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

Review: ‘American Buffalo’ Rubber Chicken Theater

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

“American Buffalo” is considered to be playwright David Mamet’s breakout piece, a small-cast, dialogue-heavy play about some small-time crooks bumbling backward into a take.

It might not have the same power for Rubber Chicken Theater. Perhaps it is too much of a niche production to go up against the Duluth Playhouse’s “Our Town,” — who doesn’t love “Our Town”? — and Renegade Theater Company’s take on the rock musical “Tommy,” featuring local rock band Cars & Trucks. Attendance was dangerously light at the Venue at Mohaupt Block for Thursday night’s opening — which butted up against the opening of the other two shows.

Let’s just say that anyone could have sprung for a round of drinks without breaking the bank.

This is unfortunate, as “American Buffalo,” directed by Minden Anderson, is a verbal treat, funny and jostling with three actors wringing the sweat out of the petty thieves they portray.

Full story here.

Originally published in the June 4, 2010 Duluth News Tribune.

‘Tommy’ rocks at Renegade

The stage at Teatro Zuccone has been painted with a red, white and blue bull’s-eye — the signature of the 1970s rock band The Who. The set is framed with metal trellises, and motion-activated lights slice the scenes. A drum kit in an acoustic-deadening Plexiglas cage sits at stage right, a pinball machine at stage left.

During a recent rehearsal, a woman in fishnets and heavy makeup dashes on and off stage.

With Renegade Theater Company’s production of “Tommy,” which opens at 8 p.m. today, the troupe is looking for a crossover classic: a rock musical heavy with the feel of a live concert for the music heads; something innovative and dramatic for the theater geeks. There isn’t a lot of crossover between these factions, director Andy Bennett said he noticed during Homegrown Music Festival.

“They’re both passionate, but it’s different fan bases,” he said. “We’re hoping this is a bridge.”

“Tommy” was written by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff and is based on The Who’s 1969 double-album rock opera. It is the story of a young boy — Tommy (played by Adam Sippola) — who watches in a mirror as his father kills his mother’s lover, rendering the boy blind, deaf and dumb. The dark story includes molestation at the hands of his Uncle Ernie (played by Jody Kujawa, whose head has been shaved to ape male-pattern baldness), and the eventual realization that he is a bit of a pinball kingpin.

And there is lots and lots of rock ’n’ roll. The 90-minute production has about five minutes of straight dialogue.

“This is the only rock musical that rock music fans would want to go to,” said Evan Kelly, who plays the camouflage-clad Captain Walker.

Full story here.

Originally published June 4, 2010 in the Duluth News Tribune.