Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
American Folklore Theatre See Jane Vote
For more than 30 years (beginning its life as the Heritage Ensemble), American Folklore Theatre has presented original shows at an outdoor amphitheater at Peninsula State Park. In recent years, a number of the company's shows have spread outside the bounds of the park, but the home location is still the prime place to see the theater's charming works.
This year, Twin Cities playwright (and longtime AFT cast member) Laurie Flanigan has created See Jane Vote, which explores the women's suffrage movement through the lens of a small Wisconsin town. It's a pleasing show, packed with strong performances, an engaging if at times overly silly story and high quality music from composer (and AFT music director) James Kaplan.
Flanigan stars as Jane, the wife of the mayor (named, naturally, Dick and played by her real husband, Jon Hegge) of Liberty Grove. It is the Fourth of July, 1912, and everything seems fine. But Jane doesn't understand why she and her young daughter can't vote. So she does a seemingly innocent stunt and drops a ballot in the box. That leads to all sorts of chaos, including her arrest, suffrage rallies and (eventually) her husband dressing in drag to discover what it's like to walk a mile in turn-of-the-century heels.
Like I said, kind of silly, but with a important message at heart, one that Jane explains to her stuck-in-the-mud friend, Amanda, in "Why Not?" Why can't she, or her daughter, or any other woman do the things that a man does?
Not surprisingly, Flanigan and Hegge have real chemistry on stage. Both sing and perform well, and Hegge gets extra credit for appearing for half the show as a "freakishly tall" proper lady. The balance of the cast is also strong, including company favorite Doug Mancheski as the dim-witted Charles and Amy Ludwigsen and Raandy Schmeling as the scheming youngsters, Georgia and Teddy.
See Jane Vote continues through the end of August. It is joined in rep by two other shows: Loose Lips Sink Ships (about women working in the nearby shipyards during World War II, also written by Flanigan and Kaplan, along with Jacinda Duffin); and Belgians in Heaven (created by AFT co-founder Fred "Doc" Heide and Kaplan, and is one of AFT's signature creations, but has not been mounted since the death in 2001 of company co-founder Fred Alley). For tickets and more information, call 920-854-6117 or visit www.folkloretheatre.org.
Photo: Roger Hamilton
So it was a great risk for the company to make a big change for 2006. The aging stage and uncomfortable pavilion have been replaced by a $6.75 million new complex, complete with modern amenities for the actors (including, at long last, bathrooms), a fly tower and wing space, an indoor scene shop, and bona-fide seats for the patrons (who had spent decades sitting on uncomfortable "director's chairs").
As a longtime attendee, I looked forward to the new space, and not just because I relished being able to feel my back after a show. The company is made up of top-notch performers mainly from the Chicago area who relish the chance to get out of the city during the summer and go "play" in the woods. And while the theater presents plenty of summer-stock-style favorites, including a seemingly endless parade of British farces, they also take chances. After all, they opened the new theater with Terrance McNally's Master Class.
In many ways, it was a good choice. The set is simple, the cast small and it relies mainly on the hard work of a single actor. Unforeseen problems or delays wouldn't delay the show. In the end, the new theater was ready (if not complete) for opening night, and the show gave longtime Player and highly regarded Chicago actor Carmen Roman a chance to inaugurate the new theater with a commanding and towering performance.
Based on classes given by soprano Maria Callas near the end of her life, the play explores her difficult life, tough personality and deep, abiding love of music. Roman immerses herself in the role, crafting a character that, while not likeable, commands your attention at every turn.
A trio of young singers play her students and bring different expectations, experiences and temperaments to the stage. Maggie Carney, Melissa Spevacek and especially Scott Ramsay are terrific in the roles, as are Shawn Stengel as the shy but strong accompanist Manny and William F. Norris as a distracted stagehand.
While Master Class closes July 9, the 2006 season continues with four more shows: Noises Off (July 12-30); Cabaret (Aug. 2-20); The Elephant Man (Aug. 23-Sept. 3) and The Mousetrap (Sept. 6-Oct. 15). For tickets and more information, call 920-868-3287 or visit www.peninsulaplayers.com.
For more information on Door County, visit the chamber of commerce Web site at www.doorcounty.com.
Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area