In Review: A Very Non-Traditional Holiday

Miss Richfield 1981 in CHRISTMAS CONE OF SILENCE
Written and Performed by Russ King
Music by Mr. King and Todd Price
Directed by Michael Robbins
Presented by Illusion Theater

A MIDWINTER NIGHT’S REVEL
Written by John Heimbuch
Featuring Jessie Scarborough-Ghent, Jaxen Lindsey, Peter Ooley, Heidi Fellner, Daniel Ian Joeck, and Neal Beckman
Directed by Amy Rummenie
Presented by Walking Shadow Theatre Company
At Red Eye Theater

Ah, the holidays. The time where every company in town is trying to capitalize on the holiday cheer (see: the Guthrie Theater), or run away from it as fast as it can (see: the Guthrie Theater). Thankfully the Twin Cities is filled with holiday shows of every stripe to coordinate with your level of holiday celebration (many of which can be found in the latest edition of l´étoile’s “Weekend What’s What”).

For this review, I’m going to focus on two very non-traditional holiday shows. But be warned; I use “non-traditional” in the very loosest of senses, because one deals with tradition head on, while the other has become a holiday tradition in the Twin Cities.

MissRichfield-Xmas2015

It’s one of the great ironies of this holiday season that Nutcracker (Not So) Suite is playing at the Cowles Center because at the other end of the building, eight floors up at the Illusion Theater, one of the earliest assayers of the key role of Marie’s mother Flo is once again holding court. That’s right, because the iconic Miss Richfield 1981 has returned to her old stomping grounds for her latest holiday “pro’grum” Christmas Cone Of Silence, playing through December 20.

As created and performed by Russ King, Miss R has grown from her humble beginnings of working as a bingo hostess to being the toast of the LGBTQ comedy scene with a national spokesperson deal for Orbitz, a yearly residency at The Crown & Anchor in Provincetown, Massachusets, and a frequent performer on LGBTQ Atlantic Cruises. And over the years, the 2015 winner of the City of Richfield’s Gene & Mary Jacobsen Outstanding Citizen Award has refined her cabaret act.

For this year’s edition, Miss Richfield is tackling topics that are taboo, especially at Christmas time (i.e. religion, race, politics, etc.). And while she has nothing really illuminating to really say on the topics, she gives her audience (which was packed to the rafters) a masterclass on audience interaction. Like her spiritual mother (and Australia’s Most Famous Housewife) Dame Edna Everage, Miss Richfield storms out into the audience and interacts with them in the most politically incorrect ways possible. And while some of the jokes are a little stale (such as the Christmas Carols singalong with her pianist Todd Price), what sold it is the lady’s undeniable charisma. It takes a lot of work to make audience interaction of this level look so nonchalant and I commend Miss R (and Mr. King, Mr. Price, and the invisible guiding hand of director Michael Robbins) on being able to get the audience on her side – and keep them there! – for two acts. And I was shocked and delighted by Miss R’s musical numbers (composed by Mr. King and Mr. Price). To be sure, it is what we call a “character” singing voice, but it’s surprisingly strong and in tune.

Once again, Richfield’s most famous daughter is back home for the holidays at the Illusion and what a joyous, silly, mischievous, naughty, and fabulous return it is. For those that appreciate the utter zaniness of life, then you owe it to yourself to spend time with Miss Richfield.

*****

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum Walking Shadow Theatre Company has decided to give us a look at how traditions came to be with A Midwinter Night’s Revel getting its world premiere in a stately, dense, visually handsome production playing till December 30 at Red EyeUsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a starting point, playwright and company co-artistic director John Heimbuch has crafted a magically melancholic tale about love, loss, magic, and other things that happen around the Solstice while slipping in old Pagan traditions, references to several other Shakespearean plays, and a big nod and wink to the tradition of the Mummers plays.

NAMES in Walking Shadow Theater Company's production of A Midwinter Night's Revel

Eric Weiman and Shelby Rose Richardson (foreground) with Jessie Scarborough-Ghent, Jaxen Lindsey, Peter Ooley, Neal Beckman, and Adam Garcia in Walking Shadow Theater Company’s production of A Midwinter Night’s Revel

Taking place near the winter solstice in an England torn apart by the Great War (or World War I as we Americans refer to it) the Changeling boy from Midsummer (Jaxen Lindsey) has come from the world of fairies to the world of humans on a mission from the faerie queen Titania (Heidi Fellner), while trying to avoid the faerie king Oberon (Daniel Ian Joeck) and of course Puck (Neal Beckman). The Changeling’s mission involves the young bride Gwen (Jessie Scarborough-Ghent), who is waiting to hear word from her husband on the front lines while living with her father Morien (Peter Ooley) who knows more about the dealings of the fairies than he lets on. Add in her childhood friends (played by Zach Garcia, Shelby Rose Richardson, and Eric Weiman), old oaths and pledges, a magical transformation, a perilous journey, love, loss, and a drunken holiday pageant, and you have the making of a very dark, yet hopeful piece.

Jessie Scarborough-Ghent and Peter Ooley in Walking Shadow Theater Company's production of A Midwinter Night's Revel

Jessie Scarborough-Ghent and Peter Ooley in Walking Shadow Theater Company’s production of A Midwinter Night’s Revel

Also a very dense one. Mr. Heimbuch’s script is tricky not only for its use of rhyming couplets to echo the Elizabethan blank verse, but loads the script with references to not only Midsummer, but also The Tempest, pagan traditions in England and elsewhere that serve as the basis of modern holiday traditions, and hints at the mysticism wave that swept through Europe in the early 20th Century. In short, you the audience member have to pay attention to what is going on, otherwise you’re going to lose vital information. If there is one ding I have in director Amy Rummenie’s otherwise sure-footed direction for this production is that she and the cast sort of blur over the opening exposition which leaves the audience slightly muddled for about the first twenty minutes or so, but once they get through the exposition, it’s played at a sharp and entertaining clip and the audience is right there with the ensemble.

Eric Weiman and Jaxen Lindsey with Heidi Fellner in Walking Shadow Theater Company's production of A Midwinter Night's Revel

Eric Weiman, Heidi Fellner, and Jaxen Lindsey in Walking Shadow Theater Company’s production of A Midwinter Night’s Revel

It also happens to be a handsome production, which is no surprise given that design team features Rob Jensen (scenic design), Kathy Kohl (costumes), Jesse Cogswell (lighting design – including one gasp-worthy lighting effect that made me smile), and Tim Cameron (sound). But what is surprising is just how effectively they and Ms. Rummenie use the Red Eye space and create a truly enchanting world. As for the cast, It was a mixed bag. On the plus side was Ms.Scarborough-Ghent’s Gwen, giving a fully realized portrait of a woman so consumed by her grief that her temptation at using the dark forces at her disposal. Also in the plus category were most of the humans, with winning work from Ms. Richardson and Mr. Weiman in particular. As for the faerie court, I was puzzled by the choice of having Titania’s side speaking in a high-end British accent, while Oberon and Puck were in what sounded like a cross between an Irish and a Yorkshire dialect; the effect leaving a slight disconnect. While I would have liked a little more volume from him, my compliments to young Mr. Lindsey for handling the tricky text of the script (and commanding the stage in a key moment in the second act). Ms. Fellner imbued her Titania with strong emotional commitment that managed to cut through Titania’s arch facade. I was a little less impressed by Mr. Beckman and Mr. Joeck; the former played his Puck more hyper than truly mischievous (but was uproariously funny in a surprising moment in Act Two), while the later never filled Oberon with the regal terror that the role needs.

Neal Beckman in Walking Shadow Theater Company's production of A Midwinter Night's Revel

Neal Beckman in Walking Shadow Theater Company’s production of A Midwinter Night’s Revel

All minor quibbles aside, A Midwinter Night’s Revel is a contemplative, moody, and magical tonic to the usual holiday fare. Using the classic tale as a starting point, Walking Shadow’s latest production has given the Twin Cities a quiet reprieve from all the joy of the season to give us a touching tale perfect for the dark nights of the season.

*****

Miss Richfield 1981’s Christmas Cone of Silence continues through December 20 at the Illusion Theater, located on the 8th Floor of The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, located at 528 Hennepin Ave S in Minneapolis. For tickets and more information, head to the Illusion Theater’s web site, but HURRY as these shows tend to sell out.

Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s production of A Midwinter Night’s Revel continues through December 30 at the Red Eye Theater, located at 15 W 14th St in Minneapolis. For tickets and more information, head to Walking Shadow’s web site.

Originally Published on 12 December 2015 for l’étole

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