On the Townsend

By John Townsend March 26, 2009

Categories: Arts & Culture, Our Scene

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The Devil’s Disciple / Through Apr. 12 / Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Ave., Mpls. / (612) 333-3010 / www.TheatreintheRound.org

The face off between puritanical Christianity and rugged individualism has been a sore spot in American culture since the nation was founded. So if you think the current evangelical onslaught against what ever the sin du jour is today (homosexuality, contraception, etc.), bear in mind there was a variation of it way back when.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s one single play about the U.S., The Devil’s Disciple, lances this sore spot brilliantly and director David Coral’s staging of it by Theatre in the Round Players sparkles with mischievous wit and sharp intelligence. It was Shaw’s first commercial success in the 1890s and was a New York sensation back then. It’s setting is New England during the American Revolution and Shaw’s sympathies are clearly with the Yanks.

Lila M. Smith is deliciously monstrous as a grimly authoritarian Christian zealot who sees the worst in everyone. Robb Krueger is intriguingly subtle as what seems to be a beta male character in the minister Anthony Anderson. That said, Krueger shows us another side of this man of contradictions. He convincingly portrays a radical shift in Anderson’s character that may well surprise you. Steering this fun and smart production is the charismatic Joel Grothe as protagonist Richard Dudgeon, the cad who is a much more complex figure than his puritanical critics are able to comprehend. Grothe is utterly dynamic and dazzling. And his heretical scenes with Anderson’s wife, Judith played  by Anissa Siobhan Brazil are juicy in their erotic tension.

When a Man Loves a Diva / Through Apr. 12 / Lab Theatre, 700 No. First St., Mpls. / (612) 333-7977 / www.thelabtheater.org

When Sanford Moore and Dane Stauffer combine music and comedy, odds are you’re in for a treat. And according to audiences and critics their latest combo is just that. A combo of tunes that nod heavily to genderbending and gay sensibilities. They’re joined by the talented Ben Bakken and Julius Collins. Stauffer says “we are having the time of our lives, singing this fabulous pop music. Sanford’s playing and arranging is, as always, gorgeous, soulful, sensitive, and rhythmic. Julius and Ben are singing their hearts out, and I’m sort of the ringleader of the whole thing.  And I’ve been on a Dusty Springfield kick lately, so I’m enjoying different syles.” And among those styles is the majesty of that mythic mega-diva herself: Cher!

By the Bog of Cats / Through Apr. 5 / Guthrie Theater, 818 So. 2nd St., Mpls. / (612) 377-2224 / www.guthrietheater.org

By the Bog of Cats has stirred up opinions more than most plays by major theaters do, which means if you miss it, you’re missing out on thought-stimulating controversy. This Frank Theatre production at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio is a crackling experience that delves into the wounded psyche of a member of a marginalized group known as ‘Irish Travelers’ or ‘tinkers’. This group of nomadic people in Ireland and Britain are also called ‘pavees’ among themselves and those who respect them. But of course, there are all kinds of derogatory names for pavees or tinkers. Such is the lot of any marginalized people.

Director Wendy Knox, who I’ve described in the past as a quintessential feminist director is in her element here. By the Bog of Cats is inspired by the ancient Greek Medea myth of a queen who killed her own children. Knox is also a stage analyst, so to speak, of mythic and folkloric archetypes, as is evidenced in her superb past productions dealing with Scandinavian folklore and Italian fairy tales. In fact, Virginia Burke who electrifies as Hester Swane, Bog’s leading role, was also wonderful as another mythic archetype, Antigone, which Knox directed her in years ago for Northern Sign Theater.

But, if you’re into positive, reassuring images of women, Burke is not your gal. Her Hester is not warm and fuzzy. She is unmistakably monstrous, but then being marginalized and poor doesn’t make you into sugar and spice. Say all you want about personal choices and personal responsibility, society and whatever the social contract of a time place is, contextualizes one’s behavior and choices, outside of one’s control or influence. Class, gender, and other measures of marginalization also figure into it incalculaby and extensively; something that Carr conveys brilliantly. And something alot of people don’t like to give credence to.

The play’s permeating social world is revealed by a fabulous cast to be an inexorable patriarchal engine that rolls over human sensitivity and nuance. An engine driven by religion, economic power and property monopoly, and unquestioned male-led tradition. Though we may be very uncomfortable with Hester, we understand how she arrives at the destructive choices she makes.

Knox notes that in the Medea tale and in Carr’s play, “the women are fighting for recognition. In Bog, it is the child who does not want to be separated by the mother, and the mother, unable to leave the child behind , takes her with her.” With Medea’s story, the children are not developed as fully, but they are clearly the hapless victims of adult actions in a man’s world. Carr reminds us that we haven’t come that far in the past two and half millennia. As Annie Enneking’s delicious portrayal of the prophetic Catwoman reminds us. She too makes us uncomfortable with her vision that Fate rules us. Something that those who posit a culture of rugged individualism rebuke. Yet, by the end of the play, even the rugged individualists may find themselves purring along with her.

The Color Purple / Through Mar. 29 / Grey Gardens / Through May 17 / Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul / (612) 224-4222 / www.ordway.org

Both Ordway stages currently feature gay themes in the threads of two of this decade’s most acclaimed musicals.
A quarter-century ago, the classic Spielberg film The Color Purple was the first megahit movie to have an extended unmistakably lesbianic scene complete with touch and sensuality. Thankfully, the current national tour of the Tony-nominated stage musical doesn’t shy away from this scene.

Ordway Artistic Director James Rocco says, “Yes, The Color Purple does explore Celie’s relationship with Shug Avery in a beautiful sequence that shows that love can heal. Shug’s purposeful and gentle touch releases Celie’s heart and her power.”

No surprise there. The script is written by Marvy Marsha Norman, who also penned the script for The Secret Garden, now in a lovely staging by Minneapolis Musical Theatre.

Across the lobby, Grey Gardens has gay pianist character Gould, played by handsome Broadway baritone Michael Gruber.

Seeing both shows, you’ll get a sense of what living in the gay shadows in the early 20th Century was like.

Passage of Dreams
/ Through Apr. 5 / Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls. / (612) 340-1725 / www.southerntheater.org

Minneapolis’s Theater Latte Da and New York’s Write/Act Festival are collaborating in three musical one-acts that traffic in aerial feats you typically expect at a Cirque event. A past/present/future montage starts in 1930s Paris, moves to a backyard barbecue in Wisconsin, and concludes with a drought where both faith and water have dried up.

Director Peter Rothstein explains that playwright Baldwin Eng and composer Jeff Tang “are stretching the boundaries of musical theater in dynamic ways.”

Actor Fred Wagner, who wowed audiences last year in the trans drama Looking for Normal, calls Passage of Dreams “a dreamlike excursion. It’s like An American in Paris meets Hairspray, with a little bit of Waiting for Godot in musical form thrown in for fun. This is not your father’s musical comedy.”

The Life of Galileo
/ Through Apr. 10 / Gremlin Theatre, 2400 University Ave. W., St. Paul / (612) 874-9321 / www.theatreprorata.org

What do you think of casting a woman in the role of perhaps the most influential human being after Jesus Christ? Well, provocative Theatre Pro Rata is doing just that, with Noe Tallen playing Galileo.

David Hare’s adaptation of what some regard as Bertolt Brecht’s greatest work has been controversial enough as it is, because of its intimate nature, as opposed to the epic if not didactic Brechtian style to which hardcore theater-goers are accustomed. Brecht is, after all, revered and feared for his hard-hitting politics and his innovative theatricality.

Director Carin Bratlie shares, “We’re discovering means of bringing out current concerns: the prevalence of Christianity in politics and schools; the torture and genocide still happening all over our ‘civilized’ world; the abuse of power in the corporate world. We’re creating Obama-style buttons for the production picturing Galileo and the Pope with the words ‘Reason’ and ‘Tradition.’ By simply placing a woman in the role of Galileo, we’re challenging the sexist attitudes he voices. In manipulating a man of the church as a puppet, juxtaposing two worldviews painted on top of each other on the stage floor, and adding very specific physical structure, we are attempting to achieve Brecht’s vision—to get the audience thinking, to make them realize that the ‘change’ they voted for or against can only come or be held at bay if they act.”

A Raisin in the Sun
/ Through Apr. 11 / Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls. / (612) 377-2224 / www.guthrietheater.org

Lorraine Hansberry, who died at 34 of pancreatic cancer in 1965, embodied the ultimate bisexual ideal in playwriting. She not only empathized deeply with both men and women, but also understood the psychology and the social forces that hinder both sexes.

Hansberry’s plays include clear gay references and characters, uncommon for Broadway in the late 1950s and mid-1960s. In 1957, 12 years before Stonewall, she wrote two prolesbian letters in the Daughters of Bilitis’s The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication.

I once again was amazed by Hansberry’s genius in Starting Gate’s revival of her second-most famous play, The Sign in Sidney Brusteinís Window, last year. And I absolutely was blown away by the current Guthrie/Penumbra revival of her most beloved work, A Raisin in the Sun. I go back and forth as to which is her greater masterpiece.

Lou Bellamy, fresh from his riveting Penumbra staging of The Whipping Man, has directed an astounding Raisin that mines the humor, the nuance, and the claustrophobia of being a black American in the 1950s.

A superlative cast with many actors we have not seen locally before vivifies the generational rift that Hansberry sets up. The grandchildren of slaves were just happy not to be lynched. The younger generation, however, is discontented with institutionalized economic servility and puritan anti-intellectualism. Though these conflicts are placed within a sharp African-American context, the play rings universally because of them.

David Alan Anderson’s Walter, the frustrated son, is quite different from other portrayals. He’s frightening and disarmingly cynical. Franchelle Stewart Dorn as his mother, Lena, seems more of a contemporary matriarch than a 1950s one. Nonetheless, they illuminate Hansberry’s vision with integrity, power, and an uncanny sense of relevancy to present day.

Blue Collar Diaries / Through Apr. 19 / History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul / (651) 292-4323 / www.historytheatre.com

We know Suzy Messerole for her stellar directorial achievements with the lauded queer theater company Outward Spiral. Since her departure from it, she has continued to create strong stage work dealing with women’s issues, and her latest promises the same: Blue Collar Diaries, written and performed by Michelle Myers Berg.

Messerole remarks, “Growing up in St. Paul’s blue-collar neighborhoods in the 1960s wasn’t easy. As a kid, Michelle had to deal with numerous siblings, being the fifth child in a family of eight; wacky neighbors, including a Rosie the Riveter in the flesh; strict nuns; and the mysterious silence of her Korean War veteran father.”

Of the strict nuns, Messerole adds, “So many ways to incur God’s wrath!”

Blue Collar Diaries played last year’s Minnesota Fringe Fest. It has been workshopped since then with History Theatre’s Ron Peluso and its new Works Director, Bob Beverage. Messerole and Berg bring us the final product.

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