Arts Spotlight: 455

From L to R - Bob Malos, Brandon Ewald, Bethany Ford, and Alex Brightwell. Photo by Sarah Whiting.
From L to R - Bob Malos, Brandon Ewald, Bethany Ford, and Alex Brightwell. Photo by Sarah Whiting.

Photo by Allen Brisson-Smith.

Through Nov. 11
Guthrie Theater, 818 So. 2nd St., Mpls.
(612) 377-2224

Playwright Christopher Hampton’s new stage drama, Appomattox, transports us in the first act to the 1860s as the Civil War is winding down and in the second act to Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1960s White House when the President is maneuvering his way to victories in Civil Rights.

There’s an uncanny karmic flow that permeates this magnetic theatrical experience, as if the American nation indeed has, as Franklin Roosevelt once said in another context, “a rendevous with destiny.” How fascinating that a British playwright has so numinously intuited that flow. And oh how splendidly director David Esbjornson has manifested it at the Guthrie’s Celebration of Christopher Hampton.

Act One is a dreamy, enchanting history lesson and I say this with no irony whatsoever. We don’t like to admit it, but too many Americans have little idea of how the Appomattox, Virginia treaty that ended the Civil War actually came about. And for those of us who do know, it’s always captivating to revisit just what went down. (Unless you just don’t have an interest in American history, and if so, as Rhett said to Scarlett in another context “that’s your misfortune.”) Moreover, the first act, which begins with a jolting passage by Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Boothe, goes on to show the states of mind of the President, Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. There’s a marvelous moment where Mrs. Lee, played with classic grit by the wonderful Karen Landry, takes stern issue that while under house arrest she has a ‘negro’ soldier guarding her. Yes, that term, is used throughout, as it is historically accurate. The ahistorical politically correct will just have to bring their smelling salts.

Mark Benninghofen (Gen. Ulysses S. Grant). Photo by Allen Brisson-Smith.

Act One is also a consummate example of exquisitely realized period drama. Sven Ortel’s haunting projections enhance the action to utterly magnificent effect with beautiful lighting by Jeff Croiter. The cast, dressed in Michael Krass’s gorgeous costumes, embody the rigid and appropriately mannered physicality that pervades even moments of relaxation. Movement coach Marcela Lorca has worked visceral magic with the actors.

In contrast, in Act Two, Lorca has imbued the cast with a sense of casualness and comparative physical freedom (in stark contrast to the 1860s) that befits the 1960s White House’s inner workings. But to be sure, it’s a middle and upper middle class kind of casualness, not the hippie-ish ‘let it all hang out’ embodiment stereotypically thought of as 1960s.

Where Act One emanates majestic solemnity and foreboding, Act Two is gloriously feisty political drama with compelling scenes of police brutality, passionate activism, and a raunchy opening with JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald drenched in self-pity and paranoia. Harry Groener who capably plays Lincoln in Act One crackles and then some, as LBJ in Act Two. Paradoxically, Groener shows us a man who is a crude redneck quite willing to twist arms, even among those he’s been ideologically aligned with. We’re also privy to a brazenly adorable man with limited inhibition about his private parts and bodily functions.

Harry Groener (Lyndon Baines Johnson). Photo by Photo by Allen Brisson-Smith.

On the other hand, the play complexly portrays how LBJ brings about the Voting Rights Act which finally gave blacks real freedom to vote a century after the Emancipation Proclamation. To point: the very antithesis of redneckery. Bear in mind that sometimes when we see whites who are overbearing, coarse and aggressive, we often -and liberals can be notorious for this- judge them as ‘unenlightened’. But this can be fallacious because a person’s coarseness and crudeness may well have no bearing on whether he or she has progressive attitudes. And LBJ was such a man. Groener and Hampton remind us that goodness doesn’t always come wrapped in the Heroic or Elder Statesman image.

Perhaps because he’s British, Hampton doesn’t feel he has to walk on eggshells about race in America either. He plainly and rightly points out African American impatience with LBJ supposedly dragging his feet on civil rights. Such a reaction was understandable but unfair. In one scene we see and hear African Americans playing the persecution card. Would a progressive American playwright have dared to point that out? I wonder.

Appomattox actually rescues Johnson and makes it dramatically clear that the President necessarily had to implement machinations to get not only racist demagogues like Hoover and Alabama Governor George Wallace, but even more ‘moderate’ men in line. It’s called realpolitik. The public cannot always be privy to certain government actions. A current parallell is the way the Romney campaign has recklessly tried to make a case against the October tragedy in Libya. To point: the Obama administration may not be in a position yet to reveal all it knew. Romney, however, has politicized this. (Consider that Reagan actually did not politicize the Iran hostage crisis in his 1980 campaign.)

Moreover, Appomattox also dares to gets past the Martin Luther King Jr. mythos. First of all, Hampton, unlike Dustin Lance Black who wrote the reactionary screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s neocon propaganda film, J. Edgar, goes much, much further with the tyrannical gay FBI Chief’s sick preoccupation with the sex lives of others – particularly, Dr. King. In case you didn’t know, Hoover kept files on King’s allegedly prolific sex life and made tapes, something the Black/Eastwood/DiCaprio project shamelessly whitewashed. But Appomattox considers how King would have processed knowing that his intimate moments were being taped for blackmail. In one short, deft scene, wife Coretta (a superb Greta Oglesby), brings this to his attention.

(Center) Shawn Hamilton (Martin Luther King, Jr.). Photo by Allen Brisson-Smith.

Shawn Hamilton’s charismatic King is simply thrilling. A stirring speech scene captures just how inspiring he was and how threatening his equality/labor/peace activism was to the military industrial complex and the businesses they supported.

I can’t tell you much about another segment because I don’t want to spoil its effect. But suffice to say, that Richard Ooms has a very small role as a pathological racist. His performance is absolutely chilling and among the finest performances of his distinguished career. This points to another Hampton Celebration play, Embers, in which Barbara Bryne played a very small role as an elderly nursemaid. Bryne was simply heartbreaking.  (Embers has closed.) Hampton peppers his plays with splendid very small roles.

Sally Wingert (Lady Bird Johnson). Photo by Allen Brisson-Smith.

Appomattox is male-driven and as much as I was swept away, it still left me wanting more female energy. Nonetheless, Sally Wingert captures the neurotic aspect of Mary Todd Lincoln and the elegance of Ladybird Johnson. Indeed, these two captivating First Ladies merit new plays of their own. But the show is about three hours so I understand you can’t have everything. At any rate, Appomattox is one marvelous show!


MORPHOLOGIES: Queer Performance Festival
Nov. 9-19
Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.
Pangea World Theater
711 W. Lake St. Mpls.
Ritz Theatre
345-13th Av. NE, Mpls

Pangea World Theater, 20% Theatre Company and RARE Productions are uniting with a multicultural feast of stage work about queerness beyond the gay caucasian middle-class perspective that often dominates queer fare on stage and film. Right off the bat, I can heartily recommend the provocative, passionate, and intelligent Outside The Circle, created and performed by Andrea Assaf and Samuel Valdez. (Nov. 16 & 17, Intermedia Arts.) Frankly, it’s among the best new plays of recent years. I say that because (1) the characters are fully and richly developed and say things and make choice and take turns of mind that will surprise and (2) it challenges political orthodoxies on the left, as much or more than the right. Assaf plays a lesbian and Valdez, a disabled heterosexual man. The tensions the two ignite between each other while sitting together at a straight strippers bar are mined with integrity, wit, and true revelation. Both characters are sympathetic, but they each have presumptions and biases that we sometimes like to think marginalized people have risen above. From misogyny to erotophobia to ablism and more. Not to be missed.

Andrea Assaf, Writer/Actress. Photo by Barb Campbell.

If you’ve never seen the dynamic D’Lo, get yourself to Intermedia Arts on Nov. 14 & 15 for D’FUNQT. A consummate genderbender performer, D’Lo exudes an endearing butchness that celebrates the freedom to be who you are, even if you’ve come from a strict immigrant background. I know that sounds cliche but when you watch D’Lo you will totally get it. D’Lo draws somewhat from Hindu roots to give us a portrait of a queer boy/stud/transgender person. The title of the show give you an idea that this performer challenges the audience with so-called ‘mindframes’ that compartmentalize away our individual power and beauty.

Ryka Aoki. Photo courtesy of Ryka Aoki.

Becoming a Man in 127 Easy Steps (Nov. 9 & 10, Ritz Theatre) has trans performer Scott Turner Schofield use ariel dance and storytelling to focus on issues of transition. RARE Productions curates MORPHED: Loud & Queer Cabaret Partay on Tues, Nov. 13 at Intermedia Arts. Jewelle Gomez  and Harry Waters Jr.’s Waiting for Giovanni, inspired by James Baldwin, will have a staged reading on Nov. 11, Pangea World Theater. Child abuse survivor Ryka Aoki de la Cruz performs In Search of Geishaghost on Sun., Nov. 11 at Pangea.


Photograph 51
Through Nov. 4
Hillcrest Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy, Mpls.
(651) 647-4315

From L to R – Bob Malos, Brandon Ewald, Bethany Ford, and Alex Brightwell. Photo by Sarah Whiting.

In the 1950s British scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was central in making sense of Photograph 51 which contained fundamental information that would be necessary for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. Regrettably, Franklin was shut out by the all-male Kings College establishment so that she was unable to share in the glory of such a discovery. In 1962, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins shared a Nobel Prize for that discovery, but Franklin was not acknowledged – even posthumously. Bethany Ford plays Franklin in Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s production of Anna Ziegler’s drama.


Romeo and Juliet: The Lesbian Version
Nov. 8-17
Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Av., Mpls.

The most popular play of all time is about forbidden heterosexual love between a youth and a maiden. But Theatre Coup D’Etat gives it a lesbian treatment with the star-crossed lovers played by two women. And given that it’s widely held that its playwright, William Shakespeare was bisexual, it certainly stands to reason. Briana Patnode plays Juliet and says the role came her way at what she calls “the perfect moment for me personally. A little over two years ago now, I fell in love -for the first time- with a beautiful woman. I am a hopeless romantic – and I was stuck out on my family farm while she was living in Minneapolis during that insane winter of 2010, and I could hardly find the words to tell her how I felt about her in the times we stayed together. So while I was back on the farm, I started emailing her videos of myself reading her Shakespeare. I would hole myself up in my freezing room and tape sonnets for her all night long. I went back to Romeo and Juliet, and started to understand the story like I never had before. I understood every word, I connected, and it all felt very poetic.  I am so proud to play a queer Juliet, and be a role model for ladies in love like me. It seems it could not come at a more relevant time than in this atmosphere of political division -“two households both alike in dignity”- people are rallying up together -against each other- over love!”

Florencia Castro, who plays Romeo, adds “A supporter of the freedom to marry, I am very proud of what this production will stand for, and regardless of the vote, the show will go on and our female Romeo will still find her soul mate in Juliet.  My friends and co-workers were slightly taken aback when I told them I would be playing Romeo. Their first question was always “And is Juliet still being played by a girl?” As far as working with Briana as my Juliet, I feel that we have discovered a very warm, playful and totally unashamed tenderness between our Romeo and Juliet. It’s so effortless to work with her. In all honesty, it doesn’t really cross my mind that audiences will see a lesbian couple. It’s Romeo and Juliet!”


Summer and Smoke
Through Nov. 4
Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Av., Mpls.
(612) 333-3010

Gay master playwright Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was a master of evoking the strain, shame, and heartbreak of sexual repression. Growing up fully knowing within himself that he was gay in a time when the mention of anything queer could have you hauled off to the sanitorium, made Williams ponder the mysteries of sex and desire. In Summer and Smoke (1948), he examines the prudishness and erotic reticence of a minister’s daughter, Alma Winemiller. Her feelings for a young doctor, John Buchanan, twist her emotions into her highly developed sense of right and wrong, like a knife. Theater in the Round revives this Williams gem with Joanna Harmon and Casey Hoekstra in the leads. Randy Reyes directs.


2012: The Musical
Nov. 7-17
In The Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre, 1500 E. Lake St., Mpls.
(612) 721-2535

The end of the Mayan calendar has raised hopes, fears, and heckles, so the Bedlam and New Native Theatres have joined up to create what’s said to be the first all Native American musical in Minnesota. Navajo playwright and New Native’s Artistic Director Rhiana Yazzie says it was important that the show is uplifting. The idea originated within the theater’s acting ensemble which at the time was all-female. Yazzie reflects “We asked, what things do Native people usually not get associated with? Sci-fi and the future. We thought, let’s make an alternate reality. Let’s empower our story by imagining a different outcome, then stage it. As we continued to develop the play, it remained an all-female artistic team. I wrote the play along with the input of Andrea Fairbanks and Inez  DeCoteau, two of the original ensemble members that helped brainstorm the idea in 2011 for Bedlam’s Ten Fest. Our composer is also female, singer-songwriter Marisa Carr. Both Maren Ward and I are directing. So the major players are all women. The play is quite irreverent. Now that we’ve been in rehearsal I can liken the comedy to a cross between Bridesmaids and a 1950s B movie.”

That said, 2012 still acknowledges the historical strife and genocide of Native Americans, which Yazzie says is of importance as we reflect on the Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota. She points out “we use comedy to satirize a few tragic events that have been mainstays in the explanation of Native American history. We don’t shy away from coming out and saying how bad the history of Native peoples within the US has been, as well as being very self-deprecating – a little known fact about humor in Native circles. But it is also a very easy pill to swallow. The play is more like cough syrup! I think non-Natives are going to be utterly surprised at the way we’ve used theatre to show the strength of the Native community, its resiliency and especially our humor. I think Native folks are going to be just as surprised to seen themselves in such a positive and hilarious light too.”

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