The creative partnership of Samantha Johns and Savannah Reich is a sign that the theater scene in the Twin Cities both is and isn’t working. Since I started reviewing local theater five years ago, Johns, Reich, and their collaborators have produced some of the funniest, smartest, most touching, and just plain best shows I’ve seen. Where are their awards, their fellowships, their residencies? I’m not sure, but fortunately for all of us, they’re still making the magic happen in the offbeat spaces where their work thrives.
One such space is the Lowry Lab Theater, which is certainly offbeat, but hardly a venue where one would expect comedy to thrive—the scrappy space wedged alongside the Lowry Building’s whirring HVAC unit seems better-suited for the likes of Waiting for Godot than slap-your-knee comedy. And yet, three shows that invite you to do at least a bit of knee-slapping are there now, under the auspices of the New Comedy mini-festival.
I saw two of those shows on February 12, starting with Happy Hot Dogs. Tyler Olsen’s project Happy Minnesota has the admirable aim to, among other things, “create a HAPPY community of artists, residents, and businesses along the Central Corridor.” (Disclosure: Olsen is a friend of mine, as are Johns, Reich, and others involved in New Comedy. Call me biased, but don’t call me someone who has boring friends.) On Sunday afternoon, the audience chuckled their way through the slapstick antics of Garrett Vollmer and Ben Desbois as they tormented—more or less inadvertently—hot dog stand proprietor Robie Hayek.
The Johns/Reich show (my understanding is that Reich mostly writes and Johns mostly directs, both in collaboration with the ensemble) is called You Don’t Have to Choose…, but Olsen also referred to it as Llamas. The show is a metanarrative about a seemingly star-crossed couple: a ballet-dancing cop and a llama-tending girl next door. The actors talk about the action as it unfolds, direct one another, and occasionally trade roles. On paper (er, “paper”) that sounds potentially tedious, but Johns and Reich and their ensemble—mostly longtime collaborators—have a surefire knack for finding that perfect pitch: poignant, empathetic, and just as absurd as real life.
The pair’s biggest show since 2010’s impressive but heavy-footed Fanciness Vs The Void, You Don’t Have to Choose… is Johns and Reich at their best. It’s very funny, it’s truly touching, and the contrapuntal relationships are navigated with great confidence and intelligence. I’m sure some people question my credibility for so lavishly praising everything Johns and Reich do, but if You Don’t Have to Choose… doesn’t make you think, make you feel, and make you laugh, then you and I are looking for fundamentally different things in theater and, probably, life.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.