THEATER | "Our Town" by Yellow Tree Theatre: Excellent "community" theater

Look sharp, friends: this unassuming little show in, of all places, Osseo is poised to be among the finest Twin Cities theater offerings in 2011. Bold words for mid-February, but Yellow Tree Theatre's latest is a winning effort that throws the gauntlet down to its metropolitan cousins.

I happened to meet company cofounder Jessica Peterson before the show, and we talked about some of the difficulties of producing work outside the Minneapolis/St. Paul city limits. "We're a theater in the community," she explained, "not a ‘community theater.'" Her distinction is valid; too often, theater-goers (both veterans and newbies) can fall into the trap of thinking the downtown brick-and-mortar titans are "theater as it should be," while suburb-based community theaters are automatically assumed to be drawing on amateur talent. It's only fair, then, that the sterling product of a "theater in the community" should be all about (surprise!) community.

our town, presented at yellow tree theatre through march 6. for tickets ($17-$20) and information, see yellowtreetheatre.com.

Thornton Wilder's Our Town, playing through March 6th at Yellow Tree Theatre, is a difficult script to describe. On the one hand, it's a very escapist slice-of-life montage of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, circa 1904. There's the country doctor, the town gossip, the local constable, a door-to-door milkman, a college professor, and a pair of doe-eyed teenagers who fall in love over an ice cream soda. Artistic expression in Grover's Corners is reserved for singing in the church choir and playing piano at the high school commencement, and the diciest drama comes early in a father-son confrontation of why George isn't helping his mother chop the firewood.

On the other hand, Our Town takes place in Osseo, Minnesota, where 150-some folks have gathered at Yellow Tree Theatre to watch a little skit curiously titled Our Town. If your brain just cried a little bit, don't fret; the meta-theatrics stop immediately after they've been acknowledged. Aesthetically, the production marries these two worlds with a minimalist set "for those who feel they need scenery," with an entire town being represented by two tables, eight chairs, and a whole lot of mime. Anyone familiar with Lars von Trier's 2003 film Dogville has some idea of what to expect.

We eventually learn that this evening's entertainment is a celebration of life, with the show's narrator referencing the ancient Babylonian Empire's two million (now forgotten) citizens as the need to record the banalities of the everyday, the daily human successes and daily human failures. This narrator figure (the play's "Stage Manager") is a chief ingredient to the production's success. Blake Thomas inhabits this storyteller with supreme confidence, allowing long passages of places and people we never even see onstage to effortlessly spool out of his mouth with a familiarity and warmth that paints the mental picture with Monet-like quality. Thomas represents an all-around solid cast, with fantastic performances coming from both actors with impressive résumés (Shad Cooper, Dan Hopman, Dann Peterson) and, say, a pastor from the local church (Tim Tengblad, amen). Co-Directors Mary Fox and Jason Peterson thankfully keep the action and the dialogue moving, especially with a program that has the seven dreaded words: "There will be two ten-minute intermissions."

Now to call this production "excellent" is not to be confused with calling it "perfect." The lighting design is functional at best and sloppy at worst. The mime work is decent but not expertly executed. Some performances are obvious weak links. The script strains under the philosophical weight of its own third act, and the one scenic design the audience is treated to is somewhat...meh (although no less powerful when it dissolves back into the blackness).

But to grade the production like a report card is to miss the greater phenomenon (miracle, even) working in the room. From the very beginning, you will be welcomed into the theater by the production itself, you will get hooked on the personable humanity right in front of you, you will ponder the timelessness of the human condition, and, at the end of the night, you will walk away feeling good, not necessarily about money well-spent or the staging of a seminal American playwright, but about your place in the universe. Holy crap.

Community. Right?

So while I'm sure I'll see more contemporary scripts, performers who can better chart emotional complexities, and more intrepid theatrical designs, I doubt I'll see a show for the rest of the year with as big a heart as Yellow Tree's Our Town. For anyone who's ever been curious about "that Osseo theater company," now's the perfect time to see what all the fuss is about.

320 5th Ave. S.E.
Osseo, MN 55369
763-493-8733

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    Christopher Kehoe's picture
    Christopher Kehoe

    Christopher Kehoe writes about theatre, sometimes for the public and sometimes for the press.

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    Your Review

    What in the world did you just review here? The town of Osseo? The experience of being in a little theater outside of the city? You certainly kept your comments about the production and the play to a minimum. Were was discussion of the director's concept and a really reviewed piece about the show in general. And you can't describe Our Town? Really???? It's a simple masterpiece. About simplicity. And you found a way to complicate it with glib phraseology. Yes there is a lot going on outside the city. Consider this theater, along with Stages, Bloomington Civic and Lyric Arts. If you want to venture out further (leave your bread crumbs) go see some genuine stuff at Lyric Arts (no trap doors in the floor there either). By the way, Our Town won a Pulitzer.

    Our Town

    I saw "Our Town" about 40 years ago and thought it was an awfully boring play.  So when Yellow Tree Theater had it as part of its season this year, I was a bit disappointed.  I trudged off to the theater anyway as I love Yellow Tree and it's actors and was absolutely, terrifically surprised at this production of "Our Town."  It made me feel right at home the minute I walked in the door and listened to the music being played in the lobby.  By adding music to Our Town, it made a classic play,  an extraordinary play.  It made me laugh.   It made me cry.  As always, Mary Fox was superb in her role.  Blake Thomas, as the stage manager, seemed like an old friend by the end of the play.  You just wanted him to sit down and have a cup of coffee with you and tell you more stories about the town.  Kudos to Yellow Tree who has done it again - created big, wonderful theater in a small town atmosphere.