Theatre Pro Rata Presents “Top Girls”a Stripped Down Production of a Thought Provoking Play

Pictured: Maggie Cramer, Nissa Nordland Morgan, Emily Rosenberg, Kelsey Cramer, Sarah Broude
Credit: Alex Wohlhueter

Theatre Pro Rata’s latest play is a marvel of construction and ideas. I’ve found myself thinking about the subject matter long after I would normally have started writing. Top Girls is a play written by Caryl Churchill and set in Great Britain in the early 80’s. It examines the roles available to women in our society at that time and what the cost of success can be. It looks at the subject matter by comparing and contrasting it with women from the past and by showing us various women interacting with each other. All characters that appear in the play are female but the male perspective is not entirely absent. It is felt in the way the characters behave and react to their circumstances. Sometimes they are showing us what they have to do in order to make it in a still heavily Patriarchal society, at others we see them model the same patronizing attitudes they hate from men towards each other. It is a play full of complex characters that showcase the ambiguities of humanity – an important work that challenges the audience to keep up. Unfortunately, this production of an amazing script stumbles at times to translate the ideas beyond the stage to those of us in the theater seats. It’s not a bad production, there is a lot to like here and it’s a rare opportunity to see this classic of modern theatre performed. I urge you to attend and I’ll try and give you some pointers on how to get the most out of it.

The play opens in a restaurant. We see Marlene who is here to celebrate her promotion as head of the Top Girls Employment Agency. She is joined by women from the past both historical and fictional. They proceed to converse and eat, each of the women relating their experiences, the scene written and performed in such a way that the dialogue overlaps. We might not catch everything that’s said, as is often the case at a larger dinner party, with conversations happening at opposite ends of the table. Although all this isn’t occurring in the real world of the play, but is a representation of an idea being played out: “What if you could have dinner with anyone from history?” This is an interesting way to begin the play, showing us the roles and experiences of women through time. I like this idea of creating the atmosphere of the dinner party, and it seems to me by the end that in many ways these various women were different aspects of Marlene and the other characters, but unfortunately this opening scene is also where the production falters.

Firstly, the stage is set in the middle of the theatre and there are chairs on both sides for the audience. The problem with Director Carin Bratlie Wethern’s staging the production like this is that if you are not micing your actors, much of the dialogue is inaudible. I got there a little later than I like to and so was seated to the side, but I was still in the second row and it isn’t a large theatre. The character of Pope Joan for instance was seated with her back to me for most of the scene and even though she was the closest to me I rarely could make out her dialogue because she is talking in concert with other characters and speaking away from me. This happened with multiple characters. The second issue with the scene is that it isn’t clear what is happening here.
Partly due to lost dialogue, this concept of a fantasy dinner takes much too long to really become clear. There needed to be some way to convey that this was not reality up front. An example perhaps of the value a Director’s note in a program can add. The costuming also would have been a way to make clearer who these women were from the start. While the costumes by Eleanor Schanilec convey the idea of who these people are, this is an area where more would have sold the idea to the audience a lot faster. Thankfully, after this scene and a short one right after it that features two young friends talking, the staging and audibility issues were largely eliminated. The play is told nonlinearly with the final scene being the earliest chronologically, it’s revelations affecting how we view Marlene and the earlier scenes. After the opening scene rest of the play is set in the real world and involves Marlene and the other employees at Top Girls, as well as clients, Marlene’s sister Joyce, her niece Angie and her friend Kit.

Aside from needing to project more to compensate for the staging, the entire cast does a great job, most of them essaying multiple roles, with the exception of Maggie Cramer in the lead. The stand out for me was Emily Rosenberg, who played Dull Gret in the opening dinner scene. Rosenberg spends most of the scene delivering one word answers, so when they climb up on the table and talk about marching into hell, the entire audience took note. It is a speech delivered with power and backed by the surprise of it’s unlikely source. Rosenberg also plays the niece Angie who, in some ways, is an extension of Dull Gret. In both roles they find a way to surprise us, and in a play very focused on ideas, they provide the emotional in for the audience. Maggie Cramer as Marlene and Kelsey Laurel Cramer as her sister Joyce have a brilliant interaction in the final scenes where our sympathies change. It really is a brilliant script. The cast is rounded out by Megan Kim and Nissa Nordland Morgan as the employees of Top Girls, with Sarah Broude and Ninchai Nok-Chiclana as clients in little vignettes illustrating the complexities of these women: their roles, their strengths and their weaknesses – at times supportive of each other, at times cruel and petty. Kelsey Laurel Cramer has a scene as the wife of the colleague that Marlene beat out for head of Top Girls. We see her try to help her husband, certainly a kind gesture, but without realizing that in doing so she is making the argument that women don’t matter as much as men. It’s such a pleasure to see a play where even a five minute role has nuances and shades of character that some main characters don’t have in other plays.

Top Girls is worth your time. It will make you think and make you questions things, including, by the end, what you thought of the first half. Top Girls runs through November 21st at the Crane Theatre in northeast Minneapolis. For more information and to purchase tickets click here https://www.theatreprorata.org/. I recommend getting there early, seating is General Admission. I’d suggest sitting front row dead center if you can manage it. Hopefully with that placement and a heads up of what is happening in that first scene you will really be able to key in from the beginning.

Three From Opening Night of the Twin Cities Horror Festival

Artwork by Emily Michaels King

It’s Monster Month and that means watching scary movies, reading ghost stories, and of course the Twin Cities Horror Festival. TCHF is in it’s 10th season and I for one am grateful that many of the shows this year are in-person. I didn’t get access to the virtual shows that opened the festival last week but I will be reviewing all five of the in-person productions. Opening night I attended the first three shows. Splinter from Dangerous Productions, Blood Nocturne from The Winding Sheet Outfit, and Blackout in a Blackout from Blackout Improve. The Festival runs through Halloween, with the five shows rotating to purchase tickets to any or all performances go to https://www.tchorrorfestival.com/ On the site you will find descriptions of each show as well as each shows ratings for Language, Violence, and Blood. Below I’ve copied the schedule for the remainder of the run.

Friday, October 29
6:00pm Channel / Dogwatch Productions
7:30pm Creepy Boys / Creepy Boys
9:00pm Splinter / Dangerous Productions
10:30pm Blackout in a Blackout / Blackout Improv

Saturday, Oct 30
1:00pm Channel / Dogwatch Productions
2:30pm Blood Nocturne / Winding Sheet
4:00pm Creepy Boys / Creepy Boys
5:30pm Splinter / Dangerous Productions
7:00pm Blackout in a Blackout / Blackout Improv
8:30pm Channel / Dogwatch Productions
10:00pm Blood Nocturne / Winding Sheet 

Sunday, October 31
1:00pm Blackout in a Blackout / Blackout Improv
2:30pm Creepy Boys / Creepy Boys
4:00pm Blood Nocturne / Winding Sheet 
5:30pm Channel / Dogwatch Productions
7:00pm Splinter / Dangerous Productions

First up was Dangerous Productions Splinter, easily the scariest show of the night. Pay attention to the ratings on this one, there will be blood. Just as they did my first year reviewing the TCHF Dangerous Productions has delivered the most intense and genuinely disturbing experience. Always effective on the technical side of things, the violence feels and looks real. There will also be several moments of “how did they do that?” for the observant audience member. Hats off to the production team on this one led by Director and Production Designer Tyler Olsem-Highness. The play really begins as soon as the house doors open with Laura Mahler on stage clearly going through some hard times. It’s a wordless performance before the play properly starts but for me, it set the mood perfectly and I felt I had a handle on the emotion she was experiencing – it created a sense of sympathy from the beginning. Mahler gives a riveting performance as a woman who has lost her memory due to a traumatic event and is being experimented on by Forensic Psychologist whose experimental techniques won’t intentionally hurt her. To say much more about the plot would rob it of it’s tricks and treats. I was impressed with all the performances but a special shout out to Jay Kistler as the other guinea pig who finds just the right balance between finding the humor in a scene and then alternating to somewhere darker.

Emily Dussault Photo by Scott Pakudaitis with Graphic design by Kris Heding

The second show of the evening was The Winding Sheet Outfits Blood Nocturne. This tells the story of Erzsebet Bathory whom I knew of as the basis of the 1971 Hammer film, Countess Dracula. This version is very different. First off, it’s a musical. Secondly, it attempts to be much more truthful in it’s telling of the real life Countess. The program tells us that Blood Nocturne was created and composed by the ensemble with quotes from actual letters and testimony. While trying to set the record straight they also challenge our societies default to print the legend as it makes a better story. Even as Emily Dussault as Bathory attempts to point out the truths behind the stories, she’s at odds with the rest of the cast who insist the horrific details that have been attributed to her make for a better story. While all three shows I took in tonight were very good, this was my favorite. I loved everything about it. It’s cast deserves to be singled out. I wish the program listed the performers with their character names since they were uniformly talented, I’ll simply list them all. Amber Bjork (also the Director), Kayla Dvorak Feld, Derek Lee Miller, Boo Segersin, Joshua Swantz, and the aforementioned Emily Dussault as the Countess. All of them are adept and find the darkest shades of humor within this gruesome biography. The cast plays the period instruments that accompany the songs and they are quite accomplished musically. The Orchestrations are simple, but haunting.

The third and final show of the evening for me was Blackout in a Blackout by Blackout Improv. The only thing of value I can say about this is to praise the performers. Let’s face it, this is improv, it’s going to be different with every performance, and if it isn’t, well you don’t really want to know that do you? So the less said about the storyline that emerged, the better. What I can tell you is that I’m already thinking of trying to catch this improv troupe again sometime. The group worked really well together and found a way to keep the laughs coming while also managing to try and add a touch of the supernatural to the proceedings. Find out more about them here https://www.blackoutcomedy.org/.

Every Brilliant Thing at the Jungle Theater is Dead Brilliant!

Joy Dolo. Photo by Lauren B. Photography

The Jungle Theater in Minneapolis has reopened with a one hour somewhat interactive play written by Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe. Now don’t misunderstand me, you will not be influencing the course of the play and this isn’t improv, but there is a bit of flexing that muscle on display. You will be required to read a sentence or a word from a piece of paper when called upon. In a few cases you will be asked to do a little more. For instance, I had to give a speech at a wedding off the top of my head, but nothing more than that in most cases. Every Brilliant Thing is a one actor, one audience play. The actor in the performance I saw was Joy Dolo. She is telling the story of a woman whose mother attempted suicide when she was seven years old. The seven year old’s response to her mother’s wish to die was to make a list of every brilliant thing she could think of that made life worth living to show her Mom. Number one, Ice Cream! We follow this young lady through her life and as she grows, so does her list. It’s a lesson in taking note of all the good things even when we are not feeling well or happy. It’s a simple idea, but it’s a very powerful one. Think if you sat and made a list of Every Brilliant Thing. Not the OK things, but just the brilliant things. What would you do with such a list? What would its power be? I’d take it out when I was feeling overwhelmed, sad, hopeless, and remind myself that there is more to life than this moment, this pain, this struggle.

I like the idea so much that I’m going to start my own list right now. The first thing on my list of brilliant things is Joy Dolo’s performance in Every Brilliant Thing. There simply is no actor more engaging and welcoming with the ability to make you laugh and cry in the space of seconds. She single handedly shepherds a cast of dozens of unrehearsed people to create a unified, coherent story. The audience participation seems like a gimmick at first, there to provide some humor and get people into the swing of things, maybe just to keep them paying attention. But that isn’t it, you don’t need a gimmick to keep people’s attention when Dolo is on stage. And the participation adds more than humor, it build connection at least it did for this blogger. When I toasted my daughter on her wedding night, I thought back to the car rides we’d shared in silence and the times I shut myself away in my den to listen to music rather than help her understand what was happening. I wished her all the happiness and prayed for her forgiveness. Some performers are loud, or wild, or powerful and they scream “look at me!!”. Dolo, doesn’t do that, she invites you in, you look at her, you pay attention to her, not because she is demanding it, but because you really really want to. She is open to the audience in a way that lets you in immediately. While she is coaching the audience through their parts, she never loses her character. As for the rest of the cast it will depend on your audience, I thought the fellow playing the Father was quite good the night I went, considering he didn’t know he’d even been cast.

I have to say that I had sort of read a brief description of the play, saw it’s run time was only an hour, and thought with so many shows finally opening up I’d give this one a miss with the packed schedule. I was urged by another blogger not to miss this show and I’m glad I took her advice. Every Brilliant Thing is not to be missed. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen since the theaters reopened, for me this has been the most rewarding of my post pandemic excursions. The show is directed by Meredith McDonough with the unique tasks of directing two different performers in the same role. Jucoby Johnson actually plays the lead in most performances with Joy Dolo appearing every Thursday of the run. I have not seen Jucoby Johnson’s performance but there is an excellent review here by Cherry and Spoon . The Theater has been transformed from it’s usual configuration into a theatre in the round venue by Scenic and Costume Designer Mina Kinukawa and it really enables Dolo and Johnson to get that engagement with the audience going. It was the right decision for this show, and plays a key part in establishing an all in this together vibe. The other technical aspect that really deserves a shout out is the Sound Design by Montana Johnson. Music is minimal but key, it’s use always important to the story and very effective. I particularly liked being reminded of Daniel Johnston and always good to hear a little Ray Charles.

Every Brilliant Thing runs through November 14th at the Jungle Theater in the Lynlake area near Uptown Minneapolis. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets go to https://www.jungletheater.org.