‘Le Switch’ — Le Sigh: A Review of Phillip Dawkins’s New play at The Jungle Theater

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Meet David. He’s the protagonist of Le Switch, a play now having its world premiere at the Jungle Theater under the direction of Jeremy Cohen.

David is a 35 year-old gay librarian who loves long walks by the water, has a deep love for collecting rare books that he never opens and a deeper ambivalence about marriage. Everyone wants David to find someone. His best friend Zachary is getting married. His sister Sarah is already married. Even Frank, his never-married but deeply committed roommate, thinks he should get over himself and get into something serious. David asks “Don’t you want me to be happy?” The world answers: “I want you to be happy and married.”

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Dusting Off the Past: An Interview with the Director of Theatre Unbound’s All-Female ‘Hamlet’

IMG_6876 In a theater town like Minneapolis, there is no shortage of Shakespeare. In just this fledgling year, I’ve seen productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, and Henry IV Part I, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what was available. According to AmericanTheatre.org, the 450 year old playwright was not only the most produced during the 2014/2015 theater season (which, they point out, he is every season); he outperformed the next five most popular entries combined. Also I’m pretty sure they’re not counting community theaters, colleges, and Shakespeare in the park, which would only skew the numbers even more in the Bard’s favor.

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Chance Meetings with Strangers: An Immersive Interview with the Directors of ‘Crime and Punishment’

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The basement of the Soap Factory is best known as one of the Twin Cities’ most popular haunted houses. Today, if not for the eerie white masks worn by half the room’s inhabitants, it could be confused for the foyer in any of Minneapolis’s more traditional theaters. Of course I tend to think theater foyers look like Purgatory. There are couches and tables and gaudy red paint across the walls, all candlelit like a funhouse rendition of high society. Someone is serving tea on a cart in the corner. A warbled old radio plays lounge music.

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‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ @ Guthrie Theater Appeals More to the Eyes than the Mind

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The lights are up, the applause has died down, and the most awkward moment in every live theater production begins. Before you take the requisite stroll to the end of the balcony and peek out at the Mississippi, or squeeze onto the longest escalator in Minnesota, or pass the fancy restaurant and labyrinthine passageways of the Guthrie’s uniform architectural performance — there is that awkward, unavoidable transition from theater to life. One moment you’re part of a four hundred-year-old play about horny teenagers. The next you’re watching your neighbors, shuffling your feet, and wondering about where you parked and what you should say next to your date.

It’s almost, as Shakespeare put it, like we “have just slumbered here while these visions did appear.” The focused illusion of fiction disperses. The pragmatic world of light and sound comes rushing back in. Shakespeare wrote better, more compelling plays than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, many of which are trotted out far less frequently. However, it’s hard to begrudge the enduring appeal of such a whimsical oddity. Midsummer encourages the worst impulses in its audience. We’re meant to wake from its spell — like the lovelorn Greek teenagers lost in the woods, Bottom the hammy actor magically turned into a donkey, or Titania the fairy queen bewitched into becoming Bottom’s lover — a little embarrassed with ourselves and the moonstruck leaps we’re all capable of making in our most vulnerable hour.

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Joe Dowling’s latest adaptation of the Bard embraces all of that. The costumes and sets (courtesy of Riccardo Hernandez and Fabio Toblini) conform to no specific time or place — they’re an artless pastiche compiled from dream logic. Much of the verse is rendered in Broadway-esque musical numbers that, if nothing else, really do feel like the pinnacle of embarrassing self-revelation. The buxom youth are quickly stripped down to their underwear. Might as well. The grownups relish the opportunity to ham it up like children. The laughs available here aren’t the knowing, tasteful titter of the cultural elite. Even as we sit alongside Greek royalty, we’re howling at slapstick and sexual innuendo like a drunken medieval London rabble.

One man shuffling up the stairs in front of me chimed, “I’m not sure that’s how Bill would have done it.”

Yes, Bill: Bill who ended his opus with a tongue-in-cheek apology for his “weak and idle theme;” Bill who probably laughed himself silly at the thought that high schools the world over would perform a play in which a woman has congress with an ass; Bill who wrote large portions of Julius Caesar and King Lear to show off how the new Globe theater could produce impressive storm effects (“a tempest dropping fire?” Sure Bill, I bet the thunder effects were great). If you want to kill Shakespeare for good, that sort of reverence is the best place to start. Make him stuffy. Make him erudite. Make him everything but the kind of person who would write one of the strangest, most irreverent plays in the English language.

For this reason alone I want to give this production a pass. The performances are generally excellent. All the teenagers, particularly Emily Kitchens as Helena, exude that kind of exposed nerve vulnerability that gives the play its mythical quality. Helena bears a violent unrequited love for young soldier Demitrius, who himself loves Hermia who loves Lysander. At the bottom of this soap opera food chain, Helena laments the lack of attention; but when magical spirits turn the tables and make her the object of the young men’s desire, she refuses to believe it. Like Shakespeare’s best characters, there’s tremendous honesty in her exaggerations. Anyone who finds themselves laughing at rather than with her is lying about just how crazy they’ve become in the throes of love.

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Meanwhile Peter Quince’s comedy troupe, which I’ve always found to be one of the dullest, most bewildering detours in Shakespeare, absolutely steals the show. Depicted in true local form like a humorless Lutheran community theater, the classist farce takes on new dimensions of relatability. Peter Weems as the infamous Nick Bottom can seemingly do no wrong, embracing every excess and hogging every spotlight with charismatic glee. The play is worth the price of admission for this ensemble alone.

And yet just as Dowling makes use of the best talent and Shakespeare scholarship money can buy, his production also falls prey to just about every possible pitfall. The stage is animated with screensaver animation and showy visual effects that beg the audience to enjoy themselves despite the play instead of because of it. Those big musical numbers evoke the same response. In theory I can appreciate the idea that this play is meant to be enjoyed idly, much the same way we approach Wicked and The Lion King. In practice however, it just feels like one more layer of distance between Bard and audience. Shakespeare, for all his virtues, never tried to be Sondheim. The best way to make his verse sound trite and antiquated is to dress it up as something hypermodern. There is probably a way to turn these moments into funny, suggestive musical diversions. This is simply not it.

Furthermore the staging is just a mess. The Wurtele Thrust is transformed into a round, possibly to invoke the feeling of sitting on a lawn in the middle of the forest. Unfortunately, this also means that the actors spend far too much time playing to all sides of the auditorium. If you took a shot every time a character ran around the stage in a circle for no apparent reason, you’d be drunk under your seat before intermission. Also, the intense choreography and high flying acrobatics tonally undercut any sort of intimacy the round would provide. Dowling seems to have no higher priority than making the show fun and accessible. The problem is that Midsummer is already fun and accessible. The true challenge is making it feel magical, something the actors manage a few times but only in spite of their surroundings.

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I have no problem with theaters, including and especially the Guthrie, trotting out standard Shakespeare time and time again. These plays have untapped depths that are only reached a few times in a hundred performances — they’re always worth revisiting for the off chance you’ll discover something you never noticed before. Beneath Midsummer’s plotless whimsy lies an enchanting homage to the creative human spirit. Shakespeare pretends to have nothing more on his mind that his puckish sprites confounding the audience at their fancy. However closer reflection unveils the kind of deep thematic interests that make English professors blush.

What are the lovestruck teens but beautiful emotional train wrecks that have drawn the tired masses to the stage for millennia? What are the sprites but the disillusioned writer trying to manipulate these feelings into something surprising or new? What is this mystical night in ancient Greece but an older version of tonight or tomorrow night, only in a younger world seen through younger eyes that still see fairies and magic in every star and sound? Like the Greek plays it draws from, A Midsummer Night’s Dream reduces its ambitions to something at once simple and near-religious: an invitation for all of us to sit and dream together.

When Dowling and his team embrace this and trust their performers and audience, it’s a winning combination. When they worry we might stop paying attention, they give into the same insecurity as Peter Quince’s inept troupe. The difference between using generic stage art to depict magic and writing a prologue explaining to the audience that the lion on stage isn’t really a lion is more or less semantic.

 

Photos courtesy of: Guthrie Theater (Dan Norman)

 

 

 

The Jungle’s ‘Gertrude Stein and a Companion’ is a Landmark Revival

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One glance around the Jungle Theater, as my friend and I took our seats for Tuesday night’s opening of Gertrude Stein and a Companion, I was fairly certain we were the youngest people in the audience by twenty years. There’s an aristocratic air to the design of the Jungle, from the seats to the stage, to the nine page list of donors in the program, to the portrait of Artistic Director Bain Boehlke in the front of every program staring at you like you just spilled ketchup all down the front of your shirt. While many smaller local theaters court the experimental, low-budget vibe, the Jungle pitches itself less as a more established Theater in the Round and more as a younger sister to the Guthrie. Their Lynn-Lake base where they’ve been stationed since 1999 is a temple to this particular brand of legitimacy.

That’s why it’s interesting to think of the Jungle twenty-three years ago: traveling from venue to venue like so many upstart theater companies, showcasing new, vital plays with young talent. 1992 was the first year Boehlke’s troupe staged this particular performance. Then, as now, the leads of the two woman show were Claudia Wilkens (who some will remember as the secretary from A Serious Man) as Gertrude Stein and Barabara Kingsley as her friend and lover Alice B. Toklas. As the program says, this exact production, more than two decades prior, was so popular that it toured the country. Revived for the Jungle’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Gertrude Stein and a Companion is whimsical, but its intimacy and playfulness evoke a vital spirit in defiance of the historical context.

Little more than a conversation between two intimates, the play opens with Stein’s death in 1946. Her spirit converses with a distraught Toklas, and their remembrances trace their romance from its origins in 1907 through two world wars, the well-documented parade of famous artists who passed through their Parisian home at 27 rue de Fleurus, Stein’s literary struggles and late success, and a long period of mourning following her passing. It’s the second category that provides much of the subject’s allure. Gertrude Stein would ultimately become far more famous as a mentor to great artists and writers like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemmingway than she ever was as a writer. Wilkens and Kingsley both take turns imitating these larger-than-life figures as they pass through the story. Toklas, it seems, did not like Hemmingway (anyone who has read his musings on her in A Moveable Feast will understand why). In fact the play’s title comes from the derogatory way in which he referred to the couple.

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The true power of Win Wells’ script is the way it reframes a familiar story about some of the most important events and famous people of the twentieth century as an inside joke between two lovers. Here it’s not Picasso the renowned artist, but Pablo, a shared companion about whom the couple trades inside jokes. WWII is reduced to an anecdote about a dim-witted German officer. There’s almost no narrative drive behind any of this. In fact, the play’s biggest shortcomings are those moments it tries to impose some structure or greater significance on the couple’s musings. Those moments when all context fades; when gaps of sixty and a hundred and twenty-three years fade into the distinct signature of two lives lived together — those are when the play reaches transcendence. What in the world of literature, in the world of politics, in the world of history could matter more than the playful, intimate banter between these two?

Shows like this put a lot of pressure on their cast, and Wilkens and Kingsley are more than up to the challenge. Wilkens’ boisterous and self-assured Stein pats at her own ego while briefly hinting at the frailties hidden just beneath the surface. “When you’re a genius you’re privileged,” she says of herself, before later admitting she was intimidated by the notion of even leaving her home. Kingsley’s high-strung, sheepish Toklas is a perfect foil: fragile where Stein is guarded and motivated in ways the self-styled egoist could never be. She invents words like “moneyed” and phrases like “Happy’s not logic,” which are as simple and human as they are absurd; a trait reflected in Stein’s writing. The one hosts some of the most impressive intellectual gatherings of her time. The other hides quietly in the corner, waiting for everyone to leave so she can tell all the jokes she’d been thinking up that whole time.

Boehlke frames the set with staggered pylons that squeeze the stage up front to emphasize the two leads, while the back seems to fade into dark eternity. It’s a nice touch. Sometimes the tech overreaches with an unnecessary musical flourish or a stagy lighting cue at odds with the intimate nature of the moment, but for the most part every detail encourages the audience to lose themselves in this special dream space and embrace all its truths and inconsistencies. This goes back to the idea of legitimacy. Say what you will about experimental theater, but few places in the Twin Cities can or would put on such an impressive production of such an unorthodox show with such a phenomenal cast. It’s a perfect marriage, and it’s easy to see why this special performance is considered a benchmark.

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One of the more curious details the play addresses is the way Stein’s eventual literary success was funded by the sale of her famous art collection. She paid ten or twenty dollars for early works by Matisse, Picasso, and Renoir that would eventually become priceless. Critics and peers always questioned the legitimacy of her prose. It seems fitting that validation arrived, not from her defense of herself, but from her ability to perceive greatness in others. Perhaps her ego was fragile. Perhaps she bloated her intellectual self-worth. Yet who can argue with someone who so boldly and successfully found beauty in the works of others and nurtured their talent into a full modern renaissance? In the same way, the play implies she saw the true, unpretentious beauty in every expression from Toklas. “It may not be right, but it’s delicious!” she’s fond of saying.

That’s ultimately the production’s true achievement. It encourages the audience to see past trivial things like prestige, age, gender, and even death, and look to the beauty at the heart of the thing that is boundless. That could be a truthful vision in a budding artist, a simple expression spoken among geniuses, an all-encompassing love in a world at war, or a light ninety minute two woman show on a dusty old stage. “A rose is a rose is a rose,” someone famously wrote.

 

Gertrude Stein and a Companion runs until March 8.

 

 

Photos by: Michal Daniel 

 

‘Yo Gabba Gabba’ @ State Theatre

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DJ Lance Rock, Muno, Foofa, Brobee, Toodee, and Plex all stopped by the State Theatre on their first stop of their “Music is Awesome” 2014 tour.

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‘Tim and Eric & Dr. Steve Brule 2014 Tour’ @ State Theatre

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Tim & Eric have a new show out now airing on Adult Swim called Bedtime Stories. It’s a more traditional show while still aligning with the Tim & Eric brand of humor. Which is to say, it’s one complete story that may or may not be funny, but is definitely weird, and possibly unsettling. The duo, along with their friend Dr. Steve Brule, are on tour promoting the new show, and dropped in on the State Theatre to make us laugh and feel strange.

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Transvestite Soup: MN Rocky Horror Picture Show

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Rocky Horror Picture Show, whether it be the stage production or the 1970s film, has been a cult classic for many generations. The story centers on a boring, ordinary, newly-engaged couple, Brad and Janet, who suffer a flat tire in the middle of nowhere on a stormy night. Looking for help, they stumble upon a dark castle-like home full of a remarkably strange group of people, following the lead of Dr. Frank-n-Furter (wearing heavy make-up and women’s lingerie), who is a self-described “sweet transvestite.” Brad and Janet are thus thrust into a dramatic, and hilarious, sex-obsessed world featuring dance numbers, aliens, and the reanimation of dead tissue.

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The Classical Actors Ensemble Performs ‘Love’s Labors Lost’ at Twin Cities Parks

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The premise of Love’s Labors Lost is pretty simple. Four boys swear off girls. Then some girls arrive. Then things go awry.

Add to the mix a veritable clown car of characters who all seem to come from slightly different worlds: A fancy Spaniard who might be Inigo Montoya (played by the hilarious Daniel Joeck), the servants played as colorfully dressed Wes Anderson characters/middle school boys, one unnecessarily stupid country wench, a police officer named Dull with a mustache that might be cardboard, and some pretty intense fake Russian accents (you’ll see) — throw in an accordion, some Beatles’ tunes and set the whole thing in a park, and you’ve got yourself a show.

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‘Bedlam Theatre’ Opens in Lowertown Saint Paul

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Bedlam Theatre is one of the Twin Cities’ most unique theatre companies. Bedlam offers unrepeated productions with elements of local themed art and humor. Originally having Minneapolis as a home base for their shows, Bedlam Theatre has just opened a new location in Lowertown, Saint Paul!

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