Arts Spotlight: 483
I Saw Daddy Marry Santa Claus
Through Jan. 4
Brave New Workshop, 824 Hennepin Av., Mpls.
The legendary comedy theater’s annual holiday revue is typically the season’s local comedy scene’s biggest smash. But this year the Brave New Workshop’s I Saw Daddy Marry Santa Claus directed by Caleb McEwen has outdone itself. It’s the best holiday show they’ve staged in years. Though there are some truly funny vignettes about same sex marriage, it contains a broad variety of contemporary comedic commentary by one of the best troupe’s around.
Lauren Anderson delights as Mrs. Claus, a lesbian whose marriage with the now uncloseted Santa Claus has been a front for both of them for time immemorial. Now they’re both free to drop the traditional image. A lyric resounds that “Santa’s gay as San Francisco Bay!” In another sequence Anderson plays a Lutheran woman who goes to Mall of America to take her daughter to see Santa, but she finds she has to fill out a questionnaire that reveals her unconscious views of race, white privilege, and how her religious views affect her view of Christmas. It’s a searing send-up of how we have become so factionalized about Christmas that there have to be different kinds of Santa Clauses for different groups of people.
Throughout the show that charmer, Andy Hilbrands, plays narrator Morgan Freeman with video projections of various Freeman films like Unforgiven and Invictus. He also has a penchant for reading titillating sections from Fifty Shades of Grey. (Full-disclosure: I actually think it’s a very good book.) Hilbrands also plays a man who profitably plays on the white guilt of the politically correct with Kwanza privileges, known as seven core principles, that give him access to white women. When the subject of white advantage comes up actor Matt Erkel quips “if I’m part of the dominant culture then why is my wallet held together by duct tape.” Here this collaboratively written work rightly points out that economic downturns affect every group, no matter what race. Erkel’s line also points to how this troupe is willing to take on the left on their own hypocrisies and corrupted extrapolations as well as the right. There are, in fact, many instances where racial and multicultural correctness, not to mention glbt political correctness, do indeed need to be spoofed. But too many are afraid of a law suit.
And of course there are some situations in which conservatives and liberals are equally awful. There’s a satirical section on the surveillance overreach of the National Security Agence (NSA) which has been allowed to grow cancerous under both the Bush/Cheney and Obama/Biden administrations. Though sharply performed and rich in insight, it regrettably shies away from bringing up Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley), two people who have been caught up in the NSA web. Nor does it go after former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and their various colleagues across the aisle, who have all been integral to the ever-unfolding NSA controversies. (Yes. Her new name is Chelsea, as in Clinton.)
The electronic realm is spoofed again with scathng wit in a scene about ‘online shopping disorder’ wherein the customers have become such zombies of the internet that they cannot function in an actual retail store. This works to the advantage of less than honest ‘actual’ employees who find ways of ripping them off. A population of autamotons is easily fooled. One employee complains of being ‘a glorified search bar’.
However, the revue’s most brilliant scene is carried by the crackling Taj Ruler who plays a paranoid schoolteacher whose former student (a confident Anderson) visits her decades later. The underpaid teacher has become has developed panicky phobias of everything from personal interaction to class material content. In another unusual and inspired stroke for BNW, Ruler, Anderson, and Tom Reed play three people in a seniors facility at Christmas time. At first, I groaned to myself: oh god, they’re playing senior stereotypes. Geez. But as these characters are interspliced throughout the show, the overall effect is genuinely absurdist. It reminded me of some of the short odd experimental plays penned by Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams; which points to the intelligence this particular wave of BNW troupe actors brings to what is still, nonetheless, a wild and wonderful party.
Thirty Years of Hope: The Minnesota AIDS Project
Through Dec. 31
Hennepin County Central Library’s Cargill Hall
300 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
For the past 30 years, Minnesota AIDS Project has seen the evolving way in which HIV/AIDS has come to be dealt with. In the early years, the panic was absolutely palpable. Misinformation and disinformation ran rampant. Stigma was the rule. Fear seemed to have worked its way into the very marrow of human existence. However, over time and through diligent activism, HIV/AIDS has not only become manageable but has also become a platform from which wondrous creativity has sprung and has been an indicator of problems in the nation’s health care system that have only relatively recently come to be fully recognized by the general public. It was HIV/AIDS activists who really got the ball rolling for that awareness starting in the 1980s.
At the Cargill Gallery at the Minneapolis Central Library, the Thirty Years of Hope visual art exhibit connects us with the streams of consciousness of the HIV/AIDS era. The range of art assembled by Minnesota AIDS Project and Altered Esthetics is remarkable and, when contemplated on, it is surely an expansive and psychically healing experience for anyone, whether they have HIV/AIDS or not. It sounds cliche but Thirty Years truly is a reflection of the triumph of the human spirit with universal appeal.
With Janelle Doyle’s HOPE you feel as if you could fly right into the image and be suspended in the air yourself, along with the two free-floating red human forms. The redness can’t help but bring to mind the blood of those with HIV/AIDS. In a defiantly joyous spirit, Doyle celebrates how we don’t have to accept the enshrined earthbound negativity so many people are dragged down to. It’s a matter of letting go.
James Powell’s sketches are reminiscent of the cartoon style of the iconic Ralph Bakshi. The fact and reality of children living with HIV/AIDS is sweetly and touchingly rendered. The wide-eyed innocence so lovingly portrayed in Powell’s pieces is also stunning. As with Doyle, they are facing the universe head on. They will not be dragged down. They expect the universe to support them and we somehow just know it will.
However, there are some pieces that are admirably dark and it’s important to bear in mind that facing darkness is part of healing and the reclaiming one’s personal power and will. Jessica Barnd’s Fire is part of a grouping that seems to symbolize the abyss that persons with HIV/AIDS face when grappling with their diagnosis. There’s a harrowing edge to Barnd’s work in which a unisex figure tries to protect her/his back as if scratching some painful internalized itch. The other arm reaches out to some unseen threatening external force. The figure seems to be on his/her way to imploding. The effect is visceral and arresting.
Melissa F. Kaelin’s majestic Sweet Raspberry Sunset is softly optimistic. Blackened natural objects on the earth’s surface stand with persevering will and hope as if calling on the universe, beguilingly and colorfully represented by the sky itself. The earthbound seem to be reaching out for the healing power of a splendid, as opposed to an indifferent cosmos. In Kaelin’s view, it seems to be a cosmos where we can faithfully turn to at those times when we feel insignificant and hopeless. Her universe seems to have an overwhelming possibility so powerful that our humanness doesn’t quite yet have the ability to comprehend it. An invocation to cosmic healing energies that are hopefully finally returning to our ailing planet. Good news!
In Melanie Schumacher’s Swoon, dots of paint comprise gyrating, curving, sensual, and healing interplay with a gentle dance of doves. It’s as if you are entering a soothing pool, not of water, but air. This swirling air pool, which I call it, massages away all tensions, wounds, worry, and all the fear that has been sublimated. A gloriously understated work.
A Christmas Carol
Through Dec. 29
818 So. 2nd St., Mpls.
Joe Chvala ranks as one of the nation’s foremost theater choreographers. His Flying Foot Forum developed its own vocabulary of movement. Chvala has also been ascending as a first-rate stage director. His thoughtful insights into dramatic literature beautifully meld with his unique sense of movement. He has directed the current production of the Guthrie’s annual holiday tradition, A Christmas Carol, based on Charles Dickens’s book and adapted for the stage by Crispin Whittell. J.C. Cutler plays the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Chvala reflects on some of the concerns the play puts forth: “Deep in our psyches we fear the coldness and the darkness of winter. Midwinter holidays, especially in the north, are often about bringing the light and warmth back into a harsh cold world. In the Dickens’ novel, the first description of Scrooge uses three or four frozen wintry images to describe him. Ultimately Scrooge’s heart is frozen. We fear people like him because they have no empathy and we fear becoming like him ourselves because we have all been through heartbreaking events that could make us build walls around our own hearts. Throughout the play and the book Scrooge cracks open bit by bit. Eventually his heart melts because of the light and the warmth he is forced to witness in people who, as he says, ‘have no reason to be merry.’ For an audience, to witness the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge is to find light in the darkness and warmth in the cold and ultimately to find hope where none seems to exist. That is a very powerful thing, especially for those of us who live in the colder regions of the world.”
When asked about his signature dance style, Chvala shares, “Before I ever even imagined having a dance company, I did theater for about 18 years so I think my theater aesthetic probably influences my choreographic work more than vice versa. That being said, dance has often been a big part of my theater work. Certainly directing a show with 45 performers requires an eye for movement and visual complexity. The first year that I worked on A Christmas Carol I did a lot of research into the social dances of the times and then had to figure out how to capture their essence and still make them dramatic and compelling for an audience to watch. Beyond that, there is all the street life, the etiquette, the general way a place like London moves and the dramatic sweeping changes of time and place that the ghosts create in navigating that world. The set, designed by Walter Spangler, is a gorgeous depiction of a street in Victorian London–a canvas for me to create a living, breathing backdrop for all the action of the play. While my directing mind is thinking about character development, authenticity, rising and falling action, and the best way to work with each actor, my choreographic mind thinks a lot about timing, pacing, context, focus, balance, composition, storytelling, and, in this case, period movement. Ultimately, everything in this show has to create a credible Victorian world–a world where someone like Ebenezer Scrooge might start his wild Christmas Eve ghostly adventure by hating the world he lives in and end it by being completely in love with humanity. Everything needs to artfully reflect, heighten, punctuate, and ultimately support the action of Scrooge’s transformation. I try to create a world surrounding the action that won’t necessarily always be part of the conscious attention of the audience but will always somehow enhance their experience of the story in a subconscious way. The scene work that happens within this world centers more around acting and finding the moments between the characters that change everything and move the story forward.”
Driving Miss Daisy
Through Dec. 22
Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.
Playwright Alfred Uhry’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winner walks a tightrope between sentiment and authentic emotion and the Jungle’s current production finds the authenticity. But how could you miss with Wendy Lehr as the wealthy Daisy Werthern and James Craven as Hoke Coleburn, her chauffeur? The strength and challenge of the 1987 comedy-drama lies in its well-balanced time frame which goes from 1947 to 1973. Bain Boehlke has directed the piece with a clear sense of how the characters change over time and how the time itself changes. Boehlke also designed the set in which time seems to have stood still. The same can be said of Amelia Cheever’s costumes, and I mean that as a compliment.
What makes Driving Miss Daisy different from numerous other works in the Southern Gothic style is that its white protagonist is Jewish, therefore, a perennial target of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan is typically associated with its abiding hatred for black folks and cross-burning is one of its blistering trademarks. However, the Klan’s antisemitism is just as abiding, though often less obvious. Uhry, who grew up in Atlanta, gives us a perspective based on his grandmother and her African-American chauffer.
Lehr also reveals Daisy’s own unexamined prejudices with frankness. However, in a gripping scene wherein Daisy is made aware of an aspect of Hoke’s personality she had not been aware of previously, she infuses the action with a profound moment where she uplifts him. Cravens responds in kind with beautiful vulnerability and innocence. It’s one of those moments where you see two truly great seasoned actors giving it all to the audience. It’s like a wave of love.
Twin Cities theatergoers are accustomed to topnotch performances from Lehr and Cravens, which they both deliver with grace and humanity at the Jungle. But Charles Fraser as Daisy’s son, Boolie, is the production’s real revelation. The Georgia drawl he uses reflects not only the character’s geographical location but an inner forlornness that makes the character poignant, if not a bit tragic.
Princess Diana, The Musical
Through Dec. 1
Cabaret Theater at Camp Bar, 490 N. Robert St., St. Paul
At Camp Bar’s Cabaret Theater in St. Paul, Actors Theater of Minnesota has remounted its production of Princess Diana – The Musical. Songwriter Karen Sokolof Javitch and writer Elaine Jabenis follow Diana’s story from being an unknown teenager to a woman of monumental exposure by an invasive media monolith. Ross Young has directed McKayla Marso and Sean Dillon as Diana and Prince Charles, spanning their budding relationship on to Diana’s controversial death in a car accident.
Music Director Kevin Dutcher observes “the music for Diana is not typical Musical Theater. It is a hybrid, with some of the songs in the pop vein and some that are more recitative, where dialogue between two actors is set to music. The show spans a myriad of styles.” (Diana came to be known as ‘the People’s Princess’.)