Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Do we take this quarter-century-old theater for granted? We do, don't we? Nowadays, when directors frequently cast plays without regard to color (and sometimes gender), and when most local theater companies produce several plays per season that tell stories of diverse ethnic and cultural experiences, it is easy to forget how radical the Mixed Blood was when it first opened in 1976. Mixed Blood expanded the palate of local theatergoers, helping to create a performance scene in which diversity is not just welcome but expected. And all that would be well and good--hooray for history and all that--except for the fact that the Mixed Blood stubbornly refuses to become a historical anachronism. They still produce some of the most inventive plays offered in the Twin Cities. Because as diverse as we think we are, and as proud as we might become of having a hundred theater companies who all carry the word diversity in their mission statements, there are still stories that are not getting told, and the Mixed Blood has a keen way of finding them. Let us point to a few examples from recent seasons. Consider Zaraawar Mistry's adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a production that drew heavily from the long tradition of oral storytelling found in the Arab world, but also offered a complex parable for Rushdie's own experience of living underground. Or the recent co-production of Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter, which told of a Vermont college torn apart by a single incident of racism. Or last year's Cut Flowers, which marked the playwriting debut of actor Gavin Lawrence. The play's setting inside a fancy floral shop provided unexpected rhythms--the patter of the urban black experience suddenly set to the constant chopping and binding of fresh flowers. Who else is telling this story? Nobody.
D'Ambrose is unavoidable--regular theatergoers are liable to see him onstage a half-dozen times per year in an amazing variety of venues. This past year, the lanky, wry performer has graced the stage of the Park Square Theatre, the Loring Playhouse, the Mixed Blood Theatre, and, most notably, the Jungle Theater. D'Ambrose's role there was in a production called The Pavilion, essentially a sweet two-character romance about former lovers rooting through their pasts at a high school reunion. D'Ambrose narrated the story, as well as playing any incidental character that was needed, regardless of gender. This offered him an opportunity to dazzle, racing across the stage to switch, sometimes in midsentence, from a stoned city mayor to a bitter, chain-smoking divorcée--all accomplished by nothing more elaborate than a shift in posture and vocal tone. But he is also an actor with quiet authority, which is why, despite his comic chops, he is often cast in roles like Mr. Frank in the Park Square production of The Diary of Anne Frank. This is a part that is both underwritten and saintly, and D'Ambrose brought to it a hollowness of expression and gravity of bearing that suggested a man shattered by the Holocaust--a great, tragic performance in a play that is written more like a situation comedy.
The Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the 15 Head companies don't share an aesthetic, exactly, but when performers from one company show up on the stage of another, it isn't at all surprising. Both companies are meticulously, and often comically, physical. Both companies seem to enjoy creating radical new versions of classic, and sometimes forgotten, plays. Both companies are often wildly experimental and seem to thrive on collaboration. But when Jaidee Forman took the stage in the recent remounting of Jeune Lune's The Green Bird, her presence felt inevitable. An artistic associate with 15 Head, Forman has appeared in virtually every performance by the company, worked on script development, designed costumes, and choreographed the company's complex physical language. But it is as an actress that Forman has really distinguished herself. One can scarcely imagine another local performer who could move between the grotesque, lowbrow comic characterization that Forman brought to Green Bird and the stylized, elegant, intellectually dense approach she devoted to the depiction of Coco Chanel in an original one-woman show, Coco. Forman seemed exactly right performing for the Jeune Lune; a month later, performing for 15 Head, she seemed exactly right again.
At 8:00 p.m. on weeknights, Tommy Mischke signs on from "good old St. Paul," and for two hours the world is a better place to be. Not that The Mischke Broadcast is rosily predictable. During a given broadcast, its host might, variously, take calls from listeners, spin comic meditations on the day's headlines, hum an impromptu showtune, improvise stream-of-consciousness advertisements for KSTP sponsors, or, as he famously did a few years back, fall silent for the show's entire duration. Mischke, like his show, is impossible to categorize: He might be Minnesota's Ambrose Bierce--a moral ironist with a deep appreciation for life's ridiculousness and plenty of Midwestern wisdom to fill the void. He's at his best, anyway, when dealing with the assorted rubes, codgers, and cranks who listen to talk radio after dark. Affecting the tone of the laconic fellow at the end of the bar, he ribs his listeners with affection. And though The Mischke Broadcast stretches facts, Mischke always gets at the truth. (To this end, he often quotes Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge.") On a recent show, after relating a study about the alarming percentage of Americans who feel overworked, Mischke issued an invitation in the same deadpan tone: "Somebody grab a six-pack of Summit, and let's find a spot on the banks of the Mighty Miss to talk this thing out." There's no one we'd rather do that with.
Whether or not U Film goes along with Oak Street Cinema's recent proposal to merge the two organizations (don't ask Al Milgrom for more details), the fact remains that much of what it gave us during the past 12 months was both indispensable and very much in keeping with its longstanding mission to disregard the bottom line. In fact, this may have been U Film's strongest year of programming in a decade; certainly, there was a period between early last summer and late last fall when it seemed to do no wrong. There was the Belgian neorealist masterpiece Rosetta; the gorgeous African animated film Kirikou and the Sorceress; the searing postapartheid doc Long Night's Journey Into Day; the sprawling "Sound Unseen" series of music-related movies; two modern-day classics by Israeli director Amos Gitaï, Kadosh and Kippur; Lars von Trier's outrageously reflexive The Idiots (and its making-of addendum The Humiliated); and an "Iranian Film Week" that, despite being hastily assembled, gave us the Cities' one and only screening of Abbas Kiarostami's magnificent film The Wind Will Carry Us. So: With all this, plus expansive series of Cuban, Jewish, and queer cinema (not to mention another massive Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival), does U Film really need rescuing? In the spirit of foreign art-film ambiguity (not to mention Al Milgrom), that question shall remain--at least for the moment--unanswered.
Who isn't a sucker for the dingy, illicit feel of an underground art gallery? Who doesn't get a thrill when entering a rehabilitated warehouse space where a flimsy partition hides the possessions of the gallery owners? Where a plywood floor hides the toxic ooze of the previous tenants, and where artists and various malingerers can, on any given Friday, be viewed in their native habitat? All urban artscapes worth their turpentine are replete with such spaces, and in the Twin Cities the current epitome of this archetype is the Waiting Room in northeast Minneapolis. Set in a segment of an old chair factory, the Waiting Room is very easy to miss at first glance (part and parcel of the experience, you might say). The door is tucked in the corner of the sprawling warehouse just behind a loading dock, and the space lacks decent signage or any other indication of the artistic magic to be found inside. (Good luck, too, finding a parking space if the shit-kicker bar next door happens to have a band playing.) But once you do get inside the gallery, you'll be glad you came to see the art: a motley collection of au courant conceptual work by the just-out-of-grad-school set, both local and national. What distinguishes the Waiting Room in the end is the rather high quality of the artwork they have brought in since they opened in September, including local artists Markus Lunkenheimer, Katrina Mitchell, Gerald Smith, and Bruce Tapola, from shows such as "Nothing and Everything," and "Everything Forever and Ever." But really, who looks at the artwork when there's serious mingling to be done, filterless cigs to be smoked, and wine to be drunk out of plastic cups?