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.

The Rocky Horror Show Resurrects at the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul

Celena Vera Morgan, Randy Schmeling, and Hope Nordquist. (Photo by Dan Norman)

This was my second visit to Park Square Theatre in Downtown St. Paul. My first visit was just last August for the Trilogy of Agatha Christie one acts Rule of Thumb. It’s another of these theaters that has that mid-range seating capacity, more than 100 but not so large that you’d say there was really a bad seat in the house. They sell the usual nibbles in the lobby as well as a selection of drinks soft and hard, and as a nice change they offered lemonade. Both shows I’ve attended they have also had a featured cocktail designed to tie in with the show. There are plenty of dining options at hand, several of which share the same building as the theater and it’s two stages. I can personally recommend the Chili’s at the Loon Cafe, which must have a good relationship with the Theater as the manager was talking up the show to us as he showed us to our table.

Full Disclosure I’ve never seen a performance of The Rocky Horror Show before. Nor have I seen a public screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I have seen the film at home, and am aware of the basic shenanigans that take place at the perpetual midnight screenings. So I wasn’t unprepared for this performance and was ready to do my best to participate if so required. Unfortunately the Park Square Theater wasn’t as prepared as I was. I stood in line at the bar in order to purchase my participation kit, only to find out they had sold out. This struck me as extremely poor planning, or a slapdash approach to the whole participation approach. I was there with a group of 12 people none of us were able to buy kits. The theater was not near sold out. And of the decently filled theater there didn’t seem to be many who had kits. This wasn’t the final weekend of the show or even the last performance of the weekend. I’m not sure how I feel about audience participation in a live stage production, but if you are planning to encourage it, then commit to the idea. In fact rather than selling a participation pack for $5 at the bar, raise the ticket price by $5 and include it with admission. I can see where full audience participation could add something unique but the weak and sporadic approach to the interaction came more as a distraction than an enhancement.

As for the performance itself, whether you are familiar with the show or a Rocky Horror virgin you will be entertained. The show opens with the narrator played with the perfect level of camp by Ricky Morisseau and an effective lighting and makeup effect that focuses on the lips of Actress Hope Nordquist singing “Science Fiction/Double Feature” which sets the tone for what is to come. Which is a mash-up of the science fiction and horror films that played on Saturday afternoons and late at night when I was a kid and sexual boundry pushing. We then follow Brad and Janet played by Ben Lohrberg and Natalie Shaw, a newly engaged innocent couple stranded during a thunderstorm after their car breaks down they seek shelter and the use of a phone at the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. What they encounter there is an exploration of nightmares, fantasies, or perhaps a combination of both depending on your personal tastes. Once inside the castle they meet Riff Raff played by Randy Schmeling and a menagerie of odd looking and behaving people. Immediately they begin to wonder what they have walked into. When they break into the iconic song and dance “The Time Warp” Brad and Janet have decided it’s time to take their leave. Before they can leave Gracie Anderson appears as Dr. Frank-N-Furter the “Sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania.” They are then ushered up to the Dr.’s lab and out of their wet clothes where they will meet Rocky Horror played by Rush Benson, the blonde haired bikini briefed Adonis that is the Doctors latest creation . Thus begins the transformation of straight-laced Brad and Janet from buttoned up virgins to …well that might be spoiling things a bit.

Lohrberg and Shaw perfectly handle the two poles of their character arcs. No one would claim that there are any deep roles in Rocky Horror and Brad and Janet are probably the least showiest of roles, but they are the two characters that undergo the most change throughout. Not getting lost in the background to characters like Frank-N-Futer, Riff Raff and Rocky Horror takes skill and they find all the right notes to keep their characters in balance. The entire cast performs well, Standouts to me vocaly were Hope Nordquist and Cameron Reeves as Magenta and Eddie, but it is a uniformly strong cast. The star of the show is Gracie Anderson, she has the most over the top role of Dr. Frank-N-Futer, There is a lot to play with, and a lot of people to play with, in this role. She seems to be relishing the outrageousness of the character that dominates everyone else on stage. There’s a nice little bit where she illustrates her dominance over one of her servants by literally putting her under foot. Anderson has a fantastic voice and a commanding stage presence, and she does a great job with the role.

So I struggle with how I feel about Anderson in the role. The Director/Choreographer Ilana Ransom Toeplitz writes in her program notes “Nobody is going to benefit from watching a man do a Tim Curry impression in a pair of cheap heels and fishnets.” as her justification for casting Anderson in the role. First of all I think this undercuts the role of all actors male and female to suggest that the only way to play a role is in the style of the person who made it famous. This is suggesting that if a man had been cast that’s all they could have done with the role. We live in a time when actors are pressured to relinquish roles as Transgender characters because they are not transgender. One school of thought says Acting is becoming someone other than you are and any actor should be considered for any role, we don’t have to be a Dr. to play a Dr. and we shouldn’t have to be a transgender person in order to play transgender. The other school of thought is that there are Transgender actors out there that are under represented and they should be considered first for those roles. We all know that there are more talented performers out there of all races, sexual orientations, gender identities, and physical abilities then there are roles to go around. If this was a small town in rural MN casting this show it would not be an issue what gender the person you cast in the role was. You would have a limited pool from which to cast and you’d pick the person that was the closest fit talent wise for the role. But this is the twin Cities, there would seem to be a nearly inexhaustible supply of highly talented people who could fill the role. This role is traditionally played by a man and there is a transgressive aspect to some of the sexual situations that come about later in the show that challenge societal taboos. While we could say that those same taboos are still challenged by the gender swap I think the effect is lessened significantly. Rather than presenting something that is still challenging to much of mainstream America, you have transferred the most transgressive element to the configuration that became nearly mainstream about the time Midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show began. It seems to me under the guise of not playing it safe Park Square Theatre’s production actually creates a less challenging show. The Rocky Horror Show probably lost the ability to shock decades ago, but it can still make us confront some of those old hang ups.

This is still a fun show, this is still a great cast making for a fun and engaging night out at the theater. Anderson does an amazing job. She is not responsible for the casting choices and should not be criticized for them, her talents and the role are well met. The production itself has a nice design, several lighting and staging ideas are quite clever and effective. Aside from the casting decision above the production is well directed and choreographed by Ilana Ransom Toeplitz. You are not going to go wrong with this production, it is fun, engaging and has a cast that really delivers. The Rocky Horror Show Plays through Nov. 2nd at The Park Square Theatre in St Paul, Tickets can be purchased online at https://parksquaretheatre.org/