Play Looks at Life in Minnesota for Iraqi Newcomers

“Birds Sing Differently Here,” a play based on the stories of Iraqi refugees and immigrants in Minnesota, will be presented by the Reconciliation Project Saturday and Sunday at the Rochester Repertory Theatre, 103 Seventh St. NE.

The play is performed in both English and Arabic by a cast of six Iraqi community members and four professional actors. Together, they offer a look at the personal lives of those trying to build bridges of communication and understanding.

The play was developed in 2017 and premiered that year at the Guthrie Theater, with additional material added earlier this year. The performances at the Rep are the opening of a four-city tour. Post-performance discussions will include director Taous Khazem, cast members and community representatives.

 

Performances are at 7 p.m. both days. Tickets are $10, available through the Rep box office at 507-289-1737 and at the door.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin  July 11, 2019

Local Theatrical Group Takes on a New Role

 

Director Jeanne Skattum, center, one of the co-founders of the Rochester Repertory Theatre, works with cast members during a rehearsal of the theater’s production of “Avenue Q” in February. On Thursday, the theater bought the building it has been performing in since 2007. Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com

After years as an understudy, a longtime Med City theatrical group is taking on a new role as theater owner.

On Thursday, the Repertory Theatre Co. purchased the 62-year-old building where it has performed in northeast Rochester since 2007.

“We’ve been looking for a permanent space for a while,” said Rep Board Chairman Mark Masbruch. “This is a perfect fit for us.”

The Rep Theatre purchased the two-story building at 103 Seventh St. NE for $410,000 from William Kolb and the Kolb family, who owned it for 13 years. That complex once housed the early version of the Studio Academy Charter School.

Masbruch said several things, including the theater’s history, played into the decision to buy a building.

The Rep Theatre started in 1984 and performed 23 seasons in a leased building at 314 1⁄2 S. Broadway. The group was surprised in 2007 when it was abruptly notified that it had a few weeks to vacate the building, despite having performances scheduled.

While there wasn’t concern that would happen in the Seventh Street building, the theater group didn’t want to ever be put in that position again.

Once negotiations were worked out with the Kolb family, the Rep began raising funds for the building’s purchase. Mayo Clinic provided a matching grant, and the family of longtime supporter, the late Eric Donaldson, also helped with donations among other “numerous generous” donors. F&M Community Bank handled the mortgage.

The purchase comes during a time of growth for the Rep, which sold out almost of all of its recent performances.

“It’s been a very good year,” Masbruch said.

Owning the building opens the door for the non-profit group to work on a Phase Two renovation plan.

The hope is to expand the 90-seat theater space to eventually accommodate 120 seats, he said.

Jeff Kiger  Post-Bulletin  June 26, 2019

Rep’s New Show is a Fine, Fizzy Drink

Grab a drink and settle in — you’re about to make some new friends.

The Savannah Sipping Society,” the first show held in the Rep’s newly purchased theater (don’t worry, it’s the same building they’ve performed in since 2007) is a refreshing treat.

The two-hour show only features a handful of middle-aged characters, each one down-and-out. The ostensible protagonist is uptight career woman Randa (Lisa Shields) who’s just been canned from her architecture job in favor of a much younger man. She’s joined by bubbly and well-meaning Dot (Christine Boos), widowed just after retirement, and the brazen, recently divorced Marlafaye (Taresa Tweeten). Aspiring life coach Jinx (Karen Masbruch) rounds out the group. She wants to prove that the three others can move onward and upward after their roadblocks.

Little binds these women together except loneliness and a hatred of hot yoga. But that’s going to change very quickly.

Though it has a much smaller cast, the feeling of the show is reminiscent of the 1939 film “The Women,” which invited the audience into the rich lives of its all-female cast with no need to present their men’s perspective.

These women, who form a tight bond in the first 20 or so minutes, have plenty to say. As anyone with older female relatives knows, the best talk happens when the men are gone … possibly after the application of alcohol and snacks.

And through a mixture of snappy veranda chat and monologues, the vibrant, animated women do their best to get you invested in their mid-life makeovers. As one character points out, it’s still possible to live life to the fullest after age 40 or 50 … or 60. But time is of the essence.

Tweeten, as the bold, brassy Marlafaye, gets many of the best (often bawdy) one-liners. She deserves props for committing entirely to the character’s slightly unhinged, larger-than-life energy. But Shields, as Randa, sneaks in some subtle physical comedy — keep an eye out for that.

The play hits the emotional highs perfectly, but falters a bit on the dips. Many of the characters suffer even bigger blows over the course of the play, like deaths, health issues, and relationship deterioration.

None of those hits fully register, though — with a laugh and a quip, the script moves on to the next joke. And while it’s enjoyable to poke fun at ageism and sexism, it’s a little jarring to reach for emotional resonance, then for a punchline.

Still, the show is well worth seeing, especially with friends. And grab a drink before or after — the ladies of the Savannah Sipping Society certainly won’t judge.

Anne Halliwell, Post-Bulletin  June 24, 2019

Women of Rep’s ‘Sipping Society’ Learn to Laugh Through Tears

Cast members, from left, Karen Masbruch, Christine Boos, Taresa Tweeten, and Lisa Shields rehearse a scene in the REP Theater production of “The Savannah Sipping Society.” Ken Klotzbach/kklotzbach@postbulletin.com

 

Cheryl Frarck likes to describe the four characters in the play “The Savannah Sipping Society” as “women the age of fine wine.”

The play, which opens June 21 at the Rochester Repertory Theatre, might best be described as a comedy with tears — and with an occasional glass of fine wine.

“You find yourself laughing, and the next thing they’re tugging at your heart strings,” said Frarck, who is directing the play. When she read the play, Frarck said, “I laughed out loud. I could see the characters.”

The four women in the play are facing challenges in their lives.

Randa, who has lived for her work, suddenly finds herself with a career challenge. Dot is struggling to overcome the early death of her husband. Marlafaye’s husband ran off with a younger woman. Jinx serves as a life coach for the other three, but has huge problems of her own.

The women meet at a yoga class, decide to get together for a sip of wine, and become fast friends.

“They laugh, they fight, they disagree,” Frarck said. “They’re sometimes thoroughly unlikable. They’re real, they’re human. It’s not just a chick flick. These are real people.”

Frarck has cast Rep veterans Christine Boos and Karen Masbruch alongside newcomers Lisa Shields and Taresa Tweeten.

“Each rehearsal is fun,” she said. “It’s a delight to work with them.”

The play is written by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, who have written for TV sitcoms.

For Frarck the play, and its message of resiliency and laughing through tears, holds special poignancy.

She recently retired from 45 years of teaching in Kasson-Mantorville. “My first thought in the morning was the kids, and my last thought at night was the kids,” she said. “People asked, ‘What are you going to do?’” That caused her to re-evaluate her life, just about the same time her husband received a difficult cancer diagnosis.

Against that background, Frarck has found particular meaning in a play that she said is not “fluff.

“Celebrate a day at a time,” she said. “If you’re looking down the road, you’re not taking advantage of opportunities staring you in the face.”

That’s a lesson well-learned by the women of the Savannah Sipping Society.

Get Your Tickets for “The Savannah Sipping Society” June 21-30, 7:30pm Here!

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   June 13, 2019

 

Casper’s Loss is Also His Gain

Photo by Joe Ahlquist

 

Jerry Casper is stretched thin these days, even though he doesn’t have a lot on his plate. Oh sure, there’s this upcoming comedy show he’s performing Friday and Saturday at the Rochester Repertory Theatre to keep him busy. But the fact that he literally has less on his plate is the reason for this show.

“I’ve lost 75 pounds since the end of August last year,” Casper said. That’s why his Rep show is titled, “Less of Me … More for You.” The show will be a mix of humor and storytelling, along with some improv with Casper’s longtime partners in comedy crime, Greg Miller and Nick Mezacapa.

The weight loss, Casper said, led to a rebirth of interest in his art and his life. “It re-sparked my creativity,” he said. “I started writing again. I started rethinking the way I approach life. In the process of losing weight, I gained new insight into my art.”

Casper, who is director of theater at Rochester Community & Technical College, has been a frequent presence as well on local stages. He’s a teacher and director at RCTC, and an actor, largely in comedy roles, at community theaters. He has also performed improv shows now and again with Miller and Mezacapa.

“Less of Me…,”  though, will be something different. There’s a serious side to what Casper wants to present.

He lost an older brother to cancer a few years ago. In the aftermath, Casper said, he was struck by how positive and upbeat his brother had always been, even when facing death.

“I call it the Kip Principle,” Casper said of his brother’s positive-thinking habits. Casper wondered if he could he adopt that principle to his own life.  “I wasn’t feeling well,” he said.  “My attitude was bad. I thought ‘I’m going to feel bad and die.’ I wanted to change.”

The weight loss, which Casper did with the help of an online program and plenty of positive thinking, has reversed all that. The question now, he said, is whether he can keep the weight off and continue on an upward path.

“I’ve been here before where I’ve lost weight and ballooned back out,” Casper said.

“Less of Me…” will include tales of his battles with weight and attitude. “I use a lot of comedy, but also a lot of heartfelt storytelling,” he said. “It’s all new material,” he said. “The show ended up being about loss and gain.”

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   May 29, 2019

Rep’s ‘Actors’ Features Two of the Best Local Talents

Rochester Repertory Theatre’s “Don’t Talk to the Actors” cast, from left, Rene Stiller, Laurie Helmers, Larry Sinak, Rich Manfield, Christina Stier and Nick Rudlong.
Andrew Link

 

What a treat it is to watch two “seasoned” pros at work.

We’re talking about Larry Sinak and Laurie Helmers, two Rochester stage veterans, who play a couple of seasoned actors in the comedy “Don’t Talk to the Actors,” which opened Friday at the Rochester Repertory Theatre.

The play, by Tom Dudzick, is about Jerry, a young playwright from Buffalo, N.Y. Jerry’s script has been picked up by a Broadway producer. It’s Jerry’s first trip to the big city, and he and his fiance, Arlene, can’t believe their luck as they arrive for rehearsals.

And to make it even more exciting, Arlene’s favorite actor, Curt Logan, has agreed to do the play. Of course, Curt’s got more on his mind than playing the milquetoast character Jerry has written.

The Rep’s production, directed by Mary Bruns Pyfferoen, reaches for all the farcical comedy there is in the script — and then some, thanks to Sinak, as Logan, and Helmers as bawdy actress Beatrice Pomery.

Sinak, who is normally seen in dramatic roles, here pulls out all the stops to create a character who is grounded just enough in reality to be both hilarious and sad.

Helmers also stretches herself, applying a comic twist to her musical-theater talent.

Watching Sinak’s Logan and Helmers’ Beatrice battle it out during rehearsals and rewrites of Jerry’s play is an absolute delight.

“I thought you were dead,” Beatrice says when she meets Logan at the first rehearsal.

“Death is looking pretty good right now,” he answers.

When one of the two isn’t on stage, the play seems more frenetic than focused. There is good, clever dialog in the script, although some of the jokes announce themselves in advance, and others — one character’s complaints about how much things cost in New York, for example — wear out their welcome in a hurry.

Nick Rudlong, a reliable comic actor, portrays Jerry as an awestruck nervous wreck. Rich Mansfield is Mike, the director, who tries to get Jerry’s show off the ground. Christina Stier has fun as the finicky stage manager (who for some reason is written as a British expat), and Rene Stiller makes her Rep debut as Arlene.

Is this really how a Broadway show is made? If so, there’s a lesson here for all aspiring playwrights who dream of Broadway, a Tony and a Pulitzer: Be careful what you wish for.

As for us, we wish for another show with Sinak and Helmers going toe-to-toe.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   May 6, 2019

Rep’s ‘Don’t Talk to the Actors’ Goes Behind the Scenes

Rochester Repertory Theatre’s “Don’t Talk to the Actors” cast, from left, Rene Stiller, Laurie Helmers, Larry Sinak, Rich Manfield, Christina Stier and Nick Rudlong.
Andrew Link

 

Ever wonder what goes on behind the curtain at a play?

It’s not always pretty, but it is funny, according to “Don’t Talk to the Actors,” a comedy opening Friday at the Rochester Repertory Theatre.

“It gives you an inside look at what goes on behind the scenes,” said Mary Bruns Pyfferoen, who is directing the play. “The playwright based it on his own experiences.”

But, she added, “It kind of goes over the top.”

Then again, so do some actors and directors — it’s part of being in theatre, we’re led to assume by this script.

Does it ring true? “Some of it,” Pyfferoen said.

In the play, a young playwright and his fiance anticipate his big break when his play is optioned for Broadway. But they quickly become overwhelmed by what passes for normal behavior in the ego-driven New York theater world.

Pyfferoen said when she first read the play, she had local actors in mind for some of the script’s characters. Her mind was changed a few times as actors at auditions read for roles in the play. “They fit into their parts perfectly,” she said.

She ended up with a cast of Nick Rudlong, newcomer Renee Stiller, Rich Mansfield, Christina Stier, Laurie Helmers and Larry Sinak. For Sinak, best known for dramatic roles in recent years, it’s a rare comedy role. Helmers is stepping away from her specialty of musicals. “She’s also stretching herself,” Pyfferoen said.

At this stage in rehearsals, she said, the actors are still cracking up at each other’s lines. The audience should have the same experience when viewing the play. “You won’t be able to help yourself,” she said.

In any event, the play promises to be eye-opening for audience members who do not routinely take part in the production of a play. “They may get a different idea of what goes into putting in a play,” Pyfferoen said.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   May 2, 2019

Lives They Lived: Theater Community Mourns Loss of ‘Gentle Genius’

The Rochester theater community this week is mourning the loss of Eric Donaldson, a tech wizard and quiet giant of a man who died unexpectedly last Friday.

“Truly, it’s just a terrible loss,” said Jeanne Skattum, a director at the Rochester Repertory Theater. “The whole theater community is in shock.”

Skattum learned of Donaldson’s death after the opening of “Avenue Q” Friday night at the Rep. Donaldson had assisted Skattum with that production, devising the video monitor hookup on which part of the play is projected.

It was typical of Donaldson, friends and colleagues said, to come up with a high-tech solution to a stage problem, and use his own donated equipment to make it work.

“He was generous and gave and gave and gave as much of himself as he could,” said Sue Schnell, who worked closely with Donaldson not only on plays, but also on marketing videos for the Rep. She called him a “gentle genius.”

Donaldson, 57, was born at a Navy hospital in California, but grew up in Dodge Center. He graduated from Dodge Center High School in 1979, and then earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from St. Olaf College. He worked in the energy, software and video fields, but devoted much of his time to Rochester’s various theater companies.

Early on, he made his mark on stage. “The most memorable in my opinion as well as many others, was his performance as Lenny in ‘Of Mice and Men’ at the Civic Theatre in the early 2000s,” said Bill Schnell, a local actor and director.

Donaldson was an early member of Vertigo Theatre and the Theater du Jour sketch comedy troupe. “That’s where be began his reign as community theater technical king,” Schnell said. “Sound, lighting, special effects, video and audio recording, and much of it on equipment he purchased and donated.”

Schnell remembered the time during a Theater du Jour rehearsal at the Civic Theatre when Donaldson started up a fog machine in the lobby. The fog set off smoke alarms and brought the fire department racing to the scene. “He never lived that one down,” Schnell said.

Sue Schnell said Donaldson specialized in Rep and Theater du Jour marketing videos that went way beyond a casual shoot. “Every project became more amazing once he got his hands on it,” she said.

“He helped every theater company in town,” Skattum said. “He was brilliant.”

Donaldson is survived by his mother, Ruth Donaldson, of Dodge Center and two brothers, Mark and Kurt.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   March 21, 2019

 

Rep Theatre Wants to Purchase Building in Which it Performs

Rochester Repertory Theatre might be on the verge of finally owning the building in which it rehearses and produces its plays.

“We have the option to purchase the Rep building,” Mark Masbruch, president of the Rep’s board of directors, announced March 15 before the opening of the current production, “Avenue Q.” “We just need to come up with a down payment.”

The building in which the Rep performs, at 103 Seventh St. NE, is owned by William P. Kolb, according to Olmsted County Records.  The estimated market value for tax purposes is $283, 100.

It’s those taxes that the Rep would get out from under if the organization is able to purchase the building. As a non-profit organization, the Rep would be excused from property taxes if it owned the site. But the Rep’s lease agreement requires it to pay the property taxes on the site, which Masbruch said are about $10,000 annually.

“It would be economically advantageous” Masbruch said.

It is not known what the asking price of the building is, but Masbruch indicated the Rep would need about $80,000 for a down payment.

To get a start on that, the Rep will hold its annual “Build Our Future” fundraising event April 13. That, combined with some matching grants and other donations, could get the Rep about halfway to its goal, Masbruch said.

“Then we’ll start calling some people,” he said.

The Rep’s annual budget has inched up to about $120,000 in recent years. It is an all-volunteer organization with no permanent paid full-time staff. The theatre just announced its 36th season, which will include an expanded lineup of seven plays.

Masbruch listed a redesign of the performance space, an increase in the number of seats, and expanded bathrooms as key projects if the building is purchased.

The Rep formerly performed on the second floor of a building that no longer exists at 314 1/2 S. Broadway. When forced to move from that site in 2007, the Rep was able to secure performance space in the current location, which had been the home of the now-defunct Studio Academy arts school.

The 9,256-square-foot building was constructed in 1957.  The Rep uses the front of the building facing Seventh Street Northeast, as a lobby/reception area and ticket office. The performance space, which has 90 seats, is at the rear of the building. A second, smaller rehearsal/performance space is located on the second floor.

Those interested in supporting the Rep’s fundraising drive may go to rochesterrep.org/about or call (507) 289-1737.

 

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   March 20, 2019

Rep’s ‘Avenue Q’ Unlike Anything Else on Local Stages

It isn’t always easy to find truly daring productions in community theater.

But Rochester Repertory Theatre has broken out of the box in a big way with “Avenue Q,” a wonderfully witty show that opened last Friday. This adults-only version of “Sesame Street”-related characters and lessons–complete with Muppet-style puppets-is not your standard fare.

“It took a lot of courage for us to do this,” one Rep board member said after Friday’s opening. The Rep was rewarded Friday with a sold-out house, raucous cheers and a standing ovation.

It’s fitting that this show is directed by Jeanne Skattum, who was a co-founder of the Rep 35 years ago, because “Avenue Q” hews closely to the Rep’s original and long-standing mission to stage works that challenge actors and audiences alike.

The obvious challenge for both in this show is the puppetry. For actors, the ability to create a character while simultaneously working a puppet, is paramount. For audiences, it takes a few scenes to get past the puppetry and realize it’s not just a gimmick.

In no time at all, though, we are caught up in the real-life challenges of these characters who are adjusting to young adulthood. They struggle to start careers, pay rent, find love.

The central characters are Princeton and Kate Monster, puppets in the capable hands and voices of Dylon Starr and Krista Monson. They are joined by Rod and Nicky (modeled on Bert and Ernie?) who are worked by Jace Gray and Eric Pahnisch. Trekkie Monster (who unlike Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster prefers internet porn to cookies) is handled by Rich Mansfield. Rae Ann Gotch handles the seductress Lucy, while Ethan Scot Savage and Eleanore Sutherland are the Bad Idea Bears.

Meanwhile, Casey Saunders, Alicia Frarck and Dominique Jones are non-puppeteers. Jones has a fun part as Gary Coleman, the former child TV actor.

Song titles such as “It Sucks to Be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada,” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” hint at the irreverent nature of this show. The music is directed by Jon Davis, with vocal direction by Catherine Davis.

The unusually colorful set is by Paul Skattum, with lights by Ben Hain.

“Avenue Q,” written by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty, is naughty, demented, clever, sweet, and once in a while a bit too cute. Its message of inclusion and empathy and helping others, though, can’t be repeated often enough.

Finally, “Avenue Q” is unlike anything else you’ll see on local stages. Luckily,  they Rep has the courage to present it.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   March 18, 2019