April 2017

Theater review: New musical ‘Sweet Land’ has a handmade quality

From the solo guitar strains of its opening number to its elegiac ending, there’s a handmade quality to the new musical “Sweet Land” that is appropriate to both the material and its current home at downtown St. Paul’s History Theatre.

Based on Will Weaver’s short story ” A Gravestone Made of Wheat” and the 2005 indie film with which the play shares a title, “Sweet Land” centers on the story of Inge Altenberg, who crosses a sea and half a continent to arrive in southern Minnesota in 1920 to marry Olaf Torvik, a man she’s never met.

Ann Michels plays immigrant Inge in “Sweet Land, the Musical.” (Rick Spaulding/History Theatre)Ann Michels plays immigrant Inge in “Sweet Land, the Musical.” (Rick Spaulding/History Theatre)

Trouble is, Inge is of German descent, a fact that does not play well in the rural Midwest, where the emotional echoes of World War I still reverberate. The couple at first try to conform to the community’s norms, then finally forge their own path.

Admittedly, the idea of staid, largely silent Scandahoovians bursting into song might not sound likely or even advisable as fodder for musical theater. But creators Perrin Post, Laurie Flanigan Hegge and Dina Maccabee — hewing relatively closely to Ali Selim’s screen play — mostly make it work.

You might roll your eyes at song titles like “You Took a Bath,” “Ducks Dream” and “Call Me Inge Torvik,” but the folk-infused tunes do what songs in musical theater are supposed to do: They give us insights into character’s minds (especially useful since Inge doesn’t speak English at the beginning of the play).  They advance plot points, from baseball games to auctions.

And they emerge organically from the action: Many of the 13 cast members double as musicians, coming together in changing assemblages of strings, woodwinds and keyboards, arranged with aching beauty by Robert Elhai.

The show creaks in some places. Hegge’s lyrics can too literally illustrate the action and often lean on rudimentary ducky/lucky rhyme schemes.  Joe Chvala’s choreography — especially a dream-ballet-ish scene featuring Inge near the end of the first act — tends to take the audience out of the moment rather than reinforce it. And, as with many new musicals, there are untaken opportunities to trim and streamline.

Ann Michels — who has been attached to this long-in-development musical since its early days — offers an Inge who is by turns feisty and vulnerable in a knowing and nuanced performance that both trusts and offers lovely voice to the character.  Robert Berdahl’s vocal instrument doesn’t seem especially well-suited for the material, but his brooding, painfully introverted Olaf nicely counterbalances Michaels’ more buoyant energy.

Jon Andrew Hegge and Tinia Moulder aren’t exactly comic relief as a married couple who are Olaf’s stalwart friends and neighbors, but their light-hearted, salt-of-the-earth acceptance of and willingness to help newcomer Inge contrast to the wary, cool regard of the local pastor (played with a deft blend of disapproval and humanity by Michael Gruber).

It’s possible to draw contemporary resonances and truths from “Sweet Land;” to mull the damnable persistence of people across years to draw conclusions based on surface impressions.  Those are worthy meditations,  but so is the core of “Sweet Land;” a heart-warming and heart-winning piece of musical theater.

  • What: “Sweet Land”
  • When: Through May 28
  • Where: History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul
  • Tickets: $50 – $35
  • Information: 651-292-4323 or historytheatre.com
  • Capsule: Scandahoovians sing? You betcha.

Crayfish get drunk faster when they’ve been hanging out with friends

Young crayfish can get drunk — and they get drunk a lot faster when they’ve been hanging out with their friends, new research says. So, extroverted crayfish may want to consider pacing themselves this weekend.

Crayfish are basically miniature, freshwater lobsters[1], which makes them an unusual model organism for trying to understand a behavior — drinking alcohol — that we really only care about in humans. They’re not mammals. They don’t even have backbones. But, like us, they’re social creatures, and they can get sloshed. So, a group of researchers at the University of Maryland turned to crayfish to understand how social experience changes how booze affects the brain.

The researchers gathered up a bunch of young crayfish no bigger than Cheetos and housed them in tanks with 50 to 100 friends. The scientists left one group in the communal tank right up until the experiment started, but removed the other group to house individual crayfish by themselves for about a week. Then, on the day of the experiment, the researchers moved both the communally housed and singly-housed crayfish into tanks spiked with booze, set up a camera, and stepped back to watch crayfish gone wild. It just looks a little different when a crayfish gets drunk.

First off, these little crustaceans don’t sip their cocktails, they swim in them. To get the crayfish soaked, the researchers added pure alcohol right to their tanks. And tipsy crayfish don’t slur their words, or send regrettable, late-night text messages. Instead, after swimming around in the boozy water, the crayfish adopt this upright posture, hold up their abdomens for a few seconds, and stiffly extend their legs.

The more dramatic change comes when they get a little drunker and begin crunching their abs (or, the crayfish equivalent) to flip their tails. The drunkest stage is maybe a little more familiar: when they are well and truly sozzled, the crayfish flop down on their backs, and have trouble getting back up. The drunker they get, the more the crayfish strut around upright, flip their tails, or flop over.

In crayfish, there’s a pretty well-understood circuit that’s responsible for the tail flipping, so the scientists measured how alcohol changed the excitability of the neurons in this circuit. They found in the socially-housed crayfish, alcohol made the neurons fire more easily, but had less of an effect on the loner crayfish. It’s not clear yet what, if anything, this means for people — although the researchers have more studies planned to figure out which specific neurotransmitters might be involved. But if you’re a crayfish, and you’ve been super social this week — maybe space your drinks with water tonight to avoid any embarrassing back-flopping behavior.


  1. ^ miniature, freshwater lobsters (www.psu.edu)

A gamer found a way to use his Nintendo Switch for VR

Nintendo has been noncommittal when it comes to virtual reality[1], even though it filed a patent late last year[2] that could turn its Switch console into a VR device. A YouTube blogger decided to take matters into his own hands, and found a way to demonstrate the potential the Switch holds for VR.

In his video, Nintendrew[3] explained that he wanted to see how VR would look on the device. He took his Switch and slotted it into a Durovis Dive 7 headset, but he noted that any tablet-sized headset would probably work. Next, he used the device’s hidden web browser[4] to navigate to YouTube, where he uploaded a properly formatted video[5] from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. He found that it worked, but there are some issues with video quality, given the width of the screen.

Despite that drawback, he noted that he wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo continues to experiment with VR. He pointed to a recent interview[6] with Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima, in which he explained that if the company can overcome any issues with wearing such a device for hours at a time, it’s something that they’ll continue to look into. In the meantime, resourceful gamers can use the device’s workarounds to figure out what it’s capable of.


  1. ^ noncommittal when it comes to virtual reality (www.theverge.com)
  2. ^ filed a patent late last year (www.theverge.com)
  3. ^ Nintendrew (www.youtube.com)
  4. ^ hidden web browser (www.theverge.com)
  5. ^ uploaded a properly formatted video (www.youtube.com)
  6. ^ recent interview (uploadvr.com)