January 13, 2011
By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune
A bloody Shakespeare play. An English feast served with a tale by Charles Dickens. A sketch comedy revue, the story of Don Quixote and a traditional holiday musical by Irving Berlin.
’Tis the season to stuff the stages with epic theatrical productions.
Five shows — holiday themed and decidedly not so — are slated to open this weekend. But is the local theater-going population large enough to support the concentration of arts and entertainment? Those involved with the productions said they are hoping the eclectic mix of material will help fill the seats at a time when everyone wants to perform.
“It’s always a challenge when there are so many things that happen at one time,” said Christine Seitz, the executive director of the Duluth Playhouse, where “White Christmas” opens today. “But Christmas only comes once a year. All performing arts organizations, whether it’s theater or dance, everyone has their holiday specials. That’s part of what we do.”
While the show’s schedules are staggered a bit throughout the next three weeks, on high-traffic Friday and Saturday nights, this means filling about 800 seats between the five venues.
Last year, four shows opened on this same weekend — which is the standard for a busy theater month. October gets like this too, according to Lawrance Bernabo, who reviews plays for the News Tribune.
“White Christmas” has already succeeded, based on advance ticket sales. The 280-plus seat Playhouse is almost sold out for three weeks of performances. As of Wednesday, Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” playing in the 100-seat Dudley Experimental Theater at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is also close to capacity for its nine-show run.
The diversity of fare is what will work to each theater’s advantage, said Sheryl Jensen, who is directing “Man of La Mancha,” a first-time production for Zeitgeist Arts.
“I’m not sure how this constellation happened at the same time,” she said. “I think it’s a testament to how culturally rich we are that there are that many theatrical opportunities for people. It’s a plus, not a minus. More options for people to see.”
In the past, Renegade Theater Company has presented bawdy seasonal fare from their sketch comedy troupe Dink Tank — shows that draw a young audience. The company was approached by Secret Service Entertainment about trying something different this year. “Fezziwig’s Feast” is a dinner theater-style of production at Clyde Iron Works that includes a retelling of “A Christmas Carol” paired with a five-course meal. It was originally produced by the Twin Cities’ based Actors Theater of Minnesota, including stints in Duluth in 2001 and 2002.
“We definitely tried to find something that is different,” said Katie Helbacka, artistic director for Renegade. “This way you can bring your whole family for entertainment, carols and to eat a unique and different feast.”
A gimmick can be good, said Jensen. While “Man of La Mancha” doesn’t have a holiday theme, they are going thematic. Zeitgeist Arts Café has special menu items that tie in with the play: Gambis pil-pil with escalivada or chicken Marbella, followed by the Spanish Inquisition.
Brian Matuszak of Rubber Chicken Theater has opted for tried and true with his annual sketch comedy revue. The six-person show pokes fun at headlines from the past year — a recipe Matuszak said audiences enjoy.
“It’s like ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Matuszak said. “It’s fun to do the local aspect of people in the news.”
It is possible for a theater die-hard to check out every show in the next three weeks. The total tab for full theater immersion: $125.95.
This story was in the December 2, 2010 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune