Review: ‘Shooting Star’ at The Shack

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Elena Carson is a public radio fiend, her luggage crammed into an oversized wicker bag. She’s got a colorful scarf, dangling earrings and a seamless transition from a yoga pose to a hiding spot beneath the plastic chairs in an airport.

This comes in handy when she realizes she is sharing travel purgatory with Reed McAllister, her college lover, soul mate, partner, a man she lived with and loved for two years — a quarter of a century ago.

She hasn’t changed a bit, Reed notes. Like, at all. She seems to have escaped the part of aging where the idealism fades.

Reed has changed. She calls him a “businessman in a box”: suit, tie, pocket square, smart phone, briefcase. She always knew he’d eventually lean to the right.

“Shooting Star,” a 2008 play by Steven Dietz and directed by Sharon Dixon Obst, is what happens when a former couple turned strangers are trapped at a Midwest airport during an epic storm. The show at The Shack in Superior is billed as “exes playing exes,” as it stars the once-married Lawrence Lee and Charlotte VanVactor.

Dietz, who has Minnesota ties, has published more than 30 plays in the past 25 years, meaning he could go stride for stride with Stephen King in a marathon of the prolific. He has managed to defy being tied to a certain type of play — he adapted “Go, Dog, Go” for the stage as well as “Dracula,” in addition to original, contemporary pieces. But something he told Playbill Online in 2003, before “Shooting Star” was published, seems to ring true with this one:

“In some way we all have three pasts: We have the past we remember, we have the past that we may have transcribed or written in the journal or diary and we have the past that actually happened. The tension between what we remember, what we invent and what actually happened is fairly inexhaustible.”

“Shooting Star” starts with uncomfortable small talk. Reed seems reluctant to invest much in the meeting with Elena, he suggests they hit just the “roman numerals,” the bullet points of the past two and a half decades.

When they realize they are going to be waiting awhile, they exchange wallets — a conversation bridge that Elena has used on past blind dates.

Layers of life and half-truths are revealed and their relationship is dissected, both in the characters’ verbalized words and inner monologue, which are spoken directly to the audience. They make a good

couple, despite just a wisp of overlap on the Myers Briggs personality test.

Lee said in an interview before the show that he was attracted to the script for its writing, and that it sounds like something he would come up with himself. He nails the combination of starched shirt and logical, the kind of guy who keeps his eye on satellite images of storm fronts.

VanVactor gets to dish the brunt of the script’s comedy and has the most colorful descriptive lines, which sound almost like spoken word poetry at times. VanVactor’s background in musical theater is clear as she floats around the small stage and at one point hops atop a table draped in a robe, arms extended, big old smile, feeling no pain.

Things heat up in the second act. Elena lets her hair down; Reed ditches the tie. Some of the best action happens on the floor, the former couple surrounded by mini plastic lotion and shampoo containers filled with whiskey and margaritas, and it’s tricky to see from behind the front row of tables. And believe me, unless you are the teenage children of Lee and VanVactor, this is something you want to see.

This review was published in the Saturday, February 26, 2011 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

Review: ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis

I went to a Super Bowl party in a friend’s basement in the early 1990s and while I don’t remember who was playing or the commercial du jour, I do remember one thing: Salsa.

We had all brought snacks and a jar of salsa had been slopped into a ceramic bowl. I probably said something like: “I love salsa salsa is so good I could eat salsa like all the time forever because yum salsa,” to which my friend Polish responded something like: “Oh yeah? I’ll give you $5 if you drink that entire bowl of your precious salsa.”

The first sip went down okay. It was salsa. Tomatoes, onions, cilantro. Not a dud in the bunch. The second sip was fine, too. But when I went in for a gigantic gulp, this bowl pressed against my face, I realized that the tomatoes were chunky and not in a pleasing way. And the onions and cilantro weren’t doing much to grease the gullet. With about one-fourth of the bowl of salsa to go, I cried “Uncle.” I couldn’t finish it for all the five dollars in the world.

And that, my friends, is exactly how I felt on about Page 327 of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho. Seated at Subway, 6-inch BMT on Italian Herb and Cheese in one hand, fiction in the other, I cried “Uncle.” I knew exactly where Patrick Bateman, he of the titular descriptor, was taking this scene and I just couldn’t ride along with him. I’d already read a dozen ways to torture friends and strangers, severed limbs and cannibalism, random acts of violence and handled it like a champ. But this one on the horizon, if I knew Bret Easton Ellis, was going somewhere that was well beyond even my own super flexible tolerance for the lurid.

I’m an X-Gamer of reading consumption. I can handle a lot and think a lot of really sick scenes are so well-written that they cannot be dismissed just because I personally don’t think throat-slashing is any way to spend your free time. Uncle, Bret. You hear me? UNCLE! I’ve met my match in the world of disturbing sentence configurations.

I did go on to read the part in question. And it was even more horrifying than I thought it would be, but I was better prepared for it and handled it the way a tween might handle a haunted house that is on the path home from school: One hand over my eyes and running.

Going into the book, I obviously knew the gist of it. I’ve seen the movie. I love the movie. Christian Bale is a freaking genius in the movie. I’d watch it right now. About five people meet a tragic end in the movie. That’s a fraction of the tally in the book. And at no point in the movie does Patrick Bateman sever a head and then, for instance, wear it as a crotch helmet. He doesn’t gnaw on skin or paste human parts to the wall when it fails to make a decent meatloaf.

The whole thing is a story about 20-something Wall Street types in the late 1980s and the brand name-dropping, restaurant reservation-making, hardbody-chasing competitions between these interchangeable A-holes. It is probably a better Act II to Ellis’s debut Less Than Zero than the actual Act II he released in 2010, Imperial Bedrooms.

At the center of this is Patrick Bateman, an emotionless connoisseur of pop music and recording equipment, who either starts murdering people as hard as he can, or else thinks he’s murdering people as hard as he can. Either way, no one notices because everyone is too busy comparing shades of white on business cards and doing sit ups and Coke and Xanax and whatever else. And so PB loses his mind, considers faxing blood and wearing necklaces made of human vertebrae. Things get really frantic and crazed and these torture scenes are like contortionist-meets-nail gun, and then it just stops and Patrick Bateman goes on for a chapter about, for instance, Whitney Houston’s discography.

So. It’s funny. Yes, parts of American Psycho are hilarious for the over-the-top satire and juxtaposition of scenes. And parts of American Psycho are repetitious for the sake of making a point that is made until that point has dulled and then that, too, is a point. And parts of it are violence escalating into more violence which escalates into the kind of violence that it isn’t even readable. I guess that is a point, too.

My point is: I enjoyed the parts that were readable. And I finally know where my line in the macabre sand is.

This was originally posted on Minnesota Reads on February 25, 2011.

Review: ‘Asterios Polyp’ by David Mazzucchelli

You just like assholes, my boyfriend tells me.

I don’t think this is universally true. But it is probably pretty true when it comes to fiction, and certainly true in the case of that blow hard who is the title character in David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel, Asterios Polyp.

The story opens with the debt-riddled sad sack’s Manhattan apartment on fire. AP grabs the three things he considers worth saving — a lighter, a pocket knife, and a watch — and ditches out for a new life. He holds up a wad of cash at a ticket window and says “How far would this take me?”

Answer: Small town, USA. A place where mechanics mate with hippies, treehouses are constructed, and picnic food is eaten on the banks of a vast earth dimple.

The story is told in past and present with digressions on duality, philosophy, politics, religion. Asterios Polyp is an idea man — so much so that although he is an award-winning architect, none of his plans have come to fruition. His twin brother never saw the light at the end of the uterus, and presents an invisible presence filled with “What ifs” in AP’s life. In its most charming moments, AP is holding court at a faculty dinner party and making hilarious dick jokes when he becomes interested in a quiet new art professor, Hana, who specializes in installations with found objects. She’s drawn by the spotlight that focuses on his angular face. Thus begins one of those romances where the thing that initially attracts people to each other grows into a caricature of itself and becomes the things a couple loathes about each other. They end up parting.

In the small town, AP takes a job working with a hearty mechanic who is married to this spiritual hippie sort, and it must be in this place where things change for AP. His ego takes a back seat and he passes off all but one of his three prized possessions. He talks less, listens more, and continues on the road to Most Improved Protagonist.

Anyway, the outlining the plot makes the whole thing sound like a sort of Lifetime Original Movie where everyone learns a thing or two about love. But it’s charming. Funny. Smart and clever. And the drawings are fantastic. Each character’s stylistically different, right down to style of script that comes out of their talk bubbles. In some moments the colors overlap, in others AP fades to dotted lines and more of the suggestion of a character than a physical presence. And it’s all color coded to represent the characters and to differentiate the past and present.

I think I read this entire story with a smile on my face. Including its what-the-hell finale.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on February 21, 2011.

Review: ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith

I’ll say this for Patti Smith: Homegirl certainly knows how to write lifestyle porn.

Somewhere between the Chelsea Hotel and the insertion of a millionaire benefactor I closed her love letter to Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, bonked myself in the head and said “Knock it off.” I needed to stop being dazzled and wooed and to start seeing through clear eyes or I’d wake up in a bus stop in Detroit clutching a one-way ticket to 1971.

People do that. Chuck it all, grab a blanket, commit 100 percent to making things. Music. Pictures. Words. More than just teacher-school dropout Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethrope, a skinny kid on the lam from the Catholic church.

Every day, maybe even right this second, a kid is climbing off a bus at some junction in New York City, schlepping a dirty military backpack filled with notebooks filled with poetry filled with nature imagery, A copy of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles in his back pocket. He’s got two weeks worth of dinero in a two-toned teal velcro wallet and a breathlessness about doing “whatever it takes, washing dishes, cleaning toilets as long as I can write.”

He might, like Patti Smith, sleep in a doorway or two. He might, like Patti, find a street angel who will teach him about day-old bread and primo napping places in Central Park. He might get a job at a book store; move into an extended stay hotel full of eccentrics; become a regular at corner bar. He might meet someone who is first his lover, then friend, muse and soulmate.

He’ll observe and jot and wait for a Warhol-ian figure to notice him, all while experimenting with couplets, then, perhaps free verse, then, perhaps starvation. Published in a zine. A promise for publication on a friend of a friend’s website. And after all those PB&Js, after he maybe even finds a word that rhymes with orange, maybe we’ll hear about him. We probably won’t. Maybe he’ll write a book about his soulmate and win a National Book Award.

This is in progress right now and right now and even right now.

This review was originally published at Minnesota Reads on Saturday, February 19, 2011.

Review: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham

The 1934 movie version of Of Human Bondage lops off the first 300 pages — easily my favorite parts — of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel. It skips the newly-orphaned preteen Philip Carey with club foot going to live with his uncle, the vicar; It ignores playground rivalries for the affection of a charismatic male classmate; It omits the season Phillip spends wooing an older lady for sport, his failure as an accountant and all but the finals scenes of a life-course altering moment from his time spent in Paris as an art student.

It’s like: Opening credits — bam! — med school. Bam! Google-eyed over the trashy, ho-hum, easily distracted Mildred, played by Bette Davis with a bad case of the yips. Bam! In the interest of creating an easily digestible 1 hour, 22 minute narrative, you lose poor Philip’s surly teen years which include a self-consciousness about his limp that manifests as an inability to socialize. His low self worth that eventually leads him to this woman he gets bat shit crazy about, who only deigns to play kissy-face with him when she’s in a dire financial situation.

To me this says: Everything you need to know about Of Human Bondage is that it involves a limping med student on the verge of financial ruin and mistreatment at the hands of a former waitress who parlays his coos into new dresses, a place to stash her bambino, and nights on the town.

Which made me think of the way other classic novels could be boiled down to a gist. Because really, when it comes to classic novels, you only need to really know the gist, if that. I mean, does anyone really even go to dinner parties anymore?

Everything you need to know about Anna Karenina: Anna plants herself face-first in the path of an oncoming train; Everything you need to know about The Sun Also Rises: If only, if only. That war injury is a total deal breaker. Everything you need to know about Little Women: Beth dies! Everything you need to know about Jane Eyre: HIS CRAZY WIFE IS LIVING IN THE ATTIC!

(This is actually kind of a fun game to play).

So, anyway, Of Human Bondage is about an orphan with club foot who drops out of school, tries his hand as an accountant (badly), decides to become an artist (mediocre), then moves on to med school (off and on) all while the wrong women get nutso futso for him and the one he wants hangs around until her wardrobe is updated and she’s been distracted by some new eye candy. He tries to shake her from his craw. Every once in a while things go his way. It’s also about shedding organized religion and the powerful hold money has on a person. It’s about love and like-but-not-love and it’s about the changing topography of a person’s social circle.

This is one of those life stories of a character, a sort of verbal time lapse photography. Philip’s route from Point A to Point B remains understandable nearly 100 years after it was written. (Although there is some coyness with language, obviously, that reflects the period). The characters are likable — except the primary ones, but some of those primary ones change for the better. It’s not a bad way to spend time reading. And it’s definitely better than spending the time to watch it.

This review was originally posted on February 14, 2011, on Minnesota Reads.

Daily: Minnesota Ballet’s Celebrity Dance Challenge

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Eric Huie and Suzanne Kritzberg performed a reprise of the winning performance “A Touch of Bollywood” from last year’s Celebrity Dance Challenge to open this year’s show.

The up-tempo dance complete with full pelvis swivels would be a tough act to follow.

But Aga Bednarz, a gastroenterologist from St. Luke’s hospital, and professional dancer Ernesto Lea Place met the challenge with a sexy salsa, complete with a sassy hip check, that earned them the People’s Choice Award during Thursday’s fifth annual Minnesota Ballet Celebrity Dance Challenge at the Marshall School.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen dancing like that in Duluth without putting a dollar on the stage,” judge Steve Greenfield said.

The Judges’ Choice Award went to David Vipond, owner of The Olcott House Bed & Breakfast, who performed a swing dance with Anna Acker. Vipond got kudos for his pink-toned argyle socks and matching tie.

Dan Hanger of Fox 21 was the first-year emcee, channeling Mr. Rourke’s wardrobe from “Fantasy Island” and providing perky banter between dances.

This year’s show was a more theatrical version of the event than previous years, with some teams opting for elaborate props, mini strip teases and a well-timed bucket of glitter.

The lone standing ovation of the night went to Dan Russell, the executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, who was outfitted in a pair of black tights. His pas de deux with Suzie Baer to the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen had the audience hooting. He performed leaps and kicks, disappeared into the wings to give Baer time to let down her crimped hair and for some head banging and an air guitar solo. Russell performed a quick wardrobe change, adding a Technicolor dream vest and a baseball cap with a false ponytail to his get up.

Greenfield made a play on the DECC’s recent announcement that Elton John is playing there on May 6 and said that after seeing Russell in those tights, “Tiny Dancer” might have been an appropriate song.

“Comedy can be hard,” Rebecca Katz-Harwood said of the dance.

Michelle Russell, his wife, upped the ante with an ’80s mix of disco and jazz with Benjamin Biswell. She finished her dance in the iconic “Flashdance” chair pose, and Biswell tossed a bucket of glitter at her.

Other highlights included:

Local actor/director Cal Metts tap dancing — a skill he’s picked up for his upcoming role in the Duluth Playhouse’s production of “Chicago.”

Meteorologist Justin Liles dorked out in Urkle-ware for a tango/rhumba with Caitlin Quinn.

Death investigator Kelly Haffield’s new wave “Thriller”-style dance with a zombified Avram Gold to the Oingo Boingo song “Dead Man’s Party.”

And the finale featured Becky Hoversten-Mellem, who shrugged her way out of a silk robe to reveal leotard. She playfully shimmied her way into professional dancer Reinhard von Rabenau’s line of vision and eventually onto a kitchen table. Greenfield was there again with the quip: “I have a feeling that in the last 50 years you’ve danced on more than just that table.”

This story was in the February 11, 2011, edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

Feature: Examing the Congdon art collection

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Chester and Clara Congdon were the kind of people who pressed flowers between the pages of books and displayed shells they had gathered from beaches. They were also the kind of people who studied art museum catalogues, making notations and possibly purchasing items of interest.

For the past three years, art historian Jennifer Webb, an assistant art professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, has been studying the art collecting habits of the millionaire family who built Glensheen in the early 1900s as a retirement home. Webb combed their paintings, vases and shells. She went through their journals and books; she looked at the texture of draperies and considered the architecture of their home.

Her findings: “All the objects fashion the Congdons into disciplined, cultured and well-traveled individuals who were purveyors of good taste,” Webb wrote in the article “Golden Age collecting in America’s Middle West: Chester and Clara Congdon’s Glensheen Historical Manor and Raymond Wyer’s ‘An Art Museum,’ ” published in May 2010 in the “Journal of the History of Collections.”

Webb will present a gallery talk about researching the famous family’s aesthetic at 2 p.m. Saturday at Tweed Museum of Art on the UMD campus.

At the Tweed

A copy of Wyer’s “An Art Museum,” published in 1916 and found in the Congdon archives, was a key that helped Webb define the couple’s approach to their collection.

The book — the Congdon’s copy is signed by the author — makes a case for small museums with a narrow focus on a particular period or art movement rather than scooping up pieces by the masters. It is a theory the Congdons seemed to subscribe to as they sought out high-quality landscapes in the style of French impressionists, as well as items that incorporated their interest in world travel. They were conservative collectors who probably never paid much more than $800 for a piece, and they weren’t buying art as an investment.

From interviews with family members, Webb confirmed that it was Clara, with her background in the arts, who was the primary collector in the family.

“They really felt she was the one collecting them, even though she was using Chester’s checkbook,” Webb said.

Annie Dugan, curator at the Duluth Art Institute, said the art at Glensheen is unique in the way the art is equal to the house where it hangs.

“A lot of times you walk through mansions or historic homes and the work, while it may be period, it’s not necessarily high-quality period art,” she said.

Webb selected two of her favorite pieces for an alcove at the Tweed Museum. “The Wharves of Quebec,” a pastel by the little-known but respected artist Birge Harrison, is a landscape that dabbles in abstract. “Passage de L’ouet” by Paul E. J. Chabas, is set in Algeria and pairs with the family’s Parisian vases and Egyptian lamps, Webb said in her article.

Knowing the Congdons

Webb’s research on the Congdons includes biographical information: neither came from money, they met at college in Syracuse and had a long-term, long-distance relationship while they both advanced in their careers — Chester in law, Clara teaching art.

Webb said she likes the moments in her research where the Congdons were made human: flowers pressed in the pages of a catalogue and the shells that were collected as memorial keepsakes, with labels to show where they came from.

“In all of my research, I feel like I know these people,” she said. “It’s the moment you hold things in your hand and you’re right there with them.”

Dugan called the collection at Glensheen amazing and said Webb’s research is a wonderful, long-lasting legacy.

“It’s exciting that there is someone of Jennifer’s level in the community doing work on that,” Dugan said.

Webb pointed out a wall of paintings by French impressionists at the Tweed as examples of the sort of work that would have attracted the Congdons’ attention. She can discern their taste from a lineup.

This story ran in the February 10, 2011 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune