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

Black Comedy Shines Bright at Theatre in the Round Players.

cartoon logo for "Black Comedy" showing a frightened man in the dark with a lit candle

Black Comedy by Peter Shaffer is the sort of play Theatre in the Round Players (TRP) does best. It’s fun, fast paced and the action takes place in one setting. After what seemed to me to be a bit of a rocky start this season TRP should have a hit on their hands with this delightful farce. The play is set in the apartment of Brindsley Miller a struggling sculptor who, along with his Fiance Carol is preparing to Host a Millionaire who is interested in his work and Carol’s father who’s blessing he must win in order to marry Carol. In an attempt to impress the two important men they have borrowed an away neighbors antique furniture without his consent. Just as they are about finished setting the stage a fuse blows in the building and plunges the entire evening into darkness. Almost the entire rest of the play takes place in an apartment where all the lights have gone out.

Are you having trouble picturing it? I almost hate to spoil the clever conceit of the play, but it’s stated in the program and becomes apparent from the very beginning. As the play opens the stage is in darkness, we hear the actors discuss the evening and set up all of the details which will drive the the plot forward. Brindsley played with manic exasperation by Josh Carson, frets over the furniture they have borrowed as the neighbor who is away until the next day is very protective of it and would never consent to it being used. He also expresses his insecurity of meeting Carol’s father, an Army Colonel, whom he’s sure will not approve of him. Carol played by Kaitlin Klemencic questions Brindsley about the photo of a girl she has found in his nightstand drawer. He claims she is an ex-girlfriend from two years ago. If you are familiar with farce, you can anticipate that these details will come into play as the evening progresses. Suddenly the lights flicker and then come fully on. We can see the actors clearly for the first time, but the characters have been plunged into complete darkness. It’s a brilliant technique that lends itself to endless comic possabilities. We are able to see that no one is looking in the right place, we see the near misses of characters and can see the falls and spills they take. The Lighting design by A. Camille Holthaus plays a key role. When a lighter is lit or a match struck the lights fade accordingly, the more light they have the less we the audience have. The timing is perfect for the light queues which were put to the test when one actor keeps lighting matches while another blows them out.

You can imagine the possibilities and I wont spoil the fun or the surprises that the play holds. I will say that as with all great farce just as the characters think they have one situation handled a new hurdle is thrown in front of them. The cast is uniformly great and Carson is a standout, he’s great with the physical humor, taking several fairly large pratfalls. But is also perfect at reacting to each new catastrophe and showing us his ability to deal with each one. I did feel he started slightly too high on the manic scale at the beginning, he could have benefitted from having further to go energywise from beginning to end, but he’s so successful anyway that it’s hard to find fault with it. It’s hard to comment on many of the actors without possibly revealing incidents in the play that are more fun to experience than read about. So I’m just going to list the entire cast and assure you they are all perfect in their roles. Josh Carson, Kaitlin Klemencic, Alison Anderson, Don Maloney, Matt Saxe, Kendra Alaura, H. William Kirsch, and Don Larsson. The direction by Brian P. Joyce is spot on, timing is everything with farce. If the chaos isn’t perfectly timed, it results in real chaos rather than comedy.

Black Comedy plays through February 2nd at Theatre in the Round Players in Minneapolis for more information on the play and to purchase tickets visit http://www.theatreintheround.org/new-homepage/on-stage/black/ . I highly recommend this show.

Bloomsday at Lyric Arts in Anoka

Photo by Twin Cities Headshots

I like the Lyric Arts in Anoka, it’s a good space for productions of all sizes. I’ve seen possibly my favorite production of RENT there but it’s also well suited for more intimate productions like Bloomsday. A four person two character play set in Dublin Ireland. The stage is transformed into a square on a Dublin street, it’s scope is impressive for such a small scale story. There is a trilogy of films that I am very fond of by Richard Linklater known as the Before Trilogy. This play reminded in parts of the first film Before Sunrise. Like that film we are basically following a young man traveling abroad and the young woman he meets in Vienna and spends the day with. That too is an intimate story were we are really only concerned with the two characters and it is set against a large canvas. Also Like that film the two end their time together going their separate ways. Don’t worry I didn’t spoil the ending, we come to understand that near the beginning. Whereas in the Before Trilogy we revisit this couple every 9 years, in this play it has been 35 years. The conceit of the play is that the characters at 55 are able to interact with the characters at 20. The reunion of the 55 year old versions of Robbie and Caithleen is brought about by Robert, who is looking back at that day and regrets how it ended.

The older and wiser Robert and Cait performed wonderfully by Jeffery Goodson and Lolly Foy. Goodson, brings a yearning and regret to the role, that mirrors that feeling we’ve all had of, what if. That decision we made or action we didn’t take that we are kicking ourselves for later in life. But his sense of regret is intensified by a feeling that Caithleen was his one chance and he blew it. He wants desperately to change the past, to tell his younger self to do things differently. Or, not being able to do that, to tell the younger Caithleen not to make such an impression on him that he’ll still be yearning for her 35 years later. Goodson sells all of this, you can feel his frustration with his younger self and also that he still sees the same thing in Caithleen that he saw 35 years ago, and you can see the ache in his eyes. Foy goes a different route with Cait, she brings an eccentricity to the 55 year old that is born from living by her own reality for the intervening 35 years. She seems less eager to try and get the younger versions together, she seems to feel that it was better for Robert to have not been with her. She has her reasons for that and they make sense. But we can’t help but think that where she is now, might not be the same if they had gotten together. Foy plays Cait as a woman who has made peace with her demons and is beyond worrying what people think of her. She gets her laughs with that, but also embodies Cait with real emotion. She feels much more warmly to her younger self than Robert does to his. Where he felt frustration, she feels compassion.

Of the younger versions Gillian Constable stands out. She is natural and beguiling as Caithleen whereas unfortunately, Brandon Homan is too broad. The key to the before Trilogy is the chemistry between the leads, it’s what you need to create the palpable longing within the audience so that they feel and understand what could be between these characters. For this story to work we as the audience need to feel that these two people should be together, we need to feel that it is a tragedy they didn’t get together. That will engage us in the time that Robbie and Caithleen spend together, and make the regret and longings of Robert and Cait all the more powerful. Chemistry is impossible to cast, it’s either there or it isn’t, and a well written story and dialogue played by good actors can still sell the story. Three quarters of this play works, the quarter that doesn’t undermines the whole. It isn’t that Holman is necessarily a bad actor, he’s just a different style of actor than what was needed here. From the program I see that he has been performing with Children’s Theater groups and I suspect that he is perfectly suited for those roles. This needed to be subtler, that’s the best way I can think to put it. We have no trouble seeing what he sees in Caithleen, but we have to see what she would see in him as well, or it doesn’t really work.

This is the area premiere of the play by Steven Dietz and directed by Elena Giannetti. It’s a good play and I’d love to see it performed again. With the younger characters relationship better realized, I think it will only make the older characters parts even more effective. I liked the design of the set Brian J. Proball, more than it’s execution. The idea of building such a large scale city square and then telling this small scale story within it worked. I felt that the actual craftsmanship of it wasn’t up to the Lyric Arts usual standards, maybe I was just too close to it, I do love the front row. The lighting (Shannon Elliott) and sound (Lea Brucker) design was well integrated, used to create focus at different points, when they quoted passages from Joyce or when they froze time. Thunder plays a role, and it’s subtling suggested without taking us out of the play or taking our focus from the characters. This isn’t a home run for Lyric Arts, but it is definitely worth taking in. It’s a solid play with some first rate performances.

Bloomsday runs through January 26th for more information and for tickets visit http://www.lyricarts.org/

Letters to Santa Assemble at Bryant Lake Bowl in Uptown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tifd Ynamite and Mimi Clochette photo by Upper Boundary Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria Vargas, Mark Campbell and Marisa Michelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards Zero At Theatre in the Round Players in Minneapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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