, angry, hopeful, optimistic, excited and triumphant. Whatever the emotion the character is feeling, we not only understand through Richman’s performance what it is, but why. Sean Michael Dooley and Jamie White Jachimiec support Richman on this journey also creating characters that we become attached to and admire. They have a moment together during the second act that is heart wrenchingly powerful and beautiful. The cast is rounded out by three excellent ensemble players Sam Landman, Casey E. Lewis and Melanie Wehrmacher who all play multiple roles such as friends and Doctors.

The Play was directed by Laura Leffler and in my eyes she is another hero, see my review of Steel Magnolias from last November for that story. Here, she takes on what must of seemed like an overwhelming challenge. The time shifts, coming in and out of scenes, two actors portraying one person. This could easily have become a muddle, a confusion. Leffler strategically utilizes the multi-level set designed by Michael Hoover to clarify the changes when they take place. The video design by Kathy Maxwell, lighting design by James Eischen, and sound design by Katharine Horowitz all work together beautifully. I was very impressed with the set itself and the use of projection to help establish location and mood. Another pleasing aspect of this production was the program itself. It includes a Q & A with Susan Kimberly, a glossary of terms, and a spread on ways to support Trans people.

Superman Becomes Lois Lane is playing through March 1st at the History Theatre for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://historytheatre.com/