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A Fishy Camping Tale (Yet They Are Still Married)

From September 15 to October 22, Park Square Theatre presents the American premiere of the international hit Henry and Alice: Into the Wild on its Proscenium Stage. This hilarious comedy by Canadian playwright Michele Riml features Twin Cities actors John Middleton and Carolyn Pool as spouses Henry and Alice, two inexperienced campers who rely on a copy of Camping for Dummies to survive their ordeal.

Camping in the Great Outdoors can certainly be a terrific bonding experience amongst loved ones; but more often than not, it gives you some of the funniest memories to cherish. During the run of Henry and Alice, I’ll share those submitted to our blog.

Here’s Christine of Kenyon, Minnesota, sharing a story about a camping trip with Dave, her partner of over 30 years:

Let’s get this straight right out of the starting gate. I am not a great camper. Given the choice, I would sleep in places that have ice machines and sheets and do not feature wood ticks or chiggers.

However, my husband Dave is the poster boy for camping enthusiasm. He could be a 1950s Walt Disney camping dad. He has hiking boots. He wears red flannel checked shirts. He dips his matches in wax before we go so they will stay dry. Campfires are like TV to him, and things that might dampen another person’s spirit hardly register in his mind. He doesn’t notice there are squiggly things on the bottom of a lake, and finding a leech on your foot leaves him unimpressed.

Dave loves camping so much that he will build the fire, cook all the food, haul all the gear in and out of the van, put up the tent and not be mad when you don’t want to hike AGAIN today, preferring to read your lurid vacation books at the picnic table while brushing the ants and jumping spiders off yourself.

Dave also loves to fish. If you talk to Dave about camping, fishing always comes up. I believe he is unaware that one could camp somewhere and NOT fish. Camping triggers the fishing lure (if you will). His eyes will glaze over, and he will begin to describe in detail the sheer nirvana of eating fish every day, fresh out of the lake. This man who cannot find ketchup in a grocery store and forgets to pack pants in his suitcase (when we go somewhere normal) is unfailing at remembering the cast iron fry pan, oil and cornmeal for frying fish.

This is a true story. It happened in the late 1980s. Camping then was particularly hard for a gal of my temperament. Regular folk did not have cell phones or little TVs. Laptops were unknown. We made fire with wood and charcoal briquettes and did not have fancy pop up tents or hats with mosquito nets on them. You don’t really need to know this historical detail, but I wanted to get credit for how brave I was then. I love my husband, and it was his birthday. So we went camping at Lake Texana, Texas–in the tent section because Dave is much too manly a man to succumb to an RV.

The minute we got the tent set up and our stuff unpacked, Dave went fishing on the dock. It had been a long trip, so we were going to have bratwurst for supper and, hopefully, fish for breakfast. We figured Dave had an hour to fish; then we should eat and get a good night’s sleep. I got out salad, onions and buns and put the brats on skewers. When all was ready, I walked over to the dock where Dave was fishing. Beaming, he showed me his stringer with four big “Sunnies” and assured me we would indeed have fish for breakfast. After effusive admiration of the fish, I told him it was time for supper.  Grumbling just a little bit, he gathered up his things and came back to the campsite with me.

When we approached our camp site, there was a flurry of furry movement hurrying into the bushes. The brats were gone. The end of the skewers were chewed, the salad had been tossed on the ground and all the walnuts in it had been carefully picked out and eaten. We found the empty bun bag torn and mangled near some bushes leading into a wooded thicket. There were bite marks on the mustard bottle.

Dave told me not to worry.  He could fry up the fish in no time. I think I saw a tiny gleam of masculine provider satisfaction in his eye. Maybe after supper, he said, he could do a little night fishing and get more fish for breakfast. His shoulders were broad and his demeanor proud as he strode off to the dock to get his stringer of fish. Moments later, he was back, empty handed. It seems there are alligators in Lake Texana. Apparently, alligators like a convenient meal of fish served to them all in one spot. Undaunted, we had trail mix for supper. After that, Dave went back out and came home all smelly and happy with a bucket of fish. He secured the bucket with a cover and a rock on top.

The next morning, we found a big wet spot where the bucket had been toppled. There was no sign of the fish. We did see paw prints and drag marks leading towards the thicket of trees and bushes near our spot. We had egg salad sandwiches from the cooler for breakfast.

Dave went on a hike. He likes to hike in the woods. He brings home a lot of trophies from his hikes: feathers, craggy pieces of wood, wood ticks, rocks which he claims are agates. We had lunch, and Dave went out to rent a rowboat. When he returned, we had a short negotiation in which his goal was to get me in the boat and go fishing all afternoon. My goal was to define “afternoon” and to secure a promise that, even if the fish were “biting” we would go to shore within 15 minutes of any announcement from me that I needed to find a bush to hide behind. A deal was struck; and after an exciting 12 weeks (or it could have just been three hours) of sitting in the wet rowboat, we had another bucket of fish and were back on the dock. The dock had a fish cleaning station so Dave cleaned our catch and brought the cleaned fish back and put them in our Styrofoam cooler instead of the bucket. He wedged the cooler tightly under the bench of the heavy picnic table, further securing it with several BIG rocks. We flip flopped down to the camp showers to rinse the smelly fish and grime off. When we came back, the cooler was still firmly wedged under the picnic bench. It had not budged an inch.  It had a lot of little raccoon paw prints all over the surface. A hole had been chewed out of one corner. When opened, it revealed more paw prints and no fish. We had baked potatoes for supper.

The next morning, Dave was out fishing early. By the time I made coffee, he was back with more fish cleaned and ready to fry. He put them in our heavy-duty plastic cooler–the one with the latch. In a rare moment of mean spiritedness, I saw him rub the latch with a cut jalapeno pepper. He went to get cleaned up, and I did a quick search for wood for the fire. We were gone 10 minutes. I was in woods about 100 feet from our site when I heard Dave say something in a loud voice. Never mind what he said exactly. You don’t need to know every detail.

Apparently, the raccoons of Lake Texana are not in the least thwarted by a simple cooler latch. The cooler had been ravaged. It was cooler Armageddon. The egg salad Tupperware was destroyed, the butter completely gone except for a tiny wad of chewed up paper. Two withered grapes were left on a remaining grape stem. All the cheese and lunch meat were gone, not even a shred of plastic wrap to mark their existence. Bottles of beverages lay in a blast zone-like pattern surrounding the cooler. You might wonder if, when finding the smorgasbord of delicacies that inhabit a camping cooler, those hoodlum raccoons would leave the local lake fish out of sheer boredom. You would be incorrect.

We are not stupid. We cleaned up the site and tossed the Styrofoam cooler.  Our main cooler and our non-cooler bag of food were in the van. We went for a hike and found a clearing with some beautiful tame deer that people were feeding by hand. Enthralled, I went back to the van to get the enormous camera we had in those days.

Approaching the van, I noticed a torn bag of corn chips dangling from the front window. The window we had left cracked about an inch so as not to be roasted alive in the blazing Texas heat should we want to go somewhere. THAT window. The size of the opening of the window was calculated to frustrate and defeat fish theft.

A few yards away, a gang of chipmunks were attempting to be invisible by sitting absolutely still in a little nest of mauled corn chip bags. I told them how shocked and disappointed I was in them. They did not seem in the least sorry.

We drove to a nearby town for lunch and to restock our supplies. That evening, I made “hobo stew” while Dave went fishing. If you don’t know, hobo stew is vegetables and meat of your choice wrapped in many layers of aluminum foil and then baked on your campfire coals in the aluminum packets. While I was sitting on guard of those packets, Dave took the rowboat out. I used my time judiciously, applying dots of calamine lotion to all my mosquito bites and unidentified itchy spots. My pale green capris complemented the pink polka dots covering my arms and legs. I was sure I was making a breakout fashion statement.

Dave returned triumphant, and we locked the evening’s catch in the cooler, in the van.  Unfortunately, after securely closing the door, we had a flurry of door openings and closings due to the need for “Nana-Ramas,” a treat that we felt we had coming to us.  Nana-Ramas are a banana with one strip of the peel pulled off, the banana split down the length, with chunks of chocolate (dark is better) squished in the split, a sprinkling of pecans and a spoonful of orange marmalade rubbed on the top. Wrap it in foil. Bake in the coals. There are lots of variations on this theme. My point is someone left the back of the van where the cooler was secured, unsecured. We are easily distracted by chocolate.

The next morning was spent cleaning out the back of the van where food goo and muddy raccoon prints were abundant, then getting the van jumped because of the dead battery due to the dome light, followed by going through a car wash for the vacuum and upholstery cleaning features. After that, we had brunch in town and went grocery shopping again. In the grocery store, I suggested we buy some fish to save us the trouble of going out again. This suggestion was not good for our marriage.

The next batch of fish were stolen straight out of the bucket WHILE WE WERE STANDING IN OUR CAMPSITE. (Okay, at the edge of the site, behind the van; but still, we were right there.) The park ranger had stopped by for a friendly chat just before leaving to go home. Our backs were turned, but I heard the bucket make a “whump” noise and looked over just in time to see a gang of furry hoodlums snatching up the fish and making a beeline for the bushes.

On our last full day, Dave had a determined air about him. We were leaving the next morning. This was his last chance to fulfill my dream of having fresh fish. I attempted to say something along the lines of “I’m just as happy with bacon and eggs,” but his lips were pressed together all thin and pinched. Being no fool, I agreed with him that this fresh fish business was my heart’s desire. I said I would make coleslaw and cut up some lemons. I should tell you now that we have been married over 30 years, and I fully credit my fish-friendly remarks to the success of our relationship. Don’t be led astray by advice from popular sources, such as daytime TV or women’s magazines. Chanel No. 5 can’t hold a candle to the smell of fried fish on your fingertips.

Dave packed a lunch for himself and spent the day in the rowboat. I didn’t see him until about 6 pm. I could tell from 200 feet away that he had been successful. He was covered in sweat and fish scales. He got a little six-pack-sized cooler out of the van and filled it with ice and cleaned fish. He started the fire. I noticed that he had one knee on the little cooler. Sitting a bit downwind of him, it occurred to me to offer to watch the fish cooler while he took a shower. I refrained from making any remarks with the word “stinky” in them. Just call me supportive. I know he trusts me, but that night Dave took the cooler with him to the camp showers. I am told he had it in the shower with him.

We did have fresh fish for supper. We watched the fire and talked about how great the fish was and about other glories and mysteries of life. Dave looked ten years younger. The little cooler was at Dave’s side, under his elbow. There were enough remaining fish filets for a hardy breakfast. These had been lovingly rinsed a second time, sealed in a plastic bag, and the little cooler had been refilled with ice.

Just before sunrise, I woke to the sound of quiet chirps and gentle rustling noises.  I looked at the tent door and saw a little grey paw patting the floor of the tent in a big fan pattern. The paw pulled out of the tent, and a little snout was thrust inside.  The snout veered toward the little cooler. Dave had brought it in the tent with us and put it near our feet. Chirping and rustling continued outside the tent. The tent door (zipper) was being tampered with, the little paws reaching now in the direction of the cooler! I moved the cooler up near the middle of the tent. I was being quiet, but the intruders panicked at my movement and scampered off.

In the morning, we found paw prints all over the van door, the back of the van, the tent entrance, the picnic table and around the campfire. Dave’s fishy jeans were lying in the grass halfway from our site to the wood thicket. His fish-scale bedecked t-shirt was gone.

We had a hearty breakfast of fish for breakfast. Dave looked every bit the conquering hero.

After breakfast, Dave decided he would look for his “lucky” t-shirt one more time before we left. A bit later, he came back to our campsite and got me. He led me into the thicket of woods, past the bush barrier. There, strewn in a giant oval, were the shreds of hundreds, yes HUNDREDS of empty food containers: bread bags, bun bags, pizza boxes, chips bags, occasional cereal boxes, peanut butter jars, Tupperware and random food tins. It was awesome.  It was the elephant’s graveyard of raccoon booty.  It was the lost city of Raccoon Gold. We were the Howard Carters to the Raccoon Tut burial chamber. It was a testament to the unparalleled food thievery powers that define the raccoon essence. We were humbled in the presence of these masters. We gave up the search for his lucky fishing t-shirt. It would have taken years.

Even with this loss, Dave smiled all the way home. At one point, kind of out of the blue, he said, “Boy, they really know what they’re doing.” He didn’t say a lot more, but I had the impression that losing all those fish no longer rankled now that he understood the scope of his opponent’s powers.

Another Funny Camping Story: The World’s Worst RV Park

From September 15 to October 22, Park Square Theatre presents the American premiere of the international hit Henry and Alice: Into the Wild on its Proscenium Stage. This hilarious comedy by Canadian playwright Michele Riml features Twin Cities actors John Middleton and Carolyn Pool as spouses Henry and Alice, two inexperienced campers who rely on a copy of Camping for Dummies to survive their ordeal.

Camping in the Great Outdoors can certainly be a terrific bonding experience amongst loved ones; but more often than not, it gives you some of the funniest memories to cherish. Before and during the run of Henry and Alice, I’ll share some humorous camping stories submitted to our blog. Be prepared to laugh until your stomach hurts after reading this one from Calvin of Asheville, North Carolina:

Calvin, Zach and Isaac before their horrible camping experience.

After riding our loaded bicycles since dawn in the 90+ degree heat, we stopped at the World’s Worst RV Park in East Cape, Ilinois, at about 7 o’clock. I was so hot and tired and fried from riding all day in traffic that I was ready to camp in the gutter. Maybe that’s why the dusty gravel parking lot that was supposed to pass for a campground looked OK to me. When I get really exhausted, my mind is less than keen. Blinded by the sun, I felt my way into the A-frame office, where a woman with a big black wig told me it would cost us $21 to pitch our tent under a leafless tree 20 yards from the highway. Wanting desperately to avoid crossing a busy bridge just down the road during rush hour, I forked over the dough. By the time we set up our tent, we knew we should have kept going, even though we had already ridden 70 miles. Steady traffic from IL Highway 3 assaulted us with noise, dust and fumes. A bouquet of sewage wafted out from under the bathhouse we were camping behind.

“We paid $21 for this dump?” Zach said. “We could get a motel for $30.”

“If we could make it over the bridge without getting killed,” I said.

He snorted. “The smell alone’ll kill us by morning.”

“This is what hell’s gonna be like,” added Isaac.

I bloodied my leg killing a mosquito and walked over to the pay phone on the wall of a car wash on the other side of the parking lot. The receiver of the phone was so hot I could barely pick it up. I stood sweating in the late afternoon sun talking to my wife Maria.

“We’re in an RV park a mile from the Mississippi.”

“That’s great! I can’t believe how far you’ve gotten. What’s all that noise?”

“Could be all the traffic on the highway we’re camped beside,” I told her. “Or maybe the boys kicking the drink machine?”

“How’re you feeling?”

I took a deep breath. “This has been one of the worst days so far. Hot, tons of traffic, incredibly awful camping spot, right by the outhouse. We’re all ready to come home before we kill each other.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll bet it’ll be better once you get back on some better roads.”

“Hope so. We gotta get through Cape Girardeau before we find any better roads.”

“How you gonna get across the river?” Maria asked.

“Bridge is only a mile away. we’ll cross early in the morning before the traffic heats up.”

“Be careful!”

“My middle name.”

We showered in the foul-smelling bathhouse and swatted at mosquitoes while we ate spaghetti and French bread again for what seemed like the hundredth time in a row. The dust settled on my sweaty body and transformed me into a Cape Buffalo.

“This sucks,” said Isaac. “I’m going home.”

“I may go with you,” I said.

“We should have gotten a motel,” said Zach.

Craving sugar, the boys walked across the highway to a restaurant. They returned with six huge slices of homemade blueberry, coconut creme, lemon chess and cherry pies.

Darkness, usually a sign of bedtime, brought to life bright sodium lights that lit up the inside of our tent like a police spotlight. If we zipped up the tent, it got hot as an oven. If we left it open, the bugs feasted on our sugared flesh. We spent a miserable night listening to heavy trucks grind toward the bridge to Missouri, swatting bugs and trying to find a dark spot in the brightly lit tent. We were too depressed even to listen to the radio. It was a lousy end to a long, hard day. The boys complained a little, but then Zach fell asleep and Isaac got quiet, too.

After a night of sweating in the hot tent by the busy highway under the bright lights enveloped by the stench of the bathroom, I knew the World’s Worst RV Park, in East Girardeau, Illinois, had taken its rightful place amongst the worst camping experiences of my life. I lay awake in my self-made hell, waiting for sleep or dawn, whichever might find me first.

Henry and Alice: Before the Sequel

With the Minnesota Fringe Festival revving up, it seems apt that Park Square Theatre will soon afterwards start its 2017-2018 season with Henry and Alice: Into the Wild. It is Canadian playwright Michele Riml’s sequel to Sexy Laundry, which got its start in the 2002 Vancouver Fringe Festival, ultimately playing at regional theatres across Canada as well as being produced in Great Britain, Germany, South Africa and the United States. Sexy Laundry played on our Proscenium Stage, proving to be a smash hit during Park Square’s 2014-2015 season. Although both laugh-out-loud comedies are centered around the plight of spouses Henry and Alice, each play can be seen as a standalone. It’s not necessary to have seen Sexy Laundry first.

For those who’d missed its Park Square production, Sexy Laundry is about a middle-aged couple trying to put some romantic spark back into their 25-year marriage with a weekend getaway at a fancy hotel, sans their three children. Henry really doesn’t want to be there; he’d rather keep the status quo. But Alice is revved to go, arming them with a copy of Sex for Dummies for inspiration. Although a comedy, Sexy Laundry also reveals the serious undertones within the relationship of old-marrieds.

In April 2012, Riml continued the story of the longtime couple in Henry and Alice: Into the Wild, which also became an international hit. This time, the pair try to reinvigorate their marriage through a low-budget camping trip, foregoing their usual summer cottage in order to reduce costs after Henry has lost his job of 30 years. With a copy of Camping for Dummies in tow, they are ready to rough it and continue to navigate life’s unexpected challenges together.

In an interview with Nick Miliokas for Backstage at the Globe, Riml cited a camping trip with a high school friend in North Vancouver and their sons as the inspiration for Henry and Alice: Into the Wild. Although the trip ended well, the first day was horrendous with a trailer refusing to shift gear into reverse and a ferocious windstorm that caused them to ditch their tent to sleep in the car.  (Source: “Camping adventure inspired Henry And Alice: Into the Wild writer Michele Riml, January 14, 2013, globetheatreregina.wordpress.com).

Park Square Theatre’s production of Henry and Alice: Into the Wild will be its American premiere. Sexy Laundry’s director, Mary Finnerty, returns to direct this sequel. John Middleton reprises his role as Henry, and Carolyn Pool plays Alice. Melanie Wehrmacher plays Alice’s sister, Diana.

So come on out and camp with us anytime between September 15 and October 22. In the dark with just the stage lights glowing, we’ll tell you a story that will make you laugh hard enough to need to hold it in your seats.

 

Sexy Laundry

Charity Jones and John Middleton as Alice and Henry in Sexy Laundry during our 2014-2015 season
(photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

 

Continue to be Delighted

Be sure to come in from the summer heat to catch the final performances of Girl Friday Productions’ Idiot’s Delight on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Stage. This is the show’s final week, with tickets still available for all four remaining dates (July 20, 21, 22 and 23), but we encourage folks to buy now to guarantee a spot!

Girl Friday’s reputation for exceptionally high-quality ensemble work attracts some of the Twin Cities’ most talented actors to be in its plays. After July, you can catch several Idiot’s Delight cast members again in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Minnesota State Fair or other productions this fall!

AT THE MINNESOTA FRINGE FESTIVAL (August 3 – 13)

Kirby Bennett (Signora Pittaluga, the Italian resort owner in Idiot’s Delight) 

  • Much Ado About Nothing (as told by Dogberry and Verges) with Rough Magic Performance Company – Playing at Jungle Theater
  • Shakespeare’s classic comedy of love/hate relationships made modern by six women and two puppets. A hilarious and moving tale of love, jealousy, trickery and redemption with a fresh and feminist perspective.
  • This show is appropriate for ages 12 to 15 and up.
  • Sunday, August 6, 1 pm; Monday, August 7, 10 pm; Tuesday, August 8, 8:30 pm; Friday, August 11, 5:30 pm; Sunday, August 13, 5:30 pm

Karissa Lade (Beulah, one of the blonde entertainers in Idiot’s Delight)

  • The Wright Stuff, or You’ll Believe They Can Fly! with Outlandish Productions – Playing at Mixed Blood Theatre
  • The story of two brothers who got knocked down–but they got up again. Nothing’s ever going to keep them down.
  • This show is appropriate for ages 12 to 15 and up.
  • Thursday, August 3, 5:30 pm; Saturday, August 5, 7 pm; Monday, August 7, 5:30 pm; Wednesday, August 9, 7 pm; Saturday, August 12, 1 pm

Kory LaQuess Pullam (Quillery, a French socialist in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Odd Man Out with Underdog Theatre – Playing at University of Minnesota Rarig Center Arena (Kory founded Underdog Theatre and wrote Odd Man Out)
  • The death of a family patriarch summons James to his hometown in South Texas. Once he arrives, James is confronted with issues of the past and present. Nothing is left on the table in this world premier drama.
  • This show is appropriate for ages 16+.
  • Friday, August 4, 7 pm; Sunday, August 6, 10 pm; Thursday, August 10, 5:30 pm; Saturday, August 12, 8:30 pm; Sunday, August 13, 2:30 pm)

Kory LaQuess Pullam (Quillery, a French socialist in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Blackout Improv with Rogues Gallery Arts – Playing at Phoenix Theater
  • Members of this all person of color improv team take on the Minnesota Fringe in a way that only they can, with humor, swag and a focus on social issues. Each performance will feature an amazing special guest!
  • This show is appropriate for ages 16+.
  • Thursday, August 3, 7 pm; Saturday, August 5, 7 pm; Monday, August 7, 8:30 pm; Wednesday, August 9, 5:30 pm; Thursday, August 10, 8:30 pm

AT THE MINNESOTA STATE FAIR (August 24 – September 4)

Bonni Allen (Shirley, a blonde entertainer in Idiot’s Delight) and Kory LaQuess Pullam (Quillery, a French socialist in Idiot’s Delight)

  • History on a Schtick at the Schilling Amphitheater with the Minnesota Historical Society
  • Daily at 9:30 am and 10:30 am (30 minutes performance time)

IN FALL PRODUCTIONS

Bonni Allen (Shirley, a blonde entertainer in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Sam’s Son with Bucket Brigade at Art House North
  • A prohibition-era bluegrass musical inspired by the story of Samson
  • October 6 – 28

Becca Hart (Bebe, a blonde entertainer in Idiot’s Delight)

  • The Music Man at Artistry
  • Meredith Wilson’s six-time, Tony Award-winning musical comedy–family entertainment at its best
  • October 13 – November 5

Eric Knutson (Captain Locicero, an Italian Army officer in Idiot’s Delight)

  • All the Way at the History Theatre
  • A reconstruction of Lyndon Johnson’s dramatic first year as president
  • October 7 – 29

John Middleton (Harry Van, an American entertainer in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Henry and Alice: Into the Wild at Park Square Theatre
  • The hilarious follow up to the smash hit Sexy Laundry
  • September 15 – October 22

Kory LaQuess Pullam (Quillery, a French socialist in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare at Park Square Theatre
  • October 13 – November 11

Karen Wiese-Thompson (Dr. Waldersee, a German scientist in Idiot’s Delight)

  • Electra by Euripides at Ten Thousand Things
  • September 28 – November 5

GIRL FRIDAY: The Name Says It All

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term “Girl Friday” was first used in 1928 to describe “a woman who does many different jobs in an office.” The definition in the Urban Dictionary is more expansive, dubbing a “Girl Friday” as a “go-to girl” or “a female who acts as a ‘jack of all trades’ and is capable of doing almost anything.”

It was hard to miss just how perfectly Girl Friday Productions fit its name as I spoke with Kirby Bennett about her 13-year-old theatre company. Both a founder and its artistic director, Kirby also manages the organizational and fundraising tasks for its shows as well as acting in each production. In 2012, with the guidance of volunteer counsel Mike Bash, she completed the arduous task of obtaining 501(c) (3) non-profit status for Girl Friday, and she continues to do whatever necessary to keep it viable, relevant, creative and fun. Kirby is, quite frankly, a Girl Friday.

“Tenacity” is a term that also comes to mind to describe Kirby. Again, that is not surprising given her choice of plays that, time and again, feature the resilience of human beings. In fact, Girl Friday Productions’ Idiot’s Delight, on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Thrust Stage from June 29 to July 23, reveals that very quality of the human spirit in a play with a cast of eccentric characters stranded in a European mountaintop resort, unable to cross closed borders, at the outbreak of World War II.

In meeting Girl Friday’s vision “to seek out plays that embody great literature, humanity, relevance and stimulating theatricality,” Kirby does insist that whatever script chosen has substantive female roles.

“All of our productions have had strong roles and voices for women,” Kirby said, “and Idiot’s Delight has a great central female role, and fun and intriguing female supporting roles.”

 

Stacia Rice & John Middleton in Idiot’s Delight
(Photo by Richard Fleischman)

 

Though Kirby sets this particular criteria, Girl Friday’s play selection process is actually collaborative. According to Kirby, “There is no formal committee. I just periodically bring people together to read plays aloud. And I read on my own any title suggested to me!”

This collaborative spirit is aptly at the core of Girl Friday Productions, considering its commitment to large-scale ensemble performances.

While the term “Girl Friday” denotes a person’s awesome capabilities to do “almost anything,” it also carries an out-reaching connotation of how individuals working together can do anything.

As Kirby put it best, “The sum of the whole is greater than the individual.”

——

(Note: Be sure to read the prior blog post, “GIRL FRIDAY PRODUCTIONS: From Dream to Reality.”)

Mark Benzel: Wire Walker

 

Actor Mark Benzel

In Theatre Pro Rata’s Up: The Man in the Flying Chair, on Park Square’s Boss Thrust Stage until June 11, Mark Benzel plays several characters, including Philippe Petit, the famous French high-wire artist who’d committed what became known as “the artistic crime of the century.” On the morning of August 7, 1974, Philippe wire walked for 45 minutes between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. His cable stretched about a quarter mile above the ground; and he walked, danced, lay down and knelt as he made eight passes along its length.

Philippe Petit wire walking between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974.
(Photo from Business Insider)

As Philippe in Up, Mark lives in the imagination of Walter Griffin, the play’s protagonist who’d once gained fame by attaching 45 helium-filled weather balloons to his lawn chair to levitate 16,000 feet, high enough to be seen by commercial airliners. Philippe appears in Walter’s fantasies to give him advice as he struggles to regain his former glory.

In the script, there’s just a casual mention in the stage directions about Philippe’s wire walking, but the company decided to literally draw out that element in keeping with the magical realism within the play, as an artistic challenge for the cast and to explore the playwright’s intent.

With past experience in physical performance, such as juggling, climbing and dropping from aerial silks and theatrical clowning, as well as personal ability to skateboard and unicycle, Mark was confidently game to learn wire walking. With initial instruction by Robert Rosen, a co-founder/artistic director of the now defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune and current founder/teacher at Studio 206, Mark was ultimately able to make two to three passes on a wire two feet above the ground and ten feet long but, according to Mark, “not altogether gracefully.” More in-depth training with Jonah Finkelstein, who long studied with the famous Grand Canyon wire walker Nik Wallenda, and Laura Emiola of Xelias and support from Circus Juventas helped provide additional Philippe-like confidence.

Before wire walking himself, Mark had watched the 2008 film Man on Wire, which suspensefully recreated Philippe’s 1974 stunt by mingling both actual footage of the live event with re-enactments. Mere observation certainly gave Mark an appreciation for the incredible Philippe, but actually experiencing wire walking firsthand gave him “new eyes” to better understand the physical and psychological anguish involved to not only perform the feat, but to also be able to do it with ease and grace. The training definitely gave Mark deeper insight into his character.

Front to back: Mark Benzel as Philippe Petit and John Middleton as Walter Griffin in Up: The Man in the Flying Chair
(Photo by Charles Gorrill)

In a play that delves into the achingly human acts of wishing, hoping and yearning–in a play about contemplating those hard life choices–ultimately every cast member performs a high-wire act, metaphorically if not physically. And the audience gets to step out on that wire with them.

 

GIRL FRIDAY PRODUCTIONS: From Dream to Reality

Though a small professional theatre company, Girl Friday Productions consistently aims to do it big. Created with the “We can do it!” spirit of Kirby Bennett and Natalie Diem Lewis in 2004, Girl Friday’s mission is to stage high-quality large ensemble performances of rarely produced American classics, such as Thorton Wilder’s The Matchmaker on Park Square’s Boss Thrust Stage in 2015. From June 29 to July 23, they return to our Boss Stage with the 1936 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Idiot’s Delight by Robert E. Sherwood.

“Girl Friday Productions is the result of intention and happy accident,” said Kirby Bennett, its artistic leader.

 

Founder & Artistic Director Kirby Bennett

After performing in several productions with the Mary Worth Theatre Company founded by Joel Sass, Kirby and Natalie were inspired to think about producing theater, both as a creative outlet and “as a way to contribute to the independent theatre scene that had been so important to us.” In February of 2004, Natalie just happened to have space reserved at the Bryant Lane Bowl so they made use of it to present the epistolary plays Love Letters by A. R. Gurney and Hate Mail by co-writers Bill Corbett and Kira Obolensky. The following year, Girl Friday mounted its first fully staged production, An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf by Michael Hollinger, at the People’s Center Theater in Minneapolis’ West Bank.

Since then, Girl Friday has staged a singular major project every two years. Difficulty in finding available performance spaces, not to mention all the other rigors of planning any production, initially dictated Girl Friday’s long production cycles. This cycle inevitably became its natural rhythm and intentional choice, as the best way to maximize the company’s efforts to work with challenging texts, large and skilled ensemble casts, and distinguished directors and designers.

In 2011, Kirby was appointed Artistic Director by its Board (Natalie had since moved to Los Angeles); and in 2012, Girl Friday received 501(c) (3) non-profit status. Its shows repeatedly garner accolades from audience and critics alike:

Our Town by Thorton Wilder – Pioneer Press 2007 “Top Ten Shows” List

The Skin of Our Teeth by Thorton Wilder – MinnPost 2009 “Favorites” List

Street Scene by Elmer Rice – Star Tribune, Pioneer Press & Lavendar 2011 “Top Ten” Lists; Ivey Award for Director Craig Johnson

Camino Real by Tennessee Williams – Lavender 2013 notable performances recognition

The Matchmaker by Thorton Wilder – Cherry and Spoon 2015 Favorites

Girl Friday’s consistent excellence is no accident and, certainly, no small feat for a small, independent theatre company. Besides its vision to, as Kirby put it, “produce great plays and be able to do it freely, we also wanted to make sure that we maintain high standards.” That intentionality remains a strong pull for some of the Twin Cities’ finest theatre professionals, such as Idiot’s Delight leads Stacia Rice and John Middleton and Director Craig Johnson, to want to work with Girl Friday Productions. That reputation is also what steadily keeps audiences coming time and again.

Be sure to come to Park Square Theatre this summer to get your Girl Friday fix! Not only will it tide you over for another two years, but you also won’t want to miss what will surely top another favorites list.

Calendar Girls: Featuring John Middleton

As part of our ongoing Meet the Cast of Calendar Girls Blog Series, let us introduce you to John Middleton:

Middleton-John

ROLE:  John, 50s

AS DESCRIBED IN PLAYWRIGHT TIM FIRTH’S SCRIPT:

John is a human sunflower.  Not a saint.  Not a hero.  Just the kind of man you’d want in your car when crossing America.

DIRECTOR MARY FINNERTY’S COMMENT: 

John Middleton, whom I had also directed in Sexy Laundry, has an uncanny ability to burrow into the hearts of an audience quickly.  In the stage directions, the playwright says that when John dies, a light should go off in the room.  John only has less than 20 pages onstage to establish that character for us, and I knew he could do that.

QUESTION FOR JOHN MIDDLETON:

Your character, John, offers up the sunflower as the primary symbol of the play, but what is your favorite symbolism or metaphor in the play?

I’ve been considering your question, but I don’t think I can do any better than John in the play and his sunflowers.  The world is feeling particularly dark these days, and we can’t ignore it.  We need to acknowledge the darkness and fight against it.  But we also need to look for the light, no matter how weak, just as the sunflower does.  That, as John says, is such an admirable thing.

CAST BACKGROUND:

Park Square Romeo and Juliet, Sexy Laundry, The School for Lies, American Family, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Becky’s New Car 
Representative Theatre  Jungle Theater: Detroit; Theater Latte Da: C.; Torch Theater: Prints; Gremlin Theatre: Hedda Gabler; Carlyle Brown & Company: Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…; Girl Friday Productions: Street Scene

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