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

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

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

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

2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival – Top Ten

Every year I clear out the past year’s top 10 to make room for ten more promising acts I’m excited to see.  For the 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival, they are:

1 – FurTrader Productions – Confessions of a Delinquent Cheerleader

Who were you in High School? Hear true stories of a reformed cheerleader/bad girl at a private school back in the late 1980s. At times hilarious, at times tragic, she shares her “glory days” for all to judge. I was already fairly sure this was going to be one great comedic solo show, just by virtue of the fact that Mame Pelletier is involved.  That fact that it’s her script and her story only reinforced that instinct.  Her Fringe preview made it clear I would not be allowed to even entertain doubts about this one.  It’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun.  Can’t wait. 2 – Little Lifeboats – Confessions of a Butter Princess or Why The Cow Jumped Over The Moon

On the planet Ceres, Alex, a Cow, and a Queen are trying to escape the wrath of the Princess Kay Chorus. Continue Reading

11 Highlights of the 2015 FLOW Northside Arts Crawl

FLOW Northside 2015 is officially underway. Now in its tenth year, the annual arts crawl continues to celebrate arts and community in North Minneapolis. The festivities kicked off on Thursday with a block party that incorporated dance, discussion and visual art. It continues on Friday with various gallery showings, arts activities, performances and food leading up to the main event on Saturday.

For their 10th anniversary, FLOW has expanded to include Plymouth Avenue. And they’ve increased the number of artists with links to Minneapolis’s North side.

Below are some top picks for this weekend.

Friday and Saturday

Juxtaposition (JXTA) Textile Lab

1104 W Broadway Ave

Fri. 3-7pm, Sat. 1-7pm

While most of Juxtaposition’s events are slotted to take place on Saturday, on Friday, early birds can check out the North Minneapolis art hub’s newly opened storefront. The storefront was designed and remodeled by a handful of JXTA’s own instructors and apprentices. For a small fee, those looking for a more hands-on experience can also bring a shirt to make their own textile or screen-print. Other pre-printed gear and apparel will also be on sale. Continue Reading

Ordway Takes Damn Yankees into Extra Innings

From the doorman welcoming patrons to “Griffen Stadium,” to the hotdogs and beer for sale, Ordway Center blends baseball and Broadway in its revival of the 1955 smash musical show Damn Yankees. Though a bit dated, the Richard Adler and Jerry Ross musical, under the direction and choreography of James A. Rocco and Sharon Halley, shows one does not need to be a baseball fan to have an enjoyable summer evening at the ballpark. The musical is a re-telling of the Faustian story with Joe Boyd, a middle-age real estate agent, who is a die-hard fan of the Washington Senators (the team that later became the Minnesota Twins) in the 1950’s. The Senators can’t seem to beat the New York Yankees. Upset with the Senators’ latest loss, Joe cries out that if the team had a “long ball hitter” they could beat the “damn Yankees.”   He then seals his fate uttering: “I’d sell my soul for a long ball hitter.” On the spot pops in “Mr. Applegate” who takes Joe up on his offer. Continue Reading

Back in action at the Black Dog

Get in off the 294 express bus from Minneapolis and am way early for the gig at Black Dog Wine and Coffee Bar in Lowertown.  So, I take a little stroll around and am almost homesick: this part of St. Paul reminds me so much of Greenwich Village back in NYC.  Laid back, bohemian – a damn nice place to take a quiet walk.  Looking for a burger joint, happen upon the St. Paul Saints’ ballpark.  It’s beautiful.  Mainly because it’s a professional baseball field with all that electrifying atmosphere and you can actually get close up on the diamond.  I drop in at Mike Kelly’s Depot Bar & Grill.  The food and service are damned good blue-collar fare. A well-done bacon-cheeseburger, onion rings and a Coke later, I head over to the Black Dog.  It has been a hell of a long time since I had a real gig.  Not since Hell’s Kitchen about 5 years ago.  I’d done a year and a half or so at Corner Coffee in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District, but this was for pay, not tips.  Get over and Brian Charles Tischleder is roaming around, trying to do something about parking.  Haven’t seen the cat in ages.  That was another time opening for him.  Well, opening for James Curry, his duo with guitarist Casey Fearing.  Reviewed Brian’s Dreams & Fear CD for the Planet – damned good music.  We, of course, immediately start chewing the rag,  Before he has to get with his wife Ka Vang – poet/spoken word artist with whom he pulled strings to get me on the bill – he promises to see can he dig an old recording of James Curry as a four-piece band.  Would love to hear that.  Spot a poster for the show on the wall with pictures of names: am in pretty sweet company Rush Merchant headlining, Ka Vang, Lauren Koshere and Brian Charles Tischleder.  Nope, not too shabby at all.  And Saint Paul Almanac is filming.  Make a mental note to swipe that poster before the end of the night. Am doing my set, happen to catch sight in the back of the room of my man Bill Borea (a/k/a pro rassler Billy Blaze a/k/a William Borea,playwright, screen writer, director, actor).  The guy came clear over South Minneapolis. Continue Reading