Franklin Open Streets showcases a slice of life on the Ave

From Cedar  to Chicago Avenue..sweltering humidity or not, folks showed up for another summer edition of Open Streets. This time the spotlight was on Franklin Avenue-home to the largest population of urban Native Americans in the country. Franklin Avenue is also home to one of the oldest libraries in the city and many Somali and East African folks. Open Streets brought them all together for a day of bicycling and walking down one of the most diverse places in the city. See for yourself… Continue Reading

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Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and That’swhatshesaid takes your brain to places you weren’t expecting to go

This past spring at Billy Mullaney’s Uncreativity Festival, the audience was treated to a lot of shorts, but also a few tantalizing excerpts of much longer works.  Having whetted the audience’s appetite for more, Mullaney brings back two of those pieces in longer form – visiting Seattle performer Erin Pike presenting a new iteration of That’swhatshesaid, and Mullaney’s ongoing exploration of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. “There’s only one in this wonderful world.  You are special.”

Both pieces engage in the use of appropriated text.  Pike, in collaboration with playwright Courtney Meaker and director HATLO (yes, that’s her name, all caps), is taking lines out of the mouths of female characters in the most-produced plays of the 2014-2015 theater season (a list compiled annually by the Theater Communications Group [TCG]).  Hence, the title That’swhatshesaid.  Their first stab at this last year used the 2013-2014 most-produced plays list, which turned out to be a bit of an outlier.  That list of 12 plays was split equally down the middle between male and female playwrights, six and six.  The just completed theater season reverts more to form, which is to say less representation and production of women playwrights.  So the lens on female characters is a decidedly male one.  This version is still a work in progress but a very intriguing one.  The first section is the female characters in plays written by men.  The, decidedly shorter, second section is the female characters in the plays written by women.  Taking the lines – and related stage directions – for the women as the raw material for this piece makes for a very illuminating portrait of the state of women onstage in modern theater. “She enters.”

The most produced plays last year were: Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang; Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley; Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon; Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz; Around the World In 80 Days, adapted by Mark Brown and Toby Hulse from the novel by Jules Verne; Peter and the Starcatcher, adapted by Rick Elice from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson; The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez; Into The Woods, book by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Venus In Fur by David Ives.  The two women who break into the top 11 are: Nina Raine’s play Tribes; and Amy Herzog’s play 4,000 Miles.  From these 11 plays, there were 74 roles total.  31 of these roles were written for women.  Of the 31 female roles, six were written for women by women.  That’s a daunting place to start.  It’s even more daunting when you start to hear some of the dialogue (and descriptions) that men write for women.  I’m sure they don’t mean to be insulting, but when you hear them out of their original context – all lined up together – it’s kind of mind-blowing. “Is she a molecule, or a TV weather person?”

While I found it a fascinating exercise in deconstructing a portrait of today’s theater scene, the actress friend next to me when the lights came up simply said, “Well, now I’m depressed.”  On the flip side, as a writer, I was thinking, “I need to write more (better) roles for women.”  But that wouldn’t really help the larger problem – which is more representation by women playwrights, who know the subject a little more intimately and can bring some much needed nuance and complexity to the table. Right now, the portrait of women on stage that’s up for mass consumption by theater audiences is in need of some balance. Continue Reading

Picture from the Ordway Theater.

Pirates of Penzance is still a “Glorious Thing” in its 135th year

“It is a glorious thing to be a pirate king,” declares the Pirate King, setting the stage for W.S. Gilbert’s and Arthur Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Pirates was first presented on Broadway one hundred thirty-five years ago and its most recent incarnation at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts shows that this comic opera has staying power. Continue Reading

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Outdoor Hmong Music at the History Center

Check out these great photos of a partnership with the “We Are Hmong Show” at the Minnesota History Center in Saint Paul, the Center included a night of Hmong Music in its “9 Nights of Music” series, which is held in the outdoor plaza space between the State Capitol and the Cathedral of Saint Paul. Continue Reading

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2015 Little Mekong Night Market in photos

If you attended the Little Mekong Night Market this year, you know that the exceptional food and performances made the festival a vibrant place to be last weekend. See below for exclusive snapshots of the event. All photos taken by Mark Peterson. Click here for more photos, video and information on this year’s Little Mekong Market. Continue Reading

Blues artist Keb Mo’ delivers a standout performance at the Minnesota Zoo

Although three time Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’ (actual name Kevin Moore) enjoys a great deal of success, many mainstream music listeners have yet to experience this gifted musician. He’s gotten national recognition since the release of his self-titled debut album in 1994.  Mo’ enjoys a strong fan base in the Twin Cities as proven by the capacity crowd that attended his August 6th Music in the Zoo at Weesner Family Amphitheater performance in support of his current release “Bluesamericana”. Categorizing music by genre has its purpose, but may also be to blame for keeping people from discovering an artist that could really have an impact on their lives. It would be a shame to miss out on the qualities a rich talent the likes of Keb’ Mo’ has to offer simply because you don’t consider yourself a fan of Blues music. Can you appreciate an expressive singer, skilled guitar picker, talented melody maker and genuine storyteller? Continue Reading

2015 Fringe Review – Coffee Tea or Me

Tweet Review – Coffee Tea or Me – a perfectly matched pair of very different traveling storytellers – 5 stars

Even though Les Kurkendaal lives in California, it feels like it wouldn’t be a complete Minnesota Fringe Festival without him on the schedule.  We’re lucky the lottery ping pong balls roll out in his favor, and that he loves our Fringe so much that he just keeps coming back.  He’s also a reliable favorite for my Mom each year. “Lil Wayne, I just want to let you know I love your work.”

But after seeing so many Fringe shows with so many stories from different corners of Les’ life – like the time his white boyfriend took him home to meet the family for Christmas, but didn’t mention ahead of time that Les was black; or the time his boyfriend took Les to his high school reunion, but neglected to inform his classmates ahead of time that he was gay; Les’ coming out story and the difficulties it posed in his relationship with his father; alcoholism; body issues; Les’ mother’s dementia and memory loss – after seeing all that, what other stories could Les have up his sleeve? “I’m a New Yorker.  I can have an orgasm and a minor medical emergency at the same time.”

Seems Les was wondering about that himself – hence, his new show Coffee, Tea or Me, an existential crisis (which as Fringe Executive Director Jeff Larson rightly quipped during the traveling artists preview showcase the night before Fringe opened, would be a horrible title for a show, if it were done by anyone but Les Kurkendaal). “Wow, they’re awfully nice for racists.”

I honestly wasn’t sure going in whether I was going to take to this show.  The premise seemed to be that Les was doing a show about the fact that he didn’t have an idea for a show.  That meta “struggles of the artist” thing normally is the exact opposite of the sort of thing I find entertaining.  Also, to switch things up, Les is sharing the stage with another storyteller with a very different way of telling stories, Marlene Nichols.  Les and Marlene alternate telling their stories and the framework establishes that Les, on a road trip from California to Minnesota, trying to shake off the malaise he’s found himself in, decides to save himself from the endless repetitive drone of Top 40 radio by tuning in to NPR, finding it on the dial as he crosses into each new state.  Marlene is the voice and storytelling of NPR.  Les is, well, Les. “Like La Boheme.  Minus the consumption.  Also the hot boyfriend.”

Les is reminded on his journey of what got him into acting in the first place, of his very first Fringe show (in a country on the other side of the world), of a friend’s near death experience and the party of friends that saved him, and finds himself not the target of prejudice at a questionable truck stop but the one unexpectedly dishing it out to others.  Meanwhile on NPR, Marlene – quite often appearing in a fabulous gown of some sort – regales us with stories tailor-made for the kind of NPR listener that lives on the fortunate side of the white privilege divide (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  There’s a tale of a young woman living on her own for the first time, in Paris, with a limited grasp of the language.  There’s a meditation on how the romantic ideals of a five year old do – and don’t – change as she searches for Prince Charming in a modern day world of ordinary men.  And, going a more familiar, Les Kurkendaal sort of route, there’s a portrait of a colorful mother, and the often exasperated daughter who needs to make her peace with her. Continue Reading

2015 Fringe Review – Confessions of a Butter Princess

Tweet Review – Confessions Of A Butter Princess – People turning into butter, talking cows – I liked it but I’m still not sure why – 3 stars

“You’re overthinking it,” my mother assured me.  We’d both just seen Little Lifeboats’ Fringe show Confessions Of A Butter Princess, or Why The Cow Jumped Over The Moon.  I had them on my Top 10 list this year because I really admire the work this company does, particularly with new plays.  And their in-house playwright (also the playwright here on Confessions) Abby Swafford serves up comedy in mind-bending ways I find fascinating and engaging (see Parhelion or Raise Your Voice (Suzanne Cross), or That F**king Harriet Tubman Play as examples). “That cat and that fiddle were not innocents!”

I was apparently psyching myself out on Butter Princess.  Mom had no such problem.  “You’re looking for more here when there probably isn’t any.  It’s just a goofy Fringe show about a queen (Erin Denman) on another planet who’s being pursued by three young butter princesses (Alana Horton, Briana Patnode, and Madelyne Riley) who actually turn into butter, and there’s a talking cow (Hector Edwardo Chavarria) she helps to set free.  That’s it.  Just enjoy it for the strange little thing that it is.”

“Hide me, please!”
“We’re in the round.”

Good advice.  Since, as a non-native Minnesota transplant, I have trouble understanding the whole butter princess tradition at the state fair anyway, it might as well be some alien ritual set on another planet (though, it does seem as if there is at least a suggested relationship to the Minnesota origins of the whole thing – it’s just that when these young ladies win the crown, they also win a one way trip into space.)

“Of course I’m going to help her.  I’m not an animal.”

Chavarria is a real scene stealer as the flamboyant cow (and I’m not just saying that because he flirted with me – and so many others – in the audience).  (In a nod to the whole “Cecil the Lion” controversy, the cow also wondered aloud if a less friendly looking man in the audience liked to hunt – “Are you a dentist?”)

“You tried to kill me once.”
“Trust is a fickle thing.”

Director Chris Garza and his cast embrace the weirdness of the script and create this strange little world of butter princess revolution.  The final transformation of the princesses into butter was a delightfully creepy bit of costuming magic from producer Victoria Pyan.  The princesses just get more progressively yellow until finally we have them all in blond wigs, creamy bright yellow suit jackets, gloves, and unnerving blank masks, also in bright yellow.  It’s a very vivid final image for them. “Dearest cow, does the unending blackness scare you?”

So I’ll take mom’s advice and just relax.  Confessions of a Butter Princess was just supposed to be a lark.  And so it is. 3 stars – Recommended Continue Reading

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True stories can be powerful: Trans Families show at the Fringe compels

Tweet Review – Trans Families – compelling readers theater about shifting identities fraying couples at the edges – 4.5 stars

Seems I’ve just been seeing the wrong Christy Marie Kent Fringe shows until now.  Though Kent is an award winning storyteller, her performance style back in 2012 when I was intrigued enough by her preview for Moonshine, Madness and Murder to drop in and see the full show, left me a little underwhelmed. To be fair, each of her first Fringe shows (both dealing with moonshine and cloistered monks and nuns) were test-driving material for her upcoming novel, so they weren’t meant to be either strictly theatrical in nature, or even ideal presentations as storytelling or spoken word.  Kent decided to use the Fringe as a laboratory to fine-tune her material, and if that’s how she wanted to spend her money, good for her.  For whatever reason, be it subject matter or presentation, it wasn’t really grabbing me, so I sat the next couple of Kent shows out. “Few people carry around as much baggage as trans folks with wives and kids.”

As luck would have it, I got out just as things probably got interesting.  Kent’s next two Fringe shows began to deal with her own story of transitioning as a transgender woman.  While this year’s low-key Fringe preview of her latest offering, Trans Families, still didn’t grab me, the subject matter of the show did – families in which the father reveals to the family that from birth they’d always felt as if they’d been placed in the wrong body, and so began their transition to living new lives as women.  These weren’t Kent’s own stories, but were nonetheless true stories of other transgender people and their families transforming as identities shifted.  Kent is collecting these tales for a non-fiction book about transitioning parents with children. “I’ve been a trucker for 20 years, but a woman for less than 10.”

The thing that got me in the door to see Trans Families was the addition to the cast of Erica Fields reading the role of Danielle, a trucker and father who risks losing everything, including his marriage and family, in order to be true to she really was.  (In the interests of full disclosure, Fields performed the role of the transgender minister in the Minnesota premiere of my play But Not For Love a few years back.  That’s how I know what a good actress she is, and she brought that same vitality and talent to liven up Trans Families.)

“Relationships are like diesel engines.”

Kent read the role of Jamie, formerly Jimmy, who adopted a child prior to transitioning, and also found herself on the verge of losing her wife and family on the journey to finding herself.  Kent’s soft-spoken delivery works in the context of the larger show in a way it didn’t quite land in the preview.  Her acting chops, though still a work in progress, have improved since I saw her last. “You might have been Daniel at one time, but all I see is Danielle.”

The church, the law and extended family all apply pressure in the stories of Danielle and Jamie, fueling intolerance that drives both women to the brink of suicide.  But since they’re alive to tell the tale, you know that some twist of fortune reels them back in again.  Life is persistent, and full of surprises. Continue Reading

Minnesota Fringe Festival: School of Rhythm at the Rarig Proscenium

SHOW TITLE: School of Rhythm

PRODUCER: Elephant Games Productions

HAILING FROM: Minneapolis

SHOW DESCRIPTION: A few ground rules: don’t be late, keep your pencil sharp, most importantly, don’t lose the beat! Experience food fights, secret handshakes, and other topics not covered on the exam in School of Rhythm! Reviewing youth shows is always a perilous endeavor: as someone with extensive background in youth theater, I’m a great believer in holding it to a critical standard. There are many who are inclined to shower any youth production with praise, and view criticism of it as being in poor taste, and I’m one of those inclined to view this attitude as one the Things That Are Destroying America and Art (TM). Which is why a youth show like this one is such a relief, because it’s both effortlessly impressive and enjoyable. Continue Reading