Sweet William and Christmas Carole Peterson
It's a largely entertaining evening, though it truly perks up in the second half, as Pennington works into the more complex tragic heroes of Shakespeare's later years. The show starts at the beginning – not the Bard's birth (though Pennington talks about it) – but the actor's first brush with the playwright. The delightful anecdote, where the typical 11-year-old is transformed by a production of King Lear, sits in the background of the entire show, with Pennington referring back to it – and a few other incidents – through the evening. In fact, I wish there was more of this, from someone with so many hours logged on stage, not to mention his time with the English Shakespeare Company, which he co-founded in 1986.
Pennington weaves in and out of the varied characters – drawn from Hamlet, King Lear and numerous others – to make his points about the playwright. Shakespeare, he contends, is a decided "political" writer – not in the specifics of his opinions, but in that everyone in the shows has a point of view, and the audience must choose which side to take. Often shifting those views depending on the character's last action.
The actor does a good job of diving into each of the characters – who obviously come from a multitude of perspectives, depending on the show and the place in that show – and breathes life into what could have simply been a night of dramatic recitation. Sweet William takes what could have been a dry lecture about the life and opinions of William Shakespeare, and brings the mind and opinion of a man buried for nearly 400 years to life.
Sweet William runs at the Guthrie Theater through December 22, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. For tickets and more information, call 612-377-2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.
A Christmas Carole Petersen remains largely the same show as in the past. Performer and singer Petersen shares memories from Christmas seasons past, from the corny holiday traditions (assembling the fake Christmas tree; caroling around the neighborhood) to the adult feelings of disassociation from the celebration to a more recent satisfaction with Christmas and its traditions. Interspersed through the show are a number of holiday standards and should-be standards, many of which focus on the melancholy side of the holiday.
Petersen is aided by a trio of "carolettes," who support him in several of the numbers (including the show's famous Partridge Family tribute) and then get to take turns in the spotlight. Best of these is Randy Schmeling's singing of Joni Mitchell's "River." Schmeling (last seen at the Ordway as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show) owns the song, bringing out all of the its heartbreak through his own aching tenor. Fellow carolettes Eric Avery (on "The Truth About Christmas") and Jody Briskey (the vampish "Surabaya Santa") also get their moments in the spotlight.
Still, it is Petersen's memories that are the star of the show, from the family's annual Christmas letter (packed with all of the good things the children have done this year) to his spot-on portrayal of his middle-American mother. Yet, no matter your background, you can find plenty of entertainment – and truth – within the show.
A Christmas Carole Petersen runs through December 29 at the Ordway Center's McKnight Theatre, downtown St. Paul. For tickets and more information, call 651.224.4222 or visit www.theaterlatteda.org.
Photo: Rick Spaulding