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

Smokey Joe’s Cafe at The Ordway in St. Paul

I hadn’t been to The Ordway in St. Paul for several years until this last summer when I saw their production of 42nd Street. I only went to that because local favorite Tyler Michaels King was in the cast. After today’s performance of Smokey Joe’s Cafe I feel confident in saying that The Ordway specializes in putting on first class productions for small audiences. I saw 42nd Street on a Saturday night and Smokey Joe’s Cafe a Saturday matinee. Both seemed woefully under attended. I’m not sure if I just hit the wrong performances or if that is the norm. If it is the norm, based on the two performances I saw I’m at a loss to understand why. I guess I’ll find out as I’m a season ticket holder this year. One last thought on The Ordway as a venue, they are the first theater that has ever had the bathrooms right. Maybe it was the low number of patrons, but it seemed to this audience member that there were plenty of urinals and stalls. If you’ve ever been to the theater and needed to use the restroom at intermission, you’ll appreciate this aspect of The Ordway.

The ship has sailed on on 42nd Street and if you missed it, you missed some really impressive footwork. But Smokey Joe’s Cafe runs through Sept 22nd, so let’s talk about it. The show is the songs of songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. And that is exactly what it is. There is no story. This isn’t Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, where you have a bio-play about her life filled with the songs she wrote. Nor is it a Mama Mia, where they tell a story using the songs of ABBA. This is nine performers, almost all of them local talent, singing and dancing the songs of Leiber and Stoller. So if you like a plot or a story with your musicals you are out of luck with Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Now many of the songs tell a little story of their own, as if they are music videos, so it isn’t just actors singing or doing dance choreography. Each song is performed by some combination of these 9 performers, occasionally solo’s,but most are performed with multiple members of the cast and several utilize the entire cast.

The show contains 36 songs, one leading right into another. They include such timeless classics as Stand By Me, Jailhouse Rock, Yakety Yak, There Goes My Baby, Hound Dog, Love Potion #9 and On Broadway. I could list 29 more titles but you can google that if you really want to know. The truth is if I listed the rest, chances are you’d think you know about 8 of the other titles, and you’d really only know 5. This show is wall to wall songs, most of which sound familiar, but that’s probably because they either inspired a more well known song or are emulating a more well known song. I spent probably 1/2 of my radio listening time in Jr. High and high school listening to the oldies channel, which at that time was 50’s and 60’s and just starting to creep into the early 70’s. If you are in your 60’s you may remember more of these songs, but if you are late 40’s and younger unless you’ve spent 75% of your radio time on the oldies, or for some reason a follower of these songwriter’s specifically you’re going to top out at about 15, that’s where I landed. The first song I’d heard before was the 10th one in the show, Kansas City. The good news is, just because you don’t know them doesn’t mean you wont like them. There are songs that must have been just on the cusp of joining the collective memory the way that Stand By Me has. A lot of the songs feel like the B sides of number 1 hits, good enough to have been a hit but overshadowed by the greatness on the flip-side.

Should you see the show? Absolutely!!! They are not the greatest songs ever recorded in rock and roll history, but there isn’t a bad song in the playlist. Besides the star of this show, isn’t the songs, sorry Leiber and Stoller, it’s the cast. I’d like to single out the most exceptional members of this cast, but I can’t, they are all fantastic! This is an incredible assemblage on talent. When they are singing, you do not care that you don’t know the song they are singing, it doesn’t matter, you are wowed by their talent and their stage presence. I mentioned that while there is no linking story elements most of the songs do tell a little story, through the staging or performances. The cast makes every song enjoyable beyond just what they do with their voices, Mostly via humor or their footwork. Joshua Bergasse who directed and choreographed the show has really done an amazing job of giving each song it’s own flavor and identity, brilliantly coaxing humor out where appropriate and just plan coolness in every moment. Hats off as well to the scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt and lighting design by Jeff Croiter, I took a photo of the set but am not sure if it is appropriate to post. If anyone can give me an answer to that I’d love to share it, as it bowled me over from the moment we entered the theater.