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.
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.