A Doll’s House, Part 2 at Jungle Theater in Uptown

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Photo by Lauren B. Photography

A Doll’s House written by Henrik Ibsen in 1879 was a controversial play that challenged societal and theatrical institutions. Ibsen is known as the father of realism and A Doll’s House along with his other great works are the reason for that label. In that play we see Nora, a devoted wife and mother, struggle with a secret she has long held. With it’s reveal and her husbands reaction, she learns that her value to him lies in her subservience, in her being exactly what he wants her to be. At the end of A Doll’s House, Nora leaves her Husband and Children to begin a life of her own. The play was shocking at the time, now it resembles any play you might see. In the later half of the 19th century it was a daring exploration of gender roles and the rights of women. You can see why Ibsen is seen as one of the most influential playwrights of his time. A Doll’s House, Part 2 was written by Lucas Hnath in 2017 and picks up the story 15 years later when Nora returns. This is the story that unfolds at the Jungle Theater this winter.

Nora played by Christina Baldwin, has come back because she needs something from Torvald played by Steven Epp, the husband she left. She first meets with Anne Marie played by Angela Timberman, the family Nanny who is still with Torvald even though the children have grown beyond the need for a nanny. She will also meet her daughter Emmy played by Megan Burns, who she hopes can assist her in getting Torvald to give her what she needs. And of course she must confront Torvald himself. What is fascinating about this play, is pointed out by Jungle Theater’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen in her Welcome message at the front of the program. She quotes a mentor of hers who used to say “in a good play, everyone is right”, and this play is the perfect illustration of that idea. As each character gives their perspective on the past, the present, and society, we believe their point of view has merit. This is a play that while not as revolutionary as the original, how could it be, is perhaps a more inclusive examination of gender roles and societies attitudes towards relationships. It can afford to be, because it is written in a different world than Ibsen was writing back in 1879. In A Doll’s House Nora sees the world for all it’s biases and chooses to defy them and claim personhood for herself. It is a critique of society and the lack of rights for women. At the time, as hard as that is to comprehend now, that went against what society deemed acceptable. The new story continues those themes through Nora’s character. But it also delves into less black and white areas of the conversation. We see what Anne Marie’s views on the subject are and also what Emmy and Torvald believe. They all have their own truths and what makes the play seem real is we can understand and believe that each of their truths are right, for them.

So far this sounds like a a drama full of big ideas right. What was surprising and refreshing was the astonishing amount of humor in the play. From the opening credits, that’s right credits, you know this is not your Mother’s a Doll’s House. This is not a modern updating of the material it is still the late 1800’s but it’s is filtered through our 21st Century Aesthetic. The performances are modern as is the language. The entire cast is exceptional. Baldwin shines whether she is espousing her ideals or drawing out our laughs with her reactions to the other characters speeches. One moment she is rousing our sense of indignation, the next she is breaking our hearts. Timberman plays Anne Marie in a way that at first we believe she is more or less there as comic relief, but in an instance we are shown that there is more there than just laughs. At one point she elicits laughs while also making us feel the sacrifices she has made for this family. Epp plays Torvald as a slightly less confident version than we usually see in A Doll’s house. At first I was unsure of that approach, but as the play progressed I understood that this was a man who had his confidence shaken 15 years ago. He is also a man who has thought about the things Nora said before she walked out the door. He is also playing a man who has had a shock and isn’t really dealing with it very well. All of this is played truthfully, there is an emotionality to it that makes him a much more human character than Ibsen gave us, which speaks to that quote that everyone is right. But as with the entire cast he finds so much humor in the way he plays the part, but never at the cost of his characters truth. Megan Burns turn as Emmy is the smallest role but she makes an impression in her scene. She matches Baldwin’s ability to turn the situation around, convincingly making arguments that ring true while also bringing laughs. Many of the laughs in the play come from the way these actors read the lines and react to each others. The play is definitely meant to be serious and comic, but I think all four of these actors find more laughs through their performances than were there on the page, and they are very welcome laughs.

The direction by Joanie Schultz is bold. There are music and projection choices that scream 2020, but they work, without taking us out of the period of the play. Everyone behind the scenes has done a great job with this production, the Scenic Design by Chelsea M. Warren is spare but effective and fitting for the script. This is a play that focuses on the interaction between the characters, we do not need a fully dressed set to bring these characters world to life. The design works perfectly with the text projection that appears throughout the performance. The Sound Design by Sean Healey also brings an effective juxtaposition between the period the play is set in and our modern times. I am not a person that usually takes a lot of notice of costuming, but I really dug Mathew J. Lefebvre’s work here. My favorite was Nora’s purple outfit, it is sleek and stylish, it instantly shows us that Nora has been successful in the 15 years since the ending of a Doll’s House.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a worthy follow up to one of the great plays of the last 200 hundred years. The Jungle theater has assembled a cast that brings depth and humor to this play, each actor finding their characters’ truth and convincing us of it as well. This is a night out that will keep you thinking and give you much to talk about after you leave the theater, but it will do it while also making you laugh, a lot! It plays through February 23rd at the Jungle Theater. For more information and to purchase tickets go to www.jungletheater.org

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/

Six at the Ordway in St. Paul.

Photo by Liz Lauren

The Ordway Center For the Performing Arts is better venue for seeing Broadway shows than The Orpheum in Minneapolis. The acoustics are better, the Seats are more comfortable and have more leg room. But for reasons besides enjoyment and comfort of the audience, most of the big Broadway tours go to the Orpheum. Six is taking a different route, usually the shows play on Broadway and then a touring company is mounted and four times out of five, that tour goes to the Orpheum. For the first time in the Ordway’s 34 year history a show, Six, is going from the Ordway to Broadway. So not only is Six a show about History it is a show that is making history. I urge everyone to take advantage of this Phenomenal show in the comfort of the Ordway, and be a part of history.

Six refers to the six wives of Henry VIII. The six wives tell their stories in song as a singing competition. The audience will be the judge of who had the worst time being married to Henry. It’s essentially a pop concert filled with history and the humor and joy you expect from a fun musical. The show runs about 85 minutes with no intermission. But what it lacks in intermission it makes up for in kick ass music! Each of the queens songs were modeled on a couple of different pop singers the likes of Beyonce, Avril Lavigne, Adele, Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears and Alicia Keys among them. The costumes also take their cue from the vocal inspirations. That said the songs are all original and great, any of them could be on the pop charts. Besides being great musically, they are also filled with clever writing. From the chorus of the final song “Six” where it counts up to six but uses different meanings for the numbers and other plays on words like “Too Many Years Lost in HIStory”. The entire show is filled with top notch music and lyrics by the cocreators Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss.

The set is simple, basically a set of steps in the background, places for the band members and a background framework that lights up in different ways. Simple, but very effective. In a scene where they are describing how Henry is picking his next wife it’s like he is using a life sized tinder app, swiping left to reject, the performer goes to the left and the frame she is in front of goes red. In another scene those boxes are lit to represent church windows with a cross lighting up in the center. There are lights and metallic confetti, it feels like a Pop concert, but one filled with history and all number one songs. I’ve been listening to the music for awhile now and every single song has earned a place in my heart. The cast are the Six queens, we had two understudies performing at the show I saw and they were great, so don’t worry about it if a performer is understudied, you are still getting a great show. The cast is brilliant, what can you say, when they are all so good, singling one out seems like a slight on the others. So here are all six performers I saw and their roles: Nicole Kyoung -Mi as Anna of Cleves, Mallory Maedke as Jane Seymour, Adrianna Hicks as Catherine of Aragon, Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn, Samantha Pauly as Katherine Howard, and Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr. They each create a unique character which shines a light on these individual women who have been relegated to the six wives of Henry VIII. There are 4 band members as well on stage and they as well are all female, and they sound like a super tight pop group, this is just a stellar group of songs.

Besides providing us with great entertainment the show also draws attention through our modern eyes to the inequality that women lived under in those days. It attempts to reclaim these women not as a collective group but as the individuals they were. Reminding us that it’s demeaning and dismissive to reference them simply as a group. They were real people, they were more than just wife 1,2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. It points out that when we reference them in that way we are complicit in reinforcing the attitude of the patriarchal society that men mattered, and women’s value was in relationship to men. Unfortunately this is not a completely obsolete view even in 2019. Like Hamilton, Six uses our modern perspective and music to illuminate the past, making it fresh and relevant again. This is a highlight of the 2019 theater scene in the Twin Cities. I expect it will take Broadway by storm in 2020. I urge you to take advantage of this rare opportunity to see Six now, before it even makes it to Broadway. Aside from anyone who loves musical theater, this is a great show to take daughters too, it is very empowering and may educate them on people they have not been exposed to yet.

Six plays through Dec 22nd for more information and to purchase tickets visit https://ordway.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.