THEATER REVIEW | The MovingCompany’s “Werther and Lotte”: Melodrama beautifully frozen…but frozen, all the same


“Werther is a wanderer, a man trying to comprehend the society in which he exists. Captivated by Lotte’s playfulness and compassion, he discovers that she shares his dream of a more empathetic, enlightened society.” What does it say about me, I wondered when I read that program note, that I had just been assuming he wanted to do the horizontal bop with her?

The MovingCompany’s new production Werther and Lotte, the Passion and the Sorrow is drawn from classic, brainy sources: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar, and—just for fun—Rousseau’s The Social Contract. It stars Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin as the eponymous would-be lovers, soulmates who have been star-crossed by Lotte’s engagement to a respectable, safe gentleman.

The MovingCompany is the (relatively) newly-minted company led by Theatre de la Jeune Lune alumni Keepers, Baldwin, Dominique Serrand (director, and cowriter with Keepers, of Werther and Lotte), and Steve Epp. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Tony-winning Jeune Lune (1978-2008) as a national pathbreaker and a beacon to Minnesota for a younger, more adventurous second wave of performers following the 1963 establishment and great success of the Guthrie Theatre.

That history makes each of the MovingCompany’s shows well worth paying attention to, but it also gives the shows a yoke to bear—a yoke that the company willingly shoulders and lets you know they’re shouldering. “We are a society of artists creating art,” says the company’s mission statement. “We regard theatre as an event. Our mission is to create and produce new and challenging theatre that builds on the past is grounded in the present and looks to the future.”

I’ve already contrasted the MovingCompany’s heavily theoretical (not to say pretentious) approach to that of younger, unproven and scrappy performers who come out swinging while the MovingCompany comes out “swinging.” The company’s approach is a better fit for this material, though, than the lighter stuff that constitutes The War Within/All’s Fair (being reprised this spring)—and for The Lab Theater, a big beautiful space that Serrand’s set occupies elegantly.

Werther and Lotte is one long Pas de Deux between Keepers and Baldwin, and though there are plenty of words, it’s the sights that dominate as the characters move from one stalemated tableau to another. They circle, they sit, they climb, they tip, and they sigh, as Baldwin again and again gently but firmly rebukes Keepers’s advances. Individual moments shine—a swing and a song (live music is provided by a small band), a precarious pile of furniture, scaled shadows on a rustic video projection by Devin Nee—but the adaptation strips the melodrama of its moving parts.

There never seems to be any serious risk that Baldwin will run off with Keepers, and without dramatic tension all we’re left with is the reverie. Wagner’s famously unresolved “Tristan chord” is a hallmark of his own opera about doomed love, but even Wagner knew not to hold that chord for 90 minutes. Keepers’s impish, petulant take on his character is also questionable: as he perches pouting on a chair, it seems unclear what the elegant and poised Baldwin would ever want to do with that.

These are among the Twin Cities’ most acclaimed performers, and Werther and Lotte certainly illustrates why—but one is left wondering why this living art seems so distant from, well, life.

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.

3 thoughts on “THEATER REVIEW | The MovingCompany’s “Werther and Lotte”: Melodrama beautifully frozen…but frozen, all the same

  1. Jay, I don’t quite understand what you are reviewing in this article. It doesn’t seem to be a review of the show, the artists or even the company. It seems to be a review of the people involved with this production and their relative worth in contrast to people in other struggling companies. The people are heavy hitters sure, but they are also struggling as a new company. Why insult that struggle? Why feed the fire? Is that your job as a critic? Why not review the show? I am sorry if I insult, but I don’t understand.

  2. “horizontal bop??” It’s hard to know where to start, with emotional immaturity or artistic ignorance. Stick to Grease and Million Dollar Quartet, Jay.

  3. My job, as I see it—or at least my aim—is to respond to the show in its context. Yes, a show is about what’s onstage, but everything from the history of the source materials to the history of the performers and the company and the space are relevant in understanding and appreciating what’s onstage. My reaction to Werther was that the adaptation of the text and other artistic choices made it difficult to connect with the material emotionally, even though I had to admire the tremendous skill on display and the show’s several great moments. So what do you make of a show like this? I think it’s different if you know the performers are working their way up, in which case you’d be lauding a promising new talent and making allowances for inexperience; than if you know the performers are experienced and justly acclaimed, in which case you’re asking, okay, what’s next? It’s like seeing a show at the Guthrie: you know the performers are going to be incredibly talented, and so your expectations are higher for the show as a whole. I don’t mean to insult the struggle of any artist—I know that everyone’s taking risks, whether they’re at the Guthrie or in a West Bank basement—but this show didn’t connect with me, and it would be dishonest of me to pretend that my reaction to it wasn’t tied to what I know and have seen of these artists’ other work. I know others have had other reactions—in the lobby afterwards, a woman was wiping tears from her eyes—and I hope they share those reactions here, or elsewhere in the Daily Planet. I’m a “critic,” yes, but ultimately, I’m just one voice in a conversation.

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