Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Review of Guards at the Taj at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Guards at the Taj. It was by Rajiv Joseph, and it was directed by Amy Morton. It was about two friends Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed) who were both guards at the Taj Mahal before it was the Taj Mahal, when it just being built. They have known each other for a very long time, and they are faced with a difficult task. It is about brotherhood, duty, and what makes the world beautiful. I thought this was a really funny and moving show that made you think about what people see as morally correct and what people actually do.

I thought the first scene of the show was a super great scene because you got to know the characters so well. They are like a smarter Pinky and the Brain. They are very good friends, but they are polar opposites. The first person you see is Humayun who is onstage while the audience is taking their seats. He is very stoic, but he also has a sweet side: he really likes birds, so when he sees them chirping in the tree, even though he is supposed to be stoic and immovable, he smiles. When he realizes he is smiling, he immediately goes back to being stoic. It seems like he feels like he can't express emotion because that makes him seem week, but when he is around Babur he really can't help himself. Babur is very cheerful and bad at time management and in awe of everything. He also feels like he should be stoic, but he is less successful at being stoic than Humayun. It is adorable to watch them interact and then have Humayun realize he has to shut it down and be professional. This scene is very humorous because of the realizations they make that you have made just seconds before. There is a terrible job they don't want to do, and then they realize they are going to be the ones to do it. And it is not harem duty, which is the job they want.


The characters said a lot of sexist things, but the audience sort of glazed over it because it was set a long time ago. It was kind of tough for me to ignore the sexist comments. I think it was probably realistic for the time and I still loved the characters and didn't want anything bad to happen to them. I don't think it was a bad choice to make them say sexist things because that was true to the time period. But it reminded me that it is easy to gloss over sexism if you feel for a character or a person because sexism is such an inherent part of our culture. There are no female characters in this show, but women get talked about quite a bit. Mumtaz Mahal was the favorite wife of Shah Jahan and she died and was beautiful and Shah Jahan wanted to make something as beautiful as her. (Why does the world favor beautiful women over smart women? Maybe because no one wants to look at a smart building?) The other women who get mentioned are the women in the harem. Women in the harem are wives, concubines, and employees of Shah Jahan and they are basically there for his pleasure, to demonstrate his power over other people, and to protect the harem. They don't mention these women protectors in the play, but they seem so cool. They were called urdubegis. It would be cool to have a play about being one of the women in the harem that takes place at the same time. They could also be struggling with when it is moral to do your duty and when to refuse, just like Babur and Humayun do. You could call it Urdubegis at the Harem.

There is a very big plot point in this show that I want to talk about, but it is a really big spoiler, so if you've already seen or read the show, you can read the spoiler paragraph at Ada Grey Spoils It for You.

People who would like this show are people who like moral questions, brotherhood, and harem duty. I think that people should definitely go see this show. It is such an interesting, beautiful, and sometimes disturbing show. It has amazing performances. I loved it.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Friday, June 15, 2018

Review of Hamlet at The Gift Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Hamlet. It was written by William Shakespeare, and it was directed by Monty Cole. It was about Hamlet (Daniel Kyri), a prince of Denmark, whose father (Robert Cornelius) had died and whose mother, Gertrude (Shanesia Davis), had married his uncle Claudius (John Kelly Connolly) soon after. His friend Horatio (Casey Morris) sees the ghost of Hamlet's father and tells Hamlet about it. When Hamlet encounters the ghost, his father tells him about his brutal murder, so Hamlet decides to try to get revenge against Claudius. I think this is a really great version of Hamlet. It has amazing actors, a fabulous set, and a director with a new and awesome vision.

I have never seen a set (designed by William Boles) like this one before. There was a plexiglass wall between the audience and the stage. It gives you the feeling of looking in on all these scenes, seeing something that you're not supposed to, that was meant to be private. It can give the feeling that you are very separate from them, but also that they are just like you, that you and the characters are looking in mirrors, and you are just like them. Behind the plexiglass was a White-Housesque hallway with a filthy carpet strewn with trash, and there were smears on the lower part of the wall. It looks rotten, but it seems like they are still living in it. The characters would take things that they used throughout the show and just throw them on the floor, so you get to see all these different sections of the show on the floor, and it keep getting more uninhabitable. The something that is rotten in the state of Denmark is not just the monarchy; it's also the decor.

I really liked the emphasis on the father-son relationship in this show. In a lot of Hamlets, they use Hamlet's dad's ghost as a jump scare and motivation for Hamlet to avenge his father's death. But father-child relationships are so much more than that, and it is good to see why Hamlet is avenging him, how close their relationship was, and how much Hamlet depended on his dad. I think Kyri's performance did a great job of really showing the in-depth thoughts of Hamlet and how hard it was for him to let go of his dad. The ghost cannot usually touch people, but he can in this show. And Hamlet hugs him, which draws you in more to their relationship. Also the ghost was wearing a hospital gown. It shows that he didn't die right away, which makes it a lot more powerful. He is not in full fighting gear, which makes him seem more vulnerable. Also, when they are doing the play within the play, Hamlet doesn't let the play alone show Claudius that Hamlet knows what he had done. He started playing a mix of a video of baby Hamlet with his dad and The Lion King, which I think was even more powerful. They let it play all through the intermission so you could marinate in it. It is like the play never really stops.

Usually when I see Hamlet, I know that there are going to be a lot of deaths, but I don't care about all of them. But in this one, I most certainly did. Polonius (Cornelius) is usually self-important and foolish, but in this production he seemed like a really good dad to Ophelia (Netta Walker) and Laertes (Gregory Fenner). So it makes more sense when Ophelia goes crazy when he dies. Ophelia seemed very reasonable. So much more reasonable than I've ever seen Ophelia be. In other productions, sometimes she seems like a jerk to Hamlet and sometimes she seems like a victim, but she was neither in this one. She seems less influenced by the people around her in this production, but she is still not disobedient to her father. In some productions she is a wilting flower, but in this production she is very grounded and a fully-alive flower, which is why it is so powerful to see her go from 100 to 0, from fine to completely not fine. Also, Laertes has a heartbreaking death, and it is not just because of the awesome fight choreography (by Gaby Labotka). It is also because of all the times you see him interacting with Ophelia in really normal ways, like eating Cheetos and playing video games. They are just siblings who love each other, and he is so heartbroken by Ophelia's death and his father's. They are such a tight-knit family that when they fall apart you really feel it.

People who would like this show are people who like rotten decor, baby Hamlets, and Ophelia and Laertes playing video games. I think this is an amazing show. It basically did everything right, and I absolutely loved it.


Photos: Claire Demos

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review of About Face Theatre's Bull in a China Shop

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Bull in a China Shop. It was by Bryna Turner and it was directed by Keira Fromm. It was about Mary Woolley (Kelli Simpkins) and Jeannette Marks (Emjoy Gavino), who both were working at Mount Holyoke, a women's college, in the early 1900s and were in love. The show looks at their relationship over a long period of time. It is about love, relationships, and different kinds of feminism. I thought this show was intriguing and beautiful to watch.

The language was very modernized, but all of the visual aspects were very period. The costumes (Mieka van der Ploeg) and hairstyles seemed very early 20th century. Everyone uses modern phrases, especially Pearl (Aurora Adachi-Winter), who was one of Marks' students. She uses the term "ship" to mean wanting two people to be together, which was, I am pretty sure, not what it meant in the early 20th century. It just meant things that set sail. They also use the f-word a lot, which is not impossible, but wasn't super common for women back then. The way the dialogue is phrased reminds us that oppression of gay people and women is still going on today. It doesn't make you think of it as all prejudice that happened in the past. Some things are better now, but not everything. It also lets you relate to them on a more intimate level because they talk in a way that you yourself do.

There is a really interesting love triangle between Woolley, Marks, and Pearl. Both Pearl and Woolley are in love with Marks. But Pearl also "ships" Woolley and Marks, which makes it very complicated. Jeannette sees her relationship with Pearl as a teaching experience, but Pearl doesn't fully understand that, which makes for some very heartbreaking scenes. And Woolley also used to be Jeannette's teacher, so it seems like Jeannette is trying to have the same story, but she gets to be the Woolley in the situation with Pearl. But Woolley stuck with her, which is not something Marks is planning on doing with Pearl. Woolley doesn't seem to want an equal relationship with Marks, even though she says she wants equal rights. Marks also wants to be the person in charge, though, which she can only be with Pearl. Even though Woolley and Marks are trying to get away from social norms, they end up putting them on. The problem is neither of them really want to be what is considered "being the wife" in that time period. They should both be able to be powerful, but they seem to be becoming the thing they are trying to get away from. There is a line in another About Face show, looking out//looking in, that was something along the lines of "relationship issues aren't just for straight people," and I think that line perfectly applies to the relationships in this show.

There are a lot of different types of feminism, which I don't think everyone understands, but that is showcased in this play. Pearl is very young and is idealistic and is really going for everything being perfect and completely equal, which is not realistic for her lifetime. But I think it can be a good way to look at things, to go for the best and just keep trying. Marks would get arrested for protesting and not care if she gets out. She is very "ride or die" about the vote. She is less optimistic than Pearl, but they essentially want the same things. Woolley has a pretty different perspective than these two. At first she seems to think that only individual women should have power, not all women. She doesn't think the vote matters enough for all this fighting. She goes through the biggest change of her perspective. It is very interesting to watch someone who thinks of herself as an influencer get influenced by people around her.

People who would like this show are people who like analyzing feminism, heartbreaking love triangles, and early 20th-century shipping. I think that people should go see this show. It is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story about love and feminism. I liked it.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Review of Damascus at Strawdog Theatre Company

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Damascus. It was by Bennett Fisher and it was directed by Cody Estle. It was about a man named Hassan (Terence Sims) who drives a shuttle at the Minneapolis airport. He is in a really bad financial situation so when this kid named Lloyd (Sam Hubbard) asks Hassan to drive him to get a flight from Chicago, he agrees. Lloyd says he has missed his flight to visit his mom who is sick so he doesn;t want to wait. Shortly into the trip, they hear that there has been an incident at the airport, which changes the way they interact with each other. This is a really thought-provoking and visually beautiful show.

I thought the set (by Jeffrey Kmiec) was really beautiful and mysterious because of how the lamp posts seemed to be overtaking the car. They were curved down more than normal lamp posts. I also liked the simplicity of the van. It wasn't a full vehicle, but it also wasn't a few chairs. It took a lot of aspects of the vehicle and just outlined them, but then the inside was fully upholstered. It was like when the actors are in the van they are in a realistic world, but from the outside the audience sees the suggestive structural elements. The inside is like seeing and accepting the world how it is, and the outside is like seeing what can be taken away. The lights (by John Kelly) were very noir and moody. The car was lit from the inside, so it could be pitch black outside of the car and perfectly lit inside the car. I also liked how the light would pulse through each lamp to suggest movement and the passage of time.

Hassan was a very compelling and sympathetic character. He is a victim of another character, but the play doesn't focus on how much of a victim he is. He doesn't just sit back and take it; he is fighting back. I think a lot of times when some writers portray people of color, they make being a victim the character's personality. Especially in theater and film every character should have a compelling motive and a reason to be there and not only be there to reflect how terrible the other people are. I think we should have stories about how people have been victims, but that should not be all we know about those people. I thought Sims' performance was really amazing. You could tell what he was thinking the entire time. When I sat down to write this paragraph, I originally thought that it was going to be about Hassan's monologue, but then I realized he didn't have one. I just felt that I knew everything that he was thinking because his performance has so much depth even though he never talked directly to the audience.

There is a lot of exciting and interesting suspense building throughout the show. They approach it in a way where the silence is threatening. When they are talking, even if they are saying threatening things, it is not as frightening as the silence. I thought it was very compelling. They also built suspense through awkward conversations. They get to know each other before certain things are revealed about the characters, so then when they have regular conversations after the revelations, the conversations are ominous in addition being awkward.

People who would like this show are people who like ominous awkward conversations, compelling characters, and suggestive structures. I think that people should definitely go see this show. I think it is well-performed and beautiful to watch.

Photos: Clark Bender

Monday, June 4, 2018

Review of Death & Pretzels' The Book of Maggie

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Book of Maggie. It was by Brendan Bourque-Sheil and it was directed by Madison Smith. It was about a young woman named Maggie (Tia Pinson) who was having a hard time and felt suicidal. So Simon Peter (Collin Quinn Rice) tells Judas (Jake Baker), who is in hell, to go and help her so he might be able to get into heaven. Meanwhile Pontius Pilate (Nick Strauss) has his own project to work on in the form of Joan (Taylor Toms) who has had a near-death experience and is not super interested in the whole getting into heaven thing. It is about religion, endings, and forgiveness. I think this is a very interesting and well done show.

The concepts of heaven and hell are very present in this show. It is very interesting to see Maggie's views on Christian belief and see how she believes in it but wants to get away from it. She has a monologue about God and how she wants to die and go to hell just to get away from him. It is really sad to think of someone being haunted by something that is supposed to motivate people to be better. Joan has some of the same ideas as Maggie--she also feels like God won't leave her alone, that she is constantly being watched by him--but she deals with them in a different way. It is like everything is a Toys-R-Us commercial with her. She is very peppy and doesn't seem to take a lot of things seriously, not even death or damnation. She thinks that hell isn't actually that bad. And it doesn't seem to be--until you hear more from Judas and Pilate about how the boringness and solitude is what makes it hell. I think that is an interesting idea of hell, not to make it lava and the devil and demons tormenting you, but to make it just pure dullness.

There was a fascinating scene with Pilate, Joan, Maggie, and Judas all sitting around a bonfire on the beach talking like old friends. I really liked this scene because of the genuineness of it. When you think of the Bible and the characters of Pilate and Judas, you don't really think of straightforward speech. You expect to hear words like thou and believeth and begat. But they are just sitting around having chips and drinks like college friends not bread and wine like at the last supper. And they speak like people now. It is also a really cool contrast with the beginning where there is a clear line between heaven, hell, and earth. Judas and Pontius Pilate are watering plants at the beginning of the show, which seems like a much more biblical activity. But as the play goes on and the lines between heaven, hell, and earth start to blur, the characters are starting to see their similarities and forgetting which world they belong to.

There was a really interesting plot twist in the show that I want to talk about. So if you are ok with spoilers or already saw the show, you can read about it at Ada Grey Spoils It for You.

People who would like this show are people who like genuine conversations with biblical figures, interesting views on belief, and peppy near-dead girls. I think this is a really thought-provoking and funny show. It had really good performances and a good script. I really liked it.

Photos: Steve Bryant
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