Arts Spotlight: 611


Hot Funky Butt Jazz. Photo by Robert Stacke

Hot Funky Butt Jazz
Nov. 2-18
Dowling Studio at Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis

Interact Theatre has developed a longstanding reputation as one of America’s foremost theaters featuring the work of performers with disabilities. The troupe has been invited to be a part of the Guthrie Theater’s Level 9 series, which deals with challenging sociopolitical questions. But if you’re looking to simply be entertained, the reprise of their 2011 hit, Hot Funky Butt Jazz, is a sure bet. Formerly titled Hot Jazz at da Funky Butt, we are transported to New Orleans, the jazz capital, for a deeper look at the art form known as “jazz”. The title comes from the historic Union Son’s Hall, a church/community center that once upon a time transformed into the Funky Butt Jazz Hall at midnight, when sweaty bodies moved sensually to what was then perceived as a provocative new sound over a century ago.

That sound is often credited to ragtime and “jass” cornetist Buddy Bolden. (“Jass” prefigures the word, “jazz”.) This African-American music innovator was known as the King of Jazz and was central to the New Orleans scene of the first decade of the 20th century. Bolden’s band is thought to have been the first wherein brass instruments played the blues. He pushed the envelope by approaching ragtime with an improvisational attitude which added the blues element. He incorporated the gospel tradition of Baptist churches along with the muscular power that military marching band music emanates. Bolden would have been well aware of John Philip Sousa.

Level 9 features vocalist Zena Moses, keyboard artist Eugene Harding, and Jeremy Phipps on horn, all of whom are experts in the New Orleans style. Jeff Haas, a veteran of the Minneapolis gay theater scene of the 1990s, is also in the thick of it all, and sews queer threads into to the jazzy fabric. He says of the character he plays, “Coco is supposed to be a old tired queen who also has a bite to her. But at the same time she is supposed to be likable and sympathetic. I’ve never done drag before. It would be easier if I was a method actor. I’ve been told to find my inner Coco.” Be assured, however, Haas is another sure bet. His Artists Shakespeare Company was acclaimed for its crossgender portrayals a generation ago, and his camp performance in Robert Patrick’s Pouf Positive for Out on the Town Theatre was absolutely delicious.

The Laramie Project. Image by Brian G. Murphy

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later
Oct. 26 – Nov. 17
Howard Conn Fine Arts Center, Plymouth Church, 1900 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis

Uprising Theatre takes us back 10 years ago to the 10th anniversary of the famous play collaboration that reflected on the brutally torturous death of gay college student Matthew Shepard. Tied to a fence post on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998, he was beaten mercilessly and died six days later. A month afterward, New York’s Tectonic Theater Project went there to interview townspeople and out of this created a play titled The Laramie Project, overseen by Moises Kaufman. Then ten years later, Tectonic members returned to find out, from their perspective, how they perceived the town had changed (or not) over the decade. It is this piece that Uprising will present at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center. Theatrically, both The Laramie Project works exist in the vein of other gay-inclusive works like A Chorus Line and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (also created by Kaufman in 1997) in which actual interviews and correspondence are shaped into a theatrical text.

Though there’s no doubt that Aaron McKinney and drug dealer Russell Henderson murdered Shepard, various perspectives have competed with one another about the actual motivations at play. Was he targeted for being gay or was it a robbery that spun out of control? Drug abuse is thought to have figured considerably into the madness that ensued. Kristen Price and Chastity Pasley, the girlfriends of the murderers, were charged as accessories to the crime. McKinney’s lawyer put forth the gay panic defense justified by the assertion that Shepard placed his hand on McKinney’s knee, hence, signaling intent to commit sexual assault, but the judge rejected it. Price ultimately recanted her statement that Shepard allegedly made sexually advances on her boyfriend and told television interviewer Elizabeth Vargas that she didn’t think it was actually a hate crime. Price had originally told Detective Ben Fritzen that McKinney was triggered by homophobia. Fritzen expressed reservations about the murder being a hate crime.

Shepard had been raped and beaten in Morocco, which elicited depression in what is said to have been a previously optimistic personality. He was hospitalized at points for clinical depression and considered suicide. Friends felt these unresolved traumas influenced the illicit drug use he explored in college.

Seven actors will play 150 characters in The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later co-directed by Sarah Catcher and Ashley Hovell. Earlier this year Uprising produced a compelling production of its founder/artistic director Shannon TL Kearns’s remarkable trans-themed play, Twisted Deaths, directed by Hovell. The theater company is clearly committed to works that deal with social justice from a queer perspective, so the Shepard murder is something that fits into their mission.

Hovell says that “in conversation about the death of Matthew Shepard, I hear people say ‘Thank god that doesn’t happen anymore. We’ve come so far.’ The thing is, hate crimes do continue to happen. Twenty years after Matthew’s death, Uprising Theatre feels a need to bring Matthew’s story to the forefront once again to remind people that hate crimes are still happening.”

Mary Poppins
Through Nov. 4
Bloomington Center, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Rd., Bloomington

If you’ve followed Joel Sass’s directorial/design work over the decades, you know that he is a brilliant navigator of the fantastical. From his own Mary Worth Theatre Company staging of Clive Barker’s The History of the Devil a generation ago, right up to his Theater Latte Da staging of Peter and the Starcatcher, named by Lavender as one of last year’s Top 10 productions, Sass is a genius at delving into what spiritualists call “the invisible realm”. Both of those memorable productions showcased his understanding of the polarities of light and dark. Therefore, he is an ideal choice to direct Mary Poppins, in which those polarities interrelate.

That may sound odd if the 1964 Disney film is your only source of the Poppins story, but the original P.J. Travers source isn’t quite so spoonful sugary. The same can be said of the writer of the book for the musical, Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey), now on stage at Artistry Theater. Robert Stevenson directed that winner of 13 Oscar nominations with bright and bubbly beauty and it looms as a masterpiece on its own terms. However, in contrast, the stage musical version has a deeply aching sense of the splintering of a nuclear family that surpasses the film. Hence, the character Mary Poppins’ intervention has an added sense of poignancy.

Becca Hart plays the title role. C. Ryan Shipley plays the lovable chimney sweep, Bert. Brandon Jackson, who was named as Lavender‘s Best Supporting Musical Actor for Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s Leap of Faith in 2016 and who wowed audiences with his uproarious crossgender performance as Motormouth Maybelle in Artistry’s Hairspray the year before, will surely delight once again in his crossgender take on Miss Andrew, the strenuously strict nanny who once looked after the patriarch of the story’s family, Mr. Banks (Charlie Clark) in childhood. The choreography has been created by Joe Chvala, another Lavender best from years past.

A Prelude To Faust. Photo by Michal Daniel

A Prelude to Faust
Oct. 26 – Nov. 11
Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis

The legend of Faust, the man who sells his soul to the devil has been re-interpreted by various writers over the centuries. We’ve all heard of the reference, “a Faustian bargain”. Distinguished puppet artist Michael Sommers has created a new production of his A Prelude to Faust, first commissioned by the Walker Art Center in 1998 for a new revival at Open Eye Theatre. Sommers’s particular source is the poetic drama Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which ranks as one of German literature’s towering works. It was written in two parts: the first was completed in 1808 and revised in 1828-29; the second in 1831.

This 20th Anniversary production features Julian McFaul, who created the role originally and who has performed it in all subsequent revivals. Sommers went all the way to Germany and Czech Republic to conduct research for the piece. Acclaimed theater composer Michael Koerner, renowned for his scores at the Children’s Theatre and Theatre de la Jeune Lune, contributes to a reprise of the piece that we’ve been signaled has “ecstatic violence and a more intensely heartbreaking love story.”

The Tempest. Photo by Craig James Hostetler

The Tempest
Through Nov. 17
SpringHouse Ministry Center, 610 W. 28th St., Minneapolis

The Tempest is one of William Shakespeare’s later plays and is definitely more mystical than most. It is the work of a man looking back at life from a point of wisdom and reassessment. Themes of parenting, power, and letting go of set patterns permeate this beautiful play that is actually categorized by many scholars as a romantic comedy. However, it is notable in modern terms it is frequently thought of as a personality study of an older, aging man.

That said, eight years ago Helen Mirren played the lead role of Prospero, a man, as a woman, renamed Prospera in the Julie Taymor film version. Theatre Coup d’Etat is doing the same with Meri Golden in the role on stage. In 2012, Golden astounded audiences with her performance as the nurse in the Coup’s Romeo and Juliet. It was one of the best performances of that classic role one could have ever imagined. She also blew audiences away earlier this year in Candid Theater’s Peter and Alice, as the woman on whom Lewis Carroll based his title character of Alice in Wonderland in her later years.

Of The Tempest, Golden tells us, “Actually, I am going to be playing Prospero as a woman—a woman of intellect wrongly ousted out of her legitimate position of power. We will be exploring misogyny in the play, as ‘King’ Alonso will be played by a woman (Sue Gerber): the male conspirators will be trying to overturn both the female rulers. Playing Prospero, I hope to show how power is tempered by vulnerability, but ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’—in this case not by a lover, but by her brother’s usurping her position and banishing her. We will be showing women in the play as both innocent and culpable, as well as capable of forgiveness. Also, there will be aggressive male characters seeking power at all costs, as well as men who are compassionate and sometimes vulnerably foolish. Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda—and Prospero’s reaction to it—should resonate in the current climate, and Prospero’s views on nature vs. nurture are still controversial today.”

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