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.

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

News topic: Fecal transplants

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Patricia Shoop had chronic diarrhea, she was dehydrated and she had lost 16 pounds. The self-described glass-half-full woman, a 74-year-old from Minnetonka who teaches English as a Second Language twice a week and regularly swims, could hardly move.

She had been diagnosed with Clostridium difficile, a disruption of the bacteria in the colon that can occur when a patient has been on antibiotics. The drugs kill off both the bad and good bacteria in the colon. The walls of the intestines also can break down. It can be fatal.

“I thought maybe I was dying,” Shoop said. “I wasn’t eating. That’s all I did is have diarrhea. It’s pretty yucky. I thought: ‘I don’t care how much it costs. We’ll mortgage the house, do anything to make it better.’ ”

Her situation was so bad that when a childhood friend mentioned the words “fecal transplant,” the rare and somewhat controversial treatment sounded more like a much-needed solution than the punch-line to school bus humor.

In early December, Shoop had a fecal transplant at Essentia Health Duluth Clinic.

Gastroenterologist Dr. Tim Rubin said that in more than a decade, 109 fecal transplants have been performed at the clinic with an 85 percent success rate. He estimated that just six to 12 other hospitals in the country treat C. difficile in this way. Dr. Johan Bakken and Dr. Johannes Aas, both with roots in Scandinavia where fecal transplants are more prevalent, introduced the procedure into their general practices here in 1999. Rubin began work in this area about five years ago.


The colon is a natural reservoir for bacteria, and when it is thrown off balance, C. difficile is able to grow, leading to uncomfortable symptoms. With a fecal transplant, doctors introduce a donor’s healthy stool — literally a man-made probiotic — to the patient’s body.

In Shoop’s case, her husband, Bob, was in the hot seat.

The night before the procedure, Patricia Shoop said she was worried about the pressure on her husband to be able to go at “go time.”

“I said: ‘You’re going to have steak, and chocolate and wine,’ ” she said.

Bob Shoop’s donation was mixed up in a lab to a liquid that Rubin describes as the consistency of chocolate milk.

A tube was threaded through Patricia Shoop’s nose and down her throat into her stomach. The doctor used a syringe to send the liquid through the tube and into the upper GI tract. Shoop would eventually push it through her colon.

The entire outpatient procedure took about 20 minutes, during which Shoop was awake. There is no smell and no taste. The mixture is cold, she said. The worst of it is the uncomfortable feeling of the tube in the nose.

Shoop felt better three days after the fecal transplant. Within a week, she was eating normally. Last week she was checked for signs of infection and came out A-OK.

“I’ve been pooping like everyone else ever since,” she said, and laughed. “How’s that for a testimony.”


Of course, there is a certain amount of yuck involved with fecal matters. Dr. Charles Gessert, a senior research scientist at Essentia Institute of Rural Health, said these are obviously the concerns of people who have never had C. difficile.

“The people who are well have the luxury of such fastidiousness,” he said.

Last week, a report out of British Columbia featured a hospital where administrators had asked doctors to stop performing fecal transplants at the facility.

“Patient safety is our primary concern. The safety of fecal transplants has not been adequately studied,” according to the statement from Burnaby Hospital of Burnaby, B.C. “There must be strict controls to ensure other serious infections are not passed to the patient inadvertently.”

Gessert said these concerns are addressed by finding a donor from within the same household, who has similar flora because they are exposed to the same conditions, people, pets and hygiene.

There has not been a large enough body of research behind the procedure for Food and Drug Administration approval, he said. And getting that research done could be tricky.

“Human stool is never going to be manufactured by a pharmaceutical company,” Gessert said. “No profit is going to be made.”

This story was in the January 23,2011 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

Daily: Theater bonanza on local stages

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

Feature: Trent Waterman, video maker

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

It wasn’t hard to convince Minneapolis musician Jeremy Messersmith to stroll along a mall alcove and strum his guitar and sing.

All Trent Waterman did was ask the singer-songwriter. And after Messersmith’s show at Beaner’s Central that October night, they shot the impromptu video for “Beautiful Children” in two takes, including a break for Waterman to change the camera’s battery.

The end result was video No. 2 in Waterman’s growing collection of North Shore Sessions, a hobby that pairs the budding filmographer with musicians for quick-hit videos in unlikely settings such as a former railroad tunnel, a friend’s apartment or a barn in Wrenshall. He claims as inspiration Vincent Moon’s “The Take-Away Shows,” in which musicians are recorded playing in the streets and parks, highlighting the quirks, ticks and spontaneity.

“I’ve always kind of been interested in different acoustics and how it affects the way sound travels — spaces that sound interesting and look cool, too,” said Waterman, a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth studying graphic design and photography.

It started with Russian Bride, a Minneapolis-based Americana band that includes friends of Waterman. They set up a recording session at the barn in Wrenshall that hosts the annual Free Range Film Festival. Waterman decided to make a video recording of the session just for fun, and ended up making a 4-minute, low-light, at times abstract arty accompaniment for their song “Hundred Dollar Jig.”

Next came the Messersmith shoot, a quickie when the popular singer-songwriter was in town for a concert. Waterman had just one video shoot on his resume, but Messersmith was game.

“He seemed friendly, and he seemed rather earnest,” Messersmith said of Waterman. “I’d rather err on the side of doing something and having it turn out terrible than not doing it.”

“I watched it and I was like, ‘This is really good. Who is this guy? This looks and sounds way better than I thought it would,’” he said, calling it beautiful and well-edited.

The Russian Bride and Messersmith videos were posted on the locally run community website Perfect Duluth Day. This is where Annie Dugan, who owns the Free Range barn with her husband, saw what had come from that video shoot.

“(The videos) capture the Midwest in a modern way, which is always a nice way to do this,” said Dugan, who organizes the film festival and is the curator at the Duluth Art Institute. “It’s not precious or folksy, it’s more just sort of real. It’s always refreshing when filmmakers and visual artists let the work speak for itself. It was a total surprise when this video came out. He just said he was recording stuff. I didn’t realize the end project. It’s neat when that sort of surprise happens.”

Local musician Sarah Krueger approached Waterman about collaborating after she saw the Russian Bride video. She liked the lighting and the simplicity. He chose to shoot her playing in the former railroad tunnel near Ely’s Peak, and told her the acoustics would pair well with her voice. The video, shot in November, includes puffs of breath from the singer.

“I was really impressed,” she said. “We did like pretty much one and a half takes of that song and one other song. He does a really nice job with the quality of his filming. It’s really simple, and it goes with my style.”

Then came a biggie: Cloud Cult, a nationally touring act with local ties. With a few bands now in the bank, Waterman e-mailed frontman Craig Minowa about shooting the band before its show at St. Scholastica in November.

The result: A casual acoustic version of “Bobby’s Spacesuit” shot in a foyer, the band members harmonizing and playing guitar, violin and percussion. The video ended up on Cloud Cult’s Facebook page.

“I’m a huge Cloud Cult fan, so that was a cool experience,” Waterman said.

Now that he’s got a bit of a base, Waterman said he’s getting solicited by bands looking to catch his camera’s eye. He said he has a few things lined up for the next year and plans to keep the North Shore Session going as long as he lives in Minnesota.

This story ran in the December 23, 2010 edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.

Feature: Ernesto Lea Place, aerialist

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

If you didn’t know better, you might think the 30-foot length of red silk hanging from the rafters of Clyde Iron Works is a leftover holiday decoration.

That is, until the noise of the football game playing on the televisions in the bar area is muted in favor of dance music, and Ernesto Lea Place begins his Spider-Manish ascent — bucking and pulling himself up the stretchy fabric.

Lea Place, one of the newer company members at the Minnesota Ballet, has picked up a weekend gig spiraling, posing and twisting in the air.

The aerialist performs two shows, each about the length of two and a half songs, at about 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays, entertaining diners at Clyde Iron Works.

“I’m kind of a daredevil,” he admitted after his first performance Sunday.

Lea Place, barefoot and in a pair of tight pants and a tight shirt, climbed to the upper third of the silks. He flipped upside down. He wrapped the fabric around his body and posed, his toes pointed and his hands sculpted in a way that nodded toward his background in ballet.

He climbed higher, his body itself a sort of wave. His movements created a harness from the fabric from which he could dangle and spin. He wrapped himself up, and performed a few 15-foot drops, like controlled free falls. He posed in the splits, red fabric gathered at his ankle. He also hung from one leg above the cement floor of the lobby of the restaurant.

Lea Place doesn’t fear falling, he said. He does fear getting tied up in a position he cannot get out of.

“It’s making knots with your body that you can get in and out of,” he said.

The restaurant’s kitchen staff wandered out to watch the show on Sunday. They were a handful of white coats on the sidelines.

Zach Moniz, a cook, said he has seen Lea Place’s show about six times, and he always tries to get a peek when he begins performing.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Moniz said. “It takes a lot of upper body strength. I don’t think I could do it.”

Lucy Fabeck had balcony rail side seats for both performance and provided applause.

“It’s something I’ve never seen,” she said. She had come to Clyde Iron Works with her granddaughter specifically to see the show. “It was all so good.”

Mike O’Hara, who helps with events at the restaurant and entertainment space, said he has friends in common with the dancer and thought it would make a nice fit in the restaurant. Lea Place also has a silk hanging in the entertainment venue, where he practices his moves.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for both of us,” O’Hara said. “It’s great for the city. A regular artistic display you wouldn’t seen anywhere else in town. We’re probably the only ones with a high enough ceiling.”

Alex Loch, who also trains with the Minnesota Ballet, is learning to perform with Lea Place. On Sunday, he worked as an assistant, getting the silks ready, watching the performance, and re-grouping with Lea Place after each bit.

Loch, who has a gymnastics background, said he still needs to work on strengthening his hands.

Lea Place moved to the United States from Argentina was he was 14 years old. Back in Buenos Aires, he had been heavily involved in theater. He didn’t know English when his family moved to Florida, and wasn’t able to perform in that same way. Instead, he graduated to dance. He has performed with the Orlando Ballet and Nashville Ballet, and got into the cirque-style performances about two years ago.

“I’ve always loved acrobatics and the flying aspect of it,” he said.

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

Review: Renegade Theater Company’s ‘Fezziwig’s Feast’

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Mr. Fezziwig is a jolly old gent in a Welsh wig, and his wife is one “vast substantial smile.”

They are the consummate hosts of an annual dinner party at the warehouse where a pre-bah humbug Ebenezer Scrooge is one of two apprentices. On Christmas Eve, Fezziwig’s employees shut down the shop, and a parade of guests file in for eating, drinking and dancing.

Renegade Theater Company’s foray into dinner theater uses this feast as the backdrop for the classic holiday tale in the entertainment space at Clyde Iron Works. You play the role of a dinner guest. Actors in top hats or bonnets, in capes and floor-length dresses, mingle and chat, and steal nibbles from your bread basket.

Mr. Fezziwig, played by the always jolly Jody Kujawa, sets the scene: There will be food. And then the Fezziwig family and their staff will act out a story written by Mr. Fezziwig’s friend, a poor young writer named Charles Dickens, who unfortunately couldn’t make the soiree.

“Fezziwig’s Feast” is an adaptation created by the Actors Theater of Minnesota, a Twin Cities-based group that landed on Duluth stages at least twice in the early 2000s.

The best moments of this show, which runs just more than two hours, are the ghoulish introductions to the ghosts: the shimmery and ethereal Past (Jenna Kase), the hearty and hippie-like Present wearing a wreath-sized head ornament (Zachary Stofer), and the looming and reaper-ish Future with his long, twiggy bone hands.

The best of the best of this otherworldly cast is Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former partner who has been “dead as a door nail” for seven years. He comes to Scrooge accessorized in chains to warn him that he can change his dour fate. Blue and purple lights and a manipulated monster growl gave Stofer something that could easily double as a Halloween-themed cult classic. Kudos to director Anika Thompson, who took advantage of Clyde’s upper level as a stage for moaning and groaning ghost-like figures. It was a scene from a Marilyn Manson video.

Paul Waterman, as both Fezziwig’s accountant and Scrooge, is a terrific grouch in his opening scenes at the office with Bob Cratchit. And he fades perfectly into the backdrop while on his tour with the ghosts while subtly maintaining his game face. As he watches a younger version of himself dancing with a woman at a Fezziwig’s Feast of the past, he mimes his own dance in synch with young Scrooge.

Opening night included some timing issues between on-stage action and food service that I expect will get worked out within a few runs. There also was a varying level of commitment to character when the actors milled during the food breaks and before the show.

If Renegade is looking to build its fan base with something different than their traditional blue holiday comedy, they’ve done it. The audience of about 60 people was an eclectic mix.

Of the five shows that opened this weekend, this is the biggest ticket price at $49.95. But you won’t get the English feast at those other shows: potato and leek soup with smoked salmon crème fraiche; hearth-cooked turkey over field greens with poached pear, raisins, candied walnuts and roasted acorn squash vinaigrette; pork tenderloin with apple butter sauce; ginger mashed sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts; wood-fired peasant bread with whipped honey butter; and bread pudding with crème anglaise and brandy caramel sauce.

This review ran in the December 4, 2010, edition of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.