Family Dinner and The Mess That Follows at HUGE Improv in Uptown

Last night I attended a double feature of Improvisational comedy at HUGE Improv Theater in Uptown. This was not my first ever experience with Improv, aside from what I’ve seen in films Don’t Think Twice or on TV Whose Line is it Anyway? I attended a Improv show in High school and much more recently attended a Comedy Sportz show with the family. But I think it’s fair to say this is still not a performance style or type of show that I’m very familiar with. Which is what made this evening particularly exciting for me. I love theater that’s why I’m doing this is the first place. What I’ve found really exciting in these first few months of reviewing are all the forms I’m being exposed to that are outside of my area of familiarity. Whether it be modern dance, shadow puppetry, interactive, or like last night improv, I’m fascinated by the skill and creativity on display all around the Twin Cities. HUGE Improv is a nice half moon shaped theater, packed a little too tightly with chairs. Easy to excuse as I’m sure they want to fit as many folks in as they can. But if you are on the big and/or tall side like I am, get there early and secure an aisle seat. Like every theater in the Twin Cities they have a nice selection in the theater of craft beers and wine for the drinkers and in the lobby a delicious selection of sodas and flavored waters for the NA’s like me. Being in Uptown, the other nice thing about this theater is they have a parking lot, an overflow lot, along with the usual street parking as well.

Last night I witnessed one of the most terrifying, at least in my mind, types of performance. Improvisation as you probably know means they are creating the show as they go along, there is no script. Anyone can do improv, but it takes a special skill set to do it well. You have to be a naturally funny person, you have to think of funny things to say on the spot, throughout the performance. But that isn’t all, it’s not about simply saying one liners, you have to also react to and feed your co-improvisers. When the improv is working it’s because the performers are building off of each other, and feeding each other lines that have possabilities. Lines that can contribute to a narrative, whether it be a 10 second bit or a 10 minute scene. You have to give the other performer something to play off of. I don’t imagine selfish performers are very good at improv, you cannot always be taking from the the others you have to be generous and giving in order to make it flow. You also have to have a good memory. In a longer scene you have to remember what has happened, who the relationships are between the characters, and even what their names are. There are a lot of balls to keep in the air. To me this would feel like starring in a play, opening night packed house, curtain rises, and you realize you haven’t even read the script. If the performers on stage didn’t make it look so easy and seem to be having so much fun, it would probably create anxiety and panic attacks in half the audience.

The first show was Family Dinner which was created by Molly Ritchie years ago and has become a Twin Cites tradition, this show basically sells out every performance so book ahead. Actually stop reading and buy your tickets now and then come back and finish the review. Ok, did you book? Good! OK, spoilers ahead, that’s a little joke. The beauty of a show like Family Dinner is you can see it every year, in fact, you can see every performance every year and everytime it will be new. This show is what they refer to as long form improvisation. There is a general idea, in this case, a family getting together for a holiday meal. Before the show audience members write down suggestions for secrets the members of the family might have. At the beginning, the director looks at the chosen secrets on a screen and taps the performer she wants to use that secret. Once each performer has a secret the scenes start and trust me hilarity ensues. There is one scripted line in the entire show and that is at the end of Act 1, someone says “Dinner is ready”. There is a brief intermission where a dining room table is set and food is placed on the table. When Act 2 begins the entire cast is at the table actually eating real food and continuing on the narrative they created in Act 1. There is no point in telling you the plot as it will be different every time (see earlier in the review and do try and follow along). What I can tell you is the cast was full of very funny and extremely talented performers. They are: Sam Landman, Vann Daley, Janay Henry, Katy Kessler, Laura Berger, Maureen Lyon Tubbs and Rita Boersma.

The Mess, the second show I took in, was more of a stream of consciousness affair. When it started I wasn’t sure if it really worked. The performers seemed to start ideas and trade a line or two and then others would come on and try something else, even if it didn’t seem like the others had finished their thought or idea. This continued for a few minutes and I started to worry this was going to be too fragmented. But then it seemed like the group struck on an idea they all liked and they ran with it for awhile, from then on they would switch to new ideas or scenes but they more or less played out like sketches, some shorter than others but not just one throw away line after another. I don’t know what the actual process is but I assume the performers have worked together enough that they just have a sense what doesn’t have legs and what does. I wasn’t aware of suggestions being taken from the audience, so I assume they were just riffing on their own ideas. Improvisation as a performance skill must take practice to get really good at, and I suspect working with the same group of performers assists in developing an intuitive sense of what ideas have potential and when an idea has been milked for all it can be and is ready to be discarded and a new scene begun. Improv would terrify me, but based on the performers body language I think there must be something very rewarding and fulfilling about it if you have the gift and have developed the talent. Rita Boersma, Mike Fotis, Eric Knobel, Molly Ritchie, James Rone and Jake Scott are The Mess and they seemed to have a telepathic link that told them when to switch it up.

Of the two shows I would recommend Family Dinner first, basically so you won’t feel bad for having bought your tickets already when I suggested it above. Also It looks like The Mess has a standing show every Saturday night so you’ll have a chance once you are hooked on Improv to take it in. I couldn’t tell you which show I laughed at more, I think my narrative attuned brain appreciated the singular story of Family Dinner, but some of the funniest lines came from The Mess. All in all I recommend following my lead and taking in the double feature. For more about the Shows and to purchase tickets visit HUGE Improv Theater at http://www.hugetheater.com/ Family Dinner runs Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 PM through the rest of December. The Mess performs every Saturday night at 9:30 PM.

Letters to Santa Assemble at Bryant Lake Bowl in Uptown.

Janelle Ranek as… well, everyone. Graphic by Thomas Bonneville

Bryant Lake Bowl has it all: drinks, great food, shoe rental, and of course what bowling alley is complete without a theater? I’ve been to this theater before, I used to take my oldest son there for these London After Midnight serial productions featuring Varney the Vampire and Springheeled Jack. And my youngest son gave a guitar recital there once. So this theatre has some nice associations for me. It’s a blackbox theater perfect for comedy shows like Letters to Santa Assemble!. There’s a back section of stadium seating and then a floor section that goes right up to the stage of what can only be described as too many chairs. The theater probably seats 140 and should seat 110. Luckily I like to be in the front row, and we were there early enough to get that and on the aisle. The seating is general admission and the parking is mostly street, so I recommend getting there a little early.

Letters to Santa Assemble! is a one woman show co-written by Janelle Ranek and Brenda Lucy. The show was co-directed by Brenda Lucy and Nancy Michael. The performer is Janelle Ranek who channels 10 different characters in just over an hours time. Each character has it’s time in the sun narrating their letter to Santa. It opens with Larry Dyc, not a Dick or a Dyke it’s Dyc, like what you roll in vegas. His aspiration is to get one of his ideas picked by Shark Tank, and his creations are very unique and funny. Next we get the vacuous Amber Holstein who wants to be a social media influencer, if there is a way to misunderstand something she will, and if there isn’t, she will anyway. Nora Pearl wants Santa’s help to get her books onto Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, with titles like Being Fat is Less Work and Don’t Touch The Raccoon!, a parenting book of course, I’m not sure even Santa has enough clout to get that wish fulfilled. There are many more until the show culminates with a video piece featuring Gloria and Hillderina. Once that ends Ranek walks up from the back of the theater in costume as Gloria and answers questions that the audience provided before the show. When you go write a raunchy question, they were the most fun.

Now the key to this type of comedy is that each character needs to feel fully developed and distinct. It reminds me of some great British TV series like Little Britain or Inside No. 9, where you have two actors who play multiple roles or new roles in every episode. That can only work if you have actors who can create these distinct personalities and on some level they all seem true. That isn’t something every actor can do. Janelle Ranek is an actor who can. There are no two characters that could ever be mistaken for each other, they all look and sound different. Almost all the costume changes take place onstage gracefully with the lights dimmed while a song plays that informs the audience to some aspect of the next character. For instance, for the writer Nora Pearl, we hear “Paperback Writer” by The Beatles. These changes are not that elaborate, a change of sweater, a wig, some glasses and we are confronted by a completely new character. It’s the change in voice and mannerisms that sell the new characters. All of them are unique and all of them are very funny.

Having a great comedic actor isn’t going to get you anywhere if you don’t have a funny script. Luckily not only is Ranek a great comedic character actor but along with Brenda Lucy she’s a very funny writer as well. It’s hard to say which is better the script or the performance, but I think I’ll give the edge to the performance. There are several instances where what the character says is not as funny as the way in which Ranek says it. The laugh comes not from the lines in those cases but from the line reading. Either way, Letters to Santa Assemble! is a great fun, full of characters you will remember, and plenty of laughs to get you in a jolly frame of mind.

For more information on Letters to Santa Assemble! and to buy tickets visit the Bryant Lake Bowl website at https://www.bryantlakebowl.com/theater/letters-to-santa-assemble/?mc_id=1615 . The last performance is Friday December 27th. This is the 15th year for this show, and I can see why people would come back year after year, as I imagine the letters change but we probably get some of the same characters back year after year.

How the Grinch Stole XXXMas at Minnsky Theatre in NE Minneapolis.

Tifd Ynamite and Mimi Clochette photo by Upper Boundary Photography

OK, I feel like I’ve finally seen a typical Minnsky theatre production now. What I’ve learned is there is nothing typical about a Minnsky theatre production. I’m three shows into my Minnsky experience I can tell you this much: it could contain amazing singing or lip synching, a beautiful dance routine or striptease, it might have funny smart dialogue or the performers might seem lost on stage, there maybe acts of acrobatic wonder performed on poles, hoops, and giant swings or someone might fall off of a black box. More than likely it will contain some combination of all of these. In short a production at the Minnsky is something of a wild card. I guess you could say a show at the Minnsky is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. How the Grinch Stole XXXMas is no different. To be blunt, it’s a bit of a hot mess. The only thing wrong with describing it as such, is that you might think that’s a bad thing, you silly goose (that’s an inside joke for Betty Lou Whooterson).

I’m coming to relish these shows, there is always so much that works, that it offsets what doesn’t. In a more serious theatre the ratio might be maddening, but at Minnsky you tend to just enjoy what works and shrug off what doesn’t. One moment you are tickled at the sheer number of Dr. Seuss references they can squeeze into the first 5 minutes of the play, the next you’re trying to figure out if the chaos on stage is planned or if they didn’t remember what happens next. But before you can figure it out, someone is taking their clothes off, and it isn’t going to be who you think. Yes, I’m talking about you fishing husbands. This show was less than the sum of its parts. If you judge How the Grinch Stole XXXMas as a whole, it doesn’t add up to the fun you have as you watch it. That is the key to enjoying these shows, focus on the moment, the moments are where these shows come alive.

There is a story here that could be turned into a fun cohesive play. I could tell you the plot, explain where I think it could be tightened what could be added in order to develop a stronger theme. But again, that really isn’t the point. Suffice to say it’s the plot of the classic Grinch story filtered through a romantic comedy, with a healthy dose of Minnesota and risque humor, and topped off with iconic 90’s music. I can tell you who belongs on the stage, and I will point out the standouts, and who maybe wasn’t ready for the big show yet, which I will not do. Because this is another key to enjoying a Minnsky show, inclusion. You get the feeling watching a Minnsky show that if you have a desire to perform, they are going to give you a shot. Most productions that would be a negative, but somehow the Minnsky has turned this into one of it’s most winning characteristics. Not only are you being entertained by the cast but you are also being inspired by them. There are performers on stage doing things that require confidence and courage. A meaner audience might mock some of them, but that would be a comment on that audience not these performers. You feel watching them that they are embracing who they are and what they want to be doing. I am envious of those who achieve that level of unselfconsciousness. It is beautiful to see someone achieving this level of self love and embracing their beauty and talents. This is a cast to be celebrated, not criticised.

So let me briefly celebrated a few of the standouts, let me first acknowledge I know these are not their actual names, but I’m going off of the cards in the lobby. Jac Fatale as Betty Lou Whooterson the Mom of the Whooterville family the show is focused on. She is channeling the Fargo characterization to great effect. There was also a duet towards the beginning that starts out as a lip synch and then turns into the performers actually singing I’ll Always Love you … really good! it was a scene that was silly, funny and then amazing. Tifd Ynamite as The Grinch has an ease on stage and delivery that carries the show, whether it be interacting with Cindy Lou, The Narrator, or his Dog Max. Mimi Clochette as Cindy Lou Whooter also shines and comes across as an experienced performer who can bring the naughty and the nice. There are two near silent roles that were probably the most accomplished of the show Bookie Blues as Max and Miss Pussy Willow as Mittens the Cat. Both of these performers perfectly stayed in character, they were always doing some piece of business that fit, even when the audience wasn’t supposed to be looking at them. Mittens would be crawling across the table licking the food staying in true cat form. Max is allowed to be more than just a dog, he is more like Silent Bob to the Grinch’s Jay. That is a parallel that could probably be mined for a joke or two. The two animals also share my favorite acrobatic sequence when they take turns and then share the giant air hoop, again staying in character while doing so.

How the Grinch Stole XXXMas plays through December 13th for more information and to purchase tickets visit their website at https://www.minnsky.com/ If you are looking for something fun to do with your adult friends this holiday season check it out, it’s a wacky, Silly and naughtily fun. It is an 18+ show, it’s probably not something to take Grandma or your look obsessed judgemental friends too. But anyone else 18 or older, particularly if you were pop culturally aware in the 90’s will enjoy it.

Arbeit Opera Theatre & Loftrecital Present a World AIDS Day Program at Lush in NE Minneapolis

Victoria Vargas, Mark Campbell and Marisa Michelson

December 1st has been recognized as World AIDS Day since 1988. A day set aside to raise awareness of the HIV virus and AIDS. This year I attended Arbeit Opera Theatre (AOT) and Loftrecital’s World AIDS Day Program at Lush in NE Minneapolis. The World AIDS Day Program consisted of two sections. First were two monologues from from Angels in America by Tony Kushner with music by Ricky Ian Gordon presented as opera. The second part was the Midwest premiere of The Other Room, a 30 minute opera with music by Marisa Michelson and libretto by Mark Campbell. In between the two pieces, following a short video that shared some stories of those who have been helped by Clare Housing, Chuck Peterson, Executive Director of Clare Housing spoke. Clare Housing is an organization that provides affordable and supportive housing for people living with HIV. The evening was rounded out by a Talk Back moderated by Kelly Turpin the Artistic Director and Founder of AOT and featuring the Librettist Mark Campbell, The Director of The Other Room David Radames Toro, and representatives from Clare Housing and Justus Health. Justus Health is an organization devoted to achieving health equity for diverse gender, sexual, and cultural communities. AOT and Loftrecital’s community Partner along with Clare Housing and Justus Health was RECLAIM which provides therapy services for queer and trans youth. I love RECLAIM and was tickled to see they were a partner as my son receives services there, and loves them.

I have not seen Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, I know I know, I am ashamed of myself. I have even owned the DVD of Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation for 10+ years, so there really is no excuse. I also have very little exposure to Opera. It’s hard to comment on the Monologues themselves without fully understanding how they fit into the larger work. I can tell you that Bergen Baker the Soprano that sung the role of Harper has an exquisite voice. Unlike the second piece, these monologues were not accompanied by the Libretto projected above the performer. In this case I could have used them. Thankfully, Baker besides being an accomplished singer is also a gifted actor. What was missed in terms of “dialogue” was conveyed to the audience through her precise and moving facial expressions and body language. This is, as Linton expressed at one point, “opera on a budget”. The staging by Director Christine Weber, while simple, A few chairs a bedsheet and some projection on the background screen was all that was needed to convey place and mood.

The Other Room was a complete work, not an excerpt and as such, it is the more fully formed of the pieces. It tells the story of Lena whom it is revealed is trying to paint a picture of a tree while her friend Steve who is dying of AIDS, is attempting suicide in the next room. As she tries to get the painting right she is reminiscing about their time together, from their first day to the moment he asked for her help on this day. Victoria Vargas is well cast in the role of Lena, her voice is clear and easily understood, this segment had the Libretto projected above the performer, but it was never needed. I understood at every moment what Vargas was singing. As with Baker, Vargas is not only a singer but also a good actress. I understood from the beginning that Lena’s frustration with not being able to achieve the correct green for her painting, was about more than the color of paint. We understand that there is something else putting Lena ill at ease long before it is revealed that Steve is in the next room dying or that if he is unsuccessful that she has promised to assist. I learned afterward that the opera is based on a real event. The role of Lena was based on a man named Edgardo. Campbell decided to switch the gender of the character as he felt Lesbians do not receive enough credit for the role they had played in the gay community during the period when the play takes place. Both Angels in America and The Other Room are accompanied beautifully on the piano by James P. Barnett. The Other Room also features Rebeccah Parker Downs on the cello. The cello seems to be the perfect instrument for capturing the moods of the soul. Even without the performance by Vargas The music alone is beautiful enough to enchant the audience.

In the Talk Back after the performances Chuck Peterson repeated something he had heard earlier that day at another World AIDS Day event, “HIV is the virus, stigma is the disease.” This is a great reminder of what World AIDS day is for, it’s to raise awareness, to remind us of the the 37 million people living on the planet who are HIV positive. These stories are important to share. It is through telling the stories of those living with HIV and those that have been lost to AIDS that we create empathy in others. Empathy is the beginning of understanding, with understanding comes the desire to help create positive change. While these short works increased my exposure to opera, I still have a lot to learn about this art form. What is exciting about AOT is that there mission is to produce socially-relevant works, in order to break down the barriers of the classical art form. I like what Mark Campbell said during the talk back, that AOT is “Fucking up Opera”, in a good way. He meant that they are making Opera relevant and accessible and fresh, they are doing new things not simply restaging the classics for the hundredth time. He sees this as the future of Opera. I encourage you to read more about AOT and watch for future productions, I know I will. You can find out about them at https://www.arbeitoperatheatre.com/about . Also please check out their Community Partners at their websites below. Learn what you can do to lend support and get involved, being an Ally means taking action.

Clare Housing at https://www.clarehousing.org/

Justus Health at https://www.justushealth.org/

RECLAIM at https://www.reclaim.care/

Towards Zero At Theatre in the Round Players in Minneapolis

Theatre in the Round traditionally produces an Agatha Christie play around the holidays. The holidays of course being Thanksgiving, my Mother’s birthday and Christmas. I’ve been taking my Mother for her birthday present since 2015’s production of Black Coffee, which was also my first time to Theatre in the Rounds arena. The theatre is well suited for Christie’s mysteries which are generally speaking set in one location. A mystery played out in 360 degrees means that the audience sees everything and the director must play the game fairly. The theater is small and intimate, and these are the types of light breezy entertainments that they do well. Even from the back row, which I was seated in due to a box office snafu, one should be able to hear and see everything.

This years production is Towards Zero and it has something of an interesting backstory. Agatha Christie is the best selling fiction author of all time. Alongside her many novels and short stories she wrote 33 plays, many of them are adaptations of her novels or stories. Towards Zero was a novel first, it was adapted by Christie and Gerald Verner into a play in 1956 and that script has been produced many times over the years. But it turns out it was not the first adaptation. In 2015, discovered in the Christie archives was an earlier adaptation which Christie wrote herself, this is the script used for this production. As a Christie fan I usually find that I am familiar with the story of the plays being produced and therefore know the solution. With Towards Zero I couldn’t remember the solution and so from a script standpoint this had the added benefit of being a whodunnit that contained an actual whodunnit.

The play takes place at Gull’s Nest, the home of Lady Tressilian located on a cliff overlooking the sea. The household consists of a Butler O’Donnell, his nemesis lady Tressilians’ nurse MacGregor, and her companion Collie. Into the mix are added her ward Neville Strange, his new wife Kay and ex-wife Audrey, as well as Audrey’s childhood friend Thomas, and Kay’s boyfriend Peter De Costa. Adding a dark horse to the company is Angus McWhirter a man who a year previously tried to commit suicide by jumping from the cliff only to be foiled by an outcropping. When the murder of lady Tressilian takes place between Act 1 and Act 2 there are plenty of suspects to keep the audience guessing. Enter Inspector Leach, Sergeant Harvey, and Dr. Wilson to gather the clues and try and solve the crime.

Christie’s script is unusually long with each act running close to one and a quarter hours. It didn’t feel drawn out to me, but several of my party did feel it was too long. I felt the time was used to develop the characters and give us plenty of information with which to lead us to suspect everyone. It isn’t much of a whodunnit if there are only a couple of viable suspects. The mystery involved in Towards Zero is full of twists and red herrings enough to keep the audience second guessing up until the final reveal. Everything is up in the air including in a way who the victim and detective are. The play is directed by Wendy Resch Novak who does a good job of staging the action on the floor as well as the cliffside up at the top of one of the risers. It’s effective and creative use of the space, giving us an expanded geography that serves the play well. The set designer Laurie Swigart Does a nice job of suggesting the clifftop and the terrace of Gull’s Nest. One issue with the set though were the doors to the house they never closed all the way, not sure if this should have been a stronger direction to the actors or if it was a design flaw.

Excellent script and set design, well staged, it is in the casting and characterizations where the production stumbles slightly. Kristen C. Mathisen performance as Lady Tressilian was so good that you spend the rest of the play after her murder wishing the victim had been someone else. Mathisen brings this character to life with such humor and intelligence, she is nearly the most well rounded character in the piece despite being off stage much of the time and being killed off before Act 2 begins. Chief among the candidates to take her place as victim would be Neville Strange played by Ben Habel. Habel is not up to the task, this is a small theater and everyone I spoke with afterward had trouble hearing about half of his dialogue. This is not a large theater, if Habel isn’t able to project so that his lines can be heard, perhaps he should have been mic’d. Thankfully, that was not an issue with any of the other performers. There’s nothing like a whodunnit where you miss half the clues because you cannot hear them. Dwight Gunderson and Stacey Poirier as O’Donnell and MacGregor have a playful humor similar to Mathisen’s Tressilian, and make their warring servants a welcome bit of comedic relief whenever they are onstage together. James Degner as Dr. Wilson makes little impression, the character is woefully underwritten, he’s needed to provide some of the clues, but isn’t given much else to do, there are a few moments where you get the sense there was supposed to be a joke or witticism, but it’s lost.

The rest of the actors are well cast and do fine work but there are two roles that I want to take a closer look at. Mark L. Mattison as Angus McWhirter and Piper Quinn as Audrey. Mattison Has turned in several memorable performances at Theatre in the Round over the last few years. Here again he has found the comic timing and performance style to make his character a stand out. He mines the part for humor that may not have been intended by Christie but is certainly entertaining. He delivers his lines in a near shout throughout but is also a bit philosophical. Quinn plays her role as a woman on edge and frightened, someone in need of help. The two characters have a few scenes together which as scripted are somewhat asides to the plot. They are meant to develop a connection between the two characters, the first scene works more or less but based on where their relationship needs to go, it probably needed to cement the connection more. The second scene doesn’t build on the connection enough. That combined with Mattison’s characterization, make the last moments of the play feel forced. McWhirter is such an eccentric that it is hard to fathom the dynamic that the plot tells us has developed. There are lines in the play that lead us to that moment, but the actors don’t play it that way, creating a disconnect rather than a connection. It’s too bad, because it ends the play awkwardly and it makes you question one of the more enjoyable performances and whether that was the right direction in spite of how entertaining it was.

Towards Zero is good mystery play with some nice humor and lots of clues to keep you guessing. There are some performance issues which made the play seem long for some and one of the key relationships rang false for this reviewer. It plays through December 15th for for information and tickets go to http://www.theatreintheround.org/new-homepage/on-stage/zero/

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea Sets Sail at North Hennepin Community College, and it’s a Voyage Worth Taking.

Sophie Frigerio and Silas Martin Photo by Mike Ricci

Today is one of those days that reminds me why I started doing this. I was invited to come and review a show at North Hennepin Community College (NHCC). This is an opportunity to see young people trying on the role of an actor, exploring theater, creating. I see a lot of very professional theater, it’s nice to come and see people who are just starting out and learning how to do this thing we call theater. This is not the slick production and tour-de-force acting you expect from the Guthrie, and as great as those things are, seeing a less resourced and experienced group put on a show was refreshing. Seeing the potential can be as stimulating as seeing something fully developed. If this seems like a faint praise, stay with me for a minute because I think NHCC has a vital role to play. Remember this is taking place at a Community College, and probably one that is lucky not to have it’s theater cut for budget reasons. I don’t think many of the people who got involved in this show necessarily have their hearts set of treading the boards as a career. That probably isn’t the function of this theater department. What this theater department does is expose students to theater at higher level than they experienced in high school. And you never know, this may be where the acting bug bites them. Looking over the cast bios there are a few more experienced performers but for some it’s one of, if not the first stage experience they’ve ever had. There are elements in place here as well to support these new actors. The design aspects and the script are top notch and the show has been well directed and staged. More on all of these elements later.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea was written by Nathan Alan Davis and directed by Mike Ricci, this is the Minnesota premiere for this work. The play is about a young black man’s search for his ancestral past. It is about finding out who we are and choosing our own course, knowing where we are going to begins with knowing where we started. The play opens with drums, dancing and a dream. Dontrell awakens from the dream which he interprets as more of a vision. He goes on a quest for the rest of the play to find the ancestor who visited him in his dream, an ancestor who was lost at sea generations ago. As with all heroic quests he must face trials and tribulations on his journey, including his Mother and Father, who do not want him going near the ocean. Dontrell cannot swim but is determined to head out into the Atlantic ocean searching for the answers. He gets help from a Cousin who provides him with scuba gear. He meets and falls in love with Erika a lifeguard who saves him from drowning and then agrees to teach him to swim. Erika understands his quest, she has also had her life changed by the truth from her past. She believes in him and will be there with him until the end.

As I mentioned before these are new actors and yes you can tell. But no one is bad, they’re just green. There are three performers that really stood out for me, the first was Sophie Frigerio who plays Erika. This is not surprising as her bio indicates she probably has the most experience acting. Reginald Dupree as Dontrell’s Dad had the best comic timing, this isn’t a comedy but like all good drama’s it has some humor. Reggie did a great job of bringing it out when the text and the mood supported it. The other stand out was Dylan Salber as Robby, Dontrell’s best friend. Dylan had the best stage presence and confidence, he seemed at home in the part and was very natural. Because they are learning I’ll offer a few tips as opposed to critiques. A couple of the actors Silas Martin (Dontrell) and Michaela Hobin (Dontrell’s sister Danielle) need to work on their enunciation. They spoke very naturalistically, but this isn’t film this is stage work, you sometimes have to compromise realism to be understood by your audience. They both like, Dylan Salber, had very good stage presence and they moved beautifully in the dance portions. No one was horrible about this, but if they decide to do more acting, it would be something to work on. I think they all did a good job and I would encourage all of them to continue if they are finding it fulfilling, they all have potential.

The writing, the design, and the direction are the strengths of this production. They provide the quality framework for the actors to learn and perform in. The Play itself is fantastic, I sure hope a young filmmaker picks this up and adapts it into a film. I saw how it could be done so vividly and it’s because the script is so good. The set is very minimalistic but perfect for this setting. The use of projection on a screen at the back of the stage is used perfectly. Something like that can easily be overdone, the usage here was to add to the mood or location. It wasn’t used to try and do the work of the set, it enhanced what was there. A bright sunny day at the beach is brought to life, a moonlight sail (see photo above) and a dive into the ocean are beautifully accented by the projection. The Director, Mike Ricci, clearly knows what his theater does best and stages the action to its advantage. He has also taken a young cast and gotten them to move with precision and removed the self conscious mannerism that I still see in community theaters from time to time. Those moments of awkwardness are removed when you have helped your actors find their purpose in each beat of their performance. Finally a shout out to Babatunde Lea and Umar Williams whose drum work was precise and opened the show powerfully.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is at times, like it’s title, Poetic. At other times it’s sweet, funny, thought provoking and inspirational. What’s really inspirational is NHCC has done in mounting this unique and original play and that they continue to pass the art of theater and storytelling onto new generations. Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is playing through Saturday the 23rd, for more information and tickets visit https://nhcc.edu/theatre

Steel Magnolias at the Guthrie Theater Laughs Guaranteed, Kleenex Recommended.

Amy Van Nostrand, Adelin Phelps, Melissa Maxwell, Austene Van and Nicole King. Photo by Dan Norman

Imagine you are an actor and the curtain is about to rise on a performance as you realize you don’t have your lines memorized. Add to that, you are performing at the Guthrie Theater in it’s 700 seat McGuire Proscenium Stage. Well, that is probably something like what Laura Leffler the Assistant Director of Steel Magnolias felt at the Saturday November 9th’s Matinee performance. Sally Wingert stepped out onstage before the beginning of the show and informed the audience that a member of the cast was very ill, and that the Assistant Director Laura Leffler, who had been there through all the rehearsals, had agreed to step in. We were told that she would be reading from a script. The MVP for that days production was without a doubt Laura Leffler. In true “the show must go on” tradition, Ms Leffler stepped up and ensured that a theater full of people who had set aside time to see the show were able to do so. The show was a success and Ms. Leffler got the largest cheers and applause at the curtain. I had intended to write a review of that performance, but when the Guthrie graciously offered to let me attend another performance, I decided that would be for the best. I realized while it gave me an interesting hook into the review, it wouldn’t be a review of the show that my readers would be seeing. So I attended the show again last night with the full cast in place and that is the performance I will be reviewing. I wanted to acknowledge though the wonderful job that Laura Leffler did stepping in for Adelin Phelps, it was brave and she did a great job.

Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling was first performed in 1987 and was followed by a popular film which Harling adapted for the screen himself. It is set at Truvy’s Beauty Salon in a fictional parish in Louisiana called Chinquapin. It opens with Truvy, played by Austene Van, trying out Annelle’s hairstyling talents on herself and then offering her a job in her salon. Normally Saturdays Truvy reserves just for the ladies from the neighborhood which are Clairee, Ouiser and M’Lynn. Clairee played by Amy Van Nostrand, is recently widowed, her husband was the former mayor of the city. She is well off and at loose ends with how to spend her time and money now that her husband has passed. Ouiser played by local legend Sally Wingert, has the opposite temperament of Clairee who is always upbeat. Ouiser is always grumpy and sarcastic and seems to have a lifelong feud going with her neighbor M’Lynn’s husband Drum. M’Lynn is played by Melissa Maxwell, her daughter Shelby, played by Nicole King, is getting married that day so Truvy is going to do a special hairstyle for Shelby. We learn over the first scene about the characters and their relationships to each other. We learn that Shelby suffers from Type 1 Diabetes and we learn of Annelle’s husband who is in trouble with the law and has run off leaving her stranded without money or a job. The play jumps forward three times from there covering about 3 years in the lives of these six women. The main plot line follows Shelby from her wedding day to her pregnancy announcement and through her health complications. But each of the women have their own stories, which while not the central focus, do run throughout so they all become three dimensional characters.

Played by Adelin Phelps, Annelle is a down on her luck naive girl with a past who needs a helping hand and a support system, which is what she finds at Truvy’s. For the six women in this play the salon is their support system. We follow them as they come together to celebrate and to console each other. The Salon is like a prism through which we see all the different shades of these woman’s friendship. We see them tease one another, build each other up, advise and comfort each other. All of it done with humor and wit that is derived less from one liners and jokes but from character. Each of the actresses brings their characters fully to life. We learn bits and pieces about all of these woman as the play progresses. Each scene gives us new information to add to what we already know, nothing is an offhand remark, every scrap of dialogues informs our understanding of each character. It really is a remarkable script, there doesn’t seem to be a line in the play that doesn’t either further the plot or develop our understanding of the characters. You couldn’t have a play this good without a fabulous script which Steel Magnolias certainly has. The other critical element is the cast, and every single member of this cast is equal to the script. The oldest characters Clairee and Ouiser are the most comical and Van Nostrand and Wingert play the humor to the hilt, but they never allow it to overpower their characters. They have a peice of business in the last scene that has the audience in tears of laughter just as we were tearing up out of sadness.

The set is a full scale mock up of the hair salon which Truvy’s husband converted from a carport in the last romantic gesture she can remember from him. The set rotates 360 degrees as the scene changes, the backdrop of a large tree and its branches also changes to reflect the season. The turning of the set and change of the leaf colors on the background nicely convey they passage of time, the leaves charting the change in season and the set turning like the hands of a clock. In an odd choice, we see stage hands decorating the set as it rotates. This has the effect of taking the audience out of the play momentarily. I can’t help but think a better solution would have been to leave the set turned 180 degrees while the set changes took place and then completing the other 180 degrees of the turn to present us the stage with changes made. Otherwise the set is impressive and well designed. I enjoyed the costumes as well, they had an 80’s vibe, but not in a overpoweringly obvious way, more what people wore day to day in the 80’s than the way you’d dress going to an 80’s costume party. Finally a word should be said about the hair. I was rather impressed to see Van and Phelps actually doing the other four woman’s hair on stage. The wigs were excellent and the actresses looked like they had been styling their whole lives.

Steel magnolias is a funny and warm look at the relationships of six woman in a small town and the support system they have created for each other in Truvy’s Salon. Filled with great character motivated humor it also plumbs the depths of despair, the full spectrum of the human condition is on display. This is a show where it’s fair to say you’ll laugh and you’ll cry, I recommend everyone taking at least 4 or 5 kleenex in with you, there will be tears. The show runs through December 15th at the Guthrie Theater in the Mcguire Proscenium Stage. for more information and for tickets go to their website at https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2019-2020-season/steel-magnolias/