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THEATER | "Song of Extinction" by Theater Latté Da at the Guthrie Theater: Intelligently designed
The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning in Theater Latté Da's Song of Extinction. But that's kind of the point.
Song of Extinction, presented by Theater Latté Da in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio through March 20th, opens with the strained father-son relationship of Ellery and Max Forrestal at the breakfast table. Ellery is absorbed in his nature conservancy work and Max, practicing his upright bass, threatens to eat the last of the house's actual food: a can of sauerkraut. Both of the Forrestal men are working to appease authority figures: Ellery tries to keep generic corporate bigshot Gill Morris from destroying the Bolivian rainforest while Max has a mammoth of a biology term paper due for Mr. Phan. We also learn that mom Lily is dying of cancer in a hospital bed, attended by Dr. Dorsey. As Lily's condition deteriorates, Max runs away from home and Mr. Phan unexpectedly finds himself as her last bedside witness.
song of extinction, presented at the guthrie theater through march 20. for tickets ($18-$30) and information, see guthrietheater.org.
Playwright E.M. Lewis's idea here is that extinction and evolution are two sides of the same coin, and that the one is the necessary result of the other. The show is certainly food for thought, subtly weaving itself into unexpected places while mercifully refraining from beating its themes into the audience's brains. Lewis writes her action in a very specific timeframe: the cancer diagnosis is irrefutable, the deforestation has already begun. The guillotine is released before we even know it's there, and the audience watches as the family unknowingly braces itself for the extinction of life as they know it, only to discover the evolution of their life painfully waiting for them on the other side. It's some really slick stuff.
Sadly, the inspiration of the larger work doesn't translate to the moment-by-moment action, as the scenes themselves are variable in quality. At best, they're poignant, funny, simple, and rich. At worst, Song of Extinction begins to feel like a bad episode of Dawson's Creek. The eager freshman oncologist was convinced he'd find the cure to cancer in his very first patient. Really? The child bass prodigy conducts music shirtless in the night rain because he needed "to feel the music." Really?
Peter Rothstein's direction thankfully keeps the show on track. From the early beat-keeping among a metronome, an EKG, and a ball-snappy-desktop-thing, it's apparent that Rothstein is here to help the show, not break it. The scenes spill across open playing areas, but the transitions are never sloppy, even when the finished scene lingers for a bit as the new scene establishes. His cast is also a force to be reckoned with: David Mura successfully plumbs deep into the complex Mr. Phan, Carla Noack will make you forget she's chained to a bed for the entirety of the show, and John Middleton and Garry Geiken give playfully excellent performances as characters who, truth be told, aren't written all that well. Special mention should also be given to high-schooler Dan Piering, who not only can act his way out of a paper bag but can also play one mean cello.
Song of Extinction's technical support is equally solid, especially Michael Hoover's chameleon set which hides a shadowy mural for Marcus Dilliard's lights to reshape into several different looks. Timing-wise, though, the back wall pulses to life during a character's most intimate monologues (usually Mr. Phan's), pitting what the audience sees against what the audience hears. If you're really locked into what the biology teacher has to say, then it's not an issue. If, on the other hand, you're more visually inclined, expect to lose some key moments in the history of the Khmer Rouge.
There are two mentionable points (both completely circumstantial) that folks should be aware of before seeing Song of Extinction. One: it's not a musical, despite having "song" in the title and being produced by Theater Latté Da. I found out after the show that I wasn't the only one to be caught a little off-guard. Two: Song of Extinction unexpectedly revisits the Twin Cities' 2010 "forum on race in casting" debacle in a uniquely balanced way. The biology teacher, Khim Phan, is the only non-White body onstage, yet his Cambodian heritage doesn't factor into his character until halfway through the play. In this sense, an audience member can see both sides of this still-largely-untalked-about issue in a single performance: first, a talented actor who happens to be Asian-American playing a character of indiscriminate race, and then a necessarily Cambodian character which needed to inform Latté Da's initial casting process. Both halves of the performance show the different ethics of color-blind casting's two camps, and it inadvertently proves to be a great case study for representational politics...if you're into that sort of thing. If not, you'll never even know it was there.
Latté Da's Song of Extinction, while not without flaws, is a show well worth your time. The weakest link here is the script, though the show's concept is excellent. The idea that our strongest chapters begin at our most broken moments is wickedly universal, but here we get a honed example in the Forrestal family and their emotional mentor Khim Phan. The petri dish begins with an unfinished father and his volatile son and, by play's end, we've glimpsed into the next evolution of their relationship, but not without pain, not without fear, and not without loss. Through all the muck and listlessness that can beset our daily lives, Song of Extinction tells us with a biological certainty that we can all evolve into something better because of it.
©2011 Christopher Kehoe