On the Townsend

By John Townsend June 4, 2009

Categories: Arts & Culture, Our Scene

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Zanna Don’t!
Through June 21
Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
(612) 339-4944
www.aboutmmt.org

Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris have dubbed their shrewd little stage musical gem A Musical Fairy Tale. They soar as the playwrights, composers, and lyricists in what is perhaps one of the best pieces ever written for stage or film about one of the most overwrought of genres, the American high school comedy. This one being congealed in music. But Acito and Dinelaris have made the genre truly fascinating by imagining a high school where gay is the norm and straight is not only taboo, but unthinkable. Moreover, they’ve not turned it into a straight-bashing event, which in lesser hands it could have easily become, but instead, a witty inversion of prejudices by putting typically homophobic remarks in the characters’ mouths, but applied to straight folks. A football player who is also a lead in the high school musical has two dads who are military commanders.

A sharply tuned Bart Ruf flickers across the stage led by a magic wand that seems to be jerked around by an invisible joy stick in overdrive. He’s Zanna, the fairy matchmaker who seeks true lovers for the students but is ultimately faced with his own daunting blind spot: heterophobia.

Director-choreographer Steven Meerdink channels MTV ’80s rock video style and a vivid sense of character detail mixed with caricatured teen angst. It’s an especially interesting show to watch if you’ve seen other Minneapolis Musical Theatre productions over the past few years because it’s clear that Meerdink has done a superb job of developing younger actors, who have been core to this group, into more mature, sure, and fully realized performances than before. So he should be acknowledged not only for staging a wondrous production in and of itself that will delight whether you’ve seen an MMT show before or not, but for also developing young talent in a time when arts funding has been savagely curtailed.

When asked about why he thinks queer organizations such as GLAAD have embraced productions of Zanna Don’t Meerdink says “it gives us a perspective on what it may have felt like to grow up in majority, within the accepted norm of society. I also believe that straight audiences are enjoying the show because it gives them an idea on what it may have felt like to grow up on the ‘outside’. I don’t know how anyone could see this lighthearted show and not walk away with a deeper understanding of others with its lovely message of inclusion and acceptance.”

Ivan the Drunk and His Terrible Tale of Woe

Through June 20
Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 E. 24th, Mpls.
(612) 724-7372
www.offleasharea.org

Seldom will you see such epic and imaginative stagecraft in such a small physical space as you do in Off-Leash Area theater troupe’s Ivan the Drunk and His Terrible Tale of Woe at the intimate Open Eye Figure Theatre facility. A visonary powerhouse, this collaboration chronicles life’s ravages fated upon a Russian soldier in war and peacetime. That said, even during peace, the war rages on in his mangled psyche.

That mangled dimension is embodied with extraordinary visceral force by the marvelous Paul Herwig as Ivan. He bursts at the seams as we witness how his very consciousness has been reconfigured to be a nearly mindless attack dog periodically spooked by human feeling, to be more specific: his own seriously submerged capacity for human feeling. We see this Soviet cog of a man strapped with a stuffed dummy on his back throughout which he calls ‘Burden’. It brings to mind Eckhart Tolle’s concept of ‘The Pain Body’ or one of the Phillip Pullman’s (The Golden Compass) daemon’s after they’ve been cruelly ripped from their human lifesource.

Though the context is Soviet, the production, co-directed by Herwig and Jennifer Ilse, evokes a timeless void that could apply anywhere at anytime. The set seems transient just as life and time themselves are transient and of course, war always ramps up that already awful inevitable transient feeling. Americans in the shadows of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan will tend to categorize Ivan’s derision as post-traumatic stress, which it surely is. But text writer Max Sparber’s miraculous and moving use of language comes from the depths of the soul and not once from psychobabble. Every single word is connected directly to the heart and/or the gut. You will be confronted wherever you’re coming from.

Additionally, this production’s imagery is some of the most arresting on any area stage in recent years. Lighting designer Paul Epton employs silhouette to signify a barbed wire fence on which a fallen soldier’s corpse is fixed. A hysterical Ivan makes light of it, obviously camouflaging the horrendous pain he feels over even his dead enemy. Yes, soldiers do mourn those they kill. What had been programmed into him as subhuman he realizes alas, at last, is in fact, human.

Kym Longhi’s costumes are perfectly drab in the Eastern European sense, just as they should be. But in contrast in one scene her costumes turn grotesque and seem to have come right out of a decaying forest graveyard between seasons as the female supporting ensemble circles Ivan menacingly with a leafless bush coming out of the head of an actress oinking with a pig snout seamlessly attached. What looks like bark serves as clothing for some; a disembodied hand reaches over the throat of another actress as if growing out of her collar; gray misshapen breasts attach to another. And in the breathtaking numinous conclusion Longhi hearkens to Eastern Orthodox ritual with glistening luminosity from Epton.

Ben Siems’s dreamlike soundscape penetrates the subconscious and suits choreographer Ilse’s scrupulous use of slow motion throughout. That slowness, executed sublimely by the superb acting ensemble, is splendidly juxtaposed with Ivan’s blunt, abrupt, and robust volatility.

However, perhaps the production’s most ingenious scenic element is the inventive use of the set. A simple, vivid medieval door is center stage at the beginning. Later on, simple partitions make one feel as if they’ve actually been transported to a Russian peasant home. An old fashioned long pictorial scroll about the height of two large television sets is rolled manually to effect Ivan trudging in place on the stage floor through war horrors that are simultaneously degrading his spirit. And there’s more which should simply be seen.

One crucial myth Ivan the Drunk puts to rest is that war builds character. If for no other reason, this show should be seen by everyone. Though the play does not come off as a feminist statement, it implicitly has built into it how war is always destructive to women. In this play’s context men are the victims of bloody military violence and women of physical violence foisted on them by men in their own families and in one scene what I took to be soldierly men who have conquered a given village. In that beguiling scene Ivan actually rapes a woman as if she doesn’t even exist in the presence of other women as if they, the female watchers on, didn’t exist.

There’s an ingenious scene that is replayed over and again with varying twists where Ivan mistreats the women of his family after he has returned home. Tragically, each time he tries to communicates his joyous feelings for having returned he reflexively succumbs to violence against them. It’s as if his consciousness has been totally reconfigured because of the war. Of course, this is common. And isn’t it ironic that those who cheer on war who have daughters who are presumably heterosexual, would see war experience as a desirable quality in a potential husband for those daughters, when it actually tends to tear down civility, engenders physical violence and crude verbal incapacity, and leads innocent, often sweet, young men not toward the vulnerability and flexibility necessary for a committed relationship, but toward a nihilistic sense of personal anarchy and antisocial behavior, which ironically again, cannot be described as patriotic. Ivan the Drunk and His Terrible Tale of Woe is a much needed piece as we now pick up the pieces of so many years of war post-Bush Family. That said, the jury is still out on whether or not Obama will handle it any better. Off-Leash should be commanded to perform at the White House. And as harsh as this play’s commentary is about soldiers, active duty soldiers and veterans will love this show and cherish it in their hearts.

Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton
Through June 14
Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
(612) 375-7600
www.walkerart.org

Elizabeth Peyton’s fruitfully expressive and colorful palette is paradoxical with its defiantly hostile androgyny. One tends to associate bright colors with uplifting feelings. Not exactly the case with Peyton, but she’s not what you’d call a nihilist, either. Despite the hostility, she reveals male vulnerability in portraits of John Lydon and John Lennon, plus the groovy 1996 Jarvis on a Bed in bell bottom trousers, Carnaby Street ’60s-style—a subtle but lively fashion hint about how ’90s slackers, despite their frowns, were not above adapting the vibrancy of 30 years before.

Admirable gay icons, such as painter David Hockney and cultural theorist Susan Sontag, are given sweet and luscious treatments that actually bring out their inner warmth. Flowers & Diaghilev (2009) is reminiscent of Hindu iconography. And one of queerdom’s nastiest figures, Oscar Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, actually is given a comparatively serene look that belies his viciousness in Silver Bosie (1998). But Peyton’s greatest gay evocation is Pete and the Wolfman (2004), where two men kiss passionately. You just want to slip inside it, and join in.

The Last Cyclist
Through June 20
Various Twin Cities Locations
(651) 222-7333
www.lexhamarts.org

An atypical view of the Holocaust emerges in the world premiere of The Last Cyclist, by Naomi Patz, based on the 1943 original by Karel Svenk. A play-within-a-play approach that spoofs the arbitrary scapegoating of cyclists heightens the savage irrationality in blaming innocent Jews for sundry socioeconomic ills.

Though Auschwitz looms as perhaps the most maniacal of the death camps, the Terezin concentration camp near Prague was a ghetto for thousands of Jews, a prison stop before their deportation to camps higher on the horror scale.

Patz shares, “The audience at Terezin that attended open rehearsals of The Last Cyclist, before the play was banned, laughed. And I hope that the audience for our performances here will laugh, too. But our laughter is uncomfortable laughter: first, because the situation in the play, despite its humor, is a protest against totalitarianism; and second, because we know the fate of the cast and its audience.”

Director Adam Arnold sums it up well, in referring to Jews, gays, and the disabled targeted by Hitler, noting the peril when “other groups are deemed to be ‘lesser than.’ These groups were seen as inferior, and thus were stripped of many of their rights.”

The Last Cyclist is a unique joint effort by Lex Ham Community Arts, Czech and Slovak Cultural Center, St. Paul Jewish Community Center, Slovak Sokol Minnesota, and Blank Slate Theater.

Caroline, or Change
Through June 21
Guthrie Theater
818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
(612) 377-2224
www.CelebrateKushner.com

Imagine a memory actually becoming disembodied from a human psyche, and placed onstage, and you’ll have that ineffable sense of what it’s like to see the luminescent area premiere of Tony Kushner’s deeply moving Caroline, or Change, on the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust.

Director Marcela Lorca’s cast plumbs the depths and soars the heights of Jeanine Tesori’s dreamily eclectic score. The touching Ryan McDowell Poehler plays Noah, a Jewish boy reeling from his mother’s death. He finds strength and mystery in his household’s African-American maid, Caroline, played in a towering performance by Greta Oglesby. T. Mychael Rambo, reminiscent of William Warfield, stuns as supernatural essence incarnate in the form of a train conductor bewailing John F. Kennedy’s assassination, then turns on a dime to exude raw sexy machismo as—I’m serious here—a dryer (as in laundry machine). Bradley Greenwald, as Noah’s dad, captures the painful essence of grief. Jamecia Bennett delights as…a washing machine!

A Chorus Line
June 16-21
Orpheum Theatre
910 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
(800) 982-2787
www.HennepinTheatreDistrict.org

A Chorus Line blew the lid off the Broadway musical in 1975. The winner of nine Tonys and a Pulitzer took its text from taped intimate conversations of dancers, gleaned by director/choreographer Michael Bennett. Marvin Hamlisch left lucrative Hollywood to join what was then a little workshop affair to spirit forth one of the most glorious scores in musical theater history. Its current revival plays the Orpheum.

Bennett shared his own gay experience on those tapes, which led the others to share their personal feelings and experiences. Hence, A Chorus Line contains a groundbreaking gay monologue. Performed by the character Paul (Kevin Santos), it was born out of dancer/writer Nicholas Dante’s anguish from being “found out” by his father.

Adam Del Deo, codirector of Every Little Step, the terrific new documentary on the revival’s casting process, observes, “That monologue was almost 10 minutes. It was unheard of to stop a show to allow one singer a monologue—no music. But to be able to express that, and be honest with themselves and with the public, was a very powerful message.”

Queertopia
June 25-26
Bedlam Theatre
1501 S. 6th St., Mpls
(612) 341-1038
www.bedlamtheatre.org

Outward Spiral is back with Queertopia, its beloved “Cabaret Celebration of Queer Love.” Bessie-winner Karen Sherman, enfant terrible Jaime Carrera, and the robust queer acting troupe Empowered Expressions lead the charge, joined by The Wreck Family and Tish Jones. A film by Tyler Jensen will be added to the mix as well.

Maren Ward and Molly Van Avery are the emcees. Van Avery is half of the popular celibate lesbian duo Karyn and Sharyn. Ward runs the Bedlam space, which has become a central counterculture gathering point in our post-9/11 era—or maybe it now should be called the post, post-9/11 era.

In noting the abundance of Pride events, Ward stresses that it’s important to know what subcultures exist in the community, and that hangin’ at Bedlam will make you aware of it. Grab a bite, and a beer or a cuppa java, then kick back and enjoy.

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