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‘Becky Shaw’ has a wicked edge; MusicMakers at Orchestra Hall

ALSO: The Third Annual SongSlam at Icehouse; Katie Shireen Assef reads at Milkweed; and more.

Olivia Wilusz and Kevin Fanshaw
Olivia Wilusz and Kevin Fanshaw in a scene from "Becky Shaw" at the Gremlin Theatre.
Alyssa Kristine Photography

For our first play of the new year, we wanted something smart and unpredictable, preferably with a wicked edge. No residual holiday sweetness, please. We found it in Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw,” which opened at the Gremlin on Jan. 3.

The Becky Shaw character doesn’t even appear until the first act is nearly over. (The play has two acts, separated by an intermission.) She arrives as a blind date for Max, set up by newlyweds Suzanna and Andrew. By the time we meet Becky, we have learned quite a lot about Max, Suzanna and Andrew, and also about Susan, mother to Suzanna. (Note: Even if Gionfriddo had a really good reason for using similar names for two of her five characters, it wasn’t worth the confusion this causes at first.)

We know that Suzanna and Max aren’t related but were raised by Susan as brother and sister. That their relationship is more complicated. That Suzanna’s father died recently, leaving the family in financial straits. That Max is a skilled and wealthy financial manager who can help them. That Suzanna is a warm, loving person who met her new husband, Andrew, on a ski trip. That Max can be an acerbic, self-centered jerk. That Andrew is the opposite of Max. That Susan has MS, and a new boyfriend, which infuriates Suzanna, who’s still mourning her father.

In sum, Act One does what first acts do: It introduces the characters and their relationships so the real story can be told in Act Two. We almost always wish first acts could be shorter, and this was no exception. “Becky Shaw” is a play of much conversation and little silence. And there’s laughter, once the audience figures out that it’s OK to laugh at Max’s insensitivity and lack of compassion or empathy. The things he says are so outrageous you simply have to laugh.

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We learn some things about Becky in the final moments of Act One. That she overdressed for the evening. That she wants to make a good impression. That she’s quick and bright, but at a low point in her life. She’s also a careful listener and astute observer. Nothing gets past her.

As Max, Logan Verdoorn has all the best, nastiest lines. Kevin Fanshaw’s Andrew is so good, so sensitive and sincere that you kind of want to slap him. Olivia Wilusz’s Suzanna is genuine and appealing – someone you’d want for a friend. Jodi Kellogg’s Susan is imperious in her illness and determination to live how she pleases. Becky, artfully portrayed by Chelsie Newhard, is not as sweet as she seems. Every character is more layered and needy than these summary statements imply.

The play gains momentum in Act Two. Act One has two scenes; Act Two has seven as the action moves from a coffee shop to Max’s hotel room, Becky’s apartment and other locations. Becky is the fulcrum around which the play now turns. (Here it helps to know that Becky Shaw bears similarities to William Makepeace Thackeray’s scheming, social-climbing heroine Becky Sharp, and that Gionfriddo was reading “Vanity Fair” while she was writing “Becky Shaw.”)

Chelsie Newhard and Logan Verdoorn in a scene from "Becky Shaw."
Alyssa Kristine Photography
Chelsie Newhard and Logan Verdoorn in a scene from "Becky Shaw."
And that’s all we’re going to say. Except that “Becky Shaw” was just what we needed to counter the sugar high of the holidays. For the past two years at least (maybe longer?), Gremlin has been early out of the gate with a new play for January. Last year it was Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” about a powerful man (Craig Johnson) who develops dementia. That was one of the best things we saw all year. It’s way too early to tell if “Becky Shaw” will make next year’s best-of list, but it’s clever, it’s grown-up and it’s devilishly dark.

Ellen Fenster is the director, Carl Schoenborn designed the sets and lighting, Emmet Kowler the projections that help us mentally move from place to place. This is a relatively rare Gremlin play in which founder and Artistic Director Peter Christian Hanson isn’t part of the cast. He’s the producer.

FMI and tickets ($28/25; under 30, pay half your age). Closes Jan. 26.

The picks

Opens today (Tuesday, Jan. 7) at the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery (MAAHMG): “8 Seasons of Art: Exhibition + Documentary.” Centered on the documentary “8 Seasons of Art: A Black Arts Story” by St. Paul filmmaker Phillip McGraw, curated by McGraw, this new exhibition spotlights Twin Cities painters, musicians and poets who use their art to address issues of social and economic injustice, racism and violence. See the film and view works by Ta-Coumba Aikin, Kenneth Caldwell and Broderick Poole, and poetry by writer Joe Davis. FMI. Free admission. Free parking in the ramp. Closes May 31.

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Wednesday at Milkweed Books: Katie Shireen Assef. A literary translator who lives between Los Angeles and Arles, France, Assef will read from her translation of Valérie Mréjen’s “Black Forest.” Mréjen is a visual artist, filmmaker and writer based in Paris. Milkweed Books is on the first floor of Open Book. 7 p.m. Free.

An image from the 2018 SongSlam.
Photo by David Mills-Rittman
An image from the 2018 SongSlam.
Thursday at Icehouse: Third Annual SongSlam. This is a fun evening. Does Third Annual mean it’s now a tradition? We can hope. Composer and performer teams will premiere new art songs and compete for $1,000 in prize money, with the winners decided by the audience. Performed on voice and piano, each song will be no longer than five minutes. A collaboration between Source Song Festival and New York City-based Sparks and Wiry Cries, SongSlam will be hosted (for the third time) by songwriter/musician Chris Koza. Past SongSlams have drawn big names including Clara Osowski, Timothy C. Takach, Libby Larsen and Jake Endres. This year, we’ll see and hear Takach, Linh Kauffman, Evan Tyler Wilson (“All Is Calm”), Amy Wolf and Jeremy Walker, to name a few. Doors at 7, performance at 8. FMI and tickets ($20 advance/$25 door).

Friday at Orchestra Hall: MusicMakers with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra. Formerly called Future Classics, this annual event features new works by the gifted young composers of this year’s Composer Institute. By Friday, all seven – four men and three women – will have spent a week working with Institute director and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts, Vänskä and orchestra musicians, learning about the industry and preparing their music for a public concert conducted by Vänskä and broadcast live over Minnesota Public Radio. As one young composer said, “It’s a whole bunch of exciting nervousness all wrapped into one.” MPR’s Fred Child will host a program that includes on-stage interviews with the composers. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($20-63; 18 and under free).