Ring out the Holidays with Nutcracker Noir: A Sensual Cirque Ballet at Minnsky Theatre in NE Minneapolis

PHOTO BY  EDN-FORGE 

This was my 4th visit to the Minnsky Theatre on Central Ave in NE Minneapolis. You just never know what you are walking into at the Minnsky. I’m always expecting something like what I saw the last time and then I get something new. I’m sure at some point I will have seen all of the variables, but last night was reminiscent of what came before, but also unique. First off, I don’t think it was quite a sold out show as I saw a couple of empty seats, but it was very close. Due to a show by the Danger Committee before the Nutcracker Noir, the lobby wasn’t opened until about 5 minutes before the show start time. If you are planning to go, that is the schedule for the remaining Friday and Saturday shows. I recommend either showing up early so you are first in when the doors open and can get a beverage and snack (the baked goods are to die for); or coming at around 9, so you don’t have to wait in the line, you’ll have assigned seats so no need to be early.

TifDynamite as the host points out before the show, if you are not familiar with the story of the Nutcracker, what you are about to see is not correct. This is like a naughty funny sequel to the classic story. It takes place 10 years after Clara’s original adventure in the Land of Sweets. Unlike the previous Christmas reimagining I saw earlier in December at the Minnsky, this one is not full of jokes, in fact there is no dialogue at all. This is an all dance/performance show. Now that Clara, played by Bookie Blues, is all grown up she wants a man. Her Grandmother and Uncle Drosselmeyer, played by Dee Richards and TifDynamite decide to make her dream come true. Drosselmeyer uses his magic as he did all those years ago to make the toys from Clara’s childhood come to life again, including the Nutcracker, played by Jac Fatale. Before long the Rat Queen, played by Red Rider, appears and there is a dance off and a battle between the Nutcracker, the other toys, the Rat Queen, and her Rats. After Intermission, The Nutcracker and Clara travel to the Land of Oh So Sweet Sweets. Here in the court of Mistress Sugar Kum Fairy, played by Kirstin Nelson (did I mention this show is for adults?) The sweets take turns dancing to entertain the court. So there is a story, but honestly it’s there as a clothesline to hang the different acts on that will be performed.

One of the things I dislike about the Minnsky is it’s hard to single performers out as there are no bios in the programs, sometimes there are not even programs. This time there was and it listed the performers and the roles they played, but when everyone plays multiple roles and you never hear any of their character names, that’s not as helpful as you might think. With names like Droplet, Dew Drop, Spice Drop and Snowflake it’s challenging to know who’s who. If I guess wrong my apologies to the performers please e-mail me and I’ll make corrections.

So what are those acts? There are more than I can probably recount. There is pole dancing, led by Expert on the pole, Red Rider. Many of the routines at the Minsky that involve dangling in air such as pole dancing and the lyra cause the same reaction within me as watching an improv troupe perform a song. I’m incredibly anxious for the performer and amazed at their abilities at the same time. What is even more impressive than a performer doing a pole dance, is when there are four performers, two on each pole. The trust the performers must place in each other is impressive. Aside from the pole and the lyra, there was a trapeze and a large fabric sash. The lyra is usually my favorite, and I really enjoyed it this time as always, but the hammock is my new favorite. Miss Coco Nostal’jah (I think) performed on the hammock, gliding through the air as if she were flying and then wrapping herself up and dangling higher and higher above the ground. It is truly amazing what she can do simply wrapping limbs up in the hammock and turning. Another act that was new this time were the the fire eaters. You just never know what you are going to see at the Minnsky. Including a wardrobe malfunction that provided us with way more Chocolate, played by Obsidian, than we were intended to see. Like a true performer though he carried on and didn’t let it phase him. All the performers are talented, and their acts focus on their area of expertise, whether that be tap, ballet, hip hop or modern dance.

Each individual act has its moments as did the entr’acte moments. There was a nice piece of business throughout with one of the Stagehands who was responsible for raising and lowering the Lyra and trapeze, and placing the safety mats. It was never the simple business of accomplishing the task, there was always some subtle interplay with another stagehand or character in the show. A very dry humor similar to the facial humor of Buster Keaton in his smaller moments. This helped the show enormously. One of the issues with the Minnsky shows can be that they seem to go along and then stop for a routine, which frequently requires setting equipment. This is simply the nature of the shows they do I suppose but it would be nice if they could find a way to integrate the acts within the show more and cut down on the stoppage time for equipement setting. Perhaps staging something in the foreground while the change takes place behind the performers or off to one side so the audiences focus is drawn away from the equipment changes, much harder to do in a show without dialogue I’m sure.

The highpoints of this show are the Minnsky’s specialties, the dancing the aerial gymnastics and the teases of skin. If you enjoy all of that you will have a good time. If you are looking for a more cohesive story and a show that flows from act to act you might be disappointed, so just go in knowing that. That is an area the Minnsky could work on in general. For information and to purchase tickets visit https://www.minnsky.com/shows-.html Nutcracker Noir: A Sensual Cirque Ballet runs through January 4th. This is an 18+ show, it was much tamer then the Grinch Who Stole XXX-mas, aside from the wardrobe malfunction that is, but I don’t imagine that will be repeated.

I’ve Seen the Future and it’s Miranda Shaughnessy. Starring in Minnesota Dance Collaborative Production HoliDaydream at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

Miranda Shaughnessy Photo by Dan Norman

Minnesota Dance Collaborative’s presentation of HoliDaydream is in residence at The Southern Theater in Seven Corners area of Minneapolis. I spent close to a dozen hours at the Southern this fall at the Twin Cities Horror Festival. It’s a very atmospheric theater perfect for horror plays and, as it turns out, Christmas dance fantasy’s as well. The performance space is broad and deep allowing the dancers plenty of room, and this company makes excellent use of it. I’ve written before about the joy of exploring new forms of theatrics, out of my comfort zone, such as Opera and Dance. HoliDaydream is primarily a dance piece but it has dialogue and some singing as well. It’s something of a special show. When I was told about it, I immediately thought of the great Richard Linklater film Boyhood. This is the sixth year that they have done a variation on this show. The main character Marie has been played all six years my Miranda Shaughnessy. She first played the role when she was age 10 and is now 16. Every year the show follows her through another Christmas, her character another year older. Referencing previous years, just enough to hint at the continuity for the repeat audiences but not so much to make you feel like you came too late to the show if you are a newcomer like me. I love this idea, and I do grieve the fact that I cannot attend the previous five years performances.

The story begins as I suspect each year has with Marie writing a letter to Santa. This year at 16 she is thinking less about all the “things” she wants and more about what is really important, like Bernie in the White House. Then she suddenly has a vision of herself in the future and she is down and depressed and it seems like she has ruined Christmas for everyone. The rest of the show Marie and her friends search the past for clues as to how or why she has ruined Christmas. This is where they reference the previous years adventures and based on those hints, there have been some really interesting themes explored in past years. The story elements lend themselves to dance sequences, first off they are dancers, so they go to a dance studio. But there are also dreams and conversations with people inside Marie’s head, which flow smoothly into dances. The show is filled with dancing, more on that below, but it’s also populated with a wonderful assortment of characters including the Dance studio headmistress and Marie’s Mom, both played with gusto and humor by the Writer and Artistic Director Shelli Manzoline, who created this idea of revisiting Marie every year.

The dancing. I cannot do justice to the beauty of the dancing with the words at my disposal. I don’t want to turn anyone off with all the dance talk. It doesn’t matter who you are, you will be amazed and entertained by this dancing. This is not boring or inaccessible at all. It’s incredibly entertaining and engaging. Minnesota Dance Collaborative doesn’t focus on merely one style of dance, they do everything from ballet to hip-hop. Like previous dance performance I’ve seen, I was amazed at the synchronization and sheer athleticism involved. The first dance number “Back in Time” showcased the precision of the entire company, 14 dancers all moving together quickly and flawlessly. “The Nutcracker Battle Compilation” telling a story solely in movement, expressing not only actions but also emotions with their entire bodies. I even got a few callbacks to earlier in this first season of reviewing shows. The first was a number called “Christmas Calamity” and it’s a parody of “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago, which I reviewed the Theater Latte Da production of. This is one of the few songs in which the dancers actually sing and they all did nice vocal work as well. Second was “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Show, which was done at Park Square this fall. There was even a mention of not saying the “M” word in a theater, referencing of course MacBeth which I saw the Wayward Theatre Company mount as well this fall. Heck, they even mention Fargo ND which is where I grew up! So while Marie was having her trip down memory lane it felt like I was as well. It’s hard to single any of the dancers out as the program does not have picture and bios, but they are all very talented. One Dancer I spoke with briefly after the show was Grace Sjolander who plays Marie’s sister Lucy. Sjolander has been dancing in competition throughout her life and it shows in the precision she brings to here dancing. There are only two male dancers Lawson Sharrer and Cade Kaiser, both of them in the 14 to 16 year old age range I’d guess, both had the dance steps down, both did some fun line readings. Lawson sharrer has that little extra that could develop into something special, he had that little added bit of grace in his dancing and the ability to sell everything with his face.

Speaking of Something extra, earlier this year I reviewed a show at the Minnsky Theatre. In that review I singled out one dancer. In fact, I was so taken with her dancing and performance that I tracked someone from the cast down after the show to get her name so I could mention her specifically. Her Name is Miranda Shaughnessy and she’s a smasher! There is a line from the film Sunset Boulevard, where a retired film star talks about her days in silent films. Norma Desmond says “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”. Shaughnessy has the face and the gift of a great silent film actress. Do not mistake me, she can act with dialogue and I’m not referencing the inaccurate cliche of the overacting silent performer. She has the gift of conveying so much with her face that dialogue is superfluous. Equally effective with drama and comedy. She has the same talent in her dancing, watching her move you are never at a loss to know what her character is feeling. Watching her dance is to understand the beauty of movement. Watching her face is to understand the joy of dancing. One of the joys of seeing as much theater as I do is running across talents like this. I have a small list of local performers that I will make it a point to see everything they are in. Miranda Shaughnessy is now on that list. At sixteen years old she is six years into playing the lead in an annual Holiday production. Of the 13 dance numbers in the show she either choreographed or co-choreographed five of them. There will come a time when this talent will head to New York or LA, but she told me after the show she would want to come back at this time of year to continue her journey as Marie. I hope she’s able to do that. Not many actors get the opportunity to own a role like this, to revisit a character yearly, in a new show with the character aging with them. That’s a rare thing in the world, and it’s something I think she should continue as long as she can. I’m not sure once she goes out into the larger world how long that will be, because she’s going to be big.

HoliDaydream runs at the Southern Theater through December 22nd for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.southerntheater.org/

The Band Visits the Orpheum in Downtown Minneapolis

The Band's Visit, 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical; A woman smiling among officer musicians

The Band’s Visit Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek and Book by Itamar Moses is a musical adaptation of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name written and directed by Eran Kolirin. I saw the film shortly after it hit video over a decade ago, much of the details are gone from my memory but I remember it being a small intimate film, about characters and their interactions. The musical adaptation has a similar feel. This is not a show filled with crowd pleasing dance breaks or large chorus numbers. It’s a quiet piece, many of the songs are about the characters inner lives, memories, philosophies and dreams. Many of the band members play their own instruments, as evidenced by the show they put on after the bows have been taken. I encourage you to stick around, it’s well worth it. Now on my night there were three understudies who performed including James Rana filling in for the lead male role of Tewfiq. Obviously, when you go to a show you hope to see the main cast, but things happen and while I can’t compare the cast I can say that the understudies did a great job.

The plot is simple the The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has been invited to come to Israel to play. Due to the accent of one of the band members they get on a bus going to Bet Hatikva a small town in the middle of the desert instead of Petah Tikvah where the cultural center is located. There’s not a bus until the next day so a local restaurant owner, her staff, and friends take in the band for the night. We follow the bands leader Tewfiq who spends the evening with Dina the restaurant owner. Haled, the band member whose accent has caused the wrong bus tickets to be purchased accompanies Papi one of the Cafe workers as a fifth wheel on a double date. Itzik, who was at the cafe when the band turns up, takes in another band member, Simon. This last band member we follow is thrown in with Itzik’s young child, Father-in-law and fed up wife. The ways in which each of these three group spends their time together is where the heart of it is. It’s a story about finding connections and understanding despite our differences. I think it really speaks to the universality of the human condition.

My favorite song was Omar Sharif, which is referencing one of the ways in which Dina and Tewfiq connected over their mutual love for traditional Arab music and movie quotes. It refers to a exchange of quotes from an Omar Sharif film. Aside from their personal connection for the characters it draws upon the history of film as a universal artform. It’s a well placed detail that helps accomplish the plays intent. Getting across to a large group of people, in a show that runs a mere 90 minutes, and switches between three main threads and a couple of minor threads as well, that revolve around a pay phone, anything subtle is kind of amazing. But that is exactly what The Band’s Visit does. It has a nice blend of humor running throughout but it’s the intimate connections and small scale interactions that make this a very special show. I was in my usual seats in the balcony, and I could pick up on the subtleties in the performances and the script. But if ever there was a show to upgrade to be within the first dozen rows, it’s this one. There are humorous songs like “Waiting” and “Nowhere” and “Papi Hears the Ocean”, and also beautiful songs like “Omar Sharif “, which has a lyrical aspect in music and lyrics. Then there are “Haled’s Song About Love” and “Something different” which blend both in places, while also bearing Dina’s hopes and desires.

The star of the show is Chilina Kennedy as Dina, she gets the most beautiful songs to sing. Her character is also complex, strong and in charge but also a little self destructive. Kennedy plays all aspects of the role with equal skill, whether it be humor, melancholy, regret, desire, nostalgia, jealous, or generous. The other star of the show is the set design by Scott Pask. It effortlessly transforms from a bus station into small desert city street then to an apartment or a roller skating rink. Tyler Micoleau did some really interesting effects with the lighting design. There were two scenes in particular that used really effective use of silhouettes of the characters, that added to the mood of the scenes. It’s easy to see why Plak was nominated for a Tony award and why Micoleau won a Tony for the lighting design. In fact, the show was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 10. Which is kind of amazing for a show that is small and intimate in a lot of ways.

The Band’s Visit is playing through Sunday December 15th at the Orpheum theatre in downtown Minneapolis for more information about the show or to purchase tickets please visit https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/the-bands-visit-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-mn-2019/. Take my advice get as close up as you can, it’s worth the extra money. The Band’s Visit us a beautiful musical that succeeds by doing the opposite of other musicals instead of going big it goes small and in doing so it draws us in deeper into the inner lives of it’s characters.

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.

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.

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

Church & State At Phoenix Theater in Uptown is Must See Theater!

photo by Scott Pakudaitis

The Phoenix Theater in Uptown is another of these small local theaters that make up the diverse artistic landscape of the Twin Cities. As with most it serves the usual beverages and nibbles. The lobby is more like a rundown community college lounge/cafe than you usually find, but that feels like the old uptown I first knew in the 90’s and I kinda dug it. The program says the shows runs 90 minutes without an intermission, I clock it as closer to 75 minutes. You are out around 8:45, plenty early for a late bite to eat, perhaps some pretzel bites with nacho cheese, the thought of them may become planted in your head during the show. Good news is you are in Uptown, there is no shortage of places to grab a tasty treat and a coffee or other drink afterward. You may find yourself wanting to discuss what you just saw. The show itself was anything but community college.

Church & State written by Jason Odell Williams premiered in LA in 2016 and is very topical, perhaps even more so today then when it first ran. It opens in the green room of the Stewart theater on the campus of North Carolina State University where Republican Senator Charles Whitmore is about to go out and give a speech for his reelection campaign. Before going out he has to tell his wife and his campaign manager about an interview he gave that morning to an independent journalist (blogger) when caught off guard at a funeral. His response is likely to cause waves in his campaign and his personal life. He is a Senator who’s slogan is “Jesus is my running mate” and he basically said he didn’t see the point in turning to prayer when faced with the tragedy that resulted in the funeral he is attending. That tragedy was a shooting at the school his own sons attend, the funeral was to bury two boys who were friends of his sons. This has shaken him to his very core which is his faith. The dilemma he is discussing with the women who run his life is whether he should follow his heart and speak what he feels or go out and give his usual safe speech. To continue with a synopsis would steal some of the fun that awaits. Suffice to say this is a play that tackles some very difficult topics such as gun control, politics, and religion.

From the above you are probably imagining a talkie play about ideas and moral questions and left politics. Something full of long speeches and the inevitable winning over of doubters, perhaps something a bit predictable. Well it isn’t that straight forward and there will be some twists. There is also a surprising amount of humor. This is a play about big questions that we all have to grapple with in today’s world, but it puts a very human face on these questions. The Senator is played by Andrew S. Troth and he broke my heart into little pieces as he came near to tears several times during the performance as he spoke of how he felt the day of the shooting and of his own sons and their relationships with those who were killed. His wife was played by Mame Pelletier and she’s a smasher! She has moments of emotion as well but she is the play’s trump card. This is a performance overflowing with humor and humanity. She takes what could easily have been a caricature of the God fearing wife of a southern Senator, which she is, and creates a person we can understand and even in an odd way identify with. The four person cast is rounded out by Ariel Leaf who plays the Senators Campaign manager who has her work cut out for her even getting the Senator and his wife to stop adding “the” in front of Twitter and facebook. Finally there is Matt Saxe who plays three different roles, sadly without enough time to really make much of an impression with any of them, a bit of a thankless role, but he has a few moments as Tom, the largest of the three parts.

The production is directed by Scott Gilbert who finds interesting ways to transition in time and space, including the use of video projection. One very interesting idea is the tallying of a Senate vote while we watch a speech being given in flashback. Another inspired bit of staging was to have the Senator tell his story of the interview that is the inciting incident of the play. As he says what he said he turns away from his wife and manager and towards the reporter, as if we are seeing him in flashback to that morning as it happened, this is actually very effectively done and humorous. The real genius of the show though is the script. Williams takes an idea that could easily be preachy and instead presents it in a way that grounds it. His choice of making the Senator a Republican from the South seems like an easy target, but what he does is instead of making these characters targets he makes them human. He doesn’t portray them as you might expect, they don’t convert to democrats but the tragedies they endure help them to look at certain issues in a different way. The Senator is like any politician concerned about reelection but he is also shown to be a good man, a man that even his New York Democratic Jewish Campaign manager comes to believe in. His wife Sara at first seems like a loud joke of a woman, and there is much humorous in the character, but there are more layers to her than we see at the start. This is a play about gun control. At the beginning I mentioned that I think it may be even more relevant now than it was in 2016 when it was first performed. That isn’t because there have since been more instances of gun violence in America, of course there have been. But I say this because our political system seems more partisan than ever. This play cuts through that by casting the voice of reason as a Republican and doing so in such a way that the change is believable and organic. There is more to say on this but I will leave the politics there and let you pick it up and discuss with whomever you see the show with.

Church & State is a powerful play, smart, genuinely funny, warm, shocking, moving, and thought provoking. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Church & State Runs November 8th thru the 24th At Phoenix Theater for more information and to buy tickets visit https://www.phoenixtheatermpls.org/project/church-state/ And trust me you want to buy tickets. When we talk about art and its ability to promote social change, this is what we are talking about. The fact that it does so with so much warmth and humor is a rare thing indeed.