Monday, April 23, 2018

The Lorax is a Scintillating Show for Our Times

The Children's Theatre Company's latest show is a perfect piece for Earth Day. 


Photo by Dan Norman

Literary adaptations to stage or screen are always a tricky thing. Few fans are as ardent about faithful story-lines as book readers, and navigating the process of visualizing the collective imagination of textual characters down to the minutest detail can be a daunting task.

Photo by Dan Norman

In some ways, children's literature allows for more creative freedom in this process than novels do. After all, children's books are quite visual and can provide a more literal template from page to stage, eliminating choices that are harder when an author-approved image or vision isn't available.

Photo by Dan Norman

I imagine, however, that Dr. Seuss would provide a unique challenge of its own no matter what age range it's intended for. The imagery of Dr. Seuss books is so iconic, so unique, and so unlike anything we see in the natural world, that making it feasibly come to life involves a crazy amount of work that few companies are willing to take on. Thankfully the Twin Cities' Children's Theatre Company (CTC) is bravely up to the task (and then some); they've adapted multiple Dr. Seuss works for the stage before, but their latest The Lorax, which opened last weekend, might just be their best yet.

Photo by Dan Norman

One of the lesser known (but most explicitly political) of Seuss's tales, The Lorax is a parable about what happens when the environment becomes the least of society's priorities. A man named the Onceler is looking for a great idea to make himself rich when he stumbles upon a forest of truffula trees. The unusual trees provide fuel, food, and a remarkable material that can be knitted into fabric. The Onceler instantly seizes upon the knitting concept and knits the fronds into thneeds, a useless object that nevertheless is instantly seized upon in the consumer world. The trees are guarded by an ancient creature called the Lorax, who instantly demands the Onceler stop chopping trees down to make his thneeds; he explains that the trees require enormous amounts of care and time to grow and that chopping them down makes an irreversible error that will eliminate them forever. The Onceler ignores the Lorax's warnings, consumed by the wealth generated by thneed demand. He continues to edge out the Lorax's forest, removing trees at an ever-increasing rate until they are entirely gone. Once all the truffula trees are extinguished the Onceler sees his mistake, but it's too late: the Lorax leaves the annihilated landscape that used to be his truffula forest, and the Onceler is left to live in the wasteland of his greed. Only with the hope brought much later by a small child hearing the story for the first time can he begin to imagine a brighter future.

Photo by Dan Norman

This production has some changes from the book to flesh it out, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. The show is shepherded by an expert, dynamic cast, all of whom seem to be having the time of their lives. Stephen Epps is the perfect choice for the greedy Onceler. H. Adam Harris is wonderful as the voice of the Lorax, and he performs some magically expressive puppet work with the help of Meghan Kreidler and Rick Miller that is truly captivating. Rajané Katurah explodes off the stage in a dynamic solo, and she's going to be one to watch in coming productions. Ryan Colbert remains one of the best new regular actors on a CTC stage, with a vividly expressive performance that had all the kids giggling. The rest of the cast is great too, rotating through multiple roles (and costumes - man those changes are quick!) at a lightning pace and with clear passion, especially Ansa Akya and Stephanie Bertumen.

Photo by Dan Norman

Speaking of the costumes, holy cow - the production value of The Lorax is perfection from top to bottom. I'd love to know how much they spent developing each piece, because the clear attention to the smallest detail is evident at all levels. The costumes and sets, designed by Rob Howell, retain an exclusive Dr. Seuss feel and a crazy amount of texture. You can almost tangibly sense the softness of each truffula tree or the slime in the thneed factory, and the costumes burst off the stage in a riot of color. The puppets, designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, are a marvel. They have so much expressiveness, and they are moved so masterfully and expressively, that you are totally mesmerized every time they're on stage - from the flying swans to the singing fish to the Lorax himself (on first sight of whom the audience burst into applause), these are some entrancing puppets. The choreography by Drew McOnie is tightly performed and jazzy, perfectly mimicking the mood of the plot, and Emily Michaels King does some beautiful solo work as the dance leader. The lighting design (by Jon Clark) and sound design (by Tom Gibbons) is similarly timed to the smallest details, and the effects combine to make The Lorax a rich, fully visualized experience.

Photo by Dan Norman

Serious issues are making their way onto stages all over the Twin Cities, which is great to see. Race and gender and sexuality have all gotten explicit treatment in recent months, but how do you visually depict pollution as an urgent problem to be solved and a clean environment as something to be valued? I firmly believe that art is a perfect medium to help us tackle difficult subjects, and The Lorax is a genius way to address environmental issues. It may be considered a tale for children, but adults will be amazed at how quickly they are engrossed in The Lorax's beautifully told story. I know that I was pleasantly surprised at how much I genuinely engaged with this show. I couldn't stop smiling from the moment the theater lights dimmed, and if nothing else the incredible production value provides plenty of food for the eyes. I can't recommend The Lorax highly enough for people of all ages (and I truly mean that - adults are not getting cheated in this show). Hats (or thneeds, rather) off to Director Max Webster for a triumphant, creative adaptation that pulls the heartstrings, teaches a lesson, and puts a wide smile on your face all at the same time. For more information or to buy tickets before The Lorax closes on June 10, click on this link.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Turning Back Time at Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

What's in a name (or a skin tone)? 


Photo by Dan Norman

If you happened to miss it amidst our unseasonable spring blizzard (and who could blame you?), the Guthrie Theater opened their stage rendition of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner last weekend. I imagine this was scheduled specifically at this point in the season as a contrast to Danai Gurira's excellent play Familiar, which sadly closed last weekend. Both plays discuss interracial relationships and the difficulties of introducing a partner to your family who is from a different culture than you, and both are highly worth watching.

Photo by Dan Norman

But while Familiar is (at its heart) about life in an immigrant family and the unique cognitive dissonance the internal identities of immigrants hold, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Guess Who) is really about the external realities of existence itself. Rather than asking Who Am I?, Guess Who simply asks: Why? Why are our cultural expectations of relationships the way they are? Why are we expected to segregate ourselves? Why are our differences emphasized rather than celebrated? Why does anyone get to have a say in your relationship who isn't a part of the relationship itself? 

Photo by Dan Norman

Through a series of cringe-laugh-inducing vignettes, Guess Who (mostly) deftly navigates those questions in a way that lands a serious subject with a light blow. We see the happy couple radiate with love; we see their parents' utter dismay at their clear mutual interest; we see a satellite of other characters convincing the parents to trust their children despite all of their training to do otherwise. This is a script that is not afraid to have hard conversations in front of you, and there is a sense of voyeurism in watching the Draytons and Prentices navigate their dismay over finding themselves in a situation they could never have imagined before. 

Photo by Dan Norman

This story could easily be an uncomfortable mess without strong guidance, and Director Timothy Bond has assembled a rock star cast to help him deftly navigate the tricky material. Guthrie stalwart Sally Wingert is back as Christina Drayton. It's always tough to embody a role made famous by an actor as iconic as say, Katharine Hepburn, but Wingert makes it look easy with her expressive face and sharp wit. Speaking of inhabiting iconic roles, JaBen Early is marvelous as Dr. John Prentice. I was curious how they would put up this role that Sidney Poitier made possible; wisely, rather than trying to play Poitier, Early makes it completely his own. He has a modern, classy touch, and I thoroughly enjoyed his grounded performance. He's definitely a keeper. Regina Marie Williams is great here too as the Drayton's maid Tillie. Her role may seem insignificant, but to me, it's the crux of the entire show, and made stronger by Williams' adroit performance. Tillie is the bridge between all of these worlds; her intimate knowledge of the Draytons, her lived experience as a black woman in 1960s America, and her feet squarely planted with a black perspective living in a wealthy white world help us to the understanding that all of us can carry flawed perceptions, and all of us can overcome them. Williams does a wonderful job steering this story, and the show would be much poorer without her presence. 

Photo by Dan Norman

The rest of the cast is good too. Peter Thomson is a genuine comedic spotlight as Monsignor Ryan and often ironically voices the soundest reason of any character in the show. Greta Oglesby and Derrick Lee Weeden are profound as Dr. Prentice's parents Mary and John, respectively; their reaction, short but powerfully played here, is hard to watch but necessary. Maeve Coleen Moynihan is vivacious as Joanna Drayton, showing great chemistry with Early and a stark moral compass for the plot. And Michelle Duffy gets into her best Doloris Umbridge vibe whilst performing the sickening social climbing of Hilary St. George. 

Photo by Dan Norman

This set, designed by Matt Saunders, and the costumes, by Lydia Tanji, are just lovely. They perfectly set the time, and there is no shortage of detail to feast your eyes upon. The set remains in the exquisitely curated home of the Draytons for the duration of the show, and the instant opulence it evokes is engrossing. The costumes are classy and chic, and I wouldn't mind stealing more than a few of the looks on stage. The lighting design by Dawn Chiang adds a great level of dimension to the set, and keeps each scene feeling fresh as time passes. It's a great team effort, and meets many of the high production value productions I've seen at the Guthrie before. 

Photo by Dan Norman

I'm grateful to see this on stage as part of an increasing series of shows focusing on interracial relationships, which I have long felt receive short shrift in the cultural limelight. This kicked off with Penumbra's excellent Wedding Band, which I loved last fallFamiliar of course; and the upcoming (and locally written!) This Bitter Earth, also at the Penumbra and debuting in a couple weeks. Although interracial marriages recently hit an all-time recorded high, that level still sits at only 15% of all couples in the United States. People may be more generally comfortable with the idea of interracial relationships these days than they were in the 1960s, but that still doesn't mean they want them within their own families. It's really important to destigmatize these relationships, and I'm grateful to our local #tctheater community for working hard to talk about this issue. There are elements of Guess Who that directly correlate to my own experience of introducing partners of different races to my family (and vice versa), and although the situation in the show is dramatized, there are certainly several nuggets of truth to be found here that are quite relevant. 

Photo by Dan Norman

That being said, there are some things about this story that didn't age well, I thought, although this isn't the fault of the production itself. The conversation we see on stage is still vital, but the reception of it felt flawed. When Guess Who's Coming to Dinner first hit the silver screen in 1967, there were very few positive images of interracial relationships in popular culture, and the reception was as intense as you might imagine. Fifty years later, as with so many issues concerning race in the North (and particularly passive aggressively liberal states like Minnesota), we are able to watch a play like Guess Who and pat ourselves on the back for progress and an exceedingly judgmental eye towards the past without seeing the enormous amount of work left to do. This issue is beautifully explained in my first ever guest post back in 2016 (click here to read - it's a great summary from one of the smartest people I know), but it's something we need to talk about more. Interracial marriage is legal now, but the reception of such relationships is still problematic, and we need to do much better in general on directly closing the racial equality gap in all ways. I didn't get the sense from the laughs around me that the audience quite understood that; the point of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is to show how deeply all of us harbor prejudice and how actively we need to root it out. It's not enough to claim liberalism or charity donations or op eds in the newspaper; we need to be actively fighting racism in our every day actions and inner thoughts, and that takes unending, exhausting work that goes far beyond writing a signature in a chequebook. 

Photo by Dan Norman

To be clear: I would absolutely recommend seeing Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The Guthrie has mounted an excellent production with a Grade A cast, and they hit all the right notes in the staging. There's a lot to learn from the attention to detail they paid, and I think anyone can enjoy it. I would only caution you if you go to use it as a great lens to consider your own thoughts about issues about race; you might be surprised what you turn up. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner runs at the Guthrie through May 27; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Five Points is Utterly Fantastic

What Unites Us? 


Photo by Dan Norman

I'm a huge Dan Rather fan (if you're not following his news updates on his Facebook page you are seriously missing out - check it out at once!), and one of the common themes in his posts is finding ways to cross the yawning divide in American life these days.

Photo by Dan Norman

It's a noble goal, and I get great joy of seeing even the small ways Rather finds to bring a commonality to our lived experiences. Simple things like baseball games, finding hope in our youthful generations, and celebrating beauty in nature and science find a way to uplift in even the darkest moments.

Photo by Dan Norman

This theme of finding common ground or experiences between seemingly impossible differences is at the heart of the delicious world premiere musical Five Points at Theatre Latte Da, which I was privileged to see last night. Five Points takes two seemingly separate stories and diffuses them together in the way only the crucible of the American melting pot can. It's 1863 in New York City and the Civil War is in full swing. Willie Lane is a talented dancer who is shunted to the corner of society due to his black skin. John Diamond is a grieving Irish immigrant who can't stop mourning his wife Brigid enough to truly care for his young son Junior. They could all have suffered in silos, but then fate strikes: P.T. Barnum asks Willie to join his show, and John is drafted to fight for the Union. Both are required to make difficult choices of leaving their family and making money over their pride; the narrative is much more complex than this but I don't want to give too much away. Ultimately both men are forced by Barnum to compete in a dance off for a financial prize that will save either man from a desperate fate; the genius of the show is that you want them both to win and know they cannot. Hard choices are made, and the end of Five Points leaves us with a broken heart but a hopeful wish for the future.

Photo by Dan Norman

The constellation of the Five Points cast is studded with low-key local legends, and one of the best parts of the script is that each character gets at least one solo and time to truly shine (a wise choice with this talented crew). Dieter Bierbrauer, Thomasina Petrus, Shinah Brashears, Evan Tyler Wilson, Ivory Doublette and Lamar Jefferson all shine in their lead roles - more so than I have time to detail here. But let me be honest about the breakout star in my eyes: holy shit, Ben Bakken. As John Diamond, Bakken absolutely explodes off the stage with a kinetic emotive power that instantly sears the soul. Reading his bio I'm sure I've seen him before but I can't place it and it doesn't matter. Bakken is unbelievably good in this role, and his touching performance will have you at the edge of your seat the whole time. Another standout is Ann Michels, who I've seen in several shows but is perfect - literally perfect - here in Five Points. This role suits every one of her many talents, and the chorus she leads to close the show had most of us tearing up. John Jamison was an understated star as Willie's friend Cornelius; I enjoy him so much every time I see him, so can we please get him a nice showy starring role soon? And T. Mychael Rambo whips out a soul stopping solo as Willie's father Pete that was similarly searing, the best I've ever heard his gorgeous bass voice sound.

Photo by Dan Norman

The production value nails the seedy nineteenth century tenement vibe. Joel Sass's scenic design works perfectly with Mary Shabatura's lighting to instantly set the mood of the play, be it dark and violent or sunny and winsome. The period perfect costumes from Trevor Bowen allow the characters to really shine through the fine acting, and the seamless stage management from Tiffany Orr makes each act seem to instantly flash by. The visionary creative team is what really nailed the production though - music director Denise Prosek, choreographer Kelli Foster Warder, lyric and music composer Douglas Lyons, music and orchestrations from Ethan Pakchar, the book by Harrison David Rivers and ultimately the directorial vision of Peter Rothstein makes executing this highly collaborative effort seem seamlessy easy, a true feat and high bar for future productions to clear (especially for new work - this reads like a timeworn Broadway musical, not a first-time show). The true excellence of Five Points is one more testament to why we need to keep creating more original, inclusive work. There are so many stories that haven't yet been told - why not bring them to light instead of rehashing the same tired problematic shows over and over again?

Photo by Dan Norman

One of my favorite elements of Five Points is how beautifully it weaves fraught narratives together without either equating them or overdramatizing. The curse of Whiteness, especially in the insidious form of American Racism it takes, is that it doesn't simply stop at a hierarchy of color. There is no doubt that historically Irish people were treated abominably in the United States, particularly in the fraught time period around the Civil War. It's just as true that no Irish immigrant ever faced the kind of systemic horror that African Americans in chattel slavery did, and often the blame for all of the fault lines between European immigrants was placed squarely (and unfairly) on the shoulders of former slaves who were simply trying to survive. (For some movies that terrifically address some of these issues, make sure to see Gangs of New York and Glory - both somewhat forgotten but really spectacular). Both of these narratives can be simultaneously true, and Five Points holds that cognitive dissonance with nuance and finesse, allowing us to experience the heartache on each side without excusing the pain they inflicted on each other in their grief.

Photo by Dan Norman

The cultural contrast here, particularly between the Irish step dancing and African American tap dance, is also totally fascinating. I actually think we could have used a little bit more dancing - these are extremely talented hoofers and I had the sense they were actually holding back a bit - and the blackout scene in Act II depicting the dance off is easily one of the finest moments of a very fine show. The musical styles also weave together so well, with jazz and folk songs beautifully meshing to a totally new art form. It's like Once meets Shuffle Along, and it's an inspired combination.

Photo by Dan Norman

All of this to say: Five Points is lush, passionate, powerful and so worth seeing. It's a terrifically talented cast telling a new story with beautiful music - what's not to love? The entire audience was gasping along with the action on stage, and I imagine you will too if you get a chance to go. Five Points runs through May 6 at the Ritz Theater; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.  And even if you don't go to the show, click through to the website to listen to some of these beautiful songs - it's so worth it.

Photo by Dan Norman

Monday, April 9, 2018

MUST SEE: Mermaid Hour: Remixed at Mixed Blood

When you think of mermaids, what comes to mind? 


Photo by Rich Ryan

Many of us immediately jump to thoughts of Disney's Ariel a la The Little Mermaid. Others might harken to darker implications, such as the cursed mermaids of West African lore.

What I recently learned is that mermaid can also be a term used to describe genderqueer individuals as a way of identifying their blended identities. Like a mythical mermaid is not fully made for land or sea, mermaid can help visualize a queer person who does not identify as CIS gender and as such lives "between worlds." There's more about this here at the website for the U.K.'s Mermaids organization, which has advocated for awareness of and safe spaces for queer children over the last 20 years, but I learned it from the lovely new show Mermaid Hour: Remixed at Mixed Blood Theater, one of my must-see shows of 2018.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Mermaid Hour tells the story of Vi, a young Latinx trans woman, and her parents and friends as they navigate her transition and she starts to hit puberty. I want to emphasize up front that refreshingly, this is not a coming out story (although of course those are important too): Vi's gender identity is always known to her, her parents, and her friends, and there is no question of who she is. Instead this play focuses on the ways that Vi's identity is complicated by the world around her. Even if she knows exactly who she is, the rest of the world still isn't sure how to react to or engage with her, and it is the confusion of others that makes her life (and especially her parents' lives) complicated. Vi's parents Pilar and Bird are accepting and amazing, and they try desperately to understand what she needs and how to help - but they fail, and often. The trouble is that instead of "just parenting," they are in transition too: from the grief of navigating losing a son but gaining a daughter; from explaining to friends and colleagues who and what their daughter is and how she should be seen; from raising a child to raising a teenager who is racing towards sexuality in a body that is fully unprepared for it, literally; and from the evolution of their marriage as Vi gets older and their engagement with her and each other necessarily changes.

Photo by Rich Ryan

I want to focus on this conversation about Vi's parents because to me that is the most remarkable part of this show. Vi's story is centered to be sure, and we hear her discuss her feelings with her friend Jacob, her comforting online merperson Crux, and with her own parents. I don't want to discredit the importance of that perspective and that Vi has her own agency: it's crucial to her safety and happiness, and it's a gift that too few people (and characters) get. But the beautiful, gentle, subtle way that Mermaid Hour discusses the nuances around transition (especially for young kids) is really remarkable, and much of this is conducted through Vi's parents. Here's a great example: one of the most devastating side effects of the discrimination towards trans people is their lack of adequate health care - both in it being paid for by insurance, and in having little proven real medical understanding of what trans bodies actually need to thrive. There is so little scientific information about the prolonged effect of sustained hormone therapy, especially on pubescent bodies, that it makes navigating the whole process of transitioning - such as considering regular hormone shots for decades at a time - terrifying for families. Even the most accepting parents have doubts, fears and concerns, and those are real emotions that need to be discussed (aside: for a fabulous discussion of this issue of long-term hormone use for trans people, click here to listen to this excellent podcast - I listened before attending this show and I learned SO. MUCH.). Through great writing and a pair of terrific performances, Pilar and Bird are allowed to express all of their feelings about this process - their grief, their fear, their doubt, their love, their confusion - and it gives such a complex, honest look at this experience that was so refreshing and instructive for me.

Photo by Rich Ryan

And speaking of performances, this show is filled with some really great ones. Thallis Santesteban is gripping as Vi's mother Pilar. She displays such deep emotion that you can't help but be moved, especially towards the end of the show. Michael Hanna plays Bird, and not only is his gorgeous voice is perfect for the part but he matches Santesteban's performance nuance for nuance. They are a great pair with electric chemistry, and perfectly cast. Azoralla Arroyo Caballero is in his first performance on a professional stage, and he nails it. Vi's youth is central to the conversations about her experience, and Caballero's thoughtfully adolescent performance is one more reminder of how amazing this current young generation is. Caballero's nuanced portrayal is a reminder that the societal issues we face about gender and sexual identity aren't problems with people knowing who they are: it's problems with those of us who were raised in a society that pretended they didn't exist in the first place. Helped with this perspective is the magical presence of Catherine Charles Hammond as Crux, Vi's merperson and a crucial mentor to her in her quest for safety and acceptance. Hammond gracefully sings through sparkling numbers, and their quiet but strong performance (replete with terrific advice) at the end of the show will cause you to think deeply. Meng Xiong was new-to-me as Vi's best friend Jacob; watch out, because I think he's about to be one of the newest #tctheater stars. His breakdancing interlude in particular gave me a radiant moment of joy. And Sheena Janson is a musical rockstar as Jacob's mother Mika, her beautiful voice giving so much depth to the songs. Love, love, love them all.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The set, designed by Britton Mauk, is intriguingly hung off the wall of the main stage. This is used surprisingly effectively, and it gives the sense of a busy middle class home while still leaving the stage free for the performers to dance and move quickly. Two vignette stages are broken off in the corners (make sure to get a seat where you can turn around) and give the supporting characters their own time in the spotlight. The costumes by Valerie St. Pierre Smith are simple but do a great job of evoking each character's persona, and the choreography from Movement Director Sarah Lozoff is similarly simple but efficient. The most impressive behind-the-scenes element for me is the work of composer Eric Mayson, who totally invented music for this show,* and Director Leah Anderson, whose comprehensive vision clearly leads Mermaid Hour to a messy, beautiful success - just like real life.

Photo by Rich Ryan

I love shows that make me think, especially those that make me think without making me depressed. Mermaid Hour: Remixed tackles some very tough subjects, but it always does it with love and respect at its core. This clear foundation in empathy and understanding allows the narrative to go so much deeper than it otherwise might. Constellating the main story are a host of other deftly handled and really important conversations, such as allowing youth to own their power (hello there #parklandstudents); changing with your changing marriage; allowing kids a safe place to explore and find acceptance, even if you don't understand it; and so much more. Although this story centers around trans and queer kids, I imagine that many parents could relate to the experiences of Bird and Pilar, and I definitely encourage you to go even if you think it "doesn't apply to you;" I guarantee you'll be surprised at how much you relate.

Photo by Rich Ryan

There seems to be an explosion of plays diving deep into the gender and sexuality spectrum these days, especially around the trans experience. All I can say is amen and keep it going! There is such a need to discuss these issues, not only to normalize them and help make the world a more tolerant place for trans and queer people, but to also provide resources for healthcare needs, mental health support, and better quality of life. We've come leaps and bounds societally in even the last five years, but it's not a fast enough transition to keep trans people from being murdered or discrimination from preventing trans people from freely living their lives. Anything that raises awareness about these issues is vital and necessary, and this beautiful, subtle production of Mermaid Hour: Remixed is perhaps my favorite I've seen of this journey so far. If you're interested (and you should be), click here for more information and to get tickets. Please also make sure to check out some of the other shows that have been cropping up to talk about trans and queer identities; we have such a vibrant LGBTQIA community here and they are doing some incredible work:

Photo by Rich Ryan



*A word on the music: Mermaid Hour: Remixed is part of a rolling premiere of the play Mermaid Hour, which is concurrently debuting at multiple theaters around the U.S. A rolling premiere means each theater gets more freedom to develop their rendition of a new show through a concurrent world premiere. Of all of the performances of Mermaid Hour currently running, the Mixed Blood rendition is the only version that is being staged as a musical, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Mixed Blood Team. I have to say that after seeing the show this way, I really can't imagine it as a play - the music adds such life to the show, it's really a great way to go. 

Warming and Learning at Isla Tuliro

How much do you know about the Philippines, really? 


Photo by Bruce Silcox


  • Did you know it was colonized twice? 
  • Did you know that Filipinos share a lot of cultural heritage with Latinx peoples? 
  • Did you know that the tribal origins of Filipinos date back more than 6,000 years? 


These are just a few of the many fascinating facts you will learn in Isla Tuliro (and their wonderfully detailed program), the new world premiere play being presented by Pangea World Theater and Teatro del Pueblo. Through a lyrical two acts, Isla Tuliro tells the story of the history of the Philippines and the Kayumanggis tribe, particularly after colonizers arrive. We learn of the Kayumanggis' peaceful life, the brutal ways they were subjugated, the strong resistance they showed, and many beautiful moments about the Kayumanggis culture, music and language. While a few things can get lost in translation - there are at least three languages competing at any given time, and a preponderance of narrators can make it a little hard to know who is leading the narrative when they are all speaking at once - the gentle choreography from Sandra Agustin evokes the action clearly and leads us through the story. It's a long overdue story to reach mainstream America, and I really hope a wide swath of audiences come to see it at the Southern before it closes on April 22.

The cast is composed of a vibrant mix of actors from the Pangea and Teatro del Pueblo companies, and they mix very well. It's clear from the get-go that developing Isla Tuliro was a truly collaborative process, and I hope more companies are inspired to work together after this show. My absolute favorite performer was new-to-me Lita Malicsi, the lead narrator and an all-around delight. Malicsi harnesses all the power of her ancestors to guide us through Isla Tuliro with grace and gravitas, and I could have listened to her perform solo for hours. Likewise, Lyra Hernandez does a great job supporting Malicsi's narration and adding energy to the action on stage. Mary Ann Prado displays wisdom and strength as the Kayumanggi ruler Diwa, and I only wish we had more of a chance to see her exercise her leadership strength in the story.

One of the things about Isla Tuliro that immediately struck and impressed me was how clearly this was the vision and execution of women of color. Written and developed by Marlina Gonzalez, the plot flips traditional narratives of U.S. presence abroad and immediately focuses on the people most impacted by our actions there. A feeling of collaboration and genuine warmth flows through the cast, which is 75% female, and it shows in the energy on stage. The creative team is also dominated by women and people of color, and I think this intentional creation of an inclusive, multifaceted vision and crew really helps solidify the unique feel of this play. The sets are super simple, mostly composed of silky sea kaleidoscope hanging backdrops, but they're used to maximum effect with the benefit of some gorgeous night time lighting, spirited sound design and music, and some lovely shadow puppets from local resident master puppeteer Masanari Kawahara. The overall show reminded me a little bit of The Oldest Boy, one of my favorite things I ever saw at the Jungle Theater, and that feeling of a strikingly honest narrative told with a clear eyes yet a comforting feeling is something I would love to see more of around the Twin Cities.

Isla Tuliro is the first show I've had the pleasure of seeing by either Pangea World Theater or Teatro del Pueblo, and I can confidently say that it certainly won't be my last. The heart, vision, and truly inclusive nature of Isla Tuliro is a sign of companies who are leading the way to continue to diversify our stages and uplift exciting new narratives, and who doesn't need more of that in their life? There's no better show to help warm your snow-in-April-cold heart than Isla Tuliro, and its beachy vibes and important message will linger with you long after you're gone. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.



And as a special aside: I haven't read the book above yet but I was so delighted to discover its existence a few weeks ago. I imagine it might be a great companion to this show if you're interested in learning more about the Filipino-Latinx crossover. Click here to learn more



Thursday, April 5, 2018

Something Rotten Smells Just Fine

What is the real difference between a copy and a spoof? 


Photo by Jeremy Daniel

My chef and I had a debate about this after seeing Something Rotten, the current Broadway tour resident at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis. To my mind, a copy is directly lifting something - be it a plot, music, lyrics, etc. - from another artist and trying to pass it off as your own (aka: plagiarism). A spoof, however, pays homage to the original and acknowledges it for what it is, while infusing it with new meaning by placing it in a different context.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

If we trust these definitions, then Something Rotten is a masterful cadre of spoofs on all of theater's most sacred cows, beginning with Shakespeare and ending with the modern moneymaker that is the musical genre. It imagines a world in which Shakespeare is a rock star but low on ideas and steals from his rivals who are hoping to achieve a fraction of the fame he has. The most notable of these are a pair of brothers (Nick and Nigel), who had hired Shakespeare as an actor long before his playwright fame and who are bitter with envy at his success. Nick is particularly obsessed with taking Shakespeare down - so obsessed that he carts his family's life savings to a soothsayer to steal what will be Shakespeare's most successful idea.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The soothsayer gets a lot right, but unfortunately not in the right order - so Hamlet becomes Omelette and musicals are brought to the sixteenth century in tourettes-style fashion and a jumble of plots. Nigel wants to write original work but it's not enough for Nick, and the two grapple with the difference between authentic and copy, innovation and familiar tropes, and all sorts of otherwise heavy artistic questions with a light touch. As they do so, Something Rotten wanders through what is essentially a history of musicals, touching on almost all of them and throwing some solid jabs at the ubiquitous nature of Shakespeare's reputation for good measure. Puritans are given the Hairspray treatment in some inspired religious caricatures (especially in "We See the Light"); Shakespeare's fanboys are re-imagined as an 80's style rock band a la Queen in "Hard to Be the Bard;" and in the best traditions of satires like Monty Python or South Park, Something Rotten delightfully skewers purity in all senses with a wink and a chasse.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Unfortunately, the day I attended included a robust April snowstorm, so the two main draws - Adam Pascal and Rob McClure - were unable to perform. While disappointing, I'd like to emphasize for the people in the back (who were heard grumbling at intermission): this is *literally* what understudies are for, and I thought the two who filled in - Daniel Beeman as Shakespeare and Scott Cote as Nick, respectively - really gave it their all. Cole's performance reminded me so much of what I love about Nathan Lane, and he really mastered the aura of a charming ignoramus, especially in songs like "God, I Hate Shakespeare." Beeman has the swagger and heavy eyeliner to take his punky character all the way through, and he was rocking his best Freddy Mercury from the moment he stepped out in "I Love the Way." Josh Grisetti was surprisingly lyrical as the poet Nigel and delivered a couple of swoon-worthy moments in tunes like "To Thine Own Self."

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

But interestingly enough, the real rock stars in this show for me were the women in supporting roles. Maggie Lakis was sharp and pointed as Nick's wife Bea. She really owned the idea of latent feminism Tudor-style, and I got such a kick out of watching her swagger her way through a woman in disguise. And Autumn Hurlbert absolutely nailed it as Portia, the wayward Puritan who dreams of becoming a poet (and later Nigel's love interest). Hurlbert has the staggering charisma and vivacious delivery of a new Kristin Chenoweth, and I predict she's going to be a star - watch out for her on future Broadway stages! The company at large delivers several fun tap dances and a cheery delivery, and they more than warmed up the stage for a snowy evening.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The sets for the most part reminded me of simple painted backdrops; they gave a two dimensional effect, and the generally simple props kept things easy as well. The real standout to me were the inventive costumes, which were a riotously modern take on Tudor-style wear. Dancers flounce around their farthingales like the most confident Naomi Campbell; women are sexed up in a Betsey Johnson-style take on Tudor clothes with hi-low hems and corsets galore; men strut their stuff in lilac tights with the breeches to match, and the codpiece is used in a myriad of creative ways. Curled wigs, punked out ruffs, and a host of creative facial hair flash through the performance, and it's seriously fun to watch.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

I'll be honest about Something Rotten: I think the concept is absolutely genius, but the music itself wasn't my favorite - the orchestration seemed a little lackluster. That being said, it's got several really funny moments (all hail "A Musical"), and the audience clearly loved it from start to finish. This is a perfect show for true theater lovers: most of the fun is in hunting for the nuggets of references to various plays, and the creative ways each reference is woven into the larger story are really impressive. Something Rotten is a great example of the benefits of looking at history with fresh eyes and making it less serious. If you've never been much of a Shakespeare fan or you find the idea of musicals just a little crazy, this is a show you'll really enjoy. Something Rotten runs through April 8, so make sure to snap up your tickets soon if you want a chance to see it; click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Thrillist: The Best Easter Brunches in the Twin Cities

What to do on Easter when you've been eating boring Lenten food for over a month? 


Photo courtesy of Thrillist

Or more likely: if you're one of the rest of us undisciplined sinners and just want to live.it.up. on the year's best brunch day, where on earth should you go?

Have no fears, because: igotchu, fam. I did a roundup of the best Easter brunches for Thrillist (click here to see the article), and it's got a kickass list of a wide range of places in a wide range of locations to give you plenty of options to choose from. Even better? Most of these places still have amazing brunch even when it's *not* a holiday, so you can consider this your handy reference guide to brunch for the upcoming patio season.

And while you're at it, make sure to check out the other pieces I've written for Thrillist as well! Click on each title below to head to the article: