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Illusion Theater will have a new home; ‘A Suitable Boy’ starts streaming in the U.S.

ALSO: Twin Cities Jazz Festival’s “A Copasetic Christmas Carol”; the National Lutheran Choir’s virtual Christmas concert; and more.

James Craven as Thurgood Marshall in “Thurgood” at the Illusion Theater.
James Craven as Thurgood Marshall in “Thurgood” at the Illusion Theater.
Courtesy of the Illusion Theater

After more than 40 years in downtown Minneapolis, most in the Hennepin Center for the Arts, now part of the Cowles Center, Illusion Theater is moving south — not that far south, but out of the city’s core. The theater founded in 1974 by Bonnie Morris and Michael Robins will be an anchor partner with the Center for Performing Arts (CFPA) at 38th and Pleasant in the Kingfield neighborhood.

CFPA, an arts center in a former convent, is undergoing an expansion that will double its size and add two new flexible performance spaces. While plans for the 20,000-square-foot addition have been in the works for years, modifications were made when COVID came. The windows will be operable and the air purification system will be state-of-the-art.

This will be the first space Illusion has moved into that won’t require buildouts or major renovations.

The Center for Performing Arts artists’ rendering.
Courtesy of the Center for Performing Arts
The Center for Performing Arts artists’ rendering.
“That’s still kind of a shock,” Robins said Tuesday in conversation. “We’ve been working with [CFPA founder and Executive Director] Jackie Hayes and her team. We spent months developing this before we made it public. It’s been a really good process to figure out how to make best use of two multi-use theater spaces.”

Overhead will be less than at the Cowles, so Illusion can devote more resources to compensating artists and expanding its education program. CFPA staff will book and manage the facility, freeing Illusion to focus more on its mission: creating new work that catalyzes change on stage and in the classroom and community.

“We wanted more flexibility,” Robins said. “We run the space [in the Cowles] 24/7, so when we’re not producing, we have to work to fill it, make it available to other people and try to rent it. Now we’ll have first priority of use in the new space when we need it, and we won’t have to manage who’s renting it, how many nights is it dark, and all of those aspects.”

What about parking, which can be a pain downtown? “There’s off-street parking. There are two schools across two different streets, and we’re able to use their parking lots for audience patrons in the evenings.”

We had to ask: Is Illusion leaving downtown out of concern for rising crime?

“No. We’ve always been downtown. It has always been an up-and-down issue over all these years. It doesn’t help that Hennepin Ave. is closed for three more years because of construction, but our decision wasn’t so much about downtown as it was about flexibility and right-sizing space.

“Also, the new building will be upgraded in terms of technology. All the new technologies available to theater will be there, as well as the ability to livestream and do remote things. Post-COVID, a lot of things we have been forced to do and are jumping into to work creatively are going to stay. And it’ll be great to be in a space that’s part of the conception right from the beginning.

“When we did ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ [in September], we were able to collaborate with people in Northern Ireland and actors in England on a play about the Irish Troubles. We had a much broader outreach for the play and a lively discussion after that we could not have done before. I think there are going to be more collaborations that will happen across boundaries in a way that will be good for the art form.”

Robins hopes the Illusion will be in its new office space at CFPA in May or June. Performances might have to wait until a year from now or early 2022. Meanwhile, Robins wishes he could give the old space a proper goodbye.

“There are memories of so many people’s presence around there. Ghosts that permeate all the work that has happened there. In a normal world, we would be able to have a weekend celebration of coming and going and remembering. We’re going to try to figure out some way to capture that, probably sometime in January, but I’m not quite sure what that will be.”

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Six reasons to watch ‘A Suitable Boy’

The BBC’s new six-part miniseries, “A Suitable Boy,” made its North American debut on Tuesday on Acorn TV. Here are six reasons to reach for the remote::

  1. It’s based on Vikram Seth’s epic, sprawling (1,349 pages!) novel about life and love in 1950’s post-partition India. Many believe Seth’s magnum opus should have won the Booker Prize.
  2. It was filmed entirely on location in northern India.
  3. It was directed by Oscar-nominated film director Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Salaam Bombay”).
  4. All of the leads are Indian actors and some are Bollywood stars. Nair jokingly calls her series “ ‘the Crown’ in brown.”
  5. Andrew Davies (“Pride and Prejudice,” “House of Cards,” “Mr. Selfridge”) wrote the script.
  6. Anoushka Shankar co-wrote the score. Maybe you saw her at the O’Shaughnessy in March 2019?

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If you paused at 5 and thought “Hey, not so fast, Andrew Davies is an old white Welsh guy,” it might help to know that Seth chose him for the job. Davies is the reigning master of turning unwieldy novels into TV series. And Nair made sure that “A Suitable Boy” covered politics as well as romance.

Tanya Maniktala and Mahira Kakkar in a scene from “A Suitable Boy.”
Acorn TV
Tanya Maniktala and Mahira Kakkar in a scene from “A Suitable Boy.”
So while this series has been described as “enjoyable but old-fashioned,” it’s worth watching for its scope, ambition, and sheer eye-popping splendor. We saw the first two episodes. There are a lot of characters to keep straight, and plot lines, and it’s sometimes soapy, and it’s weird to see all Indian actors obviously in India speaking mostly English, with occasional detours into Urdu and Hindu. (Why not just subtitle the whole thing? Because Americans don’t like subtitles.) But we’ll definitely watch it through to the end, and probably be sad when it’s over.

If you don’t have Acorn TV, you can sign up for a 7-day free trial, catch the first few episodes (the rest will stream on Mondays from now through Jan. 4), then decide if it’s worth $5.99/month to you. One of two Anglophile streaming services (BritBox is the other), Acorn TV is television made for viewers in Ireland and the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In other words, it’s made for a foreign audience, except most of it is in English, so you don’t have to sweat the subtitles (although, pro tip, subtitles actually make TV watching easier). So it’s different in a lot of ways. (Think British Arrows vs. American commercials.) To get an idea of what’s available now, see a current “Best Shows on Acorn TV” article – for example, this one on Paste.

The picks

V is for virtual, L is for live and in person.

V Tonight (Wednesday, Dec. 9) at 7 p.m.: Minneapolis Parks Foundation: Next Generation of Parks Series: A “Wild and Rare” Talk. With winter about to close in (you know it will happen sooner or later), Adam Regn Arvidson, author of “Wild and Rare: Tracking Endangered Species in the Upper Midwest,” will take us on a tour of plant, animal, and human characters in our unique natural world and explore how we’re all connected. Free, with registration required. The Next Generation of Parks will return in February as part of the Great Northern and in April with “The Sioux Chef” Sean Sherman.

V Thursday, Dec. 10, 7 p.m.: Next Chapter Booksellers: Margaret Hasse, Emilio DeGrazia, Mary Moore Easter and Norita Dittberner-Jax. Nodin Press, the fine Minneapolis indie publisher run by Norton Stillman since 1967, when he bought it from poet Gerald Vizenor, has four new poetry books for fall. In “Shelter,” Hasse’s poems collaborate with Sharon DeMark’s watercolors in musings about protection, comfort and safe havens, especially important in perilous times like the one we’re living through now. (P.S. This small, square, beautiful book would make a perfect pandemic holiday gift.) Informed by personal experience, classical resources and science, DeGrazia’s extraordinary “What Trees Know” is a collection of poems entirely about trees. In “From the Flutes of Our Bones,” Easter opens the door on Black worlds, Black culture, memory and tradition. Dittberner-Jax’s “Now I Live Among Old Trees” deals with illness, death, grief, solitude and finding joy again. Free, with registration required.

Ben Sidran will narrate “A Copasetic Christmas.”
Photo by Bruno Charavet
Ben Sidran will narrate “A Copasetic Christmas Carol.”
V Thursday, Dec. 10, at 7 p.m.: Twin Cities Jazz Festival: “A Copasetic Christmas Carol.” The virtual edition of a years-long holiday tradition, first performed at the Dakota in 2003. An original jazz adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” with music by Doug Haining, lyrics by Charmin Michelle and Haining, and narration penned by Maryann Sullivan, will be performed by the Twin Cities Seven and special guest Ben Sidran as the Hep Cat Narrator. Free, with registration required.

V Friday, Dec. 11, at 8 p.m.: National Lutheran Choir: “The Incarnation for the Healing of the World.” In a non-pandemic year, the 60-member National Lutheran Choir, led by David Cherwien, would fill the Basilica of St. Mary four times over a December weekend. This year they’ll come to us in a virtual concert that includes new performances by socially distanced NLC singers, filmed in the Basilica; selections from five years of livestreamed programs; and music from around the world celebrating Christ’s birth. Free on the choir’s website.