Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Production of Daddy Long Legs Performed at the James J. Hill House In St. Paul

Daddy Long Legs performed in the James J. Hill House in St. Paul is as intimate a production of a musical as I’ve ever attended. A chamber musical with only two actors standing at times only a foot away from and actually making eye contact with you. The stage is set in the main hall of the grand old mansion, chairs seated around the area the actors will occupy along with a few desks and tables that makes up the minimal set. They occasionally climb the stairway as well at the top of which on the first landing is where the four musicians play from. And here is the amazing thing, they are performing in the a hallway/stairway of a big old house, there is a four piece musical ensemble playing at the top of the stairs and this was one of the best sounding musicals I’ve heard. The balance between the musicians and the Performers was perfect, every word was clear, not a lyric was lost.

Maddie Olsem plays Jerusha Abbott a orphan who has grown up in the John Grier Home for Orphans in the early 1900’s. She is called into Mrs. Lippett’s, the headmatron of the house, office. She is informed that a Mr. John Smith a trustee of the orphanage, having read some essays she had written has decided to send her to college, paying her tuition, room and board, and giving her a monthly allowance. He has devised a 9 point plan for her, one of the points being that she must write to him regularly informing him of her progress. Another states that he will never read the letters and that she should never say thank you or expect any response from him. The play from then on is almost exclusively the characters letters. In her first letter to Mr. Smith which is obviously a fake name, Jerusha acknowledges this and gives him her own name which is Daddy Long Legs. She also asks him questions which she is not supposed to do about how grey his hair is, if he’s bald, if he is old, or old old! As it turns out he’s young, but her assumption is key to the rest of the story. He is Jervis Pendleton played by Chris Paulson. Jervis is intrigued and amused by her sense of humor and her unconventional personality. He is the uncle of one of her classmates and as such meets Jerusha. Through her letters and their personal meetings he begins to care for her. But the fact that he didn’t correct her assumption that he was old, or identify himself as her Daddy Long Legs when they first met, has put him in an awkward position. Her letters are almost like diary entries which include, among other things, her feelings about Jervis Pendleton.

Maddie Olsem and Chris Paulson both seen earlier in the season in Lyric Arts production of Bright Star are the perfect performers for these roles and this venue. Performing basically in the midst of the audience without the usual distance created psychologically as well as physically by the separation of the stage is tricky. Being too close can reveal the artifice in a performance, but there is no loss of contract made creatively between the actors and the audience in this case. This is a skill easily overlooked and noticed more in it’s absence than when it is successful. They also have wonderful voices, Paulson stretches occasionally to reach the higher registers, but 95% of the role seems to be right in his sweet spot. Olsem sets the tone for the show as she opens it and right away I was impressed with her voice. The quality of the sound, and as I mentioned earlier, the clarity of their singing. Too many shows we become resigned to missing some of the lyrics no matter what level of production it is. A few hours before attending this performance I was at the Ordway for Once On This Island, which was a fun show, and much like this I was very close, seated on the stage with the actors all around me. It was everything a national touring production can be, an elaborate set, great costumes, special effects, and powerful performers. What it lacked, as many of those larger shows do, is the loss of clarity. You miss lyrics, but you accept it. I loved the fact that I didn’t have to accept that with this show. The musicians are really tight and don’t overpower the performers. Minneapolis Musical Theatre is rapidly becoming one of my favorite theatre companies, their production of Be More Chill last spring was one of the highlights of last season, and I regret missing their fall offering Night of the Living Dead: The Musical.

Daddy Long Legs plays at the James J. Hill House through February 29th, for more information and purchase tickets go to http://www.aboutmmt.org/

Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul is Playing The White Card

Photo by Caroline Yang

The White Card by Claudia Rankine opened last night at the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. The Playwright was in attendance and there was a brief Q & A after the performance with her and the Director Talvin wilks. Before they began and again at the end the interviewers Junauda Petrus and Erin Sharkey from Free Black Dirt asked us to talk to the person next to us. I am not an extroverted person, I don’t talk to strangers easily, I’m good once I know someone, and I definitely prefer to meet new people in a group setting. I was seated next to my wife, whom I ignored as I didn’t really think that is what they meant. To my left was an older black man, For those who don’t know me, I’m younger than he was and white. We did as we were instructed, though it wasn’t a long conversation, I believe that is because of my lack of skills in talking to new people out of the blue and not that he was a different skin color than I am. The initial instruction while they were getting set up was to ask each other a question or get each others reactions to the play that we just saw. He asked what I thought, I said that it really made me think and that I’m not sure what the answer is to those questions that it raised. He replied that he didn’t think there was an answer. I said maybe the point is to listen, and to this, he nodded. When they concluded their Q & A they asked us to return to that neighbor and say the one word that would be on our minds as we leave the theatre. I said “Privilege”. He said “Hope”. I like his answer better, but as I think about it, maybe his word was an response to my word.

The White Card is a great play performed by a fantastic cast. Rankins Script beautifully articulates the issues of race and racism in contemporary American Society while also exploring the differences with which we interpret art. Act one is set in the home of Charles and Virginia Spenser wealthy art patrons who specialize in collecting works depicting social injustice and particularly the violence that has been inflicted on black Americans. They are expecting Charlotte, a black photographer who is on the verge of breaking big. The Spenser’s Art Dealer and friend Eric has arranged the dinner so that the couple and the photographer can meet, as the Spenser’s would like to buy her latest works. As the evening begins the quartet discusses the art on the Spenser’s walls as well as Charlotte’s work. Before long they are joined by the Spenser’s son Alex who is a college student and activist, he does everything he can to fight social injustice and the current political regime. As the evening progresses we learn more and more about each of the characters and their true selves are revealed. This is where things get tricky. There are not easy answers here, Virginia shows here understanding of racism to be on the surface, with a solid core of white privilege, blatantly sitting right under that black loving topsoil. Charles is more deeply well intentioned, but he tries to do what he thinks are the right things, but as Charlotte and Alex point out, he doesn’t really understand what that is. Eric, seems to be on Charlotte’s side but is also motivated by his desire to add her work to the collection. Unlike Charles and Virginia, he seems capable of hearing the privilege and condescension that comes out of their mouths and works tirelessly to counter every misstep they take. Charlotte is the perspective of the black person who understands on one hand that the Spencers are well intentioned, but on the other hand they do not understand, how much they don’t actually understand. Charlotte points out at one point that Charles’ interpretation of this art is an illustration in itself of white privilege. His art focuses on the violence done to the black person, it should be shining a light upon the white people who inflicted it or stood by as it was inflicted. He views the blacks in his artwork as the victims, which is a condescension, he should be focusing on the Whites as the perpetrators. Alex is the possibly, too “woke” voice of youth. He and Charlotte share a lot of the same views, but Charlotte has a more grounded and measured approach, whereas Alex is young and idealistic and has not yet learned the all important lesson of compromise and balance.

John Catron plays Eric always observing and we can see the watchfulness in his eyes. He is ready at a moments notice to jump in and smooth over the faux paus. When he learns Alex will be joining for dinner, that’s the first time we see panic in his eyes. Catron telegraphs to us that this is the one variable he is not confident he can control. The character could have come off as manipulative and slick, but Catron plays him as someone who is talented and negotiating prickly situations. We sense that his motivations is to get what he wants, but that he also feels it will be in both of the other parties best interest. Bill McCallum as Charles has the largest character arc to deal with, he begins his performance as a man Confident in his opinions and his place. Before long his interpretations of art and his understanding of his own place are challenged. McCallum, shows us this change gradually throughout the play, going from a position of superiority and comfort to one of defensiveness. When what he sees as a move that will save the evening, the unveiling of a new piece of art he has acquired backfires, his entire identity as an art expert, intouch liberal, and friend of the less fortunate is under siege. Michelle O’Neill as Virginia feels like probably the most authentic character, she spouts what she knows is the correct political jargon but with the way she says things and the cluelessness with which she says things. White privilege is the thing white people have because they don’t know they have it. O’Neill is perfect at playing that clueless aspect, every line reading feels authentic, we have all seen this person enough to recognize as real. Jay Owen Eisenberg was so good last spring in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and delivers another standout performance. He captures the idealism of youth and the single mindedness that sometimes comes with it. He is well informed and well intentioned and seems to understand what his role in this campaign is as a white male better than his parents do. Eisenberg also rounds out a character that could be one note, by making the various contradictions of Alex, play as real. He is all idealism and activism, but he still has a very recognizable streak of parental resentment and we see another side of him that displays his own blindspot to privilege when he talks about his brother. Charlotte played by Lynnette R. Freeman is the one character who sees Alex and seems to understand him. They are on the same page for the most part politically and in their understanding of white privilege and art. But she also tries to temper his all or nothing thinking, by pointing out different perspectives and understanding others. Freeman is masterful in the way in which she reacts to the other actors. Much of the strength of her performance is in the way she allows us subtly to see her characters reactions and acceptance of human nature. Whereas Alex cannot let a single wrong word slide, Charlotte shows us she has the patience and the wisdom to realize there is a difference between being a bad human being and being misguided or deluded. When Alex argues with his parents he yells and uses profanity, when Charlotte disagrees for the most part she uses civil discourse, she states her truths and challenges theirs. Freeman is wonderful at showing us that she is the most rationale and truthful person in the room. And when it’s time for her to raise her voice, she has the power to do that as well. This is a very talented ensemble.

The White card is a play that educates us by making us question and process our understanding of race and art. It shows us that our interpretations of art and racism are based on our perspectives and to really understand either we need to shift our perspectives and come to an understanding from somewhere other than simply our own experience. I was familiar with the idea of white privilege, but this play made we think deeper about it and gave me a better understanding of the complexities that exist within that concept. It’s the sort of play that gives you a lot to unpack and discuss afterward, it was a very lively discussion in the car on the way home and also in my own head since I left the play. I come from a place of white privilege. I live somewhat in fear that I will say the wrong thing in this review and like Charles Spenser, with the best of intentions make things worse. I can tell you that I’m writing my reactions with positive intentions. That the play has illuminated things for me and that one of those is my own ignorance. It has reminded me to listen to those who understand this more than I do and made me think about “Privilege” . I think that is a start and reason enough to “hope”.

For more information and to purchase your tickets to The White Card visit https://penumbratheatre.org/

World Premiere Production of The Real Life Adventures of Jimmy De Las Rosas at Steppingstone Theatre for Youth in St Paul.

Photo by Dan Norman Papercut Design by Liz Howls

Steppingstone Theatre For Youth in St. Paul educates young people in Theatre both on and backstage. According their website:

SteppingStone ignites belonging, generosity, mastery, self-advocacy, and inspiration by creating art with young people to share with the world.

Steppingstone Theatre For Youth Website

What this means is that for a show like The Real Life Adventures of Jimmy De Las Rosa is that with the exception of two adult actors all of the performers on stage are between the ages of 12 and 17. They are also the ones shifting the sets and managing the shadow puppetry and lighting effects of which there are many. This is theatre for youth by youth and that’s a pretty incredible thing. As I go to anywhere between three and five shows a week, I have a fairly good idea of what makes up the average theatre audience. It can certainly vary based on show and theatre but the overwhelming majority of the theater audiences skew old, I’d be surprised if the average age was lower than 50. It seems more important than ever if we do not want the market to shrink even more dramatically over the next ten years than it did the previous ten, we need to engage younger people with theater. Whether it be as performers, backstage crew, or as audience members, we need to show today’s youth the possibilities of theatre as entertainment and an art form. Open up their view to what theater can do, and that’s why I am a huge fan of companies like Steppingstone, Stages, and The Children’s Theatre Company. Not only do they teach young people the art but they are often a young person’s first exposure to live theater as an audience member.

I attended a matinee performance of The Real Life Adventures of Jimmy De Las Rosa with a theatre full of elementary school kids. Hell! you say? Not at all, this is the audience you want to see it with, it’s the audience it exists for. I had a blast and it brought me back to those days of getting out of morning class, taking a bus to a theater and seeing a play with hundreds of other kids for schools all over town. If the goal for a theatre like Steppingstone is to engage and entertain young people, I’d say they achieved that goal admirably. The children in the theatre were laughing at all the right spots, they shrieked when something scary happened, and they all spontaneously sang along to a song that was heard in the play. They were engaged and entertained. At the end of the show they did a little Q&A on the stage with three of the actors to drive home the point that hey, the people on stage are your age or just a little older, this could be you if you are interested. The questions were all prepared and asked by a member of the theater staff, but they would have had plenty of questions from the audience, who must’ve had the impression they got to ask the questions as there were quite a few little hands in the air.

If it’s to teach performance and stagecraft to young people who are curious about theatre, then I’d have to say that was another success. They attempted things technically that were really quite creative and challenging, They did a lot shining lights behind screens creating silhouettes of people, puppets and pictures that then shone on screens built into the flats of the set pieces. They may have been a little too ambitious on this front as there were several moments during the show when you could tell you were supposed to be seeing something on the screen but it wasn’t being executed correctly. But for the sheer number of cues involved in those techniques it would have been a miracle if there hadn’t been a few misses. Hats off to the leaders who chose those techniques to tell this story. It could have been done in a much simpler fashion, but by choosing this they taught the students a different technique that can be used. They challenged the whole team to learn all of these different cues and I think that was a really bold decision.

The show itself tells the story of Jimmy who has super powers, he can make objects move with his mind, handled by some simple tricks onstage, but that elicited gasps from many of the kids. His neighborhood is plagued by mysterious disappearances. When his mother disappears, Jimmy along with new super friends Eddie, Ayana, and the neighbor lady Juani set out to find her and the other missing people. They will meet and do battle with mutant Chihuahuas in very effective costumes. They will chase each other through the audience, and believe me, that gave them a thrill! It all worked well and keeps the kids focused on the story, there is plenty of humor and action so their attention doesn’t wander. Parents looking for a show to introduce their kids to theater will be in safe hands, it’s recommended for ages 10 and up, but I think there were younger kids than that in the audience today. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.steppingstonetheatre.org/

Walking Shadow Theatre Company's Cabal Not Just an Evening Out, it's an Adventure!

Cabal: A Play with Puzzles | Walking Shadow Theatre Company
White Stag Logo designed by Erik Evenson

I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t scared. When the directions to the Theatre contain instructions like, park in the lot inside the fence, go to the red door with the number 5 above it, someone will let you 15 minutes before show time, put the lotion in the basket. Ok I added that last part, but I swear the rest is true. Combine that with the fact that the audience has to be between six and ten people, roughly the number of counselors at a summer camp massacre, yeah I was a little nervous. Of course it was also the unknown aspect of the production. Cabal is billed as a play with puzzles and I didn’t know what that meant. I suspected it was something like the “escape room” events one hears about, and I think in some ways it is, though I’ve never been to one. This was more like escape rooms, as we went through multiple rooms, and we weren’t escaping them we were solving puzzles to move forward in the story. Here’s the tricky part, I want to tell you something about the experience, but I don’t want to tell you anything about it either. What’s unique about this show, is not really knowing what to expect. This is like a real life video game, where you have to explore the environment and collect things to unlock the next level.

The story is that you and your fellow audience members are being initiated into the Order of the White Stag, but before you can be sworn in something happens and reality is altered and you must join Adepts, Thaumaturge Jack Nimble played by Jamie Case and Medium Morgan Zakar played by Laila Sahir to try and protect the Cabal. The play progresses with a number of ingenious puzzles punctuated by connecting dramatic scenes, the two combined furthers the plot. And that is about all I dare tell you about the plot. I’m not going to spoil the fun by describing the puzzles one has to solve. I will tell you that I was very glad to be with a group that seemed to have done escape rooms before. When we were first let loose in the room to try and figure out what we needed to do I didn’t have a clue where to start. But before long I was following the other Initiates lead and played right along. The puzzles were challenging but fun and the natural teamwork that resulted was invigorating.

The production Management and Scenic and Puzzle design for Cabal were by David Pisa who is the Executive Director of Walking Shadow theatre Company. He also co-created the story along with the Scriptwriter and Performance John Heimbuch, who is one of the company’s Artistic Directors. There were a lot of crew involved in putting these rooms together. The detail and quality of the rooms is rather incredible. For example when the… no, I can’t say that, but when they pull… nope, can’t mention that either. Trust me, the interiors are a 180 degree turn from the stark slightly creepy building in which it is housed. There is excellent use of projection, lighting and sound to create new environments and illusions. Bravo to the creativity and skill that went into Cabal.

Things to know: You need to come to this sober, you need to leave your cell phone and other personal belongings in secure lockers for the duration, there is no intermission and if you have to leave at any point after the show starts you will not be readmitted, There is no late seating so be on time, do not bring anyone extra with you, tickets must be reserved in advance it’s a maximum of 10 people per show, you will walk, sit and stand at different times, but it is accessible for wheelchairs and walkers. You will need to embrace the unexpected, rise to the challenges, and let go and have fun. I highly recommend this experience, it’s a great activity for families with older kids, or a group of friends of any age. I’d recommend finding a performance that has 4 to 10 slots still available and getting another couple or group of friends together, I’d do that if I hadn’t already experienced it. The downside is that it wouldn’t really be a good show to repeat. It would take the fun out of it for the others if you already knew what needed to be done to move on. Cabal runs through March 1st for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.walkingshadow.org/ .

The Ugly One from Walking Shadow Theatre Company

Photo by Dan Norman

The Walking shadow Theatre Company’s The Ugly One is being staged at the Open Eye Theatre in Minneapolis. This was my first Walking Shadow show and my first time at Open Eye. These are the sorts of discoveries it’s a pleasure to discover and spread the word about. My colleagues from the TCTB I’m sure all know about the theatre company and this performance space, but before I began doing this site these were exactly the size theatre’s and theatre companies that I would never hear of. So it’s one of my hopes to bring attention to these type of productions. If they don’t even know about it, people can’t know what they are missing. This is a small play put on in a small theatre but with some big talent and a script with some big ideas.

The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg, translated from German by Maja Zade refers to Lette, a man who while heading up development in a manufacturing company and being married is just now, well into adulthood, being told that he is hideously ugly. Dismayed to have this knowledge confirmed by his wife, who up until this point has made it a practice to look into his left eye rather than his entire face. He goes with his wife to see a Scheffler, a plastic surgeon, who at first refuses to operate on him because he wouldn’t know where to start, there is nothing to work with. Lette points out to him it would be a challenge and that convinces the Dr. to try. When the bandages are removed everyone, including the Dr. is amazed at how perfect his face is. Now one of the most attractive men in the world, Lette finds he has a new role in life. When before he was not allowed to represent his company at a sales convention, he is suddenly being seduced by prospective clients. The Dr. recruits him to come on tour with him demonstrating the effects of his new surgery technique. Lette is on top of the world until the Dr. starts giving others his same face. Then he learns that the value of beauty is not as straightforward as it seems. The play is a comedy, but there are also questions within the work about the role beauty plays in our society, what worth it adds, and what it costs.

A small cast of four performers that play 8 roles with only 4 character names. Sean Dillon is Lette, who is as at home playing the everyman, who didn’t realize he was ugly as he is the increasingly full of himself stunner he becomes. He’s at his best having a frantic discussion with himself in an elevator. Julie Ann Nevill plays Fanny his wife, Fanny the Nurse and Fanny the wealthy client. She undoubtedly shows the most range as she has three completely different characters to play and with the wife role alone she plays supportive, loving, hurt, and rejected. The nurse is no nonsense, and the the rich client who is 76, and very randy, is the most out there and fun. Edwin Stout Plays Scheffler the boss and Scheffler the Dr., his take on the characters is confident if a bit too the same, but regardless he’s quite fun in the roles. Finally Corey DiNardo plays Karlmann Lette’s assistant and Karlmann the wealthy clients son, who is also attracted to the new handsome Lette. DiNardo differentiates his characters well, the assistant being a bit nervous and awkward, the son being rather wild and open. Some of the scenes between the son and mother are the most outrageously hilarious in the show.

Director Amy Rummenie does an excellent job staging and pacing this show. It clips along, running about 70 minutes. The decision to show Lette before and after with the same face was the right one. It works fine, we understand what is happening without some strange mask or makeup. It also adds to the commentary of beauty. The stageing of the surgery and the elevator scenes are both models of simplicity that effectively convey the action and let us focus on the performances and the humor. The scene changes happen at times mid conversation sometimes by as little as the character turning to another as he speaks and a simple lighting change. In that way the lighting design by Tony Stoeri was also effective, subtle shifts made it instantly understandable that we had moved location and time. Scenic Design by Sarah Brandner was simple, I liked the economy of the surgery table folding down from one of many stacks of cubes that made up the set. Otherwise, it was the equivalent of the blocks improv theaters will use. I was less taken with the costume designs by Kathy Kohl. The characters outfits were like patchwork versions of regular clothes. I suspect some link between fashion and our ideas of beauty was at work, but the message wasn’t clear. It felt like an idea that didn’t play very well and worked more as a distraction than as a supporting piece of the whole.

The Ugly One one is a lot of fun, the cast are all game, with Sean Dillon truly nailing his two sided conversation with himself. It’s a faced paced commentary of beauty, that’s more absurd than preachy. It’s a fun time out to a theatre you may not have heard of before, but once you see them, you’ll be watching to see what they do next. For more information and to buy tickets go to https://www.walkingshadow.org/

Theater Mu's Peerless at the Gremlin Theatre

Photo by Rich Ryan

Not my first visit to the Gremlin Theatre, I saw Spring Awakening there last year, a production that was plagued by microphone malfunctions. However, this was my first Theater Mu production and I’m happy to report there were no technical issues. I’m also thrilled to say that the hype I’d heard from friends about Theater Mu were true. Peerless is a thrilling piece of theater, enormously entertaining on the surface with a strong vein of thought provoking commentary just underneath. A solid script that is brought to life by a talented cast.

Peerless by Jiehae Park is inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth but set in High School. In the place of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth we have M and L, Asian American twins, whose ambition is not to become ruler but to get into “The College”. Historically, there’s one affirmative action spot given and M and L have been plotting to get it their entire lives. L was purposely held back a year so that M could get the spot. L would then have the edge the next year as there is a preference given to siblings as well. As the play opens the spot they assumed was going to be M’s is awarded to D who becomes the stand in for Duncan and will be the target of the ambitious sisters. Dirty Girl, an apparently mentally disturbed fellow student, steps in for the three witches prophesying that M will get into “The College” and her little dog too. That last line, a nice touch in making the connection between Dirty Girl and the witches, bringing to mind the Wicked Witch of the West, and also coming into play later, leading to a second target for the twins. The twins progress throughout the play with their ambition driving them to more and more despicable acts. The play is a black comedy that slowly turns darker and darker.

The twins played by real life sisters Francesca and Isabella Dawis as M and L are simply amazing. The dialogue between the two is so rapid fire, almost overlapping, but not. They perfectly time their lines to butt right up to each others, as if they are finishing each other’s thoughts. The make the timing of those exchanges look easy but I assure you it isn’t. Francesca’s M is the more hesitant of the two characters goaded on by L, as such her character is more sympathetic and we get to see a slightly softer side which she plays wonderfully as well. Isabella’s L is the more straightforwardly manipulative one and as such she is able to go full on in that mode, deliciously jumping from one tact to another always with her end goal in sight. Neal Beckman has the plum role of D and the more shadowy role of D’s brother. Beckman gives a performance that brings an ultra nerdy and socially awkward teenager to full life. It’s a highly characterized role that is responsible for most of the all out laughs of which there are many. He takes a character that would be annoying to anyone in M and L’s position and makes him completely endearing to us, the audience. Even M finds empathy for him and struggles with their plans, that conversion made believable by the skill of Beckman’s performance finding the balance between what he is meant to represent and who his character is inside, showing us all of it. Completing the the cast is Meredith Casey as Dirty Girl and Kenyai O’Neal as the Boyfriend, both rounding out the cast nicely with strong work.

Peerless is directed by Theater Mu’s Artistic Director Lily Tung Crystal. She has created a fast paced and inventive production, never sacrificing the humor and entertainment of the play, but also shining a light on the issues underneath. As a white male, you’d think I’d be the perfect audience for a theater company devoted to spotlighting diversity, and a play that addresses the opportunities historically my demographic takes for granted. It’s a great play for a privileged class to see, because while it’s a comedy there are a lot of messages that can be seen through the laughs. But it’s also a play that spotlights the ways in which other communities should be working together, not against each other. The problem at the core of the play is not who should get the one spot, but that there is only one spot. There is a lot more to unpack there, but essentially this is a play that we can all learn something from. It’s also really funny, entertaining, thrilling, and shocking. That’s some accomplishment.

Other highlights of the production were the Scenic Design by Joe Stanley. The Gremlin Theatre is basically a black box, there is not a lot of options in terms of bringing sets on and off and as such productions need to be economical in their design. Stanley has created a set whose back wall can rotate creating a new backdrop for which ever location they are at. In the school halls we have a row of lockers, when they are in the Gym there is a basketball hoop, at “The College” we have the school banner. Desks, couches, and other props are whisked on and off stage through panels that open either side of the rotating wall. Two rectangular boxes stand in for beds, benches, a TV stand, with props stored inside, making the transitions from scene to scene as quick and seamless as possible. The Lighting Design by Karin Olson and the Sound Design by Kevin Springer are both very effective many times working in unison to create effects. Examples being a rat running across the floor, cars racing past on the street and an explosion.

Peerless runs through February 16th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatermu.org/

Around the World in 80 Days at Lakeshore Players Theatre in White Bear lake, is a Trip Worth Taking

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Billed as 5 actors. 7 continents. One very funny show. The Lakeshore Players new production Around the World in 80 Days, succeeds. The creativity that has gone into it makes for an evening of laughs and thrills. A cast and crew that transports us on a journey around the world populated by dozens of unique and hilarious characters. This was my first visit to the Lakeshore Players Theatre in White Bear Lake, it’s a little out of the way but for an evening as fun filled and enjoyable as this, it’s worth the drive. Tip to the wise, arrive early, the capacity of the theatre exceeds the capacity of the parking lot.

Around the World in 80 days by Mark Brown is based on the novel by Jules Verne. It tells the story of Phileas Fogg a British Gentleman who makes a wager with the members of The Reform Club where he dines for lunch and dinner everyday like clockwork. He bets his entire fortune, 20,000 pounds, that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. His departure with his new servant Passepartout coincides with a bank robbery committed by an unknown “gentleman”. This coincidence results in suspicions that Fogg maybe the robber, and thus he is pursued on his journey by Detective Fix. Fortunately for Fogg, Fix has to wait for the warrant he has requested to catch up with them before he can arrest Fogg on his suspicions. They always seem to stay one or two days ahead of the warrant with Fix doing everything he can to delay Fogg. Fogg shows his stuff with the perseverance with which he meets every obstacle and finds a way to overcome everything fix and fate throw in his path. Along the way they rescue Aouda, an Indian Princess who is going to be burned alive with her late husband. They travel through the Suez canal, India, Hong Kong, Japan, and the U.S. in their race against time to reach London in the given 80 days.

The image above from the Lakeshore Players website is a perfect illustration of what comes to my mind when I think of this story. Oddly, there is no hot air balloon in the play. One can understand it’s exclusion, outside of a large scale Broadway production, creating a hot air balloon journey on stage probably seemed to the playwright as a challenge most theatres would prefer not to have to attempt. I suspect though that Sadie Ward, the Set Designer of this production would have been up to the task. The set a multilevel affair does a brilliant job of representing everything from Foggs home in London, a train car, a boat and even an elephant! The secret of the show is the manner in which it presents itself. From the very beginning it winks to the audience and lets us know throughout that it is very much aware that it is a theatrical performance. By acknowledging the fact, it invites us to do our part in creating the bridge between a pile of trunks and a sled. It uses its limitations to add to the humor and enjoyment of the show. The performance is accompanied by two Foley Artists who in full view of the audience create the sound effects that accompany the action. It was like a combination of a play and an old radio show. At times the Foley Artists and Sound Designers, Jackson Miller and Nathaniel Glewwe even interact and are acknowledged by the cast. These moments that should take us out of the play but they actually help us buy into it. The whole production comes together beautifully through the direction of Rose Schwietz.

The five actors are said to portray 39 different characters, personally I lost count. But again while they create unique and fun characters, there is no pretense that we shouldn’t realize it’s the same 5 actors in all of the roles. In fact much of the humor comes from our knowing which performer it is and the costume changes required. For instance at one point we watch as Brandon Osero (who creates an astonishing 17 characters) exits the stage pulling off a sideburn as he goes and yelps at the pain, what can he do he’s due back on stage in 8 seconds as a character without sideburns. In another split second switch Brandon Cayetano changes from Detective Fix to a Railroad Conductor for about 3 seconds by switching hats, saying a line, and then switching back, in full view of the audience. Again, these moments generate laughs and good will rather than distancing us from the story it makes us feel like we are included in the fun. The majority of the multiple roles are played by these two actors. Osero, was very accomplished, having two or three characters that played out in legs of the journey but then also taking on many of the smaller quick scene characters. Always finding the humor and the exact right way to distinguish each character from the last. Cayetano, worried me at first, he seemed to have that mannerism we see in new actors who are not sure what to do with their arms. That didn’t go away, but he won me over with his line readings. No one outshone him in comic timing and delivery of those delicious winks to the audience. If he can overcome the slightly uncomfortable stage presence I suspect he is going to have long career as a character actor, a go-to man for comic roles. Mitchell Geiken as near as I can tell only played Phileas Fogg, though he may have had one or two other small bits. He was the straight man for the most part, but it was a role he excelled at. No matter what obstacle was thrown at him, he proceeded ever forward with a stiff upper lip. This could have been one note but it wasn’t, he actually brought out the admirable qualities of the character in a way that made you root for him. He could have come off as robotic and unreal, but he made a character that could have been a bore, into an inspiration. Autumn Sisson as Passepartout like Geiken rarely played anyone aside from her main role, she nailed the role. She gave me pause as well at the beginning, her french accent was a little hard to decipher at first but it was more a matter of training my ear. Before long she was perfectly understandable, and the accent was really well done. Her Passepartout is adventurous and faithful and my favorite among the main characters. Finally Kavya Kalur who played Aouda was another performer who gave me pause at the beginning. Like Sisson I had trouble with the vocals and unfortunately that didn’t improve over the course of the play. This wasn’t a matter of accent, as she played several different characters, but more of projection. She played Aouda well, and we believe the affection that is growing between her and Fogg, but I struggled throughout the evening to hear her dialogue.

Around the world in 80 Days plays through February 16th at the Lakeshore Players Theatre in White Bear Lake for more information and for tickets go to https://www.lakeshoreplayers.org/