Odyssey down the Mississippi

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I t’s hard to believe, but Kevin Kling wrote Old Four Eyes before Hurricane Katrina. The Mississippi River forms the backbone of the play, specifically its wild nature and the audacity of shortsighted humans who foolishly think they can control it.

The play, now showing on the University’s Centennial Showboat, is a family-oriented production centering on the adventures of John Banvard (Teresa Kramer), a young 19th-century artist who sets out to capture the essence of the Mississippi River.

He leaves home to head off down the river, despite his worried mother’s pleas, and on his way encounters river spirits, bumbling slackers and a greedy, Manifest Destiny-inspired Spaniard.

Para Nunzio (Lisa Bol) is a towering figure dressed in white and red who wishes to use the river to build his fortune. Young Banvard, wise beyond his years, lectures Nunzio that “Water doesn’t seem to like being told what to do.” Nunzio nevertheless commissions Banvard to do a painting of the river, saying “I would like it wild and untamed, hanging on my wall.”

In the end, Banvard does succeed in painting the river with the help of Professor Leaky (Briar DeHaven), the kindly sprit of the Mississippi, and her helper Tinkles (Adam Streeter). But Nunzio also succeeds, as history tells us he must, in transforming the river into a capitalist utility.

The play is a throwback to classical Greek drama. Leaky, Tinkles and their cohorts are a nod to the Naiads – water spirits known to help and harm humans – and at one point they change two humans into animals, another of classical storytelling’s favorite recurring themes.

The play also pays homage to the mythology of America, as any story about the mighty Mississippi must. References to American history abound, and Steve Horstman’s piano accompaniment displays knowledge of America’s folk traditions, adapting Kling’s lyrics to tunes that predate the play by more than 100 years. Although done on a low budget, Kling’s play is ambitious. “I wanted this to be an epic,” he said, “but I wanted it to be a truly American epic.”

To create the river scenery, an overhead projection sits at the center of the stage throughout the performance, projecting paintings of the river as well as actual water mixed with blue food coloring. Fitting with the watery theme, lighting designer Jean Montgomery keeps the stage a perpetual cool blue with a beauty that also highlights the dark mystery of the river.

The University students who put on the performance deserve every bit as much credit as Kling. The cast put the play together over the course of a half-semester class taught by director Michael Sommers. Although he was a bit uneasy about their lack of preparation time, you’d never know from the production how hectic the lead-up to the play was. Along with learning their lines, the students had to make the play’s many props, and their visual cues are responsible for much of the production’s simple charm.

While this is ostensibly a “family” (read: children’s) production, like all great family entertainment, Old Four Eyes has a soul that runs deeper than your typical Nickelodeon cartoon. The knowledge of mythological traditions keeps the production interesting, and the constant background awareness of dominating nature is eerily poignant less than a year after Katrina. Adults will like the thought put into the play, and kids will love the look, the songs and simple story. It manages to be arty without being pretentious and accessible without dumbing itself down.

Old Four Eyes: A Mississippi Panorama”
WHEN: July 10 through Aug. 23, 1 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays.
(NOTE: Monday performances are followed by interactive tutorials with the cast in which kids can be instructed on prop-making.)
TICKETS: $8, (612) 625-4001

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